An Orc for All Seasons

The Geldenreich sage, Polbein the Younger, wrote what is considered to be the definitive thesis on the relationship between the dwarves of Slothjemia and their non-dwarven neighbors. It is called “Strange Bedfellows” and examines not just the city of Kernschloss, but also the region of the Grey Alps. Of special note is the fact that nowhere else on the continent can a similar relationship between such diverse, and normally antagonistic, peoples be found.

 

Chapter 10

 

The axe was key to how Grundoon felt about the dwarves of Kernschloss and to his understanding of how they would react to news of war with Romillia, if in fact they hadn’t already heard. The imposing and heavily fortified city of Kernschloss was considered to be impregnable. It had never been taken by force, and had withstood repeated attacks from the lich lords centuries earlier when the dwarves had stood alone against the Diosian Lodge. Formed from the living rock of the craggy cliffs overlooking the dismal fetid swamps of the Slothjemian coreland, the city had chosen to side with the goblinoids when they once and for all rose against their undead masters. The earliest allies of the fledgling country of Slothjemia, the dwarves soon decided to merge with the swamp orcs to preserve some measure of their sovereignty and to provide a bulwark against future attacks.

Axe

The unique position of Kernschloss politically had made it a very intriguing place for non-dwarven Slothjemians to visit. Until the dwarves of the Grey Alps to the north of the coreland had decided to merge with Slothjemia too, Kernschloss had been the only place that the non-goblinoids could go to trade openly with the races of the underdark. And while the dwarves of Kernschloss had once been of the same ilk as those in Romillia the ancient blood ties had long ago faded into little more than rusty memories.

Grundoon had visited the city many times before he had been given the orders to attack and capture Vorkelburg, and had to march his army through Kernschloss in order to get there. At that time Kernschloss was the last stronghold before the Sikilian border. The dwarves had been nervous about what the liches were up to and were thrilled to have an army on hand, perhaps to push the undead and their minions further west and away from Kernschloss. This is of course exactly what happened. But in those days before the fighting really got underway there was a feeling that the outcome could go either way, victory or defeat.

While gathering his forces in Kernschloss for his attack on the lich lord in Sikilia, Grundoon had the opportunity to befriend the lord of the city. Archduke Nossler of Kernschloss was an old and some might have thought feeble ruler, but nonetheless a stalwart ally and proud Slothjemian. The two men, young orc general and aged dwarven duke hit it off well. Far better than anyone would have thought. After a couple of weeks bivouacked in the city Grundoon had made many friends. Some two hundred of the city’s finest warriors even decided to join the 6th Army as a volunteer unit to fight the undead. Their commander was a stalwart and bold dwarf named Rogold. He was one of Nossler’s sons and proud of his heritage as a Slothjemian dwarf. So well beloved was he to Grundoon that the two men fought side by side in the assault on Vorkelburg. When Rogold had been struck down by foul magicks, he gifted his beloved axe to Grundoon. It had been crafted not only by dwarven weaponsmiths, but it had been imbued with gnomish sorcery. It was a very special axe. Since the moment Rogold had given him the axe, Grundoon had never gone to battle without it. And now the axe was with him as he was to again pass through Kernschloss on his way to war, only this time in the east.

The first third of the day was spent crossing the big valley east of Borostat. Dozens of farms dotted the countryside here. The column passed a number of large manors and at each farm and estate there would gather the denizens therein to wave and shout encouragement. Most if not all were unaware that the nation was at war but it was the custom in Slothjemia to greet soldiers with the utmost in enthusiasm. Some of the well-wishers even had flags to wave. Most were threadbare with years of use, but a few were relatively new. And every gathering of citizens had at least one former soldier. Long ago this land had been called Vilhelmia, and after being taken from the control of the Sikilians, Slothjemians called this particular Grafdom “New Vilhelmia.”

Map002

All of the roadside watchers asked where the column was headed and if there was a fight someplace. Some of them asked if they could come along. One old man wanted the column to wait while he ran and got his sword and helmet. The patrol took every invitation graciously, but declined them all. They did take time at some of the larger manors to water the horses and rest for a few minutes. All of the manor lords insisted that they feed the horses as well once they learned of the war with Romillia. Slothjemia was a terribly patriotic place.

Grundoon was introduced to three barons, two landed knights, and a count in that first portion of the day. He didn’t hate it. They all knew that the general didn’t have time for visiting, and so they settled with wishing him well, and Godspeed on his mission. Everyone was impressed that Grundoon had gone to this much work and expense to raise a volunteer and mercenary force to fight a war across the country. Grundoon had not counted on this, and the unearned. and wholly undeserved respect made him very uneasy. He was very relieved that the column had to keep moving.

At the edge of the great valley the road passed through a gatehouse. It was a new tower, only twenty years old or so, but it was built on the foundation of previous fortifications that had guarded the pass here for centuries. The lich lords had a tower here, and Grundoon’s army had smashed through it in a matter of hours two decades ago. Before that there had been another tower here that the dwarves had built to protect Kernschloss from the undead. It too had been easily destroyed. It was a good place to build a defensive structure, but thus far there hadn’t been any real success at defending those structures. They were too far away from either Borostat or Kernschloss to be adequately garrisoned. The current tower housed the districts’ allotment of Rural Constabulary. There was a small wall to prevent folks from just going around the gatehouse, but a determined force would swarm right over it in short order.

The gate was open, and the advance riders had stopped only briefly to talk to the resident constables before hurrying on down the road. When Grundoon got to the gate the constables waved and grinned. One of them had been in Borostat last night and had alerted his fellow constables that the column was heading their direction. They shouted their encouragements and proudly saluted their kinsmen as they marched ever eastward.  This was by far the most excitement that the constables had had in quite some time. The last time they had anything of note happen was a band of highwaymen that had been rampaging about the district a few years ago. They had tracked down the bandits, and killed half of them in a pitched battle up in the mountains. The rest they brought in to Borostat to be hanged. It was a good time, but this was better.

Beyond the gatehouse was an even bigger valley. This one, though, was very heavily forested. There were some meadows and glades here and there but mostly it was rolling foothills and lots and lots of trees.  In the center of the valley were some jagged peaks, visible from the gatehouse but not from very many spots within the forested valley. Grundoon had no idea what the mountains were called. He knew that there was a bit of mining that took place there, but he wasn’t even sure what minerals were to be found. The main industry of this area was lumber. The dwarves in Kernschloss were naturally good at stonework and metalwork, but there were hundreds of gnomes that lived there, and they ran a thriving woodworking guild. The mantelpiece in Grundoon’s own manor house had come from Kernschloss, and the wood had come from this very valley.

The column stopped for a midday break at a vast logging camp surrounded by a stockade. The sign over the gate said “Waldenkamp Gorkosh” and it was very heavily guarded. There was a dedicated force of mercenaries that did nothing but protect the lumberjacks from bandits, monsters, and very rarely, foreign marauders. The biggest threat was from renegade creatures such as beholders, small drakes, and even trolls. The trolls that were in Grundoon’s army were eyed very suspiciously, but the truth was that they were always viewed that way. Slothjemians might be an exceptionally welcoming people but trolls are still trolls. Tall, spindly, and supernaturally strong, trolls were immune to virtually all forms of attack except acid and fire. They simply regenerated lost limbs, and even from a pulverized pile of goo, they would slowly reconstruct themselves and be as threatening as they were before. That had a tendency to alarm folks.

The lumber camp was vast, almost a town all by itself. They had a general store, several storage buildings for tools, a blacksmith, three stables for their oxen, and a number of large barracks for the workers and hired soldiers. So large was the camp that Grundoon’s entire army fit comfortably within the stockade. They rested here for half an hour, and Grundoon had a chance to speak to the camp boss. Turns out he was the youngest son of a human noble, the Duke of Y’Gorkosh. Their lands were probably a full third of this valley.

The duke’s son was a tough looking and heavily bearded man covered in scars and muscles. His grin revealed a number of teeth missing. His name was Lorgon. He was loud and cheerful, and greeted Grundoon as if they had been old friends recently reunited. He had his men make sure that all of the column got fresh water. He had Grundoon sit with him on chairs just in front of the main office building.

“I hear that you are Baron von Vorkel. Tell me sir, what are you doing here and with such a large company of militia?” The grinning lumber boss stared intently at Grundoon.

“I decided that I should take part in one last war” replied the orc. “And so I brought some friends to help.” He motioned at the seated and reclining soldiers scattered about the camp. “Was a good week for a hike.” He added.

Lorgon laughed and slapped his knee. “Ah ha! Very good, sir! Very good indeed!” he laughed again. “Say that’s a fine axe you have there. Not good for my work, but it looks exceptional for the job you have ahead of you!”

Grundoon had his axe sitting across his lap. He held it firmly in his right hand and had his left hand just resting on the blade. “Yes, yes it is a fine axe. Thank you.” He smiled at Lorgon. “She has done well by me in past battles, and I have no reason to think she won’t once more.”

Lorgon yelled for one of his workers to come over and the laborer hurried to see what the boss wanted. “Go fetch the priest. Have him come here at once to bless this man’s axe.” He bellowed. The laborer scurried off. “An axe as fine as that will do well in the hands of a warrior as obviously capable as you, Baron, but let’s help tip the scale even further in your favor.”

The priest was a hobgoblin, or mostly so. Lorgon pointed to Grundoon. “Bless this man’s axe, Manoc. He is off to fight.”

Lorgon and Grundoon stood up, and the orc handed the axe to the priest. The priest cleared his throat, and then raised the weapon over his head with both hands as if in offering to God.

“Hear my supplications, oh mighty God! Bless this axe and the man who wields it! May his aim be true and his swing mighty! May he fell his enemies even as we the lumbermen fell our trees! Yea though he face a forest of foes might they be cleaved asunder and brought to ruin! Bathe these soldiers in the cleansing blood of victory and might their enemies flee before them! Thank you, oh mighty and powerful God!”

The entire patrol and all others in attendance then as one voice declared “Amen.” Grundoon took his axe back. It was time to move on. He thanked Lorgon and the priest for their hospitality and gave Jandle a knowing nod. Jandle reached into the small leather satchel he kept slung across his chest and pulled out two platinum coins. He handed them to the priest and whispered “Thank you, sir. God bless you and your work here.” The priest was taken by surprise and stammered out “You’re welcome little squire. Thank you!”

The patrol got back on the road. The soldiers were in very good spirits as the sun was shrouded by heavy cloud cover. It was cold and the column was making very good time. A couple of miles down the road from the lumberjack encampment Grundoon shouted out for somebody to start a song. Two drumbeats later some intrepid trooper started singing “Ghoul of my Dreams” a bawdy little song that poked fun at necromancers and suggested not very lightly that they did naughty things above and beyond raiding graves and animating corpses. Some of the lines elicited tremendous laughter throughout the ranks. The song worked its’ way down the line and good time was had by all. In the middle of the fun the patrol met the dispatch rider that had been sent to military headquarters to tell them of Major Hossler’s death. He had arrived there shortly after everything had broken loose. He had been able to deliver the death notice but it was obvious that everyone had bigger issues on their minds.

At the next stop Grundoon had Jandle get him a piece of his official stationery so he could write a letter. It was emblazoned with his crest and had all sorts of flourishes noting his various titles as baron and knight. Grundoon jokingly called it his “civilian letterhead” and rarely ever used it. It was however perfect for this adventure. He hurriedly scrawled a note and folded up the paper into a nice little parcel. He then told Jandle to find Colonel Rachtenbort with instructions for him to report to Grundoon once the column got back on the road.

When the patrol started up again it took a while for Rachtenbort to catch up to where Grundoon was in the column but he eventually got to him. He saluted smartly as he rode up to the general. “Yes sir!”

Grundoon handed him the letter. “Give this to your officer in charge of the advance cavalry. Have him and two other men ride on to Kernschloss without stopping. They need to give this letter to the Lord Mayor.” Grundoon saluted the colonel. “Go.”

The colonel rode off up the line at a gallop. Grundoon sat back in his saddle and enjoyed the ride. The men in his unit were having a fine time making nonsensical musical sounds in time to the drums. The heavy cloud cover and closeness of the forest made everyone feel good. It was almost as if it was dusk all day long.

After two short stops to let the men rest the column finally crested the last small hill before Kernschloss. The hulking city rose almost like a mountain itself from the forest. The walls were far thicker than the walls of Vorkelburg and much higher. The inner towers were heavily buttressed in a way that made you think the dwarves were expecting an attack from a roving herd of tarrasques. The dark grey of the walls matched the color of the angriest of storm clouds. It was a very impressive sight.

This was just the view from the west, though. From the east the city was even more impressive. Kernschloss was sited right on the edge of a mighty canyon and it was jagged rock walls straight down to the valley of the great swamp of the coreland over two thousand feet below. The city walls ran down as well in a huge semicircular tower that went from the valley floor straight up to the walls of the city above. This was called the “Road Tower” and inside it ran a corkscrew road that worked its way from valley to cliff top. Half of the road was inside the wall of the tower, and the other half of the spiral was carved into the stone walls of the cliff face. The inside of the spiral was storage for everything the dwarves might need to withstand a siege. The city had endured many assaults, and had never actually been besieged, but the goods were stashed away just in case.

As the column entered the city they could not help but notice the large retinue of dwarven guards on duty. Heavy ballistae on the walls were aimed skyward but the dwarves manning them were staring intently at the goblinoids entering their beloved city. More guards at the gate itself directed the patrol to a massive squat tower on the eastern side of the city. The dwarves wore the most admirable plate and chain armor, tinted black and embellished with the white and red that completed the Slothjemian tricolor flag. The dwarves showed no emotion as the patrol made their way to where they were to stay for the night.

At the huge wooden doors to the massive squat tower, which was called the “Patrol Dormitory,” there stood an honor guard and the Lord Mayor of Kernschloss. Nossler had passed away several years ago and now his eldest son, Hothror, was the Archduke of Kernschloss. It was his brother Rogold who had gone off with Grundoon to fight Frenklar the Brazen, the lich lord of Vorkelburg and had not come back. Hothror watched the column as it filed into the dormitory to find dwarves inside directing them to where they could bunk for the night. There were stables for the horses, and actual beds for the troops.

Grundoon dismounted, and gave the reigns to his horse to Jandle. Grundoon removed his helmet and looked at the dwarven Archduke. The dwarf removed his helmet as well and looked up at the orc. The two men just looked at each other for a moment.

“Hello Grundoon. It has been a long time since you visited us.” The dwarf seemed to be studying the general’s face.

“Yes, far too long.” Answered Grundoon. “Thank you for your hospitality, my lord. I owe you a debt for this kindness.”

The dwarf nodded and said almost off-handedly “You will owe me two debts, Baron.” He shifted his weight and continued to watch the orc’s face.

“Two debts?” asked Grundoon. He knew that the dwarf could tell he was puzzled.

“Aye, two debts.” Hothror’s face began to break into a smile. “One debt for letting you bunk your army here on your way east. The second debt will be levied when you bunk here again on your way home.” The dwarven lord held out his gauntleted hand. “Welcome to our home, Lord Grundoon.”

The orc shook his hand most enthusiastically and let forth a laugh from the depths of his heart. “I have missed your city my lord. Your city, your humor, and especially your fine beer.” The two men laughed and began to walk together towards the grand hall of the city. On the way Grundoon shouted out orders to some of his officers that happened to be nearby directing them to get the men comfortable and to tend the horses. The wagons were to be left in a line in the street outside of the dormitory. Everyone was to eat and rest. They still had more days to march.

Hothror and Grundoon made their way through the city to the mighty chamber in which the Archduke held his court. Two fine, comfortable chairs were placed facing each other in front of the throne upon which Hothror usually sat. The dwarf motioned for Grundoon to sit in one of the chairs and when he did the dwarf took the seat opposite him. The two men sat and just grinned at each other for a moment or two.

The dwarf was the first to speak. “We are at war with Romillia, I am told.” Grundoon nodded and the smile vanished from his face.

“It is true. I haven’t heard any news since beginning the march but yes. They attacked Summit Village.” The orc cast his eyes to the floor. “I do not like the thought of fighting dwarves. I do enjoy fighting…. But not against dwarves.”

Hothror leaned forward in his chair. “Do not fret. I know your heart. My father and brother knew you and loved you as a kindred soul. You delight in war but would never seek it among those you call clansmen.”

Grundoon winced. He thought of tossing the major over the walls of Vorkelburg.

The dwarf continued. “There is strife brewing in the realm, Grundoon.” The dwarf sat back in his seat. “From the beginning the dwarves of Kernschloss have enjoyed a very special relationship with Slothjemia. Yes, in ancient times we and the Romillians shared a common ancestry. We established this mighty city and over time the swamps of the coreland caused us to be separated.” He shook his head. “Now I fear that the Empress and her court will view us with suspicion. I have never feared Slothjemia’s military being turned against us. But now, I begin to.”

Grundoon threw his head back and let out a low frustrated growl. “This is a dark time. But it is not going to change this city, its’ lord, or the noble people that call this home.” Grundoon looked back at Hothror. “It disturbs me to hear of this.”

The Archduke shook his head and held up his hand. “Do not be troubled, general. Your friendship is of great value to me and this city. I am glad to see that you still carry the axe my brother gave you. He would be honored.”

A servant brought them two great steins of beer and the two men sat, drank, and visited until time for dinner. Jandle found them after they had eaten and had come right back to the throne room to talk some more. It was a very enjoyable evening for them both. Hothror had asked the orc to speak publicly to the people of Kernschloss in the morning before the patrol headed out, and Grundoon had assured the dwarf that he would do just that to help allay the fears of the populace. He also obtained permission from Hothror to allow Hemlock the lizardman sorcerer to use the city’s communication crystal to see how things were going back at Vorkelburg. At no point did Hothror pry into the backstory of Grundoon’s “volunteers”, but the orc suspected that the dwarf understood perfectly what the old general was up to.

Finally, the two men said goodnight. Jandle followed his master back to the dormitory and the Archduke went off to hold a late night council with his advisors. Both were looking at a long day tomorrow.

 

 

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