A member of the Red Guard woke up Grundoon by knocking on his door shortly after dawn. Jandle answered the door, and the soldier outside whispered something to him. Jandle nodded, and closed the door.
“What did they want?” asked Grundoon groggily as he sat up and swung his legs off of the bed.
“General von Unster-Kol has returned from the capital, my lord. He wanted you to know the scrolls were delivered safely.” Replied Jandle, who set about to ready his master’s uniform for the day.
Grundoon rubbed his head with both hands, and muttered something under his breath. “Not the new uniform, Jandle. Pick something more utilitarian. We are going to find that orc settlement in the mountains. Pack for a few days’ trip. I’ll wear my armor from the beginning. All of this sleeping in has made me feeling like a civilian.” He looked at Jandle and laughed. “Or at least how I imagine a civilian might feel. I’ve never been one.”
Jandle laughed, and began to carry out his lord’s command. Grundoon changed into the uniform that his squire laid out, and Porger dropped a few hints that he had not yet been given the chance to get a suit or armor for himself. Grundoon chuckled, and sat down on the bed to write a short note on his personal stationery. He gave the note to Porger, and told him “Take this note, and Cloe, and go to the Red Guard headquarters. Find the supply sergeant, and give him this note.” Porger gave out an excited whoop, and went clamoring down the hall to get his sister. Their mutual delight echoed through the inn, and as they left running down the street, their father smiled. They were on their way to a real adventure, their first, and he was pleased that he was going to see it firsthand.
Hilde came to see what her father had in mind for the day, and at mention of the orc settlement she, too, grew enthusiastic, and went to fetch her own equipment. She hadn’t realized how dull hanging posters was until the promise of an escapade presented itself. Kreg and Trangdor were at opposite ends of the spectrum, one being a soldier and the other being a scholar. The dwarf was utterly untrained in combat, and had never owned any armor. Kreg had a suit of banded mail, similar to that worn by Grundoon, and at least in theory had some combat experience. Trangdor was resolved to go along, but wasn’t sure what he could offer to the party once they didn’t need a translator and things began to get violent.
Once everyone was suited up, they headed down to the headquarters of the Red Guard to meet up with Cloe and Porger. Jandle was sent to talk to the stable master, as the group would need mounts for this journey, and not the carriage. The reconnaissance that the Red Guard had done was mostly from the air, but the settlement was not easily approached from the ground. The orcs had done a fine job of fortifying their base, and while the Slothjemians could make short work of the orcs through military means, Grundoon wanted to see if they could be persuaded to sign an oath of allegiance to become part of the realm, not just dragon fodder. The diplomatic approach would be best, and a low-key one at that.
Porger was proud of his new armor, a suit of studded leather that afforded him an excellent range of motion, perfect for an archer. Cloe had a dashing suit of banded mail all of her own, an excellent entry-level armor for a sword-wielding warrior. There was some red trim on the armor that the twins wore, since it was from the armory of the Red Guard, but there were no insignia because they of course were not in the army. Not yet, anyway. Looking at them now, Grundoon was certain they would both enlist as soon as they could.
General von Unster-Kol came out to the stable to see the Governor-General, and to ask if he wanted more of an escort for this expedition. Grundoon had been pondering this option, but he had finally decided that he didn’t want to take a large escort, any more than he wanted to drop in with a flight of dragons. The orcs of the eastern mountains might have been a problem for the Romillians, but so far they hadn’t been a threat at all to Slothjemia. This trip was to see if the orcs were going to be hostile or not, and in the face of overwhelming might they would simply cower. Grundoon wanted to know what their true intentions were, and that meant going in with a small contingent.
Grundoon graciously declined the offer, and the party tossed their borrowed saddlebags on to the mounts the Red Guard had provided. Trangdor and Jandle were given ponies for the trip, and the rest of the group had horses. All but the dwarf were armed and girded for battle. Trangdor had on a thick, hooded coat, and he had a dagger that Hilde had given him just in case, but the dwarf’s adrenaline was running so high he wasn’t even concerned. He made a mental note to stick close to Kreg, who not only looked fearsome, but had brought along a well-worn halberd.
The party waved to the soldiers, and headed out of town to the north. Depending on how much progress they made, they ought to make it to the edge of the lands claimed by the orcs by nightfall. Assuming they were normal orcs, they would be nocturnal by nature. The Governor-General’s entourage would have to find someplace to camp, at least briefly, before approaching the orcs. They couldn’t afford to be tired from the trip, in case they needed to be ready for combat.
Their first stop was six miles from Kederlenn, where the road split off, one road going to the north and the other to the east, through the Kederlenn Pass. There was a roadhouse here, and a few small houses. It reminded Grundoon of Garvin’s Gap. Some large oak trees and evergreens clustered closely to the buildings, and while the snow had melted from the last storm this was very much a winter scene. Moldering leaves had turned to mush, and the fields around had been churned into mud. The weathered sign in front of the roadhouse had a picture of a gryphon and the words Idyllwild Inn.
“I need a drink.” Announced Grundoon. “It has been a while since I’ve been in a fight, and if we’re headed to one, I’d like to do so with the proper spirits.” The party all laughed, and dismounted, tying their mounts up to the posts out front.
Even before the Governor-General opened the door to the roadside tavern, Jandle had a feeling of disquiet about the place. Nobody else seemed to notice it, not then, but as soon as they stepped into the establishment they felt it soon enough. The room was unnecessarily dark for being not yet midmorning. There was a fat little man behind the bar, and Grundoon thought he saw the man shaking his head before nervously looking away. Perhaps a dozen men sat inside at tables and the bar, and every one of them turned to look at the newcomers. It was not a welcoming gaze.
Hilde muttered “Charming.” Grundoon grunted, and led the way to the bar.
“I’ll have a pint of beer, and a keg for the road.” He said. Trangdor translated, but the bartender was shaking his head before he even finished.
The fat little man said something to Trangdor, and the dwarf told Grundoon “He refuses to serve you, milord. He asks that you leave before there is trouble.”
“I’d guess trouble is already here.” Replied Grundoon, as most of the men in the room stood up and began to close around the party.
Kreg came in through the door just then, and everyone took a step away. He was holding his halberd, and even in a confined space he could do a lot of damage, and everyone knew it. Grundoon looked at the men in the room, and said to Trangdor “Who is the leader of these people?”
Trangdor asked in Romillian, and one of the men stepped forward. He had a beard, and his hair was greying from black. He didn’t look like a common man, not in the way he held himself, and it was apparent that the other men in the room did look up to him. He wore a longsword on his belt, a sure sign that he was not just some bold peasant. The scraggly man spoke, and Trangdor lowered his voice as he translated to the Governor-General’s group.
“He says they don’t want any of our kind here. He was at Garvin’s Gap, and he didn’t fight there to see us roaming about here.” The dwarf’s voice was steady, but he was slightly unnerved. Most of the party had left their weapons outside, and he was looking at the distance to Kreg and the front door.
A wicked smile spread across Grundoon’s face. “No, I don’t reckon he did fight at Garvin’s Gap.” Trangdor translated loudly enough to be heard by everyone in the room. “I certainly didn’t see him there. And there were only two kinds of Romillian at that battle. The ones that died, and the ones that ran away.”
The bearded man shook with anger, and his hand went to the handle of his sword. He asked something angrily, and Trangdor turned to Grundoon. “He wants to know if you are calling him a coward.”
Grundoon grinned, and leaned on the bar. “He is either a coward, or a ghost. And if he draws that sword against me, he would be proven a fool, as well.”
Trangdor wondered at the hubris of the old orc, but translated the message faithfully, and loudly. The bearded man yelled, and drew his sword. Everyone else seemed to be taken by surprise by this, but Grundoon was ready.
As the man came at him, his sword raised high, Grundoon lunged at him with shocking speed. He grabbed the man’s right wrist with his left hand, preventing him from striking, and with his right hand he grabbed the man by the throat. The orc’s strength was incredible, even as old as he was, and he squeezed the man’s wrist so hard that several snapping sounds could be heard. The bearded man tried to yell in pain, but the orc’s grip on his throat was too powerful. Grundoon forced the man on to his knees, and the sword fell from his grasp. For good measure, Grundoon snapped the man’s forearm with a bellowing roar, and the entire tavern echoed with his rage.
The orc looked at the other men in the room, and with his voice loud, gravelly, and unnerving, he roared at them. “Who dares to raise a sword against the Governor-General of Romilmark? Who supports this treason?”
Trangdor yelled out the translation as best he could, trying to sound angry and incensed, rather than just horribly excited. The men that had been so threatening moments ago began to back away, a dawning sense of terror in their hearts.
Grundoon maintained his hold on the bearded man, and lowered his voice. “Is there anyone here who will vouch for this man’s honor?” Trangdor posed the question to the men in the room, and one of them said something.
“He is a knight, milord. Vassal of the baron who once ruled this area.” Said the dwarf.
“That doesn’t answer my question.” Growled the orc. “Is there anyone that can swear this man will never pose a threat to Slothjemia?”
The room was silent. The men were afraid to even look at Grundoon, their gazes were entirely on the bearded man.
“That doesn’t speak well of you, does it?” Grundoon said to the man in his grasp. The fellow’s eyes were beginning to bulge, his left hand feebly clawing at the orc’s unrelenting choke hold.
Grundoon turned his attention to the rest of the room. “If anyone can give me a reason to spare his life, I will do so. Otherwise he dies this morning.” The bearded man began to gag, his face turning purple. With his own left hand he clawed at Grundoon’s heavily armored right arm and hand, trying to get clear of the orc’s grip on his throat.
Silence. Hilde looked around, and not one person dared to speak for the bearded man.
“Incredible.” Muttered Grundoon. “Absolutely incredible.” He crushed the man’s windpipe, and with a sudden backward yank, ripped the man’s throat right out with a wet, tearing sound. Blood gushed from the wound as the corpse fell backward on the floor. Grundoon turned back to the bartender, who was white as a snowbank with horror, and slapped the gore down on the bar. “I’ll have that ale now. And everyone in here can sit down while I drink.” He looked over his shoulder. Trangdor repeated this in Romillian, and loudly emphasized that last part.
The terrified men did sit back down, but none dared to finish their meals or touch their drinks. The bartender produced the beer for Grundoon and his group, as well as a small keg for their journey. Grundoon drank his beer slowly. Jandle handed him a towel, and he wiped off his bloody hand. When he had finished his beer, he said to Trangdor “Find out if any of them will identify this fallen warrior. We’ll take the body to his family, if he has any.”
The dwarf called out to the regular customers of the roadhouse in Romillian, and a few of them spoke up. He spoke with them for a while, and after some conversation he told Grundoon “His name was Sir Kelbrucht, and his manor is to the northeast of here. On the way to the orc settlement, as it turns out.”
Grundoon grunted, and wiped the beer from his mouth. “Tell them that the next time a fellow Slothjemian stops in here for a drink, they had better be more welcoming. I am not against razing this place to the ground, and impaling everyone who is inside.” He smirked. “The rules have changed. They had better learn to accept it, or else head down that eastern road to the way things used to be. Make sure they understand that.”
While Trangdor was lecturing the men in the roadhouse, the rest of the party dragged the dead man out and threw him over the back of Grundoon’s horse. Jandle secured the keg to the back of his own pony, and Hilde tacked up a recruitment poster to the door of the roadhouse. It was doubtful that this event was the best way to win people to join the army, but it was worth a shot.
The party headed off down a narrow cart trail. The denizens of the Idyllwild Inn had indicated that the manor house of the dead knight wasn’t very far, but it turned out to be around the same distance from the roadhouse as the roadhouse was from Kederlenn. It was a small tower surrounded by trees, a well, and a couple of barns. Livestock could be smelled before they were seen and heard. As they approached, everyone looked for signs of further trouble.
There were a couple of peasants who ran for the tower as the party approached, but that was the extent of the activity. Hilde kept a wary eye on the arrow slits of the tower, but there was nothing dread to be seen. Jandle was ever alert, but even he wasn’t picking up on anything.
In the farmyard everyone dismounted. Kreg took the horses and ponies over to the well, and drew up some water for them. Grundoon motioned for Trangdor to follow him as he walked to the narrow stone steps that led up to the door. Jandle and Hilde kept watch, scanning the windows for any sign of trouble. Cloe and Porger stood by nervously, still filled with adrenaline from what they had witnessed in the roadhouse. Grundoon pounded on the door with his gauntleted fist.
There was no response. He pounded again, this time louder. Still no reply from within. “Let them know we are here, Trangdor.” He said.
Trangdor yelled out something in Romillian, and Grundoon pounded on the door again. There was a stirring inside, and the sound of the bolts being drawn. Trangdor instinctively stepped back and behind the old orc.
The door opened just a crack. Grundoon could see a child inside, not much bigger than his own that were with him today. The door opened no further. The orc reached behind himself and smacked Trangdor gently. “Get up here and tell this child who we are, but not why we are here.”
The dwarf stepped forward, speaking calmly to whoever was on the other side of the door. The door was opened wider, and Grundoon could see a young man, somewhat disheveled. “Ask if there is anyone here in charge.” Said Grundoon. Trangdor asked, and the young man replied, his voice strong, unwavering.
“He says his mother is here, but she has locked herself upstairs.” Trangdor looked up at Grundoon. “She is scared of this noble band, it seems.”
The old orc chuckled. “Rightly so, too. I did kill her husband.” Grundoon looked thoughtful for a moment. “Verify that the lord of this manor is Sir Kelbrucht. We don’t want to bear the bad news to the wrong family.”
After some discussion, Trangdor said quietly “Yes, it was this lad’s father. He is the eldest child. There are others, some hiding with their mother, others elsewhere in this tower readying for trouble.” The dwarf wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not, the idea struck him as comical, yet tragic.
Grundoon cleared his throat, was about to say something, and thought better of it. Quietly he said, “Have the lad come outside.” And with that, the orc walked down the steps to his horse and its grisly cargo.
The dwarf said something to the boy, and then walked down towards the rest of the group. He walked slowly, and stopped to see if the young man was following. He was, but with an air of caution. Everyone in the party did their best to look unimposing. Jandle and Kreg untied the body from Grundoon’s horse, and set it down gently on the ground. It wasn’t bound up in canvas or a blanket, but they had tried to wrap it in the dead man’s cape.
The boy looked down at the dead man, and said something to Trangdor. The dwarf looked at Grundoon, and said “It is his father. He wants to know what happened.”
“What is the lad’s name?” asked Grundoon.
Trangdor replied, “He says his name is Belmer.”
Grundoon took a deep breath. “He drew his sword against the Governor-General of Romilmark, and he was slain when he refused to abandon his fight.” Hilde came forward with the knight’s sword, returned to its sheath, and held out for the boy to take. Grundoon continued speaking, even as Trangdor was translating his earlier statement. “Tell the boy that he is now the lord of this manor. He must consider whether or not he wishes to follow the path of his father, or swear allegiance to Slothjemia. I will leave a copy of the oath for him to read. I will return in a day or two, and will expect a decision from him at that time.”
While Trangdor spoke to him, the lad looked at Grundoon, and nodded his understanding. He took his father’s sword from Hilde, and said something to Trangdor.
“He says that he will bury his father here at the manor, and will give thought to what you have said.” Said the dwarf. The lad then turned, and called out to the peasants that had poked their heads out of the open door to see what was going on. Two of them came running, and commenced to gathering up the remains of the late lord, carrying him inside of the tower. The lad followed them, clutching his father’s sword in both hands.
The party remounted, and made their way out of the farm, following the cart trail as it went northeast. Porger and Cloe were the only ones that turned in their saddles from time to time to look back, as the tower grew smaller and smaller in the distance.