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Continuing on from here.

I got stalled for a while because I ran out of enthusiasm for writing linky bits. I decided to resolve this by not bothering to write the linky bit; if it works for Mary Gentle, it can work for me.



"Ugh," remarked Alessandro, wiping the purple-green goo from his face.

"Indeed. I'm sorry, they don't usually explode like that. Well, better him than us." Although her words were jovial, Hyadis' voice was brittle; Alessandro had known her long enough to recognise when she was about to have one of her 'turns'. He was not surprised when her eyes rolled up into her head and she fell to the floor, whispering faintly in languages he didn't know.

Although it ran against his instincts to leave her there, there was something that still needed to be done. So he pulled her into an open space away from walls and furniture - she was starting to twitch, he didn't want her injuring herself should she start flailing - and then did his best to ignore her mutterings as he circled the room, checking each of the acolytes in turn to make sure they were really dead.

There was no need to check the High Priest; there was very little left of him and it didn't resemble any living thing Alessandro had ever seen. The remains of his book lay on the altar, and although Alessandro would have happily burnt it, he decided to leave that decision to his employer, so he nudged it into a sack, careful not to touch it with bare skin.

Once he was satisfied there were no threats remaining, he hoisted Hyadis over his shoulder and headed outside.

When Hyadis recovered consciousness, some hours later, she was lying on the river bank on her cloak. Most of her clothes were gone - no, lying wet beside her in the sunlight - and although she was damp, the stink of the creature's slime was greatly lessened.

Sitting up, she saw Alessandro down at the river's edge. He was almost naked, washing some of his clothes in the water, and on the bank nearby he'd laid out his own cloak. Seeing her rise, he turned and waved.

"Thought I'd better rinse that stuff off."

"Good idea." She pulled the cloak around her and shuffled over near him.

"And I didn't peek."

"Now my feelings are hurt."

He grinned back at her. Close up, she had a good view of his tattoos. There was an odd asymmetry to them: most of his body was adorned in thorny-edged whorls of black and red, but his left arm was marked instead in pale lines that looked less like tattoos and more like some sort of scar.

"Can I help?"

"Yeah. If you could dry off my armour, that'd be good."

"Sure." She sat on his cloak and used a corner of it to start wiping water out of the niches and crannies. She tried to avoid letting on just how myopic she was, and it was the first chance she'd had to examine his equipment up close.

The shield was an odd shape, a rounded triangle about two feet long that tapered to a hard point at one end. It was painted red, with a fish-skeleton symbol in white, but the paint had chipped off in places; underneath it showed black. From a distance she'd assumed it was metal or wood, but close up...

"Alessandro?"

"Yeah?"

"Is this a scale?"

"Yeah. Ever hear of Ankhalarodox the Cruel?"

Hyadis cast her mind back to her studies. "Big black dragon... caused a lot of trouble near Minlizil Pea about a hundred years back, eventually got driven off by a bunch of wizards?"

"Guess so. Well, she flew to the islands, ate a lot of people there. My great-great-great-grandfather Gurlishak Hedkikka and his brothers found her lair and killed her. Took that from over her heart."

"Impressive." She tested the point with her fingertip; it wasn't razor-sharp, but with a bit of weight behind it, it didn't need to be. "Do you want me to dry your arrows?"

"If you like. Be gentle with the fletching." He'd finished rinsing off his boots, and trudged up the bank to sit alongside her, showing her how to do it.

"So, what are all these different arrows for?" Most of them were roughly the same size - around three feet long, shaft as thick as her finger - but there were several types, each with a different-looking head and marked with different patterns of feathers.

"Well. Let me tell you how it is with orcs..." And he began to talk about the customs of his people. It was true enough that orcs spent much of their youth (and indeed adulthood and old age) learning how to kill, maim, and intimidate. But they also spent much of their time learning when it was appropriate to do each of those things, or none of them.

As Alessandro pointed out, if orcs resolved all their differences by killing one another, very soon there would be no orcs left. Even if you had the strength and the numbers to wipe out a neighbouring village and take their land, you'd leave yourself with nobody on your side when the next tribe over the hill decided to do the same to you - or, if you were unlucky, a hungry giant or even a dragon wandered into your territory. And if you killed warriors without need, you could expect the same from others who heard about it.

So there were Rules, detailed and wide-ranging, about what sort of violence was acceptable. Minor disputes were usually settled with nothing more than cuts and bruises, and sometimes by a mere show of force. A more serious dispute might end when one of the participants was unable to fight, either temporarily or permanently - as Alessandro explained, many orcish craftsmen were ex-warriors forced to change professions after losing the use of a leg or an arm. Even in a lethal blood-feud, there were usually limits; depending on the cause and the factions involved, they might end when one side or the other had lost three warriors. Only when dealing with less-civilised foes who didn't obey the orcish niceties - like trolls, or elves, or humans - were orcs likely to kill freely.

Accordingly, Alessandro carried a range of arrows. Blunt-headed ones suitable for warning off a pig-thief with nothing more than bruises and maybe a cracked rib, or for hunting smaller animals without damaging the fur. Narrow-headed ones that would come out cleanly without too much blood loss. And broad-heads and barbs for all-out war or (more often) wild boar and other dangerous animals. He also had fish-arrows with forked heads and a trailing line, and bird-arrows, with elaborate feathers that would slow the arrow quickly and make it easier to find.

After these, there were two arrows left that were quite unlike the others: slimmer, intricately-decorated shafts, and ornate leaf-shaped heads in gleaming metal. The feathering was a little more regular, and when she picked one up it was about half the weight of the others she'd handled. "Is this elvish?"

"Ayup. Those are for giants."

"Why do you need special arrows for giants?"

"They're bad-tempered, they hold grudges, and they're really hard to kill. Very thick skin. You shoot one with a normal arrow, probably you don't kill it, and then you've got an angry giant after your blood. Bad idea."

"So the elf arrows get through the skin?"

"Nope. But then the giant's looking for an elf instead."

"...oh. Fair enough."

Besides the shield - a lethal weapon in itself - Alessandro carried an assortment of other weaponry: a heavy sword that reminded her of a kitchen cleaver ("my grandfather made this"), a machete, and of course his bow, a complex construction of metal, wood, sinew, and horn that stood about as high as she did. Having seen what it did to things downrange, she didn't even bother trying to bend it.

His armour came in several pieces: heavy gloves, boots, pieces of leather that strapped to his thighs and arms. Here and there they were studded with shark teeth that would make life unpleasant for anybody attempting to grapple him. Most of it looked like orcish worksmanship, emphasising function over style, but the largest piece looked quite out of place.

"This breastplate." It was painted black, to make it less conspicuous, but like the shield it had lost paint here and there, and underneath there were bright gleams. And it was much lighter than it looked. "Elf-silver."

Alessandro scowled. "'Elf-silver!' Feh!"

There was deep anger in his voice, and she backed away. "Sorry. I didn't mean offense."

"Long story. Let's get dinner going and I'll tell you some of it."

[TBC]

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