Chapter 9: Between a Rock and a Hard Fate
Horris and his men traveled for two days, taking turns towing their catch on a makeshift sled of reeds behind their horses. Their journey took them east of the Hollow Woods to Farthing Hills, and down to the base of the Blackgully Mountains where the Gulag Quarry sat.
All the while Kwado drifted in and out of consciousness, his few wakeful moments spent in a feverish stupor, trying to understand what was happening to him and calling out for his ma. The fall to the forest floor, which would have killed a normal man, left him grievously injured, but he was amazed at how quickly his body was healing the broken bones and bruised muscles.
“Awaken, beast,” Horris said, kicking him in the gut.
Kwado opened his eyes and started. The trio of trappers were dismounted and Horris hovered over him with a glowering sneer. “We doth arrive. Arise from your slumber ‘ere Shaffa comes hither.”
“What?” Kwado said.
“Stand up, ya damned scallywag,” the roughest of the trappers barked from behind his leader.
Kwado did as he was bade, rising on shaky legs and taking in his surroundings. They stood before a tall, steel chainlink fence with barbed hooks atop each post. For a moment he thought he must have lost his mind and slipped into some pit of hell, because that was what the land before him resembled. It was disorienting to behold because whereas the Blackgully Mountains loomed high enough in the sky to touch the clouds, the vast and multilayered rock quarry delved deep into the earth. Towering over the pits, the Blackgully Mountains looked like three monstrous sentries, silent black rock glistening in the moonlight, watching over the horde of slaves toiling at their labors below.
Massive swaths of earth had been cut away, forming stepped sections that seemed to descend into the hollowed-out pits of hell itself. To take it all in at once was overwhelming, and Kwado had to fight to remain upright.
Horris signaled for one of his men to pull the chain on the front gates, triggering a bell to signal business.
“Careful with your words,” the rougher trapper said. “I hear Shaffa’s a bulldog at negotiations.”
“Hardly,” Horris snorted in derision. “I’ve sparred with the base muck snipe more than enough to know how to handle myself.”
“You’ve been here before then?” the trapper asked, throwing a sidelong glance at their partner.
Horris did not seem inclined to answer, not that he had time. A retinue of slavers came out of the shack on the other side of the fence. A plump man wearing heavy armor from the neck down led the retinue. By the way Horris’s partners tensed up, Kwado surmised he must be this Shaffa they were just speaking of. The retinue stopped short on the other side of the closed gates and Kwado saw that Shaffa held a turkey leg in one hand. Kwado’s stomach growled loudly, and the closest trapper elbowed him in the side.
“This better be good,” Shaffa said, feigning boredom as he tore a chunk of turkey off with his teeth.
“What’s your business?”
“Salutations, oh odorous one,” Horris called. “My stalwart companions and I have come hither with a gift of fair trade to bargain on this finest of all evenings, under Mara’s great light.”
Shaffa narrowed his eyes. “Horris?” He quickly motioned for his men to open the gates with an arm that kept flapping well after he made the gesture.
Metal scraped across stone in a grating noise that hurt Kwado’s ears. Once the gates were pulled to either side, one of Horris’s trappers made to move forward, but Horris stopped him with a casual backhand laid on his chest. The trapper shot Horris an incredulous look, clearly none too happy with being touched, but Horris only shook his head.
“Step one foot inside, and Shaffa’s barbarians will shoot you dead where you stand,” Horris said under his breath, “citing it as an act of aggression.”
Shaffa’s entourage came out of the quarry armed to the gills with weapons and hard looks. “Egad, man, that is you!” Shaffa said in bewilderment. “So…you’ve tucked tail and run back west, eh? That didn’t last long.”
“’Twould hardly label seven years a short time,” Horris said dryly.
Shaffa shrugged and took another pull of meat. “Hmph, and where are the twins hiding?” He looked to either side of Horris expectantly.
“Treyail’s hounds got them,” Horris said with more bitterness than remorse.
Shaffa laughed, flecks of turkey falling from his greasy lips onto his plate mail. “Ha! Another band of fools lost, eh? Well, let’s hope this new lot is better suited to the challenge.”
“Let’s keepeth our minds on the business at hand…”
Shaffa frowned. He suddenly looked very bored and waved his men over. Two of them approached Kwado, one on either side, and grabbed his arms roughly. He did not dare fight and they nudged him to move forward with them.
“Where are we—” Kwado said, cut off by a fist in his stomach.
“Keep your yap shut, troll,” the guard who hit him said, shoving Kwado forward so Shaffa could inspect him. The portly man stroked his double chins thoughtfully as he circled Kwado to give an appraisal. He pressed the tip of his turkey leg against Kwado’s chest, dragging it upward under his jaw until it pushed beneath his chin and forced his head up. Kwado looked up at him with unsteady eyes that kept flickering away. He had never been in the presence of a human larger than him before.
“Hmm, this is what you’ve come to sell me?” Shaffa said. “The troll’s in pretty rough shape. What did you do, hang him?”
“Caught him in our flipsy bear trap,” the smaller trapper said proudly, earning a dark look from Horris.
“Hmph, don’t know that I can give you much for trash such as this,” Shaffa said. “Going to take a lot of work from our healer to get him in usable condition.”
“Come, Shaffa, to whom do you believe you are conversing?” Horris said. “We both know full well that the troll will heal up just fine of its own accord. Henceforth cease your prattling and the drudgery of time lost and make me an offer.”
The guards shifted on their feet and Horris’s companions took a step back. Shaffa’s face grew grim, and he stepped forward until he leaned down nose to nose with Horris. They squared off, glaring at each other for several minutes before the oversized man broke the silence. “I’ll throw you ten quid. And that’s me doing you a favor.”
“Make it eight and keep the favor to yourself,” Horris said tightly.
Shaffa laughed, a drawn out bleating sound, and waved for his man to pay Horris. A bag of coin was tossed to the mud at the trapper’s feet, coins spilling out. “It’s ten quid or it’s nothing,” Shaffa said, turning his back and sauntering through the gates. “Next time bring me something worthwhile.”
Kwado caught one last look at the trappers as they scrambled in the mud to retrieve the coin. Horris just stood there, glowering at the overseer of the Gulag.
“Keep your eyes straight, troll,” a guard snarled. “The overseer ain’t got time to repeat himself to the likes of you.”
Kwado snapped his eyes forward. The guards led him down a small path to a series of log cabins and canvas tents. The ground was all stone with no hint of grass to be seen. To his right, the path fell away in a steep drop, and the sound of metal hitting stone echoed across the quarry.
As they rounded a corner, a snarling hound lunged at Kwado’s legs, a polished silver chain collar stopping it inches from their path. Kwado recoiled in terror, stepping away from the guards.
The guards and overseer alike found his response deeply amusing. “Hey, boss, the troll’s afraid of puppies!” a guard cackled toothlessly.
Shaffa shot the hound a knowing wink and tossed his turkey leg to it proudly. The mongrel fell on its reward in a flurry of slavering teeth and growls.
Shaffa nodded to the guard on Kwado’s other side, and the man grabbed Kwado’s arm roughly. “Don’t you step away from us again, maggot, ‘less you want a steel boot upside that thick noggin’.”
“I-I wasn’t trying—” Kwado said, cut off by another fist to the gut. He clutched his stomach and fought hard to keep from dry heaving.
“Already told you to keep your yap shut,” the other guard snarled. “Make me say it a third time, I’ll cut that purple tongue from your mouth, see how long it takes to grow back.”
Kwado whimpered and shook. They walked him down the hillside to an open stone workshop attached to a wide tent. A heavy-set ogre wearing a leather apron was busy pounding away at the anvil.
“Tinarius,” Shaffa called over the clanging. “See to our new retainer then get him over to the healer.”
The ogre threw down his peening hammer and shoved the horseshoe he was working on into a vat of water, the red hot metal sizzling in a cloud of steam. He tightened his jaw, leaving the lower teeth exposed, and grunted. For a moment Kwado worried the behemoth might attack him.
“I have a good deal on my ledger today, your lordship,” the ogre said in a gentle voice. “There is scant time left in my day to be parading around this”—he turned his nose up in the air and sniffed—“troll.”
Shaffa snorted. “Just get it done.”
With that, his retinue left Kwado to his initiation. Tinarius gritted his large teeth with a strength that could crush stones, glaring at his master’s back. Wordlessly, he began hammering another horseshoe pulled from the oven. Red hot sparks sprayed each time his massive peening hammer came down, and he turned the horseshoe carefully with a pair of long-handled tongs. When he was satisfied with the work, he used the tongs to drop the horseshoe in the same water as its twin, creating another curtain of steam.
“Get over here, troll,” Tinarius grumbled.
Kwado jumped and quickly moved close to the ogre. “Please, sir, I need to get out of here. There’s been some mistake. I need to get to Preaknot. My Aunt Lobelia…she—”
The words caught in his throat when the ogre reached forward and wrapped a hand around his neck. “Stay still,” Tinarius said. “If I get the wrong measurement, you’ll find it hard to breath.”
Kwado tried to shrink back, but the ogre’s grip was absolute. The ogre’s skin was as grey as one of the rhinosaurus in his pa’s picture books from the Haka Islands and probably just as tough. He tried to get the blacksmith to look him in the eye, hoping to appeal to the ogre with his most pathetic stare. However, as he gazed into those pale orbs, he noticed a milky white substance covered the center of each pupil and gasped.
Tinarius tensed, his grip still rigidly fixed around Kwado’s throat as he stared out into nothing. “What is it?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m blind, troll. Get over it and stand still.”
Kwado tried his best to do as he was told, but his body seemed to have a mind of its own and would not stop trembling as Tinarius pulled him in closer. The ogre’s fingers were like ice and so calloused they felt like sandpaper against Kwado’s skin. Tinarius opened and closed his grip several times, all the while muttering dimensions.
He’s taking my measurements, Kwado realized with awe.
Tinarius released him and stepped over to the wall to pop open a cabinet. Dozens of brass collars hung from wooden pegs inside, clattering as the door swung wide. Tinarius touched a thumb to a couple before settling on one in particular. “Hmm, twenty inches. This should do,” he said, though Kwado was unsure whether it was for his benefit or not. “Don’t worry, troll. This won’t hurt nearly as much as whatever your captors did to your neck.”
“W-what is it?” Kwado asked, absently touching the scar tissue around his neck from the noose. He suddenly remembered his place and pinched his eyes shut, ready to be beaten for speaking. Something cold touched the skin around his neck, followed by a clicking sound. He opened his eyes to find the collar secured snugly around his neck.
The ogre took a step back and admired his handiwork, the cloud in his eyes clearing up. “She looks to be a good fit. What say you? Is it comfortable enough? Can you breathe decently?”
“Yes sir,” Kwado said.
“Well enough, it seems. Right then, have a seat so we can get her activated,” Tinarius said, the cloud back in his eyes as he waved toward a wooden stool.
Kwado sat with his back facing the blacksmith, relieved to get off his feet. “Mr. Tinarius, sir, can I ask you a question?”
The ogre grumbled behind him. “What?”
“Were you always this way?"
"What, a blacksmith?"
"No. You know…um....” Kwado searched for the right word, one that would not be too offensive.
Kwado nodded then remembered himself. “Yes sir.”
“Why do you ask?” Tinarius said, pushing something metal into the kiln and stoking the flames.
“Well, back home we had a blacksmith. He was good, really good according to my pa. But I can’t say any of his stuff looked nearly as fine as what you have done in here.”
Tinarius frowned and turned his head as if trying to see around the room. A deep sense of sorrow radiated from him and his muscular shoulders deflated a bit. “At one time I was considered the finest smith in all of Derinrel. Folk traveled from all corners of the kingdom to have their armor crafted by me.”
Kwado could see the candle of pride and deep longing burning behind the ogre’s cloudy eyes. It made him feel guilty for stirring up such emotions.
The moment passed for Tinarius and the scowl returned to his face. “That was then and this is now. All I get these days is the stink of this camp. My talents have been reduced to horseshoes and chains.”
“How do you work with such skill when you cannot see?” Kwado asked.
“’Tis the paradox of my bondage that I gain clarity of sight only so long as I am wielding a hammer against metal. Then and only then is the veil lifted and I am given sight. But when the work is over, the Gulag’s darkest warden casts her wicked spell over me once more.”
“How could anyone be so cruel?” Kwado breathed.
Tinarius shrugged. “Such is the plight of life.” He slipped on a leather glove that went up to his elbow and pulled a long metal poker out of the kiln. The top third of it glowed red hot. “Now I fear I must provide you with ample warning, troll,” he said. “I am going to brand your back.”
“What! Why?” Kwado said, turning in his seat. “Please don’t.”
The ogre looked annoyed to be interrupted and started over. “I am going to brand your back. It is going to hurt…badly. If you try to attack me, I will crush your skull like a grape, so please do not make me do so. Do we understand each other?”
Kwado stared incredulously at the soft-spoken giant. His hands were the size of coconuts and he had muscles in his arms that Kwado did not even know were possible. What could he possibly hope to do against such a foe? He gave the lightest of nods.
“Are you nodding?” Tinarius asked.
“Yes sir,” Kwado said glumly.
“Put this in your mouth and bite down,” Tinarius said, handing him a leather bit.
Kwado pressed it into his mouth, and the ogre felt for his shoulder, using it as a guide to walk around him as the clouds parted in his eyes. Kwado heard him blow on the brand and saw his shadow on the wall under a red glow. Tinarius took the poker in both hands and pressed it fast against Kwado’s exposed left shoulder. The heat assaulted him with a pain worse than anything he had ever felt before, and he bit down on the bit with all his might. His eyes popped open so wide he saw a river of colors race across his vision. It was only a moment, all that was needed to sear the glyph into the skin of his shoulder, and then the brand was pulled away, leaving the distinct stench of cooking meat.
“It’s all over,” Tinarius said with a pat on his shoulder. “You can give me back the bit.”
Kwado numbly opened his mouth and pulled out the bit. It was broken into two pieces.
Tinarius felt it in his hand. “Hmm, you’re stronger than you look, troll.”
Kwado could only groan as a response. “I thought you were blind.”
“No need to be rude,” Tinarius said. “You did well. Now take off the collar.”
Kwado wanted to sigh with relief that his torture was over, but the charred open wound on his shoulder throbbed as if the very air around him bit at his skin each time he moved. He reached up to remove the collar. His shoulder muscles bulged and the skin stretched. He fought through the pain, hooking his fingers under the collar, and tugged.
Both the brand and the collar lit up, a brilliant silver flash of light, and Kwado found himself on the floor, convulsing wildly in the dust. All the muscles in his body locked up and then flexed harder than should be possible in a series of spasms that went on for several minutes.
When it was over, he could hardly breathe. His eyes felt crossed, and a river of foam lined the corners of his mouth, running down his chin.
The ogre stood over him. “I do apologize for that. We must ensure the totem bond is secure for each of our residents.”
Kwado pushed himself up, feeling like he had just run two back-to-back marathons after drinking a whole barrel of rye. Somehow he managed to get back on the stool, though his leg kept jittering and his fingers remained locked in a fist.
“Wh-what d-did you d-do to meee?” he asked through teeth that refused to cease chattering.
“Not I,” Tinarius said, directing his attention out the large open wall, across the quarry, past the steep drop into the salt cliffs. There in the center, resting at the top of a thin aerie, was a totem as tall as Kwado, completely sculpted of red gold. Four faces were carved on each side of the totem, so that eyes watched the slaves of Gulag in all directions.
“What are they?”
“Gulag’s Qilin,” Tinarius said, not hiding his contempt. “It is the source of your punishment and mine, the bond that keeps us all in line so that we may serve the overseer. It brings me no pleasure to have you activate its magic. I am not a cruel ogre. It a despicable necessity, to ensure the bond was sealed. I have found it is…a useful lesson, so that you may know what agony awaits should you attempt to flee this cursed prison.”
“That th-thing d-did that to me?”
Tinarius sighed. “Your old life is over, troll. Gone are the days of raiding merchants and eating lost dames. Gulag’s Qilin is now and forever your keeper. Should you attempt to escape, she will punish you. Should you attempt to remove your collar, she will punish you. And if you dare raise a hand against a guard…”
“She will punish me,” Kwado repeated miserably, his shoulders slumped and head bowed.
“You catch on quicker than some of your kin,” Tinarius said. “Come now, follow me to the healers.”
He led Kwado out the workshop and past a couple rows of cabins, where guards were either drinking their fill or resting for the night. Kwado could not help wondering how the ogre could maneuver so confidently without the ability to see.
At the back of the lane, closest to the main path leading into the bowels of the quarry, sat the healer’s tent. The healer was a curious-looking elf who wore a collar like his own on the nape of her slender neck. She turned, hearing their approach, and came out to meet them since Tinarius was too large to fit inside the tent opening. Kwado marveled at the intricate tattoo in the center of her forehead.
“Soasha, a new recruit,” Tinarius said.
She placed a gentle hand on the ogre’s forearm and nodded. “I’ll take it from here. Thank you.”
“Good luck, troll.” Tinarius departed without another word.
The elf led Kwado to the back of the tent, seating him on a cot while she applied ointments and bandages to his wounds, of which there were many. “Most of these are pretty bad,” Soasha observed. “Nothing your regenerative metabolism can’t handle, of course. But my salves will help speed up the process.”
“My regena-what?” Kwado asked.
She screwed up her face. “Did you suffer a head injury as well?”
Kwado shook his head. “I’ve just never heard of regentoratilives before.”
That made her chuckle, and her pink hair shimmered, flecks of sparkling material falling from her head. “That’s what your healing ability is called, silly.”
“Please…speak to me as if I’m a complete nitwit,” he said.
Soasha folded her arms. “No need to get your dander up.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, you misunderstand me,” Kwado said. “Let me explain?”
She waited, her arms still folded over her chest.
“My name is Kwado Vance. I was raised by humans. I’m just a farmer…not some criminal that deserves to be locked up in a salt mine.”
The elf’s frown deepened.
“Not that you’re a criminal, ma’am! It’s just, well, I don’t know much, if anything, about being a troll.”
“You’re one odd duck, I’ll give you that,” she said, glancing past him to the tent entrance. “Kwado you say? That’s an elvish name you know?”
Kwado bowed his head. “When my pa was a lad he worked for a sugar merchant down in the islands.”
“Better keep that kind of talk to yourself, your real name, the humans, all of it. Could prove dangerous in here.”
Kwado frowned and suddenly felt as if he might break down, the weight of his situation hitting him. “I’ll never make it to Aunt Lobelia now,” he said miserably. “She’ll never even know I’m locked away in this awful place.”
“No, no. No time for that. I’ll give you a piece of advice. Keep those tears to yourself unless you want a one-way ticket to shank city. Listen, troll, you seem nice enough, but if you want to survive in here, you better toughen up, and I mean pronto. Whatever it is you’ve been through, I suggest you bury it down good and deep and forget about it for now.”
Kwado nodded and raised his chin as proudly as he could manage. Try as he might, though, he still looked pathetic to the healer. Her frown said she did not think he would make it through the week intact.
“Will you tell me more about the regenaralive?” he asked.
“It’s regenerative, geesh. You really don’t know, do you?”
Kwado shook his head.
“Okay, kid. It works like this. Only two ways to end a troll—either chop off his head”—she made a cutting motion with her fingers across her collar—“or set him on fire. Anything else is sure to heal, some wounds faster than others. Trolls have a regenerative gene in their deenay. It allows your body to heal itself far more rapidly than other races. It’s your special thing, that which makes your race unique.”
“Yeah, it’s a little term I’ve coined,” Soasha said proudly. “I believe every race has one thing that makes them unique, makes them beautiful as a species. For trolls it’s your uncanny ability to heal.”
“Oh, that sounds nice,” Kwado said. “You’re very pretty. Is that your special thing?”
She giggled, more glimmer shaking away like sparkling dust from her pink hair. “Now you’re hitting on me? That’s good, kid, keep your chin up.” Her smile faltered as she locked on something over his shoulder, toward the entrance. “Anyhoo, it looks like it’s time for you to go.”
A pair of guards, one with a bullwhip and a cruel smile, and the other with a tall hooked spear, marched into the tent. They stopped just inside the entrance and waited for him. Kwado bowed to the healer and shuffled over to them.
“Time to tour your lodgings, your highness,” the whip man said, his partner snickering.
Kwado followed them without protest down the winding path that led deeper into the quarry. They passed dozens upon dozens of slaves, each with a collar, sweating and tired from chipping away at the salt cliffs. About halfway down they happened upon a dwarf pushing a three-wheeled barrow up the slope. As they came near him, one of the wheels nicked the guard to Kwado’s left. The guard cursed and cracked his whip across the dwarf’s hands. The dwarf yelped and pulled his bloodied fingers away while the other guard kicked over the wheelbarrow, spilling the chunks of rock salt down the sloping path.
“Stupid beard brain, watch what you’re doing,” the whip man snapped.
The dwarf apologized repeatedly, dropping to shovel the rock salt back into the tipped wheelbarrow with his bloody hands.
The slaver seemed disappointed that the dwarf complied so easily and frowned, biting his bottom lip and flaring a nostril. He motioned for Kwado to move on, throwing a dark glance over his shoulder as they left. “Better have every speck of it picked up by the time we come back up, or there’ll be a lashing for each rock on the ground.”
The dwarf trembled and picked up his speed, though Kwado was certain the salt must have stung his open wounds. The guard with the spear shot the dwarf a gloating smile as he passed, taking up the rear as the path narrowed. Kwado assumed this was to skewer him from behind in case he tried to make a run for it, but then his eye caught the totem, now looming overhead on its aerie in the center of the pit, and he remembered such things were unnecessary. These men were just cruel.
They marched all the way to the bottom of the quarry and then turned toward the base of the mountain. There were so many caves dug into the side of the mountain that Kwado lost count. The soldiers stopped before one of the mines and spoke with another human, this one short and stocky with a flat nose. His head was bald as could be, but he had a thick beard that did little to hide the outline of his square jaw. He nodded at the men and motioned for Kwado to follow him.
They entered the mine, and Kwado felt some measure of relief to be away from the wicked guards. He worried for the dwarf, who he hoped would be done by the time they reached him. The mine was frigid, and it sent goosebumps over his arms and feet.
“Nothing like fresh meat,” the guard said. “I’m the Hammer.”
“I’m Kwado,” he answered.
The Hammer turned, wearing a disgusted scowl. Without blinking, he backhanded Kwado across the face. “Didn’t ask yer flippin’ name, now did I? Are you pullin’ me leg? Are you really so daft as to want me to pull out old Sandy here?” He tapped a short rod carved from black stone. Its face looked like the totem, and Kwado immediately recognized it for what it was—a connection to the Gulag’s Qilin. He held his cheek and shook his head as a shiver worked up his spine.
The Hammer turned back and resumed his well-rehearsed welcoming speech, as if nothing had happened. “You muck about in here and you will pay the price. I expect two things out of you. Work and do as you’re told. Anything otherwise, and I’ll be sure life is harder for you in here than it needs to be.”
He stopped at the end of the mine shaft where it opened onto a cavern large enough to fit a small village. There had to be at least a hundred slaves working to hollow out the mine and move barrows of unrefined metals to the surface.
“And let me tell you something, troll—life is going to be hard enough from here on in.”