The generals hung around Brakoff for about a week, and then returned to their respective headquarters to arrange the winter quartering for their commands. Von Draeger was leaving one of his colonels, a lizardman named Yunzleer, to serve as the commander of the parts of the 2nd Army that was staying in Romilmark. The general then took the rest of his army back across the mountains and through Garvin’s Gap to their original garrison in the Coreland.
Likewise, the 8th Army left behind a colonel, a human woman named Irena Ornsha, to continue the work being done in the northern half of Romilmark. General Lemprellier marched the rest of his army out through the same pass as the 2nd Army had traversed, but they were headed to the spelljamming port of Jaggerholmschloss. Colonel Meldrich had also been left in Romilmark with his engineers and workmen, but they were busy trying to finish the detour around the ruins of Stormburg.
This left the Red Guard, and for the winter months they decided to pack up their tents and seek better shelter in the town of Kederlenn. Grundoon had given General von Unster-Kol very explicit instructions as to how to go about obtaining that shelter, and it involved being diplomatic and charismatic, two traits that a swamp orc would have found themselves lacking in this particular territory. The general wisely selected one of his majors, a human, to do the talking. For good measure they also took along a dragon, just in case the Slothjemians needed leverage for negotiations.
Reports indicated that the leverage wasn’t needed, or at least wasn’t overtly applied. Grundoon was satisfied that all forces under his command were adequately prepared for the first snowfall, and the progress of integrating the urban areas of Romilmark was proceeding at a very brisk pace. It was only after that had been settled that he allowed himself the luxury of sitting down to examine the surveys that the armies had given him. He was looking for one name in particular, the family he was most acquainted with in Romilmark. He ran his finger down the lists, one at a time, putting his spectacles to good use. Then he found it. The family estate of the Archduke of Linkristle. That is what this entire region had once been called, Linkristle. They had a pretty tight grip on everything that happened here, and during the war they had fled. Most of them had, anyway. There was a castle in the cluster of mountains due north of Brakoff, and due west of Kederlenn. And according to the survey done by the Red Guard, it was no longer inhabited by the Archduke’s family.
Grundoon had written letters to the family members, now living elsewhere in Romillia, or so he assumed, but had no earthly notion how to get those letters delivered. He would have to wait until somebody from the Office of Foreign Affairs arrived to seek their counsel. The other abandoned estates were trivial when held up against this vast and far-flung set of properties. Grundoon put a pin with a small flag on it into the map, and told Jandle in a markedly conspiratorial tone, “This is the prize, my friend. This will be our crowning victory.” Jandle nodded his head knowingly. Indeed, he did understand what his lord had in mind. It would not be easy, nor quick, but it would be remarkably fulfilling.
The Governor-General did some more letter writing in the following weeks, in between visits to the estates around Brakoff. He had made it a point to deliver the oaths of allegiance personally, and to witness their signing. He took with him the same people every time; Trangdor to translate, Jandle to take notes, Hilde to ask if anyone along the way wanted to join the army, and Porger and Cloe who just really wanted to be soldiers themselves. They also had along two or three soldiers from the city garrison, but they really didn’t do much other than carry the flag and make sure that there wasn’t any trouble.
Each estate visit consisted of the same elements; visiting the noble that controlled the property, having them sign the oath, and telling them about changes in the way the laws were administered now. Only a few of the nobles had asked what would happen if they didn’t sign, and Grundoon always told them the same thing. “If you don’t sign, you have three days to exit Slothjemia. You may not take anything with you except the clothes on your back, and whatever personal items you can carry. Livestock, including horses and all other animals, are deemed the property of the Crown, and may not be removed from the land. An armed escort can be provided for you if you so choose, otherwise you are on your own.” After that he would just smile at them, that unnerving smile that suggested Grundoon was patient only to a point. All of them had signed. Word had spread from Brakoff about how the old orc had reestablished the city government, had personally purchased a run-down house for his family rather than displace a family from their home, and had lessened the tensions in the surrounding area by cutting down on the number of terrifying soldiers that were roaming about. Some may have been reluctant to accept an orc as their overlord, but nobody could say he wasn’t persuasive.
The first snow of winter came in quietly with a storm out of the north. The billowing storm clouds bunched up in the mountains, bouncing about the peaks and slowed by southerly winds that slowed the onslaught but didn’t stop it. It fell for days, and when the sun finally punched a hole in the retreating storm it found Romilmark under several feet of snow. There was more snow on the ridges of the alps, but plenty settled in the valleys. The carriages and coaches were stored away, and out came the sleighs and sledges. The detour around Stormburg had been completed just in time, and now the engineers were going to lend a hand in finishing up the repairs on Brakoff’s wall.
Unfortunately, the repairs to the von Vorkel home were not complete when the storm hit. The rafters had been replaced, but without the shingles, it turned the upper floors of the house into a winter wonderland. Sasha took the welps up and let them crawl around in it, and they squealed with delight. She had them so bundled up that they could hardly move, but they sure could laugh and scream. Kreg was less enthused, for it was his job to shovel the excess snow out of the windows before the weight grew so heavy that it crashed through the ceiling into the lower levels.
Hammerclaw’s dwarves had been extremely productive at their new mill and smithy. They had rebuilt the mill completely, and restored the smithy and were using it to craft all types of iron supports for the construction in Brakoff. It even had a fancy new sign out front, marking it as the Hammerclaw Iron & Millworks. Alderschon had given Storg the deed for the property at a little ceremony in the Black Boar, and business was booming.
Grundoon and Jandle had been at the Black Boar one of those snowy evenings, enjoying a bottle of Romillian vodka, when one of the local councilmen had approached. He asked in broken Slothjemian if he could sit with them, and Grundoon smiled, and motioned for him to make himself comfortable. The man was named Landimer, and was respected not just as an elder in the city but as a successful grain dealer.
Landimer smiled, showing a couple of gold teeth and one or two that were just missing, and said “My lord, I am thanking you for your work in Brakoff. You and your methods have been much productive… how it is said…. Not sure.” He chuckled. “Languages and words to me do not come as easy as selling grains. Forgive.” He took a drink of his beer. “I mean to be said that I am respecting of you. I may not learn your language, but I have learned that you are a man of honor.” He raised his beer stein. “I salute you, sir.”
Grundoon and Landimer had a delightful evening laughing and thanking one another for their contributions to the city. Trangdor would have been helpful, but Jandle wasn’t even sure where he was. As luck would have it, he was at the city hall with Hilde, working on new recruiting posters. She was getting ready for training new soldiers, and had arranged with Alderschon to use the militia keep as the main training center. There had been several dozen sign-ups and Hilde wanted to get new posters up to draw more attention to the beginning of the 10th Army. Hilde was trying to learn some Romillian, but Trangdor had argued successfully that if she wanted the writing in the native language, then he ought to do it.
It was after that first big snowstorm that the Governor-General decided to go see the lands and castle that had recently belonged to the Archduke of Linkristle. Their family name was Velferin, but apparently nobody ever used that. Nobody with that surname even lived in Brakoff. Grundoon had checked. There was a Brandt Velferin that lived in Kederlenn, and it was likely that he was related to the late Archduke, but Grundoon wasn’t sure. He had Jandle make a note of it in his little book. First, Grundoon wanted to see the estate for himself.
The castle wasn’t very far from Brakoff, only about ten miles, but the heavy snow had made travel anywhere a fairly ponderous endeavor. The sleigh that Kreg was able to get wasn’t very roomy, but it was large enough to hold Grundoon, Hilde, Trangdor, and Jandle. The snow was deep enough that once off of the main road it wasn’t exactly clear where the trail was that led to the castle in the mountains. They had a map of the area, and with that they decided to just head out and hope for the best.
Luckily, the trail to the castle was easy to find and stay on because it had been carved into the sides of the mountains, and there was a low wall on the outside edge. There were a few bridges on the route as well, and once they got onto the trail they could see the castle from almost every vantage point. It was calm and sunny, but not at all warm. The occupants of the sleigh kept their laps and legs covered in fur blankets, and took frequent swigs of cider.
Even from a distance, it was noticed by all that this castle had long ago ceased to function as a defensive structure. Trees had closed in around it, and thick vines covered the outer walls. In the springtime, these vines would probably erupt in colorful flowers, and while it would be pleasing to the eye, it would not be conducive to keeping out determined invaders. It reminded Grundoon of some of the features of Borostat, the city closest to Vorkelburg. But this was winter, and there were no leaves or buds on any of the plants. Instead there was just a mournful sort of dreariness that had settled in over the place, as though a rich cake had been prepared for a party that had been cancelled, and all had been left for the rodents to devour.
The castle itself was an impressive feat, thick walls and stubby, stout towers surrounding a vast, round keep. There were no points or sharp corners in the architecture, only curves and circles. The windows were decorated with stained glass, and ornate woodwork was visibly intertwined with masterful stone work. Even the most unschooled of observers would have been awestruck by the beauty of the place, the handcrafted dwarven elements blending seamlessly with the natural aspects of rock, plant, tree and mountain. It dominated the peak upon which it sat, and commanded a view of the peaks around it, and the valley over which they rose. At one time the trail that approached it had been designed as a defensive feature, allowing the castle defenders multiple vantage points to shower any invaders with boulders, flaming oil, and crossbow bolts. But now the road only provided those upon it with breathtaking views of the castle from almost every angle.
The shared, unspoken opinion of everyone in the party was that this was a place of almost unrivaled beauty. This would be a palace fit for the Empress herself. That this had been the family home of an archduke was almost beyond comprehension. How wealthy had this family been? How trusted were they by their own king to possess such a formidable bastion? And why would it seem to be abandoned when clearly this was a place one would die to defend?
It was this last question that perplexed Grundoon the most as the sleigh came to a stop in front of the massive iron doors of the castle. This was still a very defensible place, despite the encroachment of vegetation on the outer walls. The party climbed from the sleigh and looked around. No tracks in the snow except for their own. Next to the door was a small chain that ran up to a bell mounted on the top of the wall. There was no sound, except for the heavy breathing of the horses.
Grundoon looked around, and couldn’t see any signs of habitation. He reached up, grabbed the chain, and pulled on it. The bell rang several times, piercing the cold winter air. The sound echoed about the inner walls of the castle.
“There has to be somebody inside.” Said Grundoon to the rest. “Otherwise this door would be open.”
Jandle peered cautiously at the tops of the walls, and watched for any sign of movement in the towers. Hilde did likewise, and she was tempted to draw her sword. Trangdor wasn’t sure where to watch, but he was nervous and quite aware that he couldn’t very well hide it.
Grundoon grunted, and said “Jandle, shimmy up this chain and see what you can make out from the top of the wall.” He scooped up the kobold, and gave Jandle an advantage by lifting him up as high as he could. The bell began to ring again, and the little reptilian skittered quickly up the chain.
The outer wall was very high, and it took a few minutes for the squire to make it to the top. Once up, he stood in an embrasure on the battlement, and for a minute or two just gazed about the outer courtyard. He looked down at the rest of the party, and called out to them; “Nobody visible, milord! But there is somebody here! Footprints in the snow!”
Grundoon gave him an acknowledging wave. “Try to get these doors open, then!” he hollered back. He turned to his daughter. “Better draw your sword, Hilde. We don’t want to be taken off guard.”
Hilde did exactly that, and moved to the doors, anticipating Jandle opening them soon. Trangdor looked at Grundoon, and the old orc nodded to him, and motioned for him to stay behind the Governor-General. Grundoon adjusted his grip on his axe, and braced himself for a surprise. There was still no motion from the top of the wall or the towers, except for Jandle hopping down onto the battlement and disappearing from view.
After what seemed like an eternity, there was the sound of the huge bolt being drawn on the other side of the doors. One of the doors swung open slowly, and Jandle poked his head out with a grin. “Only this side opens.” He said. “This other one is fixed in place. Looks like a recent repair.”
Kreg led the horses in to the outer courtyard with the sleigh. It was a very large area, and on all sides were towers that in a more active citadel would have been able to allow crossbowmen or archers the ability to rain down certain doom upon any trespassers. There was no response now, though. It was eerie.
Jandle pointed to the tracks in the courtyard. They seemed to go from a small door at the top of a flight of narrow stairs in the side of the main keep, across the courtyard, to a large tower in the outer wall. Whoever was here, or had been here recently, was in that tower now. The members of the party kept an eye out on the arrow slits in the tower, and quickly moved to the tower door.
It was a thick, wooden door, and Grundoon hit it hard with his fist several times. “Open up, whoever is inside!” he bellowed. “I am the Governor-General for Romilmark, and this castle is under my command!”
Trangdor yelled out the same thing in Romillian, but there was no reply. Grundoon tried the latch, but the door was locked. He motioned at Jandle, who stepped forward and cast a minor dweomer on the lock. He nodded at Grundoon, who stepped back, and with a mighty kick busted open the door with a loud roar. A crossbow bolt imbedded itself in the doorframe next to the orc’s head, and in the dim light of the room the party could make out the form of a dwarf frantically trying to reload his weapon.
“TAKE HIM ALIVE!” roared Grundoon, and his daughter leaped, screaming across the room with her sword drawn, slashing at the dwarf, knocking the crossbow from his hands, and sending him reeling against the far wall. As quickly as it had started, it was over; the orcish girl pinning the dwarf to the wall with her sword against his throat.
Trangdor spoke excitedly in Romillian, and the dwarf against the wall held up his hands. He was an old dwarf, and had a patch over his right eye. He looked angry more than scared, a defiance that Grundoon could respect.
“Ask him who he is, and by what right he attacks her majesties emissary.” Said Grundoon.
Trangdor spoke to the dwarf, and after a moment the dwarf replied, his voice cracked and hoarse. “He says his name is Dornald, milord. He is the caretaker. He is alone here.” Translated Trangdor. “He says he does not know you, or your queen.”
Grundoon set his axe down on the table in the middle of the room. “Let him up, Hilde. If he tries anything foolish, finish him.”
Hilde released her grip on the dwarf, and pointed for him to sit at the table.
“Jandle, go help Kreg settle the horses. We’re staying the night here.” Said the Governor-General. The kobold sheathed his shortsword and went off, closing the door behind him. “Trangdor, ask him why he is here alone, and what happened to the others.”
Trangdor and Dornald talked for several minutes, and the latter made use of extensive hand gesturing to convey his story. Trangdor related events as they unfolded.
“He says that the family fled right after the Slothjemian counterattack began and Stormburg was destroyed. Shortly afterwards, most of the servants looted the valuables that had been left behind, and fled as well. A week or so after they left, brigands came, and took whatever they could find. Dornald was blinded by one of them as he tried to defend the family estate. We are the first people to come here in the last few months.”
Grundoon looked at the dwarf thoughtfully. “And so he keeps watch over a household that the family has given up. I admire your loyalty, Dornald. I will not remove you from your post.” The old orc chuckled. “We will stay the night, and return to Brakoff in the morning. When I get back, I will send some troops here to help secure this place from any further incursion.”
Trangdor and Dornald spoke for several more minutes, and finally Trangdor was able to tell Grundoon that the old dwarf agreed to these terms. Grundoon laughed. As if it had been a negotiation. Typical dwarven attitude.
Grundoon had Trangdor inquire if there was any food and drink available, and Dornald indicated there was. He went to a trapdoor in the tower floor, and lifted it up. A staircase descended into the darkness, and the old orc motioned for Jandle and Hilde to go have a look. They headed down into the cellar, and returned a few minutes later with some salted meat and a couple of bottles of wine. Grundoon could see the look of concern on Dornald’s face, and he smiled at the dwarf as he drew a couple of gold coins out of his pocket, and set them on the table. Trangdor translated as Grundoon spoke: “This place will never be looted again. You have my word. As far as I am concerned, it is my duty to settle affairs with the Velferin family.” Grundoon looked at Dornald, a smile on his face. “Are you a family member, or a retainer?” He had wanted to say, “only a retainer” but he thought better of it. This guy had lost an eye attempting to defend a castle single-handedly, and Grundoon wasn’t going to lessen the degree of sacrifice that this dwarf had made.
Dornald replied, and Trangdor told Grundoon “He is just a servant, milord. A very dedicated servant, but not a part of the family.”
The Governor-General thought about this while he ate. He had a previously determined opinion about the kind of man the archduke had been, and this dwarf’s experience seemed to confirm it. Grundoon had already gathered that the archduke had been able to attract loyalty that he did not deserve. Dornald was fiercely loyal, but he was the only one of the household staff, and the number of servants this place required was extensive, that had bothered to stay and defend the castle.
“Why did you stay behind when the family left?” asked Grundoon. Trangdor translated, and Dornald sat thoughtfully before he answered.
When he did, everyone could hear the emotion in the man’s voice. Trangdor, speaking for the other dwarf, said “They didn’t give me permission to leave. So my duty was here, to keep it safe. I was not altogether successful. But I did not shirk my responsibility.”
The group ate silently. Dornald asked Trangdor a question, and the Kernschloss dwarf turned to Grundoon, and asked him, “What is my duty now? Are they coming back?”
Grundoon weighed his words carefully. “I hope so, yes. Do you wish to continue working for them, or would you prefer a new station? I have that power, Dornald. I can find a place for a man of your caliber.” He held up his hand to signal the dwarf to wait until he was finished speaking. “My intent is to get as many of the family together here, and to settle all debts. But as the Governor-General of Romilmark, I have the authority to sever any and all obligations of common folk and the nobility they once worked for. Give it some thought.” The old orc leaned forward, and looked Dornald right in the eye. “I am duly impressed by you, sir. And I do not impress easily.”
Dornald nodded his head, but said nothing. The group finished their meal in silence. Grundoon was aware of the dwarf’s one-eyed gaze while they ate, but he did nothing to discourage it. He surmised that the dwarf was trying to figure out exactly what kind of person Grundoon was. The old orc winked at his daughter, who smiled.
When everyone had finished eating, Grundoon had Trangdor ask if Dornald would give them a tour of the castle. The old dwarf agreed, and the party followed him on a grand tour of the grounds, towers, keep, and crypts. The dwarves had built this fortified palace atop of extensive tunnels within the mountain itself, and there wasn’t time to delve into the deep. Jandle was keenly interested in further exploration, but they settled for seeing the first several layers of underground construction. The keep was breathtaking, equal parts stonework and interwoven woodwork. This may have originally been a defensive bastion, but over the centuries it had become a showplace, less of a home than it was a museum for artwork and architecture. The group spent all afternoon walking through the castle, impressed by the opulence, and struck by the damage done by looters. Only the furniture in the areas occupied by the peasantry had been left behind, otherwise nothing remained anywhere in the castle. The armory had been pillaged, there were no objects of art that weren’t integral to the buildings themselves left to be seen, and even the draperies, carpets, and tapestries were gone.
At the conclusion of the tour, Grundoon thanked Dornald through Trangdor’s translating, and asked where they could bed down for the night. The dwarf invited them all to stay in his tower, as it was easily defended in case brigands attacked. The tower had several levels, so everyone had plenty of room to themselves.
As they settled in for the night, Jandle, who was determined to sleep in the same room as his master, asked Grundoon in a low whisper “What is your plan for settling the debts of the archduke?”
Grundoon whispered in reply “Still working on it. First we have to get them back here.”