Categories > Original > Fantasy > Stories of Tavanta


by mattappleby 0 reviews

Category: Fantasy - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Drama,Fantasy - Published: 2011-09-24 - Updated: 2011-09-24 - 4716 words

by Matt Appleby

Diegerburdot, Ensturg
Year 1989, Third Age

From the Fire we arose.
To the Fire we will return.
We children of the World Mountain.
We under her eternal Shadow.
Her Heart will claim us.
Her Heart will create us anew.
The End is the Beginning is the End.

Lacriessa knew these words by heart, and had done for as long as she could recall.
They were, indeed, the first words that any orc would ever hear, and if the
circumstances were right, also the last. Those seven lines contained the truth and
everything in it, and were all an orc would ever need in order to make sense of the
world. Of course, it wasn't exactly that simple, regardless of how the priests liked to
tell it, but the Mountain's Creed was still a better guiding light than most.

Lacriessa repeated the Creed under her breath. It might not solve every
problem, but nonetheless, it was a comfort. Today was a big day, easily the biggest of
her life, and the nerves were already piling up. There was a small part of her that felt
scared, which was understandable given the circumstances, but mostly she just knew
that her task was an essential one, a noble one, and the responsibility for its success
was hers alone. There was a lot to live up to, a lot of history and a lot of future, and
she wasn't entirely sure she was ready, but she wanted to do it, and she was keen to
see it done right.

Outside, a bell began to toll. It was almost time.

She was in a small room, featureless except for the steel bench on which she
was currently rested. This was where the Returning Child was required to wait, alone
with their thoughts, whilst the ceremony was being prepared. The idea was to test the
Child's resolve, to see if the isolation and anticipation would make the mind turn on
itself, make them abandon the ceremony and run away in fear. No orc was ever
known to have done so, for there was considered to be no greater shame. Lacriessa
certainly had no intention of being the first.

Besides, she still had the box. Resting on her knees was a small steel
container, half-filled with copper shavings, and resting on these shavings was an egg.
It was about six inches across, and a mottled grey colour. It was her egg, and inside
was her child. Whether a boy or a girl, she had no way of knowing, but that didn't
matter. They were still her child, and they were what today was about. She would not
fail them, not under any circumstances. So long as she had the box, had the egg, she
would see this through.

Suddenly, the bell stopped. There was a silence, then a voice.

"Come forth, Returning Child."

The door gently swung open, as if pushed by an invisible hand.

Now was the time.

Lacriessa took hold of the box, stood up and walked outside. She was in a
large plaza, the Start of the Path, the heart of the temple-city of Diegerburdot.
Buildings spread out on all sides, many the largest and grandest outside Toldurmei,
the royal city itself. A crowd had gathered around the edge of the plaza, heads bowed
in unison. To be in the Start of the Path, even for those who lived and worked in this
city, was a rare and humbling honour. Lacriessa understood this better than most.

At the centre of the plaza were five priests, dressed in elegantly decorated gold
armour. Those orcs who went to war and came back would often bring human
garments, made from leather or wool or silk, and would be amazed at what others
considered to be fineries. They knew how to make such materials, and create clothing
from them, but they always considered such things to be bland and immaterial. The
refining of metal, the forging of armour, these were works of labour and permanence,
worthy of their place in the shadow of the World Mountain.

The priests who worked in her Heart would not be forced to make do with
mere robes, but were deserving of the finest ceremonial gold. Lacriessa looked down
at her own iron armour, the set she considered to be her grandest, and could only feel
inadequate. But she was the Returning Child, not them, and despite having no better
than regular iron, she would keep her head high.

Lacriessa walked over to the five priests. The eldest, the one with the finest
armour, stepped forward to meet her.

"Are you the Returning Child?" he said, with the grandeur of long-performed

Lacriessa knew the reply. Knew all the replies that would be required today. In
recent months, she had studied nothing else. She took a breath.

"I am the Returning Child."

"Are you ready to ascend the Path of the World Mountain?"

"I am ready to ascend the Path of the World Mountain."

"Are you ready to enter the Heart of the World Mountain, and commit
yourself to her Fire?"

"I am ready to enter the Heart of the World Mountain, and commit myself to
her Fire."

"Will your spirit be taken into her Heart, and be reborn anew in the spirit of
your child?"

"My spirit will be taken into her Heart, and will be reborn anew in the spirit of
my child."

"Then you are indeed the Returning Child. Together we will ascend the Path
of the World Mountain. But you alone can commit yourself to her Fire."

The crowd began to stamp their feet. The slow, rhythmic chorus was used at
orc gatherings of many kinds, a gesture indicating deep and eternal solidarity.
Lacriessa began to feel a lump in her throat. To give such a gesture was common, but
to receive it was not.

The other four priests stepped forward, forming a loose square around
Lacriessa. The elder priest moved ahead, leading the way. The bell tolled once, then
the party walked out of the plaza. The stamping from the crowd began to die own.

Lacriessa looked up at the World Mountain. She was massive even when seen
from the farthest corners of Ensturg, but here at her very base, she loomed over half
the horizon. Fire and smoke constantly billowed from her summit, pouring her spirit
into the sky. Above her head, as above the heads of all orcs, the sky was thick with
black clouds, keeping the land in the eternal twilight in which it had been created. The
World Mountain had breathed out her Fire since the beginning of everything, and on
this everything now turned.

Halfway up the Mountain, almost impossible to see from here, was a giant
cave. This was the End of the Path, and inside was the Heart of the Mountain, the
source of her Fire. This was the navel of existence, where all orcs were born, and
where they would all one day return.

The party reached the edge of the city. Ahead of them was the Path itself, a
staircase wide enough for seven orcs to walk side-by-side, twisting and turning up the
Mountain until it reached the cave. The staircase was not steep, but such was the
distance, it would take many hours to climb.

As they began their ascent, Lacriessa reflected on the events to come. The
exchange with the elder priest had not been mere ritual. It was a statement of intent, of
her business in the Heart of the Mountain. She had meant every word. Today she
would die, and in her place her child would be born.

The land of Ensturg, surrounding the World Mountain from which it had taken
its name, was not a kind place. To keep the rest of the world turning, one part had to
be under the Mountain's shadow, making the necessary sacrifice. There was little sun
here, and few plants could grow. The animals that scratched an existence from them
were small but tough, and would tear apart all comers in order to protect what little
they could find. The orcs had been no better, at first, until they had learned to make
the cold, barren desert work for them, to get the most out of every resource the land
could give. They had learned to mine rocks deep beneath the earth, and turn them into
precious metals of all kinds. They had learned where the clouds were thin and the
water was pure, where they could take the wild plants and make them grow into
bountiful fields, and raise the animals in obedient herds. But it was not a paradise. The
land was still hard and unforgiving, and there were few who could live there.

It had been discovered long ago that the World Mountain itself knew this, and
had taken steps to help. To ensure that they would never grow too many, the orcs
were given only a limited number of souls. There could be no more than 310,000 of
their race, each reusing the spirit of one who came before, and in time passing it onto
one who came after. If a child was born that brought the orcs above this number, then
they would not have a soul, and so their egg would never hatch. There were no
loopholes and no exceptions.

The problem, of course, was that death was even less predictable than life.
Most times, especially in the wake of all-too-common wars and diseases, the
population was much lower than this number, and children were born with no
difficulties. But there were also times when the orcs were at their maximum, and there
could be no more. For a child to be born then, an adult would have to die and give up
their soul. They would walk the Path of the Mountain, enter the cave that was her
Heart, and throw themselves into her Fire. Only then would there be another child.

After Lacriessa's child had been born, she had taken herself and her egg to
Diegerburdot, to a sacred pool in the heart of its largest temple. As all orc mothers
would do, she dropped a stone into the pool, and waited for a sign. For her, the sign
was that the orcs were at their maximum, and she would be a Returning Child. The
idea was terrifying, but at its core was a simple truth, that the soul in the core of her
was not hers to keep, but rather to be kept aflame for those in the future who would
have need of it. Unlike many others, she would get to ensure the succession

The party came to a stop. They were already some distance up the Mountain,
and had reached the first Waypoint. By the side of the staircase was a plinth, about
chest-height, and on top of it was a plain silver medallion. Next to the plinth was
another priest, this one in armour of matching silver.

The elder priest turned to Lacriessa.

"Where were you born?" he intoned.

"In the Heart of the Mountain, as is the orc way."

"How were you raised?"

"By the Church of the World Mountain, in the orc ways."

"What were you taught?"

"I was taught the names of the rocks, the plants and the animals. I was taught
to mine our earth, to reap our harvest, and to build our houses. I was taught the history
of those who came before, and future of those who will come after. I was taught to
keep the Fire of the World Mountain alight, to defend it from all who will see it
extinguished. These are the orc ways."

"Then you know the beginning of your tale."

The silver priest stepped forward, and placed the medallion around her neck. It
felt heavier than it should have done.

"We must continue to ascend the Path of the World Mountain."

The party moved off, with the silver priest quietly stepping in behind.

This ceremony was, if in only in part, about the end of a life. The purpose of
the Waypoints, this one and the two after it, was to acknowledge that life, to tell its
story one last time. Most of the questions and answers were ritual, but there were
some that were not. The effect was the same either way.

It suddenly struck Lacriessa as odd that, despite all the places and objects and
ideas behind it, the ceremony itself did not have a name. It was something she, like
most orcs, had just accepted, as the ceremony was so momentous that the word itself
could refer to no other. Maybe some things just didn't need names. But the fact that
she'd never considered the idea before was surprising.

The Church of the World Mountain was effectively the ruler of Ensturg. A
king would sit on the actual throne of the land, and did actually hold the kind of
power worthy of the name, but all kings would make a point of listening to the
Church and its concerns, and of making them the top priority. The Church would
never actively meddled in public affairs, of course, just so long as public affairs were
already to their liking. Everyone knew this, but because of the Church's importance,
everyone could be as understanding as the king.

For an orc, the Church really was the one who raised you. All parents, whether
they were the Returning Child or not, would take their egg to the Heart, where the
child inside would be given a soul from the Fire. They would then be taken in by the
priests, brought to one of their schools, and trained in all the many orc ways. The
parents themselves would have only minimal contact from there on in. Whether this
was a good or bad thing, they would never ask, as this was how they and all orcs since
the beginning of time had been raised, and ultimately, they knew no different. Their
child would grow, be educated and prosper, and in those dark hours when they would
weep for reasons they did not understand, this fact would be a consolation.

Lacriessa, again, began to feel a lump in her throat. The unspeakable truth was
something she knew of, but she would never have to experience it herself. This, if
anything, was even worse.

The party had reached the second Waypoint. There was another plinth, another
medallion, another silver priest.

Lacriessa looked back down the mountain. Diegerburdot was a long way
below them now, alone and insignificant at the base of the World Mountain. Far
beyond, almost at the edge of the horizon, was the dark Sestige Ocean. Somewhere
out there, amidst the violent and capricious waters, was her husband, and probably her
greatest regret was that she would not live to see him return.

The elder priest turned again to Lacriessa.

"When you came of age, what did you do?"

"I was taken to the mountains of Elterrand, where I hunted a Troll in the deep
caves. I proved my worth as an orc in the traditional way, as all have done before me,
and as all will do after."

"Did you then take up a trade worthy of an orc?"

"I took up a trade worthy of an orc. I did my part to keep the Fire of the World
Mountain alight."

"Were you asked to take up arms against those who would destroy us?"

"I was not asked to take up arms."

"If you were asked, would you have taken up arms against those who would
destroy us?"

"If I was asked, I would have taken up arms."

"Then you know the middle of your tale."

Lacriessa was given the second medallion, and the silver priest took his place
at the back of the party.

"We must continue to ascend the Path of the World Mountain."

The party moved off again.

Though orcs had long since moved beyond killing each other over meagre
resources, it was still a fundamental truth that this land would still make short work of
those who did not know the warrior's ways. To be considered worthy, then, an orc
would have to know how to fight, and regardless of their other skills, at the age of
fifteen they would be asked to prove it. Trolls were large and dangerous creatures, to
be found only in the darkest of caves, and even the greatest warriors were not
guaranteed to survive a fight with one. But all orcs were required to do so, and in a
combination of youthful audacity, iron determination and blind terror, most would
succeed. For Lacriessa, it had been the single worst experience of her life, but she had
brought the head of a Troll to the surface, as required, and had proved her worth.

At this point, like many orcs, she left the true warrior's life behind, and
became apprenticed to a travelling merchant. It had been honest, well-paid work, and
she had been good at it, and in time, she inherited the cart and the wares for herself.
They would now in turn be inherited by her own apprentice, who had also learned the
trade very well, and so the cycle would continue.

As a merchant, she had never been asked to go to war, and for this she was
grateful. So many would be sent, and so few would return, and those who did would
leave something deep inside themselves lying on that foreign battlefield. No one knew
exactly how it had begun, but for nearly two thousand years, the orcs of Ensturg and
the humans of Elterrion had been in endless conflict. Every decade, one would send
an army out against the other, and there would be many deaths on both sides before
the army was driven back. The fighting was bloody and ultimately irrelevant, but for
the orcs, this itself was ultimately irrelevant. They were not looking for a great and
lasting victory, but only to keep away the enemy at their gates.

If she had been asked, would Lacriessa have gone to war? Yes, she would, but
only because no one would ever refuse the invitation. No one looked kindly on those
who refused.

The party had reached the third and final Waypoint. They were close to the
Heart of the Mountain now, and Lacriessa could see the glow of the Fire on the cave's
walls. The smoke from the Mountain's summit was beginning to get thicker.

"The parents of the child you carry." the elder priest intoned. "Are they still of
this land?"

"I am the mother of the child I carry. The father is still of this land."

"If he is still of this land, then why is the father not here today as the
Returning Child?"

Despite the coldness of the question, there was a point to it. No one became a
Returning Child just for a good laugh.

"The father of the child I carry is on a voyage across the seas. It is unknown
when he will return, or even if he will return."

"Then there is no one else to be the Returning Child, and you accept this?"

"There is no one else to be the Returning Child, and I accept this."

"Once you cast yourself into the Fire at the Heart of the World Mountain, your
child will hatch from their egg. They will be taken into the Church of the World
Mountain, and will be raised in all the orc ways, to keep the Fire alight in the face of
those would extinguish it. Is this the life you want for your child?"

"It is the life I want for my child."

"Then you know the end of your tale."

Lacriessa was given the third and final medallion. They were feeling very
heavy now, but she tried to dismiss this as a game of her imagination.

"We are almost at the End of the Path. But there are still more stairs for us to

The silver priest took his place with the others, and the party moved off for the
last time. Lacriessa realised that the encroaching gloom wasn't just down to the
thickening smoke, but also to the start of nightfall. It had been noon when the party
had set out, and the hours had gone past without her even noticing. She had expected
the ascent to take years, to be assaulted by the details of everything she would see for
the last time. But she wasn't. Even with the Waypoints and their rituals, the details
had gone past without her even noticing. And she didn't miss them.

She did not blame her husband for not being here, and to do so would be
foolish. His own labours were of great importance.

Lacriessa had met Helm in the course of her merchant work. A naturally gifted
individual, he had been sent to study in the Elven community of Kefamaou. It was a
high honour to spend time in this outpost of the ancient, sophisticated race, and the
orcs were always grateful for whatever secrets they would share. Lacriessa, for her
part, had simply gone there to trade, but the two of them became fast friends, and it
was not long before they were married.

Helm, as often happened to those in his position, became popular amongst the
scientists and engineers of Toldurmei, and it wasn't long before he was invited on an
expedition of great importance. Cryptic notes and fragments in Elven scrolls,
mysterious even to their owners, had long hinted of unknown lands far to the east,
where riches beyond imagining could be found. The orcs had no desire to leave the
shadow of the World Mountain, but they were keen on claiming resources away from
their human neighbours, and eventually they built a fleet capable of making the long
and dangerous voyage across the Sestige.

Helm had left with the fleet three months before, only a day after Lacriessa
learned she must become a Returning Child. She had waited for him to return, so that
she might say goodbye, but the ceremony could never be held off for long. She could
no longer avoid her destiny. Her husband would have to face whatever future awaited
him alone.

And then, almost without her realising, the party were at the End of the Path. It
was miniscule at the Start, but now, standing before it, the cave revealed itself to be
enormous. An entire building, many buildings, could have been fitted into its mouth.
Even from here, she could hear the roar of the Fire, and its heat was immense, hitting
at her like a fist. The Heart of the World Mountain, like the land that surrounded it,
was a force far greater than all those who lived in its shadow, and felt no need to be
welcoming to anyone.

The party walked inside the cave, their footsteps beginning to echo loudly
against the stone floor. In front of them was an octagonal granite altar, left
undecorated, and beyond that was a long rock pier, hanging out over the centre of the
cave. Far below was the Heart itself, the liquid Fire of the World Mountain. The very
navel of existence.

This was it. The end.

Lacriessa walked behind the altar, then turned around. She could now see back
out of the cave, into the open air as the last of the daylight faded. The elder priest was
in front of her, opposite the altar. The others took up their positions along the walls,
gold one side, silver the other.

The elder priest spoke again, this time louder against the roar of the Fire.

"The Returning Child is now at the Heart of the World Mountain, ready to
give herself to her Fire. Place the child that you carry upon the altar, so that they take
their place in the world."

At that instant, Lacriessa wanted to keep the box more than anything else in
the world, but for the sake of her child, she did as asked. She placed the box
containing the egg containing the child upon the altar, and stepped back.

"Once your soul has been returned to the World Mountain, it will be given to
your child, so that they may emerge from the egg. They will be taken in by the
Church of the World Mountain, and trained in all the orc ways. This you know and
have accepted. There are no more words to be said. Do what must be done. Our
eternal admiration goes with you."

There were indeed no more words. Lacriessa turned round, and looked down
the length of the rock pier. A dark thought slithered its way into her head.

This is the end. You will die. Now.

For a second, she could not move. The reality of the situation was too much.
She didn't want to do this.

But this was about more than just her. She'd already come much, much too far
to turn back. Her child was waiting for her.

She moved her right leg a few inches. That was easy enough. Then the left leg.
The spell was broken.

She walked down the pier, the heat and noise of the fire growing ever more
intense, ever more unbearable. She could feel her armour getting hotter, her skin
sweating uncontrollably. If these were the details, she realised, then she would rather
be rid of them. But that, at least, would not be too far away.

Finally, she reached the end of the pier. Below her feet, the liquid Fire churned
and boiled, a force beyond the understanding of all. She debated turning for one last
look at her child, but no, it was safer not to. No more temptations.

Though she could barely hear herself against the Fire, she spoke aloud the
Mountain's Creed, one last time.

From the Fire we arose.
To the Fire we will return.
We children of the World Mountain.
We under her eternal Shadow.
Her Heart will claim us.
Her Heart will create us anew.
The End is the Beginning is the End.

And then, Lacriessa spread her arms, and jumped.

She fell into the Heart of the World Mountain, the sound of the Fire growing
dim as the cave walls swept past. She could feel it getting closer now, feel the heat
growing beyond what she believed it could be. There was a second, only a second, of
unimaginable agony.

Then it was gone.

The elder priest remained by the altar in the Heart of the World Mountain. A few
minutes went by, silent and motionless. He was not worried. He had performed the
ceremony many times before, and knew what to expect, knew how long he must wait.

Lacriessa had been a brave woman, truly worthy of the orcs. When the time
came to record her tale into the official records, he would be sure to make it known. A
Returning Child would not have their memory disgraced.

Then, over the roar of the Fire, he heard a small cracking sound. He looked
down. The child had begun to break their way out of their egg.

It was another few minutes. Then, a hole was torn in the shell, and a tiny hand
popped out. Another hand followed, and then a head, and eventually the egg was
pulled apart. It had been argued, and the elder priest was inclined to believe, that no
orc would ever perform a greater feat of strength than this.

Exhausted from their efforts, the orc newborn collapsed into the remains of
their egg. Stepping closer, the elder priest could see that the child was a girl. He
smiled to himself, honoured to see her first moments.

He stepped closer still, and, careful not to disturb the sleeping girl, gently
recited the first words she would ever hear.

From the Fire we arose.
To the Fire we will return.
We children of the World Mountain.
We under her eternal Shadow.
Her Heart will claim us.
Her Heart will create us anew.
The End is the Beginning is the End.
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