A man in a bright blue robe, with a cane on his hip, faced a snarling young orc. She was light-green and smaller than most of her kind, matching him in height at six feet. Golden eyes, with vertical pupils set in an angular face, fixed him with a ferocious, excited expression.
Despite her fierce aspect, he showed no fear. Unlike other orcs, instead of a blade or axe, she attacked him with a series of firebolts, fast, concentrated spheres of fire leaving a fiery trail. Effective enough and one of the most common spells available to rookie mages.
He raised a square barrier, reaching from his head to his knees, of brilliant cyan-blue in one hand to defend himself, countering her with a lashing whip of wind in the other. It buffeted her from side to side as her thick jet-black hair flowed around her head like a storm of its own. Sweat poured down her brow as she tried to maintain her balance and channel flames into her palm before projecting them at him with a flick of her hand.
She was fit, with what would be excellent muscle development for a human, but lean for a she-orc. She had been driving her body hard, and her stamina finally crashed. The man answered with a surge of electric energy from both hands. The lightning bolt lashed across both her legs, and she collapsed to the ground with a loud curse.
“Damn! I’ll get you for that!” she aggressively pushed herself off the ground, back to her feet.
“Stop!” he commanded, “We’re done here." His thin, hawkish face showed little fatigue from their duel. His piercing blue eyes focused on her, demanding her to obey.
“Not yet!” she demanded. Her stance showed a willingness to fight, but she was wavering on her feet and drenched in sweat.
“Rhunal. Why don’t we take a break for lunch? I’m sure Sir Carinus needs a break too.”
She glared sideways at the voice, but her expression softened. Gilbert had a calm tone of voice that always brought her aggression down. He was a man of average height, six inches shorter than her, balding with brown hair around his ears. He had light brown eyes, and like his voice, his very aspect made her feel relaxed. But she wasn’t calm yet.
“He promised a long duel today!” Her short tusks displaced her bottom lip enough to make a slight pout her default expression. It was even more exaggerated now. “I’ve been practicing for it all month.”
Carinus sighed and stroked his closely trimmed dark-brown beard, “I don’t see what you would accomplish that you haven’t failed to do just now. But I gave you my word. We will pick this up after you get some food and rest. Eat well and try to show me something interesting afterward.”
“Maybe we could practice with real weapons? Like that poleaxe of yours?” she asked.
“We will never practice with that weapon. For one thing it's the only piece of metal in this house harder than that skull of yours. You know the real reason though. It is an enchanted weapon. And you know what the danger of an enchanted weapon is right?”
She rolled her eyes, “An enchanted weapon is an extra source of power to a mage.”
“Exactly," he said, “For this reason many mages carry enchanted weapons of many kinds even though they have no martial skills at all. But the Alfar poleaxe has incredible power inside. If you and your out-of-control temper were to get a hold of it, I don’t know what would happen. You could blow up the whole house.”
“Okay, I’m sorry I asked.” Rhun said.
Gilbert led her away from the Manor’s enclosed back courtyard, with its manicured grass, stone walls, and tall bushes. It was a beautiful little courtyard, but it took great effort by Gilbert and his wife to repair all the charred stone, burnt grass, and holes in the ground. They nicknamed it ‘the arena’ for good reason. There had been a bench once, but a flying orc had ended that.
When she arrived in the kitchen, Gilbert’s wife Avise met her with a knife and a sack of potatoes. “I’d trust you to cook the ham, Rhun, but you always ruin it,” the woman said with a wry smile. “Chop those and I’ll boil them, I know you prefer the meat, but the potatoes will give you a quick boost of energy.”
Rhunal rolled her eyes at the pun, but could not force the smile from her lips, “Really Avise? I’ve heard that line a hundred times.”
“I’ll stop saying it when it stops being funny.”
Avise was an energetic woman, with straight, light brown hair and light brown eyes to match. The crow's feet around her eyes betrayed her age, those lines revealed both severity and humor both. She had not been married to Gilbert when both were first hired to work for Carinus, but Rhun recalled that it had not taken long for that to change. They had been insufferable at first, but she had grown used to it quickly. Even at their worst, they were a marked improvement over Carinus’ former employee, an abusive bodyguard named Taino.
Thanks to Rhunal’s healing, she had no scars from those days, no physical ones. But thinking the name in her head unconsciously made her jaw clench in anger, and her fist matched it.
The bubbling potatoes and frying slices of ham distracted Rhun from her terrible memories. She heard Gilbert comment on the smell as he walked into the kitchen.
The three gathered everything and sat around the small kitchen table placed at the back of the manor’s great hall. Rhun found enough time to gather the mess of her hair into a long, loose braid with three purple bands.
Before they could begin eating, Rhun heard a loud knocking at the large twin doors on the opposite side of the long hall. She leaned backward in her chair as Carinus opened the twin doors. A short man with a sword on his hip and clad in leather armor stood there. His hair was disheveled and his armor was dirty, like someone who hadn’t had a chance to clean himself for a few days. He took a crinkled note from a pouch along his waist and handed it to Carinus.
“You shouldn’t eavesdrop on Sir Carinus’ dealings,” Gilbert rebuked.
“I was just curious.” She leaned back out of view of the visitor, but her hearing was excellent. It was easy for her to listen to the conversation at the end of the hall.
Carinus’ voice rose, “Must I do everything myself! Why did I waste my money to hire you fools?”
“Your request was not a simple one. She is not an easy mark,” the man replied, in a calm, gravely voice.
“Fine! Tell him I will come in person in a few days. I’m not happy about this. Let your boss know that.”
“I will let him know, Sir Mage.” replied the man.
Rhun heard the double doors slam, whether or not the other man was done speaking, the conversation was over.
She had missed the conversation in front of her, but it didn’t take long to realize that Avise had just been fussing about her appearance. “Are you skipping meals, Rhun? You look so thin!”
“Like I’d ever skip a meal. I’ve been eating four meals a day for the past month. I’m building up for a big magical breakthrough. It’s coming, I can feel it!”
Gilbert and Avise exchanged a worried look, and Rhun easily guess what they were thinking. They believed that her intense pursuit of magic was eating away at her, and they’d said as much in the past.
“Why don’t you spend more time with me learning how to cook?” Avise offered. “You’ve got excellent senses, you could be a marvelous cook if you put your mind to it.”
“Like anyone would trust a green cook in the kitchen,” Rhunal laughed. “I’m studying and practicing magic from morning till night. I don’t have time for much else.”
“Why do you insist on learning magic so much?” Avise said, “You’ve given it your best. But...”
Rhun stood to her feet, upset, but not angry, “I can do miracles! I am the first orc mage. I’ll be the first orc archmage too!”
“Not if you don’t finish your meal first.” Gilbert said with a smirk. “Avise didn’t mean to upset you. She was just worried. You’d been running yourself ragged lately.”
“It will be worth it soon. You’ll see.” Rhun breathed out to calm herself, sat heavily back to her chair, and noisily wolfed down the equivalent of half a ham roast and several potatoes. It was enough food to feed Gilbert and Avise both twice over. Her metabolism was a fearsome monster, like Rhun herself.
Rhunal took just enough time to digest the massive portion and hurried out to the back courtyard.
She was not surprised to see Carinus there waiting.