Slothjemians that are drawn to the “tribal” side of the realm’s politics tend to be more rural in their mindset. They cling to the old ways of goblinoid life, and resist being drawn in to a more humanlike, civilized culture. Leaders in these communities are shamans, witchdoctors, and of course, huntsmen. They are less likely to play a direct role in decision-making at the highest levels of government, but it would be a mistake to assume that they have no influence, or power.
When reveille sounded the next morning it was not entirely welcome. Unlike the great feasts available in Kernschloss, here in Four Corners the men had to make due with just the food they brought with them. They had all had a mug of ale the night before, and that had gone a long way towards making the day’s march tolerable, but the patrol was not as quick to form in, nor as cheerful. They were still eager to get to fighting, but it was just so much work to get to where the fighting was. Quite a few jokesters in the ranks had suggested next time Romillia start the war by attacking Vorkelburg, so it would have ended quicker with a solid defeat for the Romillians.
The column was underway before the sun came up. Slothenburg was half a day’s journey to the north, and Grundoon didn’t want to linger in Four Corners longer than necessary. Determined scrutiny from any regular army unit, especially another contingent of the Judicial Command, would quickly lead to the patrol’s undoing in this endeavor. For the most part, nobody had questioned their hastily concocted story of being a volunteer and mercenary force in route to help assist the war effort. They had yet to encounter any regular army units though, and the few people that had been skeptical had decided for whatever reason not to pursue their doubts.
About two hours into the day’s march word came up the column from the rear guard that there were riders coming up from Four Corners at a healthy gallop. The column moved off the road as much as possible, and took a quick break to let them pass. They didn’t take long to go right by Grundoon and his troops. They wore the dark red uniforms with black trim of the Red Guard. From the looks of them they were mounted infantry, an elite force of halberdiers that rode horses to quickly get to the scene of battle, and then fought on foot. They were going at a good pace, and hardly even took notice of the “rag-tag” patrol. As the Red Guards went by the column had to stifle a communal snicker. They looked so crisp and professional. The troops of Grundoon’s faux militia had done an excellent job of looking like a band of ragamuffins. Most of them waved at the guards as they thundered past. The guards did little to respond, other than a nod here and there. Grundoon counted no fewer than three hundred and fifty riders. If the rest of the Red Guard was being deployed in this direction, and in a similar manner, the column would have to proceed with caution. Word was sent up and down the line to be wary of further potential for complications.
Seeing the Red Guard riding so determinedly was a tremendous shot in the arm for the patrol. Everyone had renewed vigor and enthusiasm for the march ahead. The patrol took very few breaks that day. They wanted, no needed, to be in battle. The few times they did take a break, there was a fair amount of grousing that every minute not spent on the road was more time for the Red Guard to steal their glory. So they pressed on.
The men sang some, but mostly they talked. They discussed tactics, and went over elements of their training. Although they had trained for open combat, they hadn’t had any practical experience in far too long. They had no idea what the field of battle would look like, but they knew that some things wouldn’t change from training to reality. The formations they might use, and how the lines would be formed up to intermix the skirmishers, pikemen, and axemen were talked about in great detail. The men were excited, and all of them felt as if battle would come soon.
Rain threatened all day but never fell. The clouds were darker to the east. Grundoon and his officers were aware that the storm brewing there was not just a thunderstorm. That was where the war was going to take place for them all. Not one of them doubted that their day was coming to face the enemy. They also had no doubt but that Grundoon would lead them all to victory.
As the column continued east, here and there on causeway, otherwise on crudely cobbled road, Grundoon passed the time humming favorite tunes and wondering if Aggrylia was going to have a boy or a girl. Or maybe she would have one of each. Orcs commonly gave birth to one to three offspring, so many combinations were possible. He also ran through a list of names he’d like his newest children to have. He was rather enjoying this little exercise, when he became aware of a man on a horse next to him. He looked over at him.
It was a half-orc, and he wore a hand-made lieutenant’s insignia to keep with the ongoing charade. He had a horse, but looked to be a member of Grundoon’s axe unit. He had a handsome bardiche slung over his back, and it was clearly a weapon that was cared for. The man’s hair was long, but hung in a ponytail common to the barbarians of the northern lands, not in the braids of the tribal-minded huntsmen. His face was covered in stubble from having been away from decent grooming for a few days. Grundoon just looked at the half-orc for a while. Eventually the other man caught his gaze. He saluted, but loosely, not uncommon for armies on the march.
Grundoon returned the salute. “What can I do for you, lieutenant?” The orc guessed that this officer had not just happened to ride up alongside him.
“My name is Drungaar, sir.” The half-orc looked at the general, then back at the road. “I have something I wish to speak to you about.”
Grundoon continued to gaze at the officer. “Alright.” He found the man’s demeanor to be somewhat amusing but clearly there was something on his mind.
“It isn’t a military matter, lordship. It is of a personal nature.” Drungaar glanced again at Grundoon, then quickly looked around at who might be within earshot.
Grundoon looked around as well. He then realized that was silly. Jandle was always within earshot, and anyone else nearby probably had no idea who this guy was any more than Grundoon did. “Alright.” Grundoon made a somewhat impatient motion with his hand. “Say what you have to say, lieutenant.”
“I want to marry your daughter.” The lieutenant looked at the general. “And I am asking your permission to court her.” The half-orc didn’t divert his gaze this time. He wanted to see exactly how the general reacted.
Grundoon’s reaction came slowly. He felt as though somebody had just asked him what the color purple sounded like. Who in the vast inky darkness of eternal confoundedness was this Drungaar guy? Had he been sniffing around his daughter all this time and Grundoon had no idea what was happening? Grundoon’s mind slowly, so slowly began to grasp for focus. One thing at a time.
His eyes narrowed as he stared at the half-orc. It was the kind of stare that made everyone uncomfortable when they were subjected to it. “My daughter?”
Drungaar nodded. “Yes sir.” The old orc just kept staring at him.
“Which one?” asked Grundoon, “I have several that haven’t been married off yet.” He just squinted at the lieutenant.
“Oleysa, my lord.” Drungaar stammered. It had not occurred to him that the general had other daughters. Oleysa was the only one that he had ever noticed.
Grundoon silently turned his attention back to the road. They were coming up on a causeway and the riders were dismounting. “Good choice.” Grundoon grunted. “She was always my favorite.” He turned to look at Drungaar. “I’ll give it some thought.”
The lieutenant saluted, a little more sharply this time around. “Thank you, sir.” He reined in his horse and dismounted to rejoin his unit. Grundoon rode a little further on and also dismounted. For a moment he just stood there, thinking. Jandle taking the horse’s reins from his hand shook him back to reality. He began to walk, slowly at first and then with more purposeful strides across the causeway. War or not, life kept drumming right along. Besides, nobody was marrying anybody until the patrol made it back to Vorkelburg. Grundoon wasn’t going to dwell on Oleysa’s suitor at the moment.
The column passed by two causeway guard towers during the course of the day. Both functioned as drawbridges, to allow boats to make their way up and down the swamp. The swamp existed here because the River Jorillon meandered from the north into the wide valley between the alpine mountains, and got bunched up before it found a way out through a narrow gorge in the south. The river’s name was interpreted as “spring waters of the swamp orcs” in the native language of Geldenreich. Even though the river was more a collection of mountain springs in the valley than the source creek that ran from the northern portions of the realm, it was all treated as the same thing. Before Slothjemia came into being, few explorers had ever dared to map out the watershed of the Great Swamp and after the orcs established a kingdom here, nobody had bothered to take an academic interest in the matter.
The guard towers were both fully manned with rural constabulary and local militia from the little villages that were scattered about in the fen. All were glad to see the patrol pass by, and they shouted encouragement and good wishes. Grundoon and the other officers in his executive staff noticed that the heavy ballistae on top of the towers were aimed skyward and the men manning the weapons didn’t look down once, but kept their gazes firmly fixed on the cloudy heavens. A skycruiser attack on the causeway would be catastrophic, wiping out not only the most viable way to move troops and materials, but reconstruction would be time consuming and expensive.
Well after the patrol had passed the halfway point in the day’s journey, the column reached the eastern edge of the swampy valley. The road then began a twisting climb up the cliffs into a narrow valley that was etched into the imposing mountains. This was not going to be an easy ascent. Unlike the finely crafted Road Tower of Kernschloss, this side of the valley was a crude road at best. The wagons and carts would have to go single file up the pathway, and the exertion meant that troops and animals would both need to stop and rest more frequently. There was no way around it, and so the army pushed forward. Larger troops such as ogres and bugbears helped to push the vehicles up the incline. This was going to be the hardest part of the journey.
Grundoon dismounted to give his horse an easier time making the climb. As his breathing became more labored, Grundoon could not help but think about how very old he was. The younger men around him were carrying heavy packs, their weapons, and in some cases, even their armor. They were having as much trouble as he was, but were carrying quite a bit more. As much as he knew the aches would keep him from sleeping soundly tonight, the general pressed on even harder. This had the curious effect of inspiring the men around him to push themselves even harder. The old orc wanted to laugh at the predicament he was creating for himself, but knew he had to save his energy. Any raucous laughter now would mean he would have to stop, and just give himself over to laughing. He couldn’t keep hiking and laugh at the same time.
Over the sound of his own breathing Grundoon could pick up an odd, distinctively disturbing sound. He held his head up, and with his free hand removed his helm to allow him to hear more clearly. It was a chant, mid-range in pitch, and rhythmic. It seemed to make the climb easier. He let himself become more and more absorbed by the sound. The chant echoed in his head as a low throbbing massage on his brain. As the column came around one of the switchbacks in the road, Grundoon could see a figure in flowing robes up above the road, standing on the rocks. The figure’s arms were outstretched, and their body seemed to be swaying slightly in rhythm to the chant. “Shaman” whispered Grundoon to himself. That was what that was. Some tribal priest doing their best to encourage and strengthen the patrol through ancient tribal ritual.
The shaman was standing high on the rocks right at the position of the next switchback. The intonation had a very noticeable effect on everyone. Even the horses were able to pull harder, as if their loads had been halved. Most everyone waved at the shaman as they passed, but none spoke to allow the chant to continue uninterrupted. At first glance, it appeared that the shaman was a lizardman, but as he got closer Grundoon could see it was actually a troglodyte, a race distantly related to lizardmen, but that preferred the rocky barren cliffs to life in the swamps and forests. They were considered to be a very savage and barbaric people, and only a handful ever made the adjustment to life within Slothjemian society. Grundoon had a number of them in his army, but they were natives of the rocky alpine region closer to Vorkelburg.
As he rode past the Shaman, Grundoon turned to look at Jandle. Catching his eye, he rubbed the forefinger and middle finger against his thumb in the universal sign for money, and then a tossing gesture. Jandle nodded, and with a quick motion, drew some coins from his pouch and tossed them up to where the shaman was. He was nonplussed, and continued his chant.
Thanks to the energizing forces of the shaman’s magic the patrol made it to the top of the cliffs in extremely good time. Men that were winded halfway up, had at the top full energy and vigor to keep going. But not far from where the road crested the cliff, Grundoon gave orders for the men to bivouac for the night. It was a small valley, but there was plenty of room for the entire column to bed down without impeding traffic. The troops separated into their component units, and set up camp. As the men were starting fires and rolling out their bedrolls, the officers, ranked captain and higher, were summoned by Jandle to come meet with Grundoon.
After the officers gathered, Grundoon had them stand in a circle around him so all could hear what he had to say. He took a deep breath, looked around at them all, and began speaking.
“Gentlemen, we draw close to the war that we have marched to take part in. Early tomorrow, we will arrive at the Summit Village road. There are few options. If the battle for Summit Village has in fact been started, we may find ourselves pushed into action by whatever regular army units are present. We cannot allow that to happen. Our goal is to reach Garvin’s Gap. I believe that is where the main battle will take place, if it hasn’t already. The Romillians did not capture Summit Village just to let us take it back. They can’t hold the town with whatever forces they can drop in with skycruisers. That means they are bringing up their full forces through Garvin’s Gap, to fully secure their hold on Summit Village.” The general paused to let his words sink in.
The officers were all silently nodding in agreement. The scenario that the general was laying out made good sense. Grundoon continued. “Now, we have no idea what forces Slothjemia has been able to field against this onslaught. With an educated guess I would say it is safe to say that the 1st Army has been dropped right into the middle of it all, since they were the closest. And it is probable that there are militia from Jaggerholmschloss being moved to support that endeavor. But there are no more armies to be had quickly. We are the safeguard to make sure that the Romillians do not get past Garvin’s Gap.”
The officers began to murmur in agreement. Grundoon held up his hand to quiet them. “There are two wild cards that must be considered. The dragonriders of the three guard units, and the spelljammers.” Grundoon shrugged. “It is anybody’s guess what the Herzgraf and Lord High Marshal has done with them. They are valuable battle assets, and can’t be squandered or risked on a whim. So, whether or not they are committed to this war has yet to be seen. And with these storm clouds rumbling away, we may not see them at all.”
Grundoon turned again to look at his officers. All were focused on their leader. “So this is the heart of the matter. We must get past whatever regular army units are assaulting Summit Village and make our way with great haste to Garvin’s Gap.” He paused. “Any questions?”
He looked around at the officers. Major Deckler raised his hand. “To what lengths are we committed to carrying out our goal of reaching Garvin’s Gap?” The rest of the officers all murmured.
“We’re not going to go all General Bloodclaw, if that is your question.” Replied Grundoon. The officers chuckled at this reference to a general that had gone rogue decades ago, and had to be hunted down and destroyed by two other armies. “We are, however, going to do whatever we need to do to bluff our way past the Summit Village junction.”
Grundoon shook his head. “We do not want a fight with our own troops. If we are pressed into service doing other than our goal of reaching the gap, then that is what we will do. We did not come all this way to not fight, but nor do we want the wrong fight. Make sure that your men understand this.” The officers nodded, and all spoke in the affirmative. “Now, go back to your men and press upon them the importance of keeping our deception going. Also make sure they are alert. From here on out anything is possible. The enemy is less than a third of a day away by foot, and we know they have skycruisers that can drop commandoes anywhere they please. So stay focused, stay aware, and for God’s sake stay alive. Dismissed.”
The officers all headed quickly back to fill in their soldiers with what the next day might hold. Grundoon made his way to where he was bunking, right in the middle of his axemen. Sentries were posted by all units, and everyone on guard kept a wary eye on the sky and the road. The clouds were very stormy indeed. A good strong wind whistled through the pass they were camped in. A light rain fell, and off in the distance thunder rolled. Some of the soldiers whispered that maybe it wasn’t thunder, but bombards. All of the soldiers that found themselves on picket duty that night found themselves wondering the same thing. They knew roughly where Summit Village was through the mountains and that seemed to be where the thunder was coming from. It was tough to tell, though. So many canyons and valleys for the sound to echo through.
Everyone got as much rest as they could. The excitement level was quite high among the patrol. They could sense the closeness of battle. And that had Grundoon’s troops almost giddy.