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January Story Time: Ascendance of the Chief

This one is a morose sort of story, but I missed Betty. If your new year hasn’t started well, then she’s here to commiserate. Content warning for discussions of death, grief, and reference to (and brief description of) corpses.
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A teenage Betty walks away from the last camp of her clan.

Orc clans are semi-nomadic. They might go to the same places year after year, but they never stay. Eventually the weather changes, the hunting and gathering conditions change, the trade changes, and they move on. Betty knows she must do the same. The wind direction could change any day now, leaving this spot, which currently huddles in the lee of a hill, exposed to precipitation.

Orcs do not bury their dead. Betty considered it even so; better not to see them anymore, better to honor her human mother by adopting her practice for honoring the dead, since apparently Betty is not orc enough to die.

She decided against it in the end, because she knows that the other clans will hear of this tragedy, will come to pay respects, will be puzzled and perhaps angered to find them stuck into the ground like potatoes. They will find out that she is chief—old Darguuz, the last elder left, handed her the necklace with her dying gasps—and they will cast judgment on her actions, because all orcs cast judgment on their chiefs as a matter of course, and an orc is not afraid of anything, much less critique. And furthermore, how is Betty to know if the poison of their illness will not seep into the ground and spread?

So Betty burns them, as is tradition. It takes a long time, and several fires. Betty keeps her mind carefully blank as she works, and after the task is done, she won’t remember anything of it except the end, watching the fires to be sure they don’t spread, fashioning herself a mask to keep out the smell.

The fires burn for days, and Betty watches them, only falling into fitful sleep when the last one is burned down to embers. She sleeps for nearly a day and a night.

She leaves behind her pits of blackened detritus, as well as the still-pitched tents of her people. She scratches a warning on an exposed rock face on the hill, so that other orcs will not be tempted to go into the tents and catch the same disease, just in case the smoking bones are not warning enough. So much lost. So much left to lose.

She camps, avoiding people, because the darkness of night and the sounds of its denizens are a comfort in her solitude, her grief, as she whispers the stories a chief is supposed to know over and over, wracking her brains for the bits she can’t recall until the wee hours of the morning and then sleeping into the day, only to keep walking, following the same roads as her people always have.

One road travels along a human trade route. Normally the clan reaches this place just in time for a slew of caravans to trade with, or fight with, but either way it’s welcome company. Betty doesn’t see them when she reaches the road; perhaps she’s traveled too fast, without the herd of her family to temper her speed. She meets only one person, a human, with a donkey-drawn vegetable cart.

“Hey! You!” the human calls. A man, she thinks, a human man, who looks at her without the tenor of fear that her people usually get. He recognizes her as merely half-orc, Betty is sure of that.

He speaks Common, and Betty responds in kind. It’s not her first language—it’s nobody’s, not even the humans—and the words are thick on her tongue. “What do you want?”

“You look like a strong girl,” he says, and waves a hand at his cart, which has a wheel stuck in a rut. “Can you help me lift this out?”

A chief cares for her own people, but a chief also parlays with outsiders, and one good turn deserves another. Betty shrugs and lifts, digging in her heels and finding it hardly a trial with the man’s help. She sets it on solid ground, where it will not be stuck again.

“Thank you kindly!” he says, wiping his brow. “I thought I was going to be in trouble there. Say, can I offer you a silver piece for your trouble? Or perhaps a ride to the city?” He throws a thumb over his shoulder, the wrong way.

Betty considers, and then looks back over her shoulder. The smoke has long faded, but she remembers where her people lay.

She didn’t have a plan. She followed the paths of her forefathers blindly, grief-stricken, with no motivation or need to do anything different. But she is chief, and no chief would let a single emotion rule them, not without considering all angles. A chief has a plan. A chief is not moved by whims, but does what’s best for the clan. Even if the clan is only one person.

“Both?” Betty suggests, looking back to the man.

The man smiles and digs a coin out of his pocket. “It’s a deal. Hop on!”

This is the first coin Betty makes as chief. It will not be the last.

Published inBonus ContentStory Time