Bitter 594

“Huh?” said the orc.

The orc seemed baffled by Britta’s request. She could guess the problem. He can’t have been used to players talking to him without screaming.

Usually, it was bound to be more confrontational, with lots of swear words. Either they were going to kill him and wanted to make some noise about it or, more than likely, he was going to kill them, and they wanted to beg him not to.

And here was this gnome who wanted a chat. If she wasn’t careful, he’d probably hit her on the head just to avoid the awkwardness of the situation.

“I’d like to speak to your supervisor,” said Britta, trying to speak slowly and clearly without coming across as patronising. It was a tricky balance. “Look, no weapons.”

She held out her arms to show she had nothing hidden behind her back. She did have a dagger somewhere, but she wasn’t sure where she’d put it. In her magic bag, probably. It was dangerous walking around with a blade on your belt — people often assumed you would try to use it, and attacked first to get the first hit in. They called it initiative. Britta called it rude.

The orc began to get up, which was a struggle. Britta backed away as the giant rose, lost his balance, and sat back down with a thump. He put a hand to his head, and then pulled it back as he poked his palm on the arrowhead sticking out of his ear.

“You alright?” said the other orc, who had got to his feet and was trying to wipe his bloody nose with a hand that was already covered in blue. A cut throat could heal in seconds, but a bloody nose looked like it would leak forever. Dad would have given a twenty-minute rant on inconsistency being the cancer of modern gaming.

“Dizzy,” said the orc sitting in front of Britta.

They sounded human. A bit rough, heavy on the bass, but like two workmen. There was no caveman patter.

“Me hurt. Bad man go pow.”

“Hold still,” said Lin. “This might hurt.” She approached the orc, who flinched but let her come closer. He might not have if he knew she was the one who had shot her.

She grabbed one end of the arrow and pulled. It slid out of the orcs head, to no great harm. It actually seemed to produce a feeling of relief as the orc sighed.

“Better?” asked Lin. She was examining the arrow, which didn’t have any gunk on it. What did orcs have between their ears?

“Mm,” said the orc. He looked grateful. Perhaps this would be the start of a great friendship, one of those moments where taking a thorn out of a beast’s paw led to a lifesaving moment in a coliseum somewhere in the future.  “Thanks very much.”

Then again, maybe referring to them as beasts wasn’t entirely fair.

Lin smiled, a little dazed herself at having been able to converse with an NPC, and was about to put the arrow back in her quiver with the rest.

Britta snatched it out of her hand — which wasn’t easy with the height difference — and threw it on the ground.

“So,” said Britta, quickly moving things along before they noticed how the feathers on the arrow matched all the ones in Lin’s quiver, “can we talk to the boss?”

“Why?” said the other orc. His sleeves were also blue now.

Lin walked over to him and handed him a handkerchief. He took it with an indebted nod and stuffed it into one of his very wide porcine nostrils, leaving only a small white corner visible. Lin gave Britta a triumphant look. For someone who had everything she could possibly want, and everything else a phone call away, attaining an orc’s gratitude seemed to have pleased her an inordinate amount.

“I have a business proposition,” said Britta. “Something that would be to both of our benefits if we work together.”

The orc with the arrow no longer impairing him got to his feet successfully this time. “I don’t think we're hiring at the moment.”

“I don’t want a job,” said Britta. “I doubt I can do anything you need down here. Where are we, by the way? Deep underground?” It had been hard to tell when she was being dragged around in the net. It had seemed like the tunnels had sloped downwards, but then it had also seemed like they had sloped up.

The bemused look on the orc’s face suggested he still hadn’t made up his mind if he should stamp on Britta or not. He towered over her, which made her neck hurt.

“You’re on the 5th floor,” said the orc, which made it no clearer.

“Five floors down or five floors up?” asked Britta.

“Up,” said Lin. “We’re in a mountain.”

“Dead volcado, acdually,” said the orc with the self-blocked nose. He sounded like he had a bad cold.

Britta’s orc looked at Lin. “She your bodyguard?”

“Yes,” said Britta. It was true enough, even if Britta didn’t need guarding. Not from the NPCs, at least.

“Good idea,” said the orc. “Always good to have someone watch your back. I used to be a bodyguard, before I got fired.”

“Why did you get fired?” asked Britta. It wasn’t really where she wanted the conversation to go but she was curious. How does a giant orc lose a guard position? The ideal job placement for him. Did the person he was protecting die?

“Tardiness,” said the orc. “My own fault.”

Orc employment seemed as humdrum as regular work. She wondered if they got set holidays and office parties.

“Will you take us to the boss?” said Britta, hoping this chattiness would lead somewhere.

The orcs exchanged a look. Hanky-nose shrugged, which on an orc was quite a lot more expressive than a normal shrug. It was like the whole room shifted for a second.

“You can talk to the branch manager.”

Britta wasn’t sure what that meant. Some kind of druid who literally managed branches?

“Great. Thanks.”

“Shouldn’t we warn de udders.” Everyone looked at Hanky-nose. “Escaped prisoners,” he said, over-enunciating to be clearer.

“Oh, yes. Forgot.” The orc hit himself on the head, which made a deep, hollow thunk. He stomped over to a rope hanging by the wall and pulled it. A bell rang somewhere above them, followed by other bells further away. Within a few seconds, there was a constant clamour all over the mountain.

“You won’t get in trouble, will you?” asked Britta.

“Standard punishment — docked pay for two weeks, twelve and a half percent. Used to be ten.” He shook his head. “Inflation. This way.”

He led them out of the cavern.

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