Red War P.4
Message 10 on The Critic's BoardBella was pulled from an exhausted sleep roughly, thrown to the ground, and beaten for a minute before her assailants fled. At least she'd been here long enough to get used to it.
She lay there, a mixture of fatigue-induced disorientation and pain making it hard to get her bearings. Thankfully the old instincts were still there. She'd tucked into a ball without even thinking about it. Her back, sides and arms ached, but her face and stomach had been protected.
Groaning, Bella climbed to her feet. She was bruised but she'd survive. And her trainers would show no mercy. Lug was visiting the Rogue hall today and his lessons in brutal fighting were matchless, in experience and in the hurt they inflicted. After that, they'd have individual matches.
At least she'd be able to practice her thieving afterwards. Taerin had told her she had promise in filching purses, which was no surprise given that purse-snatching had kept her alive on Pariah. Unlike Pariah, here there was an organized band of miscreants who would teach her techniques for taking all sorts of things. Money, jewels, weapons, perhaps even armor?
She passed by small groups of Rogues as she moved through the Guild. Couples made out in corners, friends traded illicitly gained loot, and all around were secrets whispered. She watched it all, listened to it all, taken in by its promise. If she could just get enough leverage, enough strength and power, she could push herself into a place of dominance someday. A place where people would come to her for help and she would be the one dictating terms.
A black-haired elf met her eyes as she passed. The group of elves around him watched her as intently as he did and Bella met their glare, even as she slinked to the side to avoid a fight. One moved but the black-haired elf stopped him with an extended hand. A slow grin crossed his face and Bella thought she might have trouble later.
But then she was past it and in the training rooms. Already some Rogues were at it, trading punches and kicks or fencing with knives and short swords. She fell into place with a knife group and went through the motions with the others.
An hour passed, maybe two, but with the training classes Bella often lost track of time. The pace was intense but she was getting better. That made her smile before she slept, even if the morning brought a random beating. She was getting better.
'Bella, fall in,' said a nearby Rogue, breaking her fighting trance. She lowered her knives, wiped sweat from her face and moved to join a circle of Rogues. The fighting leathers creaked, a continual reminder of the imposition of Rogue discipline. It made her angry, that she couldn't do her face up and that she was working so hard that sweat would have ruined any makeup she put on anyway. That was the price she paid to be here.
'You've got the spirit,' Master Lug said from within the circle. He turned slowly, speaking to his audience. 'You've got the will. You've lost your inhibitions. You're ready to fight the way a Rogue fights. Nothing forbidden except losing. What are you missing?'
He paused dramatically and looked over the group.
'Technique. Yes, street fighting's will but it's also technique.' He grinned, showing a couple of missing teeth. 'Anyone can punch someone in the face. Technique lets you break their nose. It lets you knock a couple of teeth out every time. It lets you target their eyes or get them in the fork of the legs every time. Technique can be the difference between knocking someone down and making them cry.'
'Now, I want you all on dummies. Get to practicing. And I'll see what I have to say.'
Bella glanced around her and caught the eye of a Faerie who nodded back. She found a fighting dummy and went to work. She punched, kicked and gouged. She struck the groin, the diaphragm, the eyes, the nose, even the ears. It was almost fun for a while.
'Bella, is it?' spoke the rough voice of Lug.
'Yeah,' she said, turning and looking up at the dour Rogue master.
'Another Coborel.' He shook his head in disapproval but the grin said otherwise. 'Your clan's got the Rogue spirit but you're too much mischievous and not enough mean. Let's see if you're any different. Get to it.'
Bella nodded sullenly and slammed a savage kick against the side of the dummy's knee. She hit the dummy in rapid motion, moving through the repertoire she'd been taught.
'Not bad, kid. Try twisting your foot when you kick. No, the other foot. Put your hand back for balance if you need it, but be careful. It can telegraph what you're about to do and give them a chance to defend.'
'Why do you even bother with them, Master Lug?' The voice carried an elven inflection and an elven disdain. Bella warily peeked at the source as she settled back from a kick. The black-haired elf stood just out of reach, hands on his hips and an arrogant smile on his face.
'Victor,' Lug nodded. 'I bother because they're capable.'
'They're hobbits.' That statement made any follow up dialogue unnecessary. Bella knew where he stood, knew where she stood, and knew they could never be anything but enemies.
'They're tougher than you give them credit for.'
'Really? They have no reach. No range. And since they're smaller, a good hit will do even more damage.' Victor gave her an unfriendly grin and flexed his right fist, popping the knuckles.
'Dodger did alright for herself, now didn't she?' Lug's grin was equally unfriendly.
'That's an old conversation,' Victor said, changing the subject. 'I want a shot with this one. Teach her how it's done.'
'As you like,' Lug said indifferently. Bella's eyes widened and she swallowed hard. As Victor walked to the training circle, she tugged on Lug's sleeve.
'Master, he's a trained Rogue. There's no way I can win.'
'Not with that attitude, no,' Lug sneered. 'Chin up, hobbit. Take it and learn from it.'
'How can you do this!' Bella snarled.
'What makes you think I owe you an explanation?' Lug laughed as her anger flared white-hot. 'I'll give you one anyway. We don't take sides in the elf-hobbit conflict. Better for both sides anyway. Lot of hobbits have come through here and made good Rogues, and if they hate them some elves, that just gives them an edge in effort. Victor has the right, as does any Rogue, and what are you that I should bother and go against him?'
'You'll take a good beating, probably worse, but you'll learn. You'll get used to pain, anyway. Anything really serious and Linnea will fix you up.' Lug's face was almost friendly, but there was no compassion there.
Bella trembled as she stepped toward the circle. Digging her nails into her palm hurt and it distracted her from the fear. It was enough to get her through the other Rogues and inside the ring. Victor had just thrown his shirt into a corner and stretched, cracking his neck. The slender elven build was subtly thickened with muscle and covered in more scars than she could count.
So many scars. What could have done that to him? How had he even survived that much injury? And what might such a survivor do to someone else? Bella had no illusions about how far someone who'd suffered would go to pay back the pain. She knew because that passion burned in her too. Could...hobbits have done this to him?
'You ready? Slave?' Victor grinned as he added the last word.
'I'm not a slave,' Bella said, spreading her feet and raising her fists.
'Of course you are. Your whole race is the property of the Obsidian Empire. Fel'Anon just hasn't bothered to claim you yet. Don't worry, you'll be used well when they occupy the Old Kingdoms. I might use you to polish my boots. It's old-fashioned but still a good one.'
'Go to Zaal,' she glared. His words confirmed her worst suspicion. This really was Victor. The Wild Elf she'd once heard about, the one who'd threatened Mother while she was giving birth to Rosa. He had wanted to capture Rosa in her infancy and chain her.
A surprising fury over came her at the thought of her sister being in this man's hands, her little sister who loved playing princess and often ran through the house squealing and giggling. Bella didn't know why she'd come to love Rosa so much, but now twin emotions were joined to create a rage she'd never felt before.
Victor came at her in a rush, moving with shocking speed. His fist spun her and his foot in her back knocked her down. She tumbled, rolling to her feet and went down again as his knee collided with her face.
White and red sheets radiated across her vision, and then iron-like hands gripped her around the throat. She seized those hands and pulled for her life at them but, though they shook, they would not let go. Fading white suddenly returned, followed by a dimming blackness.
'Such a pretty little hobbit,' whispered Victor in her ear. 'I bet a dozen kids would have come from that fertile little womb.' His foot slammed down on her stomach, and the agony was so intense she thought it might burst out of her skin. Bella would have screamed, in pain, in desperation, for help, but those hands wouldn't give her the breath. 'Should have stayed on the farm. Then, I wouldn't have to...'
Whatever he would have said was wiped out when she finally let go of his hands and shot her hand up between his crouched legs. She grabbed hold below his pride and crushed him with every remaining bit of strength in her.
He howled and the hands came free at last. Bella rolled over on her side and got just one breath before her stomach heaved. She shook as her body fought to breathe and cope with the pain at the same time.
'That's enough, Victor,' called a voice from the crowd she couldn't see. Then a sharp kick lanced into her side, cracking her ribs and lifting her off her knees onto her bum. Pain numbed her now and she could only sit there mutely, struggling to breathe as she watched another kick come.
Her world went black for some seconds when Victor's boot hit her face.
A moment later, she woke to renewed pain. Sprawled across the mat, her arm broke when he brought his foot down on it.
Bella lay on the mat and she cringed when a hand took her shoulder and rolled her. Right then, she would have done anything to avoid being hurt more. Her pride, her anger, all of it had bled out of her, replaced by a profound terror. An elf's face loomed in front of her...and Vickie smiled.
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11:09, Vaigday, Altki 5, 165 AD.