Durraiz could barely hide her apprehension as she saw the small band of goblins in the far distance. She knew who they were - Sand Orcs, those strange, small cave-dwelling goblins from whom her race was descended. Though they were much smaller, the approaching war party far outnumbered her own group. She bit down a feeling of fear, shoving it aside as foolish. Durraiz never would have journeyed here had she not been desperate, but the ten survivors of the raid on the slaver's camp needed a place to hide until it was safe. Beside her, Sulmûrz kept glancing furtively back over her shoulder, never quite certain that they had not been followed.
"You fool," Durraiz hissed under her breath, "there is far more to worry about in front of us than behind us! These are the lands of King Thaguzgoth, and after that nasty business back a few years ago, he does not welcome strangers to his realms."
"You never can tell," Sulmûrz shot Durraiz a nervous glance. "We might 'ave been followed."
"The slaver is following no one," Durraiz snorted. "I killed him!" Swaggering, she began to walk faster, throwing back her shoulders, her back straight, showing the distant orcs that she was confident and in control. She exulted in the feeling of triumph as being the one who had slain the Haradric slave trader. She relived the sensation of ramming the dagger into his fat belly, feeling the flesh give way as the point of the blade sliced through him. "The pig deserved it," Durraiz thought. Now that Esarhaddon was dead, his men would be too disorganized to mount a search for those who had killed him, and the two kidnapped slave girls were not worth risking life and limb for anyway. "His cowardly men are too afraid to cross swords with us," she chortled to herself, almost laughing out loud in her glee.
Since the assassination of Esarhaddon uHuzziya, the small group of uruks had been on the run for two days. Earlier that night they had come upon a narrow trail that was little more than a faint indentation in the sand. The path was not shown on any of the Southrons' maps, but Nûrzum, who always seemed to have an intuitive sense about such things, had persuaded Durraiz to leave the main track and strike out deeper into the wilderness. To prove his point, he had showed her one of the maps which he had stolen from the tent of the slaver, and the landforms pictured on the parchment matched those they saw around them.
"My lady," Nurzûm had told Durraiz confidently, "we are close to Kafakudraûg territory. From here, the maps of the Southrons are useless, and I must rely upon the accounts which I have heard to lead us to safety."
"Nurzûm, if you're wrong about this," Durraiz hissed, "you will be squatting down to piss after I am finished with you!"
"I am not wrong," he muttered grumpily, insulted by the implication but knowing that if the she-orc were angry enough, she would make good her threat. Still he became hot and bothered anytime he watched her walk, especially when she was wearing one of those skimpy leather loincloths that ran between her thighs and betwixt her hairy arse cheeks. He felt the itch in his groin as he fantasized about mating the burly she-orc and listening to her screams of outrage. Nurzûm was not sure if he could ever subdue her, though, for she weighed more than he did, and considering her bulging muscles, he suspected that she was stronger. Still it was a shame that she favored only girls...
Because of the urgency of their mission, the uruks had traveled almost continuously, the burden of carrying their charges adding to the strain from the beating desert sun. Though they were endowed with the ability to withstand the sun, still it weakened them to a degree, and the harsh light stung their eyes. With the coming of evening, they felt refreshed. The night air was sharp and cool, a far cry from the searing daytime heat that sapped the strength from any who dared go abroad in it. As they felt the ground rising beneath their feet, the faint sandy trail came to a halt when they reached a vast stretch of rocky earth. Perplexed for a while, Nurzûm fell to his hands and knees and crawled upon the ground, sniffing.
"Well, what's wrong?" Durraiz demanded, her hands on her hips.
"My lady, no one has passed over this trail in weeks, and as good as my tracking abilities are, it is not that easy to pick up an old scent." Still on his hands and knees, he looked up at her, admiring her breasts, which were so huge that they threatened to escape her leather corset.
"So you've lost the trail. Is that what you're trying to say, Nurzûm? Maybe you don't know as much as you think you do!" Durraiz placed her boot lightly upon his hand, and then bore down her weight until the uruk was whimpering in pain.
"Nothing of the kind, my lady!" Nurzûm was close to tears, squeezing his eyes tightly together to hold them back. "If you will just have a little confidence in me, I can lead you where you want to go!"
Durraiz looked at him contemptuously, and then with a curse, she lifted her foot. "All right, get up now!" she barked. "We can't spend all night while you sniff every clump of scrub brush where a jackal pissed!"
"Surely, my lady!" Nurzûm told her as he rose to his feet, rubbing his injured hand.
They journeyed on in silence for a while until they came to the lip of a rocky crest where the view of the surrounding lands was breathtaking. From there, they could see that the land dipped down into a deep valley where a dry stream meandered between the stony ridges. Though there was no moon, a sea of endless bright stars lit the sky, and some in the company felt the vague stirrings of ancient memories buried deep within their consciousness.
Far away across the valley, they could see a party of small orcs and goblins waiting for them.
"What did I tell you, Durraiz?" Nurzûm could hardly keep the smirking pride out of his voice as the she-orc gave him a grudging look of acknowledgement. "King Thaguzgoth's men."
"So many! How do we know they come in peace?" Sulmûrz whispered anxiously, gripping Durraiz' arm. "We could always turn around and go back..."
"And lose our best opportunity to find a place of sanctuary?" Durraiz snapped. "No, we are going to become the honored guests of the King."
"But, my dear, what if there is more trouble with the Great Eye? 'E'll 'ave our 'eads if we're caught 'ere!" Sulmûrz returned plaintively.
"There's not going to be any trouble, Sulmûrz. How many times do I have to tell you that? Sometimes I wonder about you. You've been spending too much time with the draught lately, and it has loosened your brains." Durraiz shook her head, sliding a hand under her armpit to dig at an itch. "Everyone knows that King Thaguzgoth received his comeuppance from the Great Eye for all that raiding he did of the Master's caravans. You can be sure King Thaguzgoth is not fool enough to plunder any more supply wagons on the route from Nurn to the battlefield. After all, losing almost all of one's tribe to the Great One's forces does make a lasting impression," she chortled. "No, the King is short of men, and will be very grateful to see us when we enter his chambers."
"I still don't know, Durraiz." Sulmûrz replied mournfully. She shrugged her shoulders. "Anyway, you can only die once."
"What brings you to my kingdom?" King Thaguzgoth asked the small group of uruks who knelt before him. Although he was much shorter than they were, he was broad and powerfully built, the corded muscles showing beneath the golden torcs which he wore upon his hairy upper arms. The leonine mane of black hair which sprouted wildly from his scalp added to the illusion of size. A golden crown studded with many colorful jewels sat atop his kingly head, conveying his nobility to all who beheld him. Beneath a porcine snout of a nose, long tusks protruded from his lower jaw and rested against his upper lip in a fearsome underbite. In spite of his savage appearance, the King looked quite regal in a sleeveless tunic of scarlet and a mantle made from the spotted fur of desert cats. The tunic stopped at the high lord's knees, revealing muscular calves which were bound by the criss-crossing leather straps which secured his fur-lined buskins.
"Your Majesty, we are a band of adventurers who seek to pledge ourselves as mercenaries to your service," Durraiz replied humbly. "If you will accept us, we are ready to give you our oaths now."
"That tells me nothing." The King looked up and studied the ceiling of the cavern. "I know little about you and your men except your names, and those could be false. I suspect you are in trouble. Am I right?" He looked suddenly away from his study of the ceiling and stared down at the newcomers.
"Aye, Your Majesty. I might as well tell you the truth. You will find out sooner or later anyway." Durraiz glanced over to Sulmûrz, and saw that she was sweating heavily. "I slew the slave trader Esarhaddon uHuzziya and plundered his camp of valuables and slaves." She waited for the loud exclamations of shock and disbelief from the King's nobles to subside.
"I would find that difficult to believe if my spies had not previously brought me vague rumors of such a thing. Still, I find these tidings incredible. Shakh Esarhaddon was a very powerful man with connections in high places." The King leaned forward and peered down at her as though seeing her in a new light. "Why did you kill him?"
As all eyes in the King's hall bored into her, Durraiz explained the circumstances surrounding the assassination of the slaver. When she had finished, the King thoughtfully rubbed the gray-streaked tuft of hair that flourished upon his chin. Finally a grin appeared upon his hard face.
"So it was revenge for his ordering the execution of those who wished to do sacrifice to the Lord of the Fiery Mountain. Avenging the deaths of martyrs is always a righteous deed. Yes, I can understand that. Can't you, most illustrious Shaman?" He glanced back at Dûshatâr, who lifted his eyes heavenward, intoning a dark incantation as he shook his staff. The King bowed his head, looking relieved when the Shaman finally ended the chant with a violent shake of the gourds. "Rise now, Durraiz, and have no fears. You will be safe in my realm," the King told her magnanimously.
"Thank you, Your Majesty. The King is most noble." Durraiz and her band stood to face King Thaguzgoth, their taller height making the regent wish that he had left them kneeling.
"So, you and your companions wish to serve me. Well, it is no secret that I need more men," King Thaguzgoth stated, refusing to be intimidated by the uruk's powerful build. "After you have given your oaths, you and all your men will enjoy a cup of draught with me."
"Your Majesty," Prince Shakop spoke up. The young orc prince had been silent up to that point, more interested in the pretty half-breed orc on his lap than he was in state business. "Your Majesty," he repeated, pushing the giggling wench from his lap, "these strangers come here begging sanctuary, but how do we know that we can trust them? They have betrayed their former master. How do we know they will not betray us?"
"Prince Shakop, while I understand your concerns, I think you are being too cautious," the King returned patiently, indulging his favorite son in what he considered youthful lack of judgment. "If they had evil in their hearts, Shaman Dûshatâr with his deep knowledge of the arcane would have sensed it before now." He glanced back at the cadaverous holy man for confirmation, and the Shaman nodded his head. "You see, my son, there is nothing about which you need worry."
"But my lord father," Shakop toyed with his goblet, "with all due respect to your most erudite priest, these strangers boast of their plunder but have arrived with their hands empty. I find this incomprehensible, for it is customary for those who wish favors from the King to show their gratitude by bringing him gifts. Yet these niggardly strangers offer you nothing for the safety you can provide them." The Prince twisted the stem of the goblet between fingers that were surprisingly graceful for an orc. "Your Majesty, while I realize that because of my youth I do not have experience in these matters, still it would seem to me that it is only appropriate that they would offer something of value to you as a token of their good faith and guarantee of their loyalty." His eyes flicked over the two girls, who were both hooded, their hands tied behind their backs.
"And what would you suggest, my son?" The King followed his eyes to the two hooded captives. "These uruks have arrived here with little except their weapons and the food they carry in their haversacks. Would you take that from them in exchange for our hospitality?" The King held back a smile, knowing exactly what his son wanted. Though he had not spoken of it, King Thaguzgoth had found himself getting excited by the scent of ripe womanhood the moment when the women had first been escorted into his hall, and he knew that his hot-blooded son shared the same desire.
"Never, my royal sire!" The Prince looked appalled. "To be without food and water in the desert is sure death. If what they say about avenging martyrs is true, it might bring down the wrath of the Fire God to take their weapons. No, my liege, what I propose is that Durraiz present a share of the booty from the slaver as a gift, and offer these two females to you as serving wenches. Perhaps then we would take them more seriously." Smiling, the Prince sipped from his goblet.
"My lord King," Durraiz spoke up nervously, "it was amiss of me not to offer..."
"Durraiz, have no fear. I am not insulted." King Thaguzgoth looked at her indulgently. "I realize that you are probably so awed at the spectacle of my court that you were not thinking as clearly as you ought."
"Yes, great King, never have I seen such grandeur! No other king of the orcs has a hall so grand or so well appointed!" Durriaz bowed her head, hoping that her flattery would be sufficient to make up for her blunder. "Please accept these two females with my best wishes. Use them fully, and may they bring you the greatest of pleasure!"
"I will accept your generosity, Durraiz," the King beamed benevolently, "but first I want to see their faces."
"Yes, yes, my lord! You shall see them and see them in all their beauty." Durraiz almost simpered as she hurriedly turned to her companions. "Unveil them!" she shouted in her nervousness.
Her hands shaking, Sulmûrz untied the hood from around the neck of Özlem and glanced into the frightened girl's blinking eyes. Equally nervous, Nurzûm moved closer to Elfhild and tugged the hood from her head. He could not believe the radiant smile which lit up her face as she beheld him. Instinctively, he stepped back a pace. "She's a strange one," he thought. "Gives me the creeps. Let's hope the King will take her off our hands!"
Prince Shakop sucked in his breath as he beheld the two lovely young women. "Perfection!" he sighed. "My lord King, they will make a superb addition to your hall."
All the nobles and guards in the chamber eyed the women with obvious lust, their groins growing warm at the display of such lavish beauty. Their lascivious appreciation turned to dismay when the Shaman took a step back, groaning as he raised his staff into the air.
"No, no, my lord King! This thing cannot be done!" Shaman Dûshatâr had grown pale, his eyes taking on a glassy look as he sank into a light trance, his lips trembling.
"Men!" King Thaguzgoth shouted in alarm, rising to his feet. "The most worthy Dûshatâr is unwell!" Guards rushed to the Shaman's side, but he shook them off with a fierce jerk. As though he were completely beyond the portals of life and death, the Shaman stared into the space above Elfhild's head, his eyes glowing like phosphorescent green orbs.
"A bad omen!" he shrieked, his voice echoing off the cavern walls. "It is taboo to defile one who is afflicted with the holy disease of madness! If the golden-haired one is touched, the wrath of the Gods will thunder down and destroy all of us!"