My forthcoming Epic Fantasy novel HORDE will be released on October 9th of this year. There will be a Goodreads Giveaway the week before release, but you can read the first chapter of Horde right here. Be sure to read all the way to the end for a special treat!
Treasure! It was the engine that drove the world in those days. Most folks had a few coppers to their name, and even a gold piece or two, but legends spoke of the great hoards that could let a man buy the world—great mountains of gold and jewels, piled higher than a man could climb in a day, more than he could decamp with in a wagon if he had a year undisturbed. Every wide-eyed crusader who set out to seek his fortune did so with the sound of gold coins clinking in his ears. Even those most noble of heroes, whose journeys turned the very direction of the world from darkness back toward light, were little more than treasure-seekers in the end. Greed was the great motivator, the equalizer that made Elves, and Dwarves, Men and Halflings the same in the eyes of their gods.
But once in a great while, heroism would rise from the most unlikely, the humblest beginnings, and the acquisition of wealth might only be a secondary concern. Keeping that in mind, it is time to meet our heroes . . .
* * *
Paug Blumpkin was smart for an Orc, which for many people might be like saying he was smart for a tree, or smart for a lump of clay, because Orcs—like politicians—have never been thought of as a particularly intelligent race. Their skills laid along different lines, namely those involving wholesale slaughter, retail slaughter, torture, barbarism, and bureaucracy. Paug was cut from a different cloth, though. For one thing, he could read, a skill most Orcs valued about as much as Halflings did calisthenics. For another, he had big dreams. Whereas most of the piggish, green-skinned louts were content to eat their slop, swing their swords, and polish their helmets regularly, Paug could often be found walking through the quiet parts of the caves, muttering to himself. Thinking, if you can believe such a thing.
His father, Blump, didn’t approve. “It’s unnatural,” he would shout. “Why’s he got to be such a bedamned smart ass? What does he think he is, an Elf?” And Blump would spit goo onto the floor, because Elves were the sworn enemies of Orcs. Come to think of it, so were Dwarves, Halflings, and Men, and probably some races that have long since passed into legend.
Paug’s brother Milph would shrug and say, “I don’t know, Da’,” which was the one thing that made Blump proud. Milph was a good Orc. He would never be caught thinking. The chubby youngster was as dumb as a proverbial box of hair, which meant he would likely be commanding a regiment for the Horde when he was older.
Orcs never had a good reputation among the other races in the best of times, and times had been notoriously lean of late. It used to be that there was always an evil Wizard or warlock in need of an army-for-rent, or a Barbarian king that wished to overrun a neighboring nation. All one had to do was send an emissary to the Orc King with a sufficient amount of gold, and then the Horde would be mobilized—a tremendous host of the foulest warriors ever seen in the world, with their cruel blades and twisted armor. The Orcs would set out to slay at the behest of their new master, along with specialized platoons of Goblins, whose cunning built the Orcs’ great war engines, and Ogres, whose gigantic size and strength made them perfect for dragging those war engines around, and Kobolds, who nobody knew quite why they hung around but everybody agreed were delicious. It was every Orc’s honor to march in a Horde and throw himself joyfully against the spears and arrows of their enemies, to die as he had lived: hooting and hollering and making a ruckus.
Unfortunately for the die-hards of the Orcish warriors, a time of peace had come to the world. The Necromancer had been killed. The Wizards were all sequestered back in their towers, doing whatever magic-users did. Reading, snorted most of the Orc fathers in disdain. There hadn’t been a good war since Blump had been a mere tadpole, barely large enough to carry the sword they’d shoved into his hands. He would proudly show off his war wound to anyone, whether they asked to see it or not, and would get very angry when it was suggested that perhaps he’d been facing the wrong way. “I stepped on a loose stone and fell,” he would yell. “Arrows come from above. Of course I got shot in the ass. I wasn’t running away, like a coward.” And then, to illustrate his point, he’d punch whoever was closest to him.
Paug had learned long ago not to be sitting near his father when the question of bravery in battle came up. Milph never quite figured that part out, and as a result, his nose was permanently squished instead of protruding like most Orcs’ did, and Blump said it looked positively regal. “You’ll be a great leader of Orcs someday, my son,” he would say.
“Lead from the rear,” was Paug’s suggestion, whose ideas about the difference between bravery and foolhardiness were at best unpopular. “The warriors at the front die first.”
“So, uh, that’s good, right, Da’?” asked Milph. “Because that’s honorable, right?”
Blump slapped Milph’s shoulder. “Indeed it is, my son! Indeed it is.”
“Da’,” began Paug. “Who would the Horde even fight? There hasn’t been a war in twenty years.”
Blump’s piggish eyes narrowed into slits. “Who’s counting?”
“Well, you got wounded in the last battle, right? And you were younger than we are now. Which means we hadn’t been spawned yet. And twenty is as high as most Orcs can count, anyway.”
“Twenty-one,” said Milph. “Who’s the smart one now, Paug?”
“Don’t be a know-it-all, Milph.” Blump shook his finger at his younger son’s face.
“You’re only saying that because you forgot your trousers this morning,” said Paug. “And that’s pretty bad, even for you.”
Milph looked down at his bits and pieces. “Oh. Whoops. I can’t recall where I left them last.”
“Why don’t you try your pallet?” suggested Paug.
Milph grinned a gap-toothed smile, his lower fangs flashing in the torchlight of the family’s cave. “Thanks, Paug.”
“You know, my father could count to twenty-two,” said Blump thoughtfully, watching his younger son root around his bed in search of the elusive trousers. “Of course, he took a funny wound in the Seventh Elf War.”
“I’m sure it was funny, Da’.” Paug tried not to roll his eyes.
“He was a smart one, like you. I suppose smarts skips a generation. Believe me, son, I try not to hold that against you.”
“I can’t help it, Da’. Why do we even have brains if we don’t use them?”
“Now, you hush right up with that line of thought. You sound like a bloody Elf when you ask questions.” Blump wandered over to the cooking pot and raised the lid, filling the cave with the stink of the morning glop, made from freshly-caught cave fish, cave mushrooms, cave water, and a handful of oats leftover from the last raid.
“Da’, just because they’re Elves doesn’t mean that they’re useless.”
Blump spat phlegm of disappointment into the fire, which hissed and crackled. “There you go again, saying Elves are this and Humans are that and Dwarves are something else too. You’re an Orc, Paug. Your destiny is to die gloriously in battle on the spears of our enemies, not to—to bloody daydream.”
“I found my trousers!” crowed Milph. He held them up, one hand jammed into each leg and his head stuck in the midst of the crotch.
“Milph . . . they go on your legs,” said Paug.
“Paug! He’d figure it out eventually on his own,” said Blump. “We’re not Kobolds. Orcs have a proud tradition of solving problems the most effective way.”
With a tearing sound, Milph forced his head through the seam of his trousers and grinned at his father and brother.
“I’m just so damned proud,” said Blump, a paternal tear in his eye.
* * *
After Paug took a few minutes to get Milph’s trousers straightened out and mended with some rough needlework, the two young Orcs departed for their daily training regimen with the rest of the Mid Central Battalion.
“I wish you and Da’ wouldn’t fight,” said Milph. “It always makes me feel like I should punch both of you.”
“He doesn’t understand me,” said Paug. “Just because we’re Orcs doesn’t mean we have to be slaves to blind traditions.”
Milph laughed. “No, silly. We ain’t slaves. We don’t have chains on, see?” He raised his hands to show his brother. “Kobolds are slaves. Did you mistake us for Kobolds, Paug?”
Paug stopped in the rough-hewn corridor. Orcs had never been much in the way of diggers and excavators, but they were superb when it came to stealing others’ work. The Orcish Kingdom had been established in a Dwarven stronghold many generations before. Paug sometimes stopped in his travels to admire the work left behind by the stout craftsmen’s hammers. After difficulties with larger Orcs, he’d long since learned to tell them he was just staring at the walls. He felt like he could only really be honest with Milph, as they’d been inseparable since they were mere tadpoles. He didn’t know what it meant to love something, as that was as foreign a feeling to Orcs as kindness or charity. He didn’t even know the word for it. What he did know was that it would bother him if Milph were to tumble down one of the numerous open shafts that plagued the Dwarven tunnels. “Milph, listen. There are chains on us. They’re unseen, but they’re there. They’re what keep us hiding in these caves and training for battle, when that battle might never come again. All we do is practice fighting and killing each other while the rest of the world goes on without us. Nobody will ever remember us when we’re gone. We never make anything. We never do anything. We’re useless.”
“But we make swords . . .” Milph held up his smudged blade, unevenly-sharpened with a notch out of it near the tip.
“Goblins make swords,” said Paug. “All we do is practice swinging them.”
“Like this!” Milph swung his around in an admirably fast arc, making Paug leap back to avoid being cut in half. The whistling blade struck a thick rope that passed through holes in the floor and ceiling. The ancient fibers, soaked with oil and mold, parted without so much as a complaint. The severed ends shot both up into the ceiling and down into the floor, the latter with a crashing, clattering sound that suggested to Paug that it had been supporting a large amount of weight.
“I think we should leave,” said Paug. “Otherwise we’re going to be in trouble.”
“It was a good cut, huh?”
“Would you stop fightin’ with Da’?”
“Probably not. Come on, we’re going to be late for regimen.”
The two Orcs hurried through the corridors until they reached the Training Hall, which had long ago been a central marketplace for the Dwarves.
The Orcs had long since cleared away all the useless colorful tents and replaced them with various training stations where they could better themselves as warriors. There were wooden dummies that they could hack at with swords, terrified Kobolds that they could hack at with swords, and one overlarge Troll that they could pretend to hack at with swords but mostly run away from. Hacking at things with swords tended to be the most in-depth regimen that typical Orcs could handle. They were pretty much incompetent with bows, although Human-style crossbows were hardy enough that some Orcs were learning how to shoot “Just like Elves,” they proclaimed. “Except without all the leafy nature shit.”
“Blumpkins!” growled Sergeant Sluggo. “You’re late.” Sluggo was a veteran of the last war, like Blump, and in fact had served in the same unit as Blump. He even had a similar wound in his own hindquarters, as well as a scar across his kneecap from what he’d described as a vicious Halfling with a knife. He glared at the two young Orcs, his heavy brows bristling.
“That was my fault,” said Paug. “I was, uh, staring at the walls again.”
“I should put the two of you on Ogre work today, but it seems that we’ve had a bit of an emergency. A rope split and dumped about twenty tons of rock on the entrance to the Royal Chambers. All the Ogres are busy clearing the way for the King.”
“Oh, uh, gee, that’s too bad,” said Paug, realizing it had probably been Milph’s fault. “So, training dummies, then?”
Sluggo squinted at them. “What are you up to, Blumpkin?”
“I was wearin’ my trousers on my head this mornin’,” said Milph, pride spread across his porcine face like Kobold glue. “It was really dark.”
Sluggo slapped his face, the Dwarven gesture one of his peculiar affectations. “All right, you two. Get out of my sight and go beat a dummy into splinters. And no, I don’t care if it’s a Kobold or not.”
Paug and Milph attached themselves to a group of fellows from Up South Hall and they took turns beating apart tree trunks hauled in by Kobold attendants. Every once in a while, one of the Up South Hall Orcs would swing at the attendants, who yelped and squealed as they felt the touch of cold steel. The other Orcs laughed at the barely sentient slaves, but not Paug. He didn’t care about the Kobolds; that wasn’t in his nature. But he thought it was stupid to waste effort upon a creature so pathetic that it couldn’t rightly be said to be an enemy even at its best.
Eventually, the Sergeants called a break to the morning regimen for the midday meal, and the Orcs slipped their weapons back into their scabbards. Paug and Milph sprawled out on the training floor along with the Up South Hall Battalion to await their basket of sandwiches, made by Kobolds—and quite possibly of Kobolds—and delivered by the tiny dog-like men as they labored under the weight of meals almost as big as they were.
“So there we were,” one of the Up South Hallers was saying. “Me and Blount. We had the farmer up against the wall and his wife making us soup. A Human, making soup for Orcs.”
Raucous laughter echoed around the group.
“What’s a wife?” asked an Orc. “Is it like a Kobold?”
“Can you eat them?” asked another.
“Was it good soup?” asked Milph, always practical when it came to his stomach.
“A wife is a Human, but softer. Smoother. And smells like flowers,” said the storyteller.
“I heard that they don’t have helmets to polish,” said another.
“They have babies. They don’t spawn proper like. My uncle said he saw one once and it durn near made him ill.”
“But was it good soup?” insisted Milph. “If so, maybe we should get a wife. Kobolds are lousy cooks.”
“It was good,” said the storyteller.
“Why don’t Orcs have wives?” asked Paug, which stopped all conversation. “I mean, have any of you ever even seen a female Orc?”
“There ain’t no such thing,” said the Orc with the uncle. “My uncle said they’re nothin’ but trouble.”
“If there aren’t any female Orcs, then where do we come from?” asked Paug. “Don’t we have mothers?”
The storyteller leaped to his feet. “I don’t have a mother, you fatherless smartypants! And neither do you!” He dragged his sword free from its sheath. “You take that back.”
Paug jumped up and drew his own sword. Just because he was smart didn’t mean he’d slacked off in his training, and he wasn’t going to suffer insults from an idiot. The other Orcs scrambled to get out of the way as the Up South Hall Orc howled and charged at Paug.
Cheers arose around the Training Hall as steel met steel in a resounding crash. Duels between trainees weren’t uncommon, and the sergeants encouraged such behavior, looking for officer candidates.
Paug raised his sword and caught his opponent’s blade upon it. With his free hand, he smashed the other Orc in the face. The Up South Hall Orc yelped and dropped his sword, his hands flying to his ruined snout. If Paug had been feeling cruel, he would have slain the other Orc for his insult.
The problem with that was that dead soldiers rarely learned from their mistakes, whereas the memory of pain—especially when delivered in a humiliating fashion—left a lasting impression. So Paug left a lasting impression on the other Orc’s crotch with his steel-toed boots.
The Up South Hall Orc made an “Eeep” sound like a frightened Kobold and collapsed into a puddle of his own regurgitated lunch. The watching
Orcs cheered at the sound of defeat, hurling insults and leftovers and blowing their noses at the loser.
Paug waved his sword in challenge, addressing the onlookers. “Anybody else here not got a mother?”
Nobody spoke up. Most of them had, at some point or other, had their grapes crushed into wine, and nobody was eager to have it happen again anytime soon.
Paug sat down and picked up his sandwich. “Fine, then.”
Milph leaned over and whispered, “What’s a mother?”
“I’m not sure,” admitted Paug. “But I’m going to ask Da’ about it tonight after the regimen is done.”
* * *
“Da’,” said Paug over a bowl of thick, spicy newt stew. “Where do Orcs come from?”
Blump spit out an entire mouthful of stew in surprise. “What?”
“Orcs. Where do we come from? I know we grow from tadpoles, but where do they come from? Do we have, uh, mothers?”
Blump flew across the room in a fury, his fist raised high to chastise his son. “What kind of nonsense are they teaching you in that useless regimen? I ought to beat you unconscious and then slap you awake so I can do it again!”
Paug steeled himself for the blow he knew was coming. “I want to know, Da’. It’s important.”
“Da’, don’t hit Paug. He didn’t do nothin’,” said Milph. “He just ain’t right in the head.”
Blump stopped, his hard fist still raised on high. “You really want to know.”
“Yes, Da’. You’re our father. How does that happen, anyway? I mean, Humans have wives. They have women. They have mothers. Don’t Orcs have mothers too?”
Blump sat down and started to pick bits of newt meat off his chest. “I suppose I should have expected you to ask at some point. Most Orcs never bother. They accept what they’re told and when the time comes, they father their own tadpoles. But you’re so damned curious. I don’t know what god cursed me to give me a son like you.”
Paug shrugged. “I can’t help it, Da’.”
“I ain’t curious, Da’. I don’t need to know where Orcs come from.” Milph paused and ate a piece of bread. “Where do they come from?”
Blump leaned back and sopped gravy off his chest with some bread. “You boys, like me, like all Orcs, we’re magic, we are. We come from magic, and that makes us more special than any other creature in this world. Humans? Elves and Dwarves? Those Halfling squabs? They’re mundane. Bland. They have to breed with each other, like animals do. Orcs don’t bother with any of that ridiculous messiness. We all come from a place deep in the mountains. When you’re of age, you’ll each make your journey to the Tad Pool. You’ll spill your wine into it and if you are worthy, it will reward you with a tadpole or two of your very own.”
Milph looked at his leather flagon with suspicion. “Why do we gotta spill our wine? Wine’s hard to come by. Only Elves make it. Couldn’t we spill somethin’ else? Like, uh, tentacle broth?” Milph’s dislike of tentacle broth was well known in the Blumpkin household.
“It’s not wine, Milph, you lump,” said Blump. “Not like Elven wine. It’s . . . you know, it comes from your, uh, grapes.”
Milph giggled. “You said grapes. Paug kicked a feller from Up South Hall in the grapes today at regimen. He . . .” He stopped as the dim candle flame of realization illuminated in the lump of overcooked oats that passed for his brain. “You mean we have to . . .”
“Da’, they said in regimen that we’re not supposed to do that. Ever. They said it makes Orcs go blind and grow hair on their palms so they can’t hold a sword,” said Paug. “So which is it?”
“Don’t do it!” shouted Blump. “No son of mine will spill his wine before his time!” He lowered his voice. “You haven’t, have you? I mean it, you’ve been good boys, right?”
“Of course, Da’,” said Paug.
“Well, there was this one time—” began Milph.
Paug threw a fistful of stew at Milph’s face, splattering him with newt guts and gravy. “Food fight!” he yelled.
Milph cheered and charged at his brother, waving his bread like a dagger.
Thanks so much for reading! I hope you enjoyed the first chapter of Horde enough to consider preordering it from Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords. Now here’s the special treat. If you prefer your books in paper form, you can actually order it right now and have it delivered to you before its official release date! Go here if you can’t wait to read the further adventures of the Blumpkin Brothers!