Word spread through the citadel of a special ceremony faster than a wildfire burns across a field of dry grass. Details were unknown, but speculation ran amok. The Herzgraf’s staff had passed along orders to all of the senior staff of the 6th Army to have their commands muster in the courtyard of the citadel. Everyone was expected to be there, lined up and in ranks. Excitement in every corner of the hulking fortress reigned.
The soldiers very eagerly lined up, the courtyard illuminated with torches and lanterns hanging high up on the surrounding walls. The sentries on the walls did more glancing down at the gathering of soldiers than they did at their designated watch points. This was forgivable, under the circumstances. Grundoon was at the head of his army, in the front, pacing back and forth, chatting with Jandle in a hushed tone. His senior staff stood with their units, some were pacing, but all were nervous and uncertain. The Herzgraf’s staff finally arrived in the courtyard, and as the Herzgraf entered, a hush fell across the citadel.
The paladin went up the steps to the large stone platform in front of the assembled soldiers, right against the wall of the great keep. He was positively beaming, and looked out at the eager faces of the soldiers sworn to obey him, and the power of the throne he represented. He cleared his throat, and in a bold, clear voice he began to speak:
“Brave men and women of the 6th Army, defenders of Vorkelburg, and protectors of the Grafdom of Vilhelmia, I bring you greetings and thankfulness from her royal majesty, Reichsha!”
With an upward flourish of his arms, this sentence was punctuated by a tremendous roar from the soldiers. Archibald knew how to work a crowd, and this crowd was particularly enthusiastic. After the crowd silenced again, he continued.
“In appreciation of your bravery on the battlefield, and the energetic means by which you met the enemy and took them by surprise, it is my profound honor to bestow upon your commander, Baron General Shr Grundoon von Vorkel, the Vanquish Award, the highest decoration any military leader can earn for superior leadership in combat.”
He motioned for Grundoon to come up on the platform, and the whole of the 6th Army erupted in thunderous applause. The buglers let loose with joyous trumpeting, and Grundoon made his way up to the platform. Jandle followed, but waited at the base of the stairs for his master to return. The general saluted the Herzgraf, who smiled and returned the salute. The two men then shook hands, and Grundoon handed him the little wooden box.
The Herzgraf opened the box, and held it up for all to see. The reality was that very few people could have seen the medal, even as big as it was, but they cheered nonetheless. Taking the medal from the box, the Herzgraf passed the box to his own squire and pinned the award to Grundoon’s tunic, right below his heart. Fuller smiled and handed the empty box back to Grundoon, who turned and waved to his army. More applause, peppered with bugle fanfares and loud whistles. The old orc smiled, somewhat embarrassed by all of the attention. He looked at the Herzgraf, who saluted him, and Grundoon returned the salute. Lots of saluting, lots of hollering, lots of clamor and emotion. Archibald nodded to Grundoon, and the general took the cue to exit the platform and retreat from the spotlight. He waved to his troops as he went down the stairs, and the noise of their adulation was almost unbearable.
Patience was a virtue that the Herzgraf had plenty of. He waited for the noise to die down. When he at last had their attention again, he smiled and continued.
“My visit here, though, is for all of you, not just your general. The Lord High Marshal and I have been over many reports from the Battle of Garvin’s Gap, and from a number of different sources. I am so proud to be here tonight to tell you that over two hundred of you will receive individual awards for merit, bravery, and heroism. Congratulations to you all! Well done, warriors of Vorkelburg! Well done!”
Another flourish, and another spasm of applause. The Herzgraf applauded along with them, and shouted as loudly as they did. With a wave of his arm he left the platform, and joined the men and women who broke ranks in jubilation.
They celebrated for several hours that night, and not one of them was aware that in the morning their beloved general would resign his post and begin preparing to leave Vorkelburg for his new assignment. The general was able to slip away from the festivities early on, and with his squire retreated to his office. Aggrylia was there with their two babies, and as a family they mulled over what was to happen next. The partying of the soldiers was a strange sort of background noise to this discussion, but the family was not disturbed by the festivities.
It was early in the morning when the Herzgraf made his rounds to visit Blackcowl and Grimstag. They had been up since reveille, but were not expecting to have the Empress’ husband coming around to hand deliver to each of them a sealed parcel. The Herzgraf had been up late the night before, but he hadn’t been celebrating with the rest of the garrison. Instead, he had been writing up the transfer orders for the two senior-most officers of the 6th Army. Both Sarla and Argus were taken by surprise by these orders, and the Herzgraf did his best to answer their questions. The two officers were delighted at their promotions, naturally, but they still had questions to ask of Grundoon.
Sarla was the first to find Grundoon, who was having a quiet breakfast with his family in their little suite of rooms nearby to his office. Argus was a few minutes behind her. Grundoon smiled tiredly, and listened patiently as they bombarded him with questions. He didn’t speak. When they had to stop and take a breath, he motioned for them to just stop. “I know you have a great deal of curiosity about the changes taking place, but let’s get the Herzgraf and his staff on their way before we tackle it. Once they leave, meet in my office.” The old orc then resumed eating, and the two officers dejectedly turned and left him and his family to eat the rest of their meal in peace.
Most of the garrison had turned out after the morning meal to see their supreme commander off. Lord Speedblade shook hands with most everyone who managed to reach him, and saluted the rest. He and his staff climbed aboard their dragon mounts, and with a mighty jump the great black beasts took flight over the castle. They gained altitude as they spiraled upward, their huge leathery wings flapping with almost unfathomable strength. The three dragons then bore their passengers off to the northeast, back to the coreland and the intrigues of the capital. Grundoon watched with a sort of settling dread. Soon enough, he too would have to immerse himself in those intrigues.
The general headed back to his office, knowing that Blackcowl and Grimstag were probably already on their way there, as well. Jandle was already in the office, taking an inventory of everything Grundoon could lay claim to as his. It would all have to be crated up and shipped out so that Sarla could move herself in. Aggrylia had taken little Viktor and Leala into their private living quarters to give her husband some privacy. He would have a lot to do to transfer control over to Sarla, and she knew that her husband’s good friend the gnoll would need answers to his queries as well.
As Grundoon had expected, it wasn’t long before he had visitors. Grimstag and Blackcowl walked into his office together, and without being told, Jandle closed and bolted the door behind them. They sat down in the chairs in front of the general’s desk, and before they could speak Grundoon began to talk.
“I know you have questions, but let me go first.” He took a deep breath. “It shouldn’t come as any surprise to either of you that our little stunt last spring cost me my command here. We all knew that was a very real possibility. If I didn’t end up in prison, or worse, at the very least I would be relieved of duty and sent into retirement. I have accepted that, and I ask that you accept it as well. Lord Speedblade asked me to select my replacement, and I did. He also asked for me to select someone to take over the 1st Army. I did that, too.”
He paused, but held up his hand to prevent them from interrupting. He took another deep breath and continued. “It has been my great pleasure to serve as your commander. The two of you are exemplary soldiers, dedicated professionals who have never let down your country or the troops under your command. You have risen to every occasion, taken on every assignment, and done so with fervor and spirit unsurpassed by any other officers I have ever worked with.”
“Sarla, you showed an ingenuity and determination throughout your career to do any job a man in your position would do, and you have succeeded with poise and dignity. Most recently, you stayed behind when the rest of us went seeking glory, and kept the peace in this part of the Grafdom, as well as maintained our defenses. It was a thankless task, but you did it without complaint. If ever a soldier deserved to jump from colonel to full general, it is you. I only wish I could do more to show my appreciation for the many years of service you have provided.”
“Argus, you are my oldest and dearest friend. You have been a valuable confidant, and a warrior I could rely on without question. I know you have always wanted to command an army, and thought that someday you would one day be given the reins of this garrison. But you have the discipline and raw power to recreate the 1st Army. Soldiers are drawn to you, and that is a trait most valued in whoever has to do that job. And that is a choice assignment, my friend, to lead the army assigned to protecting the Coreland. I know you will do as well for the Empire in that capacity, as you have as my second-in-command.”
Grundoon sat back in his chair, and opened one of his desk drawers. He reached in, and pulled out two small velvet bags. He grinned as he stood up, and handed them to the two officers. “These are identical. I am so proud of you both. Congratulations, generals.” He then sat back down.
They opened the little bags, and each removed from them brand-new and shiny collar emblems. Full Generals now, they smiled at Grundoon and each other. “Here.” Said Argus. “Let me replace your colonel pins with these.” And with that he stood and removed Sarla’s collar pins, replacing them with the pins from his bag. She laughed, and did the same for him.
“These look good on you,” She said with a loud laugh. “You old dog.”
They all laughed. For a brief while, they would all three of them be the same rank. Within the next month Grundoon would have to report to the capital, Jordrakenschloss, to receive his new orders and get his own promotion. “Jandle! Get the light brandy. I know it is early, but we have cause to celebrate.” The old orc clapped his hands together and bellowed with laughter as he sat back down. “Generals, I salute you!” he declared, and punctuated it with a sharp, perfectly executed snap of a salute.
They shared the laughter, and Jandle poured out three glasses of the apple brandy. As he handed them to the generals, they stood and raised their glasses. “To the generals of the 6th Army, however briefly we serve now together.” Said Grundoon, his voice heavy with emotion and sounding gravellier than ever. “May you honor Slothjemia as much as I have been honored by you.”
The three then drank, and Sarla said quietly “The honor has been ours, my lord.” The three of them stood for a while, just smiling and enjoying the moment. Each was quickly running through their memories of the other two, of times spent at work together, in battle together, on patrol, and just doing the run-of-the-mill duties of running the garrison. Finally, Grundoon sat down, and the other two did as well. Jandle took a seat on a stool in the corner of the room.
“Now what can I do to clear up any lingering questions?” said Grundoon, his voice softened by brandy and good feelings of comradeship.
Neither wanted to jump in and ruin the moment they had just shared, but at last Blackcowl asked “What is the timeline for all of this?” He held up the parcel he had been given, and set it on the edge of the desk. “My orders only state my new assignment, and that I am to report for duty in the capital as soon as my replacement has been selected. Who is making that selection?” He looked at Grundoon, and then to Sarla.
“As of this moment, Sarla is the commander of the 6th Army. It is her duty to make that choice.” Said Grundoon. He turned to Sarla. “Jandle and I will be packing up the family and our personal items and moving them out, so that you can settle in here.”
Sarla looked at the two men, and then asked of Grundoon “When do we inform the garrison, milord?”
Grundoon chuckled softly. “That is entirely up to you, general. This is your command now.” He ran his hands up across his forehead, over and down the back of his closely cropped hair. “I’ve signed the necessary papers; all they need now is your signature. Then you send the whole bundle on to headquarters.” He sighed, and continued. “You’ll also need to select your own replacement over your unit. The ripple of promotions from all of this is bound to make a good many folks happy in the garrison. Top dog leaves, everybody gets a chance to go up a rung. Tis the nature of life in the army, eh?”
Argus said, with a hint of a growl, “Looks as though I will be moving my family, then. I have always wanted to buy a house in Slothenburg. Something near the edges so I can hunt in the swamp.” It was quiet for a minute or two as they sat, each of them lost in thought. The gnoll then continued to speak. “I never thought I would be leaving Vorkelburg, not alive at any rate.” He stared at Grundoon. “It never occurred to me.”
“Aye.” Said Grundoon. The joy had left the group. “The reality of it is only now settling upon me, too.”
“Cheer up, boys.” Said Sarla, a weak smile on her lips. “Let’s focus on me finally getting a fancy office.”
The generals laughed. Jandle just smiled, and shook his head. The Herzgraf had found the perfect means to punish the 6th Army.