Claws of the Dragon
On the Nature of Orks
You want to know what it means to be an ork in Barsaive? Well, sit down, you handsome young thing, and I’ll tell you more about orks than you thought there was to know. You name it, I’ve done it: ridden with the cavalry, raided with the nomads, run with gangs of Thieves. I’ve had tea with a dragon, found the Golden Wheel of Parlainth, felt the hot breath of Death’s Sea on my cheeks as I mined for elemental fire. I’ve looked Horrors in the face and cheated them of their prey. I’ve saved lives and loved more men than I can count—and not just orks, either.
There you go, laughing. Your imagination fails you. You see only my coarse gray hair, tangled and matted; my face dotted with warts and wrinkles; my gnarled, twisted hands. You cannot see Mereelva Gadj, heroine. You see just another ork.
Do not pretend to misunderstand what I say. I know all the Names. I’ve heard them all and I won’t bother repeating them for you because even the youngest Namegiver can recite them. No matter what great deeds I’ve accomplished in Barsaive’s Name, I know when I walk into any new place I’ll get the look. Human mothers hurry their children to safety. Dwarf elders sniff the air in contempt. Silly elven girls giggle behind my back. When I was younger, I fought these insults. I confronted the fearful, the smirkers. I told them who I was and the deeds I had performed. I no longer bother, for I learned that it is the ork’s lot to be the scapegoat for other Namegivers; we’re the ugly other that all look down their noses at and blame their misfortunes on. Folk I would not trust with a pail of stajian slop call us dishonest. Scum who refuse to raise a finger to feed a hungry child call us unfeeling and lazy. The unwashed call us dirty; the deformed call us ugly.
You protest. You say you are not this way. Perhaps this is true. I have fought beside comrades of many races and would die for them as quickly as for my own children. But tell me honestly—did your mother never warn you to avoid the company of orks? Your father tell you that orks are bad? Did your childhood friends never repeat the ugly Names? You heard these vile lies before you were old enough to think, as did every Ujnort I’ve ever met.
Ujnort? Ujnort is our word for non-orks. It means “they who will not understand.” Unfair? Do not speak to an ork of unfairness, for no Namegiver lives closer to the dirt. Why? Because you try to keep us there.
Look again at the ragged features you claim do not disgust you. How old do I look to you? A human would say seventy, eighty. A dwarf, more than a century. An elf would guess near to 350 years old. But I am a mere fifty and will likely be dead within the year. Fate itself short-changes the ork.
Bitter? Not at all. I speak only the facts. I feel no regret. I have spat in the eye of fate, given death the buunda. Others will sing songs of my life long after I am food for worms. Destiny dealt me a bad hand, and still I tore victory from it. I am an ork, and you can never understand what that means. But if you’ll lean closer so I don’t have to talk so loud, my pretty young boy, and if you order me another flagon of hurlg, perhaps I can try to explain anyway.
On Prizing Freedom Above All
Long before the Theran dogs—excuse me while I spit to the right—came to Barsaive, long before the Scourge, before the kaers, we were slaves. Why? I cannot say. Perhaps because the other Namegivers found our faces brutish and therefore thought we were simple savages to be worked like animals. Perhaps we were fewer then than now, and we were outnumbered. Perhaps we lacked the fearsome weapons and magics of the other races.
Maybe each of these reasons is a part of the answer. But one thing seems certain: our ancestors must have wanted to be slaves. They must have turned their backs on freedom. Weak and contemptible, that’s what they were. I burn with shame to think of it. No one can have his freedom stolen from him unless he surrenders it.
In those disgraceful days, one ork alone still had her spirit: Hrak Gron. Her parents were slaves, her grandparents, her great-grandparents. Yet the spirit of freedom lived bright within her. Gron watched her father whipped to death, her mother mistreated in ways I will not speak of. She resolved to fight or die. Her masters had left her nothing but her mind, her free mind. And so she spent every waking moment honing her mind into a weapon, a red-hot brand of justice. Hrak Gron became the first follower of the Liberator Discipline, which she created from nothing more than her hunger for freedom. Then she taught this fierce Discipline to the others on her farm, and they rose up and slew their masters. Then Hrak Gron and her Company of the Free traveled to the next farm, where more blood was spilled. Freedom spread like fire in dry grass, and soon the Great Uprising engulfed all of Barsaive. Many died on both sides, but my people died on the side of right. Hrak Gron herself fell in the final Battle of Grallan Field, but when the killing ended, the slavers abandoned their claims to us and we took our rightful place among the Namegivers.
Hrak Gron, like the Liberators she trained and the Liberators who fight today, used no weapons but her mind and her love for freedom. However, it is said that her scattered bones are relics of great power, and I know many an ork who has died in search of them.
Once I spoke to a scholar of Throal who said Hrak Gron never existed. The dwarf claimed that dozens of slave leaders and dozens of slave revolts gradually became one in the legend of the Great Uprising. He claimed the great march to freedom was not the “simple, childish story” I have just told. I broke his fingers.
Our history has left a fierce love of freedom in the hearts of all self-respecting orks, a love tempered in blood. Still, other orks have turned their backs on their heritage and joined slaver bands. I have even seen nomad tribes turn on one another and sell their rivals into slavery. Some of these wretches are merely misguided or foolish, and reminding them of Hrak Gron’s legacy is enough to make them stop their evil ways. But more dedicated orkish slavers cannot be cured. My axe has bitten deep into the skulls of many such villains.
Like any race, we have our share of evildoers and blackguards. Those who abandon our ways become the most dangerous orks: the crazy killers and the honorless mercenaries. We call these wretches turgma. Turgma have become the brutes that other Namegivers believe us to be. For while other races are judged by their heroes, the orks are always measured by their outlaws.
On Living and Dying Well
As I told you, I am already fifty and will soon be dead. But many orks I know do not live even this long. Almost all of my brothers and sisters are gone and I have outlived three of my ten children. Why? Because they did not fear risk or danger! The ork does not look at his short lifespan and decide to cower in a corner, hoarding his years like a miser counting coppers. We have much living to pack into the meager number of years we are given. Why fear death, when we know it comes all too soon anyway? Give death the buunda! Defy it! The ork knows that life is never sweeter than in the moment the club swings so close to his head that his hair blows back from the breeze. And if he’s a little too slow, and that club dashes his skull into a thousand bits? What of it? He lived up to that moment. What could be a better way to die?
When an ork makes a decision, he always thinks, if I die doing this, will my death make a good tale? Will my brothers, sisters, and children speak of it with pride? Or will it shame them? This is why few orks bother with such nonsense as reading and writing. Who wants to be remembered for nodding off into death while reading a useless poem? Even adventurers like me think always of how our death tales will sound. I spent many years clattering about in kaers, searching for treasure. Never once did I volunteer to open a door or chest that might have a trap to catch me. Who wants the tales and songs of his life to celebrate his getting sliced up or magicked to death by an object? Where’s the legend there? Yet, when it came time to fight, I never shirked. I fought for point position. To be peeled like an onion by a Theran mage, or suffocated by a bog gob—now that’s a hero’s death!
Do nothing halfway, that’s the ork creed. Anything else is a waste of time. And orks have no time to waste. If you’re going to choke to death, make sure it happens because you’ve gorged yourself at a banquet, not because you’re nibbling on nuts and berries! If you’re going to die from a fall, let it happen because someone pushed you, not because you tripped! Better to be killed by a poisonous snake than a poisonous mushroom. And a ten-foot snake is better than a three-foot one! The ideal death is to be burned to ash or sucked into quicksand or something like that. Every ork wishes for an empty coffin at his funeral—it means he took such great risks that nothing is left of him to tell the tale!
To celebrate death, we orks gather around the coffins of our fallen comrades—empty or not. Ujnort comrades of the fallen take places of honor, and the dead ork’s family and friends recount his greatest exploits—not just fights and adventures, but great seductions, the times he devoured amazing amounts of food or drink, his best songs, the cleverest bargains he made, and the merchants he got the better of. An ork’s death is his final exploit, and so it had better be impressive. Nothing displeases an ork like the thought that his death will sound foolish or worthless by comparison to everything else.
Outsiders call orks savage and uncivilized because our funeral speeches celebrate the vividness and fervor of a dead ork’s deeds rather than their goodness. An evil slaver can have as many exploits recounted at his funeral as a courageous Horror fighter. We believe in working hard to correct another ork’s evils while he lives—with an unsheathed sword if necessary. But once he dies, his evils no longer threaten anyone. And why shame his family for the evil he did? Better to celebrate the best of him and try to forget his crimes. There have been too many turgma among us in this troubled century; it is not good to dwell on the things they have done.
After the recitation of the exploits, the body—if one exists—is soaked in oil and set afire. Friends and blood kin remain around the coffin until the fire reduces the body to ash. It offends the memory of the dead to blink or turn away if the wind blows the burnt remains into your face. In fact, for the ash to touch you is a blessing from the deceased. “To have ash in one’s mouth” is the essence of being an ork, for death is never far from any of us.
But an ork funeral is no stoic ceremony. When an ork mourns, his wail should carry to the clouds. He should tear his clothing, cut his own f lesh. If the body is burning before him, he should throw himself on it. The burns we suffer this way let us share the final pain of our dead comrade; they are a remembrance of him to display proudly to others. Understand this, my little elf: we do not mourn so passionately because we fear death. We mourn for ourselves, because we feel the pain of absence.
On Ork Ways and Customs
I heard another scholar—one not so pretty as you, boy— say once that the truth of a people is not in their grand pronouncements and philosophies, but in how they weave their cloaks and in the games they play. You want me to talk of these things, don’t you? You are tired of hearing about freedom and slavery and the need to fight the Ujnort who despise us. Very well, little elf; we’ll talk of gentler subjects. But when you write your book, remember two things: nothing true of one ork is true of all orks, and nothing true of all orks will be true for long. I am old now, and the things I knew are being thrown aside by a new generation—as they should be.
On Mannerly Behavior Among Orks
You want to know how to get along in the company of orks? Just a few simple rules, boy. Write them down.
• Say what you think in plain talk, without weasel words.
• Don’t eat with one hand when you can eat with two.
• Never be the first at the table to stop drinking, and always belch afterward.
• Never wake a sleeping ork unless his life depends on it.
• If you tell an ork he stinks, expect him to take it as a compliment. Don’t expect him to wash.
• Spit to your left to show respect, to your right to show disrespect.
• Don’t cover your mouth when you cough—it shows you’re ashamed of your body.
• When you greet or bid farewell to an ork in friendship, throw both arms around him and bite him on the neck, as he does the same to you. If you bite too lightly, you may offend him by implying that his flesh is too good for your tongue. If you bite too hard, you offend because you want to cause him injury. Never greet an ork by shaking his hand or offering him your upturned palm—such gestures show your contempt of us, because you have not bothered to learn our ways.
• Never wish an ork luck—by doing so, you imply that he’ll need it. Instead, say “May Hrak Gron be with you.” If the ork you are speaking to is a turgma, of course, the mention of Hrak Gron’s Name will remind him of his shame. He will probably attack you—feel free to slay such a one.
• Never remind orks of their race’s past as slaves, unless you were once a slave and those you are speaking to know this.
Among ourselves, we live by two other rules: no regrets, and no grudges. If you don’t like something I do, tell me. If your words make sense, I will change my ways. If they do not, I will continue as I am. Either way, neither of us apologizes. You are not sorry for mentioning it, and I am not sorry for doing what I did. Life is too short to feel regret. If you do something bad, fix the problem; don’t go about moaning about regret. Holding grudges is pointless also. If you get my gahad boiling, I confront you and we resolve it then and there. If we cannot reach agreement, we fight to first blood and our weapons decide what our words cannot. Once we solve a problem, we forget it. And if the problem is too big to forget, one of us kills the other and life goes on. What could be simpler?
On Customs of Love, Marriage and Family
My people have a saying that the fiercest fires burn out fastest. Orks love passionately, but briefly; we take on many mates throughout our lives. When a male and female share the ways of love, they are married and they share family obligations. Unlike you Ujnort, we require no ceremony to mark this relationship, though we often hold huge feasts to celebrate such unions.
The obligations of marriage are simple. First, neither partner may risk his or her life without the consent of the other. Second, partners must share any money or spoils they gain with each other. And last, the married ork must consider the previous children of a mate as his or her own and treat them accordingly. These bonds do not dissolve when an ork moves on to a new mate; I still keep in touch with the children of my former mates, born of other ork women.
Most orks have at least six children, and so our family customs create a vast web of relationships in the community and foster strong loyalties among us. The previous child of my mate is my lelkrarg; I am his dramar. I owe advice and aid to my lelkrargs in exchange for their respect and obedience. Because each lelkrarg has many dramar, my interest in raising a lelkrarg well connects me with many other adults in my community.
On the Ways of Men and Women
All orks know that women are better than men. Our greatest hero, Hrak Gron, was a woman. Women can do all the things men can— hunt, raid, fight, build, sing, steal, drink, eat, haggle—and we can bear children. But we are smart enough not to lord our superiority over our men too much. We let them help make decisions, too. And bearing children takes six months, so we let the men go off and do things while we wait for the precious child to arrive.
As for dividing tasks by the sex an ork is born with, such a notion is laughable! The strength of a sword arm and sharpness of mind are better tests than sex of who is fit to lead.
On How Orks View Other Races
We orks know what most of you Ujnort think of us. You think we’re savages, killers, thieves, idiots—don’t try to deny it. You surprised, pretty boy, that we think as well of you as you do of us? Surprised? But unlike you, we orks are not blinded by our prejudices. All the Ujnort have some good in them, though they keep it well hidden from the ork.
On one hand, dwarfs don’t fancy around with flowery lies and weasel words. They say what they think—sometimes, anyway. On the other hand, they pretend to love justice and freedom but kept us as slaves for centuries. And they lust for power over all of Barsaive. To them, orks are pawns in their game, meek and obedient pawns they can sweep into a corner when they need us no more. The empire they dream of would fit us better than the Theran yoke, but no empires at all would be better still.
Elves, now, they cannot be trusted. They’re so deceitful even their own hearts lie to them. They never know what they really feel and wouldn’t tell you if they did. They sneer at what they call our ugliness and at our honest ways, preferring empty-headed beauty and underhanded intrigue. Not all bad, though, the elves. They don’t share the dwarfs’ dreams of power, and some of them are handsome even if they do cause trouble. Like you, pretty boy!
Humans confuse orks. Humans confuse everybody. A human in ork company is often a better ork than the orks are. But put him with elves and he starts looking at you like you’re lower than a horse’s leavings. Put him with a dwarf and he wants to impose his order on you. Humans are like snowflakes: no two are alike, and they melt when you throw them in the fire. That was a joke, pretty boy! Best thing to remember about humans is to keep a sharp eye on them— puzzle out what they’re up to, what they want. You got to watch carefully, because a human will change himself however he must to win. Clever folk, though, humans. We orks admire that.
Obsidimen are strange and slow. Even though they live so much longer than we do, we pity them, for they never feel our fierce joy in life. Best thing about an obsidiman is that you can trust him all the time. Once you puzzle him out, he won’t change. We have a saying that describes obsidimen best: you can trust a rock, but it’s not much fun to drink with one.
Everything bad you ever heard about orks is true of trolls. They are vicious killers with no honor, savage beasts in a Namegiver’s form. Ever known a troll who wasn’t stupid, destructive, and meaner than ale brewed from snake venom, pretty boy? Hah. I thought not. They should have been the slaves, not us—but you pretty weaklings of Namegivers feared to fight them. So you beat the orks down instead. All right, pretty elf; because you insist on asking, I’ll admit I know a few trolls who have fought their cruel natures and become honorable and brave. Not many, mind you. You ask me, most trolls deserve to be thrown in a tar pit to drown.
T’skrang are entertaining, but flighty. I fought side by side with t’skrang who risked their lives just to look stylish in battle. Stylish! Have you ever heard of anything so stupid? Worrying about how prettily they can swing a sword when they should be plowing straight through the enemy and killing them. If you kill your enemy, who cares what you look like doing it? But a t’skrang’s heart is in the right place, even when he knows less about ork ways than a baby knows of the world. Too bad you can’t rely on them to do the sensible thing when a crazy thing is possible instead. People tell me the t’skrang who stay in their own villages are reasonable enough, but the wanderers and adventurers I’ve met were just plain crazy. Funny, though. Watching them fight, I sometimes split my sides laughing.
Windlings can make you crazy in a few heartbeats. They think everything they say is funny even if it hurts you, and they never know when to shut their yapping mouths. Fly around like gnats, they do, especially when you want their attention. They can’t settle down and listen to a plan, and they cry or get mad or just fly away when you try to talk sense into them. But they love freedom almost as much as orks do. They follow their hearts, and they can seize life and shake it in a way that dwarfs and humans and such only dream of. For that, I admire windlings even when they get my gahad boiling.