“Good morning, Wakgut! Mind if I join you?” Roondar’s tone was bright and cheerful, circumstances notwithstanding. “That is, do you mind if I share some of the fire’s warmth? You see, in a sense, we are already joined. By that I mean not merely by the circumstance of our travels together, but also by the kinship of shared adventures…” he trailed off, knowing that his Big friends weren’t quite as keen on gnomes’ propensity for chatter as he might like.
Wakgut nodded silently and gestured toward the vacant log across the fire.
“Thank you, Wakgut.” Roondar produced from his haversack a lump of smoked meat and a portion of bread that existed in the uncertain terminal zone between bun and loaf, though for his purposes, it served its role as breakfast more than adequately. “If Master Vasu were here and not ersatz-pseudo-entities-formed-from-organized-eddies-in-the-magical-weave-that-most-call-gods knows where in prison under suspicion of collaborating with the necromancers of Thay, I am more than confident that he would agree with my utterly canny and accurate observation that you, my dear Wakgut, are what we in the wizard community, and don’t get me wrong here, I’m not advocating that the term ‘community’ as commonly used applies accurately in this particular case of course, but rather a sort of loosely organized school of sorts, if you will, dedicated primarily to similar scholarly pursuits, and specializing in particular… well, specializations of the application of what you’d probably be inclined to think of as the Weave…” Roondar trailed off again right before he was about to tell his friend of his singular and remarkable character, caught by the unusual absence of irritation from his dining companion. “I say, Wakgut. Is something wrong?”
Wakgut shrugged, “Wakgut think.”
“Ah, I have caught you in a moment of introspection, have I? We gnomes are known from time to time to retreat to a place of calm so that we might have a short period alone to reflect on the day’s activities, on the many intellectual pursuits that we might be, er… pursuing…”
“Ulfe? The ogre that commanded your warband, yes?” Thanks to his gnomish physiology, Roondar was capable of eating and speaking at the same time. The gnome epiglottis is bifurcated and located lower in the throat, allowing air to pass through a pair of side channels while a bolus slides along a center groove towards the esophagus. This adaptation allows for greater information transmission, with the unintended side effect of the natural polyphony so characteristic of gnome speech. Some races find it irritating. Wakgut, like most orcs, could take it or leave it.
“Ulfe strong. Rule many orc. Many orog. Rule Burdug. All she-orc.”
“Burdug was your Eye of Gruumsh, the spellcaster, yes?”
“I’ve often found myself wondering about orc magic. How it is your kind tap into the weave. From what I gather, some sort of sacrifice is involved. Burdug was missing an eye. Is that part of the rituals?”
Wakgut nodded again. His familiarity with religious topics was limited by the natural extent of his intellect. Even among his warband, Wakgut was notorious for vapid remarks and naught but a dim grasp of the precepts of orc lore. “Burdug kill elf, give eye. Gruumsh take eye, give magicking. Burdug magic not help kill Kat-orog, Biff-orog. Not help kill Roon-Roon.” Wakgut moped a lugubrious glance at his little friend.
“If you will forgive my impertinence, I cannot help but notice that you sound almost morose. As I said, you are quite singular among orcs. At least, that’s what I intended to say before once again I found myself verily hogtied by my own thoughts. I never realized growing up in my little village of,” here Roondar switched into the staccato, yet still somewhat sing-song tongue of the gnomes as he rattled off a name too long and Rococo to attempt to transcribe. Wakgut learned a lesson that day: never ask a gnome whence he hails. “…that the Common tongue would be so very limiting for the purposes of expressing more than one thought at once. I honestly have no idea how the humans manage. How dreadfully…” he trailed off, realizing that his dimwitted friend probably went great stretches of time without wresting with even one thought beyond perhaps, “me hungry” or “what that smell?” Such innocence, thought Roondar. Such innocence coupled with such awful brutality. How fascinating this creature, this orc.
“Wakgut not sad. Wakgut anxious.” He stirred the coals in search of the ember bed. “Ulfe dead. Ulfe keep all orc under boot. Kat-orog kill Ulfe, keep Wakgut alive. Wakgut slave for Kat-orog. Kat-orog not step on Wakgut neck yet. Kat-orog must be biding her time, wait for best chance to stomp on Wakgut neck hard. Kill Wakgut. Better die by Biff-orog sword, Treedeath arrow, Rubbalo scare magics.”
Roondar found himself flummoxed. The very notion that the honorable Ekaterina von Eblerheim would spare a foe merely to have some vile sport later on vexed him. “I…” Roondar spluttered, “I have never in my life heard such stuff and nonsense.” He put his small, gnarled hand on Wakgut’s forearm. “Kat is kind. Why, before we met you, she gave me this beautiful ermine cloak of her own make to use as a bedroll when mine was pilfered by a scoundrel in the night. She wanted to spare a white wyrmling from death before it became clear that the beast would be far more trouble alive than dead. She is as close to an innocent as I can imagine a war priestess of Zorya Utrennyaya being in the savage lands of her upbringing. She won’t hurt you, Wakgut.” Roondar tightened his grip. “Not unless you give her reason to.” He glared at the orc. “And neither will the rest of us. You have my word, Wakgut. Do you understand me?”
Wakgut’s demeanor did not change. “Wakgut understand promise. Wakgut hear many promise before. Promise from Ulfe. Promise from Burdug. Other orc. Orog. Promise cheap. Before Ulfe was Hogtooth. Hogtooth strong orog. Almost chieftain. Make many promise about make Thousand Fist rule all land near Durdegin forge. Make promise smash Red Larch. Promise take all sheeps. Pigs. Moo-cow. Hogtooth do nothing. Small raid. Chase farmer. Burn hay. Hogtooth sleep all day. Play frog-throw. Head-bonk. Him bad chief. Lazy. Ulfe not lazy. Him mean. Hit orc. Sit on orc. Take she-orc. Promise hurt Wakgut if no bring sheeps.” Wakgut smacked his lips. “Him keep that promise.” He looked at little Roondar The Mighty, Wizard of Things Unknown and Unknowable. “Can Roon-roon keep promise? Do Roon-roon even want keep promise?”
Roondar sat up straight. His honor was being questioned. Now, while it may be the case that gnomes’ natural interests seldom have much overlap with matters of honor, he did consider himself to be trustworthy, decent, even outright chivalrous (at least in most cases, the unpleasantness with Master Vasu notwithstanding). This slight would most assuredly not stand. “Roon-roon absolutely intends to keep his promises. Why would you even think otherwise? Have we shown you anything apart from the utmost kindness and care? Not only have we spared your life, which I might add given the circumstances could have very easily gone the other way, but we have allowed you total liberty about the camp complete with your full arms and armaments, including that very impressive suit of splint mail armor you are wearing. Why, if I didn’t know better, I daresay that you have been granted a wealth of privileges far beyond any reasonable expectation. I forward to you the proposition that Kat-orog,” he sharpened his pitch to emphasize the next phrase, “and the rest of us have already kept the bulk of the promise I just made you.” His tone softened as he considered the orc’s feelings. “Are… are things worse now that your friends are dead?”
“Friend?” Wakgut snorted. “All orc make fun of Wakgut. Hit with log. Throw rock. Wakgut glad they dead.” He patted Roondar on the shoulder ever so gently. “Roon-roon best friend Wakgut ever have.” Roondar noticed that the orc’s voice seemed to be hitching ever so slightly. Was Wakgut fighting back tears? “Kat-orog very nice. Even scary Xhed’r pirate no try kill Wakgut.”
“You mean Khideo?”
“That what Wakgut say: Xhed’r.” He sighed. “Wakgut wait whole life for same indifference Rubbalo show Wakgut. Better than what Wakgut get from orc, orog, ogre.”
“I don’t think Mr. Geldethamp is indifferent,” the gnome corrected, “so much as he is adept at concealing his true emotions. He is a gambler, after all.”
“Wakgut no trust anyone with power, even if things okay. Things change. People change. Promise hard to keep when no food, no fire. Promise hard to keep when stink-dwarf come from far mountain with axe to kill all orc. Never trust anyone with power of life and death, power to hurt.” Wakgut’s shoulders slumped. “This Wakgut heuristic. Wakgut hope wrong for Kat-orog. Want to trust. But big tension between hope and prune dance.”
Prune dance? the gnome wondered. Oh, prudence. “Yes, well, hope does spring eternal so they say.”
“Not for orc.”
Roondar nodded at this. Life must be pretty rough for an orc. He decided to change the subject. He found that speaking with Wakgut imposed upon him a particular discipline of thought. He was obliged to slow down and consider things one at a time. Still, the gnome mind cannot be still for long, and he reopened a conversational thread from earlier. “I’m curious, Wakgut. Why did you never fight back or run away? Why didn’t you resist?”
“Yes. Resist. Maybe find some like-minded orcs and stand up to Ulfe and his barbarism.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Tell Ulfe stop hit orc. Then what?”
Roondar hemmed and hawed a bit. “Well then you’ll have justice, that’s what.”
“Get new ogre, then have justice?”
“Well sure. If Ulfe was so bad, surely the alternatives…” Roondar drifted off to imagine other actual ogres he had encountered.
“All ogre bad. Mean. Like hit orc. Like smash human, elf, stink-dwarf, gnome. Problem not with Ulfe. Problem with be orc. Problem with political economy of orc organization. System no good. Ogre symptom, not cause. How Wakgut resist system?”
“That is an excellent question. I believe the humans are fond of charters, of constitutions, of codified sets of grand rules restricting the authority of the sovereign…”
Wakgut interrupted. “No can work with orc. Orc ignore. Only rule that matter is Gruumsh rule.”
“Well, if you recall, there actually is no Gruumsh, neither are there any actual gods, but rather merely certain patterns that coalesce from what you perceive as the magical weave, and these patterns have certain traits associated with them that adherents anthropomorphize and name, which include species-specific so-called deities such as the Elf Lord Corellon Larethian or the Drow’s Lolth or your own Gruumsh, so saying they have some sort of will per se is misleading in the same sense that saying a river or the wind has a will of its own. Now I agree that from the perspective of the mortal observer, it would seem as if…” an abrupt knock on the back of the gnome’s head ended his reverie. “Hey, who did that?”
“Can it, gnome. We’re trying to sleep.”
“Right. Sorry Biff. Right.” He turned back to Wakgut. “We’ll talk more later.