A moment later, there was a cry and another figure emerged from the undergrowth on the far side of the clearing. An orc. Not one she recognised. Where there is one orc, there will be others. Her grandmother's lesson. She froze, bow ready, hand on her quiver.
"Hola, hunter." he shouted. "You have taken our prize! Three hours I have been hunting him!"
The orc was naked to the waist, which was rare to see, and he had no arm-wraps or neck-wraps only a thick leather and fur warskirt. He was covered in swirling white and red marks - smudged - warpaint perhaps. He had several javelins, and a spear - which he immediately raised above his head in both hands, lengthwise, holding himself straight on to her as if intentionally creating the largest possible target. Two more orcs stepped out of the trees. They wore leather armour, and carried spears of their own. They did not draw closer. They did not look to be Druj.
"May I rest my spear?" asked the orc politely after a few moments. She nodded. He lowered his arms, and leant on his spear as he watched her with dark, hard-to-read eyes.
"I am Haku," he said. "Of the Great Forest tribe."
"You're a long way from home," she said cooly. She moved forward to recover her arrow. She had not expected to encounter orcs here in the Song.
"Our herbalist visits with the steading of Peakedge, and it had been three days, and we were feeling cooped up." he shrugged, assuming that she knew how it was. She did indeed. "We went to hunt, and came upon a path through the woods - a hunters trail we thought. Yet as we walked along it... it must have been a spirit path. I have never felt such joy in simply walking, our legs ate up the ground and when we realised that the sun was low we had covered many more miles than we expected. We camped, and woke refreshed, but hungry."
"That was to be our breakfast." He nodded to the deer, then glanced up at the sky. "Our dinner, now."
"That was a trod," she said. Did this orc really not know what a trod was?
"Much is explained, then," he said as understanding washed over his face. "Thank you. They are a marvel. I feel I could march all the way back to Peytaht along such a road and do it in a day! They say that these things are all over Therunin?"
"All over the Empire," countered Tora without thinking. She was aware that now she was the subject of the orcs intent scrutiny.
"I did not know that," he said slowly. "I thought that it was just... Then your stridings do walk outside Therunin? Outside the forest? To other forests?"
Tora shrugged one shoulder. She was not sure if she should tell this orc any more but there was something about his manner that inclined her to talk to him rather than just take her deer and retreat.
"This forest of Therunin is very fine, but sometimes it feels... smaller than it should." he said absently, almost to himself. She understood that feeling as well.
"I will make a deal with you, Navarr!" he said suddenly, shaking himself out of his reverie. "We have herbs and spices and bread,, and the tools to put them to good use, and a little beer from last night. We will help you skin and prepare the deer and while Tuko and Hama cook us some fine steaks to fill our bellies, you will tell us stories of the trods and the places they go! Is that a fair exchange?"
In spite of herself she smiled back.
"That seems fair, but let me instead suggest that you come with me back to my camp, and there we cut and skin the deer together, and talk about trods while you and your companions tell me and my companions stories of the Great Forest and the Barrens? That seems fairer."He barked a laugh, startling a brace of birds from the brush, and held out his meaty hand for her to take it. They shook, and then set to the preparations for dragging the deer back to the camp where the other Navarr waited.
Great Forest Orcs
Following a misunderstanding, the orcs of the Great Forest now appreciate that performing Rivers of Life in a territory with a vallorn may be dangerous. After considerable internal wrangling, they have decided to store the ritual text in a safe place in preparation for when they might be able to use it when they return to the Barrens after the Druj are defeated. Some of them are irritated - why were they given the text if not to cast the ritual?. Others are more philosophical. Perhaps in time the Empire will grant them other magics and if nothing else the ritual might be traded with others for something useful. Blessing of New Spring at least has proved somewhat useful and will continue to do so.
The orcs of the Great Forest are now a common sight across Therunin. They trade with the Navarr, and while they have not built any structures outside of the Lower Tarn Valley, several of their apothecaries have taken temporary residence at Peakedge Stead offering their skills as healers to visitors and residents alike. A few have crossed the border into Reikos to visit High Chalcis to see the gardens there and apparently been greatly impressed by the scale and grandeur. Thanks to the weirwood gained from their agreement with the Empire regarding the Thimble, they now have an increasing supply of herbs from their own gardens, and a few have built actual farms in the Tarn Valley where they tend goats and cows.
Indeed, thanks to the largesse of the people of Therunin, and the assistance of the people of Reikos, the Great Forest Orcs are stronger than they have been in several years. They no longer require the bounty of herbs they have been provided - they thank the Navarr and the Highborn for their aid in their time of need. With the generous aid provided by these two nations, they needed slightly less than a year to recover.
Work on the Holt of the Oak has completely stalled, however. With 70 wains of weirwood and 20 Thrones still outstanding, the orcs are beginning to doubt it will ever be finished. They are sanguine about this - they offered to build the Holt, the Empire asked them to do so, then changed its mind. It happens. A shame - it would have been a useful shield against the depredations of the Druj - but it is not as if they have nothing better to be doing.
The Gardens of High Chalcis will begin providing their benefit to the herb gardens of Reikos after the Summer solstice. Likewise the penalties to herb gardens and businesses in Therunin will end after the Summer solstice.
They are much more interested right now in the trods. The Great Forest Orcs were aware, of course, of the importance that their Navarr hosts placed on the thee magical paths but the role of the stridings in relation to them was a little less well known. For the last few months they have been asking questions, some quite probing, about what the trods are, what they do, and perhaps most significantly where they go. They seem very interested that they cover the entire Empire, and are full of life-giving power.
Shortly before the Summer Solstice, Chief Valack dispatches two elders and one of the tribe's warriors to speak with the Navarr of Therunin. A number of orcs from all works of life have requested permission to accompany the Navarr on their travels across the Empire. Perhaps a hundred all told at the moment, they are interested in exploring the trods and perhaps seeing more of the Empire. They are prepared to participate in any rites or ceremonies the Navarr use as part of their work, provided that is acceptable.
The Great Forest orcs are not prepared to simply set off on the trods by themselves. They are confident they understand their position in Therunin, among the Navarr. They are certain they have the protection of the law while they remain there, and for the most part are happy to continue building their new lives in the Lower Tarn Valley. Rather, they want cast-iron permission from the Empire to travel its lands without fear of being accused to spying or trespassing. Most would be prepared to take the word of the Navarr senator, but it seems Chief Valack is only prepared to give them leave to travel with the Navarr if the "Elders of the Empire", or the entire Navarr people agree.
The chiefs preference is for a Senate motion, ideally raised by one of the Navarr senators. His council of elders have stressed that they would also be content with a suitably worded Statement of Principle from the Navarr Assembly provided that statement passed with a greater majority. If either or both were secured, it would be likely that as many as a hundred orcs would seek stridings in Therunin with which to travel over the coming seasons. Over time, this number might well increase.
Following their discussions with the Navarr of the steadings, they are aware that the stridings travel many different routes. The orcs are not interested in traveling in a single group - they would ideally split up into groups of five or six and travel with multiple stridings for the next year, returning to the tribe shortly before the Autumn Equinox next year.
The Great Forest orcs are not true nomads, but they are used to traveling long distances and hunting and foraging along the way. While most of those interested in walking along the trods are younger orcs, scouts and hunters, there are orcs from many walks of life who have expressed a desire to see the empire. Some desire to visit the Empire's forests, which they believe are remnants of their own Great Forest of Peytaht. Others have heard travellers tales of the Brass Coast where there are no trees at all, or of the great camps of the League where stone buildings cluster so close together that you cannot see between them. Still others simply want to travel, to see new things. A small number seem more interested in the role of the trods in weakening the vallorn, and see travelling the trods as a way to repay their hosts - and fight the abomination that occupies the heart of the forest - something that seems to particularly concern them.
There are two potential complications to the request of the Great Forest.
Firstly, while they suggest that they are not interested in spying, the trods cover the entire Empire. These orcs would be free to go wherever the striding they were accompanying went. These are not stupid people - and many of them are trained scouts and hunters. It would be impossible for them not to gain an understanding of the Empire, the layout of its territories, and key points of interest. Over the course of a year, the Great Forest Orcs would build up a pretty good idea of what the Empire looked like. While any maps they produced would be unsuitable for magic, they could easily contain strategic information valuable to the barbarian enemies of the Empire. Many fortifications are visible from the trods, for example.
Secondly, it is possible that some of the briar allies of the Great Forest Orcs would also accompany them on their journeys with the Navarr. Individual stridings would be free to deny the briars a chance to travel with them, and the Navarr as a whole have a certain distrust for that lineage already, but there would be some who would be prepared to allow the human allies of the Great Forest Orcs to travel with them. These humans are widely believed to be followers of a faith founded by the survivors of the Freedom Heresy. It is not clear what danger, if any, they might pose to the Empire if they did accompany a striding, but Vigilance teaches Imperial citizens to be wary.
As foreigners, it is perfectly legal for the briars to walk the trods if the mood takes them. Realistically, wherever the Great Forest Orcs go, their allies are likely to accompany them. In theory, a senate motion or statement of principle could explicitly exclude the briar allies of the orcs from the invitation to travel the Empire. But if they are freedom heretics intent on spreading their false virtue, then the mere fact they were told not to do it might be enough to encourage some of the briars to break off on their own and explore the trods.
For the time being, the Thule remain at peace with the Empire. Yet over the last few months the steady stream of orc merchants coming down through Crow's Ridge into Skarsind, and through the mountains into Varushka, has slowed to a trickle. Perhaps this is only wise - after all it is not clear that the Empire and the Thule will still be at peace by the end of the Summer Solstice.
The Thule have sent two delegations to the Empire - one during the Winter Solstice 381YE, and a second during the Spring Equinox 382YE. Neither meeting resulted in a treaty. As the Summer Solstice approaches, they are dispatching a third - and potentially final - delegation to Anvil to make one last attempt at negotiation. If the Empire is unsuccessful in securing a treaty with the Thule orcs, the existing treaty of 379YE will expire at the end of the Summer Solstice.
There is a little uncertainty as to precisely what this will mean as regards Thule relations. At the moment the Thule are foreigners. Where the provisions of the peace treaty are not clear is what happens to that relationship when the treaty ends. Do the Thule immediately revert to being barbarians? If so, it would mean that it would be illegal to take advantage of agreements such as the Gift of the Dwindling Star or the various opportunities related to the Northern Trade Network become illegal? The magistrates have been considering the question, and may have some guidance for the Senate at the Summer Solstice.
Regardless, Rak Who-Speaks-for-The-Dragons-Undivided will be returning to Anvil for one last round of negotiation. He is intending to arrive around half-past-six on Saturday evening, and as with the previous two meetings expects to have a formal parley with the Ambassador in the Senate building. He has included one other public comment about the meeting - he suggests that the Navarr warlock Merel may wish to ensure that they have prepared a coven for the casting of the Dance of Navarr and Thorn for this time although he gives no details.
Rumblings in the Silver Peaks
Rak, Who-speaks-for-the-dragons-undivided, the Thule ambassador to the Empire, has issued another formal statement to the Empire from the embassy in chilly Miekarova. This time it concerns the situation in Sermersuaq. They are aware of the Jotun, of course, and of the magic the Empire put in place that infused the waters with healing power. Rak does wish to remind the Empire that the Thule also have many people in Sermersuaq, in the Silver Peaks, and that they would take an extremely dim view of magic that harmed those people being performed without prior agreement from the Dragons themselves. Rak further mentions that the Thule are more than capable of offering magical assistance to the campaigns in the Silver Peaks, should any allies there be prepared to negotiate with them to receive their aid.
Furthermore, they are aware that the Jotun may well conquer the entire southern half of Sermersuaq. The Dragons have made it clear that if the Jotun do so, they are prepared to negotiate with the Empire a route to transport the mithril from their northernmost mithril mine through the Silver Peaks into Skarsind. On the other hand, if the Empire expects the Jotun to attempt to conquer the Pride of Ikka's Tears the Thule are prepared to move their own armies in to take the region before the Jotun do so - should a peace treaty be reached and the Empire request it. In both cases they would expect to claim some of the bounty of the mine - but that would be a matter for the Ambassador to Otkodov, Yevgeni Katzev.
While the focus of the Silver Peaks campaign is on the Jotun, obviously, some scouts report that there is movement on the slopes of the mountains. The Thule have certainly moved additional armies into the region. On the other side of the Empire, in Karsk, the Thule have likewise moved additional armies into Krevsaty. According to Imperial scouts, they have again raised a magical fortress in the hills they control which glitters with ice and wicked iron spikes on its walls and towers. Perhaps this is perfectly innocent. The Thule could simply be taking steps to defend themselves against the Empire in the event they fail to agree a treaty. On the other hand it is also possible that they are preparing to invade as soon as the current treaty collapses.
Of course the worst possible outcome would be if the Thule chose to break the treaty and launch a surprise attack against the Empire. The Thule have made no secret of the fact that they have had three years of peace in preparation for the end of the treaty. Provided the Grendel have definitely been beaten and will now sue for peace, then the Empire might just be able to hold its own in a war against the Jotun, the Druj and the Thule, but it would be a desperately grim situation indeed if the Thule attacked first - or indeed if the Grendel opted to continue their predations in the South. Few people in the Empire believe it has the military strength to fight all four barbarian armies at the same time.
A month after the Spring Equinox there is a small caravan from the Silver Peaks. A group of roughly two dozen bundled up in furs, travelling south from the Thule held region, they skirt the borders of Skarsind making their way to the East Floes, between Big Sister and Little Brother. They are led by a small group of Thule warriors and a single warlock. They encounter no difficulties with the Jotun during their trip, and once within sight of Fjellreven Hall the orcs leave them and return north. Continuing the last few miles on their own, these figures are revealed to be former slaves of the Thule, their freedom paid for by Eska Crowspeaker during the negotiations of the Spring Equinox.
The freed slaves were all formerly of Wintermark, and a roughly equal split of the traditions. They are, perhaps understandably, reticent to talk about their time under the Thule but they explain have been working a farm near Samkǒma in Hengill, Verthandi supplying the settlement with a hardy underground root which, though bland, is filling and resistant to the chill temperatures of the cold north. Their "leader", who gives their name as Thorley, was the newest slave of those freed and they were mostly captured during the Autumn of 378YE during the fighting in the Silver Peaks.
It appears these men and women feel a profound debt to Eska Crowspeaker. Wishing to begin new lives, they seem set on joining her congregation and offering her whatever assistance they may until they have paid off the debt they feel they owe her.
Sword and Shears both cut alikeMarcher Proverb
Although the situation in the Mournwold has continued to improve, part of that success is based on an assumption that there will be a satisfactory outcome to the issue of the Jotun thralls. Sigdór, a representative of the Jotun thralls attended Anvil at the last Spring Equinox where he spoke with Sister Meredith, Bloodcrow Losak, and other prominent priests of the Empire. They appeared to have come to some understanding of the problems at least - and have left the matter in the hands of the Synod to resolve.
For various reasons, Sigdór arrived quite late in the summit. The priests were still talking with this aged thrall as the summit drew to a close. As such there has been little chance to address whatever concerns he has raised. The thralls are patient... but their patience may have limits. If there is to be a closer integration of the former Jotun into the Empire, some resolution to their problems with the Way will need to be found. Anyone interested in finding such a resolution is encouraged to talk to Sister Meredith or Bloodcrow Losak.
"... There will be no peace with the Empire at this time. Should the situation change, the Grendel will be sure to let the Empire know. " The orc drew himself up to his full height, neatly rolling back up the scroll he had been reading from.
There were shouts and jeers from the crowd as they gave voice to their anger and frustration. "You're beaten Orc! We broke you at Solen's Doubt."
If the Grendel was intimidated he didn't show it as he spat back "You killed our mercenaries - plenty more where they came from. But we sank your navy. Burned it to the water - along with your docks. You should learn the value of things."
There were more shouts and jeers and a few of the crowd reached for weapons, but the emissary had already turned round and was walking back up the gang plank. His disinterest as plain as his disdain.
- Additional information about the Grendel threat to fleets in the Bay of Catazar can be found here.
Following the Grendel retreat from Spiral, there is no further communication until a little over a week before the Summer Solstice. A Grendel vessel approaches the docks of Sarvos under a flag of truce. There is grumbling, but the ship is allowed to approach. It is clearly not a warship, being built for speed and maneuverability. A cadre of armed militia meet it at the docks, but when the gangplank is lowered only a single orc comes down to deliver a message.
The orc politely indicates that the Salt Lords have received the kind offer of the Imperial Consul (Aureliana di Sarvos) and have carefully considered their response.
The Salt Lords decline to send an emissary to Anvil this Summer, being busy with Summer festivities of their own. They categorically decline the offered peace treaty, which appears to be entirely to the benefit of the Empire and gives the Grendel nothing of any interest or value. They are disinterested in an embassy at this time, being far too busy with their very profitable embassies in other nations. They have no interest in enriching the Empire with their mithril - which they will need to rebuild and reinforce their armies following the recent atrocities committed by Imperial troops against their people. They believe that the offered interdiction and other assurances are entirely worthless, since the Empire is provably incapable of keeping its word.
On one thing they do agree however. Since the territory of Spiral is now utterly poisoned by the madness the Empire has awoken, they formally cede all control of their lands there to the Empire for as long as the Black Plateau continues to devour everyone within its boundaries. They wish the Empire good fortune in explaining this to the insane remnants of their armies currently camped around Apstrus. If the day ever comes that the Plateau does subside, then they will renew their campaign to reclaim their former territory, but for now they wish the Urizen good luck attempting to reclaim the blasted wasteland they have created. There are other territories on the Bay of Catazar that belong to the Grendel; Spiral can wait.
Solen's Doubt was a setback. A defeat, certainly, but by no means a decisive one they claim. There will be no peace with the Empire at this time. Should the situation change, the Grendel will be sure to let the Empire know.
There is a great deal of heckling from the assembled crowd but the Grendel emissary is clearly not intimidated. After some back and forth they return to their vessel and depart immediately.
There is no news of the Druj.
Hunting is not a sport. In a sport, both sides should know they are in the game.Paul Rodriguez