Wandering through the frozen wilderness, the disgraced Loremaster comes eventually to the place where the object fell and sees that everything Borklan claimed was true. Despairing, he resigns himself to death.
Spitting at the Sun
(c) 2011 by Kurt Wilcken
Death was long in coming; and before it did, I felt the jab of a kick in my ribs. I rolled over and saw Borklan standing over me. “Get up, old man,” he said.
“Go away,” I said, burying myself back into my cloak. He kicked me again. “What are you doing here?”
“I need to talk to you, old man.”
“Why? Has the tribe tired of you already?”
He would have kicked me a third time, but by now annoyance had overcome my weariness and I blocked his foot with the shaft of my spear. I sat up and returned his baleful glare.
“The tribe follows me now,” he boasted. “Even Gurthang fears me and defers to my authority. I let him keep the title of Chief but he knows I can destroy him with a word.”
I grunted to show my lack of surprise.
“Under me the tribe has increased its territory. We have taken many farms from the human-lands. We have raided other tribes of Orcs, and when they saw the strength of our god they joined us. We are a mighty people now with Goblin slaves and vast lands and we are growing greater every day!”
“Goblins!,” I snorted. “Since when have Orcs associated with Goblins?”
“They are our slaves!”
“It sounds as if you enslave Orcs as well. Do you eat their flesh too?”
“I have not come to argue with you, witless old man.” He clenched the hilt of his sword and bared his teeth.
“Then why have you come?”
We glared at each other for a space; then he gathered his temper and continued. “There has been some dissent. The old men of the tribe, of course, fear the new ways. They only see their own power weakened and not the new strength of the tribe. But they are weak and have no support.”
“Then who opposes you?”
He hesitated again. “The women,” he spat.
For the first time in many weeks, I smiled. Like many young warriors, Borklan dismissed the women of the tribe as being of little account, merely because they do not hunt and are not permitted to speak in the Council. But women have their own wisdom, and a deep understanding of things which every Loremaster must know. “What say, then, the women?”
“Since the coming of the Sleeping God, there has been no spring. The grass and trees remain sleeping under the snow and there is no new growth. I have explained to them that what weakens the humans makes us stronger, but they are foolish and do not listen.”
“The women gather fruits and roots to sustain the tribe when the hunting is bad; and they make bread from the grains of the field. It is right that they fear a winter without spring.”
“Their foolish chatter is poisoning the rest of the tribe. They say that you were right and the tribe was wrong to banish you. There is one way to stop this talk.” Borklan drew his man-sword and pointed its tip at my throat. “Come back to the tribe and tell them you were wrong. Tell them that they must now worship the new god.”
I laughed. “Are you truly that desperate? Has your god not proved himself that you need an old man’s word to support it? Go back to your followers, Borklan. You will get no help from me.”
Borklan’s face took on a visage like the sky before a storm. “There is one other way, old man, but I thought to spare you. If you will not come back willingly, then I will take your head back without you and everyone will see whose god is the more powerful.” And he raised his sword to strike.
As he did so, I beheld the dull red sky in the east and saw a bit of flame peek through the clouds. It was dawn, and the Sun, weary and cloud-encumbered was rising over the distant hills. There would be no challenge to the Sun this morning; for like him, I was weak and defeated.
And in that thought, another thought came, as the brushing away of a branch reveals the view of a valley beyond. The Sun had been defeated, even as Borklan had said; and yet, every morning it still rose. In his own way the Sun was also issuing a daily challenge; not that he had any hope of defeating his opponent any more than I had hope of defeating the Sun; but rather in the same spirit as our own ritual. Each dawning was the Sun’s act of defiance against the Power that had bested him.
The questions of the youngsters came back to me. Why do we not worship the Sun as the humans do? Because we are Orcs; we are proud and independent. The Powers may beat us down with their strength, but they do not win our worship.
But what if…
What if one of the Powers were to relinquish his own strength, to let a foe humble him? To be crushed into the earth and yet still spit defiance at his enemy. Such a Power I could respect. The Orcs serve no masters, but such a Power I could call my brother.
Borklan paused and did not strike his blow. I think he saw something in my eyes. Whether I had seen a vision or heard a spirit he could not say, but I think he recognized that some great thing had happened to me, because in his eyes I saw fear. I met his gaze and uttered the words of the Challenge:
“I am a free Orc, the son of free Orcs. I bow to no Power, neither in the Earth nor the Sky nor the Sea. Though you may smite me, my spirit shall endure. So do your best, you maggot’s son, and still I will defy thee!”
He gave a snarl of rage and swung the sword at me, but although his borrowed man-sword was good for intimidating those of the tribe, he had little practice in its use. Whereas my many years, which he so blithely mocked, included much experience fighting with a spear. I caught his foot with the butt end of my spear as he attacked and sent him tumbling to the ground. His blow, meant to hew my neck, merely grazed my ribs.
I rose to my feet, more quickly than he anticipated and stabbed at him. He rolled out of the way, but the point of my spear left a long gouge in his forearm.
He scrambled clumsily to his feet and brandished his sword before him. I kept my ground; I had not his speed, but the length of my weapon was greater. After a couple feints to test my defenses, Borklan decided the same thing. He tossed aside the sword and recovered his spear, but as he did so I thrust my spear into his side. He howled in pain, and I gave the spear a twist as I yanked it out to make him howl the more.
We circled each other warily, spear versus spear. I was hobbled by weakness and age, but he was equally crippled by the wounds I had delivered. He braced his spear against his body with his good arm and made a sudden charge. Expecting the charge, I dodged to one side and drove my own spear into his face. The point sliced up across his cheekbone and into his eye, penetrating into his skull.
His weapon dropped from his hand and he fell to the bloodied snow.
I stood over him for a moment, catching my breath. His good eye rolled back and forth in his head as if trying to find me. “Do not think you have won,” Borklan croaked. “The Sleeping God remains there beneath the Earth, and his power rules this land. The day will come when he awakens. He will destroy you all…”
“One may be bested and still not be defeated. That lesson I should have learned from Urg-Dar, but I learned it anew this day from my brother the Sun. Your Sleeping God defeated you long ago, and there is nothing left of you for me to curse.”
He answered me not. Perhaps he had already died and did not hear me, but I like to think he spent his final moments trying to think of a reply.
That was several days ago. I grow weaker by the day and do not expect to live much longer. I regret that I lack the skill of men to put words down onto parchment that their wisdom can live beyond their lives, but I will do what I can. I will lift the biggest rock I can and whisper my story to the spirits of the earth, so that if someday some traveler rests on this spot the spirits may whisper it into his ear. Then I will go peacefully to the halls of my ancestors, and when I meet the spirits of my fathers, I shall also greet my new brother, the Sun.
Hear my story, O traveler, and remember the wisdom I have learned.
One may be bested, and still not be defeated.