The archery field was green and flat and mostly crab grass. The gardens at the palace had been designed by the legendary Competence Baxter, a man who understood the spartan beauty of one lone perfectly placed tree on a small hill with light cascading through it’s leaves. And who would have been reduced to abject sobbing hysterics at the sight of what had been done to his life’s work. The greenery was at best lazily tended. This was supposed to be deliberate, which was undeniably true. What was brutally deniable was the fact that this was an aesthetic choice that resulted in anything that approached the concept of beauty.
The brush was dazzlingly overgrown in manner that was alleged to be in harmony with native plants of the region. Which is to say the royal garden was now a gigantic weed patch. A violent, sadistic bucolic orgy of Cudweed, Privet and Nutgrass now writhed and fought or interbred randomly whether it was possible for those plants to interbreed or not. A few isolated, forlorn patches of roses and Sweet-Williams left over from happier days fought for their very lives wherever they could make their heroic last stands..
The current royal gardener had been appointed during the last regency after a sufficiently impressive donation to the Princess Perseverance Royal Charity for the Empowerment of the Exceptionally Gendered had been received. The Gift had left Perseverance obligated to find a sinecure for the amazingly useless son that came attached to that donation. She knew the kid would screw up anything he touched, so she turned him loose on the thing she cared least about. The Royal Gardens that her stepmother had so carefully and lovingly restored over the course of twenty years.
Under Duke Bryan’s Regency, the weed patches were now occasionally and savagely hacked into submission. The Royal Gardener always wailed, screamed, cried, drummed his heels and pulled out his hair in bloody hanks on these occasions. Grod suspected these performances were the only thing keeping the Royal Gardner alive. Bryan and of course his mother were always on hand, smiling merrily as the kid rolled on the ground sobbing and moaning while the Orc working party from the nearby Penal Barracks at Glasshouse, ravaged his creation.
It appears I’ll be spared that detail Grod thought to himself more or less cheerfully. At least there was an upside to being executed.
He jauntily took the field and noted a couple of small hillocks to the west and saw a spot or two that looked a bit muddy next to them. Honestly he wouldn’t need to bother with the terrain much. Grod was tempted to ask for a full shield just so the little idiot he was about slaughter, would feel entitled to use one himself. The only reason Prince Branadoc wasn’t carrying one now was because of his ridiculous sense of chivalry.
If Grod had had a chivalric bone in his body he would be fighting the kid with one hand tied behind his back… While buried up to his waist in quicklime.
Let’s get this one over with. Grod thought to himself with cheerful resignation as he took the field.
I have to get to my execution after this and that’s going to take all day. Never be late to your own execution. It’s bad manners. I read that somewhere.
Although Grod couldn’t honestly help but feel a little sorry for himself about all of this.
Not just because he was going to be put to death by a friend who was really going to be pretty broken up over the fact he had ordered Grod to receive two hundred lashes then be hanged, cut down alive, (completely) castrated, disemboweled, set afire, doused. Flayed from head to foot. Finally to be completely dismembered at every joint of his body starting with the tip of his left pinky. Ending (on the off miracle that he was still alive) at his neck.
But also because Prince Branadoc really wasn’t all that bad as royalty went.
Grod gave his opponent a quick eyeball assessment. Remarkably fat for a twenty year old human male but very agile none the less. Decent conscious proprioception, he could see that. Fatties aren’t usually that body-aware but a royal upbringing meant a lot of dancing lessons, Grod presumed. He can probably get some power behind that chopper, Grod thought while eyeing the prince’s falchion. Those glorified machetes were drastically unfashionable amongst the human nobility these days but Centaurs had been known to favor them. Or at least they had they had in the past. These days of course the horsey-boys preferred to slay their opponents with a deeply cutting remark.
Grod sighed a little at what he had to do next. Branadoc was all right. Okay he was crazy as fuck. No denying that. But the orcs had had to put up with a lot worse since they went under the yoke.
Truth be said, he was a lot like Bryan that way.
When Bryan had been a company grade officer. he always ate the same food as his orcs. Right in front of them. Even though it was NOT a good idea for a human to be eating that.
He would join them at the picket line and stand watch into the night. No matter how cold or wet it was and no matter if they were in permanent garrison and the only thing likely to attack the camp was a lost and undernourished sheep.
When they were palisading in the field he’d grab a shovel and dig in. Of course he constantly got in everyone’s way and it was annoying as hell but they all noticed the effort.
Honestly, Bryan had been a bit of morale problem for the rest of the human officers. No other junior officer was busting his ass like that. It gave their superiors unrealistic expectations about the rest of them.. What made him so damn special? The other Company Grades had groused. Then of course they remembered … Oh right, the King’s bastard son. Got it.
Conversely Bryan was quite the morale boost for Grod. For once he didn’t have to do an Ensign’s job as well as his own. Except of course he did have to keep the the brave young idiot from getting stupidly killed in battle (which given the young duke’s idealistic nature was not that easy). Grod also had to endure the kid’s unending whinging on and on and on when it came to the paper work.
Bryan was an officer. Paperwork is what officers and pogues are for. Deal with it your Grace.
This Branadoc kid was the same way… In his own way. Grod could see it. A life time of assessing and dealing with (one way or another) the human nobility that was sent to officer, the Orc Regiments. Had given him considerable perception in these matters. Hell, half the reason that Bryan had been sent to him the first place was that Grod had been expected to frag him at the earliest opportunity that afforded reasonable discretion.
No one had tried to do anything to whip the centaur regiments into shape in the last hundred years and that crazy fat little toad was really working at turning them around. It would fail miserably but the kid was trying.
Branadoc wasn’t all that bad. It was just that he was way too useful for out of their minds fucktards that were ripping Columbiana to pieces.
Grod felt weight of his tomahawk slip from it’s head down to the haft as he took up a loose guard. The kid was studying him with focused intensity for all the good it would do him.
Prince Branadoc had had the best fencing masters the kingdom could afford. Grod knew it wasn’t going to get the kid out of this alive. But at least it wouldn’t be embarrassingly easy to kill him. That would mean something to Duke Bryan.
Grod confirmed that, the first time he made a feint. The boy instantly went into an energy draining tight high guard. Bran then checked himself, stepped back and dropped his guard.
Pounds equal pain and a high guard was nothing but pain. Muscles locked, heavy sword held to the back and over his head. So many small muscles carrying so much weight at such an unnatural angle and then having to h-o-o-l-d it. Your arms would start to burn in well under a minute. A high guard devoured stamina like a starving bear.
Grod repeated the move twice more and inched his way back and to the left, onto the nearest small hillock. When Prince Branadoc stepped back this third time, Grod was on the high ground with the sun behind his back, burning it’s way into Bran’s eyes.
This was going to make thing laughably easy but Grod did not feel like laughing. A quick glance out the corner of his eyes revealed Duke Bryan perched forward on the edge of his throne. His fingers were clenched on the arms so tightly the “emerald” was fracturing. There was a hint of blood between his fingers.
At a flicker of sudden movement in his peripheral vision, Grod snapped his eyes back to Prince who had just…
…turned his back on him?
The Royal idiot had both his arms out stretched over his head and was bellowing something in Centauri. The Centaurs seemed to be deeply embarrassed about it. There was much shuffling of hooves and rolling of eyeballs.
Except for the one that beamed at the prince. His….friend…Trelvis. Trelvis returned the cheer in a high, very high in fact near castrati high and cracking voice, which irritated the other Centaurs even more.
Well the kid had lived longer then I thought he would, Grod thought to himself. Props! Grod couldn’t help but smile at the boy’s arrogance.
Then he sighed.
Time to end this. Grod focused and then shuffled in. Alternating between tip toes and tip heels. Inching his way forward in a quick slide down hill, not even close to a balance endangering cross step. Grod allowed the kid to take a couple of shots at him. Kevo-Grod actually grunted in surprise at the strength of the kid’s blows. The boy knew how to use his weight, he got his whole hip behind the strike and used his momentum to recover nicely too, rather then stagger forward and off balance.
Grod made two half feints. The Prince’s buckler moved to the same spot each time. Grod now had his window of attack. It would land between the Prince’s breaths. A lightening back strike that would punch through the window the prince’s guard was presenting him with Grod’s sword angled sharply to the back. Then extending the blade full before ending in a savage backward jerk. It would take half of Branadoc’s neck away from back to front.
It would be over.
The cathedral bells would ring. Bryan would rule. His mother would commit herself to reality. And Grod would die hideously long before any of that would happen.
A workable plan with obvious drawbacks so far as Grod was concerned.
But needs must he thought as he pulled back his hand for the death stroke. Grod made his feint. Once more the prince took his bait and lifted into his guard. Grod waited just a moment while he watched the princes nostrils expand as he inhaled, saw the pulse on his neck throb. Noted the whole of the prince and then he took his life ending shot.
He appeared to strike for Branadoc’s meaty and staggeringly hairy thigh. The prince dropped his buckler to intercept, even as Grod smoothly reversed edge of his gladius. Changing the blow from a cut to a thrust. He blade’s tip shot well past Branadoc’s neck.
Grod was now precisely in position. The head of his tomahawk had the prince’s blade locked. The clanking feel of it had arrested the boy’s attention.
Grod bent his left knee ready to shoot his hip backward gathering every inch of power from his foot on the ground to the edge of the blade that would cut through most of Branadoc’s neck as he jerked it towards him.
Even as he snapped into his strike. Grod felt his arm turn to gelatin.
Out of the corner of his eye he couldn’t help but notice a female dark elf kissing a female Centaur dead on the mouth. The dark elf girl with waist length albastar white hair flowing down over the skin of her jet black shoulders. Her hands gripping tight to the face of the golden blonde, (from head to hoof,) Centaureen). Whose wide and lost deep blue eyes were huge with surprised panic and whose delicate hands were waving frantically beside her head in shocked alarm.
In this day and age that wouldn’t have been enough to have broken Grod’s complete focus…except that he knew one of them.
Kevo-Grod astoundingly missed his easy pick-off shot. The pommel of his sword bashed inelegantly into the back of Branadoc’s head. Hurtling Branadoc’s stunned high born forehead into Grod’s nose with a solid crunch.
Grod staggered backward, his vision yellow-red. He felt thick fluid dripping out of his nostrils.
Bran, concussed into unconsciousness, collapsed at his feet.
Kevo-Grod lifted his head and bellowed in Orc-hyper rage. His vision was now clouded by the red mist of his fury. His pulse pounded in his ears. His breath coming in gasps as he started to lose himself the joyful burning power of being of berserk.
Distantly, he felt strong arms wrap around him in a bear hug. Grod barely heard Duke Bryan’s voice through the storms of his mind saying, “kill him now and you are killing me, Banner Sergeant!”
Grod pulled his being back out of the red pit that was devouring him. He looked in Bryan’s eyes. His reason dragging his mind kicking and screaming back into reality.
Killing Branadoc in a lawful dual that the prince himself had initiated would be one thing.
No one could blame Bryan if his brother died under those circumstances.
Murdering Branadoc on the other hand… When he was unconscious at Grod’s feet was liable to rise a question or two about Bryans’ involvement in the affair. It wouldn’t matter how much Bryan executed him afterward. The Duke would be blamed.
Grod clamped his jaws tight with a nearly audible clank. Then he did so twice more as he finished mastering himself. His lips drew back from his maw exposing his massive teeth before he bellowed, “Prince Branadoc has drawn first blood!”
Duke Bryan joined his voice to Grod’s, “the honor the Royal Centaurian Pathfinder Regiment is upheld! The affair of honor is concluded Honor and Glory to the Centauri Pathfinders!”
The centaurs were absolutely shocked into silence for a moment. One of their own, (even if he technically wasn’t) had actually…won…something?
They then shuffled their hooves in wonder. Foreheads furrowed in worry. Weren’t they supposed to do something on occasions like this?
Lord Trelvis trotted forward smiling joyfully and shrieked, “Qwee a’loo na ah vheey!”
Oh yes, a victory cheer. This was a victory right? They’d heard stories about these things. It’s cultural isn’t it? You’re allowed to do that if it’s cultural… And you aren’t human.
One or two picked up the cry experimentally, a little unsure of themselves. This sort of thing didn’t happen everyday for Centaurs. But then it built itself into a wave as they began to lose themselves to an identity long suppressed by their lords and leaders. Again and again they took up the battlecry of ancestors that would have been disgusted beyond all belief at the mere sight of their descendants. “Qwee a’loo na ah vheey!”
Trelvis was already rushing forward. The rest of regiment followed on his hooves. Joyfully scooping up the body of their fallen royal hero. Brandoc’s arms flopping and his belly rolling back and forth. His regal bulk was lifted upon the groaning shoulders of his brothers of the regiment. As Prince Branadoc of Columbiana became the first champion of their people who could be reasonably called that in the past century and a half.
Grod was already stalking his way across the garden toward the Dark Elf that had cost him a victory…that…would have killed him horribly. So a lot of his anger was decidedly pro-forma. But still, principles…
“What the fuck are doing here Arianalla?” Grod demanded.
“Saving your life Sweetie.”
“From him?” Grod hooked his thumb at the now groaning form of Prince Branadoc as it was joyously heaved back and forth like a three hundred pound bag of jello, back and forth between the rapidly failing backs of his brother officers.
“No, from him,” Arialana glanced at Duke Bryan.
Grod pointedly ignored the obvious truth of that, so he could continue to be pointlessly furious.
“And who the glutch is she? He asked, jerking his chin at the blonde and still rather dazed and a bit lost Centaureen. Golden hair held high in a retro-vintage bouffant looking about her in confusion with her mouth slightly open and her lips forming an inviting O. Her hands resting just beneath but not quite cradling her over sized breasts. One look into her wide lost eyes left Grod dead certain that lost and dazed was her default state.
“Lady Vulveena,” she hooked her own thumb at Trelvis, “his wife.
Grod blinked twice then bellowed “HE HAS A WIFE!?!?!??!”
A short time later an out of breath Princess Perseverance and Earl Earl had hustled themselves out to the tourney field in time to see a groaning prince Branadoc being roused to consciousness by a group of delighted centaurs from his regiment. Slapping each other on the shoulders and side flanks, a little unsure of this newfound masculinity thing but enjoying it none the less. The Crown Prince’s…traveling companion, Trelvis hugging the prince and crying with joy. Next them a strikingly blonde centaureen kept repeating in an irritating gasp, “Give him air! Give him air!” As she pranced, jiggled and bounced around them in complete and unutterable uselessness.
“That crazy, stupid fuck, is supposed to marry our Cheapside!” Earl Earl snarled. “How is he going to do that if he’s dead?”
“Xheepseid, Muhira corrected automatically from behind them.
“Shut. The. Fuck. Up.” Earl’s voice growled.
Muhira dropped her gaze and scuttled backward.
Perseverance ignored the exchange, concentrating on the scene before them. Considering carefully before she spoke, “Cheapside, really doesn’t want to marry him you know.”
“How in the Fallen One’s asshole does that matter?” Earl Earl blurted. “You and I sure as glutch didn’t want to get married. We made it work, damn it!”
“Different problem my passion,” Perseverance put a genuinely lovingly hand affectionately on his arm. “If we could get our daughter married to her half-uncle,” She said dispassionately. “It would be a way to repair the breech in the royal house.” She thought some more and continued, “Bryan is dragging his feet on the matter but even the KFCW sees the merit in it. The problem is Branadoc and Xheepseid have to successfully have sex once, before Faire Witnesses according to Canon law. Cheepy can get anyone else into her bed to produce an heir after that but we need that one time to make things legally plausible.” She took a breath and held it while vaguely drawing his attention to Lord Trelvis with a glance. “I am no longer of the opinion that that is even possible.”
“Hrrrm,” Earl Earl growled noncommittally.
“On top of that I think we have another problem.” In the distance, she could see a dark elf girl that was being bellowed at by Bryan’s pet orc. “The Orc regiments are getting restless. They want Bryan on the throne.”
Earl was enough a politician that he didn’t say, anything stupid at that point. The Orcs weren’t supposed to have that kind of power in Columbiana but these days they did. The big question was, did they know it.
Earl Earl was the one who stated the obvious. “We can’t play the long game anymore, Persey. It’s time to go with plan B”.
Princess Perseverance clasped her husband’s hand hard. The price for her would be beyond bearing…
…But she would pay it.