Sweat poured down Hivra’s back as she stomped up the dusty road. Two pure-bred humans scuttled past her, glancing at her from the corners of their tiny eyes before hurrying away, hoping she didn’t see them look. But, Hivra didn’t care how she looked right now. She knew she looked rough, she knew she smelt rough, and all she could think of was how much she wanted a bath. This last job she’d taken had meant going far into the wild—where no pure-human would go, she noted, so as if they could comment on her smell. The deep wild was dangerous. No baths out there. Hivra grunted, adjusted the heavy weight of her luggage on her shoulder, and fixed her mind on home. This time, she ignored their comments about how disgusting orcs mated with humans and how typical they smelt bad. Usually, she’d turn and face them—try to tell them orcs were a proud and clean race—but today, screw that. She was exhausted.
Hivra was a half-orc of the red-skinned clan. Her human mother must have had a secret affair with her orc father because it had been a shock for her grandparents when she was born. Her grandpa had refused to let his daughter raise a half-orc, so he left the newborn half-orc somewhere on a road.
Someone else’s problem.
Unfortunately, that was common with half-blood children. Over the years, Hivra had learned that humans felt disgusted by the orcs. Though orcs were an honourable and hard-working race, and very hygienic, there was something about them the humans didn’t like. Perhaps it was that they’d been at war so often hundreds of years ago, and some felt hard to get used to the hard-earned peace they lived with now. Hivra thought it was something else. Orcs could do things humans couldn’t. They were stronger, bigger, faster, and took better care of themselves. For one, humans seemed only to bathe once every few months. For orcs, it was a ritual to clean themselves well, or they got kicked out of the clan for dishonouring their strong bodies by making it susceptible to disease and ruin. It wasn’t much of a wonder her mystery mother had wanted to be with her mystery father.
Hivra ignored the pure humans’ dirty glances and snide comments as they sauntered past. It wasn’t worth getting involved. This road led to home—eventually. Home: the place her adopted parent was waiting for her. She’d been on the road for work for almost a month, so he’d be worrying out of his mind.
She smiled to herself. Somehow, as a baby, she’d been picked up by a hobbit.
Otto Wanderfoot was a tiny man with a mass of light curls on his head and on his feet. A peaceful and well-read man, he’d barely batted an eyelid at the mixed-race human that everyone else around him called clumpy and awkward and ugly. He’d carried her back to his little home in the side of a hill and raised her by himself. It hadn’t been easy for Otto. He’d researched how to care for her tusks and thick hair, and rushed off to meet orc women for advice on how to braid her hair to ensure it met traditional standards and didn’t shame her or their proud race. He’d even built a separate house for her to live in when she got too tall to fit in his hobbit hole.
Even more important, Otto had been the one to name her.
Neither one of them ever cared they weren’t related by blood. They were the best of family. And now, with Hivra being an adventurer for the kingdom and taking on jobs that were too hard for any pure-bred human to do, they often spent long periods apart. That’s why home was always the first place she went after finishing a job.
She could wait for the bath. Just long enough to reassure him she was safe.
Hivra pushed her dark braids out of her face and adjusted her luggage, grunting at the weight. She’d stashed her cloak and warmer layers in the pack and walked in her blouse and trousers alone, but it was still too hot, and it made the luggage heavier. She wondered how humans even managed to carry anything with their tiny bodies and weakness to the heat. It was in that moment, as she was trying to retie her braids together in a ponytail and out of her face, that she spotted something on the other side of the road—a wooden crate.
Ever nosy, she shuffled over to it.
It looked like a creature trade box. She’d seen them before in trader’s carts. But what was it doing here?
She sniffed, wondering whether something had died and they’d just abandoned it. No reek of death. So she shuffled closer. The box was lying on its side, the slatted hatch sideways. First dropping her luggage, Hivra dropped to her hands and knees and peered through the slats into the wooden box.
A long, lumpy, scaly face peered out at her. Then it squealed—loudly.
Hivra jumped and reflexively reached for her knife in her belt. Then she thought against it. This creature was alive and likely hurt. It had probably fallen off the cart. But, how had the trader not noticed? Wondering at the creature’s condition, she reached out to the box and tried to gently tilt it back the proper way, watching the beast the whole time to be sure she didn’t hurt it. It thudded about in the box and glared up at her, screeching and hissing.
‘Alright, alright. How can I help you if I can’t get the lid open?’ She tried to calm it, but she thought it just made it louder.
Hivra reached once more for her knife, this time intending to prise the lid open to run a check on the creature, figure out what it was and whether it was hurt. But, with it screeching like this, she wondered whether it would be safe to open. She didn’t know what kind of creature it was.
‘Well, there’s only one way to be sure, so just bear with me.’ Hivra did not doubt that it couldn’t understand a word she was saying.
She prised the box open with her knife, opting for pure strength over skill. Her long teeth bared as she grinned at it swinging open, and she crouched in a comfortable position and held the box up to her face to look inside.
An ugly tiny thing hid in the back corner, cowering. All Hivra could see was scaly skin hanging off a starved frame and eyes glinting at her with a glare.
Hivra sighed and put the box on the floor, getting back on the hands and knees as low as she could go, keeping her hands free to try to tempt the creature out of the box.
‘Come on,’ she tried to say softly so as not to scare it, knowing her appearance alone was probably enough to scare it. What young thing would like a large red-face half-orc peering in at it, tusks protruding from her mouth and horns poking through her dark hair.
It must have realised the hatch was open and it was on sturdy ground as the creature shuffled forward a little. Hivra egged it on in her mind, hoping it would move just enough the light would fall through the slats so she could see it more clearly. The creature shuffled forward again, and she heard a snuffling from within the box, and a small, black, leathery nose poked through the hatch. Then there was a soft thud and a weak scrambling.
Hivra waited, ignoring the cries of her aching body to have a bath and finally rest. She tried to kneel lower to look inside the box again. What she saw made her heart freeze over.
A hopeless hatchling of some lizard-like creature flumped without energy on the floor of the box, unable to drag itself further out of the box than just the tip of its nose. Hivra stared at the creature’s sagging leathery skin and knew it was, no matter how old it was, too small for its age. A weird lump protruded from one side of its head, and a scar cut down the side of its elongated jaw, looking dark pink and likely soon to become infected. Its eyes no longer glinted with a glare but looked up at her sadly, as if it had given up already.
Hivra swallowed, feeling a painful lump in her throat.
She knew that people looked at her with disgust when she walked through human-only streets. She knew that human clothes would never fit her larger size, yet the orc clothes were too small. She knew her brawn and natural icy glare sent even the hardiest pure human quaking. Hivra had lived her life poorly treated for how she looked. Yet, as Hivra bent low to look closer at the mangy, stranded creature, the poor, ugly thing looked back with no fear or hatred or malice in its eyes. Instead, Hivra swore she saw hope glinting somewhere in those shiny black eyes.
She sniffed and reached out for it with her giant hand, stopping slowly and just short of the creature to not cause alarm and so it could sniff her first. Animals always went by smell first. Not that a half-orc mercenary woman on her way back from a faraway mission smelled all that friendly. But the creature didn’t seem to mind, and it just managed enough energy to nudge its damp nose into her vast palm.
Hivra took a breath. And then, surprising even herself, she pulled her hand away, feeling the pain in the ugly creature’s eyes as it thought yet another would abandon it. But, Hivra reached out with both her arms and scooped it up, wooden crate and all, stood up, and carried it so gently in her arms for fear of jolting it.
She stared at her heavy luggage, wondering if she could navigate picking it up without dropping the precious box with the beast inside. Somehow, she did, and the weight of her luggage didn’t seem to bother her for the rest of the journey home. Now, Hivra’s attention fully focused on the half-dead creature in the box. She hoped it would survive the trip home. If anyone knew how to help her look after it, it was Otto.
He might even know what it is.