Sir Garner is properly bandaged now and sound asleep in the tent, so here we go.
For my part, I am going to start with when I was passed out in the woods at the west border of Ourqghard. Let’s not get into why I was there.
I woke when a boot hit my side. There was the early morning sun filtering through the green and yellow canopy of the woods, and a tall Ourqish man looking down at me. He said, “You live?”
It took me a moment to realize what he was asking. I was still bleary from drink, and his accent was thick. After a moment he kicked me again and I said, “I'm alive, yes.” Then I threw up, careful to avoid the Ourq's boots.
Many people have never actually seen an Ourq in person, so I'll take a moment to describe this fellow. He was tall, close to seven feet, broad shouldered and muscular. He wore leather armor and had a sword hanging at his side. The distinctive features you always hear about, the green skin and the tusks, were much subtler than you would think. The green was the barest tint, the tusks no more than a broad smile with an under bite.
I finished emptying my gut and he helped me to stand. He said, “I am Urmak.”
“You know you are in Ourqghard?”
In truth, I knew that I had wandered too close and that, ever shifting as the border is, it was likely that I could end up on the wrong side. I shrugged and said, “I must have lost my way.”
He led me then to the Ourq camp that was just beyond the woods. I wondered if it had been there the night before and I had simply failed to notice it, or if this little army had marched up while I was sleeping without waking me. I didn't like the thought of either one, so I didn't ask.
I say camp, but as we got to the border of it, I saw that it was more of a mobile city. Hundreds of tents were spread out over the hills, and among the soldiers were a number of unarmored Ourqs, men and women, even children playing. I could smell sweet onions caramelizing over cook fires. Ourqs did not travel with horses or pack animals, and their camp smelled better for it.
Urmak said, “Welcome to Gursnuhg.”
None of the other Ourqs paid any particular attention to me, and I wondered if they had many prisoners here. That's when I realized that I still had a sword on my back. (Like I said, too much drink the night before.) I said, “Should you take my weapon while I'm here? I don't want your people to feel threatened.”
Urmak laughed so hard that he nearly fell over. I kept my sword.
He lead me to a tent that was ornamented with feathers of every color. We waited outside it a moment, and I was about to ask what we were waiting for when a voice from inside called, “You may enter.”
The old Ourqish woman in the tent introduced herself as Amhyru, and said she was “an elder of Gursnuhg.” She asked me which city I was from and some other things of that nature, and all the while that we spoke I got the impression that she was studying me very carefully. At some point she said, “You have never met an Ourq before today, have you?”
I replied, “Not that I know of.” I paused for a moment, trying to decide how much I should tell her. Then I said, “I have been warned about Ourqish magic, but I don't know how much of what I've been told is true. In the border wars, people said that there were Ourqs among us, disguised by sorcery.”
Amhyru raised an eyebrow. “Is that what they say? Well, it is not entirely true or false. To take another form is Suman's art, and I do know something about that. But I have never been so good that I could walk among your people and fool them. That would take a great deal of practice, and I doubt that there are many Ourqs capable of such a thing.”
There was more conversation that I remember very little of. At the time I thought that it was inconsequential, just chatting about travel and the weather and whatever else. After a time she said, “You undoubtedly want more rest. Urmak will show you to a bed where you can be comfortable.”
Urmak and I left Amhyru's tent and he led me to another, smaller one, and said, “This tent will be yours while you are staying with us. Dinner will be at sundown.”
I had a number of questions, but didn't know how to ask them, and instead all I said was, “Many thanks.” I went inside, took off my sword and boots, and got comfortable on the cot. I was asleep almost instantly.
I spent a full month in Gursnuhg, living and traveling with the Ourqs. On days when the camp moved I helped break down and pack the tents. Other days I tried to help with the cooking, but the Ourqs often refused my assistance. I wondered if they were trying to fatten me up to eat me. There were no other prisoners in the camp, and I had no other explanation for why I was so well treated.
Beside Urmak and Amyhru, few of the Ourqs spoke anything but their own tongue. But there was one, Tumon, who spoke several languages and was eager to translate things for me. He called himself a "scholar warrior." Whereas his fellow soldiers would loot primarily for weapons, gems, and metals, Tumon always searched first for books. (Sir Garner is the same way; material wealth means very little to him.)
When we got together around the campfire at night for dinner, the Ourqs drank and told stories, and Tumon translated for me. I am going to copy out one of the stories here, both because it is one of my favorites and because it will be important later on. When I first heard it, I thought it was simply a folktale.
Daru was a vain and boastful young Ourq. She insisted that she could do anything better than anyone else, and her parents could not get the idea out of her head, because she was in fact great at many things. She was the fastest in foot races. She grew very tall, and was eventually stronger than all the males in her tribe. She was a skilled fighter with the greataxe, the spear, the javelin, and the blowgun. She was also intelligent, being one of the only members of her tribe to understand both written words and mathematics.
When she grew to adulthood, she resolved to challenge the tribe's leader to combat and assume control. Her family and friends pleaded with her not to, but she did not listen to them. She went to the tribe leader, the noble Jaranzu, and challenged him to single combat.
Jaranzu said, "I will grant you leadership if you defeat me in a simple game. No blood need be shed." He presented her with a chess board, an ancient strategy game developed by humans.
Daru did not know how to play the game. She felt embarrassed and insulted, and she told Jaranzu, "You are simply a weak coward."
Jaranzu replied, "And you are a brave warrior. You have your role, and I have mine. I know how to keep our people prosperous and safe. If you wish to know these things, I can teach you."
"And if I wish to lead again some day, will you again challenge me to some child's game that I know nothing of? No. I can lead as well as I can fight, and our people have no use for a frail old trickster. Draw your blade." Daru took the heavy axe off her back.
Jaranzu shook his head and said, "I will not take up a weapon against you. You only challenge me to combat because you know you will not lose, just like me and my chess board. We are not so different as you think."
Daru was briefly overcome by rage. She swung her axe and struck off Jaranzu's head.
Daru became the tribe leader after that, as no one wanted to challenge her right to rule.
For many months things continued in the tribe as they had been. They traveled with the cycles of the seasons, hunting and foraging, sometimes trading with other Ourq bands. But trading and negotiating did not come easily to Daru, and gradually her once prosperous tribe began to languish. They fought more skirmishes than they had under Jaranzu, and were frequently faced with the threat of war. Daru felt more shame every day. After a year of struggling with leadership, she commanded her people to select a new leader. They did, and Daru disappeared to live the life of a nomad.
Daru went to the great desert of the south, and there she sought out the sand dragon Vizoul. When she found him, she bowed before him and told him of all that she had done wrong: of being too prideful, of murdering Jaranzu, and of bringing her people misery. Vizoul listened intently, and then he said, "What do you wish me to do? All these things are in the past, the only place my wings will not take me."
Daru said, "I feel that I must be properly punished for all that I have done wrong."
"I agree. Jaranzu was a friend of mine, and I am sad to hear that his life was cut short. I could bathe you in flames; it would hurt like nothing you have ever known, and you would die." Vizoul stared into Daru's eyes, considering. "But it would do no good. You are suffering already, but I do not think you have learned your lesson."
Daru said, "I think that I am better than I once was, but that I am still not fit to right all my wrongs."
"Very well. Do you want me to curse you for penance? I'll warn you only once; this curse will bring you more pain than any dragon fire. It will, however, give you the chance to become the Ourq you wish to be."
"I will accept your curse as penance."
Vizoul drew himself up to his full height and closed his eyes. Daru could feel the magic shake the ground as he spoke, saying, "First will die your pride. Then will die your pain. Last will die your body. Until then you remain."
The dragon lay down then and immediately feel into a deep slumber. Daru wandered out of the dragon's cave and back into the desert.
There are some slight variations on this story depending on who is telling it, but that is pretty much it. It always ended with the Ourqs arguing over whether or not Daru had completed the first part of her curse yet. I didn’t get the other parts of the story, the parts the elders knew, until much later.
Speaking of elders, I eventually brought my concerns about my stay in Ourqghard to Amyhru. I wanted to know what was going on, why I was there, whether I was free to go or not, et cetera. When I confronted her about it, she said, “Do you wish to leave?”
I wasn’t sure that I did, but I said yes, because I thought it was my best chance of getting a straight answer.
She said, “I might have a job for you. It is still early to tell. Stay with us one more moon, and I will know for certain.”
“What sort of job?” I asked.
“The kind that must stay secret until I am sure you are the right person for it.”
So much for a straight answer. I told her I would stay another month, not knowing for certain whether I had a choice in the matter, and of course not knowing that I would actually be gone from there the next day.
I sat at the campfire that night with a number of Ourqs, eating and drinking entirely too much. The others drifted back to their tents as the hours wore on until only Urmak, Tumon, and myself remained, sharing stories and drinking still more. We spent a while then trying to find our tents, getting lost in the camp, tripping over the uneven ground and so forth. Eventually I must have found my bed, because I woke up there the next morning when the war horn sounded.
The next part is a disjointed mess in my memory: stumbling out of the tent into the sunlight, the men on horseback charging in, running back for my sword, not finding it, back out into the sunlight that I swear hurt worse than if one of those horses ran me down…
A man reached down a hand to me and said, “Climb up!” I knew from the armor that he wore that he was part of the cavalry from Dumard, my home town. I took his arm and he pulled me up onto his horse, and we rode full speed out of Gursnuhg.
He said, “Were there other captives?”
I said that there were none that I knew of.
He responded, “We probably got you out just in time.”
I could see then that it was a whole troop of cavalry, all retreating from the Ourq camp together. We regrouped about two miles from Gursnuhg, and they went over their injuries and losses. The men were very proud of having rescued me.
I had a short meeting with their commander, a man named Benthor, who asked me about the movements of the Ourq camp. There wasn’t much I could tell him. Ourqghard was an unfamiliar place, and I often didn’t know where we were going when we traveled. He asked me how long I was captive, and seemed surprised when I told him it had been around a month. I should have realized at the time that telling him that would cause trouble for me.
Then there was the ride back to Dumard and a little welcome ceremony for the soldiers. There was a feast, at which I had a place of honor, and then finally sleep in my own bed in the little house I had left behind so many weeks ago.
The battle this morning very nearly ended my life. I am lucky to be here writing, another night with Sir Garner peacefully sleeping just a few feet away.
We ambushed the mercenaries from Tierenmard before sunrise. That’s how these wars often go, just mercenary versus mercenary. Before our first volley of arrows launched I could see that they were expecting trouble, and so our surprise attack wasn’t much of a surprise.
We had the trees and they had the wide dirt road. Once the arrows were away we wanted to take the fight to them, and Sir Garner was the fastest to charge out. He plunged into their ranks without slowing and I lost sight of him. I charged after, and somehow my horse caught an arrow in the neck. No idea who shot it. I fell, rolled, stood back up, and promptly got knocked over by one of our own men. He said, “Sorry grandpa, didn’t see you there.”
After that I managed to keep my feet for a few minutes. Squared off against two opponents who should have been able to take me, but they were impatient to kill me and weren’t using shields, just big two-handed greatswords. I took my time with them and managed to cut them both down. Then there was another one, this time on horseback, who bowled me over before I could get clear of his way.
That’s how I remember things going, so I have no idea how I got this big cut across my shoulder and my chest. I didn’t even notice it until we were marching again. Sir Garner was good enough to let me off with light duties for the rest off the day, and he even helped clean and bandage the wound. He said, “No one cleans a wound as well as I do.” I’m inclined to believe him; he has certainly had his fair share of cuts.
Garner took down fourteen men. He prefers to behead his opponents like an executioner, as it helps him keep count. He said after, “It is a blessing to die swiftly.”
Getting back to my story: of course the people of Dumard thought I was an Ourqish shape changer. I couldn’t explain why I had been kept captive so long, and I certainly seemed to be in good condition when I got back. In fact, I came back better than I had left.
The people of Dumard didn’t chase me out. Maybe they would have if I had stayed longer. Instead I suffered rumors and whispers, and after that, complete ostracism.
There was a bit I left out earlier, about why I had been passed out in the woods at the border of Ourqghard, and I am realizing now that I need to go over it if the rest of this is going to make sense. So here is the part I don’t like to talk about.
Before that day that Urmak kicked me awake, I was a younger mercenary, fighting in the skirmishes that were going on between Durmard and Thernton back then. I had a wife, and a son that was just a few months old. The battles brought me out far from my home and family, and I only returned at the end of things, a few weeks after Durmard had been raided.
I didn’t recognize my town, and it didn’t recognize me. Many of the buildings were burned hollow. There was wreckage all over, as though a storm had passed through.
My wife was gone. No one ever found her body, but there were a lot of bodies that were hard to identify. My son was very ill with a fever. I found him in the care of a local temple, along with countless other children. A priest said to me, “It is a blessing that this child still has you. We didn’t even know his name.” But the fever eventually took him, and I spent a long time trying not to remember his name anyway. So much for blessings.
I became something of a drunk after that. I hung around Durmard for a few weeks, and then I started wandering, eventually making my way to Ourqghard, where Urmak found me.
So I found myself without any friends, and the house I was living in had a fair share of rough memories. There was nothing for me in Durmard. Somewhere out there, someone had a job for me, and my curiosity about it grew until the day I packed up and left town for the final time.
You would think that tracking down Gursnuhg wouldn’t be very difficult given its size. But it turns out that there are a number of camps that size moving all over Ourqghard, and I didn’t want to run into the wrong one. Add to that all the raiders and soldiers at odds with the Ourqs. All told, it took me the better part of two years to find the camp again.
Even approaching with a white flag raised, I wasn’t sure I would be able to get in and talk to someone before catching a javelin in my chest, but I made it as far as a group of border guards, and from there it was as simple as telling them that I wanted to speak to Amhyru.
They brought me to the same brightly decorated tent, and Amhyru called for me to enter. The moment she saw me, she said, “There you are. We have some things to go over before you get to work.”
From there it was as though I had never left. Mornings were spent traveling, afternoons were spent with Amhyru, and the nights were spent around the campfire Urmak, Tumon, and the others. I did not find out about the job right away. Amhyru insisted on telling me the rest of Daru’s story first, or at least what was known of it. I’ll relate part of it here.
Daru disappeared for many years. The next time she appears in Ourqish history is when she was rescued from the bog beast. A group of Ourqish warriors stumbled across the monster’s lair, and only after the thing was dead did they realize that the immortal Daru was a captive there.
Concerning the bog beast: no one knows exactly what sort of creature this was. It was said to be larger than three Ourqs together, with a slimy brown pelt and two mouths that were always hungry.
The bog beast had slain and eaten many Ourqs over the years, but it found a special treat in Daru. The monster would eat her down to bone, but Vizoul’s curse would not let her die, so she would slowly regrow. She was trapped in the cave for years, with the beast devouring her every few days.
Daru felt that her pride was diminished, if not gone entirely, but her pain was with her more than ever. It had become unbearable.
After being rescued, she sought ought the Ourqish wise man Suman. It took her over a year, but eventually she caught him in a cave in the great northern wood. He was disguised as a badger, being the first of the Ourqs to learn the secret of shape changing, and he stayed in that form, huddled in a corner of the cave.
Daru said, "I know it is you, Suman. Face me as an Ourq. I need your help."
The badger looked up at her and shook its head from side to side.
Daru picked up the badger by its neck and said, "I am not going to beg you, sorcerer."
The badger bit and clawed and tore up the flesh of Daru's hand. It drank her blood, coughed it up, and chewed on her more.
Daru yawned and said, "Let me know when you have finished, Suman."
Eventually the badger slowed, and then it stopped. It looked up at Daru with repentant eyes.
"Are you done?"
The badger nodded.
Daru dropped the creature on the floor, and it grew and warped until an old Ourqish man was lying before her.
The old man stood and spit on the ground. He still had blood on his hands and face, and he said, "So you must be the mighty Daru."
"Is that what I am called now? Daru the mighty?"
"Not truly. You are Daru the foolish and Daru the rash. Daru tribe killer. But then I suppose you'll choke me for that, even if the words are not mine originally."
Daru thought it over. "I won't have any more cause to choke you if you share your secret with me."
"I do not have any secret."
"You can change your form. I want to know how."
"There is no secret. You can or you can not, there is nothing to learn."
Daru could see that Suman was an accomplished liar, but she had lived the length of three Ourq lives and could see through him. "You are lying to me, and you would be wise not to do so again. You are a wise man, aren't you? I came here to learn the art of shape changing, and I am not going to turn back now."
Accounts differ as to what exactly happened next, and this brings me to the point of the whole thing. When Amhyru got this far in telling me the story, she said, “Do you know why you are here?”
I said, “No. There is something that you want me to do, and I know that it must relate to these stories somehow.”
“Let’s think back to when Urmak found you in the woods that day. You wore a sword on your back, and with your manner of dress and your build, I guessed that you had recently been a soldier or mercenary of some sort.”
“That’s right.” I thought back to my first conversation with Amhyru. “You didn’t seem interested in that at the time.”
“I wasn’t going to bring it up. You had also fallen asleep at the border of Ourqghard. You were alone. It appeared that you had been drinking.”
I nodded. “Yes, I was in a pitiful state.”
“And not entirely by accident.”
I did not like where this was going, but I didn’t say anything.
“You came to us from Durmard, a city that has seen much fighting in recent years. My guess was that you had lost someone very close to you, maybe several people. In the time you spent with us, it became clear to me that you were too bright to simply end up in Ourqghard by mistake. Urmak found you there because some part of you wanted to die.”
This was all difficult to listen to, and I asked her if she had a point.
Amhyru said, “There is something very important that I need done, and it cannot be done by an Ourq. It is a job for someone who can get work as a mercenary in lands where Ourqs are not welcome. I need someone who understands deep suffering. You are here that I may beg for your help.”
I said, “You needn’t beg. Certainly not after all the hospitality you and your people have shown me. What would you have me do?”
“Daru is still trapped in this life, living now in the form of a man from your lands, going from place to place as a warrior. He is beyond the reach of myself and my people.”
“I see. You want me to track Daru down in this new form. And then?”
“I believe that he has willfully forgotten the curse, and perhaps all of the past. You realize that the older one gets, the easier it becomes to block out painful memories, to pretend that your failures never happened. Daru has had many years to perfect this art.”
I nodded. I could only imagine where I would be were I any better at lying to myself.
Amhyru continued, “Find him, please. Look after him. And if he has forgotten, you must remind him of the curse. Otherwise, he lives out the rest of forever in an endless cycle of dying and killing.”
As you can see, I took the job. It is hard to tell how much Sir Garner remembers. I must be very careful in how I broach the subject, knowing the weight of the pain he carries. Perhaps someday he will remember everything and choose continue the quest to break Vizoul’s curse, or perhaps he will choose to keep living the life of a mercenary. It’s not for me to say. My job is to ensure that he is making that choice consciously, and not simply as the result of self-deception, and if I die before my work is done I hope that this account can revive the old memories.
© June 2017 Tom Crowley
Tom Crowley lives in Jeffersonville, Indiana with his very supportive partner and very lazy dog. This is his first published fiction.