When Jillie saw the orc boy for the first time, he was at the corner outside the old movie theatre which had closed down last year.
Jillie was on her way back from school, and hurrying because it was a freezing, cloudy afternoon and even with her umbrella the wind blew the rain against her face. Also, her shoes were sodden and she hated getting her feet wet. The other kids also hurried, not dawdling to chat with each other and swap stories about the teachers as they usually did.
It was really a rather unpleasant day, and Jillie was looking forward to going home and getting warm and dry.
The orc boy wasn’t going anywhere, though. He was standing next to the bus stop at the corner, not actually under the shelter of the rain awning, but as close to it as he could press himself. The rain had turned his white shirt translucent, and his heavy muscles bulged grey-green through the fabric.
Despite her discomfort and desire to be home, Jillie paused a moment to look at the orc boy. She’d never actually been so close to one of them before, because they weren’t allowed in the part of town Jillie’s parents lived. In fact, there hadn’t been any of them anywhere at all until the last two years when the war over the horizon had sent them streaming over the border, looking for refuge.
The orc boy was only a little taller than Jillie, but was at least twice as broad already, and his arms hung almost all the way down to his knees. He saw Jillie looking and tentatively raised a hand to wave. The hand looked like a block of greenish stone with fingers each as thick as one of Jillie’s wrists.
“Hi,” Jillie said, embarrassed at having been caught looking. Her cheeks and lips were so cold she could hardly feel them. “Aren’t you freezing?”
The orc boy didn’t seem to register the question. “Miss Goblin,” he rumbled, his voice like thunder on the horizon. “Will you buy?”
“Buy?” Then Jillie noticed that there was a little black sack at the orc boy’s feet, its mouth tied with leather strings. “Are you selling something?”
“Yes, buy?” The orc boy crouched down and turned his back to the rain to protect his sack as he untied the leather thongs. As Jillie watched, he brought out something green and black and held it out to her. “Look, Miss Goblin. You buy?”
Jillie took the object from him. It was a doll, exquisitely well-made, carved out of some hard wood and painted; an orc-girl doll with her hair hanging loose around her shoulders and her arms crossed over her chest. Even the expression on her face, the truculent defiance, was perfectly reproduced. “That’s beautiful,” she said. “Where did you get it?”
“I make,” the orc boy said. “You like, Miss Goblin? Want to see others? Maybe you buy?”
“I...” Before Jillie could tell the orc boy she didn’t have any money, he’d already turned back to his sack and was rooting through it. “It’s very nice,” she said, “but...”
“Get out of here, scum,” someone barked, “before I call the police.”
Jillie turned quickly. It was a tall elf in a khaki raincoat. He stalked past her towards the bus stop shelter and stood over the orc boy. “You filth aren’t supposed to be here outside the camp.”
The orc boy had already tied his sack at the first words, and, without looking back, he slipped off into the rain with such speed that he seemed to disappear in the blink of an eye. The elf turned to glare at Jillie.
“If I were you, I wouldn’t be seen anywhere close to these vermin,” he snapped. “Your parents should know better than to let you talk to them.”
“He wasn’t doing anything,” Jillie protested.
“Don’t you talk back to me,” the elf snarled. He took a step towards Jillie. “You goblins think you’re our equals, though you’re just one step above filth like that.”
He looked like he’d say more, but Jillie didn’t wait to find out. Her cheeks, which had only just been freezing, were burning hot with shame and anger. Turning, she ran through the rain towards home, slipping on the wet pavement, hardly aware that she had dropped the umbrella and was even more thoroughly soaked than before.
“Jillie,” her mother said, “where did you get that?”
Jillie looked up from her homework. “What?” she began, and then she noticed where her mother was pointing.
“An orc was selling them on the street,” she said. There was no point telling her mother that she’d not paid for the thing.
“An orc?” Jillie’s mum frowned. “I told you before not to talk to them.”
“He was only a boy,” Jillie said defensively. “He was soaking wet in the rain and selling them.”
“That makes no difference.” Jillie’s mum picked up the doll and put it back again. “It’s well made,” she admitted grudgingly. “They’re good with their hands, I’ll give them that.”
“Why doesn’t it make a difference?” Jillie asked.
“You know very well the orcs aren’t allowed to do any business or anything. They’re refugees.” Jillie’s mum glanced over her shoulder quickly, instinctively, as though there might be some eavesdropper right there in Jillie’s room. “Besides, I’ve told you many times that we goblins have to be careful.”
“Why?” Jillie repeated mutinously. “This is our city as much as it’s anyone else’s.”
“Tell that to the elves,” Jillie’s mum said. “We’re only barely tolerated, and the last thing we need to do is draw attention to ourselves.” She ran her hand quickly through Jillie’s hair, something the younger goblin had once loved but now disliked intensely. “Look, I know you don’t like it, but we do have to live in the real world, don’t we?”
Jillie made a noise which could mean either yes or no. Her mother, of course, took it to mean yes.
“There you are,” she said with a broad smile. “So just stay away from them from now on, all right? Would you like some hot chocolate?”
“Yes,” Jillie said, and her mother went off to the kitchen imagining that she’d agreed to both questions.
If she’d known her daughter even a little better, she’d have known that she was wrong.
The next day, straight from school, Jillie went looking for the orc boy. She had his doll wrapped in a clean handkerchief, and squeezed into her bag, and intended to return it if she could find him.
Yesterday’s clouds had rained themselves out, and the city was a fresh-rinsed spread of grey under the washed-out, watery blue of the sky. Normally, Jillie would have spent a little while hanging around with her friend Kulla, but today she began hurrying away as soon as class was over.
“Jille!” Kulla called. “Wait, I want to talk to you about...”
“Can’t today, Kull,” Jillie said. “I’ve got things to do.”
“Well, if your things are more important than me,” Kulla began, “I’m sure there are others who’d like to listen. I mean, what do I want with you, anyway?” Kulla was an elf, and very smart and beautiful, and Jillie had had quite a crush on her once. “Don’t you think you can come crawling back after you’ve finished with your things and I’ll be waiting, you get me?” But Jillie was already halfway out of earshot.
Jillie didn’t think she’d find the orc boy outside the bus stop, not after the elf yesterday, and he wasn’t. But she’d seen the way he’d gone, and she knew that the camp was somewhere along that direction, though she wasn’t quite sure where. She also knew enough not to ask anyone the way to the camp, or even whether they’d seen an orc boy, so she had no real choice but to keep wandering the streets with her eyes open. After some time her feet began to hurt, and she became aware that she was very tired. Then she saw a small park not far away, with trees and grass and a little rock-lined pond with flowers growing around it.
Gratefully, she sank down on to one of the benches, putting the bag down beside her. Something – probably a fish, possibly a water pixie – stuck its head out of the surface of the pond for a moment before sinking back under again. She got up and walked to the water’s edge to see if it came up again. There was a dark shadow, wriggling past under the surface. She leaned over to take a closer look, her foot turned on a stone, and with a gasp she began falling forward –
A huge hand grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her back to safety. “Careful, Miss Goblin,” a half-familiar voice rumbled. “You almost fall in.”
For a moment she couldn’t speak, just stand there looking at the orc boy. He was dressed exactly like the previous afternoon, though there was mud smeared on his shirt and a rip across one knee of his dark brown trousers. He let go of her shoulder and stepped back, suddenly looking – as far as she could make out – confused and uncertain.
“I sorry,” he said. “Maybe I should not touch.”
“No, no,” she managed. “Thanks. Really, thank you very much. I wouldn’t have wanted to fall in.” Then she realised that he must have been in the park, probably back among the trees. “What were you doing here?”
“People chase me,” he said simply. “I sell dolls, but they angry because I sell dolls. So I come here hide. When they go, I think, I try to sell dolls again. Then I see you come, stand next to pond. I think maybe you not too scared if I say hello.” He shrugged his huge shoulders. “You talk to me yesterday.”
Jillie walked slowly back to the bench. “They...chased you?”
“Not first time,” the orc boy said. “We grow used to being chased.” He gestured with one of his gigantic hands. “Chased from our country to here, chased here. Maybe chased somewhere else.”
Jillie opened her bag and took out the doll. “I’m really sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have taken it back with me. But you went away so quickly yesterday that I couldn’t give it back to you.”
“You like it?” the orc boy said, looking at the doll. “You keep her well, she looking good.”
“Yes, I like the doll very much. But, really,” Jillie admitted, “I can’t buy it. I don’t have any money.”
“You keep,” the orc boy said unexpectedly. “Gift for you, Miss Goblin.”
“But I can’t just take it,” Jillie protested, but the orc boy had already pushed the doll back into her bag. “Well, thank you again. Thank you very much.” She sat down and put the bag on the ground to make space on the bench. “Won’t you sit?”
Awkwardly, looking quickly left and right to check if anyone was watching, as though he was about to commit a crime, the orc boy sat down. He hunched forwards to fit, and his hands dangled almost to the ground.
“You very kind, Miss Goblin,” he rumbled. “Nobody want to talk to an orc.”
“Kind? Rubbish,” Jillie said robustly. “It’s the least I could do, after all you’ve done for me.” She glanced at the orc boy. “What’s your name, by the way?”
“Baldar,” the orc boy said. “I Baldar gro Yagak, Miss Goblin.”
“Don’t call me Miss Goblin, Baldar. It sounds ridiculous. My name is Jillie.”
The orc boy’s mouth moved, trying out the sounds of the name. He wasn’t yet old enough for his lower jaw to begin jutting forward, and his tusks were still small enough to only show when he talked. His neck and shoulders, though, were already thick with muscle. “Baldar,” she said.
“Yes, Miss Gob...Jillie?”
“You’re strong enough to fight back if you wanted. Why did you run from the people chasing you?”
Baldar glanced at her quickly from the corner of one eye and away again. “We only just allowed here, Jillie,” he said. “If fight, how long you think till we forced to run again?”
“But you’re...” Jillie tried to organise her thoughts. “Is it very bad in the camp?” she asked at last.
Baldar’s almost lipless mouth twitched in a smile that would have been terrifying under other circumstances. “Why you think I risk coming to sell dolls?” he asked. “If things good in camp, why I come out at all?”
“You know what they say in the papers, I suppose,” Jillie replied. “You orcs are a cancer on society, that’s what my father’s paper said. You should be sent away back where you came from.”
The orc boy’s huge head nodded slowly. “I know what you talk about – they say war nothing to do with why we come. Am right?”
“Yes. Of course I don’t believe that but...”
“You wait one little time, Jillie.” Baldar got off the bench and shuffled away towards the trees. In a few moments he returned, carrying his sack. It, too, was mud smeared. “I show you something.”
Jillie wasn’t sure what to expect when he opened the sack, but what he took out made her take a shuddering breath in wonder. It was a large carving, big enough to cover both of the orc boy’s enormous palms. It showed a green valley, through which a ribbon of crystal-blue water ran, with lush meadows on both sides. A cottage, half-merged into the slope of the hill on one side, seemed so much part of the landscape that it seemed to have grown out of the earth. Beside it, a family of orcs sat, looking across to the other side. There were four of them, mother, father, and a boy and girl orc.
It was wonderfully made, peaceful and so beautiful that Jillie’s throat ached to be there.
“This what home was,” Baldar said. “You think we want to leave this?”
Jillie’s eyes burned suddenly with tears. “I’m so sorry,” she said, appalled at the thought that she might start bawling. “Whatever you went through, I’m so sorry.”
“No need be sorry, not your fault.” Baldar peered down at her. “You good goblin, Jillie. Who else spend time with me?”
“Look, I’ve got to go,” Jillie said. “My mum’s probably already throwing a fit because I’m not back yet.” She hesitated. “Can we meet here sometime again?”
“You want meet again?” Baldar sounded surprised, and then smiled again, a smile much broader than the one that had gone before. “When, you say, and I be here.”
“Tomorrow? After school I’ll come here.”
The orc boy nodded. “Tomorrow, I wait, then.”
The next day went badly in school. Kulla didn’t want to talk to Jillie, the maths class went all to hell, and by the time she reached the park she was hardly surprised to see the orc boy wasn’t there. After all, if he had been present, something would have gone right, and that wasn’t in the cards for today.
Still, she was here, and it was a sunny afternoon, and she might as well try and do some of the homework she’d been given, including all the maths problems she hadn’t been able to solve in class and had no idea how to begin.
She was still agonising over the first one when a shadow fell over the paper.
“You busy, Jillie?” Baldar asked.
Jillie looked up, still frowning, her mind on the geometry problem. “I can’t figure out how to do this. School gets on my nerves sometimes.”
“I sorry late. Got some selling, people buy carvings today, so late.” The orc boy sat down beside her. “You mind I look?”
“Go ahead, but it’s a geometry problem. All lines and angles and I don’t even know where to begin or how to...”
“Is not hard, I show you.” The orc boy took Jillie’s pencil out of her hand, and it flew over the paper. “This isosceles triangle, so these two angles also be equal. So line bisecting this here...”
Jillie looked at him open-mouthed. “You understand this stuff?”
The orc boy glanced at her absently. “Of course. Geometry not hard, just...oh, you think we not go to school? Of course back home we have school. I loved school.”
Humming to himself, he bent over Jillie’s maths homework again.
“Not come tomorrow,” Baldar said the next day, after going through Jillie’s science homework and correcting a diagram about refraction, in which Jillie had mixed up the red and violet. “My father say, not safe to come out. Big demon...” he struggled with the word. “Demonstration. Big demonstration against us they say, outside camp. So not safe be out tomorrow.”
“I’ve seen some people with flags,” Jillie said. “You know...” she hesitated, and then said it anyway. “My mother said my father will be marching as well with them. Not because he hates you or wants you gone,” she added hastily. “She says he’s got to do it otherwise he’s going to be under suspicion of harbouring pro-orc sympathies, and he can’t afford that in his work. Of course,” she added unhappily, “my mother also gave me strict orders not to associate with you. She’d have a heart attack if she knew I come to see you every day.”
“Perhaps then,” Baldar rumbled, “better not come? Not want trouble for you with parents.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Jillie shrugged. “I’ll be getting into trouble over something or other anyway. I’m always in trouble. Besides, I like being with you.”
Baldar was silent a minute, as though thinking something over. “You come with? To camp?”
“You mean now?”
“Yes,” Baldar said, rising from the bench. “Maybe we not...able to see each other much longer, here. So you come, I show you camp.”
They walked up the street, keeping to the side, as unobtrusively as a big orc boy and a goblin girl could make themselves in a city filled with elves. “How do you get in and out?” Jillie asked. “Isn’t the camp guarded?”
“Yes, but there hidden entrances. Also, guards at gate bribed – sometimes they come for money to camp, say else they will stop going out.” He tapped his sack. “Twice, I pay all money from doll sales to allow to use entrance.”
“They know about your hidden entrances?”
“Of course they know.” Baldar pointed. “There be camp now.”
Startled, Jillie looked up through the branches of a tree. The high grey wall she saw was like a slice of sky; and on top, curling and twisting on metal supports, were rolls of spiky barbed wire. “It looks like a prison,” she said involuntarily.
Baldar grunted. “What else you think it is?”
They walked along the wall to a stretch of grassy land littered with sheets of iron and large pieces of drainpipe. “Main gate on other side,” Baldar said, heaving up a large sheet of iron with little effort. Underneath was an enormous drainpipe that was partly buried in the earth. “We go through there,” he said.
Jillie hesitated only a moment before getting on her hands and knees to crawl through the pipe. The bottom was clean and dry, and someone had put down sacks to make the going easier. The pipe bent in two places, and then ended in a circle of light.
“You go through,” Baldar said from behind her. “I close entrance and come.”
Wondering what she’d find, filled with mingled excitement and apprehension, Jillie crawled through into the camp.
“This my sister,” Baldar said. “She called Shelur gra Urzul.”
Jillie had already recognised the girl, though she’d never seen her before. It was the girl from the doll Baldar had gifted her, which was right now sitting safely on a shelf behind books back at home. The face, even the expression, had been reproduced perfectly.
“Who’s this?” she asked. She spoke the language much better than Baldar, with no accent. “Why have you brought her here?”
“She my friend,” Baldar said. He looked around the little room, which was hardly bigger than a large wooden box, with scraps of blankets nailed over the cracks. “Where is mother?”
“She’s gone out,” Shelur said, still eyeing Jillie with hostility. “She said if we’re going to be forced to hide in the camp tomorrow, we’d better get in all the food we can, just in case. Father went out too. They told me to wait here in case you came back early.”
“I carve out back,” Baldar said. “You want to see?”
“What does she care?” Shelur snapped. “To her we’re just like animals in the zoo. Worse. We’re like rats in the cellar.”
There was a bed on one side, little more than a large slab of wood resting on boxes. Baldar dropped the sack on it and sat down. He eyes Shelur unhappily. “Why you rude to my friend?” he asked.
“You call her your friend?” The orc girl glared at Jillie. “They treat us like criminals, they call us names, they threaten us when they see us outside, as though we want to be here. Just yesterday, some elves saw me and...” She broke off suddenly. “It doesn’t matter, you know it all anyway.”
Jillie felt intensely uncomfortable. “I’d better go,” she said.
“No.” Baldar shook his huge head. “You my friend, you my guest. You sit. I see if there something to eat.” He vanished through the narrow inside doorway.
“I really don’t want to harm any of you, you know,” Jillie said to the girl. “I wouldn’t have come here if I did.”
Shelur looked at her, and then down at the floor. “I’m sorry,” she said finally. “You can’t imagine what it’s like to be here.”
“I’ve...” Jillie began, and then nodded. “You’re right,” she said, remembering the carving of the cottage on the slope, and looking around her at the house made of boxes. “I’ve no idea at all.”
Baldar returned with steaming bowls on a tray. “Let’s eat.”
“They say we eat each other, right?” Shelur asked, waiting until Jillie had tasted the first spoonful. It was a thick, though rather bland, stew. “Isn’t that what they say in the town?”
“I haven’t heard that,” Jillie confessed.
“Depend on it,” Shelur said morosely. “If they haven’t said it yet, they will.”
“I heard you have an orc boyfriend,” Sharag said. “Is that so?”
“Orc boyfriend?” Jillie blinked up at the elf. It was lunch hour at school and she was sitting by the playground, having just finished eating. “What are you talking about?”
“Come on. Arraf saw you in the park with him herself. Sitting side by side with him on the bench, all romantic, she said.” She laughed, a short ugly bark. “Orcs appeal to you, do they? Too good for your own kind, are you?”
“Orcs and goblins, they’re cousins after all.” Arraf came up on Jillie’s other side. “What’s a little incest among them anyway?”
“Don’t you have anything better to do?” Jillie asked. Her mouth had gone dry. “I’m not harming you, so just leave me alone.”
“Not harming you,” Arraf repeated in an exaggerated accent. “Now you’re sitting in the park kissing and holding hands. And then you marry him so that he can stay back, and next thing you two’ll have a litter of orclets running around and taking our country over. Don’t imagine we don’t know your little game.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Jillie said. “And what I want or don’t want is none of your business in any case.”
“He’s not supposed to be outside the camp anyway, you know the rules.” Sharag pointed at Jillie’s face with a long, very white finger, the nail at the end of which looked as though it had been filed sharp. “So if you’re sitting around with him...doing whatever it is you’re doing...that’s a crime, isn’t it? Perhaps we should report it to the school authorities, let’s see what they say.”
“Shut up and leave her alone.” None of them had noticed Kulla come up behind them. “Don’t think I don’t know what you two get up to in your spare time. You’re in no position to talk or complain to anybody.” She waited until the two other elves, muttering angrily, had stalked away, and slid on to the seat next to Jillie. “Is that so? You’ve an orc friend?”
“Yes, but...” Jillie stole a glance at Kulla, but saw only interest. “He’s only a friend, not my boyfriend like they were saying.”
“Never mind what those two little snits were saying. Tell me about him.”
So Jillie did. Kulla, head tilted to one side, listened attentively until it was over. Then she whistled softly.
“Well,” she said, “you’ve gone and got into hot water this time, haven’t you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that, my little goblin, things are going to get very bad for the orcs now. You know my dad’s in the government?”
“Yes, and so?”
“He was talking to my mum this morning while we were having breakfast. He said that the government’s worried about all public, um, dis-en-chant-ment, and that they’re going to, he said, deflect it by taking action against the orcs.”
“What kind of action?” Jillie asked. “What did he mean?”
“Can’t say for myself, but you can guess, can’t you?” Kulla made a face. “You’ve seen the papers, you know there’s this demonstration today. Everyone wants the orcs out, and that’s what the government will do, I bet. Send them back where they came from.”
“But they’ve come here escaping the war, there, and the war’s still on!”
“My dad says that doesn’t matter. They want scapegoats.” She laughed without humour. “To them the orcs are just a pawn. So, you see, your friend and his sister are going to be sent back, whether they like it or not, and you’d better get used to the idea.”
Jillie felt a cold hand take hold of her heart, and squeeze. “They can’t do that, Kull. They just can’t.”
“Of course they can,” Kulla said. “Are you going to stop them?”
Jille stood up so suddenly she momentarily got dizzy. When her vision cleared she was standing with her fists clenched so tight that she felt her nails cut into her palms. “Why not?” she said. The idea that had exploded in her mind chased its own tail round in a whirl of sparkling light. “Why not?”
“Are you all right?” Kulla asked, her face full of concern. “Jillie?”
“I said, why not?” Jille repeated. “If it’s at all possible to stop them, why shouldn’t I try? And even if it isn’t, why shouldn’t I try anyway?”
“You’re only one little goblin girl,” Kulla said. “That’s why you shouldn’t. And that’s why,” she added, putting her hand on Jillie’s shoulder, “whatever you’re going to do, I’m going to help you.”
Jillie turned slowly. “Why? Why would you help?”
Kulla smiled and gestured with both hands. “As you just said, why not? What else is there?”
“Day after tomorrow,” Baldar said. “They start deportation then.”
“I heard.” Jillie swallowed. “Have you got it all done?”
“Yes. Shelur and her friends help. I don’t think will do good though.”
“We can only hope.” Jillie looked past the orc boy at the park. There were some elf children by the pond, so Baldar and she were sitting in the undergrowth beneath the trees, where they couldn’t be seen. “Kulla has been busy and so have I, arranging things. We’ll go out tonight and put up posters.”
“Your parents know?”
“Of course. I had to tell them.” Jillie shook her head. “I thought they would be furious, and I was ready to tell them I’d do it anyway. But they weren’t. Mum even had tears in her eyes. They even contributed money for the hall rental.”
“They not able to contribute all.”
“Of course not. But we scraped together enough. Kull’s quite a fundraiser when she puts her mind to it.” Jillie had spent all her money, too, all that she’d saved from the allowance she was occasionally given, but there was no point talking about it now. “The kids at school pitched in, too, when we got to work on them. You know what, even those two, Sharag and Arraf, helped. They weren’t very enthusiastic, but they helped.”
Baldar hesitated. “You say it important to change people minds about us,” he said. “Even if can change, then what? Deportation stopped?”
“Kulla’s dad said that the government just wants to throw you out to show the people that they’re doing something. If the people don’t hate the orcs anymore, the government must understand that throwing you out won’t help. Nobody will be fobbed off by it so they might as well not do it.” She sighed. “Well, we’ll see tomorrow.”
“Why your friend help? She elf.”
“It’s like a game to her, I suppose. It makes her feel good. Besides, it makes her special.” Jillie shook her head. “She’s not doing it for me, if that’s what you’re imagining. But when she does something, she does it whole-heartedly, always has. That’s why I accepted her help at all. That, and,” she added honestly, “the fact that I really couldn’t have done a damn thing without her.”
“We go back to camp now,” Baldar said, heaving himself to his feet.
“Yes,” Jillie said. “And if we can get this won, maybe we can try to make the camp better too.”
Balder laughed. “Oh, Miss Goblin, hope so much, why don’t hope for war over and we go home properly?”
Jillie opened her mouth, and then stopped, appalled at what she’d been about to say. “Because then I wouldn’t have you anymore.” The words had been trembling on her lips without her even thinking about them.
“Because I can’t do magic,” she said, blushing and hoping Baldar wouldn’t notice. “Let’s get to camp and have a look.”
“My name is Shelur, and I’m an orc.”
She stood on the row of boxes covered by a cloth which served as a stage, facing the audience. There were a lot of them, more than Jillie had expected. Most were elves, but there was a scattering of goblins, including her own parents, and even a couple of the shy pixies who almost never came out among crowds.
“We’re not vermin,” Shelur said clearly. She looked around the audience, looking each person in the face. “We’re people just like you. Another people, yes, but people all the same.”
Nobody said anything, but Jillie, watching from the side, was relieved that there was, so far at least, no heckling. And the audience at least seemed filled with normal people. She didn’t see any of the sort who’d filled the crowds of foot stamping flag-wavers, screaming for orc blood.
“I may be an orc,” Shelur said, “and, believe me, I’m in no way ashamed of being one – but I’m also not different in any way from your sisters and daughters. I’m a girl, too, and I read books and love listening to music and doing all the same things as them.” She paused and looked around the audience again. “Whatever I look like to your eyes, inside I’m just the same.”
“She’s good,” Kulla murmured into Jillie’s ear. “It was a bit of genius on your part to think of her giving a speech to start things off.”
Jillie ducked her head modestly. “They think orcs are dumb animals,” she whispered back. “Most of them have never even talked to one. Let them hear for themselves that they are not only not dumb, they can talk, and think, and feel, as well as anyone else.”
“Pretty good crowd, too.” Kulla looked around. “We should have charged admission.”
“And then not one person would have come,” Jillie told her. “We’ve talked about this before.”
“I’m just joking.” Kulla gestured with her fingers. “The display’s ready. Come and have a look.”
Jillie followed her behind the curtain that had been hung behind Shelur. Baldar and some of the other orcs had been busy all morning, with the less useful assistance of those of the elves and goblins whom Kulla had bullied into volunteering. The long room was lined with tables down both sides, and on the tables, arranged in carefully selected order, were the sculptures.
Although Jillie had seen them herself, yesterday at the camp, she couldn’t suppress a gasp of awe. The first carvings were of the sort she’d seen already; hills and valleys, and little orc cottages, a small town of high, intricately carved buildings with sloping roofs, and, among them, orcs, going about their daily business – orc farmers, ploughing and planting; orc pedestrians on the narrow, sloping streets, passing by shops; there was even a school with a playground on which orc boys and girls were running about playing.
Beyond them were the carved orcs themselves, of the sort Baldar had shown her at the beginning, like the Shelur-doll he’d given her. Orc boys and girls, fathers and mothers, orc teachers and priests of the High Religion, with greying skin and wispy, straggling beards. They sat and talked and laughed and ate together, and there was a peace about them it was impossible to miss, even though they were merely painted wood.
And then the carvings changed. The orcs were the same – in fact they were the same individual orcs, their faces and clothes clearly recognisable – but they were no longer going about their lives peacefully. Some of them were looking up at the sky, or off to one side, with terror in their faces. Others cowered, their arms held defensively over their heads, as though trying futilely to ward off a blow. And then, beyond them...
Even yesterday, at the camp, Jillie had had a hard time looking at the next set of carvings – the screaming mouths, the terror-wide eyes, the blood running from the mouths. And the others – the half-buried corpses of orc children, the orc mother with a baby still trying to suckle from a breast ripped half apart; what must Baldar and the others have seen, to have been able to carve something like this? What had they had to endure?
That question was answered by the last set of carvings, spread out on tables set against the far wall. They showed the same valleys as before, the same cottages and the same little town. But now the grass on the slopes was burnt to ash, and the trees glowing, leafless cinders, and the cottages were charred broken shells. The town was a sea of ruins, and the playground on which the children were running about just on the other side of the room was a sea of upturned earth and broken metal.
There were two orcs standing to one side, quietly talking. One of them was Baldar. Jillie had met the other one a few times over the last week, ever since they’d decided on what to do, but for the moment couldn’t remember his name. Baldar saw her and came over “How does it look?” he asked anxiously.
“It looks great,” she assured him. “You worked extremely hard, all of you.”
“When something as important as this...” His pointed ears twitched. “Shelur I think about to finish.”
“It’ll be all right,” Kulla reassured him. “They can’t possibly ignore this.”
But will it really? Jillie thought. She left Kulla talking to the orc boy and moved back towards the curtain. We can try our best, and plan, and hope, but how can we ever know? And even if they don’t ignore this, so what? Will the government listen? Will anyone really listen?
Standing near the curtain, she listened to Shelur.
“If I could,” she was saying, “I’d never have wanted to leave my home; none of us would. Our homeland is in our blood, and it sings to us with every beat of our hearts. But we can’t go home, because of the same reason as we left in the first place. And now, you’re going to see exactly what we’ve been through, what’s happened to those who were ours.
“Life in the camp isn’t easy. It is, in fact, terribly hard, and we have to scrounge and scrimp simply in order to stay alive. We wouldn’t want to remain in the camp a single moment if we could return to what we had before, and lost for no fault of our own. We aren’t any threat to you, we’re just people like you; and we’d like you to imagine, as you walk among what lies on the other side of that curtain, how you would have felt if it had been you in our place.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this exhibition is now open.”
Well, here goes, Jillie thought. Whatever’s going to happen, now we’ll know.
Trying to still the sudden trembling in her hands, she grasped the dangling cords and slowly began to draw the curtain open.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016