DALVIN WIPED THE SWEAT from his brow as he made his way down the beaten trail. The sun was especially angry he thought as he prayed for the clouds to give him a moment of reprieve. With his left hand, he grasped the reins of his newly acquired steed as he reached for his leather water pouch with his right. He took a couple of gulps before turning back to his hostage, who was on foot trotting behind him. He had bound the man’s wrists and tied the other end of the long rope to his horse’s saddle. He motioned to the man, lowering the pouch, but received no reply. The restrained man simply turned his head away and continued trotting, trying his best to keep up.
“You must be thirsty,” Dalvin said to no reply. He tucked the pouch away and decided to let it be. Why should he feel sorry for this man when it was his own fault he had to walk back to Unthar’s Keep? The captive had speared Dalvin’s horse during his pursuit, impaling the steed through the base of its neck. In return Dalvin simply took the captive’s horse and made the man walk behind him out of spite. At the time Dalvin had no problem with the man walking the entire way back, but after traveling for more than half a day he realized they could have been back by now if the man was on a horse.
For a moment he thought of binding the man’s feet together and throwing him over the back of his horse. We would reach home before sunset, he thought. It was an idea that he knew might be more hassle than it was worth. The man would surely put up a fight once Dalvin attempted to tie his ankles together. He could knock the man out and then tie him up, but that was a risk too. Transporting unconscious men could become a liability in Three Warden.
The trade roads were safe for the most part, but they were not guarded like the roads in the Empire or Gallendale. Lords would protect their lands, but soldiers would seldom enforce the laws on the main roads. Cities were independent of each other and city guards rarely left the outskirts. In a prior age the main roads had fallen under the warden’s protection, but even this was a custom no longer practiced.
Dalvin protected many trade caravans as a sellsword. He knew that bandits were a true threat, especially in the south, but he was pretty confident no bandits would waste their time on him since they usually looked out for traders. Although a clever bandit would see his hostage and realize he was collecting a bounty. In any case, he was fully capable of handling a couple of bandits. What kind of knight in heavy arms couldn’t handle a couple of bandits? Then again, I am no longer a knight. He was a sellsword now, far removed from his days of chivalry. He was not ashamed of his current state by any means. Yet he still cherished his time as a knight of the Empire. He did not miss serving a king, but he did miss standing with his brothers. He missed fighting alongside his old friend Sir Gareth Marshall.
Over the hill Dalvin could see a figure on horseback. Though quite a bit of distance between them, he could make out the man’s bear like frame. At first he thought the man might be wearing armor, but as the rider came closer he realized the man was just extremely muscular. He made no threatening movements and trotted at a casual pace, but he was definitely heading straight toward Dalvin. Out of habit Dalvin reached to the left side of his saddle where his crossbow would normally be but remembered it was with the blacksmith once he grabbed at air.
“Do you know that man?” Dalvin said to his hostage, who was already staring down the large traveler. Dalvin half expected to once again receive no reply.
“That ain’t no man,” the hostage said. Dalvin squinted his eyes as the figure came closer.
“Who goes there?” Dalvin yelled out. “I am transporting a dangerous man. If you are no threat, then make your intentions known.”
“I am no threat,” echoed the strange figure in a thunderous voice. Upon hearing his voice, Dalvin knew it was a demon, an orc to be exact. What Dalvin had originally thought was a helm at a distance was clearly the demon’s head. The orc slowly pulled up within twenty yards before bringing his horse to a halt. He wore a brown cloak with a leather breastplate and sported leather gauntlets and boots as well. On his back he carried what appeared to be two dual-bladed battle-axes. For Dalvin just one of the axes would be a two-handed weapon, but that clearly was not the case for the demon. His ears were pointed the same as most demons, but his skin color carried a plum complexion. Dalvin had never seen an orc with such skin before. It was clear the orc was dangerous, and judging by the scars on his face, he had been tested. Dalvin was not sure if the demon was here to claim his bounty for his own or if he truly meant them no harm. The demon had not made any threatening movements, though it was difficult for an orc of his size not to look threatening.
“How can I help you?” Dalvin was wary of the stranger but did not want to show it. Out of the corner of his eye he kept track of his hostage but knew he could not afford to take too much attention away from the orc. He was big, but that size should cost him in speed. The demon grinned, revealing his bottom fangs. He slowly lifted his hands, palms open.
“I am a traveler new to these lands,” the demon replied. “My name is Orrick. I am a warrior like you.”
“I am a sellsword,” Dalvin corrected the demon.
“Yes.” Orrick nodded. “We are the same. We are brothers in steel. Like you, I am looking for someone who I must bring to justice.”
“Hey,” the hostage said as he raised his bound wrists. “Big fella. You look hard enough. Free me and I will make it worth your while. I will pay you. I have gold.”
“Quiet!” Dalvin snapped at the man.
“I will not,” the hostage spat back. “Take one of those axes and set me free. I have gold. I have women too. I can get you some demon wenches if you like. Just free me. Slay this bugger and free me.” The demon looked at Dalvin as he sat up straight. Orrick’s grin now appeared sinister in nature and he locked eyes with Dalvin, never flinching.
“If I free you, will you take me to Unthar’s Keep?” Orrick said as he kept his sight on Dalvin. Dalvin grabbed the handle of his sheathed sword in preparation to defend himself.
“Bugger that,” the hostage replied. “However, I can tell you exactly where it is and still give you gold. Now hurry. Kill this false knight and let’s be on our way.” Dalvin and Orrick continued to eye each other, but no words were spoken. Dalvin knew Orrick was sizing him up and calculating his odds of victory. In fact, Dalvin was sure Orrick had already done this before he approached. Orcs were known to have excellent eyesight and could see greater distances than men.
“What is your name?” Orrick asked.
“My name is—” the hostage began.
“I was talking to the sellsword.”
“My name is Dalvin Longsfeer.”
“Luckily for you, Dalvin, I am not a sellsword,” Orrick responded. “I am a warrior, an avatar of justice. If I was a sellsword like yourself, then this situation would end badly for you.”
“Maybe,” Dalvin replied.
“I assume you are making your way to Unthar’s Keep. If you can take me there, I can help you with this one.” Orrick nodded toward the hostage. “In case the next traveler you come across is not so honorable, I will place my steel beside yours. I will do this until you are safely to your destination.” Dalvin did not like the idea of traveling with a stranger, especially one who looked as dangerous as Orrick. On the other hand, if Orrick meant him harm he could have taken the hostage up on his offer. The scars on his face and the battle-axes strapped to his back showed that the orc was not afraid of open combat. Besides, Dalvin thought, it would be nice to have another blade by his side in case they did come across any trouble. Unthar’s Keep was not that far away, but Orrick clearly did not know that.
“Thank you, Orrick,” Dalvin said. “It would be nice to have someone to talk to on the way home.” Orrick nodded his head in agreement while the hostage threw up his hands in frustration. “But before we can move forward, I need to know your intentions. You are headed to Unthar’s Keep, my home, where I have many friends. By the looks of you, something tells me you will not be taking any hostages like I have. So before I can lead you to Unthar’s Keep, I need to know your intentions.” The hostage muttered something to Orrick, which both mounted men ignored.
“I promise you I do not mean any harm to any citizen of Unthar’s Keep,” Orrick said. “I am looking for an ebony-skinned Valikaarian woman. She is traveling with a demon and a child. I was tasked with the duty of tracking and finding her. I have followed her from the Marsh Coast of Valikaar to Three Warden. She is dangerous and must be brought to justice.” Orrick gave a slight pause. “You are correct when you say I will not take any hostages.”
“You mean to kill a child?” Dalvin asked in astonishment.
“No!” Orrick declared. He was clearly insulted at the accusation. “I am here to free the child. This woman took the babe from her kin. The child believes she is a friend, but she does not know any better. The child is in danger. I will kill the woman along with the demon. Then I will take the child back to her kin in Valikaar. But no other bloodshed will take place in Unthar’s Keep. I give my word—no one else will be harmed.”
Dalvin took a moment to think it over. Though he did not like the thought of killing a woman, he did not want to keep a child in harm’s way. Orrick could have lied about his intentions, but instead he told Dalvin what he could only assume was the truth. In any case, this did not involve Dalvin. He was not a knight anymore. Why should he care about some woman he had never met? Why should he care about some child? That being said, he still did care, which irked him. No, he thought to himself. He was a sellsword now and did not need to worry about anything other than the reward for his bounty.
“Okay, then,” Dalvin finally replied. “Follow me and I will show you the way.” Before heading out, Orrick helped Dalvin bind the hostage’s ankles together so that Dalvin could throw him over the back of his horse. With no one on foot they would make better time.
Even though there was no slavery in Three Warden, it was rare to find a demon as far west as Unthar’s Keep. Sailor’s Port was known to have the heaviest population of demons, followed by Lorig’s Trade. Demons had intertwined themselves in the culture of the Ballek people. They found a life in Three Warden with the only threat being slave traders. Though it was illegal to sell slaves to the Empire, it was still done on a regular basis. If a demon came up missing, it was assumed slavers had taken him. Smaller demons such as goblins were easier to capture and transport. Orcs were taken too if they were caught traveling alone, though not as frequently. Wealthy lords from the northern kingdom of Gallendale would pay top coin for a goblin to serve them and even more for an orc who could work the fields or fight in the Honor Rings. For a moment Dalvin thought he should warn Orrick about the slavers, but then he realized any slave trader who confronted Orrick would not be a slave trader for long. Dalvin could only imagine the strength it would take for Orrick to duel-wield his battle-axes. They were monstrous, to say the least. Dalvin’s thoughts drifted to what it would be like to face such a demon in battle. He did not want to find out how skilled Orrick was, yet he felt a bit of curiosity there as well.
“What type of a name is Unthar’s Keep for a city?” Orrick asked out of nowhere.
“I’m sorry?” Dalvin replied, a bit caught off guard by the random question.
“The names of the cities in Three Warden are quite confusing,” Orrick continued. “Unthar’s Keep, Lorig’s Trade—these names suggest there is a history behind them. If you know the history the names may not appear strange, but for one like myself they are odd names for a city. Will I even find a keep in Unthar’s Keep?”
“Ha ha, no, I am afraid not,” Dalvin answered. “I never thought about it, but you are certainly correct. They are peculiar names for cities.” Dalvin wondered for a second if he should provide some of his land’s history to his newly acquainted companion. He normally was not much of a talker, and the details of Unthar’s Keep could be a bit more than he had the energy to go into. “Well, I will try my best to not bore you with too many details, just know a castle used to stand where Unthar’s Keep is now. When the Ballek sacked the Kray castle, a man named Unthar made a final stand. Scholars say he was only a young squire, not a knight or seasoned warrior. He sheltered women and children along with other patrons in the keep that overlooked the castle courtyard. When the Ballek soldiers came to the keep, he pleaded for the lives of those he protected. The Ballek could’ve taken the keep by force, but one of the officers in his arrogance decided he would toy with the young squire. He told Unthar for every Ballek soldier he could defeat in battle he would let one Kray survivor leave freely. Of course the Ballek had just sacked this well-fortified castle and their men were proven soldiers, so they thought nothing of this young squire. It is said that Unthar defeated soldier after soldier after soldier until he won the freedom of everyone who sought refuge in the keep. As a result, the Ballek lord leading the assault was so impressed by Unthar, when they burned down the castle the only thing they left standing was the keep. As time passed, a town emerged as my people settled there. When people traveled and spoke of the settlement, they would simply refer to it as Unthar’s Keep. Also, to answer your original question, the keep is no longer there. It stood up until the Sahgrin attacked after the Banner Wars. The keep was destroyed, but the name still remained.”
“What happened to Unthar?”
“He died from his wounds. The story says that before he took his final breath the Ballek lord who had sacked the castle granted him his knighthood and gave him to the flame for a warrior’s death.”