Selena cast a furtive glance towards her brother at the bar, where his massive shoulders – so strange for an elf! – hunched over his tankard. He was already on his third beer, and they’d been in the tavern for maybe two bells – about half an hour.
Since his ship had gone down, Shaundar hadn’t been the same. He’d spent three years as a prisoner of war under the orcs. What horrors he’d experienced, she couldn’t imagine. But the scuttlebutt among the Avalonian Navy command officers was that he’d been subjected to some kind of brainwashing program.
That would explain why he’d insisted on wearing orc armour and carrying that ridiculous clunky axe everywhere for so long. She’d thought his recent choice to stop doing that was a sign of recovery at last.
But then he’d started drinking even more heavily than he had before.
She sighed. Shaundar would sense if she stared too long, so she dropped her gaze back to the rough-cut runes carved in the ship-plank table.
They looked like dwarven runes, but it was no dwarven dialect she knew. Selena was hardly an expert, but elves frequently dealt with dwarves, sometimes for trade and sometimes in war, and her school believed some grounding was important.
ᛁᚻ ᛁᚡᚨ ᛏᚨᚫᛨᚨᚲ ᚻᚢᛒ ᚮ ᛏᚨᚫᛨ ᚨᚺᚲ
“Ih ifa taa…iak
? Or taauak
?” she puzzled out slowly. “Hub u…
why so many double letters? Two different Hs, As, and
Us? Hub uh taa…taai
? Taai ahk
.” She understood none of it.
“What’s that?” her husband Valrik asked, turning his sharp copper-flecked green eyes her way.
“Just some writing on the table.” She tapped it with her nail. Valrik leaned over to get a better look.
“Means nothing to me,” he admitted. “Can you make anything out of it, Kaimen?”
Selena’s other husband stopped scratching his crotch with his wand, and stuck his wild mop of black hair in her face. “Ih iff taaiak hub oo taai ahk
?” he quoted.
“You can read it?”
“Nope,” he said cheerfully, leaning back in his chair. “Sheer nonsense.”
“It’s not Norse, is it?” Valrik asked his brother. Selena smiled. For identical twins, they could not look less alike. Valrik’s hair was smoothed back in a tight ponytail. His silk shirt was tasteful and immaculate, while Kaimen’s was torn at the sleeve, and stained with something colourful that could have been exotic chemicals or fingerpaints.
Kaimen shook his head. “Nah, the Norse only use the Elder Futhark. This uses both the Elder and the Younger.”
“It sounds like it might be orcish,” said her brother suddenly from above her head. Selena couldn’t help but jump.
“Didn’t mean to startle you,” Shaundar said more softly. Perhaps he was aware of what an imposing figure he made. Her husbands were big for elves, but Shaundar dwarfed them both. He hadn’t been that big when they were younger, nor had as many scars. “May I see?”
Selena scraped her chair over to let Shaundar lean in by her shoulder. A whiff of stale sweat and alcohol made her wrinkle her nose.
He traced the knife-scratched runes with the pad of a calloused finger. Selena smiled. The cuff of his sailcloth shirt was stained, as always. Dad had despaired of him ever keeping a uniform clean.
ᛁᚻ ᛁᚡᚨ ᛏᚨᚫᛨᚨᚲ ᚻᚢᛒ ᚮ ᛏᚨᚫᛨ ᚨᚺᚲ
“Ill iva taârrak, llûb ù taârr ahk
,” he rattled off immediately. A splinter came away. He rubbed it between his fingers, and smiled for the first time in days.
Selena tried to repeat the phrase under her breath. “Ih…
“No,” said her brother right away. “I know that looks like Hagalaz
,” he tapped a symbol in the first word, which looked like one of the two alternate H runes Selena knew, “but when Elatha and the One-Eyes created the written form of Balôrrik
—” he pronounced it with an almost swallowed O and a rolled, if not growled, R – “there was only one L rune, Laguz
, in the known runic alphabets. But there’s two different L sounds in Balôrrik
. The other is said more with the tongue on the palate, and you blow a little air past it, so it sounds a bit like an H.” He demonstrated.
To Selena, it sounded guttural. She imitated him. “Not bad,” he said with a nod.
“Sounds a bit like some Nunnehi dialects.”
“Like in Veldarra,” agreed Valrik.
Shaundar met his eyes and his smile broadened. “You would know. They’re your people, after all.”
Selena continued. “Ill
,” she lingered on the L sound, “eeva
. Short I,” Shaundar interrupted. “Orc runes say exactly what they mean.”
She nodded. “Ill iva tarrak
,” she rolled the Rs, and looked up at him for confirmation.
“Pretty close. You’ve got the R sound right. But those are two separate A sounds rolled together. A as in cat, and ah
as in tar. Aarr.
Selena smiled. She hadn’t seen her brother this animated in quite some time. How many times had Shaundar leaned over her shoulder just like this, carefully tutoring her through the schoolwork he’d always found so much less difficult? Her belly warmed. “Ill iva ta-ârrak
… there’s that strange L sound again… is that the long U or the short U?”
“Long U. Like in rune.”
“Ill iva taârrak, llûb
… also the long U?”
"More like the sound I used to make when you hit me in the solar plexus. Uh
, like in book." The corner of his mouth twitched.
Selena snorted. “I only ever did that once!" His smile broke through again. She answered it with a grin. "Ill iva taârrak, llûb ù taârr auk
.” She pronounced the last a bit like "hawk".
But Shaundar shook his head again. “Almost perfect, but remember I said orc runes say exactly what they mean? They pronounce the H sound; it’s not silent. Ahk
, like you’re about to cough up some phlegm.”
She giggled. “Orcs are weird, aren’t they? Ill iva taârrak, llûb ù taârr ahk.
” She overdid the hack, like a cat with a hairball, and coughed.
“Good! Excellent! A little strong on the end, but fantastic for a first try.” He gave her shoulder a squeeze. “You’ve got some drool on your lip.”
Selena wiped it away.
Her brother shrugged. “I was always drooling when I was learning Balôrrik
“So what does it mean?” she asked.
Shaundar tapped the longest word, then the shorter one that looked similar. “I’m sure you can see these two words are related. Taârrak
means ‘war.’ Taârr
means ‘warrior’ or ‘fighter’.”
“Okay, so is this some kind of written threat?”
Her brother’s smile was odd. Off-kilter, somehow. “Not at all. If anything, it’s the opposite. It’s philosophy.”
Valrik raised an eyebrow. “Orcs have philosophy?”
Now Shaundar’s smile was downright strange, as if his lips were pulled too tightly over his teeth. “Contrary to popular belief, yes they do. This is a proverb from Elatha himself, the hero-philosopher who founded the Balôrrek
—the Balorian people.”
The Balorians, Selena knew, were the leaders of the orcs and the Fomorian Empire, who had started the last war. How Shaundar knew all this about them, she could hardly guess.
Shaundar pointed out each word as he translated it. “Ill
is a first person pronoun; it means ‘I’ or ‘me’. Iva
is to hate or deplore. Taârrak
, ‘war,’ you already know. Llûb
is ‘like, as, similar to.’ Ù
means ‘only,’ and ahk
is ‘can.’ Balôrrik
uses an unusual syntax – subject, verb, object. And they don’t have prepositions like ‘the’.”
“Ill iva taârrak, llûb ù taârr ahk
. Me hate war, like only warrior can,” Selena translated. She met Shaundar’s eyes.
“‘I hate war, as only a soldier can’,” Shaundar quoted. He tried to smile, but his mouth was pinched. “The wisdom of Elatha.” He thumped his chest in an orcish salute, downed the rest of his tankard, and went back to the bar. This time, he called for rum.
Selena wanted to crawl into her boots. “I said something wrong.” She wondered what it was that upset him. It seemed so easy to do since the War. He was never like that when they were growing up. She
was always the one who took things personally.
But Valrik and Kaimen were both giving her brother long looks. “What? What is it?”
“He wasn’t in any orcish prison camp,” Valrik said with a frown. “Or at least, that’s not the whole story.”
Selena blinked. “What? What do you mean?”
“Well,” said Valrik, shifting on his chair, “I can see him having learned to speak Orcish in a Fomorian prison – he’d almost have to do that for his own survival. But why would they have taught him to read it?”
“Yeah,” Kaimen agreed. “That would be kinda self-defeating. He might learn stuff he could use to escape that way. Or intelligence he could pass back to Avalonian Star Command.” Selena stared at him and he shrugged.
“Even if he did learn to read Orcish somehow,” added Valrik, “I sincerely doubt they’d be educating him in the Balorian classics.” He shook his head. “‘Balorian classics.’ Who knew?” He studied Shaundar’s broad back as he broke open the cork on a rum bottle and filled his tankard. “No, there’s more to that story.”
A trap door opened up under Selena's stomach. “So what does that mean, then? Is the Navy right? Was he brainwashed?” Is my brother a traitor?
she wanted to scream. She clamped her mouth shut.
To her relief, Kaimen shook his head. “No. He doesn’t behave like someone who’s been programmed. I’d know.” Selena studied him for a moment to see if this was one of Kaimen’s many jokes, but for once, his face was deadly serious.
Valrik bit his lip. “It means the Navy wants us to think
he’s been brainwashed. They want him discredited and distrusted. Which means there must be something they’re covering up, and they sold him out to do it.”
Cold anger oozed through Selena’s veins. It was bitter as spruce tea and hard as ice. “And I believed it,” she said. She felt ill. How could she ever have doubted him? “What were you really doing in the War, big brother?” she wondered aloud.
If he heard, Shaundar did not answer. Instead, he knocked back his tankard, and refilled it.