The next morning, I went back to my office for the first time since I’d started on this case. I found the half-empty glass of cheap whiskey in my desk drawer when I went looking for a pencil and threw it down the sink. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t tempted when I held it in my hand, but I stayed strong. I needed the clear head I’d held onto this long if I wanted to figure my way through whatever the hell was going on. For once, the weather was pretty good. In the city, you sometimes forget what the season is, ’cause everything’s pretty much always grey and smoky. It was summer though, and today the sky was mostly blue and clear – at least it seemed that way through the smog. I didn’t really have much to do until Poppy got back to me with some results from the blood she managed to get. She said she thought there was enough there, though damned if I could work out how a few three-day-old dry flakes scraped from the floor like that could tell her anything. I guess it was just gnome alchemy. I still wanted to get some of my thoughts out of my skull and onto some paper though, so I scribbled down a few things. What I figured was that I was being lied to. That goes with the territory, especially in this city, but this was looking to be the biggest load shovelled my way yet. A case to find a murderer when I wasn’t even sure I had the right victim? That had to be a new one in this place.
I started with the two possible outcomes of our little trip to the Amandil Building. One: the body wasn’t really Nienna’s. If that was the case, I had to figure out whether the elves knew that too. Something about the whole situation had never quite made sense to me, but I guess I ignored it because I had more than a hundred damn years of racial memory telling me to trust everything an elf told me. The idea that Oredreth might have been feeding me a line just never crossed my mind. But it could all be innocent – as innocent as anything involving a brutal murder could be, that is – and the elves could be as in the dark as me. I didn’t think that was too likely though. So, what I had to figure out was why they lied, why they got me involved, and just what the heck was going on. Another thought occurred to me and, at the bottom of all this, I wrote ‘Who is body?!’ and circled it a couple times. Bottom line was someone had been killed, right?
Now I kinda had my thoughts in order, I looked at the second possibility. ‘Cause Poppy might just come back and tell me it really was Nienna who’d been butchered like a hog up there. Then what? I tapped my pencil against my chin, trying to make that fit the facts, but it just didn’t work. With everything I’d been through, it just didn’t make a lick of sense for this to be straightforward, not any more. I’d only written down the number two and I kept circling it over and over, but inspiration didn’t strike. I just knew something was up.
At that moment, the bell rang again. I looked up. Another potential client? Just what I didn’t need right now, although I didn’t think I had it in me to turn down a paying gig. I didn’t have to worry: the tall, robed shape of an elf swept into the room, and I knew from the way he was dressed it was Orodreth again. He wasn’t so polite as last time, and walked right up to my desk. I sat there, just staring at him for a minute, before I remembered I had a tongue in my head. “Can I help you?” was the only thing I could think to say.
“I don’t know, Ulrichson, can you?”
I’d been smart enough to move the piece of paper I’d be writing on underneath a file on my desk, and now I folded my hands in front of me, trying to look businesslike. “What seems to be the problem?”
Orodreth sized me up coldly. I could feel his eyes through the veil. “It’s been three days since we hired you, Mr Ulrichson. We wish to be updated on the progress of your investigation.”
“I got some very promising leads.” Which was true.
“Such as?” I could just tell he was raising an eyebrow under there.
“I wouldn’t wanna compromise the investigation at this stage,” I said, leaning back and resting my hands on the arms of the chair. I guess on some level I thought putting some distance between us would make me feel less inclined to fall to my knees and confess everything.
“I’m your client,” Orodreth said, and it sounded like it came out from between clenched teeth.
“No, Mr Amanadil is my client,” I pointed out, “you’re just the middle man.”
“Do not trifle with me, human!” I’d never seen an elf get mad. They’re usually so darn cool and collected. He slammed his hands down on my desk, and I just then remembered how strong they were supposed to be. They look kinda thin and pale in the flesh, but they’re tougher and stronger than us, they don’t get sick and they live a long, long time. The reason we obey them, the reason they used to be the guys calling the shots, ain’t ’cause of luck – it’s ’cause, when the chips were down, these were the suckers who could get the job done. They saved the whole world from destruction when the rest of us were sitting in our caves, hiding from the scary lights raining down from the sky. But that was ancient history. This particular elf didn’t save me from a damn thing, and I’d seen enough these past few days to know I’d had enough of being pushed around.
“You got to understand,” I told him in a low voice, “you’re payin’ me to do a job. I got professional pride. I got standards I got to follow, or why are you givin’ me your money at all?”
“Why indeed. Mr Amandil wants some results.”
“He’ll get them when they’re ready.” Oh boy would he get them…
“He wants them now.”
I spread my hands. “I ain’t got any yet. So he can send as many goons as he likes an’, hey, call yourself whatever fancy title you like, but that’s what you are, Orodreth: a goon, but he’ll wait until I have somethin’ to report that’s useful to him. Otherwise, I ain’t worth your cash, all right?”
Orodreth didn’t say anything, just stared at me through his veil. Then he lifted a warning finger at me. “You have until tonight.”
“Mr Amandil wants to know if you are close to finding the orcs who murdered his daughter. He wants names. He wants locations. Failing that, he will take your ‘promising leads’. But, tonight, you will give him something. Do you understand?”
“When are you sendin’ the car?”
“No car, Mr Ulrichson. Mr Amandil will come to you.” He straightened up and swept out of my office. I felt pretty uneasy about what he’d just said. If I knew there was a car coming, I could arrange to miss it, or at least know how much time I had to come up with something to tell Amandil. But now, he could show up any time on my doorstep, and I didn’t feel like I’d get too far talking back to one of the richest elves in New Atlas. He’d make Orodreth look like that gnoll we’d sent chasing after the torch. I didn’t want to give up Orca Khan’s name to the elves, although I was pretty sure they already had it, but he’d make me for certain. It’d just spill out of me, no matter how hard I tried to keep it bottled up. Suddenly, I felt like a drink again.
Instead, I grabbed my coat and left the office. The sky was starting to cloud over now, but it was still pretty warm. I put my coat on anyway and wished I had my hat. I had to keep thinking this through, try to make sense of things. I didn’t need elves showing up, fizzing my brain with their glamour. Gods damn it, why did they even need to send me on this damn fool chase? They could make me do whatever they wanted, couldn’t they? Well no. There were limits. I was compliant, ’cause I was a Northman, and my ancestors served elf overlords. They couldn’t drag any bum off the streets and turn him into a puppet. It didn’t work that way. But if, as I suspected, they were the ones who were really behind all this, what did they need me for?
I still couldn’t figure it out, so I stopped to pick up a pack of smokes and a newspaper. The Warhorn was full of boring stories about politics and money, but one story caught my eye. Orc gangs were getting bolder, some reporter said, and their graffiti was showing up all over town, not just in their neighbourhoods. There were a couple photos, and I recognised the glyphs: the jagged teeth that meant war, and Orca Khan’s red eye, which I knew too well. Knowing what I now knew, about the orcs and their secret city underground, I started to feel myself tense up. This case aside, trouble was brewing. New Atlas was a city on the edge, and it wouldn’t take too much to push it over into an abyss. If the orcs were planning something, didn’t I have a civic duty to tell someone? Shouldn’t the cops know about Orca, if that’s what their shanty town was called? But if I told them about it, I’d have to tell them everything, and then there really would be war. No, I’d just have to ride this one out for now, at least ’till I knew some more.
I went back to my apartment. I figured it was the place I had the least chance of being found by Amandil. Did the elves know my address? Probably. But it felt safer. The locks were stronger, and there were more doors between me and the street. I made myself a pretty crummy lunch out of whatever crap was left in my cupboards. I don’t know what I boiled up, but it came in a can and seemed to be some kinda meat. It could’ve been dog food for all I knew, ‘cept I’d never had any reason to buy dog food. I wasn’t quite that hard up yet. It was about halfway through the afternoon, and I was trying to listen to the radio when someone knocked on my door. I tensed up and made sure my revolver was close to hand and loaded. I didn’t want to shoot Amandil – that would really mess things up – but I was prepared to fight my way out of this situation if it came to it. I stood up. “Who is it?”
“It’s Poppy! Open up!”
That was a surprise. How’d she know where I lived? I crossed my living room, suddenly seeing what a mess it was for the first time and opened the door. She was standing there, wearing her hat again, with an envelope in one hand. “Poppy? What you doin’ here?”
“I got the results of those tests, bozo!”
“Yeah, but…” I scratched at my head. “How’d you find me? I ain’t in the book…”
“I went to your office first. Hey, you gonna invite me in or what?”
“I…the place ain’t too clean…”
“Sheesh, I don’t care. You should see my apartment.” She ducked right under my arm and walked in. Somehow, I kept forgetting how short she was.
“You went to my office?”
“Yeah.” She was looking around for a place to sit, but I only had the one chair so she took it. Her feet didn’t reach the floor.
“That don’t explain how you found out where I live.” I closed the door and just stood there stupidly on account of having no place to sit.
“I asked the guy who worked in the other office.”
“What other office?”
“On the floor below. You know, the accountant?”
I frowned. “Uh…”
“There’s an accountancy firm? Right below you?”
“I guess…” I’d never paid any attention at all to any of the other building’s tenants. “How’d he know where I lived?”
“I’unno. He just did. He seemed to like you.”
“Yeah. Somethin’ about you always bringin’ up his mail, he said. An’ you were quiet. Guess he needs it pretty quiet to do all that math.”
“I guess so, yeah.” I had no idea I’d made any sort of impression on my neighbour, and I told Poppy so.
“I think you make more of an impression than you think, Ragnar,” she said. “Now, you gonna offer me a drink or what?”
“Oh, yeah. I…uh…I got some coffee, I think.”
“Yeah, coffee. Not too strong.”
“‘Cause humans always make coffee too strong.”
“For gnomes, yeah. You always forget we’re small.”
“Oh right. Yeah, I guess.” My kitchen was tiny – it was pretty much just a cupboard off my living room with a fridge and a stove in it – but I did have some instant coffee from Crom knows when, and I managed to scrape enough out of the can to make two half-decent mugs of the grey-brown crap. I came back into the living room and handed Poppy hers. It looked huge in her tiny, delicate hands. “You can take your hat off,” I told her.
“You don’t like my hat?”
“What? No. It’s a nice hat.” It was pretty nice. Fashionable, knitted, a sort of dark crimson colour. “And red,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, well, I like blue better.”
“Why ain’t you got a blue one then?”
“‘Cause I’m a Redcap,” she said, like that explained everything.
She rolled her eyes. “You don’t know much about gnomes, huh?”
“I know some…”
“Redcaps ain’t get on with Bluecaps.”
“Of course not! Rival clans. Goes back hundreds a’ years. Boy, humans are so self-involved. Redcaps wore red hats, Bluecaps wore blue hats.”
“So you got to wear a red hat now, just ’cause your ancestors did?”
“No, dummy! I can wear any colour I like. So long as it ain’t blue.”
“Oh. ‘Cause they might think you were a Bluecap?”
“Exactly. The enemy. I know, it’s dumb as heck.” She took a sip from her coffee and wrinkled her nose. I figured I might have made it too strong after all. “Anyway,” she said, putting the huge mug down on the table next to my half-busted radio, “you want these results or what?”
“Oh, yeah, sure.” I’d actually almost forgot. “No one cared what you were doin’?”
“The other cops don’t come in my lab. It’s gnome stuff. I can do what I like.”
She passed me the envelope and I ripped it open. Inside was a couple sheets of paper, but none of what was written on them made any sense to me. “You wanna maybe give me a summary, toots?”
“Blood is elven, female, pretty young.”
“Oh.” That matched Nienna’s description. “I guess that’s the end of it then.”
“Yeah.” I tossed the envelope back to her.
“Were you expectin’ somethin’ else?”
“Kinda. Was that all you could find out?”
“Pretty much,” she shrugged. “There were some impurities.”
“‘Cause it wasn’t fresh?”
“No, in the blood itself. I mean, it was mostly elf, but there was some human in there.”
I rubbed my jaw. I hadn’t shaved that day and I had some more of that grey stubble growing. “You mean, human blood? The victim had some human ancestry?”
“Accordin’ to my tests.”
“How much? I mean, how recent would that ancestor’ve been?”
She took the documents out of the envelope and flicked through. “Three generations ago?”
“That could be thousands of years for an elf…”
“Not this elf. She was only fifty or so. An’ she wouldn’t live so long if she had human blood.”
I shook my head. “That don’t make no sense – Nienna Amandil was at least two-hundr…” I tailed off, ’cause Poppy’s eyes had gone real big.
“Nienna Amandil?” she squeaked.
“Shit. Forget I said it. Boy, I got to be the world’s dumbest private dick…”
“This ain’t Nienna Amandil’s blood,” Poppy said, holding up the papers.
“How can you tell?”
“Ain’t you been listenin’ to me? The blood is part-human. The Amandils are the richest elf family in New Atlas! They ain’t got no human blood in them! And Nienna Amandil sure as heck don’t. Ain’t you seen the photos?”
“There’s no way you made a mistake?”
“Hey, you may be the world’s dumbest private dick, but I’m good at my job. Now, are you finally gonna tell me what’s goin’ on here?”
“An elf died in that courtyard on top of the Amandil Building. Seems it wasn’t who they said it was.”
“Somehow, I don’t think you’re that surprised,” Poppy said.
“You got that right.”
“So what now?”
“Now, I gotta figure out why they lied to me.”
“You wanna do that over dinner or somethin’?”
I looked at her, sitting in my chair with her cute hat and her button nose. She was about the prettiest damn thing I’d ever seen, but she was the size of a child and I couldn’t shake off how weird it felt to be looking at a gnome girl that way. “Yeah, I could grab a bite,” I heard myself say.
“All right. I know a good place to eat.” She hopped out of the chair and then realised she had the envelope in her hand still. It wouldn’t fit in her bag. “Can I leave this here?”
“Sure. Just put it on the table.”
“Okay. Let’s go.”
“Hold up – just gotta grab my things.” I still hadn’t replaced my wallet, but I had a roll of bills, ready for when that cab driver came calling, but I thought screw him and shoved it in my pants pocket. Then I put my coat on. For a second I looked at my revolver, but I left it where it was. Poppy never even noticed it sitting there right next to her. I guess she was used to guns, working with cops and all. Then we went out, me and a cute gnome girl I hardly knew.
If you ain’t like mushrooms, don’t go to a gnome restaurant. And don’t go to one if you’re a six-foot-five Northman neither, ’cause they just don’t got the right furniture for you. They squeezed me in somehow, and everyone was real polite, but I could feel all their little eyes staring at me. Poppy just laughed, and babbled at the waiters in her sing-song language. “What should I get?” I asked. “They do a steak?”
“Fire beetle steak, yeah.”
“Fire beetle? What’s it like?”
“What you havin’?”
“The fly agaric with fries.”
I frowned. “Fly? Like, a fly? How’d they catch it?”
She looked at me like I was crazy, but then figured out where I’d got confused. “No, not a fly. You thought I meant the insect?”
“Well, you just said I could get beetle steak…”
“A fire beetle is bigger’n a dog.”
“Yeah. But fly agaric is a kinda mushroom.”
“Oh. Should I get that then?”
“You probably shouldn’t.”
“‘Cause your body probably don’t got any resistance to it.”
She nodded. “It can make you go sorta…loopy…if you ain’t used to it.”
“Okay, so not that. An’ I ain’t eatin’ beetle. So what’s not made out of insects or fungus?”
“Nothin’. This is a gnome restaurant…”
“What’s a fungus that won’t make me see weird stuff?”
“Have the white mushroom burger.”
“You heard the lady,” I told the waiter, and he just gave me a weird look. “But I want extra mustard, extra ketchup an’, if you got it, a whole loata extra pickle.”
“You got it, mister,” he told me. He had a strong gnomish accent and I figured he was first generation. Poppy and me sat there in silence for a bit until, just to ease the tension a little, I told her what a nice place it was. It wasn’t so different from any other place like this is any other neighbourhood in the city – condiments on the table, red and white checked table cloths, pictures crammed everywhere on the walls and the smell of stuff frying floating out the kitchen.
“Yeah, it’s fine,” she said, “nice to be reminded a’ home, you know?”
“You ever actually been to Mycopolis?” I asked her with a smile.
She looked a little defensive at that. “Well, no…”
“It’s okay,” I said, “ain’t like I’ve ever been to the North. All I know is the stories.”
“Yeah, same here.” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “Weird how we still act like we live in the places our folks grew up.”
“My folks’ folks in my case…”
“Yeah. We still care about cities an’ places we never even been to.”
“Ironsmith calls it ‘valley thinking’. Guess that’s more for orcs and Northmen, but the same applies to Gnomes an’ Dryads an’ everyone else in this city.”
“Why is that, do you think?”
I shrugged. “S’like you said – you can tell a lot about a person from their blood. The North is in me, just like Mycopolis an’ the Mushroom Glades are in you. I bleed frost an’ stone. You bleed…”
I laughed. “I guess.” But I remembered what I’d said to Orodreth when he first walked into my office, how I’d told him my family were from the North, but I was from New Atlas. It’d seemed important then not to be dismissed as dumb muscle – as the barbarian I was underneath this thin skin of civilised thinking, or whatever you’d call the kind of mindset growing up in New Atlas gives you. In the last few days, I’d gone back a few generations without even realising it. Well, screw ’em all, because now I was in a gnome restaurant, about to eat something than probably grew in a sewer. I mean, where else do you get fungus in New Atlas?
The radio was playing some twangy gnome music with lyrics I couldn’t understand, but someone behind the counter retuned it and I heard a stern sounding voice speaking in common. There was some sort of disturbance downtown, and me and Poppy both pricked up our ears. The staff were babbling at each other in gnomish, but I quieted them with a shush as I tried to pick up what the news report was telling us.
“…orc gangs are moving out from Treetops, and we have reports that some have come up from the sewers to join them,” said the tinny voice from the speaker, “So far their activities are limited to vandalism and disturbing the peace, but the NAPD have warned citizens to stay in their homes in case it escalates. Commissioner McKinley has promised a robust response to any…”
Poppy looked at me. “Orcs?”
“This ain’t no coincidence,” I growled, “looks like dinner’s gonna have to wait.”
“I should get to the station,” she said.
We stood up just as our food arrived and I apologetically threw a handful of bills at the waiter as we rushed out. In the street, everything seemed normal. This was a good gnome neighbourhood, but we weren’t the only ones who’d heard the news and store owners were rolling down shutters, looking around with worried expressions. There was a distinct lack of traffic and even people on the sidewalks. I cocked my head and it seemed like I could hear a sound in the distance, like a rumble of thunder from a growing storm.
“You comin’ with me?” Poppy asked.
“Huh? What? Oh, no.” I shook my head firmly. “I don’t think McKinley would be too pleased to see me right now. His hands are gonna be pretty full.” Still, she hesitated, looking torn. “Hey,” I said, “you’ll be safer there. I didn’t even bring my gun an’ besides I got a bad hip, a twisted ankle an’ it kinds hurts when I breathe. I ain’t gonna be able to protect you.”
“I wasn’t worried about you protectin’ me,” she smiled, “but okay. Where you headed?”
I jerked my thumb behind me. “Back to my place. I’d better lay low an’ figure out what to do next.” It would take us in opposite directions too.
“Okay. Well, take care of yourself, all right?”
“‘Course,” I said gruffly, “I’m a tough old bastard.”
“You ain’t that old. Not for a gnome anyway.” She went to turn away but then, on what I guess was a sudden impulse, turned back to face me and jumped up a little to give me a peck on the cheek. It was more on the side of my chin, on account of how tall I was, but I appreciated the thought. She gave me a last shy smile and then jogged a little way down the street to hail a passing cab. I watched her leave and then headed back to my apartment, wondering what kind of mess downtown New Atlas was in.
It was bad. No one had died yet, which was something to be grateful for, but my cab had to stop short of Arkenland Avenue and the driver said he wouldn’t take me no further, no matter how much cash I waved at him. I could see the fires raging myself, and I suppose I couldn’t blame him. I moved as quick as I could on foot, but it was slow going, what with my multitude of injuries slowing me up. There weren’t no decent folks on the streets now, and I didn’t see too many orcs either. It was still light, so it couldn’t have been much fun for them above ground anyway, but I guess the spirit of riot was in them and that took precedence. There was a big group of youngsters, all covered in war paint, yelling and hollering around an overturned car, but I gave them a wide berth and they didn’t even seem to notice me. Windows were smashed, dumpsters pulled out of alleys and tipped over. There was a lot of fresh graffiti. I could still hear that noise in the distance, just on the edge of hearing – I guessed this was just the edge of the chaos. Two blocks from my apartment, a manhole cover popped right off and a big orc with dreadlocks and a big red eye painted on his forehead jumped out. He moved towards me, but the sound of sirens in the distance stopped him. He turned away, sniffing the air, and I made a run – or a fast limp, I guess – for it. The cops were on the way. That was good. I just hoped it wouldn’t make things worse. There was something in the air, the stink of war, and blood.
I got to my apartment, but it looked like someone else had got there first. The door to the building was smashed in. It wasn’t the only one on the street, but it seemed mighty suspicious to me. I winced my way up the stairs, holding my leg, trying not to put any weight on my bad ankle, and my shoulders fell as I saw the door to my apartment was also ripped off its hinges. Orcs? Somehow, I doubted it. Inside, the whole place was trashed. My one chair had been turned over and ripped apart. My little kitchenette had every cupboard door open and some torn right off the walls. My radio was finally beyond repair, what with it being in bits on the floor against one wall, underneath an ugly dent in the plaster. The room smelt like a particularly big, smelly dog had paid a visit and that told me one thing: gnolls. And, while gnolls have a special affection for mindless violence, I didn’t think it was a coincidence that they’d decided to indulge themselves here. I looked around. My gun was gone and, when I investigated the wreck of the table that had once been by the chair, I saw the envelope with Poppy’s report on the murder victim’s blood was missing too. I don’t know how anyone would have trained a gnoll to pick out something like that, but maybe they didn’t come alone. I put my hands on my head, took a deep breath, and then kicked the remains of the table halfway across the room. “Shit! Shit shit shit and damn it all to Hel!”
I was in trouble now, and I didn’t have time to sit down with another napkin and figure things out. That’s when I thought about my office. “Shit…” I said again, but now I was already moving, limping my way out, abandoning my apartment as the crime scene it had become. If my office was in the same state, I was in real trouble – that one sheet of notebook paper was going to look pretty incriminating in the hands of Orodreth, or any of Amandil’s goons. My only advantage was that I knew the streets and they didn’t.
From my apartment, it was possible – but not too advisable – to cut almost directly across the city to my office. Go by car and you had to take a zig-zag route from street to street, and cut across three major roads that were almost impossible in rush hour. I figured elves wouldn’t go by rail either. What’s more, the blocks between here and there were currently in the grip of an orcish riot. That wouldn’t exactly make things easier for someone trying to follow the street signs. I was more resourceful than that though and, as a kid, I’d seen this city from an angle you wouldn’t see on no maps. Behind my building was an alley just like all the rest, but shin your way up the fire escape on the side of the next block and get onto the roof, and it was just a couple miles in a straight line to Eldritch Street, so long as you had no fear and a Northman’s physique. As I clambered up the rusted old ladder, it occurred to me that, in the thirty or so years since I’d last done this, I might have gained a little of the former and lost a little of the latter. I didn’t see I had much choice though.
Up on the roof, I got a sense of what was happening downtown. I could see smoke rising from intersections and hear the sirens coming from three different directions. Again, the faint roar was in my ears; a storm coming that was going to tear down New Atlas to its foundations. It wasn’t a coincidence, I knew. Orca Khan had chosen just this moment to rise up out of his underground city; just the moment I’d figured out he was the victim of an elaborate frame job. A pre-emptive strike? Maybe.
I hobbled to the edge of the roof. It wasn’t much of a jump to the next building – or it didn’t used to be, when I was thirteen and running from the cops. I took a bit of a run up and held my breath as I hurled myself into thin air, hoping there’d be a warm dumpster to break my fall at the bottom. Crom knows how, but I just about made it, rolling to a halt on the hard concrete as I landed, and jarring my leg even worse. I had to lie there for about five minutes to get my breath back, then groaned loudly as I picked myself up. A couple of dimly glowing fairy drunks watched me from the shadows and I nodded to them in a neighbourly way. “Fellas.” They stared at me as I eyed the next gap, running a hand over my jaw. “This might not have been a great idea,” I admitted to myself in a quiet voice.
A couple more bad landings later and I decided to head back down to street level. Problem was, that was even more dangerous, in a very different way. Orcs were out in numbers now, and a mob of them were at the end of the alley I climbed down into from another fire escape. When they saw me, they growled something I couldn’t understand and came right for me. I was in no shape at all to fight, but something in my blood took over and I charged right at them. There must’ve been five or six of them altogether, all young, all built like brick walls (with graffiti to go with it) and all hopped up on whatever rotgut orcs drank to deaden their minds. They pounded me down to the ground, breaking whatever ribs were still intact up to that point and knocking the wind right out of me with a couple of well-placed boots – or badly-placed, from my perspective. Thing was though, the civilised part of my brain was obviously still working, because I hadn’t even been trying to take them down, I just wanted to get momentum behind me. I rolled through the scrum of green-grey flesh and out into the street, where I staggered blindly up to my feet and started running. There were shouts from behind me, but then I saw the blurred shape of a police wagon scream around the corner and roar right towards me. I threw myself to one side, landing in a pile of garbage by the road and sat there for a minute watching the cops spill out and take on the orc boys with their batons. Someone was going to die soon, I realised. Somehow, this had to be stopped, and it just figured it would be me that would need to do it.
I managed to limp my way to my office without getting into any more trouble, and thankfully the door was still on its hinges. I just about got up the stairs, and I was surprised to see someone waiting for me outside my door. “Ironsmith?” I said, staring at him.
“By Crom, you look like garbage!” he told me.
“Yeah, well I just took a nap in some, for one thing.” I fumbled my key out of my pocket and near enough fell through the door. Luckily, Ironsmith managed to catch me and he took me through to my office and sat me down in the chair.
“Have you seen it out there?” I asked him.
“Yeah, orcs are takin’ over the city.”
“Looks that way.”
“There’s thousands of ’em, all comin’ out of the sewers. Treetops is in flames.”
I closed my eyes and leant my head back. “This ain’t a coincidence.”
“No,” Ironsmith agreed, “but I don’t quite understand what’s goin’ on. Not the whole of it anyway.”
I opened my eyes and checked underneath the files where I’d hidden that sheet of notebook paper. It was still there and I folded it up and carefully put it in my pocket. “It’s complicated.”
“Just tell me what you know.”
I looked at Ironsmith. I liked the kid, but I didn’t quite trust him yet. He’d made some of the right noises in our first conversation, but I knew he was mostly looking out for dwarf interests. He was no different from Bran Stonecutter, deep down. What was the old geezer had told me? All dwarfs were built the same? I could believe it. Still, I had to tell him something because, the rate I was getting bits of me smashed up, I wasn’t going to see the end of this myself. “Orca Khan is being framed.”
“Well we knew that…”
“No,” I waved a hand, “it’s bigger’n we thought. The victim? Not who the elves said it was.”
He raised his bushy eyebrows at me. “Who did they say it was?”
“Nienna Amandil. You know, the one who goes to all the parties?”
His eyebrows went even higher, if it was possible. “Crom preserve us!”
“Yeah, but don’t worry because it turns out it wasn’t her.”
“Your gnome friend figured that out from the blood?”
“That’s right. Whoever died wasn’t even a full elf. Definitely not Nienna.”
“Damn.” Ironsmith shook his head. “Chances are, they just shipped her off to Elvenhome. But why make you think she was dead?”
“To get me involved? I lost a pretty girl of my own to orcs. An’ their guy, Orodreth, he said they picked me for a reason.”
“But what for?” Ironsmith asked, sitting down in the other chair. “It don’t make no sense at all. An’ now we got orcs all over the city, tearin’ it down block by block.”
“You think Orca Khan was plannin’ this all along?”
“Probably. Orcs have had a worse deal than even dwarves, historically speakin’. No one wants them here. Not even us, and we employ them.”
“Yeah, well I can sympathise with that but…” I closed my eyes again. “But, it wears a people down, bein’ used, bein’ spit on. Northmen were like that once. We were just the muscle, haulin’ boxes on the docks. Didn’t matter whether a man had been a thegn, a jarl, a skald, even a shaman back in the mountains – far as New Atlas was concerned, he was just another Northman, no good for anythin’ besides labour.”
“Orcs have it even worse,” Ironsmith mused, “most dwarves think of them as animals.”
“Yeah, that’s the impression I got from Stonecutter.”
“An’ he’s not even the worst,” Ironsmith continued, “we don’t exactly talk about this to outsiders, but in some lodges, they talk about them like they’re a damn plague. A plague that needs to be eradicated.”
“You’d think dwarves would know better, with what they been through,” I said quietly.
Ironsmith winced. “Perspective…I ain’t know any species that knows how to do it right yet. People, individuals, they can do it, but you get them all together in a group with their own kind…”
“Valley thinkin’,” I filled in.
I swivelled around in my chair and peered out of the window. The blinds were down, but there was just enough of a gap between the slats to see the light filtering in from outside. Was it just me, or was it starting to cloud over again? And that roar, far away? It seemed closer now. A lot closer. “You know if they’ve killed anyone yet?”
I turned back. “The orcs. Out there. Anyone dead?”
“Not that I heard.”
“Let’s hope it stays that way.”
“Yeah,” Ironsmith said, “that’ll be what sets it off. Right now, the cops can contain it, keep them bottled up. Graffiti, settin’ stuff on fire, causin’ some damage, we can deal with that. But as soon as some human girl takes a wrong turn, runs into a pack of ’em…”
“Wouldn’t even need to be somethin’ so obvious,” I said, “the way people feel about orcs.”
“No. Just some poor schmoe in the wrong place at the wrong time. A bum who decides to take the law into his own hands, gets into a fight with the biggest orc he can find an’ comes out worse, that’d be the spark that sets off this tinder box of a city. Before you know it, orcs an’ humans are fighting another war and…” he trailed off.
I blinked at him. “Another war,” I said slowly, “orcs an’ humans, at each other’s damn throats again. An’ all it would take is some would-be orc king rippin’ the head off a wannabe hero. Wouldn’t have to be no one important: just someone who reminded the rest of New Atlas about how things used to be, back in the mountains.” I slammed my hand into my desk. “Those bastards! They set me up!”
“But why?” Ironsmith asked again.
I leant forward. “Think about it. Elves built this city, an’ they’ve watched it slowly fill up with every species under the sun. Orcs are just the latest arrivals. But, unlike the rest, they didn’t spend thousands of years doin’ what elves told ’em.”
“Just the damn opposite,” Ironsmith nodded.
“Exactly. An’ now, they get word there’s thousands of ’em, buildin’ a city right under everyone’s feet…”
“An’ humans are gettin’ unruly too…”
“Right. Humans from every corner of the world. Not all of ’em served the elves in the last Age. So…”
“So they start a war. Let New Atlas burn to the ground an’ then take over again.”
“Damn!” I slammed my hand down again and stood up. “We gotta go to the cops!”
“An’ say what? That they should arrest Findaráto Amandil instead of the orcs that are riotin’ on the streets?”
“Shit…maybe if we…”
And that was when the visitor I’d been told to expect that morning but had completely forgotten about decided to come calling. Thing was, he didn’t use the door: he came through the window, in an explosion of glass that knocked me and Ironsmith off our feet. And then, as I lay in the ruins of my office and looked up groggily at a handful of elves and a couple of towering gnolls standing over me, I decided to do what I seemed to do best these days, and pass out.