When Fireflash had her first child, in the shadow of the Black Mountains, she decided to name him Fluffy, because of his fluffy, triangular ears.
Now, this wasn’t the most appropriate name to choose for one destined – in fact, bred – to be a warrior prince of the orc people. Still less was it fitting for the son and heir of Urmug the Skullcrusher, because the Skullcrusher was the greatest of all the orc tribal chiefs.
But when Fluffy was born, Urmug was away on campaign on the other side of the Great River, in the service of a baron so terrible that no one ever dared speak his name aloud. So, Fireflash was free to call her child anything she wanted. And because Fireflash was a strong-willed orc, and had a slightly perverse sense of humour, she did exactly as she wished.
But his name was the least of the problems, because Fluffy could of course change it to something else when he grew to adulthood. And, being a sweet-tempered orc, he bore the taunts of the other orc-kids with equanimity. The problem was that he was too sweet-tempered.
“That son of yours,” Fireflash’s friends told her. “Is something wrong with him? My son hit him over the head today, and he didn’t even fight back!”
“Yesterday my daughter tripped him and pushed him into the mud,” observed another friend. “And he didn’t even beat her black and blue. He didn’t touch her at all!”
“And what did your daughter do then?” Fireflash asked with a grim smile.
“What do you expect?” the friend said. “She was scared, of course. She ran home.”
“Yes,” the women all agreed. “You ought to do something about him, Fireflash.”
Then one day Fluffy’s teacher, Varfu, turned up at Fireflash’s doorstep. “Your son,” he said, frowning so ominously that Fireflash’s hackles would’ve begun rising if she’d had any hackles to rise. “Why don’t you control your son?”
“Why,” Fireflash asked. “What has he done now?”
“What hasn’t he done?” Varfu glowered. “In Basic Weapons Training he began whittling wood into pens with his sword. Pens, I tell you! What does he want to be, a clerk?”
“Anything else?” If Varfu had known Fireflash better he’d have known he was treading on thin ice from the way her voice had gone very quiet and soft. “Is that all, or did he do anything else?”
“Of course he did something else,” Varfu shouted. “In Advanced Hatemongering he not only refused to join in the Daily Hatefest, he said we should love each other and all other creatures. What do you have to say about that?”
“I’ll think about it.”
“You’d better do something about it,” Varfu yelled. “Or I’ll...”
“Or you’ll what?” Fireflash asked, grabbing the teacher by the collar and pushing him against the wall. Even for a lady orc, Fireflash was overmuscled, and Varfu wasn’t expecting the assault. She began banging him against the wall rhythmically, until he grew glassy-eyed and began to sag at the knees. “All you’ll do,” Fireflash said, letting go finally, “is go back to your school and get back to your job. That’s all.”
“You haven’t heard the last of this,” Varfu promised, picking himself up. “You won’t get away with this kind of behaviour. And as for that son of yours –“
“That son of mine,” Fireflash replied coldly, “is also the son of Urmug the Skullcrusher. And I am the wife of that same Urmug the Skullcrusher. Remember that, teacher.”
But, afterwards, when Varfu had gone, still muttering balefully, Fireflash frowned to herself. Not that she worried about the teacher’s impotent threats, but something certainly had to be done about Fluffy before he got himself into serious trouble. She’d have to have a talk with him.
So, that night, after dinner, Fireflash went to Fluffy’s room, where he was making something out of wood and glue, his tongue protruding with the effort. Fireflash watched him for a while. “What are you doing?” she asked at last.
“I’m making a model,” Fluffy explained, without looking up.
“I can see that,” Fireflash said, not very convincingly. “What is it a model of?”
“It’s a bridge,” Fluffy replied, gluing a curved stick over a line of upright pegs. “I like bridges. I’m going to make another one afterwards, a cantilever design, and then one that’s...”
“Why on earth do you want to make bridges?” Fireflash asked. “Actually, son, we have to talk. Your teacher was here today, and...”
Fluffy sighed and sat back, looking up from his model. “And he was complaining that I’m not doing work properly at school, learning to use weapons and hate like a warrior should. But, mum, I don’t want to be a warrior. I want to be an architect.”
“I want to be an architect,” Fluffy repeated, indicating the model bridge. “That’s why I’m making this.”
“An architect? But orcs are never architects!”
“There’s always got to be a first time for everything,” Fluffy said. “Besides, mum, the constant warfare thing is getting old. There’s more to life than fighting and killing.”
“But this family has always been famous as a warrior clan,” Fireflash pointed out. “Your father is the greatest warrior of all. And he wants you to follow in his footsteps.”
“Well, I don’t want to follow in anybody’s footsteps,” Fluffy said. “I want to be an architect.”
“Try to be reasonable,” Fireflash urged. “Everyone will laugh at your father if you aren’t a great warrior worthy of his blood. Why, nobody in this clan has ever been anything but a great warrior. And you are Skullcrusher’s son.”
“They’d laugh at him a lot more if I were a lousy warrior,” Fluffy said. “And I couldn’t fight a battle to, literally, save my life...even if I am Skullcrusher’s son.”
“We’ll see about that,” Fireflash said grimly, and turned to leave. By the time she’d reached the door, her son was already back at his model.
Very early the next morning, Fireflash went to the great shaman of the tribe, Ugluq. She’d lain awake most of the night thinking of various alternatives, but finally decided she had no alternative. Even so, the idea of approaching the shaman made her quail with apprehension.
The shaman Ugluq lived in a house carved out of the skull of a monster from the southern marshes. It balanced on the edge of a cliff, high above the rest of the village, with its empty eye sockets glaring down on everyone else’s houses. At night strange flickering lights would shine in those sockets, and all the orcs would see them and feel awed and afraid.
The shaman Ugluq was mixing liquids in a vat when Fireflash arrived at his doorstep. Strangely coloured vapours rose from the vat, and occasionally bubbles would waver into the air, wobble around and go pop.
Fireflash waited respectfully till the shaman deigned to notice her existence, which he did once the liquid in the vat had all turned a muddy brown colour and stopped bubbling and steaming. Then she stepped forward and explained her problem.
“Hmmm,” the shaman said. “I think I will have to talk to the boy.”
“Oh,” Fireflash said. “I was hoping you could, you know...”
“ ‘Tis no matter for potions and such,” Ugluq said. “Such thoughts as your child have must be cured at the root, before they grow into something that threatens our whole way of life.” Briskly, he stirred the liquid in the vat, but it failed to emit even a single bubble or puff of violet vapour. “Go, wife of Urmug, and bring the boy.”
“Or would you prefer that I come to your hovel, woman?”
Shuddering at the thought of the shaman setting foot in her house, Fireflash shook her head vigorously. “I’ll bring him,” she said, “right away.”
Hurrying down to the village, she managed to intercept Fluffy just before he reached the school, and grabbed him by the shoulder. “Come along with me,” she said grimly. “Someone wants to talk to you. Don’t worry,” she added. “The school will still be here when you return.”
Fluffy didn’t need her grip on his shoulder to come along with her willingly enough. “Who is it?”
“You’ll see.” Fireflash had no desire to frighten Fluffy any more than necessary, and to all the orcs the shaman’s home was always a thing of dread. “He just wants to talk to you about your...career choice.”
“Why?” Fluffy asked. “Is he an architect too?”
Fireflash made a small noise which sounded as though she were choking. “Architect, indeed! No, he isn’t. Here we are.”
Fluffy looked up at the skull with no fear at all, but plenty of interest. “That’s the shaman’s home, isn’t it? I’ve never seen it from close up before.”
“And you won’t need to do it again, I hope,” Fireflash said. “Come along in here. Watch out for the teeth.”
The shaman Ugluq looked up from pouring the brown liquid in the vat into a number of smaller bottles. “Ah, there you are.” He turned to Fluffy with a terrible frown. “You, boy.”
“Yes, great shaman?” Fluffy asked, quite unaffected by the frown.
“Pay attention to me, boy. What are you looking at?”
“Um, nothing much. I was just thinking, this must get very windy and cold in winter, what with all those open spaces between the bones. You must spend a terrible amount of time just staying warm.”
“What does that have to do with –“
“Also, it’s right at the edge of the cliff. Seems a bit unstable to me. Suppose there’s a rock slide, what would happen?”
“What would happen?” Fireflash asked, despite herself.
“The whole thing would fall down into the river, of course,” Fluffy said. “Now, if the great shaman here were to build a nice, comfortable place a little further away from the edge, with proper weather protection, he’d be much better off. Of course, maybe the appearance matters.” Fluffy glanced at the shaman. “Is that important? The appearance has to be intimidating?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Well, that could be managed too. Now if only one had a good architect...”
The shaman Ugluk sighed a great, deep sigh, full of sorrow and regret. “I see,” he said to Fireflash, “that this is beyond my capabilities. It’s a case for the Demon Orc Himself.”
“The Demon Orc?” Fireflash gasped. “But that’s far too cruel. How can he bear...”
“Do you want the boy cured or don’t you?”
“Very well.” Fireflash bit her lip till it bled. “The Demon Orc it is.”
“I’ll summon Him, then.” The shaman reached up to a ridge of bone which served him for a shelf and fetched a handful of coloured stones. “Hap, hip, hop,” he said, throwing some of them on the floor. “Hoop, hup, hep,” he added, throwing a few more. The stones rattled on the floor and began bouncing against each other in a most fascinating manner. “Heap!” Ugluq shouted, throwing the last of them among the others. There was a flash of eye searing light, and Fluffy vanished.
“Fluffy?” Fireflash looked around. “Fluffy!” But there was nothing left of the boy, not even a hair from one of his pointed ears.
“Where is he?” she yelled at the shaman. “Where is my son?”
Ugluq shook his head, a confused expression in his eyes. “I don’t know,” he said. “I was summoning the Demon Orc, and it was He who should have appeared. I don’t know what happened.”
“How do you mean you don’t know? It’s my son you’re talking about, and you say you don’t know?” Fireflash so forgot herself that she grabbed the shaman by the lapels of his tunic and began shaking him back and forth. “You either get him back or I’ll...”
What she intended to do, neither of them ever found out, because there was another huge flash and suddenly Fluffy stood before them. But he wasn’t alone. Standing beside him, with one enormous clawed hand on his shoulder, was a gigantic hulking figure, black as the darkest night, in whose shadowed face only two red eyes glowed like embers. It was, of course, the Demon Orc Himself.
“Lord,” Ugluq said, bowing nearly to the floor. “Thou hast arrived.”
“I very nearly didn’t,” said the Demon Orc, in a voice like lightning sharpened on thunder. “I was over on the far side of the Valley of Fire, and had it not been for this boy...”
“Yes, the boy,” Ugluq said eagerly. “I was going to tell you about this boy. You see, Lord, he –“
“I was saying,” the Demon Orc rumbled, “that if it wasn’t for this boy I couldn’t have got here at all. He designed a bridge for me to get across the Valley of Fire. What do you have to say to that?”
It was obvious that Ugluq had nothing to say to that.
“When I saw that it would be hard for me to get here in anything like time,” the Demon Orc said, “I decided to call the object of the Summons over so I could have a look at him. And he made a bridge for me, right over the fire, as easy as you please.”
“Um, yes, Lord. You see...”
“What was it you said you want to be, boy?” the Demon Orc asked, as though the shaman hadn’t spoken. “An...architect, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, Lord,” Fluffy replied.
“An excellent idea,” the Demon rumbled. “We need more like this boy. More architects, and fewer warriors. I’m getting tired of blood sacrifices. What’s your name, boy?”
“Fluffy, Lord,” Fireflash’s son said in a small voice, embarrassed for the first time ever by his name.
“Fluffy the Master Builder,” the Demon Orc declared. “That’s a great name. Is he yours?” he asked suddenly, turning to Fireflash.
“Yes, Lord. My husband is...”
“It does not matter who he is. Your son will be the first of a new direction for the orc race. We have had enough of the constant, degrading warfare. Let’s begin the task of building. You will see to it that he is given all the help he can.”
“And you will lend him to me whenever I want. I may have need of more bridges and other things.” With a lingering glow from his red eyes, the Demon Orc disappeared.
And that was how our ancestors, the orc folk, gave up their savage ways and grew into the greatest of all civilisations. That is why we live in this exquisite city, Orcopolis, and not in stinking tribal villages. There’s just one loose end left over, one little mystery the old history never cleared up.
We still don’t know if the shaman Ugluq allowed Fluffy to build him a new home.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014