Maevyn's brother laughed as he darted away from her. He was eight, far younger than her own respectable nine years of age, and always bothering her. The girl huffed her loose dark hair out of her face and went for him. If their mother were there to see she'd be telling Maevyn to halt her hoydenish behavior. Mama always yelled at her first. A little to do with being the older child, a little to do with being a girl and not supposed to cause such a fuss. A lot to do with the fact that Maevyn really was "a bit of a handful," truth be told, and always getting into trouble. So even though Demmi was the one who had begun the pestering this time, it would be she who got the talking-to.
But Mama wasn't there to see, was she? She was in the house with a good hour's worth of churning. She had made a brief attempt to set Maevyn to doing it for her. That ended when Demmi started being a nuisance and Maevyn nearly knocked the butter churn over and her mother had groaned and sent both of them out of the house where they wouldn't be a distraction.
Leaving Demmi free to tease and torment his sister. And leaving his sister free to retaliate as she chose.
Maevyn aimed a smack at him—Demmi dodged it and, grinning, swiped at her head. He didn't hit her but Maevyn shrieked as the ribbon in her hair ripped free with several dark strands still caught in it. Not only had that hurt, it was her nice ribbon, the one she liked that was shiny-red and smooth and that Mama had bought from the peddlar. "Ow! Ow!"
He waved it tauntingly. "Yah, yah, can't catch me!"
"I'll catch you! Orc-brat!"
The boy's mouth made an "o" of shock that turned into a grin of utter delight. "You said a bad thing!" he exclaimed.
Maevyn's ears turned red but she too felt a naughty glee at her daring. "So you are, then, Demmi! So you are an Orc-brat!" she repeated, compounding the sin.
He giggled. "I'm gonna tell Mama you said that! I'm gonna tell her and she'll give you a thrashing!"
"I'll say I heard you say it before and she'll thrash you too!" That was a lie—she had just thought the name up herself, but it was a good threat. 'Orc' wasn't a word to use lightly. Grand-da and Grandmama had been killed by Orcs in the Great War, as had many of the folk in their village. When grown men talked about the Orcs they scowled and spat, and women blanched in fear and disgust. If Mama heard them bandying the word about as an insult, she'd probably do more than thrash them. She'd probably send them to bed without any supper.
Maevyn's brother fell silent, clearly thinking about the repercussions if he tattled. Abruptly he changed tactics. "Want your ribbon back, Orc-brat?" he taunted, adopting the insult himself in a tacit indication that he wouldn't tell on her.
"Don't need you to give it back, I'll just take it!" she said, knowing that Demmi would make her chase him for it anyway. And so he did, round the tall oak tree and down the side of the hill, into the woods that began at the base.
When Demmi disappeared into the underbrush, laughing, Maevyn stopped abruptly at the outer-most trees. It was not out of fear—they had played in these woods before on many occasions and their parents had never yelled at them for it. Well, Mama had told Maevyn she was too big to be running through them getting burrs on her clothes, but Maevyn didn't care about that either. She could pick the burrs off. What she wanted was to take a moment and guess at Demmi's next move. There was the beech tree nearby with the hollow place under the roots, but only she knew about that. There was the stream—the water was low this time of year and the sandy bed mostly exposed, but it would show his footprints. Then again, Demmi was pretty dumb and probably wouldn't think of that.
Maevyn made up her mind and entered the woods. Barely a few yards in, the trees were so thick that they had a buffering effect. She couldn't even hear birdsong, much less Demmi thrashing about wherever he'd gotten off too. Her own footsteps sounded loud in her ears but she knew they wouldn't to her brother. But all the trees meant he had plenty of places to hide behind and to watch for her, jump out as he chose in some dumb attempt to scare her or continue to hide behind and evade her. Little sneak.
She headed toward the ridge overlooking the stream bed and peered down, her eyes picking out his footprints almost immediately. They only went for a few yards though—then he must have scrambled back up the bank on the other side, from the looks of the loose soil. She followed his trail, easily stepping over the little trickle that was currently the stream and continuing in the direction he had gone. She knew where he was heading now and she muttered to herself under her breath. There was a clearing up ahead where the children sometimes played, but it was hard to get to: heavy creepers and thorny bushes, all manner of obstructive shrubbery. Demmi knew that it was harder for her to get through on account of her skirt. She scowled. He really was an Orc-brat.
When she got to the place where the underbrush got thicker, she groaned out loud. The vines and climbing things were broken where her brother must have gone through. So he had come this way. She had known it. "Demmi! Demmi, I'm gonna get you for this, Demmi!" she promised, not caring if he heard her. Determinedly she took the same way he had. At least him going through first had broken up a path a little for her, but it was still quite a struggle. Her skirt caught on thorns and they scratched her arms and legs. Plus the loose hair about her head was sticking to her face with sweat. She grumbled to herself. He was going to get it when she caught a hold of him.
When she burst out of the heavy gorse she pulled up short abruptly. Demmi was lying twisted up on the ground, and his head was all turned around-like. His eyes stared at her with a strange look, like the shiny glass beads on Mama's best dress. It was so confusing to Maevyn that her first instinct was to laugh. "Demmi, you stupid, what're you playing at?"
His eyes didn't blink. All around, the woods felt like it was holding its breath. Maevyn sucked air in, puffing out her chest, and let it out with a heavy sound. She could feel fear knocking within her but did not succumb, less from bravery than from a lack of understanding. She did not yet know what it was she had to fear. She cocked her head, looking at Demmi, and slowly walked towards him. "...Demmi?"
He didn't respond. A fly buzzed nearby. Maevyn swallowed. "Demmi? This isn't funny, Demmi," she whispered, nudging him with her foot to no effect. She bent down and pushed his shoulder determinedly and he fwumped over onto his back. Some of his insides were hanging out of a wide rip in the side of his stomach. He smelled like a gutted pig. The red ribbon was still clutched in his left hand.
Maevyn's hand shot to her mouth. She turned and retched hard into the grass. Spitting out the foul taste, she looked again only to see her little brother still like that; only to know without a doubt that this was no joke or pretence. It was too much. Her eyes filled up with tears. "Demmi?" she whimpered softly. Mama, she thought to herself, get Mama, and her lungs filled up with the yell she was going to yell for her parents to come running.
No. Don't do that. The yell turned into a strangled gasp and she hugged herself abruptly, trembling all over her body, afraid that something might have heard. Maevyn, stupid girl! What did this? And where is it? Might be watching right now! She looked around, frightened, and that was when she noticed the heavy indentation in the grass. A footprint bigger than either she or Demmi could have made. A footprint bigger than a man's. It pointed away from Demmi and she looked where it pointed, to a place at the edge of the clearing where the grass was badly trampled. Whatever...it had been, it had not been alone.
She turned and ran back the way she had come, as fast as she could go, not caring how the thorns ripped her clothing and scratched her body. Every second she was terrified that whatever they were, they were following her. She could hear the heavy footfalls behind, feel the hot breath on her neck. She ran faster, the air almost sobbing out of her. She knew in the back of her mind that this was foolishness, that she was sure to be spotted in the state she was in, but it was as though the fright had addled her brains. It was only when she broke through the last trees and into the open that she dared to look behind her, to see if she'd been followed.
That was when she heard the screaming. That was when she turned to run for home. And that was when she realized home was where the screaming was coming from.
The man came at him with a pitchfork, yelling, and Grushak cut him down, cleaving him where the man's neck met his shoulder. The man's whole body stiffened in a satisfying way, and his mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water. Gouts of blood spurted against Grushak's arms and chest. His jagged blade sank low but caught at the base of the ribcage and the Orc cursed as he yanked it out again with a hard quick pull. Needed a fresh edge. No time to think of that. The man's carcass fell towards him and he sidestepped it neatly, whirling in an adroit fashion that belied his heavy frame.
He saw no one else but the man's screaming woman. She had been churning butter when he first shouldered his way into the house, and had knocked the churn over in her fright. As she made for flight he had slashed at the backs of her legs, neatly hamstringing her just before he was distracted by the arrival of the man and the man's crude weapon. It was only dragging herself that she was able to reach the shadows at the back of the house, away from this terrifying invader whose dark silhouette against the bright patch of the open doorway filled her vision. His blade had lapped at her skin, had tasted her blood and had butchered her mate before her eyes—now she looked at him with those same eyes and her pupils were dilated with a fear that was unspeakable.
His own keen cat-slit eyes, passing over the terrified woman for the moment, picked out the dark corners of the house with ease, looking and dismissing. No one else then. Good.
The Orc leaned over and ran a stubby forefinger through the half-churned cream that had spilt on the floor. Straightening as much as the natural slouch of his kind permitted, he licked it off in a deliberate fashion and leered at the woman with obscene promise before shouldering his way out of the house.
His strong nostrils flared as he stood and snuffed in the smell of carnage. He looked towards the rest of the houses that formed this little community of Men, where the rest of his party were going about their business of murder, theft and rapine. With great success, by the looks of things—all was clearly well in hand. His pointy ears warmed to the sounds of Mannish screams and the bleating of livestock. Unless he missed his guess, Shrah'rar would be putting the fear of the Dark Lord into some goat even now. Snaga pervert.
"Arn. Arn, please. Arn, oh sweet Lady of Light, no! No, no, no, no!" Behind him, the woman was raising her voice in an increasingly higher-pitched keen.
Arn. Probably the name of her dead man.
Grushak turned slowly, a pleasant heat spreading in his lower belly. He walked towards her slowly, grinning at the way she drew back from his advance. She left a trail of blood as she did, pulling herself backwards, unable to take her eyes away from the Orc, dragging her useless legs until her back met the wall of the house and she could go no further. He continued towards her until he was looming over her, enjoying his feeling of power.
The woman's plea changed then. "Oh no, please no, get away from here. Get away!" she cried, her eyes still on him but no longer seeing him, as though her words were directed at someone else. "Demmi! Maevyn! Arn!" she screamed as the Orc knelt before her, resting his considerable weight on one knee.
He leaned forward, taking in the smell of her: Man-smell, and female musk, and blood and butter and fear. His breath quickened and his tongue passed over his wide lips. "Let me teach you a different name," Grushak purred as he reached for her.