States of Light
Hrath leaned on his sword and watched the fires burn in the city of Sparka Hul in the distance. The sword was the only thing keeping him up. Without it, he would have fallen among the orcs who lay all around him. As it was, too much of his blood mingled with theirs on the stone slope of the mountain pass.
They’d come upon each other as he fled the city. Four of them, marked with the red eye of the Agmarok clan on their foreheads. A scouting party, maybe, looking for weaknesses in one of the neighbouring clans. Or a raiding party looking for a weak merchant convoy. Instead they’d found Hrath.
He was careless because his mind was playing over the events that had happened in Sparka Hul. He hadn’t noticed the orcs crouched behind the boulders above him until the arrow took him in the side and brought him to his knees.
The odds had been in the orcs’ favour, so it was their turn to be careless. They came down to him with blades drawn rather than finishing him with the bows. They wanted a little fun.
It was an understandable mistake. But this was a land that punished mistakes. Hrath had paid for his distraction. Now it was his turn to make them pay for their overconfidence.
Yes, there were four of them, but he was a human living in a land of orcs. Like the rest of the clan, he’d been training to hold a blade and fight since his father had ripped him from his mother’s breast, whoever she was. And he had been the best warrior of his clan, even though his father refused to formally acknowledge a bastard. Not that he had any problem acknowledging him as a warrior when it came time to battle the orcs or one of the other human clans that made up the ruling council of Sparka Hul.
None of that mattered now. Tonight, everyone in his clan was as dead as the gods in this land. Everyone except him.
He pushed himself up enough to inspect his wounds. If he were another man, they would have been fatal. But he wasn’t like other men. He healed quicker, and he had a knack for surviving wounds that should have killed him. Should have killed anyone, in fact. And then there was the wrath that burned within him. Sometimes when he struck the ground with a blade or even a fist or foot, it surged through him and cracked the very earth open.
He had thought all the orcs dead, but one of them laughed now, the usual barking noise turned into a gurgle from the blood in his mouth.
“I know you,” the orc said. “You’re the cursed one from Hrothgar’s clan. The one we can’t kill.”
Hrath looked at the orc, the second one he’d cut down with the blade. The savage’s face was smashed in from the pommel of Hrath’s sword, a blow he’d used to open up enough distance to swing his broadsword in a blow that had crushed the orc’s chest. The orc’s armour had been good enough to keep him alive, but he was obviously broken inside. He wouldn’t survive on his own.
The orc realized it too. “Quarter,” he said. “Grant me quarter and I can save you.” He spat blood at Hrath, as if speaking the words enraged him.
The orc was right, Hrath thought. He was cursed. He’d brought doom upon his clan because of his gifts. There had always been rumours about him because of his traits, but when the merchant in that last trader’s convoy had said he suspected Hrath had some magic in his blood….
He shook his head. That had been the only excuse the other clans of the council had needed to turn on his clan. That had been the death sentence for his clan.
Hrath had been the death sentence for his clan.
“The Agmarok will give you sanctuary,” the orc said. “We will welcome you as a fellow marauder. We will help you wreak your vengeance upon the other humans. Join us. Become an orc, pale thing.”
Hrath didn’t know how the orcs knew of his clan’s fall already. It didn’t matter. Only one thing mattered now.
The wrath surged in him again, and he brought the sword up over his head and rammed it down into the orc, so fiercely he buried the blade halfway into the ground underneath. The earth cracked, and the orc’s blood drained away, into the hard land that had spawned him. He spat at Hrath one last time and then was still.
Hrath knew there was no sanctuary for him among the warlike orcs. They were little more than beasts, who cared only for drinking, fighting and rutting. But there was also no sanctuary for him in Sparka Hul, the city the humans had carved out of this land. There was no sanctuary for him anywhere here.
But maybe there was sanctuary somewhere else.
He had heard tales from the traders, of other cities that were ruled by law and order, not might and blood oaths. Places where magic and science were studied, not extinguished.
The traders had spoken of something called the League, an organization that was bringing the light back into the darkness the world had become. They said it ruled with fire and steel — fire for those who were willing to accept the light and steel for those who were not. Some of the traders had shaken their heads at the mention of the gods the League served, but Hrath cared little about that. The gods of his people were dead, after all, so what did it matter if he served another?
Hrath pulled his sword free of the orc and the earth. He wiped the blood and gore from it with a scrap he tore from his shirt, and then he sheathed the blade. For now. He cast one last look at his home burning in the distance, and then he turned and strode off in the opposite direction, in search of this League.
But he would be back. And when he returned, he would bring all the fire and steel of the world with him.