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It wasn't what he was expecting. He wasn't sure what he was expecting. A strange land? A very distant land? A secret and magical place perhaps. Not that a new and unknown place would be that uncommon for Mishkwaki. He was not well travelled. And where he was now was certainly new to him, though not unknown. He had heard of this place from those more worldly than him while living almost exclusively in Thunder Bluff. Before coming to live there to serve the needs of Red Earth of the Blackhide, he had known only the lands hunted by the Swifthorn Tribe which had taken him in, remaining with them for decades serving Red Earth's father. And before that. . . .
The old Shu'halo shivered, the chill of old memories rising as Mishkwaki examined his surroundings. He stood on the shores of a tropical beach, facing a wall of jungle, broad leaves and tangled vines swinging and rustling in the salty, ocean breeze. The hot sun above him raised beads of sweat from the skin under the tight whorls of his graying auburn fur. This place looked nothing like the place of so long ago which so unnerved him. But this easternmost island of the Echo Isles, the most distant from the mainland shore of Durotar, still reminded him of those days. It was also fairly remote from the main islands which the Darkspear called their home, these were still their islands. This was a land of trolls and it made the thought of heading back home seem more appealing to Mishkwaki.
He turned to look at his companions who had led him here. They boldly perched upon the long blades of his flying machine, as if daring him to get back into the cockpit and fling them off with a turn of the engine. Their several heads tilted and bobbed so they could all get proper eyes on him. They were unusually silent for a flock of songbirds, waiting to see what he would do next. He gave them a questioning look and then pointed his thumb over his shoulder towards the jungle. That was enough. They bounced excitedly and leapt into the air, taking wing and circling above his head before zig zagging their way up and over the jungle trees.
"Fly, fly , fly! Fly, fly, fly! Come fly, fly, fly!" they chattered, their earnest song quickly becoming muffled in the thickness of the jungle.
Mishkwaki took a look at his mechanical escape. The secondhand flying machine he had gotten for a discount from a goblin, had taken him years to painstakingly restore and personalize. Though openly he was modest about all the mechanicals he had crafted, he was very proud of his work. Most were merely toys he had no practical use for, but they were things he had built, something which brought balanced his soul. And this one in particular made his heart sing a little. Once he was sure it would not explode upon takeoff or sputter into silence midair, the flying machine had served its purpose very well to get him places quickly, independent of others. It had been an intimidating thought, that freedom. But with it he began to stretch out beyond his too familiar Thunder Bluff and Orgrimmar which he sometimes travelled to using the zeppelins when they began their route between the two cities. And as an old Bull who had turned to the path of a druid late in his life to help him find a peace he had been longing for, it almost allowed him to feel complete.
He took a deep breath. Turning to face the unknown, Mishkwaki plunged bravely into the trees.
Occasionally, he would catch a glimpse of his guides through the canopy. But he relied more on his hearing than sight as the birds swirled above and ahead of him beckoning with the constant chatter of their song. He struggled to follow in the tangled growth. It was proving too thick for Mishkwaki's heavy set frame, his horns getting caught in hanging vegetation, his hooves tripping on roots and debris hidden in the detritus of the jungle floor. And he was not too proud to admit to himself that he did not have the physical prowess for such a journey.
His arms were strong from wielding a blacksmith's hammer. But he had led the softened life of an elder for too long now and the rest of his physique, the skills and instincts of his youth, were not as strong as they once were. It was making it very difficult for him to keep up with his feathered friends who were getting ahead more quickly and becoming more distant. A change had to be made.
When he was younger, there was a teacher. A shaman who had urged Mishkwaki to rely on his strengths. He didn't have to know what they were, he was told. They were there no matter what, and when he needed them they would come. He used that lesson all his life. Even in his attempt to kill his teacher because he had grown to hate him. He was a very angry bull in his youth and could not comprehend the good heart of his strict and critical mentor. There were decades of survival and death before he truly understood the shaman who saw more in him and his future than he did. And then decades of emptiness as he tried to suppress, forget and find forgiveness for what those strengths had made him do in those years.
Then came the Cenarion Circle. They showed him not to forget, but, instead, to re-embrace those inner strengths and make them tangible. When he did this, it made him feel young again, channeling those deep instincts and emotions into an animal form that freed him from the burdens of his age. And so he leaned forward, stretching his hands towards the ground. Drawing on an instinct made of a deep ferocity, it enveloped his body giving him a more lean, more muscular, more powerful form. The transformation gave him more hunger for a hunt, his enhanced senses guiding his now agile feline self more easily through the tropical foliage. The birds were quick to recognize what he had done and pushed forward without hesitation.
Soon their song's urgency increased. Their excitement urged him on and he could see above him that the canopy was beginning to open up. Ignoring caution, he pushed through the underbrush. The foliage around him opened and for a brief moment he felt relief at being freed from the clawing jungle. But just as quick as that freedom came, an overwhelming panic struck. The sturdy ground on which his paws should have landed broke, the jungle rushing away, leaves and branches shattering around him as he went crashing down into darkness. The fall was too long for his cat senses to retain his balance and he tumbled, landing hard on his shoulder, his head slamming against packed dirt and rock.
Disoriented, Mishkwaki twisted around, frantically reaching to find purchase with his paws. Once he was sure they were pressing on ground, he pushed himself up, a guttural moan escaping clenched jaws as he felt the ache in his shoulder. Bits of debris and loose dirt fell from his thick mane and spattered on the ground around him as he shook his head to try and wave off dizziness. It only seemed to make it worse, so instead, he sat back on his haunches and took slow deliberate breaths as he stared at the dirt.
He did not have to look up to realize what had happened. The sheer walls surrounding him showed the signs of being carved by a deliberate hand. He had fallen into someone's trap. But he sighed gratefully as he stretched out to test his sore shoulder, running his paws along the rough, bare bottom of the pit. It could have been worse. The pit was meant for capture, not kill.
"Well! Look what da cat dragged in!" a voice suddenly exclaimed from above. "Dinna!"
The accent dressing those words and the wild cackle which followed burned in Mishkwaki's ears. Pushed by an awakened rage, the beast that he was took over roaring fiercely and launching into the air. His paws grabbed at the pit walls, his claws scratching furiously and his legs kicking away at the dirt in a vain attempt to reach the troll standing above him on the edge of the pit. But he could not get to him. The pit was too deep and he continuously slid down to the bottom. The troll continued to laugh at his plight, only enraging him more, pushing him to keep trying until aching muscles and pained skin forced him to stop.
Falling back against the wall, breath ragged, he closed his eyes and focused on bringing it under control, bringing himself back under control. As his heart slowed, his feline form melted away, leaving him the hurt remains of an old worn out bull.
"Look it dat. Mo' den a cat! Samdi catch himself a spesha treat!"
Mishkwaki tried to ignore the troll's teasing as he examined his wounds. His arms and hands now covered in cuts and the skin shaved raw. He closed his eyes, centered himself and called on the living spirits of the earth. Drawing upon them, his wounds began to heal.
"You no slacka. Dat a good ting, mon. Lazy dinnas be bland." Samdi laughed again.
"You want to eat me, then you're going to have to come down and get me," Mishkwaki threatened through gritted teeth.
"No problem, mon."
There was a sudden thud and Mishkwaki opened his eyes to find a spear stuck deep into the dirt mere inches from his nose. The serious tone in the troll's voice belied the smirk on his face. But Mishkwaki would not take be threatened by his captor. Standing, he wrenched the spear free and threw it wildly at the troll who easily sidestepped it.
"Wassa problem, mon? Why so scare? Come on. Up ya go, up ya go!" Samdi stood up and started an odd dance, flapping his arms wildly. Upon seeing Mishkwaki's anger turn into bewilderment, the Samdi started to laugh again. "Like dis!"
Jumping into the air, the troll's body stretched, his legs shrinking into his body, his arms becoming leathery flaps and his face distorting into a contorted mouselike visage. Screeching excitedly in his new form, he flittered in circles above the pit. Then as quick as he had changed into a bat, he changed back again, landing with a flourish in his step and a broad toothy grin on his face.
"I 'ear ya bullies like da feddas doh. Lessee dem itchy feddas!"
"I'm not here to impress you, Amani," Mishkwaki snapped.
"Dat's irie. Me meals don' ha' to agree wit' me. An' where you tink you is, mon? I no filt'y Amani!"
The troll leaned forward, pursing his lips and squinting his eyes as he gave ample consideration to the trapped Tauren now a little distraught over his verbal slip.
"Wat ya story, mon?"
"There is no story," Mishkwaki returned defensively.
"Oh, dere's a story. You one a dem Circle bwoys. An' ye' ya canna fly. An' dere no irie wit' me. An' no' jus' me, doh Samdi be spesha, dat da troot. I cen see it in yer aura, mon. Da trolls, dey make ya bonkas. AMANI!" Samdi rolled back laughing uncontrollably seeing Mishkwaki growl at the mention of Amani.
"I told you there is no story. Now are you going to eat me or help me out of here," Mishkwaki attempted, though he couldn't let go of his fierce tone.
"Mmmmmmmmm. . . ." Samdi tapped his lips as he thought about it. "Needa. I give ya a few days, eh? Afta dat we see if ya tell me ya story, mon. If not, den I eat ya. Been a long time since I 'ad me a good two-legged steak wut wit' all me bredduhs sayin' we shouldna eat ya kin' no mo'. Wut dey say, doh. . . . Who say I listen," Samdi smirked. "And I like me meat less fatty, so a cuppa days be good fo' ya. I got me some appetizas 'til den."
Samdi reached into a small sack he had been carrying with him and pulled out a small songbird which he quickly popped into his mouth. He winked at Mishkwaki as he happily crunched on his snack. This is when Mishkwaki realized how quiet things were, the birds he'd followed here no longer singing. The troll pulled out another one and bit off its head. With a satisfied smack of his lips, he courteously offered the sack to Mishkwaki who rejected it with a snort which only made Samdi chuckle.
"Dem birdays. Dey chatta like dey doin' lotsa tinkin'. But when dey doin', dey ain' tinkin' at all."
There was nothing he could do. He was small compared to them. Just a child, a thin, wiry thing. His horns barely erupted and hardly a threat to the warriors and hunters who surrounded him and those of his tribe who did not escape. Their weapons were firmly held, ready to strike if any of them made a wrong move. In the firelight of the torches, their faces shuddered in and out of the darkness of the night, contorted with anger. Many of their voices called for blood. Trapped amidst the throngs of an angry mob, the little boy knew a fear that he had never felt before, not sure if he would see the morning.
Their rage focused on one in particular. An older Bull, thin and wiry himself for a Shu'halo. It was the child's father, cowering before the warriors that encircled him as he begged for his life. Crouched before the angered tribe, the ragged headdress of bones and feathers he wore symbolizing his chiefdom meant little to them. They raged at his lack of honor, his thievery, and his murderous ways.
The boy didn't understand it all. They had snuck into the village at night to steal the things from this tribe that they didn't need. They weren't like his family. They hadn't suffered sickness and death that had left them incapacitated and desperate, unable to hunt successfully on their own to trade much less feed themselves properly. This tribe was well off, strong in number, able to hunt and thrive. They had more than they needed. And his tribe only ever took what they needed when they stole things.
That was the Shu'halo way. To never take more than you needed. Taking a little from those with more to help those with less helped keep the balance. Taking what they needed to survive was not a bad thing. So his father had always taught him.
But no one was suppose to die. It was an accident.
The boy didn't know why his father had taken the young woman. But he did and it didn't matter to the boy because he knew his father only ever took what they needed. There must have been a reason. He wouldn't want to kill her if he needed her. In the rush to escape, the struggling girl had caused those dragging her along to stumble. They didn't mean to fling her to the ground. They didn't see the rocks in the darkness jutting out that she would slam her head against when she fell, killing her. It was an accident. That's what his father was trying to explain to them all as they threatened and hit him and accused him of murder. But they wouldn't listen. All they yelled about was punishment for her death.
Two approached from the village. Coming into the circle, the first wore the trappings of a chief and the deference of all those around the boy spoke of this chief's influence as they all went eerily silent with his words. Behind him was the other still standing in the darkness and all the boy could see of him was the shine of his eyes reflecting the torchlight.
"What sort of chief are you that you crouch before me begging like a dog," the imposing chief admonished as he stood over his supposed equal. Hesitantly, the accused bull stood, continuing to ask for mercy for what they had tried to do. The chief snorted at his supplication. "It isn't me who will decide your fate. Brother, it is your daughter this pathetic piece of !@#$ took from you. His fate is yours."
The other one stepped into the light but the night didn't leave him. Dressed in hides dyed black and his own fur and horns even blacker, he was a walking shadow, his unsmiling visage grim and hard with a grief so powerful it struck the boy's father dumb, compelling him to crouch back down to the ground as he was approached. The black Bull said nothing as he walked around the frail looking chief, then made his way to the others they had also captured, examining each of them with a cold stare until he came to the boy walking around him until he stopped to stand behind him. The boy looked to his father, but got nothing from him. He was watching with wide eyes the bull looming over his son.
The boy was afraid to move. He was sure this bull was a shaman and his father had taught him to fear shamans. His father had killed the last shaman of their tribe because he knew too much and none of it was helpful.
"You stink of rot. All of you. You have nothing and will be nothing soon enough." The bitter and heavy words of the shaman carried over the boy's head, encouraging the warriors who lifted their weapons in preparation. The shaman waved his hand at them. "No. They do not need our help in this."
"A-a-anything," the begging chief stammered, seeing now the possibility of escape. "I will give you anything I have."
"Anything?" the shaman asked. The boy then felt a hand upon his head.
"No. No, please. My life, not his. Not my son."
"You have no life. There is only death for you and your tribe. Nothing can change that. Not even my daughter could have changed that. But you took her from me and so I will take the same from you. A life for a life. I will take the boy, he is no longer your son.
"Let them go. Their fate is already in Por Ah's hands. And never return or we WILL send you back to Her sooner."
With his final threat, the shaman walked away without another word leaving the boy to watch as their captors released his father and his tribe, prodding them with their weapons to get up and leave.
"Papa?" the boy pleaded. The warrior standing with him, picked him up by his scruff and held onto him so he could not follow. "Papa!"
His father turned to look at him, but then quickly turned away as he was pushed out into the night. The boy was at a loss. He saw nothing in his father's eyes, no regret, no guilt, no fight.
"No! Papa! Don't leave me! Papa!"
He struggled to free himself from his captor. He ordered him to hush, but he would not listen. He threatened him, but he would not listen. When he grabbed his shoulders and pushed him to the ground, the boy yelled, flailing furiously, turning to grab hold of the warrior's hands and biting down hard. The warrior screamed in pain but did not let go. Instead, he pushed the boy down harder, raised his warclub and brought it down on the boy.
The heft of something heavy and cold smashing against his face startled Mishkwaki out of his dreaming. In a confused daze, he lifted himself up only to find that it was harder to do. He was weak. And hungry. He shook his head to drive away the blurriness and searched around to get his bearings. Seeing the dirt walls around him, he quickly remembered the situation he was in. And next to him he found the thing that had hit him, a filled waterskin.
The ache of his empty belly and the screaming thirst pushed away any concerns for his safety. Grabbing the waterskin, he fumbled with his shaking hands to remove the cap and put it to his mouth, chugging the sweet, cold water with little care of how much it dribbled out his lips and down his cheeks and throat. He finished gagging and coughing from taking in too much too fast.
Leaning back, temporarily satisfied, he looked up at the sky above the pit only to find his view blocked by the blurred silhouette of his captor. As his vision cleared and focused, he could make out the amused smirk on Samdi's face.
"Thirsty boy misses his Tata, I see. Tell me where he is and maybe I'll go fly and find him for you." Once again, the troll cackled making Mishkwaki's skin crawl.
But he did his best to keep his composure. His hunger and fatigue made his head spin and his temper short, but he remembered his first encounter with this troll. His aggression hadn't done anything to help him then.
"How long have I been here?" Mishkwaki ventured.
"Oh hoho! Aren't we friendly today! Maybe because Samdi gave you the gift. Not long enough," Samdi smiled. "Still too much fat on those bones. You're a big fellow. I gave you the water because you can't lose that fat if you're dead. Drink up! Enjoy! It's a small island. Fresh water is a little precious around here.
"Sooooooo. . . .ready to tell me a story, mon?"
"Teach me how to fly," Mishkwaki returned.
"Teach you? Now what makes you think I can or want to teach you anything?"
"The birds told me I could learn to fly here. You're a brother druid. And I'm thinking the only person around in these parts. Otherwise you wouldn't be so interested in having a conversation with your food. So you must be my teacher."
Samdi was silent a moment, then fell back, laughing uproariously. He continued on for some time. Mishkwaki groaned while taking this so humorous moment to take another drink of water. When the troll was finally able to calm himself and sit back up, he was wiping tears from his eyes. With a sigh, he looked back down at Mishkwaki with that smile that never seemed to leave his face.
"First off, you ain't my brother. I ate my brother a long time ago. Got himself killed by a giant gorilla. Was a good funeral, but he didn't settle in my belly so good. Won't be doing THAT again. Second, you got to be careful what them birds say. They like repeating lots of what others say, but thinking their own thoughts, making plans, they're not so good. Third, are you stupid or something? I think it has to be something. All the druids of all the cows haven't shown you how to fly? I can't do what they can't do. That's the truth."
"If you can't teach me, then you get no story."
Another laugh. "I told you, mon. I can't teach you what can't be taught. And it doesn't work that way. You're suppose to tell me a story so I won't eat you. And I want a good one too. I want to know why you don't like me. Why you hating on such a good guy like myself? And why you so good at talking my language?"
It was then that Mishkwaki realized the whole conversation had been spoken in troll. Dismayed, he wasn't sure what to say now and Samdi could see it, his smile growing wider. "I'm just looking for some satisfaction from my catch, mon."
"I won't be satisfying ANY troll," Mishkwaki returned harshly, annoyed that he had been tricked to reveal more than he wanted to Samdi. There would be no more words.
Standing, he picked up the still half filled waterskin and used all his strength to fling it back at the troll. He then planted his hooves firmly into the ground and reached for the sky with both his arms. His limbs stretched out. From them grew many tendrils, those from his hooves reaching into the dirt while those from his arms and body multiplied, his fur shedding away to be replaced by a skin of stiff planks of bark as a plethora of leaves sprouted from his newly formed branches.
"Aha! Tricky! Yeah, that'll keep you alive longer, for sure. That doesn't help you much though. I'll just come down there with my axe and-"
"Come down here and I'll kill you." The words came out of his stiff wooden lips slow and deliberate, but no less fierce.
"Oomph, you be believing that one good. Maybe I won't be coming down there so soon. Yesiree, has to be something alright. Fine. Fine fine. Have it your way, mon. Stay like that all you like. If the jungle song don't take you and keep you like that, I'll see you in another few days and then you should be ripe and ready for butchering."
"Badger, what are you doing in that tree?”
The Bull clinging to the high branches of the tall tree grimaced. He had been in the tree a good while now, enjoying being alone, away from the others, nothing but the rustling of leaves in the wind singing to him. He leaned around to see the person calling at him. It was his master, no doubt concerned of his whereabouts because he had been gone so long. Reaching up, Badger plucked another ambercorn from the tree and tossed it down towards the small pile of young seeds he had already collected.
"You said you needed more and the younger the better, so I came up here."
"The ones already fallen would have sufficed, my boy. And how do you intend to get down?"
Badger grimaced again. He hated being called "his boy". But he tried his best not to show it, turning his face away as he looked down towards the base of the tree. His master's question was not out of order. The tree he was in was not the easiest kind of tree to climb. And less easy for someone with hooves. But somehow he had managed to climb up it. Looking down, however, he started to doubt his ability to get down.
He glanced back at the old bull watching him, a wry smile on his face. Badger returned the smile. Closing his eyes, he took one last breath, leaned back and let go of the tree. He felt the air pass smoothly around him as he plummeted. Then a sudden gale pushed on him sending him flying and tumbling until another gust of wind grabbed him, gently placing him on the ground. Opening his eyes, he saw his master standing over him, the wind that he had called doing one final swirl around the shaman before dancing off between the trees. Offering a hand, he helped Badger get to his feet.
"And how do you know I would have helped you?"
"It's in your nature. You can't let me go."
"If that were true, I wouldn't have lost you in a tree." The old shaman could see he was not amused by his humor and he sighed.
"Stubborn as always, my boy. Stubborn and tenacious. So many years and still you have not let go. This is why you have your name, you know," the shaman remarked, both a hint of humor and disappointment in his voice. "I swear, one day it will be the death of you. Or. . . . perhaps one day. . . . your salvation. . . ."
The shaman's voice grew quiet as he continued to look upon his ward. But he wasn't exactly looking at him, more like through him. Badger recognized the look. The shaman was seeing something. A spirit. Or a vision. Perhaps a vision of him. And if it was, whatever truth it held Badger wanted nothing to do with it. With a derisive snort, he turned away and began to gather up his collection of seeds.
Behind him, he heard the shaman come out of his reverie with a saddened sigh. "You have been with me a long time. Grown up in my house alongside my boys. Been a part of our lives. Learned with them, shared with them, grown up with them to become a strong thriving bull like them. But despite it all, despite the life I have tried to give you, you still hate me.
"What wrong have I done in this? I have never treated you like a prisoner, have I? I have never tortured you, chained you, held you back. You have always been free to do what you wished. To find your strength. To follow your instinct. To be a part of a family. But you would not let yourself have it. And you could have always just walked away. You could have left at anytime. There was nothing I did to keep you from leaving.
"My boy, the only thing that has kept you where you are is you."
"I. . . . I am not your BOY!"
Badger spun up, flinging an armful of ambercorn at the shaman. Brandishing a heavy, broken branch, he swung it at the surprised bull, hitting him squarely in the jaw. He charged at him and pushed him to ground. Raising his makeshift club, he beat down on the old man, yelling with such a terrible anger in his heart.
Enough of his words. His 'lessons'. From day one, he didn't want this "new life" the shaman had promised him. He had wanted his home. But this man had taken him away from his father and his family. He could never forget that. And he hated everything done to try and make him forget. Giving him a new name and making him forget the one his father gave him and the name of his own tribe. Making him a part of his family. Making him work for them. Do labors and chores for them while the old man prattled on, giving him lessons he should listen to. Making him stand before his sons and fight against them while they trained. Everything he did with them reminded him that he could have been with his father doing the same.
He was so small when he was taken away. Leave? How was he going to leave then? A lone, scared little boy! But he wasn't that little boy anymore. He had grown big and strong just like his master had raised him. He had grown waiting for a day just like this, when he could punish this man for the years of hate for taking him away. Laying there, beaten and bleeding on the ground before him, there was truly nothing to keep him from leaving now.
And the voices in the distance told him he should. Someone had heard him yelling and were coming to see what was wrong. He took one last look at the beaten body of his former master, briefly wondering if he was dead or alive. Then he took off through the trees, not knowing where he would go and not caring as he fled for his life, the branches and brush of the forest snagging and pulling on him as he ran as if begging for him to stay.
A rustling along the top branches of Mishkwaki's tree form head brought him out of his reverie. It was Samdi playing with the leaves with the length of a spear.
"Okay, I thought about it. I will tell you the secret of flying."
Slowly opening one stiff, bark covered eye, Mishkwaki responded,"I thought you couldn't teach me?"
"I can't. But I can tell you the SECRET. That's all I got. If you give me what I want."
There was a slow silence as Mishkwaki considered it. "Promise you won't eat me."
"Well, now, I can't do that. You might not be alive too long and what is suppose to happen to that ripe body of yours once you're gone? And what if I don't like the story? I CAN promise you that I'll help you out of the pit no matter what," Samdi grinned.
There was another long silence. Then a banana and a new waterskin landed next to Mishkwaki's rooted feet.
"You gonna tell Samdi a good, long story, I think."
"What story do you want to hear?" Mishkwaki capitulated. Despite his arboreal form which had managed to keep him nourished and calm for. . . .he wasn't even sure anymore. . . . the sight of the food and water was something his Shu'halo mind could not ignore and he could feel the hunger aching even in his branches. He had fought long enough, spurred on by a hate that deep down he knew he should not bear towards this particular troll even though it was one that had been cut into him so deep he could never forget it. His branches folded in and slowly disappeared as he eased back into his normal self, immediately taking a seat too shaky to stand. He reached for the banana, split it open clumsily and took a careful bite, fighting the urge to take it in all at once.
Samdi waited courteously as Mishkwaki took a few more bites and some water before answering. "You know what I want to hear. You tell me about the Amani. What they do to you to make you so angry at me? It not something small, so don't you give me the short answer. It be something they take a good long time to do."
"Decades? That long and they never tried to eat you?!" Samdi laughed.
Mishkwaki snorted and couldn't help but glare at the troll. "I kept them entertained."
He had stopped keeping any sense of time long ago. How many years it had been, he did not know. Everyday was the same, every season. For him there was no difference between night or day. There was no past or future anymore. There was only the moment that he existed in now. But then for a moment, just a brief moment, time made its presence known to him once more.
He heard them talking. The trolls. Talking about it being a special year. Talking about it being fifty years. Talking near him but not to him, like he didn't even exist. Yet they were talking about him. Fifty years he had been there. And they were both very surprised and pleased by it. And there was something special being prepared in his honor.
Unlike them, however, he had no idea what fifty years felt like. He tried to remember what one year felt like and if he could stretch that to get a sense of how long it had been. But his curiosity did not linger long. Because despite their notion of such a landmark date, in the end it meant nothing for him. He knew their idea of honoring him would be the same as any other moment of time in his life. The only thing that made a difference was being in his cage or being out of it.
It wasn't a small cage. Set in the center of the dark room, several of the cages around it, which imprisoned many most likely to meet him when he was outside his cage, could easily fit into his. For a slave it was considerably large and lavishly furnished. A straw mattress bed, a lavatory, a tub to wash. And they had returned to him toys with which he could exercise. Things to lift, weapons to spar with against wooden decoys that didn't get much abuse these days. He had mastered his 'craft'.
They had taken them away once. His toys. Just like they once used to keep him tightly chained. Because long ago he still had the spirit to try and escape. He'd killed at least seven of his guards over his lifetime there. But that was long ago. Fighting those he was not suppose to fight meant punishment. Trolls could be very creative with their punishments. There were punishments worse than death and trolls knew them. And now so did he. He didn't fight his keepers anymore.
He had come to the Amani as a slave. Sold to them at first as menial labor and possibly a meal, he proved a nuisance to his owner because of numerous escape attempts. Fed up with his insubordination, instead of eating him, he was sold in an attempt to recoup his cost and was given over to one of the arena masters to be used as fodder for their champions. But he refused to be fodder, instead cleverly killing some of the best they had and he slowly began his career as a gladiator and a ring favorite. They kept coming back to see him because they all knew, like he eventually did, that the only escape for him from the arena was death. Yet he fought like he still had something to live for.
But if he had any notion of that something, it had left him long ago. After decades his fights were now driven by instinct, not hope. They called him The Bull. And that's all he was. Nothing more than a big, brutish, violent beast. If he had another name or another purpose other than killing for entertainment, he didn't know them anymore. And it was only the latter that mattered now. So long as they were amused, he continued to live.
His new owners became rich and respected trolls within the empire, while he endured all manner of beating on the arena floor. After so many years he became deadened to the pain. His flesh bore the old scars of many battles and near deaths. In some places his fur now refused to grow. Even now, his shoulder and his thigh were covered with tender, red and healing skin covering still aching muscle, the most recent places of injury from his last fight. His owners never let the healers fix him up fully. Only just enough to keep him from certain death. The rest would heal on its own. They believed the pain of a slow heal only made him stronger, more vicious and more profitable. And so now, even with his injuries not fully healed they prepared him for his day of honor.
Their was no fear of harm or flight in his handlers when they let him out of his cage. Having stopped trying long ago, they'd forgotten what it was like to be wary of him. Instead they joked with him, telling him how much he must like his playtime, promising the lie that they would give him a deserved share of their gambled winnings. He never responded. He just stretched his shoulders as he stepped out of his barred home, walked between the cages of his future victims pleading vainly for mercy and made his way down winding corridors leading up to the arena gate.
He stood in the sunlight streaming through the gate, his eyes closed as the warmth of the sun soaked into his skin. He went days at a time not seeing or feeling the sun. He could hear the crowd outside surrounding the arena. They were excited today, more than usual. There were so many, almost like the whole empire was there to watch. Hoping for a good show, their fervor was energized by the powerful voice of the arena master extolling the invincibility of The Bull. There was the promise of terrible brutality.
The gate swung open and The Bull stepped out into the arena, his hooves scratching against the dirt floor with each step to test its firmness. He scanned the crowd surrounding him. Reaching the center of the ring, he quietly stood there and watched the crowd. Their frenetic chattering eased to a spattering of mumbles. This is when he bowed his head as if to pray. Then clenching his fists, he swiftly stepped forward, stomping his hoof down hard, lifting up his head and roaring ferociously. The crowd went wild.
It was a day especially for him and so unlike a normal day in the arena where he would not be the only attraction, today he would fight in all the matches. There were several. He faced beasts and their masters in honor of different loas. Throngs of prisoners, mostly elves captured in conflicts with the trolls but also including Amani criminals given the chance of a reprieve should they survive. And a series of champions, Amani warriors who had proven themselves in war or in other arena battles and thought they had what it took to take down The Bull.
But by the end, the undefeated Shu'halo was the only one left standing, all the others meeting vicious and bloody endings. There was no mercy for any of them this day. And though the winner, even The Bull had not come out unscathed. Numerous scrapes and cuts riddled his skin. His breath was quick and shallow and one side of his face swollen and marred with his own blood. He could feel broken ribs moving as he took a breath and the uncomfortable fire radiating up his leg from the hoof that had been split. And the arm he rested upon a bent knee tingled between numbness and pain, the last Amani champion having seen his weakened shoulder and taken advantage of it by wrenching and twisting his arm to throw him down unto his back.
For a brief moment, the idea of it being the end of The Bull had flashed through his mind. But he was saved by the fault of his opponent's cockiness, who took a moment to revel prematurely. The Bull never allowed himself such a luxury and the brief opening led to his vengeful and terrible victory.
He knelt on the dirt floor awaiting his fate as they cleaned up the spread remains of his last victory, the crowd cheering and bustling about as he stared indifferently at the bloodied ring floor in an attempt to hide the suffering he was in. He listened for the announcement of whether this was the end or if there would be more. He suppressed his disappointment when he heard there would be one final fight and the audience cheered the arrival of a special guest.
The Bull waited to look up as he heard his new opponent walk to the center of the ring. From the sound of his footsteps he could tell he was a bigger or heavier set person, wearing nothing but leather and cloth. And a jangling of bones and trinkets, as well as an oddly casual step, told him this was not a warrior, but a user of magic. He suspected a witchdoctor or a shaman.
His suspicions were confirmed when he rose up to finally face this surprise visitor, but he was still taken aback at who was before him. He had not seen any of his own kind in decades and now here one stood. The sight of this Shu'halo who bowed to him and then began to speak in a language he had not heard since he was young sent his mind reeling. He couldn't understand the words that had been dead to him for so long. But his mind continued to try as he quickly studied the Shu'halo before him. He was black of hide from hoof to horn and a bull of some age like himself so streaks of grey ran through his braided and decorated mane. The leathers he wore were a stark contrast, made of the hide of a white kodo dripping with dyed black streaks along the shoulders, arms, and the skirt of his leggings. And there was something in this shaman's face that disturbed The Bull.
But as he tried to figure out what it was, the words the shaman spoke started to become clear, memory reaching slowly for understanding.
". . . .no magic . . . . no fight . . . .kill you . . . ."
The sound of these words and their distant familiarity felt strange and this Shu'halo's presence confused him greatly. Not knowing what else to do, he turned to what he did know. In a rage, The Bull roared and charged at the shaman who reared back and sidestepped before he could be plowed down.
"No. . . .no fight. . . . I will win, no fighting . . .dark sky. . . .brothers. . . ."
The shaman continued to talk, his voice becoming more adamant, trying to make his enraged opponent understand as he avoided every attack made against him.
". . . .Long journey. . . .you stop. . . .not an animal. . . .remember. . . .father made us brothers. . . .badger. . . ."
He refused to fight back, throwing nothing but words. And there was something about what was being said, something in the words that nagged at The Bull, and that just made him angrier. But even as the words slowly became more clear all he could think to do was bring this other bull down to end his growing frustration and agony.
"Please. . . ."
Then the shaman stumbled, tripping on a broken club left in the ring from a previous match. The Bull immediately seized upon the misstep, catching the shaman's arm and throwing him down onto the ground. It was a hard fall, disorienting the shaman. As he rolled on his back struggling to regain his senses, The Bull picked up the broken club and stood over him. The arena surged with bloodthirsty cheers as he raised it up to bear down on the shaman's head. The fallen Shu'halo turned to looked up at him, resolute.
"Father forgives you."
The Bull froze at these calm and easy words which rang in his ears despite the fervor of the clamoring trolls. He was hit with a sudden recognition. He knew who this bull was.
"He lived and taught me not to hate you for what you did. He told me one day you would need me."
The Bull stumbled back, fear smothering any rage he still had as the shaman rose to face him, the club falling from his hands and the arena filling with angry and disappointed cries.
"After fifty years of spilling blood for Amani entertainment, I was brought down by the words of a man who's father I had tried to murder."
"He didn't kill you?"
Mishkwaki shook his head. "Dark Sky of the Blackhide didn't come to kill me. He came there to find me. Guided by the Ancestors, he crossed the world to rescue me."
"Seems like a crazy thing to do for someone who tried to kill your family."
"That is the way of the Blackhide. They follow the guidance of the spirits no matter where it takes them. It is an unchanging truth. They told him where I was and what must be done and so he went, right into the heart of the Amani empire."
"And just like that, the Anami just let him take you away?"
"All Brother Dark Sky would ever tell me was that he had won a bet."
A long moment of silence passed, Mishkwaki finished with his story and Samdi lacking more questions. Until that point, reminiscing over his heavy past, he had almost forgotten the situation he was in. But he did not move or speak another word. It was up to the troll now to decide what action he would take.
A rope ladder unfurled next to him, its wooden rungs tapping the dirt walls until it settled. Mishkwaki looked up to see a broad grin on Samdi's face.
"Good story. Come on then, Bully. Time to go."
"You've changed your mind about eating me."
"I can't say. Depends on what happens next," Samdi said through his grin.
The troll helped Mishkwaki up the final length of the ladder, grabbing a hold of the bull as he stumbled dizzily from weakness and hunger. Offering him a waterskin of some foul tasting liquor which the troll promised would help restore some of his strength, Samdi also assisted him in cleaning off some of the many days of dirt and debris that had collected on his clothing. When he was sure the old Shu'halo was ready to travel, Samdi gestured for him to follow him through the jungle.
There was no path, but the travel seemed easy, like the trees and the brush were making way for them. Mishkwaki was unsure if that was truly happening or just a trick of the eyes, he was still disoriented from his ordeal in the pit. But before long the jungle parted and Mishkwaki found he had been led to the other side of the island, standing on a high cliff overlooking the Great Sea.
"You already know the secret to flying, mon. You've been flying for years." Samdi chuckled when he looked back to see the confused Mishkwaki following him. "Yes, mon. You know all about flying. The Amani taught you!"
The sound of the name of his former masters still made him twitch. Mishkwaki grumbled. "They taught me nothing. Nothing but death and-"
"Exactly, mon! Nothing!" Samdi laughed. "All those years, how do you think you survived all those years? Killing all those people? Enduring all their torture, their mockery and condescension? What did they do to you? They broke you. They made you nothing."
The troll could see the apprehension in Mishkwaki's eyes.
"Bah! Think about it, mon! Then stop thinking! You think birds ask their mothers how their wings work? You think they school? You think they question if it's safe? No. They just flap flap flap and then one day the wings grow strong enough and woosh! Up they go! They jump up, the wind catches them and they go. No thought, no learning, no fear, no faith. Nothing. There's nothing to flying. Nothing! You just do it. Like you just did it everyday in that ring after the Amani broke you. They didn't break you. They taught you how to be something else. To be the opposite of thought. To be more than trusting of instinct. To just be instinct without thought of conscience or consequences. When they taught you what nothing was they taught you the secret of flying. You know that nothing. With nothing, you can jump off this cliff and soar like your tasty little friends once did."
Samdi gave him a push towards the edge. "Go on now!"
Mishkwaki resisted as he looked at the sea beyond the cliffs edge. He looked at his hooves upon the firm ground on which he stood. He looked once more at the enthusiastic troll daring him. Then he looked at the sea again. Taking a deep breath, he faced the cliff and gazed at the path before him. Samdi spoke more gently, an encouraging smile upon his face.
"Be like you were in that ring everyday and I swear it, you will be free of this earth. If not with feathery wings, then at least a spectacular fall to your death. If that happens, well, then I'll eat you. No reason to let your body go to waste."
One last push sent Mishkwaki running, delighted cackling fading away behind him as he leapt off the edge.
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