The following story was the winning entry for a writing contest in the virtual world of Triskele in Second Life. Triskele was a roleplaying land, set somewhat vaguely in a Tolken-esque, Lord of the Rings type of world.
The assignment was to write something about “coming of age.” This was one of those things that I procrastinated on until the last day and then whipped out in an hour or two. Unlike some of my stories, I had no idea where the story was going until it got there. I don’t think I ever really posted this anywhere for anyone to see, and it never made too much of a ripple in Triskele, so I guess I can still kind of consider this a world premier of the story (at least of this world).
Twighlight of Manhood
The man was just a silhouette, kneeling in a small indentation on the ground. His face looked skyward, and his figure was back-lit by the dimly setting sun and the glow of the forest and small village burning behind him.
The air was thick with a mixture of mist and smoke, the smell being the smell of moist earth mixed with burning early spring grass and wood. A steady and annoying drizzle fell from an invisible sky. The drizzle did little to dampen the flames, so hot did they burn, but it did manage to keep the flames from spreading quickly. The man breathed slowly and evenly, for the most part. Occasionally, an almost imperceptible shudder could be heard on his exhale.
After several minutes, the man sighed, and lowered his head from his meditation. He stood wearily, trying not to wince at the pain from the still bleeding cut across his shoulders or from the soreness of his muscles that covered his entire body. He was young: barely 15, the downy hair from his damp face barely shining in the glow of the fire. He reached to his pouch for arrows, and found it empty. He refrained from showing his disappointment, and also from tossing aside his currently useless bow. He slung the bow to his back and pulled the dagger from his calf holster instead. The dagger could not be much more useless than the arrows were earlier, and he felt more comfortable carrying some kind of weapon in his hand.
He looked back to the village, wondering briefly if he were the only survivor. It was unlikely. The orcs had come more for damage and plunder than for carnage. The fauna was plentiful this spring, and the orcs were more likely to stay away from the troublesome humans and stick to easier game. They almost certainly killed some and brought them back as prizes, but they would not have cared if many had gotten away. Foolish, as the survivors were more likely to mount a counter attack. Unless, of course, the objective was to kill all the warriors. He had seen his father and older brothers killed. Perhaps he had simply got overlooked, or was judged too young to be a significant threat, or judged dead and without enough meat to make a decent meal.
The young man started to walk toward the burning village, but quickly was driven back by the heat. The fire burned unnaturally hot, and the young man wondered briefly if drow magic were somehow involved. No matter at this point. The village was effectively no more. The only question would be the size of the ashes that remained.
Actually, when Kraegel thought about it a little further, there was still one more question that remained. Should he try to meet up with any other survivors from the village, or should he proceed to the orc’s haven and try to exact revenge by himself? The answer should have been clear and obvious, and perhaps it was this very clarity which made him rebel and strike out on his own toward the orc encampment.
Kraegel felt no anger–he felt nothing. Even the pain in his muscles was rapidly fading into memory. He proceeded at a sustainable jog, dodging barely visible, slippery tree roots and low branches with little effort. It would still take most of the evening for him to get to the camp, in it was likely that the raiders would be there before him by an hour or so. They should all be tired and asleep by then. They would post guards, no doubt, but it would be unlikely that they would really be expecting a retaliatory attack so soon. And when the retaliatory attack came, they would be certain that it would be by a team of experienced fighters. The would not expect a single human at the age of his proving to sneak into the camp and stealthily murder as many of them as he could in their sleep. He ran on, working through the details and the perfectness of his plan. Perhaps he could kill all of them, but even in his deluded state he could not make himself believe this. The camp would number in the hundreds. He was only one with a single dagger. He would not live to see the morning light, he was certain, but that troubled him not at all. He ran on, his thoughts of vengeance drowning all all thoughts of reason.
He arrived at the camp about an hour before the sun would rise, and he fought to catch his breath as he survey the area. His luck, it seemed, was better than he could have dreamed. There were only two guards posted, and both appeared drunk nearly to the point of passing out. He had first thought only to avoid the guards, but given this discovered reality Kraegel wondered if it might be best to try to take both guards out first.
He rejected the idea. The guards were in an area fully exposed to the light of the moon, and he could not approach them without exposing him self for many yards before he could reach either of them. Even if if got to one of them without being seen, the slightest squeak or squeal would alert the other guard and quickly end his attack. He realized that he could probably kill the lives of many more by sticking to the shadows. With that thought in mind, he silently climbed the spiky wooden wall that surrounded the camp and dropped silently inside.
The domiciles that the orcs occupied were rocky, muddy mounds…very unlike the wood, thatch and skin homes that were all he ever knew as a living space. There was only one entrance to each, and the entrance and exit were one and the same. He stood outside the hut, in the shadows, listening for the steady breathing that indicated sleep. For the first time since he embarked on his mission, he felt fear. Walking into an orc hut armed only with a dagger was suicidal. He could smell the powerful alcoholic fumes drifting from the entrance and slowly built up his nerve to enter.
Although he had stayed to the shadows, his eyes still had to adjust to the extreme darkness of the inside of the mound. The orcs were night creatures, and for a while he felt helpless and foolish. He was doomed should any occupant of the abode awaken. He would be killed before he could even see his attacker. He stood still, daring not move nor even breath lest he draw attention to himself.
Finally, his eyes adjusted until he could see the dim shadows of the room. He could make out the hut’s occupants, their chests rising and falling in slumber. There seemed to be three orcs sleeping here. He clutched his knife anxiously and silently crept to the nearest target.
Beneath him he could see a young girl orc. He looked on in surprise. He was not aware that there were such things as child orcs. He felt a sudden revulsion. He could not–no–WOULD not kill a child.
And then he thought of the others in the hut. If he were successful at killing them, then what would happen to this little one? What would it be like to wake up at such a young age and to have the first thing you see is your father and mother brutally murdered? Or either your father or your mother. He looked at the other sleeping figures, suddenly gripped by a crippling indecision.
A moment later, almost without volition, he found himself outside of the hut, kneeling in the shadows, and silently weeping.
The sky began to glow with the lightest glow of twilight. He looked at the knife in his hands and realized how small and ridiculous it felt. All of his fantasies were exposed to reality at that moment. At best, he would be able to kill only two or three orcs before he was caught and killed. The orcs would torture him, and keep him alive for weeks. He came prepared to give his own life, but he was having trouble seeing the point of dying for so little gain. And then what pain would be caused by the orc murders he did succeed in? Would the orc children keep up the cycle of hate and eventually attack the human village with even more vengeance?
After having calmed himself, he felt the childish feelings of vengeance fade away. With an eerie calm, he re-entered the hut, let his eyes adjust again, and lay his knife on the chest of the drunken orc warrior. Let them make of that message what they will. He stealthily left, re-climbed the fence, and ran for a distance before exhaustion overtook him and he had to sleep. He collapsed into a grassy field just as the sun poked over the horizon.
He awoke to find an orc warrior standing over him.
The warrior was staring at him. Kraegel had no idea how long the warrior had been there. He resisted the urge to search for weapons on his own person for he knew he had none. They stared at each other for for many long moments.
Finally the orc raised his hand and violently tossed something at him. Kraegel involuntarily closed his eyes and heard a thumping sound, but no pain.
When Kraegel opened his eyes again, the orc was gone.
Kraegel lay for many long minutes without moving. He felt certain that if he looked down he would find a spear protruding from his chest. It took him almost two minutes before he realized that he was still breathing and that his chest felt normal.
He looked down, and found nothing protruding. First he rolled his head left, and then right, and then there it was…
His own knife. The one he had left on the chest of the warrior last night.
His eyes closed and he felt himself silently weeping again. Were they the tears of a child or of a man? He knew not nor cared not. He knew, in his heart, that he would never be able to think childish thoughts again. What he had done had been the right thing, sending a message more powerful than a thousand deaths could have.
He lay there in the rising sun, feeling the warmth seep back into his body. His family–his home–was gone forever. His job now, he knew, would be to return and rebuild. It would be a challenge, no doubt, but the man within him knew that was the thing that needed to be done.
He replaced his knife and stood up, weary but with a feeling of powerful resolution, and began to run back to the place where his home once was, and to the place where his home would again one day arise.