Chapter 11: The Mines

“Take this,” the Hammer said, pressing a dull pickaxe against Kwado’s chest. In his thick green fingers, the mining tool looked like a toy. The Hammer snatched up a small canteen, shaking it in Kwado’s face. “Each day you work, you’ll be given exactly one full canteen of honeywine.”

Kwado nodded and held out a hand, but the slaver pulled the canteen back and shook his head. “I said each day you work.” He uncorked the mouthpiece and turned the container on its side, letting the sweet golden liquid pour out. The dry cavern floor absorbed it like a hungry sponge. Kwado screwed up his face, unable to comprehend how anyone could be so wasteful or malicious. He wondered if this man was any relation to Finnigin. The Hammer waited until the stream of wine was down to trickling drops then righted the container and corked it back up, tossing it carelessly to Kwado, who dropped his pickaxe to catch it.

“Whoa there, careful with that,” the Hammer said, eyeing the pickaxe. “Those things don’t just grow on trees, you know.”

“But isn’t that where wood comes from?” Kwado asked.

“You’re a smart one, eh?” the Hammer sneered, tapping the rod at his belt. “Maybe I let the Qilin have a taste of you, see how smart you are then?”

Kwado bowed his face low. “No sir,” he said a bit too quickly—or maybe not fast enough, depending on the perspective. “Please, I wasn’t trying to be smart. I’m just a dumb troll, sir.”

The Hammer folded his arms over his chest and grinned smugly. “Alright then, just pick it up and follow me, troll.”

The slaver led him down a roughhewn slope to the cavern floor, cutting a path straight across the wide mine. They passed several columns of stone, pieces of the mountain that had been left intact to maintain the integrity of the carved out cavern. Thick wooden beams crossed the ceiling from one column to the next.

Dozens of goblins were hard at work chipping away the stone walls, while others carried buckets of rocks to the center of the room where a rockcrusher lay. The fat-bellied beast was the same color as the cavern, absorbing the pigment of the rock into its scales. Its legs were like an elephant’s, ending in rounded stumps. A shady man was feeding the beast, heaving an entire pail of limestone into its open mouth as they marched past.

“That’s Bessie,” the Hammer said, nodding toward the rockcrusher. “As your scraps build up, it’s on you to bring ‘em over to her. I hate a sloppy work area, so you’ll be sure to make lots o’ trips. Watch your fingers, though. She won’t mind a little troll sauce with her minerals.”

Bessie chomped down with the snapping motion of a crocodile, greedily crushing the rocks in her toothless mouth with jaws as powerful as a sledgehammer. Kwado imagined his fingers in that maw and cringed, purposefully directing his attention elsewhere.

Near their path, a pair of trolls was whispering. When he caught their eye, they turned away, back to swinging their pickaxes.

“Don’t get all happy,” the Hammer said. “You ain’t going to be put with them. I’m not so stupid that I’ll stick three of you nasty beasts together.”

Kwado frowned and took another look at them. They were much larger than he and fierce-looking. One had jutting tusks protruding from a massive under bite. Their hair was wildly unkempt and riddled with dust, and their skin was covered with calloused purple bumps.

Kwado and the Hammer marched a bit farther to the other side of the cavern, where a line of collared slaves worked the wall, carving it away like ice cream, their rows of pickaxes falling in time like some cruel band of percussionists.

“This will be your section,” the Hammer said. “You work until I say stop. Grub is served first thing in the morning and after work hours.” He waved over a gargoyle. The knuckle-dragging creature came without hesitation. “Boram, this is our new troll. Show him the ropes.”

The Hammer turned to walk away and Kwado reached out, stopping at the last instant before touching him. “Wait, um, Mr. Hammer, sir.”

The short man turned around and scowled. “What?”

“I had a question…have a question,” Kwado said nervously. “What do we do, you know, if we have to…”

“Can you believe this troll?” the Hammer asked Boram. The gargoyle shrugged. “Oy, Felix,” the Hammer called to a wiry human, “the new sack wants to know where to take a piss.”

Felix laughed like he was the unfortunate offspring of a hyena. He dropped his soiled trousers and let a stream of piss loose on the wall. Kwado twisted his face in disgust, which only made the slaves and the Hammer alike laugh that much harder.

“Good luck with this one,” the Hammer snorted, heading back to his post.

Boram was staring coldly at Kwado when he turned around. “What that about, you try get lashing?” he asked.

Kwado shook his head meekly.

The gargoyle grumbled and led him down the line of slaves to an empty spot large enough for the two of them to fit. He rapped his knuckles on the stone wall and pointed at Kwado’s pickaxe. “You strike here, good and true.”

“Why are we digging?” Kwado asked.

“We mine for stones…gemstones that the king’s men use for magic and trade.”

“If there are magic stones in here, why don’t you just use them to escape?” Kwado asked.

Boram quickly looked to either side. His eyes bulged like they might pop, then he glared at Kwado. “You no joke of such things. You speak stupid, it bring the hounds down on us. Just keep your head down and break rock, I show you the rest as you find stones.”

Kwado bowed. He could see there was much yet to learn of his new life.

Boram fell to work, pulling his pickaxe behind his head and striking it against the wall, which sloped toward them at its bottom. Flecks of rock flew to either side, and the gargoyle repeated the action.

Kwado studied him for a minute then tried his own hand at it. He was never afraid of hard work. As his pa used to say, “Working with your hands is good for the soul, keeps you honest,” but somehow Kwado did not think this was what his old man had in mind. He brought the pickaxe down hard, too hard, and the angle was all wrong. The wooden handle vibrated painfully in his hands, and the pickaxe slid sideways.

Boram paused to eye him then grunted and fell back to work.

It took Kwado a dozen more tries before he executed a decent strike, and a handful more after that before he fell into a smooth rhythm, matching the steady rise and fall of his fellow miner’s pickaxes. He worked the wall for a few hours, losing himself in chipping away at the stone, until he was forced to stop by the small pile of rubble around his feet. He had to fetch a couple pails and filled them to the brim to clean it all up. The muscles in his arms burned on the short walk to the center of the room, and by the time he made it to Bessie, they were trembling. He tossed the rocks into her drooling mouth, careful not to get too close. Even the rockcrusher had a collar, though hers was chained to a stake in the rocky floor and she had no sign of a Qilin branding. Kwado felt sorry for the creature.

By the time he returned to his post, his throat was parched raw from the dust of crushed limestone. He reached for his canteen, only remembering it was empty when he uncorked the lid and tried to drink. He stared down into the empty mouthpiece with a deep frown and glumly pushed the stopper back in place.

“Hey, kid,” the human to his left whispered. Kwado looked over at him, uncertain whether he was being spoken to or not. The man wore a bandana over the lower part of his face, making it difficult to tell what he was saying. He pulled his own canteen free and tossed it to Kwado. “Here, have a swig of this.”

The canteen bounced off Kwado’s palm and he juggled it a few times before getting a firm hold. “Gosh, thanks, sir,” he said, bowing his head before popping open the canteen and taking a deep draught. The man pulled down his bandana, revealing a devilish grin and a reddish-orange goatee to match his sideburns. His hair was fashioned in a bowl cut. The style was very different from that of the villagers of Westfall, but Kwado thought it suited his round flat face very well.

“Sure thing, troll,” the man said. “I know how rough day one can be.” He reached out. “If you’re done, maybe you better walk that over. I’m not sure I trust you to be a pitcher.”

Kwado was not sure what he meant, but he smiled politely and walked over to hand the canteen back. “My name is Kwado.”

“Ka-wage-oo, huh?” the man struggled.

Kwado suddenly remembered Soasha’s words of advice and winced.

“Bit of a tongue twister, ain’t it?” Hobb said. “How about we just call you Spike? That’s a proper name for a troll, eh?”

Kwado quickly nodded, eager to move the conversation past his name.

“Tits up. It’s good to meet you, Spike. I’m Hobb de Loche.”

The smile was wiped from Hobb’s face when a loud gong sounded outside the cavern, the strength of it shaking the entire mountain. At the entrance to the mine, the Hammer jumped to his feet, tipping over his wooden chair and brandishing his weapon. He called to a few of the other guards circling the room, and they all disappeared down the tunnel in a hurry.

Kwado watched them. “What’s happening?” he asked Boram.

The gargoyle kept picking the rock. “Troll never mind. Just keep working. If they come back and see you standing like fool, you be in world of hurt.” 

Kwado wondered how anyone could be so calm about such a calamitous commotion, but he assumed the gargoyle must know what he was talking about. He turned to resume his work and caught a glimpse of two goblins down the wall. They were looking in his direction and whispering excitedly to each other. He tried to pretend as if he had not seen them and fell back to mining, but he could not stop watching the pair out of the corner of his eye.

Hobb caught Kwado looking in his direction and frowned curiously. He followed Kwado’s gaze, turning his head just in time as the goblins dashed toward them. Hobb cried out and took a step back, almost tripping over a rock, as the two goblins fell on him.

“You want me, Sklxx?” Hobb said, recovering quickly and gripping his pickaxe with both hands. “Come and give it your best shot.”

The goblin sneered and jumped forward to deliver a jarring head butt into Hobb’s face, dropping him to the ground. Hobb tried to defend himself, swinging his pickaxe blindly, but the goblins, who were still on their feet, easily stayed out of the weapon’s path. They threw a flurry of kicks and punches at him. Kwado gasped at such unbridled violence.

He hesitated for a moment then steadied himself. As he stepped forward, Boram grabbed his shoulder and spun him about. “Leave it be, don’t get involved.”

One of the goblins kicked Hobb in the jaw, splattering a stream of blood onto the rock. “But they’re going to kill him,” Kwado said.

Boram looked at him gravely and slowly shook his head. Kwado was not sure what to do or even what he could do. Surely whatever was happening was none of his business. But was he just supposed to stand by while a man was beaten to death? He tried to think what his pa might do in this situation. What outcome would old Gordy Vance be proudest of? Kwado gritted his teeth and nodded at no one in particular.

“Pa would help him,” he said to Boram. He shook off the gargoyle and jumped into the fray, peeling one of the goblins off Hobb. “Stop!” he shouted. “What are you fighting for?”

The goblin bit his hand with sharp teeth and hopped out of reach. Kwado yelped and sucked on the wound, wincing at the stinging taste of his own blood.

A horn blew on the other side of the cavern. Everyone grew still, pickaxes held in midair, as all eyes fell on the Hammer. He held a bull horn to his lips, staring directly at the group of troublemakers.

“You’ve done it now, troll,” Boram said in a whisper, pulling far away from him.

In fact, the whole of the room seemed to pull back from the rabble rousers, giving wide berth and resuming the steady rise and fall of pickaxes. The goblins stepped away from Hobb, lining up with their backs pressed against the wall, and he pulled himself achingly to his feet. A lump the size of an egg was growing on his forehead and a line of blood ran from the corner of his mouth. Without looking he fell in line with his attackers, stiff back to the cavern wall, wavering eyes watching the ground at the Hammer’s feet as he approached. Kwado looked sideways, unsure whether he should resume digging or fall in beside Hobb.

The Hammer stalked across the room, looking fit to flog the lot of them. “What in Glamri’s fiery breath is it you dogs think you’re doing?”

“The troll attacked us,” one of the goblins said, his voice wet and thick.

Kwado blanched. “You liar! You know I had nothing to do—”

“Silence!” The Hammer’s voice was hard as steel. Kwado cringed as the slaver studied them with cold eyes glinting in the torchlight. He seemed to be mulling something over internally then settled his attention squarely on Kwado, stepping toe to toe with him.

His breath smelled like Sulphur, and though he was almost half the troll’s height, Kwado’s stomach churned. He could see the Hammer had slipped something off his belt and held it drawn back to the side, but he did not dare pull his eyes away from the man’s gaze, which was hard and demanding.

“You think I’m a bloody idiot, troll?”

A tremble worked up his body, from his belly to the corner of his mouth, resulting in a jerky shake of his head. “N-no sir.” Out of the corner of his eye he saw his goblin accuser snicker and lick its lips with a forked tongue.

You do. Don’t try and deny it. You think my head must be so full of sawdust that I need a worthless piece of swamp trash like yourself to point out the obvious,” he said, jabbing his stubby finger into Kwado’s chest. “Think I need you to tell me the goblin’s a liar?”

The goblin barely got out a cry before the Hammer suddenly shifted and plunged the tip of a short sword straight through its throat. The move was so swift and so brutal that the tip of his blade popped all the way through and nicked the cavern wall behind. The goblin’s partner in crime, Sklxx, shrank away, bumping into Hobb, who stood his ground even though his face was suddenly drained of all color.

The Hammer unceremoniously pulled the blade free, releasing a fountain of blood from the goblin’s torn throat. The humanoid clutched at the gaping wound to stem the flow, opening his mouth wide in a choked gurgle, and began to fall forward to his knees. Relentless, the Hammer kneed the mortally wounded creature hard in the stomach, sending him careening into his horrified partner. The goblin released his throat to try to catch himself from falling, and a spout of blood sprayed over the rags Sklxx called clothing.

The Hammer glared at Kwado, and he felt something come loose in the pit of his stomach. Meanwhile the rest of the slaves just kept digging. “You disobey the rules, you earn the price,” the Hammer said.

Although Kwado was uncertain whether the Hammer was speaking to him or the greater cavern in general, he was sure the man meant pay the price, but figured this was no time to be doling out English lessons.

The Hammer turned his withering glare to Sklxx. “Pick up your girlfriend and report to the whipping post.”

The goblin struggled to get a grip on his dying friend, settling in the end for dragging his limp body out of the cavern by the arm.

The Hammer watched the pair with hands on his hips, his short sword sheathed once more. Once they were gone, he headed back to his chair without a second glance at Kwado and Hobb, waving his hand in the air dismissively. “Get back to work, you slobs!”

Kwado scrambled to gather his pickaxe as the slaver went back to his post.

“Thanks, mate,” Hobb said, resuming work beside him with a pained expression. He looked like he should be heading to Soasha’s tent, not digging for whatever it was they were digging for. “If you hadn’t jumped in, I’d probably have been goblin meat by the time the old Hammer there got back. I really owe you one.”

Kwado did not know how to respond. All the years he lived in Westfall he had never seen such violence, such brutality of spirit. The goblins had been prepared to kill this man. How could Hobb think Kwado would be able to do anything other than intervene? “Anytime?” he said, feeling quite lame.

Hobb snickered and shook his head. “I like you, troll. Me and you, we’re going to be good friends.”

Though it felt wrong, having just witnessed the Hammer’s cruel form of punishment and being imprisoned only an hour before, Kwado smiled for the first time in days. For him, none of the beatings and brandings mattered at that moment. There was only one thing on his mind.

Kwado Vance had finally made a friend.