Chapter 1

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His warm breath steamed in the early autumnal chill. Mingling with the cloud of air that came from his horse nibbling exhale. She was a retired drayhorse. One that had once been used for pulling a low, flat cart. Her nostrils flared as she snorted in protest to the early morning hour. Kagan, the groundskeeper of Valkurk, patted his horse's neck firmly, scratching his thick, clawed fingers through the coarse hair of her mane, before hitching himself up into her saddle. He eased himself back into the leather and tapped her flanks with his booted heels, crossing the open ground towards the closed gate.

Valkurk was the largest orc settlement in the area, led by Gromar and his elven wife, Shenarah. A central long-house dominated the grounds with small wooden huts in which the other inhabitants of the clan occupied. Life near the tall mountains was harsh and wearisome and each of the Orcs within the stronghold had their day-to-day tasks to complete. Kagan, was no different to any of the other citizens within the stronghold; other than that he was a skilled farmhand that could turn even the difficult lands of Valkurk into prosperous fields.

As he drew closer to the wooden palisade that barred his way he whistled a shrill note, attracting the attention of the guard atop the walls. "Open up," his gruff voice boomed towards the guard settled, half-asleep, on the stairs that led to an overview of both within Valkurk stronghold and the pathways towards it.

"Off out again, Kagan?" The guard grunted as he pushed himself off the step towards the large wooden gates.

"Aye, need more supplies to help see us through the winter," the large mounted orc replied narrowing his amber eyes so he could see which of the youngsters was on watch, surprised to see the lead of Valkurk's security keeping the early watch for once.

"Thought you got them last week," the guard replied with a snort.

"Keeping watch on me, are you Vregu?" Kagan huffed defensively, leaning forward on the pommel of his saddle to speak easier with the other orc. His excuses were feeble and he knew it, but he wasn't yet ready to admit the truth behind his many visits to the markets in the nearby city of Tronia. Especially not to Vregu, who was hot-headed and broody at the best of times.

"What supplies?" Vregu asked, his tone filled with suspicion as he picked his way down the steps of the stronghold's thick walls, towards the bars holding the gates closed.

"If you must know, I'll be purchasing seeds that'll grow over the winter, parsnips, leeks and such," Kagan answered, trying his best to keep the ire from his voice. Unaccustomed to being questioned by the younger orc in such a manner.

Vregu scowled, "And that warrants you leaving so early in the morning?" The other orc grumbled with a yawn, giving a clear indication of his sour mood.

"Also need to talk to one of the humans about a stag for the herd," Kagan continued, regaling the details of his work. "Current one's infirm and we'll need a new one to settle in before spring comes if we want to keep their meat in our pots." The deer herd was the grounds keepers pride as much as his place in the clan was.

"All right, all right," Vregu grumbled pulling the door open, disinterested in the finer details of Kagan's work. He had no right to question the older orc's motives and his suspicions were deeply unfounded. Kagan was dedicated to the clan, he was just surly and resented the groundsman's freedom to come and go as he pleased.

Kagan once again kicked his steed into motion, giving the younger orc a tusk-filled grin as he passed. "Maybe try and keep awake on watch next time," he said with a sly wink. "Don't worry, I won't tell Gromar," he chided.

"Nor will I," Vregu retorted as the horse passed him. The accusatory words silenced any hint of friendly banter between the two orcs. He clasped his hands together, rubbing them for warmth before picking up the reins and as soon as he heard the gates closing behind him, he urged his horse into a swifter pace; eager to be away from the stronghold before any of the other occupants awoke. It wasn't that he disliked being within the wooden walls of his home, there was just a personal reason for his desire to be away.

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