Grundoon woke up before the sun rose, and while he knew from experience that sleeping in his armor meant waking up with sore muscles and weary bones, it also meant not wasting precious time getting ready for a fight. He checked to see if Jandle was still asleep, and he was, so he shook the kobold lightly. Jandle woke up and went for his dagger instinctively. Grundoon whispered hoarsely, “Dawn is drawing close. Let’s go see what the enemy has decided.”
The two men walked through the snow past the tents of the Judicial Corp soldiers, lined up neatly and tucked around the trees in this otherwise pretty little grove. A few sentries were about, and they saluted as their overall commander walked by. At the edge of the trees facing the foe, there was something resembling a skirmish line, and roughly a quarter of von Gheistler’s troops were here, watching the castle, eating breakfast, and chatting amongst themselves. Behind them were the ladders that they had been ordered to build for scaling the walls of the castle. They looked strong enough, perhaps not for an ogre or a bugbear, but certainly for an orc or hobgoblin. If they had to go over that wall, it was going to be done right.
Standing alone, staring at the fortifications, was Colonel von Gheistler. He did not sleep, and he did not eat. He just was. His dedication to duty had made him into this, and now his job was to help crack open that castle. His otherwise empty eye sockets burned with bright purple pinpoints of light; all seeing, all watching pinpoints. Nothing escaped his gaze. Grundoon hesitated before he approached the death knight. Grundoon prayed every night that he would never be subjected to von Gheistler’s devotion to duty. Finally, he cleared his throat, and hoped his voice did not waver unduly as he spoke.
“What do you see, Colonel?” he asked, his voice low and gravelly.
The undead warrior continued to stare as he replied. “They have doubtless received our ultimatum, my liege. But they have not taken down their standards, nor have they increased their defenses.” The voice that echoed from the unfathomable depths seemed to issue from the netherworld itself. It wasn’t merely haunting. It was horrifying, disturbing, and dreadful.
Grundoon pulled his heavy woolen greatcoat tighter around himself, and wished that he had a thick, hooded cloak to fend off the cold. “What else has happened during the night?” he asked.
“Very little.” Replied the colonel. “There were attempts made by the kobolds to check for traps, but they were unable to get close to the enemy. Even under the guise of invisibility, they made footprints in the snow, and drew the attention of our opponents. None were killed, but a few were gravely injured. The enemy has some access to firearms; perhaps they have some grenadiers or hussars among their ranks. They do not do great damage when used, but it doesn’t take much to kill a kobold.”
Jandle shifted his weight uncomfortably. Grundoon felt a frown cross his own face as he said “We may as well assume they have traps around that place to discourage any onslaught. We’ll have to figure a way around that.” He stared at the enemy defenses for a few minutes, saying nothing. This would not be an easy task if he wanted to avoid casualties.
Grundoon turned and went back to the sleighs. Jandle followed along, and the Governor-General appeared to be lost in thought. He woke up his daughter and told her to get ready. She, like her father, was already prepared for a fight. All she had to do was throw on her back scabbard and sheath her bastard sword, and then she rubbed her eyes and followed her father as he went to the next sleigh to wake up Kreg, Targul, and the other three orcs. Trangdor was allowed to snooze. Nothing that was going to transpire first thing this morning would require the services of a dwarven sage.
Addressing Targul and his friends, Grundoon said “There might be some weapons and armor lying about that you can use but be sure you ask before you borrow anything. Once we bust through that castle, you can help yourself to whatever weapons and armor the enemy has, but for now you’ll have to settle with a temporary loan.” He paused, and then asked, “Any suggestions for getting around a battlefield filled with traps?”
Zerxen looked at Grundoon curiously, and said “What sort of traps?”
Grundoon laughed. “Does it matter? Pits, snare wires, who knows what these people employ. They may have some sort of dwarven booby-trap that we’ve never even heard of.”
Zerxen smiled evilly. “So, ground traps, then. Something buried just below the surface.”
Grundoon looked at him quizzically. Hilde yawned, and she said “I would think that is the problem, yes. Lightly buried manglers and such.”
Zerxen laughed, and slapped Reskinn on the back. “Our aspiring witchdoctor here can fix that for you. He hasn’t had a lot of formal training, but I know for a fact that he can ripple the ground just fine.”
Everyone, even Targul and Werdel, looked at Reskinn in surprise. Grundoon asked “Do what to the what now?”
Reskinn’s face flushed a deeper dark green, and he said “Yes, I can do that. But it might not work. I’ve never attempted anything of this scale before.”
Zerxen grabbed the young witchdoctor’s shoulder with his gnarled, old hand, and said to him “You can do this. This is an easy trick. The only thing this has ever been used for in our tribe is to loosen soil for farming, and we haven’t needed to do that for generations. This is your chance to use a peaceful incantation to further a battlefield cause. Come, we’ll study the landscape. Let’s get a feel for the ground and see what you can do.”
Reskinn wasn’t entirely on board with the plan, but he followed the elder orc to the tree line. Grundoon shrugged his shoulders, and said “Ok then, let’s try and come up with a second plan if whatever they do fails to clear the area for an assault. Let’s go see what the Red Guard have prepared. The sun should be up soon, and we want to be ready for anything this day has to offer.”
Targul and Werdel went along with Grundoon and his entourage. The Red Guard were more likely to have equipment they could borrow, plus they wanted to see those dragons again. Jandle led the way this time, and the party moved through the trees in a sweeping arc to where General von Unster-Kol had set up one of his camps. There was a second camp to the north, and the dragons were in between the two, carefully hidden behind the trees and away from prying, or scrying, eyes.
The skirmish line here was in much better shape, but then these were hardened veterans, and they knew what to do and how to fight. All of the soldiers were either already in place right inside the edge of the forest or were suiting up for combat. Targul and Werdel immediately went asking if there was anyone willing to lend them an axe or a sword, and perhaps a shield to go with it. Grundoon headed straight for Argrowl’s tent. The general had just finished getting his armor on and was giving orders to his senior staff in readiness for battle.
He saluted Grundoon as the Governor-General approached, and Grundoon returned it sharply. “Good morning, sir. The chaplains are in position, and my senior-most conjuror is ready to proceed. The dragonriders have their orders, and all of them know what targets to hit. We are just awaiting your orders.”
Grundoon took a deep breath, and then said “It is up to our opponent then. Let’s go see if they want a fight.”
Trailed by a handful of junior officers, they went up to the edge of the forest. The castle was a little further away here than from where the Judicial Corp was settled in, but the view was about the same. The castle lay directly to the west of here. Every eye was on the fluttering banners over the castle as the armies waited for the sun to come up.
It seemed to take hours, but it wasn’t more than twenty minutes before the sky began to turn from deepest, darkest blue to streaks of red across ever lightening shades of blue. Clouds hung lazily in the air, orange and magenta colors splashed across them to herald the new day. Far below the celestial light show, the banners of the enemy continued to flap about in the morning breeze. Grundoon sighed. The decision had been made.