"Hey, half breed!"
The wagons rolled on around me as I switched the reins to my off hand and turned around. Walking backwards beside my horse, I peered back into the trail dust to see who was shouting at me.
"See? I told you! Unless the horse farts, there's no telling which is which!"
I tried not to let the laughter of the caravan guards get to me as I turned back around, but I could feel myself rubbing my bottom fang tooth back and forth where it stuck out over my lip.
Beside me, a guy with the build and fighting skills of an eleven-year-old girl stood up in his stirrups so he could turn and shout, "Yeah, which one did they catch your sister kissing?" He sunk back down, then leaned over to say to me, "Don't let em get to you, Ozzie. They're just a bunch of assholes."
What was getting to me was the way Riordan was wiggling around on the back of that horse. He had bounced all over the place the whole trip from the east sea to the far west, without a care in the world. Made my groin cringe just thinking about it. I decided he probably had the nads of an eleven-year-old girl, too.
Those idiots riding behind us didn't really bother me; that's how everyone talked to me. All the time. Some times I hurt em for it, sometimes I didn't. But having some yappy shrimp trying to jump in between me and them, and then making kissy noises at me about whether or not my 'feelings' were hurt, was new. And I didn't think I particularly liked it. However I was currently a very rich half breed because of Riordan, so it struck me as being kind of ungrateful for me to pound the little guy's face in. I settled for just glowering at the road and saying: "Unh."
It had been a long trip west from the fishing docks where Riordan and me had both grown up. Not that we had known each other as kids or anything stupid like that. I seen him around now and again, mostly getting the crap kicked out of him for stealing something. In fact, that was what happened the night Danny and I hooked up. Buncha big ugly guys thought he had something of theirs and were going to take it out of his hide. He opened his mouth -- the only thing big on him -- and said I was his buddy. I was just walkin home at the time, not looking for trouble. The thugs didn't stop to ask me my opinion, so I didn't stop to tell em. But after they were all dead, I made Danny explain to me why I had just mangled four guys who were probably in the right.
Turns out that the box Riordan stole from the thugs was just something they had stole earlier off some foreigners in an opium den. They didn't even know how to open it. But Danny did, and inside was the kind of cash people like us only hear about in old wives' tales. The kind where maidens marry goat herds who just happen to be kings in disguise and who really live in fabulous castles and still have all their teeth.
Now I'm not what you would call good with numbers, but I could tell that the quantity of coins in the case Riordan had stolen was far higher than could safely be spent in town. And that it would be a smart move to get out of town and head for a land where fabulously rich merchants and foreigners were both pretty common. Before you get to thinkin I'm good at this sort of thing or think fast on my feet, the inspiration for this idea was riding a horse about twenty feet up ahead of us, wrapped in so many yards of cloth I think only Danny and I knew for certain there was a beautiful woman underneath. She was the one who had been headed out of town originally. Me, all I was looking for was an excuse to follow her.
So far this trip had been the best and worst time of my life. Getting to spend so much time with Minerva had been wonderful. I got to see what the world was like outside the town I was born in. I had seen centaurs, goblins, and I had got to meet real, full-blooded orcs. Finally, I had seen the other half of my heritage.
That would be the part I was referring to when I said "worst".
All my life, people had labeled me as dumb, mean and more inclined to kill you and take your stuff than look at you, all because my daddy had been an orc. I never met either of my parents, but I had always liked to think that full blooded humans liked to think those things about me and orcs because they had never really met any. That those were just overgeneralizations, like all grannies are sweet because they're old, or all fishermen will try to get your pants down because they get used to doin without women when they're out at sea.
I got to meet a number of orcs on this trip. All they had wanted to do was kick the crap out of me, or dupe me. Well, there was one massive, hairy lady orc who wanted a little something else, but that wasn't much better than getting beat up or killed. Even she was in on a ploy to sacrifice me to a magic artifact. A dumb plot that I fell for. Minerva and Riordan had to come bail my pathetic ass out. I didn't want to say yet that everyone back home was right about orcs, but so far, I was the only evidence to the contrary. And I wouldn't even have been on this trip if I hadn't killed four guys for takin a swing at me. So what did that make me?
Made me a half-orc in a pretty damn foul mood.
Still, as we began to make our way out of the grasslands and into the hills that bordered the western lands, I couldn't help but feel a little better. It was like my spirits lifted as the road climbed. Where the trail crested the mountain -- a spot we should reach in the next several days -- was the gateway to the lands of the west, where magic was as common as fish stink back home, and where everyone spoke like they were a bard.
"Magic!" snorted Riordan one night, when I made the mistake of saying more than "ook ook" in front of him. "Oh, sure, that's going to be fun. The place is run by a demon, Osgun. The whole lot of them are festering with evil. Magic is nothing but trouble. Or have you forgotten the enchanted mace you were trapped in?"
That put a damper on my optimism. The enchanted mace incident was something I'm sure I was gonna try to forget every day for the rest of my life. The bard I grew up with used to tell a story about this Djin guy who was trapped in a bottle and had to do whatever the guy who opened the bottle said. I used to think that was a pretty raw deal for the Djin, but since being stuck in that mace with a bunch of other morons stupid enough to fall for a cheap trick, I had changed my mind and decided the Djin was just damn lucky to trapped in that bottle alone.
Still -- the mysterious west! I was so full of questions, I didn't know where to begin. Except by keeping quiet so no one made fun of me. Did people fly there? Did they live in palaces? Did they eat babies? Were there really streets made of gold?
"Are there really streets made of gold?" Riordan asked Minerva that night as we sat around our own private camp fire and shared a meal.
"That's stupid," I got to be the one to say. There are a few good things about traveling with someone with a big mouth.
I thought Minerva would give me a look for being rude to Danny, but she was just staring into the fire. "The palaces, not the streets," she murmured. "The streets are made from white limestone that rose up from the sea at the demon king's summoning. But the palaces of the City of the Dead are all of gems and precious metals." She did look up to frown at the look of pure inspiration on Riordan's face. "And guarded by the souls of undead warriors, waiting to suck the life from would-be thieves."
He looked crestfallen. "And I'm guessing they've got pretty good hearing."
"I believe they can feel the life emanating from the living as you or I would feel the light and heat of the sun, brilliant when experienced face to face, but discernible even behind thick walls, as anyone who has thusly escaped the midday heat will concur. Is that not correct?" She paused to listen for a moment, suddenly making Riordan and I recall uncomfortably that something else had been traveling with us the whole way. "Ahwadi says that the analogy will suffice."
We were quiet for a moment. Then Riordan cleared his throat. "And what's an analogy?"
This was a great night for me talkin! I looked down my nose at him, which was kind of tricky to do, given all the knots from it being broken so many times. "It's when you compare something you don't know to something you do. Like if I was gonna tell someone we just met about you and said you were like the back end of a rat with the trots. Scrawny, unlovable and always spewin shit. They'd understand easy without even having to know you."
That earned me a look from Minerva. Danny just kind of drew himself up and glared at me. "Didn't realize you were a sage, Master Osgun. You learn that bit of wisdom gutting fish on the docks or getting buggared by the crew of the 'Balding Merkin' underneath the pier?"
Minerva was making a kind of polite growly sound in her throat. I decided to be nice. "Naw, I learned it from the bard I worked for when I was little. What's a merkin?" My face fell a little as Minerva jumped to her feet and left for the ladies' wagon. "Did I say something?" Riordan waited until she got a respectful distance away and then pointed his finger at me and laughed. Long and hard.
I scuffed some dirt at the campfire and renewed my vow to never speak in front of people again. No good ever comes of it.