The third assault on the Halls was well-prepared. A unit marched round to attack the tunnels leading into the river. Hordes of boys attacked the main entrances, shedding heavier armour for the cramped, vicious tunnel fighting. Elf units emerging from hidden entrances found ambushes waiting for them and got driven back. After hard fighting underground, the defenders were completely driven down to the deepest, most defensible halls, behind barricades and winding tunnels full of choke-points.
We were ready this time. The siege engineers had prepared explosives packed into iron spheres, for us to throw or roll down into the deep positions. Busting out flame under our feet like demon eggs, they blew through the last defences in rubble and blood. We charged in after the blasts and dazed survivors fought to their last gasps, like always. But when it was over, the Halls of the Deep Woods were ours from end to end. A few Elves had escaped through an unguarded tunnel, but they had no more strongholds in the whole of Rumahon. Their time was over, and we'd beat them.
I won't ever deny that it feels good, every time. I'd fought and hewed in the dark, risked and kept my life; my deal with the elf prisoner could have saved the attack. For hours of cheering, victory songs and joyous back-thumping, life seemed vivid like blackpoppy, or some other drug. Sometime after the speech of conquest by the Warlord, all about the Prophet, his vision of joyous peace, and the total destruction of Rumahon that would bring it, life was suddenly colourless again. Barely worth fighting for.
The Halls of the Deep Woods filled up with Orcs and goblins after all the female and youngling prisoners had been driven out. The Orcs were carting off whatever ornaments or jewels they could lay hands on. The goblins were poring over the drifts of corpses for valuables and trinkets, tittering and occasionally breaking into fights over a choice morsel. I saw Pilkrat tear a dead Orc's earring off along with half an ear, and couldn't muster the will to kick him.
The deepest halls, and the ones for living in, had been covered with the threaded pictures the Elves call tapestries. Some of them had been ripped in the fighting and looting, but there were pictures of Elves at war, hunting deer or dancing in a ring. Pictures of male and female elves, playing their little harps, dancing pressed together, or just sitting, looking at each other's faces. Smiling for eternity, with something no war could ever create or destroy.
I looked those pictures, and couldn't think how Orcs could look anything like that, ever. Even if peace broke out for a thousand years. Orcs too old to fight have no comrades. We keep them alive for their skills and knowledge, but they're the loneliest creatures I've ever known.
I lingered in the chapel, where goblins were already carrying off the silver candles and bowls. The wooden walls were carved with a figure that sent out rays like a sun. Elves were kneeling to him on one side. On the other, Orcs were being burnt up by fire from the sky. I looked at their faces a long time too.
"Gazza!" Sif was striding towards me, still covered in black and red blood. "You should be looking to your boys!"
"That Jacko from your squad. He lost control after the final assualt and started eating the dead–he'll be hanged of course. We're fighting for the security of the Empire now–we ain't barbarian's no more. Some boys are getting flogged for torturing their prisoners as well. I've just got that Elf prisoner to pick his family out, and had the four of them sent to the slave pens."
"You made him pick his family out of all the prisoners? In from of all the other prisoners, that we're going to kill right now?" I saw from Sif's face that she hadn't even imagined that point of view, before she snarled and turned away. "There's torture that doesn't need fire or knives, Colonel."
"Why should we care how those creatures feel? Those ones are lucky to be alive."
"Could be. Yeah, Elves have some luck. Never got it before, how they could live in peace instead of living for war like us, but still fight us as hard as they did. Half of them don't even fight. But the warriors fight for them, and fight for peace–they'll fight to the death for it."
"What're you talking about? We're fighting for peace, ain't we?"
"You know of any Orc, since the Prophet, that ever had joy from peace?" I waved a claw at the tapestries, "We've got nothing to fill peace with but more war. Nothing like this."
Sif stared at the tapestry, with dancing elves picked out in intricate golden and green threads. Then she ripped it straight down.
"Gazza…you always thought too much for anyone's good. Unless you're going to be another Prophet, it doesn't mean a drekiking thing. Just makes you weak."
She strode off. I kept staring at the ruined tapestry, as the looters worked around me. The boys had probably started executing the prisoners outside. All the dead from both sides left in the Halls would be buried in them when they were filled in.
It was back in the camp that night, when some tiny noise or instinct woke me in the night. A hooded Elf was stood over my pallet with a hunting knife.
I tried to seize his weapon, but he twisted my wrist with some fancy move, slashed my hand–we struggled for moments, before Snagrot came up and stabbed the elf in the back. Both of us were pounded out of the tent, shouting out the alarm, trampling over some boys who'd been knifed to death with the sentries.
A few tents were burning in the darkness–cloaked and hooded infiltrators were clashing with Orcs all over the camp while bolts and arrows flew. They must have escaped from the Halls, or snuck in from another district. I saw a young goblin try to jump on an Elf's back. The Elf stepped aside and slashed his throat neatly.
Sif was running–towards the engineers' tents. Then I was running after her. She reached the doorway of the blasting powder store, laying one Elf flat with a blow. Snagrot got one more with the crossbow he'd managed to load, but there was a third elf. Kneeling in the doorway with a lit taper. As Sif shoved two Orcs away from the tent, I could only shout "GET D–" before the whole thing blew.
Ear-drums pounding, I staggered up. A huge furnace-smelling crater had replaced a chunk of the camp. Orcs were scattered around the blast radius, groaning, smoking, or in bits. The survivors were already moving in to give the wounded quick deaths. I didn't see any Elves left alive. The hooded raiders had shown the same thing in their eyes as the last fighters defending the Halls, or the prisoners I had cut down one by one. Their only hope was to fate and die, and they welcomed it. For the sake of peace, families and all the other strange weak elvish things that made them strong.
I stumbled towards her. Her armour must have taken the blast–somehow she was alive. With a piece of metal in her face–her one eye swivelled at me, trembling with helpless panic. Something had scythed out of the explosion and taken both her legs off above the knees. Another Orc stepped in, ready to end her misery. I shoved him away, and dropped down beside her.
Orcs aren't a race with any sentiment in them. Comrades die in war, even the toughest and baddest of them. We know there's nothing that our words or tears could do about that, so we don't spare any. I couldn't do anything but roar for a healer, until one came. Sif made horrible mewling noise as he closed her wounds with tarry skarlpaste. The healer scurried away, but I just didn't feel like I could move away from Sif yet. She stared up at me.
"I'll…never fight again. I'm dead. Why won't you kill me?"
"Do you want me to?" Silence. Struggle in her helpless eye.
"No. Don't know why, but…that Elf king I killed...he said torment for eternity." A hideous grin, "Long time."
I didn't need to ask why she believed that. She would never fight again, but the war was still on her. No more fighting, just the fear. In that lone socket, eternity's maw had begun to gape.