Sah’rah and Sir Godwin arrived at the rough co-ordinates after only a few hours travel. At first, she could see nothing in the snowfall and wondered if she’d wasted both their time, then Sir Godwin nudged her gently, pointing to a shadowed overhang where a ruined castle sat, almost hidden from view.
“Is that what you were looking for, my lady?” he asked, his long moustache now flecked with snow.
“Perhaps, the grand master is hiding something from us, and I intend to find out what,” she replied as Sir Godwin urged his charger onwards, the horse’s breath misting in the cold.
As they reached the castle, she could see more clearly the state of disrepair it had fallen into, stonework had collapsed and the gatehouse was in ruin. They circled the ruins slowly she could clearly see smoke rising from within the castle, though who would dwell in such a place she couldn’t be certain. It was only a short time later they arrived at what could amount to an entrance, an old sally port, embedded partially in the cliff and slightly frozen over.
“I’ll head inside Sir Godwin, you keep the entranceway guarded,” Sah’rah said to the knight as she dismounted with a short leap.
“On my honour, I shall not let you go alone, such craven behaviour is not in my nature!” he replied defiantly, swinging his leg over the horse’s saddle and landed gracefully, breaking effortlessly into a commanding stride.
He tied his horse’s reins to a broken part of the door frame and drew his blade in a single motion, the well-oiled blade making no sound as it left the sheath.
“Come, my lady, by my word, you shall come to no harm this day” he declared, before gallantly leading the way.
Sah’rah sighed, she had met few knights in her lifetime, but all of them seemed to consider the defence of women their main prerogative. She had to admit though, they had been amongst the bravest and skilled men she had ever met, each one driven by their desire to be just and good... even if it meant their death, for none would dishonour the ‘lady’ they revered so highly.
Sah’rah followed him along a dark corridor, the torch holders having been undisturbed for years left the passage in near darkness, though Sir Godwin continued unperturbed. The darkness reminded her of the catacombs under Brownfield keep, where she had spent her free time as a child. The memories had risen unbidden to her mind, she’d been so lonely all those years since her brothers and sisters had died. Before she could dwell on such thoughts, Sir Godwin pressed a hand gently to her chest, stopping her in her tracks.
“There’s someone up ahead, I suggest we proceed with caution my lady,” he whispered slowly before moving towards the entranceway.
It opened up into a courtyard covered in light snowfall. She scanned the yard quickly, though her gaze stopped when she saw the fireplace and the creature sat there.
“By the Gods!” Muttered Sir Godwin loudly, his very breath taken away at the sight.
“What is it?” she asked as the creature turned its large head.
A great mane of black wiry hair flowed down his back, upon which was a dark metal helm shaped like a lion, the creature stood up, rising to its full height. Not only was it tall, but heavily muscled too, the creatures torso and legs covered with plate armour. Chain-mail covering its arms, a sword, mace and axe hanging from its belt along with a quiver, the arrows must have been nearly four feet long.
“Are you the Saints chosen?” It asked in a deep rumbling growl, picking up its great war bow.
“Are you?” asked Sir Godwin, terror plain in his voice.
“No, that’s Tar’vid” she replied hastily, thinking it may be worth drawing her blade.
“Then, you’re here to fight me?” the creature asked amused, taking an arrow from its quiver.
Sah’rah knew Sir Godwin was scared, and that was enough to worry her greatly. The knight pushed her gently behind him.
“He’s an Orc, my lady, we stand little chance of victory against him,” he said bluntly, though Sah’rah knew he would fight to the bitter end.
“Sorry, Sir Knight, I’m no mere Orc... I’m war bred, don’t think there are any regular Orcs left now. Your kind killed ’em all a long time ago. Don’t blame you though, we were a right bunch of bastards, had it coming really. But me... the war bred, we’re hard to kill... killed forty men in a day once,” the Orc then stopped for a moment, taking a deep breath. “Sorry... get caught up in the old days, don’t get many visitors out here... not for a long time, not that I ain’t killed shortly thereafter anyway.”
Sah’rah stepped out from behind Sir Godwin, pulling her sword free, her armour flashing into existence a moment later. The Orc looked at her with a smile, his eyes softening a little from the hard ebony of a moment ago.
“A Paladin in the north? The time is near then... I am Tar’hine, though my true name is Dagarn Ak’turn of the Red Tooth tribe, though they’re all dead now, naturally.”
“Why are you out here all alone?” she asked, approaching him slowly and sheathing her blade.
“Causes less trouble, besides, only me left to guard the shrine these days. The last King of Keldran slaughtered most of the garrison here some time ago... the rest abandoned their oaths and joined the nearby tribes soon after... not me though. I swore an oath... and I intend to keep it.” Dagarn explained with a bow.
The Orc put his bow down and sat beside the fire once more, Sah’rah went over and sat down beside him, much to Sir Godwin’s dismay. At this distance his size was truly intimidating, only Sah’eca could truly compare. Sir Godwin joined them a few minutes later, albeit hesitantly.
“May I ask, how exactly did you become a Paladin? There haven’t been new Orcs in nearly a thousand years by our records,” Sir Godwin asked, warming his hands by the small blaze.
“Oh, I ain’t no Paladin... well, I am, but not a proper one, not like her” Dagarn replied, patting Sah’rah on the back gently.
Even with such a light touch, she could feel his immense strength.
“Not a proper one?” Sah’rah asked this was the most interesting thing she’d heard for days now.
“Yeah, Tar’mine made me an honorary Paladin, after the battle for the Blooming of hope. Now, that was a legendary battle... maybe I’ll tell it to you one day,” the Orc said with a smile, taking a long swig from his flask.
“You fought alongside Saint Tar’mine and Saint Sah’ravel?” she asked, unable to comprehend what she was hearing.
“Aye, his power was great, great and terrible. As was the woman’s, then they went south with my brother. Never saw them again though, well, not on this plain anyway” the Orc replied, lost in his memories.
He stood up suddenly, Sir Godwin’s hand instinctively going to his sword hilt. “you two staying for lunch? Larder should be restocked by now.”
Before either of them could respond, Dagarn had vanished into the castle via a small wooden door. Sah’rah was still in shock, realising she was with a creature that had lived at least a thousand years. He emerged a short time later with a sack before sitting back down beside her once more. Dagarn slid large hunks of meat onto one of his giant metal arrows, using it as a spit.
“So... as this’ll take some time to cook have you any questions?” He asked with a toothy smile.
Sah’rah and Sir Godwin questioned Dagarn well into the night, even avoiding the ridiculous and obvious questions they wanted to ask, there could never be enough time to speak with the Orc. She learned of the fortifications of Kendral, then of the Paladin purge that happened some time ago. Dagarn remembered most of the events of the time, all of which stemmed in some way from the arrival of an elven noble. He turned the clans upon the Paladin order, including the King, whose many supporters gained control of the prominent clans. Then in a concentrated effort, they destroyed the Paladins utterly, razing their strongholds to the ground. Dagarn was near un-killable by mortal men though and had demonstrated so until, eventually, the clans gave up trying to kill him. Content to let him rot in the last Paladin stronghold. The Orc had given Tar’mine his oath that the Paladin order would survive in the north, and even when his few remaining brothers and sisters had cast their blades into the fire, renouncing their oaths, he had stayed.
Eventually, Dagarn called a stop to their questioning, standing and stretching out his limbs. “I have business to attend to now, you two may stay here tonight, for the wilds are dangerous after dark.”
He pointed to the main keep and began walking towards the sally port. “I’ll return come first light, then you shall go and bring me back the Saints chosen.”
Sah’rah nodded, though the Orc wasn’t looking towards her. Once he had gone, they pushed open one of the large iron-studded doors to the keep, the doors swinging open easily without a creak. The inside was, well, overly impressive. Statues of the saints stood in pristine condition and the rugs, flags and tapestries all hung as clean as the day they had been fitted.
“How can one Orc maintain this place to such a standard?” Sir Godwin asked in amazement.
Sah’rah had a hunch, pulling out her dagger and scoring a mark on a flagstone that gleamed beautifully. A moment later and it shone for a moment, then was perfect once more, confirming Sah’rah’s suspicions.
“Magic,” she whispered to herself.
“It makes sense, my lady, your Venna friend Sah’eca. She told me a tale, that the Dwarviari aided your Saint Tar’mine during the last Blooming. Makes sense then, that they would help in the construction of the fortress’ for future defence.” Sir Godwin postulated from beside her.
Sah’rah agreed, noticing that the knight no longer shivered. Perhaps the magic here heated the room as well. Pushing open several of the doors revealed living quarters for the garrison, and Sir Godwin quickly bid her goodnight, taking rest in the first room he found. Sah’rah couldn’t sleep, not yet, the answers her questions had raised, brought up only more questions and she wandered throughout the keep, with only her footfalls breaking the silence. She stopped suddenly, beside a large alcove with a depiction of the heroes of Keldrans defence, she recognised Saint Tar’mine and Saint Sah’ravel, their likeness’ perfect. Beside them stood the elven brothers, Findar and Finderal, both had fallen that day. Next to Saint Sah’ravel was Kardan the Orc, founder of their order. But standing most prominently was Torgard, Tar’mine’s best friend and strongest ally. He hadn’t made it as far as Kendral, but his presence had always been felt. She made to move on when she noticed Torgard’s hand had moved, though the stone remained unbroken or cracked. When she blinked her eyes once more, his palm was open, a small necklace resting on it. Sah’rah reached out and took it, admiring the necklace in her hand. It seemed to be made of metal, yet felt like silk against her skin, a small red stone hung from its centre, glowing with an internal light. When she looked back at the statues, Torgard had returned to his original stance and she wondered what the necklace could be. Without a second thought, she put it on, the clasp closing by itself behind her neck. Sah’rah tucked the now inert stone under her shirt, putting the necklace on hadn’t been of her own free will she was sure, and that scared her. Walking away from the statues she found a room to sleep in, her thoughts whirling as she tried to sleep before Dagarn returned.
Sah’rah woke up with a yawn, stretching herself out before standing. The bed had been comfortable, perhaps more so than any she’d ever slept in. She pulled the door open and made her way back the way she’d previously come, passing by the strange statues once again that seemed to be just as they were when she’d first seen them... yet she could feel the necklace against her chest that Torgard had given her.
“You feeling well rested?” Dagarn asked her from a little further along the corridor.
“Yes, thank you for allowing us to stay the night here,” she replied with a slight bow.
The Orc fell into step with her and as she cast her eyes around the corridors, she could’ve sworn that several statues had changed position.
“I hope none of them gave you any trouble?” he asked as they emerged into the hall.
Sir Godwin sat beside an ancient tapestry of Tar’mine slaying the Giant King, the knight sharpening his sword.
“None of who?” she replied a moment later, raising an eyebrow.
“The statues, the magic here makes them a bit weird sometimes,” the Orc replied with a shrug, before leaving her and opening up the doorway.
“Time for you two to go now, remember to bring back the chosen of Tar’mine, it’s imperative... also, I wouldn’t mind other Paladins garrisoning this place. Gets kinda lonely here you know,” Dagarn added, Sah’rah felt oddly sorry for him.
Sah’rah smiled despite herself, her childhood had been full of stories of the brutality, and savageness of Orcs. Yet here was the apex of their race, lonely, and loyal to a fault.
“I’ll certainly recommend others to come here Dagarn Ak’turn, I’ll even have some of the Mages come to repair the castle... it’s the least we can do for your centuries of service to the order” she replied kindly and bowed.
The Orc smiled a toothy grin and she walked out into the cold light of day, Sir Godwin followed her, reluctantly, as Dagarn followed behind. He strode over to a large gated building, pushed open the main doors and disappeared inside, emerging a short time after and leading Sir Godwin’s charger.
“I cleared some of the rubble from the gatehouse last night, this guy seemed cold outside the sally port,” Dagarn told them, passing the reigns to Sir Godwin.
“Once again, Sir Paladin, you have my thanks, know that I am in your debt for such kindness,” the knight said, feeling a little ashamed of his previous hostility.
Dagarn nodded to the knight before heading back inside the keep once more. The two of them left the fortress via the cleared gatehouse, mounting Sir Godwin’s charger and galloping away towards the Paladin camp once more.
“Pleasant chap that Dagarn don’t you think?” Sir Godwin called over his shoulder to her, despite the wind.
“Indeed he is, he’ll be a powerful ally too” she added, who’d have thought someone so powerful would be out here.
They rode on for some hours until they could hear the loud noise of impacting stone, the bombardment was still happening, which didn’t bode well for Tar’mon’s hopes of avoiding a full-on assault.