Seren looked at the small half-orc in distaste: at some point someone had taken the time to weave her coarse, reddish hair into two thick braids and wrap her up in winter clothing but now her hair was coming loose, she was smeared with coloured chalk and her nose was running.
‘Why do we have to take her?’ Seren asked, not for the first time. ‘It’s not like she doesn’t have any family.’
Because she’s just lost a parent, Brother Roddick thought. Because she’s seven years old and her grandparents are already afraid of her. Because it’s the right thing to do.
‘Because her grandmother hasn’t missed a service in twenty years,’ he said finally. ‘And she’s asked us to look after Macha for a few days.’
The child looked up at the sound of her name then turned back to her drawing.
‘What will she eat?’ Seren asked, lowering her voice as though she half expected worms or human flesh.
‘The same food we do.’
‘Suppose she attacks someone?’
‘Seren, she’s colouring!’
‘You say that,’ Seren insisted. ‘But she’s a half orc. Sooner or later they always take after the father.’
‘Not much danger there then,’ Roddick said, drily. ‘Her father was a baker.’
‘Her mother was the orc,’ Roddick elaborated. ‘I officiated their wedding.’
Before Macha’s father, Bob, had been a baker he left the city to become an adventurer. He’d thought it would be a glamorous and exciting kind of life and so he was somewhat surprised when he woke up in a dank cave, his head pounding and his shirt sticky with drying blood. He remembered the trolls tearing through his party, a sudden burst of pain to the back of his head and then nothing. And now he was here.
He propped himself up onto his elbows, head spinning with the sudden movement. The cave was low and long and he could see a small fire burning in the entrance, tended by a very large figure. He reached for his weapons and realised that they were gone.
Bob weighed his options. If his captor had intended to kill him then they could easily have done it already. He wasn’t important enough to torture for political reasons and he doubted that a sadist would have covered him with a blanket.
The figure at the entrance turned. It was an orc, a female one. She edged towards him, stooping to avoid the low ceiling. She moved far more gracefully than Bob had expected and he realised with a jolt that he wasn’t afraid of her. Perhaps it was the blow to the head.
She pushed him firmly down onto the pile of bedding and pulled his ruined shirt away from the fresh wound on his shoulder. Then she began to daub a foul smelling mixture onto the wound. It burned. Bob tried to claw at it with his good arm but the orc caught his hand and held it gently but firmly in hers.
The mixture was less painful the second time, which wasn’t to say it didn’t hurt. Bob gritted his teeth and looked up at the orc woman. He’d never seen an orc up close before, hardly seen any outside of stories. He’d expected them to look ugly but she just looked different: her eyes were large and dark and made it difficult to be afraid of her, even with scars, the strange tribal markings, the tusks curling her mouth into a permanent scowl. Her hair was a dark, unruly tangle, shot through with braids that were in various stages of turning into dreadlocks.
‘Calla,’ she grunted. His shoulder hurt less now, the pain was barely more than a spreading warmth.
‘I’m sorry, I…I don’t speak orc.’
‘Name.’ The orc gave him a pitying look. ‘I Calla. You?’
Bob hadn’t expected that.
‘You can speak common?’
The orc, Bob supposed he should think of her as Calla, looked uncertain. ‘Some.’
‘Probably not enough.’ She couldn’t have understood him but his tone must have said plenty.
‘Speak orc?’ She prodded him in the chest, careful to avoid his injury.
Calla gave him a look which clearly communicated he was being purposefully difficult.
‘I’m Bob. Bob.’
‘Bob,’ Calla repeated. ‘Rest.’
‘I can’t stay here,’ Bob tried and failed to sit up. ‘I have to go-’
‘Rest.’ Calla repeated more forcefully, going back to tend the fire. Bob lay back and tried to sleep, grateful there was seven feet of orc between him and the outside world.
‘So he married her?’ Seren demanded. They were making up a cot for Macha, although Roddick was doing most of the work. ‘Just because she bandaged him up?’
Not just that,’ Roddick said. ‘They were in love.’
‘How? She barely spoke common. And even if I believed in love at first sight I wouldn’t believe it worked on orcs.’
‘She picked up quite a bit of common,’ Roddick replied, ignoring the orc comment. ‘It was a while before Bob was on his feet.’
‘But why?’ Seren protested. ‘With an orc!’
Brother Roddick sighed, remembering a similar conversation with Bob’s family. They’d tried to call off the wedding but for once he’d stood firm.
‘I told you,’ he repeated. ‘They were in love.
Bob kissed his wife’s jaw, which was as high as he could reach. When he’d brought Calla home people had told him he’d get over it but they’d been married for nearly nine years, parents for seven and he was yet to look back.
‘You’re sick,’ she told him. ‘You make Macha sick. Want to make me sick too?’
Bob coughed then smiled pitifully. ‘I’m worried about her: she needs someone watching her. I want to take her to my parents.’
‘Her cousins don’t like her,’ Calla said. ‘Pick fights.’
‘She’s your daughter,’ Bob told her, not without pride. ‘She usually wins.’
Calla’s face darkened. ‘One day they fight me.’
‘No need for that,’ Bob said quickly: his family hadn’t taken Calla well, the last thing he needed was for her to threaten his nieces and nephews. ‘I’ll have a word with them when I take Macha round.’
‘Yes, you take her,’ Calla grumbled. ‘Your family not open the door to orcs.’
‘Then I’ll talk to all of them,’ Bob said, taking her hand and smoothing the green skin with his calloused baker’s hands. ‘No one bullies my wife and daughter. No matter how tough they are.’
It would have been more impressive if he hadn’t sneezed straight afterwards. Calla bent to kiss him anyway.
‘What about my cold?’
‘It’s not like we don’t have enough to do since the fire,’ Seren sniffed. ‘I heard three streets of houses are just gone and everywhere around them is just rubble.’
‘Seren,’ Brother Roddick snapped. ‘Why do you think she’s here?’
‘Her parents…’ Seren was finally lost for words.
‘Her mother usually does heavy lifting down by the docks,’ Brother Roddick told her. ‘Her father tends the bakery. It was just a street from where they think the blaze started.’
‘Oh.’ Seren sat down heavily, creasing the crisp sheets. ‘Oh the poor thing.’
Brother Roddick wondered which of them she meant.
Calla smelled the burning before she saw it. People were streaming in the other direction but Calla barely noticed until they started to get in her way. No one ever got in Calla’s way: not drunks, or half orcs, or even guards. She might have been small for an orc but here she was practically a giant.
She shouldered through the crowd, feeling a light-headedness that was nothing to do with the effort and everything to do with panic. She turned a corner and the whole street was on fire, belching orange flames and thick black smoke into the air. All around people were holding neighbours back as they tried to go after loved ones. No one tried to hold back Calla. She ran amongst the burning buildings, the cobbles scorching her bare feet but her street was already gone, a wall of flames revealing nothing but blackened rubble.
No one could have survived that. Calla searched the crowds, pushing people blindly aside, hoping to find her fragile human husband, her infant daughter. They were nowhere. She went to Bob’s parents’ house and was turned away: they told her Bob had never arrived. Macha wasn’t with them. Perhaps he’d been too sick to leave the house: it was clear they blamed her. Heartbroken she left the city, heading for the hills that had been her home.
‘Her mother’ll have survived though?’ Seren asked. ‘An orc could survive a battering ram and if she’s working down by the docks she’ll be nowhere near the fire.’
On the floor Macha was still drawing, adding dark scribbles of hair to a green skinned woman, standing beside a red haired man. Sooner or later they’d have to tell her about her father.
‘Yes,’ he said, hoping it was true. ‘I’m sure she’ll be here soon.’