An Epic

Of Orcs and Machines

By Gerry Torbert


Dorg watched as the horses were whipped to get them to move. One moved toward the front of the Fire Flinger, the other toward the rear. Lizkaz and Toluk yelled and smacked the beasts, being careful not to pull in one direction more than in the other - such a mistake could pull the tower over and twist it to shreds. His ugly orc face screwing up into a grimace of anger, Dorg admonished them both about the control they had to use to operate such a strangely delicate machine without it destroying itself. A whole week to rebuild the siege machine was one week too much for the tight schedule they had to meet. Higdum Yurt was murderously angry the last time.


The Great Arm began to spin slowly at first. It took a lot of torque to get the arms to move, which was why the ropes were stacked on the pull drum so high. The Flinger was ungainly and difficult to manage, the horizontal axis being fifteen feet off the ground. The force of the horses was enough to topple it, or to twist the frame to one side if cautions weren't observed. But the changes Dorg built into this one might do the trick.

The arms began to speed up as the horses moved away and the rope unwrapped. Olg was nervous, Dorg could see that - the beads of perspiration were evident even from here. Olg had wrapped his legs around the main frame and his muscles were taut, prepared to pull the release lever. If done properly, the lever would pull the pinion back to release the first arm at exactly the right time, about two-thirds of the way on the upstroke. By the time the metal clam released the fire ball, it would leave the arc at about three-quarters position, which would give it the best trajectory.

Then he had to match the other, counter-balanced arm on its upward turn. If he pulled the pinion out too far, both balls would fly at the same time, one going forward (at best), the other, well. . . at best straight down. But the short-pinned arm had to be pulled first, a difficult task at such rotational speeds. So Olg's job was the least appreciated of them all, and he had good reason for the healthy sheet of sweat that ran down his face. In battle, he would have to do all of this while ducking arrows. Better him than me, thought Dorg. I spent several campaigns in the trigger chair.

The arms now whirred and swooshed as they approached top speed. He could see the fear in Olg's eyes as the horses reached the end of their rope and Lizkaz barked, "Out!" Olg fought the temptation to pull on his command, and watched as the first arm headed upward. He pulled with a quick jerk, then pulled again, sending two dummy rocks on a perfect forty-five degree line toward the target. He looked to Dorg and sneered a take-that-you-son-of-a-bitch smile; Dorg simply looked down and wrote something in his book - finally, someone who can fire the damned thing, he thought. Olg climbed down the ladder and ran over to the Eye Gouger Hidgum, or captain. In the city, the Eye Gougers had begun to be called the Fixers, since they performed all the engineering duties.

"Well, is zat good enough fer ya, Pighead?" he yelled.

Dorg nodded and wrote something down on his paper tablet. "Yer still standin, Smasher. I'd open a new mouth in yer throat in if ya screwed it up one more time. Okay, tell me how ya did it this time."

Olg smiled. "I painted a mark on the first arm. Then I tap my foot every time it comes around. And I imagine my tug on the trigger, in my mind."

"Think you can do 'at with arrows flyin' at yer stinkin' 'ead?"

"Better'n you ever did, ya has-been." Olg knew that Dorg was a Fixer not just because he showed technical aptitude for the equipment, but because he had been exiled from the Bloody Skulls tribe for screwing up. The Bloody Skulls were primarily concerned with destroying enemy fortifications by operating the siege equipment, and for that their tribe had come to be known informally as the Wall Smashers. Dorg's limp advertised that he hadn't made it in that tribe.

Dorg finished writing, putting the leather-wrapped charcoal in his pocket. He looked back at the machine, thinking for a while, then nodded. "Okay, Olg, though yer a dim-witted bastard, yer the crew chief - I can't find anyone else. Git these snogs workin' on getting' the second shot off fast now - ya seem ta have lucked out with the shootin' part. Also, get the builder to nail a shield to the side, ta fend off the arrows. Let me down and I'll open up yer belly."

Olg snarled an affirmative, though his growl communicated pure hatred. Then he turned and began barking orders to the horse handler, loader and Fixer that made up the team. All orcs eschewed riding horses, but these more civilized orcs had at least chosen to use their horses for more than just food. Dorg walked to the next machine, one that seemed to have a problem with the frame holding together. Screams drifted back to Olg as Dorg began to liberally apply his whip to the hapless orcs of the second machine.

Pruk the Loud stalked forward, on a mission. He was one of the Bone Crackers, colloquially known as the Town Pigs. Now he walked along the muddy path that served as a road in the town of Haigrog, also known as Orc-haven. All these years, for an ancient city as this to have little in the way of paved streets would seem strange to other races in Farland. But no other races would even think of coming to the strange town. Everything there was dedicated to the art of waging war. Before the Dark Conquest, it was a ravaged town, constantly denuded of inhabitants, since the Dweller used almost all of its residents in the ceaseless Western Wars. Since the victory of evil, though, the population had had time to grow, and Orc-haven had become an important city, left in relative peace by the the Wintervale. But that had not stopped the denizens of Orc-haven from warring with the other ancestral orc city of Gorug, for fighting was in the blood of every orc, in his psyche. For over three hundred years they had attacked each other, as much for the practice and out of habit and bloodthirstiness as anything else.

So left alone to their own machinations, they had developed war into more of an art than just the constant bloodbaths of the past. Gorug had developed breeding sciences, creating super warriors known as Bazoks, among others. And the Haigrog military has developed into a mechanically-driven war machine, using great siege machines to do their evil work.

As such, little time or money has been spent paving the road that Pruk now slogged through in the rain. He walked to the sturdy stone house near the center of North Town, where he knew Captain Horat was sitting, going over important plans for the next fight with Gorug.

The knock on the door was the sign of the Red Fangs, three beats separated by a well-measured pause, then a scratch on the wood. One could never be too careful in an orc town - tribal violence was nominally illegal, but really the only law was the law of the strong. "Enter, maggot," said a gruff voice, accompanied by the slide of a well-polished steel sword along the top of a wooden table. The door creaked open, revealing the bulk of Horat sitting in the torchlight, poring over an old map of the battlements of Gorug. "Ah, Pruk. Yer late. Sit down, here, where I can reach ya if ya make me mad again."

Pruk snarl-smiled and walked past the fireplace. He bent over, picked up a split log and tossed it in the fireplace, continuing to the table. "My thanks, Captain, and thanks for the warmth of the fire." Often, this was as elaborate a salutation as one would find in an Orc town. And Pruk knew not to push one of the Red Fangs too far, for the ruling tribe brooked no disobedience.

Horat pushed the sword halfway across the table to rest between the two. This was a fairly normal action, often taken by higher military officials to dare another party to challenge his authority and strength. In Horat's case, it probably meant he knew Pruk feared him, and it was a show of his disdain for his fear. Pruk saw the motion, and as he sat, pushed the sword slightly back toward the Captain, showing his acquiescence. "What brings ya outa yer dry house on a miserable night like 'iss, snog?" Snog meant slave or underling in the Black Speech.

Pruk released the coat clasp and slipped the ragged wet garment off his shoulders as he spoke. "Just heard a few rumors and thought I'd ask you about 'em. I know it's military talk, but I gotta know if yer gonna need blacksmithin' and woodworkin' help. I don't wanna get stuck in a jam like last time." The memory of the low-lead-time orders was still fresh in Pruk's mind: how demands for steel shafts and boiler parts taxed the city's blacksmithing trades to the limit, and how the specialty woodworking needed to build the giant shells for the ladder pigs and the Garagats worked the lumbermen to the bone.

Horat smiled, revealed his cracked yellow fangs. Both he and Pruk knew that if the army said it wanted a dozen steel shafts for fire flingers, it would get them. But a sneak peek at their needs could put the trades in a better position, even creating a better product. And he didn't really want to have to kill someone to make a point about the importance of keeping on schedule - the last time, he ended up short a woodworker and had a lot of questions to answer, though watching the black blood spill had been fun. "I know what yer askin'. We're lookin' fer enough spare parts ta keep us ahead of the game, this time. I was gonna get this list to ya in the next couple 'a days, but since yer here. . . " He handed a piece of paper to the Procurement Officer, who looked it over. "Think ya can do all 'at iss time, or does I gotta gut someone again?"

Pruk nodded and answered in a less confrontational manner, that of the Town Pigs, chosen to make the Fang think he missed the point. He got it alright. "Yeah, we just fired up the new forge on the other side 'a town an' brought in a few new young'uns on ta learn the trade. This'll get their feet wet right away. Quality good fer ya, so far?"

Horat leaned back on the bench. He wanted to complain, to let this weaselly Pig think there was something wrong. But truth be told, the smiths and loggers were turning out some good product - it was just that somewhere along the line, something usually happened to let him down. "Yeah, no problems so far. But 'at's not all ya came here fer, Pruk. Whass on yer mind?"

Pruk looked around, as if expecting someone to be listening - maybe it was to punctuate his concern. "It's da distance ta Gorug. How ya gonna get dat far wit all dese machines?"

The Captain leaned back on the simple, rough bench. "I thought about 'at, Pruk. It's none 'o yer concern, snog. Jus' write yer fancy stuff, draw yer little pictures, do what ya normally do. We all gotta push ta git the toys ta Gorug, no doubt. You Town Pigs is good at record-keepin' and organizin', but some a dis stuff is best done by threatenin', if ya know what I mean." He grabbed the sword and made a quick, brutal slicing move in front of his throat, then laughed as he laid it back down.

Pruk smiled. "Okay, I'm sure ya got yer ways. I guess movin' da stuff isn't what I'm talkin' about. Yer goin' inta hostile lands, places dat Gorug has under dere thumbs. If ya just walk in, dere gonna let Gorug know about it, no doubt. Den yer surprise is all gone!"

Horat growled, baring his tusks, and slammed his meaty hand on the table. "Ya tink I didn't tink o' dat before ya came in 'ere, Pruk? Ya don't think we's jus' walkin' around, beatin' up Dogs fer our health, do ya? We'll be out dere in front, goin' inta da little towns ahead o' time, securin'. . . hey. . . whatcha askin' fer, anyway. . . ?"

Pruk could see he was now under the suspicion of the Fang. It didn't take too much to find oneself in such a condition - doubt and suspicion seemed to rule the Fangs, seemed to fuel their every move. "I-I-I'm jus' wonderin', Horat. Ya known me, what, ten years now? I got a home here - I wouldn't do nothin' ta stop or hurt our battle! I jus' need ta know ta write it down, is all!"

Horat smiled - the Fang's position carried a lot of power, and with it, fear. He knew Pruk, alright, and didn't really think he had any subversive bones in his body, or he'd have spilled his intestines in the mud by now. "Enough. Truth is, I ain't got da foggiest idea o' where, when, how we do it all. Dat's da truth. Yurt makes all dem decisions, along wit' Cro. Dey keeps it 'till da las' minute, so's no one can plot against 'em. So jus' watch, hang loose, den write it all down. An' jus' between you an' me, don' ask too many questions! Other Fangs ain't as nice as me!" With his last ironic words he drew back his sword and suddenly thrust it against Pruk's protruding belly, stopping an inch before he broke the skin. He laughed cruelly, lowering the weapon. "Any other problems?"

Pruk could see he was to the point of overstaying his visit, but took a shot. "Yeah - food. The storage bins are low, not much more beef to slaughter. Army travels on its stomache, they say. Me, I'll eat worms if I gotta. But there just ain't much food anymore. We emptied most of the grain, now we're startin' ta ration it out. Any plans for more raids, or do we start growin' gardens?"

Horat's evil smile turned to a frown. He hadn't thought of the city running out of food; he thought it would always be there. "I guess yer right. We ain't fought anyone whose food we can steal for. . . hmmm. . . maybe ten years now. We keep hopin' we can bash down the walls of Gorug, an' they'll have somethin' ta eat."

"But don't you think they're in the same sty as we are? They ain't fought anyone else but us those ten years, besides minor raids on those yellow humans t' the east, and they ain't got nothin' anyway. Slim picken's, I'd say."

"Hmmm. . . maybe we could push out a little more, say, to the south, right after this next try at those walls. They wanna lay siege to it next month. We can even turn those blacksmiths ta work on farm tools, maybe sell 'em ta da Kobolds an' Goblins in the farms to da south. 'At ain't as much fun as killin' someone, but it'll work. "

"May have food fer that long, I dunno. Might have ta think of better ways ta use it. A month, eh? Well, I'll work on it. We don't want the boys ta start killin' an eatin' each other again, or we'll never see the inside o' Gorug."

Horat nodded. He had even gotten hungry lately. Normally, the most and the best food was reserved for the Red Fangs. But any leader knew that a starving army is no army at all. And the troops of Haigrog were too valuable to let them turn on and cannibalize each other. Plus Horat didn't personally have any more stomach for the meat of his own kind. Orc flesh tasted rank. "Fine. This meeting is over, snog. Out," he growled savagely.

Submissively, Pruk put on his coat and stepped out into the rain.

The short orc noticed Dorg from a distance across the North Town training field, and having given his orcs their instructions, ambled through the rain to greet him. Dorg didn't even notice him until he was well within hailing distance. "Hey, toad face, thought you'd find a job by now!"

Dorg knew the voice. Nagrat was an annoying little twerp when he was sober, an annoying little twerp when he was drunk. He always had a name for someone, not always a nice one and usually one he thought up on the spur of the moment. But he knew his machines, and that made him valuable-which kept him alive. That annoyed Dorg even more, for Dorg would have loved to personally open his throat. "Sorry, ya short pile a' dung, but dis is my job. Got that damned stupid thing o' yers workin' yet?" He nodded to the half-built box resting on four legs, about three hundred feet away.

"No, Dorg, not yet. Mos' people can't figure if it's a walkin' house or some kinda big toy. I know what it's s'posed ta do, but nobody believes me. We stole da steam power idea from da gnomes, an' I got da walkin' idea from watchin' da way horses' legs rotate when dey move. Too big, dey say. Oughta roll, not walk, dey say. Too heavy in da mud, dey say. Dere all stupid, if ya ask me. But nobody asks me. Howzat flinger thing working' fer ya?"

Dorg put his paper beneath his shirt to keep it dry, his charcoal in his pocket. He had heard the same dirge over and over again - seemed like Nagrat had it memorized. "It's workin' when I can find someone ta pull da trigger right. Dat's da whole idea - ya can get it goin' fast enough, but ya gotta shoot it right. Dese crazy things will work, but ya gotta keep after 'em alla time. These Wall Smashers just wanna run 'em full blast every time, and ya can't do 'at!" He waved at the crew, who began another test.

The ropes were pulled, bringing the contraption to speed. But the trigger orc wasn't as good as Olg. The first rock climbed to well over three hundred feet, straight up. The second one left orbit in a well-timed manner, chasing the first to an equally frightening apogee. Screams of warning followed, and excited curses pierced the air, with the crew running in different directions of the compass. The two rocks hit the muddy ground within ten feet of each other, just twenty feet behind the machine.

"Good groupin', Makax. Need more distance, ya slime-rat. Vlug - yer next in the chair. Try not ta kill yerself, snog." Dorg's derision and decision were greeted with more curses and rumblings as the orcs switched places. Dorg growled, nodding. "See what I gotta put up with?"

Nagrat laughed. "It was a good show, all dem moron Smashers runnin' all over da place. Wanna show, come on over when I get that thing built," he said, nodding toward the Garagat.

Dorg chuckled. "Yeah, I wanna see da damned thing fall over, jus' like everyone. Maybe ya kin scare 'em outa Gorug wit it - de'll be afraid it'll fall over on 'em!"

"Yeah, real funny. Yer throwin' rocks backward, an' ya talk about me!" Nagrat returned to the construction in time to greet Higdum Yurt. The tall Red Fang, identified as a member of the ruling military tribe only by a red belt, looked unimpressed. "Well, ya Fixer bastard, what ya got so far?"

Nagrat pounded his chest in salute, averting his eyes in submission. "Got the box up, getting' the legs on today and tomorrow, getting' boiler and steamer in it today, then we fire it up in three days."

"I want it firin' in two!"

Nagrat appeared shaken. "O..Okay, Higdum. Two it is." The Fixer smiled unseen, as that was what he planned all along. Maybe Yurt knew he planned it, maybe not.

They walked to the monstrosity. Perched on twelve feet of cribbing sat a thirty-by-thirty foot, twenty foot high box of wooden beams, posts and siding, nailed and pinned to form a two-story box. Inside the rear of the machine was an assemblage of shafts, pulleys and pinion blocks, looking more like the workings of a mind gone mad than a weapon of war. Dozens of Fixers were climbing through the structure, affixing pulleys and ropes, hammering on siding and braces and hauling club-like structures to the sides.

The latter were legs, to be pinned to each steel circle built flush with the siding at four places. Pins protruded through the leg at the top and bottom. Nagrat explained it all to the Higdum. "As the steel circles turn, they'll produce liftin', extension and lowerin' of the leg, makin' it "walk" forward."

"Yeah, my arse. Waste o' time, if ya ask me. Nothing beats a good blade, steeped in blood. Where's a' steam engine?" The Higdum was inquisitive and skeptical.

"At box in 'ere, boss. Steam pushes da piston, it turns da wheel, and da wheel turns all da belts. Each belt just spins until da lever is pushed, then it gets tight and da pulley moves. Gotta have five orcs inside, one workin' da front, one workin' da back, one steam snog, one burner snog, one grease snog."

"FIVE ORCS!", the Higdum asked, clenching his fist. "At's five orcs dat could fight! No more than four!"

Nagrat smiled again. Another victory. He planned for the burner snog to do maintenance. "As ya wish. Four it is."

"Never liked stuff like this in da first place. What's it hold, twenty soldiers?"

Nagrat smiled. "No, about ninety, fully packed."

Yurt harrumphed. "I'll believe 'at when I see it, Fixer. Git back ta work or I'll gut ya, ya short pile o' dung."

Nagrat smiled again, his scarred and hideous face wrinkling with his grim glee. He returned to his work.

Pruk tightened his filthy longcoat around his neck and belly, trying to ward off the chill that the fall rain sent through his body. He wasn't as acclimated to the weather as the snogs who actually did the field work, so this was a little rough for him. But he had duties to perform, so the weather be damned - the discomfort a little rain gave him was far better than most of the forms of punishment for which Haigrog was known.

He walked down Orz's Road, the main thoroughfare of the town. He came too close to the front door of the main tavern, almost bumping into one of two taller, bulkier Orcs staggering from late revelry in the spawning pits below the tavern. "Hey, ya meat bag, watch where ya goin', or I'll smash yer mouth!" bellowed the taller of the two. Drunken as they were, they had enough mobility to flank Pruk, threatening him with clenched fists. Pruk raised his hands in submission, but pulled his coat back slightly to reveal the green belt of a town official, hoping this would be enough to cool a heated moment.

The shorter of the two orcs backed up a step. He looked around to see if any Fangs were hiding or walking through the shadows. He didn't see any, but then again, one never did. "Okay, Town Pig, yer lucky dis time. Next time I'll kill yer scrawny arse." Pruk smiled and slipped by them. He had encountered Hell Dogs before in the street, but they usually knew that the officials were under the protective umbrella of the Red Fangs. Occasionally he had to use some force of his own to get to more neutral ground, since the ruling military tribe wasn't always around.

The Hell Dogs were an unruly lot, making up the bulk of the military force. The Red Fangs had complete control over them in battle, forcing them to do their will through punishment, torture and other "examples." In peacetime situations, the Red Fangs were even more vicious, as it seemed that the Dogs spent most of their peacetime quite drunk and drugged. But one never knew when the clandestine Fang was just around the corner.

Pruk had a better relationship with the Wall Smashers and Fixers. Wall Smashers were a strange, adventurous lot, bent on using their knowledge and lack of fear of things mechanical to wreak their own brand of vengeance on Gorug. No one could remember who started the millennia old wars. Ever since the first soldier was killed in the first battle, though, it didn't matter. Each side fought to atone for the ferocity of the other, and with Orcs, there was always enough mindless ferocity to go around. The Smashers were no different from any other tribe in that respect.

Although derided by the Dogs, they were respected in some strange way for their courage in handling the often unpredictable equipment. It was not unheard of for a flinger to toss a fireball into a command tent, or a Garagat to suddenly lurch backward. Tight budgets (or no money for any budget at all) often placed ill-fitting steel pins of poorer quality in critical locations, where lack of maintenance failed an entire machine, and more than one bolt or nail failed to hold an important member in place. If not for the lack of engineering skills and budget, the mechanical monsters of Haigrog could have been a fearsome factor in the dark folk's battles.

Fixers were strange as well, in their own way. This group was dedicated to designing, creating and maintaining new and different war weapons. Their unique designs were based in part on the actions of one animal or the other in some cases, and on very odd experiments in others. Garagats were designed as giant horses, capable of carrying nearly a hundred soldiers right to the doorstep of a castle. Flingers were designed from a children's toy, a rock tied to a string, then whirled around and let loose. Ladder pigs were designed to mimic the low-lying, rumbling movements of boars. Goat's heads were designed to operate much like their namesake, ramming their huge heads into a door or wall until it failed. Gut Stickers were designed from watching how a pack of wolves attacks when cornered, retreating until their butts touch in an arc.

The Hell Buzzard was designed from an experiment gone wrong, however. A drunken Fixer was trying to show how a trebuchet hurls a projectile by using gravity's action on the other end of an arm. While jumping repeatedly on a log held higher and higher by a stone fulcrum, the Fixer named Podish leapt from higher and higher in a tree, throwing a rock resting on the other end higher and farther. Finally, after quite a few mugs of blood grog, he decided to stand on the end of the log as it was held nearly vertical, with the other end greased to slide on the rocky ground below. A broken leg, arm and hip bone later, the rock sailed an impressive distance, as the arm overturned and flung it back over Podish's head. Once the appropriate calculations were made and the proper framework was built, it was discovered that a huge rock could be thrown over four hundred feet and almost eighty feet high, far enough to fling a rotted corpse well over the walls of Gorug. At first, due to the unfortunate orc's surprise and loss of bodily functions upon landing, it was named Podish's Toilet.

Because of their off-beat methods and garish designs, members of the Fixer tribe were often outcast and shunned, which left them with sort of a defense mechanism whenever they mixed with members of the Hell Dogs. This suited them fine, however, as they were often the butt of their jokes.

The Red Fangs had little to do with either the Fixers or the Wall Smashers. They generally viewed both tribes as eccentric semi-intelligent types. They would often step in to break up arguments between the two and the Dogs, realizing that the Haigrog military depended upon the strange ones for the edge they often had over Gorug in a siege.

The Fangs exercised control over the Town Pigs, however, as the military assumed control over the town's inhabitants. The Pigs were relegated to record-keeping and management of the regular day-to-day activities and infrastructure of the town, and as accountants, were satisfied with such seemingly mundane tasks. The fact that Haigrog even kept records was strange enough, for until the two orc cities had become more civilized following the Dark Conquest, no orc society had ever been known to practice writing. Many times Pigs were called upon to give testimony through their records as to the proper methods of war and important statistics.

Which is exactly why Pruk was traipsing through the streets of North Town that night. He would have to meet with the Fixers this evening to determine their needs, just as he had met with the Fang. His job was to determine and report the extent of the supplies needed for any given campaign and to help apportion resources to secure them. In regards to the Fixers, this often meant a considerable amount of translation was necessary. Sure, they spoke the same language, but the designers and builders were often so caught up in the technology of the machines that a bit of imagination was needed to interpret their needs. From the sounds within the house Pruk approached, tonight would be no different.

He hammered on the door with his fist. The Fixers had no secret signs or watch words - other tribes felt no compulsion to relate to them any more than necessary. The argument never ceased, even as the door was opened.

"Ya doesn't gotta tell ME about whippin' force, I know how da damn thing works, Shagrax! I say it'll still t'row a fireball three hunnerd feet, easy. . . I done it, five years ago. Yer damn pincushions can't make a Bazok do anythn' but laugh his self ta death. Maybe at's how yer s'posed ta use it!"

The tall, lanky Shagrax sighed and stomped his foot. "Ya slimy donkey's arse! All ya kin do is give us lights ta see by! Two shots, den ya stop fer half an hour! I can shoot my hog stickers three hunnerd feet, aimin' 'em, too, an' reload in no time! De're da mos' important machine in da army! How many Bazoks ya gonna take out wit' yer toy, eh? Answer me dat, Fixer!"

Kourk interjected, waving his huge arms. "Wait a minute, Dorg, ya can't tell me ya kin t'row any more'n twenny pounds 'a rock, an I kin t'row four hunnerd, easy!" His Hell Buzzard was known to toss a horse or pig that far, but hadn't been used to throw a small rock or fireball - it just wasn't within the scope of its capabilities. "We can change lotsa could-be force ta whippin' force in seconds!"

"Pig-butt bastard!"

"Grease-face idiot!"

Pruk listened for a while. The technical jargon shot back and forth amused him. Yes, more than one Fixer in one house was entertaining. Nagrat pulled out his carbon and began vehemently drawing some force diagram while the others pointed and derided his calculations. Pruk decided to get their attention and call a halt to the seemingly pointless discussions before pencils and paper became projectiles, and he did it in the typical orcish fashion. He might have been a Town Pig, but he was still an orc. With no warning, he slammed his knotted fist into the closest Fixer. Not seeing the blow coming, the latter went down groaning. "Alright, ya Grease heads, ya can argue pounds and feet, speed and hittin' force, later. As a town official, if ya get louder, I'll have ta beat ya all, then arrest ya. All I came was ta find out what ya need from the trades."

"Oh, yeah, Pruk, 'at's right," said Dog with bitterness, getting back to his feet. He shook his head to clear it, then seemed to shake off the blow. "I gotsa little list I made. Dunno how big 'is fight's gonna be, but here's what we used da last time. Think ya can make about two hunnerd fireballs?"

The others reached into their pockets for lists. ". . . damn well know I can fling a fireball too, just a matter of sling length. . . " muttered Kourk while fiddling about for his supply request. He always had to have the last word.

Chalox handed his to Pruk, who was collecting the lists and doing a cursory review of them. "Yer not gonna like 'iss, Pruk. It's da first time for da Goat's Head, an' I gotta be sure I got enough stuff ta keep it runnin'."

Pruk looked at the list, his eyes widening somewhat. "Two heads - what're ya thinkin', Chalox, ya maggot? 'At's a lotta steel."

"I know, maybe they can just use junk steel and forge-weld it inta a clump, or sumpthin'. Need mass, is all." Not many understood how well the Goat's Head would work. Built on a ponderously huge frame, supported by up to sixteen wheels, the whimsical machine would, theoretically, swing a huge log, supported by chains, back and forth in an arc, pounding the log against the main gates. It would have to be sufficiently mobile to close the distance to the town walls quickly enough to use the element of surprise. It would have to be stable enough to get there without twisting itself apart. And the steam power (stolen from Gnomes, as was most of the steam machinery) had to pull the ram backward repeatedly. Chalox had performed the calculations, but they hinged upon the ability of the engine to perform.

No one doubted the importance of a good gate-crasher. In the past, the Hell Saw appeared to work, but an information leak enabled the orcs of Gorug to bolt steel bars on the doors just before the attack, rendering it useless. The gigantic flamethrower known affectionately as Vornoth's Pipe failed to burn them down, as supplies of flammable material and propellant were difficult to get to the machine, and it became a hulking embarrassment, not to mention the fact that it caught fire with what flame it did produce, garnering catcalls from the parapets. After these failures, the Goat's Head seemed to be the most direct method of forcing their way into the city.

"Well, we'll look at it," said Pruk. "Can't promise anything, just like with all these things."

Without a word of goodbye, Pruk left, and as he closed the door, he could hear the rowdy technical terms being thrown about like so many knives and spears. He couldn't help but smile.

The general hustle and bustle of life in the north part of Haigrog was interrupted by the whooshing sound of steam being emitted from a boiler, and not just any boiler, but the one aboard Garagat #1. Nagrat sat on a criss-crossed pile of logs and boards which were soon destined to be part of the rear of the strange machine. The back panels had been purposely left off to allow inspection of the mechanisms that ran the machine, but more importantly, to allow the operators easy emergency egress from the cramped quarters. Nagrat was smart - he appointed two apprentice Fixers to climb aboard Hell Horse, the name afforded the first of the mobile troop carriers, and report on the safety of the boiler, while he sat somewhere behind from whence he could easily duck.

Behind him, Cro Grease cleared his throat. To distinguish himself from several of the Hell Dogs known as Cro, he had invented a name for himself, fitting his position as Boss of the Fixers. Nagrat turned to greet his boss.

"Mornin', Boss. Good mornin' or bad, I'll let ya know in a couple 'a minutes."

"Better be good, ya short pile o' dung - I'm in trouble if it ain't, so that makes trouble fer you. Ya know how many times I hadta bust some Dog in da chops 'cause he be doubled over wit' laughin' at dis thing? Ya got some way ta tell ya if she's gonna blow up?"

"Yeah, I figgered out a way. I had 'em forge-weld a couple 'a iron bands on da boiler, an' they slide past each other. When we got enough pressure, da boiler gets bigger, and da bands slide apart. Den, operator's supposed ta hit the pressure relief valve. So it's gonna take another snog, after all."

"Yurt don't take ta extra snogs on board, ya know."

"Yeah, I know, but I figger we'll just hide 'em on board the night before. Yurt'll never go down and look. The drivers can't be worryin' 'bout no pressure bars alla time."

Cro inwardly smiled. He always liked Nagrat's methods, and often looked the other way when he stretched the rules. He got things done. Plus, if Yurt caught the deception, it would be Nagrat's throat cut, not Cro's.

The belch of pressurized steam came again, then again, each time more quickly. Tick, the apprentice, motioned toward the driver, who stopped throwing shovels of coal into the heatbox, then closed the door tight to slow the burning of the coal. The bursts of steam changed to one continuous flow, and the Fixer looked to Nagrat. He pointed with his finger and spun his wrist, indicating he should start the engine. The lad shoved the main valve forward and high-pitched whistling faded to a chugging, whirring sound.

Tick looked back to Nagrat, who "chugged" his arms alternately back and forth, indicating that he wanted to see the legs moving. Tick motioned to the Wall Smasher, who eased a lever forward. The rear legs began to move in arcs, pushed by the hidden steel plates, mimicking the motions of a horse, just as Nagrat thought. He looked up to Cro, who stared with wonder at the machine. The cribbing below the belly of the wooden box kept the legs off the ground, and it looked as if a long-necked cow was stuck on top of a tree stump. Or worse. "I think the damn thing's ready ta go down ta the breedin' pits," chuckled Cro.

Nagrat motioned, this time with both hands, to run all four of the leg pulleys. The humorous machine began to circulate its legs with more speed, looking like a horse in a trot. Tick pulled back on the steam valve and the whistling sound strengthened. He motioned to the Wall Smasher, who let in more water from the tank above and opened the air return. After about ten minutes of frenzied activity, Nagrat's signal shut it down. "Looks good, ya pile o' dung. Why don't ya tear down da cribs and give it a try, before I fall asleep?" Cro was anxious to see it in action. Nagrat winced at the name pile of dung - the fourth time in the last couple of days - but that's what happened when an orc didn't fight for his name. He motioned to several other Smashers, who began removing the wooden blocks. As they did, the machine sunk down to a slight list to one side. "That's gonna happen, Boss," he said to answer Cro's frown. After re-stoking the pressure, the Garagat's belts were tightened again, and it stood straight.

"Now's da moment 'a truth, Boss!" Nagrat signaled with a movement of his fingers, designed to look like a walking motion. Two smashers began to rhythmically pull and push the levers as the behemoth slowly began to walk forward. A quick glance at Nagrat revealed two pairs of fingers crossed and tightened. The machine lumbered forward, lurching and leaning as the crew learned to synchronize on the fly.

Nagy pointed his thumb to the left, calling for a left turn. Tick motioned to the orcs, who pulled one set of pulleys tighter than the other, loosening their grip on the second, and the machine actually responded, pivoting on the left legs. Cro smiled. "Well, I'll be damned to the cold pits o' the Frostspire. Wouldn't be much good if it just went in a straight line."

Unfortunately, left wasn't the best direction to choose. The Garagat was aimed directly for Cro's house. The Fixer captain placed his hand near Nagrat's shoulder, grasping much of his neck. "I guess yer gonna turn it back soon. . . ?" Nagrat began pumping his right thumb violently to signal a turn. Tick grabbed the rear doorway, leaning out to see in front of the machine. His eyes grew wide as he pulled himself back in and began motioning to both Smashers. They pulled the pulley handles as far and as hard as possible, leaning into them with the weight of their bodies. The monster leaned and lurched, spinning on its right legs and grinding its left ones into the mud, barely grazing the corner of the house. As it turned, Cro glared at Nagrat. "I'll get a couple 'a snogs together, we'll replace the stones, I swear, Boss!"

The Garagat turned toward the practice wall, a structure built near the north gate to allow Smashers to test and train others in the operation of the various equipment. Nagrat walked forward, rubbing his neck, and gave Tick a stop sign. A crowd had gathered around Walker's Horse, a name he had given the machine. Most were Hell Dogs, and Nagrat motioned to them to embark. Several turned away, but quite a few were adventurous enough to climb into the "tail" of the creature, into the troop box above.

The signal was given and Walker's Horse began to lurch forward. Yells of surprise and confusion came from the box as some soldiers were being hurled about. But they regained their composure and found things to grasp, and soon they approached the wall. Nagrat walked behind it, cutting Tick off as it neared the wall. This time, Tick was prepared, and The Horse saddled up to the practice structure like a fat orc at one of the local pubs.

Nagrat looked up at the orcs through the tail. "Well, get out!" he yelled. Several began to climb back down. "No, not that way, idiots, up the neck and out the head!" They relayed the message forward, and the drawbridge was lowered at the "mouth" of The Horse, and several Hell Dogs stepped out onto the ramparts of the fake castle wall. Their cheers swelled Nagrat's head as he looked back to Cro, who stood with arms folded. "Damned craziest thing I ever saw. Good thing, too, Fixer. Another step inta my house an' I'd have had ta kill ya. Now make the other one do dat. An' fix my house!"

Nagrat waved to direct Tick's retreat.

Over the next few days, the training grounds were bustling with activity. The relative success of the first Garagat spurred more of the strange Fixers to bring their equipment up to speed. Five fire-flingers hurled rocks over the wall, then a few flaming fireballs to make sure they ignited. Orcs at the top of the wall hauled rocks and weapons up to the top and Hell Dogs practiced taking turns reining arrows and rocks down on ladder pigs. Gut Stickers busily tested their power and accuracy on some targets that were set up along the base of the main city wall. And the Hell Buzzards - they just scared the life out of everyone.

They were designed from the standard Trebuchets that had been used by many armies for centuries. However, instead of using the energy gained by dropping a weight eight feet, the arm was loose and slid downward twenty feet. The weight was made to fall straight down, pushing the arm out from underneath it, just like Podish did. When the weight passed mid-height, it began to pull the arm back again. The action of the arm more modeled the arm of an orc throwing a rock than any machine before it, and the power that it could apply was almost unlimited.

There were limiting factors, however, consisting of the strength of the massive pins and the amount of weight the structure could hold. Huge timbers were used, reinforced with iron straps and bolts. The setup time was long, since horses and pulleys were needed to haul the weight up to the starting position.

Ladder pigs were so named due to their appearance. Basically, they consisted of four-sided boxes to which were affixed ladders for scaling the walls. Four orcs worked inside the box, cranking at four wheels to move the lumbering machines into place. Each box was open at the bottom and rear, which allowed up to ten Hell Dogs to walk under it, shielded from attack, until the time came to raise the ladder and climb the wall. They would also add their force to help move the pig into position. After dispatching the ladders and Dogs, they could be used to shield other soldiers from arrows and rocks as they drove through the gates.

At this time of year, traction over muddy ground was important. The grass around Gorug and the main road to the fortress would prove to be better for moving the equipment than the sloppy mess that North Town turned into, with just a little rain. The wheel tracks of the heavy siege machines had left deep ruts that filled quickly with water nearer the training grounds. The population of North Town, consisting mostly of Town Pigs, would often complain to themselves, since to other orcs they appeared pampered when they tried to clean their area.

Hell Dog Town, located in the southwestern and central parts of the city, fared no better. Tightly packed houses left little hope for a minimum of privacy. The homes were built in a most haphazard manner, at odd angles and with little respect for property lines. In the past, the buildings themselves were placed wherever the squatter could fit a tent or shack, then build more of a substantial structure around it. The absconded property was then handed down over generations. Often, walking to one's home required walking through other properties, even squeezing between buildings. Building laws, setbacks and rights-of-way were scoffed at in the lawless society. Indeed, the structures of themselves were very ramshackle and often had to be repaired-equally badly.

The population of South Town was a mixture of Wall Smashers, Hell Dogs and Red Fangs. There was always a little tribal friction between them, with most of the altercations occurring due to drunkenness or drugs. Wall Smashers and Hell Dogs both respected each other's tendencies or their particular method of warfare, or so it seemed. Or maybe it was just that neither tribe really wanted the other's job.

Fixertown was a little more strange. Most of the other tribe members viewed these orcs as weak, more interested in technical work than fighting among themselves or with the other tribes. Truth be told, they were actually quite competitive. Their neater, more orderly housing arrangements and trimmed yards belied the fact that they would often necessitate visits from the Fangs or Town Pigs to break up domestic disputes over weaponry or technical jargon. It seemed that giving an orc a little knowledge could be a dangerous proposition.

Half of the Red Fangs lived around the middle of the city near their headquarters. The other half was spread throughout the city. Their main interest was to control and train the military, although they often found themselves drawn into the day-to-day policing functions that become necessary in this type of town. It seemed that once a week, even more frequently when a battle approached, they were called in to quell a fight.

A group of them roved about the town in shifts, twenty four hours a day, mostly frequenting bars and anywhere a gathering might occur. Their homes were no secret, but any violence directed toward a Fang was quickly punished with the maximum retribution. Often, the maximum wasn't death - more than one orc was found hung upside down, skinned to the organs, still twitching the next morning.

Haigrog was an ancient city, built with an orc's limited appreciation of orderly arrangement and cleanliness. Little or no thought had been given to drainage in the original planning of the city, and apparently no one felt obligated to change the tradition. A few drain holes had been left open along the west side of the walls, and the only relief one could expect from torrential downpours was the series of open ditches that coursed through the town. A good, solid rain was welcome now and then, as there was no city ordinance barring the use of the ditches for personal purposes, and no one felt the need to develop a good system of sanitary sewers.

The walls were thick and tall and could be defended easily, mostly due to good building practice in years gone by. They were made solid and substantial, having a pathway measuring up to ten feet wide at the top. Archers were protected by ramparts broken regularly by openings for them to shoot in cover. However, the walls had fallen into some disrepair over the centuries.

Many attacks by wild orcs and Gorugians had left stones broken and knocked out, especially where mortar had failed or had been neglected. But the main gates had been repaired after battles and some features had been added for protection. For instance, a moat had been built around the walls, fed by the stream that ran through Kobold slave farmlands. The moat was also fed by the open sewage drains from the city itself, through the drain holes in the walls. Haigrog was not a pleasant place to live, nor was it a desirable town to attack.

And things weren't about to get much better. The Hell Dogs were beginning to train in full force at the northern end of town. The ground would certainly take the beating of the constant marching, the practicing, everything that came with training and fine-tuning such a motley crew, as it had in the past. But not without stress - either dust on dry days or mud in the interim, it would be messy.

The Hell Dogs were a nasty lot. They often veered from any battle plan to which they were trained - they often broke ranks and split off in battle, forcing the Red Fangs to put themselves in danger just to corral them back into formation. Normally, given their exuberance, this was not a bad trait. However, they weren't going to be fighting mere humans or wild orcs. The Leg Breakers of Gorug had developed quite a formidable force of super-warriors through creative breeding. The Bazoks were huge, muscular, fast and violent, more than a match for an orc in a one-on-one situation. Close ranks and tough in-fighting were the keys to battling these beasts. And it didn't look as if the Dogs had grasped this concept.

It was difficult for the Fangs to teach the more complicated methods of warfare to these unruly soldiers. Such moves as the Swooping Crow, the Whirling Hail and Funnel were too regimented and slow to capture the limited imagination of the Dogs. At times, during the end of the day, they seemed to employ them better, but only after the previous night's blood grog had worn off and they were a little tired.

But for the system of fighting necessary to breach the walls of Gorug and to maintain their advantage, it was sufficient to employ simpler swarming techniques. Once the Garagats had placed some orcs on the walls, they would force their way along the top and secure as much of them as possible. Ladder pigs would enable orcs to make pockets of force in places, surrounding the defenders and forcing them to fight two sides. If they could be relied upon to be as accurate as Dorg claimed, the Fire Flingers would then wreak havoc among the pockets of defenders. The problem was fighting on the ground.

The Goat's Head was the prime force to be used to breach the doors. The gates would eventually succumb to the pounding of the monstrously huge machine. Backed by Gut Stickers, the opened doors would be flooded with hundreds of spears and long arrows, and if fired properly, they would inflict terror on the middle and rear ranks of the defenders.

The Gut Stickers were another cross-breed of absconded Gnomish technology and Orcish carelessness. Built on a Monager-type frame, the long arrows (or short spears) were held by a staging block in front of a striking block at the approximate direction of fire. The striking block consisted of a hard wood piece at the end of a pivoted arm. It was forced forward by escaping steam, and the spears were shot forward. The staging block, once fired, was replaced with another, complete with preloaded arrows, laid immediately on the frame in a wood pocket, and the arm was brought backward for another shot.

The design was enticingly simple and its production was very attractive. Five Stickers could unleash a continuous rain of spears, assuming there were no engine problems. The problem, as with all steam-driven engines of destruction, lay in the maintenance and proper use of the boiler and steam delivery system. The competency of the boiler and the pivot pin were the most important, highest maintenance and most damning features of these machines.

But they seemed to have been working properly over the last few days, as the pattern and grouping of the spears were becoming tighter and tighter as they chewed holes in the thick target boards set up beside the practice wall. Shagrax was pleased, and made sure he had an ample supply of main pins on hand.

Preparation for the battle extended to the system of supply. Dozens of carts were being built to bring the coal to the steam engines. Scores of gut bags were stacked, with Wall Smashers and Fixers alike checking their water-holding capacities. Horses were being rounded up from kobold slave farms and other sources, as the weapons would be difficult to transport. What equipment could be dragged along would be moved by horse, while others would be broken down. Cro Grease had plans for each of the machines - the preparation for just the mobilization was daunting enough that he promoted several Fixers to the position of Supply Lieutenants.

The Garagats seemed to be the main problem. There was no way to move them efficiently without removing the legs and placing carts underneath them. Walking that distance would likely wear out the major parts prematurely, as well as use precious resources. Luckily, the legs were easily popped off, but the tail and neck assemblies were not so adaptable. This is where Pulo, Nagrat's assistant, came into play. He devised a method of joining the neck and tail to the body by pins (causing curses to arise from the blacksmith shops), and folding the appendages over the body.

The Goat's Head could be rolled without the battering ram, and if needed, another tree trunk could be found near Gorug and used, as long as the head could be attached. Pulo came on the scene again, suggesting the ram head be attached to the ram by socketing it, caulking it, if you will, with molten lead. Nagrat owed him, big time.

Fire Flingers were not a problem, as they were bolted together. The Hell Buzzard was also pinned and bolted, but the counterweight would have to be transported in many carts. And Ladder Pigs were highly mobile by their design.

It was looking more and more as if the forces of Haigrog would have to stage to prepare. Just the mobilization itself would require a small military victory to find a small plot of land near Gorug and secure it. And today, it was a good reason for Cro to make it a point to hunt down Higdum Yurt and discuss his concerns.

Yurt wasn't hard to find, ever though he was a Red Fang. He demanded full disclosure in regards to everything that affected the fighting forces of Orc-haven. An orc control freak can be a frightening thing to deal with - the almost-perfect combination of unruly destruction and organizational verve. Captains of Hell Dogs lined up to fill him in on their accomplishments, and the other Red Fang were quite eager to keep him abreast of matters, if for no other reason than to avoid his ire. One stood in line and waited one's turn to be abused, was the general consensus. His six-foot-six, burly frame had a little to do with it.

Cro had dealt with him many times, usually being on the defensive side of things. Yurt was notoriously skeptical of all things mechanical, even though he was aware of the historical drive toward technical superiority that fueled Haigrog's wartime efforts. Gorug's high walls were strong and high, and repeated attacks over the years had given their forces a keen sense of what had to be done to defend them.

He felt that even though Gorug's forces were genetically enhanced and superior in one-on-one situations, he could still drive his orcs to victory, machines or not. As an interesting aside, he never really assumed the title of Hai or General, even though he had reputedly killed his own uncle, General Uglug, in a power struggle. He believed that he would be better served by promoting himself in stages, giving each ascent a greater appearance of importance.

It was Cro's turn. The Fixer Captain was probably a match for the Higdum in a physical sense, as he was equally as trim and in good fighting shape. He lacked, however, the overpowering aggressive nature that was shown by his superior, possibly through years of dealing with eccentric Fixers. Yurt respected, but didn't fear him - at least what passed for respect among orcs. "Fixer- whaddya have for me ta say 'no' to today?" He half-smiled, half-sneered his greeting.

"Higdum, we gotta bigger job than we thought, mobilizin' the machines. Ta git ta the point, I think we gotta stage 'em somewhere before we can set 'em up ta fight."

Yurt looked away, snarling. He didn't want to hear of any wrinkles in his plans - he liked for every cog to fit in every other cog, every piece to come together. "Cro, I don' wanna hear anything but good stuff. Did ya think ta break da machines down ta smaller parts? Does I gotta tell ya how ta do all dis, myself?"

Cro stopped himself from sneering at his boss. He never did like the bastard. He rose up through the ranks by killing everyone in front of him - a trait that usually got approval from other orcs. But one can only live so long like that - sooner or later, your back will be turned to someone who imitates your tactics and aggressiveness, and is younger and stronger. "Yeah, as small as dey git," he said, remembering Pulo's contribution. He owed that snog. "Still, dey gotta be put up when we git dere, we gotta bring in supplies, we gotta find or mine more coal, we gotta have water, an' we gotta do it all close enough ta make da final move short an' surprise 'em, somewhat."

Yurt crossed his arms and rested his chin on his fist. That was about as close to a thinking position as Cro had ever seen him use. Yurt's sigh enforced the conception that he was giving it some thought. "Yeah, I guess da troops need a place ta hide all dis stuff, once we git there. Ta tell ya da truth, I'm not sure war's in their heads, right now. Was thinkin' 'a killin' a few, ta get their attention."

Cro didn't answer right away. He knew Yurt wasn't kidding, but he was never sure of what was on his mind. The Dogs could lose a few fighters, but not a lot. "Yeah, ya could stab a few of 'em, that would turn their heads, I guess."

"Good plan. Remember dat ol' sayin', 'Keep yer friends near ta ya, kill yer emenies' - it always worked fer me. Either way, I'll let 'em know how big this show'll be. Dis fight's gonna tax our coin. It's already usin' up all our food. We gotta put our best foot up their arses, as dey say."

Cro enjoyed the malapropisms and misquotes, but he knew he was speaking to the ultimate type of orc commander - a ruthless, wise and cunning one. "I thought maybe Hargox, that little town just north 'a Gorug, ya remember 'at one? Ya can see for a mile around, it's got a mine nearby, an' enough woods around ta hide us fer a while."

Yurt was surprised. He knew Cro was a good tactician, but wasn't aware of his knowledge of military ground fighting techniques and the necessary attention to geography and terrain. He was impressed. He was pissed. "Cro, if ya said 'at in front 'a my captains, I'd have ta kill ya. I make da decisions aroun' 'ere! Yer lucky I need ya!" His face flushed, and he clenched his fists as his voice increased in volume.

He stopped, however, when he realized that those within hearing range would expect him to kill Cro as he stood, just to save face. Better to feign slight aggravation - the same aggravation he had toward everyone else - then to kill his best hope of storming the walls and having to replace him with a nobody, even if he would enjoy slaughtering the other orc. A forced, diplomatic smile crept over his strong features, from tusk to tusk. "Good choice, Fixer. I can see yer thinkin'. I know the town well - we took it once when I was a whelp, just out of the breedin' pits. How many dogs ya gonna need ta push these toys 'a yers dat far?"

Cro loosened up a bit, matching his Higdum's grim smile. "All of 'em. We got lotsa horses, we jus' need 'em ta keep 'em movin', maybe use some fer pushin' in places. Remember 'at rocky pass in da road, about halfway 'ere, how we had trouble last time? 'At'sa worst part, I think. Course, we'll need da rest ta lead an'. . . " He stopped, not wanting to suggest more ground troop deployment, lest he incur more ire.

Yurt grunted, content that Cro didn't go any further. "I'll fill in da details, Fixer. Not lookin' ta supplant th' Fangs, are ya? Ya seem ta know how ta sneak around." Yurt nodded, and Cro took it as a warning.

"No, Higdum, I'll jus stick ta my toys. Gotta git back ta work."

Yurt watched as Cro turned and walked away. Did he have anything to worry about from this snog, he wondered?...maybe. . . a commander of orcs always had to worry, about everyone. . . he turned to speak to one of his captains about which Hell Dog was the most likely to serve as an example of the necessity of good attitude.

Kourk was under pressure. He always seemed to take too much on his narrow shoulders. Slight of build, he took to Fixer life quite well, beginning with his apprenticeship as a youth. Now, it seemed, he owed much to his old friend Podish. His Toilet had given Kourk much notoriety, not to mention the budgetary latitude he enjoyed, what budget there was. And a lot of headaches.

Time after time, the strange machines had placed fifty-pound boulders outside the city walls and had sent some Hell Dogs grumbling as they performed their projectile retrieval duties. After adjusting the sling and changing the pivot point, he tuned the frightening "toy" to three hundred feet with a two-hundred pound rock. He was cheered, then cursed soundly as the rock tore off part of a rampart of the practice wall. But another shot sheared off a pin, shifting the use of derogatory terms to the blacksmith crews. He just couldn't seem to please everyone.

But the trick up his sleeve was a killer. As the darkness thickened to the consistency of a good cow-blood soup, he waited his turn to try out his newest projectile, which he called "The Smoker." Expensive to manufacture, it consisted of a keg of hard oak. Packed inside was a pouch of light, very flammable oil near the center of the keg. Around the pouch was poured tar and pitch, into which he mixed fine ground coal and wood dust from the plane mill. He smeared pitch around the outside of the keg before loading it into the sling. Only the destructive mind of an orc would devise such a weapon - everything about the keg was geared to explode into a devastating ball of fiery hell. The pouch would explode upon impact, mixing it with the pitch and igniting it. The burning keg would burst, and the coal and wood would feed the fire as it spread out and adhered to everything it touched. Lovely.

His turn was up. The pulleys had hoisted the counterweight to its highest point and the arm was locked in place. Kourk directed the Smashers to pull the sling taut. He loaded the keg himself, tucking in the sling to achieve the best fit. He backed away and called for a torch. He touched the flame to the keg with shaking hand - this was his big moment! With a signal to a Smasher and everyone looking, the weight began to creak and the arm started to slip along the floorboards.

The weight began to sink and the arm moved out. It picked up speed quickly as the keg dragged along the boards. The weight accelerated and forced the floating arm around. Podish would be proud. At that point, nothing Kourk knew of was able to stop its swing. The weight continued, rapidly pulling the arm back to the center. As the keg was whipped into a roar by the wind, the machine earned its nickname. The roar of the pins on the frame, coupled with the scream of the burning keg sounded like a hundred buzzards swooping in on a prey.

The keg floated lazily through the air, with a small flame trailing the rear. It assumed a perfect arc, but Kourk hadn't compensated for the air drag of a burning keg. The hapless barrel fell slightly short, directly amidships on the face of the gate of the training wall. But it burst well. The pitch splashed in all directions, and the pouch exploded into a ball of flame. Within fractions of a second, the massive door burst into an intense shroud of brilliant flame.

Half the assembled orcs cheered in unison for a few seconds, clawed hands of Smashers pounding on Kouork's back. Then the platitudes stopped, followed by dozens of woodworkers grabbing water sacs and running toward the door. Their efforts were futile. The shadowy figure of Cro approached Kourk from behind. "You gonna replace that damn door, Fixer?"

Kourk's head bowed. Another bittersweet victory. "Nope, boss, I figure the woodworkers needa do sumpthin' while we're fightin'."

Cro shook his head. "Well, jus' don't hit our own snogs wit da dam thing."

The following evening wasn't as forgiving for Shagrax's crews. The night began uneventfully, with a few of the Fire Flingers launching rocks over the practice wall and the Goat's Head working out some problems with mobility. The embers from the burned gate were piled beneath the arch of the wall, and other bugs were being ironed out. Three Gut Stickers were being tested at the east side of the wall, hammering spears against piles of hay and a few wooden targets.

The steam-powered ballista were operating well at their prescribed two-hundred foot range. But Shagrax hadn't learned Nagrat's finesse for estimation and promises. Higdum Yurt demanded three hundred feet, period. His unwavering requirements ignored the basic rules of physics for no apparent reason - he hadn't necessarily factored a three hundred foot range into any battle plans, he simply wanted to push the equipment.

The equipment simply couldn't be pushed much further. Everything had been optimized by Shagrax for the maximum distance. The charging valves were widened to allow the most steam possible in the minimum amount of time, and parts were lightened. All of the parts were designed to operate at that fine line that separates failure from success.

But Yurt pushed. Cro directed the crew of Sticker 2 to reach the limit of the steam pressure. As the Smashers watched, the sliding bars passed the point of no return, indicating the boiler was stretched too far. As one of them reached for the release lever, the boiler exploded with a deafening roar. Bolts and iron straps flew for close to a hundred feet - the ones unimpeded by flesh. Three Smashers were ripped asunder by the blast, laced with shrapnel thrown from the burst steambox. Shagrax was standing near, holding part of his face and one eye in his hand, too shocked to move.

Yurt himself was hit with a piece of iron, or flesh, no one could tell. The black blood could have been his. As other orcs gathered around, Cro arrived. He glared at his boss. Yurt glared back. "You fixin' ta get a new mouth in yer throat, Fixer man?"

Yurt reached for his sword. He had had enough of Cro's constant looks, his reluctance to back off, his concerns over his troops, his damned machines. Cro had had enough of Yurt, period. Cro pulled his sword to match his bosses weapon. Several Fangs moved in and began pushing through the now-crowded line of Smashers and Fixers. But to their surprise, the crowd pushed back. A few of the ruling tribe were punched and struck by more than a three-on-one disadvantage, and they backed off.

Yurt finished his unsheathing, holding his sword out in front, waving it back and forth. Cro held his with two hands, assuming a very professional defensive stance - his training was not forgotten. Yurt sneered. "I been waitin' fer some time fer dis, Fixer. Yer pissin' me off every day. I'm gonna make a lesson outa ya."

"Talk is cheap, Fang. Do yer worst, or are ya gonna flap me ta death wit' dem flabby jaws a' yer'n?"

Yurt smiled and launched the offensive. He swung around and down, aiming for Cro's head. But the Fixer lifted his weapon just high enough to flick the sword to the right, following it down to make sure Yurt didn't try a pulling cutlass stroke. The opening left on Yurt's left side was huge, but Cro didn't have the momentum to pull off a counterstrike. Yurt pulled the hilt up, preparing to fend off an upswing. With his blade down and Cro's up, he swept across his chest to meet Cro's feeble attempt. The first strike and parry ended with the two in the same positions.

"Yer weak, Fixer. Ya call 'at swordfightin"? More like dancin'!"

"Keep flappin' those jowls, Fang. Yer mouth's getting' in yer way."

Yurt swung down again. Cro stepped aside, to his right, taking a stab at Yurt in the same motion. But the larger orc ducked and twisted to his left, swirling around to bring his sword across to Cro's right. Cro was able to deflect it, leaving both again in defensive crouches.

Yurt swung again, from his left to right. But Cro ducked, leaving him staring at an undefended ribcage and hip. His strike was swift, but not enough - Yurt stepped back, leaving Cro helplessly out of balance and leaning forward. But Yurt had no position nor any stance, and the moves ended in another draw.

A slight disturbance at Yurt's right side caught Cro's attention, enabling Yurt to thrust, but Cro deflected his blade at the last second. Another movement to Cro's right caught Yurt's attention, but Cro saw that it was fleeting, and didn't have the opportunity to pursue it.

Back and forth they went, sliding with orcish cunning beneath each other's swing and dodging thrusts; calling on experience, power, speed and luck; moving with determination yet with wariness; occasionally being distracted by those around them. Somewhere around the ring of orcs, the hum of a steam boiler began to gain volume.

The fight continued, with Cro relying on his speed and his deftness of blocking moves, with Yurt continuing his barrage of vicious sweeps and swirling tactics. The fang was beginning to look a little tired, and Cro noticed it. His aggressiveness took a lot of energy, and his strikes were performed with more and more desperation. Cro met Yurt at the top of his swing, forcing his sword back. As Yurt continued with another swing from half-height, Cro thrust, slicing a very superficial red line along the taller orc's rib cage. Yurt caught his opponent lunging, however, and ignoring the pain, stepped back and kicked some dirt into Cro's face.

Cro grabbed his ugly face, attempting to wipe the dirt from his eyes, but to no avail. Yurt came down with his hilt end, smashing Cro's temple with the butt of his sword. Cro tumbled to the ground, his sword fallen out of his hand.

Yurt strode over to straddle Cro, lifting his sword high over his head. "Now's when I shows all o' ya what happens when ya skruk aroun' wit da Fang!" He reached back for the final stroke.

"HEY! I'd think again, Fang slug!" The voice came from Yurt's left. "I may only got one eye, but I can still aim dis ting!" Shagrax stood beside a fully-loaded, fully-charged Sticker, his hand on the lever, his other hand still holding his body parts. "'At goes fer me, too," came a voice from the other side, short spears aiming directly at Yurt's head.

Yurt stood motionlessly, looking at his predicament. He slowly let his sword lower to one side, stepping back. "Dis ain't done, Fixer. Ya ain't gonna have dem stickers around alla time."

Cro rolled to one side and stood up, wiping more dirt from his eyes. "An' you better grow eyes in da backa yer 'ead, Fang. My boys ain't fodder fer yer entertainment."

Over the next few days, the Garagats began to operate more like the giant horses they resembled. Nagrat's crews had ironed out the hitches in the vehicles' steps, and even managed to tackle some rough terrain around North Town. The biggest problem they seemed to have concerned walking in thick mud. The huge feet became stuck, and several sheared pins later, Pulo stepped in again. He had a crew of woodworkers bore holes vertically through the wood of the feet, breaking the suction caused by lifting the feet. Nagrat congratulated himself for hiring and training the young fellow.

It was a few days from mobilization. As could be expected, the Red Fangs had everything "buttoned down" within the walls of Haigrog. The ruling military tribe had been keeping a close watch on those coming in and leaving the town, even to the point of following those headed out. The huge machines of war being built within the walls could be sabotaged quite easily if others had discovered the essence of the military plans. The kobold slave farms were maintained by the Fangs, the tribe keeping outposts in shifts to watch them. The little dark ones provided food to Orc-haven and had fairly unlimited access to its gates.

The Dark Folk of Haigrog had assembled a powerful force, consisting of a strange mix of fanciful, brutish equipment and strong, wild ground troops. Now the daunting tasks of moving the equipment, setting it up and using it remained to be tackled.