Kroth and his horde were camped in the woods on the outskirts of the city. The orcs were restless. They milled about uneasily, itching for a fight, for blood, for retribution against the traitor, Djoland.
“Steady on, lads,” the chieftain grunted. “We strike as soon as the sun sets.” Though sunlight was by no means deadly to an orc, they had no great love for it. Their ancestors had been mostly nocturnal and it was in the dark and shadow that they felt most at home. Besides, attacking a city after nightfall added to the confusion and panic of its citizens. Easy plunder.
Kroth knew that his men would be at their best after sunset. But even at their best, taking down Djoland's giantess protector would be a challenge. No doubt a few orcs would lose their lives in the attempt and though Kroth had faith in his army, he had a sinking feeling that this would result in the most horrific defeat of his whole career.
The warlord suddenly sensed someone approach him. Kroth whirled about and saw three humans emerge into the clearing. Behind them was a sizable army of armed rogues. They were a ragged, motley crew. Each of them was covered in battle scars and sported false appendages or even none at all.
“Peace, mighty chieftain,” Hayden said. “We desire a word with you.”
“Indeed?” Kroth said, reaching for both his battle ax, and three barreled revolver. “Unless that word is 'Arrgh, no, don't kill me, Kroth!', I don't think I care to hear it. Guards!”
“You mean these fellows?” Kane chuckled, dragging several unconscious orcs from the bushes.
“Bah! Fine,” Kroth spat. “I'll take you on myself!”
Hayden stepped forward with hands held high to show he was unarmed. “I think you should listen to what we have to say. You see, we have common enemies.”
“We were contracted to hunt an orc deserter who...offended our employer,” Lee added. “But he hides behind the skirts of that towering ginger tart.”
“So I've noticed,” Kroth growled. “Your point?”
“Under the circumstances,” Hayden said, “we thought it might be prudent to pool our resources. There's no way the giantess can stand against our combined forces. And with her dead, the orc we all seek would be defenseless.”
Kroth considered this. Ally with humans? The thought was most unorthodox. But if it meant fewer of his warriors had to die fighting the giant...
“There is wisdom in what you say,” the chieftain muttered. “But I will agree only on one condition. I kill Djoland. I will have my indulgence.”
Lee started to balk at this but Hayden interceded. “Of course. Let me ask you this however. Do your high priests require that his body be...intact...in order to win the indulgence?”
“Orcs know each other by scent,” Kroth explained. “As long as there's enough of him left to identify, he could be carried home in small boxes for all I care.”
“I see,” said Hayden. “Then, we ask only for his head to show our employer. To prove he is dead. The rest is yours, O king. Do we have a bargain?”
Kroth eyed the bounty hunters warily for a moment, sizing them up. At last, he spat into his palm, following the old custom, and grasped Hayden's hand in a firm shake. “We do. Let me send a scout to find a way we can get in undetected.”
“Very well,” Lee replied.
Kroth was still uncomfortable with the alliance and as 21st Law of Combat stated, you should always be suspicious of your allies.
“Amot,” he barked.
“Yes, sir?” Amot asked.
“We've just made some allies. Find a way into the city that will shield us from their security. The she-mountain dies at dusk.”
* * *
With their debate (more or less) resolved, Raquel carried Pixis back into the city. The elf was still not quite ready to trust Djoland but he knew that he'd been behaving like a child. So far, the orc had not done anything to merit contempt. His desire for a peaceful life and, if not acceptance, then at least grudging tolerance seemed genuine. If Pixis could believe in a gentle giantess and that a formerly brainwashed bigot like Claude could turn over a new leaf, he had to at least give Djoland a chance.
Still, he secretly vowed that if the orc stepped out of line, he would receive elvish steel between his ribs.
Raquel stepped carefully around the tiny buildings and street markets of the capital city. The sun was setting in the west and the streets were mostly clearing out as the little human vendors packed up their wares and returned home. Most of them were accustomed to her presence by now after her aid in the battle with the Stormgavair. They recognized the rumbling tremors of her footfalls and knew to get out of the way as she passed. It was still a bit unnerving for the giantess to navigate a human city however. She wanted to return to the palace as quickly as possible before the light failed and the chance of someone being caught underfoot increased.
When she finally reached the castle, she found that King Tillinghast and his guests had left the balcony and gone back inside. Sidling up to the towering structure, the giantess bent forward and peered into several of the windows, seeking to find them. She felt like a girl inspecting an elaborate dollhouse. At last, Raquel noticed the king and the emperor sharing a drink in the great hall. Claude and Djoland stood nearby, also imbibing fine Hayonean ale.
“Very well, Tillinghast,” Emperor Durant was saying. “I will sign your treaty.”
“Excellent!” Rupert Tillinghast cried. “If I may ask, Durant, what was it that changed your mind?”
“Your giant friend,” the emperor answered. “I had always heard that the giants were brutes and monsters. But she was not at all what I expected. So kind and well-spoken and representing a parliamentary government no less! She is a fascinating contradiction. Such strength and power and fierce beauty combined with temperance and culture. I would like to learn more about her.”
“Methinks the emperor has a little crush,” Pixis whispered to Raquel. He had to stand on tiptoes and grasp the outer rim of her ear to accomplish this, hoisting himself up until his head was practically inside the concave hollow and his feet were dangling freely above her shoulder. It made him feel like a piece of living jewelry but such was the price of a shared moment with a giantess.
Raquel suppressed a giggle and leaned in closer to the window.
“If her people are allied with your own,” Durant continued, “then I believe my empire would benefit from a similar alliance. As you argued earlier, there is much that the peoples of Hayone can do for each other when working together.”
“Splendid, splendid!” said Tillinghast, beaming. He passed the treaty and a quill pen to his new ally, who signed the paper.
“Mind you, I'm not sure my people will be keen on the idea,” Durant added. “We have ever relied on the military prowess of our airships. Some may see an alliance with other nations as a sign of weakness. I shall have to convince them that this is the best course.”
“I have no doubt that you can do so,” Tillinghast told him. “If need be, we could have Raquel accompany you. She could no doubt win the people's hearts as she did yours.”
Durant took a sip of his ale tankard. “Say, where is the giantess anyway? She has been gone for some time.”
Raquel's face was by now pressed against the building, blocking out most of the fading sunlight. Claude looked to the window and saw only a huge violet eye and a wall of pinkish flesh where the countryside had once been.
“Oh, I think she's around, your majesty,” he said with a smirk.
Durant turned around to see what Claude was looking at and nearly fell out of his chair. The purple iris filling his vision was almost bigger than his head.
“God's wounds, woman!” he exclaimed. “How does someone your size sneak up on a body like that?!”
“Nice to have you on our side, Emperor Durant,” said Raquel, her dulcet voice vibrating the hall at such close proximity.
“Ah, Raquel, good to have you back,” Tillinghast told her. “Here, my dear, I've been saving this for you.”
He clapped his hands and at once, a pair of palace servants rolled an extra-large barrel of ale into the room. Raquel stepped back a bit and reached a massive hand through one of the larger windows to her right. The long, delicate fingers (each taller than a full-grown man) felt about the room experimentally, knocking over chairs, tables, and ornamental suits of armor. Djoland and Claude quickly backed away out of the path of the enormous digits, taking shelter on the other side of Tillinghast's banquet table.
At last, Raquel managed to wrap her hand around the ale barrel and pulled it out the window. To her amusement, she discovered that she had accidentally grabbed one of the servants along with it. The startled young man was trapped between the side of the barrel and several of the giantess' slender fingers.
The colossal redhead looked down at him quizzically. “What are you supposed to be, an hors d'oeuvre?”
The man's eyes shot open in alarm and he began to struggle in her grasp, trying desperately to get free. Raquel laughed and pulled him out with her other hand.
“Oh relax,” she said, bringing him towards her huge red lips. The servant was by now in a panic, convinced he was about to be devoured, but Raquel merely gave him a quick kiss on the top of his head. “I'm just funnin' ya.” She reached back in the window and set the man on the floor.
“Lucky bastard,” muttered the other servant, who had worked there longer and was more accustomed to the presence of the giant. His companion simply stared at him, somewhat dazed.
“A toast!” said Durant, raising his glass. “To a new era of peace and prosperity for all our peoples!”
As the others sipped their drinks, Raquel peeled the top off the ale barrel and lifted it to her lips, downing its contents in a single gulp. “Mmm, that's tasty,” she said, turning her head towards Pixis, who stood once again on her shoulder. The elf reached out and caught a drop of ale from the corner of her lips, bringing to his face to lap at it.
“Indeed. A good vintage,” he said.
“Eww, get your own,” Raquel giggled.
“Now then,” said Tillinghast, turning to Djoland. “What are we to do with you?”
The orc shifted uneasily where he stood, suddenly aware that all eyes in the room were upon him. “Wouldn't want to be a bother,” he said. “But Raquel seemed to think I'd be welcome here. I'm just looking for some place to settle down, to get away from all the senseless fighting and plundering of Daggerclaw Tribe. Got no taste for it any more. It all seems so meaningless.”
“Besides,” he continued, “Lord Kroth would have my head if I ever showed my face in the orc lands again. Can't go home again. But if you don't want me around, your majesty, can't say as I blame ya. I'll go.” The orc made ready to head for the exit, certain he'd be rejected once again.
“Did I say that, my boy?” Rupert Tillinghast asked, getting up from his seat. “Truth be told, I've never heard of a peaceful orc before but I don't rightly know you, do I? Raquel vouches for you so that's good enough for me. I'm sure we can find you somewhere to stay for the night. And in the morning, we can work on a more permanent solution. I believe there is some unsettled farmland in the northeast of the kingdom that might do nicely.”
Djoland blinked in astonishment. “Truly you are a just ruler, my lord.”
“It's the least I can do,” Tillinghast said. “If this is to be a new era of collaboration in Hayone, I suppose that must apply to orcs as well. Now, let us see to accommodations for the rest of you. Claude, you can take your usual room. Durant, you can have the finest guest suite in the palace.”
“Thank you, Rupert,” answered the emperor, “but I prefer to sleep aboard the Dauntless. It is like a home away from home when I am traveling.”
“Very well,” Tillinghast agreed. “Raquel, I'm afraid, er, you will have to sleep in the courtyard. One of these days, we shall have to construct a giant-sized guest room for you, I suppose.”
“Wouldn't want to bankrupt your treasury, sir,” the giantess told him. “The courtyard will do fine.”
“Good, that's settled then,” Tillinghast said. “Let us adjourn to our quarters and meet back here in an hour for a celebratory feast and entertainment. I have a good feeling about this treaty, my friends. This truly seems like the beginning of a new age.”
As the assembled folk departed to get cleaned up and take some rest after their journeys, Tillinghast turned to several of his palace guards.
“When the orc retires to his quarters, I want you to stand watch,” he whispered to them. “I trust Raquel but I do not trust orcs. Not yet, at least. Keep an eye on him.”
“Of course, your majesty.”
* * *
“Over here, my lord,” Amot called out.
Kroth, his army, and his new allies arrived at Amot's position. It was on the left side of city's defensive wall whose only visible entrance was a large sewer grate.
“We can get in through here.”
“Good thinking.” He then turned a couple of his men and said, “You two, remove the grating.”
“A sewer,” Kane sighed, “Why did it need to be a sewer?”
“Suck it up,” Lee grumbled, “and just stick to the plan.”
Twelve minutes later, the grate was off, and the invaders made their way in.
Raquel sat cross-legged in the open courtyard just past the palace walls. Pixis was sitting comfortably in the palm of her hand, held close to her face so that she could kiss his tiny features and make out with her miniature suitor. It was difficult for the couple to get much “alone time” in such a public place, however. They could practically feel the eyes of the whole palace staff upon them, watching from every window. Raquel considered turning her back on the castle but realized that she and the elf would merely be giving a free show to the city instead. With a dismissive shrug of her shoulders, she brought her tiny boyfriend closer and gave him a big smooch, almost engulfing his entire head in her lips.
“Feeling a bit exhibitionist, my love?” the elf asked.
“Let 'em watch,” Raquel said with a mischievous smile. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of a large crowd gathering just outside the city walls. The sun had set by now and it was difficult to see them in much detail. But the giantess had the distinct impression that their gaze was fixed intently upon her and Pixis.
“All right, maybe it is a little distracting,” she allowed. “Look at them all. I'll bet they're selling tickets.” The redhead turned and placed a hand upon the wall, bracing herself and leaning forward to peer over the side. Before Raquel could say anything, she began to notice that the crowd was strangely enough, receding into the wall.
“That's strange,” Raquel whispered. She began to creep towards the shrinking crowd and was surprised to see that it was made up of orcs and humans. She crept closer, but then her foot came down on an old log creating a loud crack. A human in the crowd turned behind him and predictably shouted, “Holy crap!”
The rest of the crowd turned around, and started to move faster all the while firing their weapons at her. Raquel shielded her lover from the barrage of munitions fire. The gunfire subsided as the crowd finished entering the sewer.
“Are you alright?” Pixis gasped.
“I'll be fine,” Raquel answered. The wounds weren't serious but they did hurt quite a bit. Raquel then knelt down, and shoved her right arm into the sewer hole.
Kroth turned around and saw a massive hand begin moving towards his men.
“By the gods, keep moving,” he shouted.
“No,” Lee ordered. “We just need to stand our ground and concentrate our fire.”
“But she's got us pinned down in here!”
In response, Lee and his two comrades drew their weapons on Kroth. They held their pistols in their left hands while holding more exotic weapons in their right. Lee has a sawn-off lever action rifle, Hayden had a pump action shot gun, and Kane had a sub-machine gun that had a customized magazine.
“I suggest you listen to us my friend,” Hayden chimed smugly.
“Fine,” Kroth grumbled. “Everyone open fire.”
All parties fired at the hand. The bullets were not penetrating far into the flesh, but the sound of the giantess's groans indicated that they were harming her. Hayden at one point stopped firing his shotgun, and began to remove his prosthetic hand.
“What do you think you are doing?” Kroth bellowed.
Hayden ignored him and tossed his hand at the oversized appendage. As the two extremities touched each other, Hayden's prosthetic hand exploded finally driving the monstrous mitt out of the sewer.
“Ah,” exclaimed Kroth, “Talk about a hand grena--”
He stopped suddenly as he saw that Hayden's face was even more smug than before, and it looked like he was anticipating something. Kroth's mood quickly soured.
“No, I'm not finishing that train of thought,” he grumbled.
“Spoil sport,” Hayden chuckled.
“Cut it,” Lee snapped, “Let's keep going.”