Fate's Games

(A/N: Another particularly long one; and one I quite liked working on. Sorry about the delay. I've been so horrible at posting across the board recently. Hopefully I can get this one up today. Maybe another, but that depends. I may start posting for other stories I've been neglecting.)

The Smelter

Hroki had never thought much on any of the Laborers who came into the inn to eat or drink. If they paid they were fine. She was on good terms with each of them. She knew them all on a first-name basis, but beyond that little else could be said as to her relationship with them. Her brother pitied the laborers but beyond that wanted nothing to do with them. She tried not to think about it. Her parents didn't trust them and in fact thought little of them. She knew most of them were honest good folk, though. Let's see, there was Cosnach, the town drunk and a regular here who was close friends with the beggar Degaine. Then there was Garvey, the defacto leader of the laborers. He was rarely ever here. She believed she'd only seen him twice in the last few months. Before the incident in the marketplace, Weylin had been quite regular. A sad frown pulled at her lips. It was hard when someone you knew died, no matter their choices. She'd taken no delight in learning of his death.

Then there was Hathrasil, the quiet one. He didn't talk much; was a little mysterious in fact. She wasn't sure what to make of him. Finally there was Omluag, Hathrasil's constant companion. The two were friends, she believed. She wanted to say close friends but the truth was she didn't know that for certain, but she was pretty sure. It was just a feeling she got, and her gut feelings usually weren't wrong. Hathrasil said little to Omluag. Omluag was the talkative one of the two—though still relatively quiet—and the younger. She didn't know why she got the impression she got, but she believed that Hathrasil had a bit of a big-brother complex going on regarding Omluag. He was defensive of him and protective. Omluag seemed naïve and oblivious to it, yet at the same time she would bet her every septum that he knew. Again, though, she wasn't certain. This was mostly from observation and every so often casual chatter with them.

Omluag was one she couldn't pin down. Every time she saw him she had a different impression of him. One day he was naïve, the next he was jaded; then he was unpredictable and mysterious, then he was open and at ease. Another time he was angry or frightened, and afterwards he was polite and carefree, not snappy at all. He was a man who put on a front, she decided. It was being able to tell which personality was the front. Was it the innocent and optimistic young man that was the lie, or was it the jaded and pessimistic pauper?

ES

"Here you are, men, the usual," she said, placing the mugs down in front of the duo and leaning on the counter.

Hathrasil grunted, nodding a thank you. Omluag smiled cordially at her, but his smile didn't quite touch his eyes. "Thank you, milady Hroki," he answered.

"She makes it the best, or maybe it's because she's so lovely it makes everything taste better," Cosnach flirted, winking at her.

"Down boy," she warned, smiling affectionately at Cosnach. Cosnach chuckled and went back to talking with Degaine. He'd been in the mood to buy the man a drink and a meal. Why not? They were friends, after all.

Omluag chuckled softly. He was very soft spoken, she knew, and his laughter matched the gentleness of his tone. She liked his voice. She wished her parents were so quiet. As it was, they were currently having a screaming match in the back. Omluag turned to Hathrasil. She turned her attention to them, wanting to listen to his and Hathrasil's conversation. They didn't mind. Degaine had once joked she was slowly becoming one of the gang down in the Warrens. They were accepting her into their folds and hardly cared, anymore, if she poked in on their conversations from time to time. Her father and mother disapproved, the one thing they seemed able to agree on anymore, but she hardly let that deter her.

"Another foul day at the smelter," Omluag remarked.

"Mmmhmm," Hathrasil replied.

"'Mmmhmm'? I've been working with you for over 10 years, and all you have to say is 'mmm hmm'?" Omluag incredulously asked, raising an eyebrow at his friend.

"Mmmhmm," Hathrasil replied.

Omluag looked dubiously at him, unimpressed. "Sometimes I think we deserve these miserable lives of ours," he deadpanned, looking hopelessly at Hroki. She smirked, giggling. He had a very deadpan sense of humor, she knew, dry and grim more often than not.

"Mmmh… wait, what?" Hathrasil asked, starting. Had he just been insulted? He believed he had. "Aren't you a ray of light?" he bit bitterly, frowning at Omluag.

"It got you speaking, at least," Omluag replied with a shrug as he took a sip of the mead he'd ordered.

"Is it really so bad down at the Smelters?" Hroki questioned.

ES

She was vaguely surprised to see a muscle in Omluag's arm tighten tensely. Hathrasil's mouth twitched. "They don't like us talking to people when we work," Hathrasil finally and vaguely replied for Omluag, shrugging.

"Surely you…" Hroki began.

"Just here to drink," Hathrasil cut off, subtly warning her not to pursue any further questioning in this regard. She relented, albeit reluctantly.

Omluag was the one to break the awkward silence. Clearing his throat, he said, "First war, and now dragons. Everywhere they go the Nords bring nothing but ruin."

"Ain't nothing for it. They're still in charge," Hathrasil replied.

"Nord right here, Omluag," Hroki said, frowning coldly at him.

He blushed deeply, eyes widening as if he were a child whose hand had just been caught in the cookie jar. He cringed, glancing awkwardly away. "I mean no offense to you of course, Lady Hroki. It's just that the politics and rulers of this land leave something to be greatly desired. The Imperials and Redguards aren't much better."

"Typical Breton. Just a step down from the arrogance of the elves," Hathrasil said. Hroki couldn't tell if he was teasing Omluag or insulting him. Apparently Omluag knew, and seeing as the blond worker smirked good-naturedly, Hathrasil was simply teasing him.

"It's safe to say you take no side in this war?" Hroki asked Omluag curiously.

"Whether Ulfric or Tullius is victorious hardly matters to my situation. Nothing will change," Omluag replied.

"I suppose you would run off and join the Forsworn," Hroki's father said, suddenly right there having heard his daughter speaking to the laborers.

"I would," Omluag replied without fear or hesitation, shrugging. "At least I would if they ever learned to handle things without bloodshed, violence, kidnappings, or pacts with Hagravens."

Hroki was impressed, she had to admit, that he had had the boldness to say such a thing in the presence of so many who were so fearful of the so-called 'Madmen of the Reach'. "Then you are a traitor who should be hung from the gallows," Hroki's father bit.

"Papa, please," Hroki pled, begging her father in an undertone not to make a scene.

"Perhaps it would be an improvement on my current living conditions," Omluag mused in his deadpan and dark humor. Hroki cringed. The more she spoke with him, the more certain she became that the optimistic and innocent persona he put on every so often was the lie he used to cover up whatever darkness it was that lingered just below the surface.

"Get out of my inn, boy. Forsworn Sympathizers are a plague we don't need now," Hroki's father stated.

"As you wish, sir," Omluag replied, putting down his half-finished drink—he never drank much and rarely finished what he ordered, Hroki knew—then rising. Placing a hand on a nonchalant Hathrasil's shoulder, he said with a smile, "I smelted more ore than you today, my friend. The tab is yours to pick up this time."

"Bully for you," Hathrasil bit, eyes narrowing obviously unimpressed. Omluag chuckled and left.

ES

"You gonna finish that?" Cosnach asked, eyeing Omluag's half-finished mug.

Hathrasil grunted and slid it over to him. Hmm, did this mean he was paying for three people's drinks? Of course the price remained the same as if he were paying for two people, but, oh never mind. It wasn't like he cared either way. He was the senior smelter there; made more than Omluag did though it was still only a couple shillings above nothing, so it really wasn't any skin off his back. Rather, it was less skin off his back than off Omluag's. Unlike his friend, who had wanted nothing more than to get out of the Warrens and saved every septum he made in the process—or rather had before, well, never mind—Hathrasil was perfectly content there. There was nothing the world could offer him anymore. He'd lost his future a long time ago. Well, maybe that wasn't entirely true. The more proper thing to say was that he wasn't looking for one. Omluag was… Or rather he had been. It was no wonder. "Poor kid's the favorite whipping boy," Hathrasil grumbled out loud.

"Who is?" Hroki asked, having heard him.

"No one," Hathrasil replied. Hroki raised a curious eyebrow but didn't pursue the matter.

"So, who runs the smelter?" she asked. She'd lost track by now, honestly. She'd never really cared much.

"Mulush. Big Orc fella. Can't miss him," Hathrasil replied, and his eyes became ever so slightly hard and cold, perhaps even protective. It didn't sit well with Hroki. Why did she feel in her every bone that Hathrasil's reaction had to do with Omluag?

ES

Hroki approached her brother, Hreinn, as they were closing up the inn. "Hey Hreinn, what are the conditions like for the workers down by the smelters?" she wondered. He paid more attention to such things as that than she did. She found herself suddenly very curious, though she didn't know why.

"They're awful," Hreinn readily answered, frowning concernedly. "It's a miracle there haven't been more work-related deaths or injuries than there are."

"What's awful about it?" she wondered.

"The pay, their boss, the Silver-Bloods, the lack of safety measures, the punishments…" Hreinn began.

"Punishments?" she asked curiously.

Hreinn paused a long moment and was silent. Finally he sighed, closing his eyes and looking down. "The orcs can be a brutal race, you know that, Hroki. They don't quite understand the harm they can do. Orcs can take far more damage to the body than humans, most beast races, or their other elven cousins can. As a result they're quite desensitized," he finally answered. She started, eyes becoming concerned and dismayed. Perhaps she would take a trip down to the Smelters when she found the time and see what was going on down there.

The Next Day

Omluag shoveled the silver ore into the smelter and winced painfully, whimpering and clutching his arm. Gods it hurt. Only yesterday he had made an error that had greatly angered Mulush. Needless to say he'd paid the price for his foolishness. "Slow and steady," Hathrasil said.

"Divines, I'm tired. This is too much work," Omluag replied. His arm was throbbing and they were expected, today, to do three times what they had yesterday as punishment for his mistake. As if breaking his arm wasn't enough, his boss had had to hurt the others for the error.

"Just keep at it or Mulush will beat you. Careful of the molten metal. That gets on you, kiss your fingers goodbye," Hathrasil warned, noticing Omluag's hands getting dangerously close to said molten metal inside of the Smelter as the younger man drifted off into his thoughts. More than once he had caught Omluag nearly burning his hand or clothes. He was beginning to think it wasn't as accidental as Omluag made it seem.

"I know what I'm doing. Stop telling me," Omluag testily replied. Hathrasil always looked out for him, and more often than not he was grateful; but there were times he didn't want it. There were times he wished he could just disappear because it would make everything so much better for everyone else. It seemed every bad thing that happened around here was because of him. At least that was what the others thought, Garvey in particular. Omluag knew, though, that that wasn't so. You see, the reason they blamed so much on him was because often he would take the fall for fellow workers when some blunder was made. It wasn't that they made him do so, it was that he willingly offered to, understanding full well what would befall him. There was a time he wouldn't have done any such thing, would have stayed silent only pitying the victim, just like any other of the workers down here or intervened when opportunity presented itself… and then he'd found out he was d… well, enough said. Suffice it to say he had nothing to lose… Not anymore.

ES

"Surprised to see you working. Mulush almost broke your arm yesterday," Hathrasil remarked, glancing over at Omluag. The younger man was in one of those moods again. Not a mood of independence like one would assume from Omluag's words. This was a mood in which he believed the world would be better off without him, believed he was more a burden than a man; a mood where he saw himself as a plague and believed it would be better if he just disappeared into Oblivion and other such nonsense as that. Then again the kid hadn't lived an easy life, he never had. Besides, since he had discovered that Omluag was s… Hathrasil closed his eyes tightly. Never mind all that. It wasn't important… But it was

Needless to say, Hathrasil understood, now, where he hadn't before, why the young man would act at certain times as if he'd given up on life, why he'd long ago stopped saving every septum he earned, instead giving it to the others in the warrens and the poor; namely Cairine or Garvey, the latter of whom resented him more and more each time he did so for a reason beyond Hathrasil's understanding. The man understood, now, why Omluag was displaying such fool-hardy—at least in his opinion—acts of self-sacrifice when costly mistakes were made by others and he took all that would have befallen them. After the second time Omluag had done such a thing as that for him, he'd put his foot down. Gods damn him to Oblivion if the younger man, heck the kid, suffered one more injustice for his sake. Omluag had caught on, by now, and had pretty much given up on trying to take responsibility for the senior worker's mistakes.

"Does it look like I can afford losing a day's wage? That damn Orc isn't getting the best of me," Omluag boldly and defiantly replied.

"He won't be getting the best of you if you try and keep up the pace you've been working. What are you thinking, pulling double and triple shifts? Omluag, some nights you don't sleep at all," Hathrasil sharply chastised.

"It's not like I can get any worse off," Omluag answered.

"Why won't you fight this?" Hathrasil questioned. It was a question he'd asked so often before… Why did he bother? The answer was always the same.

Omluag stiffened. After a long moment he replied, bowing his head, "I have nothing to fight for." Hathrasil inwardly scoffed. Just like he said, the answer was always the same. He prayed every day and night that the next time he asked it would change, and Omluag would tell him he was fighting…

One Week Later

A week had gone by, now, and Hroki decided she'd put off going down to the Smelter for long enough. It was around lunchtime. Now was as good a time as ever. She walked down the path towards the Smelter, a cloak fastened around her neck. It would be a cold day today. She checked her basket filled with food. She'd decided to bring lunches for the workers there. They were always decent with her, so she wanted to show them a gesture of appreciation. She stood at the top of a wooden walkway, near the top of the last waterfall, and looked down.

She frowned ponderously. Something seemed to be happening there. It didn't look good either. Omluag, Hathrasil, Garvey, and Mulush the orc were there. Mulush looked furious. Omluag looked uncertain, flustered, and afraid. Hathrasil stood firmly, eyes wide in terror though he didn't move from his place, and a furious protectiveness was hidden behind the fear. Garvey's eyes were narrowed challengingly. He looked almost ready to pick a fight with the orc. Not that he would. Garvey was no fool. Far from it.

"I'll ask you once more; who has been stealing silver?!" Mulush roared at Garvey.

"No one," Garvey shot back.

"One of you is lying," Mulush growled.

"I've checked the rooms over and over. No one is taking your silver!" Garvey yelled. He yelped as he was struck violently and sent to the ground.

Quickly Hathrasil stepped forward, defensively standing between an angry Mulush and the dazed guardian of the Warrens. "Mulush, I promise that if anyone's taking anything from you, you'll be the first to know," he stated calmly.

"I don't want any of you thieving workers even thinking about stealing any silver. If I see you sneaking off with even one speck of silver, I'll break your leg and throw you into the river," Mulush threatened, letting it go for now.

"Yes, Mulush," Hathrasil replied.

"And what's taking so long? I could smelt metal in half the time as you weak-willed pink-skins. Do I have to do everything?" Mulush demanded.

"No Mulush. I'll work harder," Hathrasil answered.

"You? Hah! It's Omluag who isn't pulling his weight," Garvey bit, glaring at the very one who was helping him up. Omluag started. Not that the young man was surprised, but still.

"Oh really?" Mulush lowly growled. Omluag stepped uncertainly back.

"He's doing the best he can! It's a wonder he's been able to do as much as he has after the last beating Mulush gave him!" Hathrasil instantly defended, speaking more than Hroki believed she'd ever heard him speak before.

"You call that a beating? He hasn't seen nothing yet, and if he doesn't start to pick up the pace he'll learn quickly what a true pounding is. Careful your words don't warrant you being treated in the same manner," Mulush warned. With that the orc stormed off. Garvey harrumphed and marched swiftly back towards the Warrens, casting a last reproachful look at Omluag.

Omluag bowed his head low, shame and guilt written on his face. Hathrasil put a hand on his shoulder, saying, "Let's get back to work."

"You didn't have to do that for me," Omluag remarked.

"Mmmhmm," Hathrasil replied, starting to smelt again. Omluag looked away, hurt and pain in his eyes.

ES

Hroki, meanwhile, could only gape in shock. Had she really just seen and heard all of that? She started her descent, thoughts spinning with what had just happened. Nonetheless she pushed it to the side for now. She was here on a mission, after all. "Omluag, Hathrasil!" she called out, approaching.

They glanced up curiously while still working away at the smelter. Omluag offered a weak smile. He was fond of Hroki. She treated him and the other workers with respect and admiration; a respect and admiration they never received from anyone else. "Busy with the smelter. Got metal to shape," Hathrasil simply replied to her, turning back to his duties. Omluag reluctantly did so as well.

"Do you at least stop for lunch?" she questioned, holding out the basket. Again the two glanced up, and this time they paused. She heard their stomachs grumbling in hunger.

Finally Hathrasil harrumphed and furiously began working at the smelter even quicker. "Mulush don't give us a break. If we can get away with it we will. As it is today, we can't."

Hroki started. "He won't let you eat?" she asked.

"Bring the food to Garvey in the Warrens. He'll distribute it," Omluag said.

"To everyone but Omluag. Make sure you keep his portion to yourself," Hathrasil said.

"What does he have against Omluag?" Hroki asked.

"Don't know," Hathrasil replied, but there was a pause in his movements and she knew he was hiding something.

Omluag, for his part, froze completely, slowly looking up. "It's not important," he finally said; but it was important and she sensed as much.

"What do you…" she began.

"Milady, please don't," Omluag pled, cutting her off. She frustratedly set her jaw. It seemed she was being cut off a lot recently, since she'd started taking an interest in their jobs.

"Are you two the only ones who work here?" she questioned.

"There are more. Cairine's ill, though, and has been for some time. Weylin used to before… before he was killed. Eltrys is… was… too busy with his pregnant wife and trying to make the City Beyond Salvation salvable. The last few weeks prior to his murder, he hadn't shown up at all. Garvey is too busy looking after the Warrens. He's the de-facto leader and as such takes responsibility for everyone there. Long story short, the only ones capable of working at the moment are us," Omluag replied.

"I'm the only one capable," Hathrasil bit.

"Enough from you!" Omluag sharply snapped. Hathrasil, hardly fazed, simply harrumphed.

"What does he mean?" Hroki asked.

"Never mind, it's nothing to concern yourself with, lady," Omluag answered. She was concerned, though; very much so.

ES

She entered the Warrens and looked around until she spotted the one called Garvey. "Excuse me," she said.

He glanced over at her. "The Warrens isn't a place for your type. What do you want?" he questioned.

"My type?" she asked, raising an offended eyebrow.

"Middle Class, Upper Class, basically rich enough to afford a nice place to live and a good meal in your stomach," Garvey responded, not backing down at all despite her offense.

"What is this place, then?" she challenged. "It's a home, isn't it?"

He snorted in derision. "It's where you go if you can't afford a room anywhere else. About the time they opened the mines, someone got the idea to throw beds in here," Garvey answered. "Welcome to Markarth. Thank the Divines you can choose to live somewhere else. Laborers, the sick, the lame; we're all here," he answered, watching a young woman who was weakly sitting against the wall. Cairine, Hroki believed her name was. She wondered what she was to Garvey? You see, his eyes had softened as he gazed at her, though his tone had become bitterer as he'd described the injustices.

"I've brought something for you to distribute to the Laborers and the others who live here," she remarked, offering him the basket.

"We don't want your charity," he answered, eyes narrowing.

"It's not charity! I just thought I'd do something nice," she answered. "Half of you are regulars at my family's inn. It's just a friendly gesture."

He was silent a long moment, summing her up. Finally he took the basket, saying, "Thank you, Hroki. I'm sorry, it's just been… rough lately… Let me guess, Hathrasil told you to keep Omluag's portion hidden."

She blushed deeply and looked ashamedly down. "I don't know why," she admitted.

"Give it here; I'll see that he gets it. Contrary to popular belief, I'm not completely malevolent when it comes to that worthless… Never mind," Garvey said.

"What has he done to offend you?" Hroki asked, cautiously handing it over.

"That's none of your business," Garvey answered. "Scat, before you get hurt." She started, trying to determine if he was threatening her or not. It was more a warning than a threat, she deduced. He wasn't looking to harm or scare her, but that wasn't to say others wouldn't. Garvey was trying to protect her… Quickly she left.

ES

Every day she walked down to the Smelters, bringing them lunches and goodies of various sorts. Garvey was lost as to this behavior, but thankful nonetheless. Hathrasil hardly bothered to give a reaction beyond a grunt or the occasional murmur of gratitude. Omluag rewarded her with a soft smile each time, and a thank you uttered in that quiet and lulling voice of his. She loved his voice, she admitted again. It was pleasant to hear and to listen to.

She watched the two men work quietly, smiling at their turned backs. She'd become a regular presence around here, so they were used to her staying for a short while both before she gave them food and after. Of course currently they were unaware she was there watching. Sometimes she liked that fact, as it gave her more insight into their plight. It was a bad one, she sadly admitted to herself. They slaved like dogs and were treated as such by Mulush, though every so often she spotted a softer side to the orc popping out. Not soft enough to spare the workers, though.

Omluag paused in his duties and removed his shirt. The sun was beating down and he was too hot. Hroki smirked almost like a cat. She wouldn't deny she liked these rare treats too. He was well-built for a Breton; quite well-built, and she liked the way his body glistened in the sun. She chastised herself for such thoughts, frowning. That was no way for her to think at all. Still… No, no, bad Hroki. She looked up at him again. When he knew she was around he never did such things as removing his shirt, which was quite something. You must understand that the men and women living in the Warrens were seen as the dregs of society. Not even her brother interacted with them much. Hreinn pitied them greatly, of course, and lamented their lot in life, but he was just enough of a snob to see it fit to avoid them. Given the reputation the lower-class had been branded with, it was most interesting to see how far off base it was; at least given Omluag. For a poor man, he was surprisingly well-mannered and proper. Of course what else was to be expected of a Breton; or the Imperials, for that matter? Generally they were both very well-read and intelligent races. When he spotted her, the shirt would quickly slip back over his body, but until then she would enjoy it. Oh how she would enjoy it. Eep, no, she wasn't going to sink to that level, she sharply ordered herself.

ES

Omluag shoveled another pile of coals into the Smelter. He gasped, losing his balance and falling towards the furnace! Hroki caught her breath, eyes wide in fear, and screamed as she leapt to her feet, "Hathrasil, catch him!"

Immediately Hathrasil caught on and swooped in, pulling Omluag back from the deathtrap they worked. Omluag gasped, leaning against a post and putting a hand to his head dizzily while also massaging an obviously wounded leg. "Dammit, Omluag!" Hathrasil sharply shot. "I told you to stay out of it!"

"She was too weak to be out here! If he'd beaten Cairine, he would have killed her!" Omluag defended.

"You're lucky he didn't kill you!" Hathrasil barked. He still couldn't believe it had been Garvey to swoop to Omluag's defense in time to spare the younger man his life that day. It was rare that Garvey reacted positively to Omluag's interferences. Cairine was a difficult case to pin down, though, when it came to trying to analyze Garvey's reasoning. Omluag looked down and to the side, frustrated. "Divines, you probably have a concussion; and don't tell me that leg wasn't nearly broken!

"Omluag, are you all right?!" Hroki exclaimed, racing to him worriedly and taking his hands in hers, fearfully gazing into his eyes. He was obviously flustered as to the nearness and the actions she was displaying, as he almost tumbled over the railing and into the water trying to back away.

"Hroki!" he exclaimed in shock. "I-I'm fine. Thank you. If not for you, Hathrasil may not have been able to catch me in time." Why, she wondered, did his gratitude only seem partly sincere, though? In fact, if anything he sounded slightly disappointed.

ES

"What's happening out here?!" Garvey demanded, storming out of the Warrens.

Hathrasil turned to Garvey and answered, "Omluag nearly fell into the furnace."

Garvey scoffed. "You should have let him," he replied. Nonetheless, he was looking Omluag appraisingly over.

"He might have a concussion, probably a cracked bone in his leg," Hathrasil said, ignoring the bitter remark. Garvey spoke before he thought; he always had. Hathrasil had learned to take Garvey's bitter remarks and insults with a grain of salt. In fact, he pitied Garvey more than anything. Things… hadn't been going well for him this last year.

Hroki, however, was furious at Garvey's remark. She wondered very much why Hathrasil was so willing to take such words at face-value. Omluag was his best friend; she'd gotten that much, at least, from all her time visiting them down here. She would think he would be all too eager to step in on Omluag's behalf. But then again Garvey was Hathrasil's best friend as well, so she'd learned some time ago. At first she'd assumed there was only some sort of powerful mutual understanding between the two. She'd discovered otherwise soon enough. They were quite the duo when united as one, honestly.

"He needs to lie down," she worriedly said to Garvey, deciding to go with Hathrasil's judgement on this. No one knew Omluag and Garvey better than Hathrasil.

Garvey looked doubtful as to whether or not to let Omluag off so easily. He was well aware of how dangerous it could be to force the blond Breton to keep working, though. "Can you keep going?" Garvey questioned finally.

"I'll manage," Omluag replied, quickly slipping back on his shirt and turning to the Smelter again. He hated the fuss being made over him; yet as much as he hated it he was also in a way grateful for it. Still, he couldn't stop working now. Garvey would have to take over, then. He shouldn't have to do that. Garvey needed to stay in the Warrens tending to Cairine, who seemed to be getting steadily worse each day. If Garvey didn't stay to help, that would leave Hathrasil with a workload that was meant to be split between five different workers.

"Omluag…" Hroki began, not convinced it was a good idea.

"Can't talk. Mulush will beat me if I stop working," he cut off, not wanting to hear it. He'd been beaten enough as it was.

"Tell me about your boss," Hroki demanded.

Omluag sharply laughed. "He's a damn tyrant. Always being goaded on by the Silver-Bloods to get more work out of us. They pay us next to nothing. We get beaten if we make a mistake, and where are our kind Nord rulers? What are they doing? Typical," Omluag answered sharply, all too apparently incensed with everything going on around him.

"Omluag, you need to stop!" Hathrasil shot, obviously becoming slightly alarmed at the state the young man was working himself into. It could be the concussion or it could be Omluag losing himself in the moment. Regardless, if he were heard talking like this there would be a very steep price to pay.

"Look, what if I talked to him?" Hroki demanded.

Omluag paused for a long moment. After a time he turned around, expression ever so slightly bemused and doubtful. At least he'd stopped working, though. "You're going to try to talk sense into that Orc? I'll believe it when I see it," he answered finally.

"None too soon, either," Garvey wryly said, pointing. They looked in the direction he'd indicated and stiffened.

ES

Mulush was striding towards them, bellowing, "Break it up, get back to work or I'll beat you all to within an inch of your miserable lives!"

"Sir, please, Omluag's in no condition to work. He has a concussion and possibly a broken leg!" Hroki said.

"I don't care if he cracked his head open! If he can move, he can smelt!" Mulush shot. To the shock of them all, Hroki suddenly struck the Orc with all her might! Mouths dropped all around. The girl stood defiantly, eyes sparkling as she glared at the Smelter Supervisor. After a long moment Mulush, mouth agape, slowly turned to look at her, rubbing his cheek in disbelief. "Y-you. Who do you think you are?!" he sputtered furiously, at a loss for words.

"He's hurt, he needs to rest! I want you to give Omluag a break!" Hroki shot.

"He'll do as I say, wench!" Mulush barked, raising his arm as if to backhand her.

"No, don't!" Omluag exclaimed, moving to try and get to her. Hathrasil and Garvey firmly held him back.

Hroki didn't move from her spot, scowling at the Manager. "You'll work him to death!" she screamed, angry tears threatening her eyes though she refused to let them show.

Mulush started and froze in place. He looked up at Omluag, a moment of uncertainty flashing through his eyes. Good. So it hadn't been just an illusion when she'd believed she'd seen a softer side to him. Finally Mulush lowered his hand and replied, "Fine. You're beginning to sound like one of those damn Legionaries, but I'll cut him a break. This better not hurt our quota. While I'm at it I might as well let Hathrasil off for the day too. Do what you want, worms." Angrily Mulush walked away from them.

ES

Hroki grinned proudly and boastfully back at Garvey, Omluag, and Hathrasil, all of whom were flabbergasted. She approached them with a skip in her step. None of them could find their voices to speak. "I've talked to Mulush. He says he'll ease up," she said, expectantly awaiting a word of thanks or praise or something. She felt like a heroine, after all.

Omluag was the first to recover from his astonishment. "I don't believe it. Someone sticking up for us," he said. All at once his face lit up as he grinned widely and gratefully, excitement taking over him. "Here. It's a week's wages for me, but you've earned every coin. Hroki, you're wonderful!" he elatedly said, pressing a coin purse into the shocked young woman's hand before picking her up and spinning her around in the air with a laugh. She laughed with him, spreading her arms as she let herself enjoy the spin. He set her down, hugging her tightly as he grinned in relief. She hugged him back. She liked the feel of his arms around her, she determined. She liked it very much.

She felt him wince and guessed immediately he was regretting picking her up. "Well, at least we know your leg isn't broken," she offered, pulling away and wryly smiling at him. If it had been, he would have likely collapsed carrying her weight. It was probably a fracture; not as bad but still very painful. "Oh, here's the food I brought you all. Please, Omluag, let yourself rest."

"As you command, milady," he answered, bowing his head to her. She grinned approvingly then walked off with little more than a wave. Softly, though, his eyes followed her.

Hathrasil and Garvey watched, bemused. "Have you found a reason to fight again, Omluag?" Hathrasil questioned casually. Omluag started out of his thoughts, quickly turning to Hathrasil and a stunned Garvey with eyes wide and a blush spreading quickly across his cheeks. He gave no reply, instead walking passed both and entering the Warrens.