Shuffle, Cut and Deal
Book 1 of Game of Freedom Trilogy
A WarSpell Novel
Holding her steel battleaxe down and behind, Vectoria shifted her head so that she could see around the rough corner. There were orcs of the Kurg tribe milling about in a chamber about fifty feet farther down the corridor. There were no torches, but to Vectoria’s half-orc eyes, Kurg orcs glowed with body heat even through their fur. Her orc ancestors gave her her night vision, poor for orc, but excellent by human standards.
Her right arm lifted just a little, gesturing “back” with her battleax. Then, waiting for a moment when none of the Kurg orcs would see the motion, she pulled her head back.
Once Vectoria’s head was safely behind stone, she turned to face the rest of her group. She raised her left hand, opened it and closed it twice, to indicate that there were around ten orcs down the corridor. The two humans, Don Hernando Francisco de Montoya y Cortez and Don Tomas de Hartford y Plamith, were essentially blind in the caves, so the two orcs, Urk and Flower, seeing Vectoria’s gesture, passed it on to the two humans with a series of touches.
Don Francisco–Don Francisco preferred Francisco to Hernando . . . Vectoria didn’t understand why, but there were a lot of things that Vectoria didn’t understand about humans–lifted a finger, made a circling motion, and pointed back the way they came. Then he touched Flower. Flower nodded and moved down the corridor while Vectoria took over the job of guiding Don Francisco. It took them ten minutes or so of slow, careful motion to travel another hundred feet to an alcove with a gap small enough to be covered by one of their blankets.
With the blanket in place, Flower used flint and steel to light a taper.
Barely mouthing the words, Don Fransisco asked Vectoria, “Do you have any spells?”
Vectoria shook her head. She was a full intercessor of Twir, the god of clerks and scribes. More than that, Vectoria was one of the rare intercessors who received spells from her god. But all her spells had been used in sneaking through these caves for most of the night and to try and find the gold seam that the Kurg were mining to buy iron weapons.
“Count Masina is going to notice we’re gone,” Don Tomas pointed out in a quiet voice. Juan de Alvarez y Montoya–or Count Masina–was their liege lord. Masina was the name both of his territory and the fort that was his capital. The fort whose south wall was the responsibility of Don Francisco and Don Tomas.
“There’s nothing we can do about that now,” Don Francisco said. “And Tooth is there to run things.”
“Tooth is an orc,” Don Tomas said, and Vectoria knew what he meant. Most humans didn’t have great respect for orcs. Don Toamas and Don Fransisco were surprisingly respectful of their orcs. Count Masina was not.
“Can you pray for more spells?” Don Fransisco asked Vectoria.
Vectoria reached up and rubbed the ragged green fur that covered her head, while at the same time she felt that special place in her soul. It was still tender, but not sore. When an intercessor was granted spells, the god touched their soul, implanting the spells. That touch, though glorious, was also a strain that left the soul tender with a pleasant ache. Rubbing her fur didn’t have any effect on feeling that special place. That special place wasn’t under her fur or behind her eyes. It was everywhere and nowhere, off to the side of her normal sense of self. The ache was there, but it wasn’t bad. Maybe she was recovered enough so that she could contact Twir with the intensity that would let her accept spells. But maybe not. And even trying would delay when she could try again by some hours. Slowly Vectoria shook her head, and saw the disappointment in the faces of all her companions.
“In that case, everyone check your gear. Then we are going to rest for a few hours so Vectoria can get her magic back. We need to find the mined gold.”
She noted the sharp look that Don Tomas shot Don Francisco at the tone of his voice. But didn’t understand it. Vectoria was strong, observant, and a good fighter. But, while not stupid, she wasn’t unusually bright. Even after four years among the humans, Vectora didn’t understand much of the way they thought.
* * *
Francisco understood the look well enough and was embarrassed. Don Hernando Francisco de Montoya y Cortez was the one with the family connections and the one with the remittance that paid for the little extras that made life in the Orclands bearable. He wasn’t supposed to be concerned about money. Tomas was the smart one, but poor and with no family connections. But Francisco’s family hadn’t sent the money this quarter, and they had been short last quarter. Francisco didn’t think Tomas would abandon him. Rather, he felt as though he was letting his friend down.
Dawn, Fort Masina
Tooth looked over at the procession, and cursed under his breath. In the lead was Count Masina, followed by Don Petros, commander of the east gate. That bastard never could take being shown up by an orc. Not in cards, and not on the practice field.
Tooth ordered the others to stand their posts. He went to meet Count Masina. He bowed deeply and sloppily, not showing the grace or understanding of nuance that orcs weren’t supposed to have. He knew from bitter experience that Masina–the fat little Nasine–would not appreciate any show of style by an orc.
“Where are they?” Masina asked.
“They are scouting the Kurg, Your Grace.” There was no use dissembling. Don Petros would have ratted them out completely.
“And why aren’t they here? Doing their job?” Masina didn’t wait for an answer. “Surely they must have explained it to you, orc. After all, they left the south gate of my town in the hands of an orc, so you must be very special. As special as that mixed blood intercessor of theirs.” The disgust that Masina put into “mixed blood” was blatant. He despised mixed bloods, half-orcs, even more than he despised orcs. To Masina’s mind, they were the consequence of beastiality.
There had been a time in Tooth’s life when he would have felt much the same way, from the other side, but he’d come to appreciate Vectoria in spite of that.
In the meantime, Tooth cringed and grovelled as a tame orc should. He explained that Don Hernando and Don Tomas were concerned about the steel weapons the Kurg were showing up with, and let slip that they thought there was a gold deposit somewhere in the Kurg caves. Don Petros would have already told Masina that. Tooth always called Don Francisco Don Hernando when talking to Masina because that was what Masina called Don Francisco.
“Don Petros, you will command the south gate as well as your own until Hernando and his Kingdom Isle lackey return.” Then Masina turned and strode away.
Tooth looked at Don Petros, who looked back in something close to embarrassed defiance. He knew perfectly well that by informing Masina that Don Fransisco and Don Tomas were missing he was violating custom. Tooth managed to avoid shaking his head in disgust. Which was made easier because he was becoming concerned himself over the continued absence of the scouting party.
Vectoria knelt in the traditional manner that Don Eduardo taught her, and opened her heart to Twir, the goddess she loved and followed. The goddess that only demanded good work and conscientious attention to the job. Not blood and death.
She felt the presence. She asked for make grog and mighty ax, though in truth she didn’t expect to get them. It was almost a joke between her and the goddess of clerks and scribes by now, though Vectoria didn’t know whether Twir appreciated the joke or not.
She felt the presence wash over her, felt the glory, and the solid certainty that good and careful work would–in the long run–make the world a better place, and make the life of a follower of Twir better as well. She accepted that with all her heart, and knowing that she wasn’t always as careful and conscientious as she ought to be, knew in her heart that Twir still loved her, even if the goddess was occasionally disappointed. Vectoria was never sure how long her prayers lasted. They had a timeless quality to them.
But, eventually the presence faded, and Vectoria looked into her mind to feel that special soreness, and to note the shape and names of the spells she was granted. This time she had like to like, mighty ax and two copies of dark sight.
Dark sight she cast immediately on Don Francisco and Don Tomas. It would last several hours.
Don Fransisco nodded his thanks to Vectoria. He was punctilious about manners, especially with orcs. It was, after all, their duty as humans to set a good example for the lesser races.
Then he used hand signs to direct the party on their quest. At Vectoria’s request, again delivered through hand signs, he offered her coins. She selected the gold Cashi coin and apparently cast another spell. Then she pointed at a cave wall.
“What?” Don Francisco signed.
“Like to like,” Vectoria mouthed, then signed “gold that way.”
They searched for an hour, using her pointing finger as a guide. Not a great guide. It pointed at the gold, not at the best route to reach the gold, but it was better than nothing.
They came around a corner that opened unexpectedly on Vectoria’s right. Following the direction of Vectoria’s pointing finger, Francisco saw a wagon. It was human built, with half a dozen orcs milling around it. There were four orcs tied into the traces of the wagon and a skinny, bearded human, with a lazy eye looked up to see them with his hand still full of a heavy leather bag.
There wasn’t time for anything but direct action and Don Francisco took it. He leaped forward and the large orc with dried blood on her green fur was his first target. He needed first and foremost to stop the orc bargainer from casting whatever spells her demon master Kurg had given her. It was a clean thrust and slid through her neck before there was any chance for the orc to react.
Then it was melee, and Don Francisco was too busy fighting the orcs to pay any attention to what else was happening.
Urk saw Don Francisco and knew it was time to play. With a roar of joy, he took three long strides and leaped. He landed in the bed of the wagon and swung his sword. It was a gift from Don Tomas, and it was good Kingdom steel. It was a heavier sword than the Nasine’s preferred, but Urk had the muscles to wield it almost like a rapier. That wasn’t what he did here. He put all his weight and muscle behind it and swung it like a headsman’s ax. It took the human’s head right off. Urk felt himself grinning at the glory of battle and almost he went on to kill the four orcs harnessed to the wagon.
But Flower was there before him. She didn’t attack the orcs. She attacked the rat leather harnesses holding them in place.
Urk shrugged. There were Kurg orcs to kill, so he didn’t care.
He lept to the ground and left Flower to deal with the harnessed orcs.
Flower wasn’t as fast as Urk, not physically. Nor was she as strong. But she was more observant and she’d seen the whip marks and half healed wounds on the harnessed orcs. She was almost sure that, given a choice, they would go after the Kurg orcs out of vengeance. It was worth a try, anyway. So she cut them loose, and then she reached into the wagon and grabbed a sword. She tossed it to the ground next to one of the slaves, and then grabbed another.
In moments, all four of the slaves were armed and the human was quite lucky to be already dead. Instead, the slaves went after the Kurg orcs.
Vectoria saw what Flower did and shrugged it off. She cast mighty ax on her ax and felt its weight lessen. She knew that it would still strike with all the force it carried without the enchantment, and with greater sharpness and strength. She proved that a moment later as she swung her ax right through the ax haft of a Kurg chieftain and through his leather breast pad and chest. Blood spouted everywhere and Vectoria roared, “For Twir and proper spelling!”
Vectoria loved that battle cry, both because it was appropriate to her god and, as was the case here, acted to confuse the hell out of her enemies.
She swung again, and took of the head of an orc woman with a stone ax who was looking at her in confusion.
Tom Hartford–who by now almost thought of himself as Don Tomas–laughed at Vectoria’s battle cry. He’d heard it before, but it always struck him funny. So it was with a bright smile that he stepped up beside Francisco and blocked the orc that was going for Francisco’s side. Tom twisted, lifted, and brought the orc’s steel machete up and out of line, then dropped his blade under the orc’s guard and flicked it to his forehead, leaving a bright red line in the orc’s green fur. The red spread as Tom blocked another strike, then the orc was blinded by the blood in its eyes. It put up a hand to wipe it away, and that was all the opening Tom needed. The blade went home and there was one less orc to deal with.
Tom looked around, and it was over or close as made no difference. Most of the orcs had run. Two of the ones that were harnessed to the cart were chasing after them. One was dead. The other was running the other direction, and that was the way Tom figured they ought to be heading.
“Well, Flower,” he complained, “How are we going to move this damned wagon without the orcs?”
“Don’t remonstrate with her, my friend,” said Francisco as he bent down and picked up the leather sack that the trader had dropped when Urk took off his head. He held up the sack. “This is the vital part.”
“Not entirely, Francisco,” Tom said. “We need the wagon. Coganie’s halls, we need the body to prove that the Kurgs are buying steel weapons.”
Flower looked at Francisco, then at him, and shrugged. Then she went over and grabbed one of the traces. Vectoria grabbed the other, and Urk lept down from the wagon. Before he went to help Vectoria with her trace, he picked up the trader’s body and dropped it into the wagon bed.
There was another battle before they got out of the caves, and halfway back to Fort Masina, they they were attacked by Kurg orcs, and ended up having to burn the wagon. But on the plain, in the light of day, the advantage was theirs. The orcs of Fort Masina were more used to fighting in daylight.
Don Tomas had hidden the gold by the time they got back to Fort Masina, but that didn’t stop Count Masina from levying a fine on Don Hernando and Don Tomas.
Vectoria, though, was greatly pleased with the adventure. And with a load of Fort Masina grog on, she grabbed Urk and kissed him. Urk kissed her back, having a fair load of grog on himself, and they went off to Vectoria’s quarters to celebrate their victory.