The orc messenger with the scarred face hiked toward Highmaul’s gates, struggling her way up stone steps half her height.
Highmaul’s ogres stopped to watch her. Rank brutes leered at her from the darkness looming over the path to the summit. Wealthier Gorians looked out from mound-homes ornamented with trophies from their dead enemies.
Another observer watched the messenger’s approach from a tower, disgust filling both of his minds. This orc trod atop the mountain the ogres’ blood families had shaped over lifetimes, pressing and tearing the very rock until it became city and palace and fortress and home.
Still, she had been permitted on the lift to Highmaul’s second rise with a wordless lowering of spears. It was custom to treat lone visitors with curiosity. They could always be killed later.
When the lift shivered to a stop, the messenger saw a dozen haggard orc slaves manning the pulleys. They slunk off one by one, casting glances at her over their shoulders.
The messenger peered farther up the mountain. Just visible, jutting forth from Highmaul’s peak, was the outline of a vast balcony—the Throne of the Imperator, where dwelled the ogres’ sorcerer king—but it was a long climb from where she stood, breathing hard in the dusty open between filthy-smelling slave hovels. Her nose crinkled.
A cadre of enormous, elegantly robed ogres tromped toward her, moving with surprising quickness. The tallest and largest among them (clearly hurrying to be first on the scene) was near in seconds, reeling to a stop like a downhill pushcart regaining control. He reeked of grease and animal fat mixed with perfume, though his straw-colored, sleeveless robes were immaculate. (They had been cleaned more recently than his body.) The ogre’s huge belly hung out of his clothing, and he hefted it with one hand to scrub beneath, not breaking eye contact with the messenger.
His voice was silken. “I am High Councilor Vareg. I speak for the king. You may share your message until I am through with my meal, and then you may depart Highmaul with your soft bones intact.”
So saying, he produced a pungent-scented hunk of elekk shoulder and took one crunching bite, spraying webs of white fat. It was half-gone, meat and bone alike, and he immediately pursed his lips for another bite, a proven means to elicit haste.
code of rule
The messenger looked at each of the ogres in turn. “I bring a message from Grommash Hellscream, warchief of the Iron Horde, to all ogres of Nagrand.” She paused. “If you wish to draw breath upon Draenor one day longer, you will earn your lives.”
The ogres—all of the ogres—laughed. By the time they were finished, grit was trickling off of the lift in response.
“Oh?” Vareg demurred, worrying gristle out of his yellow teeth with a fingernail, not looking at her. “Speak further. How?”
The messenger stretched out her words, annoyed. “Crawl before the Iron Horde with your eyes down. Empty your coffers into our hands. Roll on your bellies and beg. I do not care. Prove your worth, or be made extinct.” The last word came out in a snarl.
Vareg leaned forward, body curling as though he would fall upon her like a cave-in. “Little one, we hold a hundred orc families in chains.” He gestured with the chunk of meat at a slave plodding behind a feed cart. “Hellscream may not value your life, but will he behave so flippantly with theirs?”
The messenger looked straight up at the ogre. “They are dead already.”
She turned to leave.
Her phrasing was particular. ( Prove your worth, not submit or surrender.) The orcs of the Iron Horde were confident enough to be impudent, but they made no precise demands for tribute or territory restored. The ultimatum was open ended. Agency was the listener’s.
The sorcerer king had phrased similar demands so himself.
Imperator Mar’gok, two-headed sorcerer king of the Highmaul, he whose ancestors had tamed avalanche and wind to build the first keeps and colonnades and reservoirs upon wild Nagrand, did not move from his balcony.
The imperator had been watching the day unfold at a distance, his vision stretched down to Highmaul’s streets through a lens of carved quartz. Four natural eyes normally provided him with plenty to take in, but the hours he’d spent staring had begun to make one of his heads swim. (Was there more to see? Should he stop?) It was strange feeling conflict within his minds, when he had always felt his brains working together as two legs should.
Mar’gok squinted, trying to imagine how one of his subjects—a two-eyed, one-headed, one-brained ogre—would peer down at the splendor of the city. Would he focus his entire gaze, all his thoughts, on a single point at a time? It would be impossible to rule that way. Everything would seem blurry.
Mar’gok saw the baggy blobs of his councilors walk back from their meeting, stopping among the gardens (likely to argue). Then he watched the russet-brown dot of the messenger as she left.
The attack was not long off. (Such a message was always delivered as an afterthought, not a prelude.)
Howls echoed through Mar’gok’s streets from every direction, as though Draenor itself had been surrounded by wolves. Beyond the western parapets, spheres of smoke and flame tumbled through the air toward glorious Highmaul. If they impacted the outer walls, drum towers would topple, clogging pathways down the mountain. The forces of Highmaul’s upper rises would be cut off from supporting the lower; the lifts were too slow. Relief forces rushing through the breach were likely to lose their footing among the rubble and get slaughtered in droves, their bodies transforming from instruments of war to hurdles for their fellows.
Or the Iron Horde would bound up the eastern sculpture path on the backs of their deft wolves, whose jaws would drip red as they bit open ogres’ stomachs. Highmaul’s eastern line of defense was nearly all brutes, and they had a habit of responding to charges by tossing their spears aside in the hope of cracking puny jawbones in their hands before dying. (Had they been lashed recently?)
What if the orcs sped past their lines and gained access to the slave pens? Could they arm the slaves, raise a revolt?
The risks were many. Imperator Mar’gok contemplated them as the patter of arrows grew audible on his balcony. He decided—commanded.