CHAPTER FOUR: A Small Concession
Aesthetically, trolls usually have skin that moves as metamorphic stone, complete with intrusions foreign to the parent material. While they can be cut and do bleed a dark purple with heavy granules, most blades have a hard time piercing their hide. They are not the fastest race, they are not the cleverest, but they are often the strongest. Many feature heavily in paid combat arenas, and when they take action in cities, they fiercely guard their blocks and interests.
Trolls are related to the earth in strange, powerful ways. They all possess an affinity for the shape and composition of solid materials. They live in very small family units high in the mountains or deep in the recesses of canyons or calderas and do not reach the age of maturity until they are about thirty. They never cease growing over their two hundred year lifespans, but most return home at about one hundred to sire and raise the next generations.
Ancient trolls actively seek out human mates because the resultant mutts are much better able to relate to other races. Full trolls usually only interact with other races until they reach the age of seventy, at which point they become increasingly isolationist. A troll’s territory is usually fairly small, only a few square miles, but even other trolls are not granted access unless the interloper is a female with young or, occasionally, a nubile human.
Ptielieren came back to consciousness with three cubs curled close to him. The boldest one, Ryerer, had nestled in on top of Ptielieren’s hair. He glanced back, rolled his eyes, shook his head minutely and sighed. In his mind, he thought really, my hair? But he did not shake the cub off. It was not only rude to awaken a slumbering child but also detrimental to mental development to interfere with a child’s need for rest.
The leader approached and looked down at the sleeping cubs and Ptielieren almost detected fondness. The beast made some kind of call and the little creatures roused and scattered, chattering in that strange tongue they used. The elf silently cursed the bugbear but waited until the little ones were all well and truly clear to push himself straight up into a cross-legged sit. He noted his ward was wounded and holding a bit of cloth to his bleeding forehead. That Bieyshiealelleinue was carefully inspecting his own hand for full functionality meant these creatures were playing with their food. He wanted to be angry with the monsters, but instead a slow smile crept across his eyes. Their behavior was most uncivilized, but that was to be expected. The cause for the sudden lightening in his heart, however, lay with his compatriots.
His cohorts were actually fighting back; he was inspiring them. He watched the beast before him warily and noted it had removed all its daggers and blades with the exception of the main weapon. It was a surprisingly slender club made of some kind of very dense wood and ringed with spiked bands of crude iron.
The beast crossed its arms and looked down at him. Ptielieren arched a brow and asked in Elvish “Iesewelleaine sciella niele?” The brutes would likely translate it to ’yes, disgraced rogue?’ but its actual meaning pulled itself from a piece of prose that was a bit more flowery. It translated better to ‘the honor of a bee against that of a flower is as the wind to freedom; naught but a thing against its ideal.’
“Ah, you are xiezjiit. If you did anything less than you do I would simply execute you. But your comrades would see it as a victory, no? And so I will break you instead. It is harder to break an elf than to kill it, yes, but it is a worthwhile exercise. Your arm, it is cracked. I will take the crack away.” The bugbear leaned forward suddenly and Ptielieren could barely follow the motion before he was just pinned, the shackles crossed behind his back and pulling sharply on his joints.
He did not cry out. That he grunted was shame enough, but he would not give voice to his weakness. He struggled as mightily as he was able. There was no point in making even a single action easy for his captors. The splint was ripped off. Ptielieren had forgotten that his shirt was ripped in the back. He recalled this now as he felt the leather of a knee directly upon his skin. He snarled and writhed under the touch. The left sleeve was pulled open and suddenly his left arm was on fire. He felt some kind of poultice slam home and work its way instantly into the middle of his bone.
The sensation would have been mild had it simply been the sensation of having the arm broken again. Instead, it felt as though his arm was being deconstructed and reassembled by a bunch of imps at a slop factory. He clenched his already somewhat shattered teeth and dug his forehead into the ground to ride out the pain. He felt a new splint put in place and then that most glorious of sounds.
His shackles were struck.
Ptielieren screamed a battle cry and surged forward and upward. He managed to plant a kick on the bugbear’s cheek before rolling backward and regaining his feet. It was only then that he realized only his hands had been freed. He noted it and ignored it. It made no difference save to his footwork.
He took a combat stance and began shifting his weight. The old punctures in his foot smarted fiercely but they were of minimal concern. He shifted to favor his better leg. The beast stood at its full height. “You xiezjiit, yield now!” It was a roar and Ptielieren recognized instantly the unquestionable voice of authority, but he would not yield, not in the least. The elf surged forward, his gaze locked on his foe.
He tripped over something small and warm. It was a cub. He froze and backed off. The little thing was suddenly bawling. Ptielieren knew he had committed a faux pas and immediately knelt on both knees. The alpha seemed possessed of an irrational rage. The cub ran over and grabbed Ptielieren by the hair and punched him in the face. The elf slightly lowered his head in acknowledgment that he should be repudiated in some manner. If this was the local custom then he would accept it.
The cub landed about three blows before it seemed confused and backed off. Karrurrahr snarled with a deep rumbling growl, turned, and stalked outside. Ptielieren glared after him for quite some time but maintained his kneeling stance.
Eventually, the cubs returned and began sniffing at his no longer broken arm and playing with his hair. He ignored them, settling back into a more meditative position. He privately wished the little monsters would harass the acclimated slaves but did nothing to shoo them away.
As the day progressed, the two adults who had been force feeding him approached again. His body was so happy to see them it almost made this state manifest. He willed his euphoria down and instead scowled at the approaching duo. It was Dirrorz and the same other beast, the big one that the goblin was always hanging around. Dirrorz spoke to his companion. The creature, when it offered some feedback, was addressed as Trerrarc. Ptielieren noted the name sound and memorized it.
The two came over with a pair of the largest cubs accompanying them. Ptielieren eyed this new development warily. The two spread out and Ptielieren prepared to land small little blows of defiance, nothing firm enough to get his comrades in trouble but enough to offer a show of resistance. Instead, one of the cubs walked right up to him and reached out to grab his hair. Ptielieren leaned back away from the hand but eventually the chain ran out and the cub caught him, beaming at the adults with ill-earned pride.
Ptielieren glared at the two adults. Cowards, to hide behind their own offspring. The other cub tried to pry open his mouth. The two were clumsy and clearly had no practical experience, but that didn’t mean the elf just let them have it easy. He wouldn’t do anything to risk injury to the young but he certainly wouldn’t let himself yield to them either.
One of the adults reached forward and Ptielieren lashed out with a foot. The mood of mild entertainment changed in a heartbeat. The cubs released him and scampered back while Trerrarc began to try to pound Ptielieren into the sandstone. The elf gave nearly as much as he got, but it was spaced between two assailants after the first sign of resistance and not the least effective in forestalling either of them. The grub was forced into his mouth and down his throat, followed by a large helping of the cold broth. He was actually forced to eat as much as his stomach could hold and even enough to make it ache afterward. It was pure misery, but he made certain the same held true for the two who had forced the issue.
About three hours later, Ptielieren was unchained and escorted outside again. He was shoved down the hill but this time, he was ready. He came up swinging and found it was a fierce female who fought him now. He was not of the inclination to pull his punches on account of her gender, barely discernible as it was. Some gentry spoke of such things but his sisters had taught him that it disrespectful to women to fight them with less tenacity than men.
He noted that there were about six adults and the two cubs from before watching the fight, all on one side at the top of the little ridge. They watched silently, which elevated the beasts somewhat in Ptielieren’s mind. This was some kind of ritual combat, then. Well, he could certainly outfight any creature in this den as long as the rules of engagement were adhered to.
His assailant had no weapons, but her claws were ready and present. They were like fingernails that just seemed to be much too thick and vaguely pointed at the tips. As he circled and watched for an opening, he noted that bugbears looked more ugly shirtless than in armor. The hot sun beat down on skin of various hues and mostly yellowish orange, dusty fur, thin enough and short enough about the chest to reveal the full coloration beneath. The men and women were surprisingly similar in aesthetic. It seemed the armor worn had been crafted to hint at things not present on the gals. Every individual was covered in dark or pale or glistening-pink scars and even the elderly and borderline infirm were heavily muscled.
The creatures seemed to be sweating somewhat and the vapors rose off of all, though especially from his opponent. She did not seem concerned with her partial nudity and wore metal soled boots as though they were thin, weightless slippers. Her belt caught the sunlight and glinted sharply, distractingly. Her eyes were narrow amber slits as she circled, her concentration growing with each cautious step. He noted how her body was both similar and dissimilar to that of an ork. She was certainly taller than the more militant beasts, standing a little over eight feet, but narrower of chest. Her face... she seemed the result of a tiger and an orc deciding to make a race from the ugliest cub conceived between the two.
The century of training he had received came back to the elf. The bugbears of lore were faster than most ever expected, had a scary sense of reach, did not stop fighting for being injured, and were usually the quietest of the mercenaries in any mixed goblinoid party. They tended to take a lot of blows with their forearms if they were ever without their main weapons and the scarring on his opponent showed she often engaged in hand to hand or dagger heavy combat. They were known to be observant in combat, fast and strong, but not considered the brains behind any large scale schemes. They were quintessential muscle; the best kind of backup.
Ptielieren saw an opening and struck, catching a glancing blow to the back of the lass’s knee and spinning to offer a grapevine approach and side kick to the small of her back. The creature whirled faster than it should have been able and Ptielieren only barely managed to dodge the claws that scraped the air above his face. The knife wound on his cheek burned as his muscles seized.
One of the observers called something out. The woman shook her head and stepped back into a fighting stance. Apparently, it had been some sort of advice. Ptielieren tossed his hair slightly to the side and kept his eyes peeled. She struck and he blocked it. Unfortunately, she was strong enough that blocking the strike sent Ptielieren sliding quite a distance over the ground. He used the last of the momentum from the blow to roll back to his feet and walked calmly back to close the distance. He offered her a bow, acknowledging the point scored.
This continued for what was probably hours. He knew he staggered more than he stepped but couldn’t bring himself to stop, to stand down. He knew the bugbears were waiting for him to fall to the ground but he wasn’t in danger of death just yet. Quick glances told him the adults were entertained and Ptielieren mused that perhaps he could be an escape inducing distraction for the rest. It was a bitterly happy thought. The sun shifted and his shadow grew long. The mouse-haired woman brought out a few torches and the duel continued. Each time Ptielieren hit the ground, his opponent would back off and wait for him not only to rise but also to come at her swinging.
As the sky washed the sandstone in a phoenix’s plumage, he began to stumble from his own blows. The bugbear seemed content now to simply stay in close and dodge his attacks. Ptielieren finally sighed and stood still, looking at the sky. He waited for the female to assault him but the blows never came. He gave a small chuckle and smiled as he lowered his head, twirling his hand up in defeat.
His back was straight but he no longer felt the contest needed to continue. He felt the silence stretch and his hand wanted to shake as he held it aloft, waiting for a mark accepting his stance that the lass before him was, at this moment, the better combatant.
Finally, one of the bugbears came down from the ridge. It stalked up behind him and lightly kicked the back of Ptielieren’s knees, following him down to land on one knee behind him. Ptielieren’s smile stretched faintly. He spoke softly in Nieltre. “If this is what you require to acknowledge a fight has ended, I’ve no need to point out the lack of subtlety.” The creature caught his arms and pulled them behind them. The pressure on his left arm caused Ptielieren to shudder somewhat, but otherwise he repressed all signs of pain. He could feel how close to broken his arm still was, though he knew the poultice had held some sort of powerful charm.
He was hauled roughly to his feet. The female came over and ruffled his hair. Ptielieren found this act of condescension incredibly disrespectful and kicked the woman’s inner thigh sharply. At this, the female landed a punch squarely on his nose and he was dragged back into the cave.
This pattern held for about two weeks, though he began to tolerate the hair ruffling. He determined it was akin to a handshake offered by the victor, though he was not of the mind to offer it in return should he win. Ptielieren was kept separate from the rest of the captives most of the time and only pulled from the cave to relieve himself or to fight with one of the adults. The cubs seemed to grow increasingly bold with him and to care less and less for his fellow prisoners. This would have worried him – the adults were much gentler with his companions when the little ones were underfoot – if not for one new development.
Feyaodaiazoyeeniesia d’Syvaeleyne was developing some kind of deep cough. Bieyshiealelleinue sang to her nightly and called on all his ancestors to restore her to health but the lass grew weaker and weaker by the day. Ptielieren watched as the bugbears ignored her plight, seeing the illness as an opportunity to educate their cubs on the frailty of his race. He hated them more than anything then.
Whenever he was dragged past his fellow captives, he gave a salute acknowledging strength to the sickly heir. She seemed to take heart from this and to sit up straighter. Natia and Jaioeyaollaieraineilyen d’Syvaeleyne were now allowed to wander about in front of the cave a fair bit, seemingly without supervision. They had given in to their bondage and he disregarded them but noted the trust they had earned from the monsters. It could prove useful in the moment of escape.
Bieyshiealelleinue yielded a fair bit as well. Ptielieren couldn’t really blame him, though. He was watching after his sickly ward and trying to keep the commotion down as best he was able. Traisyelianiel followed the quiet guardian’s lead and stayed close to Feyaodaiazoyeeniesia d’Syvaeleyne as well, patting her back and wiping the sweat from her brow with inexpert hands. Ptielieren was proud of his ward. When they both escaped and he was returned to his rightful place in line for the Spiral Throne, the young elf would be possessed of a depth of experienced lacking in his peers.
Each evening, Ptielieren would face off against a bugbear. He was slowly regaining his strength even as his body screamed at the nearly constant abuse. He meditated, recovered and observed his captors while bound at the back of the cave. The cubs had taken to pleating his hair inexpertly and rubbing dust into it. He would run his fingers through it when they wandered off and the mess they had made would slide away in response to its naturally flowing grace. He liked his golden hair, it was a clear mark of his lineage and his one vanity. It would always appear clean and glossy -- always.
After the midday siesta, he would fight. If he bested an opponent, he would dart off into the woods. His captors had been stunned by this after the first such battle but now they seemed to think it funny. He did not do this idly. He was learning the exact range of their physiological responses, memorizing the subtleties of his immediate surroundings. He was fairly certain he could dart free to a distance of two hundred paces if the need ever really arose, but he needed to know he could bring his ward with him and truly escape.
The alpha had ceased paying him the least heed. The bugbear that seemed to ward the gnome, Growralr if he was not mistaken, would kick him every time he passed by. Ptielieren, for his part, returned the favor three-fold. Other bugbears would usually separate them fairly quickly, but there were times when the abuse was allowed to persist. He hated the others for their cowardice, then.
He was settling down, waiting to resist being force fed, when Trerrarc simply sat before him and just out of striking range. Dirrorz was standing a fair distance back. The bugbear watched him for a long time, sharpening a blade as he did. Finally, it shook its head and spoke.
“Xiezjiit, your life has been forfeit for a long time. If it weren’t so fun to punch you repeatedly, we would have long since eaten you. But your little friends, they still have hope. A quick death did not bring you to heel. Now we offer a slow one.” The beast turned and looked at Feyaodaiazoyeeniesia d’Syvaeleyne. “We will not give that one any food until you eat your meal without aid.”
Bieyshiealelleinue looked up, his eyes suddenly imploring. Ptielieren saw the manic desperation and knew he had to yield on this point. He wasn’t happy about it, but such was how things stood. He glared at the ceiling for a long time before offering the gesture of acquiescence.
The creatures didn’t seem to notice it and so Ptielieren repeated it. They still looked at him blankly until he finally just held out a hand. “Give me that detritus you claim is edible.” Trerrarc turned to look back at Dirrorz and then put a dehydrated... carrot... yes, likely a carrot... into the elf’s hand. Ptielieren gnawed on it. His shattered molars screamed at him in protest. He ignored them. A piece of tooth came loose and he spat it out.
The two bugbears looked at it and the closest one picked it up, examining. “Tell me, when did you break your teeth, elf.” Though the Nietre said it was a question, the tone did not. He was being ordered to answer. He glared at his two tormentors and took another bite. He chewed it slowly and with care. His jaw hurt, true, but he’d lost teeth before while guarding Traisyelianiel. They would regrow in a year or two, quicker if he was allowed some augmented healing.
He ate the entire dried carrot, including the bitter base and the few little green dusty bits on the top. The two studied him for a moment before handing him another. They did not press with regard to the how long his teeth had been shattered. He glared his hatred but Feyaodaiazoyeeniesia d’Syvaeleyne’s weak coughing broke his resolve. He sighed, looked at the vegetable, and began to eat it.
This time, he dislodged a rather large chunk of tooth. He spat the blood and enamel out and continued eating, never once dropping his steadfast glare. The two seemed unnerved and left him in peace, dropping a small assortment of the vegetables beside Bieyshiealelleinue as they left the cave.
His two guards returned about two hours later with more vegetation. Ptielieren’s left arm had healed, been broken anew, and healed again in the space of some two weeks. His ribs rebelled at even breathing but he refused to let a few shattered ribs break his spirit. The pair put a woven grass bowl in front of him and held a skin of broth. The one called Dirrorz spoke slowly, as though common was a very strange language for him. “This is heartening. It will help the female elf to mend. Eat and I will give it to her.”
Trerrarc put a large handful of diced vegetation into the bowl. Ptielieren ate slowly and with as much dignity as he was able. His tooth hadn’t quite stopped bleeding, but he had hope that it might soon. He chewed carefully and swallowed piece after piece. The bowl was filled twice more and only one tiny piece of tooth dislodged.
Ptielieren gave a small bow from the neck as he finished the bowl the third time it was filled. It was the most he would give to peaceably indicate he was painfully full. The bugbears took the bowl away and walked over to the three elves. They handed the skin of broth to Bieyshiealelleinue. The guardian carefully helped his ward to swallow the stuff down and the heir’s eyes fluttered as she slid down and slept.
A few hours later, Ptielieren was hauled outside to fight again.