For three days it snowed, and for much of that time Grundoon played with his children by the fire. There was work to do, and Grundoon took great delight in being able to do most of it from the comfort of his home. Aggrylia had purchased a small desk for him to use, and he had set it up in one corner of the main room with a large overstuffed leather chair. He had a crate that stood on end that he could pile things on next to the desk, and it was here that he entertained the people that came to discuss business with the Governor-General.
The first visitor was Colonel Ulthar von Gheistler, the terrifying commander of the Judicial Corp that had arrived from the capital to begin hunting down the brigands in the countryside. Grundoon was taken by surprise by the undead officer, even though he knew of the colonel’s reputation. Ulthar stood a good six feet tall, and wore heavy plate and banded armor with a flowing deep purple cape signifying his role in the Judicial Corp. When he removed his helmet, Grundoon was again shocked to see the skeletal visage of the death knight, his skin blackened as if by fire, pulled taut over cable-like muscle and sinew. His eyes were pinpoints of glowing purple in otherwise empty sockets. The colonel’s voice boomed as though it was echoing from the depths of a bottomless cavern. Everything about him was horrifying and unsettling. He was perfect for the job. He had brought some five hundred troops, all of them considered to be “military police,” and they were keen to begin their work. To get the ball rolling, von Gheistler came to the Governor-General to request the use of three of the Red Guard dragonriders, and to inform Grundoon that any prisoners taken would be swiftly executed once their guilt had been determined.
Grundoon chuckled, knowing full well that any natives caught armed in Romilmark would be automatically determined to be guilty. He had Jandle tell General von Unster-Kol via the communication crystal that von Gheistler would be given the use of three dragonriders once the weather cleared up enough to allow them to operate. There was a perfectly good chopping block in the city square in front of the jail; all that was needed was for the brigands to be found and cornered.
The ambassador assigned to the Governor-General to interact with Romillia, Count Jerdoch Krownheim, was the next guest to call on Grundoon, and he came by during the second day of the storm. He was dwarven, but in his manner of speaking he came across as human. He was one of the Grey Alp dwarves, and most recently had served as a diplomat to Geldenreich. He had followed Grundoon’s instructions to the letter and had sent dozens of official invitations throughout Romillia. He had not yet heard back from any of those that Grundoon had named as guests to a yet unspecified occasion, so there was nothing about that to report, but the ambassador was curious as to why invitations had been sent out, but no date had been set, or event discussed.
Grundoon cleared his throat and chose his words carefully as he spoke. “There is a sizeable amount of property owned by the Velferin family. They once governed this entire region, and as Archduke, the late Lord Linkristle had control over a great many things, and business interests that covered a multitude of enterprises. The most impressive of these properties is their family estate, and the castle that sits as it’s crown jewel. If we are extending the courtesy of surveying the lesser holdings of the native nobility, then we should go the extra mile in settling debts with the family that owned more than anyone else.”
The ambassador listened, showing no sign of reaction, until Grundoon finished speaking. A thin, knowing smile crept across the dwarf’s face. He stroked his dark red beard, and said “Are you then planning some sort of settlement that includes the entire family? There are close to fifty people that have been reached out to, and of all ages.”
Grundoon nodded his head. “Yes. I don’t want anyone in the Velferin family to miss out on this, to claim that they were cheated from their inheritance.” The old orc was starting to sweat and began to worry that the dwarf might sense something amiss.
Count Krownheim shifted his weight in his chair. “The goal then, of the invitations, is to begin planning for this event, to coordinate with the affected family members and set a date for them to gather together?”
“Yes.” Replied Grundoon. “I thought perhaps they would like to meet at the family castle. It seemed the natural place to do this.”
Whether or not the ambassador suspected that Grundoon was being less that forthright wasn’t clear, but his next words made the orc think perhaps he did.
“When the Romillians enter our territory, they are immediately under your protection, and at your mercy. With martial law in place, you are the final authority in Romilmark. Should something unfortunate happen to these guests, the Romillians will have questions.” The Count stared intently at Grundoon. “I know your reputation, Baron von Vorkel. I do not wish to be placed in a compromising position.”
Grundoon sat looking at the dwarven ambassador for a moment before he spoke. “Do not fret, Count Krownheim. I shall insure that you are not held to account for anything untoward that happens to my guests. I have sworn an oath, and I mean to keep it.” His voice was calm, and he hoped that his sincerity would vanquish any doubt from the dwarf’s heart.
The diplomat stood up, and smiled, but Grundoon could tell it wasn’t a genuine gesture. He gathered his cloak about him as he said, “I shall do as you request, my lord. But I will not be taken by surprise. I will insist upon further information as we move forward. Please do not take this lightly, sir.”
Grundoon just nodded his head in agreement and stood as the Count took his leave of the house. The Governor-General sat back down and pondered his next move.
He sat there for a couple of hours but was unaware of the passage of time. Jandle kept an eye on him, and the rest of the household carried on with their activities. The toddler twins were crawling now, and the nanny and Aggrylia had their hands full keeping them away from the fireplace. Porger and Cloe played outside in the snow, came in to warm up, and then went back outside. Hilde was up at the 2nd Army headquarters working on putting together her plans to form up a new army, and Trangdor was reading in his basement room.
Grundoon finally decided it was time to put aside his thoughts and read over the reports that had come in from around Romilmark during his absence. He made a few notes and sent Kreg up to the army garrison with replies to be dispatched. He spent that evening with his family and fell asleep watching the snow fall outside of he and his wife’s bedroom window.
Just before dawn, the old orc dressed warmly and stepped outside. There was a streetlamp not far away, and it cast a warm glow on the snow-covered neighborhood. He braced himself against the icy wind, which while not all that strong, did a fine job of blowing the falling snow into every nook and cranny. Grundoon looked up one side of the street, and down the other. Nobody was out.
He turned back to look at the streetlight, and there was a lone figure standing next to it. Grundoon felt a deeper chill run up his spine. He took a deep breath, and went towards the person, tromping through the snow. As he got closer, he could see the person was wearing a hood and a long, thick cloak. The figure was watching Grundoon, and as he drew near, the hooded man spoke quietly, and slowly, as was his custom.
“Evening, Governor. Will be dawn soon. What needs doin?” it was the unmistakable voice of Moak, the jorish huntsman.
Grundoon kept his own voice low, and it had a gravelly rumble. “Everything is going according to schedule. Let me know when your preparations are complete.”
Moak replied in his sinister way, “Of course, me lord. Don’t worry about a thing. Malek is there now. It’ll be all set by the time the flowers start to bloom.”
Grundoon smiled and nodded his head. Without a further word, he turned and walked back to his home. Before he went inside, he glanced back at the streetlight. Nobody was there, and there was no trace of anyone having walked in the fresh snow. He chuckled and thought to himself how lovely it would be if everyone was as good at their job as Moak was at his.
The dawn finally broke, and the third day of the storm saw the snow stop falling by midafternoon. People began venturing out before suppertime to see how much had accumulated, and it was impressive by any standard. There was about three feet of it, less in some places and more in others. More than enough to cover a kobold, and almost enough to hide a goblin. The air might have been dry, but it was also cold. The sun fought its way through the clouds just a couple of hours before sunset, so it did nothing to warm Brakoff or the rest of Romilmark.
It was after darkness had settled over the land, when a message crackled over the communication crystal. Jandle relayed the urgent message to Grundoon. He informed the baron that the orcs had descended the mountain and been taken into custody by the detachment at Trelderian Hall. They were being taken in a column to Kederlenn, and General von Unster-Kol was awaiting instructions. Grundoon told Jandle that the orcs were to be disarmed, and then brought to Brakoff. Jandle activated the crystal and sent the Governor-General’s edict to the commander of the Red Guard. Grundoon then sent Kreg up to tell Colonel Yunzleer to expect company. He wasn’t sure how docile the orcs would be, so to be on the safe side Grundoon decided to have them greeted with fully armed soldiers and secured lodging. The jail wasn’t big enough to hold them all, but there were other buildings that could be put to use.
Two days after the storm subsided, the Red Guard soldiers that Grundoon had left at Trelderian Hall arrived at Brakoff, and Shr Gelbrand was with them, to make sure that the captive orcs made it to their destination. There were ninety-two males old enough to be warriors, and eighty-seven females old enough to bear children. In addition to these, there were one hundred and seventeen children. At the head of the captives was their newly anointed leader, Targul, who seemed to have recovered from his injuries in the skirmish on top of the mountain. He walked proudly, not as a man defeated, but as a man braving unwelcome change with determination to triumph. Grundoon watched him warily. He knew that attitude, because it was his own, and he was wise enough to know that this orc would be a challenge.
The bulk of the 2nd Army was on hand and in formation when the orcs were marched in to the city square. Also present was Colonel von Gheistler and his Judicial Corp contingent. The death knight stood with one hand on the pommel of his scabbarded sword, and the other on his hip, an unblinking gaze locked on to the renegades before him. Grundoon stepped forward, and in the cold evening air, shouted out to the orcs formerly of the Rock Spine tribe.
“Welcome to Brakoff! Have you decided whether you are joining the Clan of the Midnight Skull or moving on beyond our boundaries?” he bellowed.
Targul stepped forward, and declared in a loud voice, “I speak for my people! I have chosen to join Slothjemia, and to take my place in the empire of the swamp orcs.”
Grundoon walked through the trampled snow to within a few feet of Targul. “What do you offer in the way of service to the realm?” he asked the orc.
The orc straightened his shoulders, and said in a strong, unwavering voice, “I shall serve in your army. My warriors will decide themselves what trail to follow. We will adapt to our surroundings as we always have. I only have two things to ask of my masters.”
Grundoon chuckled, and said to Targul, “I am listening. What is it that you want?”
Targul took a deep breath and said “A place that my people can call home.” He paused, looking at the soldiers that stood in armor, and wielding shiny, masterfully crafted weapons. “You do not permit us to raid and fight as we are accustomed, so if we fight for you, we need to have a place to live and raise our young.”
Grundoon smiled. “You can continue living on the top of that peak if you like. I admit it isn’t very accessible, but if you want to stay there, you can while those of you that serve in the army do so, wherever they are assigned. If you want to settle elsewhere, such as in the Coreland, then that can be arranged.”
Targul looked at his fellow orcs, and there was some murmuring amongst them. Grundoon was about to tell them that they didn’t have to make that decision right this minute, when Targul held up his hand and turned his attention back to the Governor-General. “We want a place to raise our own livestock. If the men join the army, they are paid for service, yes? But what will our families do? They still need to eat. We want land for our own.”
Grundoon replied, “I’ll take that into advisement, and let you know. What is your second request?”
Targul looked beyond Grundoon, to something, or somebody, behind him. “I want her to be my wife.” He said, holding his arm out and pointing his finger.
Everyone looked to see who he was indicating, and a ripple of laughter began as it was revealed to be none other than Hilde. Her face flushed, and an angry growl emitted from her throat. Those closest to her ceased their mirth immediately.
Grundoon was about to laugh, but turned back to Targul instead, and in a stunned tone told him, “That is up to the Sergeant-Major to decide, but I warn you that she is the sovereign mistress of her destiny. I can’t imagine her father being pleased at her being handed over to a former enemy just to make a rascal feel welcome.”
Targul seemed angered as well. “It is our custom that a leader chooses his wife. I should be allowed to fight her father for the right to marry her!”
Jandle, standing next to Grundoon, said with a laugh, “You better be sure of yourself, to make such a demand without knowing who her father is.” More laughter erupted from the assembled soldiers.
Hilde angrily marched up next to Grundoon and shook her fist at Targul. “You won’t fight my papa!” she growled. “You’ll fight ME! And when you lose, you’ll learn that Slothjemian women aren’t treated like cattle!”
The level of irritation in her voice silenced the laughter. Colonel von Gheistler strode forward, and in his unearthly, terrifying howl of a voice, he declared “It is decided! Tomorrow at dawn, this man will fight Sergeant-Major Hilde von Vorkel for the right to claim her as his wife. Until then, the males of this captive group of warrior age are to be confined in designated locations, and under armed guard.” The death knight stared at Targul, his pinpoints of purple light burning penetratingly, and his voice dropped in volume as he added, “After she kills you, your people will decide their fate, hopefully with more insight and consideration.”
Targul shrank away from the undead colonel, and the rest of the captive orcs did the same, unnerved and horrified by the manifestation before them. The Judicial Corp troops came forward and led the male orcs off to buildings that had been set aside for this purpose. They were divided into four groups, and each had ten guards to keep an eye on them. The women and children were taken to the 2nd Army headquarters to be quartered in the barracks. All were glad to be out of the cold, and anyone eavesdropping on conversations among the orcs that night would have been amused by their wonder at how nice it was to be warm and dry.
At the home of the Governor-General, however, conversations were entirely about Hilde and Targul. Aggrylia and the children had not been there to experience firsthand the awkwardness of the occasion, so Jandle and Grundoon did their best to recreate the embarrassment. Hilde was still annoyed, but her sense of humour allowed her to even now laugh at the silliness of it all. It was her right as the one challenged to pick the weapon, and she had decided on short swords. Her father had laughed so hard at this that tears ran down his cheeks. He had taught his daughter how to fight, but she had picked her weapons. And while everyone knew her as an expert with the hand-and-a-half, or bastard sword, if there was any weapon she was more comfortable with, it was the short sword. The style was completely different, relying on thrusting and stabbing instead of slashing and hacking. So unrelated were the two, that only the most skillful of warriors could use either with equal ease. Hilde, and everyone else who had seen Targul fight before, knew that his weapon of choice was an axe. She was counting on him not knowing the short sword, and if he did, he wouldn’t know it half as well as she did.
In the morning, just as the sun was coming up, it seemed as though the entire city turned out in the city square to watch the Governor-General’s daughter duel with the chief of a defeated orc tribe. By now Targul had learned who her father was, and while he must have been humbled, he still carried himself with dignity. He smirked at Grundoon and gave him a knowing nod. The old orc just grinned.
Soldiers formed a ring in which the two combatants would fight, and everyone crushed against the outside of the ring to get a good view of the fight. Citizens and soldiers alike had climbed nearby rooftops for better vantage points, and plenty of people had brought ladders to lean against buildings to offer more places to watch from. The perks of being the Governor-General meant having a front row view. The perks of being the Governor-General’s squire meant you could quite literally fit between the soldiers making the ring.
Hilde and Targul entered the ring, each wearing their armor, and stood facing each other. He towered over her, easily a foot and a half taller than the woman he sought to claim as his bride, but the fire in her eyes was unmistakable. Jandle trotted out to the middle of the ring and placed two short swords on the ground. He looked at Targul, and the big brute looked a little perplexed. Jandle looked at Hilde, and saw an evil grin run across her face. She stooped, her legs like coiled springs, ready to launch. Targul hunkered down as well, but with less certainty. Jandle retreated to stand near Grundoon.
Grundoon held his own axe aloft, and the crowd fell silent. “WHEN THIS AXE IS LOWERED, THE DUEL BEGINS!” he roared. All eyes fell to the two combatants, and their eyes were on each other, more than the axe in Grundoon’s hand. Time slowed to a standstill in the cold crispness of the morning.
The swooshing of the axe broke the spell, and as it came down, Targul and Hilde lunged for the swords. She got there first and grabbed the nearest blade. With a swift kick, she sent the other blade tumbling out of Targul’s reach. He readjusted his course, but Hilde didn’t stop and wait for him to get the sword. No, she ran into him with her full force, buckled down to deliver the maximum impact. Her left shoulder caught him in the chin, and his teeth cracked together like a bear trap. Holding her sword in her right hand, she twirled away from him to her right side, and drove the steel into his left side, right between where the banded armor overlapped. He yelled in pain as he dove and grabbed his own sword, landing on his belly. Hilde didn’t give him a chance to recover. Like a squat, large-breasted dervish, she sprang forward again, and stabbed her sword into the back of Targul’s thigh before he tried to roll away and get to his feet. Blood began to gush from his wounds, and he kicked at her, catching her in the face. Blood started to roll down her face from her nose and the cut on her lips, and she backed off to get her footing.
Targul rolled up and winced in pain as he sprang to his feet. This girl was going to make him work for victory, that much was evident. The two began to circle each other in the mushy snow mixed with blood. Targul wasn’t sure where to strike, or how. He realized only now that if he wanted to wed this creature, he couldn’t very well kill her. And he wasn’t sure he could even do that if he had to. For her part, Hilde sized up the bloodied man before her. His injured leg was making his movements erratic. She got down into her attack pose again, and then screamed as she ran at him.
Targul was watching the blade in her hand and held out his free hand to prevent her from driving it into his body again. But Hilde had no intention of using the sword this time. With the orc holding her right hand, she drove her left leg upwards in the strongest kick anyone in the crowd had ever seen. Her armored shin connected solidly with his codpiece, and the loud crack of metal, and the look of anguish on Targul’s face, let everyone know which piece of protective clothing had prevailed. His right hand dropped, as he tried to slash at Hilde, but his vision blurred, and it was all he could do to keep ahold of her sword hand. Hilde didn’t resist his hold, but simply reached up and took the sword with her left hand. Targul fell to his knees, and with another scream, Hilde drove the short sword into the orc’s chest, severing several pieces of his armor. Only then did his grasp on her fail, and he toppled forward as she danced out of the way.
Wiping her own blood from her mouth and nose, she spit into the snow by where the orc had landed his face into the sullied snow. “Arrogant, that’s what you are.” She hissed. “You don’t claim a Slothjemian girl. If you are lucky, they claim you.” She stood there for a moment, her adrenaline waning. Targul tried to roll over to his side but was unable to. She began to back away, and seeing he is no longer a threat, she turns and walked victoriously to her father, holding her arms up, and roaring “THAT’S HOW WE DO IT HERE!”
The crowd went absolutely wild. This would never have happened in the days when Romillia ruled this place. Differences between rivals would never have been allowed to become public spectacles. But this was amazing. To top it all off, it also did a better job of recruiting than any poster ever could. Men and women alike wanted to learn how to fight like that. As the crowd began to disperse, they discovered Trangdor had set up a barrel at one edge of the square and was taking signatures of people looking to join the army. “She will be your drill instructor!” he called out in Romillian. “If you want to fight as well as her, join the army! Get paid to have her teach you how to fight!” Most effective campaign ever.
While the good folks who had no other career goals in mind were signing up to join the military, the battered Targul was bundled up and taken to the church to be tended to. His injuries would have been mortal on a battlefield, but here, just steps away from the church and the healing powers of the clerics inside, he would live. The trick was extricating the short sword out of his chest. Out of curiosity more than concern, Grundoon went along with the fallen orc, and stood by as his wounds were cleaned and dressed. The bishop of the city, an older human named Blatzen, asked Grundoon if he wished them to use supernatural healing to speed the orcs recovery. Grundoon shook his head.
“I want his recovery to be painful and long. This is how a lesson is learned.” The Governor-General looked at the bishop. “He isn’t a chieftain, anymore. He is just a Slothjemian. Same as you, same as my daughter, same as any one of us. He has to find his place in this new world. Let him start seeking at the bottom and work his way up.”
The bishop smiled, a warm, reassuring smile. “You are a wise man, my noble lord.” He said and bowed gently.
Grundoon chuckled. “No, but I have my moments.” He muttered under his breath.