By Aaron Canton
Lothgar stoked the campfire and glanced at the captives huddling on its other side. The tall lagano did not, as a rule, deal with living prisoners; enemy warriors were for killing on the battlefield, and possibly eating if they were worthy enough. But this was a special case, and a true warrior was nothing if not ruthlessly pragmatic.
The five kaja on the other side of the fire cringed into each other, each trying to put themselves in the center of the other four. Three of them were mostly unadorned, but two were heavily pierced. One of the latter, a tall female, was only looking mournfully up at the waning moon. The other, a short, stocky male, turned to Lothgar. “Please,” he mewled. His voice sounded rough and scratchy; the amulet affixed to his neck let him speak and understand Common, but he clearly wasn’t used to it. “We’ve done nothing to you.”
Lothgar shrugged and glanced behind the kaja, where a half-dozen knolls leaned on their spears and joked in their native tongue. The leader broke off from the group and walked to the kaja that had spoken. “Aw, relax,” he said in a coarse, yipping voice. “We’re not gonna hurt you. Cross our hearts.”
The speaker twisted to look at the gnoll, then immediately twisted away. “We have given you everything!” he managed. “We have left you our lands, our gems, our food stores–”
“But that’s what I’m saying!” said the gnoll captain, clapping the kaja on the back and almost knocking him into the fire. “What’s the point? We advance, you run away, we get a few shiny stones and a couple of huts. I’m here to tell you–there’s a better way!” His sneer straightened out into an approximation of a smile. “Isn’t that something?”
Lothgar turned as Salzar, his assistant, slithered into the clearing. “How’s it going?” asked Salzar in the lagano native tongue.
“They’re trying the ‘ask them nicely’ plan,” murmured Lothgar.
Salzar blinked. “After capturing them and dragging them here?”
“I never said they were smart.”
The gnoll leader was continuing. “See, right next to your lands is a human settlement. Nice little place, cozy, and just loaded with these warehouses full of food and gems. Problem is, they’ve got these big walls that we can’t break through. But you kaja, I’ll bet you could use your claws to scale those walls like that!” He snapped his fingers. “You help us get in, and trust me, we’ll be most appreciative. Why–I’ll even promise that our forces will just skip right past you and yours in the future. No more running or hiding! How’s that sound for a deal?”
“But then the human armies would attack our cluster! We can’t!” The kaja’s voice was cracking. “We’ll give you whatever you ask, but we can’t provoke the humans to go to war with us!”
The gnoll sighed heavily in Lothgar’s general direction. “So unreasonable. But Lothgar, my friend!” He spread his arms wide. “You have something that can help us, yes?”
Lothgar turned to Salzar. “The mercenaries?”
“Waiting outside the clearing.”
“Good.” He rose and withdrew a large bottle and four bowls from a sack by his tail. He poured the contents of the bottle–a thick, black liquid–into the bowls, then put one each in front of four of the kaja. Only the female with many piercings was exempted. “Drink,” he ordered.
“But–” the pierced male began.
The gnoll leader’s hand shot out and grasped the pierced female by the neck. “Oh, we insist.”
Slowly, the kaja that had spoken knelt and began to lap. The others that had been offered the liquid followed suit. For a moment, they made no sound. And then the kaja began to hiss and growl, straining at their bonds and biting at each other. The female who hadn’t drunken squeaked and tried to wriggle away, but was caught fast as her companions yowled into the night sky.
Salzar left the clearing and returned a minute later with a quartet of humans wearing armor and carrying swords–mercenaries from Raleigh. One of them looked around the clearing. “Who’re we fighting?” he asked.
The gnoll leader cut the kaja’s bonds. “Get them!” he roared, shoving them at the humans. And the kaja–who no longer looked like they were scared, or wary, or even understood what was going on–screeched and screamed and leapt at the humans, slashing at them with their claws in mindless, bestial fury.
“Not bad,” said Salzar, watching the kaja fight. One went down, decapitated by one of the human’s swords, but the others didn’t even seem to notice as they savaged the humans. “My regards to the cleric.”
“I’m sure she’ll be glad to hear it.”
“One thing I don’t get. Why are we doing this? Who cares if the gnolls take the city from the humans and get the kaja blamed for it?”
Lothgar shrugged. “Maybe the gnolls and kaja will drive humans out of the region. Or maybe the humans will fight back and kill off the kaja and the gnoll armies. Maybe they’ll wipe each other out. No matter what happens, they’ll all be weaker. Room for us to move in.”
The gnoll leader glanced at Lothgar as the last of the humans fell. “They’ll do whatever I say?”
“They’re animals now. They understand dominance, so as long as they know you’re stronger than them, they’ll follow orders.”
“Hmm.” The gnoll leader grinned, then grabbed the kaja that hadn’t been drugged and threw her at her former companions. “Her too, then! Kill her!”
The kaja mewled in horror, but the others didn’t seem to notice. They just set upon her with abandon.
When it was over, one of the kaja–the one who had spoken before–began to prowl towards the gnoll leader, but the gnoll flicked his arm forwards and bashed him over the head with his spear butt. When the kaja got up, it didn’t attack again. It just sat there, tail twitching, as the others joined it. Their faces showed nothing but the rage of beasts–and the obedience of the most dutiful servants.
The captain laughed in glee. “Exactly as promised. Lothgar, friend, we should do this more often.”
“As long as you uphold your terms–half of all the land conquered using the drugged kaja–we’ll procure as much of the potion as you could want.”
“Deal.” The captain turned to his soldiers. “Let’s go!” he roared. “New orders to all units–don’t kill captured kaja. Bring them to me. We’ll process them; in a week, I want an army of these things able to scale the walls of any human fortress in the country!”
When they were all gone, Lothgar helped Salzar put out the fire. He sighed to himself as he moved. This really wasn’t his kind of battle. He preferred physical combat, battling with spear in hand against some other warrior, to all the shadowy dealings and manipulations he’d been tasked with later. It was more real, somehow, to drive an enemy from the battlefield, than to manipulate some third party to do it for them.
But, ultimately, it didn’t matter what he preferred. He was a warrior, working tirelessly for the betterment of the lagano species. And he would do whatever it took to meet his objections.
A true warrior, after all, was nothing if not practical.