Mysteries of the Amberwoad Vale
Two immutable truths have shaped the orc race from prehistory: first that they can breed with damn near anyone and, second, that they were pointedly built to struggle, kill, and survive.
Who their creator was has been a matter of debate since before words were written. The popular consensus today is that they were formed by some Forgotten One never worthy of worship, who was thrown down by the proper gods but whose evil lives on in the orcs and goblins and ogres of the world. The academics and the theologians have entertained other scandalous possibilities, however. It has been separately theorized that Ishkur is responsible, and Lupien, and even the Raven Queen herself. Human scholars have put forth the possibility that Thanin too is a strong contender for the dubious title, though never in earshot of a dwarf.
The orcs, for their part, are even less agreed. Their thinkers (they do have thinkers) will readily agree that the race was ‘forged’ by something – ‘forged’ is the only word orcs use for the creation of orcs. All orcs, without exception, will agree that they were forged for war, and that this is a fact they can feel in their bones, their souls. In the south, however, each tribe has its own god who claims to have created the orcs for his or her own myriad reasons, inevitably chaotic and cruel. They say the orcs were forged to kill and conquer, to punish and spread suffering.
In the north, however, things are different.
In the north, the orcs say it doesn’t matter who forged them. They say that the orcs were built not to crush the world, but to protect it…and to do that, they must be ever-vigilant, ever-stronger. The constant struggle and bloodshed is not, they say, a campaign of chaos, but one of preparation. They were not forged to crush the weakest, they say, but to test themselves against the strongest, for there are threats to the world that the civilized races have forgotten about.
And in the north, the orcs are the answer to those threats.
That’s what they say, anyway.
The Orcs – An Overview
Orcs are a wildly diverse race, especially south of the Vale. They stand anywhere from five feet to over eight, with skin tones from scarlet and olive to pitch. Many have tusks, but not all. Some have horns. Some have hair, and others are utterly hairless. Some are difficult to distinguish from goblins, and others from ogres. They live anywhere and everywhere, some in elaborate stone-and-wood structures, others in trees or caves.
There are some things, however, which are universal across all in the species.
All orcs have an inborn knowledge of basic combat, and an overwhelming addiction to victorious triumph, which gives them a feeling of deep, euphoric satisfaction. They are all muscular, even if only in a wiry sense, and heartier even than they initially appear. They all favor the dark without necessarily shunning daylight, and they are most comfortable living amongst their own kind.
It seems that all orcs are capable of siring young with a majority of the other humanoid races, which is doubtlessly the source of their endless variety. The offspring of an orc and a goblin, for example, will carry certain goblin features: doubtlessly it will be smaller but grow faster, it will be aggressive and less intelligent, and it will breed as prolifically as any goblin. In the south, orcs commonly breed with goblins at the behest of their gods, but in the north human, dwarven, giantkin, and elven half-breeds are not uncommon.
Finally, all orcs carry within them some level of heightened aggression and love of conflict or struggle. Some noble paragons struggle with these native urges and manage to live largely civilized, peaceful lives, but far, far more either find a useful balance between war and peace or succumb entirely.
The orcs of the south are a splintered lot, broken into countless tribes and clans spread across the land. Civilized rulers know to root out these tribes wherever they can be found, and to crush them underfoot with prejudice before they can graduate from nuisance to threat.
Almost every orc clan or army in the south is, in fact, a loose coalition of orcs and goblins wrangled and bullied together by a few strong leaders in service to a small god or spirit. An orc chieftain must be careful, clever, and strong to head a tribe. He (or she) must show enough restraint to keep his tribe out of sight so as not to attract the attention of powerful armies before he is ready to fight them with any success, but he must also carefully feed his subjects a steady stream of victories lest his army turn on itself for want of battle. For this reason alone, few tribes grow larger than twenty-five members, but successful tribes reach between two and five hundred. In these cases, a war inevitably starts.
There have been but a dozen times in recent history when multiple tribes have grown so numerous and a chieftain so successful that a horde forms. Hordes typically only last long enough to attempt to complete one simple, concrete goal: usually the destruction of an army, small city, large village, or fortification. Once the goal is met, the assemblage invariably turns upon itself. Only once in history has a horde survived its first victory, and this only because of the influence of a wizard.
Despite the valor and vigilance of the southern kingdoms, the orcs have obviously never been fully wiped out, but nor have they seen any lasting success. They are thought of as a natural disaster, like plagues and blights, only answered with swords and civilized discipline instead of alchemy or prayers. They are certainly never spoken to or negotiated with.
The orcs of the Untamed Lands contrast heavily with their southron cousins. As a rule they are larger and stronger than humans, and typically they are smarter than southern orcs. Some might say they are more civilized, but others – including the orcs themselves – would take offense at the notion.
They do form lasting, city-sized settlements, called strongholds, and have something akin to ruling dynasties. Their coalitions tend to be larger, and their internal wars less likely to splinter or collapse their societies. The larger clans even cultivate herds, build cities, and make music and art.
In the north there are clans, and most clans belong to khanates. Unlike the chieftains of the south, orcish warlords – those strong enough to lead clans – tend to be long-lasting leaders, their followers having longer memories of their feats of strength. Also unlike chieftains, warlords will openly acknowledge orcs that are stronger and more capable than they…albeit usually only one: their khan. This type of ordered hierarchy would be entirely alien to a southern orc.
The orcs of the Untamed Lands have no gods, and in fact claim to have killed them all. Scholars in the Amberwood Vale are reluctant to consider the possibility, but have historically confirmed the formation of three hordes north of the Vale in relatively recent history. These northern hordes are far greater in scale and potential compared to their southern counterparts – composed as they are of nearly all known khanates – and notable in that they disband but never implode.
What these hordes accomplished is anybody’s guess, but it certainly changed things with the northern elves…
The so-called “feral” elves of the north are in constant and fevered warfare with the orcs of the Untamed Lands, usually over nothing in particular. The elves view the orcs with impassioned malice, but against all expectation the orcs acknowledge the elves almost as old friends. Any northern elf can account with vehemence an endless list of the orcish atrocities he or she has witnessed in their lifetime, battles rife with loss and pain. To a one, they burn with a desire for hateful vengeance. The orcs, by contrast, will list those same battles – even the losses – as glorious clashes between old, friendly, and evenly-matched rivals. They respect the elves, even admire them, and they have never sought the complete extermination of even the most problematic elven settlements. As far as anyone can tell, no horde has ever been called in reaction to the elves, which troubles those aforementioned scholars.
After all, if one assumes it’s impossible to wage war against gods and the elves don’t warrant the formation of a horde…what were the orcs fighting up there?
Bloody Oaks is the southernmost orcish stronghold in the Untamed Lands, named for the eerie crimson-bark trees that surround it. The stronghold itself is ensconced in an expansive copse of those trees, itself in a cleft between two tremendous hills. Its walls are built seemingly at random between the trees, crude but remarkably sturdy. Its streets are deep trenches cut into the earth and floored with submerged chunks of stone, winding up- and down-hill between the red trunks. Those paths are perpetually blanketed by layers of thin mist.
The common homes here are burrows cut out from the walls of the trench-streets, their openings marked by totems and fetishes of wood and bone. The elite live in longhouses built against the sides of the hills, slightly above the grove without truly being apart from it or overlooking it. Here the warlords, shamans, and dignitaries stay in barbaric opulence, each allotted a partition sized in relation to his clan’s accomplishments of late.
The seat of power, however, sits well up on the eastern hill in a place called the Godsgrave. In days long, long past, there was a warlord who ruled from a ship that traveled up and down Ice Road, a river that winds not far north of Bloody Oaks. When the final horde formed to fell the last of the gods, it’s said, that warlord led the attack. Once the final altar was shattered, the warlord’s warriors carried his ship to the site of the shattered altar, upended it so its curved hull became a shelter, and converted it into a tremendous longhouse. From there he ruled as khan.
That khan’s daughter is called Skogul, and she still rules from the Godsgrave. No one in Two Rivers remembers a time before Skogul Khan ruled in Bloody Oaks, but she seems in her perpetual prime, and she meets every challenge to her rule personally and with great skill and savagery. Her bodyguards and emissaries are all her sons and daughters, of which there are dozens. It is considered the highest honor to live in the Godsgrave as part of the khan’s retinue, and it is a distinction few attain without also being related to the khan in some way.
This is not, as one might expect, the result of nepotism in the obvious sense.
The orcs of Bloody Oaks are forbidden from breeding with goblins, or in fact anything less physically imposing than the most impressive human beings. Few khanates can afford to be so discerning, but the prestige afforded by the Godsgrave is enough that dozens of clans vie to be accepted into the khanate every year. Thanks to this basic selective breeding system, Bloody Oaks orcs are the biggest and strongest in the north, and only the strongest of the strong could hope to catch the khan’s eye. Thus, her relations tend to be paragons of bullish might the likes of which few others can hope to aspire to.
Bloody Oaks can be considered wildly progressive as far as orc societies go. It has formed a sort of symbiotic relationship with Two Rivers and its neighbors to the south, offering limited protection from northern threats (including Bloody Oaks itself) in return for a steady stream of tribute. A normal tribute is typically gold, weapons, or raw supplies, especially salted meat. However, the orcs will accept almost anything of value to them, even if that sense of value isn’t shared by the ones doing the offering. For example, a famous family in Two Rivers once had a troublesome daughter who repeatedly troubled her father by sneaking off to learn the martial trades. She longed for a warrior’s life, the sole domain of sons, and struggled passionately against all attempts to see her married off. Finally, in a fury, her father tossed her on a tribute wagon to be rid of her. Imagine his shock when the orcs returned his portion of gold the next season for overpaying: they had welcomed his headstrong daughter among them, and she at last had happiness in turn.
It is now common for those capable people that feel stifled by civilized life, especially women, to offer themselves up as tribute, elevating their family’s station in the process. For the truly skilled, strong, and clever, the orcs will often send gold back in compensation, making a tribute of worthy people a potentially lucrative prospect. Of course there’s always the risk of failure: the orcs take it as an offense when the person offered in tribute is not capable of carrying his or her weight. In these cases, there can be penalties.
Non-orcs are welcome in Bloody Oaks as long as they display a modicum of strength…but living there is not for the feint of heart. There is a sizable human community there who largely earn the respect of the orcs by crafting useful things a bit too delicate for orcish patience. Fletchers are always in high demand, for example. Only the boldest seek to prove themselves in traditionally orcish ways, such as fighting or hunting, but such is the only way to attract an orcish mate, and doing so comes with potential rewards in increased comfort and safety. It is rarer, but certainly not unheard of.
The next largest minority in Bloody Oaks is actually composed of elves. Those feral elves that are injured and survive in orcish captivity are faced with a deeply troubling dilemma, for their own people will view them as tainted traitors forever after. The orcs have no use for captives. The most troublesome are killed in ritual combat and ultimately eaten. Those that do not rebel are free to leave, knowing they enter exile and will likely be hunted down and killed by their own kin. A select few will opt to stay in Bloody Oaks and typically live near the humans in similar occupations, and a few of that number will actually fully integrate with the orcs there. It isn’t common, but neither is it implausible to see half-orcs slighter than normal, their ears noting their singular heritage. Those marks of singular heritage make them a feral elf’s most desired target, for killing such an abomination is seen as the highest good.
The orcs of Bloody Oaks subsist almost entirely on meat. Though a substantial percentage of each tribute is meat, it makes up a small portion of what the orcs actually consume. Ranging and hunting is mainly undertaken by the khanate’s females, who sweep out across the landscape in hundreds of small parties, taking down everything from deer and moose to mammoths, though they will also raid under-defended caravans from rival khanates or from the elves. Males aspire to join warbands, which raid the settlements of elves and enemy orcs for weapons and supplies and, of course, food. Not only will stockpiled meat serve, but orcs are happy cannibals and leave only gnawed bones for the elves to bury. Of course, these gender roles are not set in stone among orcs: it would not be strange for a quarter of a warband to be made up of female orcs, perhaps even with a human woman or two thrown into the mix, and there is no less glory to be had when a male is among those dragging a mammoth home.
The Gory March
Bloody Oaks is, of course, not the only khanate in the Untamed Lands. Icy Chains is to the northeast, largely made up of disgruntled or disgraced clans that either lost their positions in Bloody Oaks or were never able to earn their way in. Still, it is a considerable community, and many of their warlords are a match for Skogul’s own. A ways to the west is Black Tusk, who breed exclusively with ogres and have a fearsome slave army of goblins. Worm Eye is farther to the west still, and they are considered little better than southern orcs since they’ll breed with goblins, but they still hold no gods and manage to keep themselves organized, barely. In the east are the Deep Gazers, for whom the other khans have nothing but suspicion, since they seem to have replaced worship of the gods with communion with the dead. Still, the Deep Gazers have a mysterious power and largely keep to themselves, so they haven’t been wiped out despite being a relatively small khanate. There also are the fearsome Mist Walkers, the gruesome Kulls, and a dozen unaffiliated but large clans that shift allegiances daily even as they walk nomadic through the forests and white plains.
When the elves or one of these nearby khanates become too rambunctious for the others’ taste, a khan may call a Gory March. A March is somewhere between a crusade and a pub crawl, and for the clans it’s a chance to gain recognition from one’s chosen khan. A March is typically started when a khan declares one, publically boasting of his or her intended outcome. From there the clans declare their loyalty and, in turn, the warlords promise to aid or resist a khan’s declared goals by making boasts of their own. Clans may shift their loyalties during this stage of the March, but it’s a risky venture: a khan, should he survive, isn’t likely to forget when one of his warlords declares for a rival. Once the March is underway, no warlord would dare go back on his word – there is no glory in betrayal.
Gory Marches can be called against any notable threat. Skogul Khan calls them almost exclusively against other khans, and usually when she needs to remind Two Rivers of its precarious position, or the other khans of her position between them and the south. A few in recent memory have been called against particularly large elven coalitions. If one khan declares one against another, typically a March is declared in return, but not always. Skogul delights in insulting Worm Eye by ignoring their declarations of a March, and as yet Bloody Oaks has easily fought off their assaults without needing to muster the full might of her khanate.
Note that a March is only called against a large, tangible threat that can be quickly overcome. They aren’t wars or sieges, but short-lived invasions, resistances, and large-scale raids. The clans are in a constant state of harrying caravans and outposts all over the Untamed Lands, but a khan could never declare a Gory March against a clan or war party – it’s a single, all-in haymaker, not a jab and in no way precise. Furthermore, even the relatively disciplined orcs of Bloody Oaks are not keen on marching orders and formations and supply lines and complex tactics. A Gory March is aimed (with difficulty) and turned loose at the moment of greatest strain, an unruly tide that sweeps across the north in blood and thunder.
A “winner” is rarely decided after a March, both sides usually declare victory, unless the March was specifically called to overthrow or kill a khan. Typically the main brunt of the battle splinters into dozens of skirmishes that slowly cool, and when the splintered war parties have to spend too much time finding one another in order to fight they eventually get bored and return home. Those that can prove the satisfaction of their boasts are rewarded with praise, trophies, prestige, and glory. Those that can’t content themselves with the experience, train, and wait for the next chance to prove themselves.