Almost immediately the route began to ascend the steepening mountain range. The ground was rocky, and trees became fewer, and more randomly distributed. There was plenty of snow here, and finding one’s footing was more of a challenge than it would have been if this had been summer. It was cold, and the wind was sharp and erratic. The higher they went, the blusterier the winds became, and the deeper the snow. Winter had not yet begun to set in with real fervor, but if a storm had been brewing tonight this trip would have been impossible. The brightness of the snow in the moonlight made it easy to see, but it also made the party easier to be seen. At various intervals, Gelbrand pointed upwards at one of the peaks in the range. “That’s it, there.” He would say. Everyone wondered if they were being watched, and the assumption was that they probably had been spotted already.
The final portion of the journey was done in as much silence as the group could manage. Eyes were turned towards the ground ahead as much as the path beneath their feet. Any hint of movement from ahead had to be taken as a threat. The only sounds were of the crunch of their feet in the snow, and the wind as it whipped around the rocks and howled in their helmets. Gelbrand paused, and lowered onto his haunches on the ridge behind some boulders. He pointed to the walls formed naturally up ahead, and just above them. This was it.
Everyone hunkered down as well, resting up and taking time to catch their breath. Gelbrand took his finger and drew in the snow a rough map of the walls and where the entrance was. They would have to maneuver a narrow trail, possibly trapped, and would be at the mercy of the defenders every inch of the way. Grundoon rubbed his jaw, thinking of another way to bring the orcs out to them.
Grundoon stood up, and took a deep breath. He looked around, and told the party in a low whisper “I am going to try and get their attention. Porger, keep an arrow ready. Everyone stay down in case they decide to attack us.” Everyone nodded, and drew their weapons.
The Governor-General stepped out from behind the boulder. Holding his axe in his right hand, he held up his left hand next to his mouth, and in his loudest voice he roared in Slothjemian, as close a language to orcish as he knew; “HELLO UP THERE! SHOW YOURSELF!” His voice boomed like an explosion, carried by the wind and reverberating off of the rock walls.
An arrow sailed past Grundoon’s head, and shattered against the rocks behind him. Porger fired an arrow back in response, and a startled scream echoed from behind the jagged walls of the orc camp. Cloe grinned, and whispered “Nice shot, Porg!” Grundoon stared intently at the walls before him.
“IF YOU WANT A FIGHT, I’LL BRING YOU ONE! I CAME TO PARLEY, BUT IF YOU WANT WAR I’LL DELIVER IT TO YOU!” bellowed the Governor-General. He stood firmly, holding his axe now in both hands, his senses on high alert to any more incoming missiles or incantations.
There was movement from the direction of the settlement, and three humanoid forms could be seen making their way towards Grundoon. Hilde and Jandle crept closer to Grundoon, but took care to remain unseen. Kreg put his hand on Cloe’s shoulder to prevent her from moving up as well. Gelbrand and his men moved around the boulders they were behind, to come up the other side if they were needed.
The three orcs from the settlement came closer, and stopped some forty feet away from Grundoon. The one in the middle was huge, but not so much muscle as he was armor, and fur cloak. He might have been an orog, but Grundoon couldn’t be sure. To his right was an orc with an axe, also wearing a lot of armor and wrapped against the cold. The third orc held a staff, and had on an ornate headdress that had antlers affixed. Grundoon guessed that this must be the tribal witchdoctor.
“Who are you?” bellowed Grundoon. “You are in my territory, and haven’t given me my tribute!”
The huge orc in the middle laughed. “Your territory? This is our land! Everything we can see from this peak is our domain!”
Grundoon pointed to the east. “Maybe in that direction. But west of this place, all belongs to Slothjemia. If you do not submit to our rule, you will be crushed.” His voice got louder. “I demand to know who you are, and why you haven’t paid tribute to me!”
The orc in the headdress was talking in a low voice to the apparent leader, and Grundoon couldn’t make out what was being said. The third orc looked uncomfortable, but seemed to not be rattled.
“I didn’t ask antler-boy for an answer!” roared Grundoon. “If he is in charge, then let him reply to me directly! Who among you challenges the might of the Slothjemian Empire?” The Governor-General was having a tough time keeping his temper in check.
The orc in the center didn’t like being prodded, and his anger was evident in his voice as he called back, “I am Balthor, chief of the Rock Spine clan! I do not answer to you, or anyone! These are my lands, and I will slaughter all who dare approach me with such insolence!”
Grundoon took a deep breath, and marched resolutely and quickly towards the three orcs. Hilde and Jandle leapt out and flanked him as he went forward, and Kreg sprang into position right next to Jandle. Porger took aim, and from a kneeling position drew back his bowstring. Cloe moved to be in a position to strike behind Hilde, and the dwarves moved up to flank the three orcs on the mountainside.
The three renegade orcs weren’t sure what all of this was about, but the leader drew his sword, and the other two likewise readied for combat. Grundoon angrily roared at them, “I say submit or die! You will fall to your knees and pledge allegiance to my rule, or your corpse will rot here on the top of this rock!” he hefted his axe, and prepared to draw it back.
Raising his staff, the antlered orc began an incantation, but it was stopped short by a crossbow bolt from Jandle, and an arrow from Porger. Jandle’s bolt found the witchdoctor’s right eye socket, and Porger’s arrow shot right through the orc’s throat. With surprising speed, the dwarves rushed at the axe-wielding orc, who had only a moment to fend off their attack, and began to fall back towards the settlement.
The orc leader raised his sword, and charged at Grundoon. The Governor-General swung his axe with both hands, cleaving the sword neatly in two, and shoved his left shoulder into the orc’s face as he pushed against him with his axe. The chief lost his balance, and stumbled backwards.
Hilde stabbed her sword into the orc chief as she came up on her father’s left side, and she screamed with rage. Kreg drove in towards the witchdoctor as he began to fall, and with a clean motion he drove the pointed spike of his halberd into the orc’s chest, driving his now lifeless body into the stony ground. Arrows began to fall among the combatants, but none found their mark. Jandle cast a spell, and a light blue shimmering field surrounded the Governor-General and his party.
The dwarves overwhelmed their target, and pinned him to the ground, his axe knocked from his hand. The chief tried to draw back the shattered remains of his sword to strike, but Grundoon was too fast for him, and the great dwarven axe beheaded the chief. Grundoon pointed to the craggy walls, and yelled “OVER THE TOP!” and Hilde sprang forward, with Kreg and Jandle right behind her. Cloe came up quickly to join them, and Grundoon grabbed the severed head of his foe, before he too charged to the wall. It was a natural barricade, and as such was not as difficult to scale as something engineered to expressly keep people out. Gelbrand and one of his men joined the climb, as the other two continued subduing their target.
The wall wasn’t more than twenty feet high, and had plenty of places to get a good hand or foot hold. Scrambling up this obstacle, even in full armor, was something of a challenge, but with adrenalin pumping nobody in the party felt deterred. Hilde was the first one over, and she had on the heaviest armor of anyone in the group. Jandle perched right on the edge, and loaded his crossbow. Kreg sprang up and over the wall, like he had springs in his legs, and once on the other side he started to twirl his halberd about, seeking targets. Cloe was right beside him, her sword drawn and her posture low, to avoid being hit by the flailing halberdier. Porger took a cue from Jandle, and straddled the top of the wall, looking for anyone to fire arrows at. By the time Grundoon clambered to the top of the wall, all he saw was chaos.
There were orcs everywhere, scattering to find weapons or a place to hide. The warriors were trying to form up, but Hilde and Kreg kept them off balance, one on the eastern side of the camp, and other on the west. Anyone trying to get through the middle was shot at by Jandle and Porger. Grundoon slid down the inside of the wall, still clutching his axe in one hand, and the severed head of his fallen enemy in the other, and roared like an enraged lion. Pandemonium ensued.
The party stopped their attack, and the orcs, confused and completely bewildered, began to calm. Nobody dropped their weapons, but they looked about uneasily for some sign as to what they should do next. Grundoon tossed the head of their chief into the center of the camp.
“Balthor, who would not submit to my rule! Look at him now!” he yelled, his voice menacing and firm. “Will anyone here lay claim to his rule, and reject my sovereignty?”
Murmuring spread among the orcs. They had never expected anyone would attack them here, in their alpine fortress, so carefully chosen for its natural defenses. Suddenly, here was another orc, bolder than any they had ever seen, wearing armor that wasn’t cobbled together from scraps, and wielding an axe forged by dwarves. Their entire world had been rocked to its foundation.
Gelbrand and his henchman slid down the wall behind Grundoon, and took their place behind the old orc. They couldn’t believe what they were witnessing. Grundoon took a step forward, and again loudly asked “I ask you who will defy me? If you wish to die tonight then raise your weapons, otherwise drop them now and fall to your knees! Submit or die!”
There was a clatter as the orcs began to drop their weapons, and one by one they fell to the ground before Grundoon and his companions. There were some torches lit throughout the camp, and Grundoon could see that he had triumphed. As big a threat as these orcs had been, they had been quickly dealt with. All that was required was for somebody to have acted boldly.
He turned to Gelbrand, and told him “Go see if any of the captives are yet alive.” The dwarf and his man-at-arms went quickly to search the crude stone huts covered in animal hides for their kinsmen. Grundoon turned his attention back to the orcs, and shouted at them. “Gather here, before me!” and he pointed to the ground in front of him. The orcs began to move towards him, slowly at first, but with urgency as Hilde and Kreg began to herd them in.
There were joyous shouts as the dwarves found and set free the humans and dwarves that the orcs had captured. The remaining two dwarves outside of the wall dragged their opponent through the entrance of the camp, and dropped him unceremoniously at Grundoon’s feet. He was very badly injured, but still alive.
“Who is in command here?” asked Grundoon, in a very demanding tone.
The injured orc rolled over on to his side, and looked up at the Governor-General. “You are, master.” He said in a feeble, but audible voice.
Grundoon smiled. “And who are you?” he asked the injured orc.
“I am Targul.” He answered.
“What do you do?” asked Grundoon.
There was a pause, and then Targul said “I serve the master.”
Grundoon stifled a laugh, and asked “Do you speak for your clan?”
“Yes.” Targul answered. “I speak for my people, now that Balthor is dead.”
Grundoon looked at the crowd before him, and spoke directly to them, his voice strong and unwavering. “Hear my commands! I am removing those you have unjustly imprisoned, and taking them back to their homes. They will take with them whatever ill-gotten gains you have stolen from them, and you will leave them, their lands, their properties, and their kinfolk alone.” He pointed to Targul, laying on the ground. “Targul is now your leader, and he will decide whether or not you will come down from this mountain and take your place in our society as Slothjemians, or pack up and move out of our domain. But be assured, as the dragons above watch your every move, that I will allow no retribution to be delivered for what has happened tonight. If you plot in your heart to gain revenge for the death of Balthor, you will be defeated. You have but three options. Submit to my rule, leave these lands, or be ground to dust by my armies. You’ve seen what a handful of us can do. I command tens of thousands of soldiers, and if I can defeat the finest army Romillia could wield, I can surely erase you from the earth.”
Grundoon allowed this to sink in, and then continued. “You have until the next full moon to decide.” He looked down at Targul, and said to him quietly, “Choose wisely.”
The captives were somewhat emaciated, but were otherwise in tolerable condition. They went through every hut and retrieved items the orcs had taken. There were twenty-two of them altogether, mostly humans, and mostly female. Gelbrand reported to Grundoon that most of the men that had been taken prisoner had been cruelly tortured and killed to intimidate the rest. It was hard to reconcile these deeds with the mercy that Grundoon was extending.
“This is a new age.” Grundoon told him. “If these acts are repeated under Slothjemian rule, and our laws are broken, then there is no grace to be given. It is up to them if they can set aside their barbarism, just as it is up to you to set aside your vengefulness. If either side gives in to their darker desires, then they will suffer accordingly.”
The dwarven knight just looked at Grundoon, and then went about gathering up the freed captives and their sacks of recovered loot. They made their way out of the settlement, and began to hike single-file down the ridge of the mountain towards safety.
Grundoon and his group supervised the orcs while the captives filed out, and took a count of how many orcs there were. Close to a hundred warriors, and about two hundred females and children. A good-sized group. With their chief and their witchdoctor dead, they would need some time to regroup. Grundoon was hoping that they would take that time to consider carefully his ultimatum. After the captives had been given a good head start, Grundoon and his party began to make their way to the entrance to the camp. Grundoon was the last to leave, and he picked up Balthor’s head by its braided hair on his way out. He said nothing, but looked at the orcs, who were getting to their feet and beginning to assess what had happened. Grundoon hefted his axe on to his shoulder, and just watched them. Finally, he turned and started down the mountain. Jandle had paused outside of the orc camp to loot the corpses of the chief and the witchdoctor, and Grundoon caught up to him. They didn’t speak for a while as they made their way out of sight of the camp. In a few hours the sun would be up. He was tired.