Huntsmen are the very definition of how people view Slothjemians; lethal, treacherous, pagan, and mysterious. In truth, they are very much like the rangers found in other realms, just with a very different mindset and a slightly more malevolent skillset. Adept at assassination, these formidable characters often travel and fight alone. These were the most dedicated of the swamp orc warriors, but now there are huntsmen of virtually every racial background. Serving as hired killers, military scouts, and even spies for the realm, these enigmatic masters of shadow and dread seem to pop up in the most unlikely situations.
The patrol had eaten a hearty dinner thanks to their hosts, and in the morning, they ate an even more pleasing breakfast. Hemlock had been the first to speak to Grundoon as the orc was heading to the dining hall of the dormitory. The huge lizardman awkwardly jogged to catch up to the general.
“My lord, I managed to speak to Lieutenant Fegler last night. We had a good long chat.” The sorcerer struggled some to get his breath back from the exertion. “He gave me a full report of how the garrison is doing in our absence.”
Grundoon glanced over his shoulder at Hemlock but did not stop walking. “And?”
“Sarla has sent a unit of her skirmishers across the river to see if the Sikilians are up to anything.” Hemlock chuckled. “And they will probably do some raiding while they are over there.”
“Isn’t that lovely.” snickered Grundoon. “If there wasn’t going to be a war with Sikilia before we left, maybe we’ll have one by the time we get back.”
“I also hear that your wife is doing well. She is resting comfortably and has no complaints, save that she misses you.” Hemlock smiled softly, or at least as softly as a lizardman can smile.
At this Grundoon stopped walking and turned to face the sorcerer. “You made this inquiry, Major?”
“Yes my lord. I thought you might want to know.” Hemlock’s smile vanished.
“You were right. It is the only news I wanted to hear from home. The rest is just details.” Grundoon clasped Hemlock’s shoulder with his hand. “Well done, friend. Well done.” The two men resumed their walk to the dining hall.
After the morning meal Grundoon met briefly with the Archduke of Kernschloss. The dwarf and orc shook hands, smiled at each other, and headed together for the large central square of the city. Grundoon had agreed to address the people. He was known to them, albeit in legend for the most part, as a minor player in the life and death of Rogold. The sun was just beginning to rise, but a sizeable crowd had already begun to gather. Dwarves were an industrious folk and tended to rise early to tackle whatever the day had to offer.
Most people in Kernschloss were in fact dwarves. There were some humans here, and other demihumans such as gnomes and halflings, but elves had never really taken to the place. Likewise, there were not many goblinoids living here. There were some, but not as many as had settled in other parts of the coreland. There had been a population boom several years ago when the dwarves of the Grey Alps had joined the realm. Quite a large number of dwarves from there had up and moved to Kernschloss to seek out better employment and other opportunities. This morning probably half of the city’s populace were now gathering to hear what an orcish general had to say. They had heard of war with Romillia and had for the last couple of days been fearful that non-dwarven Slothjemians would show up to impose martial law. They had heard of Grundoon, and knew he was an army general, and although they harbored their suspicions, they were eager to hear what he had to say.
In the center of the huge circular main courtyard was a large obelisk that had been set up in commemoration of the city’s founding. It had been a gift from the third king of Slothjemia, Manfriedreich II, and was constructed of the same black stone that had been used to build the fortified capital. Grundoon made his way to the platform that supported the obelisk. Hothror had some of his servants place a small stairway at the base late last night, grateful that the orcish general was going to deliver this impromptu speech to help calm the citizens of Kernschloss. Grundoon strode up the steps with a tremendous sense of purpose. Although he loathed public speaking, he knew it was his duty as a friend of this great city to reassure them that his soldiers, at least, did not hold the dwarves here of any ill will. He looked out at the early morning crowd and cleared his throat. He still wasn’t sure what he was going to say. With as loud a voice as he could muster, Grundoon began to speak:
“Morning, brothers. I greet you as an old friend, a Knight of the County Brotherhood, Baron of Vorkel, Commandant of Vorkelburg, and a general of the Slothjemian army. But mostly I speak to you as a brother. For we are all Slothjemians. There are no racial divides in the Clan of the Midnight Skull. All who rally beneath the black, white, and red banner of our beloved land are brothers in blood and honor. We are not orcs and dwarves, elves and kobolds. We are not ogres and gnomes, humans and trolls. We are Slothjemians. And we must not fear our brothers.”
“Yes, the dwarves of Romillia have attacked our sovereign soil, and taken hold of one of our towns. But Romillia is also human, let us not forget that. And while some outside these city walls may declare that dwarves cannot be trusted, let us not lose sight of the fact that well over two thirds of Romillians are not dwarves at all, but humans! Nobody would seek to make enemies of all humans that inhabit Slothjemia, would they? No! And nor should they seek to make enemies of those that are dwarven.”
Ours is not a fight with dwarves or humans. Ours is a fight with Romillia. And while we might not know if a man is Slothjemian or Romillian by looking at him if he be a stranger to us, we know our friends and family. We know the hearts and souls of our countrymen. I know that the people of Kernschloss are my brothers, not because of the flags that fly from the walls and towers, but because of the axe I carry into battle! For was it not the favored weapon of your own son, Rogold? Did he not storm the fortress of Frenklar the Brazen alongside me, and defeat the lich lord that had plagued these lands? Did I not hold him as he bled, slipped away from this mortal life, and crossed into paradise as a warrior ought? This noble man was my brother! And you are my brothers as well!”
“I know in my heart that you are kinfolk to me. I am every bit as tied to you, and this city, as I am to my own soldiers. Stand strong! I would never hold the deeds of others against you, regardless of ancient ties or racial similarities. I stand with Kernschloss, just as Kernschloss stands with Slothjemia. So, mind the skies, watch for the real enemies, be on guard, and do not fear the armies that march for Slothjemia against her enemies. Should any attempt be made to harm my brothers in Kernschloss, then be assured that I, your brother, will fight on your behalf.”
“But now, I must take my leave of your wondrous city. I and my army must go to fight the enemies of Slothjemia. And those enemies, I am proud to say, are not here. Here there is only family.”
With that Grundoon waved and stepped down the stairs. He once more shook Hothror’s hand, and the two men grinned at one another. The crowd cheered and applauded. Outside of the crowd, Grundoon’s men began to form up for the day’s march. It was time to get started. All along the route towards the Road Tower, the people of Kernschloss rushed to shout cheerful greetings and farewells to the patrol. Many houses along the way were festooned with Slothjemian flags and banners. Had the people had time to get them together, they would have had bunting and confetti. A very festive and upbeat mood, in striking contrast to the dour attitude of the dwarves when they entered the city. Once word got around that the soldiers were not here to impose martial law, or otherwise restrict the citizens they were ecstatic. Well, as ecstatic as dwarves can get. A company of the dwarven militia asked Grundoon if they could please come along to fight in the east. Their leader, a dwarf named Storg Hammerclaw, was most insistent. Grundoon acquiesced, and a hundred of Kernschloss’ finest fell into place in the column, complete with gear and rations. Along with them came another ten carts of general provisions as a thank-you from Hothror for Grundoon’s friendship in an hour of need.
The army made its’ way down the road tower. It was easy going and all downhill, so the units made very good time. The heavy clouds over the city turned to deep fog in the valley floor. This was typical of the swamp. Most mornings had fog. There was an audible sigh of relief from the goblinoids in the column. For most of the non-humans in the patrol, the dismal damp of the swamp was like a mother’s love. All-encompassing, and smothering in its intensity. There were many monsters still lurking here, but the great swamp of the coreland was not as dangerous a place as it was when the first king of Slothjemia first hunted in this fetid jungle with his squire. Black dragons were no longer to be found lurking here, wild and untamed. Vordgots, the long-legged lizards filled with fury and mayhem, likewise no longer posed a serious threat. And while there might be men and creatures that hid in the dark recesses of the fen, they were far more likely to remain hidden, than to ever show themselves to strangers.
The road through the swamp was not as well made as the ancient roads utilized by travelers elsewhere in the realm. Where possible, stones had been put down to make the road as smooth and wear-proof as the orcs could manage. The pavers could only be put down where there was solid ground beneath. Everywhere else, the path turned into a raised wooden causeway. There were plenty of sturdy trees here in the swamp, especially on the myriad islands of rock and soil that were scattered about the marsh. From these trees the causeway had been constructed. These often-times long bridges connected the numerous islands to create a road of sorts that ran for the most part in a straight-line west to east from Kernschloss. Throughout the swamp there were these causeways, and oddly cobbled roads connecting the cities of the coreland that had grown from tiny villages to some truly remarkable urban landscapes. Today the patrol would make their way to Four Corners. That small hamlet sat at the nexus of the two primary roads in the kingdom. Not many people called Four Corners home as it was built on a little island not suitable for major development. It was just large enough to allow some four thousand soldiers to camp there overnight.
As the patrol made its’ way east across the swamp, the fog began to melt away. The clouds overhead however started to get darker and more menacing. There was light rainfall off and on during the march, but the cool precipitation felt good. There was more walking for the patrol this day, as the cavalry and other mounted soldiers had to dismount and walk their horses across the causeways. It helped to keep repairs down to a minimum and prevented the combined weight of the horses and their riders from being too much for the timbers. The solid earth islands provided places for the patrol to rest, and for the horses to forage without getting too close to the murky waters of the fen. Usually the roads in the coreland were monitored by the black dragon riders of the various guard units of the Slothjemian army. It was eerie not seeing them soaring through the clouds. Grundoon figured that they were hard at work on the border keeping the Romillian skycruisers at bay. There were ground patrols of rural constabulary, but the dragons were what made the swamp feel like Slothjemia. Without them overhead, it was just another jungle with an ongoing fog problem.
There was a good amount of traffic on the road today. The closer the patrol got to the big towns and cities of the coreland the more heavily travelled the roads were. There were carts and wagons of every possible size, and passenger coaches too. Tradesmen taking goods from the valley urban areas to the western portion of the realm had to pass through Four Corners and on to Kernschloss. There were two guard posts along the way, but only one of them was occupied when the patrol went past. It was being monitored by some shadow elven militia working for the Shadefiend family, who governed a large tract of swampland just south of the causeway. Shadow elves made everyone uncomfortable, especially shadow elves of a rival family. They watched the patrol go by, and never said a word or raised a hand to acknowledge the troops marching by their little tower.
Closer to Four Corners and near the end of the day, the army made its’ way past two jorish huntsmen that were lounging on some rocks near the road. Unlike the creepy silence of the shadow elves the swamp orcs hooted and hollered at the patrol, waving and cheering enough to make them feel as if they were a crowd instead of just two. The larger of them stomped through the marsh to greet Grundoon as he came riding along. He waved at the general and motioned for him to wait up. Grundoon looked at him and wondered how on earth, out of all of the soldiers to pass by in the column, this huntsman somehow knew that he was in charge.
“Allo, me lord.” Said the jor with a deep raspy voice. “Are you off to fight the dwarves in the east?”
Grundoon stopped his horse and looked inquisitively at the swamp orc. He had a great orcish bastard sword on his back and was wearing a black leather armor that looked as though it was crafted from baby dragon hide. His hair was braided in the tradition of tribal goblinoids, and the scars visible on his face and forearms marked him as a veteran warrior. Huntsmen were the orcish equivalent of the human ranger and were never taken lightly. They were arguably the finest assassins available and had a nasty habit of blending into the woodwork before and after they struck. They rarely needed more than one attack, usually a back stab, to get the job done.
“Why are you asking me?” asked Grundoon.
The jor snorted. “Well yer the boss, ain’t ya?” He cocked his head to the side and looked at the general.
Grundoon just stared back. This fellow knew his way around. “We are heading east to fight the Romillians, yes.” His voice got ever so slightly louder as he then asked, “What’s it to you?”
The huntsman laughed. “Fair enough, lord, fair enough. My cousin and I were wondering if you might need a couple more swords to add to yer army.” He wiped his nose on his arm. “We haven’t had us a fight in a while and could do with a bit of swordplay.” He looked up at Grundoon. “Assuming yer wanting us along, that is.”
Grundoon nodded. “Always welcome, huntsman. You and your cousin will be most welcome to join us.” With that Grundoon resumed riding with the patrol. He glanced back to see the two jors clambering into the column with terrific enthusiasm. Cheers ran down the ranks as word spread that two huntsmen had just joined the army to fight the Romillians. A huntsman was always a good thing to have on your side in battle.
The patrol rolled into Four Corners just about sunset. Grundoon stopped at the edge of town and made sure every officer knew where to bivouac their men. The handful of permanent residents in the village all came out to see what was going on. The head of the local district rural constabulary was the closest thing to a mayor that Four Corners had. The village had a baron that kept control over the place, but he was up in Slothenburg on business. The local law was eager to accommodate the army passing through in whatever way they could. There was only one tavern in the hamlet, and the men were thirsty. Grundoon sent Blackcowl to see how much ale the pub had on hand, and how much it would cost the general to buy enough to keep his men happy. He had given Blackcowl two hundred gold and told him to come back for more if he needed it.
The livery stable served as a coach stop and they had plenty of feed on hand for the patrol’s horses. The blacksmith there even offered to check their horseshoes. Not much else in the way of services were available here, but the troops found dry ground enough to sleep on. Most men slept under the carts and wagons, in case it started to rain again. There was enough storm brewing in the clouds above that a good rain wouldn’t have been unexpected.
Everyone settled in for the night. The rain did eventually begin to fall in earnest sometime after midnight, but hardly anyone in the patrol noticed. They were so tired from being on the road for the last three days, that they could have slept through most anything.