part 2 of 3
by Joe Jackson
The next several days saw similar scenes play out in the dungeon. The prince’s shrewd
nature rose to the forefront again for a time, but the Maurkim continued to stall, answering
questions with questions, and meeting threats with promises that he would yet destroy the
kingdom of Kashimy. As the gnoll continued to frustrate the prince’s attempts to get answers,
Josiah stopped inviting his nobles to come and watch. He became more violent, and while the
general could understand taking drastic steps to safeguard the kingdom, the beatings made it
tougher and tougher for Montague to stay silent as he saw the Maurkim bludgeoned and bloodied
yet still remain steadfast.
He’s waiting for something. His people must be enacting some trap, the general thought
after the third day of “interrogations.”
Montague rushed to the capital’s main garrison and dispatched scouts to the borderlands.
There had to be something they were missing; despite everything Josiah said or implied, the
Maurkim was no fool, and if he had been captured, it was for a reason. What the general
couldn’t wrap his mind around was how the gnolls planned to destroy Kashimy. They weren’t a
terribly populous people, living up in the mountain valleys between the eastern and western
kingdoms, generally doing their best to stay out of the way of all. They didn’t have the numbers
to sack a kingdom, even if they recruited some of the other creatures residing in or under the
Unless, perhaps, they have a dragon…
That thought set his feet moving to the castle towers where the messenger birds were
housed. The cooing of the pigeons greeted him as he reached the tower’s top and strode toward
the castle message master sitting at his post. The man rose and saluted the general respectfully,
and Montague returned the gesture. “What can I do for you, sir?” the message master asked.
Montague looked in the direction of the far end of the mountain chain, where the closest
resident dragon made its abode. “Anything recent about the fire lizard in the north?” he asked.
“No, sir. Beast has been asleep for some years now,” the man replied, scratching at his
balding head. “Rest assured, if it emerges, we’ll know soon enough.”
“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of,” the general muttered before he left.
He wondered, as he descended all the way back to the dungeon for the day’s “festivities”,
Could a gnoll convince a dragon to attack us? What other explanation can there be? The
kingdoms have been at peace for years, and there’s nothing else shy of a dragon that would be
strong enough to bring meaningful harm to these lands. Unless it is a demon or something of
There were numerous beasts and monsters out in the unsettled, deep forests and the
foothills that sat in the shadow of the mountains. There wasn’t much known of them but rumor
and legend, though; could there be enough of them to pose a credible threat to Kashimy? And
even if so, how did they relate to the gnolls? Would they come here at the Maurkim’s call?
Montague was greeted by the sound of a hard slap rocking the Maurkim’s head to the
side as he entered the dungeon. The gnoll’s muzzle was now looped shut; not so much that he
couldn’t speak, but enough to prevent him from biting or at least giving any more than a puppy’s
nip. The effects of his beatings were starting to show now: there were rips in his hyena-like ears;
his left eye was swollen partially shut; blood still caked the corner of his mouth where he’d been
struck numerous times. The dung that had been used to paint him – for Montague was now
certain it had been done to the Maurkim and not by him – had crusted over along with the blood,
making a mess of his fur.
“Ah, General,” Josiah greeted him. Only Staurich, General Machter, and the prince’s
advisor Henry Gajaec were in the chamber today, the three elder men saluting General Montague
politely as he joined the gathering. Josiah’s frustration continued to mount, the beatings became
more severe, and fewer and fewer people were being allowed in. Even Wendra was no longer
dangled in front of the Maurkim to try to threaten him into talking; he must have accepted that
her fate was sealed regardless. “So good of you to join us. Today I think we are going to start
cutting off bits of this creature until he decides to talk.”
“Sire, please,” Montague said before he could seriously think about what to follow up
with. It was so hard to reconcile what the prince had become while dealing with this gnoll; was
Josiah becoming unhinged part of the gnoll’s overall plan? The prince tilted his head, waiting
for Montague to continue. “Perhaps we’re going about this the wrong way?”
“Are you questioning your prince?”
“No, Your Highness. But I do think I know how to make him talk without resorting to
more brutality,” he answered, understanding the wrath behind the question. Indeed, he was
questioning his prince’s methods, for this was not the man who had held the kingdom together
through various social upheavals over the course of his reign. And all Montague could think was
that he was incensed at having been outfoxed – and continuing to be outfoxed – by a gnoll.
“Speak, then,” Josiah demanded.
Montague swallowed. That was a tone that clearly said he might soon be the target of the
irritated prince’s sudden viciousness. “We want to know what he plans to do, what his ultimate
goal is,” the general said. “But I think perhaps it’s the reasoning behind this invasion that the
Maurkim is interested in talking about. So perhaps we should start there. We know next to
nothing about this man–”
“It’s not a man.”
The general bowed his head, his many questions answered. “We know next to nothing
about this creature. Perhaps we should start there, and then let his tongue spin the web of his
Or ours, he added silently.
The gnoll turned and smiled, albeit barely, in Montague’s direction. “Finally, one with a
shred of intellect among you. Shame this one does not wear the crown.”
Josiah hit the Maurkim again, with a closed fist this time, tearing the gnoll’s lips against
its teeth and bringing forth a few drops of blood. Montague made sure to keep his amusement
tucked away when he saw the prince pull his hand close to his side. That punch had hurt Josiah
more than the Maurkim…
“Keep hitting me, you imbecile,” the Maurkim said. “The pain you can inflict cannot
overshadow the joy in my heart… the knowledge that the longer you keep me alive, the more
certain your doom. But should you kill me, you merely send me to my ancestors and…”
Montague headed off another assault by the prince, though he bowed his head when
Josiah met his eyes. No words were exchanged, but the prince turned to sit on the bench across
from the gnoll, allowing Montague to take over the questioning.
“Who are you, sir?” Montague asked, approaching. His address of the gnoll as sir drew
incredulous stares or scowls from the other men in the room, but he ignored them for the time
being. “You and Wendra have said that Maurkim is a title; so what is your name?”
“I no longer have a name,” the gnoll replied. “A man’s name is his family, and as I no
longer have one, I am solely Maurkim.”
“And what does that mean?”
“As I have said, that is something you will only learn when it is too late.”
Montague nodded. “So, who are you, then, in your own words? What precipitated this
attack upon our kingdom?”
“I am… I was a holy man among my people,” the gnoll answered with a sigh. “I have
long had a strong connection to the spirits of our ancestors, whose wisdom and patience have
helped me guide our people to a prosperous state even sitting between many kingdoms who long
considered or still consider us savages, pests to be hunted down and exterminated.”
“Are you hoping to visit the wrath of your gods on us?” General Staurich gasped.
“We have no gods, human. We are children of the earth, no god. But the spirits of our
ancestors are all about us, the wisdom of the years there for those who will but bend ear to them.
And that is the function I long served among my people. Though you might say they also looked
at me as a monarch, I have never ruled over them, only advised and guided them.”
“So Maurkim is a reference to being a… conduit of the spirits?” Montague asked.
“Again I tell you, sir, you will not understand what it means until it is too late.”
“Very well, then. So why did you attack our kingdom? And what did you truly hope to
accomplish with only two hundred men with you?”
“Men who, I might add, abandoned you when you needed them most,” Josiah sneered
from behind the general.
That smile crept across the gnoll’s muzzle again. “Abandoned? Oh no, human. You
completely misunderstand. They did not abandon me; they returned home, just as I ordered.”
“I knew it!” Montague blurted before he could catch himself. “This is all a ruse. He has
us keeping our eyes on him while something greater comes from elsewhere. Speak, gnoll! What
are you planning?”
“Three more days,” the Maurkim returned. “If my estimation is correct – and it may not
be, considering how long I have been confined to this cellar – you will get your answer after
three more days.”
Josiah rose with a snarl and struck the gnoll across the temple with the cudgel he kept
close at hand these days. Montague bit down the sigh of disappointment when the gnoll’s eyes
rolled up in his head and he slumped in his chains. As obnoxious as the creature’s attitude could
be and as frustrating as it was to try to get answers from him, they were running out of time. If
they had only three more days to force answers out of him before something terrible happened,
this was precisely the sort of delay they couldn’t afford.
“Let him rest for now. Perhaps he’ll be more talkative when he awakens and I have an
inquisitor here,” the prince huffed.
“Oh, you can continue to ask him your questions, Montague, but refusing to answer is
going to begin costing this gnoll body parts… some more enjoyable than others.”
But that’s what he expects, and even wants to some extent, the general thought. He
watched the prince leave the chamber with the other generals and his advisor, all of whom wore
expressions that clearly said they were as perturbed by the prince’s recent behavior as Montague
was. Perhaps Henry Gajaec would be able to talk the prince back to his usual self.
Soon, the guards came in to take the prisoner to his cell, and the general left with a sigh.
Running out of time…
~ * ~ * ~
He dreamt of fire and smoke, the pall of death heavy over the capital city in the wake of a
dragon’s flight and a pillaging army of gnolls.
Montague walked to the bowl of water on his nightstand and washed his face. Sleep
would not come easy after such a nightmare as that. Instead, he dressed casually and left the
upper floors of the castle, where he was housed like a visiting dignitary. Descending the many
sets of winding stairs, he made his way down to the dungeon, where a single guard watched the
entry corridor to the central chamber.
“Would you like the prisoner strapped in, sir?” the guard asked, sitting up and then nearly
bouncing out of his seat to stand tall and salute.
“No, just take me to his cell. Perhaps he’ll be more talkative if he’s not strapped up and
under threat of a beating,” Montague said.
The guard opened the way, showing – in Montague’s presence, at least – the diligence to
lock each gateway they passed through behind them. Soon he brought the general through the
central chamber and down one of the wings, its cells cold and empty, until they reached the final
one devoid of furnishing. The Maurkim sat on the floor in a dark corner, keeping his distance
from both the slop pail and the dinner that sat untouched just inside the bars. His head was
bowed; he appeared to be asleep.
But appearances are certainly deceiving with this one, the general thought. He dismissed
the guard with a casual wave, and the man saluted before leaving.
Just as Montague suspected, once the gate to the wing clanged shut behind the guard, the
gnoll opened his golden eyes and stared at him. After a few moments, the hyena-man rose and
approached the bars, no hesitation or shame apparent in his movements despite still being nude
and filthy. It was only now that Montague saw him standing there, not stretched out in the
Inquisitor’s Square, that the general appreciated just how large the man was. Montague was a
tall man among the kingdom and the court, but the gnoll was easily a hand or more taller, not
counting the high ears. And the breadth of his shoulders and the corded muscles of his arms said
despite being a holy man, this was a creature of strength – something Montague already knew
was true in the sense of spirit.
The Maurkim didn’t grab the bars pleadingly, didn’t look remorseful or desperate; just
tired, wounded, and yet full of the determination to see something through. It was something the
general was familiar enough with after the battles he’d seen in his younger years…
“Why do you want to destroy our people?” Montague asked.
The Maurkim cocked his head. “I have no desire to kill your people.”
“Yet you threaten to destroy our kingdom.”
“Your kingdom, yes; not your people. Or did you not find it at all strange that my men
drove your people before us but inflicted only the barest of casualties?”
“The reports from the borderlands said you killed thousands…”
The Maurkim cocked his head again and gave a disappointed shake. “And I suppose you
believe I painted myself in dung as well? Have you not learned yet, General? Your prince is a
liar and a vicious man beneath that noble exterior he usually projects. Merely look at how easily
I can drive the fool to violence, and it should be of little mystery. And know this: I will bring
him to ruin even at the cost of my own life.”
“But why? What did he do to you or your people to spark this?”
The gnoll backed away from the bars and Montague feared he was about to lose what
little rapport he’d gained, but the Maurkim walked a circuit around his cell as he began to speak.
“Three turns of the moon ago, I returned to my people’s mountains from a long journey
of spiritual discovery. Spring was upon us, the cherry blossoms were in bloom, and the beauty
of my mountain home was in full splendor, a temple to the ancestor spirits. I had been gone
nearly a year, and my people welcomed me back eagerly as their holy man. Though I wanted to
return home to my wife and child, I remained several days in the valley to speak with my people,
to answer their questions and set the anxieties of their daily lives a little more at ease.
“When I climbed farther up the mountain to my home, I found it eerily quiet, even the
jubilant yapping of my daughter absent. And then I found my home in disarray, everything
within destroyed, defiled with blood or urine or worse. I found no sign of my wife or daughter,
so I held out hope that they had escaped or were perhaps only taken captive to be sold as slaves –
a terrible fate, yes, but one they could be rescued from.”
Montague swallowed but made no move or sound to interrupt.
“It was not until I searched the orchards that I found my wife. Do you… do you know
what they did to her, human?” the Maurkim asked, and the general shook his head. “I suspect
they would not have seen fit to rape what they considered an animal, but the condition of her
body… she had been beaten, stabbed, disfigured, and ultimately…” He paused and let out a long
sigh, fighting off what the general suspected was a sob. “They skinned her… took her pelt.”
“Who?” Montague demanded, as incensed as the gnoll. Even if it was someone within
the army, he’d have them stripped of any rank and then court martialed for unsanctioned acts of
war. The gnolls may not have been allies or even good neighbors, but anyone risking their wrath
to engage in banditry had to be dealt with swiftly and mercilessly.
The Maurkim ignored the question. “It took much longer to find my daughter. I do not
know if she suffered more or less. They drowned her, you see, but drowning is something that
can take a long time when one does it to be vicious and cruel. And then they skinned her as well,
leaving her body beside the mountain stream that ironically gave life to my home and the valley
it sits above. They… they left the only family I had to be infested with maggots and picked at by
birds and scavengers. And do you know what the worst part of it was, General?”
Montague shook his head. How does one assign a “worst part” to something so savage?
“They had only been dead for a day or so,” the gnoll said, dipping his snout to put his
forehead against the cold stone wall. “Had I not been in the valley those extra days, tending to
the needs of my people…”
“Then you’d probably be dead, too.”
The Maurkim looked up at that, but then his brow came low and he showed teeth for the
first time in a threatening manner. “Was it you? Did you send them?”
“What?” Montague was uncertain; he’d meant the comment to be reassuring, for all the
good it would do, but that wasn’t how the gnoll had perceived it, apparently.
“The men who killed my wife and daughter were from this kingdom, General. They went
specifically to my house, avoiding the rest of my people to take my family from me. Was it you
that sent them?”
Montague returned the scowl. “Of course not! I lead the armies in wartime, sir; I don’t
send my men to murder random villagers in the wilderness or neighboring territories. How do
you know they were from Kashimy?”
The gnoll approached the bars of the cell, but the general held his place. The Maurkim
was no longer scowling or showing his teeth. He gripped the bars of the cell and leaned as close
to Montague as he could, then said, “Because I found them and I killed them before they could
escape our mountains. I recovered and burned the pelts of my wife and daughter, then painted
myself with your soldiers’ blood and became Maurkim. They wore the colors and insignias of
your royal army. These were not bandits, human. These were assassins, sent to my home by
someone in your army. And I suspect that someone is the prince himself; though even if it was
not, he is ultimately responsible.”
The Maurkim walked away, returned to the corner of the cell and sat back down. “And
so I have come to destroy his kingdom,” he said at length. “It is those like you I pity, General,
for you will suffer just as much as the fool who started this war.”
“What are you planning? Do you really want innocent people to suffer?” Montague
asked, gripping the bars and leaning into them in an ironically pleading gesture.
“There is only one way out of this, and your prince is far too much of a coward to save
his people,” the gnoll answered. “Your time is running short. I am Maurkim.”
“Gods damnit,” Montague muttered under his breath, and then he returned to the exit of
the cell block. “Guard!”
~ * ~ * ~
Rather than return to his quarters, Montague instead had the guard let him into the
opposite prison wing. There he found a similar sight, Wendra left alone in the sole unfurnished
cell at the end of the block. Like the Maurkim’s wing, this one, too, had been emptied of any
other prisoners. The general had to wonder if the prince was keeping these two from speaking to
anyone else, whether to spread sedition, get their stories to match up, or – and this seemed most
likely – to avoid having anyone else witness his cruelty to either.
“Wendra,” he said in a sharp whisper.
The woman woke with a start, and scrambled to her feet when she saw Montague. She at
least had the dignity of clothes and a blanket to sleep under, unlike her gnoll companion. When
she reached the bars, she bowed her head as if the general were some noble. “What is it, sir?”
she asked, half in a yawn.
“Wendra, how close were you to the Maurkim? Did you lie with him?”
She shook her head, but she’d heard the accusation enough times by now that it didn’t
even faze her to be asked so bluntly. “No. No, that wasn’t… I was his servant. I washed and
tended to his things, cooked for him, kept his tent in order when he was in the field fighting with
his men. He never asked for more, never even implied he expected more. Some… some of his
men occasionally tried to take advantage of the women they had taken prisoner, but he – the
Maurkim – he wouldn’t allow it. I don’t speak their tongue, but from the way his men reacted, I
think he told them it was wrong, or that it would ruin his plan.”
Montague let one brow rise. “Ruin his plan? And do you have any idea what that plan
is, or was?”
“He never told me the entirety of it, my lord, but I know it was never to hurt people.
They had to kill some of those who refused to retreat or surrender, but he never seemed intent on
actually killing anyone. Best I can figure is they just wanted to push us away from their border,
but then it doesn’t make sense that he let us be captured.”
“Wendra, this is important. None among us know this gnoll anywhere near as well as
you do. This has to have been a ruse of some kind. Anything you can tell us may not only save
lives, but it may convince the prince to show you mercy.”
The woman barked a laugh, but then covered her mouth. With no rebuke coming, she
returned, “Mercy, from the prince? I think both of us are far beyond that, sir. As I said, I don’t
know anything of the Maurkim’s plan but that he mentioned… I don’t know… something about
the animals carrying the spirits of his ancestors. I fear you’d need to learn their ancestor-worship
to make any sense of it.”
“There’s no time. He says our kingdom is going to be brought to ruin in a matter of days.
We need to prevent that. Is there anything else you can tell me? Please try to remember if he
said anything specific about the animals, or creatures like the dragon to the north…”
Her eyes lit up. “The dragon! The dragon, the wolf, the hawk, and the serpent,” she
whispered. “Look to the spirits of the animals…”
Montague’s stomach dropped into his pelvis; that wasn’t a reference to the animals at all,
but Wendra wouldn’t know that. “Gods help us all,” he muttered.
And with that, he turned on his heel and ran to the gate, yelling for the guard to come let
him out immediately.
—- legal —-
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