© 2017 by D. M Almond's Gnome Brigade. (because they have nothing better to do than cater to our readers)

Trollin'

Chapter 15: Out Through the In Door

“To arms! To arms!” the Hammer bellowed after another blow of his companion’s horn. Tents opened all across the upper tier as guards awoke, rushing down the slope in the dozens. If the prisoners thought to escape, they were going to be hard-pressed to get it done.

Kwado thought the hooded man's eyes were twin pools of accusation. He shouted in goblizh tongue with an upraised fist. With the droves of guards alerted, the Hammer left Kwado and Hobb, eager to accept the stranger's challenge. This was to be a true battle.

Hobb shot a hand out and clutched the Hammer’s pant leg. “Master, what about us? Will there be a kindness for our service?”

The Hammer curled his lip in disgust and shook Hobb away. “Aye, you runts’ll be rewarded aplenty for your service in this,” he said. Then he was gone, along with all the other guards, running down the hill to punish the freed goblins.

Kwado rolled onto his belly and pushed himself up to his feet. Mud caked his chest, but he felt lighter. “You’re a genius,” he said.

Hobb nodded, his eyes glued to the guards as he stood. “Mother never said I was slow. Now let’s get while the getting’s good.”

He did not need to tell Kwado twice. The two of them bolted for the slope, nervously scanning the area for any lingering sentries. None were about—even Overseer Shaffa had joined in to squash the rebellion.

“Thank Sorla for those fools,” Hobb said, referring to the other prisoners trying to escape.

“Did you see their necks?” Kwado asked.

Hobb nodded solemnly as they climbed the winding slope toward the barrack tents. “Wonder how they got them collars off.”

“Maybe they found some phalatite too?” Kwado suggested.

“Doubt it,” Hobb said. “Probably just got lucky, or maybe an inside job.”

Kwado frowned. “Still…I do feel bad throwing the Hammer on their trail and all.”

“They’d have done no less to us, don’t you doubt it. If putting their hides on the whipping post buys us a little time, then so be it. It’s every dog for himself in here.”

“You think they’ll be distracted long enough for us to make a clean break?” Kwado asked hopefully.

“Not likely,” Hobb said. “The warden and his goons will have that lot cleared up long before we start cutting the fence. So best we move with the swiftness of a fair maiden on her first blood moon, eh?”

Kwado did not know what that was supposed to mean, but he nodded all the same.

The air far behind them crackled with energy, drawing their attention. The dark-robed man stood with a hand thrust up toward the heavens. It pulsated with a swelling purple light, blood-red lines radiating in the center of the spell like strands of a broken spider web. His mouth opened wide as he screamed the end of his summoning. Kwado and Hobb watched the spectacle, as dumbfounded as all of Shaffa’s guards, who shifted from fearless bravado to bone-chilling uncertainty. This was no meek prison break.

The spellcaster brought his hand down as if he were chopping wood, releasing the spell in a gust of wind that flung his black robes back. For an instant Kwado thought he saw writhing tentacles beneath the shadow fabric, but his focus was quickly taken by the burst of necrotic energy that tore through the air. Guards screamed and clawed at on another to get out of the way as the blast came down around them, shaking the ground with a concussive quake and throwing them in all directions.

The goblins at the spellcaster’s side wasted no time. As soon as he released his attack, they rushed forward so that seconds after the spell hit the unfortunate guards, the goblins were there to snatch their fallen weapons.

Hobb’s mouth hung open.

“I think it’s going to take Shaffa a little longer than expected to stop them,” Kwado said.

Within seconds the lower tiers of the Gulag were bathed in chaos. Prisoners either scrambled to get as far from the ensuing battle as possible or joined in, siding with the dark-robed man’s swelling ranks. For their part, the guards quickly employed the power of the Qilin. Its surface gleamed golden-red on its perch from the mass use. But no sooner did a prisoner fall than an uncollared goblin was directed to the offending guard by the spellcaster. 

Hobb grabbed Kwado’s shoulder and shook him, then made an open run up the slope. Words were unnecessary. They needed to get far away from there. When they reached the top of the muddy slope, Kwado pointed the direction they should take. He led his friend, weaving in between rows of tents, toward the blacksmith’s shelter. A tall figure stepped out in their path. Kwado skidded to a halt, throwing up his hands in surrender, but Hobb lunged for the newcomer with a clenched fist.

Boram leaned easily to the left, out of Hobb’s reach. “Relax, you stooge,” he said. “It’s just me.”

“Damned stony punter.” Hobb glowered. Kwado could not tell if his friend was mad because the gargoyle had given him a fright or because his punch had missed.

Sounds of battle came from the quarry floor, clashing steel, the screams of men, and blasts of magic loosed into the world.

“We thought you left us,” Kwado said, clapping Boram on the stone shoulder fondly.

“Your paranoia knows no end,” Boram said. Kwado detected a faint smirk under the gargoyle’s stoicism. The gargoyle had thought about leaving, but where could he go without the phalatite to free him.

“How about you two wax poetic about your love later,” Hobb said. “Right now let’s stay on task.”

“There is a fairly large prison riot underway,” Boram pointed out.

“Yeah, well, I’ll still err on the side of caution, if you don’t mind,” Hobb said.

“You don’t need me anymore,” Boram said, grinding his teeth.

Hobb stood firm. “You ain’t getting free until I’m past that fence.”

Kwado saw the defeat in Boram’s eyes. He pointed between two tents. “The blacksmith’s workshop is just around the corner.”

The air deflated out of Boram. “Fine. Lead the way. But I fail to see what you need me for with the entire camp down below.”

As if to accentuate his point, another explosion rocked the quarry, followed by screams. Whatever was happening below, it did not sound good for the Gulag’s wardens.

Kwado hopped out of the alleyway into the main path, a wide trail that wound through the upper level of the camp. Normally there would be guards milling about, throwing dice, eating grub, or just snoozing in general. Now, with all hands on deck below, it looked like a ghost town. The storm was down to a hard rain, and he could see clearly straight up the path, all the way to the high fence at the end. It was double Kwado’s height and curved outward at the top with a line of sharp barbed wire that could slice flesh as easily as butter. This was why they needed Boram. If they failed to cut through the fence there would be no way they could make it over unscathed, and Hobb did not have the benefit of a healing metabolism like Kwado.

Hobb licked his lips and gulped. His eyes remained transfixed on the top of the fence. “Go get the shears.”

An icy knot twisted in Kwado’s gut. He had been so caught up in the battle below he had forgotten that this was the moment he had been dreading for days. He did not wish to hurt the ogre but did not doubt Boram was up to the task. His mind raced to come up with a way he could stop the gargoyle without betraying him.

He placed a hand on Boram’s bare chest. It was smooth as marble and just as cold. “I should go alone,” he said.

Boram tilted his head to the side and narrowed his yellow eyes, an expression mirrored by Hobb.

“With the battle in full swing, he’s bound to be awake,” Kwado said. “It’ll be easier and faster for me just to slip by him and grab what we need.”

“No, I—” Boram was cut off by a shout from down the path, the way they had come.

A pair of guards had just stumbled out of their tent. One of them was still pulling up his breeches. By the way they wobbled when they moved, Kwado guessed they must have been deep in their drink when the alarm was sounded.

“What do you lot think you’re doing?” One said, brandishing his club.

“Bloody hell, must be some thick-headed donkeys to have come up here,” the other said to his partner.

Screams from the battlefield slowed their pace as they ran toward the escapees, and an idle eye was sent peering between a break in the tents. The shorter guard grabbed his partner roughly by the sleeve as he stopped where he stood. “Think there might be a battle going on down there,” he said.

The taller man plucked his Qilin rod from his belt and pointed it directly at them. “Too right, no sense in prolonging the ‘nevitable.”

Hobb quickly grabbed Boram’s arm as the guard commanded them to get on the ground with a twist of his rod. Nothing happened. He tried again, his cheeks growing red and puffy.

“That little Qilin stick ain’t gonna work on us, governor,” Hobb said.

The shorter man blanched and took a step back, but his partner scowled at Hobb, unused to prisoners glaring at him so openly. He grabbed the shorter one by the collar and tugged him forward. “More than one way to teach a dog its place,” he snarled, gripping his club tight.

Boram turned and shoved Kwado toward the blacksmith’s tent. “Go get the shears. We’ve got this.”

Kwado hesitated for only a moment, enough time for quick look at the rushing guards, before ducking into the blacksmith’s tent. Outside he heard Boram roar.

The interior of the tent was dark, its air thick and musky, a combination of cooling embers and oils that tickled Kwado’s throat unpleasantly when he breathed in. He took a moment to get his bearings. This was not the entrance he normally took to drop off deliveries. He sought out the ogre’s stone kiln to orient himself.

The workshop was empty and had probably been closed down hours earlier. There were two side rooms, merely sections of the larger tent blocked off by draped animal skins. One of them held the blacksmith’s supplies, which meant the other must be where the ogre slept. Kwado sighed with relief, knowing he would not have to pass the ogre. The sounds of battle outside were muffled, but he could still make out his friends trading blows with the guards.

Lifting the flap on his left, he bent low and entered the supply room. Piles of loosely covered crates stood in rows, filled with various ores from the mines that the ogre was charged with turning into profitable items for Overseer Shaffa. He scanned the shadows, his troll eyes easily adjusting to the dark, even finding some comfort in it. There, against a tent pole, leaned the rusty shears he sought. He rushed over and snatched them up with a surge of energy.

Outside, one of the guards cried in agony. Kwado brushed past the partition and made a beeline for the exit, but as he passed the other covered opening, something caught his attention. He slowed to a crawl and turned around, staring at the hanging leather curtains. Silent as a mouse, he crept closer and gently brushed the curtain aside.

His breath caught in his throat. Tinarius lay on his shabby cot with both eyes open, staring directly at him!

Kwado gasped and shrank away, but his hand would not release the curtain. His shock at being caught was trumped by the sight of Soasha, the elven healer, lying on top of the ogre in her unmentionables. Her head rested in the curve of his back and her foot pressed up against the ogre’s cheek as she snored peacefully. 

“You have come to kill me?” Tinarius broke the silence of the tent, his voice rumbling stones. Soasha woke wide eyed and rolled fearfully behind Tinarius, clutching the torn blanket around her body.

Kwado flinched as if slapped by the blacksmith’s blunt intuition. He clutched the shears defensively. “I…uh.”

Kwado?” Soasha gasped in a weak voice of disbelief, staring at his shadowy form silhouetted in the doorway.

“Ah, the troll.” Tinarius sounded sad, knowing who stood in his tent.

“I’m taking these shears and leaving this place. Don’t try to stop me,” Kwado said.

Tinarius sat up, Soasha shifting behind his monstrous form. He was a slab of muscle and fists. He grunted as he moved, his sore joints snapping in place. His knuckles cracked as he clenched his fists. Each one was large enough to break a man’s face open. “Escape is futile, young troll,” Tinarius said. “Go back to your hole. Live another day.”

Kwado shook his head. “I’m not spending another day in here.”

“Is the Gulag so bad for a troll?” Tinarius asked. “You’ve food, work for your soul, and a place to lay your head. That’s more than you could hope for in the world of men.”

“Are you so beaten that you would forsake the dream of freedom?” Kwado said. “Leave me be. Let me go my way, and on my word, I will do you no harm.”

“The guards would have my head if I let you go,” Tinarius said. He pulled himself up to his feet. His head touched the ceiling of the tent. “Or worse yet, Soasha’s.”

Kwado legs suddenly felt like jelly, but he kept his voice firm. “I don’t want to hurt you, Tinarius.”

Soasha pulled at the ogre’s forearm. “You can’t see,” she said. Her voice was tiny and fearful, but not for Tinarius’s safety. Kwado understood that well enough. She feared what he might be forced to do more than anything else. These two loved each other. That was plain to see, and it hollowed out Kwado’s heart. However, if the ogre attacked him, he would have to kill him. He had no choice.

Tinarius hesitated. A grey cloud washed over his face. “The guards—”

“Are not coming,” Kwado said. “Listen. Don’t you hear it outside? There’s a rebellion underway in the quarry, and all the warden’s men are in the thick of it, getting their tails busted by some freak and his spells.”

Tinarius furrowed his thick brow and cocked an ear. Soasha scurried across the cot to pull apart a small opening in the tent and peer outside. She hissed sharply.

“What is it?” Tinarius asked.

“Kwado speaks the truth,” she said. “The guards are surrounded by goblins. And the overseer’s on the ground!” Tinarius’s hand found her trembling shoulders. “No…wait…he’s back on his feet! Oh, it’s terrible…there’s so much blood!”

Kwado moved swiftly toward them. He reached out and sharply tugged the opening closed. Soasha squealed and scrambled to the far end of the bed and Tinarius moved to strike, but Kwado was already out of reach. “There’s no need for you to watch that,” he said. “It…it’ll give you nightmares.” The memory of his mother’s charred skull in the rui8ns of the church hit him, and he fought it down, turning to leave.

“Troll,” Tinarius said, stopping him in his tracks.

“Just let me be,” Kwado said, his head bowed.

“Good speed,” Tinarius said.

Kwado lifted his head and nodded with a melancholic grin. He knew the ogre was a decent fellow, just another innocent forced into a terrible situation. His eyes found Soasha, and suddenly he was consumed with sorrow. There had to be a score of folk in the Gulag like them, simply punished for being born different. His empty hand played with the phalatite under his shirt and an idea sprang forth.

“I can free both of you. We just need to—”

“Spike!” Boram shouted into the tent. His voice was a sharp hiss of impatience. “Damn it, troll, what’s taking so long?”

Kwado popped his head out the partition. “No worries, I found it,” he said, quite unconvincingly. Boram narrowed his yellow eyes to thin slits. “See, here it is,” Kwado insisted, sticking his hand out and waving the shears where the gargoyle could see them.

“Did you kill that bastard ogre or do you need me to come in and do all the grunt work for you?” Boram barked.

Soasha stifled a gasp against the ogre’s muscular back. Tinarius shifted instinctively in front of her, clenching his fists.

Kwado waved them back with his other hand, urging them to remain hidden. “Oh yeah…I killed him good and dead.”

“Then why’s your blade so clean?” Boram asked, taking a step inside the tent.

“Why’s the…?” Kwado turned back toward the blacksmith.

“The shears, Spike,” Boram said, stepping deeper into the tent. “Where is all the blood?”

Tinarius was right behind him now. He could feel the ogre’s heavy breathing on his neck. Kwado shot out from behind the curtain and intercepted Boram, throwing an arm around him and turning him toward the entrance. He squeezed the gargoyle in a powerful grip that said I could break you if I wanted to and leaned in close enough that Boram could see his sharp teeth.

“Don’t you know nothing, Boram?” he said. “Us trolls don’t like to stab our victims. No, we beat ‘em senseless, then we like to get our hands ‘round their throats and squeeze until the life fades from their eyes.”

Boram tried to shrug Kwado off, but the troll’s grip was like an iron vise. The gargoyle’s confidence faltered under Kwado’s bared fangs. “Okay, I get it,” he said. “Glad you got it done. Didn’t mean to doubt you.”

Kwado squeezed tighter. “You doubted me?”

“N-no…it’s just a figure of speech,” Boram said.

Kwado stared at him for a long moment then smiled. He released the gargoyle and motioned for the exit. “Let’s not keep Hobb waiting.”

Boram rubbed his neck and hurried out of the tent, checking over his shoulder as if he were not too keen on the idea of the troll walking behind him.

Kwado did not dare glance back to see if either of his friends watched as he left the tent. His heart weighed heavy to leave them behind. I should have freed them. But it was too late. Boram hated Tinarius. If the gargoyle knew the ogre lived, he would surely go inside, and then one or the other would be dead. Kwado could not live with that kind of blood on his hands, not after everyone he knew…not after the entire village…

The second he stepped outside the tent, sounds of clashing steel and shouting rose around him, loud and clear. The battle must have moved to the slopes. That meant the goblins were making a push for the gates! Kwado breathed a sigh of relief. The gates were a good ways to their left, at the end of the long fence. The storm had cleared, leaving behind a starry sky so crisp it might have never been there in the first place. A turret tower stood nearby, a defensive structure built on the prison side of the fence with the turret facing outward meant to stop intruders from breaking in. Nobody manned it. He turned away and shook his head. “Fools have everything they need to stop an uprising, but they’re so dependent on the Qilin that they’ve grown lazy.”

“Aye, and that’s one beautiful thing, it is,” Hobb said. He wore a shit-eating grin and was waiting for them by the fence.

Kwado scanned the area for the guards that had attacked them, but they were nowhere to be seen. Pools of blood stained the mud. His stomach groaned.

“Did you get them?” Hobb asked.

Kwado presented the shears. Hobb’s eyes lit up, and Boram nodded excitedly.

“Any problems?” Hobb asked.

Kwado looked back to the tent with a frown, but it was Boram who spoke. “Spike killed the ogre with his own two hands,” he said with respect. “Now hurry up and get to work. Who knows when more of those idiots will stumble across us out here.” While he spoke, his eyes kept darting back and forth, searching up and down the path.

Hobb knelt down and opened the shears wide, positioning the thick wire chain link fence between them. Kwado crouched nearby, watching in heavy anticipation. Hobb pressed his hands together with some effort, cutting the fencing with a snap. He hooted in triumph, and Kwado smiled back at him, clapping his shoulder.

The sound of men shouting came from their right, toward the direction of the slope. Hobb wasted no time moving on to the next link while Kwado stood up, following Boram’s eyes.

A goblin flew backward in the air, landing squarely against the fence some way down where the slope intersected the path. The fence rattled as the goblin slid down it, dead and broken. Even from here, Kwado could see that something had mauled the prisoner’s body.

Around the corner of the tent came a rockcrusher and, worse yet, the three guards it was battling. They ran around the beast, prodding it with their weapons and shouting to one another. Thankfully, not a single one noticed the escapees. Both Kwado and Boram crouched low to the ground, though it hardly mattered. The three of them were out in the open. There was nowhere to hide if a single guard glanced their way. Hobb cut the fifth link free.

“Should we help him?” Kwado asked, referring to the rockcrusher.

“That beast is in a bloodrage,” Boram said. “When their kind get like that, there is no such thing as allegiance.”

“The rockcrusher would attack us for helping?” Kwado said. One of the soldiers was on the beast’s back, trying to straddle its torso.

She,” Boram corrected. “And yes, definitely.”

The rockcrusher snatched the guard from her back with a sweep of her heavy tail, which wrapped around his legs. His head hit the ground with a loud crack and his body grew limp, but not before she swung him back the other way and caught another guard in the side. The second man toppled over and lost his weapon. Now Kwado was more scared of the rockcrusher seeing them than he was of the guards.

 

Hobb cut the eighth link free. “Shite,” he cursed, jerking his hand back in pain. The shears hit the ground. “The damned thing broke in half!”

“Buzzard guts…now we know why it was lying around like that,” Boram said. “Can’t you saw through the links with one piece?”

Hobb looked up at him miserably. “It doesn’t work like that.”

“Well, you better try something, ‘cause we’re about to have company,” Kwado said.

The lone remaining guard cowered by the fence, his arms up in front of his face, but the rockcrusher did not pay him any mind. She was staring straight at Kwado and his companions. The beast growled and tossed the guard aside with a casual swipe of its tail.

“Hey,” Kwado called, holding up his palms as the rockcrusher moved toward them. “We’re all on the same side here. No need to get angry.”

The rockcrusher stomped one of its front hooves several times, kicking up mud with its back feet as it readied to charge.

“Is it working?” Boram asked.

Hobb whined, sawing the metal faster. “Nothing’s happening.”

“I think it’s time for us to run,” Kwado said, stepping back and grabbing Boram by the arm to spin him around. Hobb tossed the broken shear to the ground and sped past them.

The rockcrusher brayed deeper and louder than anything Kwado had ever heard. He felt the ground tremble as the beast galloped after them.

“The tower!” Kwado yelled. “Get in the turret tower!”

Boram ran with all he had. Kwado stopped at the ladder and stepped aside for the others to climb up. His heart moved to his throat when he saw how close the charging rockcrusher already was. Boram zipped up the ladder, but Hobb broke off in the other direction, slipping between a row of tents. Kwado scarcely had time to register his abandonment. The rockcrusher was on them. He grabbed the iron rungs and scrabbled up to the halfway point of the tower just as the behemoth crashed headfirst into one of the tower beams.

The force of the behemoth’s blow rocked the tower’s ladder sideways, and slats of wooden flooring rained down from the platform above. Kwado’s right hand slipped from the rung, but he locked the fingers of his left hand in place. One of them pulled from the socket, and he screamed.

“Come on!” Boram shouted.

Kwado looked down at the rockcrusher. It was shaking its head, regaining its senses from head-butting a tower. He flung his other hand up and caught another rung then moved up the ladder like a bat out of hell, eager to put more distance between him and the blood-crazed rockcrusher. Once he got close to the top, Boram grasped his forearm and pulled him up the rest of the way.

“Thought I was going to be rock bait for a second there,” Kwado said. He pressed a hand over his throbbing finger to dull the pain, but it only made it worse. “Thank you.”

Boram peered over the lip of the platform. “Only bought us a little time. The beast’s going to regain her senses soon enough.”

“Where’d Hobb go?”

“The human abandoned us,” Boram said. “It’s their way.”

Kwado looked around. The tower was small. A wooden rail sat on either side of the ladder entrance, facing the prison. Three, maybe four, men could fit up there at once, but it was really built for two, one to operate the turret and the other to load it. The weapon was a massive harpoon gun, built to stop an elephant or more appropriately a hill giant on a mission to free its kin.

“Too bad it’s locked in place,” Kwado said. A chain link fence was built around three sides of the platform, a thatched ceiling above. The side facing away from the prison had a square gap that the tip of the weapon stuck through, its long steel barrel ready to guide the loaded lance with deadly precision.

“As are we,” Boram grunted.

As if in answer, the rockcrusher brayed below then battered the tower with her tail. The platform bucked, throwing the troll and gargoyle into the wooden rail on their right, a tangle of legs and arms. Boram pulled away from Kwado and tried to regain his footing, but the behemoth rammed the tower again. One of the support beams bent with a metal squeal. The entire platform leaned forward, and the metal fencing groaned. Rivets snapped free all around Kwado as he gripped the floorboards for dear life. If he let go he would fall into the raging beast’s grasp.

“Curse that stupid human,” Boram growled.

Kwado understood his meaning. If Hobb had freed the gargoyle of the Qilin’s bondage with his phalatite, Boram could have simply opened his wings and flown out of this situation. Kwado wondered how it must feel to be helpless when your very nature should be able to save you.

The rockcrusher howled. Something had hurt it below—a cut muzzle, a bloodied tail, Kwado wasn’t sure. Whatever it was became enough for the beast to suddenly back off. That short moment of reprieve was all he needed.

Kwado climbed to his feet, using the railing to balance his weight on the leaning platform, and fished the chunk of phalatite out from beneath his shirt. “Boram,” he called.

The gargoyle turned. His face was a mixture of torment and desperation. When his eyes alighted on the spell-negating stone, they widened. Kwado stretched out his arm to offer the rock, pressing it into the gargoyle’s disbelieving hands.

“B-but why?” Boram asked.

“This is the end for me,” Kwado said. “I don’t have a choice…there’s nowhere left to run. But you…there’s no sense in you dying here with me. Not when you’ve wings enough to fly.”

Boram clasped his hands tenderly over Kwado’s, the corners of his stone eyes growing misty. He looked like a gargoyle in pain, flooded with emotions he could neither express nor understand.

Kwado nodded and pushed the stone deeper into his companion’s palm. “Go.”

Boram bowed and slammed the phalatite into his brand. A splatter of wet yellow light spilled away from the spot, and he screamed in delight as the phalatite negated the power of the Qilin forever. The wretched curse of servitude was cleansed from his being. Kwado could see the stone’s power working as Boram’s shoulder muscles flexed and his stone wings unfurled like an awakened bat. They stretched out to their full width, the leftmost sticking out from the platform.

“I will never forget this, Kwado,” Boram said.

Kwado smiled fondly back at him then threw an arm up to guard his face as the gargoyle burst upward from the platform. His powerful stone body smashed through the thatched ceiling of the tower. There was a spray of straw and sawdust then the gargoyle was gone, leaving nothing behind save a hole in the ceiling and a smudge of darkness in an otherwise starry sky.