Grasha, Outsider, pt. 1

Grasha, Agrat’s mother, changes a lot through the narrative. I wouldn’t describe her as naive to begin with, but she is trusting, and she fundamentally doesn’t know much about the world around her. And how could she? The Blackskulls simply don’t interact much with outsiders. After her exile, she gains new experiences that question her tribe’s practices. As she ages, her bitterness and regret start to really eat at her, especially in old age as Veiadokuur becomes more and more unstable. But she’s headstrong and stubborn. It’s probably a gene the Uthordars pass down.

In this short story, I wanted to learn more about Grasha’s family dynamics and who she is as a person. I also wanted to explore the Blackskulls and the Seers of Geldorg, and figure out more about the human-instigated war in the region. She’s quickly become one of my favorite side characters in this, and she’s arguably the most badass character I’ve ever written.

This’s a long one at about 11,100 words. I was tempted to break it up into three parts for ease of reading, but there was a natural break in the narrative that made splitting it into two parts feel more natural. The second half will be posted on Friday. As always, thank you for reading!

Word Count: ~6700
Rating: PG
Warnings: Descriptions of gore and some brief sexist language.

Lukal, born and raised in the northwest quadrant of Veiadokuur, had never seen such a massive sky. Growing up in Kilverud territory, surrounded by mountains, made for a sky more like a ceiling. It existed only over your head, with snowy peaks to hold it up and keep it there. But here, she looked left, or right, or ahead and behind, and there was sky. Clear blueness, dotted with sickly, white clouds. Like a dome decorated with paint. It left her feeling claustrophobic. All this open, flat space with no true boundaries or landmarks overwhelmed her. She wondered how the Blackskulls made and traveled that territory.

And it was that tribe that caused the other part of her anxiety. She’d heard the stories—everyone had. Humans might see orcs as a conglomerate of savage, cruel people, but orcs new better. Only the Blackskulls fit that bill. They were isolationists, and completely self-sufficient. Arrogant. Hateful. They believed themselves “true orcs,” and that all others were mistakes of the gods. Tales of Blackskulls killing outsiders on the spot, or leaving unworthy infants in the wild, or beating “blood traitors” to death made up Lukal’s complete knowledge of them. Her heart beat faster than her horse’s hooves. She was terrified. Who wouldn’t be The one rule most every orc knew was that the Blackskulls were bad news; a scourge to be avoided.

But these days, desperation dictated their decisions. Willowleaf’s genocidal army marched on without any signs of slowing. Rumors of young mages being used in the south spread around. The Seers needed help. They knew that the Blackskulls, legendary horse tamers and breeders, commanded a superb cavalry. Their warriors on horseback outnumbered and outranked the human army’s mounted soldiers by a landslide. Having them fighting with the Seers could erode the onslaught, and slow it to a halt.

So the Seers sent her, Lukal, as a courier to the Blackskulls. Her mission—to convince the Blackskulls to fight alongside the Seers—made for a heavy burden.

She approached their village, but it looked closer to an encampment. All the homes were square tents arranged in a vague circle around one tall structure in the center. In lieu of walls or doors, they were made from heavy leather sheets, and topped with treated wooden slats. She couldn’t see them from outside, but a single stone pillar with a hollow portion in the bottom for a fire supported the homes and businesses. The pillars stayed there year-round, but everything attached to it was temporary. Sturdy, but designed to be taken down and moved easily. There were a few permanent buildings here and there, though—Lukal could smell fires from forges, and heard the sound of hammering on metal.

Further west, horses whinnied, snorted, and galloped. She halted her steed and looked towards the noise. Not far, dozens of draft horses dashed across the ground. They tossed their manes and their fetlocks danced with their movement. As they drew nearer, the sight transfixed her. She felt their weight pummeling against the dirt. Big, dry patches were left in their stead, trampled down long ago. It seemed that these beasts were the reason for such flat, featureless land. No saplings could survive their hooves. Her breath stopped. So this was their communal herd. Or at least, it was part of it. The stories she heard said they commanded a thousand of these beasts, perfectly bred for specific tasks and jobs. Blackskull tamers rode along and kept the herd from straying too far. She watched a moment as they whooped and directed them with bright cloth that they flashed when a horse ran too far to the left or right.

A patrol of two Blackskulls—also on horseback, but theirs were larger than hers—rushed up to her. They had weapons, but kept them on their backs and hips. No need for violence on sight, she realized, relieved.

“You—what’s your name? Your purpose here?” one said and gestured at her with his hand. She watched their faces. They seemed stern, but not angry. Thank the gods.

“My name is Lukal Geldura, of the Kilverud,” she said. “I represent the Seers of Geldorg, and have come seeking audience with your leader—your Bakthak.” They eyed her, searched her face.

“Is this another request from the Seers for the Blackskulls to provide reinforcements?” the younger of the two said. He scowled and scoffed. “The Seers have spoken with our Bakthak at the tribal Heads before, many times. The answer is always the same—did they brief you on this, or did they assume that at your age, you would already know?”

She stiffened. He was making fun of her, using his elder status to undermine her knowledge and experience—even if he was only five years or so older than her. Of course she knew all about the interactions between the Seers and the Blackskulls. Young as she was, she learned about and memorized all she could about their previous meetings. It was all relevant to her message. But she lowered her face respectfully.

“I do, of course, come here with both eyes and ears open,” she said. “And I understand that historically, the Blackskulls have… elected to focus on self-defense. But the war has changed. It becomes ever-deadlier for the Seers, and the innocents wrapped up in the violence.”

The younger one did not react, but the older one leaned forward, resting her crossed arms on her horse’s neck.

“How has it changed?” she said. Lukal realized that this woman was probably twice her age, if not more. She couldn’t imagine why she worked as a scout at her age, well past her prime. A black line from her left eye to her jaw decorated her face and made her look tired and off-kilter. Her companion looked irritated at her interest, but he wisely kept his mouth shut. Lukal took in a breath before speaking.

“Willowleaf’s military has targeted unaffiliated communities of orcs,” she said. “They no longer just attack the Seers, or even only guards or warriors—they kill everyone. Artisans, farmers, herders, the elderly, and even children. People who carry no weapons.” She breathed again, her chest growing tight from speaking with more authority than she was used to. “Survivors from the south tell us of magic users who can conjure and throw flames, or redirect lightning. Some… some bear scars that could have only come from being attacked like that.”

“Then the brother will take them straight to the divine realm,” the younger said, speaking under his breath. The older shot a disgusted glare at him. He looked down. She turned back to Lukal.

“How do the Seers fare?” she said.

“We have lost ground and territory. The Seers still are able to help refugees to a settlement overseas, where they can’t be reached, and that same settlement provides supplies for our troops. Weapons, armor, even food,” she said. “But—I’ll be honest—our morale is low. People feel hopeless, like the best option is to leave this region and settle elsewhere. It’s… saddening that so many people think we must leave our homeland—the places where our ancestors’ ashes rest.”

The older scout hung her head with a frown. She tightened her lips a moment, then looked back into Lukal’s eyes.

“I shall help you get an audience with the Bakthak,” she said. “I hope that this time, the answer is different. Come with me.” The younger widened his eyes at her. Lukal made a similar face.

“Grasha, you aren’t serious!” he said. She glared at him.

“You respect your elder’s words and decisions, and hold your tongue,” she said, looking his face up and down. He started. “Now go—keep doing your job. I’ll take Lukal with me, and need no assistance.” He hung his head again and trotted away. Lukal all but bowed from horseback.

“Thank you—you do not understand how important this is to the Seers,” she said. “I can’t possibly show my gratitude enough.” The scout—Grasha—just waved her hand.

“I care little for my tribe’s tendency to ignore the world around us. In times like this, standing by and not doing what we can to prevent more death makes us as guilty as Willowleaf’s soldiers,” she said, the bitterness in her voice not unheard. “You must have traveled far. Please, come and rest in my home while I speak to our Suthak of Rek’gor. He will listen to me.” Lukal thanked Grasha again and they went to her home—a modest structure with little decoration on the outside. Its three rooms, sectioned off with pelts or light wooden slats, felt small compared to the permanent shelters of the Kilverud in their city at the base of Greyhollow Mountain. But with furs everywhere on the floor and walls, it made for a cozy resting spot. Lukal sighed as she lowered herself to the ground. Her back hurt from riding for so long, and she hadn’t had a roof over her head or a hot meal since leaving the Seers.

“Thank you again. Your name is Grasha, right?” she said. Grasha sat across from her and started a flame in the fireplace. She hung a big bowl over it and poured oil into it.

“Yes,” she said. “Lukal, what sort of vegetables do you like? I have lamb for meat, and also tubers, carrots, peppers—you name it.” Lukal hesitated.

“Peppers and potatoes would be delicious,” she said. Grasha nodded and fetched some fresh ones from a basket in a chest. She cut the eyes from the potatoes before she skinned them.

“So, how long have you traveled? If you’re from the Kilverud, you’re from the northwest, aren’t you?” she said. She passed her the peppers.

“Months,” Lukal said. “And yes, I live in the northwest. Many of the Seers live there, too.” Lukal cut the peppers into even slices and set the seeds aside.

“Is it a protected space?” Grasha said. She dropped chunks of lamb into the pan. They simmered in the hot oil and soaked up the flavor of the spices she stirred into it. Then she added the peppers and potatoes once the meat changed color.

“The mountains and dense forests make it difficult for Willowleaf’s army to get through unnoticed. The only other way in is through a barren, blighted place—so it is quite safe. But lately, some people fear even being on the surface, and wish to retreat into the old, dwarven cities,” she said. Grasha clicked her tongue.

“The underground is no place for orcs,” she said. “We’re people of the sun—we couldn’t live underground for more than a generation.” Lukal nodded. The smell of spices tickled the back of her throat and her mouth watered.

“I agree—but some have left for the hobgoblins’ city, Hulro’ak, and intend on living there.” She sighed and clasped her hands. “The hobgoblins are kind to us, and have fought Willowleaf’s army as well, in their way. But they fight more in the central part of the region, defending their strongholds and independence from the human government. For years now, the board has tried to convince them to finally join the central city’s governing body, but of course, they’ve refused. They love their autonomy—and Willowleaf only wants them for resources, anyway.” Grasha gave the mix a few more stirs, added more herbs, and scooped the mix into a bowl. She first passed it to Lukal, then served herself. From a wooden chest, she picked out two big, fluffy pieces of flatbread, and set it between them. They tore off chunks to eat with, rather than bother with utensils.

“Hobgoblins are a strong people,” Grasha said. “Superstitious, but they have resolve. I’m glad to hear that they’ve sided with the Seers.” Lukal nodded as she ate. She held back from eating too quickly, lest Grasha assume she wanted to get the meal over with. After eating only dried meat, nuts, and fruit for so long, the hot meal made her almost forget her manners. But Grasha seemed to understand. Lukal slowed herself by looking around Grasha’s home. Small, painted, wooden figurines of animals decorated her shelves. She owned a couple dozen, mostly of birds, but there were a couple horses, too, and exactly two eggs—one uneven, the other symmetrical.

“I like your carvings,” Lukal said, pointing at a cardinal with a twig in its parted beak. “Did you make these?”

“No, these were gifts from my son,” she said with a faint smile. “He made them for me years ago. They’re arranged in order, from oldest to the most recent.” She chuckled and looked back at her plate. “Agrat wouldn’t like that I kept some of those first ones he made.” Lukal blinked and searched her memory. The name flared like a torch.

“Agrat… Uthordar?” she said. Grasha looked up with just her eyes.

“You know him?” she said. Her voice sounded tense, guarded.

“Yes,” Lukal said, tilting her head. “He and his husband created the settlement overseas. They even train and arm people to come back and fight as reinforcements, if they’re able and willing.” She frowned, and Grasha glanced aside. “But the Agrat I know is… well, he’s a half-breed. His father is human.”

Grasha said nothing. Only made a small grunt as acknowledgment. But Lukal pressed on.

“I don’t mean to come across as rude, but is he your son?” she said. Grasha sighed. She pointed to her face, at the black, solid line beneath her eye.

“My tribe believes him dead,” she said. “You know how the Blackskulls think. We know what other tribes say about us. And they’re right, to some extent—we don’t tolerate mixed blood. He and I were exiled, and they only let me return because they think I killed him.” Lukal stared and clutched her hands tighter. “Please do not mention this to anyone while you are here. There are other parts about my son that my tribe—and family—knows nothing about. I don’t want it to be revealed, or made into a problem again.”

“Of course,” Lukal said quickly. “I won’t tell anyone, for your and his safety.” She then realized why Grasha worked as a scout, and didn’t live a more comfortable, safer life. In a tribe like the Blackskulls, having an illegitimate, half-orc son could not have helped her reputation.

“But you said he has a husband, yes?” Grasha said, looking back up with sad eyes and a subtle smile. “What’s his name? What’s he like?”

Lukal wished she knew more. She told Grasha what she knew of the men and their daughter, and what work they did for the Seers. Grasha listened closely, nodding often as Lukal spoke.

“That’s all I know of them,” Lukal said. “I saw them only briefly, and didn’t exchange words. But they seemed very close, and care deeply for orcish people.” Grasha smiled and set aside her plate.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m happy to know he has a family. I was worried he’d end up a loner.” She chuckled, stood, and stretched. “Well, I will speak with the Suthak to get you an audience. You rest—the Heads won’t want to speak with you until tomorrow morning. They like to operate on a schedule of convenience, you see.” She rolled her eyes as she spoke.

“I understand,” Lukal said and lowered her head. “Thank you again for your kindness and understanding. If all Blackskulls are like you, I will feel like I’ve found a second home.” Grasha just laughed again and left, leaving Lukal to lie down and get some much-needed sleep.

 

 

Grasha left the messenger girl to rest in her home. Her heart beat a little faster, knowing that her son was doing well after years of silence. A part of her wanted to see him again, and just know what he looked like as an adult, but those years were long passed and gone. They’d lived separately for over a decade, and had not exchanged words or sought each other out. Could she even still call herself his mother? She wasn’t sure. Her heart felt heavy and regret ate at her mind. As dedicated as she was to her people, their insular beliefs frustrated and sometimes infuriated her. Yes, they let her come back—but at what cost? She had to fake the death of her only child, and cut ties with him for life. And even though she wore the morning paint each day, even though she stayed alone despite having opportunities to pair with another man or woman, they still treated her like an outsider. They trusted her care for horses when they became ill, but she could no longer breed them or raise them. Though her body ached with age and long days of work, she could only find consistent pay as a scout.

On the one hand, it was dangerous and difficult—especially nowadays. But on the other, she saw and learned more about the world and what happened in it. What currently happened, despite the Blackskulls’ collective blind eye. And she knew she could not stay complacent by keeping quiet for fear of permanent exile any longer.

Grasha went to her older brother’s home—one of the larger tents near the center. He always set up his home close to where his religious duties took place. The shrine to Rek’gor stood nearby with its painted leaves hanging in strands around it. A silver bowl of water rippled with the breeze, and inside three small, striped, shimmering stones rested. Next to it, two bronze candleholders sat empty. Bentrar lit them every evening at sundown, but it wasn’t late enough for the flames, yet. Grasha passed the shrine and knelt in front of it. She used her dagger to cut a thin strand of hair, and set it in the hollow behind the bowl with the other offerings. She needed some luck.

Bentrar’s home was, like hers, very plain on the outside, except for an embroidered pattern of a leaf with three brown dots in it beside its entrance, and the wooden stool where he sat and gave lectures or sermons, or told stories to youngsters. Grasha stuck her head in the door flap. Inside, Bentrar lied down facing away from her, with both hands clasped under his head. His sandaled feet were propped high above his head on an ottoman. He wasn’t even in bed—just on his woven straw floor with a single pillow under his hands. The rest of the house was a mess, with clothes hanging off furniture, dirty cooking utensils, and a pile of ashes and burnt wood in the fireplace. His books sat in a haphazard pile in his bed, save for a handful in their proper place. The one he was in the midst of reading sat pages-down, bent at the spine in lieu of a bookmark. He breathed heavily, and would have snored had his face been tilted up instead of forward.

“Bentrar,” Grasha said. He said nothing, nor stirred. “Bentrar!” Her brother took in a sharp breath, blinked, sighed, and sat up. With a tired face, he looked over his shoulder.

“Grasha,” he said. “What brings you? And why are you already yelling at me?” She came in and sat across from him, back hunched.

“It’s important, and I didn’t yell at you. I—” He clicked his tongue and rolled his eyes.

“You always raise your voice at me and claim you didn’t! Ever since we—” His voice sounded like a whining child’s, cranky from waking up from a nap.

“Bentrar!”

“What?”

“Listen!”

“Alright, alright! What is it?” He crossed his thin arms.

“A messenger from the Seers arrived just now. She needs to speak with the Bakthak,” Grasha said. “It’s urgent. I want you to speak with him, and make that happen.” Bentrar stared at her. “Bentrar, are you listening?”

“I hear you,” he said. “Why do you think I can make the old man listen?”

“You’re one of the longest serving Suthaks ever,” Grasha said. “Any Bakthak worth their position would value your words and advice.” He scratched his head and sighed.

“You know what his response always is,” he said. “The way Blackskulls are, no Head would ever agree to work with the Seers. You might as well send her home, instead of letting her waste her time for the answer she already knows.” Grasha scowled.

“The only reason the Blackskulls or the Heads would keep this up and refuse to support the Seers is because they don’t know what’s going on out there. They don’t know the degree of what the humans are doing to us.” She waved her hand, gesturing at the world outside. “We can’t keep living such an insular life. If we stick our hands over our ears and put blinders on, then we’ll be the next target. And the Helotak government will overwhelm us.” Bentrar frowned and kept his arms across his chest.

“And do you know the degree of what’s happening?” he said. “Do you know exactly what the government is doing to orcs in other parts of the region?” She stared at him a moment and set her jaw, sticking her tusks out further.

“I don’t,” she said. “But I don’t want to find out when it’s too late to do anything to save my life. Our tribe’s life.” He sighed and hung his head.

“I’ll speak to Bakthak Letho,” he said. “Bu I can’t promise anything. He’s a very, very traditional Bakthak. It… it’s a blessing that he only took over after you returned.” She said nothing. He stretched and stood, arching his back to crack the joints in his spine. “I’ll be back soon. Perhaps this time, he’ll be more willing to listen if he’s addressed in private.” He slipped on his ceremonial robes—the nicest, most formal clothing he owned, even after years of serving as Suthak. Grasha stood and clasped his hand.

“Thank you, Bentrar,” she said. She looked him up and down. “You’re the only person I can count on, you know?” He smiled around his tusks and patted her shoulder.

“I’ll do what I can,” he said. “Once that Seer of yours is in the room, however, it’s out of my hands. He’s stubborn.” His face told Grasha everything, and warned her: Don’t expect much. She just nodded once. With that, he left.

Bentrar returned much later with Bakthak Letho’s response: He would hear the outsider’s request, first thing in the morning. Do not be late.

Grasha thanked him again and returned to Lukal with high spirits.

 

 

Grasha and Lukal awoke early the next morning, before the roosters’ crows sounded off to greet the sun. Always with the most energy in the morning, Grasha helped Lukal prepare by going over traditions the Blackskulls used to show respect and loyalty to the Bakthak. The intricacies and nuances whirled around Lukal’s head, but she committed them to memory and tried to habitualize them in the short time they had before sunrise. Hearts beating and palms wet, they went to the Council’s meeting tent, and found it empty. The two women waited outside while gradually, the Heads and Suthaks filed in through the furred flaps, decorated with dried thistle flowers. Bentrar showed up last. Lukal counted, and knew all were inside—except Letho, but Grasha told her that he used a separate entrance.

“Do we go in now?” Lukal said in a hushed voice. Grasha shook her head.

“They will call for us,” she said. The brighter it got outside, the more her anger swelled. Bentrar once privately told her that Letho made people wait to put them on edge, or make them paranoid, or encourage them to give up. The ceremony to prepare the Council took more than twenty minutes or so—certainly nowhere near an hour.

Only when the morning sun finally warmed the air did an assistant open the flap and wave them in. Grasha followed Lukal, and they sat cross-legged before Letho. Though most of the Heads’ positions were held by new people, memories of the day before her exile came to Grasha’s mind. She hadn’t set foot in the meeting tent since. She shot Bentrar a look for making them wait, which he returned with an apologetic frown. Of course, Grasha knew that it wasn’t entirely his fault.

Lukal touched her forehead with the back of her hand, then touched the ground. She closed her eyes before speaking.

“Bakthak Letho,” she said, “I come before the Blackskull Council on this day. Will you hear my request?”

“Go on,” Letho said with a wave of his hand. Lukal reopened her eyes.

“I represent Geldorg’s Seers—a group of orcs fighting the oppressive and violent human government of Helotak, led by Grant Willowleaf and his Board. His armies have torn apart orcish lives all across the region, except, blessingly, your tribe. They kill recklessly in the south, where they wish to expand their territory the most, and recently have begun their efforts to take the northwest orc tribes—the Thunderjaws and the Kilverud. They kill innocents, and target our healers before any warrior. Women are among the first civilians to die. Years ago the entire Blinking Ear tribe disappeared, and we suspect it was due to covert actions by Willowleaf. We fear they intend to do the same to all orcs, and either wipe us out, or force us from our homes.” Lukal took in a breath without realizing she’d been holding it. Though it hurt to even think of the state of the region, she showed no emotion other than stoic strength.

Letho cupped his cheek in his palm as she spoke. He looked tired. Or bored. Either way, Grasha knew right away that the rest of this meeting would only go sour. She held her tongue.

“Geldorg’s Seers, yes?” Letho said. Lukal nodded.

“Yes,” she said. “That is what we call ourselves.”

“Tell me, now—do your members favor the brother?” She paused and saw he had no piercings or tattoos, and only one scar on his jawline. It cut through his beard and pointed at his lips.

“No, Bakthak,” she said. “I personally favor Geldorg, but our members have all sorts of religious preferences. Many of our warriors favor the brother, but our healers and scouts prefer Rek’gor.”

“Why his Seers, then?” Letho said. “I’m only curious.

“Willowleaf has denied the existence of the atrocities his armies commit against us,” Lukal said. “We call ourselves the Seers because—”

“Yes, because you see the atrocities,” he said. “So tell me now, why come to my tribe? What request have you for the Blackskulls?” Lukal paused and sat upright.

“The Seers humbly request the Blackskulls’ help against the humans’ campaign,” she said. “While we have held them off for years now, they have brought back lost forms of magic. Their mages hurl flames, or redirect lighting.” She spoke faster. “While they are few, our warriors struggle to adapt. The Blackskulls are known for their strength and cavalry. We belief that the Board assumes that your people will not join our efforts, and should you support us, we will be able to take them by surprise. We could use that edge alone to turn the tide!” Lukal took in breaths, just shy of panting, and saw that her fists shook. She relaxed her hands and cupped them over her knees to still them. She bowed her head again. “That is why we need our help. For the good of all orcs across the region.”

Letho said nothing for a moment. He gestured to Dortūn, the Head of Defense—a stocky, bearded man. Were it not for his size and his tusks, he looked like Grasha’s idea of a dwarf.

“Dortūn?” he said. Dortūn stroked the braids in his beard and looked down his nose at Lukal.

“I admit, it sounds as if the Seers are struggling with the Helotak army,” he said. “But I am no sold on just how much you need our help—and if it’s worth it to us.” Lukal stared at him with wider eyes. She swallowed to unstick her throat.

“Worth it to the Blackskulls in what way?” she said. Dortūn shrugged as if it was obvious.

“Our tribe has lived peacefully with humans and halflings whose settlements lie near our territory. We respect their land, they respect our need to hunt and access grazing space for our herd,” he said. “Why should we get involved in a war that will only ruin that relationship we’ve kept with outsiders for generations?” Lukal could not stop her voice from shaking. From behind, Grasha touched her shoulder, just to remind her that she had a companion. That she wasn’t completely alone.

“They—they have already ruined that relationship for all other orcs, many years ago!” she said. “Yes, it’s true that things have always been tense with their religion and what they say about us, but they attacked us first. We wanted peace, and want this conflict to end before anymore are killed! With the Blackskulls’ help, we could do that. But without, who knows how long this will drag on? If… if the Seers lose, they will come for you next. It’s, it’s clear now that they don’t seek territory alone. They want to get rid of us, one way or another.”

Letho stiffened and waved his hand.

“I’ve heard enough,” he said. “As Bakthak, I am obligated to protect my people. Sending them to fight, and getting them involved in a conflict that brings neither peace nor profit—that is the opposite of doing what is best for the Blackskulls.”

Lukal moved to yell at him, to demand why he wouldn’t hear her out, to accuse and insult and berate—but Grasha squeezed her shoulder. She looked back, and Grasha murmured: “We need to leave.” Lukal gritted her teeth and hung her head. She again touched her forehead and then the ground.

“Th-thank you for hearing me, Bakthak,” she said. He nodded once. She and Grasha left together.

Lukal hurried to pack her supplies for the long ride home. While the gathered her things, Grasha prepared a rich, heavy bar made mostly of nuts for her journey. She added dried fruit chunks for flavor, and packed it alongside strips of preserved meat.

“Here,” she said and passed it to Lukal. “We make this for when we move for the seasons. It’s dense, so eat only a little at a time.” Lukal unwrapped it and took the smallest piece off she could between her fingertips. She chewed it and smiled.

“It’s very good,” she said. “Thank you.” Grasha nodded and hesitated a moment.

“I’m sorry for the way the Council treated you,” she said while she petted Lukal’s nervous horse’s side. Grasha wondered if even Blackskull horses disliked outsiders, too. “I should have known that, and stopped you from wasting your time.” Lukal sighed and shrugged while she slipped the package into a pouch hanging from her horse’s saddle.

“You got me the chance to speak to them,” she said. “That’s more than any other Seer who’s been sent to the Blackskulls can say.” She grinned, but Grasha still sensed sadness behind it.

“At least they now know more of what the Seers are up against. If they’re wise, they will realize that ignoring the issue, or pretending as if we can deal with it ourselves later will only lead to the tribe’s death,” Grasha said. Her face burned. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t keep you any longer.”

“It’s fine,” Lukal said. “Nobody’s waiting on me with bated breath. I’ll stop at the next checkpoint and send a raven with the answer.”

“Do you have family back home?” Grasha said. Lukal shook her head.

“My parents are gone, and before I joined the Seers, I trained to be a Suthak. In the Kilverud tribe, there are more than one Suthak for Geldorg and Rek’gor alike, and even a few for Bakthua himself or just the ancestors,” she said. “It’s a difficult process, and not everyone who tries to become a Suthak succeeds. It was my passion, more than any man or woman. But the Seers—they’re my family. And all orcs, too—even the Blackskulls, whether you’ll have me or not.” She laughed and Grasha smiled, nudging at the dirt with her heel.

“That’s a broad definition,” she said.

“Learned it from the Stampeders. It’s why their tribe’s so big,” Lukal said and mounted her horse. “So, how do the Blackskulls decide who’s family?” Grasha sighed through her nose and looked up at the big, big sky. It dwarfed everything around her, even the sprawling Blackskull encampment.

“Well, they didn’t think of my son as a true part of my family,” she said. “So, take that as you will.” Lukal’s smile faded, but she looked off to the west. The sun still shone at an angle behind her, not yet crossing over the middle of the sky on its trip back to her home.

“These days, I prefer the idea of choosing your family,” she said. “Whatever the reason you pick someone as yours, it doesn’t really matter. But make it a worthwhile reason. Something you’d fight for.” She hesitated and hung her head. “Sorry—that’s just this young woman’s opinion on it. I don’t mean to give an elder advice.” Grasha laughed and patted her back.

“This elder appreciates it,” she said. “Especially because she’s lived for a long, long time with the burdens of her foolish choices.” Lukal smiled.

“It’s never too late to make amends,” she said. “Thank you again for your kindness, Grasha. I should get going now, but please know I’ll never forget your support and your hospitality.”

“Safe travels,” Grasha said. “And may the Seers succeed in their mission. For… for all of us.” Lukal nodded once, dug her heels into her steed’s sides, and flicked the reins. They galloped away, out of Blackskull territory and back westward.

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