Friday, October 1, 2010

A Matter Of Taste - a hill giant's tale

The last rays of a sinking sun reached across the evening sky like golden-red tethers, snapping loose one by one as the crescent moon ascended to steal the sun’s dominion. It was the sort of sunset that might be remembered in the epic songs of an elven bard if only one were there to witness its majesty.

He sat all by himself on the warm rocks on a small plateau overlooking the river below. He was waiting for his breakfast. The heat of the summer days made even the most basic tasks seem strenuous, and so he slept while the burning sun was overhead. Unfortunately, the days grew longer during the season and only prolonged his fasting.. He woke up hungry as usual. Before the days had grown so hot, he would venture down the long and winding path into the valley to seek more substantial meals such as the long-horned beasts that grazed in the tall grass along the riverbanks, but such delicacies had become rare of late. Besides, it was too hot to go wandering, even after the sun had gone.

The stars came out one by one. It would not be much longer now. They came almost every night without fail, moving in a long black column across the river plain and toward the mountain pass. Usually a handful of the creatures would break from the column and descend the steep rocky path that led past his small lair. If their numbers were more than he could count on both hands, he would remain out of sight and let them pass. They were small, but they fought ferociously. If their numbers were less than he could count on both hands, he would ambush them, slinging boulders at them as they reached his plateau and crushing the survivors two and three at a time with a tree-trunk which he wielded as a club.

The creatures were by far not as pleasant tasting as most other flesh he had eaten. He found them to be tough, stringy and generally not very meaty at all. Nevertheless they were better than trying to survive upon the local vegetation. Not only did leaves and grass fail to sate his hunger, but they disrupted his bowels severely.

He could smell them long before he could see their tusky faces. As they came nearer he counted them on one hand. It would be a light breakfast, but perhaps more might come to the aid of the dying and provide him with a second meal.

As the first of the orcs neared the edge of the plateau, a torrent of small boulders came raining down around its head. It staggered backward on the narrow ledge and slipped over the precipice. Digging its axe into a crevice, it clung to the steep rocky hillside, but its improvised piton only held for a moment before it fell tumbling down to a certain death upon the rocky plateau below. The other three covered their heads with their shields and endured the falling rocks lest they meet a similar fate. . When the bombardment ended, the other three scurried up the path, but he was ready for them. The first two he crushed with one fell swing of his club. Both flew through the air and struck the mountainside. The third one put up more of a fight though. He took a few checked swings at the fierce little creature even though its sword bit into his scarred legs, drawing blood. Finally when it seemed that the orc was not going to call for help, he brought his club down upon its head, taking some pleasure in the funny sound it made. Splattering the organs of ones prey all over the rocks was a shameful waste of food, but the annoying little creature had caused him to exert himself far more than he had intended it to.

For the next half hour he prepared his meal, first by stripping the three slain orcs of all their armour and clothing. Next, he twisted off their heads to be piled near his lair to serve as a territorial marker for his kinsmen who also made their homes in those mountains. Finally, he ate, finishing the arms and legs first before making a dessert of the sweet meats.

He was satisfied for the time-being, but far from full. For the rest of the night he sat awake, picking the gristle from his teeth with one of the orcs’ swords and watching the river valley below for supper. No more came. The stars began to fade with the coming of the sun and he retreated into his small fortress of boulders to avoid the sweltering heat of the coming day.

Either it was his own hideous snoring or the rumbling of his belly that woke him from his dream of fresh boar flesh. He crawled from his shelter and picked through the remains of his last meal hoping to find one last morsel, but there was nothing left but bones and a pile of armour, swords and axes. Angry at his own misfortune, he sat upon the warm flat rock overlooking the river and waited. The shadow of the mountain had only claimed half of the floodplain below and it would be some time before the night would come. Still, he was too hungry to go back to sleep.

Night arrived in the usual way, but without orcs. He wished he had bothered to climb down to the plateau below the night before rather than let that orc go to waste, but now it was too late. Likely the carrion eaters and flies had already found it, and even if they had not, the meat would have spoiled. It was almost morning before he finally gave in to his ravenous hunger and went out in search of food. .With his club in tow he nimbly descended the steep path down to the foot of the mountain. By the time he reached the bottom the sun had climbed high in the east. It was midday when he got to the river. As was his hunting style, he collected a few stones, hid himself as best he could behind a low pillar of limestone near the riverbank, and waited for an animal to come to the water to drink. He waited and waited, but to no avail. It was terribly hot.. as hot as any day he could remember, and he was hungry and sleepy. He decided to have a short nap before embarking on the long climb back to his lair. He yawned, closed his eyes and drifted quickly into sleep.

The night fell soft and silent like a feather. On the wings of a breeze the moon sailed its course, its mystical light bringing to life a nocturnal chorus. Fireflies danced, mimicking the stars. It might have been the sort of night that elves would sing about for generations to come had not some unintelligible creature’s bellowing interrupted the vignette.


He rubbed his eyes and looked up into the face of his brother Gok.

“Why you sleep here now?”, asked the elder of the two as he stood over his recumbent sibling. “It good me find you. Me take you to new friends.”

The less articulate Durr sat up and looked around. “Where friend? Me see just Gok.” He rose to his feet and hoisted his club over his shoulder. Though Gok was his brother and only real friend, he often picked on him as was a younger brother’s role. Gok was more popular among the members of the tribe, especially the females. Durr was shy by his people’s own reckoning and had only been courted once, a disaster he had tried since to forget.

“Ulula tell you come find me?”, Durr asked, feeling his last meal churning in his stomach.. Gok shook his head and laughed loudly.

Years ago, before Durr moved away from the tribal rocks and took to living alone, he had the misfortune of catching the eye of Ulula, the youngest of the two grand-daughters of the tribe’s highest matriarch. Being that females constituted less than one quarter of the tribe, it was considered wise for a female to choose several husbands to ensure that the tribe grew and thrived. A husband was expected to stay home and perform his reproductive duties during the season that was thought to be most fruitful so that she could bear many children. He was also expected to continue performing those duties most other days of the year to keep her happy and maintain harmony in the tribe.

Ulula, however, was the ugliest creature Durr had ever laid eyes on. In addition to her rather hairy chin, underbite and flat nose, she had a shrill voice that could start an avalanche and two extra toes on one of her feet. Durr never could understand why she was so smitten by him, or he might have been able to do something to dispel the charm that drew her to him. Instead, he chose a life of celibate freedom, sitting outside his lonely lair staring into the valley for hour after hour wondering where his next meal would come from.

Durr shook himself awake from his contemplative trance. Gok had started walking eastward and was barely within shouting distance. Durr chased after him in a thunderous trot, realizing for the first time in a long time how unfit for running he had let himself become. “You run too slow.”, Gok bellowed as Durr caught up with him. “Slow Durr get caught by Ulula”.

Laughing even louder at his brother’s expense, Gok took off running toward the wide-open plains south of the river. Durr had never strayed far beyond the entrance to the mountain pass and was starting to think his brother had gone insane. He ran as hard as he could until he felt his heart might pound its way right through his chest. Finally the two of them crossed over a small foothill and for the first time in his life, Durr beheld the people the orcs called the Ogere.

There were more there than Durr could count on both hands and both feet. There were even more than he could count if he had two extra toes like Ulula. He had never seen so many of any sort of creature in one place at one time with the exception of flies and orcs. They were different from anything he had ever seen. Much taller than orcs they stood, but they were not at all of the same blood as Durr or Gok. They walked strangely upright and spoke a peculiar language that vaguely reminded Durr of orcs. Most of them carried small clubs, but some wore armour and wielded large swords or axes.

As they stood on the hilltop overlooking the ogre encampment, Gok turned to Durr and explained his contract with the ogres with gleeful zeal. “Them let me go with them for make war. Them let me eat all me can splat. You come too!”. It was a bargain too good for Durr to pass up. He was almost hungry enough to take on the entire camp, but not enough to take on his brother too. More than ready to join their hunt, Durr followed Gok down into the ogre camp.

The ogres had a strange way of eating their food. They actually placed the meat over a deliberately-set fire and let it remain there until it was no longer red and juicy. Gok brought over a small chunk of the roasted meat to Durr and entertained himself by making Durr guess what sort of meat he was eating. Unfortunately Durr had never even heard of trolls and therefore was at a disadvantage. Now that he knew what one tasted like, he was eager to learn what one looked like before the butchering so that he might be able to find and kill a whole one for himself.

Durr was surprised to discover that his own language and the tongue of ogres had some of the same words. When they spoke, some of the sounds reminded him of orcs, but he did not recognize any of the words. His particular relationship with the local orcs had limited his orcish vocabulary to warcries, shouts for help and profanities. The ogres’ leader, who called himself Garmok, got around the language barrier by supplementing his words with simple pictures which he drew in the dust with a long stick. They would break camp at dawn to find more meat. Durr and Gok would have plenty to eat, but first they must sleep.

It was the best night of sleep Durr had ever had. The grassy slope of the foothill was much softer than the rocks on his little plateau. He awoke to the smell of orc. Even before he opened his eyes his mouth was watering. He almost jumped to his feet. The orcs scattered in all directions as he grabbed up his club and prepared to smash himself some breakfast.

“Stop! Them not for food. Them come with us!”, Gok commanded his brother. “If you full of orc, you not have room left for dwarf.”

The ogres had struck camp, taking all they would need for the march north and leaving behind them only a field full of smouldering fire pits, stacks of bones, and foul-smelling open ditches filled with fluke-ridden ogre-filth. “What is dwarf?”, asked Durr as he contemplated whether or not the ogres would notice the absence of one tantalizingly pudgy little orc archer. “Dwarf taste like chicken.”, replied Gok as the column of ogres and orcs began the march northward. Some of the orcs began laughing and snorting at Gok’s comment, but Durr, as usual, was confused. “What is chicken?”, he asked, sending Gok into fits of roaring laughter too.

They slowly marched northward until midday when they reached the river, and then began following the river west, straight toward Durr’s mountain home. Had the orcs not come along too, they might have been able to move faster, but Durr did not complain. He was envious of the ogres for devising such a clever idea as marching with their provisions on the leg. It was far better than slaughtering them all at once and then having to carry the meat all day long and letting the sun spoil it.

By mid afternoon the column had reached the entrance to the mountain pass. At that point, Garmok and a few other ogres stepped away from the column to consult with some off the more heavily armoured orcs. Finally it was decided that Durr and Gok would lead the column up the mountain.

Deeper into the pass the column advanced. The rocks were unfamiliar to Durr. For generations his people had lived in the higher terraces of the mountain where the air stayed cool. Only during the harshest winters would they migrate to the lower rocks of the eastern slopes. The mountain pass had always been thought to be barren of food, as there were not enough suitable caves or vegetation to sustain any indigenous game. Durr had often wondered why the orcs were inclined to hunt there. He suspected it was because they were not very smart.

“What dwarf look like?”, asked Durr as he and his brother ascended the narrow path cut into the mountainside. Gok tried to explain. “Dwarf like bear. Them got hair on faces, and them not tusky like orcs.”.

“Hairy like Ulula?”, Durr asked.

Gok laughed. “No. More harrier. Dwarfs all round and fat, not like orcs. Them got more meat on bones, but not easy to clean. Them covered in shiny hard shell like big turtles.”

“Them easy to catch?”, asked Durr as his mouth watered.

“Them not fast like orcs, but them fight back hard, not like orcs.”, answered Gok. “Dwarf caves big and deep. Orcs show you way to them. Me go home now.”

Durr looked to his brother in puzzlement. “Why you not come too?”, he asked.

Gok frowned and slumped his shoulders. “Mamulu not like me make her wait.”

Durr continued westward into the pass as Gok reluctantly turned homeward. A few orcs took the lead, racing beyond Durr’s sight as though they knew he would eat them if they did not find the dwarves lair soon. Just as the first stars were beginning to appear in the sky, the column spotted the entrance to the mine.

He had never seen such a cave. He doubted it was even a cave at all. The rocks all around it had been scraped and smoothed as though by a large knife, and the entrance was flanked by two large flat stones. A broad path led from the cave’s entrance westward, and along the path Durr could see many small creatures moving toward and from. Wooden carts laden with stones were being hauled away from the cave by horses and large long-horned cattle. From where Durr could observe them all, they looked not much different than ants moving about, but he knew that these were dwarves. Apparently the dwarves had noticed they were being watched and had sent up an alarm. The flat stones that stood either side of the cavern’s mouth began to close shut like a large pair of jaws, and carts wheeled round and retraced their path back toward the cavern to safety. The dwarves were preparing for an attack.

Hungry beyond trepidation, Durr charged toward the mine in hopes of catching a few before they could all retreat into their hole. Whether they had made any elaborate battle plans or not, the ogres and orcs followed the impetuous giant as he charged toward the dwarven mine.

Gok was right. They did not fight like orcs at all. They easily surrounded him, but unlike the orcs, they did not all try to attack at once.. They were very skilled at dodging and countering blows. In spite of their short legs and clanky armour, they moved quickly. As Durr would swing his club in one direction, five dwarves would attack him with sword and axe from another direction; and all the while stinging arrows flew at him. Fortunately for him, the orcs were not fighting against him this time. Driven by nothing more than hunger, he smashed and bashed and squished dwarf after dwarf, but he was beginning to believe this might be his final hunt. Bleeding and weakened, he was determined to see for himself if dwarf-flesh was all his brother had told him it was. Gok was a true epicurean. Of all his people, he loved food more than any, but his discriminating palate spared him from the obesity that might have plagued one less picky. ’The harder it fights, the better it tastes.’, Gok often said. Had Durr not valued his brother’s opinion so much, he would have just as soon turned on his new allies and perhaps been allowed to have his first sample of ogre.

Luckily for the ogres, the dwarves’ numbers dwindled until only a few remained. Durr was exhausted. While the surviving orcs and ogres finished off the weak and wounded, Durr picked through the freshly killed dwarves and selected for himself one very plump specimen.

Carefully he started removing the tiny plates of armour, a task for which his broad calloused fingertips were not well suited. The dwarf was a female, which confused him at first, for he had thought all dwarves had hair on their faces. He set aside her tiny shield and axe to add to his small collection of looted trinkets he kept hidden away within his lair. He then used the sword of a slain orc to cut away her two golden braids from her tiny head. Of all the treasures he had ever taken, her braids would be the shiniest and prettiest.

Before eating her, he held her under his nose and sniffed at length. Gok had once told him that a fine meal must be enjoyed with all the senses. Truthfully, orcs did not smell terribly tasty nor did they look very appetizing. They were not bad, but neither were they very good. They were just an easy meal.

She was, in fact, the tenderest and most tasty morsel he had ever put in his mouth. Although the ogres seemed to disapprove of his eating habits, he did not let their glowering ruin his dining experience. While, the orcs finished looting the bodies of weaponry, Durr took his time, being sure not to waste a single bite. When nothing remained of his little hors d’Ĺ“uvre but a pile of bones, he joined the ogres around the pile of looted corpses to argue over who gets how much.

The ogres had a specific set of rules governing the claiming of spoils of battle. First picks from the dead-pile was always awarded to the one who killed the least. Though Durr did not understand why that was, Garmok explained to him that if they started with the one who killed the most, they would still be standing about arguing when the dwarves come back to avenge their dead. Durr complied with their rules, but was still not convinced that it was not their way of discriminating against him. By the time his turn came, the only choices remaining did not look very appealing. Never the less, he took a tarpaulin from one of the carts and gathered the leftovers up to take home and eat later.

It was nearly midnight when Durr made it back to his plateau overlooking the river valley. To his surprise, Gok was there waiting for him. “Me have some of that?”, Gok asked as he poked at the blood-soaked canvas bundle slung over Durr’s back. "Mamulu wanting strange food in middle of night. She say she eating for two.. tell me bring back cave bear."

“She Gok's wife..not Durr's!”, Durr snarled, though he eventually gave in and offered Gok half of a crossbowman.

“Garmok say me wait tomorrow for orcs.”, Durr told his brother as he started tidying up the bones strewn round his lair.

“Why Durr want to wait for orcs?”, Gok asked. “Dwarf taste more better.”

Durr had dug a small hole and was now filling it with his collection of orc skulls. “Orcs say them take me to place where me get all the dwarfs me can eat.”

“What me do when you eat up all the dwarfs?”, asked Gok, who was always teasing Durr about his girth.

“When dwarfs is all gone, we eat humans.”, replied Durr.

Gok looked at his brother as though in disbelief.. “What is human?”

“Me not know.”, laughed Durr. “Garmok say them taste like pig-meat.”

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