A stiff but steady southwesterly blew the airship steadily home toward Bartertown and beyond it, the Kingdom of Throal. Dremnin surveyed the sprawling stretch of mountains to starboard, and smiled to himself. Before dusk, they’d be returning as heroes once again. He’d plotted his course true, and now held the Stag’s helm firm against the wind.
Passing his gaze across the topdeck to the bow, he found Quinn in his customary spot at the rail at the nose of the ship. His mentor spent most of his time wrapped in solitude. Though Skram was only a few yards away at the port rail beaming in the afternoon sun, he could have been miles away from the grizzled old Scout. But moreover, the Namegivers aboardship had fallen near to silence since the events at the ruined temple to Rashomon. Only three days ago the entire crew had been under assault by a most insidious Horror that had infected many of them through their food and drink after one of Trejak’s guards had ambushed Tekil and T’hom just outside the temple entrance. It’d been a grim fight against comrades, but somehow they’d found their way through and had lost but a single man at the end – Arrius, a comrade, clan and moot brother.
Reflexively, Dremnin glanced amidship to where Harod the Ork was coiling rope. He was a sullen brute of an Ork, almost seven feet tall with forearms the size of Dremnin’s thighs. He’d become even more surly and mean-spirited since the news that his closest friend Arrius had been lost in the Serpent River. Now Dremnin was surprised to see him working while seemingly in a trance. Upon closer scrutiny, he noticed that Harod appeared to be muttering, though his words were lost in the wind. No, trance wasn’t quite right – he was staring fixedly leeward. More pointedly, he appeared to be boring a hole in Quinn’s back with his eyes. Instant alarm awoke in Dremnin – he’d seen too many good Namegivers succumb to the Horrors’ influence lately.
Kerick was standing beside him, so he gave the helm to the first mate and nonchalantly stepped down from the weather deck for a closer look. Approaching from behind, he was able to make out the Ork’s deep, almost guttural baritone as he seemed to be chanting in the thick Orkish tongue. Seeming to startle out of his reverie, he immediately cast his gaze down to his work and fell silent.
Dremnin waited a few moments, then spoke.
“He was a good man, and a hard fighter. We’ll all miss his sword-arm.”
Harod grunted and hunched over even more, the broad muscles on his bare back flexing in tension. Glancing up, Dremnin could see his old teacher still at the rail, motionless with his long hair whipping around his head and cloak billowing behind him. Glancing back to Harod just feet away, he switched tactics, hand straying to the pommel of his own sword.
“Why were you staring at Quinn, Harod? And what words were you speaking? It almost sounded like a song of sorts…”
Harod finally straightened and turned to look at Dremnin. Passions, he was a big fellow, blocking out the sun. Dremnin could read in Harod’s face several emotions warring, and also a recognition that Dremnin was as tense as a coiled crojen. He seemed to take stock and choose his words carefully.
“I was singing, Scout. A ballad among my people. It helps with the gahad.” That last he said with some discomfort as though he was in pain.
“_Gahad_? I haven’t learned your language yet – tell me, what does it mean?” Dremnin felt a bit of the tension drain away. He was alert, but sensed no duplicity in the big Ork.
“You would not understand what I tell you, Human. But I suppose I can try. Gahad awakes in Orks when there is something to trigger it.” He looked around and found Osrak climbing the rigging. Jerking his thumb that way, he grunted, “Ever notice back at the Reach that he got bent if any of the Trolls made fun of his size? That’s what gets his gahad boiling. Lucky – with us away from the clanhome, he doesn’t get too much of that. Korack knows better and the smith doesn’t speak much.”
“And what of yours, Harod?” Dremnin feared it had something to do with his mentor, still trying to piece together the puzzle.
Harod’s face became a mask. “My gahad rages when I feel helpless. I could not fight the Horror. And I could not save my friend.” Even the admission seemed to double him over for a moment.
Sensing the Ork wanted his dignity, Dremnin waited. When Harod straightened again, the Scout said, “I think perhaps I understand…” He trailed off.
“But you want to know how it has anything to do with the Longstrider? Is that it?”
Dremin nodded once.
Harod looked leeward again, staring at the back of Quinn’s head. He chuckled to himself, shaking his head. “You know, when he first boarded I feared he’d slit my throat in the night? Or bash my head in… Maybe even strike me down on this very deck with bolts of lightning from his eyes.” He grinned at the last bit, perhaps at his own foolishness. Harod looked back to Dremnin, and seeing the blank look of incomprehension in his eyes, his own brow furrowed. “Are you being dense, Scout? Surely you know the tale? He’s your teacher! The story is emblazoned in the minds of the entire nation of Cara Fahd, and in my own as well.”
Still Dremnin said nothing, so Harod continued, “I’d seen twelve summers and had spent a year raiding settlements up and down the Liaj River with a company of scorchers. Krathis Gron sparked a revolution… one that went too far. In our fury to have our homeland again, we raided and drove out the other Namegiver races that lived inside our ancient borders. And those that didn’t take the hint… we put them to the sword.
“Orks seized the whole stretch of land in the cradle of the Delaris Mountains and shook it like a rag doll. My company was near Death’s Sea on the Fire Slopes when word came to us that an organized resistance had begun. It was led by a group of mighty Adepts – with a Human named Quinn Longstride gathering refugees to him as he trekked across the great grasslands beyond the Locust River.”
Harod turned his head to the left and spit on the deck.
“As word reached us, we abandoned our raiding and butchery to join in as our nation harried the Longstrider. He’d managed to link up with several T’skrang from Kelpoya and managed to get the sorry mass of hungry Namegivers across Grimeye’s Crossing. By the time we met up with our brothers, they were most of the way across the grasslands. They weren’t hard to follow – a massive trail of slaughter was in their wake. What shocked us was that there were more dead Orks and riderless mounts than refugees. Our collective gahad erupted and we arrived at the edge of our new kingdom, at the fount of the Greenheart and the walled city of Stormhead.” This last he said almost reverently. He turned back toward Quinn and began to sing in his deep baritone, only this time his voice boomed across the whole ship.
Afterward, Dremnin would remember it as part chant and part stirring hymn, ending as a lament of sorts. Those on deck were caught spellbound for what seemed a small eternity, though in truth it could only have been a few minutes. Though he understood none of the words, he felt their impact across the entire crew. All were solemn and attentive, and looking back to Harod he could see tears streaming down the big Ork‘s cheeks as he belted out the finish and trailed off to silence again.
Harod’s eyes never left Quinn’s back, though the old Scout never turned or even acknowledged that the song was so clearly about him.
Finally the spell broke, and the crew shook their heads and not knowing what else to do, went back to their work. Osrak paused a bit longer on the rigging, and Dremnin saw he also had tears in his eyes.
Harod startled him in a voice thick with emotions. “I was there for the final charge. There were maybe three hundred of us. Rather than follow the refugees through the gates, the Longstrider and several ragged Namegivers broke off to give us battle. We wanted blood. Our charge had to be felt at every hearth in that Passions-forsaken city.”
Harod wiped his eyes and turned to the right, spitting again.
“I never saw such hate, such burning rage, in the eyes of a Human. We Orks live life more fully that you longer-lived races. We have no time to waste, and love more deeply and hate more strongly than you milk-drinkers.
“As we crashed into their defenses, many on their flanks crumbled to our ferocity. But at the core was the Longstrider, like a howling demon. Death sprouted from whatever he touched. I swear I saw Tranko descend upon him and made him as strong as fifty men.
Harod shook his head as if to clear it. He picked up the coil of rope he’d worked and made as if to go below. Turning back to Dremnin, he said, “Later I came to understand that he’d settled his wife and children in what became New Revlak. I was not there, but I know that anyone not an Ork was raped and slain. The Longstrider did not return to his family in time. By all the Passions, that Human understands gahad too well, and in him it burned hot enough to scorch a kingdom.”
“Do you understand now, Dremnin of Diamede? It soothes my own gahad a bit to recall the fight with the Longstrider. He should have killed us all that day, for what he’d lost.”