I sat on an available bench, feeling numb. The yard was bustling at Kellas House. The previous casual traffic had turned tense since the engagement and became a trigger for exodus. Traffic ebbed and flowed around me as I looked on blankly. It wasn't so much from the battle itself, but from the loss. I had looked on while Tagaern performed some ritual, putting the sword in Balrick's hands, then laying stones over his body. Thoughts tugged at me. While I knew the gods were watching, I felt that their magnanimous mindfulness over us lowly creatures was greatly overstated. How could these giants have been allowed in the heart of these lands? I thought of Kols then wondered, again, who needed whom more.
I had made an effort to distract the giant, but had failed and it killed one and almost another.
Silah was near, but standing alongside Amalia and Duncan, who were talking, doing their best to calm the travelers while the worry and paranoia mounted. Duncan had nearly completed donning his armor by the time the battle had ended. Ironically, he now had to wear it around while he helped the panicked travelers take to the newly cleared roads. I saw the looks on their faces, some were even unsure if there would be a Kellas House to which they would return. Duncan was level-headed, readily handing out refunds for the rooms he had rented until the population of Kellas House dwindled down to just the handful of us.
Silah sat next to me, picking at some of the blood that had dried in clumps on my green skin. I was somewhere distant. I wasn't even sure what I was thinking about. I was and inert mass, completely disconnected from the world flowing around me.
A thick, oily column of smoke had started skyward. I looked at it curiously, then with apprehension, as I realized its purpose. A gristly thought came to mind as I thought about how cooked orc smelled. I grimaced, thinking of the orc's expression of disdain when he saw me, then surprised as I nearly drew him in two. While a display like that from an enemy shouldn't mean anything, it reminded me of where I stood.
Us half-orcs need to stick together. I thought. I had said it before, but it was a reminder of the fragile balance between the world of men and the world of my distant kin.
"You should get cleaned up." Silah whispered to me aloud, her voice was kind and light.
I glanced at her, finding myself again. Amalia was sitting within earshot just beyond her and Duncan was approaching from the main building, finally finding the time to slip out of his armor.
I sighed, shook my head, then looked him in the eye.
"Son, before you get into it—because I can see it all over your face—realize that I commanded men during a war. I felt every loss on the battlefield, and, while it never got easier, I came to the realization that they, that we, had accepted this fate." He spoke, a bone-deep tiredness lined his voice, "It would dishonor their memory to hold the grief of their loss as my own burden. It is selfish to think you can save everyone."
His words came out forcefully. Whether it was just hard for me to hear or he was driving this home to calm something within himself, I wasn't sure. Silah rested her hand on my back, running her fingers lightly along on my shoulders.
"I would feel different if I come away from this battle with something more than a scratch." I said, looking up at him. I felt a challenge rising in me, but it dissolved into confusion having no enemy to fight.
"He did call to them to fall back." Silah said, her voice was high and thin; a practiced timber when being diplomatically submissive.
I caught Amalia's look out of the corner of my eye. She wasn't looking at me, though, her eyes had settled on Silah and she squinted and tilted her head. She seemed to realize that Silah wasn't exactly human. Silah's pinched my back and gave me a sidelong look.
"You're just making it worse. She's been looking at me like that on and off since this morning." Her voiced echoed in my head, "I had a talk with her about it. I think it might have made it worse."
I smiled with a subdued chuckle and Duncan paused and squinted at me.
"Let's get back to training." He said, looking warily between Silah and I, recognizing the silent exchange.
I stood and and looked toward the yard. Ironically, the lack of people milling about was unnerving. I tried taking Duncan's words to heart. Letting go of the memory of a man falling in battle wasn't something I could readily do. Especially when I felt responsible for their survival. There were very few times in the war where I could have been there to save another. I was the fledgeling in an elite unit, so I was usually the one being protected. Now, I was the protector, and it bothered me deeply that I had been unable to do my job.
"Back to it, then." I muttered.
I nodded to an introspective Amalia and moved toward the yard. Silah stood and moved with me to the training area.
"I will say, Duncan. Having a second set of eyes on the battlefield has helped me stay focused on what was at hand." I said with a nod toward Silah.
He nodded. I could still see he was wary about my reliance on Silah, but he gave a half-hearted smile and squared off with me, tossing me a wooden sword.
"That tussle out there was just a warm up. Show me what you've got!" He challenged, then lunged forward.
Evening came setting the skies ablaze. There were few breaks, but I could see there was a certain weariness settling into Duncan. Perhaps, he had finally hit his own limit. It was a marvel to see how much he held on to from his military days. This training, I knew, was as much for him as it was for me. I think that seeing Tagaern might have reminded him of where he could have gone.
Seeing his old friend again had also brought a haunted look back to his eyes. The demons he had kept at bay were closer than they'd been for months yet. Forgetting meant not seeing any reminders. I, and the others that Duncan had adopted, apparently were the purest remains of the war. Tagaern and Duncan had a different history, however. It was a history that Duncan had spent the last many months suppressing.
The tavern's bustle was subdued. A few travellers had trickled in, moving their way toward Hlofreden. Some were expecting more of the merrymaking, but the few who did come seemed surprisingly uninformed about the goings on from just earlier in the day.
It was just later that guards who had been working on the road came through. Muddied and blood splattered, from the messy job of cleaning up the bodies. It had been them that had lit the sky blackening pyres. There had been more casualties toward Dowry way, from what I overheard. There were plans to bolster the watch patrols over the next couple of weeks and keep a contingent at Kellas House as a "part of critical infrastructure". I'm sure hearing that would make Duncan happy. Embraced by the Princess herself with the potential of being controlled by yet another hand. The guards, exhausted from the effort were given free room and board and lined up for hot baths.
"I think I need some time alone with Duncan, Silah." We were sitting in the great room watching the guests busy themselves with their meals, doing their best to avoid the uncanny isolation Kellas House had dropped into. I had been stewing a bit over shadows that seemed to show up on Duncan's doorstop. Silah had seen it and looked at me with some concern. I realized that he was the one that listened to our stories and fortified us during our troubles, but I didn't know who was there for him during those times.
"You've changed my mind about what it means to be a warrior, you know?" Silah said as I stood from the table.
"How's that?" I said.
"I have seen bravado and conceit frequently displayed, but heart? And even compassion?" She shook her head with the words, "It has never been so obvious. These are the things that make great warriors greater."
She held out her hand. I took it, bent low, and kissed it gently.
"Take care of your friend." She smiled and her honey-brown eyes glistened, "Just like you take care of all of us."
"What do you plan to do?", I asked her while straightening up.
Silah looked around and shrugged, her purple dress woven with gold highlights glittered with the gesture.
"Perhaps I'll pry a little more into Amalia. She's overly curious for a woman of her … station?" She smiled wryly, "I'm interested to see why she's so curious. There's something about her."
"Most assuredly." I said, nodding, "And good luck with that. I would, however, leave the word ‘station' out of it. And, if you need to move beyond our bond. Feel free."
"All business." Silah scoffed. "Go. Take care of your friend."
I moved toward the back passing Keval who was busily bringing boiling hot buckets to the baths. I moved into the back toward where Duncan's study was. He sat in the small booth table just outside the kitchen with the officer over the small contingent of men. Duncan saw me and beckoned me over with a jerk of his head.
"Petreus, this is Hakaar, a fellow veteran the 10-years war." Duncan gestured toward me and the man moved to look toward me.
I recognized him from previous walks up and down this road, but I never had been formally introduced. I had kept to myself most times. The man was younger and a bit soft, though definitely not fragile. I couldn't imagine that that he had seen any real battle, or, perhaps, had weathered it more gracefully than others.
"We've met. Briefly." Petreus extended a hand.
I moved to the head of the table and took his hand, giving him a firm, but subtle, shake.
"He and his friends took care of the giants for us." Duncan said to Petreus, nearly imperceptibly perturbed.
"Giants. Can you believe it? If I hadn't seen them first hand, I wouldn't have believed a word of it!" The man-boy looked between us.
"My friends were going to investigate the source of them." I said, flatly. "I'm sure the report will make it to Dowry."
"Yes, well. Very good." He nodded and looked between Duncan and I again, feeling suddenly out of place, "It looks like you two have business. I'll go and tend to my men."
"Good to officially meet you, Petreus." I gave him a nod and waited for him to vacate the seat across from Duncan.
I leaned on the table pinched the sides of my head as the man-boy moved past and turned the corner. Both Duncan and I spoke over each other as he moved out of earshot. I grinned and motioned for Duncan to continue.
"It's like they'll give anyone that job." Duncan said, looking past me toward where Petreus turned.
"He's doing clean up duty." I chuckled, "It's the last job anyone wants to do. And you can imagine that the men he's leading here are only here because they got in trouble with the wrong people."
"Apparently, it takes a war to shape someone up. You know he's about five years older than you." Mirth traced his lips but barely touched his eyes.
"And look how bad I turned out?" I leaned back, raising my arms above me in a stretch then faced forward smiling.
I could see those shadows gripping at Duncan, clouding his eyes as locked eyes.
"Heh. I think we're going to need some Old Law and, yes, I'm buying." I said.
Duncan didn't stir.
I rustled around the kitchen then found the closet that held the liquor. The door had a sturdy lock, but swung free when I twisted the knob. I found the Old Law bourbon and grabbed some shot glasses from the cupboard.
Duncan was looking at his hands in the booth.
"Where's your … lady friend?" He said, having trouble with what to call Silah.
"She's got the night off. She's probably wearing down Amalia right now." I said with a grin.
I poured two shots, placing one in front of Duncan then picked up the glass. He looked at me warily.
"To friendship! May it shut the hell up and start drinking." I lifted my glass eye level to him and waited.
"I know what you're doing." He said with a somber look, fiddling with his glass.
I made and easy, toothy smile as I jiggled my glass in the air. Duncan grumbled and lifted his glass to clink gently with mine. We both leaned back for the shot, I didn't immediately swallow, letting the burn linger for a time before sending it on its way.
"Shooting means you're doing your best not to taste it." Duncan said with a grimace, "Didn't I teach you anything?"
"That deserves another shot." I said, lifting the bottle and pouring another round.
Duncan shook his head and grabbed the glass.
"My toast this time?" Duncan asked with a raised eyebrow.
"It's all yours." I nodded with a grin.
"To the future. May it not be as worrisome as the past." He said heavily.
We toasted then drank.
"That was a bit weak." I said eyeing him steadily starting to feel the tickle of the liquor at the very edges of my mind, "I'll give you another chance."
"I've got so much work to do." He shook his head at my offer.
"I refuse to believe I'm hearing the truth until you have at least three shots in you." I leaned forward sternly. "Come on, old man."
Duncan sighed heavily as I poured another round.
"We don't have to toast. I can tell you're not in the mood for it." I said to Duncan as I pushed the glass to him.
"No, I'd like to toast." He said, looking down into the glass, after a moment he shook his head.
"When I was young, I didn't expect to amount to much. There wasn't much of a chance to amount to much, either. It was a simple time with nothing but survival to test myself against."
He paused, his thoughts seeming too heavy to bear.
"It's a lie that the war lasted only 10 years. Did you know that? The conflict was in skirmishes. Both sides were party to it, too. I joined in, feeling my oats, doing the same as the others, raiding on the edges of the forest killing those who, I thought, sought to kill us."
"With all that picking around the edges, we began to cut into their lands. It was then that you could say that the Elven King truly became mad. Mad at the bullying and the constant encroachment into his heritage. The fight we had unknowingly been picking for so long had turned into a proper war."
Duncan shook his head and placed his fingers around the shot glass and lifted it.
"To who we are, both the good and the bad, and to what brought us to exactly where we sit." Duncan's eyes were red as he looked toward me.
"Here, here." I said somberly and touched my glass to his.
I tipped back and swallowed then watched as Duncan let the liquid meander over his tongue before he swallowed.
"I'm not asking for forgiveness when I say this, but I do believe that my own fervor helped bring you here. I like the man you are—the man you've become. But I was part of taking whatever life you had—before the war started—away from you." His glistening red eyes were still locked with mine, "You, of all people, should know that I had a part in destroying your childhood, all that you could have been, if the war hadn't happened."
I nodded, listening intently. Feeling the thoughts crawl around in my head. I wondered, myself, where I would have been. I would probably have been the next generation that picked at the edges and caused the 10 years war a generation later. Besides, I did like the man I had become.
I poured another round, a smile curling my lips around my tusks.
"This isn't forgiveness." I said, lifting the shot, "But I think you're probably the finest man I know."
I sunk the drink, not waiting for him to join me.
"Let's just say that I'm glad you were able to share your experience so I was able to avoid all that nasty morally gray business." I said with a smile, "When the mood strikes, you should try counting out the people who call you friend, even father, on your fingers. And, when you find you don't have enough fingers, you can use mine."
Duncan was still rolling the liquid around in the shot, watching it as I spoke. He let my words roll over him, taking them a lot like I took his words earlier: grateful, but with trepidation.
He blinked briefly, then rubbed at his face with his free hand, removing all signs of vulnerability.
"Eh, it is what it is, right?" He nodded with a genuine smile, tossing the shot back, "Thanks for grounding me."
He looked at me again, and a quizzical expression danced across his face.
"You surprised me the most, Hakaar. I didn't expect you to become such a gentlemanly sort. Whatever you think I did to make that happen simply isn't true. It was already in you. I may have helped with discipline and patience when it came to fighting, but it's something else entirely that made you so acutely aware of what is fair and right in the world." Duncan squinted at me. "You should go back and look for your family some day."
I looked sidelong at him.
"I was an orphan, they died when the war started." I stated frankly, my head swimming with the thought, suddenly rousing a pain that I didn't know existed. My hand trembled as I reached for the bottle again, feeling a renewed thirst.
"Oh?" He looked bemused, "I swore I had heard differently. War is strange that way. You're never sure what's the truth when you're in the middle of it."
(Get to know Akeron.)