An Orc for All Seasons; Chapter 23

Perhaps the most curious aspect of Slothjemian spirituality is their love/hate relationship with paladins. There are three houses dedicated to these “holy warriors” and while they are viewed as vital components of the military, they rarely receive more than a tepid reception from the populace. The three organizations are the Von Schneid Cavaliers (v.S.C.) led by the senior-most paladin in the army, Crusaders of Fenbattle (C.o.F.) which falls under the jurisprudence of the Archbishop of Slothenburg, and the Bearers of the Gauntlet (B.o.G) led by the Herzgraf, the Queen’s husband. All paladins with Slothjemian citizenship must belong to one of these houses, or else be viewed as apostate by the Church.

Chapter 23

The Black Guard was leading the force from the north, followed by the 8th Army, and from the south the Red Guard was taking the lead, with the 2nd Army right behind. The horns of the respective units announced their arrival in the valley, and the drums echoed across Garvin’s Gap. This was a fearsome amount of military force. Grundoon, and the men under his command, turned their attention from the funeral pyres and gazed in wide-eyed wonder at the massive collection of armored might. Overhead were dragonriders, some from the Black Guard, and some from the Red Guard. They spun lazily over the funeral, wafting in and out of the smoke, as they descended in huge sweeping circles to land in the fields around the settlement and camp. The riders were unaware of the enemy dead that had been trampled into the ground, but the dragons themselves were very aware, and pawed happily at the dirt like dogs playing with dead squirrels.

The officers of the 6th Army and 1st Army stood awestruck for several minutes before rallying and gathering together in front of the pyres. Grundoon stepped forward, and his senior staff closed in right behind him. There was a tension through the ranks. The men at the defensive line held firm, but for every pair of eyes watching down the road towards Romillia, there were two sets of eyes watching the arriving Slothjemian units.

A great black dragon landed just yards away from Grundoon and his officers. The beast was huge, easily the largest that the Black Guards had in their arsenal. The barding was heavily embellished with silver, and the imperial crest was prominently cast in enamel on either side of the magnificent animal, just forward of where the riders sat. Unlike the other dragons, that had up to ten soldiers riding each one to cast spells, fire missile weapons, or engage the enemy on the ground as heavy infantry, there were only two riders on this dragon. Everyone knew who it was just based upon the fact that the lead rider’s armor was the finest in all the realm. It was the Herzgraf himself, the man who was married to Empress Reichsha, and oversaw all military matters. A paladin of considerable power who had adventured extensively in his youth, Archibald Speedblade II was the boss of bosses for Grundoon and his men.

The second rider was the Herzgraf’s squire, a goblin who had on glorious armor of his own. The squire tossed down a rope ladder as the dragon settled down and laid upon the field to allow the riders to disembark. With surprising dexterity, the Herzgraf climbed down, removed his helm, and strode confidently up to where Grundoon was waiting. Grundoon took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

The Herzgraf was an older man, appearing to be close in age to Grundoon. But he was a human. His hair was cut to a dignified length and had no sign of having been confined in a helmet. His face was weathered, but his eyes were sharp and piercing. He seemed to be sizing up Grundoon and his command. He stopped a couple of yards away from the gathered officers. Grundoon and his men all saluted.

The salute was returned and the Herzgraf said in a commanding, but not overly loud voice, “And are you in charge of these soldiers?” as if he was continuing a discussion that had started some time earlier.

Grundoon replied “Yes, sir!” just as a new recruit would respond to his commanding officer. “General von Vorkel, your majesty.” He bowed slightly.

“Sixth Army.” The paladin looked deep into Grundoon’s eyes. “A little far from your citadel, hmmm?” His gaze was unflinching. He stood every bit as tall as the orc and was probably in better physical condition. The Herzgraf’s squire was slowly moving up behind his lord, almost as if he were approaching a fight just before it erupts, warily and with preparedness to his movement.

“Yes, your majesty.” Grundoon replied. His own voice was still strong, but only by virtue of yesterday’s victory. If anything was going to prevent him from being court-martialed, it would be that.

“And why are you and your men here, Baron?” The Herzgraf continued to stare into Grundoon’s eyes. “Did the Lord High Marshal dispatch you here?”

Grundoon was on good terms with the Lord High Marshal, a jor of fine reputation who was responsible for making sure all of the army’s resources were properly distributed, and the units maintained to the highest possible standards. But Grundoon had determined to be honest with the Herzgraf. “No, he did not, sir.” The paladin could detect a falsehood a mile away, and Grundoon was not going to give the man anything more to grouse about.

The Herzgraf’s eyes narrowed. He wasn’t getting the answers he wanted. This orc was tougher than he expected, even for one of his generals. “Then why are you here, von Vorkel?” his hand rested on the pommel of his sword, but his eyes never wavered.

The orc stared right back. “We were on extended patrol, your majesty.” There was no hint of humor in this statement, but it was almost surreal that Grundoon had actually chosen that phrase as an explanation.

The paladin did not seem amused. “You do not volunteer much, do you von Vorkel?” His eyes seemed to burn right into Grundoon’s soul. The orc was beginning to feel acutely uncomfortable. He hadn’t thought this through very well. The Herzgraf continued. “Very well. We’ll come back to that, then.” For the first time, he looked around at the other officers, and his eyes scanned over each of them, and then to the defensive line. “I see you have secured this valley. What happened to the First Army that was sent here to hold the Romillians out?”

Grundoon unflinchingly replied “Almost completely wiped out, sir.” He motioned over his shoulder with his thumb. “These are their pyres, my lord.”

The Herzgraf took his eyes off of Grundoon and looked at the fires burning behind the officers. “I see. And who is their commanding officer?” His gaze returned to the orc general.

“Major Grokwan, sir.” Grundoon turned and motioned for the orog to come forward.

Grokwan stepped forward and saluted the Herzgraf. The paladin returned the salute and said “Major, I want your report on the battles here, going back to when your unit entered Garvin’s Gap. I’ll collect it in the morning.” The major saluted again, bowed slightly, and stepped back to where he had been standing earlier.

“And you, General von Vorkel. I will collect your report in the morning, as well. Start with why you left your garrison and include everything up to now.” He smiled slightly as he continued “And don’t leave anything out. I dislike being lied to, and that includes having information withheld. I want to know the thought process that led one of my senior officers to abandon their assigned post and show up a good six-days march away at a battle they weren’t responsible for.”

Grundoon smiled every bit as slightly when he replied, “Five days, your majesty. It only took us five days to get here.”

The Herzgraf looked at Grundoon, studying his face with those sharp inscrutable eyes. After a several silent moments the Herzgraf saluted Grundoon and his men, turned, and strode back to his dragon. Other officers from the arriving army units had gathered and carried out the paladin’s orders as he barked them out.

Grundoon and his men returned their attention to the pyres. Quietly, they began another hymn. Nobody was sure who had started it, and the gathered soldiers sang respectfully, and with great reverence. After the song ended, Major Grokwan cleared his throat, and said a prayer for those who had died defending Slothjemia. The men then went and got a ration of ale from the kegs captured from the enemy and took to drinking. Grokwan and Grundoon returned to their respective tents to write out their reports.

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