Chapter 12: A Way Out
Life was hard in the quarry, with endless days working the mines, random beatings at the hands of the slavers, only scraps of food for the two meals they received each day, painfully short nights of rest and surrounded by an army of bloodthirsty convicts. At the end of each workday, the slaves were corralled out of the many caves at the base of the mountain and away from the sandstone cliffs of the greater quarry, herded like cattle toward the feeding grounds where meager ladles of slop were slapped into dirty hands. Kwado learned early on how to cup his fingers tight enough to save every drop of the grey sludge they called dinner. Bowls were a commodity the Gulag had no interest in. One time, Kwado overheard the cook say the monsters could eat his porridge off the ground for all he cared.
Once food was served and hands were licked clean, it was lights out. Out in the open, on the carved salt cliffs, they would collect pathetic bedrolls made from old potato sacks. Once these were claimed, it was time to find a spot anywhere one could on the ground. Slavers patrolled the area with whips in hand, ready to silence any outbursts, though it was a rare event for prisoners to fight at the end of day, usually reserving those kinds of antics for the workday. Besides, by the time most made it to their potato sacks, they were ready to keel over snoring, worn out from a long day working the mines.
His first night in the Gulag, Kwado quickly retrieved a potato sack and cut his way through the slaves to meet with Hobb. His friend was already settled into the dirt with his own sack beside Boram. Kwado huddled on the ground in a triangle formation with Hobb and Boram and listened intently as Hobb told his story.
Before he came to find himself an unwilling member of Gulag society (his words), Hobb made his living as a lahyur. It was a supposedly lucrative profession Kwado had never heard of before and naturally confused with being a liar, which while being one of the principle skillsets of a lahyur was not the totality of the role. He found it deeply interesting that someone could become so versed in the inner workings of the law that they could actually use it against itself. Hobb swore he only lahyured for the wrongfully accused, dubbing himself guardian angel to the downtrodden.
It was hard for Kwado not to wonder how such a decent man could have arrived at the quarry, a question considered taboo amongst the slaves, but he blurted it out just the same. The answer was far less mystifying than he expected.
Apparently, Hobb had a thing for the ladies and had most recently become romantically involved with the local baron’s daughter. Unfortunately, Hobb was not one for the prescribed courting rituals, and so when the baron had walked in on them in the act, he promptly called for the guards and ordered his men to ship Hobb off to the slave auctions, where he was sold to the quarry.
Kwado found the story depressing, but Hobb remained optimistic, saying that he did not like to dwell on the past when the future was so golden. A strange enough outlook on things when Kwado felt certain the future had never seemed more bleak. It held only two possibilities, digging and more digging.
Kwado told his new friend only as much as the elven healer had advised, keeping the fact that he was the child of humans to himself, though it made him feel deeply guilty, like he was betraying his family’s memory. However, he saw the wisdom in Soasha’s perspective. That day and in the weeks to follow, he saw that the other slaves, both monstrous and human alike, were for the most part a dangerous lot. Should it be known that he was raised by humans, which most of the monsters detested, he was as good as dead. Through the simple act of omission, his story to Hobb, while true, was riddled with holes when held up against his life’s history.
“I lost my family to a bandit raid,” he said from his bedroll. “Then a group of lawmen hung me and left me for dead. When a pack of wolves came by, a hunter named Skelan chased them away and freed me. I travelled with him for a bit until we parted ways and I stepped into that despicable trap.”
“Whoa, did you say Skelan?” Hobb said.
Kwado grinned at Hobb’s excitement, noting that even Boram seemed to perk up. “Yeah…do you guys know him too?”
“Do we know Skelan?” Hobb repeated. He turned to Boram and shook his head. “Listen to Spike, trying to hack off our legs for cheap over here.”
The gargoyle grunted. It was as much as he was likely to give to show his amusement.
“There’s a joke here somewhere, but it’s lost on me,” Kwado said.
“You really did meet the old dodger, didn’t you?” Hobb said.
“He saved my life.”
“What did his princess look like?” Boram asked.
Kwado studied them in silence.
“He means the horse,” Hobb prodded. “Could you tell she was a princess?”
“You mean it’s true?” Kwado said, flabbergasted.
“As far as anyone knows,” Hobb said. “So?”
“She looked like a horse, I guess, just a regular old horse. How did it happen?”
“Witch cursed him and his bride,” Boram said. “Skelan’s been searching for the crone ever since.”
“That’s so sad,” Kwado said. “How long has he been searching?”
“Longer than you and me been alive,” Hobb said. Boram nodded in agreement. “Now get some sleep. We got a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”
That night Kwado could not help wondering about Skelan and Tash out there in the wilds, searching for the witch. He envied the hunter, not because of his plight, but because he was free to chase after his dreams. Kwado took in the huddled slaves around him masked under the shadows of the quarry and wondered if he would ever be able to find his own dreams to chase after one day.
Several months passed by uneventfully. Some nights it rained so hard Kwado could not sleep a wink. Those were the evenings he hated. But most of the time he relished the end of the day, because when the sky was clear and the moon was high, he had the best conversations with Hobb. Those moments were far better than the painful reality of daytime.
After a few beatings from the wardens, Kwado learned to keep his head down and mouth shut. For his part, Hobb kept Kwado from stepping knee-deep into it several times, and in exchange Kwado learned to use his formidable size, accompanied by a well-practiced scowl, to deter would-be attackers from the both of them. There were not many in the yard who thought it wise to mess with a troll.
Also, to his good fortune, if it could be called that, it was not long before the guards took notice of how dutiful and well-mannered Kwado was, and they quickly grew fond of him, like a man might become with a dog. This afforded him some perks, chief among them that he was able to obtain a whetstone from Tinarius in exchange for helping clean up around the forge at day’s end between meal time and lights out. Kwado guarded that sharpening stone as if it were the rarest treasure one could have, using it regularly to sand down the dark purple bumps that grew around his shoulders and hands. He also used it to grind down his talons, which without proper scissors he was forced to gnaw to nubs before filing down.
Over time, Kwado grew accustomed to his new life of servitude, accepting his fate, which he began to believe must have been inevitable. He thanked the gods above for blessing him with such happy formative years growing up with a loving family and treasured those memories fondly. But now he was a quarry slave, as all monsters must eventually become, and if that was to be his plight in life, then he was determined it would not break him.
However, fate seemed to have a different plan for Kwado Vance.
It happened while they were working a new shaft they had carved off the main cavern. For weeks they had been working a vein of dogrel, a vibrant green metal the Hammer called a once in a lifetime opportunity. The rich metal deposit seemed to be never-ending, with a veritable river of ore-filled buckets streaming out of the shaft all day long. It was a miraculous stroke of fortune and everyone, including the slavers, had been in high spirits for days.
Kwado was daydreaming about Soasha and pounding away at a vein of dogrel in the wall when it dawned on him that Hobb’s pickaxe had been silent for some time.
That’s strange, he thought, looking to the hole his friend was working for the last three days. It was a deep crevice in the floor of the tunnel that had proven to be rich with dogrel. Kwado made sure the Hammer was still occupied on the other side of the shaft opening then wandered over to the hole and whispered down into it. “Hobb…you okay down there?”
There was no answer.
Still nothing, only a black hole in the ground staring back at him.
Kwado checked for the Hammer again then knelt down and stuck his face right in the hole. “Hobb!” His voice echoed dully in the tight space.
Something shifted below, but he could not make it out. What if something had Hobb down there? Was that possible? Other slaves had told stories about demons being found in the bowels of mountains. Could there be one below, upset that its stash of dogrel was being pilfered? What if it took Hobb, Kwado’s only friend in the whole world?
Irrational panic began to set in and he felt his heart beating harder. Kwado opened his mouth wide, sucking in air to scream down the hole, when a hand burst out of the darkness below and clamped over his face.
“Would you shut up before you bring the Hammer down on us?” Hobb whispered, emerging from the hole covered in mining soot.
Kwado’s eyes darted in the Hammer’s direction. He was at least twenty yards away, gnawing a leg of turkey and devouring a magazine the day watchman had brought down called The Dirty Ogre’s Pits.
Hobb pulled himself out of the hole like a hunchback, clutching something underneath the belly of his soot-covered tunic. His eyes worked every which way, studying the shadows as he hobbled over to where Kwado should have been working. “Press on,” he whispered nodding to the troll’s pickaxe.
Kwado blinked, hesitating for only a moment before resuming his work on the wall.
After a few strokes, Hobb thoroughly swept the area to be sure no other prisoners were eavesdropping on their conversation, then bent back and looked as if he were going to relieve himself against the wall.
Kwado faltered mid-swing and curled his nose. “Hey, do that somewhere else.”
Hobb groaned. “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna take a piss.” He motioned toward the Hammer. “I just want him to think that’s what’s what if he looks over here. Savvy?”
Kwado shrugged and resumed his work. Hobb carefully unraveled the bottom of his shirt and presented a rock that filled his hands. It was shaped like an egg, far smoother than anything they would normally dig out of the mines, and had a deep fissure running the length of it, through which Kwado could see a sparkling formation of topaz hued crystals inside. He gaped and almost forgot himself, but one worried glance from Hobb reminded him to continue working.
“She’s a beaut, right?” Hobb said.
“What is it?”
“Called a geode.” Hobb rolled it around in his hands. “We find ‘em from time to time. Boram says they have something to do with volcanic gas bubbles or what have you, I don’t know. Think the gargoyles got rocks in his head sometimes. Anyhow, dig enough and you’re bound to find one, but this geode here, she’s extra special.”
“The Hammer will be pleased,” Kwado said with admiration. He wondered what kind of special treatment Hobb would receive for such a rare find. “That’s good, you deserve it.”
“I deserve it? Ain’t giving it to that old codger,” Hobb said bitterly, though he quickly checked over his shoulder.
“But…those are the rules,” Kwado said. “If you don’t turn that in, they’ll send you to the whipping post. Remember what happened to poor Almis?”
Hobb groaned at the memory of the dwarf who had broken a brand new pickaxe a couple weeks ago, but he narrowed his eyes suspiciously at Kwado.
“What? You don’t think I’d turn you in?” Kwado said.
Hobb turned his face away, cloaking it in shadows. “This is too special to give to those creeps.”
Hobb nodded and presented it again, rolling it over in his palms so Kwado could get a better look inside the fissure. “You see the crystals? Those are our ticket out of here.”
Such a proclamation shook Kwado to his core, but he could not help leaning in, enthralled by the sight of the gleaming crystals at the heart of the geode.
“Oy, troll,” the Hammer called from across the cavern, “stop pining over your boyfriend’s screwdriver and get back to work!”
Kwado’s green skin turned a pale shade of red as the other slaves laughed at them. Hobb quickly rolled the geode back up and hopped into his digging hole. Clear sounds of metal hitting stone resounded from the hole.
For the next half hour, Kwado tried to work his vein, but his mind kept drifting to the geode and its mysterious crystals. He was so deeply lost in thought that when Hobb whispered his name, he nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Psst, come closer to the hole so we can talk,” Hobb said.
Kwado nodded, pretending that something along the rock face caught his attention. He sidled over to it, only a few feet from Hobb’s hole, where he could dimly make out his friend’s face inside the tunnel. “What are those crystals?” Kwado whispered.
“Called phalatite,” Hobb whispered. “It’s an insanely rare gemstone, looks like a crystal, even grows like one, but it’s hard as a diamond and impervious to the flame. They’re said to come from the stomach of a gorgon.”
Kwado looked around the mine and chuckled. “Cause there’s so much evidence of a gorgon dying here.”
“Nothing funny about it.” Hobb scowled. “Anyhow, who cares where it came from? We have one, and now we’re gonna get out of this hell hole.”
Kwado’s back grew stiff. His pickaxe came down at an odd angle, scraping loudly across the face of the rock wall. He winced and looked back to find the Hammer eying him coldly. He bowed apologetically and returned to work, hoping the slaver would eventually go back to reading his magazines. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the man shake his bald head and flip to a new page.
“How can a little crystal—” Kwado whispered.
“Gemstone,” Hobb corrected.
“How can a little gem stone—”
“It’s not just one,” Hobb said excitedly. “There’s a whole handful of ‘em inside.” He lifted the geode to show Kwado that he had split the outer shell in half with his pickaxe, revealing dozens of orange topaz crystals.
“Fine.” Kwado sighed. “But how can a whole handful of gems, or geodes, or whatever you want to call them, help us get out of the Gulag? There are hundreds of guards here, and even if there wasn’t, we’d never make it five steps before they used the Gulag’s Qilin on us.” A shiver ran up his spine just thinking of the totem that kept them all imprisoned.
Hobb snapped his fingers and pointed at him. “Exactly.” He dismissed Kwado’s frown with a wave of his hand. “What makes phalatite so special, other than its rarity, is one peculiar characteristic. Not only does it look beautiful and sell for a hefty sum, but it absolutely negates magical energy.”
He said it as if he were revealing the grand prize in a drawing, but Kwado just frowned at him all the deeper. Hobb rolled his eyes and purposefully tapped the collar at his neck. Kwado stared at the collar for a moment, forgetting to swing his pickaxe, until suddenly fireworks went off in his brain. With the phalatite they could safely remove their collars!
Seeing his friend finally understood, Hobb nodded emphatically and held a finger to his lips.
“But how can we—“
“Not now,” Hobb said. “We’ll discuss the rest at lights out.” His head disappeared back into the hole, followed by the sound of his axe hitting stone.
The hours passed painfully slowly, both of them filling several more buckets of dogrel ore and broken rock, one for the Hammer and the other the rockcrusher. It seemed an eternity passed before the day’s end horns were blown.
Once enough of the prisoners were fast asleep and the bulk of guards roamed away to play cards, Hobb turned over to face Kwado.
“If we’re going to do this, it’s going to take a lot of planning,” he said.
“I don’t know, Hobb,” Kwado said. “What if they catch us?”
“Prisoners caught trying to escape have the skin flayed from their backs,” Boram said, apparently in on the conversation. “Shaffa himself rubs salt in the prisoners’ wounds. They let them stay like that, hanging by their arms in agony for days until the wounds begin to scab up. Then, if the prisoner makes it through, they cut his head off.”
“Lovely,” Kwado said, his mouth grown dry.
Hobb sighed. “Look, if you’re going to be a part of this, you have to be all in. Once we begin, there won’t be any backing out.”
Kwado stared up at the night sky. Thin wisps of smoky clouds fluttered past, a curtain swept aside to reveal the moon, full and grand watching over them. His eyes roamed over Caliopthsis the hunter, his favorite constellation. When he was just a wee lad, his pa had taken him out to the fields one night after Finnigin had called him enough names to make him cry and clutch his ma’s side for the better part of the afternoon. That night was the first time he heard the tale of the Hunter, a brave man who climbed the Aspalt mountain of Ogress to demand the foul basilisk Freij release his people. It was a story of courage in the face of unspeakable odds, and it had always inspired Kwado to try harder, to do better, to keep his chin up no matter what might come his way.
He lifted his hand in the air and connected the constellation with the tip of his finger, for the first time in his life picturing the hunter as a troll.