Midway through the last part of A Gathering of Ravens (Draft Two), as things come to a head between the Danes, the Gaels, and Grimnir, the latter is pursued by six Irish hunters dispatched by the commander of Brian mac Cennetig’s vanguard – a Connacht-born reaver called Cormac O’Ruairc. In my original synopsis, Grimnir merely eludes them and goes on about his business. By Draft Two, however, the hunters gained speech and personality, and thus needed some sort of narrative closure.
So I let Grimnir hunt them down and kill them. For no good reason.
The scene ended up on the cutting room floor during the massive re-write of the last third of the book. It no longer worked. It was gratuitous but not over-the-top, and it had no real purpose beyond illustrating our protagonist’s rather wanton sense of cruelty (something already well-established by this point). We already know Grimnir is not a nice person. He’s not someone most of us would care to spend any length of time with. This scene just beats that dead horse a bit further.
Context: Grimnir ambushed the hunters, wounding one, and drove them to take shelter at the base of a tall cliff called Carraig Dubh. He went off to do plot things, then came back to finish the job . . .
Bran of the Uí Ruairc regained consciousness in the twilit hour before dawn. He woke to silence – no birdsong, no whispering voices, not even the snores of men too exhausted to care. In the well of shadow beneath the titanic height of Carraig Dubh, it was as if the slowly waking world held its breath in expectation.
The Irishman lay on his stomach near the heap of embers that had been their fire, the stink of burning clogging his nostrils and parching his throat. Bran’s face felt hot, clammy; he tried to raise himself up on his arms but the effort brought beads of cold sweat to his brow. From the waist down, his legs were dead – useless knots of gristle that anchored him in place. Above the waist, knives of white-hot agony radiated out from where the cut-down shaft of the arrow protruded from makeshift bandages cut from the hem of his cloak. Bran struggled to move his hips, but the pain whittled up his spine and stabbed into his chest, making every breath sheer hell. The Irishman gasped and sank back down. “Water,” he croaked, resting his head on one arm.
He only remembered flashes: the eerie voices in the darkness and the lads bellowing out hymns to drive the evil away; he remembered O’Conchobair’s dull-witted son holding him down while Ruadh himself cut the shaft and tried to no avail to dig the iron head from his spine. He remembered a gale from the north that left him weeping and afraid. He remembered screaming, crashing footsteps.
“Ruadh,” Bran wheezed, his voice cracking. “O’Conchobair, we should . . . we should make ready to move. F-First light’s . . . comin’.”
“Ruadh?” With a grimace, Bran pushed himself up on his elbows; he looked first to the right and then back left, peering into the gloom beyond the smoldering fire. Through the thin smoke and heat distortion he saw four shapes arrayed on a log. Bran blinked, squinted again . . .
Heads. Four severed heads propped side-by-side – glassy eyed and blood-smeared, tongues lolling from jaws gone slack in death. He recognized the head of young Mac Ruadh, its gory scalp hanging loose, alongside two of the sons of Faelan; the last head once sat on the shoulders of the elder brother, Lugaid, and the arrow that killed him yet pierced its eye. The weight of the shaft had tipped it over and now it rested on one sallow cheek, its place precarious on the end of the log. Already flies gathered around the ragged stump of its neck.
Dead. All dead.
At the sight of them, Bran of the Uí Ruairc loosed an anguished bellow. He tried to crawl closer, but his useless legs and the knifing pain in his spine left him gasping for breath and cursing. There was one still unaccounted for, though, and Bran cast wildly about in search of O’Conchobair. “Ruadh!” he cried. “Where are you, Ruadh?”
The crunch of a hobnailed sandal on loose shale, followed by a low chuckle, cut through Bran’s distress. He craned his head to look over his right shoulder . . .
What stalked up on him was no faoladh, no saint-cursed wolf-man from Osraige, but surely nothing less than a son of Hell, itself. Bran crossed himself. The gesture drew a serrated grin from the beast. He knew that face, so grim and vulpine – it had stared at him from the undergrowth yesterday. From beneath a swarthy brow, red eyes gleamed like coals plucked from the fire; tangled black hair woven with bone and silver hung to its shoulders, and over a shirt of antique iron rings it wore a tattered wolf-skin. In one blood-smeared fist, it carried the hewn head of Ruadh O’Conchobair.
“Roo-a?” the beast said in the tongue of the Danes. It held the head up and looked closely at it. “This is . . . Roo-a? Roo-da? Bah! Whatever his name, your mate was skinning out when I caught up to him. Left you to the wolves.”
Bran scrabbled for his axe, which one of the lads had left leaning against a stone just beyond his reach. He stretched his arms for it, cursing and straining and blowing spittle, even as the beast snatched it up and slung it off into the woods. “No need for that,” it growled, rounding the fire. “Aye, sit tight, maggot. I’ll be done soon.” It reached the log with its gory burden, cursed under its breath as it righted Lugaid Mac Faelan’s arrow-pierced head, and propped Ruadh’s head alongside it.
Bran muttered in the speech of the Gaels, but the beast cut him off. “Nár! Enough of that jabber!”
The Irishman switched to pidgin Danish. “What . . . what hell you from?”
The beast admired his handiwork a moment, then turned and fixed its baleful eyes on Bran. “You hymn-singers and your hell.” It spat into the embers of the fire. “I’ll ask you what I asked these other swine: how do I reach your old king? I have a message for him.”
Bran shook his head.
“No?” From a sheath at its waist, the beast drew a long seax of rune-etched iron. He used it to gesture at the near-paralyzed Irishman. “What do you got there, in your back? An arrow, is it?”
Pain-wracked and weak from the loss of blood, Bran nevertheless tried to scuttle away as the creature came closer. To no avail. One sandaled foot stomped down on Bran’s forearm, snapping the bones in his wrist; the Irishman groaned as the devil drove a knee into his shoulder blade and used the weight of its body to pin him belly-down on the stony earth. It sucked its teeth in mock concern.
“Looks bad. Someone’s got to cut that head out before it festers.”
Bran thrashed. “No!”
“Faugh!” The beast slapped the back of the Irishman’s head. “Stop squirming, runt! Make my hand slip and it’ll be bad business all around.” Chuckling, oblivious to Bran’s screams, the foul-eyed devil ripped the bandages away and went to work.
And Bran of the Uí Ruairc slipped into merciful unconsciousness.
Grimnir crouched over the body of the Irishman. The little fool wasn’t dead, yet, but he walked the edge of the Abyss. His chest slowly rose and fell; his eyelids twitched as he struggled to open them one last time. The skraelingr weighed the blood-smeared iron broad head in the palm of his hand. It had gone deep, splitting the bones of the spine. Runt was lucky to have made it through the night.
The Irishman groaned.
Grimnir made a clicking noise; he patted the man’s cheek. “Look lively, you sluggard! Answer my question. How do I get to that old graybeard who wears your crown?”
The man’s eyes fluttered as he opened them. He muttered something.
“What was that, runt?”
“M-My . . . body,” he gasped. “Return . . . Return it . . . to m-my people . . . no c-cutting.”
Grimnir snorted. “Aye, if you tell me what I want to know. Keep jabbering on, though, and I’ll carve you into chunks and leave you out here to rot.”
“No,” the man replied. “F-Find . . . my . . . my chief, O’Ruairc . . . tell him . . . táimid feall. Understand? Táimid feall . . . tell O’Ruairc.”
Grimnir’s eyes narrowed. “And this Or-rork, he will take me to see the old king?”
The man nodded. “Táimid feall.”
“What is tom-eed feel? A watchword?”
Grimnir slung the broad-head away; it clinked across the talus of broken shale. “Fair enough,” he said, seizing the dying Irishman by his pale and fleshless face. He slammed his skull against the stony ground, bone cracking like an egg. The Irishman convulsed and then lay still.
And there, rocking back on his haunches beneath the immense heights of Carraig Dubh, the rising sun a fiery lamp just below the eastern horizon, Grimnir bared his fangs at the sky as he imagined the pieces of his plan clicking together like tiles in a mosaic.
Scenes like this feed into a question I’d like to discuss later this week: “What makes an Orc an Orc?” Is it simply a tag designed to illicit a certain response from readers, or should there be more to it? One complaint heard often is, “your Orcs are just like Humans.” So, as writers, what do we do to make our Orcs more like a race unto themselves and less like guys from down at the pub wearing Orc-suits?