The walls of Mauléon were scarred by fire, the marks of a rebellion that had been snuffed as easily as a candle's flame. Sorne's first memory was seeing them extinguished, their bodies drawn and quartered before being given over to the blaze. Even as a little girl, she was pushed close enough to smell the blood, bile, and smoke. This is what happens to those with ideas above their caste. Duke Aldana and his hounds were firm in the message. It stung like salt in a wounded pride as she scrubbed the keep's floors in the small hours of the morning. A servant had to be awake well before dawn to make certain everything in the castle was going smoothly. The higher castes preferred not to even see their retainers where it could be avoided, and certainly didn't like them bustling about the place making noise or generally offending with their presence.
Sorne scrubbed the brush over the next flagstone in the kitchen floor, sweeping blonde hair back out of her face. Her reflection looked back at her as she bent over the bucket to wet the scrub-brush again, grey eyes already faintly irritated. She had fairer skin than the other servants here in Genev, courtesy of the Talinese mother that she had never known. It was almost enough to make her look like she belonged in a higher caste, but her hands, rough from work, readily revealed her true nature. She was more handsome than pretty, with a strong jaw and a nose slightly crooked at the bridge from a hard beating. She was certainly not some castle beauty sheltered from sun and hard labor.
There was only the barest hint of false dawn visible out the windows and already her knees ached from being pressed into bare stone. Her arms and shoulders were strong enough from this kind of work that she didn't feel it yet, but by the end of the day, she would be so tired she couldn't think. Her life was constant motion, a ceaseless parade of dirty and meaningless work. Luken pontificated endlessly on the value of a servant, how appreciated the work was, and what pride they could take at doing their various chores well.
It was utter nonsense to Sorne's mind, coming from a particularly pompous, cruel twit. The nobles only cared when something went wrong, and even then punished almost arbitrarily. Whoever was closest felt the lash or was turned out, whether or not they were responsible. They were...lesser. They shined the silver, cooked the food, and carried out the countless tasks necessary to keep life at the top comfortable. None of that, however, meant that they would ever really benefit themselves. A servant could eat leftovers, make their own clothes, sleep beneath the stairs, and generally exist in the cracks—all for the privilege of being treated as parasites by the upper castes. It was a better life than out in the villages, farming in the dirt beneath the hot sun and the constant fear of attack by orcish raiders or Talinese cutthroats, but not by much.
She looked up when she heard the patter of panicked feet. It was Danel, one of the younger pages. He was about eight years old, just slightly more than half her age. "There's an orc!" he blurted out as he skidded to a halt, nearly slipping and landing on his behind on the sudsy floor.
Sorne raised an eyebrow. "An orc?"
"His Grace and his men caught it when they beat back the raid on Ziriano. It's in the dungeons." He went a little pale and gulped slightly. "They want me to feed it."
Sorne frowned. "Feed it? Why aren't they killing it?" She didn't necessarily wish the beast ill, but it was a surprise that Aldana had anything else in mind for it. Then again, the Duke seemed to take a certain amount of pleasure in breaking animals to his will. His riding horses were once wild rather than raised from foals, though the warhorses were brought up properly. Perhaps he wanted a tamed orc to impress the southern nobles with. It was something not even the King could claim to have.
"I don't know." Danel looked intensely worried still. "Do you think it'll try to eat me?"
The servant girl smiled a little despite herself. As tempting as it was to mess with him, she knew full well that antagonizing or terrifying a member of a higher caste could get her a vicious punishment. A little fun wasn't worth it. If she was going to get a serious beating, it would be over something she was willing to bite and claw for. "You wouldn't even be a mouthful, Danel. Be brave."
"Feed it for me, Sorne." He tried to sound commanding, but it didn't really work with his wide eyes and trembling lip. When he saw he was unlikely to gain traction that way, he modified his tone. "Please?"
Sorne sighed. It was an extra duty, but it would break the monotony. "Alright."
He brightened up. "Thank you! Every day, every meal. His Grace said it can have a hound's share."
"I'd best get to feeding it, then," Sorne said. She saw the muddy tracks that Danel had left on her clean floor as he scampered off and almost groaned. Luken was going to have her hide if she left that as it was. She knelt down again and scrubbed the floor until there was no trace of the young page. It took a few minutes, but the orc could wait that long.
A hound's share was just the leavings of the meat of the night before, usually a cold shoulder of meat that the animals could gnaw on. Sorne took some and put it on one of the rough wooden plates used by the servants. She wasn't certain how orcs ate—or anything about them, really, as she'd never seen one—but if she had to wager a guess, good porcelain wasn't involved. She passed by the fresh fruit as she went and picked up an apple. She also palmed a knife. Sorne had no combat training to speak of, but she did have a survivor's instincts. That meant being prepared. Orcs were dangerous. Whether they really ate people or not, they certainly would kill a human if given the opportunity.
She made her way down to the dungeons. There were guards on the outer door, but inside was mostly left to its own. No one had ever broken out of the deep cells with their solidly-set iron bars. Most prisoners were also chained to a collar that was linked to a spike built into the wall, preventing them from moving out of the cell. She had seen the thick bands of scar tissue or sores around the necks of criminals as they were led to the various trials of justice.
The dungeons were dark and dismal, musty straw scattered on the filthy stone floors. She was grateful that cleaning it wasn't her task. Then again, judging by the smell, it was no one's task. At the moment, the cells except for the orc's were empty. The last thief had been sent on his way, lesser by one hand, and crime was not exactly rampant in Mauléon. It was more a large town than a small city, though Aldana also held a good number of outlying villages and towns. He was an important lord, one of the few responsible for securing Genev's northern border.
Sorne gave her eyes a minute to adjust to the low light before advancing towards the last cell. It was larger than the others, but not by much, maybe twelve feet deep and ten feet wide. There was no furniture, but the straw on the floor was thicker in one corner, heaped in a mattress-like mound. There was no window, just blank stone. A cage, a hole, a prison in every sense of the word. A future locked in this place would be one unimaginably bleak.
Whatever Sorne had pictured when she'd been told of orcs, whatever monsters they were in story, what she saw was somehow more imposing. The creature stood as she approached, rising to well over two feet taller than her. She couldn't make out much of its features in the dark, just a blocky face with a heavy brow and a jutting jaw, a tusk at each corner of its mouth. Eyes reflected back the faint light like a cat's as it prowled forward. She could see red whorls and dots painted across a heavily scarred body. It looked more like a man than she had been expecting, but there was something feral in the way it moved.
"I have your food," Sorne said as she approached.
It didn't speak, but then again, she wasn't sure if they could. It smelled different than the rest of the dungeon, like wood-smoke and earth. There was the tang of blood in the air, probably from the ugly gash that she could see across its face. The orc watched her as she approached, its body tense.
She was going to have to move into its reach to hand over the plate, which meant it could kill her. She kept the knife in her other hand, pressed against the back of her thigh so it wasn't visible. Hopefully that would save her if it came to that, but she didn't really want to have to hurt the beast. The creature had done her no wound or offense. Sorne squared her shoulders and then reached through the bars, holding out its plate.
The orc inhaled deeply, sniffing the air. One large, human-like hand took the plate. The stories always said they had claws, but she noted that this wasn't the case. Its eyes never left her, studying her posture. She felt transparent under its gaze, as if it knew that the knife was there. It was an uncomfortable feeling, enough that she frowned at the creature.
"You are warrior?" Its voice was low and rough, a heavy accent on its syllables. The eyes were still wary.
Sorne shook her head, waiting for it to pounce on that admission of weakness. "No," she answered aloud. "I'm not."
The creature cocked its head slightly, clearly processing that information. If she had to guess at its thoughts, she would have wagered it was slightly surprised.
"Did you think so?" she asked, a hint of amusement in her tone. She stepped back out of its reach and relaxed slightly. Her native curiosity was rearing its head. All the others ever talked about was castle gossip and town rumors, which left little room for knowledge of anywhere beyond Mauléon. What she did hear was so wildly exaggerated that she doubted even a quarter of it was true. This was a glimpse at more.
It gestured towards the hand she had behind herself. "Knife."
So it did know. "This? I thought that if I was going to die, I would make it harder for you."
The creature chuckled deep in its broad, powerful chest. "That is warrior talk."
"Genevais are far too civilized for women warriors," Sorne said dryly. It would have been a lie to say she'd never thought about it. She watched the men-at-arms and knights drill endlessly, always preparing for war. They had such a purpose when they moved. She envied them that, and envied them the chance to leave Mauléon for adventure even more. "Besides, I'm not even near the warrior caste."
The orc grunted. "Their loss." It eyed her again, though she couldn't read its expression in the dim light to gauge its thoughts. "I am Nagar Iron-Heart."
Sorne leaned against one of the barrels of stale water, the cleanest thing in the area. It felt good to stand after spending an hour or two kneeling on hard stone and scrubbing. "My name is Sorne."
"Sorne?" The orc seemed to test the shape of the word, giving it accented emphasis. It chuckled again. "Good sound." It seemed to grow more serious. "When do they sharpen axe?"
She assumed it meant the executioner's axe. There wasn't much harm in telling it what little she knew, she supposed. "I don't know. No one's said anything about an execution."
"A death in a hole." The orc snorted. "Typical humans."
The servant girl would have glared, but her thoughts were elsewhere. Besides, she supposed the orc wasn't wrong. "Orcish women fight? The nobles always say war is no place for a woman."
The orc actually let out a full laugh, a deep bark of amusement. "Men flee from orc njoshari. Sorne stands." It stepped forward, into the light, looking at her with its feral eyes. There was an unmistakable gleam of intelligence along with ferocity. "The shamans say: strike a woman, you strike a rock."
Sorne smiled faintly. She liked the sound of that, orcish or not. "I have to get back before I'm missed. I'll be back later with more food."
The orc lifted its plate in a gesture of gratitude. "Thank you, Sorne."
She held out the apple, just barely within the creature's reach. The orc took it without attempting to do her harm. She could feel it watching her as she left. Whatever was happening in the keep with Aldana and the other higher castes, life had just become a little bit more interesting. She found herself looking forward to lunch for the first time in a long time. While Sorne didn't necessarily trust the orc, maybe it— no, he—would be able to carry on a better conversation than that of the other girls.