The expeditionary crew, which consisted of Soren, Maya, the Madam, Aryia, and Skullcrusher met at the Madam’s Manor. They mapped out the fastest route possible while avoiding known ork territories using Arakim’s atlas. It would take them around Perdinitium, rather than through it, and take them instead along the shore. Until they reached the prairie called Ukulu, then they would travel along the river there until they reached the base of the mountain. At that point, they would cross the stone bridge that could be found there and travel through a small thicket, before coming to Amaranch Fields, then pass through Dormu’s Hollow, and, finally, reach Zapad. A nearly seven-day journey in all, nearly half the length of the usual route. Once they had agreed upon the route and secured the necessary provisions, they departed.
For most of the day, they walked, stopping only twice. The first to eat lunch, the second halfway between noon and sundown when they encountered an unexpected encampment.
As they passed beyond the edge of Perdinitium and over the hills which wrapped around Ukulu, they saw a hovel, or perhaps more adequately described as a manor – one unspoken of in Arakim’s Atlas. It was larger than many of the houses in Ortus, though certainly not as large as the Madam’s Manor, and was surrounded by a garden that stretched a good distance all around it.
In the garden was a man who wore a royal blue robe and a silver circlet.
Soren called out, and the man looked up from the plant he was watering and smiled. He looked not much older than the Madam appeared, and it seemed that he was very well-groomed until recently. He had hints of black stubble that matched his black hair, which was mildly frizzed, and he had small smears of dirt on his face – far less than Soren or Maya had.
As they approached, he set down the watering can he held and waved, placing one hand on the sword that hung from his waist. The silver plating on the hilt particularly caught Soren’s eye – and likely Maya’s, though for different reasons.
“Hail, friends!” the man in the blue robe called. “What bringeth you through my demesne?”
The man spoke an archaic form of Shelezar, though still recent enough that Soren could understand him.
He looked to his companions before opening his mouth to reply to the man, only to be cut off by Leondrea, who responded in the same archaic dialect.
“Hail, man. We fare from the burg of Ortis to that of Zapad. We bid thy goodwill in passage through thy demesne if thy wouldst permit it.”
The man nodded. “I would permit thee passage, but I speak to the man which leadeth thee. What say, friend?”
Soren raised a brow as he glanced at Leondrea, whose head recoiled as her face twisted into a mixture of confusion and disgust.
He looked back to the man, attempting to speak the dialect, though failing quite horribly. “I wonder, man, what is thou name?”
The man furrowed his brow. “Zounds! I see now why the woman speaks for thee, for an ox whose tongue had been ripped out could speak better. Nevertheless, my name is Alonzo of Peldon. And I would permit you passage if ye would do this thing for me: you see, I am the lord of a castle that is nearly a mile to the north – but my servants which reside there turned against me, the scoundrels. They chased from my throne and force me now to live here in this small villa. My complaints are scant, for it is a good place to be, but, alas, there are some heirlooms which I would like to have back. If ye would retrieve these heirlooms for me, I would permit thee passage through my demesne.”
“We will-” Soren hesitated as he attempted to speak “-do that.”
Alonzo smiled once more and returned to watering his plant. “Very well. I shall see you upon your return.”
Leondrea clicked her tongue. “What heirlooms dost thy need us to retrieve?”
Alonzo looked up in surprise as he set the watering can back down. “Ah, yes, right.” Alonzo proceeded to list off a number of items, though Leondrea managed to negotiate down to three: a platter that had his family’s faces painted on it, a ceremonial sword, and his ceremonial crown, which he hadn’t worn since he was crowned lord of Ukulu.
With that, they set out in the direction of the castle.
Once they were a good distance away, Maya asked, “Why is it we’re helping this guy? We could just pass through.”
“Because it’s the honorable thing to do,” The Madam replied, “and we don’t know what he’s capable of, especially since Arakim didn’t mention anything about him or his ‘demesne’ on the atlas. He has to be at least 400 years old based on his speech, and he looks about a tenth of that.”
“Besides,” Soren added, “more friends in a place like this can never hurt.”
“Even if they think an ox can speak better than you?”
“An ox with its tongue cut out,” Aryia chuckled.
After a quarter hour of walking, the castle was in sight. The group hid behind a shrub as they watched from afar, Soren peering through a spyglass.
“Looks like its guarded by orks – I thought he said his servants forced him out.”
“He did,” Leondrea said, “maybe the orks forced them out. Or worse.”
“Maybe the orks were his servants,” Maya offered, “maybe we’re just walking into a trap that he set up.”
“Regardless,” Leondrea said, “we said that we would retrieve the heirlooms for him, so we will. Tell us about the castle.”
“It looks…” Soren hesitated for a moment, “It looks orkish in design. There’s a wall around the outside, and a keep in the middle. The walls are lined with stone spikes and thorned coil along the top. I’m beginning to doubt more and more that Alonzo is who he claimed. Looks there’s a drain hole in the bottom of the wall on the south side. If we sneak around, we might be able to get in through there without them noticing. We would just need to remove the grate somehow.”
“Do you know how hard it is to remove a grate?” Leondrea snapped.
The Madam rolled her eyes. “Very.”
“We could just send Skullcrusher through the front gate,” Maya said.
Soren pursed his lips in approval and nodded. “Or we could have him pull the grate off.”
Maya smiled. “Or we could just abandon this fool to whatever and continue our journey.”
Soren and Leondrea both gave Maya a disapproving look.
“We’re doing this,” Leondrea declared.
After about another hour of discussing possible ways of getting in to the castle, the group finally landed on having Maya take a closer look.
She snuck through the tall grass up to the walls and began looking around before finding a trapdoor in a group of foliage near the wall.
She returned to the group and they – spread apart so as to avoid all of them getting caught if one of them should be and so that they were smaller objects in the orks’ vision – snuck back, leaving Aryia by the shrub as her combat prowess and various expertise related to robbery was limited. Skullcrusher, as well, stay behind to guard her.
The trapdoor was old and rotten, covered in fungus. The Madam recoiled in disgust, just barely muffling her own cry at the sight of it.
Maya, paying the disgustingness of the door no mind, reached down and opened it, revealing a wooden ladder, covered in much of the same rot, that led into a dark passage below.
Without hesitation, Maya made her way down the ladder.
The other two decided it would be best to make a quick rope ladder to make it down, on account of the ladder might collapse under their weight.
Taking the rope from his pack, Soren tied knots at regular points along it to act as rungs before lowering it down and tying it to the strongest shrub he could find nearby.
The two climbed down before Soren produced a lantern from his pack and used the lighter he’d gotten from Otto. It became quickly apparent that this passage was meant to be used as a means of escape by the residents of the castle should it come under siege. It was quite short – perhaps only a few meters long, before coming up to a wooden wall that seemed to be the back side of a shelf. A slight bit of torchlight peaked around it, prompting Soren to quickly put out his lantern before peering through the cracks.
The passage led into the dungeon of the central keep. Not too far from the shelf they hid behind was a cell, where many human prisoners sat on mats, sleeping with their backs to the walls. An ork sat on a chair, picking his nose and flicking boogers across the room, with a battleaxe leaned up against the wall next to him.
Through the other side, Soren could see a staircase that (probably) led up to the main floor, guarded by another ork leaned up against the wall that seemed to be sleeping on his feet.
Soren retreated momentarily and explained the situation to the others before they devised a plan.
They all prepared themselves behind the shelf before Soren shoved it out of the way. Maya leapt out of the left side, sliding across the ground before cutting the back of the seated orks ankles as Leondrea threw one of her daggers at the other.
The dagger sunk into its exposed neck and it let out a muffled cry as it ripped the blade out, preparing to throw it back, only to be interrupted by another dagger going through its eye. The ork guarding the stairs slumped to the ground as the seated ork slumped out of its chair, collapsing to the ground as it failed to stand.
It let out a cry, quickly stifled by Soren placing a sword to its throat. It drew in a quick breath before swallowing nervously.
“How many of you are there in this castle,” he demanded, “and why are you here?”
The ork gulped as its eyes flashed back and forth between the sword and Soren’s face. It spoke in broken Shelezar, demonstrating a familiarity with the vocabulary, but not the grammar. “Belong we. Not belong you.”
Soren looked at the other two with him before focusing back on the ork. “What about Alonzo?”
The ork snarled. “Steal Alonzo. Builted forefathers.”
“Alonzo stole the castle from you?” Leondrea interjected.
The ork wobbled his head.
Maya and Soren exchanged confused looks as they were unfamiliar with the gesture, but Leondrea offered, “That’s a yes.”
“So,” Soren continued, “Alonzo stole the castle from you, and you just stole it back?”
“So what?” Maya asked.
Soren ignored her question. “What were your plans with your prisoners?”
The ork growled. “Depends.”
“What does he have to do?”
The ork smiled, baring its sharp teeth. “Die.”
Soren looked to Leondrea.
“Why do we care?” Maya snapped, quiet so that her voice didn’t carry up the stairs, but loud enough to grab the others’ attention. “It’s not like they’re human. You wouldn’t spare an elf like this, would you?”
“No,” Soren answered, “but orks were once human. Elves never were.”
“Who do we side with, then?” Leondrea asked, “The human who lied to us about why he was chased from his castle, or the violent marauders bred for murder?”
Soren hesitated for a moment. “That’s a good question.”
Soren stood for a moment before the ork interrupted his train of thought by gripping the blade against his neck.
“Please,” the ork said, “kill me you. Better than living with failure me.”
Maya let out a scoff. “Honestly, they’re just pitiful. It’d be better if they were all dead.”
“They were bred for war,” Leondrea said, “Back when the giants ruled the world, if they were injured they were useless. They would be thrown away and replaced by a new one.” Her eyes were visibly damp. “That sort of mistreatment just prevailed in their culture. They shouldn’t be subjects of pity, but compassion.”
She looked in the ork’s eyes, like pits of tar. “What is your name?”
The ork snarled. “Karkog.”
“Well, Karkog,” Leondrea said, “I happen to have a way that you can live another day, without failure.”
She reached into the bag attached to her hip and pulled out a small folded piece of paper, bound with a string. She untied it, revealing a mass of crushed leaves within. She knelt down as she took a small pinch of the leaves and held them in her hand. “Chorklenya once lived in Ortus, you know. Before she was chased out by those who wouldn’t tolerate elves in their midst.” She spat on the leaves in her hand and kneaded the spit and leaves together in her palm. “While she lived in Ortus, she taught me a few things – healing remedies, mostly. Things that would heal scrapes and bruises. Even broken bones. Things that would be helpful in battle.”
Soren raised a brow as Leondrea scooted across the floor, closer to the ork.
The leaf-saliva mixture was now a paste.
The ork released his hand from Soren’s sword as he eyed Leondrea suspiciously.
She took a scoop of the paste with her finger and reached for the ork’s ankle.
He flinched away before relaxing as she spread the paste where Maya had cut him.
Leondrea began speaking in orkish and Karkog responded in kind. At several points, she paused to relay information she learned to the others. Namely, that the prisoners would be spared if Alonzo died, but they would all be executed in his place if he didn’t. He knew this when he ran and abandoned his people.
Once she finished rubbing in the mixture, she placed her palm over the wound and began chanting in some unknown language. Halfway through the chant, she pulled a small flower from her belt pouch. As she chanted, the flower began to wilt, before catching fire – though it didn’t seem to burn her hand. When the flower was reduced to ashes, Leondrea finished chanting. She dropped the flower, which fell to the floor and scattered into nothing.
“You will still be unable to walk properly for some time,” she said to the ork in Shelezar, “but the tendon will heal. You will be able to walk again.”
The ork replied in his own native tongue.
Leondrea smiled softly as she looked to Soren, then back to the ork. “Not if you come with us. It is within ork tradition that you cannot execute the member of another clan is it not?”
The ork squinted at Leondrea, then at Soren, then at Maya. “Correct.”
Leondrea’s smile strengthened as she stood, holding her hand out to the ork. “Then you’re ours now.”
Soren gave Leondrea a mildly pensive look (Maya’s was not so mild), but shrugged to indicate his acceptance of the ork into their group.
“What now?” Soren asked.
“Now we bring the orks Alonzo’s head.”
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