Prologue, Fiorie and Kroorrijk

FIORIE AND KROORRIJK

PROLOGUE

The silence as the wagon wheels ceased to creek pulled Fiorie to consciousness. She willed her mind to drift into a pleasant state of dream, her body growing soft. Long years of practice had made this response to awaking in the midst of unknown dangers automatic.

Her handler was talking to someone. The new voice was in a sharp sounding Vexra, the tongue shared by all feral races. She presumed the owner of the voice to be one of the Kalutai, the thick furred, hunch backed creatures every civilized being feared ever to encounter. The lass smiled to herself, breathing in the scent of the forest.

...

Kroorrijk calmly walked to the back of the wagon and pulled out his impressive collection of manacles. He began oiling them, smiling as his pet sleepily rose from her little nest. He took his time, making certain each link was well cared for, as Fiorie stretched and crawled over to lean her head against his arm. He stroked the elf twice before finishing his task and moving to tend the two horses that pulled the little cart, his pet slumping sleepily in the back of the wagon, watching him. The horses were growing lean with overexertion but would likely survive the trip back to his den. He brushed them briefly and tied them to a nearby tree.

His pet stepped down from the wagon, smiling brightly while walking as though the air carried her in a dance. He pitied her this night. The little creature did not like rough treatment and certainly turned her gaze away from suffering in a hurry. What they approached, however, was a borehole bazaar. She would likely frown a time or two before they departed.

Kroorrijk returned to the back of the cart, his little pet following with laughter coloring the air. He was glad to have a fierce reputation and equally glad that his fable included the lively fae. He pulled out a storage satchel, a magically crafted bag containing folded space and a nullifying effect on weight, and handed a mid-sized box to Fiorie. She opened it and began sorting coins into various quantities while he placed them in leather bags. The kind of knot used to keep the little bags closed denoted the monetary quantity contained.

Next, the barrel-chested bugbear gracefully stepped to the side of the wagon and began to tie his full armor into place. This was not an event to appear weak at. Potential comrades in arms, employers and perhaps even rivals could all be in attendance. With rumors of an actual war starting soon, it paid to take these extra cares.

He flexed his fingers, examining the claws for signs of damage, before donning thick leather gloves ribbed with bone. His bracers were leather with metal ingots layered like scales, each with small hooks and barbs protruding no more than a quarter inch - perfect for lacerating the skin in combat. He carefully checked every inch of his full bodied leather armor and the thirty seven weapons lashed to it for ready access. The soft races would call him armed to the teeth. The hard races would call him adequately adorned.

He glanced over at his pet as she watched him. He smiled as her gaze traversed a few of the newer items. Every piece was designed with functionality foremost, aesthetically to intimidate second, and with comfort at a distant third, but the effect was truly frightful. Her reaction expressed that the second concern was set to perfection.

As he finished fitting the last patch of banded mail against his abdomen, he scooped up the little sacks of coin and began hiding them about his person. The notable exception was a large purple bag with quite a few larger denominations and a few loose bitz for purchasing grog or ale, if such was being sold and not shared.

He turned to his pet and tousled her hair affectionately. He then bundled up his shackles and tucked them under an arm. He lifted Fiorie briefly by the hair at the back of her neck and settled her gently atop his forearm, her sleepy hands draping over the bundle, and purred slightly as she settled.

“I think I should dress you well for this, little one.” Kroorrijk gently knocked her off of the bundle and pulled a small parcel from his storage satchel. It was fun to watch her tumble. She moved like an acrobat, though she made a face and his expression sharpened. The little thing immediately bowed her head and rolled her shoulders, her entire body relaxing with surrender. He smiled and handed her a parcel. She opened it and stripped, donning the scant clothing contained within.

Kroorrijk, for his part, pushed quite a few small gold hoops through his ears and a few straight barbs through the piercings in the hardened skin by his elbow. He rubbed an ointment over them, securing them firmly in place that they would hold their position in hand to hand combat. His broad, flat nose he ringed with small porcupine quills. He liked the aesthetic as it made his jaw seem even more like a tiger’s maw. A few more such decorations and he felt settled, double checking his multitude of blades and the double hooked club he preferred.

His pet looked much more petite in the almost nonexistent attire. He fitted a collar about her neck set with a little bell and wove a few ribbons through her hair. He smiled at the effect; his pet looked good with pale blue and green accentuating how delicately civilized she was, and her exposed belly and thighs left little room for mischief.

...

Fiorie read the signs and knew that Kroorrijk was dressed to do business. While his official title was that of mercenary, he was better described as a thug for hire, though to Karrurrahr he was the number two at the den. Orcs would call him a Second, though his role wasn’t quite that. He made a lot of the first contacts with potential employers for other members of the den and it was important that he always put his best foot forward.

The two of them had been heading home to the den, and the only reason they could reasonably have to cease in their travels two weeks from home was to pick up slaves. Well, that’s what they would be for a time. The distinction between meal, pet and slave was difficult to explain to resisting ears, but it was certainly there. She was a pet. She did not do menial labor, she was beloved, she was expected to have surly days and she was expected to be playful and fun to interact with. She had minimal rights as they would normally be expressed but she also had a great deal of power in certain situations. If she wanted to flirt with a sod, she certainly could. If she didn’t want to flirt the big bad bugbear would come to defend her. The den was home, its inhabitants family. It was not someplace to which she was tied but a place of warmth to remember and love when she was away.

With mixed races, however, her role was somewhat different. In front of hobgoblins, orcs, goblins and kalutai he would likely be rough with her. She did not fear he would do her any great harm, but from time to time he would let his new friends handle her and that could be a touch frightful. They tended to be loud and gruff, taking full advantage of the fact that she was to be handled, dandled, petted and roughly adored.

The outfit she wore now, if lingerie could be called an outfit, had a little handle at the top of her back so she could be easily caught by the ’scruff.’ She hated the attire, though decades of conditioning kept her smiling. On the plus side, she could choose her own cosmetics. She pulled a small packet with her as she followed her handler toward the event, dabbing a bit of kohl over her eyes and a bit of rouge onto her lips. She was a free spirit and had never resisted doing those things which caught her fancy and gave her the rush of living a worthwhile life.

The seventy year old, petite and happily youthful elf darted forward and climbed a tree just in front of her handler, reaching down to lift a small sack from his shoulder. Contained within were dried nuts, fruit, and meat. Her handler gave her a hard stare for a moment before chuckling and pulling her out of the tree. She took this play as permission and began nibbling on the fare.

That her handler was being so gentle was a bad sign. She knew this and tried to hide her knowledge. It meant that, as soon as they were in the thick of those gathered, she would be a possession and not a companion.

Kroorrijk was a sweet, gentle bugbear, despite being competent and deadly. He was in good shape, though his age was always trying to catch up with him. Bugbears usually retired at thirty and they tended to live to no more than fifty or so, though those with pets could almost reach seventy. At thirty eight he was well past his prime but still one to challenge the world.

...

Kroorrijk forced himself to relax. It was not good to always expect the worst of the kalutai. This band, at least, was behaving very professionally and didn’t seem to mind his pet overmuch. He mused that perhaps they had worked with bugbears enough to be familiar with the tradition of keeping pets. Still, he was glad his sweet little Fiorie could be quite useful. His pet was a natural with tongues -- certainly better than the average elf -- and he had a leash ready to clip to her collar should the need to show his ownership arise. He hoped things went well tonight, though it was always wise to be alert at these functions.

As he walked down the little game path, he decided caution the wisest course and reached over to clip her leash in place. She turned he watched and her normally carefree and joyous face sharpen with anger and frustration. Kroorrijk caught her neck and applied some pressure, gently but firmly reminding her to mind her place. His pet settled, growing resigned and tractable at the touch.

The bugbear felt a sudden bit of whimsy and pulled out a small pinch of powder from his storage satchel. He sprinkled this over her and it turned to a glittering dust as it touched her skin, making his pet almost luminous in the starlight. He smiled as she twirled, suddenly overcome by joy. He loved how easy it was to watch her moods shift.

...

Fiorie smiled as she danced, enjoying the fall of the glitter. It was a wonderful treat, like dried mangoes in the midst of winter. She also knew that it was the closest to an apology for what was to come that she was likely to receive. She treasured these little concessions.

The lass hoped she would be dealing with captive bred stock. She hoped she would not look into eyes that cried out to her, speaking silently of their hope and despair. The beaten down depression of sods whose souls had long since buried themselves was much easier to face than the burning hunger in those more recently haunted eyes. Despair was a horrible thing to see, but hope grabbed for the heart with dire ferocity.

Her handler’s smile grew distant and he pulled out his Vtragvrin, leaving it naked in his free hand. It was a club with obsidian running down at the end like a blade and bands of metal giving it strength and added weight. Unlike the more common Vgravrair, it did not have multiple shorter lines of obsidian imbedded like alternating little blades, but the bits of obsidian in the two lines were a fair bit longer. The weapon was larger and was awkward for all but the most powerful fighters in the den. Her Kroorrijk, however, had always hefted it as though it weighed nothing. About a foot from the tip of the club, a pair of hooks protuded at forty five degree angles. The handle was wrapped in layers of black leather with little metal beads in place for added grip. The whole thing was just a little shorter than she was and weighed just a little bit more.

He was deadly with the weapon. Fiorie hated to watch him fight for the fear that coursed her veins. If he was already pulling it loose, then this was to be a very rough crowd. She hoped the preemptive display of outward aggression would be enough to keep any sort of tussle from breaking loose.

She twirled to the front again and noted a small clearing lit with torches. Her gaze hovered for a moment on an impromptu tent then skidded to a hole in the earth. Two of the kalutai stood watch over the pit with what, at first glance, could be mistaken for a massive chain dangling over the edge. It was a huge representative of her least favorite parasitic species: a sugelanca. The species required very specific conditions to breed but could keep growing for their entire lifespans. She had heard they were demonic and had absolutely no reason not to believe the claim, especially as some of the creatures truly looked like magically animated chains, disparate links and all.

Her mind sought escape, fixating on trivia. Sugelancas were a true species, employing hosts to procreate, but they moved as though the links of a chain had decided to mimic a serpent. They came in all sizes and shapes and colors, as diverse a species as domesticated canids, felines or corvids. She looked past these distractions and let herself see, let herself know. There could be no doubt, protest though her mind might.

She was looking at a Borehole Bazaar.

...

Kroorrijk looked down at the trembling wreck his pet had become. He wished they were alone so he could pet her and bring her slowly around to see that this place was not so scary. Instead, he gave her leash a sharp jerk and growled, striding toward the tent with a dark scowl sculpting his features.

Borehole Bazaars were social events and the Boss was always looking for fresh unclaimed pets. The den tended to go through them rather quickly and had no real need of humans, gnomes or halflings. Dwarves would be nice but highly unlikely. He hoped, rolled his eyes back and almost prayed, that there would be some elves or celenicics for the little cubs to enjoy. They wouldn’t last the winter, to be sure, but that was somewhat the point of buying by a batch of them.

Vrraorirx was soon to have a litter and two other lasses were likely soon to be heavy with child. It would be good for the youngsters to become familiar with the soft races he smelled at the bottom of that pit. He would take as many as were healthy back home for them. He opened his mouth and curled his tongue back and up, testing the air to pick out all the delicate aromas.

Mixed in with the scents of kalutai, orc, goblin, hobgoblin and, surprisingly, ogre, was the scent of man, elf and terror. Usually there were just humans or gnomes at these events. Elves rarely traveled the back roads and those who did were amazingly good at fleeing off into the woodlands. He picked up his stride, almost grinning with anticipation.

His mind picked up as he thought of the journey home. Elves, well, his pet was an elf. As long as he kept her exhausted with physical activities she had a hard time casting any sort of arcana. Karurrahr probably a few extra crakagatas on hand, meaning blasted magic would only be a temporary concern. He had heard that overexertion crippled most members of the species, though it was a thin line to walk. That they were frail and easily wounded he knew first hand. It was far easier to kill the creatures than it was to take them alive. It was a valuable skill to have, too. Any thug with half an arm could brain an elf, but to get an elf to yield; that was unheard of.

Kroorrijk strode to the tent entrance. The raucous laughter that greeted him was welcome, as was the festive air. He smelled old comrades, old friends. He looked around and smiled harshly at the familiar scenes. An orc and a hobgoblin were busily wrestling amid bets, wagers, and the occasional good natured and sharp edged bit of audience participation. Two parties of goblins were screaming at each other while playing some sort of game of chance and bartering. A pair of woad painted ogres were both pouring over a bunch of shells and twigs. Everywhere, the goblinoid races kept their backs protected by their own while they made a show of interacting with those not of the same size and shape. Kroorrijk smiled and glanced down as his pet fretted with what little she wore and stayed almost glued to his side.

A hobgoblin strode over and pounded Kroorrijk on the shoulder in greeting. “Ah, yaool bug. Ye smell tham waifs?” Kroorrijk recognized the thick accent and smiled, returning the blow.

“Kasap, you old dodger, let me look at you. Ah, you have a leader’s brand. Congratulations.” The hobgoblin smiled and picked at the fresh blisters.

“Heh, thaz ol thang? Yeah, hed te kill tree of them lessers te secure et, but no drama.” The hobgoblin squatted down and his hand shot out to grab Fiorie by the neck, pulling her sharply forward. “I see ye getz yer ma’s ol ecrobet. Sha stell tumble good?”

Kroorrijk smiled at his old friend and pulled out a skin of heady grog. “Yep. And by the scents coming from that hole, I reckon she’ll be more than a little useful.” He handed his friend the skin and smiled as Kasap took it and stood, tossing his head back to drink. The hobgoblin, true to its ilk, wore heavy leather pants, long hair, bands of metal about its arms, and nothing else. Its marbled brown and white skin caught the torchlight in odd ways, reflecting on old scars and the brands that defined its past. Kasap had worked as a mercenary for fifteen years. He had partnered with quite a few members from Karrurrahr’s den and Kroorrijk knew him for an ally.

“How’s Gjirrijarc holding up? He still getting the screams hot and heavy?”

“Yeh, but anm busting loose a thez band. Te much citement fe goo blood.”

“Heh.”

...

About an hour later, as her Kroorrijk sipped at a flask of presumably rich grog offered to him by one of the hobgoblins, a true goblin came up and grabbed Fiorie by the hair, tilting her head up and sneering as it put the tip of a dagger under her neck. She tucked her knees in a little closer and forced herself to relax.

“Younglings, this whita captive bred slave looks, wha tit act.”

Two smaller representatives of the diminutive race came close. Fiorie gave a small yelp and noted that her handler looked at her for a moment before turning back to his conversation. He trusted her judgment. She tried not to pout, instead offering a polite whimper.

The goblin readjusted its grip and removed the dagger, watching her warily. “Little captive, stick out y’ton an’old still.” She did so and her tongue was smeared with a bitter tasting herb of some sort. She did pout now but still left her tongue out as she shook. “See ow she del’kate but obidant? She perform when others b’overcome a fear.” The goblin pulled out a blade made of some great beast’s femur with a large number of jagged pieces of stone forming a fan at the tip. He played this in the air by her face and she lowered her head meekly, though she was not, in fact, afraid. He rewarded her with a fair bit of merrily chortled laughter.

As the goblins played their little games, asking her to touch this or lick that while brandishing their Kuxotzes, a type of thickly curved blade, a pair of kalutai stepped forward. Fiorie feared and distrusted the race. They prided themselves on spontaneity and on thriving in chaos. Collateral damage was spoken of with an odd mix of pride and one-ups-manship. The creatures didn’t look like proper representative of the Hard Races, either. This was quite possibly because they were not related to hobgoblins, bugbears or orcs. They were only seven and a half feet tall with thick fur and features somewhere between a worg and a stooped-back human.Their faces were decidedly canid in shape and their movements like a long lost member of the Felidae. The race had only grudgingly been accepted when they had begun field testing the ogre race’s inventions.

Her handler stood in response and pulled Fiorie up via the thrice cursed leash. The goblins immediately scattered, not wanting to interfere with a roused bugbear. The kalutai offered Kroorrijk a gesture, giving him the floor.

“My pet has a gift with tongues and I have a knack for sharing.” The bugbear sat down again, pulling Fiorie into his lap. She snuggled in, pulling herself as far from the goblins as she was able. This band reminded her why she truly hated the race.

The larger of the two kalutai waited for quiet then turned to address those assembled. The woman ran over the rules of a Borehole Bazaar, though all present already knew them. A creature would be hauled out by the sugelanca, bid on, and the winning bid would try to subdue the creature. If the prisoner won, it would be taken in by the kalutai as a mercenary. If it lost, it belonged to its opponent. The prisoners almost never won, but the contingency was still stated.

The kalutai continued, describing the number, age and health of the individuals. They emphasized that these facts were valid only prior to the point, much earlier that day, when they had been tossed into the borehole. After the brutality of the attack, it was likely that some were already dead and a few nipping close to that final fate.

At the close of the announcement, all those gathered cheered. Fiorie clung to her handler and was carefully escorted outside, her leash wrapped around Kroorrijk’s hand and clenched tight. For once, she was glad of the implied protection that restrictive cord promised.

...

Kroorrijk smiled at the clean evening air. The area to the side of the borehole was flat and the torches bright enough that the combatants, after their stint down the hole, would likely start their fights blind. It made for good odds. The kalutai called the conditions down to the captives and the echo let Kroorrijk know the hole opened up into a kind of bowl beneath him. He grinned and tousled his pet’s hair affectionately. No matter the results, borehole bazaars were good entertainment.

The first creature hauled up by the sugelanca was dead. He ignored it and the goblins jumped at the chance for fresh meat. The faction lines formed, faded, and reformed as the various individuals rejoined and forgot their clans repeatedly. They were a fractious race at best and a nightmare to coordinate, though the orcs seemed to do well enough with them. It took some time for the issue of who got the meat and who paid for the meat to be resolved as the rest of the hard races shared a laugh at their expense.

The second captive drawn out the the pit was alive but its deep wounds had already begun to fester. Kroorrijk ignored it. The third was a small child. He hesitated, then pitched in a few coins to join in the fun. No one outbid him and he sighed. He strode forth as the little elf blinked at the torches, seeming dazed and lost. He slugged her once and she fell prone, then dragged her back over to Fiorie by the ankle and bound her securely. The rest of the fights were about equivalent, though one managed to nick his forearm before he put her down. Humans could be so very... vivacious.

In all, he took two elf mutts, seven elves and one human female. One more elf joined his collection, though he did not bid on it. It had a wild glint to its eyes and managed to grab the weapon from the hobgoblin that had paid for the sport of killing it. The golden-haired fae managed this despite deep punctures in one of its legs. It had metallic golden hair and reeked of water lilies. The creature was only downed at the last moment when its leg gave out and the hobgoblin took the moment to smash a fist down into the back of the creature’s head.

The hobgoblin smiled triumphantly, ignoring the elf. This was a poor choice as the pitiable little creature regained a semblance of consciousness, still clearly disoriented, grabbed one of the hobgoblin’s boot daggers and stabbed it through its new owner’s foot. The beast stomped on the creature’s forearm and the sound of a bone breaking was heavy on the air. After that the hobgoblin grabbed the creature by the hair, slowly sliced open its cheek from the jawline to just below its eye, and nicked him between the eyebrow as he went. He then smashed its head repeatedly into the dirt -- until it lay inert -- and dragged it to the edge of the arena and threw it at Fiorie’s feet.

“A gift. For a beautiful damsel.” His voice was mocking, as was the kiss he blew the lass. It was greeted by a fair bit of raucous jeering and general good humor. Kroorrijk felt his eye twitch but simply crossed his arms over his chest and gave a faint nod. His pet blushed and dragged the insensate elf next to the slowly awakening pool.

...

After the gathering, Kroorrijk turned his cart directly for home. Karrurrahr’s den was high in the foothills, just below the tree line, and he missed the quiet days and sun warmed rocks. His pet would do well to keep company with Gretchen and Ambrosia and he would certainly love to see his sometimes-lover and to rub her tummy. It brought good luck in business to rub a very pregnant woman’s abdomen.

He pushed his horses as hard as he could, the line of prisoners chained behind his wagon staggering and falling over themselves in an effort to keep up. His ’gift’ had to spend the first day in the back of the cart with a rough splint on arm and leg, though the instant it awoke Kroorrijk poured a healing tonic down its throat, set its arm, and crudely braced its leg before tossing it into the line.

In the course of fording the swamplands and climbing the steep trails, two of the elves died, as did one of the mutts. His favorites to die of exposure, the wild and combative elf and the little child, however, seemed to fare just fine. It was curious, he mused, how survival could be so very fickle. A small breeze ran counter to the ever present current of wind and Kroorrijk thought he heard the faintest tinkle of laughter, the sound like a memory all but forgotten.

Next Chapter: Chapter 1, Pride Before All