The next morning found the family piling into their carriage while it was still dark. Just as he had said, Trangdor joined them right on time, bringing a donkey loaded with two trunks. The dwarf gave a jaunty wave, and as near as anyone could tell, smiled broadly. Before anyone could ask, he announced that one chest was for clothing, the other for books and writing materials. “An adventure this grand must be properly documented.” He said laughingly. He secured the donkey’s lead rope to the back of the carriage, and climbed up on top to ride with Kreg, who leered at him. Trangdor didn’t seem to be at all put off, and held out his hand. “Pleased to meet you. I’m the token dwarf for this mad outing.” Kreg laughed maniacally, and shook the dwarf’s hand.
Once everyone was in place, the carriage began to make its journey to the road tower. Porger and Cloe just loved the wide, spiral ramp that wound down through rock and dwarven-hewn stone to the swamps below. Grundoon told Hilde and Aggrylia of the last time that he had gone down this route on his way to Garvin’s Gap. Kreg and Trangdor kept a steady hand on the coach’s brakes, and the great vehicle groaned as it rolled slowly downwards.
Once out in the open, they made excellent time. The gentle rolling of the causeways and the smooth levelness of the random islands made for a very easy route. The children waved and hollered to everyone they encountered, be they merchants, freight haulers, patrolling rural constables, or just the common folk doing a little hunting and fishing near the roadway. There were not a lot of people that lived in these swamps, but every now and then you might spot somebody going about their business. Porger and Cloe made a game of it, scoring points for anyone they saw first.
They arrived in the village of Four Corners just after noon. It went a lot faster than when he had marched here with an army, said Grundoon. Everyone piled out of the coach and into the inn, while the kids ran around to get rid of some of their energy. It was the first time that Hilde had had a chance to talk to Trangdor, and she sidled up to him as he was stretching his arms up.
“What’s your name?” she asked with a smile.
“Trangdor, m’lady. Trangdor Goldenhelm.” He bowed slightly, and seemed to smile back.
Hilde looked at him, and cocked her head to one side. “Are you smiling?” she asked quizzically.
“Yes, m’lady.” He answered.
She bent forward a little, and stared intently at his mustache. “Smile again.” She said firmly.
“I am, m’lady.” He replied, trying not to laugh.
Hilde was about a foot taller than Trangdor, as he was around four feet tall. She stepped forward until he could smell her. She narrowed her eyes.
“Are you sure you are smiling? I don’t see any teeth. Or mouth.”
He laughed, and declared “Yes! I just have a lot of mustache!”
“Aha!” she shrieked. “I see teeth! You just have to laugh for them to show!”
The two of them laughed for a good bit, and he finally got enough breath to ask her “And what is your name, m’lady?”
“Hilde.” She said. “I am one of the general’s daughters.”
“Hilda?” Trangdor asked.
“No, Hilde. Long sound on the last letter.” She answered.
“Ah. Very nice. I had a sister named Hilda. But it was very much more of a duh than anything.” He chuckled. “Hil-duh. It never sounded quite right.”
“What happened to her?” Hilde asked.
“She got married.” Replied Trangdor.
Hilde furrowed her brow. “Oh, I thought maybe she died.”
“Well, she got married.” Said Trangdor.
They both laughed wildly and headed into the inn.
Aggrylia wanted the babies to get some sunshine, so she and Grundoon went for a little walk. He took her to where Drungaar, Jandle, and he had gotten roaring drunk on the march back to Vorkelburg. The village of Four Corners wasn’t much to describe, just a few buildings clinging to a rocky island and surrounded by swamp. It was less than a day’s travel northward to reach Slothenburg and Jordrakenschloss. Without distractions, Grundoon turned his delighted attention to the little bundles of fussy energy named Viktor and Leala.
Their mother had unwrapped them from the swaddling blankets, and set them out to soak up a little sun. It was best to let goblinoids get used to being in the sunlight at an early age if they were expected to function as diurnal people. The whelps did a lot of blinking, and squawked a good deal, but they had not yet mastered crawling, so where they were set down, they stayed. They were close to each other, and they seemed to be mainly yelping amongst themselves, as Aggrylia and Grundoon sat back and grinned. Their baby skin was still somewhat a mottled green color, and what hair they had stood out straight like a bristle brush. The whelps’ eyes were mostly full of color now, having been a smoky grey at birth. Leala had lovely orange tinted eyes, and Viktor’s were a deep, almost blood red. Everyone who saw them had commented that he was someday going to be a great warrior.
Porger and Cloe, as usual, were inseparable, and spent the remainder of the day running about the village, asking questions of the people they met, and dashing off to explore. A few of the townsfolk ventured over to where Grundoon and his wife were watching the whelps, and delivered their greetings to the general. Even though he was out of uniform, he was instantly recognizable. There were probably not many men more difficult to forget.
Aggrylia watched her husband as he interacted with the citizens of the settlement. He was cordial to each one, but didn’t stand to greet them. He was on his own time, a private man enjoying his family, and in no great need to impress or delight visitors. And yet he did. His voice, low and rough, had an almost audible chuckle that ran through it. He was kind, and filled with joy, and it bubbled up and out to find expression in everything he said. His mouth may not have been smiling, not all day at least, but his eyes were. Even the most reluctant guest to this family gathering felt as though they were not intruding when they cautiously approached to say hello to the man that less than five months prior had come through with an army, first to fight, and then to celebrate victory. He was something of a hero to these people, and Aggrylia was glowingly proud of her husband. She knew as well as anyone close to him just how violent his temper could be, but today, he was the perfect gentleman. That day seemed so long ago when he had confided in her that he had killed an officer that had been visiting Vorkelburg. All of that seemed to be locked in another dimension, and Aggrylia hoped it would remain there.
That evening in the inn, everyone in Four Corners crammed into the tavern to meet and drink with the orc general. They bought him and his family drinks, paid for their dinner, and shared a bit of the merriment the 6th Army had commemorated when they returned from Garvin’s Gap. A local lizardman had been trying to perfect a beer that he had called “the General’s ale” in Grundoon’s honor, but he hadn’t gotten it quite right. He assured the baron that once he had it right, he would send a case to him as a gift.
Trangdor was not the most sociably adept person, even for a dwarf, but he could hold his drink as well or better than anyone in the tavern. Hilde spent the evening laughing, her bellowing howl eliciting more delighted laughter from everyone than any jokes or jests presented. She didn’t have much to drink. She didn’t need to. She was always in a good mood.
Jandle bought some food for the next day’s trip, some dried meats and raw roots and vegetables. The family didn’t get to bed as early as they wanted, but they finally got settled in. Jandle made a quick security check, and he and Kreg took turns in the hallway to make sure nobody disturbed the family as they rested.
The next day, the sun rose over the swamps and found the von Vorkel clan and their associates packing their belongings back onto the huge carriage. Porger and Cloe were especially excited to be visiting the heart of the coreland swamp, and to see with their own eyes the sprawling city of Slothenburg, held up out of the fen on millions of wooden pilings, boardwalks, and piers. Between here and there, though, was a lot of swamp to cross. It could be done safely now, with the causeways in place to connect the handful of islands in the marsh. But when Slothjemia was a young nation, it had to be done by shallow draft boats. Boats like that still plied the coreland swamp, and there were a few loading up right now in Four Corners, to take freight either down to the Gate, the heavily fortified settlement that served as the coreland’s southern entrance, or up to Slothenburg and beyond.
The coach rolled out of the village and up the causeway towards the capital. There was more traffic today than they had seen yesterday, but then this was a far more heavily travelled road. The rural constabulary maintained small, fortified towers at regular intervals, and on the islands there were frequently small villages or castles, belonging to the nobility that governed the lands of the swamp. In most places, the causeway was wide enough to allow the carriage to pass other vehicles going south with ease, in other places the wagons and mule trains had to get as far as they could to the side. Hilde had named their carriage “Big Bertie” as a joke, because Grundoon’s sister Bertie was a large woman that could carry more than her fair share of weight.
When they reached the city of Slothenburg, both Cloe and Porger hollered with delight. The place was bigger and more spectacular than either of them could have imagined. The swamp orcs, also called jors, had started this city, but over the centuries it had grown and developed into something remarkable thanks to the industriousness of many races. Creatures that preferred the dark lived below the main level of boardwalks, either on floating houseboats or in structures placed on islands or held up by the pilings driven into the swamp. But most amazing to the twins were how many people lived here. There were people everywhere. Having lived their entire lives in Vorkelvale, this was like another world.
Grundoon was not impressed with this place, certainly not like his kids were. He was, however, in awe of the citadel city of Jordrakenschloss that sat high on the cliffs overlooking Slothenburg. While the others were marveling at the sights and sounds of the city below the castle walls, Grundoon couldn’t take his eyes off of the sharp, obsidian-like walls, the jagged towers, and everything about the place made Grundoon proud, yet humble, to serve this glorious realm. As he was watching, he saw a flight of dragon riders launch from their stable in the side of the cliff below the castle walls. His heart raced. He nudged Aggrylia, and pointed at the dragons taking wing. Her mouth fell open in amazement, and she gasped. “Imagine all of them settling down in Garvin’s Gap around you.” The orc general said with a chuckle.
Porger and Cloe must have looked up and seen the dragons too, because everyone in the carriage could hear them shouting. The coach began to work its way through Slothenburg towards the road carved into the cliffs on the eastern edge of the city. As the dragons flew, it was a short distance, but the road had many switchbacks and turns to crawl up the craggy mountains. All along the way were gatehouses, extensions of the fortifications up above. Attacking via the road was almost guaranteed to fail. Here and there were tunnels, and in the tops of them were traps to dispatch enemies trying to breach the capital’s defenses. These measures were also convenient for keeping people from leaving the capital, if authorities wanted them to remain inside. It was a fact that people fleeing the capital, for whatever reason, be they criminals or skulking diplomats, were more often detained by the gatehouses than were enemy armies.
It took over an hour to make the trip up to Jordrakenschloss. The city was every bit as heavily populated per square foot as was Slothenburg, but it was necessarily limited by the thick, impregnable walls of the capital. Central in the city was the grand cathedral, on either side of which were the barracks and dormitories of the two rival paladin brotherhoods that thrived in the militant society of Slothjemia. The Herzgraf himself was the leader of a third brotherhood, that had its headquarters elsewhere in the city. The Empress’ palace, and the primary castle that housed the bureaucracy of the kingdom, sat on the northern side of the city. Many of the senior members of the government lived right here inside the walls of Jordrakenschloss, but everyone else in the government made the commute from Slothenburg. There were no cheap lodgings here, nor run-down taverns. Businesses were of the finest quality, and specialized in the very best goods to be had. If a person was seeking something of rare or exquisite properties, then they started such a search here. If it wasn’t here, then it likely could not be found anyplace in Slothjemia.
Unlike the wooden street surfaces throughout Slothenburg, the roads in Jordrakenschloss were carefully paved with stone. The ride was not rough, as cobblestones tended to be, because the joints between the stones were carefully maintained to provide a smooth surface. Grundoon pointed out a few of the more notable structures in the city, but their trip to the main palace was not a long one. The carriage pulled in to the inner courtyard of the capital keep, and an honor guard saluted. These were the Black Guards, the personal army of the Empress. Grundoon and his entourage stepped from the coach, and footmen arrived to unload the baggage. The towers of the hulking castle reached upwards for hundreds of feet, and flags fluttered from atop every one of them. It had been designed to be breathtaking, an intimidation for visiting dignitaries and Slothjemian nobles that might harbor ideas of going rogue. It was, of course, terribly effective.
A human valet came down the stairs from the large door in front of which the coach had parked. He saluted casually, and extended his hand with a broad smile. “Baron von Vorkel, welcome to Jordrakenschloss.” He shook the orc’s hand, and then motioned towards the door. “We have prepared rooms for you, your family, and your staff. Please follow me, sir.”
The motley group followed the human valet as he took them to their quarters. He gave them a brief tour as they went, and they realized that this was a much bigger place than it looked on the outside. He told them his name was Galwin, and that if they found themselves needing anything, they were to ask for him. He led them down several hallways, and up many stairs, before announcing that these were their rooms. He opened up a set of double doors to a parlor, and there were doors all around it along the walls. “You’ll find plenty of space here for your needs, but of course you are free to roam about the capital to your heart’s content.” He looked at Porger and Cloe, and then to Grundoon. “Please refrain from disrupting the business of the throne, though.” He added with a wink. “Dinner will be served in two hours. Dress accordingly.”
Galwin took his leave, and closed the doors behind him. The guests set about exploring the suite of rooms, and found a bath, several bedrooms, and a small sitting room with a balcony that provided a spectacular view of the mountains to the east. Thick forests blanketed the lower mountains, while rocky peaks poked upward into the clouds. This was a part of Slothjemia that was not as well-known as the swamps. Further to the east was Romilmark. Everyone enjoyed the view, but none as much as Grundoon. That is where adventure awaited.
Everyone unpacked their bags to find the finest garments to wear for dinner. Grundoon and Jandle had it easy, they were going to wear their uniforms. Everybody else, however, had choices to make. They were still not entirely sold on their options when there was a knock at the door. It was Galwin, checking to see if everything was proceeding according to plan. He quickly discovered it was not, and wrote down a list of things that Aggrylia and Hilde might possibly need before they could claim readiness for polite society. Galwin took the list, and with a smile and a wave dashed off, returning in half an hour with the various things the ladies desired. The last ten minutes was pandemonium in the lounge, but at last everyone felt presentable. Another knock at the door, and Galwin opened it to reveal a tall, almost statuesque swamp orc with a shaved head, and immaculate black robes. He had an embroidered cloth tassel around his neck, signifying that he was with the office of the Chamberlain.
“Good evening,” he said with a slight bow. “I am Shr Ivor Fenglade, and I have been assigned as your chamberlain. If you are ready…” his gaze danced about the room, as Hilde struggled to get her girdle situated beneath her gown, and his voice trailed off somewhat. He caught himself, and continued: “I will be happy to show you to the dining hall.”
Aggrylia took her husband’s arm, and cradled Leala in her other arm. Hilde had Viktor, all bundled up, and she walked with Trangdor. Porger and Cloe followed them, and Jandle and Kreg brought up the rear. Like a small parade, they marched along behind the chamberlain. Galwin went along too, and as they walked, he told them about the various artworks that they passed, as well as trivia and information about the capital.
“The dining hall you will be having dinner in is just one of several here in the capital. It has been set aside for use by those who serve in the military, or visiting attaches from foreign powers. You’ll see the décor is that which you might find in any of our citadels, complete with banners and heraldry of some of our illustrious generals and marshals. Your host this evening is the Lord High Marshal of the Army, and you may recognize some of your dinner companions as members of the high command.” Galwin sounded as though he had given this tour many times before, but there was an enthusiasm in his voice that made his guests feel a twinge of excitement. Cloe looked at Porger with her eyes wide, and mouthed the words “Lord High Marshal.” They both snickered.
As the family entered the hall, they found the other guests filing in as well. The Lord High Marshal was there already, greeting the various dignitaries as they entered. He was a jor, and among his titles he was a count, held three knighthoods, and had been awarded almost every medal the army had to offer. His name was Hermax von Geistenwald, and he was about the same age as Grundoon. The two men had crossed paths many times, of course, as he was Grundoon’s direct superior. Being stationed way out in Vorkelburg, however, meant that it was often one or two years between meetings. Von Geistenwald’s face lit up, however, as Grundoon escorted Aggrylia down the stairs into the hall. The Lord Marshal’s voice boomed like a cannon as he announced his guest of honor.
“Baron General Shr Grundoon von Vorkel, ladies and gentlemen! Behold, the conquering hero of Garvin’s Gap!” With that, Grundoon’s boss began to applaud, and immediately the rest of the guests began to laud him as well. Behind him, Grundoon could hear Jandle shouting “Huzzah! Huzzah!” in his high-pitched kobold voice. The old orc felt his temperature rise. It was embarrassment, a feeling he was not altogether familiar with. His wife squeezed his hand, and whispered for him to wave. He did. They kept applauding.
The host finally stopped clapping, and the rest of the guests followed suit. “Here, von Vorkel. Sit here at my right hand, you and your lovely wife.” The old jor smiled, and shook Grundoon’s hand with great vigor. “Everyone sit, and let us get to know one another.”
As the guests were seated, Galwin stood behind Aggrylia and Hilde. Ivor, the chamberlain, took his place behind Grundoon. This was to ensure that if the general needed anything, perhaps a hint as to the identity of a fellow guest, the valet and chamberlain would be able to provide without seeming intrusive. Grundoon sat down, and wondered to himself how he would begin conversations. This turned out to be a nonissue. Everyone at the table had questions, and not once did Grundoon or anyone in his group have to initiate chit-chat. Aggrylia realized at once that her husband was being honored far and above anything he expected. It took him, though, more than half the meal to realize it. Up until that point, he was primarily confused as to why he was the center of attention.
The exact moment Grundoon realized this was all about him, and not just him being invited to eat supper at this particular table, was when the Lord High Marshal asked what his plans were for Romilmark, and everyone at the table fell silent as they leaned forward to take in his answer. Grundoon took a deep breath, and replied with “Our first priority is to take stock of what we have to work with. We need to see what lands have been abandoned, what resources need to be redistributed, such as mining and lumber rights, and what infrastructure needs to be rebuilt in order to get all of these things done. Once our surveyors begin to line out property boundaries, it should be easy enough to commence the settlement of civilian authority in the Grafdom. Our only real concern is that the rabble-rousers did not all flee when the Romillians surrendered, that there might be rogue elements still active in undermining this change of power. But of course, we will root them out and crush them. It is what we do.”
There was a lot of contented murmuring amongst the guests. It was clear that all present approved of this approach. Von Geistenwald looked at Grundoon with astonishment, and declared for all to hear “Well planned, General! Not only did you vanquish the foe in the field, but now you have laid plans to sow the fields as well!” There was another round of applause, and Grundoon could feel himself flushing with embarrassment again.
After the meal was complete, the military officers gathered to chat in a lounge adjacent to the dining hall. Everyone else meandered off to do whatever it was that people did while army officials discussed war and its aftermath. The officers of the high command all were eager to shake hands with Grundoon, and marvel at the Vanquish Medal he wore. There was some discussion about this being his last night as “just” a general. Even von Geistenwald joked that after Grundoon’s promotion, he would no longer be able to give him orders that he could ignore. By now, most everyone in the high command had learned of the 6th Army’s disobedience on their way to becoming heroes. Even Grundoon had to chuckle at the joke.
When Grundoon decided to retire for the evening, Ivor walked with him back to the suite. He told the old orc general about the plans for tomorrow, including meal schedules and the like. Tomorrow night would be a very special affair, and arrangements were in place to provide nannies for the whelps so that Grundoon and his wife could enjoy and not be distracted by the promotion ceremony and the dinner at the royal table afterward. Ivor told him to dress for the events just as he was dressed now. He would see to everything else on behalf of the general. When he finally asked Grundoon if there was anything he needed, the orc stopped walking, and said softly “I need reading glasses. My eyes are fine for shooting a bow and arrow, but I cannot do a lot of reading without my eyes hurting.”
“I’ll see to it, milord.” Replied Ivor. They continued walking back to the suite.
The children were already asleep, and Trangdor and Hilde were in the sitting room talking about Romillia and dwarves and such. Aggrylia was getting ready for bed. Grundoon embraced her, and snuggled her. “Big day tomorrow.” He whispered.
“Yes. Big days ahead, too.” She whispered back, and patted his cheek.