Blueberry cover

Blueberry

by Blaze Ward
Shrike and Cullen, orques tired of living on the fringes of the forest and hunted, decide to strike back, declaring war on the elves—the beautiful people—who have driven them off their ancestral lands.

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Author’s Note

This story was kind of an accident. I had just finished the piece that would become Lokisdotter, and I was all set to continue the introduction into a much larger piece detailing the beginning of Alicia’s quest. However, when I got my butt in the chair, I felt this (metaphorical) tap on the shoulder, followed by “I dinna think so, lad.”

Cullen and Shrike didn’t let go of me until I completed the whole tale, of which Blueberry is the first piece. The whole, Rebels represents my first novella in a very, very long time. I plan to return to Utanum.


Blueberry

“Lad, do I even dare t’ ken what yer up’t’ nae?”

The new-comer’s voice was gruff and deep, gravel grinding between millstones. Its owner, another orque, had the grizzled, frayed-edges look of hard decades of harsh sun and frozen winds to his greenish orque-skin as he stood in the doorway.

Shrike glanced up from his workbench, giving his visitor a put-upon look. The small cast-iron cooking stove in his tiny shed provided very little light to work with, especially with the open door blocked by a body. He needed sunlight. He would have growled at anyone else in the village, but the visitor was Cullen.

Gnarled green hands, strong, picked up an arrow from a wooden shelf nearby, lifted to sight it with a critical eye, noting four fingers of stained discoloration along the back of the shaft where the arrow would be fletched later. The middle-aged orque sniffed hesitantly. “Cherry?”

Shrike blinked in surprise that older orque recognized the flavor. The other orques in the village tended to be opposed to any sort of new idea that might permeate someone’s thick skull and make things easier. The elders of the tribe, Joruhn in particular, were a big enough pain already. He wasn’t in the mood to listen to old Cullen wax philosophical about the so-much-superior ways of his grandsire and how soft kids were these days.

Not today.

Shrike stayed where he was, squatting by the small iron pot and stirring the softly boiling liquid over the low flame with a stick. He gave a grunt, sufficient enough for a reply.

Cullen replaced the first arrow, carefully lining it up with the rest of the batch, then moved to a second group, already dry on a lower shelf. He grabbed another arrowshaft. This one showed several inches of a much lighter brownish stain to the light-colored wood. A pink tongue snuck out, sampled the wood, withdrew. “Peach?”

Shrike nodded once, went back to his pot. The liquid bubbling within was a soft green.

Cullen stepped close, took a sniff over Shrike’s shoulder. “That’s pear,” he said. “Can’t imagine yer makin’ a beer wit’ it. What strange and wondrous idea have ye stolen from the pansies this time?”

Shrike looked up sourly. “No elf would ever get caught dead doing this. Nor any ‘proper’ orque.” He went back to stirring. He liked Cullen, but wasn’t in the mood to get into a scholarly discussion of orquish culture and tribal history this morning. He could always punch the older orque, he supposed.

Cullen sighed and sat on a nearby bench. “Dinna get me wrong, lad. Ol’ Cullen’s jes confused, is all. As is usual wit’ you.” He pulled a wineskin from over his shoulder and took a sip.

Shrike picked up a sheaf of fresh arrow shafts wrapped in a leather cord and pulled the first one loose. Carefully, he dipped one a hand’s-width into the liquid and held it there for six heartbeats. He looked up at Cullen as he counted. “Move your ass.”

“Why?”

“Because these go there to dry, you old coot.” Shrike handed him the first shaft and pulled the second from the stack.

Cullen stood and carefully placed the wet shaft on the bench. He smiled with merriment. “How kin I help you, Shrike me lad?”

Shrike thought for a moment. He nodded at the cherry flavored arrows. “Javelin arrowheads are on the shelf. Long-distance, cherry-flavored, flight arrows. Go ahead and start mounting them to the dark-red shafts. We’ll do fletching tomorrow.” The second shaft was ready. The third went into the pear-juice.

Cullen grabbed a handful of light, sharply-pointed tips and a shaped-stone bottle of glue. “You do plan explain it at some point, right, lad?”

Shrike grinned at Cullen. “Not if you won’t shut up, old man.”

Cullen grinned back.

#

“It will probably only work in total darkness, Cullen. Bottom of a well at midnight dark. And it was the only way I could think of, to identify each arrow by taste or smell without taking my hand off the bow to check the tip, or wasting precious moments if I need to load for a second shot on the fly. Changing the fletching for each type of arrow was an idea, but that would change the flight characteristics too much. This way will work. I just need your help.”

Shrike finished his explanation and rocked back onto his heels as he squatted next to the little cast-iron grill where Cullen cooked blood sausages for his dinner. Shrike listened to the late afternoon fall sounds as the birds settled around the village clearing. Stillness hung in the air over the sizzling of the grease and the fading of the afternoon light. Shrike kept his face composed.

Cullen concentrated on his wursts for longer than necessary before he pulled them off with an iron fork and set them on a wooden trencher to cool. He looked sidelong at Shrike for a moment. “Total darkness, lad?”

Shrike nodded with a serious look. Inside, he smiled. Joruhn would have stomped off by now. This was headway. “Absolute.”

Cullen shook his head. “That, m’boy, has got t’be the third dumbest thing I’ve e’er’eard.”

Shrike bit back his first sarcastic comment. Barely. Progress. “Third?”

Cullen shook his head. “You’ve met m’cousin, Gondrokeen, lad.”

Shrike smiled slyly at the older orque. “And he’s topped that? Twice?”

Cullen took a bite of his sausage, letting the warm grease run down his chin. “And survived both, too,” he said. “What makes y’ken yull walk away from this?”

Shrike narrowed his eyes and grinned at his old comrade. “I’m willing to bet your life on it, Cullen.”

“Ach, well. Dinna that just make it all dandy, lad?” Cullen said. “No.”

Shrike smiled broadly inside. By this point in the conversation, not having been punched in the snout by Cullen was already a major win. Outwardly, he glowered sourly at the older orque. “It’s an elf. They’re rich. Filthy, stinking rich.”

Cullen chewed industriously, like a goat on a particularly-fresh rose bush. “Oh, sure. Frilly little silk vests and cute leather leggings, probably kelly green like in all da fairie tales. I’d look right silly dressed that. Maybe a darlin’ little rapier I could pick me teef wit’, too?”

Shrike reached out hesitantly, then grabbed a sausage when Cullen didn’t spear his hand with his fork. You never knew. “I’ll give you his coin purse and jewelry free and clear. Anything that looks really good or maybe magical, we’ll take to the Kolodny Brothers, sell it to them, and split even.”

Cullen spit harshly. “Fah. Gnome pimps.”

Shrike smiled and took a bite of blood sausage. “Maybe. But you’re like to have gold in your hands this time.”

Greed set its sharp little hooks in the older orque and tugged. Still, he wavered. “Unhatched chicks, lad.”

Shrike considered the older orque’s face for a moment. Time to get serious. “If you get dead, I’ll hunt for your kin all winter and keep them in elk and riverfish until spring thaw. If the elf’s got no gold, I’ll bring you a whole buck for your trouble. With a little gold, you could buy enough flour to get the whole clan through the winter. Or hire a stoneshaper up from the coasties to build that little stone longhouse Britha keeps on you about.”

Cullen shook his head. “Tis a swamp, lad. That be a right lot ’mount o’gold to raise stone. An’ ya still haven’t answered the important question.”

Shrike narrowed his eyes. “What?”

Cullen gave him back a smile made hard by decades of swamp living. “Why?”

Shrike speared him with a sudden, hot look. He gestured east. “We live in a swamp, Cullen. Those lands used to be our forest, Cullen. Before the elves. Our people were here first. I get tired of those high-and-mighty Sylvan Lord elves coming here and invading our land and killing people,” he snarled quietly. “And not just orques, but all the green folks. Two moons ago, they burned one of the goblin villages on the northern bluffs. Just walked in and set the buildings on fire.”

Cullen nodded sagely. “I meant, what set you off, today, Shrike? Those pansies a’been here fer a long time. Why this? Why today?”

Shrike grimaced “Listening to your niece, Eatha, yesterday, talk about her constant nightmares, how she can’t go visit your cousins on the coast for fear of an elven hunting party in the woods. And then I watch the elven villages push us farther and farther into the swamp. Eventually, we’ll have to cross the Inner Sea or be wiped out. That’s not right. I’ll do whatever it takes. If I have to kill all the elves, I will.”

Cullen sat quietly, intently, for a moment as he finished his sausage. “Aye, laddie. I know ye will. And I’ll be wit’ you.”

#

Cullen stretched out on the grassy bank of a slow, broad river with his hat pulled down low over his eyes and his legs crossed, basking in the warm noontime sun like a lazy lizard. A cane fishing pole stuck out of the ground beside him an’ trailed a length of string out to a bright-yellow float drifting idly in the current. A rope tied a stake beside him to a wicker weir trap down in the water, already occupied by the first two stupid-hungry trout to come along this morning. He took a sip of well-watered wine from his favorite skin and wiggled his butt back and forth a little to find just the right spot in the grass, then leaned back against a tree that had just the right width and slant and scratchy bark.

The forest sounds died off suddenly around Cullen. Hoofbeats cantered down the road across the river, coming closer.

’ere we go.

Cullen cracked open one eye to merely a slit to watch the lone rider across the water. He wasn’t much in favor of horse, but that beast looked like it would roast down nicely on a spit, kinda like an ugly goat. Beautiful roan hair that looked to be curried daily by some prissy little groom. The kind of gloss to the coat that only comes with eating enough of the freshest oats and rye hay daily to feed three families o’ his kin folk. One fancy iron shoe struck a chunk of flint and threw a flash of sparks as the creature approached the ford and began to swim majestically across.

On its back, Cullen watched the big poofing nancy boy spur it to greatest effort. Oh, my. Gold spurs, m’lord? What a lovely sword you have, too. All the better to stick me with? And what fine chain mail. Did it come silvered or did your servants polish it up special this morning for you? And did you realize that it took an entire cow to get enough leather for all that saddle and tack, you rich bastard?

The voice booming across the water could have been a pleasant and melodious soprano. On someone nicer. Instead, it was angry and harsh.

“You. Peasant,” the rider called as she approached, her horse dripping water from the ford. “What do you think you are doing, poaching fish from my river?”

Cullen blinked. Huh, a she-elf. As if anyone could tell, lookin’ at ’em.

The rider’s personal gear was a bit of glorious elven poetry set to cloth, from the rich white-silk shirt under the low-cut chain armor showing her small cleavage and belly button to best advantage, to the fine, green-leather leggings laced to show a flash of perfect milk-white thigh, to matching knee-high riding boots with ornate silver buckles. She even wore a lovely silver helmet with a hooked nasal and wings coming out from the ears.

Cullen tried not to giggle at the image of a giant silver seagull perched on her shoulders. Elves was always so full of themselves. He stood up slowly as the rider came closer. He was unarmed and wearing simple forest leathers, so the rider came within thirty yards, safe in her well-made chain mail and carrying three feet of bare steel with a beautifully wrought gold pommel wrapped around an onyx stone.

Ya know, that sword prolly cost more than me da’ earned in ’is whole lifetime.

Cullen scratched his ass with one hand and leaned back against the tree. “Yer river, lass?”

The rider halted her proud stallion and glared at him across the grassy gap. The horse snorted arrogantly at him.

“Indeed, it is my river, trespasser. I am the Baroness Renalon. I own this entire river valley, from Caleah all the way to Lafeld and the entire delta as well. What are you doing on my land, orque scum?”

Cullen picked his nose, examined the results, and rubbed it on his vest. Damned elves always sounded like they was on a stage, or being followed around by a mincing little bard recording everyt’in’ fer posterity. “Fishing fer me dinner. The wee ones is hungry. Dunno anything about this being anybody’s river. Them’s me fish.”

Lady Renalon climbed down off her horse with the grace of true elven nobility.

Cullen sneered to himself as he watched. Bet she even sleeps at attention.

She tossed her glorious blond waist-long braid to one side and pulled a well-polished kite shield from the horse’s side. All the pretty pictures painted on the shield probably meant something really important, at least to someone who cared.

The she-elf strapped her shield on and slowly advanced towards him menacingly with her sword up. “No orques are allowed on my land, green scum. Time for you to die.”

Cullen watched her advance slowly and finally lost his temper. “We was here first, ya poxie dandelion-eater.”

She snarled inside her great silvered seagull head. “And we were born to rule you, peasant. Ileberat, Great Mother of the Elves, put your kind here for us, just for that purpose. I’ve killed your parents, your grand-parents, and their grand-parents. No orque will be allowed to survive. You are all just prey.”

Lady Renalon swung her sword at Cullen.

Cullen easily danced back behind his tree to duck the blow, then snarled at the Baroness. “Yer almost right, ya daft cow. Not prey, though. Bait.”

Baroness Renalon furrowed her flawless elven brow in confusion and paused her advance. “Bait?”

Cullen only heard the bowstring twang because the entire universe seemed to have stopped around him. Absently, he noticed a fish strike his hook and draw the yellow floater under the surface of the river. He hopped backwards before the dumb elf-lady could regroup her thoughts and run him through with that lovely silvered-steel blade.

Eight inches of barbed steel erupted from between those perfect elven breasts and transfixed her heart with a nice, meaty thump. The scent of copper from fresh-slaughtered pork suddenly filled the clearing.

The light faded out of Baroness Renalon’s brilliant blue eyes as she died on her feet. She collapsed face down in front of Cullen, twenty inches of arrow shaft marking her demise, straight up in the air, quivering.

“Yup. Bait, ya blueberry-flavored racist,” Cullen muttered with a sniff.

Across the stream, Shrike emerged from a covered blind they had spent yesterday erecting between the roots of two mangrove trees. He clutched the heavy composite reflex bow named Redcaster in one hand. Without pause, he nocked an arrow with a nasty-looking crescent shape and fired it into the horse’s flank, then two more with regular triangular hunting tips as the monster turned and prepared to defend his rider.

Cullen ducked behind the tree again before he got kicked in the face.

After the second arrow, the stupid horse finally collapsed and Shrike began to trot to the ford. Cullen pulled the shield from the Baroness’s arm and inspected it. “Ya took yer sweet time, ya bastard,” he yelled. “Those two liked to killed me a’fore you gots involved.”

It was a nice shield. Might be big enough for his daughter, at least until she got older. The sword went into a gorgeously tooled leather scabbard wrapped in gold wire and set with precious stones. Cullen sneered at how many tons of flour and barley this one poxie bitch wore as ornamentation while he and his stole through the swamp one step ahead of gators and really nasty critters, struggling to eat enough to survive. He kicked her corpse once for good measure, then realized what a dumb idea that was as his soft leather boots connected with a dagger hilt.

Cullen hopped like a graceful stork as Shrike arrived. “Not a word,” he warned.

Shrike smirked. “Never crossed my mind, old man,” he said. “Enough gold to make you happy?”

Cullen gave his friend a very serious look as he settled on two feet again. “Lad, they’s’nough gold here t’feed the whole damned county fer two, maybe three winters. More if that sword’s as magical as it feels and those boots are what I think they are. Why they gotta be like that, Shrike? Why?”

Shrike shook his head. “Some people think they were born better than everyone else, Cullen, so it gives them the right to take whatever they want.”

Cullen shrugged and pulled a skinning knife from his belt. “Waste not, want not. I got the horse. What do we do with her?”

Shrike set his bow down, flipped the elf’s corpse sideways, and began pulling his blueberry-flavored razor-leaf arrow the rest of the way through. “We’ll take her gear and her armour, then I’m going to bury her under a cairn right here. The Kolodny Brothers will give us a lot of gold for all this stuff. And, one of these days, I’ll tell Duke Henurdiy where to find her and they can take her home for a proper burial.”

Cullen looked up from where he kneeled next to the dead equine beast. “Not going to make her long pork, me’boy?”

Shrike fixed him with a very hard look. “We’re not savages, Cullen. Just taking back what’s ours.”

Cullen smiled grimly and began to cut. “Oh, I know, lad. Jest wanted to make sure you did. We’ve jest started down a very hard road, m’boy. Is gonna get wee messy afore we’re done.”

Shrike shrugged. “I didn’t start this war, Cullen. They can go back where they came from any time they want.”

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