He much preferred to dine upon red meat which had just been killed, so fresh that when he bit down upon it, the blood oozed from his mouth and dribbled down his chin. Still, the bustard flesh was good in its own way, though somewhat dry and tough. Perhaps the bird had been old, but if everything he had heard about the bustard were true, it would still suit his purpose. Famed for the aphrodisiac properties purported to be contained in its flesh, the bustard was sought out, hunted by shakh and orc alike, and though Thaguzgoth did not consider that he had suffered from any serious decline in potency over the years, he still believed that eating the meat gave him heightened performance.
The chieftain of Kafakudraûg Clan of the Sand Orcs had not shared any of the flesh with his two sons, who sat slightly below and to the side of him on the large slab of rock which served as his royal throne. The princes had been unsuccessful in the hunt earlier that night, and of course, they did not deserve to have any of the precious meat. They had to learn to do for themselves as he had when he was young.
He had no intentions of bringing them up to be weaklings, and one of the surest ways to ruin an imp was to coddle him. Pampering caused them to become effete, and was a sure route to turn even the strongest young warrior into a bum boy for any buggerer who gave him a wink and a sly smile. Some said that the distant Elvish ancestry of the race of Orcs was to blame for the occasional effeminate male, for everyone knew that elvish men were pretty boys who enjoyed coupling with either gender. Thaguzgoth had never believed the old legends, considering that it was not genealogy that produced such simpering weaklings, but a lax upbringing.
He did not even deign to look at his sons as he devoured the bustard's neck, wings, breasts and thighs. The heart, gizzard, and liver were special treats which he considered practically the best parts of the bird, and he ate them enthusiastically. As their father gorged himself, the two young orc princes, Ashpar and Shakop, had decidedly sour expressions upon their dun-colored faces. Angry at their father for denying them but still too proud to beg for pieces of the fowl, they entertained themselves with fantasies of killing the king. The brothers had no love for their father, nor for each other.
Thaguzgoth used his teeth and fingers to tear the rest of the flesh from a drumstick, smacking his lips and chewing noisily. After sucking out the marrow, he reverently lay aside the leg bones, the feet still attached. Saving the entrails for the end of the meal, he tossed them into the air a few feet from the throne, where several yapping, slat-sided curs waited, slobbering and licking their chops, the smell of blood exciting them.
The King enjoyed many luxuries denied to the common folk, but the simple task of feeding his hounds was an especial delight. Leaning forward, he watched in rapt attention as a huge dog, his hackles raised in warning, stood protectively over the bloody intestines. Thaguzgoth clapped his hands like an imp, laughing in delight as he watched the half-starved animals growl and snarl over the meat. Thirsting for excitement and blood, the nobles looked up from their drinking cups, their bright eyes rivetted on the scuffle.
The King cheered when a challenger sprang through the air and plowed into the larger dog, knocking him sprawling as his jaws clamped into his throat. Growling and snarling, the two bit and fought, rolling over and over, until the larger dog lay trembling upon his back in a submissive position. Its tail tucked tightly between its legs, the beast whimpered and slunk off deeper into the cavern as the victor wolfed down his prize.
"An entertaining diversion, my lord," the tall goblin in the shadows behind him murmured approvingly.
"It was, wasn't it?" Thaguzgoth turned to glance back at the cadaverous creature who had stepped closer to the throne.
"An appropriate sport for royalty, if I may say so, your Majesty," the tall goblin replied, smiling slightly as he saw the look of elation that crossed over the orc king's face. He knew that Thaguzgoth was extremely proud of his hounds, always boasting about their bloodlines and accomplishments. "When the great speed of the desert hound is mixed with the savagery of the wolf, the bloodlines of both are equally preserved and refreshed in the offspring. Thus the cross incorporates the strong points of both. Your Majesty's breeding program has made a valuable contribution to the propagation and development of the breed."
"Shaman Dûshatâr, your words greatly honor me," the Sand Orc King replied deferentially, struggling to keep the pride from creeping onto his voice. While there could be few compliments greater than one given by the High Shaman, it was unwise to allow anyone to think that a king could be impressed even by one as great as Shaman Dûshatâr. Kings took all things in their stride, even the words of the priestly caste.
Oral tradition held that since the dark ages of time immemorial, the shamans had been the spiritual leaders of the tribe. The shaman was consulted for everything from making prognostications for the outcome of a battle to the casting of a love spell for a heart-sore suitor. He studied the heavens, seeing the outcomes of great events written in the workings of the stars. From the bloody entrails of sacrificed animals and men, he could predict the course of the future. An adept in matters of the arcane, there was no type of divination with which he was not skilled. All respected him, and all feared him. The powers of the shaman were beyond the comprehension of his simple followers.
The office was hereditary, passed on from father to son. When a shaman left no male heir, the power passed to a female relative chosen by the Great Powers to be the spiritual leader of the tribe. While the male line was almost unbroken back through the dim reaches of time, there were cases when the daughter of a shaman had guided the people. Shaman Dûshatâr's own mother had been shaman of the tribe, and one of his most prized possessions was a bone from her knuckle joint, which he wore as an amulet on a golden chain about his neck. It was believed among the Sand Orcs that one could inherit the power and wisdom of the ancestors through the ossified remains of a powerful relative, and many were the times that Dûshatâr rubbed his mother's sacred finger bone when he was seeking wisdom.
Except for the golden chain about his neck, Dûshatâr dressed simply, for it was unbecoming for a holy man to dress ostentatiously. Those who were bound to the endless cycle of the temporal realm felt the need to make public displays of their wealth and power, but the shaman was above such venal pursuits.
Tall and cadaverously thin, Dûshatâr resembled a reanimated corpse more than he did a living being. Tapering abruptly to a sharply pointed chin, his skull-like face was crowned with a round, bulbous pate that was completely devoid of hair. Few could meet the gaze of the pallid green eyes which peered out from between beetling brows and sunken cheeks. Glowing with a pale flame, they watched everything and everyone with interest. Even for an orc, he was considered ugly with his small, flat nose; perfect maw of elongated, needle-sharp teeth; and long, pointed ears which jutted from his skull and seemed too big for his head. No one would dare tell that to his face, or even think it when he was around, for some swore that he could read minds.
Still, in spite of his lack of physical beauty, he possessed a certain dignity of bearing. Taller than any other of his tribe, he stood straight and erect, one hand holding a staff of twisted desert wood crowned with tassels, animal claws, and shaker gourds. He wore the ceremonial ankle-length white skirt, caught low beneath his emaciated belly by a wide sash of fox pelts. Dangling from a red cord wrapped tightly about the furs were dried bustard feet which clattered together whenever he moved.
Prince Ashpar, heir to the throne, yawned prodigiously, a rude sound which he barely managed to stifle with a hand over his mouth. "My lord father," he remarked innocently, "have you ever noticed that the royal pack is infested with worms?"
Shock at the audacity of the Prince's words registered on the King's face, and he scowled at his eldest. Gasps and low murmurs arose from the assembled nobles and guards in the great cavern as they looked at the prince in disbelief.
"Sire, why, you can see the buggers crawling out of their arse-holes every time they scratch their fleas or lick their bums!" Prince Ashpar was gratified by the look of indignation on his father's face and even more pleased at the scowl he received from the old fool of a shaman.
"Prince Ashpar, how dare you say that the royal pack has worms! Your ill-considered words insult the royal kennel, and in essence insult me! You know how I have worked these many years to develop the breed, but you have mocked my efforts!" Growling, the King jumped to his feet and struck the boy over the head with his sceptre, which was crowned with a human skull embedded with costly jewels. The impact knocked the Prince to the floor, bloodying his broad, flat nose and bringing a swirling whirl of stars to his eyes. Through the haze of disorientation, the Prince remembered a completely random bit of information. The skull had once belonged to the leader of a nomad chieftain who had tried to drive the orc clan from the deserts of Southern Gorgoroth. Ashpar cared little about the origin of the skull, only that his head was throbbing.
"Since you cannot control your tongue, Prince Ashpar, you will remove yourself from my court until you learn some control," the King growled, motioning with his hand towards the archway that led out of the cavern.
"Yes, Sire," the Prince muttered, pulling himself to his feet and rubbing his head. He bowed stiffly and left the great hall to the shocked murmurs of the lords and nobles. What a complete fool his father was, living in a world of dreams and fantasies! He thought more of his mangy hounds, his fat concubines, and his infernal hunting parties than he did in providing leadership for the clan. His father was so dependent upon the shaman for every detail of his life that Prince Ashpar wondered if the old king consulted the shaman whenever he needed to relieve his bowels! Ignoring his elder son's obvious ability, the king doted on his favorite young prince, who was nothing but an effete sop!
"Shaman, you must forgive my son. He is an idiot," Thaguzgoth remarked gruffly as he watched the disappearing back of his eldest son. "When the boy was an imp, he stayed out in the sun far too long, and it blistered his brain. I hope he will grow out of it."
"Your Majesty, perhaps some time away from the court will do your son good," the Shaman offered solicitously. "Do not be hard on the boy, however. Who would not feel insufficient in the shadow of such a great leader of our tribe as you?" Dûshatâr did not miss the smirking look on Prince Shakop's face. It was no secret in the court that the king favored his younger son over his elder, but tradition demanded that the elder should inherit the title. From his spies, the Shaman knew that already that the nobles had begun secretly to back one brother over the other. He smiled grimly. Whatever the outcome of the princely rivalry, he intended to be on the winning side.
After his son had stalked away, King Thaguzgoth resumed his seat on the throne, indulgently watching the nobles return to their gambling, drinking and wenching. He was immensely pleased at Shaman Dûshatâr's flattering words, but he would never let his expression betray that emotion. "Shaman, do not think that the prince is permanently exiled; I am only giving him time to consider his impetuosity. When he learns his lesson, he can return. Now to more important matters." Thaguzgoth's eyes flicked to the remains of his meal. Reverently he picked up the bustard bones and placed them in the holy one's outstretched hands. Inclining his head, the shaman accepted the bones, softly intoning a spell of blessing. A hush fell over the hall as the assembled orcs and goblins raptly observed the shaman.
The Kafakudraûg was a superstitious tribe, as were many of the orc folk. Any object that was reputed to be of magic origin was held by them in great awe. From the meanest dwelling to the King's own massive labyrinth of caverns, there were strings of bones having above every entrance and opening. "I trust that you will have the usual potion prepared for me when I retire?" the king asked humbly.
"Your Majesty is a man of rare spiritual insight," the Shaman murmured, molding his face into a mask of sincerity. He inclined his staff towards the King as a symbol of acceptance. His flattering compliments were far from true, for Dûshatâr knew the King was a weakling, dependent upon him for advice in making decisions. The king might sit on the throne, but the shaman ruled the king.
"Shaman, the potion is responsible for my strength and vigor; it makes me strong against my enemies." A slave presented the two orcs with goblets filled with the stoutest orc draught. Thuguzgoth's eyes gleamed as he saw his own goblet - a remarkable vessel crafted from a skull coated with gold and encrusted with semi-precious stones.
"Your Majesty is indeed strong; you will always be invincible against your enemies." The Shaman lifted his goblet in feigned homage. "It has been years since you destroyed your brother, the pretender to the throne." Dûshatâr's eyes flicked towards the skull which served as the King's goblet. He remembered the battle for succession between the two brothers when they were young, and how he had supported Thaguzgoth. Now he could barely contain his revulsion for the bloated, pleasure-mad creature who sat in front of him, the ruler of the clan. Perhaps he had made a mistake in his choice of king...
"Only through your power, most illustrious shaman, am I able to defeat my enemies and bring about a reign of peace and plenty to my folk," Thaguzgoth simpered, raising his goblet before taking a huge gulp.
"My lord, you do me honor," Dûshatâr inclined his head. "All of my humble efforts are directed towards keeping Your Majesty in the peak of health. I must leave you now to formulate the Elixir of Carnal Energy. I will deliver it to you myself ere the time comes for you to go to bed. In addition to the usual potion, I am adding certain essential elements which will make your proud staff grow to massive proportions."
"Excellent!" The Sand Orc King's eyes shone with lust. "I'm trying out a new concubine tonight, and I don't want to disappoint her," he laughed. "She will be first of the evening, and after I rid her of that useless piece of flesh that separates the virgin from a breeding female, I must make sport with my other mates." The king's voice lowered, and a flicker of indecision mingled with the lust in his eyes. "Worthy Shaman, if I don't service every last one of them tonight, I will be shamed! You who can see beyond the portals of time and space, perhaps you could strengthen the dose with the addition of more herbs?" His voice was pleading.
"My lord," the Shaman replied, "these spells are powerful, and while I understand your desire, I feel I must warn you. I am afraid that too powerful a draught might so innervate and excite your kingly member that it might cause irreparable damage."
"Shaman, I defer to your superior judgement in these matters," the King nodded and irritably glanced to where the shaman's attention was directed. A guard stationed at the entrance had just been admitted to the chamber by the majordomo. Frowning, the King motioned the guard to enter. He was in no mood to listen to trifling matters when the success of his nighttime escapades was being discussed.
"Your Majesty," the goblin bowed. "Our wolf-rider scouts have reported that a small party of uruk-hai is making its way towards the caverns. They have with them what appears to be two female human prisoners. The scouts estimate that the party will arrive tomorrow evening. What would you have us do?"
"Oh, I suppose I will see them when they arrive," the King returned without interest. "By the way," he seemed to perk up, "did the scouts say if the females were attractive?"
"Yes, my lord, very." The orc guard could not keep the look of lust from gleaming in his eyes.
"Then by all means, I wish an audience with them when they arrive!"