The Black Sands was a beggarly name for an Orc settlement. Before the Grim Fall, a war-horde thundering out of the Unaka Mountains would shake the earth and chill the blood of every king within five-hundred leagues. Now the scraps of the Unaka greenskins eked out an existence in an old iron mine bored in the flank of Mount Geichak. No more Blood Tusk, Gate Smashers, or Gruumsh’s Fist; the place was named after the mounds of tailing swathed on the mountain’s slopes.
When the end started, orcs and goblins all over the region sought refuge in the mine’s twisty dark. As the heavens convulsed and continued to vomit ruin across the land, hundreds of refugees like Addas – greenskin or otherwise – streamed up to the headlands begging food, shelter, the slightest respite from the devastation. Thousands crammed into the mine, the swelling numbers spurring frantic excavation. Spent shafts were re-opened, cramped caves chiseled out, propped with scree and dry-rot timber. Desperate survivors clawed out miles of new tunnel, all twisted, looping, jumbled as a mass of chicken guts. The old mine grew into an underground city; a precarious warren of dark, foul-aired safety that offered a mountain of rock between them and the ruinous skies.
The ancient cliff-side forge was fortified, walls heaped ever thicker and higher with fresh rubble until the ledge around the mine entrance bristled with squat towers, crude bastions and craggy ramparts. Orks known more for tearing down than building, the defenses were thick, ugly things of black stone and slopped mortar. But they stood. In fact, walls of the Black Sands were one of the few barriers between the fragments of the old world and the ravenous brutality of this shattered new one.
Wind knifing into his back, Addas trudged down to the main gate and pounded on the iron-clad beams. It lurched open just wide enough for him to squeeze through, the tower guards spitting their welcome as he passed below their windows. Those orcs huddled around the braziers sneered, but made no move to stop him; the sledge was loaded. Addas figured contempt was the softest cruelty. First dibs on his kills guaranteed they left it at that – most of the time. Or perhaps it was just too cold to give up their spot near the coals.
When he reached the center of the yard, Addas drew the sledge around in front of him, slyly tugging the canvas back to reveal carcass’ meaty flanks. It was a ritual, like a whore hitching up her skirt, he realized. Then he plastered a dumb look on his face and carefully wrapped himself away.
The mine’s entrance gaped low and round like a mouth moaning in the dark cliff face. Warm, rancid air rushed out bearing traces of cooking oil and roasted meat, the musk of livestock, wood smoke, and hundreds of unwashed orks and their goblin-kin. The scent of loss, desperation, starvation, cruelty… the scent of home.
The unicorn horn was suddenly heavy between his shoulder blades. He’d snugged it alongside the javelin, out of sight. A search would turn it up straight off, but with any luck, Ogol and Igmut would only have eyes for steak.
‘Ow many times I have to say it boy? Chalk’s voice rasped in his memory. No luck left ‘cept what you make.
To name is to call; no sooner had Addas thought of them, two orc brutes lumbered out of the shadows. Addas would have prayed if there had been anyone listening. Instead, he averted his eyes and hunched slightly as they drew near.
Ogol twirled a thick studded club in his gloved hands while Igmut swaggered ahead with his thumbs in his belt. A warg’s claws had left Ogol with a milky eye and the lopsided stitched face of a rag doll, while Igmut’s jaw and right tusk caught a Dwarf war hammer in a skirmish before the treaties were signed. Twice as stupid as they were ugly, Snat had labeled them ‘Dim and Dimmer’, the little goblin claiming they didn’t have enough brains between them to organize a hump in a brothel.
Before the Fall, Ogol and Igmut were foot soldiers in the Unaka mob. Hearing opportunity knocking in the apocalypse’s thunder, they started calling themselves ‘captains’, riveting shiny bits to their armor and demanding salutes. Now watch commanders, they spent their days bellowing orders and lurking at the mouth of the mine where the air was cleaner but still warm from the depths. Where they could pinch a bit of everything that came in or out.
Ogol’s beefy hand thumped Addas in the chest. Igmut circled behind.
‘Wha’chu got there, runt?” Ogol demanded.
Addas kept his eyes down. “Horse.”
“‘orse, he says.” Ogol smacked his lips. “Rare find, runt. Horse is good eatin’.”
“Where’d you find ‘orse ’round ‘ere, piglet?” Igmut grunted over his shoulder.
“South of the ridge,” Addas lied. “Near the old road from Dumovaar.”
Ogol flung back the tarp and smiled all teeth. He swallowed hungrily and took a step forward, but then his one good eye narrowed. He stopped, looked Addas up and down. “What happed to its ‘ead?”
Addas shrugged, tried to sound tough. “Fecker kicked me. So I bashed him with a rock. Made him stop.”
Igmut had come around to stand beside Ogol. “That’ll do it,” he chuckled nastily. He slapped his partner’s shoulder. “C’mon. Cooks need to see this.”
But Ogol was on the scent. He took another step, thick muscles sliding under his green skin. “So how’d ya get that gash?” He pointed to Addas’ chest. “Hoofs don’t do that.”
Addas flushed. He hoped it looked like shame. “I slipped,” he stammered. “I tracked it through the Razors. I was creeping over the karst like I seen you do when ice took my feet right out from under me. Damn near cut my own head off. Chased him two miles after that.”
Ogol shoved Addas, sent him backward onto the frozen dirt. “Clumsy git.” Laughter erupted from the gate.
Igmut hawked up a gob and spat at Addas’ feet. “That’s cause you’re only half orc, runt,” he belched out. “Pink little piglet like you will never be good as us.”
Ogol loomed over Addas and hauled him to his feet. He pulled him up until his warty, tusked face was inches away. “Fecking weak is what you are,” the orc growled. “Useless. Can’t hardly kill a mangy ‘orse.”
Addas hung his head. Play the part, he thought. Let them see what they want.
“Piglet and the ‘orse,” Igmut guffawed. “Now there’s a battle, eh?”
Ogol pushed Addas aside, bent and hefted the corpse over his shoulder. “We’ll get this to the cooks for you, runt.”
Igmut on the other hand, rummaged around in his trousers and started pissing on the sledge. When the last drops spattered out, he gave Addas lopsided leer. “Cleaned some of the blood off for you, piglet. See to the rest of it straight away.”
“Will do.” Addas saluted, then watched the two of them disappear into the cave.
Behind him, the tower guards sniggered. An ice chunk bounced off his shoulder. More laughter. Without a word, Addas stooped for the ropes, straightened the load on his back, and followed after.