The orcs stank like corpses floating in a swamp. I could smell the elf-blood on them from the battle—and the luscious marrow of the half-gnawed bone one of them had tucked into his girdle. I edged deeper in the shadows under the prow, behind the arrow-riddled body of one of the boat's former owners, and gauged the distance for a sagacious leap over the gunwale, but there was nowhere for me to go. The orcs were already clumping aboard. Served me right for having a kip in the wrong place again.
One of the orcs wore a hideous crest of yellow bristles stapled to his scalp. "I say, Grubchak old sot, do you think they're following us?"
I should think if one were to go so far as to make one's adornment so permanent, one should employ a more discerning fashion consultant. It was a plague upon my eye.
"The village ith back around the bend, Yubthuk. It looked detherted. Perhapth we can have a bit of holiday here on the River Thumbs, relakth a while." This one wore a majestic demeanor, in spite of the—again, hideous—scars his countenance bore, not to mention his cleft tongue and scarred, tarnished plate armor.
"Gentlemen, I shall not relax until we cross the border of Bloodfingershire." That one of them was female left me with a jot of surprise. Difficult to tell with orcs, especially when one does not see as well as a pup anymore, but her voice resembled more of the breathy buzzard than the confused bullock variety. The stench of battle clinging to them like poor life choices was hardly a blessing upon Ye Olde Olfactories. "These forays grow tiresome. Why must we continue to attack the elves?"
Indeed. I was frightfully weary of scrounging the edges of battlefields. Made me yearn for the halcyon days of yore, when my race lived in posh plenty on the laps of our human masters. Or so the Old Ones said.
The one called Yubsuk looked discomfited. "Because—! Well...because...because they're elves! Their blood is a blighted stain upon the face of Bile God's holy creation!"
The female snorted out a fine mucous mist. "You sound like the Bile Priests, Yubsuk. Haven't you ever wondered why they're the only ones allowed to beat the Blood Drums?"
"Of course not. Some things are not meant to be questioned. Bilod's bodikin, my stomach is such an aching cavern. In all the hubbub and hullaballoo, I missed breakfast," Yubsuk whined.
While those two were speaking, the big one, Grubchak, laid a beady, bloodshot eye upon me, and loomed over me. Orcs loom exceedingly well. "What'th this?" he murmured.
I edged back in the shadows and gave him my fiercest teeth-baring. But he was already too close for me to flee overboard. This was it. The End. Finis. Little ol' yours truly was up against it.
Nothing for it but to go down biting. I launched myself and clamped down upon his outstretched hand as hard as I could, savaging his leathery flesh like the legendary dire wolves of antiquity.
My primal savagery must surely turn his blood to icy slush.
He straightened and extended his arm, with every jot of my ferocity dangling from the flesh between his thumb and forefinger. My legs flailed without purchase. He scratched his chin and regarded me as I dangled there ignominiously.
"I say, Grubchak, that's a dashed tasty looking dog you've got there," Yubsuk said.
"Indeed. I ekthpect he shall make a delectable hors d'oeuvre when we reach a thafe shore and make a fire."
"I beg your pardon!” I said, or would have said had I possessed the necessaries and not had a mouthful of orc.
"Can't we just eat it now? They're much better when they're still wriggling. Makes me all a-flutter."
And wriggle I did! But his skin was as thick and tough as leathered ogre hide. Nevertheless I gave that patch of orc the roughest what for I could muster.
"Eat it raw! Are you thome thort of heathen? A cave-orc throwback? I should think not! We shall thpit it and theathon it with garlic and a bit of rothemary."
This did not bode well.
But then the female shoved forward. "Oh, let me see! Oh, look at that face! It's too adorable to eat!" She took hold of me with surprising gentleness and lifted me toward her breast. I spat out the vile hand and continued to growl to show her I meant business.
"Leave it to the female to spoil dinner. Gutwanda, of course we're going to eat the dog."
"I thay, Gutwanda, do hand it over."
"I'll do no such thing! Just look at that fuzzy face. Reminds me of Mummy! But without the hair, and of course Mummy's teeth were so much larger. Even missing an eye like Mummy."
Lost the eye to an encounter with a young war-lepus, hadn't yet come into his tusks. Old yours truly got the superior bargain that day, I daresay.
"How do you know it's a 'she'?" Yubsuk asked. I didn't fancy the way that creature looked at me. I ceased my protests and snuggled between her great, chain-mailed dugs.
"Ladies can tell."
Grubchak sighed and shielded his eyes, peering downriver. "The current lookth to be thpeeding up."
"I say, Grubchak, is that white water ahead?"
The female slung a leather satchel over her shoulder and slipped me inside it. It smelled like elven waybread and half-rancid venison. "Stiff upper lip, gentlemen. These elven boats never tip."
"But we're riding a bit low in the water. We shall founder!"
"Let uth throw armor and weaponth overboard."
"Lay nary a finger upon my axe or armor, gentlemen. I had those from Mummy."
"If we eat the dog right now, just gobble it up, the boat will weigh less!"
My disdain for the one called Yubsuk multiplied with every utterance.
In a flash of movement that left me dazed, slung hither and yon under her aromatic armpit, the female's massive, double-bitted axe, tufted with elf scalps and sparkly baubles, lay against Yubsuk's neck. "Touch this hound, either of you, and you shall answer to Elfsplitter!"
"I say, Gutwanda, there's no call for such hostility. Only joking, only joking! Kindly lower your axe and let us behave as civilized orcs."
"Very well." She lowered the axe, but kept it close. "Perhaps we should throw the elf carcasses overboard."
"But what about food? It shall be days until the river carries us back to the border of Orcester, and two more until we reach Bloodfingershire."
"Elf flesh maketh my tusks ache. Surely we might scrounge a tath-ty bullock or a human along the way. Throw them over, ladth! Er, lad and lady."
Yubsuk sighed as if beset on all sides. "Better an empty belly than one overfull of river water, I suppose. At least we still have the dog—"
"Shut up about the bloody dog!"
"Dashed cunning on the tiller, Grubchak. I thought that boulder would be the end of us," Yubsuk said.
The female growled at him. "If you had paddled like I told you, Yubsuk, we hadn't have gone near the boulder."
"Alas the day the Bile Priests ever allowed wo-orcs to go to war."
As this sounded very much like the All Clear, I poked my head out of her satchel. Her massive hand stroked my head. Ye Gods of old, how long had it been since a kind hand—even an orc's—had stroked my fur? It awakened in me a yearning I had never experienced. Its ache dragged a whine from me. And what was this? My hindquarters started to wiggle, my tail starting to dance about like some crazed metronome.
"Thilenth! There may be elvth upon the bank to hear your bickering. And elvth can thee in the dark ath well ath we can. Yubthuk, what await-th uth ahead?"
Yubsuk squinted into the distance. "The river widens again. Cliff on one side, forest on the other. We should keep to the cliff-side or chance getting caught in the overhanging boughs. And there's no place to put off for a nip of sustenance, a dash of victuals for the old palate, what?"
Mistress Gutwanda said, "And nothing to nip upon if we could. Unless one knows how to hunt?"
"My family hasn't had to hunt since the days of Arak Bloodfinger I'll have you know!"
"Yes, yes, Yubsuk, we've heard about the size of your family's human herds a hundred times. They are sentient, you know. The existence of villages proves it."
"Bloody progressivist rot. What are we supposed to eat then? Next you'll be telling me we shouldn't eat anything that's sentient! Good orcs eat flesh and that's that! Isn't that right, Grubchak old sot?"
"I like a good cabbage now and then."
Yubsuk scoffed. "They don’t seem so ‘sentient’ when they've got their teeth in one's ankle."
"Perhaps if you didn't mistreat them..."
"Mistreat them! They're bloody humans. The Bile God gave us dominion over them to use as we will! And that certainly includes eating!"
My old grandfather uthed to thay keeping them mute reduthes their thuffering. If they can't thpeak, if they have no language, they cannot think, therefore they cannot thuffer. Only thinking beingth can thuffer. That's why it ith tradition in my family to dock their tongueth when they're weaned."
"Oh, the caterwauling must be frightful," Yubsuk said.
I certainly agreed with her. Even humans, for all their brutishness, didn't deserve to have their tongueth—er, tongues—docked. A barbaric practice, indeed.
Yubsuk withdrew a snuff case, took a pinch, and sniffed it. "A fine upstanding family, your clan, Grubchak. Pillar of the community. Gutwanda, if you're so bloody keen on not eating flesh, I say go and live on cabbages yourself. More meat for the rest of us, what?"
She stiffened against me. I ducked into the satchel. "At least my family still knows how to hunt—"
Thilenth, I thay! Thomething on the bank. Downthtream, left thide."
"You wouldn't have heard an elf," Mistress Gutwanda said.
"Quiet, Gutwanda. Grubchak is the ranking officer here."
"Do you thee anything?"
"Nary a rustling twig, old sot."
"Perhapth my imagination then. Perhapth... In any case, have a nap, Gutwanda. Yubthuk shall keep watch for two hourth, and I shall thteer. Then you shall relieve me."
"Very well," she said and settled herself amidships. She reached into the satchel and stroked my head. I offered her my belly this time, and she stroked that, too. "Oh, yes, you just cuddle up here into Mummy's bosom, little fuzzy face. I shall protect you from these mean old orcs."
With sighs of unabashed bliss, we both settled into sleep, and what I had been missing my whole life came clear.
I lay shamelessly basking in the glow of Mistress Gutwanda's affection, splayed on my back across her lap, paws in the air. Undignified, I know, but necessary for my greater purpose.
"I shall name her Dennis," she said.
"Dennith? What a strange name," Grubchak said, cutting a stately jib at the boat’s tiller.
Dennis worked for me.
"A human name. An old, old name, I'm told," said Gutwanda.
"Told? By whom?"
"By the elves, of course. They remember. Humans weren't always the ignorant brutes we know."
"What the bloody hell were you doing talking to an elf?"
"I was guarding the prisoners before they were interrogated—"
"Wouldn't be much left after that, I thuppose."
Yubsuk lay sound asleep and a noise like breaking rocks tumbled from his mouth.
"Yes, in any case—Might we not stuff a stocking in Yubsuk's pie hole? His snores shall alert every enemy within a league."
Grubchak chucked a boot at Yubsuk. It bounced off his face and tumbled into the bottom of the boat.
"Mmfgh." Yubsuk half-opened one eye.
"Alath, no effect."
"Perhaps throw something heavier next time. In any case, the elves told me something extraordinary. They said that humans once ruled the world, with more magic and wealth than—"
"Elves are self-righteous wankers, but they do not lie."
"If that were true, why not remain at the pinnacle of dominion?"
The Old Ones, the Storyspeakers, told pups that my race and humans, many ages past, had built a powerful partnership, that humans shaped us to tend herds, dig out badgers, chase varmints, guard villages, warm laps, and lick faces. We provided warning, protection, and companionship, and they supplied the victuals. The racial bonds were tight. The urge to find a master ran deeper than our bones and blood. But to our great shame and despair, the masters were all but gone, relegated to a few smelly, pestilent villages in the Middlemoors, living on the scraps of the elves' sufferance.
Gutwanda drooled on me from one of her tusks, but I was too overcome by her stroking to protest.
She said, "I asked the same question. Victims of their own success, the elves said. The humans' intelligence began to decline, until the ignorant brutes among their teeming hordes finally bred the cultured, intelligent few out of existence through sheer numbers. Then they used their magic to exterminate themselves, leaving only the ignorant brutes to survive."
"Bah, thentient humans! A good fairy tale around the hearth, what?"
Yubsuk stirred. "What the devil are you two yammering on about? I thought it was my shift for some shuteye!"
Yubsuk noticed the boot lying near him, picked it up by a buckle. "It's bloody difficult enough to sleep when one's belly is whimpering like a starveling dog..."
Mistress Gutwanda snatched me up and tucked me back in the satchel. "Shut. Up. About. The. Bloody. Dog."
Mistress Gutwanda pointed downriver. "Look ye, gentlemen! A place to put ashore. It is time for those of us with delicate sensibilities to assuage them."
"What the devil are you talking about?" Yubsuk said.
Tinkling, gentlemen. Moistening the grass. I've been holding it a full day and night on board our little tub here. A bit difficult for me to drape it over the gunwale, wouldn't you say? Besides, the way Yubsuk is moaning on about food, perhaps it's time to ascertain if some meat on the hoof might be procured."
"Agreed. You make thmashing good thenthe."
Yubsuk cast frightened glances from riverside bush to bush. "But mightn't there be—"
"I'm full aware there might be enemy on the shore, but there might be food as well. I've a handful of good arrows left. If I do not return by mid-day, you must go on without me. Come along, brave Dennis." She gave Yubsuk a glare of diminishing sufferance.
Anything to get us away from Yubsuk's jealous eye and belly-churning stench. "Woof!"
Mistress Gutwanda and I spent the morning frolicking in the gray forests of the Middlemoors, the borderlands of Faerie. I leaped and gamboled and was in general my happiest, most ingratiating self. My tail was a relentless engine of delight. That is, until Mistress Gutwanda had succeeded in her hunt and we were returning to the boat.
I had run out ahead of her, excited to deliver the news of her success, so drenched in instinctual glee that I forgot briefly that they saw me as a snack. I nosed through the bushes, distracted for a moment by the scent of hare, until I heard Yubsuk's voice.
"Do you think she's coming back?"
"I hope tho. She'th quite fetching."
"Fetching? Brooding with her would be no end of trouble. I say, Grubchak old thing, when our presence once again graces the caves of Bloodfingershire, I propose a right-on epic binge in each other's society. A barrel of black mead each should do the old spot, wouldn't you say?"
"That would be motht agreeable. Do you think she fanthies me?"
"Well, she certainly doesn't give a dashed spit for me. But what the devil should we do about her ideas? We can't very well allow them to spread. Our entire way of life will be threatened! 'Sentient' humans! What bosh!"
"It ith indeed—Shh! Thomething in the treeth."
"I see...Oh, it's Gutwanda! What's that she's carrying?"
"A freshly killed thtag if my eyeth don't deceive me. Halloo hallay, Gutwanda!"
I bounded onto the gunwale, breast out-thrust, tail held high. Gentlemen, I present you with brunch. I slurped up fresh slaver at the thought of fresh venison.
Mistress Gutwanda said, "I believe I have employed a smashing good hunting dog. Dennis flushed the stag straight toward me."
Indeed I had. My breast swelled deeper.
Grubchak said, "You are a Queen of the Underworld." His gaze glowed with admiration.
"I intend to be..."
"Oh, nothing. Let's build a fire and feast. This land is empty."
"Woof!" Let us feast indeed.
"I say, Gutwanda, I must hand it to you, you whip up a dashed spectacular roast stag. The smell is tantalizing." Yubsuk circled the fire, over which the spitted stag sizzled, like a vulture over a carcass three days dead. His eyes gleamed with barely bridled ravenousness.
Mistress' voice dripped with disdain. "My delight at your approval knows no boundaries. It will be ready soon. Grubchak, how far do you estimate we've come from the Land of Faerie?"
I myself tucked in to some tasty, pungent offal and organs. The stag's liver should only have been made better by a jot of nice red Elven wine. No need to waste time cooking. My repast was as the sweetest ambrosia handed down from the Masters' table, hot and full of juices. It was a meal devoutly to be envied.
"Thikthty leagueth I should thay."
"Sixty! This elven tub does make splendid way, what? At this rate, the border of Orcester shall be within a stone's throw in two days' time."
So mesmerized was I in the heady delectation of my only meal in four days, my nose immersed in its luscious bouquet, that I almost failed to notice that something was dreadfully amiss. Before I could raise my nose into the breeze, a growl sprang forth like a bit of gas.
"What is it, Dennis?" Mistress Gutwanda said.
"What is that mongrel—uhk!" An arrow zipped from one of the nearby trees and buried its head in Yubsuk's shoulder.
Grubchak snatched up his axe and thrust his horned helm upon his head. "An elf arrow! We are found!" Another arrow clanged against his thick breastplate and fell to the earth. "Yubthuk are you—?"
Meanwhile, Yubsuk had thrown himself behind a fallen log. "'Tis but a... a scratch. You two, sally forth and give them the old what for!"
"Can we reach the boat?" Mistress Gutwanda said.
"Gutwanda, I thought you said this land was empty!" Yubsuk cried. He grasped the arrow shaft, tried to pull it free, then relented. "Owwee."
Gutwanda hefted her axe and squared herself to face the unseen enemy. "We must reach the boat. Now, run! Dennis and I shall cover you."
I snarled in defiance with my new mistress at my side. The scent of Elven cologne, Spicy Hawthorne perhaps, and the smell of fresh waybread from someone's pouch, wafted from the treeline.
"Retreat? And leave a wo-orc to guard our tails? Never! Oww."
"Perhaps you should keep hiding in that thicket until they surround us," Gutwanda twirled her axe and gnashed her tusks.
A melodious voice trilled from the bushes. "[Thou art already surrounded, vile brutes. Dost thou yield?]" Fortunately I can understand Elvish, among many other desirable talents. But I have softened the translation for the reader's tender sensibilities. The vileness of Elvish threats can cause nausea in the faint-hearted. However, I lacked the vocal capacity to convey this to my mistress.
Apparently Mistress understood Elvish as well.
"Tathte the edge of my akth, Faerie thcum!"
"For the Bile God!" cried Yubsuk from his supine location behind the log, ensconced within the bush.
At my mistress' command, I bristled, mustered all the wolfish savagery of my ancestors, bared my remaining fang, and charged.
"A dashed smart blow of the axe, I daresay, old sot!" Yubsuk raised a triumphant fist from his hiding place, but his voice trembled.
"A lucky blow."
My mistress's eyes gleamed with surprise and appreciation. "No need for modesty, Grubchak. Even Dennis stood amazed."
Indeed, Grubchak had felled two rather startled-looking elves with a single blow, which put the rest of them to rout. As I trotted back to Yubsuk's hiding place with my tail perked at a jaunty angle, I could not help but think that if not for me, the Elven ambush would have bought all three orcs the farm.
"Indeed, broke their spirit in one fell swipe. Scarpered off like coneys!" Mistress Gutwanda said, rich green color flooding her cheeks.
"They'll be back like a bad cathe of nether boilth."
"Ugh, males. So indelicate."
"I darethay my indelicate blow hath put a dainty flush of chartreuse in your cheek."
"Keep your codpiece to yourself. We're still far from home."
"You two cease your canoodling and pay attention to me," Yubsuk grunted, gingerly fingering the arrow shaft sticking out of his shoulder. "I may be in a bad way. I can’t seem to pull the arrow out..."
"Can you walk?” Grubchak touched the arrow shaft with a testing finger.
Yubsuk howled. When he regained control of his voice, he said, "I can bloody well fly if need be. Those elves no doubt have allies."
"Then let uth thkedaddle."
I stood upon the prow, its elegant curves slicing through the river water, dutifully watching for danger ahead, the epitome of gallant loyalty I should say, and tried to ignore the incessant whining coming from behind me. Grubchak stood at the tiller.
"A ruddy blighted shame, leaving the stag there on the spit," Yubsuk said. "My belly won't stomach two more days on the river."
"Your belly won't what?" Gutwanda said.
"Sorry, hunger is...affecting my thoughts."
She lowered her voice ominously. "Must we lay you out like a senseless log before we have quiet?"
"You're not the wounded one, female."
She sighed and stepped toward him. "Take off your breastplate. Let me see it."
She helped him unbuckle his pauldrons and breastplate, peeling them away. The arrow had slipped into a chink between one pauldron and the breastplate.
"Oh," Mistress Gutwanda breathed.
"Is it bad?"
"Why did you break off the shaft?"
"Heat of battle and all that. The rage was thick upon me."
A look of trepidation and worry crossed her face. She grasped the splintered stump of arrow shaft and pulled.
"Argh! Desist! You'll pull out my shoulder by the sinews! Bilod's bodikin, wo-orc, have you no mercy?"
"You whine like a human whelp."
"No need for insult—argggh! Desist!"
She relented and drew back. "I feared this. Elven arrowheads are magical. The barb will have grown and taken root in the flesh."
"It mutht come out or you will die as surely as if the arrow pierthed your heart."
"You must save me, old pal!"
"Perhapth the Bile God can heal him."
Mistress Gutwanda turned on Grubchak. "You don't believe that rubbish! Have you ever witnessed one of their Healing Ceremonies? 'Stand up and be healed in the Lord Our Bile God.' All that arm-waving and nonsense? Charlatans!"
Grubchak rubbed his blockish chin. "We could take the arm at the shoulder..."
"And do what with it?" Yubchak cried.
"I mean, amputate. If the barbth take root in the bone..."
Yubsuk gibbered nervously. "I say, old thing, that's a dashed unpleasant thought. You shouldn't jest about such things."
Grubchak did not appear to be rollicking the jokes.
Yubsuk's eyes bulged. "I fear old Yubsuk is all for the mustard this time. The final march! The last dirge to the Bile God! My—I say, Gutwanda, what do you intend to do with that axe?"
Gutwanda tested the edge of her axe with her thumb. "I intend to amputate your arm at the shoulder if Captain Grubchak gives the word."
"With an axe?"
"I shave with this axe."
"Shave what?" Yubsuk said, then held up his palm. "No, don't answer that. Grubchak, old pal, old stiff-arm, old pustule, don't let her hack into me with that thing! I beg you!"
"Your orcish conthtitution will pull you through, do not fear. My old grandfather lotht both legth and both armth to a rabid war leputh, and he thurvived well into his thirtieth."
Yubsuk edged away from Mistress Gutwanda, his gaze flicking back and forth between them. "A rabid war-lepus? Where the bloody—"
"Is that the grandfather who turned himself into a chariot?" Mistress Gutwanda said. "Had a warthog pull him around? Reins in his teeth?"
"The same. Alath, my old friend, there'th no help for it. The arm mutht go or you'll be dead of fever within a fortnight, unleth the barb reacheth your heart firtht."
"Please, no, don't! Don't let her—"
"It'th not like you to mith, my dear," Grubchak said.
"The boat rocked, my steaming hot dumpling. Threw off my aim."
I crept nearer Yubsuk. The twitching was subsiding. I sniffed gingerly. His remaining eye stared emptily, and I'll never admit it but my mistress' eye gleamed in wicked satisfaction for an instant.
And just like that, I was safe. I spun and gave my new mistress my most charming grin.
"Yes, Dennis. You are no longer on anyone's menu. Oharen'tyoujustsoadorable!" She rubbed my ears, and my hindquarters thrashed a lunatic rumba, until a new scent skittered into Ye Olde Olfactories. I swiveled my nose to follow it.
Meanwhile, I sniffed my way into the bushes. The orcs carried on their conversation.
"What shall we do with Yubsuk?" Gutwanda said.
"Bear hith body home for the Theremony of Renewal. He'll be delivered into the Thpawning Pool for the thuthtenance of the younglingth."
The scent strengthened as I approached a hollow log across the clearing from where Yubsuk had embraced his Bile God.
"I say, who’s there?” I meant to call out, but of course it came out as a bark.
Something shifted inside the log. A bit of meat appeared at the orifice, poked out from within. A sniff told me it had been in someone’s pocket a day or two, but let yours truly never be called finicky.
"Mightn't we spare a bit for Dennis? She's positively famished."
"I don't thee why not."
I just had a snoot full of dripping venison liver, and it should be some time before stooping to soil my palate with orc flesh, but this bit of delectation was another thing entirely. A jolly bit of pork, it seemed. The thought of pork set my tongue dripping.
Then a five-fingered hand lashed out like a whip and snatched me by the muzzle, dragging me into darkness. A most ignominious affair as I was thrust into a smelly armpit like the goat’s head in a match of orcish blood ball. The hand around my muzzle squeezed my mouth shut tight. Were I a hero of the grand old epics, I should tell the tale of how I savaged my assailant with a good what-for, went for the throat and all that. But alas, I only emitted a feeble squeak through my nostrils. My eyes poured fountains with the pain of the grip.
But then my heart swelled with joy as the log split wide open and Gutwanda loomed over us with Elfsplitter in hand.
"Why look at that!” Grubchak said. "A human!”
Gutwanda’s eyes narrowed. "And he’s got Dennis.” She slapped Elfsplitter’s haft into her scabrous palm.
The human gave a high-pitched laugh, baring blood-red gums and jagged black teeth. "I dint mean nuvvin by it, miluds. A man’s gotta eat, ain’t he, miluds?”
"That’s my dog you’ve got there human,” Gutwanda growled.
The human cast me away from him as if I’d grown spikes, while he tittered like a squirrel. I spun on him and bared my teeth with a snarl at this contumelious treatment.
"And observe, noble Grubchak, humans can speak.”
"Indeed, but what shall we do with it?” He edged around her, pulled thick dagger. "Let uth put thome victuals on the th-tump, shall we?”
The human yelped and tried to scramble away, but Grubchak was too quick. He snatched the human by the hair and lifted him into the air until his toes barely brushed the ground.
Gutwanda put a hand on his arm. "We don’t eat sentient creatures, my gallant bullock, no matter how foul-smelling.”
Grubchak’s eye twitched and his tusks gnashed a bit. "Well, shall I dock his tongue then? Save him a bit of suffering?”
Gutwanda stepped close to the human and peered into his eyes. "What are you doing here? Working for the elves?”
"Noy, milud! Them elves is bloomin’ toffs, they is! I sees them elves but I ain’t tellin’!”
She stared into his face for a long time, her tusks a mere whisker from his nose. He could not withstand her steely, blood-shot gaze for more than a moment at a stretch.
"Please, miluds! I got young’ns! Hungry young’ns!”
For my own part, I could hardly imagine such a heinously ugly creature successfully mating.
At length, she said, "Let him down. He’s telling the truth.”
"My craw is full of killing.”
With a sigh, Grubchak complied.
"Run, human," Gutwanda said. "If we see you again, my friend here will eat your whole brood.”
The human twirled as if confused about the most direct route, but managed to gather himself and send his legs flying in all directions.
As I watched him go, I felt none of that instinctive pull the Old Ones described, except to heave closer to my mistress’ ankle.
Grubchak said, "I wish you’d let me dock his tongue.”
"Enough of that!” She seized Grubchak’s shoulders and leaned close. "My sweet, what do you say we devote the rest of our journey to a leisurely river cruise?"
"That thounds thmashing.”
"Then let us away, my steaming pillar of throbbing orc-flesh.
"Indeed, your tuth-k-th drive me wild."
While her back was turned, his great callused paw reached for me, but I dodged nimbly. "Woof! Rrrrrrrrgh!"
"Touch Dennis and it shall be your arm in the river, my flexing coil of turgid muscle."
"I wath only going to pet him."
I condescended to sniff once, marked his boot, and then leaped to the prow of the boat, thrusting out my chest in pride that I, Dennis, had for the first time obtained a mistress.