The Orc Rebellion
As every child know, the lands that now form the Empire were once contested by powerful orc tribes. The First Empress embarked on a crusade to unite the disparate human kingdoms, attacking those tribes that controlled the fertile plains between the human lands. In battle after battle the orcs were driven back. The larger tribes withdrew beyond the Empire’s borders to plot their revenge. The smaller tribes retreated to the mountains and marshes, surviving by raiding and banditry. Thousands were captured and many enslaved, forced to work in the mines in Varushka and other lands.
Despite the privation of their existence, the number of orc slaves in the Empire remained steady as generations grew to adulthood in the Imperial mines. Unable to read or write in the dark tunnels, with slaves moved around at their masters' whim, their histories were slowly forgotten until even the names of their tribes were lost. The few that managed to escape found that those orcs who still fought the Empire treated them even more harshly than their Imperial masters.
The Rebellion Begins
The orc rebellion began in the summer of 322YE when a disastrous collapse in a Varushkan mine in Karsk allowed a large band of orcs to escape as the walls of their confinement crumbled. Rather than attempting to seek refuge with the enemies of the Empire, this group set up a camp and began raiding nearby slave enclosures, freeing their brothers and sisters and appropriating weapons and food for the growing band of freed slaves.
The leader of the uprising, a male orc going by the name of Thrace, has become an almost mythical figure. Stories vary from accounts of a cunning, highly intelligent slave who lead his companions in an all-out rebellion to tales of a monstrously huge orc who terrorised the Imperial troops with raids of shocking ferocity. Accusations that the rebellious orc leadership made accommodations with a sovereign or with eternals hostile to the Empire have never been proven, but there are numerous dubious tales from this period that place a number of atrocious acts at the feet of Thrace and his allies.
Initially the Empire under-estimated the threat posed by the slaves. Varushkan troops sent to deal with the threat found themselves heavily outnumbered and were soundly defeated. Winter came early, and a decision was taken to face the threat in the spring under the assumption that the orcs could not endure the harsh Varushkan winter. But the orcs captured three vales and splitting their forces between them, they weathered the cold there using the time to equip themselves with armour and weapons taken from the defeated Varushkan schlacta.
There were skirmishes between the Varushkan Army of the Golden Axe and the orcs throughout 323, but the orcs were able to avoid a decisive battle. There were defeats on both sides, but the size of the threat continued to grow as more mines were captured and their occupants freed. As Summer drew on, the Senate bowed to the inevitable and ordered the Imperial generals to send the Army of the Northern Eagle to support the Golden Axe. Together the two forces were able to bring the orcs to battle and soundly defeat them in the Fall. The "final" battle took place near Kolvy in Karov, and saw hundreds of orcs killed as their force was routed - the Varushkan generals gave orders that no prisoners were to be taken.
The Empire breathed a sigh of relief as the revolt appeared to be over.
The Rebellion Spreads
Early in 324 it became clear that the orcs had laid plans against the possibility of their defeat. More mines were captured, but this time the attacks happened nearly simultaneously across Wintermark, Dawn, The League and Highguard. Months were wasted trying to analyse the threat as the Empire mistakenly believed that the orc slaves had somehow gained access to the gate magics that the Empire used against their barbarian enemies. Eventually it became clear that those orcs who had escaped defeat in Varushka had split their forces.
Interrogation of prisoners captured in Varushka revealed that the orc leadership was intent on winning the freedom of all orcs enslaved throughout the Empire. The orc slaves had tried to make deals with the barbarian forces fighting the Empire, but their efforts had been bloodily rebuffed. The barbarian tribes maintain ancient taboos against mixing blood between tribes and they regarded the ex-slaves with horror. It was clear that the slaves would find no succour with their barbarian brethren and so they had laid plans to spread their rebellion across the Empire.
Imperial armies were recalled from the borders and sent to put down the revolts, but as before the orcs strove to avoid pitched battles. Word of the rebellion spread and spontaneous revolts broke out across the Empire. The Senate was riven when it was discovered that a handful of Freeborn and League merchants had been selling the orcs weapons and provisions in return for precious ores plundered from the captured mines. The actions were widely condemned, but were ruled legal since the Empire was not technically at war with the slaves.
Several pitched battles took place throughout the year in Dawn and Wintermark and although the orcs suffered a number of defeats the raids on mines continued and their numbers continued to grow. As the year drew on, the orcs fled towards the centre of the Empire and were soon camped in huge numbers near the city of Temeschwar. The League town of Narien was razed, its inhabitants routed by the overwhelming tide of freed slaves and the ruins plundered to feed the horde.
Emperor Ahraz and the End of the Rebellion
Desperate to end the rebellion, the Senate appointed an Emperor after a debate that lasted the best part of a day. Emperor Ahraz, a Freeborn Scrivener was chosen after very public promises by the Brass Coast senators that they would end the rebellion. The orcs fled north into Varushka pursued by the Emperor who led a force consisting of Brass Coast forces and troops from other nations that had supported his election.
As the armies moved north through Varushka, the Emperor secretly entered into negotiations with the orcs. Several meetings took place, where Ahraz reiterated his people’s antipathy for slavery and desire to see the orcs freed. The Emperor offered full citizenship to any orc who would swear to serve the Empire and claimed he could achieve freedom for all orcs enslaved by the Empire. After weeks of protracted talks, the orcs agreed to accept Ahraz’ offer and swore to serve the Imperial throne.
In a calculated show of strength, Ahraz’ forces marched to Anvil with the orcs. The Emperor presented the agreement to the Senate; the Brass Coast and their allies in Urizen and Wintermark rallied to his cause, but Varushka, Dawn and Highguard refused to contemplate the deal. Navarr, The League and The Marches remained undecided and were the subject of intense and frantic negotiation in the hours that followed. That evening the League suddenly switched en masse to support the Emperor’s agreement; whereupon senators from Navarr and the Marches swiftly followed. Much has been made of the politics behind these events and the legality therein, but the final outcome was that soon after the Navarr joined the orc cause, the Freeborn Hakima and orc shamans created the Imperial Orc Egregore who was ratified by the Emperor.
The recognition of the orcs, as citizens of the Empire, meant that no orcs could be kept as slaves under the constitution. Those orcs that were prepared to swear oaths of service to the Empire were accepted by the egregore, those that would not were expelled or in some cases executed. The orcs were free citizens of the Empire, but there remained questions of where they would live and what they would do.
Most orcs made their way to the vast camps based near Anvil. The Imperial civil service provided tents and provisions and recruited many to join the Imperial army. A few tried to strike out on their own, but few had any desire to return to the sites of their former subjugation. Even those who did not join the army found remaining in the camps offered the easiest path. As months passed the legion camps became the de facto home for the Imperial Orcs. The discipline of army life suited the orcs and keeping their people together made it possible to exert leadership over them.
Integration and the Imperial Orcs
The years followed saw a painstaking rebuilding of skills. Urizen teachers taught the orcs to read and write, while smiths from Wintermark and the Marches taught them to work a forge. Those who joined the army were equipped with old weapons and armour. It was impossible to recreate the tribes; that identity was lost to the centuries of slavery. Most orcs were keen to abandon the past and embrace the opportunity they had won and create a name for themselves as citizens of the Empire. Those that joined an Imperial Army formed themselves into fighting companies, called legions, and these quickly became as pivotal to them as their tribes had once been.
Imperial generals were hesitant to use the orcs at first, there remained a conviction amongst some that the Imperial Orcs would prove unreliable in battle, some even whispered that their loyalties could not be trusted. Orc generals pushed for them to be deployed, rightly believing that the only way such doubts could be dispelled would be through victories on the field. The orcs were convinced that only military victories against the barbarians would eventually bring them a chance to claim lands of their own.
Doubts about the loyalties of the Imperial Orcs were soon quashed. News of the acceptance of orcs into the Empire brought renewed conflict with the barbarians on every border. Some Urizen historians believe that barbarians united to try to wipe out the Imperial Orcs to prevent them spreading into barbarian lands. The Imperial Orcs have always claimed that the invasions were launched with the intention of attacking them directly, the hatred of the barbarians for those who abandon their tribal legacy. Whatever the motivation, the barbarians pushed the Empire hard and a series of weak Emperors that followed Ahraz saw the Empire steadily losing ground.
The string of losses means that five decades after they won their freedom, the Imperial Orcs still do not possess lands of their own. It is claimed that the Empress Britta promised the orcs lands in return for their support in first reconquering the lost territories. News of her death has come as a bitter blow to many orcs who fear that the Empire may yet return to the dark years of divided and weak leadership, rather than the strong leadership that orcs value and which most believe the Empire needs if Britta’s promise is to be realized.
Repercussions of the Orc Rebellion
Varushka probably suffered most from the slave revolt. Many prominent business owners were ruined in the wake of the orc rebellion, most especially the Varushkan mine-owners in Karsk (several of whom were arrested after they defenestrated their own senator). There is still some bad blood between Varushkan vales and the Imperial Orcs due to harsh acts committed by both sides both prior to and during the rebellion.
The losses were not restricted to Varushka; several Dawnish noble houses and Marcher households who had relied on the orcs to operate their mines lost access to their pool of free labour, slashing their profits. They found it very difficult to recruit humans to take their place for obvious reasons - mining was dirty, dangerous work that appealed neither to the Dawnish nor the Marcher yeomen. In many cases, mines were simply closed down as sufficient workers could not be found to keep them operational.
The League and Highguard weathered the rebellion reasonably well. Highborn chapters who operated mines tightened their belts and accepted reduced profits. Hard work by a cabal of benefactors generally called the Ring of Stone worked to keep the quarries and mines operational and smooth the transition to paid labour. The League lost the labour that had allowed its farms to operate so profitably, but mostly simply adjusted to more imports or reduced profits.
Many Wintermark slaves, in contrast to the slaves of several other nations, were mostly thralls - more akin to prisoners of war than the slave labourers used by other nations. Those slaves almost exclusively chose exile over joining the Imperial Orcs. Those orcs held in more traditional slavery mostly joined the Imperial Orcs.
Neither Urizen nor the Brass Coast used orc slaves at the time of the rebellion and emerged mostly unscathed by the economic considerations of the rebellion. In the aftermath however there were several accusations of treason - indeed, Emperor Arhaz himself faced inquisition before the Synod and was called on to defend his actions which he did with the support of several prominent Cardinals, notably the Cardinals of Pride, Courage and Prosperity. To this day there are rumblings of a conspiracy within the Empire to emancipate the orcs with deep roots in the two nations who did not rely on orcish slaves. The Freeborn commitment to freedom is obvious, but the actions of the Urizen during this conflict are often characterised as more cynical, undermining their political enemies in the Senate secure in the knowledge that orcish freedom would not affect their ushabti-powered mines.
Regardless of the good that came from the orc rebellion, the economic uncertainty that resulted left the Empire reeling and paved the way for the increasing corruption and self-interest of the Senate, the Freedom Heresy and ultimately accelerated the decline of the Empire.