~ Chapter III ~

 

To say that there was a lot of work to do was an understatement. Cleaning out the city was easy, in comparison. That was only simple labour, and all pitched in, in one way or another. The larger common areas were cleaned, and sheltered places found for the wounded. Shamans and priests were found to tend them, while the city was scoured to see if any of its erstwhile inhabitants had hidden within it. The lesson of Guk had been hard learned.

It was scoured again, as the filth the trolls had left behind was removed and burned. Great bonfires lit the islands just outside the city gates as the caverns and buildings were emptied of accumulated refuse. Some cleaned, some carried, some guarded those who tended the fires, others guarded the gates and mounted the heights to keep watch, lest the trolls regroup, and try to take back the city.

While this was going on, another sort of shaping was being done. That they had been changed was clear. That the changes were more profound than they had anticipated was becoming more clear by the moment. All had heard of the organiser of the wizards, and what had happened to her. Many had made sure to pass by where the eggs that had been torn from her were floating in a large tub that had been found for them, and stared at them in worry, before they went on with their business.

Those who had become leaders made a tally of the castes and skills of those who had been Chosen, those who had survived the battle. And they, too, set to work, to shape their people into something more than a diverse group of strangers.

It was not easy. Each had their own ideas of what would be right for their people. And the arguments grew, at times, bitter. But perhaps the touch of their god was still upon them, for they listened, too, to the others, and slowly, decisions were made. The wrangling went on late into the night. And through all of the next day.

 

M’jou had spent that first day or so recovering. She had woken at last to find herself lying on a pallet, with a young priest bending over her. She had been aware that something was wrong, something was missing, but she lay in a daze, unable to set her mind to the task of figuring it out. She had fallen asleep again before long, to dream of flashing swords and loving arms that held her close.

When she next awakened, shaking off the strange dreams and sitting up blinking, it was the following day. Her robes were gone, and she looked down at her nakedness and stared at the wide scar that marked her from hip nearly to collarbone. She traced it with her fingers in wonder, then, realising, clutched her belly in horror.

She was empty. Flat. Her eggs…!

“M’jou.”

She looked up at her name, and stared at the brilliant orange froglok who came to sit beside her. His face wore signs of strain and exhaustion.

“Arglug?” she asked, a tremor in her voice. “Where… what did they do with them?”

To her wonder, he smiled, and pointed at a large tub that stood nearby. “In there. We’ll see how they do. It’s still very early for them, and I can’t promise they will develop. But I asked Grägok to fertilise them for you.” He reached out and set an arm around her, and she leaned on him, shaking. “You’ve had a close call, M’jou. You should take it easy for the next few days.”

She nodded, trying to calm herself. She let the shaman help her to her feet, and went to peer into the water at the floating blobs of jelly there.

At least she now knew what the sense of something missing was. It did not recede, however, and she tried hard to set it aside. “General Grägok fertilised them?” she managed at last.

“He did. He seemed very worried about you,” Arglug told her. “You should talk with him. I think he’d like to know you’re well. He saved your life.”

She nodded again, still looking down into the tub. “I need to thank him,” she said quietly. “He has done so much more than I could ask, with this.” She looked up, to find the shaman studying her with an odd expression. “He’s a good leader, to care so much for his people.”

Arglug squeezed her hand. “You should tell him so. I think he’s at the gate right now, if you wish to go find him.” He turned, as his name was called. He excused himself and hurried off, and M’jou became aware of the other pallets that lay around the area. Some lay close together, and the faces of those who lay upon them were covered. Others held those who lay wounded.

Arglug had bent over one such, and was comforting the one who had awoken there. M’jou swallowed, realising her good fortune. She was still whole, not missing limbs like the dark green male the shaman was murmuring to. She understood the exhaustion on his face. He must have been up all night, tending the injured. She glanced again into the tub, then set off to find her way to the gate.

Grägok sniffed. For now, at least, gate-duty was an honour, and the warriors he had set there stood proudly and alertly. He wondered how long that would last. Guarding anything was a pain, and he made a mental bet with himself that within two months, he – or whoever had the job of tending the warriors – would be snapping at them to shape up. He shook his head. One month, not two. He finished his inspection, and stood with them awhile, looking out at the swamp that spread in such deceptive peace before him. Somewhere out there, the trolls could be regrouping. Whatever else happened, they would never leave their conquerors in peace. He anticipated guerrilla raids, at least. He began to pace as he thought. With luck, they might have some breathing space before it began. The foul creatures had been nothing if not demoralized. The sheer terror Giidib had described in those he had let flee was satisfying.

Grägok sniffed again. Good. Let them have a taste of it for a change. He still vaguely disagreed with Faltip’s decision to allow them to go. The trolls had tried long enough to kill them off. Why not return the favour?

It was with reluctance (and pride, for had not Faltip then shown what he had in him of a leader?) that he accepted the pronouncement that the trolls that fled would be allowed to leave unhindered. The females and their offspring, the young, and the old would receive no opposition… unless they fought. The Children of Marr would not commit genocide. They were better than their foes, and had need to remain above such things.

Grägok smiled at the memory. Yes, he was proud of the young warrior. And if he disagreed with him, that was well enough. It wasn’t the first time he’d disagreed with a commander. He was made of sterner stuff than to disobey. His support was important. Undermining the chain of command was always a bad idea. Not to mention that the young warrior wasn’t the only one who held those views.

The old warrior sighed then. M’jou had echoed Faltip’s sentiments, and used nearly the same words to him, when she had stopped him from killing the wounded guard, calling upon Honour. He shook his head. If they had been diligent in ensuring the fallen trolls were dead, she would not now be lying under the care of the healers. He stared out at the swamp, his thoughts remaining with the captivating wizard, until he realised that he had taken a few steps to head into the city to find her.

He stopped, then shook his head again, forcing his thoughts back to the task at hand.

A squad would be arriving momentarily, detailed to go do a search of the immediate area. There were still some missing after the battle. However much he doubted that any that had fallen out in the swamp had survived, it still required a search. If it had been him lying out there, wounded and alone… He continued pacing.

Grägok frowned, stopping midstep, as the odd inner vibration he had felt once before began again. The last time he had felt it, it had meant danger. He looked around, seeking the cause. It pulled him, and he turned to face the narrow canyon that led to the city. He blinked as the figure appeared, moving towards him.

For a moment, he was startled. This was the danger? A single, unarmed froglok?

Then, he realised who it was, and a wave of longing so strong it nearly brought him to his knees swept over him. He took an involuntary step towards her before he brought himself under control. He watched her come, his eyes clinging to the slim figure, and taking in the orange and white markings on her belly and legs.

And taking in the great jagged scar that ripped across her torso. An anger and hatred of the trolls who had marked her arose in him, and again, he struggled for control as the fury of his emotions swept through him.

By the time she reached him, he had himself under tight rein, and he managed a polite bow as she stopped in front of him.

“General Grägok.” She bowed in return, then straightened again, and he gazed into her eyes, feeling the vibration strengthen. He swallowed, and tried to ignore it. Evidently, it was showing him danger of a very different sort…

“I’m glad to see you on your feet,” he told her awkwardly. “Is there something I can aid you with today?”

She shook her head. “As I told Arglug, you’ve aided me more than I could ever ask. I came to thank you for your kindness yesterday. I owe you my life, and more.” She studied his face, and her own changed as well, as she seemed to draw herself up, and in.

“No, you don’t owe me anything. I’m glad to have been in the right place to help.” He again forced the strange vibrations down, and turned abruptly to look out at the swamp. “Arglug suggested I take care of your eggs for you. I hope they do well.”

She remained silent for a moment. “Thank you,” she said again. “I must get back, I think. Arglug told me I should spend the day resting. I should follow his instructions.”

He turned back to her, as she stepped away, bowed again, and turned to head back into the city. He took a step after her, reaching out, about to call to her, the love he had felt before rising like a tide within him. But the squad he had been waiting for – curse them! – appeared around the corner and approached him, coming to attention before him. He sighed, feeling a powerful disappointment that seemed to echo in the corners of his soul.

“Right, you lot. Come over here, and I’ll explain what I want you to do.”

 

M’jou hurried back into the city, hearing the general’s voice growling at his soldiers behind her. A crushing disappointment had settled inside her. She had seen the anger he had tried – poorly – to hide. She didn’t think it was truly directed at her, just at the situation that necessity had thrown him into.

Perhaps, if she could find a way to talk to him she could get to the bottom of the strange spell he had cast on her. It would take time, she thought. Time they did not, at this moment, have. Too many things remained to be done, if what she had seen in the streets as she explored had been any indication. They would be busy. Maybe, when it was done, and they had settled themselves – either here, or in Guk, or wherever Marr led them next – she could find a way to reach him. A strange sense of loneliness crept over her, and the wizard stopped, leaning against a wall.

She barely knew him. They had spoken only of business, and had fought together in a battle, and yet…

There was a void in her heart. She had felt the pull when she stood beside him. She had finally identified what it was that she was missing, and it wasn’t her eggs.

She shook herself, and gathered her dignity about her like a shield.

Somewhere, in this city, someone had to have found some fabric of some sort, to replace her robe. She headed off to see.

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