The four soldiers quickly bundled up their tarpaulins and saddled their horses. Unlike the uniforms of regular soldiers, theirs had purple trim instead of red. They were not as heavily trained for combat duty as regular troops, but they were terribly motivated, and passionately loyal. It only took a few minutes for them to be ready to travel, and they headed off up the road that left the main highway. Grundoon and his party climbed back into the sleighs, quickly catching up to the riders.
Trangdor handed out food in his sleigh, and Cloe did the same in hers. The road reminded Grundoon of the trail that led to the estate of Shr Gelbrand. Along the way were a number of other manors, all of them in ruins. The soldiers pointed them out as they went. The corporal explained to Grundoon that the Judicial Corp has investigated all of them and found them abandoned. It was the belief of Colonel von Gheistler that the lords of these lands had not fled Romilmark but had rallied to the north as an armed rebellion in the making. Rather than let the Slothjemians take control of their properties, they had destroyed them.
The corporal rode his horse alongside the Governor-General’s sleigh while he talked. Grundoon thought the theory made a great deal of sense. When the Slothjemians had counter-attacked, they had kept to the main roads in order to strike at the three major cities of the region. The war, in other words, had never made its way up this route. All devastation here had to have come from another source.
The terrain here was interesting to Grundoon. There were plenty of trees, but not heavily forested patches, more like large groves. The land was one of rolling hills, with little creeks that flowed towards the pass into Dreicounty, the lowest point of Romilmark. The entire watershed exited to this point just southwest of where the party was now travelling. This was prime grazing land, but there were few domesticated animals to be seen. It was as if this entire county had been evacuated.
When the sleighs arrived at the main encampment, tucked away in an oak grove on a small hill, they were greeted by Colonel von Gheistler. Grundoon knew the death knight had much to discuss, and the sun began to set quickly behind the western alps. The undead warrior took the Governor-General on a quick tour of the camp, and led him to the edge of the trees, looking northward. He pointed his gauntleted hand, and said in his deep, unearthly voice, “There, my lord. That is where our enemies have entrenched themselves.”
The Governor-General looked out at the scene before him. To the left, the west side of the landscape, were the alpine mountains that descended steeply to a series of rocky, jagged foothills, which turned into the rolling plain that extended across the field of vision to the north and east, which was to Grundoon’s right. In the shadow of the mountains, to the west, was a heavily fortified structure unlike anything Grundoon had ever seen. The castle-like construction sat on a very defensible rocky crag, with a commanding view of everything around it. The ridge it was sitting on ran up to meet the mountains behind it, making any approach from that direction extremely difficult.
Grundoon tried to disguise his admiration for this defensive position, but his voice gave it away. “What in the devil is this place?” he asked.
There was a sinister whistle from the bottomless reaches within the death knight. “It is a gold mine, your lordship. It is the nearly impregnable entrance to what is called the Peklender vein. It has been in decline for a number of years but has been an active industry for over three hundred years.”
Grundoon let out a low whistle. “Who owns it?”
Von Gheistler replied in his haunted, groaning manner. “The Count of Pek-Shtandern, my lord. I believe the family name is Halindeen. One of four counts who ruled this domain when it belonged to Romillia. The current lord of this land would seem to be against our claim of sovereignty.”
Grundoon looked at the death knight. “How do you already know so much?” he asked incredulously.
There was a sort of vile, sickening laughter echoing in the colonel’s armor. “We caught a couple of their sentries here in this little grove. They provided us with a great deal of information.”
Grundoon chuckled. “Very nicely done, colonel. Where is the Red Guard?”
The undead colonel pointed his gauntleted finger to the northeast, towards a forested area a mile or so away that curved up to the northwest for several miles. “They are taking up position there, as you ordered. They have brought up the dragons and have them quartered somewhere behind those trees.”
The old orc turned his attention back to the strongly defended mine. He could see a massive, round keep on the western side of the castle, and a series of thick, square towers all around the perimeter. From this distance, perhaps a quarter of a mile or more, it was clear that the square towers had been armed to fend off all manner of attacks. There were trebuchets on some, smaller catapults on others, and on at least half were massive machines resembling ballistae, probably to strike against any airborne marauders. The great, cylindrical keep had a dome over the topmost portion, a curious fact that raised questions in Grundoon’s mind. This was prime space for defenses and having a dome over it didn’t make any sense. He turned to Jandle, and said “Find me a spyglass, and quick. I need to see that keep up close.”
The sun was behind the mountains already, splashing the sky with bright orange and red streaks. Soon the natural light would be gone altogether, but fortunately Jandle located a glass and brought it to the baron, so he could get a quick glimpse of the keep. Grundoon looked as long as he could.
Handing the spyglass back to Jandle, he said, to nobody in particular, “They have bombards in that keep. I don’t know how many, but those big round windows are a dead giveaway.” He pointed to the ground just beyond the tree line, and everyone nearby followed his gaze. “There, the second clue. See those outlines, under the snow? Look like large, raised rings in the turf?”
Jandle whispered “Craters!” and looked up at his master.
“Exactly.” Replied Grundoon. They must have, at some point recently, tested those bombards. They can reach all the way out here. An impressive range considering the weapons are not mounted very high. We’ll have to be careful how we plan our attack.”
The Judicial Corp soldiers were not standard field troops and were not as heavily armed or armored as the regular army they were assigned to. They would not be expected to lead any assault. That would fall to the Red Guard, who were even better trained and equipped than any normal Slothjemian military unit. Grundoon would need to find out what General von Unster-Kol thought of this situation before he decided on a course of action.
He turned to the colonel, and asked “Do you have somebody that you can send to the Red Guards to arrange a meeting with Argrowl?”
The death knight nodded his head and motioned with his hand. A goblin wearing a private’s uniform came running up, saluting. Grundoon looked down at the goblin, and said “Go find the Red Guards, stay in the trees as much as possible. Tell them that I want to meet with General von Unster-Kol where our forces meet, right over there.” He pointed to the other grove. “I’ll be there in about an hour, I am going to eat first.”
The goblin saluted again and scampered off through the snow. The Governor-General and his entourage had dinner with the Judicial Corp soldiers, and Targul and his companions had a good time chatting with the goblinoids in the detachment. When they had finished eating, Grundoon took Jandle and Hilde with him to meet with the death knight and the commander of the Red Guard. The Governor-General told Kreg to keep an eye on their orcish guests, and the half-hobgoblin just leered awkwardly and adjusted his grip on his halberd. Grundoon never knew if Kreg heard him correctly, or understood what was being told to him, but he just let it go and set out to meet with his officers.
The undead colonel was already at the meeting place, and so was the jorish Red Guard commander. The moon had not yet come up, but the stars provided a calm backdrop to the council discussion. Grundoon said hello to them both and began by saying “I wasn’t expecting a full-blown castle with complete defenses. The impression I got was that this was a temporary encampment.” He paused. “Any suggestions as to how we should proceed?”
Argrowl was the first to respond. “We knew about the fortified mine entrance but hadn’t made a close enough reconnaissance of the place to know it could be used to protect that many people. There were makeshift tent houses all around the outside, and that was where our first definition of this place came from. But that castle is big enough to give us a good fight should we assault it, and if the mine connects to the underdark in any significant way, then our prey might just slip away only to pop up in another location if we lay siege.”
Colonel von Gheistler stood silently, offering no further insights. Grundoon looked towards the castle. From here, it looked as though the approach to the castle was guaranteed to create massive casualties among anyone trying to attack. The old orc said “We have to assume that the area around the place is heavily trapped, to make any attack even more troublesome. Round up as many kobolds as you can find, tell them to get ready if we need scouts to ferret out any traps or hindrances to our forward movement. Argrowl, you already have your dragons close by?” the jor nodded his head. “Very good. We may need to employ them. I hate to risk them, but that place may get us all killed if I don’t.”
Grundoon turned again to von Gheistler. “Do you still have any prisoners from the men you captured here on guard duty?”
The colonel nodded his helmeted head. “Yes, my liege. What is your command?”
Grundoon smiled. “Set one of them loose and tell him to relay a message to whoever is in that castle. Tell them to lower their flags at dawn if they wish to surrender. If those flags are still flying after sunrise, we will take that as a signal they wish to fight.”
The colonel saluted and moved with eerie silence to carry out the Governor-General’s orders. He swept noiselessly on his path, and people moved to be clear of him. He radiated fear, and the effect was particularly keen among those less experienced in the difficulties that life had to offer. Grundoon could honestly say that he was not afraid of von Gheistler, at least not in the same way his enlisted men were. But he found the undead colonel to be unsettling. It was to everyone’s benefit that the men the Judicial Corp had taken prisoner were horrified by the death knight. Any one of them would do precisely what von Gheistler commanded them to do out of sheer, unadulterated fear.
Grundoon turned his attention to Argrowl and asked about what sort of spellcasters the Red Guards had on hand and what their capabilities were. This was a fast-moving field army, designed by the Herzgraf to be a rapid response force. This meant they did not have artillery of any kind, and taking down a fortification would rely on magic, cunning, and trickery. The two men discussed their available resources, and a couple of soldiers were dispatched to round up some of the more vital officers so that the generals could go over the plans for the next morning in detail. Most everyone would have a role to play, even the Judicial Corp, who were wholly unprepared for this sort of fighting. The night was calm, the moon rose and lit the castle with eerie shadows.
Time was slipping by, and after making sure that everyone understood their orders, Grundoon returned to the sleighs and settled in for a few hours of sleep. Jandle reported to him, just before the Governor-General dozed off, that the released prisoner had made it back to the besieged gold mine. Grundoon nodded his head. The dawn would tell them if they were to fight or not.