There were more farms along this trail. They dotted the countryside with an almost random regularity. The party stopped whenever there were people close to the path, and Trangdor would ride to them and inquire if this was the way to where the orcs were. Everyone he had spoken to agreed they were on the right track, but that they probably should have brought more soldiers. At a distance it wasn’t possible to tell that the soldiers they were talking to were themselves mostly orcs. All of the natives had also said that where this trail ended was the manor of a thoroughly dedicated knight, a man that had spent his life keeping the orcs from descending from their mountainous hideaway to slaughter his neighbors.
Grundoon was troubled by the fact that all of these folks had also claimed the orcs had stolen livestock from them, as well as harvested crops and occasionally field workers. He hadn’t known many renegade orcs; they were an anomaly in Slothjemia. But from what he knew of them, this wasn’t the behavior of a strong tribe. Either they were weak from being in a state of perpetual quasi-war with Romillia, or they were a colony of a much stronger orcish nation. It seemed unlikely that there would be orcs settled right here in the heart of what used to be a part of Romillia.
Why hadn’t the Romillians simply routed these hated enemies? The Archduke that governed this area had plenty of military might to do that easily. They couldn’t have come up from the depths of the mountains, the dwarves had tunneled extensively throughout the Kragalian Alps, and had chased out any intruder eons ago. The only way they could have gotten to where they were now, was to travel across hostile territory, at night, and probably in a large group. An army of outcasts traipsing about unchallenged was an awfully far-fetched idea. Grundoon would have to see for himself the extent of this orcish encampment to flesh out the details, but something was definitely amiss in this whole episode.
The cart trail worked its way up the hills out of the valley, and began to climb upwards into the mountains. They had to be drawing close to the knight’s manor, as the terrain was becoming more and more difficult to categorize as arable land. As the sun began to set, Grundoon was able to spot a small castle on a rocky little peak. Beyond the castle the mountains rose sharply, their jagged, treeless heights forming a natural border with Romillia. Here, though, the trees were still thick, if a little on the small side due to the altitude and soil conditions. Jandle pointed out the castle to the others in the group, and everyone hoped that this nobleman was more civilized in his outlook than was the unfortunate man they had left to be buried down in the valley.
Hilde was the first to notice the banner fluttering over the keep. “Now that’s interesting.” She said. Trangdor noticed it too, and then one by one everyone saw it. It was the tricolor Slothjemian flag. It would have been a safe bet that this was the one thing none of the party had expected to see.
The trail continued in a haphazard manner around boulders and between trees, then spiraled around the rocky outcropping to the castle on top. The architecture was clearly dwarven, and while the fortification wasn’t large, it was duly imposing. There were only five small towers, and the small keep in the middle was just high enough to provide a stunning view of the alps to the east and the sweeping valley to the west. The gatehouse was small, and the iron reinforced wooden gates were closed. The party gathered outside of the portal, and gazed upward at the wall.
Grundoon looked carefully at the arrow slits and windows, and scanned the walls for any sign of movement. “Shout out to them, Trangdor. See if anyone is home.” He said, still watching for any evidence of life in the castle.
Trangdor stood in the saddle of his pony, cupped his hands around the sides of his mouth, and gave a loud holler. He paused a moment, then repeated his yell.
A helmeted person opened a shuttered window in the gatehouse, and peered down at the Governor-General and his companions. He shouted something, and Trangdor shouted back. The helmeted person ducked back inside, and waved his hand out of the window, then closed the shutters. Trangdor said to Grundoon, “They are opening the gate, milord.”
There was the sound of chains clanking, and the scraping of metal on stone. Grundoon guessed that they must be raising a portcullis behind the gate. There was some scuffling on the other side, and then two dwarven men pushed the gates open. They looked at the party, and one of them smiled, motioning for them to come inside. The entry wasn’t big enough for them to ride into the castle on horseback, so everyone dismounted and led their steeds inside. After they crossed the threshold, the dwarves closed the gates again, and secured them.
The courtyard wasn’t very large at all, and there was just a small stable on one side and the keep next to it. More dwarves came out to see who the visitors were, and some of them took the reins and led the animals to the stable. All of the dwarves were smiling, and given how much dwarves in this part of the world seemed to hate orcs, Grundoon and the rest of his entourage found their hospitality unsettling. A dwarf wearing a dark red cape and a shiny steel helmet came marching out of the keep, his plate armor immaculate and a fine sword hanging in a scabbard on his belt.
“Greetings to my new brothers!” he said in nearly flawless Slothjemian. He looked at them all, and when his eyes landed on Hilde, he added “And sister!” He bowed to them, and when he stood up he said with a flourish “I am Sir Gelbrand. Welcome to Trelderian Hall.” Swinging an arm towards the keep, he motioned for them to follow him, and he marched back to the keep.
Grundoon looked at his companions, shrugged his shoulders, and followed the dwarf in the dark red cape. Everyone filed along behind, and the other dwarves in the castle seemed to go back to whatever it was they had been doing.
The main room of the keep was two stories tall, and had a number of ornate iron chandeliers to keep it illuminated. There was a fireplace along the far wall, and a staircase began on the left wall, and followed the corners as it continued up, along the wall over the front door, and again up the third wall to the right, before reaching a doorway in the far-right corner high above the fireplace wall. A simple design, but easily defended from attackers. Grundoon couldn’t help but smile as he looked around the room. This was the humble, yet functional, home of a dedicated warrior.
There was a large round table in the middle of the room, with high-backed chairs all around it. There were doors in the other three walls opposite the main door, probably leading to a kitchen and whatever other rooms a dwarven knight should need in his keep. The dwarf took off his helmet, and set it on the table. Grundoon was shocked to see that the knight had a cleanly shaved head. His beard wasn’t braided, but his mustache was. His bright green eyes sparkled in the light of the fire, and his smile revealed several gold teeth. “Please, make yourselves comfortable. You have arrived just in time for dinner.”
Grundoon removed his own helmet, and set it on the table, too. He felt better, and the anticipation of a good meal warmed his heart. “I am the Governor-General of Romilmark, Baron Shr Grundoon von Vorkel of the Iron Gauntlet. Well met, Sir Gelbrand. I was surprised to see the Slothjemian flag flying over your castle.” The orc began to remove his gauntlets, and set his axe on the table alongside his helmet.
Gelbrand laughed. “This is Slothjemia, my lord. Our flag belongs over every estate that has sworn fealty to the Empress. I have merely embraced this reality more quickly than have others.”
“Have you signed the loyalty oath?” asked Grundoon incredulously. “I didn’t think that anyone had been out this way to visit you.”
“No, my lord. I have not yet been given the chance. But I accept my role in the new scheme of things, and have committed myself, in my heart, to serving my new masters. If you have come to present the oath, I am ready. My estate stands with Slothjemia. Most of those under my charge have begun learning your language in readiness for this occasion.” Said the knight, removing his cape and tossing it over the back of one of the chairs.
“How is it that you know the language so well already?” asked Trangdor. “We haven’t encountered many who can speak our native tongue.”
Gelbrand laughed again, and said “I made it a point to learn Slothjemian over a hundred years ago, and even lived briefly in the Grey Alps. I made that my base of operations while I was adventuring in Geldenreich. It has been an invaluable asset to me, knowing the language and customs of our neighbor. Now, of course, it has become an even greater gift.”
“I hadn’t actually planned on collecting oaths on this trip.” Said Grundoon. “I am here to see what is going on with the orcs that are reported to be in the mountains east of here.” Grundoon grinned, and held out his hand to the dwarven knight. “All of this, you and your hospitality, this delightful castle, and your amazing attitude, is an enormously welcome treat.”
Gelbrand shook the orc’s hand vigorously, and even though Grundoon was a good two feet taller than him, he was struck by the warmth and strength of the dwarf, his convictions and demeanor.
“Ah, the brutes that hide in the rocks along the ridgeline.” Gelbrand shook his head. “They are pests, to be sure. There are several hundred up there, my lord. Before the war, they would raid almost constantly, going around my castle, and striking at the farms and estates further down in the valley. I begged the Archduke for more help in tackling them, but I was always ignored. He took my finest men-at-arms for his doomed endeavor, and now I don’t have the soldiers to mount an attack against the orcs. I can keep them out of Trelderian Hall, but that is all.” He looked at the Governor-General, and crossed his arms in front of him. “You didn’t bring an army, so you don’t intend to fight them, do you?”
“Not if I don’t have to.” Replied Grundoon. He looked at the dwarf, and made sure to look him in the eye. “But if they give me no choice, I will crush them. I will wipe them off the map, wash them down the cliffs with a river of acid and the roar of our dragons.”
Gelbrand smiled, and motioned for everyone to have a seat. They settled in, and he began to dig deeper into what Grundoon had in mind for the orcs. “What, if not subjugation, is your goal for the orcs in the mountains?” he asked.
Grundoon took a deep breath, and folded his hands on the table in front of him. “Their settlement is within our borders. That makes them either our problem, or our brethren. And which they become is entirely up to them.”
The dwarven knight looked at him skeptically. “They get a chance then, to become… citizens?” he asked, tilting his head as he spoke.
“Perhaps you weren’t as prepared to be a Slothjemian as you thought.” Said Grundoon with a chuckle. “If they want to join us, then they have to accept our rules and our governance. If they choose any other path, they will be destroyed.”
“And will they be held accountable for their crimes?” Gelbrand asked.
Grundoon smiled. “If they break our laws, they will be punished. Same as anyone else in the domain.” The old orc looked at the dwarven knight. “I play no favorites, Sir Gelbrand. Orc, dwarf, elf, human, or whatever. Everyone starts with a clean slate, and is free to write their own destiny. You have chosen to set aside being Romillian, to be Slothjemian. If they choose to abandon their leadership, and accept ours, then they will have to adapt, just as you have. But I do not think they will be as successful as you have.”
Gelbrand was silent for a while, mulling over in his mind what the Governor-General was telling him. Grundoon wasn’t sure he hadn’t met the perfect knight, only to have him turn away when faced with the reality of life in the great Slothjemian Empire. It was a place of diversity, and not everyone was comfortable with that, especially when ancient enemies were given fair and equal treatment.
Grundoon motioned to Jandle, and the squire nodded, pulled out a folded parchment, and handed it to his master. The Governor-General unfolded it, and set it on the table, pushing it towards Gelbrand. “I won’t hold you to your commitment, Sir Gelbrand. You have fought against orcs and seen them savage your neighbors. If you cannot bear to see those same orcs given the same protections as you, a noble warrior, I will not hold it against you. But do not sign this oath if you feel it will be impossible to uphold. I believe, in the short time I have known you, and it has been a brief meeting, that you are a good man. I would not force you to compromise your beliefs.”
“You will need a guide.” Said Gelbrand, his voice thoughtful and soft. He took the paper in front of him, and studied it carefully. He rang a bell that was sitting on the table near his helmet, and a servant came running in to the room. “Bring me my quill and ink.” Said the knight. He looked across the table at Grundoon. “I believe you are a man of your word, my lord. And I trust that you have a plan to end the brutish behavior of the wild orcs. It is my duty to follow you into battle, to keep safe the lands you entrust to my stewardship, and to provide whatever support you require of me and my retainers.”
The servant returned, and gave the knight the quill and ink he had asked for. Gelbrand dipped the quill into the ink bottle, and with a flourish signed his name to the oath. The servant took the items, and quickly left the room. The knight pushed the signed oath back across the table to Grundoon. “I am at your service, my lord.”
As if on cue, more servants began to bring in food for the dinner. Grundoon was impressed with this dwarven lord and his household. He stared intently at his host, and said “Sir Gelbrand, if you would guide us to the orc settlement, or provide somebody who can show us the way, we will be on our way after dinner.”
“The orcs are active during the darkness, my lord. You would be advised to wait until morning.” Said the dwarven knight, as he began to dig into the evening meal.
“We will meet them on their ground, and when they are at ease. This will make their decision more binding.” Chuckled Grundoon. “They will find it more difficult to justify backing out at a later date.”
Porger and Cloe were very interested in life at Trelderian Hall, and during the meal they peppered their host with questions about every aspect of what it was like to live on this estate. A fair number of the knight’s retainers took part in the meal, too, and they seemed delighted to try out their fledgling language skills. In addition to half a dozen servants and their families, there were around twenty men-at-arms, and their families as well. All of them were dwarven. Not everyone fit around the table, so they sat on the floor along the walls of the great room or pulled up benches or chairs to be closer to the conversation.
The estate was based on goat herding, but they had some sheep as well. They also had a couple of cows and some chickens to provide milk and eggs. Crops were impossible to grow in this terrain in any significant amount, but they had done some lumber harvesting from time to time to earn extra income. The orcs had never attacked Trelderian Hall directly, and they had only been viewed from a distance as they moved down the mountainside to raid the neighboring properties. Before the war, Sir Gelbrand had been able to pursue the orcs as they were returning from their escapades, and while they had managed to kill a few of them, they were unable to breach the defenses of the orcish encampment.
Excellent descriptions of the camp were provided, though. The settlement was on one of the alpine peaks overlooking this castle. It was a six-hour hike, and almost straight up to the mountain ridgeline. Natural rock outcroppings formed a ship-like defensive barrier, from the air it would look rather like an eye. These formations were buttressed with crude stone constructions, and while the dwarves believed there were traps and pitfalls in the approach to the camp, they hadn’t been able to get close enough to set any of them off. The trail leading up to the camp was so treacherous that even the most surefooted donkey would have trouble making the trip. The orcs had never taken large livestock as loot from their raids, as everything would have to be carried up the cliffs on their backs or hung between poles and carried on their shoulders. The most troubling to Grundoon were reports of the orcs having taken captive humans and dwarves as slaves. Slothjemia was passionately opposed to slavery in any form, and this was enough to cause the Governor-General to feel his anger rise.
After dinner, the party took some time to check their armor and weapons. It was pretty much a given that there would be trouble tonight. Gelbrand and three of his men-at-arms would go with them, to show them how to get there and to support them if a fight broke out. There were rumored to be a couple hundred orcs up on that mountain, and taking along a few dwarves was a great way to offset those numbers, according to Gelbrand. Cloe and Porger were so excited that they seemed on the verge of bursting. Cloe reassured Trangdor that she would use her sword to defend him, and he reassured her that he had no intention of taking part in this mayhem. Porger asked why not, and Trangdor said “You don’t need a translator tonight. You need a fighter. And I am no fighter.” Grundoon had laughed, and agreed. Trangdor would stay at Trelderian Hall while the rest of the group went up to settle affairs with the orcs.
The party headed out under the clear sky, with plenty of moonlight to light the way. Gelbrand and one of his men took the lead, and the other two men-at-arms followed behind everyone else as a rear guard. Porger kept an arrow notched, even though they were nowhere near the orcs yet. Cloe looked to her big sister, Hilde, as an example, and while she wanted to hike with her sword drawn, she resolved to keep it sheathed until Hilde drew hers. Kreg followed right behind Jandle, and Jandle was right behind Grundoon. As long a day as it had been, Grundoon had gotten his second wind, and was looking forward to battle.
Lights twinkled in the windows of Trelderian Hall, as the scrub pine forest swallowed up the adventurers. When they spoke, they did so in whispers, their senses heightened by the knowledge that this wilderness held far more unknown things than it did known.