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The Ravages Of Fate

by Ulysses Ai


Background
The sun that lights your days is a small square high in the rough stone wall. Opening to some dim alley it is often a grey sun, shedding feeble illumination into your cell. Most often it is a portal for gelid air to flow inside, paining you with a dichotomy of wretchedness and remembered latitude. Somewhere out there is freedom, but it is not for you.

In the early days you marked the passage of your confinement, but your scratches on the wall are abandoned now; you are no longer even sure which marks are your own. Many souls have sojourned here in their downward journey. The scent of freedom carried on the cold from outside gives you no cause to think that you will be spared the fate of so many others.

With a start you jerk from sleep, staring wide-eyed into all corners of the shadow-drenched niche. Another metallic clang follows and with a sense of disgust you let your head fall back onto the sodden straw. The guards are delivering the daily meal. Often you never even bother to wake up for the bowl of unpalatable gruel.

One of the other prisoners is jabbering gratefully, irritating your encroaching slumber. Sitting up slowly you look at the window and your malnourished mind gradually turns over. It is the wrong time. You listen to the guards drawing closer, shoving bowls of gruel through the slots under the thick, reinforced doors. When it is your turn, the narrow slot in the door opens. Your bowl is already there and a chubby hand reaches out and grabs it. A few moments later it is slid back through and the slot closes with a clang.

You stare at the food and wonder if today, finally is the day you are going mad. Rather than gruel the bowl appears to be full of a thick stew, with a small motley apple carelessly tossed in on top. It is only the smell that breaks your disbelief; a pleasant aroma of hearty vittles so different from the rank stench of the cell.

Crawling over to the bowl you scoop out the stew with your hands and consume it with desperate gusto. You know this is your last meal, but you welcome your impeding death with a glee that teeters on the edge of madness.

The food does wonders for your wellbeing and you start to contemplate escape like you did when they first put you in here, accused of a crime you didn't commit. There was no evidence of the murder, just a dead body and a Watchman's word that you were seen standing over the body. You never stood before a judge or magistrate, and in the wisdom of the Empire you were sent up North to The Jaw, the great wall that forms the boundary between the world of men and the land of the trolls.

Your cell lies in the bowels of a fortress called the Molar; the old stones rounded by the wind and crumbling at the top until it does in truth resemble a flat-topped tooth jutting up from the wall. Instead of being dispatched into the troll-lands at once, you have been here for months waiting for the summer to arrive. Now it seems your time is up. A short time later you hear the commotion as the guards open the cells one by one and clamp chains on the prisoners before dragging them out. You listen with growing excitement and soon the key rattles in the old lock of your cell door, the guard swearing as he tries to make it turn.

You stand in the middle of the small cell as the door is finally forced open. There are three guards all armed with cudgels, staring at you blackly with faces as scoured by darkness as any criminal. Even their armour seems rimmed with soot and grime as if they too have not seen the light of day for a long time.

"Hands out!" commands the chubby one, at which the other two enter into the cell to flank you menacingly. Obediently you hold out your arms and the chubby guard waddles forward with manacles in hand. The chains are secured on your wrists and you are dragged out into the corridor to be chained up to the rest of the prisoners. You shuffle along, directed by grunts or blows while the rest of the prisoners are collected from their cells. Once all of the festering holes have spewed forth their human refuse, you and the other prisoners are made to walk forward along the corridor which soon begins to slope upwards toward sunlight and chill air. The growing light makes your eyes start to ache and you are soon forced to close them, stumbling along at the direction of the bored guard. You feel the cold sharpen on your skin as you step out into the open.

You are all told to wait and as you shiver you slowly open your eyes. The courtyard that surrounds you seems vast after your confinement. Above the plain grey walls surrounding you is the open blue sky and you grin in pure pleasure. An official in red imperial robes, his hat crowned with a golden dragon approaches with a silken bag of dried flowers held under his nose. A lanky youth in red and black livery trails him with a wooden board jutting out from his waist secured by straps running from his shoulders. The official approaches the first prisoner and checks his incarceration tattoo before taking up a quill from the wooden board and writing something in the papers there.

One by one the official checks the prisoner's names and plea. When he gets to you his dark eyes flick over you in disinterest, noting details of your general condition. You see him write down 'able' and consult another list to check your name. The bureaucracy of the empire proves efficient as ever. "And are you innocent or guilty?"

It makes no difference what you say now. Your innocence or guilt could not be determined and so it is not mere mortals who will judge you. Instead you will be banished into the perilous wilderness along with the guilty. Any who return to the Molar with the head of a troll are pardoned of all crimes for which they are accused. Some have been known to survive, but few are spared by the ravenous trolls.

"What's the point?" you ask.

"Refusal to plead innocence is taken as an admission of guilt," the official informs you, quill inked and poised ready to write. You shrug and he writes down 'Guilty' and moves on with an indifference that makes your defiance feel futile. As the official is checking over the men, the guards move in to divide those who are able into groups of four. You find yourself chained on one side to a tall, thickset man with a mass of tangled black hair and beard. He is missing most of the teeth from a cruel mouth, but his dark eyes are bright with a keen intelligence. He is wearing a fur-lined leather jerkin with a thick belt, leather pants and heavy boots. On your other side is a thin man of nondescript appearance. He too is shivering slightly in the cold, wearing a long fine silk coat that has seen better days. He fidgets with his hands, and his eyes seem to dart everywhere, absorbing every detail.

The last in the line doesn't look like a criminal at all. He too is wearing silken finery, but his emerald coat is barely rumpled and the gold thread hasn't been picked out by desperate fingertips. His leather riding boots are shiny and there are even gold rings on his fingers. While his clothing looks almost pristine, you can see the signs of captivity in his ravaged countenance, raw emotions of terror and anguish spoiling a face accustomed to easy smiles.

After being alone for so long, you discover that you feel awkward and find it difficult to talk to the other prisoners. You console yourself with the grim fact that these men will all be dead soon, so it's best not to become too close.

An officer in enamelled red dragon-armour emerges from a door leading into the courtyard. His golden helmet bears a plume of pale ostrich feathers to indicate his rank; but his bearing alone conveys his authority. A grey beard frames his jaw and his eyes sweep over you all with a look that is not unkind. All eyes fall to him as he stops to speak without ceremony.

"Well, you all know why you're here. Bring back a troll's head and you'll be pardoned for whatever you've done or what they say you've done. It don't matter what the truth is now." The commander's eyes seem to linger on the youth lordling. "The priest has a fever so you won't be getting any blessings today, but as I see it the gods themselves don't venture beyond The Jaw. The younger trolls are afraid of fire, the older ones are too smart for that. Don't underestimate them. They may look like beasts but some kind of ken lingers under those brows. Look an old one in the eyes and you'll know what I mean. Of course you'll probably be dead a few seconds later. Good luck." The commander turns to the guards. "Take them through."

Your group is selected first and you are prodded towards a different door leading from the courtyard. You would have claimed in the past that for you to kill a troll was impossible. The smallest stand twice as tall as a man and their hide is said to be like stone. Yet now you find hope stirring in your heart; a feeble, laughable hope. Yet wondrously it invigorates you, and with something akin to eagerness you march with the others to your triumph or your doom.
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