19 May 2016

Falling Out

Disclaimer: This is an original work of pure fiction. Any resemblance to anyone, living or dead, is purely coincidental.   Copyright 19 May 2016 by K.S. Wood.  Should you wish to reprint this, please ask for permission.
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Joe and Glenn had been the best of friends.  Growing up in their lakeside homes together, the two were inseparable as kids and did everything together. Both were only children, so interacting together they became as close as brothers.  As teenagers, they went through the same rites of passage.  As adults, they maintained their close friendship, even after Joe had married his high school sweetheart and Glenn went away to college and a career in the city, returning to the lake several years later with a wife himself.  
    The two consoled each other through loss, as they both lost spouses. Glenn’s wife left him after a few years, preferring to return to her life in the city, and a year later Joe and his sweetheart parted ways as well.  Joe’s ex-wife decided she needed a change, eventually taking their two children with her as she went to live with a cousin on the other side of the country to find her way.  Joe got to see his children on holidays and for a month during the summer, and relished every bit of communication he had with them.
When Joe met and married a new woman two years after his divorce, Glenn happily stood as his best man.  The two men hoped that one day Glenn would find love a second time, and maybe even experience the joy of fatherhood.  In the meantime, he happily was the uncle to his best friend’s daughter and son when they were in town.
    When Joe’s former sweetheart Ellen returned a year and a half later with kids in tow, four years after their divorce, she and Joe amicably shared custody.  Joe’s new wife, Abby, was happy to play stepmother to the children, but there was still some adjustments to be made.  Glenn stood in the sidelines during this time, happy to offer advice and lend support.  He noticed Ellen in a way he didn’t notice her in high school, when she was Joe’s girl.  He tried to shrug off his feelings for her, out of respect for his best friend, but just couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something to be had by pursuing Ellen.
    Very soon, however, it became apparent that Ellen shared the same feelings, and the two decided to quietly date, wondering if what they had was just a fling or something more.  They kept the relationship a secret out of respect for Joe and for the children, Mallory and Kyle.  Both drove to the nearest town, or even into the city to see each other.  
After a few months of dating quietly, with long talks on the phone and longer emails, they realized what they had was something more, and decided to make their relationship known to their friends and family, but not before first eloping at the county courthouse.  It had been five years since Joe and Ellen divorced, so the newly married couple hoped that whatever anger Joe had would be quick and eventually laughed off.
    Joe blew a gasket, as expected.  What was not expected was the way he wrote off an entire three decade friendship over the marriage.  He accused Glenn of trying to take his family away, which now included his son with Abby, and accused him of plotting the entire friendship to do so.  Glenn tried to explain his side, but Joe refused to listen.  Abby and Ellen tried their best to intervene, but Joe was not willing to budge in his stubbornness.  He refused to even be in the same general vicinity as Glenn, and would try to prompt him into an argument whenever possible.
    During one very public shouting match between the two of them, something tragic happened.  Joe’s youngest child, the son with Abby, a toddler by the name of Dylan, wandered away from his father in that moment of inattention and headed for the lake.  The fact that Joe chose to pick a fight with Glenn instead of watch his child that close to the water cost the boy his life, and caused Joe to blame Glenn even more.  
It put a strain on the new marriage between Ellen and Glenn, but the couple turned inward and became stronger.  The couple also decided it was best to place distance between Glenn and Joe by arranging matters so that Glenn had no reason to come into contact with his former best friend.  Life continued for them as they hoped, given the situation.
    Joe’s life was not going as smoothly.  He moved out of the home he had made with Abby, moving into the shed he used for his boat rental business.  Abby refused to divorce him, for she saw the good within him and wanted her husband back in her life, and Joe as stubborn as he was, refused to file against her as well.  
A year went by, and then two, and Joe continued to operate on the fringe of society, unhappy in his life, but refusing to let go of the anger he harbored towards Glenn.  It cost him a great deal, for while he lived in the boat house, he could not have his children with him, so ultimately Ellen resumed full custody, giving Joe visitation rights as much as he wanted.  Glenn took over in the paternal role, albeit unwillingly, for he hated to see his former friend give up so much over a grudge.
    It would take a traumatic event to release Joe from that anger, one that made him realize how selfish, juvenile, and wrong he had been for years.  
    It started out as any other ordinary day.  Joe had decided to take Mallory, now a young teenager, for a row on the lake one morning in spring.  The water was still frigid, but he insisted she bundle up and he packed provisions for a day on the lake.  She protested in usual teenager fashion, but went with her dad, as she had not spent a whole day with him in some time and secretly was happy he had decided to take her out.  
    They rowed to one of the islands in the middle of the lake, one that had always been his favorite, and spent time exploring.  While out on the island, the weather began to change for the worse, but Joe decided that they could spend a little more time out there, despite the agitation of his daughter.
    “Mom and Glenn are going to worry,” she said.
    “They’ll get over it!”  he said stubbornly, ignoring the advance of the darkened clouds.  “I haven’t spent a whole day with you in a good long while.  Besides, that man gets to see you enough as it is!”
    The onslaught of the storm caught them off guard.  Experienced as Joe was as a waterman, he hadn’t counted on the ferocity of the storm.  As winds howled around them, Joe rowed with all of his might, but the waves became choppier and his daughter began to yell at him about how irresponsible he had become.  
    “You care more about yourself than you do anyone else!”  she screamed over the howling wind.  “If you weren’t still so mad at Glenn over such stupid stuff, we’d be home by now! Can’t you get over stuff and see Glenn wants to be your friend!”
    Joe wanted to tell her off about disrespecting her old man, but in that moment, a wave blindsided him and the rowboat overturned, dumping both of them into the water. He heard Mallory scream right before the frigidity engulfed him.
    He surfaced in the rough waters, looking this way and that for his daughter.
“Mallory!”  he shouted, panic bubbling within him as he frantically looked for his eldest child.  “Mallory!”  
    Time was passing, and he thrashed about in the water, trying to find his boat, his daughter, his oar, anything to grab on to.
    “Help!”  he screamed.  “Mallory!”
    He saw a light coming towards him in the storm.  “Joe!”  a voice called out.  He didn’t recognize it over the waves.
    “Mallory’s in the water!” he screamed, his energy fading as he fought to keep himself moving. Despite the life jacket he wore, the waves were pushing him under the water.
    He made out the figure in the boat coming towards him.  It was Glenn, wearing a life jacket and a headlamp.  He was rowing for Joe as fast as he could despite the choppiness of the water.  “I have her, Joe,” Glenn shouted.  “I got her in my boat already.”
    “Daddy!”  Mallory called out.
    “Are you hurt?”
    “My arm hurts, but I’m okay!”  Her voice was uncertain, and Joe knew she was spooked.  He hoped shock hadn’t set in.
    Glenn reached out a hand to his old friend, and Joe hesitated, mistrust written clearly on his face.  The cold water and the danger of the storm caused him to think twice though, and he reached for the offered hand and was pulled into the boat.
    Both men lay in the boat with the injured girl, panting from the effort it took to get there.
    “Why did you come for me?”  Joe asked.
    “Ellen and Abby both were fraught with worry when the storm came and you didn’t return”  Glenn said, his breathing still rapid.  He clutched at his chest and grimaced as he stammered, “I.. I told them I would come find you, since…. since I knew where you would probably go.”  He was fighting with his vest.  “I wanted to… to make sure both of you were… were all right.”
    Joe watched as the color began to drain from Glenn’s face and knew something was horribly wrong.  “Glenn, are you okay?”
    He shook his head.  “Damn chest hurts.  I have to get this off.  It’s….. It’s…. too tight…… I’m sorry, Joe….. I’m… it’s too tight”  He was straining to breathe now and he fumbled with the clasps.
    Joe immediately went into flight or fight mode as adrenaline surged through his veins.  He grabbed the oars and began to row in the direction of shore, using his instinct to guide him.  Glenn looked like he was having a heart attack and if he didn’t get them to shore now, there would be trouble.
    As he rowed, he shouted instructions to Mallory.  Glenn’s color was fading fast, and he was losing consciousness.  With her injured arm, she couldn’t do much, but she kept Glenn’s face clear of any water from the rough waves, holding him tight in her lap as he fought to breathe and fought with her to take his life jacket off.  She tried to keep him awake by asking him questions, but she was soon anxious with panic when he didn’t respond.  
    “Daddy!  I don’t think he’s going to make it!” she cried frantically.
    Joe made out the dock through the haze of rain.  The lanterns were alight, meaning someone was watching and waiting for their return.  He pushed his aching arms to keep rowing, shouting for help.
    He spotted his wife and Ellen amongst the onlookers, huddled together in their rain slickers. Kyle hovered behind them, his face a mix of fear and excitement over the events at hand.
“Glenn’s in trouble!”  he shouted over the storm.  “I think he’s having a heart attack!”
The dockmaster ran to call for help.
    Joe pulled up to the dock and helped his daughter out of the boat, tossing the rope to Kyle, who tied it off with the experience he was taught by his father.  Joe then hoisted the limp and unconscious body of his friend up and out of the water, laying him gently on the dock as best as he could.  Deftly he pulled himself up and fell to his friend’s side.  Pulling at the clasps that attached the life vest to Glenn’s body, he undid them and pulled the vest off, then checked his friend’s pulse.
    There wasn’t a heartbeat.
    “Damn it!” he shouted.  He pounded on Glenn’s chest, beginning chest compressions. “You’re not going to die on me, you son of a bitch!”
    Abby knelt beside him, giving rescue breaths as Joe worked the compressions.  
    “Stay with me, Glenn!”  he shouted between counts.  “You have to stay here for Ellen’s sake!”  His arms ached as he continued to work to save his friend’s life.  “Damn it, Glenn, breathe!”
In the distance, sirens could be heard, and soon paramedics took over, leaving Joe to slump exhaustedly against his wife as tears streamed down his face.
Guilt and shame ate away at him.  His best friend was going to die before he knew how sorry Joe was for the whole situation.  Joe wondered how long the chest pains had plagued Glenn out on the water and why Glenn didn’t turn back to shore instead of seeking them out.  Why did Glenn risk his life to help a man who hated him? He wondered that all the way to the hospital as he rode in the passenger seat of his wife’s car.
Abby, sensing he was in turmoil, kept silent, letting only the soft murmur of the radio play in the  background of Joe’s thoughts.
    Ellen had gone to the hospital with Mallory, as she had dislocated her shoulder when the boat overturned, and was waiting for news on Glenn, who was being worked on in surgery.  She met the couple, her face full of worry and her eyes brimming with tears for her daughter and her husband.  Joe embraced her, whispering his apologies for putting them in harm’s way.
After much prodding and pleading from both his wife and his ex, Joe agreed to be checked out by a doctor and was proclaimed to be in fair health.  He was told to go home and rest, as exhaustion and mild shock were his only ailments.
He fought to stay at the hospital, since he wanted to be there for Glenn and Mallory’s sake, but Ellen had assured him she would call as soon as she knew anything about her husband.  Mallory was admitted overnight for shock and would be fine, so Ellen said she’d stay and keep the vigil.  Ellen’s mother had shown up as well, and was going to remain the night at her daughter and granddaughter’s sides.  
So Joe meekly submitted to being driven home by Abby to the house that he had once shared with her, Kyle sleeping in the backseat.  Once inside, he showered wearily, and despite protesting that he would stay up and wait for news, he passed out on what was once his bed, his cell phone clutched in his hand on his chest.  Abby moved it to the table as she climbed into bed later that night, after learning that Glenn had survived the surgery.  She whispered the news to her husband as she snuggled into him to console him in his sleep.
    Glenn had to have emergency open heart surgery to repair a previously unknown congenital problem that caused the heart attack.  His condition was very grave for several days, but he improved slowly.  
Joe kept his distance for the first full month of recovery, not wanting to give Glenn any undue stress that would cause a setback.  He spent his time wisely, making amends with his wife and moving back into their home.  He even spent some time in deep discussion with Ellen, Kyle and Mallory, working to mend the fences that had been broken since Dylan’s death.  He felt like a changed man, but he still had one more thing to do.
    Glenn had been home from the hospital for over a week before Joe finally had the courage to visit him.  He was relieved to see there was color in his friend’s face, and while therapy was slow going, Glenn was looking healthier.  The atmosphere was strained the first few minutes of the visit, but both were cordial and polite, almost as if they were complete strangers.  
    Finally Joe had enough.  He put down his glass on the coaster on the end table, leaned forward in his seat on the couch and stared at Glenn intently.
    “Why the hell did you risk your life to save me after all of the grief I gave you?”
    Glenn stared at him for the briefest of moments, a look of thought on his face.  He then slowly pushed himself out of his recliner and walked towards the man who once called him friend.  He stood so he was towering over Joe and looked down at him, staring into his eyes.  
“Why did I save you?  I saved you because I didn’t want Mallory and Kyle to be fatherless.  I saved you because despite everything, Abby and Ellen both still love you in their own way.  Most importantly, I saved you because you are my oldest friend, Joe, because despite all that happened, I have always loved you as a brother and I am so very sorry for Dylan’s death.”  His voice cracked as he spoke the last words.  His eyes were red with tears.
Joe was up out of his seat in a flash.  He had his arms wrapped around Glenn in a great big brotherly bear hug as tears poured down his face.  Neither knew their wives were watching as they both apologized to each other and forgave each other.
They never had another falling out.

06 October 2014

The Twin Stones

Disclaimer: This is an original work of pure fiction. Any resemblance to anyone, living or dead, is purely coincidental.   Copyright 06 October 2014 by K.S. Wood.  Should you wish to reprint this, please ask for permission.

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She was Vanthia, eldest daughter of the human king Dayaden.

He was Warkosh, next in line to the Warchief of the orcs.

They met at an assembly of the races designed to bring about peace.  As heir-apparent of the kingdom of Pryll, Vanthia was there with Pryll’s chief priest as well as the prime mage and other ambassadors.  Warkosh was there with a contingent of Warchief Darag’s lesser chiefs.  Vanthia sat with the rest of the Alliance of Three Councils, as humans had already made peace long ago with both the elves and dwarves.  Warkosh and the other orcs sat a safe distance from their tentative allies, the trolls and the goblins, and well away from the Alliance of Three Councils.

The facilitator of the council meeting for peace was an elderly elf, Urien Alfric.  He was once a highly trained warrior, noble in battle and well-respected by all the races in the land.  However, after the brutal death of his entire family at the hands of the blood thirsty shifters of the far south, he turned from being a warrior to becoming a monk, a grouping of races known throughout the clans for peaceful existence.  The shifters posed a greater threat to all races should they not put aside their differences and hatreds for each other.

Vanthia debated well for the appeal for peace, for though her father had his doubts whether peace was possible, she had the optimism of youth on her side as well as the wisdom that came from observation.  She spoke well for her youth, which garnered begrudged respect from even the more war-hardened veterans in the assembled clans.  There were murmurs through the crowd about how her late mother was descended from some fabled group known for their magic, but Warkosh paid no heed to the silly rumors.

She was given more than respect from the head of the Orc convention.  She gained also his admiration.  Here was a young human who not only spoke eloquently, but demonstrated authentic respect for every being present.   He was impressed by the genuine character she possessed.  

Vanthia had dark flowing hair that she kept in a long braid.  Her hair was too unruly to do anything else to it.  Tendrils were always coming loose, making her appear slightly unkempt.  Sometimes they fell across her face, obscuring her pale blue eyes.  She often dressed plainly when not in the palace, and today was no different.  She was dressed in a simple tunic and skirt; her only adornment a topaz necklace.  It made her feel as if she was coming to the accords as an equal to all, and not just as royalty.  After all, she was the only one of royal blood present.

Vanthia had noticed the young orc that had shown her respect.  There was something about the way he keenly watched her.  She could sense something about his character that was not in other orcs by the way he paid close attention to all of the discussions on peace.

Warkosh was strong and muscular from hours of training with his maces and swords, and larger than most other orcs.  He wore coarse linen sleeveless tunics bleached by the sun, which contrasted with his dark skin, obsidian eyes, and long back hair.  He preferred leather breeches to those made from rough cloth, and wore leather bracelets, adorned with spikes, on both arms.  Like all male orcs, he had fangs that curved slightly upward from his bottom jaw.  They caused him to speak as though he were slightly muffled.  Most orcs did not care that they spoke with the impediment, but Warkosh secretly wished to be as eloquent as Vanthia and knew that he never would speak as boldly as she had.

As the assembly adjourned for a meal, Warkosh signaled to his group that he was to go communicate with the other races.  He knew they assumed their own tentatively allied ones, but he made a beeline for the beautiful human princess.

“It is a pleasure to meet you,” he said in Orcish, wondering if she understood it.  

Vanthia looked at him curiously and answered back in what Warkosh knew to be the language of the humans.  He tried to pick out the few words of the language he knew, but could not understand her.

He changed tactics.  “It is a pleasure to meet you,” he said in the Elvish tongue.

She smiled.  “I am pleased to meet you as well.  You speak Elvish.”

He smiled back.  “You speak it as well.”

She nodded.  “It is a common practice amongst the leaders of the Alliance of Three Councils, as it was the language our treaty was written in.  I also speak the more difficult Dwarfish language as well as some of the language of your friends the trolls.  I am curious to know how you have come to speak the language of the elves, as it is not a usual tongue for the orcs.”

For that he smiled shyly.  “It is because of my father’s legacy that I speak the Elvish language.    I am the heir of Vradak, also know as the Elf-killer from the battle of Yssyrrlen many years ago.  I sought to make amends for his deeds and learn the ways of those he slaughtered in battle to understand them better.  I am considered very studious amongst my kin.”

She nodded.  “Vardek is known in our legends as well as a bloodthirsty warrior.  It was because of him that the elves sought alliance with the humans.  My grandfather signed the treaty and my father lead soldiers into battle at Quelenrion.”

“It was at that battle that my father was slain by your father,” Warkosh pointed out.

Vanthia grimaced.  “I am sorry for that.”

“You need not apologize for the sins of your ancestry.  I was but a mere orcling at the time, still cooing myself to sleep.  I have never felt at ease with my father’s brutal ways, which is why I am seen with a bit of suspicion amongst my fellow chiefs.  Yes, I am handy with a mace and blade, and will come to blows if I need, but I am for this peace.  The shifters are a far greater threat to my clan then even the humans.”

“My father would say you are very strange for an orc.”

“My father would say the same about you.  Humans are viewed as covetous weaklings who hide behind armor and steel and send other races to do their dirty work.”

He could see a slight flash of anger in her eyes before she thought. He tried to hide his smile.

“There are those who deem all orcs as ignorant warriors who would rather come to blows than speak their minds, perhaps because they don’t have one.”

There was a glint of sauciness in the tone of her voice, and Warkosh could see the beginnings of a smile playing at the corners of her mouth.  She was showing a bit of spirit.  He threw his head back and laughed.

A friendship blossomed that day between the human princess and the orc warrior.  Vanthia garnered even more affection from him after she most eloquently and almost singlehandedly changed the minds of all at the assembly to vote for the peace accord.  As the races broke up the gathering to report back to their various leaders, Vanthia and Warkosh found themselves alone once more.

“Princess Vanthia, it was a pleasure to meet you and get to know you,” Warkosh said in Elvish as he bowed over her hand in orc fashion, silently vowing he would learn her language.

She returned the gesture, which surprised him.  “You too,” she responded in Orcish before switching over into Elvish.  “May we meet again, my new friend.”

The ride home, upon their massive steeds, was long and arduous, but Warkosh passed the time by thinking upon the young princess.  He heard the other chiefs speak of her and turned his attention to them.

“The human princess is a dreamer if she thinks this peace accord will last.  Humans are too greedy for peace to last,” Kankor said.  “They want our lands and our food supplies.”

“I don’t know,” Rakor responded.  “Vanthia seems to have an old spirit.  Perhaps we can return to the peace of our ancestors with her as heir-apparent.  If she is able to sway us, the spirits know she will be able to speak her mind to her father.”

“King Dayaden likes the taste of battle far too much to be swayed by one like her,”  Kankor responded harshly.

“Perhaps the threat of a shifter invasion will change his mind.  After all, their lands are in as much danger as our own.”

“That is true.  He can unleash his bloodthirsty ways upon them.  But what happens if they are defeated?  Will we once again be at battle with the humans?”

Warkosh held his tongue.  After speaking to Vanthia, he knew that peace could be achieved long term, but the grumblings of the elder orcs, as well as the seniority that their advanced ages held, kept him from speaking his mind.

Rakor tipped his head towards his leader.  “The young orcling was very taken with the human princess.  Perhaps he can sway her father.”

The other orcs chuckled as they rode and continued to tease Warkosh.  He was used to the ribbings.  Though he had succeeded in raids, he had yet to prove himself in battle and was younger than the other chiefs of the clans within the Orcs of Murrosh.  He had no scars from battle to show off.  Thus, he was only treated with respect due to his parentage.

They returned to their lands after several weeks of travel.  The lesser clans had moved camp since the Accords had began, and it took Warkosh a few hours to find where his hut had been pitched by his cousins.  He took his boots off and fell into a weary sleep on his bedroll, intending to finish unpacking his belongings in the morning before going out to hunt for provisions.

He felt as if he had just closed his eyes when he awoke with a start in his hut.  Someone was calling his name.  He blinked.

Standing at the end of his bedroll, dressed in a palatial gown, and looking very much a princess with her jeweled crown, Vanthia smiled.

“I am surprised you did not wake sooner.  I have been calling your name for what seems like ages.”

He rubbed his eyes and yawned.  “I can be a heavy sleeper,” he answered.  “What is wrong?”

She began to pace back and forth at his feet.   “My father is angry with me with the way I spoke at the Peace Accords, even though every person in our envoy spoke highly of me.  He thinks me foolish.  He thinks all females are foolish and shouldn’t be in leadership, nevermind the fact that I am the eldest of his daughters and therefore will be Queen after him.  He is of the mindset that I should learn more feminine crafts such as embroidery.  I hate to sew.  He says learning languages and speaking at peace accords should have been left to my ambassadors.  Oh, I am so furious with him.”

Warkosh blinked again.  “How did you get here, Vanthia?”

“What do you mean, how did I get there? I am not there, just as you are not here, Warkosh.”

He scowled in confusion.  

She smiled for the first time since waking him up.   “I am sorry.  I just realized you don’t understand.  Go ahead and touch me if you like.”

He reached over and put his hand through the hem of her skirt, feeling nothing but air. He realized she was projecting herself.

“You are a mage?” he asked.

She nodded.  “It’s another frivolity my father thinks is useless.  My mother’s family came from the acolytes of the Maiadoc dragon, and were the holders of the gifts of magic, a gift I now posses.  Father thinks it is a waste of time.  His prime counselor, however, thinks I should learn both the ways of magic and the rules of ambassadorship so I will be fit to rule when the time comes.”

She stopped her pacing.  “But to answer your question, I had my page put one of my gems in the cuff of your boot at the peace accord.  I knew it would be safe there.  I simply found its presence through my magical divining and summoned myself to you.”

“Are you spying on me?”

She shook her head.  “No, dear friend.  Nothing like that.  I cannot spy on others using the stones.  I simply wanted to keep the connection I found between us.  I wanted to know I could call on you if I needed your counsel.”

“What if I am in need of yours?”

She smiled.  “Find the gem.”

He reached for his boots.  Feeling his way around the cuff of each boot, he found a small topaz tucked carefully into the folds of the cuff.  He shook it out into his hand.

“That stone was blessed by the dragon many ages ago, as is the one I always wear about my neck.  Keep it with you and protect it well, Warkosh, begat of Vradak.  Use it to call me, and if I am able to answer, I will.”

He held it tight in his hand for a moment, as feelings he never knew before came over him.  His heart felt at peace.  He looked back up and she was gone, but the feeling remained.

It was then that he realized she spoke his own tongue.  He marveled at her command of his language, being that they had met only two moons ago.

He had the stone embedded onto a medallion of leather.  The craftsman assured him it would never come off, even in the heart of battle.  Warkosh was sure the craftsman thought he wanted it for a protective talisman.  While that was partly true, he wasn’t going to enlighten the superstitious orc.  He wore it against his chest and under his tunic, away from prying eyes.

The peace accord was met with some resistance amongst the chief leaders that didn’t attend with the orc contingent, but they begrudgingly admitted that it was best for the safety of the clans of Murrosh.

There were attacks amongst the races from the shifters, and groups were organized to help combat the enemy.  Twice Warkosh met with leaders from the other races to discuss strategies and organize routes of safety for the refugees.  At one such meeting, a member of the Pryll contingent asked to speak with him.  It was Kynmarr Rocha, the prime mage of King Dayaden.  

“I have a gift from Princess Vanthia,” he said, speaking quietly in the Elvish language.  “She bids you well and wished to attend, but her father-”

“Thinks such is a frivolity for a female,” Warkosh said, finishing the mage’s sentence.

The human raised his eyebrow as a small smile toyed at the corners of his mouth.  “You know the princess well.  It would appear the respect is mutual.”  

There was admiration in the mage’s voice, and Warkosh could feel that elusive tide of peace washing over him again.  His hand went to his tunic and he felt the stone beneath the rough cloth.  It reassured him.

Kynmarr smiled knowingly and drew out a glass sphere.  “She called me over before we departed for this meeting and handed me this.  It is a spell keeper.  She bade you use it as soon as possible.”

Warkosh felt clumsy taking the delicate object.  Never had he held such an exquisite piece before.  Glass was something orcs knew little about, being that it was fragile and deemed weak.  He eyed it suspiciously.  Only few orcs had ever come across magic, preferring the brutality of battling face to face to the subtlety that magic offered.

“Will it harm me?”

The mage shook his head, his smile widening.  “No.  She assured me the spell within is beneficial.  She refused to tell me what spell it is, and the only way to discover that is to break it.  Since it was meant for you, I did not allow my curiosity to get the better of me.  I must leave now, for my party is departing.”

Warkosh watched the mage went away and knew he had only a little time before his own group left.  He walked a few feet into the woods and held the sphere, hesitating for a moment.  The sphere glowed in his hands, almost telling him it wouldn’t harm him to break it.

He let it go and it tumbled to the ground, shattering into a white mist that gently enfolded him.  He breathed deep as Vanthia’s voice spoke into his mind like a gentle caress.

“I have just given you the gift of communicating in any language, my dear friend.  As a descendant of the acolytes, I can bestow this gift on one as it was bestowed recently upon me.  Use it well, Warkosh.”  

He blinked once and spoke to the woods in the language of the humans.  “I am Warkosh, begat of Vradak.”

He then smiled at the thoughtfulness of her gift and returned to his party.

The shifters were relentless, and Warkosh began to gain in respect amongst the orcs as he helped to fight battles against them.  His longing for Vanthia’s companionship and the thought that she was also doing all she could to keep the shifters from raving the lands kept him going.  He wanted many times to contact her via the topaz he wore as a medallion, but something kept him from doing so.  He wasn’t sure if it was apprehension, or the realization that he was beginning to long for more than just her friendship.  That realization frightened him.

He had heard of attacks on human lands and it scared him to think that perhaps Vanthia and her kin were in danger.  He kept abreast of the news, talking to many travelers and refugees using the gift of tongues she had given him.  The Warchief and other chiefs of the clans used him as their communicator, and he never explained how he was able to speak to any race that traversed the lands of Murrosh.  The orcs never asked him.

The news he wished not to hear arrived from Vanthia herself.  He was raiding a shifter encampment with a band of warriors and two of the lesser chiefs.  He was standing as lookout away from the camp, signaling how many shifters he could see when suddenly Vanthia appeared beside him.

She looked road-weary and very distressed.  A long cloak covered her, but he could see that her face was dirty and her clothes were unkempt.  

“Warkosh.  You must help.  Pryll has been attacked.  The shifters have taken me hostage.  They pledge to make my father pay with my death.  Please.  You must hurry to him.  You must help my father!”

Rage overtook him at her distress.  Before he could answer her, she vanished from his sight.  He let out the battle cry, and with blind fury stormed the shifters’ camp, surprising both the shifters and his own warriors.  When the fight was over, the shifters had been slaughtered, many by Warkosh’s own hand.  Not one orc was even seriously injured.  Warkosh’s esteem rose several notches that day in the eyes of the other chiefs.

He stood, grasping a claymore in one hand and a mace in the other, body and weapons both covered in shifter blood, his eyes fixed towards the lands of the humans to the east.  When he finally allowed his rage to subside enough to speak, his voice was strident.

“Pryll is being attacked.  Who is willing to go with me into battle?”

Every orc soldier in that raiding party pledged his life to Warkosh immediately.  They sent word to Warchief Darag regarding the success of the raid and the change in plans via a traveling party of trolls and took off towards Pryll, riding at breakneck speed and only stopping to allow their mounts rest as needed.

They met with the army of King Dayaden three days later.  Warkosh dismounted and walked towards the army, his mace attached to his belt and his claymore in a sheath on his back.

“You face us armed, orc?” the head of the guard called out, his weapon drawn.  Archers had their bows up and armed, ready to shoot if necessary.”

Warkosh shook his head.  “I demand to speak to your king.”

King Dayaden pressed his horse forward to where the guard was.  He stopped and looked at the orc from his mount, his face almost stony.  His dark eyes smoldered with anger over the thought of a blood covered orc on his lands.  His hand rested on his sword, the very sword that had slaughtered Vradak.  

Warkosh simply stared back at him, his stance neutral but ready in case the humans should decide to attack

Dayaden spoke.  “Who are you?”

“I am Warkosh, begat of Vradak, and Warchief apparent of the Orcs of Murrosh.  I have come to bring aid against the shifters.”

“I need no help from your kind.”

“If you value the life of your heir, you will accept my help.”

“What you know of Vanthia?” Dayaden demanded.  He was angry at this young orc’s impudence and command of his native language.  

“I met her at the Accords of Peace.  She gifted me with this.”  Warkosh held up the leather amulet in which he had embedded the topaz.  

“The twin stone of Maiadoc!” someone sputtered as sighs of surprise and dismay murmured through the ranks of the soldiers.  

Dayaden’s face turned white.  “She gifted an orc?  Impossible!”

“You know what this means, your majesty?” Kynmarr spoke up.  He had broken from the ranks of mages at the sight of Warkosh and had greeted the orc with a silent nod.  

Dayaden’s eyes narrowed as he let out a grunted sigh.  He glared at Warkosh hatefully.  “It means she has chosen him, which means I must as well.”

Warkosh looked confused.  “Chosen me?”

The distress marred with hatred on the king’s face.  “The descendants of the acolytes of the Maiadoc dragon choose their equals by gifting the stones.  Vanthia has chosen you to be her equal.”

“What does that mean?”  Warkosh felt as though King Dayaden were speaking in riddles, and it frustrated him.

“It means that, as much as I hate orcs and wish you off MY land, I must accept your help.  You are the only one who can find Vanthia.”

The ride was a silent one.  Warkosh rode at the head of the army, guided by a sense that Vanthia was leading him to her.  Kynmarr rode near him, showing support for the warlord.  

The soldiers were hostile in stance, but kept their tongues, for the orcs were on the same mission as them.  The orcs, uncomfortable with their situation, also kept silent.  They were not fearful of provocation, but were uncomfortable with the fact that they were severely outnumbered should a battle break out.  

Kynmarr was the one who explained the stones to Warkosh.  

“Every descendant with the gift of the acolytes also is given a pair of stones.  They magically appear from the plane of the Maiadoc dragon.  The stones are linked in such as way that the bearers of said stones will always be connected.  The descendant keeps one of the pair and spends their time searching for another mortal worthy enough to be the bearer of the other stone.  If the chosen one is worthy, the stones link together and the chosen and the descendant will be able to feel one another’s presence and even communicate as necessary.”

“Vanthia has done that twice now.”

“Good. I suppose she’s projected herself to you as well?”

Warkosh nodded.  

“You won’t be able to do the same back to her, should you try to contact her.  She will only be able to hear your voice, though you should be able to see her, if only briefly.  The projections are a mage’s trick more than an ability of the connection.  Vanthia is far more talented than I have ever given her credit.”

Kynmarr thought for a second before continuing.  “I must say this as well.  You are the only orc to have ever been gifted a stone of the Maiadoc dragon.”

Warkosh was left to his thoughts, as Kynmarr pulled on the reins and waited for the rest of the mages to catch up, waving Warkosh on.  

Perhaps it was better, for he had much to think on.  The apprehensions that had kept him from contacting her in the past were now gnawing at him, as was the fear that he may be too late to save her.  He did not wish to think about it, but the ride was long, and since the armies were silent, he only had plenty of time to think.

During a stop to rest the mounts, the king glared at Warkosh.  “Tell me, ORC, is my daughter yet among the living?”

Warkosh pulled out the amulet, closed his eyes and held the stone.  “Vanthia,” he whispered, breathing slowly.  

He opened his eyes and discovered the soldiers and king and his warriors had vanished.  He was standing in a dark cavern, damp and dismal.  A figure was huddled in the corner, shaking.  “Vanthia,” he called again.  The figure moved and Warkosh felt relief.

“Warkosh,” Vanthia whimpered.   “Where are you?  I can’t see you.”

“We are coming, Vanthia.  Your father and I are coming for you.”

“You are with him?”

He could see she was shivering,  He wanted to do something for her, but knew he was not where she was. All he could do was answer her question.

“Yes.  I am with him.”

“Please.  Keep him safe, Warkosh.  Don't let anything happen to my father!”

Warkosh felt a tugging and turned.  Gone was the cave, gone was Vanthia.  He was again amongst the human soldiers and his own warriors.  His second in command, Moglak, was shaking him.  
Moglak spoke to him in their language.  “I was fearful the spirits had taken you.”

Dayaden let out a small laugh.  “If only they would,” he said snidely in Orcish, showing Warkosh he could understand his enemies.  “Tis a pity that they did not.”

Warkosh shook his head and answered Dayaden, choosing to speak in his native tongue instead of that of the king.  “Vanthia is yet living, King Dayaden.  If you wish to save her, then we must put aside our mutual hatred for one another and work together.”

“Peace spoken by an orc?  Preposterous!  I know full well what peace means to your race, Orc.”

Warkosh eyed Dayaden’s sword before motioning to it.  He chose to speak his next words in Elvish, knowing full well only a few in either army would understand him.  

“And I know what it means to you as well.  I am begat of Vradak, if you remember clearly.  That sword should draw my hate, but because of the friendship of your heir, it only draws admiration and sorrow for the past.   We both value the meaning of the word honor, and in that we have a common bond.  We must work together, for the sake of the land, for the sake of our people, and for the sake of Vanthia’s very life.”

“You love her,” Kynmarr said quietly, speaking also in Elvish.
The king and the warlord locked eyes and saw in each other their own surprise mirrored back as the realization of Kynmarr’s words washed over them.  Dayaden waited for the orc to deny the show in weakness an admittance of love would bring.  Surely love had no place in the world of an orc warrior.

“I will go to my grave before I will admit it to my men,” Warkosh answered back slowly in the native tongue of man, but Dayaden knew what he was not saying.  

“Where is she?” Dayden asked quietly.  His voice was calm and Warkosh chafed slightly at the mercy that he heard in the tone.  Part of him felt as though he did not need the king’s understanding.

“In the cave in the heart of the Shiftlands.”

A cry was heard from one of the lookouts and one of the mounted soldiers galloped towards the king’s party.  

“The army of Thorngrarr the Bold and the Eylasrrelen Sentinels have been spotted coming over the ridge, your majesty.”

Dayaden glanced at Warkosh.  “Why are the dwarves and elves here?  I suppose this is your doing, boy?”

“I had to give notice to my Warchief that I was leading my party to meet up with you.  According to the terms of the Peace Accord, he gave notice to the other races.”

The king was not happy that the news had gotten out about Vanthia, but accepted the help of his allies.  He knew it was needed.  

The armies traveled for three days, moving as fast as they could deeper and deeper into shifter lands.  They were approached by a larger legion sent by Warchief Daneg, led by Kankor and Rakor, who had joined up with the trolls and goblins along the way.  There was some hostility amongst all of the armies, having been enemies before this alliance, but they were able to keep it contained to only distrustful glares and begrudging respect.

They met the shifter army on the fourth day.  The battle was fierce but the united army prevailed.  They took few prisoners, but slaughtered the shifters.  There were casualties amongst the races, and Warkosh gained some admiration in helping to bind wounds of those he would have once killed as enemies.  The hope of peace and finding Vanthia kept him going.

He knew she was still alive.  Though he could not summon her, even though he tried more than once, he could feel her presence.  The armies pressed on towards the Shifter-Lord’s domain.

The air was dark and dank as the armies pressed on.  There were fewer battles, as if the ranks of the shifters just gave up.  Warkosh knew better though, and ordered his men to keep their guards up.  One never knew when and how the shifters would attack.

Almost at once, Warkosh was glad he had given that warning.  Through the darkness, the mages in the armies of the Three Councils detected the presence of enemies.  Immediately after their presence was made known, the fiercest fighters of the Shifter-Lord came swarming from hidden caverns.  As the battle raged about him, Warkosh fought, pressing toward the cavern he knew to contain the human princess.  

A shifter lunged for him, its dark teeth bared, and Warkosh would have been injured if not for the sword that had slain his father.  It flashed mere inches from his nose, decapitating the enemy in front of him.  Dayaden was at his side, pressing onward with him.  Warkosh thanked him with a nod and let out a fierce cry of battle, calling for the Shifter-Lord itself.

“SHOW YOURSELF!”

Out from the darkness the Shifter-Lord appeared, holding Vanthia in front of it as a hostage.  The armies fell back slightly, allowing Dayaden and Warkosh room.   They stood, their weapons at their side.

The Shifter-Lord growled and sneered at them, and its voice could be heard in their heads, though he said nothing.  

“I will kill her. You can do nothing, orc warlord and human king.”

“You will not touch her,” Warkosh shouted angrily.  “I will kill you first.”

The voice taunted him.  “No you won’t, young orcling.  You will be too busy saving her father!”

With that, several shifters flew out from behind the Shifter-Lord and Vanthia, swarming around the two.  They lunged for Dayaden, and Warkosh’s attention went from Vanthia to saving the human king.

Though outnumbered, the strength of the pair was a match for the shifters, and they dispatched many of the numbers.  While killing what he thought to be the last, who was about to cut into Dayden with its claws, Warkosh let his guard down.  Grinning over the event of the battle, he shook his claymore free from the shifter’s gut.

Suddenly, he heard a growl behind him as the teeth of one of the shifters sank into his back.  He was pitched forward and found himself meeting the ground.  Because such a bite was lethal due to the dark magic it contained, Warkosh knew he had met his fate.

Dayaden let out a cry of rage as he killed the one that felled Warkosh and watched in silent horror as the orc fell on his face.  Warkosh tried to get up, but he could slowly feel his life ebbing away as the darkness of the shifter’s bite began to work its way through his body.  His entire body had become dead weight.

He heard Vanthia scream and felt nothing but lightness.

The armies fell back, as if pushed by an unknown force.  Kynmarr gasped as he looked towards the sky.

“Dragon!”  he cried.

The Shifter-Lord’s screams reverberated through the minds of all present as the Maiadoc dragon, fully phased into the realm of the mortals, swiftly descended upon it.  With one puff of magic from the wondrous snout, the dragon reduced the Shifter-Lord to mere dust.

Vanthia had worked her way free as hostage as the dragon materialized, having been loosened by the Shifter-Lord in an attempt to protect itself from the dragon.  She ran through the battle to the fallen body of her companion, screaming his name as she dodged fighting creatures and fallen bodies.  With strength from fear and grief, she was able to roll Warkosh over so that she could cradle him in her arms.

“My dear friend,” she wept, tears rolling down her face as she held Warkosh’s lifeless body in her arms.  She wiped the mud from his face with her cloak as she murmured, “My sweet love.”

Around them, the chaos of battle began to subside, as shifters vanished back into the dark with the demise of their lord.  The leaders of the armies slowly began to gather around the princess and the warlord, their faces stricken with grief for the brave orc.  Everyone watched, waiting to see what would happen.  

Vanthia found the stone about Warkosh’s neck and grasped it in shaking hands, touching it to her own.  She looked up at the dragon.  In a language only she understood, she spoke.

“Why, great Maiadoc?  I have chosen him and yet he has been taken away.”

The dragon let out a breath of warm air that filled the space surrounding Vanthia and Warkosh.  “My dear servant, he has not yet been taken away.  His spirit yet lives,” the dragon spoke.

“But his body is dead.”  Vanthia felt hopeless, alone and lost.  She stroked Warkosh’s cheek, allowing another tear to splash him.

“You know how to bring the spirit back.”

She lay Warkosh down onto the ground.  Slowly moving, she laid her head on his chest, her ear pressed to his heart, wishing she could hear it beat.  “I don’t think I can do it,” she said, mournfully.

“Yes, my child.  You can.”

The dragon breathed on them again, filling Vanthia with hope.  She closed her eyes and covered the stone on warkosh’s chest with her hand.  Feeling the dragon’s warmth and energy flowing through her veins, she chanted a silent spell.

The crowd that surrounded her fell back in alarm as pearlescent mist surrounded the fallen hero and the rescued princess.  It swirled around and around until it obscured them in a veil.  

The dragon ascended into the sky at that moment and vanished, leaving all to look towards the sky in wonderment as to what was happening.  The silence of the armies was almost maddening.

“Vanthia?”

The weak voice broke the silence and drew the attention of the onlookers back towards Warkosh and Vanthia.  Vanthia had sat up, and was looking down at Warkosh.  His eyes were opened, and his hand caressed the cheek of the princess.  It brushed away a tear.

Murmurs rippled through the crowd.  The leaders of the mutual armies watched as Vanthia grasped Warkosh’s hand in her own, pressing it to her cheek.

“Am I dreaming?” he whispered.  “I thought I was dead.”

She laughed.  “No you silly orc.  You are very much alive.”

He smiled.

A collective cheer went up through the armies as all realized that Warkosh was going to live.  The cheer soon reverberated into a roar as he slowly came to his feet with the help of Vanthia.

Those around them pressed towards the couple.  Rakor pounded the young orc’s back, amazed that not even the bite remained.  Dayaden offered his hand to Warkosh, a smile on his face, as the orc stood, surprised and confused at the cheering chaos around him.  Kynmarr was helping to steady him, as he swayed a bit from the happy frenzy surrounding him.

“I was bitten though,” he said, practically yelling into her ear, his arm about her shoulders.  “I could feel my life leaving me.”

She touched the gem on his chest and placed her hand over it.  “You were gifted with this, my love.  Your life and mine have become entwined as a result.  You saved my life, I saved yours.”

“How?  The dragon?”

“You saw the Maiadoc dragon?”

He shook his head as he smiled and greeted the armies.  They were slowly making their way through the crowds.  He knew his chiefs and her father followed behind them.  “No, but I could hear.  I could hear the dragon’s voice and I could understand it.  How?”

“I told you.  I am the descendant of the acolytes.  The magic that I am capable of doing comes from that very dragon.  It is that magic that gifted the stones and brought you back to me.”

“You love me, do you not?”

She smiled as she looked up into the eyes of the fearless orc warrior.  “I do.”

“Well, your royal highness.  I love you too.”

Life would never be the same after that.  While they were soon married, Warkosh was still second in line for Warchief of the clans of Murrosh and Vanthia remained the heir to the throne of Pryll, titles both would fulfill in the latter part of their middle lives, many years after the Battle of the Shifters.  The couple spent much time apart, as their own duties would keep them busy.  But for part of each and every year, they resided in their own domain along the borderlands of Murrosh and Pryll with their orc-human children.  

Vanthia and Warkosh begat three heirs.  Their eldest children, twin sons named Rok-Jaren and Gar-Rilethen, would one day step into their parents’ rolls.  The twins would bring about peace and help unite the lands, which would become almost as grand a tale as the one in which their human grandfather slew their orc one.  The couple’s daughter Brythia-Uxia would remain the gifted heir of the acolytes, as her mother had, and would one day gift her own mate with a pair of twin stones from the Maiadoc dragon.  She would also learn every skill her human grandfather once deemed useless for a female, but enjoyed embroidery the best.

The odd couple of human and orc, along with their descendants, were instrumental in not only ensuring peace amongst the races, but in helping keep that peace for many generations.  Generations to come would not only place Queen Vanthia of Pryll and Warchief Warkosh begat Vradak of the Clans of Murrosh amongst the heroes of their own races, but their legend would be handed down for ages to come.