The family had gathered in the great room of the manor to commiserate over the judgement handed down upon their patriarch. Oleysa and her husband came down from the citadel to pay their respects and took the opportunity to announce that Oleysa was pregnant with her first offspring. This was a cause for celebration in the house, as Grundoon had never made it a secret that she was his favorite daughter. Hilde had never minded this, though. She was keenly fond of her sister, too, and if she had to pick a sibling to live with, Oleysa would be right near the top of the list.
At the periphery of the gathering, the family members were conversing quietly about the letters their father had written to them, about the contents of said letters, and how each one seemed tailored to their recipient. Hilde realized she hadn’t read hers yet, and while the family was distracted with birth announcements and expressing sorrow for the baron’s confinement to Vorkelvale, and relief that he hadn’t been outright executed, Hilde slipped upstairs to her room to find and read the letter her father had written to her.
It was folded simply and had the wax seal of her father’s crest on it. Breaking the seal, she began to read. Her father’s flawless calligraphy was so beautiful, she was swept up immediately in his words.
My beloved Hilde,
This is a tough time for me. I should like to have written this under better circumstances, but as usual, I never seemed to find the time. Truthfully, I hoped I would never have to write this letter. In the back of my mind, though, I knew it was just a matter of time before it would be necessary. Necessary because you would want to know the truth about your old father. You were an inquisitive child, and you’ve never lost that. Not because you wanted to know everything, but because you were always seeking out the truth.
Your mother was like that, too, you know. I know you didn’t have a lot of time with her before her death, but Linzette was a wonderful woman. She was noble to her very core, always caring for the concerns of others, and deeply empathetic to their pain. It was like she could feel their sorrow, and it became her own. I never understood it. Nor did I understand how she could have loved me as deeply as she did. She always saw the good in me and kept me on track to do what was right. She hadn’t a dishonest bone in her body, and my sorrow at her passing has never really left. But I could see that you were every bit her daughter. Early on, I knew. You were the girl that I knew would do the right thing.
I suppose this is why, for most of your life, I preferred you at arm’s length. Not because I wasn’t fond of you or want to spend more time with you. I guess I always knew that there was a wickedness in my heart, too much orc for my own good, as my mother used to say. While I always loved and admired your mother for keeping that part of me restrained, her murder made me want to let it loose. I never again wanted to deny fully that part of me that sought revenge for things done to me or my family, or even the perception of such things. I just wanted to be angry sometimes. Not all of the time, just once and a while.
That isn’t how anger works, though, Hilde. Anger to an orc is like booze to a drunkard. You might think that you have it under control, but you never really do. I deceived myself into thinking I was in charge of my anger, and not the other way around. But my seething fury was always in control. It just left me with lengthy periods of calm to further bolster the false sense of peace that I convinced myself lay at the heart of my being. I was a fool, and I rationalized my behavior and my existence to excuse the evil I coveted.
I have seen you angry, in battle and leading up to battle. But I was angry most all of the time. I let everything annoy me, just to feel angry. I fed it, my own addiction to tantrums. It made me a feared commander and general, but it lessened me in every other way. I hardly know my children, haven’t seen or heard from any of my own siblings in decades, and my closest friend is my squire. This is no way to live. It reminds me of a story we were told in army training, about an orcish Slothjemian officer greeting a human Geldenreich soldier along the border back in the old days. The human greeted the orc with a sharp salute, and a hearty “Hail Victory!” to which the orc replied, “We don’t do that here. We are orcs, not monsters.” Sometimes we are both, Hilde. I was more a monster than a man.
This is why I wanted you to go with me to Romilmark. I knew what I was going to do to the family of the fallen archduke, I just didn’t know how. Enough of my virtue exerted itself that I knew you needed to be with me, to keep things from going overboard. I couldn’t have done any good without your help. Perhaps the good that we did somehow atones for the evil I wrought. I don’t know. But you did a fine job, Hilde. I couldn’t have asked for a better Sergeant-Major, and none exists in the world at any rate. As horrible as I was, you kept it from getting worse, because even though I never sought your counsel, I knew right from wrong, and I could not bear to have you witness me doing wrong with reckless abandon. I suppose it is of little comfort that I didn’t allow you to put an end to my evil, but that your presence made me conceal it more carefully, although I hope you are able to take some comfort in it.
I am deeply and hopelessly proud of you, Hilde. I know why you chose the surname that you did, and while it hurt at the time, and still stings, I am aware that I only have myself to blame. I cast a long shadow over my family. But you are a ray of light that pierces all darkness. You have accomplished more already in your life than I have in mine, and there is no limit to how far you will go. Be aware of your influence. Use your talents wisely. Keep an eye on your emotions and be honest with yourself about your motives in all things. Seek out good people, virtuous people, and associate with those that are noble, sober, and cheerful. Continue in all ways to be yourself, for you are the kindest, most incredibly glorious person I have ever had the honor of knowing.
I love you, Hilde. You have done me the greatest service by keeping me accountable and restoring the dignity and honor to your siblings that I almost robbed them of. May God continue to bless and keep you, in this world and afterwards.
With all of my love,
Hilde read the letter three times, and then carefully folded it back up, and tucked it into her trunk, where it was sure to be safe from the elements. Everything else had been packed, and tomorrow she would leave with Rackerby and return to Jordrakenschloss. There was nothing left to do here, and precious little left to say. She made sure her luggage was fastened up tightly, and then went back downstairs to rejoin her family.
Like his half-sister, Oskar had neglected to read his letter right away. Only when Hilde came up next to him in the great room and whispered something about it, did he remember that he had yet to see what his father had written. He was going to do it right away, but instead, chose to have some more wine. He and Hilde stood arm in arm at the edge of the family gathering, close to the huge fireplace. Belynda was letting Cinder play with the smallest children, and Jandle was sitting on a stool on the far side of the room. Whenever Hilde looked his direction, she thought she saw him look away, as if he had been watching her. It was slightly disconcerting.
More troubling was Kreg, the half-hobgoblin that did odd jobs for Grundoon, and served as a footman to the family. He was the closest thing to a proper man-at-arms that the estate had, and despite his social awkwardness and seeming inability to communicate, he had proven himself repeatedly as a fierce and formidable fighter. Today, he had his trusty halberd in hand, and just loitered near the front door of the house. He bore the aura of a man tormented, as if he thought that the Judicial Corps would be coming for him next. Kreg’s behavior was erratic in the best of times, but now it was bordering on unhinged. Aggrylia finally told him to either go outside or put away the weapon. “The family doesn’t need this right now.” She said firmly. Downcast, and for the first time that anyone knew of, cowed, Kreg reluctantly hung the halberd on its’ hook next to the front door and trudged out to the barn.
Rackerby and Dellila were also hanging near the edge of the family gathering, and several people thanked him for his service to the baron. Eventually Rackerby was able to make his way to where Hilde and Oskar were, with Dellila by his side. “Are you returning with us tomorrow for home?” he asked Oskar and Hilde.
Oskar nodded his head. “Yes, we are both ready to be on our way.” He said. “All of this is a bit too much. I’m glad father avoided being beheaded, but the gnashing of teeth over him being stuck on the estate is tiresome. There should be more emphasis, and gratitude, for the bit about beheading.”
Rackerby, Dellila, and Hilde all laughed. It was true. Their father had avoided a death sentence, and folks were miserable that he wasn’t able to travel anymore. Where was he going to go, anyway? He was old. Very old. Most orcs were dead by his age, by an easy decade. He had no more need of travel than one of his apple trees did.
The afternoon meal was served, and afterwards, most of the family went back to their respective tasks and hobbies. Grundoon retired to his study, and Jandle set about helping tidy the house along with the other servants. Aggrylia took her children back out to play in the fresh snow, and Oskar went to his room to read the letter from his father. Hilde waited downstairs in the great room for a chance to speak alone with Grundoon. Zindel had spent a good deal of time talking to their father, but that was to be expected, since he was now the Baron of Vorkelvale, or at least once Grundoon’s will had been verified. Most of what Zindel had to do as the new lord of the estate was known to him, since he had done the job temporarily. More of the details were covered, and before it was time for dinner, Zindel was finally satisfied that he understood the task before him, and it was Hilde’s turn to see her father.
Hilde closed the door, and her father looked up as she did so. In front of him on his desk was a blizzard of paperwork, detailing everything that had to be done to maintain the barony. Grundoon smiled at his daughter and folded his hands on the pile of papers. “What is on your mind, Hilde?”
Hilde sat down in one of the chairs in front of the desk, and said in a tired voice, “Your letter.” She was all cried out, but the weariness of fending off so many emotions for the last few months had caught up to her. She was going to sleep in the carriage all the way back to Jordrakenschloss, she was sure of it. “Thank you for your kind words, papa. It means a lot to me.”
Grundoon chuckled. “I should have been honest with you from the beginning. With everyone. I just didn’t know how, and I didn’t want to know. My ego meant more to me. I’m sorry, Hilde. How you turned out so exemplary, despite my influence, will ever be a mystery to me.”
Reaching across the desk, Hilde took hold of her father’s hands. “I always felt loved, in that you never failed. Whatever lies ahead in our lives, I know that you meant well.” She said.
They both laughed and clutched each other’s hands. They both knew that the phrase “they meant well” was a meaningless thing, trotted out to excuse the inexcusable. It was the relief of those that had to put up with their loved one’s ridiculous behavior to tell themselves that at least they meant well. It was rarely true, but it helped alleviate the anxiety of constant embarrassment, or worse.
Hilde said, “I’m leaving tomorrow for home. I have unfinished business in Romilmark to tidy up, and then from there, I guess I have to figure out how to be a noble.”
“You already have that part down.” Her father said with a chuckle. “There is none among my children that so naturally fall into the definition of nobility. You are the epitome of a Slothjemian aristocrat. Fierce, compassionate, genial, and protective. If you lack for anything, it is a husband and family, but I’ve never put much stock in that, despite my own marriages and offspring. You and Oskar have done tremendously well for yourselves, and never saw the need for every tradition foisted upon you by society.” Grundoon’s tone suddenly got very serious, and he said, “I’ll tell you this, Hilde. I would rather that Oskar and you never got married, ever, than settle for somebody that would drag you down from the level upon which you currently dwell. Never accept a partner in your life that doesn’t at the very least inspire you to greater aspirations and a more virtuous future.”
“I always assumed you wanted me to get married.” Said Hilde, her voice ringing with surprise at her father’s words.
Grundoon shook his head. “Your sisters, yes. The only two of you that have any common sense and drive for your own goals are you and Cloe. She is so much like you, it is eerie. Neither of you should settle for a man, until you have determined that any suitor is going to be a worthy ally in your life. But my other daughters? Even Oleysa, bless her heart, she needed to have somebody. That’s the difference, Hilde. Needing and wanting. To need somebody is to not be able to function correctly without them. But to want somebody, that is to have it all, and want them to be a part of it. I need you to want.” The old orc’s face softened, and he and his daughter broke into laughter again.
“Do you know what I mean, though, Hilde?” he asked, wiping the tears of laughter from his eyes. “I always needed, until I met Aggrylia. I am so much older than she, and I didn’t have to have somebody to guide me through the rough patches of my youth. I wanted somebody I could enjoy spending time with. Companionship. I didn’t need it. I wanted it. For the first time, I wanted it. And now I’ve ruined it.”
Hilde looked at her father, and said quietly, “But she understands. She knows you better than any of your other wives did, because your marriage is so different in all aspects from what you had before.” Hilde was quiet for a time, and said softly, “She knows you. She understands your actions, and while they hurt her, and she doesn’t necessarily like them, she understands.”
Grundoon looked away and nodded his head. He wasn’t in the mood to discuss his own marriage any further, and Hilde could tell that he was uncomfortable. “Whatever is ahead, it will be fine.” Hilde said resolutely. Then, changing the topic as cheerfully as she could muster, she added, “I’m leaving tomorrow with Rackerby and his secretary. I’m glad you weren’t executed, but now I have things to attend to.”
Grundoon howled with laughter, and they both stood and walked towards each other around the desk. With a great hug, they embraced, and both laughed until they were spent. “Keep being good.” Grundoon whispered in her ear.”
“I’ll try, papa.” She whispered back. Then, she took her leave of him, and he sat back down in his chair, staring at the papers on his desk. Springtime felt very far away, he thought, as his gaze turned to the window, and the snowy orchards outside. His smallest children were out there now, frolicking about, tossing snowballs, and hollering with delight. Grundoon was looking forward to spring.