The Missing Dragon Ch. 03byLien_Geller©
Janette closed her eyes for a moment. Crying had made them sting. She took a deep breath and then ignited her gaze once again to look into the distance where Gregory had been led away.
"I just..." she paused, steadied herself. "A lot's happened. Coming here, Freddie getting loose, and now this. Then finding Greg and feeling so much for him so soon. It's a giant mess and we're both lost in it together. I can just about deal with that. I just don't want to be lost in it alone." Speaking more to herself than to Emmet, she finally turned to face the old man. "Where did they take him? If I can't talk him out of it then I can at least be there if he needs me."
"You cannot be with him now."
"The hell I can't." Janette's blue eyes flared with anger.
"The orcs do not allow humans near the training grounds. They don't want us seeing the fighting and getting ideas. You would be turned away immediately, and I would definitely not suggest pressing the matter with the guards." Emmet did not seem pleased about the situation either.
"I'm not going to just stand here while he goes through that!" Janette made no effort to keep her tone civil.
"Algra will be there. It is her right. She will make sure he is safe. Come now." He lifted his arm to gesture back toward Gregory's tent. "I promise you that when he returns you shall be the first to know."
Janette considered making a run for it before her more rational senses reigned back the urge. Sitting at home and waiting for the man in her life to return was most certainly not her style. What did Emmet expect her to do? Make the bed and have Gregory's pipe and slippers ready for when he got back?
If he got back.
She pushed that thought down as quickly as it had arisen and glowered at the old man before whirling on her heel and marching back into the tent. Emmet watched her take her leave, wrapped up in her blanket and then began the walk towards where he knew he would find Talina.
The slender, raven-haired woman was pacing back and forth inside her tent. Lydia and Fiona were both outside, discussing the events of the evening with the other residents of Bolut's camp. Talina looked up and saw Emmet pass through the canopy and calmly settle his hands together on the front of his robes.
"Begone, old man. I am not entertaining now." Talina barely gave him a backward glance as she continued her pacing.
"My dear girl, have you ever known me to seek you out for such a thing?" Emmet's voice was smooth, if slightly withered with age.
"The girl is in no mood to speak with you either way, old man." Talina halted her pacing to narrow her eyes dangerously upon Emmet.
"Well, I'm truly sorry about that but I fear we need to talk. Our young friend is in trouble and I know that look in your eye. It was the same one you gave the soldier from the diplomat's guard before he went missing." Emmet turned to the side and began looking through the supply of scented oils mounted on a small table beside Lydia's section of the tent.
"I know nothing of what you say." Talina had, however, gone rather stiff.
"I don't believe that. No one else saw. No one else would believe you were capable of killing a man and disposing of the body so smoothly. But I saw the way you were smiling in the days thereafter. I know that look, Talina." He turned away from the collection of coloured vials to look directly at her. "Your secret is safe with me. I know who he was and what he did. I know why you did it. Yet that brings us to why I'm here now. You are forbidden from making anyone disappear in the wake of Gregory's training."
"They will kill him!"
"They will not kill him. They will hurt him. Orcs don't care much about human soldiers vanishing into the night, but they will care a great deal more if it starts happening to their own kin. Especially if it happens to their pups during their provings. They'll be out for blood and Gregory will be their first suspect after all this mess."
Talina warped her beautiful features into a frustrated snarl before she began pacing again. She hated being shackled, even if it was only by logic. Someone had hurt her master and she wanted their heads on a spike.
"That doesn't mean you can't do anything," Emmet continued. "We do not yet know who released the madman last night. His escape was certainly not his own doing. So, we must find out who it was. I fear I am too old for such an investigation, but you? I think you are more used to such things, aren't you, Talina?" Emmet left the question hanging there for a moment. It pressed down on her shoulders like a lingering threat.
"You see much, old man. Too much." She levelled an icy stare right back at him and Emmet would have recoiled had he not prepared himself for it. Then, after a moment of silence between them, Talina finally looked away and let out a long, steady breath from between her lips. "But you are not wrong about where our true problems lie. I will do as you ask and find the one who released the rabid child."
"Thank you," Emmet turned to leave but stopped just before reaching the opening of the canopy. "Oh, and I would ask that you tend to Gregory's red haired friend. She needs someone to keep her occupied until he returns."
"I will go to her."
With that, Emmet offered Talina a small and rather grateful nod before shuffling out of the tent leaving her to look back at her things. She thought of the knives, carefully slid into the lower lining of her sleeping furs, never to be used again.
- - - - -
Gregory followed between the two massive orcs who had been sent to collect him and felt not entirely like a man walking towards a guillotine. Part of his brain was panicking, screaming for him to run away and hide. Those thoughts were becoming more and more persuasive as they walked out into the proving grounds. Even young male orcs all outsized him by at least ten inches and what the orcs referred to as unproven pups had bodies hardened by years of brawling with each other. Gregory watched them practice, the main weapons either being two heavy wooden clubs or a singular large one. They did not fight in much armour save for a protective metal brace crossed over their bare chests.
Females were interspersed amongst the males, fighting the larger beasts with more speed and swiftness rather than brute strength but with no less ferocity. Gregory saw some of the impacts the weapons made. Merely walking across the proving fields, he heard the sounds of bones cracking on two separate occasions along with the agonised roars that soon followed.
Throughout it all, Gregory remembered the face of Valise and what would likely happen to her if he should flee. Then there was also the considerable worry of what would happen to himself, since he doubted the orcs looked fondly upon cowards. The greater fear won out and he remained with his guardians until they brought him before a rough and tattered old pale-green tent.
"I- I should go in here?" Gregory looked between the two hulking figures clamped up in their thick, blackened armour.
The orc he had looked to blared out a thundering bark before pushing his spear forwards toward the tent and baring his tusks beneath his helmet.
"Alright! Alright!" Gregory hopped to attention and walked in through the withered cloth of the tent and found himself face to face with another of the green behemoths.
The orc he saw was evidently an elder and it seemed that age had taken away none of the creature's considerable bulk. Not overweight like Bolut, but rather stocky and stout of build. Many old scars lined the bare arms and chest that were bulked up with years of muscle grown and burnished in battle. The top of the head was mostly bald with a single knot of long white hair at the rear of the skull. A thick white braided beard outlined the mouth that only had the single tusk at the corner, the other having been broken off long ago to leave the orc's mouth in a permanent snarl.
Then Gregory saw the old orc looking at him and instantly knew that the creature beneath all that scarred and battle-worn hide was still keen of mind.
"I, uh, I guess I'm here for the training?" Gregory ventured after a few moments of what he considered to be very tense silence as the old orc sized him up.
"No proving for you, pup. Too small. Too skinny." The bulky old orc snorted and dismissed Gregory by simply turning his back on him to walk around a large wooden table in the centre of the tent.
Well, that was unexpected. It didn't matter, of course. Gregory knew what was at stake.
"I have to. Grolfir has ordered it."
"Grolfir? Hah! Then he is a coward or a fool. If you have ailed him so, then he should have killed you himself, not sent you here to be beaten to death."
Gregory gritted his teeth. Why was everyone so certain that he was going to get his ass handed to him on a platter? He paused, examined the anger and decided he preferred it to fear.
"He is neither a coward or a fool, and I don't care if I get hurt. Now, put me out there."
The old orc suddenly bashed his massive fist upon the table in a way that made Gregory realise just why it had to be so sturdy. Those fists looked like they could splinter tree trunks.
"Do not order me, pup! You aren't even kin! Fine! Go out there now and find one who will honour you enough to fight with you. Find a pack that will take a human dog." The orc laughed in a way that felt like a warhammer smashing at Gregory's ears. "Begone."
With that, Gregory was well and truly dismissed.
He found the two guards waiting for him outside the tent and one immediately moved to stop him from leaving on the journey back towards Bolut's camp. It came as something of a shock, then when Gregory instead stormed right into the heart of the proving grounds instead. Not even bothering to snatch up a metal chest bracer, he grabbed one of the single handed clubs from a weapon rack and stumbled to the side when he felt the weight of the thing. Yet still, it didn't deter him from marching between the sparring young orcs and standing before those who were seated and resting from their own training.
"Fight me." Gregory laid down the challenge to all of them at once. In hindsight it might not have been the brightest thing he could have done.
Yet none of the orcs stood to take up the challenge and he found many of them turning their heads to look at him as if he was barely worth their time.
"I said fight me!" Gregory lifted up the club into the air, readying himself for any attack that might descend upon him.
No attack came.
Things were getting awkward when finally, one of the orcs lifted himself from where he had been crouched. Sitting away from the others with a smaller group of five of his kin, Gregory was surprised to find himself coming face to face with Ulf. He remembered meeting the young male orc shortly after his visit with Grolfir. It hadn't connected that Ulf was young enough to not yet have passed the provings until he'd shown himself.
"Ha! Runt fights human dog!" One of the orcs bellowed, much to the amusement of those around him.
Gregory kept his eyes on Ulf, who claimed his own twin clubs and readied himself in the orcish battle stance. Holding his one club in two hands, Gregory held the weapon out in front of him and suddenly felt very much out of his depth. Hand to hand fighting was one thing, it was what he was used to. The club felt unwieldy and alien in his grip and he knew just by holding the thing that it would grievously unbalance him if he wasn't careful.
The orc way was to rely on attack so much that defence was almost a quaint notion, and Ulf definitely didn't disappoint as he let out his own ritualistic war-cry and then charged. In moments Gregory registered what was important, the clubs of his opponent were lowered by his side, upper body leaning forwards to put as much momentum behind him as possible. Ulf was also much faster than Bolut had been and smoothly slipping out of the way was definitely out of the question as the orc's reflexes were bound to account for it and stomp him into the dirt if he tried.
So instead he did something slightly out of character and flung the club directly at Ulf's legs. The orc sure as hell hadn't expected the move and stumbled to get out of the way of the rapidly spinning weapon as it flew over the ground toward his shins. Ulf was fast enough to dodge out of the way but not quite fast enough to do so without unbalancing himself and Gregory took the time to give the orc an education in the basics. A simple lunge forward and he smashed his foot into Ulf's chest, just above the metal bracer and below the collar bone. The move almost sent the orc sprawling to the ground and would have seriously winded him if it weren't for Ulf's own training.
The orc gave enough ground to immediately reassess the situation and wasted no time in bearing down on Gregory once again. Rushing back toward his weapon, Gregory rolled over the club and emerged in a crouch with it back in his hands. Yet the time it had taken had been sacrificed to Ulf who was now upon him and forcing him to fight in a way that he wasn't used to. The clubs in Ulf's hands were swung with precision and the blows that followed were barely fended off.
Gregory tried to parry one of the attacks with his own weapon but found even Ulf, who didn't quite have the size or bulk of his brothers, was far too strong to stop with such a manoeuvre. The attempt caused the club to sail from Gregory's hand and fall to the ground far out of reach, making him rely solely upon dodging. This was somewhat easier than it should have been, as despite Ulf's talent with the clubs, they were still unbalanced weapons and couldn't adjust their arc in mid-swing.
It was the sudden kick from the orc to Gregory's calf that finally gave Ulf the advantage and allowed one of those blows to connect. The young human felt the club smash across the side of his face and sent him immediately crumpling to the ground. He felt like he'd just offered his jaw to a charging rhino and the entire right side of his face felt like it was on fire. Blood was felt rising inside his mouth and he spat it out, only to be a good deal more worried when he saw a couple of his teeth land in the pool of blood he'd made in the dirt.
"Enough!" The elder orc had evidently emerged from his tent upon hearing the cheers of the human getting pounded into the ground.
"Master Ulag!" Ulf quickly turned to face the master of the proving grounds and fell to one knee whilst resting his clubs upon the ground.
"Ulf! You think it honourable to face a human?" Clearly, Ulag was not impressed.
"Master, you taught us never to bow to..."
"A challenge." Ulag finished, though he didn't seem to be putting much stock in his own words just then. "Very well, young pup. Since you have faced the human then you shall keep him. He will join you with the rest of your Runts."
Gregory might have found this news to be curious if he'd been able to hear anything over the ringing that Ulf had left in his ears. He was getting slightly worried that the world was refusing to come into focus properly.
"Pups! Form up for pack skirmishes!" Ulag barked out the order and the orcs roared their approval. All except for Ulf, who was staring at Ulag with a look of horrified disbelief.
Gregory tried to push himself up with his arms but grew nauseous around the half way mark and abruptly vomited more blood onto the ground. Suddenly glad he'd skipped breakfast, he reached down and found the anger that had brought him there in the first place to start burning through it like fuel. Planting his fists in the ground again, he pushed himself up to his feet and found himself coming face to face with Ulf, who reached out to grasp Gregory's shoulder and firmly steady him on his feet.
"Frun! Bring a bracer for him!" Ulf shouted to the small group he'd been seated with. The order got one of the larger males seated there to stand and lumber off to the weapon racks to grab Gregory one of the smaller chest-pieces before coming over to help the young human fix it into place. Even as he felt his right eye swell over, he glimpsed the orc look to Ulf with an expression that clearly meant you can't be serious.
"Human! Look at me." Ulf grabbed the front of the bracer once it was fixed around Gregory's bare chest and hoisted him forwards to bring them to eye level with each other. "You are part of the pack now, yes?"
As Ulf spoke, the rest of those few orcs that had been eating away from the others had stood up to walk before them. Was one of them missing an arm? That couldn't have been good news.
"Whaddoo I do?" Gregory found it difficult to voice the question as he was having more trouble not falling over just then.
"You stay behind me."
"Noproblemo!" With that, Gregory turned his back to Ulf and raised his mitts at nothing in particular.
Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Ulf let out a low grunt instead and pulled Gregory backwards to fall into step with the rest of the pack as they moved to the arenas wherein the future war packs fought each other for dominance. The arenas themselves were little more than pits of stone that orcs could view from several rows of seats above. There were five of them in all and Ulf was leading them with the other groups of orcs that had formed in the wake of Ulag's order.
"First match! Runts to take on Berserkers!"
"What!?" This time, Ulf couldn't hold back his incredulity.
"You heard, Ulf. Let's see how your human fares."
Something told Gregory that matters had not improved and he felt his face had swollen horribly along its right side. Pain was the only thing keeping him awake then, until he saw the six orcs that the Runts were going to face. Then fear leapfrogged pain in capturing his attention.
The six orcs that emerged to make their way down into the arena were all testaments to how physically overwhelming their species could be. All were young, just like them, but some members of the Berserker pack were already towering over a good many of their peers. Gregory recognised the one that had laughed at him amongst their ranks, no, leading their ranks. Four of them carried twin clubs in each hand with the other two hulking brutes carrying what looked to be like uprooted tree trunks.
He got the feeling that the blow to his head might not be his biggest problem of the day.
In comparison, he looked over the orcs that had fallen in line with Ulf. There were two women, one was strong and had a figure much like Algra's lean and muscular visage, albeit slightly more slender and younger. Her hair was tied up in intricate braids, unlike the rest of the pups he'd seen who went mostly bald or with very simple ponytails to keep their hair from their faces. The other female was much more slim with a body almost like a gymnast and, like Gregory, carried only one of the single-handed clubs. Although she seemed much more comfortable with it in her hands than he did.
Then there was Ulf, of course, who was well built but not as bulky by far as the orcs they faced. He was looking out over them as if trying to formulate a plan of attack and finding himself woefully outmatched. Yet there was no fear there, only frustration. Beside Ulf, there was a stockier male who carried one of the single clubs in both his hands and looked as if he could do some damage, though he was quite a bit shorter than the rest of them and somewhat short for an orc in general.
The final two were an odd pairing as one was downright wiry in comparison to the usual orcish muscular builds. Gregory could see the lines of his bones beneath his green skin and he seemed to be carrying a pair of much smaller clubs that looked almost like batons rather than the awkwardly weighted monstrosities that the rest of his kin favoured. He was looking at Gregory and offered a rather wry little smirk at him when he met his gaze. Was something funny? The world was still too shaky for the young human to know.