Orcs here live according to the rule of Malacath. Malacath, as Daedric Prince of the Orcs, is worshipped in these places. The strongholds are for Orcs only, but the Dragonborn can be granted entry if they complete any of the qualifying tasks. If the Dragonborn is an Orc, access will be granted automatically.
In the middle of the Merethic Era, the Orsimer and their leader Trinimac attempted to halt the movement of the prophet Veloth and the Chimer. The Daedric Prince Boethiah ate Trinimac, corrupting his body and spirit, and he emerged as the Daedric Prince Malacath. All of the Orsimer people were also changed into what they are now known as, the Orcs. The early Orcish people founded the tribal and independent lifestyle of living. Instead of claiming one area, they would settle in multiple provinces dependent on the preferences and lifestyles of each individual tribe. These provinces came to be known as High Rock, Skyrim and Hammerfell. The Orcs would form small, tightly-knit strongholds and villages across these provinces while others gradually contributed to the formation of the predominantly Orcish city of Orsinium.
During the early Fourth Era and the sacking of Orsinium, many surviving Orcs fled east into Skyrim while others fled into the Dragontail Mountains or the Wrothgarian Mountains and successfully integrated into the clanish strongholds.
Strongholds are governed by a rigid class system. Every Orc has a specific job and is obligated to perform it. Every man, woman, and child in the fort is also trained from birth to defend it. The strongholds are led by a chief, who killed the previous chief to prove his strength. Only the chiefs are allowed to have wives, and due to this, they often have several. This method is to ensure that the strongest Orc becomes chief, contributing his genes to the next generation of Orcs who, in theory, should be stronger than the last.
Orcs in strongholds follow their own law called "The Code of Malacath." The will of Malacath is clarified by the stronghold's resident wise woman. The rules of the Code are simple: don't kill, don't steal and don't attack people without reason. They do not have jails; instead, offenders are forced to pay a "blood price," in which the criminal bleeds until the victim is satisfied. In cases where the victim was murdered, the chief is consulted to impose an appropriate penalty. All Orcs in the strongholds belong to a faction called Tribal Orcs. Committing a crime against any of the Orcs in any of the strongholds results in a bounty in all the strongholds.
There are a number of ways to gain access to the Orc strongholds of Skyrim:
- If the Dragonborn is not an Orc, they will be challenged by a guard and informed that outsiders are not permitted to enter. Provoking the guard will cause the stronghold's inhabitants to become hostile. If the Dragonborn asks the guard how they can gain access, they will be given the radiant quest "The Forgemaster's Fingers." The Dragonborn only needs to complete this quest once to gain access to all the Orc strongholds in Skyrim.
- Alternatively, the Dragonborn may complete a quest for certain Orcs throughout Skyrim. Once their favor has been gained, they will send word out to all the strongholds that the Dragonborn has permission to enter the strongholds.
- Retrieve a daedra heart for the Orc blacksmith Moth gro-Bagol in Understone Keep in Markarth. As well as sending word to the strongholds, he will also give the Dragonborn the location of the largest stronghold, Dushnikh Yal, and a leveled piece of armor.
- After completing the quest "Kolskeggr Mine," speak to the Orc miner Gat gro-Shargakh, who will be nearby.
- Retrieve The Last Scabbard of Akrash for Ghorza gra-Bagol, an Orc blacksmith is stationed at the blacksmith forge near The Hag's Cure in Markarth.
- Complete a series of fetch quests for Urag gro-Shub, an Orc mage and the librarian of the Arcanaeum at the College of Winterhold.
- After either convincing the Silver-Blood mercenaries at Karthwasten to leave or killing them for Ainethach, speak to the Orc miner Lash gra-Dushnikh who resides nearby.
- If the Dragonborn kills a dragon outside of the gates of a stronghold, they will be granted entry because of their valor.
- Upon completion of "A New Order" (a Dawnguard quest), Durak will send word to the strongholds.
- The completion of the quest "The Cursed Tribe" will mark the Dragonborn as the Champion of Malacath and gain them access to all strongholds.
There are several strongholds in Skyrim;
- Dushnikh Yal – Southwestern corner of Skyrim, straight southeast of Markarth.
- Largashbur – Southeastern quadrant of Skyrim, southwest from Riften.
- Mor Khazgur – Northwestern corner of Skyrim, west of Solitude.
- Narzulbur – Mid-eastern part of Skyrim, southeast of Windhelm.
- Cradlecrush – Western part of Eastmarch, north of Fort Amol.
Asking a guard at one of the strongholds if there are any others will reveal all the other strongholds on the map as unexplored locations. Some city hold guards might talk about one of the strongholds if the stronghold is in the same hold.
- Borgakh the Steel Heart, located at Mor Khazgur, is a potential wife and follower. Her dowry must be paid or she must be convinced to leave.
- In all strongholds (with the exception of Largashbur) the option exists to talk to the chief and ask if there is any help that can be provided. The chief will ask for a brawl that the winner gets 100 . If the brawl is won the Dragonborn will obtain 100 , and can take many items from the stronghold without having it count as theft.
- If an Orsimer is away from their home, they will be named after where they came from. In the Imperial Legion, Ghorbash the Iron Hand was known as Ghorbash gro-Dushnikh, as he says when the Dragonborn asks him to be a follower. The fact that many Orcs do not have a corresponding stronghold (for example: Balagog gro-Nolob) indicates that they came from a province in Orsinium, or a stronghold not in Skyrim.
- The structure of the Orsimer tribes appears to resemble that of lion prides, which typically consists of one male, arguably in charge of the pride, a number of mates, and all of their offspring. The male must fend off rivals, often meaning that he won't live very long past his prime, and the females do much of the hunting. They differ in that a male lion won't often stay in a pride for more than a few years before being ousted or killed by a rival, and a lion is not necessarily succeeded by his son. These similarities may be the result of coincidence, Bethesda taking inspiration from nature, or perhaps even Malacath or the orcs themselves choosing to emulate the social structure of a mighty beast.