The Masks We Wear
It is never silent in the orc war camps. The crackling of bonfires, the roaring of laughter, and the clashing of steel are never absent even deep into the night. I hold up my boot of mead in celebration with the others as we let loose an orcish cry of celebration, sinking deep into our cups as the alcohol replaces the lost blood in our veins.
The orc war chief grins as he eyes the congregation, the reflection of the raging bonfire in his eyes, “Tonight is a night of celebration, my friends! Another triumph against the holy state has acquired us the most profitable mine in Eastfell! To Beowolf! His legion of archers destroyed any semblance of order among the enemy ranks! To Westalf! His traps and deceptions snared the enemy better than we could have hoped! To Granasha! Her footsoldiers took advantage of the opening with ruthless aggression, giving the rival army no quarter!” He raises his boot to each warrior in turn, then does the same to me, “And finally, to Vellash! A one-man army if there ever was one! You may not be an orc by blood, but I’ll be damned if you aren’t always welcome among our ranks. To victory!”
“To victory!” The spirited orcs echo his triumphant cheers, letting the mead and laughter flow freely.
One orc who is deep into his drink leans against a comrade, laughter crackling from his lips, “Finally, we make advances. I told you all when this started, did I not? I said we would be the key to the Dark Lord’s victory. It was that fool Xeros boy, a joke of a son to the Lord who has thrust us back weeks in progress. The Dark Lord claims any one of us can rise in rank if we show merit, yet that incompetent child has the highest rank for no other reason than nepotism. If the lord had not directed so much of our resources into the trap of the son’s capture, we may even have reached the capital by now! But nay, we are expendable, and the Dark Lord’s lineage is not.”
Another chimes in, “Lineage, hah! The Xeros boy is a poor excuse for an heir. If the rumors are true, he has inherited none of his father’s talents in the dark arts. He might as well be a commoner. If he were anything more he would not have needed a score of legions to save him from the clutches of ransom traders. There are certainly others more worthy of having a seat at the right hand of the lord. Vellash is the finest soldier I know, yet he has never received invitation to one of the lord’s feasts.”
The first orc grins, “Aye, now Vellash is a warrior through and through. And he doesn’t need any dark magic to do it! All raw talent he is. Though he must have had some encounters with the Dark Lord, has he not? The weapon he wields was among the lord’s collection once, if my memory serves me right.” He turns to me, “Yes, I don’t believe you’ve ever told us the story of how you received such a mighty blade, Vellash. Was it payment? Stolen? I am eager to learn its truth.”
I smile, my reflection shimmering on the dark blade’s surface, “It was neither. I won it in a duel against General Felmore. May the gods bless his departed soul. He was a worthy opponent, indeed. He wagered the blade, which was to be gifted to him by the Dark Lord, and I wagered my pendant.” I clutch my pendant tight. No one knows its true story, but rumors only grow from its mystery. It is not every day a pendant whispers to those near, after all.
The orc slaps his knee, “Against Felmore? You got more courage than I, lad. He could summon fear in your heart from a glance, silent fellow. He never did share any of his stories before he passed. If anyone deserved the honor of that blade, it was him. But the wager that is a side of him I have not seen. A toast! To the departed Felmore and his worthy replacement, Vellash!” The orcs whoop with cheer, sinking deeper into their mead.
As the night dies down, I bid my companions good night, wandering away from the encampment. I silently slip through the Dark Lord’s gardens, keeping to the shadows as I climb the western tower. I sigh in relief as I reach its zenith. The window to the top chamber is unlocked, just as I left it. I enter through the opening, hiding my blade under one of the floorboards before making my way to the powder room, but I am not alone.
I immediately shuffle to the side, my instincts taking over. I spin around, using my gathered momentum to transition into a grapple, pinning my assailant’s arms to their sides. “You almost had me there,” I smirk, releasing the well-dressed servant.
The servant, Heathcliff, fixes the new wrinkles on his finery, smiling in return, “There was a time when that trick would have worked on you, but you have since learned well. I am afraid I have little left to teach you, lord Xeros.”
I change out of my Vellash armor, removing my pointless eyepatch and shaving my scruffy beginnings of facial hair, “I owe it all to you, Heathcliff. I know you had to defy the Dark Lord’s wishes to train me, his son. Know how deep my gratitude extends for the risks you have taken to train me as well as keep my secret hidden.”
“Speaking of secrets, dear Xeros, your father will likely soon grow suspicious of his missing blade. I hope you have a plan for when that deception fails.”
I tidy up my hair, putting on my oversized lavish robes which make me look much more frail and small than I truly am, hiding the musculature and scars I have earned from my recent campaigns, “Not yet, but I’m working on it.”
“Why don’t you simply tell the Dark lord your secret? Why all the mystery?”
“When I was kidnapped, I tried to escape multiple times. Every single attempt failed. My father sent much more soldiers than needed to save me. He still sees me as a child. That experience will always remain with me. I will not let myself be helpless again.”
“And should the Dark Lord hear rumors about this Vellash character?”
I shrug, “He was a mercenary hired by General Felmore before he passed. Felmore’s silence makes him the perfect alibi. And should by chance Vellash meet the Dark Lord himself, I doubt he would see any semblance of his helpless son in the rugged mercenary.”
“We shall see. Shall we depart for the feast tonight, milord?”
“I suppose we must. I have to keep up appearances, after all. Lead the way, Heathcliff. And thank you.”
“Thank you for what, master Xeros?”
I smile, “For… nevermind. Now with haste! We wouldn’t want to be late to the feast, would we?”