Tolkien meets Steinbeck in this harrowing high fantasy set in 1920s Oklahoma.
A Frightful Omen
The orc led the way, as though he knew these Earthen lands better than the Earthlings. He just might have.
Del kept the best balance on her horse as she could, and watched the others out of the corners of her eyes, including her uncle, whom she was worried about quite a bit. When she imagined herself as some sort of heroine, even the hardships seemed romantic. But when she remembered she was just Del, all of this was terribly heavy.
But that didn't stop her worrying about Huck, who she kind of thought might be a bit out of his territory a little. It's funny, since her parents had died, Huck had been everything to her. Now, poised at her own adulthood, she began to have her doubts about his invincibility.
When they stopped for lunch, Del stretched and ate. She looked at the horizon on the west, which she felt they were aimlessly pointed at. It felt good to rest briefly, but soon the worrying set in again.
She realized suddenly she really was almost an adult, and what that meant was that if Huck stumbled --
I'll help him up, she thought.
The ride was long and bumpy, through rocky, wheat fields that seemed to peel across great quarters of the world. The halfling and orc rode with determination, and it was hard sometimes to keep up.
The sun was out though, and it was casually pretty about. It had been a long time since Del's parents died, and she had been very young, so death wasn't so real to her anymore. It was real for other people -- but she felt as though she and Huck were part of a plan.
She wasn't fearless -- no, fear was part of her being. But she didn't get her feet knocked out from under her by the despair and worry. She trudged on.
Afternoon came and went and soon dusk fell. They camped for the night.
Huck cooked up some beans and biscuits and they rested their weary muscles. Mostly they were silent as they ate, until Flavian struck up conversation.
"So. You two. What's your story?"
"What do you mean?" asked Huck.
"I know you're related, but where are the rest of you. Where are the girls parents?"
"They're dead," Del said, stoically. "Died in a car accident a long time ago."
"Cars," repeated Flavian. "Machines. Don't like them. And what about you, Huck?"
"What about me?" Huck asked.
"I can tell you used to have a wife."
"How do you know that?"
"Just the way you carry yourself," said Flavian.
"She died too," answered Huck. "She was killed by elves in the sundering."
Flavian frowned. "I'm sorry to hear about that," he said. "I've had kin killed by elves too."
"What's your story?" Del asked. "And his," she nodded towards Jobe.
"Our story?" Flavian laughed. "Well, we've been 'Flavian and Jobe' for a while now. We were mercenaries before the sundering, and now we're mercenaries after. But if you want to know, I used to be a holy man."
"Like a priest?" Huck asked.
"Yes," chuckled Flavian.
"What happened?" asked Del.
"I came to my senses I guess," said Flavian. "I was very young then. Life happens."
"It does," agreed Huck.
"What did you do before the sundering?" Flavian asked Huck.
"I was a pilot. Flew in the war in Europe."
"Europe? That's across the ocean?"
"Yup. And I flew in the war after, with the elves."
"I see," said Flavian.
"What's his story?" Del asked of Jobe.
"The orc?" asked Flavian. "He's from an old tribe of mischief makers. Met him in a battle. We almost killed each other, until we realized we were on the same side. Been on the same side ever since."
"Does he ever talk?" Huck asked.
"Sure he does, when he has something to say. He's shy."
"How'd he become a Christian?" Del asked.
"A lot of orcs are converting near Atlanta."
"Why's that?" Huck wondered.
"Because your God walks there," said Flavian, mysteriously. "Atlanta is strange. I'm glad it's in our past, I'll tell you that."
"But he believes in Jesus?" asked Del.
"I guess so, I don't know much about it," admitted Flavian. "But he loves your God, he's said as much. I don't know. We beg the Gods, we curse the Gods, hate the Gods -- but to love a God -- that is strange."
"Didn't you love your God when you were a priest?" asked Del.
Flavian thought about it for a moment. "If I had, I would still be one. When I love something, I love something forever."
None of them had anything to say after that. They rested in silence for a few minutes, digesting their food and the conversation.
And then -- out of the black pitch of night there came a terrible screaming in the distance, but not that of a man -- more of an animal in horrid pain. They all turned and saw a ball of flame racing towards them, and they realized to their dismay it was a flaming animal running for its life. The thing scampered about the camp, screaming.
"What is it?" cried Del.
"For God sake, put the thing out of its misery!" Huck told Flavian.
The halfling cast knives at it but did not appear to hit it. The flaming animal turned and raced away from them, and soon disappeared into the grass, its screams quieting as it moved further and further away from them until they heard and saw nothing of it.
"What was that?" Del asked, crying.
I don't know," said Huck.
"It was an omen," said a new voice. They turned and saw the orc had spoken. He stared at the two of them with his dark eyes.
"What do you think?" Huck asked Flavian.
"That was no animal."
"I don't miss. Either it was an illusion, or something else. Some kind of warning, I think. Meant for us."
Huck tried reassure Del with a smile. She was quite distraught.
"You two go to bed," said Flavian. "Jobe and I will watch the night."
Huck nodded. There was nothing else they could do.
But a new fear was in Del's heart.
They were headed into strange territory.