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An incredibly touching character-driven story by Oliver Fosten
The door frame extended a good head higher than the tallest man in the village required to pass comfortably underneath. Between that and the orcish name on the sign, most locals only snuck a furtive glance through the shop windows as they hurried by. Tulgan pretended he didn’t see them, continuing to take stock of his never-changing inventory or tend to the cats. Lately, he had his lesson books to keep him busy, but the stillness only made it that much more difficult to get out of bed each morning. If it weren’t for the cats jumping on him and yowling for breakfast,
he doubted he could do it.
There was no getting around who Tulgan was. While he’d never hefted a weapon in his life, he had the broad build of his people. His skin was mottled green, yellow, and brown to camouflage him in various terrains. Multiple piercings hung from his pointed ears, tusks protruding from his lips. He could hunch over and dress in human-style clothes all he wanted, but he was still an orc, and that was all that mattered.
The rest of his clan moved on years earlier, the weariness of defending their territories against humans dissolving into bitter resignation. Some chose to die with their pride, the rest scattered. Many sought out other, more remote clans that might still retain their lands. Others found work in the dwarven mines or guarding elven caravans. Tulgan was one of the few who simply remained.
To this day, he wasn’t entirely sure why. Attempting to travel without a safe destination in mind wouldn’t have been fair to his original cats, even if they were of the hearty forest stock common in the region. Loathe as he would be to leave them without assured meals and shelter, the odds were good they’d not just survive, but thrive. Then the cats the humans brought over began multiplying beyond what many were willing to care for, the few he began to leave food out for coming back with others. Some of the younger, prettier ones could have easily found homes, but the others would be left to fend for themselves.
If he didn’t want to get run off or worse, he had to be useful, nonthreatening. Even the heartiest aurochs could only haul so much, and entire orc households remained filled with furniture, supplies, and memories. Humans would be arriving to clear the forests, dam the rivers, and rip up the meadows to sow crops. However, it was many waystones from the nearest human city. By the time the wagons finally arrived, provisions would be low, tools needing replacing. It never stopped feeling like he was robbing his former clanmates, even if he knew they wouldn’t begrudge him utilizing what they no longer could. Orcs were practical beings, or at least, they
were supposed to be.
At first, necessity dictated the humans barter with Tulgan. Tempting as it might have
been to seize his goods and run him off, Tulgan found allies in the missionaries who’d arrived far ahead of the horde. They knew some rudimentary orcish and after establishing Tulgan wished to stay and conduct an honorable business, he became a project of sorts. In return for encouraging others to tolerate his presence and teaching him the language most of the humans spoke, Tulgan allowed them to preach at him. He abandoned the stone hut he’d been born in so he could build a proper home and storefront, watched on as carved idols were tossed into the flames. And he did it all with a tight-lipped smile. He’d proven he was one of the good ones, a shining example of assimilation.
Yet it wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.
Once, he made his living as a trapper. His snares and deadfalls were the only thing
providing a steady source of food for him and the cats. Foraging used to provide assorted roots, berries, and other such fare, but the groves they once grew in now held pastures. The majority of an orc diet was meat-based, so it wasn’t as if Tulgan was wasting away, but he still dreamed of the pungent crunch of wild onion, boiled nettles, and the sweet stupor elderberry wine wrought.
His weight was sunk into the counter, his mind far away from the store and yet nowhere at all, when the tiny bell hung over the door startled him with its soft chiming. Waiting for the pounding in his heart to begin to abate before he dared face the door, he reminded himself not to get too excited. On the rare occasion someone did step inside the shop, it was one of three things: an accident, a dare, or someone coming to offer him a fraction of what the shop was worth as if it were a generous donation. None of them ever bought so much as a piece of rock candy before scampering out.
Tulgan was left unable to readily categorize his latest visitor. Aside from a trickle of
dwarves detouring through the village when snow clogged the mountain pass, he was used to being the only non-human in the area. However, an elf in a traveling cloak and dusty boots stood at the threshold, giving the door an extra tug to tightly shut it after noticing one or more of the cats. The elf was tall for their race, most being small enough that human teenagers could push them around. It wouldn’t have surprised Tulgan if one of their parents or grandparents was human, and that thought left his stomach churning. Mixed-species children were far from uncommon, but them having been produced from consenting circumstances was a different story.
He suppressed the urge to spring to his feet and greet his potential customer, knowing
how his form often left others uneasy. “Good afternoon. Can I help you find anything today?”
The elf gave a strained smile. “No, thanks. I’ll ask if I need anything.”
Tulgan forced himself to pick up one of his books just to keep from staring at the elf,
checking to see if they were taken with any items. With as full as the shelves were, something had to be of interest. A new hunting knife, tinder box, even a single pickle from the barrel. Even if it didn’t make him any coin, bartering would be better than nothing. Though they were clear across the room, he reached into his pockets, rooting around in a rising panic until he found a single loose sweet leaf. It wasn’t even halfway to his mouth when Crier began screaming at him to share.
“No,” He murmured to the indignant cat. “You just want it because I have some and you don’t. Here, have a sniff. You won’t like it.”
Jumping up on the counter, Crier drew her lips back, exposing little white teeth as she leaned in to nose at the sweet leaf. Not even a moment later, she was backing away, squinting in disgust.
“I told you.”
After tolerantly receiving a scratch at the base of her tail, Crier leapt onto one of the shelves kept empty for the cats’ amusement, paws vanishing under her as found a comfortable spot to rest.
“Trying to give up the pipe?” The elf asked.
In his shock over the attempt at small talk, it took Tulgan a moment to realize they were referring to the sweet leaf he was sticking between his molars. Caught between spitting it out and talking with his mouth full, he did his best to pack the sweet leaf between his cheek and gum using his tongue.
“Um, no. It just smells nice. Orc breath, you know,” He attempted to joke, wincing at
“No, I don’t know. What idiot said you stink? Everyone knows orcs don’t carry a smell. You’re ambush predators, if you reeked, you’d be extinct. Humans are the ones who need to learn to bathe more than once a week.”
Tulgan found himself smirking, though he turned his gaze to Crier rather than addressing the elf’s candidness. She opened her eyes and glanced at the shopper. Unimpressed and unconcerned, she stretched, back arching and toes going in all directions, then returned to her lazy vigil. Given her deafness, their conversation didn’t interest her, although if Tulgan opened any of the crocks or barrels, Crier would start yowling for a treat, stubby tail quivering pitifully.
“Sounds like you know a lot about orcs,” Tulgan said, watching the elf out of the corner of his vision as they resumed browsing the shelves.
“Non-human studies was something that got me to sit down and shut up as an elfling. Not the most practical knowledge to carry you through the world, but fun enough.” They tugged at the point of their right ear. “That ring you have here, that means you’re from the western mountains, right?”
Tulgan realized they were referring to the pewter ring that went through his ear, far back where the cartilage was thin enough to pierce.
“Yes, the western mountains. Not many people realize that.”
Even if he wanted to say more, he stopped himself. Just because the stranger wasn’t
human and knew more about orcs than most didn’t mean it was appropriate to monologue about how much he missed his grandmother, or how he looked forward to his sister’s letters, even if they always complained about her landlord ceaselessly raising her rent. It mattered little that Tulgan had never seen the western mountains for himself or how the ancient cave cities were now human sloughs. This had been the third and final village his clan rebuilt, the dell a poor substitute for the old halls, but still valuable enough that humans eventually turned their eyes towards it.
“I don’t know enough about elves to say something clever back. Which group do you
“No idea. My parents were mistaken for resistance members and killed. When the human soldiers looting the camp found me, they felt bad enough to dump me at the nearest chapel.”
While Tulgan could only blink, the elf didn’t so much as pause, going back to examining a skillet, mouth in a hard line and with a noticeable twitch in his long ears. There was a thick layer of dust coating the skillet, the shelf it was laying upon, and every other surface in the shop. Shame flared at one of his rare customers seeing such neglect. While Tulgan despised messes and disorder, dusting made his nose run horribly and he regularly put off the chore. Nothing about this interaction was going well, and Tulgan wanted nothing more than to hide behind the counter, even if it wouldn’t conceal all of his bulk.
“I’m so sorry,” Tulgan murmured, both for the dust and the elf’s unfortunate beginnings.
“Don’t be. I don’t even remember my parents and the priestess who raised me was pretty decent.”
“One of the few tolerable ones I’ve ever come across. Her wife is a dwarf, so I think that made the difference. She used to let me braid her beard when I got bored during service.”
“They sound like good folk.”
They grimaced. “Yeah, they are.”
“I never caught your name.”
“Didn’t offer it, but I’m Methild. The sign outside says Tulgan, I’m assuming that’s you.”
Tulgan found himself smiling, the motion exposing far more of his tusks than he
preferred to show. Old habit caught hold and Tulgan dropped the expression, pausing when disappointment crossed Methild’s sharp face. Before he could think too much on the exchange, there was a crash outside and then the damp rush of water spilling out into the already flooded grass.
“What the fuck was that?” Methild demanded, repositioning himself so he was out of
sight from the window.
Tulgan let out a tight sigh. “My rain barrel. It’s always getting tipped over, but I never can catch who is doing it. I’ll be back in a moment.”
As he sloshed through the newly formed mud to upright the barrel, he could feel Methild watching him. Doing his best to pay it no mind, he set to maneuvering the barrel back under the gutter. There was next to nothing left, and it would be several days until enough rainfall accumulated for him to wash any dishes or do more than clean himself with a soaped cloth. While there was a water pump in the town square for all to use, Tulgan hadn’t drawn from it in months. He told himself it was because of some strange taste in the well, but the slurs and jeers created scars just as lasting as the rock thrown at him.
Back inside, Tulgan sought a towel to dry his hands. Methild’s eyes were narrowed, ears pinned back.
“You’re built like a brick shithouse. Why do you let them treat you like that?”
Tulgan tried to shrug. “I don’t like drawing attention to myself. Even if I did do
something, it would just come back to bite me. They all expect me to be some dull monster. If I give them that, there will be no chance of them ever seeing anything else.”
“So you’ve never fought back at all?”
“I guess there was one time.”
“Oh, this should be rich,” Methild huffed, crossing their arms.
“One of my cats got out. They live so much longer if you keep them indoors with all the dogs and eagles and such. Rose was a sweet girl, but not very bright. Anyway, she went up to one of the children walking past the shop to be petted and he kicked her. I grabbed him by the ear and dragged him back to his parents, demanding he tell them what he did. It took nearly an hour for him to quit crying. As mad as his mother was at me, his father came by the shop the next day to buy some things and ask how Rose was doing.”
“It sounds like you earned his respect by teaching the brat a lesson.”
He paused, working the memory this way and that within his head. “Maybe. I hadn’t
thought about it that way. How long are you going to be in town for?”
“I haven’t decided yet. Usually I stick around until I’ve worn out my welcome.”
“So you just travel around?”
“Pretty much. The priestess didn’t trust me with anything sharp in my hands, so instead I got books. I’m passable in enough languages that when my purse gets too light, I write and read for people who don’t know how. Wills, letters, that stuff. It’s either that or servant work, and I’ll whore myself before I empty a chamber pot.”
Left without any articulate response beyond an apology for the world, which he doubted Methild wanted to hear, he groped for a halfway elegant change of topic. “I assume you didn’t learn some of the more colorful language from the priestess.”
“Ha, no. Dwarves have some creative phrases. You can only live with one for so long
without picking up a few, even if it gets you slapped on the wrist.”
“Know any orcish?”
“There’s not much interest in strictly oral languages. The orcish tally system is handy in small numbers, but I can’t blame numerals for becoming as popular as they are.”
It had been a silly question. Aside from a few etchings he managed to save, there was
barely a trace of the old pictographs around. Orcs weren’t known for their art or scholarly pursuits. That didn’t mean they didn’t exist, just that they weren’t deemed important enough to share a pedestal with the recognized higher forms.
“Elven dialects have thousands more words than human languages. When they took over, they started stripping down our vocabulary until it was as sparse as theirs. They said it made us ‘easier to understand.’ Too little words, too many words, there’s no winning with humans. The only thing they care about is making it harder to tell them to shove it.”
Tulgan didn’t reply, the statement too truthful for him to add anything of value to it. Some of the dark clouds were drifting back into his mind, the excitement of having a real visitor not a powerful enough balm to keep it away.
“Hey,” Methild began softly, waiting until Tulgan looked him in the eye once again to continue. “I’m happy there’s still some people who have stuck around. As a kid, I wanted nothing more than to be an orc, then I could give as good as I got. I know better now. Humans know they’re outmatched in a fight, so they do their best to undercut you from a distance. Elves, they can boss around, torching our forests, selling us to brothels and galleys. But we survive, we always have. When you give them pause, there’s a slaughter that gets blamed on whoever has tusks. Despite it all, you’re still here. Take pride in that. Not everyone can say the same.”
Tulgan couldn’t place the last time someone had such a long conversation with him.
Though he’d talk to his cats, it was never for such a lengthy period. His throat felt like it was coated in sand. Tapping one of the kegs kept behind the counter, he filled two steins before sitting heavily upon the sturdy wood.
“Here, it’s on me.” He said, holding out one of the foaming beers to them.
For a long while, they fell into silence. Tulgan quaffed his beer, refilling his stein twice over despite the bitter hops lingering on his tongue. It was a good dwarven beer, but Tulgan had always preferred meads and cordials. With their far more petite stature, Methild contentedly sipped at their drink, tongue briefly traversing their upper lip to retrieve a stray bit of foam. Despite the heaviness of their previous words, it was difficult not to be entranced by the motion, by Methild, and Tulgan’s thoughts wandered. He was the only orc still around, dwarves were too compact for anything too wild on the occasion he caught one’s interest, humans would set fire to
his shop if he ever touched one in such a manner, but elves were different. Or perhaps it was just Methild with their cutting words and easy manner.
They gave him a sideways glance. “See something you like?”
“Your eyes look like Brigand’s,” He replied, blood rising to his face.
It was meant as a compliment, foolish as it sounded. Methild’s eyes were a vibrant hazel leaning towards green, the color accenting the warm tones of his skin and the dark tresses that kissed his shoulders. Resisting the urge to physically shake such unhelpful thoughts from his head, Tulgan pointed at the cat sunbathing on the windowsill. Bristled exterior falling away to curiosity, Methild dropped the skillet they’d been lugging around on the counter and went to Brigand. They gently stroked Brigand’s striped coat, waiting for him to wake up before offering a hand to sniff. After a peaceful minute of scratching him behind the ears, Methild let him return
to his nap after offering a parting tickle under the chin, garbled purring filled the store.
“They look a lot better on him, but thanks, I guess. You name him Brigand because of the missing foot?”
“It sounded better than ‘peg leg.’”
Methild laughed, the sound briefly lifting the stagnant gloom from the shop.
“Do you have somewhere you’re staying while you’re in town?” Tulgan asked.
“Not yet.” Methild inclined his head towards the lesson book laying forgotten on the
counter. “If you’re offering, though, I’ll help you with the writing you seem to be working on.”
“Promise you won’t yell at me if I get something wrong?”
Methild smiled, eyes crinkling at the corners. “I promise. And thank you, I’m sure I don’t have to say how much safer this place is than the stables at the inn. Or cleaner. Or comfortable.”
“You might as well make the most of it. I doubt I’ll be able to keep this place open much longer once the mines dry up. I’ll be lucky if selling everything off gets me enough to head into the city.”
“I bet if anyone can make this work, it’s you.” They hooked a thumb towards the
staircase leading up to Tulgan’s living quarters. “Mind if I head upstairs to rest for a bit? After seeing all these lazy cats, I could use a nap myself.”
“Go ahead and make yourself comfortable, I’ll be up after closing.”
As the sound of Methild’s ascent faded, Tulgan dampened a mop with some diluted
vinegar, attacking the dried mud he tracked through the store. The acrid smell went through his nose to perch upon his tongue, and he longed for another sweet leaf, having accidentally swallowed his last one at some point. Their presence was as good an excuse as any to dip into some of the wares and prepare a nice dinner. Methild would have their choice of sleeping by the stove, in the chair, or the bed. If he was very, very lucky, they might suggest they share the third option.
Tulgan knew Methild’s type. At best, they’d stay for a few days before moving on, more than likely without saying goodbye. And that was fine. Methild had their way of dealing with the world, Tulgan had his. Maybe the store would fail, maybe it wouldn’t. In the meantime, Tulgan was determined to keep his doors open, if only to show everyone and himself there could be a place where he wouldn’t hide away, and others like him could find what they needed.
Oliver Fosten is a genderqueer, Pacific Northwest-born, NYU-educated monster enthusiast. When they aren't writing, they can be found making candles, playing video games, or with a cat on their lap. For more queered content both fresh and familiar, follow their twitter @oliver_fosten
Copyright © 2022 by Oliver Fosten
Published by Orion's Beau
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