Alerra leaned against the wind, struggling to move forward. She lifted her right foot slowly, trying desperately to put it in front of her. But the wind was too great.
With a cry of frustration, she lost her balance and was knocked over backwards, landing on her face in the snow. Its chill bit into her exposed skin, tightening her muscles and causing her to shiver uncontrollably.
For a moment, she remained still, face-down in snow and ice. Why, Nerak? she thought. Why? She could still remember what had happened, as if it were yesterday, and not a year ago.
It must be said that the mating practices of orcs are rather lacking in the department of romance. Female orcs choose a mate based purely on the ability to protect them. The stronger the male, the less chance the female has of being disemboweled in one of the raids that are so common on Grut.
Alerra had been drawn to Nerak for that reason, at least initially. He wasn’t the strongest of orcs, but he had demonstrated that he possessed uncommon stamina. To her, this indicated that he would be able to outlast any opponent, and therefore keep her from harm.
As she grew to know him though, things changed. Nerak had a great many flaws, the largest of which was a terrible selfishness. Alerra learned that he did everything for himself, even if at first it appeared otherwise. He would sacrifice anything to preserve his own well-being, including her.
However, Alerra also learned that Nerak had one redeeming quality, and to her, that quality made all the difference: Nerak cared. He was bloodthirsty in battle and selfish out of it, but despite what he might say to the contrary, he cared for Alerra. Whenever she was in pain, he became a different person, living for her alone. Once he realized this, he would return to his selfishness and pretend not to care, but she could not be fooled.
Once, Alerra had mentioned this to Nerak. His expression had flattened to one of stone as she talked, and when she had finished, he had merely looked at her, silent and neutral.
“I love you,” Alerra had said, coming closer to Nerak and placing her hands on his chest. “I love you, and I know you do too.”
“No.” The word was short and forced, but it did nothing to sway Alerra. Nerak would never admit it openly without a little prodding.
“You can tell all the other orcs that you don’t care,” she said, stroking his face (his muscles tightened under her touch), “but I will never believe it. I know you care for me. You always have.”
Nerak said nothing, though he watched her face the entire time. His expression was impassive.
Alerra held his head in her hands. “Say you love me,” she whispered. “You can seem strong to all the other orcs, uncaring and unmovable, but I know you. Say it, just this once. You love me.”
She smiled hopefully at Nerak. Nerak did not smile back. Slowly, he reached up and removed her hands from his face. Then, without a word or a change in expression, he turned, and left her.
Alerra sighed as the flap to the hut closed behind him. She knew he loved her. He just would never admit it.
New energy coursed through Alerra’s veins, and she forced her hands beneath her. Slowly, painfully, she pushed herself up off the snow. The wind slammed into her, freezing the partially melted ice on her face. For a moment she teetered in a ridiculous position, gravity battling wind. Then with a final surge from her legs, she stood upright, leaned forwards once more, and forced herself to take a step.
Nerak loved her. And he knew it. He would admit it one way or the other, even if she had to freeze to death to make him.
Things had changed with the ambush. Nerak had been away hunting. The village had been unprepared. Alerra, counting on Nerak to protect her, had been completely defenseless.
The raiders had crashed through the gate quickly, aided by the raptors they rode. The few that had fought had been slaughtered or gored to death. The others quickly surrendered. Grut was a world locked in a constant struggle for survival. Those who conquered had the food and resources to survive. That was the simple brutality of life.
Alerra was one of the ‘resources’ found that day. The raiders stole what they could, burned what they couldn’t, and were making off with their trophies when Nerak found them.
No orc hunts alone. To do so is to invite death with open arms. As a result, ‘Nerak finding them,’ entailed a party of ten orcs ambushing and slaughtering half of the raiders before they knew what had happened. The following battle was short, bloody, and decisive. Nerak’s hunting party was far outnumbered, and though they fought well, they were ultimately cornered. It was at this time that the leader of the raiders, a brutal orc named Majak, dismounted and approached Nerak, keeping well out of blade’s reach.
“The battle is over,” Majak said. “Surrender and we’ll make your deaths quick.”
While it might seem this was a legitimate offer, anyone who has been on Grut knows that a wounded orc is a dead orc. Nerak and his three remaining companions were very heavily armed, and currently crazed with bloodlust. No one wanted to approach them.
Understandably therefore, Nerak laughed. “Surrender? I could ask the same of you, gazbol.”
Majak snarled at the insult. “If you give us your catch, we will let you go. Refuse and we attack.”
Nerak sneered at the raiders about him. “And who will be first to follow your order? Come. My blade hungers for blood.”
No one moved.
It is important to note that Nerak was uncommonly smart for an orc. While he toyed for time, he had been sweeping the raiders’ party with his eyes, and had found Alerra. He now formulated a plan.
“No one wishes to die today,” he said. “We all know the first orc to approach me leaves this world in several pieces. You return what you have taken, and we will allow you to pass unharmed.”
It was Majak’s turn to laugh. “You might wound some of us, but you would die in the end, Nerak. We have the upper hand here. Either give us your game and leave, or die.”
Nerak was in a tight spot, but he made a good show of laughing it off. “No orc in their right mind would accept such a lopsided offer. Even you can figure that out, Majak.”
“We will let you pass, if you give us our veratan.” Our women.
A demonic grin slowly spread across Majak’s face. At a single glance, his men placed their knives at their captives’ throats. Still, Majak had no intention of dying. He would strike a deal with Nerak, but he would ensure it was as lopsided as possible. He had something to bargain with now.
“So you seek the veratan,” he said, grinning evilly. “I am prepared to part with them, but only for a very steep price. Give us your catch, your armor, and your weapons, and we will release them. Then you may go your way.”
Nerak said nothing.
Majak signaled one of his orcs. Unfortunately, the orc that he signaled happened to be the one holding Alerra. She let out a stifled scream as the blade was pressed against her throat.
“Enough!” Nerak cried. Alerra thought she heard a shred of panic in his voice. “We will accept your offer.”
Alerra stumbled in the snow and nearly fell, but managed to keep her balance. One might have imagined that such an experience would bring Nerak closer to her, but the exact opposite had happened.
Nerak, in his vast selfishness, believed any sign of emotion was a sign of weakness. To care for something was to have a gap in one’s defenses, a place to strike. The raid of Majak had confirmed this to him, and as a result, he had distanced himself from Alerra.
Alerra staggered and briefly fell to all fours, but she pushed herself up and kept going, struggling against the biting wind. She had always known Nerak’s greatest flaw, so his reaction had come as no surprise to her. She had heard the fear in his voice though when she was threatened, and knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, just how much he truly cared for her. That was enough.
Things could have continued that way. Alerra would have eventually worn down Nerak’s defenses until he admitted his feelings. However, Nerak had other ideas.
It took three more raids with similar outcomes to force Nerak into action. He had steadily been robbed of everything, except for Alerra, and he had been pushed over the edge. Alerra knew something was wrong when she woke in cold darkness, Nerak gone from her side. She found him soon afterwards, outside the cave they were now forced to live in, saddling the only swog he had left.
Nerak looked up when she approached. “My mind is set,” he said, no emotion or tone to his voice. “I must leave.”
“Leave?” Alerra repeated blankly. “Why?”
Nerak sighed and turned to face Alerra. The past year had weathered his face until it seemed chiseled out of stone. It fit his expression perfectly. “I love you, Alerra.”
Alerra gasped in shock, and then tried to fling her arms about Nerak’s neck. I say tried, because Nerak stopped her, and held her at arm’s length.
“I love you,” he repeated, “and to do so is to be weak. Because I care for you, I no longer have weapons, armor, or food. We are forced to live in a cave, fearing for our very lives. Every raid, I have managed to trade something else for you, until we have nothing left. No longer. I must leave.”
Alerra slumped to the hard ground, staring up at him in disbelief. Weakness. He had finally admitted that he loved her, the one thing she had desired since she knew him, and now he considered it weakness. Weakness to have love. Something for enemies to exploit.
“I am sorry,” Nerak said flatly, turning back to his swog. “But I cannot be held back any longer. This is no life for me.”
For the first time in her life, Alerra felt a wave of anger against Nerak. Was he so selfish? Could any orc be that self-centered? He was discarding her like a rusted weapon, useless, a burden too heavy to carry.
Alerra leapt to her feet. “Love is not a sign of weakness.” She said to Nerak’s back.
He paused, but did not turn around.
“Love is a sign of strength. What do I have to do to convince you of that?”
Nerak slowly turned to face her. “You cannot convince me of that,” he said. “No one can.” He mounted the swog and looked down at her. “I love you, Alerra. I always have. But love has cost me enough, and it is time I left it behind. I am sorry, but I must leave you.”
Without another word, Nerak turned and touched his heels to the swog’s flanks. The giant cat leapt down the mountainside with great speed, leaving Alerra alone, cold, hungry, and with pain such as she had never known filling her heart.
She watched as Nerak faded into the distance, heading north across the great barren wasteland of Grut. Anger mingled with sorrow, and sorrow won, annihilating all other feelings and crushing Alerra’s heart as surely as if Nerak had closed his fist about it. A great pain throbbing in her chest, she fell to the ground, watching the speck that was Nerak.
“You will see,” she whispered. “If I have to cross all of Grut to tell you so, you will see.”
Alerra had sacrificed much in her search for Nerak. She had nothing to her name anymore but the rotting clothes on her back, so old and worn no one cared to take them. She had reached such a low level of life that she no longer had to worry about raids, for she had nothing to take.
Nothing that could be taken, that is. Alerra still had one thing, one burning mission within her, which could not be quenched. The promise she had made to herself had lodged in her heart, and would stay there until it was either fulfilled, or she died trying. And presently, she was very much in danger of fulfilling the latter condition.
Alerra fell to the snow once more, too weak to even regain her balance. She had the determination to keep going, but the energy had left her, torn away by the wind and the cold. She could not even lift her face to breathe; the snow covered her nose and mouth.
Alerra felt the ice begin to build up on top of her. She would soon be completely covered in a tomb of white. She tried to move, even something as small as a finger would do, but she could not. Her muscles were completely sapped. She could feel her heart beating feebly against the snow, her blood trickling through her veins slowly, the cold creeping up her limbs, paralyzing her inch by deadly inch.
The beat of her heart fluttered, then regained its strength, only to beat slower, slower, slower… Her vision, already darkened by the building snow, began to dim. She could no longer feel her body for the cold. She willed her heart to keep beating, but it could not. Slower, the rhythm of death against her chest. Slower, slower, until it was nearly gone…
Alerra closed her eyes. Nerak had won.
Nerak had done well since he had left Alerra a year ago. Isolated in his fortress deep within the ice-bound mountains of Grut, he had trained countless orcs into formidable warriors, building up his store of weapons and food. He was now leader of a great host, an orc to be reckoned with. He had but one regret which refused to leave him.
Nerak had thought that leaving Alerra would banish his weakness. He was wrong. His love for her had become a longing, and was now stronger than ever. However, without her he had been able to build his life back up to where he now sat, upon his throne in the icy fortress of Dur’azgar.
Nerak had nearly left his mountains to search for her many times, but he had always convinced himself at the last moment not to. With her, he would not be where he was now. Besides, she had likely died long ago, without him to protect her. And so he had remained in the mountains, his longing ever increasing, tormenting him.
That was why, when one of his scouts arrived with an emaciated, frozen, half-dead orc that looked all too familiar, Nerak fell to the floor by her side.
“Alerra!” he cried, completely oblivious to the scout standing nearby. “Alerra!” He shook her, very gently.
Alerra took a dangerously shallow breath, the air rattling through her lungs. She opened her eyes and blinked at Nerak, not quite seeing him. She heard his voice though.
“Nerak?” she rasped. Her voice was barely more than a muffled breath, but in the vast throne room it echoed many times over.
“Yes,” Nerak gasped, choking the words out. He felt something he had denied all his life building within him, and instinctively fought it.
Alerra raised one withered hand to his face, and touched it lightly. “Do you… still love me?” she breathed.
There was a brief moment, an infinity in time, in which Nerak stared into Alerra’s eyes, clouded over with exhaustion and failing. The emotion within him raised its head, threatening to be seen, but it waited; he still fought it.
Enough. The defenses broke. Tears formed in Nerak’s eyes for the first time in his life, and splashed onto Alerra. Their warmth found her heart, and drove away the cold that threatened it.
Nerak took Alerra’s small form in his arms, and held her close, silent tears falling on her. “Yes,” he whispered. “I have always loved you, Alerra. And I always will.”
Alerra closed her eyes, but not before a smile had flitted across her face. Love was not a sign of weakness. It was a sign of the strength to bear it.