Those Slothjemians that favor the “noble” side of the political spectrum tend to be exactly that; the nobility. More inclined to exercise power that is granted to them by the throne, than to express themselves as powerful individuals in their own right, they are most often associated with the Church and governmental bureaucracy. They view tribalists with suspicion, always wary that such people will capitalize on the charisma of a person to usurp the authority of the crown.
The next day began very cloudy and with a light rain. The clouds were so dark that even after dawn it was hardly brighter. The patrol roused just before the sun rose and formed up shortly after having a quick breakfast. Grundoon ordered a new placement for the dwarven militia that had joined the patrol in Kernschloss. Grundoon had them fall in right behind the axes. The forward cavalry was told to stay closer than it had the last few days. Once the junction to Summit Village was spotted, they were to take note of the situation, and report back immediately. Grundoon believed that the entire march depended on getting beyond the junction without any hassle, and he could not impress that enough upon his men.
Everyone headed out. The excitement level was very high. The first portion of the journey went smoothly, and the men fell into an easy cadence. The valley meandered only somewhat, and there was very little incline to the road. It was not a high-quality road such as the roads were east of the coreland, but it was a solid road. Stone had been quarried from the nearby mountains and placed with reasonable expertise by engineers contracted through the various nobles that oversaw the lands through which this road ran.
After an hour or so, Grundoon paused and watched his men march past. He was proud of them all. They were walking a fine line between looking like untrained volunteers and mercenaries, and yet carrying themselves with discipline and military bearing. As the units went by, they saluted their general. And he saluted them.
After the second group of cavalry went past, Grundoon waved to General Blackcowl who was leading his pikemen and the two men began to ride side by side. Jandle, of course, rode behind his lord.
“Welcome to the back half of the column, General.” Laughed Blackcowl. “What brings you to our little corner of the parade?”
Grundoon laughed. “I just wanted to see how things were going.” The two men laughed, because both knew that was a lie.
“Alright, things are good. The boys are in very good spirits.” Blackcowl looked around at his men. “They are ready for anything, lord.”
Grundoon nodded. The two men rode in silence for a while. Finally, Grundoon asked “Do you know a lieutenant named Drungaar?”
Blackcowl thought for a moment and shook his head. “No, he isn’t one of mine. Who does he belong to?”
Grundoon shrugged. “I haven’t a clue. I think he is one of mine, that is to say Sarla’s.” Grundoon looked at Blackcowl. “But I’m not sure. I didn’t see him in the column as they went by me.”
Blackcowl looked at Grundoon. “Maybe he is further back in the patrol. Could be judicial, or a skirmisher. Maybe cavalry. Does he have a horse?”
“Yes, he does have a horse.” Replied Grundoon. “He probably is cavalry.”
“Why are we talking about a lieutenant?” asked Blackcowl with bemusement.
Grundoon grunted. “He wants to marry my daughter.” He had a hard time hiding his disdain for the idea.
Blackcowl laughed so hard it startled Grundoon. “I don’t even have to ask which one!” the gnoll gave himself completely to his mirth. The soldiers behind them all looked with great curiosity at their generals. The riders in front of them turned in their saddles to see what was happening. “It has to be Oleysa!” The gnoll threw his head back and looked as though he might howl at the sky. And then he did. So loud and brash was his laugh, that Grundoon cringed.
“ALRIGHT!” Bellowed the orc. “I get the point. You know she is precious to me.” He was irritated at how well the gnoll knew him.
Blackcowl fought to regain his composure. “Do not fear, my lord.” He wiped his eyes. “Doubtless the lieutenant knows how precious she is to you, as well.” He laughed a bit more. “Besides, he has to survive whatever lies ahead on this adventure.” Blackcowl reached over and smacked Grundoon on the back. “You can worry about him after he makes the march back home.”
Grundoon looked at Blackcowl. He laughed. “You are correct, my canine friend. I am getting ahead of myself.” The two men laughed.
Blackcowl motioned for Grundoon to go back to the front of the patrol. “Gnolls aren’t canines. We’re more closely related to hyenas.” Blackcowl and Grundoon both roared with laughter as they said in unison “LAUGHING HYENAS!” They laughed for at least a mile. At last, Grundoon waved, and he and Jandle picked up the pace to ride up through the column.
Grundoon felt a sense of relief. Now he could center his thoughts where they needed to be: The upcoming battle.
The patrol stayed mostly quiet for the bulk of the morning. The heavy clouds swirling around the peaks of the mountains throughout the long little valley made it feel as though they were going through a tunnel. All through the valley a small river, filled with snow melt and rain run-off, rushed against the rocks and bubbled with turbulence. It was a constant, and somewhat distracting roar, that echoed off of the valley walls. The riders strained their ears to detect anything remotely sounding like a skycruiser swooping from the heavens to rain down bombard fire and who-could-only-guess what else. Most of the riders even removed their helms in an attempt to hear even better. The infantry marching along did so without the drums. All eyes were on the skies and mountain slopes, searching for anything remotely resembling Romillian commandos.
More dismaying to the column were the sounds that now, in the light of day, were clearly not thunder but cannon fire coming from the direction of Summit Village. The explosions were few and far between but somehow that made it even more distressing. As sporadic as they were it made the troops wonder just what was happening over those mountains, through the clouds.
The advance riders sent back a report that there were soldiers in the road ahead before the noon hour. They could see that they were members of the Red Guard, and they were camped out right at the junction to the short road south to Summit Village. As near as anyone could tell, the column had not been spotted. Everyone bunched up awkwardly throughout the column, and Grundoon gave orders for everyone to get suited up in their armor. Looking like militia or volunteers was one thing, but there was no way Grundoon wanted his men to show up completely unready for action. It took a while for everyone to suit up that wasn’t already decked out in their armor, but it gave the officers a chance to go over the ground rules to the farce.
When the patrol was ready to start up again, they did so in a tighter formation. Grundoon wanted the column to look shorter, so pushing the soldiers together gave the illusion of fewer numbers. At least, that was what he was hoping for.
The orc general moved to the front of the column, with Jandle right behind him. He looked back at his men and smiled. He raised the axe high over his head and lowered it forward. The patrol lurched forward and began to approach the junction.
As Grundoon’s army advanced down the road they attracted the attention of the Red Guards that had set up their camp all over the junction, barely leaving enough room for anyone to get through towards either Summit Village or Garvin’s Gap. The soldiers assigned to actually be the sentries alerted the entire camp, and men swarmed out from tents and wherever they had been loitering to see what was happening.
Grundoon’s patrol made a point to hold their fake unit designation banners up as high as they could. They also did their best to not be too professional. There were murmured discussions among the patrol, and some of them were not all that quiet. All in all, the perfect image of rabble.
Grundoon rode right up to the Red Guard sentries before halting. His horse was practically standing on top of a halberdier, forcing the sentries to stagger back a couple of steps before they could call out a stammered “HALT!”
“I’m halted.” Snapped Grundoon. “Now who do I need to address to get permission to unhalt, and continue on our way?” The column came to a shambling stop but took care to bunch up even more to hide their numbers.
A middle-aged jor strode forward in a manner that both denoted regality and authority, with just a dash of arrogance. Grundoon knew him by reputation. He was almost positive that the jor did not know who he was, though. Almost.
The jor stood with his legs slightly spread and his hand on the pommel of his sword. “I am General Shr Argrowl von Unster-Kol, commander of her majesty’s Red Guard. And who are you, sir?”
Grundoon saluted. “Baron Shr Grundoon von Vorkel, my lord.” He motioned to the patrol behind him. “These are volunteer militia and some mercenaries I hired to look after my interests to the north near the border.”
General von Unster-Kol gazed down the road at the mass of armored, gibbering soldiers that were even now piling in and flowing over the road. “Volunteers….?” His voice trailed off. He looked at Grundoon. “Where in this country did you find that many volunteers?” He could not hide the astonishment in his expression.
Grundoon shrugged and laughed. “We just came up from the swamps.” He said. It was the truth, but of course not all of it. He figured that at least one of these officers had to have the ability, via spellcraft or otherwise, to detect falsehood. Grundoon knew that he had to be careful what he said.
The general of the Red Guard looked intently at Grundoon, and then back at one of his men. The soldier he was looking at nodded almost imperceptibly. Grundoon had been right. The jor looked back at Grundoon. “You have business north of here that you want to attend to?”
Grundoon nodded. “Aye, that I do. Garvin’s Gap. I’d hate to see the Romillians muck the place up.” Also truthful.
The jor nodded in agreement. “Alright. Go on ahead, baron. Stick to the road and be wary. We’ve heard a lot of artillery from up that way today. The 1st Army has been there a couple of days but could probably use some help. As for this….” The jor pointed towards Summit Village, “We have that pretty well sewn up.”
For the first time Grundoon and the patrol took a good look to the south at Summit Village just a few miles away. Most, including Grundoon, could not prevent their jaws from dropping at what they saw.
The town itself was formed right from the peak of Mount Baggerstoll. Spellcraft, dwarven technique, and gnomish design had combined to make the town a formidable fortification and also a beautiful edifice that defied the viewer to discern where mountain ended, and the town began. On this day, though, the place was a scene of battle. Red Guards had scaled the walls in a number of places, and the smoke from a dozen fires scattered about inside the town caused swirls of smoke and debris to drift upwards into the sky. The clouds right above Summit Village had been dispelled via some magical means, and a great, almost perfectly circular hole at least two miles across, allowed sunlight to stream in over the scene. And in the air over the town, circling in a loose spiral, was a Romillian skycruiser locked in combat with half a dozen or more Slothjemian dragon riders. These were undoubtedly the dragons that were assigned as part of the Red Guards. The dragons and their fearless riders dove and struck at the skycruiser, the dragons spewing streams of acid from their mouths and the riders firing arrows or casting spells. The skycruiser belched thick, black smoke from its smokestacks and fired volley after volley of cannon fire at the attackers in an attempt to drive the dragons back. But the dragons had the advantage of speed and maneuverability. The acid had eaten away at the massive oblong cloth-covered balloon that held the skycruiser aloft. The Romillians were losing altitude quickly, and the dragons continued to press their attack. The entire scene was almost surreal, and it captivated Grundoon and his men for several minutes. The fabric continued to deteriorate, and the skycruiser dropped precipitously. The dragons pulled up and circled over the unfortunate vessel as it plummeted into the cliffs directly below the walls of Summit Village. There was a small explosion that blew the wooden ship into millions of splinters and spread kindling all over the impact area. As slowly as the descent was when first the skycruiser caught the notice of Grundoon and his command, the rapid destruction of the ship was something of a surprise.
The Red Guard general cleared his throat and broke their collective trance by saying “As I was saying, baron, you and your militia can head on towards the north. I’d be wary though.” The guards that had been blocking the road stepped out of the way and the men in the encampment began to clear a path as well for Grundoon’s men. “We sent a detachment of cavalry that direction this morning when we began to hear the artillery up that way. They haven’t yet reported back, but we expect them this afternoon.”
Grundoon saluted Argrowl and with a smile said “Thank you very much, general. Good luck to your men. Glad to see everything is going so well here.”
Argrowl returned the salute and headed back to his command tent. As the men of the patrol made their way through the junction encampment, few of them were aware that the suspicious commander of the Red Guard was watching them and counting them. And while his count was not exactly perfect it was close enough to give him pause. He wondered who this baron was, and how he gathered that many men in such a short period of time. Grundoon knew he was watching, as did the rest of the executive officers. They all made a point of glancing over at the command tent as they went by, and all of them saw Argrowl eyeing the troops making their way through his camp.
The road curved northward from the junction and went up a slight incline. There was a heavily forested valley just a couple of miles on, and this was where Grundoon had his soldiers stop to undergo a more thorough inspection of their weapons and armor. The order of march was changed once again, with two-thirds of the cavalry sent to the front of the column and the rest guarding the baggage train in the back. Grundoon gave the order for the men to reassemble, and to spread out across the road. Grundoon was no longer concerned about getting in the way of civilian traffic. He was, however, very concerned with the potential of Romillian troops coming down the road towards Summit Village. He wanted his men ready to block the road completely should that occur, and to be in a formation capable of battle in a matter of moments. This is the order all of the senior officers were given, and the soldiers under their command took it very seriously.
The column headed out again. The carts and wagons had to wait while the army headed out. The advance cavalry was very near the first group of infantry and had orders to not ride too far ahead. All eyes were on the forest and the sky, the mountainside, and then back to the sky.
After passing through the first forested vale the column began to hear distant artillery. It was coming from Garvin’s Gap. Grundoon rode ahead and told the advance cavalry to send out a squad to advance a mile up the road and then return. This was to be repeated with another squad in about ten minutes, and then again until the first squad returned. The orc general wanted desperately to know what was happening up the road. Everyone in the column picked up the pace. There was battle, and it was close enough that they could all taste it. The sweat, blood, and tears, the victory and the thrill of a close hand-to-hand slugfest. Although goblinoids were well known for their love of war, everyone in the 6th Army had a passion for combat. Grundoon was ready to let the Romillians know that their attempted conquest of this little corner of Slothjemia was a terrible miscalculation.