It looked like this:
Falling Kingdom (working title) is a fantasy novel taking place in a frontier country with a mostly medieval civilization. A plague in the old world drove a large portion of the population to move to the colonies,and create a kingdom where they attempted to quarantine themselves from the plague.
The new country seems to be doing well until orcs come down from the mountains and, using guerilla warfare, make further expansion difficult for the new kingdom.
Fighting the orcs is expensive and the debts the king incurs eventually cost him his kingdom, but not before the plague, which the humans are now carriers for, did their work for them and killed off most of the orcs and goblins. The kingdom assumes it is a military victory and moves on with life.
The merchant class, which has loaned the money to the king for the war effort, use the debts to buy titles and maneuver the king into creating an assembly, essentially stealing his power. This leads to a change for the better as merchants want safe roads to facilitate trade and encouraged commerce at every level of society.
Owing to the time before the orcs were defeated, when it was too dangerous to travel in small groups and live outside of sturdy walls, a group of people on the western fringes of the country live in what are called steadfasts. Steadfasts are family farms in walled compounds. The folk who live in them tend to be hard folks so they can weather the hard times in which they live. After the orc war ends and the merchant class takes control most people abandon the steadfast for simple farms or the rapidly improving city life.
After three generations the steadfast is considered a relic of a difficult past and no longer relevant, though some few continue to farm according to their traditions. This eventually proves sagacious.
The orcs, much like the humans, eventually develope an immunity to the plague, as do the goblins and other monstrous creatures. The orcs begin to strike at the humans again, not as an organized army, because orcs do not organize, but as small groups that destroy unprotected villages and farms.
The disruption to trade is small at first and the Assembly of merchant lords tries to keep the situation under control quietly. Soon however it grows beyond their control.
Within the country there are several factions. There are various religions which compete for influence and wealth and assembly begins to struggle to hold together in the face of a crumbling trade infrastructure and the the general terror and destruction in the countryside. They turn to a powerful church for support which takes over.
A monk, Journ, is from a steading originally but is thrown out by his uncle for endangering another family member. He moves to an abbey and begin training shortly after. There he meets Luthan, a young knight in training, and gains a sense of belonging he has been lacking with his family. Both young men are members of the church known as the Abbeyists.
In the mountains a mercenary group led by a half dwarf named Gorek searched for the source of the destruction of fur trade posts. They discover orcs are the cause and send the news to the Assembly.
Adelia, a young girl who is secretly a witch, trained by her now dead mother, is sent off by her father. She thinks, on a visit to a potential suitor, when truthfully he is trying to get her to safety. He sided with a religious group that provides him with most of his business in a trade war. Another church, one supported by the assembly, gets involved, and a trade war turns into a genocide. he is unaware of the scope or her would not have sent his daughter to visit her suitor’s family, which are members of the religion which is under attack: Abbeyists.
Journ’s father goes missing. He and Luthan set out to find him. He managed trade contracts with merchants on behalf of their church at a nearby city and on a recent trip he did not arrive with the caravan.
Gorek’s band are culling goblins in an area when they find an abbey being burned. Their first thought is of orcs and they charge in to help, and find themselves fighting soldiers from the assembly, specially hired to kill off the Abbeyists and make it look as though it were perpetrated by orcs. The plan is to remove the abbeys this way one at a time to prevent a unified resistance.
Gorek’s band is decimated and he alone escapes and is being hunted.
Adelia arrives with her caravan as more unfortunate witnesses to the crime. She too escapes, and puts pursuers off using a bit of witchcraft. Gorek witnesses the girl’s gift and decides to offer his protection so they can work together to get to safety. She agrees.
Jorn and Luthan meet Gorek and Adelia on the road to the destroyed abbey. Adelia wants to see if her father is okay and Journ hopes to get news of his father so they travel together back to Adelia’s city. There they learn Adelia’s father was executed on trumped up charges, and Journ finds out a man who was travelling with his father leads the group of soldiers that burned down the abbey.
The four are marked as Abbeyist sympathizers and are chased out of the city. They flee into the wilderness. Gorek decides to take them to his family’s ancient home to hide.
Gorek leads them to an abandoned dwarven town. It is underground. The dwarves were reduced by the plague as well, even though they never revealed their presence to the humans. The result was the survivors withdrew into a couple cities, leaving empty towns hidden in several areas.
Journ realizes the Abbeyists could escape to these towns. They head back to his and luthan’s abbey after the pursuers are gone, but unfortunately meet with them on the road. They are near Journ’s family steadfast and so they go there, hoping for asylum. They are taken in and from the walls of the steadfast, they fight off the troupes of the assembly.
Journ’s issues with his family are resolved, but he knows he does not belong. he goes to the Abbeyists and they begin to escape to the underground dwarven towns.
The settlers were mostly refugees, driven by the Ciceral Plague, the most notable being Prince Vancel who brought with him the wealth from the sale of his eastern estates. He set himself up as The Frontier King and named the country for his daughter, Ishreda Imuda, who had been taken by the plague. The king’s personal fear of the plague lead to a ruthless cleansing of the population of the sick, the banning of the use of magic (he suspected the plague to be some fault of the magic users) and burning of any ship from the homeland unless it was a vehicle he specifically sanctioned.
Vancel’s actions appeared to slow the advance of the plague on the new shores while the old country was ravaged into chaos. By the time the first generation of natural born Ishredans reached majority it was clear that the plague had run its course.
The combination of a ban on cross-ocean travel (the work of a xenophobic king and continuing plagues and war in the motherland) and the simple expense and length of the trip lead to a loss of contact with the old world. By the time a second generation had grown to prominence on the new soil (75 Post-Founding) they might have sought to reconnect with their mother country, except that they had new problems.
Initially the Ishredans had settled the coasts and fertile swaths of land just inland. However, with the rise of the second generation, settlers had reached the thickly forested mountains several hundred miles inland. Upon reaching these mountains they encountered several species of humanoid they had never seen before.
Goblins they had found on the coast. These wiry, ape like creatures seemed to breed prolifically and thrive in any forested environment, but the craven creatures were easily driven off by the organized militias of settlers.
Orcs, however, were like goblin’s larger cousins, and would not be so easily dealt with. These brutish creatures were as tall as a man, though more hunched. They were thickly built, often weighing twice as much as a man of the same stature. They were browner than the Ishredans, with golden eyes, and broad upturned, almost boar-like noses. Their teeth were more beast like than a man’s, with sharp canines and short stubby tusks protruding their lower lips. They wore raw animal skins, and often the skins of slain foes. Their weapons were bronze and they favored axes, spears and other weapons that required little metal, because of their difficulty in forging such items. Fortunately the orcs seemed to prefer the mountains or the Ishredan people might never have been able to settle the coast in the first place
Orcs were the most organized of foes the Ishredans would face, and so their most constant challenge for the settlers to contend with, but they were not the only monster that caused them problems.
Trolls were half again as tall as a man, though scrawny with long features. They went about on all fours and wore no clothing like an animal, but showed cunning beyond that of an animal in how they attacked. They generally preferred swamps and boggy areas where their long limbs served them and shorter creatures were stuck in the muck. They also chose choke points along roads where they could ambush their prey: bridges, narrow ridges, and the like. The final testament to their intelligence was in their ability with language. They would learn parts of the language of their prey, just enough to taunt them as they struck.
There were other challenges still. The giants were taller even than trolls, and built more like orcs, though broader still. They carried no weapons, but improvised with rocks or logs when needed. They wore no clothes, and seemed to communicate with language only rudimentarily, and in some derivative of the orcish language.
In addition to their strength the true challenge to fighting the monsters was in how different they were from humans. They did not conquer to attain wealth, nor did they hold land. The orcs might sack a small town, killing every man and child, but taking women for slaves. They would take food and metal and then leave a smoking ruin behind. Any army fighting them would have to pursue them into the wilds where, even if they caught them, they could not count on a standing battle, but instead ambush after ambush, leading them to a giant’s territory where they would then be decimated and would have to retreat.
There was no organized fighting against the monsters. It was too costly in lives and capital. Instead the frontier settlers had to become harder than their foes. They built armored compounds they called steadings with high walls where extended families would live and farm together. They bred large lanky hounds specifically for fighting orcs and driving off goblins. Every man, woman, and child learned how to fight with bow and axe. Every trade post was walled and had a standing troupe of mercenaries to defend it.
The strength of the frontier folks in taking care of their own freed up King Vancel II to focus his efforts on a slash and burn campaign into the mountains. He would send large forces into the wilderness to cut down trees, drain swamps, and simply kill anything they found. These forces began to have some success, though there are mixed explanations for whether it was the slash and burn technique or some other cause that made the monsters fall back deep into the mountains. Either way, Vancel II’s forces might have driven all the way through the mountains had The Merchant War, an uprising of the merchants not started, forcing him to call back his troupes.
The Merchant League, a united group of very wealthy merchants who were sick of loaning the nobility money, hired its own mercenary army and fought the king to a stalemate, forcing him to accept an Assembly of merchant nobility (the old nobility having been forced to pay down their debts, to the point of selling their titles) who would rule Ishreda by consensus, with the exception of a single province where the king retained power.
In the five decades that followed the Assembly ruled with an emphasis on commerce. Competition between merchant nobles prevented any group from attaining too much power, allowing for a freedom for most Ishredans to live as they chose, so long as they paid taxes. The cities flourished and the country sides were kept reasonably safe since this allowed for better commerce.
On the frontier, people began to move out of their steadings and the trading posts began to turn into villages except in the remotest mountains. The steading as a common practice began to fade, with individual farms and large towns becoming more popular.
And so it was that the people were not ready for the return of the monstrous races.
Skovin Havin’s children scattered to the four winds like the ashes of his marriage. The eldest was safely married, at least, and his middle daughter, Sundra was leaving to join her betrothed’s family for her year of service before their marriage. His eldest son Tenrin, was already set to go to the family homestead to live with Skovin’s brothers and their families. It was humbling to admit he needed the family he had left behind, but he was grateful for their willingness to take in a prodigal son’s son. The next younger son was a bit more concerning. He was apprenticing, which would have been wonderful, except the craft was building fine instruments, for which there was little demand and only the rarest of customers could afford to pay with more than promises. Minstrels were only just better than beggars. Still the love of music and the accompanying gift for performance were traits Skovin had passed to his son, and so how could he begrudge the boy his pursuit?
The youngest two children, Journ and Sarah were the only two not already assigned places of refuge in the aftermath of the family’s implosion. Sarah could actually stay with her father. She was only four years old and, while travelling would be hard on her, she was small enough still that is was possible for him to manage her, and feed her on the road.
Journ was not so simple a question. He was eight, and a growing boy who needed to work and learn and would require continual supervision. Should he go with Tenrin to Havinstead, to live with his cousins and learn the old way of life? That would be Journ’s choice if it were left to him. The boy loved his oldest brother, almost worshipped him, and he loved exploring the forests and fields. Skovin was not as certain it would be a good choice. He was reluctant to send his third son away from his chosen faith. The older boys he felt it was clear they would not continue their father’s beliefs, but Journ was more thoughtful, and perhaps more faithful. He had hopes that his youngest son might even attain membership in the brotherhood.
Years ago Skovin had chosen a different religious belief from that of his family and pursued a way of life suited to following that religion. His wife had chosen with him and together they had had six children, whom they had raised to follow in that belief.
Life had not been easy for the family. Skovin studied to enter the brotherhood and was received, but in a role that required him to travel often, leaving his family behind in the care of others of their faith. In addition, his position never allowed them settle for more than a year in any home, as the church called him to work in new regions when new Abbeys were built.
The stress on the children was evident. All of them acted oddly, whether it was Sundra’s aloofness or Journ’s neediness. Tenrin in particular was often violent with his younger brother Davin, and ruled the family with an iron first when Skovin was away. It had been as mystifying to Skovin as it was frustrating. Tenrin had been a sweet child, and he had a sharp mind and a gift for teaching, but he had grown hateful in past years. Father and son now squabbled often and even came to blows.
Perhaps Tenrin had just been more aware of how sour his parents’ marriage grew and did not know how to handle it. Maybe he knew his mother was about town whenever father was away.
How would he have felt had he known that his father knew it too?
Who would not be upset to see such a marriage?
For years Skovin had felt like he had been swimming with sand in his pockets trying to keep his Athra happy. The two had been married for twenty years. When they first met Skovin had been a steading farmer from a third generation homestead. She was the youngest daughter of a wealthy farmer. They had married, not by arrangement, but my eloping and returning a year later after the law said it was no longer legal to annul the marriage nor punish Skovin for what was essentially considered theft of another man’s property.
Skovin had long felt guilty for what he asked of his wife. She wanted to live quietly on a private little farm together as a family, a gift Skovin could not afford to give her. He had hoped that someday he could manage it, but life had only taken them further from their hopes. How could he blame her for abandoning him when it seemed he had abandoned everything he had ever promised her?
Perhaps Journ was better placed in the hands of the rest of the family. There he could learn to work hard, to love the sun on his back and the rain on his face. Skovin had been unable to provide Athra with her dream, but perhaps it was not beyond the reach of their children.
It was still possible his ponderous son would find his father’s faith. It had not been beyond Skovin’s reach, and Journ was already more educated in the ways of the divine than Skovin had been until adulthood.
Journ had twice before visited the family steading, though his memories came only in flashes: picking small bitter apples in green shade, a roaring fire at sunset while father played his lap harp and the whole family sang, and most prominently, the sight of the homestead from the crest of the hill, where you could see the houses and barns ringed in a palisade wall of great maple trunks on a field of green or gold grass.
It was to this sight that Jorn realized he was coming home. He began to cry, not for the first time since leaving their house a week previous.
He had cried when his mother left, but this time was different. These were tears of relief, as though he had been swept down a storm swollen river trying only to get a breath and suddenly was snatched from the current and delivered to dry land.
At first his tears were the quiet kind, and if Tenrin noticed he pretended not to. Jorn had hoped his emotions would ease as they approached the steading, not wanting to embarrass himself before his older brother or the cousins he had not seen in so long, but instead they only grew stronger. soon sniffing accompanied his wet eyes, and then soft sobs. No effort of his could quell the force of it.
As they neared the door Tenrin turned and looked down on him, a look of disgust on his face “What is wrong with you? You begged to come here.”
Jorn could only sob louder in response. He could not speak, knowing it would only come out like a long bray. He could not say that he was crying because it was finally safe to; he could finally look back on the loss of everything they had ever had, everything that they were, and see it as having passed. He did not have to be brave anymore.
Then they came around the side of the palisade to where the gate stood eternally open, where Aber and Cathla stood waiting, and Jorn’s cry grew to outright bawling and he rushed into his aunt’s arms, and she held him, and said it would be alright.
As she did it Jorn wanted to explain that he already knew it would be alright, and that this was why he was safe to cry, but some part of him knew she would not understand, and it felt so good just to be held, and so maybe it would be alright just to let her hold him, even if she did not understand why.
In the cool silver of early twilight Gorek stood on the bare face of a peak looking down on the ruin of Halfcastle. It might not have qualified as a ruin really. Ruins were the remnants of great buildings, slowly reclaimed by nature. Halfcastle could not claim to have ever been great, and nature had had no part in the trade post’s fall, nor had nature had time to assert her dominance over the land. Halfcastle had been sacked.
Gorek was an oddly built man. He was a head shorter than most, but wider in the shoulder and long in arm. He was also very hairy. His arms, chin, and back were wooly with black hair, though his pate was bald and smooth. Though his men were taller than he, all felt small under his black gaze and without being asked, maintained a polite distance so as never to loom over their commander.
Gorek and his Bloody Cullers were here at the behest of the local lord in Alner, the city downriver of this particular trade post. Rumors had been circulating of dark things in the mountains lately, with the disappearance of trappers and merchants, leading to a general disruption of the fur trade. Gods forbid anything come between a petty lord and his tax money.
The Cullers had arrived in time to find Halfcastle, burned to black ash in the valley below.
Plank, Gorek’s second stopped a half dozen strides from his commander and reported, “Sir, the scouts are back. No sign of an army nearby. One of them found something that might be a bandit camp, abandoned about a mile out. There was something odd about it though.”
Gorek looked back at the tall plain man who so resembled his name. “Where is this scout?”
“Here sir.” Plank made a gesture and a gray clad archer came to Plank’s side and saluted with his right fist to the opposite shoulder.
“Odd how, Jezur?”
“Bandits leave trash, sir.”
“And there was none at this camp?”
“Large feet, sir. Large tracks with soft soled boots.”
Jezur held his hands showing a length half again as long as the foot of a man.
Gorek turned back to the battleground below. “Let’s go down and have a look at Halfcastle.”
“Sir, what is it?” Plank’s voice betrayed more fear than his countenance let on.
“We’ll know soon enough, I am sure.”
With the assurance of the scouts all was clear, Gorek took a few of his men and went down to the ruins of the trade post. The stone tower stood as it had for decades, leaning slightly towards to the valley it over looked. Around the base great timberwork walls had secured a small market where trappers traded pelts for other goods and supply depot reprovisioned the Highway Watchmen. Now it leaned over half burned rubble. The timberworks wall was mostly intact, but they framed ashes, and little else.
Within the scouts went to work seeking signs of battle. They found none. Not even partially burned bones, spent arrows, or otherwise. It was not as though Halfcastle had slipped peacefully into the night, instead of being burned to scorched earth.
Gorek noted something odd. The tower was scorched black far up the side, along with all the ground around it like it had been the center of a great bonfire. The tower door, a sturdy thing about a hand thick and bound with steel, was in place, but its hinges had been ripped from the tower stone, the door merely set in place.
“Has anyone checked the tower yet?” Gorek asked a scout nearby.
Gorek signalled a half dozen men to follow him and headed toward the door. The sterile ashes outside had not prepared him for what he found within. Human remains, stacked in heaps. Not bodies piled one atop another, but rather pieces of ragged disjoined sinew cut in a disturbingly familiar way. “Get me some light.” Gorek said, covering his face with the crook of his arm. A moment later a torch was lit from a man’s pack and Gorek saw his suspicion confirmed.
“Sir, what is that?”
“Leftovers. I think we found someone’s smoke house.” He gingerly nudged a human thigh, turning it over to better expose large bite marks to the meat there.
“Sir, those bites look-“
“I know. No animal did this. Least, not an animal we know.” He looked round at the crescent shape of a bit mark that closely resembled that of a man, though easily half again as large.
The first year at the homestead had gone by quickly. Jorn walked with the sheep to and from different fields where they grazed, and ostensibly guarded them from predators, though realistically there were few wolves or even coyotes out during the day, and the sheep fold was located within the steading walls. He also helped with the shearing, with milking the cows, gardening, cleaning, and myriad other small chores. These were the work of children, and since Aber had no other small children in his household, they fell to Jorn.
At first Jorn was content to work hard and show his worth to his family. Their praise boyd him and he lived for it. Then gradually he began to feel something odd. It was as if they were impressed that he did any task; like he was a guest who labored because it was good manners instead of a contributing member of the household. They praised him too much for someone who belonged, who was just doing his share. Over the months Jorn at first continued to labor hard, waiting for the day when they would change how they saw him, make him one of their own. He saw it happen with Tenrin. Jorn’s big brother went with Aber’s own son to town and the two worked and drank together, and laughed hard at jokes that Jorn did not understand. Aber himself would holler at Tenrin to get to work, and send him to a job as quickly as he did his own children, but with Jorn this was not the case. Instead he would ask, or even leave it to Cathla who would come and cajole him gently as though he might refuse.
That sense of safety Jorn had felt upon first arriving at the steading had begun to decay. When will they see my willingness? When will they just holler at me to get to my job? When will I be one of them? Soon every bit of praise was bitter in Jorn’s stomach. Every gentle request began to feel like a rejection.
Jorn grew morose. He still willingly accepted any chore, he was shy of confrontation, but he began to despise those who treated him so gently. Didn’t they know him? Couldn’t they see he was not some fine pottery to be handled with such care? They thought of that crying little boy and thought him weak.
With these thoughts came resentment and the effect of Jorn’s resentment was self justification for dishonesty
It started small.
Jederic, Aber’s youngest who was of an an age with Tenrin, earned money for himself, as was the custom for many young men in a steading, by breeding sheep of his own. These few extra he sheared on his own time and collected the wool himself to sell separately. The money from Jederic’s work was his to keep or spend as he willed, and Jedric usually spent his by going to the nearby village for a pint with some friends.
Jederic was not especially clever, and was generally trusting, and so it was that he was never careful about revealing where he hid his earnings.
Surely he won’t miss a few coins, especially since all he does is drink them away at the pub. Jorn wasn’t even sure why he wanted the money. He only knew that he felt some how more free with it. A bit more independant, and so he sneaked a few farths from the knot in the rafter of the barn where Jedric hid them, moving them instead to flag stone in the floor of the smithy.
It was only two weeks later that Jorn begged and was allow to go along on a visit to town with his cousin Gondri, Aber’s oldest, where he hoped to spend his lucre. He had been able to think of little else since placing the money in its hiding place.
They came to the village via the dirt road on the north west end of town. Candorford was a village built around a trade post generations before, when the area had been more wild, though there was little sign of that now. There was no wall and the houses were mostly single story waddle and daub affairs with morning smoke pouring from chimneys for the few wealthier residents and from holes in the thatch for those who were less fortunate. The village traced the winding pattern of a creek that was little more than knee deep most of the year, but turned to a torrent every spring with the rains and runoff from the snowy hillsides. A ford had been built with great pieces of slate for those wetter times at this place, so giving the village its name.
Gondri had come to town to do business on behalf of the family, and went to speak with a merchant who was often in Canderford at this time of year. Jorn agreed to meet up with him shortly and immediately started exploring the small market, his hand in his pocket toying with the coins there.
In less than an hour Jorn had spent the coins on a blown glass amulet, tied with a strip of leather. The bead was clear with swirls of blue and green inside, creating a pretty pattern. Jorn imagined it as a wizard’s token, protecting him from the magical spying of his enemies. He pretended as he strode about the village that he was avoiding an evil mage, as a fugitive hero who had drawn the ire of a powerful villain and now could never rest. He could not wait to share the game with Milen in the steading.
Jorn found Gondri by the road as promised and the two set out.
“Jorn, where did you get that amulet?” Gondri asked only a short way down the road.
Jorn felt a sudden panic. He had thought no one would notice the little amulet. Obviously there was no where he could have gotten money to purchase it himself. Would Jedderic have noticed his money was missing? Would he have mentioned it to his brother? It seemed far fetched, but Jorn’s heart began to race nonetheless. “I found it.”
Gondri said nothing more at the moment and Jorn was naive enough to hope the issue would rest there. His hopes were dashed when that night Cathla approached him in barely concealed rage.
“Where did you get the money for that bead?” She did not shout, but her tone was hard. At this point the glass amulet hung out if sight inside Jorn’s shirt. Her finger pointed accusingly at his chest.
“I found it.” Panic paralysed Jorn sufficiently he could not begin to elaborate on his lie.
“You didn’t buy it with Jederic’s missing money?” To say she sounded skeptical would suggest Cathla believed the tale even for a moment. She was simply pushing him to confess his crime.
Jorn felt the hated tears coming to his eyes. “I did not steal anything! I found it on the ground!”
“Money was just laying on the ground?”
“No, the bead” Jorn wanted to keep the story the same, fearing being caught in the lie.
“Some of Jed’s money went missing a couple weeks ago. He knew that you knew where he hid it, but wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt. Now you come up with this story about finding a bead on the ground. Why don’t you just tell the truth?”
Jorn’s vision was blurred and his face was hot with anger. He could see that Jedderic and Aber had come to stand over him too. His gaze found the ground. Anger and shame roiled in his stomach. He wanted to escape, run away, but he could think of no means to do so. Any where he went he had to return to this place, and running away would be as good a proof of his guilt as anything.
Why did they have to attack him like this? Could they not see he was just a poor kid who didn’t have anything. Everyone loved Jedderic and he had everything he wanted. Jorn was just the child they had to take care of. It didn’t hurt Jedderic to lose a couple coins. Couldn’t they see that? Why couldn’t they just leave Jorn alone?
It was ridiculous considering how much time Jorn had spent wishing to be considered one of them.
Then he had an idea. “If you want my necklace you can have it. I didn’t steal it, but i don’t care!” He pulled the leather thong from over his head and flung the necklace at Jedderic before turning and running for the front gate of the steading.
Once outside the great gate jorn sat in the tall grass and cried. Maybe now they would feel guilty for how they treated him. Cathla who never tried to be his mother, Aber who ignored him much of the time, everyone else who didn’t want him around. They could all think they just falsely accused him and took his amulet away. Now they could feel like they stole from him. Later, when Jorn went back they would pretend like they had never done anything wrong and he could pretend the same and it would all go back to normal.
Instead when Jorn returned to Aber’s house he found his uncle Dein waiting for him. “Get your things, Jorn. You are coming to live with me.”
Gorek’s group neared one of the traps he had set and what he hoped would be a campsite for whatever was attacking the trade posts. The men moved along the narrow trail on foot, passing between scrub oak and large granite boulders high in the mountain pass.
There were twenty five men in the group, spread out into three clusters. The advance team was composed of archers. They were good shots and had keen eyes for spotting any ambush that might lay before them. The middle group was the largest, with the bulk of the men who acted as raider infantry. They were quick and deadly men who knew their way around a battlefield and had often survived the thickest fighting. In the event of an attack the archers would volley and then draw back to these men for cover.
The rear guard was a mix of infantry and ranged. They harbored no doubts about the importance of their job. All of the men by now knew their enemy moved fast and could come up behind them as easily as from in front. No one wanted to be caught unaware by an enemy they had come to fear and respect. Every small village where they arrived too late was the same story: structures burned, people eaten like livestock, no survivors, no dead orcs either.
The men had decided they must be orcs slowly, first as whispered stories around the fire about the time when the creatures had terrorized the western frontier. They were said to be large, and nearly unstoppable, coming in the night and striking hard, destroying all, and then leaving before a force of soldiers large enough to fight them could be marshalled. These beasts fit the descriptions to be sure. Eventually the men had simply begun referring to them as orcs, even without confirmation, simply because it gave name to their quarry.
After several months of fruitless chasing Gorek had taken a new tactic. He had begun to go to trade posts before they were attacked and set traps in the forests at sites where he thought the orcs might camp. The Cullers continued to investigate sacked and raised trade posts, but with less urgency, instead focussing on checking traps near the sites to see if he had got anything.
The traps were simple bear traps, designed to spring shut on the leg of any creature unfortunate enough to step on one, except they were not set up on game trails the way a bear trap would be. Instead they were set at good camp sites for anyone who might be travelling light by foot on the game trails instead of the roads. They had specifically scouted out sites in several places, and even set traps at sites they thought the orcs had used before.
They rounded a ridge on the narrow game trail, coming to an area where they had set a trap previously. The archers sent a scout in first who crept into the level area, sheltered by long needled pines. He looked around for a moment and then signalled the rest to approach. The archer then moved out to establish a parameter and the other scouts moved to do the same while the rest of the men moved into the camp to rest.
Gorek examined the area. He had a practiced eye and could see the signs that someone had been through recently. The thick beds of pine needles were stirred up, heaped in several places into mounds that made good beds. It was actually a little messier than previous orc camps they had come across, but it was still cleaner than a bandit camp would be.
No sooner had the mercenaries taken a seat than the creature was upon them. It launched itself out of one of the needle beds and with something between a roar and a battle cry it threw itself into the spot where the majority of the men sat. Its axe was tarnished bronze on a crude shaft about the length of a man’s arm, and the orc used it to good effect, swinging it hard and as much crushing as cutting into the first man’s head.
The others were quickly on their feet, weapons drawn, but the orc did not let them form up. Instead he charged, smashing down a man’s hand axe with his own and grabbing the man’s face in a huge hand. It gave a hard jerk, breaking the man’s neck with sickening crack before throwing him into two other men who attacked from behind.
None of them had seen anything like it before. It had the basic form of a man, but was at least half again as heavy, though only a head taller. It had long arms and broad shoulders. Its hair was black and started halfway back on its scalp before cascading down its back. The creature’s face was man like, though the mouth was larger and the eyes smaller and its nose was flat and wide. Though the beast had no beard, it was hairy along the arms and chest. It wore furs on its waist and thick hide bracers are its wrists.
So this is an orc Gorek thought.