Dawn discovered Brakoff cold, but the sky was clear. The only clouds to be seen were hovering around the peaks south of the city. Kreg had readied the sleighs, and the party had gathered for their next adventure. Trangdor was going along, just in case there were people to talk with, and notes to be taken. Hilde was driving one of the sleighs, and Porger and Cloe were tagging along to show off their new armor, and to see firsthand an army operating in the field. Jandle would have to use his minor magical abilities to keep warm, because like other reptilian races, kobolds didn’t do well in the cold; but with magic and the proper clothing, he would be functional. Grundoon kissed Aggrylia goodbye, and gave the toddlers a kiss too, then climbed into one of the sleighs so that the group could collect Targul, and whoever he selected to go along with him.
Their first stop, however, was at the old mill that was now the home of Hammerclaw Iron & Millworks. Grundoon went in, and only stayed a few minutes before returning to the sleighs. He smiled and told Hilde to go ahead and continue on into Brakoff.
The city was still waking up and getting started when the sleighs pulled in front of the 2nd Army Headquarters. Targul and three other orcish men, bundled up in fur and leather armor, climbed into the sleighs. Targul chose to ride with Grundoon in the sleigh driven by Hilde, and the other three were going to ride in Kreg’s sleigh with Jandle and Trangdor. The dwarf smiled uneasily as the orcs settled in, and Jandle snickered at his discomfort. The orcish language they spoke was so very close to Slothjemian that everyone could talk with ease, and to each other’s ears they just seemed to have an odd accent.
As the sleighs began to head out of town, Cloe, who was staring at Targul, was the first to speak. “So my sister really kicked your butt, huh?” she said, very matter-of-factly. Porger put his hand over his own mouth to stifle the laughter.
Targul shifted uncomfortably in the seat and chuckled nervously. “Yes, she did. I underestimated her. And your father. I am working on not doing that.” Grundoon chuckled and glanced over at the orc sitting next to him.
Cloe didn’t smile, just kept looking at Targul. “We’ve almost killed you twice, now. You’re pretty brave to go with us anywhere.” Her tone was impossible to figure out, was she being sarcastic? Was this a child with a wicked sense of humour? Targul wasn’t sure what to make of it, so he narrowed his gaze, and stared back at her.
“I might not have done well against dwarves, and everyone knows I didn’t do well against your sister, but I could take you in battle.” He said, trying to sound fierce.
Cloe just stared at him. “Probably. But I’m too young to get married.”
Hilde laughed so loudly, and with such gusto, that she startled the horses. Grundoon howled with deep belly fills of laughter. Porger screamed and cackled as if he had just watched somebody get kicked in the groin. And Targul felt as if he had, in fact, been kicked in the groin. His face flushed with embarrassment, his olive drab colored skin darkening as he fidgeted awkwardly. Finally, he had to give up, and laugh with the rest of them.
Targul turned to Grundoon and said to him, “Sir, I apologize. I have behaved badly. I wanted to make a better second impression than I did the first, and I failed. I have the greatest respect for you and your family and would like to learn more about your clan. I should like very much to be a part of it.”
The Governor-General, tears running down his face from laughter, stopped his levity long enough to wipe his cheeks with a gloved hand and he met Targul’s eyes. “There is much to learn, Targul. Our culture is in some ways the same as what you grew up with, but in most ways, it is completely alien. You were an important man, and now you are just a guy trying to figure out what is going on. Listen more, watch, and do not rush to speak. Your lessons in being Slothjemian, a member of the Clan of the Midnight Skull, they begin today.” Then, Grundoon went back to laughing. He hadn’t realized how hilarious Cloe was. Sharp wit, that kid. She was already turning into a spitfire, and someday she would be amazing without rival. Cloe was just smiling at Targul, a wicked sort of thin smile that made Grundoon laugh even more. She had eviscerated a proud man, reduced him in humiliation, and was now savoring her victory. Grundoon was so proud he was about to burst.
Trangdor and the others in the second sled were very curious as to what the laughter was about. He decided to introduce himself to the orcs and break the ice. “My name is Trangdor.” He said. “I work for the Governor-General.”
The three orcs sat across from him and remained emotionless. Jandle laughed and said “And now you tell us your names. That’s how this works.” Trangdor wasn’t sure if he was supposed to laugh or not, but it was funny, so he smiled at the orcs.
The orc in the middle, young and with a jagged scar across his right cheek, smiled and laughed a little. “I am Werdel, one of Balthor’s nephews.” This was a reference to the orc chieftain that Grundoon had killed on the mountaintop.
The orc on Werdel’s left side, middle-aged and with long, braided hair, didn’t smile, but said in a monotone voice “My name is Reskinn. I am Targul’s brother-in-law. I was training to be the next witchdoctor.” Trangdor nodded appreciably and made a little “oh” sound to illustrate his admiration for the man’s chosen profession.
All attention turned to the oldest orc, a gray-haired man who had most of his hair in a long braid, and had a milky white cataract in his left eye. His voice was weak, and hoarse. By all estimations a man his age should have been dead a long time ago. Orcs didn’t live much past forty in the kinds of circumstances that these orcs lived in. He looked at Jandle, and said “I am called Zerxen, and I am the eldest of my tribe. Targul is my great-nephew, as was Balthor.” He looked at Trangdor, then back at Jandle. “I am having trouble adapting to life around non-goblinoids. It is uncomfortable for me.” He then turned his attention to the passing scenery.
Reskinn said, in his flat, expressionless way, “Where are we going?”
Trangdor smiled and said, “Not sure, actually.”
The dwarf turned around and asked Kreg, “Hey, where are we going?”
With his usual leering grin, Kreg just pointed at the sleigh in front of them. Either he didn’t know or was just being coy. Ignorance was the more likely reason.
Trangdor turned back around and settled into his seat. He looked at Jandle, and asked “Say, do you have a deck of cards?”
Jandle reached into his ever-present satchel and pulled out a deck of well-worn playing cards and handed them to the dwarf.
Trangdor took them happily and looked at the orcs. “Would you fellows like to play a card game?” he asked cheerily.
The orcs all looked at each other in disbelief, and then back at Trangdor. “Sure!” they replied in unison.
“Jandle, can you keep score for us, too?” asked Trangdor.
The kobold happily exclaimed “Of course!” and took out a small pad of paper from his satchel, along with a pencil. It wasn’t easy to write the names of everyone while the sleigh bounced along, but he got the job done. Trangdor shuffled the cards, something he was astonishingly good at for having such short fingers and dealt the cards to the others and himself. The five of them then settled in, and for the next several hours had a terrific time playing a variety of games. They also learned a great deal about each other; Reskinn often tried to cheat, Zerxen tended to quibble about points, and Werdel was a surprisingly gracious loser. They in turn learned that Trangdor was tough to beat, but never gloated or made his winning seem onerous to the others. They also learned that any attempt to cheat was swiftly noticed by Jandle, who seemed to have his eyes on everything all the time. This wasn’t a revelation if you understood the nature of a Slothjemian squire, but to those unfamiliar with the concept, it kept them off-balance.
After the laughter died down in the Governor-General’s sleigh, Grundoon got down to discussing the itinerary with his guest. “Our first stop is Castle Linkristle. I need to make some arrangements there before we inspect the area I propose for your people to settle in. If it meets with your approval, then we will get things started so your families can begin rebuilding their lives. If it doesn’t, then we’ll keep looking.”
Targul nodded his head thoughtfully and said quietly “This is a very different life than what we know. We lived on scraps, on what we could take, fighting against the elements and other people just to make it to another day. You have so much. How can you be this rich and still be a fighter? Why are you not soft and weak from excess?”
An odd question, but Grundoon considered it before he answered. “I have different struggles than you. No more daunting, no less threatening. Different. I would not choose to trade my struggle for yours, because I know mine. You will find new challenges in this new way of life. How quickly can you adapt, for a start. A new power structure, new commerce, new neighbors. I don’t see you as an enemy any more than I do the dwarf in the other sleigh. But that isn’t to say there are no enemies here, in this region. You must select them carefully and allow yourself to become allies with the rest. That is the essence of the Clan of the Midnight Skull. Cooperation not for survival, but to thrive and conquer. This is how we do things. We take the strengths to minimalize the weaknesses and go ever forward.”
The sat quietly for a long while. Targul broke the silence by saying, to nobody in particular, “You use different words that I am accustomed to. And a lot more of them.”
“You’ll get used to that.” Said Porger with a grin. “And pretty soon you’ll wonder how you ever made it without them.”
Cloe added, with a smirk, “If you’re still alive.”
Targul asked a lot of questions as the sleigh made it way up the snowy mountains to the majestic dwarven castle. Grundoon was patient, almost supernaturally so, as he tackled each inquiry, making sure that the orc understood every answer. Topics included how citizens did military service, how much did livestock cost, what were taxes and why did they have to be paid, why law enforcement did what they did, instead of the people just taking care of troublemakers themselves, and why women were treated almost as equals in most every regard. This last topic caught Hilde and Cloe’s interest, and they jumped in with alarming passion. It was going to be more difficult for Targul and his group to adapt to the social differences in their new home, than in paying taxes and raising cattle.
The orc was properly awestruck when the travelers were first able to lay eyes on Castle Linkristle. The ramshackle natural elements of the orcish encampment on the mountaintop were one thing, and this was something completely different. Smooth, thick walls with battlements, massive squat towers to afford defenders the maximum in combat readiness, and the great round keep rising up majestically with a view of most of Romilmark. The Slothjemian flag, and as Grundoon had ordered, the Velferin family ensign, flew from every tower. At a distance the place was remarkable, but as they drew closer, the only reaction Targul could muster was dumbstruck amazement.
Grundoon of course noticed this and used it to full effect. He said to Targul, “This is what our discipline can do. We can build, or capture, the greatest fortresses in all of the continent. Cooperation and planning make this possible. We are not just orcs; not anymore. We are humans, dwarves, ogres and bugbears, and even elves. Not everyone can overcome their bias and hatred, but those that can will find themselves taking part in great things.” He let the words sink in as Targul stared, open-mouthed, at the beauty and power of this castle.
The trees were beginning to lose their snowy covering, and all along the roadway there was the steady plopping of wet, melting snow into the snow around the base of the trees. As the sleighs drew closer to the castle, soldiers could be seen on the battlements. The gates were opened, and the party slid in to the great central courtyard. Jandle pointed to the gate that, on their last visit, had been broken and wedged shut, and now it had been fully repaired. Grundoon nodded his head and took a quick look around. The garrison of Red Guards here had done a good job. From out here everything looked exactly as he had wanted it to.
Dornald, the one-eyed dwarven caretaker, and the officer in charge, a human captain, came out of the tower that Dornald called home to greet the Governor-General. The officer saluted, and Grundoon returned the gesture. The captain said, “Welcome to Castle Linkristle, my lord. I am Captain Shr Cristan Daorbel, at your service.” He bowed deeply, and Dornald stepped forward.
The dwarf smiled and said something. Trangdor translated it. “Welcome back, sir. Will you be staying long?”
Grundoon chuckled. “No, I am afraid not. Just have to take care of some business for the Empire, and then hit the trail in the morning.” Trangdor relayed the sentiment and began chatting with Dornald. Grundoon motioned for the captain to follow him, and he set out for the keep. He also motioned for Hilde and Jandle, and as he passed by the sleigh Grundoon told Targul and his companions to wait here for the time being. They nodded in agreement and gathered up their meager belongings.
Once they were safely out of earshot of the orcs and the caretaker, Grundoon lowered his voice. “Captain Daorbel, you have two or three days to turn the dungeons of this castle into a proper prison. I asked my friend, Storg Hammerclaw, to come up here and do the labor with his crew. They arrive tomorrow.” Grundoon went into the keep and made his way down into the catacombs. He kept talking as he walked, and the captain made sure he caught every word. “The Red Guards and the Judicial Corp will be conducting an operation due northwest of here. They are going to be rounding up the renegades that have been running amok since we arrived in Romilmark. I don’t know how many will survive to be imprisoned, but any that do will need to be held securely. This castle is the best place for that job. Dornald showed me the vast basements in this dwarven palace, and they are perfect for what we need. You need to map out where Storg and his crew need to build barricades and figure out the easiest way to lock up a few hundred ruffians to keep them from ever being a problem again.”
Grundoon stopped and turned to face the captain. Hilde and Jandle huddled in close in the tight, underground hallway. The Governor-General lowered his voice even further. “Be very clear, captain. We are not holding these rogues for trial, only for execution. You are not being asked to keep them alive. You are being asked to keep them secure. Do you understand?”
The captain smiled in a sinister fashion, and whispered “I do, my lord. I shall insure that their corpses are chained to the walls if necessary.”
Grundoon chuckled quietly. “Exactly what I had in mind. You are well on your way, captain, to a long and prosperous career. Come on, let’s take a look at some of these basements.”
After a solid inspection, Grundoon and Captain Daorbel decided where best to house the prisoners. The captain understood his role perfectly, and he quietly informed his little garrison one at a time about the guests the castle would soon be hosting. Grundoon rejoined the rest of his party, and Dornald showed them to one of the towers where they could bed down for the night. Hilde and Cloe had their own room, and everyone else made themselves comfortable in the main room. Jandle and Trangdor made a fire in the fireplace and began making dinner. Grundoon gave Targul and his friends a short tour of the castle. The orcs were most impressed by the dragons and their riders who were operating from the castle in support of the developing military activity in the northwest. The orcs didn’t say what they were thinking, but all of them recognized now the futility of them ever having stood against this kind of power. These were not Romillians, content with chasing them off their lands, but never hunting them down. These were Slothjemians, who smashed all opposition with fury and passion.
And now they, too, were Slothjemians.