Grasha, Outsider, pt. 2

Grasha’s frustration with the response of her tribal leaders to the ever-deadlier war in Veiadokuur only worsens with time. But she’s only a scout and a lowly, former-exile. Her words carry little sway, and the Blackskulls only tolerate her presence. It takes a horrible event before anything is actually done about the growing, inevitable conflict.

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.

So, here’s the conclusion. Again, it’s a longer chunk, but that’s to keep the natural divide feel more, well, natural. Thanks as always for reading, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Word Count: ~5500
Rating: PG
Warnings: Descriptions of violence and gore, plus brief sexist language.

During the coming years, a handful of messengers from the Seers approached the Blackskulls for help again. Each time, the answer remained the same: No.

Word spread in the tribe. Grasha made no secret of her views, if anyone cared to ask. And gradually, Bentrar learned to drop his political politeness, and spoke to his trainees and followers about the war in the rest of the region. The news they heard from any outsiders they spoke to only worsened. The human army grew ever powerful as time passed. The most recent news told them that Thelary’s Knightly Order joined the Helotak army in the east. It sent a wave of unease and concern through the tribe. Letho addressed the change by reassuring the Blackskulls that nothing about this concerned them, that they need only to continue about their days as usual without worrying. They had, after all, negotiated with the Order before, and came to peacefully agreements.

The Blackskulls had settled in the northernmost part of their territory, not far from the base of the Impassable Heights, when the Knights contacted them. They sent a single messenger, as they always did. Letho spoke to him promptly. That day, Grasha stood guard outside the meeting tent. It was cold out and her mood soured fast, only to worsen when she saw the young human in his overly-decorated armor. She scowled at him as he entered, but said nothing.

The messenger relayed a question and a request to Letho: What was the pool of magic energy guarded so fiercely to the north, and would they meet with a group of Knights to explain it?

They referred, of course, to the Pool of Rest. The crystal-clear lake—attached to no streams or rivers and immeasurably deep—represented all the Blackskulls’ care for the lives of their ancestors. A dedicated monastery guarded it, adding another layer of protection on top of the Impassable Heights surrounding it. A thin, winding pathway between the peaks led to it, and this was also filled with checkpoints and barriers. Only a handful of individuals visited it yearly—the tribal Heads, both Suthaks, and the Bakthak. They took the ashes and bones of the dead to the pool, where the monks laid them to rest in its waters. Just getting there was a ceremony in itself, and each checkpoint had specific practices associated with it that visitors had to carry out. It was the only duty, Grasha recalled, that Bentrar woke up on time for.

Letho spoke with the Heads. Bentrar and the Suthak of Geldorg, Uroka, fought up and down to keep the Knights out of their religious business. There was no reason, they said, for human followers of Thelary to have any part in their practices. Even knowing what rested beyond the narrow, heavily-secured road to the Pool breached their comfort, and went against everything the Blackskulls believed. The other Heads wrung their hands over tribal safety. After all, now that the Knightly Order allied itself with Helotak, they had access to better weapons, armor, and backup troops. Dortūn told them that his patrols reported seeing scouts in black leather armor bearing Thelary’s symbol creeping along the outskirts of their territory, never coming near enough for conflict.

The debate—if it could be called that, with Bentrar and Dortūn shouting at each other—lasted for days. Once they reached their conclusion, and decided to invite the Knights to the Pool in the interest of the tribe’s safety, Bentrar stormed out past Grasha and the other guard. Without a word, he took a horse bred for speed from the herd, and rode to the north. He carried nothing with him—no supplies, no weapons, no food. The tribe buzzed with rumors and gossip about his sudden disappearance. Three days later, he returned home late at night. Silently, he snuck into his tent—a mere shadow against the moon’s light.

“Where did you go?” Grasha’s voice startled him. He saw her seated in his most comfortable chair, eating chunks off an apple. He hesitated.

“To the Pool,” he said. She sliced off a piece of the fruit with her little knife and offered it to him once he sat across from her. He took it.

“You’re too impulsive,” she said. “You know that doing such a thing is strictly forbidden in our practices.” He sighed and bit into it. She lit a lantern; the poor man looked haggard, now that she could see his face better.

“You’re one to speak,” he mumbled.

“What happened there? Did they turn you away?” He shook his head.

“No. They stopped me from entering, but they recognized me. I knew it’d be safe to approach them,” he said.

“And why did you go?” She ate a thin slice and passed the rest of the apple to him.

“Why do you think?” he said and looked up at her. He just held it in his hand, dangling from his knee. “I had to warn them.” She repressed her smile. “Grasha, the Heads and Letho are making a mistake. What they’ve agreed to do can only end in tragedy.”

“I know,” she said. “I’ve disagreed with Letho’s soft treatment of the Knights from the start.” She leaned back and lounged in the chair before throwing up her arms. “I hardly know what he’s thinking—turning away fellow orcs, but tolerating humans who see us as evil-spirited beasts! Does he fear war that much?” Bentrar sighed and shook his head.

“Letho is a politician—not a warrior,” he said. She snorted.

“Were it my decision, we’d have joined the Seers long ago. Forget all this nonsense about rejecting other orcs, and refusing to interact with them—it’s brought nothing but misfortune to our tribe,” she said through her teeth. Bentrar hung his head.

“You miss your son, do you?” he said. Grasha cupped her face in her hand and covered her mouth. She stared off a moment and finally sighed.

“I regret leaving him behind more than anything in my life,” she said. “I’ll never get that face he made from my head—the one he made when I said I needed to go, and could never see him again. It’s… it’s one of my clearest memories of him. That hurt in his eyes.” She looked away. “I want to see him once more. If only to replace that memory with… with something different.” Bentrar stared up at the lantern and watched the little flame flicker. He glanced at Grasha and saw only shadows on her face.

“I shouldn’t have encouraged you to lie and leave him,” he said. “It was selfish. I didn’t want to lose my sister.” She looked up at him through tired eyes that reflected the flame’s light. “Now I see that it’s worse to witness my sister wearing the mourning paint for her son, my nephew, who yet lives, while still being treated like an outsider in her own home.” He rubbed his brow before looking right at her again. “I’m sorry, Grasha. I never told you that for what happened to you and Agrat. I can’t forgive myself for it.” She lowered her face, unable to look at him much longer.

“You did a good thing, waring the guardians,” she said. “When Letho and you and the Heads go speak to these Knights, I will come with you as a guard—even if I must tag along far behind and unnoticed.” Bentrar nodded.

“I would feel safer that way,” he said. “Thank you.” She stood and looked past him, out his tent.

“I need to sleep,” she said. “It has been… quite a day.” He nodded and walked with her through the encampment to her home on its edge, so far from his own.

 

 

As promised, Grasha trailed along from a distance while the Heads, the Suthaks, and Letho went to meet with the Knightly Order. As she left the Blackskull encampment, she heard dissatisfaction buzzing through the community. For once, someone approached her to compliment her on her brother’s headstrong opposition to “such blatant appeasement,” and added that despite her mistake from years ago, she made a fine Blackskull. Grasha accepted the praise with a smile, and said nothing beyond voicing her appreciation.

Letho agreed to meet with the Knights in neutral territory—away from both the Blackskull tribe and their jurisdiction. They chose a small, wooded area with an ancient elven shrine as their landmark. Grasha crept in the thick underbrush, out of sight. Years working in patrols helped her adopt stealthy movement; she knew how to get around undetected except by the insects at her feet.

Everyone carried weapons, save for Bentrar, as custom dictated. Suthaks for Rek’gor were taught to prefer nonviolent resolutions, unless warfare was absolutely necessary, and their dress reflected that. The rest brought ceremonial weapons with them, which they wrapped in leather straps. A reminder to the Knights that they chose to visit peacefully, when they could have just as easily picked to battle. The Knights also came with arms, armor, and steeds of their own. Only Letho rode his stallion to the meeting while the rest of the Heads and Suthaks traveled on foot. Grasha figured that the Knights had to travel a little further from their base to get here. She watched, eyes centered on their faces and movement. She tilted her ears to try and pick up what they spoke about.

Bentrar and Uroka stood with their arms crossed and their jaws set throughout the conversation. The Knights explained their reasons for asking, and Letho described that the pool was a sacred spot to them. The Knights pressed for more information, not letting down with their questions. It seemed they made no progress with the discussion, and both sides only repeated themselves over and over again. She could see her tribal leaders tensing, and she was certain that the Knights would look the same, if they weren’t wearing armor.

“So you say it’s sacred to your kind—meaning your tribe? All orcs?” the leader said, his voice firm and unyielding. Letho stiffened and scowled.

“There’s no need for such a sharp tone,” he said. “We agreed to meet peacefully, and leave emotions besides calmness at the door.” The Knight sneered under his visor.

“We assure you, this is a peaceful meeting, so long as you answer our questions,” he said. Letho’s eyebrows shot up and Bentrar’s eyes widened.

“Are you threatening me?” Letho said with narrowed eyes.

“Answer the questions, orc!” one of the underlings said. “What are you hiding in that valley?!” Bentrar stamped his foot and made fists with his hands.

“You will not speak to our tribal leader with such disrespect!” he said, tusks bared. Grasha stared, incredulous—curse that old Uthordar temper! And Bentrar kept it under control so well!

“Then answer us—what are you doing in this so-called ‘sacred’ pool” the leader of the Knights said. “Training a military? Reviving magic from years past? Building weapons? Summoning demons?” One of the Knights wrapped his hand around the handle of his sword. He did not draw it, but he kept it in his grasp. Grasha drew an arrow from the quiver at her hip. She knew now that these Knights never expected to speak civilly about the issue. They already passed judgment on the Blackskulls, and decided not to trust them. But she only held it in her hand. Firing it at this point would be foolish.

“The purpose of the Pool is not to be known by outsiders. We’ve explained to you that there is nothing there beyond religiously significant items, you paranoid, thin-skinned blunt-ears!” Bentrar said. “Bakthak, they have flagrantly insulted and threatened you. I advise you to end this meeting now!” Letho nodded, sweat beading on his forehead.

“Then show us” the Knight leader said. “If it is nothing, as you say, then there’s no issue with us going there to see for ourselves.” Bentrar leered at him.

“What part of what I just said failed to reach your brain?” he said, stepping closer. “Allow me to repeat my—”

The Knight drew his longsword as soon as Bentrar came into his reach. He brought it down—across the nape of his neck. Bentrar fell. His blood arced into the air. The Heads cried out. They drew their weapons. Grasha suppressed a yell and nocked her arrow. She readied her bow. Her hands shook as she took aim. Bentrar choked on the ground, bleeding out.

“You cut him!” one of the Heads—Grasha did not know which one, she didn’t care—cried.

“He approached me with the intent to attack,” the Knight said. “And the lot of you—stand down! I will not hesitate!” The Head of Defense lifted his handaxe, but another Knight rushed forward and gutted him with a spear. Grasha let her arrow fly. It struck. Its point pierced the Knight leader in his mouth and stuck out the back of his neck. He gagged, dropped his sword. As he fumbled for the arrow, the other Knights whirled around to see where it came from. Grasha shot another, straight at his face, and he fell to the ground. The deep, smothering color of blood tinted her vision and her thoughts blurred with the rush. She shouted. It came out as a roar, mighty and powerful. Dropping her bow, she leapt forward with two handaxes. The other Heads saw her and took their chance to attack the startled Knights.

As she sprinted forward, they fought three of the seven other Knights, while one loaded a crossbow. He pointed it at Grasha and pulled the trigger. It lodged in her side. She felt nothing. One of the Knights also fell to bloodrage and slashed wildly with his sword as he ran for her. But she saw him as a boy, new to this feeling. A child throwing a tantrum. An infant who could not redirect the chaotic winds, who ran against them. But she was a bear. A mountain lion. Bigger, stronger, tougher, and deadlier than any soft-skinned man with a sword.

She jumped on him first, lodged her handaxe into his skull—right through his helmet—and felled him. Two left in her sights—the crossbow user, and another spearman. A bolt hit her shoulder and a blade clipped her back. She knew Geldorg saw her, and asked him to look away. See Bentrar and the Head of Defense, and escort them quickly, if that was their destiny. With only the gods on her mind, she cut down the Knight with the spear, then used his weapon to run through the crossbow wielder.

As blood ran down her forearms, she panted and recollected herself. Her head ached. Her eyes pounded. She heard Bentrar cough. And she turned, and saw his eyes stare at the ground, unblinking. He yet bled.

“Bentrar,” she said and knelt beside him. He turned his head. She lifted him into her lap and pressed his wound with her palm. The world around her softened and became unclear. All she knew was him. She prayed and murmured to the sister god for guidance. With the last of his strength, he took her hand and clutched it. Warmth spread from her palm and his expression calmed. Subtle light trickled down her arms.

She opened her eyes and looked at his wound. It gaped like a toothless mouth, showing no signs of healing. Grasha lowered her head. The gods wanted him to move on. Geldorg had already taken his hand.

“Does it hurt?” she said. He moved his head from side to side, just barely able to respond.

“No,” he said. His voice came out strained and forced. “Thank you.” She kept her hand firm on his neck. She blinked away tears. He already suffered, even if she stilled his pain. There was no need for him to see her cry over him.

“Safe travels wherever you go, brother,” she said. He smiled and squeezed her hand.

“Be well, sister.” His eyelids drooped and he sighed. With a last shudder, the life in his body extinguished. His grip on her hand weakened, and she held him close.

The world came into focus once more. She saw Letho kneeling over the fallen bodies of the Heads of Defense, the Home, and Trade. Only Uroka and the Head of the Hunt remained standing. Uroka healed the Head of Trade, but it was too late for the others. She could only perform rites for them at this point.

Letho locked eyes with Grasha. He looked small and afraid, confused and uncertain.

“Grasha, you followed,” he said.

“Yes,” she said without standing.

“Why would—is Bentrar?” He spoke like his thoughts had fallen out of his ears.

“He’s moved on,” Grasha said. She lied Bentrar’s body down and adjusted him so he looked comfortable. Then she stood. “I came because I did not trust the humans. And my fears came true.” Her throat tightened, but she refused to let her sorrow out. After all, Bentrar was a Suthak. He must have moved on to the Divine Realm with the siblings. She had no reason to miss him. He was by her side, and by Agrat’s side, and by his daughter’s side, too.

Letho said nothing. The Head of the Hunt touched his shoulder.

“We must go,” he said. Letho nodded.

In somber silence with dark moods, they gathered their fallen and returned home.

 

 

The Blackskulls spoke in hushed whispers and enraged shouts when they talked about the events from that day. To have three tribal leaders murdered in one day—by the Knights of Thelary!—sent waves through the tribe. They knew enough about formal meetings and ceremony to know that Bentrar raised or even carried no weapon when the Knights made their first attack. And the Head of the Home, the oldest woman in the tribe, had no means of defending herself. Their mightiest warrior, the Head of Defense, reduced to a corpse for no reason. The sight of their bloodied and crumpled bodies let loose all their frustration, sorrow, and fury at once.

Letho hid away and discussed their options with the remaining Heads. Only Grasha, the only other witness, spoke openly about the tragedy. Her words incited the tribe. As more and more people listened to her, they organized and raised their voices. And Letho’s cowardly solution—to hide away and talk, as if they could wait any longer—only angered them.

“Too long have we tolerated and appeased those who view us as beasts, and look what’s happened! Our leaders, murdered at what was supposed to be a peaceful meeting, all for defending our ancestors’ resting place and honoring their souls!” Grasha said to the crowd outside Letho’s home. “We need action. We can ignore their intentions no longer. We need to fight!”

The Blackskulls cheered and shouted for war. Letho’s head pounded. As the Head of the Hunt and Uroka argued in front of him, he rubbed his temples.

“Enough,” he muttered. Uroka slammed her fist on the table. “Enough!” The other Heads silenced and stared at him. “Go no. I’ve much thinking to do.” They exchanged glares, but go up and left through the back. Once they filed out, Letho peered outside. He saw Grasha still there, speaking with other guards. The crowd hung around, but were no longer focused on her exclusively. Many left to harass the other Heads.

Quietly, Letho opened the flap of his tent and watched Grasha. She noticed and turned to him with her face lowered, but her eyes still met his.

“Bakthak,” she said. The other guards also murmured their greetings. Letho waved his hand at Grasha.

“Come in,” he said. “I want to speak with you.” Her eyebrow twitched, but she nodded and followed him inside. Letho waited for the guards to leave, and when they didn’t, he shooed them away.

Inside, Grasha stood at attention. Letho disregarded customs and invited her—a lowly scout—to sit across from him at the table. She hesitated, but sat and waited.

“It’s incredible that a former exile such as yourself should gain so much respect from her tribe,” he said. “Tell me, how did you manage that?” She set her jaw and sighed through her nose.

“Respectfully, Bakthak, if you have invited me inside to insult me, I would prefer to go,” she said and bit the inside of her cheek. He blinked and frowned, as if he wasn’t aware of the meaning of his own words. He lowered his face, to her surprise.

“I apologize,” he said. “It’s just striking that the tribe listens to you so closely now. Why—most everyone who speaks to me about their displeasures with how I’ve been running things references you, Grasha. Someone who not only birthed a half-breed, but got out of it alive, and even got to return. It’s shocking, and I don’t understand.” He clasped his hands in his lap.

“I only speak what they’re thinking,” she said. “Blackskulls have always kept our concerns private, never airing them to anyone except those who are directly involved with their grievances—if they’ll even do that. We’re a people who prefer to manage our own emotions, rather than solve the problems that upset us.” She narrowed her eyes as she spoke. “I will be blunt: Since you took the title of Bakthak, Letho, people have held their worries tighter than ever, and speak only in whispers. Even Bakthak Kular, the one who exiled me, was far less fearful of criticism or dissent.”

Letho said nothing for a moment. He noticed his hands were trembling.

“Why, then, do they let you say it?” he said. “Of all people, you ought to be the most passive and quiet about tribal politics.” Grasha turned her face up and looked down her nose at him.

“I have been an outsider since my return,” she said. “They expect me to act against the grain. And besides—the Uthordars are legendary warriors. I carry that blood. We are not satisfied with milquetoast leadership and scraps of appeasement.” Letho grew hot in the face, but forced his anger aside. But as much as he disliked it, he recognized her wisdom.

“Then what would you do in this situation?” he said. “Half of our tribal leaders are dead. Killed suddenly and without warning. And soon, the Knights of Thelary will realize what happened.”

“The tribe is in immediate danger, Letho,” she said. “You need to focus on not only protecting the Blackskulls, but also not allow this to be overlooked by the humans.” He thumped the table with his fists.

“I know that!” he said. “And protecting the tribe—that has always been first on my mind. Do you think of me like a grass spider, shuffling back into my home when the outside world greets me? I know what’s going on in the region. It’s why I avoided making an alliance with the Seers. Willowleaf’s army would have viewed such a thing as aggressive, and—and—” He stammered and hung his head. She stared at him, and realized just how much younger he was. She could tell he held care in his heart for his people, but his inability to listen or think beyond the first outcome led to tragedy.

“You ignored the Seers’ warnings for years now, and the military of Helotak has only grown more powerful. It’s an uphill fight from here,” she said. She lowered her eyes and folded her fingers on the table. “You can continue with attempts at appeasement, or peaceful, political agreements, but they will surely fail at this point. The Knights of Thelary do not respect orcs as people. To them, we are rabid animals to be contained; beasts with evil souls. I dealt with their followers for years, and even their most moderate members still hold this hate in their hearts. We could go to war, but with our numbers, our victory is unlikely—especially if we focus solely on defense. But at least, then, we’ll go down fighting, and not like a horse with a shattered leg.” She looked up at him. He dragged his fingers down his cheeks. The gesture emphasized his bags and bloodshot eyes.

“Then what do we do?” he said. “We die either way!” His eyes watered and he forced the tears away.

“If we join the Seers of Geldorg, we have a fighting chance. It’s too late for peace now; as soon as they murdered our Heads, killed my defenseless brother, they asked for war,” she said, leaning forward across the table. Decide. You’re the leader, Bakthak Letho.”

His eyes darted while he stroked his chin and rubbed his tusks, deep in thought. Something must have clicked in his mind, because he suddenly looked right at her with clear eyes.

“Would you be Head of Defense?” he said. Grasha raised her brows and stared a moment before she laughed aloud. “I’m serious—Grasha, would you take over?”

“Is that wise, Letho?” she said with a smirk. “I may be old, but there are many in our tribe who remember the day of my exile. They remember what Kular and the elders called me. Is it politically viable for you to appoint a tainted whore, who knowingly birthed and raised a half-breed?” She leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms.

“They may still think of you as lesser, but no longer an outsider. You repented,” he said, drawing a line under his left eye to mimic her mourning paint. “You fixed your past mistake.” She laughed again.

“Then you ought to know—this, too, is a lie,” she said, pointing to the paint. “My son yet lives, and even has a family of his own.” Letho’s face dropped.

“So you didn’t cull him?” he said.

“Of course not,” Grasha said. “I love that boy more than you’ll ever realize. Leaving him is my single, biggest regret.” Her face turned dark. “So I ask you again: Is what you’re suggesting genuinely wise?”

Letho tightened his lips and dabbed sweat from his brow. He hung his head once more, then he nodded.

“I’ve made my choice. This is a state of emergency, with our entire tribe at risk. Grasha, even with your past… decisions, I feel you are best-suited for the position. You’ve served as a scout for countless years. You’re strong, and your instincts are sharp. And besides all that, you saved my life, and the lives of three other Heads. Without your gut feeling, we’d be dead, the tribe exposed.” He gulped. “Would you accept, then?”

“Call it Head of Warfare,” she said.

“What?”
“I will not go into this thinking only of defense. Protecting the tribe, yes. Protecting my people—all orcish people—yes. And to do that, we need war,” she said, looking directly at him. He hesitated and nodded.

“Makes sense,” he said.

“And do not expect me to waste time arguing about politics at this point. I will not tolerate lagging if it will put our lives in danger.”

“Of course, of course.”

“Then if it is clear, I accept your appointment, if the other Heads will have me,” she said.

After a brief conversation and discussion with the other tribal Heads, Grasha took her place as the newly-appointed Head of Warfare.

 

 

Lukal worked early in the morning taking inventory of necessary supplies for the Seers’ efforts. She squatted in the armory with only a small lantern to light the room. Moths fluttered around it and cast frantic shadows on the walls, floor, ceiling, and her paper. Her body ached from bending and counting all night long. The mixture of stress and boredom made her mind tired and antsy at the same time, and she felt ill. She usually felt ill these days. As she scrawled list item after list item, her mind wandered elsewhere. Rumors from the east claimed that something major happened to turn the tide of the war, but reports conflicted, and nobody was quite certain of exactly who was involved.

Her leaders fretted over the potential outcomes. They discussed at length whether they should send scouts to check on the status of the Blackskulls, or see if there were any reports of the missing Blinking Ears. A few groups of Stampeder refugees from the east came over, but they brought no news. Her leaders even wondered if they should even concern themselves over the east anymore. It seemed a lost cause, with one vanished tribe and another that refused any contact from other orcs. They grumbled about letting the Blackskulls fight and die on their own—an embarrassment to orcs, those isolationists were.

Lukal’s head hurt. She pressed her fingers against her tired eyes and lowered herself until she sat on the floor. More than anything, she wanted to sleep. But today she needed to compile all these numbers into information for her leaders, and also use it to write letters requesting more equipment from the refugees overseas. But she needed a break. She finished up counting the last of the arrows, stood up straight, cracked her back, and stepped outside. Dark clouds hung in the sky, signaling heavy rain. No wonder the moths were still indoors—it was too cold for them. But she appreciated the weather. They could use a bit of cooling off.

In the encampment around her, other Seers worked away. They forged weapons, constructed carts or siege machines, trained new recruits in combat, and cooked food for lunch later. In one open space, their healers grew and cultivated medicinal herbs and fungi to make more potent catalysts. Guards patrolled the fort walls and kept close watch. A few dummies in broken armor made it look like there were more guards posted. Lukal frowned each time she saw them. Her troops and fellow warriors who had died or become crippled in battle, replaced by fakes. It dampened her morale, and she knew other Seers felt the same. Willowleaf’s military pressed ever westward, and the Seers in the central part of Veiadokuur struggled to keep them away. Each day, more and more refugees passed through on their journey overseas. In the letters she wrote to Finnegan and Agrat, she asked if they could send food and rations in their next shipment of supplies. She hoped she didn’t request too much of them, given how many more mouths they’d soon need to feed.

“Riders!” one of the guards called, snapping her from her thoughts. “Hundreds of them!” Lukal dashed up the ladder to the ramparts and squinted. The overcast sun shone behind the riders. They moved like a mass of brown, black, gray, and white. Their hoofbeats shook the ground and left dirt flying in their wake. It only grew louder. Lukal felt vibrations under her feet as they approached. Their horses wore no armor, and had fetlocks trailing under their legs. Now that she looked closer, it seemed that there were fewer riders than steeds. In the center of the mass, horses wearing saddles and carrying equipment—but no rider—galloped alongside the others. They herded them, like fleet-footed cattle. The hundreds of steeds moved in near-perfect formation, with none straying outside the boundaries set by the riders. They guided them with whoops and leads. And they were huge. Even from afar, Lukal could not believe the height and girth of these beasts.

Lukal’s jaw dropped. She looked at the guards, who prepared their weapons.

“No!” she shouted at them. “Do not attack! Do not sound the alarm!” She grinned. “These are no humans. This is no invading cavalry.”

As the riders came into view, Lukal saw them in greater clarity. They wore armor of black, buffed leather, and carried spears. At their sides, handaxes, machetes, and shortbows. Weapons suited for work as well as warfare. Hanging from the fronts of a dozen or so riders, banners: A black, orcish skull surrounded by leaves from a thistle plant. The Blackskulls’ symbol of war.

Lukal rushed down and out the front gates to meet them, pushing past the guards posted there. She ran to them and their thundering gallops slowed to a halt. The sounds of snorts, whinnies, creaking leather, and clanking hardware filled the air. A few other Seers hurried up behind her, but stayed back. At the front of the massive cavalry, an older woman in more decorated armor than the rest. She pulled down her leather cap and the scarf she wore over her face. Lukal’s eyes brightened and she smiled. Their leader, the Head of Warfare, Grasha Uthordar, approached her on a magnificent gray stallion. Its coat matched the sky.

“Lukal,” Grasha said, “I’m happy to see you again. We, the Cavalry of the Blackskulls, offer our support and alliance to the Seers of Geldorg. Put us to use.”

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