My dreams were a crazy jumble of different things. Orcs and dwarves and gnomes, fire and blood, the city – my city – burning, broken glass and tumbled towers, elves in hoods coming for me, then pulling off their hoods to reveal they were all wearing the face of Poppy Redcap, screaming in terror. A dwarf lodge filled with grinning gnolls, all playing with dwarf torches, and above it all the tang of frost and blood in the air, the cold wind blowing down from the mountains into the valley, promising snow and death…
Slowly, almost piece by piece, I came back to my senses. I felt like I had to pull the bits of my brain together and fit them back in their right places but, when I finally solved the puzzle, my eyes opened and I looked around blearily. My chest hurt like hell but, mercifully, my bad leg was now pretty much numb. I wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad sign. I tried to make sense of my surroundings. I was in a room, in a comfortable chair. That was something, at least, given some of the places I’d woken up recently. I blinked a couple times, and some other details swam into focus. It was big room, but felt somehow intimate. Wood panels on the walls, no windows, nice carpet, a big desk. I blinked again. Behind the desk were glass cases, mounted on the walls, and each had rows and rows of butterflies pinned in place inside them. At least, I hoped to Crom they were butterflies.
“Ah, good morning, Mr Ulrichson.”
I turned awkwardly in the chair, squinted across the room where the blurry shape of a figure stood by a cabinet of some kind. “Buh?” was all I managed to say.
“I expect you’ve sustained a concussion. A regrettable accident – please be assured that the responsible parties have been suitably chastised. Would you like a drink?” The man turned around and I saw he was tall, pale, with the dark slanted eyes of an elf. He was wearing a suit, but I couldn’t make out much else. I could see the glass in his hand though, filled with some pale red liquid. “Drink?” he asked again.
I was about to gratefully accept his offer, but then I thought better of it. My head was enough of a mess right then. “No,” I rasped, realising how dry my throat was, how my tongue felt like it was covered in hair, but working damn hard to ignore it. “I’m fine.”
“It’s from the vinyards of Elvenhome. An excellent vintage – aged several millennia. No human, certainly not one of your station, could ever hope to afford it. Don’t let your pride get in the way of this opportunity to experience something truly wondrous.”
“Just water,” I managed to get out.
“I’ll send for something,” my host said with a slight sigh in his voice.
I swallowed, and that helped a little. The elf walked towards me, and then around to the other side of his desk. Up close, I could see him better: he looked old, with lines creasing his face and completely white hair. I didn’t know elves could look like that. “Who are you?” I asked.
“You haven’t guessed?” He sat at his desk and folded his hands in front of him.
I nodded. I had, but I’d wanted to be sure before I said anything. If he wanted to play games, I wasn’t exactly in any shape to go toe to toe with him though. “You’re Findaráto Amandil,” I said.
“Just so,” he smiled, showing me pearly white teeth with canines that looked too long to my eyes. “Your client,” he added, as if that didn’t mean a thing.
“Right,” was all I could think to say.
“Do you know much about your ancestry, Mr Ulrichson?”
I moved in my chair. I wasn’t tied up, but I didn’t think I had the energy to make any kind of run for it. I looked at Amandil, and at his desk, and noticed my gun and Poppy’s envelope were laid out neatly in front of him. That meant the game was up. So why was he still talking to me, and why was I in his office? “Some,” I told him carefully.
“Because you bear a quite striking resemblance to a Northman I once knew.”
“Oh yes,” he nodded, “quite striking indeed. He was younger than you when I knew him, of course, but he had the same dark hair, the same broad shoulders, the same ice blue eyes. Quite a specimen. They called him Wulfang, and he was a great hero of your people.”
I smirked and shook my head. “Very funny. You think I ain’t know my history?” Wulfang was a name I’d grown up with – he was a half-legendary chieftain from the old days, when the Northmen had fought beside the elves to stop the Dark Prince.
“Well, my perspective of Wulfang is rather different from what you may have been taught by your parents or the priests of Crom. As I said, I knew him personally. Not well, but I spoke to him on several occasions. Even then, it wasn’t the done thing for humans and elves to mix socially.”
“No, I bet it wasn’t…”
“Indeed. But he was a noble and wise leader. You’ve heard the story of the Battle of Skullsplint Valley, I’m sure.”
“Sure.” I had, but it was just a fairy story from childhood to me. It was hard to wrap my smashed up brain around the idea of talking to someone who might have actually lived during those days, who might have even been there himself for all I knew. It was a good thing we had nothing much to do with elves: their way of looking at the world, their long memories of things that, to us, were like myths, would send us crazy.
“A great victory,” Amandil went on, “a beleaguered force of Northmen, fewer than five thousand in number, alone against the orc hordes.” He shook his head sadly. “Such a bleak day. It was a surprise attack, you see. We, the elves that is, had been laying siege to the Black Fortress for seven years by then. The Dark Prince, more demon than man, resisted all attempts by us to break him. But, in the dead of winter, he managed to send messengers through our ring of steel and a new army gathered in secret in the depths. A hundred thousand orcs boiled down into the valleys, threatening to engulf the Heartlands if they broke through. All of our work would have been for nothing if they’d succeeded. Wulfang and his Northmen rallied to our call and stood shoulder-to-shoulder across Skullsplint Valley, the only pass through the ice-choked highlands. For days they fought, never taking a backward step, until the snow beneath their feet was churned red from blood. In his hand,” and here Amandil made a fist, “he carried a great warhammer, dwarf-forged, called the Fist of Crom. That valley had no name before that terrible battle, but afterwards they named it after what he did with that mighty weapon. Orc after orc he felled, and worse creatures beside – wyrms and giants and hideous, unnamed beasts bred for war by the sorcery of the Dark Prince, things thankfully lost to the ages now – and all of their skulls he laid at the feet of Crom, splintered and broken. Such a warrior. He passed into legend, and became venerated as a demigod for some generations thereafter.”
I knew some of that, but not all the details. I knew something else he hadn’t said too. “He died though, didn’t he? Wulfang died after the battle.”
“From his wounds, from exhaustion. Yes.” Amandil looked sad again. “Such a loss. And not just him. The greatest generation of Northmen were decimated by that battle. But the orcs did not break through, they were repelled and, as the year ended, the siege of the Black Fortress was finally broken and the Dark Prince defeated. The finest hour of both our peoples.”
“So I hear.”
“It was long ago now though,” Amandil said with another predatory smile, “so long ago. For you, certainly. For me, I remember it like a dream. We live so long, but memory is a fickle thing, even for elves.”
“Right.” I didn’t know what he wanted me to say. Just then, there was a knock at the door and Amandil beckoned whoever it was in. An elf servant in robes walked in carrying a covered tray, which he put in front of Amandil. No one offered me anything.
Amandil took the cover off. Underneath was a white starched napkin, a knife, a fork and a plate. On the plate was a brownish lump of meat, still sweating blood, and nothing else. It looked raw to me. “Liver,” Amandil explained, “I have a taste for it.” I watched him cut into it, forcing out more blood, and delicately pop a forkful of it into his mouth. He chewed thoughtfully, staring into space.
“I thought elves were vegetarian?” I was mostly just trying to stop from throwing up, and any question would have taken my mind off watching him chew that bloody meat.
He dabbed his lips with the napkin. “Most, yes. Religious reasons, you understand. We live so long, see so much death. But, when one has lived as long as I have, you begin to have a different outlook on life.”
I looked at the ranks of butterflies pinned in the cabinets behind him. “You don’t believe in gods?”
“Belief is not the issue. My concern is solely truth. It is how I became what I am today.” He ate another mouthful of the liver.
“And that is?”
“The most powerful elf in New Atlas,” he said, once he’d swallowed and wiped his mouth with the napkin again – he did it between every mouthful. “But for all that, I am not content.”
“Because your daughter was just brutally murdered, right?”
He chuckled and put down the knife and fork. “Now. Shall we dispense with that particular fiction?”
“Oh, so you’re admitting it was bullcrap now?”
“We are both intelligent men,” he said, and I got the impression he didn’t mean it, “so let us be honest with one another. As I said, my concern is with the truth.” He tapped the envelope – Poppy’s envelope – and stared into me, giving me the full force of his damn glamour. I shrank back, no control over my own body in that moment. “You are a very resourceful man, Mr Ulrichson, to be able to call upon the resources of the NAPD like this.”
“I got contacts,” I murmured. I couldn’t stop staring into his eyes. They were almost completely black, and I could see my reflection in them, looking small, battered, scared. “What happened to Ironsmith anyway?”
“The dwarf. He was in my office when your boys came in through the window.”
There wasn’t any sign he had a clue what I was talking about. “I have no idea. Anyway, You correctly ascertained, by use of gnomish alchemy, that the body we showed you was in fact not that of my beloved Nienna.”
“You must have suspected prior to that though. Most astute. We recovered notes you made. You have a fine mind, and I admit that I underestimated you. Wulfang, for all his nobility, was not much of a thinker, and I have found the same to be true of most Northmen. You are different though. You figured your way through it, in your own bullish, barbarian way, and you sought out the truth. I commend you for that.”
I shook my head, trying to clear the muzz out of it. “Why did you do it?” I asked.
“I think you already know.”
I certainly thought I did. “You set me up…you were trying to get me killed.”
“Not exactly. Well. It was one possible outcome and, I’ll admit, not one that would have entirely ruined my plans. I would have preferred you to have survived though.”
“Sure.” I didn’t believe a word of it.
“The main objective though, was to set you against the orcish warlord whose power was, at the time, growing in their subterranean settlement but who now, unfortunately, is roaming the streets of this city freely with his foul army.”
He waved a delicate pale hand. “Whatever he calls himself.”
“You wanted a war…”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“You wanted a human to kill or be killed by an orc leader, which would turn the humans of New Atlas against the orcs.”
“Sentiments already run in that direction if you are anything to go by,” Amandil observed, “but yes, in essence, we wished to provoke direct action. You were to be our catalyst.”
“Because I hate orcs…”
“That was part of it. The death of your mate five years ago had engendered in you a festering hatred of the orc race, but this only reinforced a pre-existing prejudice.”
Amandil used a lot of long words, but I thought I took his meaning. “You mean ’cause of my ancestor? ‘Cause I’m a Northman?”
“Exactly. The Battle of Skullsplint Valley is written in your blood. And we conducted extensive research into your background. You are a loner, but charismatic, honourable and well-liked. You are, in fact, a natural leader, who inspires loyalty in others.”
I blinked. “I am?”
“And humble, crucially. Your death, or the murder of the orc leader by your hand, would have sparked an uprising. You would have become a new Wulfang.”
“There’s one key difference though,” I said, “this ain’t Skullsplint Valley. This ain’t any kind of valley. We’re in New Atlas now.”
“To an elf, the difference is barely noticeable. You are the same limited creatures you always were.”
I smiled, and it grew into a chuckle, and then a laugh, which quickly descended into a cough. I spat blood out onto Amandil’s nice carpet and the bastard recoiled in distaste. “That’s what this is all about, ain’t it?” I said when I could get the words out again. “Elves bein’ on top, like in the old days.”
“We have always been…”
“No no no,” I interrupted, “not any more. New Atlas is filin’ up with people. Northmen, Stonemen, Cimmerians, you can push us around. Dwarves, gnomes, dryads, you all go way back, they’ll do what you say because, like you said, it’s written in their damn blood. An’ gnolls and trolls are too stupid to fight back. But now there are humans from other places, and goblins an’ orcs an’ all kinds of things makin’ their homes here. An’ you don’t like it, ’cause this used to be your city. You made us all free though, back in the First Age, an’ put the Dark Prince to the damn sword for that exact reason, but now, two thousand years later, you finally figured out that, when you make people free, they also become free to ignore you. An’ you ain’t like that one little bit. Am I right?”
“No one ignores House Amandil,” he said in a low voice.
“Not right now. But soon. We got democracy here. Freedom. An elected mayor, a police force that answers to the people. An’ if the people don’t like you pushin’ them around, bein’ above the law, they have the power to stop you.”
“Do they indeed?”
“Yeah,” I said, feeling more confident. I sat up. “You can’t just start a war on the streets!”
“‘Cause…’cause I’m gonna stop you, you bastard!”
“No. You aren’t. You see, even though you have shrewdly seen to the heart of my plan, even though you discovered our deception regarding the body, you are powerless to stop any of my aims coming to fruition.”
“You think so?”
“I know so.” He picked up my gun and looked at it. “Not quite as iconic as the Fist of Crom, but it will serve.” He pointed it at me and I tensed up. “This weapon has been loaded. In a few moments, I am going to return it to your possession. And then, you are going to find this…Orca Khan…and kill him, as you were always supposed to.”
“An’ why exactly would I do that, Amandil?”
“Because if you do not, the gnome girl – Poppy Redcap, was it? – will be killed.”
“What?” I stared at him. “You can’t kill her. She…she works for the NAPD.”
“And? They’ll find a new gnome, I’m sure.”
“But…how you gonna find her, eh?” I was clutching at straws and I knew it. He called himself the most powerful elf in New Atlas for a reason.
“We already have her. Don’t be concerned, she is quite comfortable and will remain so as long as you do as you are told.” He flipped the gun around and held it out to me, handle first.
“If I go after Kahn, I’ll get killed…”
“It is a possibility, yes. But if you survive, you will become a great leader of men.”
“How many men?” I asked. “How many are gonna be left after this?”
“Fewer,” Amandil admitted, “but those that are left will be loyal to you. And hence to me.”
“There are millions of people in this city. You can’t just start a war here.”
“I’m not going to start a war. You are, Ragnar.” He waggled the gun at me suggestively. Crom help me, I took it from him.
I held the revolver in my hands, cradling it like a baby, and looked up at that smug elf bastard sitting across from me. “I could just kill you now,” I said.
He smiled, and now he showed me all his teeth. “You’re a Northman. You could never harm me. It just isn’t in…”
“My blood. I know.” I tucked the gun into my belt and stood up stiffly. My hip was barely functional. “One thing I wanna know though…” I said.
“Yes?” Amandil was poised to go back to his meal.
“Nienna’s fine, right?”
“Of course. She is taking an extended vacation in Elvenhome. She will return in a century or two, when humans and the other lesser species of this city have forgotten her.”
“Sure. When Poppy examined the blood though, the blood of the real murder victim, it was part-human.”
“Yes, that’s correct. What of it?”
“Who was she?”
“Who was who?”
I licked my dry lips, trying to make my blasted mind fit the shape of his corkscrew one. “The girl. The one you…had killed…in the winter garden…”
“Oh.” He waved a hand distractedly. “The daughter of one of my feckless nephews, gotten on some unfortunate human maid. We tried to keep her hidden, but she proved unruly. Even when I had her sent to a brothel on the docks to keep her out of sight, she proved unsuitably truculent. The eventual solution was quite elegant – we were able to kill two birds with one stone, as it is said.”
I had to breathe through my nose to keep from gagging again. I’d seen that body, the way it was ripped open like a gutted pig, the way her blood was used to daub orc glyphs all around her. “She was a member of your family?”
“No,” he chuckled, “as you said yourself, she was part human. It was the kindest thing, in the end, to have her put out of her misery.”
My hand was on my revolver but, damn him to Hel, he was right. I couldn’t kill him. It just wasn’t in me. And besides, he had Poppy. I had no choice. He was tucking into his bloody liver again as I turned my back and limped out of his office.
New Atlas was in flames. There was orc graffiti everywhere, and sirens coming from every direction. Doors and windows were shuttered but, as Amandil’s car took me downtown, being let through every police roadblock, I began to see signs of life. Orcs. Orcs in their thousands. Cars were on their sides, on fire, heaped up as crude barricades. The cops were out in force, with riot shields and batons, trying to contain the riot. Store windows were smashed in, merchandise looted, and everywhere I could hear the chants. “Orca…Orca…Orca…”
“Here’s where you get out,” Orodreth told me.
I looked out the window. I could see the shapes of orcs silhouetted against the fires. “Orca Khan is out there?”
“This is the epicentre of the orcish uprising.”
“Then this is where he’ll be.” I eased my gun out of my belt and considered putting a bullet in Orodreth too, but I was tired, and all I wanted was for all this to be over.
“Mr Amandil has explained everything to you, I’m sure,” Orodreth told me coldly, “if you don’t do as you’ve been instructed, the gnome girl will die.”
“Yeah, I get it. You can rely on me, Orodreth.”
I couldn’t see his face under his hood, but I knew his expression would be totally blank. They had no need to try to charm me now. They knew I was theirs. He opened the door for me. “Out,” he ordered, like he was talking to a dog.
“One thing,” I asked, “is Ironsmith okay?”
“The dwarf? We left him where he fell in your office. He was alive when we took you away, I think. Now…who knows?”
“Great. Thanks.” I stepped out into the madness. The sky was dark. More rain was on the way, and I thought I heard thunder, or it could have been the riot. The car door closed behind me, and I heard the roar of the engine and squeal of tyres as they left me to it. The elves didn’t feel they needed to keep an eye on me now. I still had my revolver out as I slowly made my way down the street. Broken glass crunched underneath my shoes and I winced against the smoke that billowed into my eyes from a dozen fires. I could hear fighting. A whole squad of riot cops rushed past me without even looking around, and I hobbled after them as fast as I could. There were already some of their fellows lying on the ground. So some people had already died, but Amandil was smart enough to know cops didn’t count – people expected cops to die in these kinds of situations. That wasn’t going to galvanise any humans into taking up arms against the orcs. No, it would take an ordinary civilian getting involved. Me.
The cops slowed down and began a steady march forward, their shields up in front of them. There was a steady rain of bottles, tyres, bricks, anything really, falling down on them. No gunfire. This was still just a riot, not a war. I could hear those orcs chanting again. “Orca…Orca…Orca…” We got closer, me just a few yards behind the phalanx of cops and then I saw them charging through the haze, a great mob of them, and suddenly it wasn’t smoke and burning rubber I could smell in the air: it was the cold bite of snow on the wind, the stink of blood, the memory of a place and a time I’d never known.
The orcs crashed into the cops, and their line nearly fell apart right then. They were huge, massive hulking things, covered in warpaint, bellowing their hatred. I knew the big one in the middle as well: Orca Khan. Out here, on the street, with a bit of context for it, I saw how massive he truly was. Seven and a half feet of pure, animal muscle. A cop took a swing at him with his baton and, swear to Crom, it broke clean in half on his arm. The cop stared stupidly at the kindling in his hand and then Khan lifted him up by the throat and hurled him halfway across the street into a smashed car like he was a ragdoll. They tried to mob him, batter him down, but he was too big, too strong, too ferocious. He just threw them around, smashed them into the ground, tore one’s arm right out of its socket and the poor guy went down screaming.
Somehow, I remembered this, like I’d seen it before. The memory of the Battle of Skullsplint Valley, a war two millennia gone now, was like something I’d seen with my own eyes, fresh in my mind like it was yesterday. Thunder rumbled right over my head. Those damn orcs. Those damn, damn orcs. They’d built a city underneath our feet and now they were burning us out of our homes. They killed Gloria. They were monsters. We’d defeated them all those years ago, but what good had it done in the end? They were still here, welcomed with open arms to live amongst us. But they weren’t real people. They just walked and talked like real people. They didn’t think like us. They were worse than animals. And they killed Gloria. I was back in that alley again, five years ago, and at the same time I was in the valley, two thousand years ago. I was my younger self, transfixed in horror as the woman I loved was gunned down for the handful of bills she had in her purse, and I was also Wulfang with the Fist of Crom in my hands. Before me was the orc, the sum of all orcs, the beast in the flesh, and he was going to kill my people. And Poppy. Indirectly, he’d kill her, just like he’d killed Gloria.
I lifted the revolver.
Khan threw aside the last of the cops and looked up at me. His beady red eyes narrowed as he saw me. The other orcs with him drew back, gave him space. It was like we were alone in the street. A fork of lightning carved the sky in two, visible between the faces of the high, blank buildings on either side of us. The storm was here, and we were in the centre of it.
My finger grazed the trigger. My hand was shaking. Khan broke into a run, charging towards me. Two thousand years of hate had led to this one moment. Two species, locked in conflict since before anyone except an elf could even remember, and it all came down to this moment. War. Blood on the streets. What choice did we have? It was written in that same blood.
Khan was yelling his war cry and I realised I was yelling too, willing him to crash into me, to tear me limb from limb, to end this once and for all. If he did, Poppy would be okay, and I wouldn’t be in pain any more. He was less than ten yards from me now. I had a clean shot. He wasn’t even trying to get out of the way. Six rounds, at point blank range, would finish even him off.
It was going to be me or him but, I realised as lightning crackled above us again, neither humans or orcs would win in the end. Not if this was allowed to happen. Poppy would live, but how many others would die? How many Glorias, how many nameless half-elf girls, betrayed by their own families? There had to be a third option.
“Khan!” I screamed above the storm that was just breaking in the skies. The rain was starting to patter down. He didn’t hear me. “Khan!” He was still coming and I still had the gun pointed at him, but my hand was shaking madly now and, as his red eyes stared into me and seemed to take up the whole of my vision, I hurled it away with a cry of despair.
When he finally skidded to a halt in front of me, I was down on my knees, my head buried in my hands. “Ulrichson?” I heard him ask.
I looked up. He hadn’t even recognised me. I was just a guy pointing a gun at him. This wasn’t Skullsplint Valley and, for all that was going on, he wasn’t my enemy. “Khan,” I said, “help me up, dammit.” He hesitated, but then did as he was asked. “My godsdamned hip,” I said.
“What’s going on?” Khan asked me. “Why the hell are you aimin’ a gun at me?”
“Because we’ve been set up.”
“Amandil. The elf. He sent me to kill you.”
“Because he wants a war in New Atlas.”
Khan looked around. “It’s kinda late for that…”
“This isn’t a war. Just a little bit of harmless civil disobedience. We’ll clean it up an’ everyone’ll forget it ever happened by next week.”
“No,” Khan said with a shake of his huge head, “not this time. The orcs are risin’.”
“Rise on your own damn time. This isn’t your city.”
“It will be.”
“One day, maybe,” I admitted, “when you play nice. When you do things the way we do them in New Atlas. But this ain’t the North, okay? You ain’t get what you want by burning down the enemy’s longhall.”
He looked thoughtful, for an orc. “You were gonna kill me?” he asked.
“Amandil…he has someone I care about. But it ain’t just that. Before, when I came to you in Orca, I was supposed to kill you then too. That’s what this was all about.”
His eyes went a little wider, but there wasn’t much difference underneath his thick, heavy brow. “So what are you? An assassin?”
“No, I’m a private dick. Well, I’m supposed to be…an’ I didn’t even know I was meant to kill you. He set me up. Both of us. Amandil engineered all this to start a war that would have wiped out all your people, an’ probably half a’ mine too.”
“‘Cause then he’d be in charge, just like in the old days. That’s what he was tryin’ to do, set us back two thousand damn years.”
Khan turned to his orcs, who were standing further back, not sure what to do. Then he looked back at me. “Wipe us out?”
“Yeah. You got the jump on him though. He didn’t expect you to come out of the sewers so soon. You forced his hand an’ he got desperate. That’s why he sent me again.”
“So what do we do now?”
“Callin’ off this damn riot might be a start…”
He shook his head. “I can’t do that, Ulrichson. It’s gone too far now.”
“All right.” I rubbed my jaw. “Then I got to get into the Amandil Building an’ save my friend.”
“No, I know a way in. If the guy I need is still alive.”
Khan started to walk away. “Well, good luck, Ulrichson. You’re gonna need it, pal.”
“Wait. Come with me.”
“You must be crazy.”
“Yeah, probably. It’s been one a’ those weeks. But I need you.”
“‘Cause you’re big an’ strong an’, most important, healthy. I just seen the way you fight.”
He snarled a laugh at me. “What’s in this for me?”
“You wanna make a real difference? You wanna make things better for orcs? That ain’t gonna happen while Amandil pulls the strings. He’ll find someone else to send after you an’ set this tinder box of a city off again. Nothin’ you do will change a damn thing ’till he gets stopped once an’ for all.”
The rain was coming down hard now, and Khan was just a dim shape in the haze, except for his glowing red eyes. “That’s true,” he finally said. “While this is an elf city, none of us will ever amount to nothin’.”
“That’s not true. We gotta stop thinkin’ like we’re still in the valleys. It ain’t about humans or orcs or dwarves or elves…it’s about people. People livin’ together, crammed up in one big city, havin’ to get along or die. An’ no matter how much we put aside our differences, while there’s one guy at the top remindin’ us about them at every turn, we ain’t never gonna be able to live in peace. Don’t matter whether he’s an elf or a human or what, all that matters is he’s an evil bastard we got to stop.”
Khan seemed to be thinking. He looked at his boys again, then back to me. “You say you got a way into the buildin’?”
“Yeah. But we gotta get to my office first an’ make sure my friend’s still alive. Unless you can read dwarvish?”
“I know some,” he admitted, “but probably not enough.”
So he really was as smart as I thought. I hoped he’d stay that way. “Right,” I said, “then let’s go. We ain’t got much time.”
My office was a complete mess. The window was smashed in, the desk and chair had been knocked over and busted up good. All my drawers had been ransacked. I didn’t know if it was the elves and their gnolls, or if someone had done it after, what with the door being splintered off its frame and the window being wide open. Either way, wind and rain had poured in and it was all looking pretty dismal. But Ironsmith was there, sitting up against the wall with my coat wrapped around him. He’d made himself a sling from a bit he’d torn off the hem and his face looked battered and bruised. He looked relived when I walked in, but shrank back when Khan followed after me. “You okay, Harl?” I asked, crouching down next to him.
“Yeah. But…whose your friend?”
“That’s Orca Khan. I thought you knew him.”
He eyed the orc uncertainly. “Only by reputation. What the heck’s goin’ on?”
“It’s like we thought. Amandil set me up. He wanted me to kill Khan, or die tryin’, to start a new war.”
“Which would leave him an’ the elves in charge of New Atlas,” he said.
“Yeah. No wonder he picked me – it took me days to figure all this stuff out.”
“I thought you were a private detective,” Khan rumbled from the doorway.
“Yeah, well, I ain’t a very successful one. Obviously.” I turned back to Ironsmith. “How come you ain’t gone home?”
“When the streets are full of filth…of orcs?” He glanced at Khan. “I figured I’d be safest here, for now.”
“Good thinkin’. But now I need another favour.”
“How many’s that you owe me now?”
“We’ll settle up later, buddy. We need to get back into the Amandil Building.”
“‘Cause that bastard Findaráto Amandil’s got Poppy an’ he’s gonna kill her the second he finds out I didn’t help start his war.”
“So you’re gonna just break in an’ rescue her?”
“That’s about the size of it.”
Ironsmith gave me a look. “Well…it ain’t like I got a better plan. But won’t they know we’re comin’?”
“I don’t think so. He didn’t even know you were with me when they kidnapped me. I don’t think he’s figured out I was one of the ones who got in an’ took the blood from the winter garden. Plus, he’s overconfident. That’s what’s gonna be his downfall.”
“Well then,” Ironsmith grunted as I helped him up, “I ain’t confident at all. So I guess by that logic we’re gonna be just fine.”
I thought Orca Khan would be even less comfortable in the dwarf tunnels than I was, but he seemed totally fine. In fact, he and Ironsmith got on a lot better than Poppy and the dwarf had. For two species that were supposed to be mortal enemies, they seemed to be perfectly comfortable with each other. I guess that was ’cause, in New Atlas, dwarves and orcs probably spent more time together than anyone else. Not that they were best pals or anything, but they talked the whole way as we clambered through the darkness, Khan asking Ironsmith about the runes. He wasn’t lying when he said he knew some dwarvish and he was obviously itching to pick up some more. Ironsmith didn’t seem to mind educating him either, for all Stonecutter had told me it was some big secret. But then, Stonecutter had also told me no orc was smart enough to read it in the first place.
“Where we gonna go once we get into the buildin’?” I interrupted them to ask as we got closer. We didn’t have a dwarf torch this time, so we were relying on matches, but I figured only I really needed them.
“Ain’t you know?” Ironsmith said as he turned from the wall at a junction that he and Khan had been looking over.
“Well…you know the layout, right?”
“I…yeah, I know the inside of the buildin’. Like I said last time…”
“I know, yeah, all built the same. Exactly. Well, where would you put a prisoner?”
“There’s cells in the basement,” he said, playing with his beard again, “but would they use those?”
“Amandil told me she was comfortable. An’ she is part of the NAPD. He wouldn’t wanna mistreat her until he has to.”
“So more likely the guest suites, I guess. On level four.”
“Can we get to those through the back stairs we used before?”
“All right then. Lead on, fellas.”
It was the same as before. We crept out of the secret dwarf door in the basement and made our way to ground level. No one was around. Ironsmith led the way, with Khan behind him, and me taking up the rear because I was the slowest. We made our way up four flights of stairs, and Ironsmith pointed at the door. “Through there, down the corridor, then it should be on your right.”
“You ain’t comin’?” I asked him.
He pointed at his arm in the sling. “Do I look much use in a fight? I’ll keep watch.”
Me and Khan walked out and into a long, dimly-lit corridor. “You trust him?” Khan whispered.
“I think so. He’s helped me out a lot so far.”
“What if Amandil got to him? Paid him off? This could be a trap.”
I eased my revolver out of my belt again. I’d picked it up from the street after I threw it down before. “Well, I don’t see we got a lot to lose at this point.”
“You don’t, maybe…”
We came to an intersection and I flattened myself against the wall. I edged towards the corner and then looked around. There were a lot of doors, but outside one about halfway down were two gnolls, standing guard. That settled it then. “She’s in the room about a hundred yards down the hall,” I told Khan, “but there’s a couple gnoll guards. We shoulda’ bought a dwarf torch.”
“Bright lights. Distracts ’em.”
Khan grinned slightly, showing an uncomfortable amount of tusk. “You ain’t know much about gnolls, do you?”
“It’s technology that fascinates ’em. They ain’t so technically minded, but they like to learn.”
“Yeah. Show ’em any kinda device, they go crazy over it. What, did you think they were like animals, chasin’ after shiny things?”
“I…yeah, I guess…”
“Valley thinkin’,” Khan grunted, “hard to shake, ain’t it?”
“You’re tellin’ me. But come on, what’s the plan here? We ain’t got a torch or a cash register to throw at these guys. You think you can take ’em?”
“Two gnolls? Maybe. But there’s gotta be a better way.”
He gave it some thought, furrowing his thick brow. “Distraction,” he said, “I’ll get ’em away from the door, then you go rescue your friend.”
“Okay. That makes sense. Go.”
Khan jumped out from our hiding place and shouted something I didn’t understand at the gnolls. They yelled something back, and they didn’t sound too happy. “Was that gnollish?” I asked him.
“How many languages do you know?”
“A few.” He shot me a look. “They’re comin’ this way. Get back. I’ll lead ’em down the corridor right past you, then try to lose ’em an’ double back.”
“Okay,” I nodded.
He ran and, a couple seconds later, the two gnolls lumbered after him. I kept flat against the wall and they didn’t see me. Once they were past, I limped out as quickly as I could and went to the door I was pretty sure they’d been guarding. I looked both ways down the corridor. Khan had led the gnolls around a corner now, and I could just hear a couple of guttural shouts in the distance. I tried the handle, but it was locked. As I rattled the knob, there was a sound from inside. “Hello?” a small voice said.
“Poppy,” I whispered as loud as I dared to, “is that you?”
“Ragnar? Oh thank Garl!”
“You got a key in there?”
“I’m a prisoner…” Even muffled through the door, I could hear the sarcasm.
“All right, stand back then.” I took a couple steps back and then threw all my weight into the door. It didn’t budge.
“Are you tryin’ to knock down the door?”
“You got any better ideas?”
“So I’m gonna knock it down then, all right?” I slammed my shoulder into it again, and heard a slight creak. Again, and something gave way, but the door was still standing. I took one more run up, and then hurled myself against it with everything I had. There was the sound of wood snapping as the door fell inwards and I tumbled through into the room. Poppy jumped back out of my way with a yelp.
“Ragnar!” I was still getting my breath back as she threw her arms around me and jumped up to kiss me on the cheek. I didn’t know what to do, but I put my hands on her sides, and it felt kinda right as I held her against me.
“This is real touchin’,” a voice said from the doorway, “but we might wanna make ourselves scarce.”
I put Poppy down and turned to see Khan standing there. Poppy held my hand and moved slightly behind me. “It’s fine,” I reassured her, “he’s a friend.”
“Let’s not go sayin’ anythin’ we can’t take back,” Khan said, “I gave the guards a bit of a run around, but I think they mighta’ raised the alarm. This place is gonna be swarmin’ with elves soon, or maybe even cops.”
He was right about that. When we got back to Ironsmith, he looked antsy. “I just had to hide from a buncha’ elf guards,” he told us, “an’ I thought I heard sirens outside.”
“It’s okay,” Poppy said, “when I tell them Amandil kidnapped me…”
“It won’t make a damn bit of difference,” I broke in. “We gotta get outta here, simple as.”
We all ran down the stairs, and I thought to myself that I was getting tired of having to do this. There had to be a better way to make my living. My hip was screaming at me, but I didn’t have time to pay any attention to that. Ironsmith held the door as we dashed down into the basement and then…light. It was light down there, and the whole room was full of elves. They were standing by the patch of wall where the dwarf door was supposed to be, and Findaráto Amandil was at the front, a little smile on his damn face and his arms folded. I pushed my way to the front and slowed up as I came face to face with him again.
“Well,” he sighed, “a human, a dwarf, a gnome and an orc. What an unlikely combination.”
“Maybe that should tell you somethin’,” I told him.
“Maybe.” He examined his fingernails. “I didn’t think you’d be stupid enough to mount a rescue effort. And, I’ll admit, I had no idea you had the means to use a dwarf door. But when you mentioned your friend back in my office, I started to wonder why you might be consorting with his kind. When the alarm went off…well…I knew where you’d be headed.”
“Very smart,” I said.
“Yes, well I’m a very smart man. You, Ragnar Ulrichson, are not though. I had high hopes for you. You could have been very powerful. I would have even let you keep that gnome slut if you wanted. As…distasteful…as I find interspecies relationships.”
“It ain’t like that,” I said weakly, even though Poppy’s little hand was closed tightly in mine as I said it.
“It hardly matters now, anyway,” Amandil said. “Orodreth, please kill them all. And make sure they’re arranged in a suitable tableaux so that when the police arrived, it’s clear that a Northman died fighting the orc leader. It’s not ideal, but we can still get what we want out of this debacle.”
“Yes sir,” Orodreth, who was standing at his master’s side, said. “What about the dwarf and the gnome?”
“Just throw their bodies in with the gnolls’ feed. I doubt anyone will care.”
Well he was wrong about that. Something snapped inside me, and I remembered something else from two thousand years ago, the part of the stories they’d tried to make us forget: the parts where we’d feared the elves, and distrusted them. Oh, we’d followed them, because they were powerful and wise and were our only hope against the Dark Prince, but we’d never liked them. We’d never enjoyed being their goons. We were Northmen, we made our own destiny. That too, was written in my blood. I pulled my gun out and I shot Amandil right in the gut.
The old bastard didn’t say anything as he went down, just goggled at me with wide eyes, and everyone else in the room just stared in stunned silence as he fell to the floor, his blood running out the hole I’d just made. Funny how, when you got down to it, we were all pretty much the same on the inside, I thought. Then everything exploded at once. We had twenty elves all running towards us. “Back!” I shouted. “We ain’t gonna fight our way through!”
We all ran back up the basement stairs and Khan slammed the door behind us. There was a key in the lock and he turned it. “That won’t hold ’em for long,” he said, looking at me.
“What’s your plan now, Ragnar?” Ironsmith asked.
“What other ways out are there? There must be a servant’s door or somethin’…”
He shook his head. “No, only the main entrance. That’s how we build – one front door, one secret door.”
“And the cops are here,” Poppy said, “I can hear them.”
“So we either fight our way past the elves, or past the cops?”
“Who says we gotta fight?” Ironsmith said. “Maybe we just tell the truth…or some version of it anyway…”
“An’ when they find out someone shot Findaráto Amandil in the stomach?” Khan glowered at me.
I looked down at the gun in my hand. “I gotta give myself up,” I said. The banging on the door behind us was starting to sound a lot more organised. We didn’t have long.
“What’s that gonna achieve?” Poppy asked.
“I’unno…but someone’s gotta take the blame, right?”
“If you go to jail, they just find someone else to send after Khan,” Ironsmith said.
Khan nodded at that. “You said it yourself,” he said to me, “Amandil will find someone else to be the scapegoat. The only person we can take outta the equation…is me…”
I stared at him. “What?”
“You heard me. I’m the Khan. I lead the orcs. But without me, he ain’t got no target to aim at. No one to send a human puppet against. No Khan, no war.”
“Another’ll rise though,” I said.
“Not if I give the cops the names of the other orc bosses an’ where to find ’em.”
“You’d do that?” Poppy asked.
“To save my people? Damn right I would. You told me risin’ up’d get us nowhere, Ulrichson, an’ I think you’re right. We were just playin’ into the hands a’ bastards like Amandil. So I’ll gut the power of the orc clans in New Atlas if that’s what it takes. We need to work our way up like everyone else in this city. An’ besides,” he ginned, “if I give the cops that much information, they ain’t gonna have time to chase up the loose ends from all this.” He took the gun from my unresisting hand. “Do me a favour though, all right?”
“Anythin’,” I told him in a hoarse voice. My mind felt like it was being turning inside out all over again.
“You look after the orcs in this city. You keep an eye on things. You remember what happened here, an’ don’t let it happen again.”
“Never,” I swore. I felt Poppy squeeze my hand. She hadn’t let go since I’d rescued her.
“Good. An’, also, you get another shot an Amandil…aim for his head, yeah?”
We walked right through the lobby, sassy as you like, just as the cops came spilling through the doors. They didn’t even notice us as Khan put his hands up and made a show of dropping the gun. They ran in, cuffed him and, Crom help us, we just left them to it. I caught his eye as I ducked out the door, and he nodded at me. That morning, I thought all orcs were monsters. Now one had just turned himself over to the cops to save my ass. To save all of our asses, really. It was a headscratcher and no mistake.
It was a week later. I was in my office, trying to tidy the place up as best I could. I still moved pretty stiff, but Ironsmith had called in a favour with a dwarf doctor and I’d finally got myself patched up. My window was boarded over, but I’d hired a glazier with the last of the money I got from Amandil and it would all be fixed in the next couple of days. I turned my chair the right way up and put it behind my desk. “There,” I said to myself.
There was a polite knock at the door, and I looked up to see Poppy there. “Hey,” she smiled.
“Hey, toots. What brings you here?”
“Just thought I’d drop by, see how you were gettin’ on.”
I patted my hip. “Better’n have in years, actually.”
“Boy, this place is a mess,” she said as she stepped into the office.
“Hey, I just cleaned it up…”
She laughed and started nosing around the place. “Maybe you should take this opportunity to clean out all these old files?”
“Oh, you know, fresh start an’ all that.”
“Right. You’re a big name now.”
“Yeah. Didn’t you hear? Khan gave your name to the boys at the station, gave you all the credit for bringin’ him in. Like it or not, you’re a hero on the streets.”
“An’ I didn’t have to kill no one…”
“Yeah, not even Amandil,” Poppy sighed.
“I heard he pulled through,” I said, “probably for the best.”
“Yeah. Khan’s probably only gonna get a couple years thanks to that, especially now he’s sold out all the other orc bosses.”
“He’ll have Hel to pay when he gets out,” I mused.
“I think he’ll be okay. Orcs’ve got short memories.” She opened my desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of whiskey. “Yikes, this is some rough stuff.”
I looked at the golden liquid sloshing around. “Yeah, pretty rough.”
“Maybe we should open it, have a drink to celebrate?”
“Not sure I feel much like celebratin’ Not with that anyway. Give it here.” She passed me the bottle and I unscrewed the cap and poured it down the little sink in the corner of the office. “There.”
“You really started somethin’,” Poppy said.
“Orcs an’ humans are gettin’ on better than ever. Khan pinned everythin’ on the bosses, an’ the orcs are followin’ his lead. Everyone’s comin’ together to clean up.”
“An’ what about Amandil?”
“Well, he can’t touch you – everyone thinks you saved him – an’ no one is exactly upset he got shot. No one ever liked him.”
“He’ll be back though,” I said as I flicked through some papers and then threw them in the trash with a sigh, “he ain’t the type to forgive an’ forget.”
“No, but now you know you can take him on an’ win.”
“Yeah, I guess I do.”
Poppy looked around the office. “This place is kinda depressin’. Wanna take a walk?”
“Yeah, sure. Where did you have in mind?”
“We never did finish dinner…”
I smiled as she led the way out of the office. There was someone hovering by the door outside, a nervous looking dryad. “Hey,” I said, “can I help you, bub?”
“You’re Ragnar Ulrichson?”
“They say you…help people? Not just humans?”
I looked at Poppy. “They say that?” She just shrugged. “I help anyone,” I told him, “what’s the problem?”
“It’s my wife,” he said, “she’s missing.”
“An’ you came to me?”
“They said you’re a private detective. An’ a hero.”
“Nah, I’m just a broken down…” He seemed to wilt as I spoke, and Poppy kicked me gently on the leg and gave me a meaningful look. “What I mean is, sure I’ll take your case, mister. Come right inside.” I opened the door again. “Sorry, hun,” I said to Poppy, “we’ll have to reschedule.”
“It’s fine,” she smiled, “this man needs your help.” She got up on her tiptoes and kissed me on the cheek. “I’ll be back though. An’ anyway, you might just need my help with this.”
I smiled crookedly at her as she left and then gestured the forlorn dryad through the door. “Sorry about the mess. We had a break in last week. Now, tell me what happened to your wife, neighbour…”
I closed the door behind me.