An Applewood Gallows; Chapter 23

The prisoner was led into the temporary courtroom, down the aisle between the rows of benches, upon which sat the von Vorkel family, their servants, the residents of Vorkelvale, and the handful of officers from the garrison that had been allowed to attend. Everyone watched as the baron walked as proudly as circumstances allowed to his assigned place on the bench at the table on the left, in the front of the room, seated between Rackerby and Dellila. At the other table sat Lieutenant Kinchler, and the four orcs in her squad.

Hilde and Oskar had found seats on the first bench behind their father, and Aggrylia sat with them. There was only a hint of murmured conversation in the room, and that fell to a dead silence when the Lord Executioner entered the hall. He walked down the aisle, carrying a black walking stick with a large silver sphere on the head. At the end of the aisle, he turned, and faced the gathered throng.

Lord Bardishe tapped the walking stick on the ground three times, and with tremendous force. In a booming voice, he declared, “HEAR YE, HEAR YE! THE ROYAL COURT OF HER MAJESTY, QUEEN REICHSHA, EMPRESS OF SLOTHJEMIA, IS NOW IN SESSION! STAND FOR THE QUEEN!”

The assemblage stood and faced the door of the dining hall as Reichsha entered. Her dress was black with silver embellishments, and on her left hand she wore the gauntlet of her forefathers. She also wore a flowing black cape with a collar turned up against the cold air. The Queen strode down the aisle, followed by her husband, who had the Queen’s sword sheathed on his back. When the Queen sat down on her makeshift throne, the Herzgraf took the walking stick from the Lord Executioner, and the two men moved to their positions behind their monarch; the Herzgraf to the Queen’s right side, and Lord Bardishe to her left. The Queen waited for everyone to sit, and then the Herzgraf handed her the walking stick. Holding it in her gauntleted hand, Reichsha tapped the walking stick on the bricks her chair was perched on.

“Who represents my interests in this case?” the Queen asked.

Cairn stood up and bowed. “Lieutenant Kinchler, your majesty, of the Judicial Corps.”

“Who represents the accused in this case?” the Queen asked.

Rackerby stood up, and also bowed. “Rackerby von Slothjem, your majesty. I am the legal counsel for Baron Shr Grundoon von Vorkel in this matter.”

“Are both parties ready to proceed with this inquiry?” Reichsha asked, her gaze shifting between the two people standing before her.

Replying in unison, Rackerby and Cairn said, “We are, your Majesty.”

Reichsha nodded to Rackerby, and the attorney sat down. Looking back to the lieutenant, the Queen asked, “What are the charges being leveled at the accused?”

Lieutenant Kinchler said in a clear, even voice, “Baron Shr Grundoon von Vorkel has been accused of murdering Major Karl Hossler, of hiding the particulars of this crime, and engaging in a conspiracy to cover it up.”

Looking back to Rackerby, the Queen asked, “How does the accused face these charges?”

Standing back up, Rackerby looked at his client. Grundoon returned his gaze and nodded his head slowly. Rackerby then looked at the Queen, and said, “He admits his guilt, your majesty, and wishes to plead for your mercy.”

The silence in the room was deafening. Reichsha sat, looking at the two people standing before her, and then at Grundoon, who sat with his hands folded on the table in front of him. Finally, she looked back to Lieutenant Kinchler, and asked, “Does the Judicial Corps wish to speak to the importance of this case?”

The shadow elf looked at Grundoon, and then back to the Queen. “The accused is well aware of the evidence gathered by my department, and the notes we have provided your Majesty in this case speak for themselves. Nothing more can be said to further clarify the vile wickedness of this crime, as can be attested to by the fact that the accused recognizes and accepts his guilt.”

Looking back to Rackerby, the Queen asked, “Are you ready to present a case for leniency, counselor?”

Rackerby took a breath, and replied, “I am, your Majesty.”

The Queen glanced at Lieutenant Kinchler, and with a nod of her head, indicated the officer could be seated now. Cairn sat down and prepared to listen as Rackerby began his defense of Baron von Vorkel. The Queen looked to Rackerby, and said simply, “You may begin, counselor.”

Stepping away from the bench and table, and walking to the area in front of the tables so that he could address the Queen with more ease, Rackerby took one last look at Grundoon. He smiled slightly and winked at Dellila. Turning to face his distant cousin, Reichsha, the jor held his hands to his side, and began to speak. Ever mindful of his tone, his voice was a weapon that he had hoped to perfection. This was his kind of battlefield.

“Some twenty-four years ago, Grundoon was just a young general in your Majesty’s service. Given command of a new and untested army, he was given the task of driving Frenklar the Brazen out of Vilhelmia. Supported by other military units to the north, Grundoon spearheaded this war from the very front of his command. His courage under the difficult conditions of this campaign was indisputable, and his army drove the undead from one battlefield to the next. The culmination of this struggle was the assault on this very citadel, a fetid and diseased center of unspeakable evil. Cornering the lich lord in his keep, Grundoon and his soldiers dispatched it to an unholy and eternal demise, securing for Slothjemia one of the largest parcels of land it has ever gained from a single conquest.”

Rackerby motioned to his client but kept his eyes on the Queen as he continued. “In the wake of that victory, you awarded to Grundoon the title of Baron over the little wedge of land called Vorkelvale. You knighted him as a member of the County Brotherhood, and you gave his army permanent residence here at Vorkelburg to keep a wary eye on the activities of the undead that prowl restlessly on the other side of the Dolonau River. You knew his courage, and his determination to do what was right, and for twenty-some years he was left here to do what few men would have volunteered to do; keep watch over a forgotten corner of the empire.”

Pausing for effect, Rackerby held his jaw in such a way to indicate deep thought, and his tone was changed somewhat to reflect this as he continued. “Then, a well-meaning directive from somewhere higher up in the chain of command was issued. We don’t know who decided it, or how it was originally articulated, but somehow the message was intended for Grundoon to consider retirement. This is understandable. He is a man of advanced years, and while he had performed his job admirably, it is not unreasonable to expect him to stand down and permit another officer to take his place. Undoubtedly, had this idea been presented differently, we may very well have avoided this unpleasantness. But such was not the case. In a moment of weakness, of selfish pride, Grundoon reacted the way most any warrior would to the suggestion that his services were no longer needed. He was not correct in his actions, make no mistake of that, and it is not our intention to suggest otherwise. What he did was wrong. His crime is serious. But this is no ordinary soldier on trial. This man was synonymous with the 6th Army. Vorkelburg is what it is because of him. No other person in New Vilhelmia can lay claim to how this Grafdom was crafted than he. While his rage was unarguably misplaced, one can hardly be surprised by it.”

Careful to not oversell this aspect of his argument, Rackerby softened his voice again, and went on with his presentation. “But having done what he did, having killed Karl Hossler, Grundoon then displayed for the first time a streak of cowardice. He did not admit immediately what he had done and take his punishment right then and there. Instead, he allowed an officer under his command to cover it up, and to that, he again showed cowardice. He admitted his crime when confronted, as has been noted in the confession of Major Deckler. But such was the persona of the accused, that even his senior officers could not bring themselves to do the right and just thing. To them, he was more than a general. He was an institution, a revered being that stood as an embodiment of all things Slothjemian in this forsaken corner of the realm. Flawed though he was, and is, they could not see beyond their devotion to him to see the folly of their criminal complicity.”

It was impossible for Rackerby to determine how his defense was being received by the Queen, and normally he had an excellent knack for knowing how judges were reacting. It was unsettling to the seasoned attorney, but he pressed ahead with his presentation. “Perhaps it was the correct thing to remove Grundoon from his post, and time for him to retire from army life. Had he done so, however, it is unlikely that we would have been given the stunning victory that the 6th Army delivered at Garvin’s Gap. And while it is not lost on us that breaking the rules is why he even turned up there at all with his army, and it is the breaking of rules that has landed us here today, we beg your Majesty’s indulgence that there are times when laws must be bent in order for the greater good to flourish. And while the murder of a fellow officer is never in the interest of the greater good, it was never the intention of Grundoon to leave the murdered man’s family destitute as a result of his crime. He provided for the widow, mother, and child of the deceased by anonymous donations, and gave the dead man’s heir a title and estate in the newly acquired lands of Romilmark, a gift that has paid off even more handsomely than intended. While the accused hoped to be forgotten, he in no way desired the same to befall the family of the man he killed.”

“In conclusion, it is our hope that the financial and material reparations already provided, and the character and achievements of the accused before this heinous act of angry violence occurred, can be weighed in his favor. We accept your judgement as fair and righteous, oh Queen. May the justice that you deliver be tempered with compassion for those that have long served you, flawed and temperamental though they be in their old age.”

With that, Rackerby bowed to the Queen, and stepped back behind his table, and sat down. The Queen drew a long breath and tapped the fingers of her gauntleted hand on the arm of her chair. Without rising from her seat, Reichsha said in a somewhat subdued tone, “Clear the court of all except the accused. I wish to address him privately.” The confused gathering of people began to stand, and make their way to the exit, when Reichsha added, “Lord Bardishe, you will remain as well.”

The Lord Executioner stood his ground, and everyone else, including the Herzgraf, made their way from the room. The last to leave were the Phantom Legion guards, and they closed the doors behind them, and silence descended on the vast room. The effect was unsettling, and Grundoon could hear himself breathing.

Reichsha stood and stepped down to the area in which Rackerby has been speaking. Facing Grundoon when she spoke, she did so slowly and deliberately. Her voice carried throughout the hall, and while it was not loud, Grundoon had no difficulty hearing her, or understanding her.

“You will stand at attention, Baron, and you will not speak. You will listen to what I have to say, and when I tell you to leave, you will leave. I do not care to hear what thoughts are on your mind, or concerns that trouble your soul. You have done evil, and you will pay for it. Nod your head if you understand me.”

The old orc nodded his head, and stood rigidly at attention, as if he was once again a recruit falling into formation for the first time.

Reichsha paced a little as she talked, but she never took her eyes off of her former general. He dared not meet her gaze, so Grundoon picked a spot on the wall just above Bardishe’s head and stared at it.

“I have the most powerful army south of Geldenreich, and north of the Torkan Caliphates. Do you know why it is so strong?” Reichsha asked, not wanting or expecting an answer. “Because of our discipline, and our anger.” She stared at Grundoon. He could tell she was vexed from her tone. “You violated that discipline and indulged your anger. And you have enraged me, Baron. You have infuriated me to the utmost, and if it wasn’t for the persuasive arguments of your lawyer, I would have Bardishe sever your head this very moment for your crimes.”

The Queen continued pacing, her voice sharp as a carving knife. “I knew all about what you did at Castle Linkristle. Did you know that? Were you aware that nobody in the periphery of your foul plan was as stupid as you took them to be? The Red Guard told me point-blank of their suspicions that you had rigged the murder of those dwarves and concocted that outrageous lie to try and disguise it. My ambassador wrote his superiors and voiced his concerns about bringing the Velferin family all to one place, one secluded place, and that only a handful of your trusted servants would be on hand to meet with them. Did you think that wasn’t going to raise an eyebrow? I heard from no less an authority than my Lord Ambassador that you were up to no good, weeks before you carried out your plot.”

Reichsha stood, her gauntleted hand on her hip, and pointed her bare hand at Grundoon. “I knew. And I didn’t lift a finger. I felt your anger, and I understood your revenge. My husband would not have understood, but I did. So, I kept your secret. And I trusted you to cover your tracks well enough to never be found out. But you failed, Baron. Your own children figured out the kind of man you are, and with a better moral compass that you and I can ever claim, they ratted you out. They dug and found out that you are a vile and wicked man when your temper rises, and they sought justice for those that you wronged. You should have told me yourself, Baron. You should have come to me and admitted the horror that you inflicted on the innocent. But you just didn’t have the courage, did you?”

The Queen paused and took a deep breath before continuing. “I had never withheld anything from my husband before this. Not one secret did I harbor from him. He trusted me without question, and never would have thought that I was keeping company with evil. I should have been honest with him, but I too, lacked courage. Courage that I should not have needed, Baron. I never should have prevented justice from being done, and that is my curse now to bear. But I can take my revenge on you, and your family. I will sacrifice you to assuage my own guilt. I am the Queen, and you are the unfortunate target of my wrath.”

“If anyone seeks to unearth the truth of what you did at Linkristle Castle, or you attempt in any way to exert influence to lessen the penalty I am about to decree for the crime you have pled guilty to, you will be stripped of your lands, and your title will not proceed beyond you when you die. I will revoke your knighthoods, and all of your military awards will be null and void. The Phantom Legion will tear apart your home, and anything related to your military service will be confiscated. As punishment for the murder of Major Hossler, you are hereby confined to Vorkelvale, and if you set foot outside of that valley, even to ascend up the trail to this citadel, you will be marked for death, hunted down, and executed. Take one last look around when you leave, Baron, because from here on out you shall spend the rest of your life looking up at what once was. I will assign soldiers to make sure you never leave Vorkelvale by the road, and should you cross into or over the river, you had better not come back.”

“Any deviation from this sentence will result in more penalties, but they will be leveled at your children. Two of them have shown themselves to be exemplary in honor and character, but as for the rest, I cannot attest. Should you try and shake off the yoke I am locking around your neck, I will descend on your offspring like a dragon upon sheep. For any murmur that I hear in my court about your heroic past and bold accomplishments, my wrath will be extended tenfold. The devastation you wrought against the Velferin family is nothing compared to the terror that I can bring to bear against your kin. Suffer in silence, Baron, or I will cause you to witness pain the likes of which will cast me into the depths of the abyss for my unfettered evil. I might not be able to torment you in the next life for what you have done, but here and now, your suffering is mine to savor.”

Taking a deep breath, the Queen looked long and hard at Grundoon. “I have but one thing to say, Baron. Your former cohort, Major Deckler, took his own life before I could deliver on my wrath.” Grundoon winced as her words hit his ears. “I should say that he had the right idea. Now, sit back down.”

With that, the Queen called out, “Guards!” and the Phantom Legion stationed right outside swung open the doors to the dining hall. “Send everyone back in. I am ready to make my judgement known.” Reichsha went back up the brick steps, and with a flourish, sat back upon her makeshift throne.

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