An Applewood Gallows; Chapter 24

The curious folk that had been herded out into the corridors of the citadel outside of the dining hall, were now ushered back in. Once everyone had returned to their seats, the guards closed the doors, and the Herzgraf returned to his place behind the Queen on her right side. Reichsha held the walking stick out with her right hand, and her husband stepped forward and took it from her hand. Tapping it loudly on the stone floor, the crowd grew completely silent. The paladin then handed the walking stick back to his bride, and the Queen stood up, holding the silver-tipped walking stick in both her bare right hand, and her gauntleted left hand, straight across in front of her, to signal everyone to remain seated.

“I have reached a decision in this matter, and hereby render my judgement. Baron Shr Grundoon von Vorkel is hereby stripped of his title as lord of Vorkelvale, and it shall be given to his heir, once such is established according to the terms of his last will and testament. Furthermore, Shr Grundoon von Vorkel is banished to, and confined therein, to the barony of Vorkelvale, and he is forbidden from any travel beyond its previously established borders. As to the minutiae of this sentence, I believe the condemned and I have an understanding. Due to his advanced age, no further punishment is deemed necessary at this time.”

The Queen then tapped the walking stick three times with her left hand, loudly enough that it sounded as if she was about to shatter the stick, or the bricks, or both. “Guards, escort this murderer to his home.”

The shocking sting of the Queen’s last words hung in the courtroom like airborne venom. More than a few of the attendees gasped, and Grundoon stood up unsteadily from the bench. Everyone in the room stood up, and the White Guards came forward to where Grundoon was. One of them, in a creepily sinister voice that was more hiss than spoken word, said to the old orc, “Follow me. You walk from here to the vale.” More White Guards fell in around Grundoon, boxing him in, but giving him room to move freely. They then began to march towards the doors of the dining hall, which the Black Guards threw open, and out through the hallways of the citadel. Across the great courtyard of the castle they went, steadily, and without pause. Curious members of the 6th Army made way for the heavily armed guards, and they marched their ward down the road from Vorkelburg to the valley below.

There was confusion among the attendees of the court, but it became readily apparent that the Queen was done talking, and ready to return to her capital. The footmen had her coach ready, and the monarch, escorted by her Phantom Legion, stepped up into the carriage, followed by her handmaidens. The Herzgraf was right by her side and helped her into the coach.

Before he closed the door, he leaned in ever to slightly, and whispered, “An exceedingly merciful judgement, my Queen. Your compassion is warming.” He smiled faintly at her, and she smiled at him.

“Do not tarry long here, my beloved.” She whispered back. “We still have much to do, to clean up this mess.”

“I have been giving that some thought, your Majesty.” Said her husband. “That request that Shar Eigenblade made regarding her own estate.”

Her smile more comfortable now, the Queen raised an eyebrow.

“I think that the ridgeline of the alps, from the Keder Pass to the Karpa Pass, would make a suitable endowment. It is not useable land, not in the traditional sense, and would place Shar Eigenblade in a position favorable to secure a large portion of our eastern border.”

“That is more land than would normally be given to a third-tier knight.” Reichsha said, still in a whisper.

Her husband smiled coyly, and said very quietly indeed, “Then perhaps you might want to think about that, too, my Queen.” He took and kissed Reichsha’s bare right hand, and gingerly closed the carriage door.

The rest of the Queen’s retinue had meanwhile been piling into the other carriages, and the guards had been forming up on their horses. As the Herzgraf waved farewell to his wife, the column began to move out of the citadel, and through the pass towards Borostat. The guards that were escorting Grundoon to his house would just have to catch up later.

General Grimstag came up to the Herzgraf, and stood a respectful distance away, waiting to be acknowledged. When he did notice her, He smiled, and said, “Tell your Judicial Corps that they have a new job, and a very important one at that. One squad will be assigned at all times at the base of that road, in Vorkelvale. They are to carry out the Queen’s sentence, and at all costs. At no point is that assignment to be neglected, is that understood?”

The ogre saluted sharply, and said enthusiastically, “Yes, sir! It will be done!” She then turned and hurried off to find her Judicial Corps commander.

The rest of the vale residents lingered in the courtyard, talking animatedly about what had happened. The von Vorkel family wasted no time in heading down to the manor house, and Hilde was going to be among the first down the road, but the Herzgraf whistled, and one of his soldiers redirected her to the Queen’s dutiful husband. As impatient as Hilde was to be with her father, she acquiesced, and with Belynda right behind her, went to where the Herzgraf was standing.

“I do not wish to keep you from your father’s side, Shar Eigenblade. But I wanted to speak with you. Will you please come with me?” the paladin smiled politely, and Hilde fought the urge to say no. The paladin walked across the courtyard, and up some stairs that wound around one of the bombard towers. At the top of the tower, his soldiers had formed a sort of perimeter to keep onlookers at bay. Belynda stayed at the top of the stairs, and while she couldn’t hear what was being said, she could at least see that her mistress was safe.

The air was bitingly cold, and Hilde hunkered into her coat as much as she could. The Herzgraf seemed immune to the wind and chill, but his voice was quiet, as if he knew that eager ears might wish to eavesdrop.

“I’ve followed your actions of late very closely.” The paladin said. A faint smile was on his face, but his eyes betrayed a seriousness to his mood. “What you did in bringing your father to justice took a great deal of courage, and it displayed an enormous virtue of character.”

Hilde lowered her head. She fought at the tears that threatened to well up in her eyes.

“It couldn’t have been easy.” The Herzgraf said. “Many in this realm would have just looked the other way, or rationalized it out, and been content. But not you.”

Hilde bit her lower lip and wiped a mitten-clad hand quickly under her nose.

“However, I know that you have questions that still need answering. Questions about what happened at Linkristle Castle.” The old paladin took a deep breath and looked around distractedly before gazing down for a moment. Gathering his thoughts, he said somewhat timidly, “Her Majesty already knows about all of that. I would like to suggest to you that further inquiries into that sordid episode are unnecessary.”

Hilde and the Herzgraf met each other’s eyes, and Hilde silently nodded her head, fighting her tears, and relieved that the Empress was fully informed about something that had vexed Hilde so much. “I understand, my lord. There is no need to shine a light where the Countess has previously explored.”

The paladin chuckled quietly. “Well said, Shar Eigenblade. Thank you for your discretion.” His warm smile made Hilde feel good inside, but it was difficult to pinpoint why exactly that was. “I am always on the lookout for people like you.” The Herzgraf continued. “The Empire needs people like you, Hilde. I’d like for you to consider joining the Bearers of the Gauntlet. You would be a tremendous asset to the work we do, for the Church, and for the country.”

Hilde looked at the paladin and could see the sincerity in his eyes. She made no gesture one way or another, except to resume biting on her lip.

“Give it some thought.” The Herzgraf said quietly. “The invitation stands open for you, whenever you are ready. I owe you a debt of thanks.”

Hilde was surprised and couldn’t have hidden it if she tried. “Thanks?” she asked. “For what?”

“For proving that God sees all, even when the eyes of the world are distracted, and will make known His goodness and mercy, and above all, justice.” The paladin replied, his words almost a prayer. With that, he took her mittened hands, and squeezed them reassuringly. There was a warmth that emanated from his bare hands, a soothing calm that seemed to exude from him and settle over Hilde’s soul like a blanket. He smiled at her, and without another word, took his leave. His guards followed him, and they left Hilde alone with her thoughts on the bombard tower.

Belynda walked up next to her softly and took her mistresses hand. “Are you alright, Hilde?” the xvart asked.

The orc looked down at her squire, and she smiled as a tear ran down her face. “I guess I am.” She said. “Thank God.”

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