part 1 of 3
by Joe Jackson
General Montague walked the echoing halls of the palace as fast as he could without running.
Despite the urgent nature of the news, he couldn’t give the impression that he was caught out of
sorts at all. One of the first rules of serving as a general in the prince’s army was to never let
anyone see you sweat or look lost. Calm and decorum had to be maintained at all times, all the
better to keep the common folk from ever being aware of even dire situations.
But we’ve caught him at last, he thought, the triumphant roil in his gut threatening to
make him overlook that very rule.
For months now, the kingdom of Kashimy had been under attack by a rather clever army
of gnoll marauders. At first, the hyena-men’s attacks had been shocking and spectacular enough
to drive the peasants of the unprotected outer regions before them. As refugees flooded into the
walled cities with tales of the bloodthirsty savages pillaging and burning the villages in their
path, panic had swept the borderlands. The gnolls had ever been savage outsiders, but for them
to launch a full-scale invasion was something General Montague, much less the prince and his
advisors, had never expected.
It was only as the spearhead lost momentum and the attacks slowed that the truth came to
light. It was no invading army, but a band of perhaps ten-score gnolls causing such widespread
chaos. And those ten score “men” had served the will of a single gnoll – cunning and fairly
tactically brilliant, if Montague was being fair, but a gnoll nonetheless.
And his “brilliance” had paled next to that of Prince Josiah…
As Montague approached the grand staircase that descended to the castle’s main floor,
General Staurich fell into step beside him and punctuated his thoughts. “Hard to believe this
brilliant gnoll walked right into our trap, isn’t it?”
It certainly was. The gnoll had evaded capture for months, turning his forces this way
and that to avoid direct conflict with larger cities or garrisons. By the time the prince’s army
responded to his attacks, he and his men were usually far gone, moved off to find another soft
part of Kashimy’s belly to slice their claws into. It was only when the prince let it slip that he
was planning to take the field himself near the city of Gaeshwin that their enemy made a
mistake. He’d turned directly toward a confrontation with the prince himself, and the simple trap
had caught him with little difficulty or even bloodshed.
And that concerned Montague.
He sighed. “To be honest, Blake, I’ve been turning that thought over in my mind since I
heard the news. That’s why I want to be there when the prince questions him. I’m sure there’s
got to be more to this than what we’re seeing. I’m sure Prince Josiah sees it, too…”
“Are you thinking the same thing I am, Reggie?”
“That this gnoll wanted to be captured?”
General Staurich nodded. “I just can’t for the life of me figure out why. What purpose
would it serve? Surely he knows the prince is going to kill him for what he’s done. Does he just
want to be a martyr to his people, or is there something greater at work here?”
“The fact that he was taken alone concerns me the most,” Montague said.
“Indeed. The prince seems content that his trap was simply that good,” Staurich agreed.
“But considering how long this fool’s band avoided direct conflict with our army, this has to
have been a calculated move on his part, no?”
They both bobbed their heads silently and continued on. Down a dark and winding
stairway to the dungeons they went, the air turning cool and damp as they descended. Montague
wished he could say the dungeons didn’t see much use these days, but there were always those
who fell out of the prince’s favor, and that number had only multiplied as the gnolls’ victories
had initially snowballed. The general had to wonder how many of his fellow officers had seen
the captive gnoll paraded past their cells as they awaited the prince’s judgment.
Prince Josiah was waiting at the entrance to the dungeons, and he smiled broadly when
the two generals approached. “Ah, gentlemen,” he said. “So good of you to come.”
“Congratulations on your victory, my Prince,” Montague said, echoed by Staurich.
Josiah nodded graciously. “Thank you, gentlemen, but a plan is only as good as the men
who see it put into action. In this, you have my gratitude. Come, let us go and see what this fool
gnoll will tell us now that we have him.”
They followed him into the dungeon proper. The dungeon’s central, circular room was
lined with some of the court nobles, which put a knot in Montague’s stomach immediately. He
glowered at the glorified peacocks, no doubt here to puff up their prince’s pride and try to find
his favor, praising his brilliance and diligence in defending the kingdom. They were here for a
spectacle and to be one in turn for their prince; despite Prince Josiah’s better qualities, Montague
feared he understood what was going on here.
Montague and Staurich both stopped just inside the door and stepped to either side, their
hands to the hilts of their ceremonial swords as custom dictated. They stood rigid, as a guard
might when a superior passed by them, and made sure everyone else there likewise showed some
token of respect to the prince. They went so far as to salute Josiah when he glanced their way,
but though he returned their salutes as the head of the military, he did so absently, moving to
half-sit, half-kneel on a bench to stare at the gnoll before him. The nobles around the perimeter,
too, showed a casual disdain for the generals, further knotting Montague’s stomach.
Something was off with the prince’s behavior, and the general had no doubt the presence
of the fops and “ladies” around the perimeter were the cause.
Even from the first glance of Josiah and the gnoll staring at each other, there was quite a
disparity between the two men at the center of the chamber. Montague wondered if this gnoll
might be a prince or king among his people; he had a grace and dignity about him despite the
position he was in, as though the indignity of his imprisonment and its conditions held no weight
in his mind, such as it was. Had this perhaps all been a plot to gain the ear of the Kashiminian
monarchy? If so, it was a terrible way to go about it, as Montague had little doubt the prince was
already planning to execute the gnoll once he’d gotten some answers – and perhaps had fun
entertaining his courtiers and the nobility in the process.
Josiah was dressed in court finery, even down here in the dingy dungeon, all deep purples
and gold embroidery, an absolute statement as to his position for anyone in Kashimy that looked
upon him. The gnoll, by contrast, stood chained to an Inquisitor’s Square, his wrists and the thin
ankles of his digitigrade legs manacled and held tight enough that he could scarcely move. More
than that, he’d been stripped bare, showing off his bloodied, dirty, golden, spotted coat that
completed a gnoll’s hyena-like appearance. The charcoal hands, ears, feet, and snout served to
highlight the normal color of his coat. More prominently, though, being bare showed off his
privates, which Montague had little doubt would be the subject of the improper whispers of the
court’s “ladies” – and some of the men – for some time.
What held the general’s attention, though, were the gnoll’s eyes. Though the hyena-man
had bestial golden eyes, there was something far more in them. It went even beyond canniness;
beyond understanding his circumstances and showing no fear of them or the prince who held the
gnoll’s fate in his hands. It was a look the general had seen before, something his tactical mind
and wary nature picked up on immediately, and nearly demanded he point out to his prince and
fellow general. The closest comparison he could make was when someone was about to lay
down a crushing hand of five-card when everyone else thought he was bluffing.
But is he truly planning something else, or is he just stupid?
Gnolls weren’t the brightest creatures. Sometimes they flirted with being civilized, but
they seemed to prefer to live out in the wilds like the early settlers of Kashimy. Montague was
about to ponder their love of war paints when the next out-of-place thing struck him: the dung.
Gnolls were considered filthy creatures, but contrary to what circulated the streets of Kashimy’s
cities and even its royal court, they didn’t paint themselves with excrement. They smelled
musky on account of their coats, but in Montague’s experience, they weren’t as dirty as people
made them out to be.
I suspect it was one of our people who did that to him, he thought, but kept his mouth
closed for the time being. The only thing worse than accusing the prince of having such a thing
done would be to do so in front of the nobles and cause Josiah any extra embarrassment. He was
a patient man most of the time, but not when he was embarrassed, something the many officers
currently sitting nearby in prison cells could attest to.
“So good of you to join us, ladies and gentlemen,” the prince said at length to the self
important charlatans around the edge of the chamber. “I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking of
how to deal with our guest, though I suspect his input will be limited on account of his inability
to speak a civilized language.”
There was laughter around the room, but the general didn’t join in. “Your Highness…,”
Montague offered, but then paused.
“What is it, General?”
Montague looked at the gnoll, who had finally turned his eyes away from the prince.
There was no doubt about it now, meeting the man’s gaze: there was a depth there the prince
thus far couldn’t or didn’t want to see. “Sire, he understands what you’re saying, and probably
everything else that’s been said in his presence since these… nobles came down.”
Josiah rose from his bench and strode closer, just far enough away that even the longest
lunge with that fang-filled muzzle couldn’t reach him. “Is that so, beast?”
The gnoll didn’t answer but to smirk, and the prince snapped his fingers at one of the
guards standing around the room’s perimeter. “Bring the woman, then,” he ordered, drawing the
first look of concern Montague had seen from the gnoll. “Let’s see just how much he does
A woman was brought in from one of the prison wings, a border-lander from the look of
her. Her face was marred with bruises and dried blood as though she’d been punched numerous
times, and a twinge of doubt went through Montague’s stomach. Did the gnoll do that, or did
the prince have it done? By the way the prince grabbed one of her shackled wrists and yanked
her over to him, the general thought he knew the answer. He swallowed uneasily; this wasn’t the
Prince Josiah he knew.
“Did you defile this woman?” Josiah demanded.
The gnoll’s features hardened as he turned his attention from the woman to the prince.
“It would seem you have, your highness,” he said with an admirably unaccented command of
Kashiminian. “I never put my hands to this woman. She served as my quarters-maid during the
campaign and nothing more.”
“It’s not your hands that concern me, filthy as they are,” the prince returned, drawing
chuckles from the peacock gallery around the perimeter. “I cannot help but think by the way you
look at her and the way she looks at you that you have defiled her at some point. It seems we’ll
have to be rid of her just as we will soon be rid of you.”
“No!” the gnoll protested, struggling against his bonds. “Leave her be!”
“I thought as much,” Josiah said, turning his gaze to the chained woman. “What is your
“I am not a whore!” she spat with the customary defiance of a border-lander. While they
were technically part of the kingdom and usually paid their taxes, they tended to live on the
fringes of Josiah’s rule in both the figurative and literal senses.
“You chose to lie with an enemy of our kingdom, and a beast at that… I think whore is
being generous. Now, tell me your name before I have it beaten out of you.”
Montague grimaced but found it hard to fault Josiah for being cruel to this woman if she
truly lay with the enemy, regardless of their race. To do so with a gnoll, though, would be seen
as treason on several different levels.
The woman looked at the guard beside her as his hand curled into a fist. “Wendra, Your
Highness. I am Wendra of Allerton.”
“Allerton… a village this creature destroyed… and yet you became attached to him? Do
you even know his name, or merely the feel of him?”
“We never…,” she started, but the prince silenced her with his stare. Wendra met the
gnoll’s eyes but then looked down at the floor. “I don’t know his name, Your Highness. I know
only that his people call him Maurkim.”
“Is that some title?” Josiah asked, turning back to the gnoll, who nodded, the twinge of a
smile playing across his muzzle. “Are you a king, then? Or just a terrible general?”
More chuckles from the nobles and guards, though the gnoll’s expression didn’t change.
“I am Maurkim. You will learn what it means, prince, but not until it is far too late.”
“What was your aim in all this?”
“My aim was, and remains, to destroy your kingdom.”
Josiah laughed, his echo gallery joining with him. It was starting to feel like a badly
written play to Montague, who watched, paralyzed, knowing something was coming but unable
to muster the nerve to stand up to his prince. Two hundred gnolls against an entire kingdom of
men; there was something else behind it. Was it the sorcery the gnolls were said to wield? Did
this creature plan to summon a demon or some other hellish trickery upon Josiah and his people?
And most importantly, why? Josiah was having too much fun trying to lord his authority over a
savage, and wasn’t thinking with his typically shrewd and slightly ruthless objectivity.
And there would be no further answers just yet. Despite his laughter, the prince rose and
took the cudgel from his guardsman’s belt. “In that, beast, I’m afraid you’ve already failed,” he
said, and then clubbed the gnoll unconscious with a single, well-placed blow.
Montague wasn’t sure which was more impressive: the blow, or the fact that the Maurkim
never even flinched.
—- legal —-
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