Fighting For Food

Chollo dreaded the moment he and his hunting party had to return to their village, but since the hot savanna sun had now started sinking towards the western horizon, he knew it was time. He had let the people he led down again, for today neither his arrows nor those of his hunters had struck any game, as had been the case in the last six days. The local waterholes' drying had driven the herds away to greener pastures. Chollo was used to such migrations, but with the past few rainy seasons being so meager, the animals were spending less and less time in his people's territory. Meat was now a rare luxury that he would not enjoy tonight. Instead he would dine on his wife's sorghum bread, and even that reminded him that the harvests had been shrinking too.

It was with heavy hearts and remorseful frowns that the hunters returned to their cluster of mud huts. Everyone else's eyes were on him, undoubtedly hoping that he had brought something back. They would be disappointed. To see his people so scrawny and skeletal filled Chollo's eyes with tears. Most painful of all was the sight of his wife and two children, a son and daughter who both resembled twigs.

Joining his sympathy was shame for his failure to slake their hunger pangs, and then there was a tinge of anger towards the people's ancestors for their lack of compassion. Why hadn't they blessed him for so long? He wondered whether he should ask the village shamans that question, but then he vividly remembered how they had desperately sacrificed a young woman to appease the ancestors. Chollo didn't want his wife to suffer the same fate.

Strange metallic trumpeting sounded over the villagers' chatter. Chollo's heart began to throb faster. Was this some kind of animal he had never heard before? Had the ancestors heard his people's prayers at last? Chollo hoped so as he and his compatriots rushed to the village's central plaza.

The sight that greeted them was indeed spectacular, but it was not quite what he had expected. Trotting into the plaza from the village's front gate were three large animals that looked like big zebras without stripes. Atop these creatures' backs were the strangest men Chollo had ever seen. Two of them had their bodies covered with glistening iron plates while the leading third had a crimson silk cloak over a green, gold-embroidered tunic. If their clothes weren't unusual enough, their physical appearances were even more alien. Their skin was pale instead of black like Chollo's kind; their hair was long, straight, and pale yellow instead of black and crimped; their facial features were so narrow that they looked pinched; and their pointed ears were so long that they pierced far out of their hair.

At first Chollo could not imagine what these mysterious creatures could possibly be, but then he remembered the stories he'd heard as a boy about strange little white men with pointed ears from the far north. What were they called again-elves? Whatever, he was so rapt with incredulous attention at them that he could not blink.

The red-cloaked elf dismounted his animal and strutted towards the crowd of villagers before him. Chollo noticed then that the elf was much shorter than any man he had ever seen; the top of the creature's head would barely reach up to an adult woman's nipples. Yet for all the stature he lacked, the elf's grin spoke of smugness, as if he somehow thought himself better than his human hosts.

"Greetings from the Luminous Elven Empire of Caerlynea," he began to announce with a strong foreign accent. "I am Dennigan, an emissary sent by Her Imperial Magnificence, Empress Bethany. I presume this village belongs to the Nkanja tribe?"

"Yes," Chollo said. "And I am Chief Chollo. What brings you to our country?"

"It is to our understanding that your people's land and the human lands in general have suffered from a horrible drought and famine of late, and we would like to address this."

The once silent crowd replied with murmuring among themselves. Chollo's heart rate went up again. Had he heard the elf say his Empire would do something about the famine?

The emissary continued, "Our Empress is a compassionate and generous woman, so she has promised that she will share our country's bountiful food with you. Imagine great mountains of the finest elven cuisine filling your granaries! I tell you the truth when I say that your people will never go hungry again."

Chollo and his people erupted into cheering and clapping, shouting out praises to the ancestors for their blessing.

"Hold on, hold on!" Dennigan said. "We will provide your people with food on one condition. You see, unrest is boiling in our Empire's northern provinces; the native orcs refuse to mine gold and ore for us and have rebelled. Now the orcs are a very large and strong race, whereas we elves as you can see are puny and weak, so we have little hope of suppressing them by ourselves. This is where you humans come in."

"So you want us to fight these orcs for our food," Chollo said.

"That is correct. Your race is the second-strongest in the world that we know of, so your warriors' aid would be invaluable."

Chollo hesitated for a moment to consider what the elves were offering. Finally he replied, "You intend to use us as tools to keep these orcs down. I do not know if we can in good conscience help you oppress them like that."

"Fair enough. If your conscience wants you and your people to starve, then so be it."

That stung Chollo worse than any hornet could. He didn't want to deny the orcs their freedom, but neither did he want his own tribe to die of hunger. He had to choose between an alien race living in the distant north and the people he had known since birth.

"No, we will fight for you," he said.

"Wise thinking, my good man," Dennigan said back. "Anyone else?"

Male hands shot up and waved in the air. The elf smiled. So did Chollo, who gazed up at the cloudless sky and thanked the ancestors for finally listening to his prayers.

#

The needly branches of spruce trees scratched each other as a cool spring breeze whistled through the woods. Feeling this wind brush against his skin made Chollo shiver. Besides that, it was barely warm enough for him and the other human warriors to wear only their traditional leopardskin kilts. Any cooler than this and they'd have to don the itchy woolen cloaks the elves had provided.

All that being said, the weather was the least of Chollo's worries. He and his company were deep in a forest that was technically part of the Caerlynean Empire, but was home to an indigenous population of orcs. Chollo had not actually seen an orc for himself yet, but elven descriptions of them he'd heard were enough to have dread's icy claws gripping his spine. He knew that, somewhere in the forest's pervasive blackness, perhaps behind the trees or within the brushy undergrowth, the creatures were lurking, perhaps watching him with frosty blue eyes. That thought made his skin crawl over his flesh.

It didn't help that these northern woods were a very unfamiliar environment to a human from the savannas of the far south. Chollo's kind were used to rolling, open expanses with only scattered acacia and baobab trees, a habitat where animals could easily be spotted from a distance. Here, only sparse, narrow beams of light poking through the needly canopy allowed him to see anything. Still, he applied as many of his savanna survival skills as he could as he stole through the woods. He held his torso low, closely studied everything around him, and listened carefully for disturbances to the forest's tranquility.

He heard vegetation rustle again, but there was no wind this time. That was strange.

"What was that?" Chollo whispered.

"Probably just a deer or something," Captain Haldrean, a middle-aged elf who was in charge of Chollo's company, answered. His plate armor shone dimly in the forest's gloom. "Carry on."

The rustling returned, this time louder than before. Twigs snapped. Chollo's heart pounded like battle drums and he tightened his grip on his spear. He had seen deer a few times before while traveling through the elves' country, and he knew the antelope-like animals were nowhere near big enough to make that kind of noise. "You think it could be orcs?" Chollo asked.

"Possibly, but don't worry too much," Haldrean said. "Orcs aren't smart enough to plan ambushes. More likely it just went out into the woods to defecate or something."

Chollo shrugged. He wasn't sure whether Haldrean was right or if he was merely expressing typical elven arrogance, but either way Chollo didn't have the authority to question him, so he let it go.

The dirt path they had been marching on eventually led to a wooden palisade with a closed gate. Chollo could make out the thatched roof of huts rising from behind the wall, which painfully reminded him of his own village back in the far south, yet he knew the settlement had to be orcish. Despite that, no one stood by the gate. That was odd. One would think a large force of orcs would be guarding it, ready to attack any invaders—

Thundering roars shattered the silence. Shock paralyzed Chollo. To his left and right, he saw bushes thrashing. Dozens of huge brown blurs crashed out of them and raced down to his army's flanks. When these forms were just feet ahead of him, he saw them for what they were.

They were men almost as towering as elephants. Brown furs and leather armor covered their bulky bodies. Blue paint striped their white-skinned faces, which had burning blue eyes and mouths with jagged fangs. With thickly muscled arms the beings carried wooden bucklers and great gleaming axes. These creatures matched the descriptions of orcs Chollo had heard, yet to see them in the flesh charging at him made them much more terrifying than anything he had imagined before.

An orc was heading towards him with its ax raised right now. Chollo was tempted to run, but he was blocked by fellow soldiers and more orcs. He was trapped. Praying silently to the ancestors for luck, he thrust his cowhide shield in front of him. The orc's weapon struck the shield so hard that it tore through it. Now Chollo, to his own horror, was without protection.

The human warrior recoiled. His attacker swung its ax at him twice but both times he ducked out of its movement arc. Now that he was low, Chollo thought he could perhaps trip the brute with a jab to its foot. As he drew his spear back for momentum, the orc sent its foot crashing into his abdominals. Now the human was on his back with pain burning in his torso.

While Chollo wrestled with his agony, his opponent lifted its ax up again. Seeing such an enormous figure about to kill him from low on the ground struck him with enough terror that it spurred him into rolling away before the ax-blade could cut into him. Chollo then shot up onto his feet. Now he was in a good position to attack the orc's flanks. Feeling empowered, he lunged towards his enemy with spear forward. It was an unpleasant shock for him when the orc shoved its buckler into his way and blocked the spear's point.

The warrior thrusted his spear again and again at the orc's exposed areas, but each time it parried him with the buckler. Frustration and fear together racked Chollo as he struggled with his offensive maneuvers. He really wanted to kill the beast before it killed him, but it seemed impossible.

"Try surprising him!" he heard Haldrean's voice yell over the clamor of battle.

Chollo stepped back to consider what his captain had advised, all the while continuing to dodge the orc's attacks. How could he possibly surprise his enemy? He would have to do something unexpected, something he had never done before-wait, he had an idea.

The human jumped high into the air. The orc stood there stunned as he then plunged his weapon into its mouth. A fountain of blood poured out and the giant collapsed onto the ground with an earthshaking thud. Pride swelled within Chollo's breast as he gazed at the huge corpse. Never before had he killed anything so big!

Now it was time to help his company.

Chollo saw Haldrean continually running around, evading another orc's attacks. He ran into the fray, leapt again, and speared the nape of the orc's neck.

"Thank the Goddess you came along," Haldrean panted once the brute had fallen.

Fear did not sting Chollo for the rest of the battle. He darted around the battlefield stabbing orcs in the back, escaping their axes with speed and agility. Eventually his muscles began to burn and ache and his breath shortened, but bloodlust and newfound boldness distracted him from this minor discomfort.

Apparently the ambushing orcs had not been numerous enough, for although the path was swamped with human and elven bodies, it was the orcs who ultimately routed. Crying out their panic in their guttural language, they stampeded away from the scene and through the now open village gate.

"They're escaping into the village," Haldrean said. "After them! Kill them all and raze their den to the ground!"

Chollo was stunned by his captain's command. "But we have won the battle. Is that not enough?"

"We want to send a message to these orcs that they'll never forget. Let no man, woman, or child live."

No orc had horrified Chollo like what he had just heard. "Even the children?"

"Do you want food for your people or not? Now go!"

Chollo did not want to argue any more. Instead he and the other humans charged through the gate and began to attack panicking orcs all around them. Screams and hollers of death filled his ears as the bodies of orcs-male and female, young and old-littered the dirt roads. Torches were tossed onto the huts' thatched roofs, which blossomed into flame. The settlement now stank of blood, spilled entrails, and smoke.

Chollo spotted an orc woman huddling against a wall, a child clinging tightly to her. Running up to them, he saw the twinkle of tears filling up their terror-widened eyes. The orc woman wrapped her arms around her son and murmured what were undoubtedly soothing words to him. That was exactly what a human woman would do with her child in the same circumstances. Certainly that was what his wife would do with their children. That realization watered Chollo's eyes.

Then he remembered what Haldrean had said. He remembered Dennigan's promise. And he remembered his starving people far back south.

But was that really worth taking the lives of innocent people?

"What are you waiting for?" he heard Haldrean shout from behind him. "Send that spear through them!"

Chollo simply stood there.

"All right, I'll do it myself!" the elf said. He stormed over to the orc woman and drew his sword. Chollo shut his eyes so he couldn't see it, but he could hear screaming and the sound of metal slicing through flesh.

He was too mortified to move.

#

Chollo twisted and turned inside his tent that night, but he could not sleep. Horrible images of what he and the other human warriors had done to the orcish village at the elves' command haunted his mind. He could barely believe that he had been part of the army guilty of the carnage. What would he tell his wife when he returned home? He didn't want to lie about it, but he knew she would be rightly horrified if he admitted to having served among those who had slain women and children.

Youdidtherightthingforyourpeople, a voice inside his head repeated, but a rival voice scolded him for going along with the massacre. The two voices chanting at the same time drove Chollo mad.

Why did he have to kill innocent people to feed his own? Why did he have to choose between his own tribe's starvation and the extermination of another? Either way, one of the tribes would be wiped out. Then it occurred to Chollo that perhaps there was a third way. It would be a difficult and risky way, but it would be better than starvation or genocide.

Chollo carefully slid out of his sleeping sack and peered outside his tent. Scanning the camp around him, he saw that no humans or elves were standing outside; everyone was apparently asleep. Silver light, reflected from an almost full moon, beamed down from a starry sky. That was good; it meant he could see in the darkness. The Nkanja grabbed his spear, slipped out of his tent, stole across the camp, and vanished into the forest beyond.

He knew exactly where he was going. He had seen maps on parchment of this particular province before, so he recalled that there lay another orcish village a day's travel north of the one his army had razed. Using the moonlight poking through the spruce needles as his guide through the woods, he began his journey northward.

A day passed. The sun had begun its westward descent by the time Chollo reached his destination. Like the other village, the one he was approaching girdled by a wooden palisade, but this time two orcish warriors armed with axes stood by the gate. Both of them bared their teeth when he entered their line of sight.

"Hey, blackskin!" one of the orcs roared. "Who do you think you are to come here to Grokkholm?"

"I mean no harm this time," Chollo said. "Now could you please let me in? I need to speak with your chieftain."

"You mean no harm? Ha! 'Says one of the brutes who massacred the population of Nekrik just yesterday! I bet you're an assassin sent by the elves."

"I speak the truth. Now please give me a chance! I promise you that humans and orcs alike will benefit from what I have to offer."

The two orcs looked at each other, shrugged, and pushed the gate open. When Chollo entered the village of Grokkholm, he was greeted by hostile glares from the native orcs. He had full empathy for their rage at him, but it made him uneasy nonetheless. He knew that if his diplomacy somehow went wrong today, they would eagerly cut him to pieces.

Chollo recognized the chief's hut as the largest in the village, which was saying a lot since orcish huts in general tended to be significantly larger than human ones. The chief himself sat inside on a bearskin mat. Despite his hut's grand size, he wasn't a particularly large orc, but his moose-antler headdress, necklace of bear fangs, and head held up high made him look imposing despite what he lacked in height. When Chollo prostrated before him, the chief replied with a glare that was even sharper and more spine-chilling than those of the other orcs.

"Who is the black man that dares cower before me?" the chief boomed.

"It is I, Chollo, chieftain of the Nkanja humans," Chollo said. "I am in the service of the elves, but I wish to recant this."

"Recant? Wait a moment, you're one of the humans who slaughtered the good people of Nekrik yesterday! Do you honestly think you can just recant such a massacre?"

"I acted under orders. The elves promised that they would cure our people of a famine if we fought for them. You would not believe how hotly my conscience burns me for that."

The orc chieftain paused to pluck his silvery beard. "That must have been a difficult decision to make, I admit."

"It was, but it has occurred to me that there is a third choice: we humans could join your rebellion and fight against the elves. That way, we could scare them into giving us food and your people freedom. Do you think that is a good idea?"

Again the chief paused to consider what Chollo was offering. His thin-lipped mouth curved slightly into a smile.

"It sounds like it could be beneficial to both our peoples," he said. "I will speak with my council about it tonight. Persuading them in light of yesterday's events will be difficult but I will do my best to do it. You have my word."

"Thank you," Chollo replied. "I promise you that my people will never again slaughter yours. We shall be allies from now on."

And with that, he ran out of Grokkholm and started his trip back to his camp.

#

The closer Chollo got to his camp, the more he shuddered. The problem wasn't that he was worried about convincing the other humans that they had to join the orcs, for he was sure that most of them felt as guilty as he did about the massacre two days ago. It was their elven commanders that he feared. They may have been short, but they had authority and plate armor. Then again, there were more humans than elves in his army. Perhaps his compatriots had a chance after all.

When he finally re-entered camp, he was greeted by Captain Haldrean, whose now scarlet face was contorted with rage.

"So where have you been, deserter?" he screeched. "You've been gone for almost two days! Do you know what the punishment for abandoning your camp is, human?"

Chollo tightened his grip on his spear. "No, and I don't care!" he said. "I have had it with your elven arrogance and cruelty. You force us to oppress and kill innocent people just so we can feed our own. Well I for one will not go along with it. I believe we humans should side with the orcs from now on and pry your food out of your clutches!"

The other humans in the camp roared and brandished fists in support of his proposition.

Haldrean raised his sword and aimed its tip at Chollo. "You do that at your own peril, you kinky-haired barbarian!"

"So I shall," Chollo replied. He jabbed his spear at Haldrean's face, but the elf escaped with a sidestep. Spinning around to face his opponent, Chollo repeated his attack. This too Haldrean evaded. Again and again Chollo tried to stab the little villain, but the elf dodged his every thrust. That was when Chollo realized that he was to elves what orcs were to his own race: bulky and clumsy.

Dizziness from all his twisting had disoriented the human warrior and sickened his stomach. The only thing tearing him out of his daze was a forward thrust of Haldrean's weapon. Chollo bent his torso to avoid the blade, but it grazed his flank. So sharp was the pain that it forced a holler out of him. Another sword stroke from the elf slashed his back and brought him down on his knees.

Haldrean cackled. "Funny how you blackskins can beat orcs but not elves," he said.

Earlier Chollo had let his wounds torture him, but his captain's insult distracted him from the pain by rekindling his hatred. How badly he wanted to tear this little monster to pieces! Yet he had to take Haldrean's armor into account. He had to somehow find a gap in it where he could insert his weapon, but then how would he get the elf to stop moving?

Chollo had to use his head.

He thrust his body forward and rammed his head into the captain's breastplate. The impact was dizzying but it knocked Haldrean onto his back. Chollo then took his spear and sent it down towards his nemesis's mouth. The elf rolled away. He then started pushing himself back up, but before he could get onto his feet, Chollo pounced on him and pinned him down with his weight. Then he pushed his spear into the back of the elf's skull, staining his once yellow hair red.

Chollo looked up from his kill to see that the other humans had begun to gang up on their elven officers too. This time, they had the advantage of numbers, so the elves' armor counted for nothing. Chollo grinned with triumph. It would not be long before he and his fellow human warriors would rid themselves of elven authority and join the orcs. Then human and orc together would storm towards the heart of the Caerlynean Empire and give Empress Bethany a piece of their minds. Then the orcs would have their freedom. Then Chollo's own human race would have food.

A new war had begun.