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Story of the Signless

Chapter Text

She didn’t think anything of the strangely coloured egg to begin with. It happened sometimes, when they were soft and membranous moments after being laid, one would land awkwardly and bruise. Perhaps she was so locked in the routine of her job that she failed to notice that this colour wasn’t like that of a typical bruised egg. It had a fain sheen to it, a pink tinge that was altogether unnatural. If she had been as ruthless as some of the other caretakers of the (few) mother grubs, the Dolorosa may have discarded the egg before it even hatched.

As it were, she didn’t notice anything unnatural until the wigglers had begun to hatch.

There were the usual colours, ranging from the rustiest of red right through to a surprisingly rare shade of purple, and while this hatching of wigglers looked altogether no different from the rest, the Dolorosa scanned them all closely as they squeaked, fretted, crawled and rolled their way towards the entrance of the cave, where their trials would begin as they tried to escape the predators and barren landscape waiting for them.

She was absorbed in her task of rubbing the mother grub down and almost missed the bright spark of unnatural colour in the corner of her eye. She had to look twice to be sure she wasn’t hallucinating, and when she was sure she wasn’t having a night-dream, she paused, causing the mother grub to grunt irritably.

“Sorry, hush,” she whispered, returning to her task, though now only half focused. She watched the little red grub make his way towards the entrance with the others, mind beginning to drift.

He was comparatively tiny to the other grubs. Short little legs pulling him along; he was already lagging a little. He was making small, pathetic squeaking noises, being rushed and hurried by the bigger grubs, and before she knew it, the Dolorosa found herself dropping her sponge and moving to carefully lift the tiny thing.

He squirmed a little in her grasp, but that was mostly due to the mother grubs disgruntled grunts and snorts, and the Dolorosa turned away from her, gazing down at the infant troll.

His face was squished in an expression of the newborn, eyes screwed up and mouth clamped shut. His tiny little legs waved pathetically, nowhere near strong or sturdy enough to give him speed or agility for the trials that lay ahead.

And his blood. Made obvious by the soft skin of his thorax; a mutant shade. He didn’t belong on the hemospectrum at all. He had no place in society. If this little grub made it through the trials, he would die before he even found a lusus. No lusus would ever take on a mutant.

This tiny, helpless creature was doomed to die before he even had a chance to live.

The Dolorosa lost track of time as she stared at the grub, her expression becoming more and more pained. The young troll eventually settled, and with a small yawn he relaxed into her warmth and went to sleep.

A loud snort from her subject started the Dolorosa out of her reverie. What was she doing entertaining such thoughts? She had a duty assigned to her, one she must carry out.

Just abandon the mutant and get back to work.

But he’s so tiny…

If you even think about taking this any further, you will be killed, along with him.

He is so helpless…

He’s going to die anyway. Forget about him.

But look at him, he’s just so…

So an abomination!

The mother grub snarled again, causing the Dolorosa to start. Distress was rapidly clenching around her heart as she debated what she could do.

On the one hand, she could forget about the grub. Let him face the hand fate dealt him. Death before he could even speak. Forget about him and return to her duty of tending to the mother grub and getting on with her own hand dealt by fate. Spend her life in this cave caring for sweep after sweep while countless thousands of wigglers hatched, writhed and sometimes died. Ignoring her own desires in favour of the empress and her race, being a servant to the Condesce

On the other…

She could take this troll. It was an insane thought; she had literally spent all of two minutes with the wiggler. Entertaining such notions was beyond ridiculous. It was treason. She would be killed.

But…
She had the chance to raise him. To give him a life that he would have otherwise been denied. The Dolorosa had heard stories from the other caretakers of their dealings with lame or mutated trolls. The helpless wigglers were killed barely seconds after they hatched. She herself had never encountered one until now, and had always assumed she would do the same.

But maternal instincts she didn’t know she had seemed to have kicked in.

While the mother grub’s snorts and writhings became gradually more pronounced, the Dolorosa stood still, the tiny infant troll sleeping in her arms while she warred with herself.

Slavery?
Family?


If she thought about it afterwards, there really was no contest.

The last she heard from the cave as she swept out of there was a high pitched squeal as the monstrous subject of her work realised what was happening. The tiny grub in her arms wailed, but she hushed it, swathing them both in her sheer cloak.

She didn’t stop until the sun began to rise.

Chapter Text

“Mother! Mother, look! I caught it! Look!”

The Dolorosa turned as the slightly shrill, excitable voice echoed through their makeshift hive. She had been making a stew out of some kind of beast that she had managed to trap and kill earlier that night, and was so absorbed in it that the shout from her young subject had startled her.

“What did you catch?”

The young troll scampered between stalactites to show her the tiny animal clutched in his claws, a wide grin on his round face.

“It’s a hopbeast! A baby one! I caught it all by myself!”

The Dolorosa smiled and knelt down to his level, gently stroking the trembling beast.

“How did you catch it, love?”

“I just sat still while it hopped over and then gave it some greens! It took them right out of my hand and then it let me pick it up! Isn’t it cute? Can I keep it? Can I? Please?”

She gave a small laugh and kissed the young troll on the forehead, before giving the animal another pat.

“It looks terrified, love. Why don’t you tone it down a little? I suppose you may keep it. What will you name it?”

The child fell silent, expression twisting into one of concentration.

“Bunny.”

“Bunny? That’s an…interesting choice.”

“But don’t you think it looks like a Bunny mother? It’s so cute and soft and cuddly, and Bunny makes me think of something cute and soft and cuddly.”

The Dolorosa laughed and then stood.

“Alright, Bunny it is,” she said. “Now go on and play with your new pet, I have to finish this stew.”

“Yes Mother!” the young one chirped, and turned on his heel to scamper happily back towards the entrance of the cave.

“Don’t venture too far!” The Dolorosa called after him, and sighed softly to herself, turning back to her stew.

It had been three sweeps since she had abandoned her duties to the mother grub to raise the young wiggler. Three sweeps spent in hiding and fear, terrified that she would be hunted by imperial law drones and taken in. In the sweeps gone, they had relocated numerous times. She had almost been caught once, barely a sweep after she had left the mother grub. A high blood had recognised her, but, thankfully to any merciful deity who might have watched over them, had not noticed the tiny cocoon that had been spun in the back of the cave.

It was probably the closest she had come to losing both the one she had come to think of as her son, and her own life. She had had to detach the cocoon from the wall of the cave and hide it beneath her dress, and steal away before the high blood could summon any more forces.

Since then she had been mindful to switch locations once every pedigree or so, sometimes sooner depending on the area. Over time, the cocoon had hatched revealing a bright faced, intelligent young troll, whom she had lovingly named Karlkenn. In old Alternian, it meant naïve, which she thought was fitting for him.

He knew nothing of her sacrifice, or of how close he had come to death. She had told him little of why he had to remain hidden, only that his blood meant he was in danger, and she was protecting him.

Karlkenn was accustomed to their nomadic life, but the Dolorosa was not. She pined for civilisation for a long time, feeling homesick and lonely, and often times Karlkenn had caught her weeping to herself, but whenever he asked, she merely said she was proud of him and seeing him grow was making her cry. Karlkenn accepted this most often with a smile of glee, and kissed her on the cheek before skipping back outside to meander around near the cave entrance.

They continued in this manner for sweeps. Switching villages every few nights, hiding in caves, living away from society. It meant that Karlkenn grew up naïve. He had no idea of the workings of Troll culture, and was dangerously trusting.

It was due to this flaw in his personality that he and the Dolorosa were both almost killed the night he turned four.

They had taken up residence in a run down little shanty shack on the outskirts of a small fishing village. It was crawling with seadwellers, which made the Dolorosa nervous, but they needed supplies. They had no other choice, and Karlkenn was exhausted. So the Dolorosa found the little shack, deducting that the only trolls who would go there would be young ones to play, and they’d make enough noise that they could slip quietly out before they were discovered.

They settled in as the first moon began to rise, the soft music of the waves hitting the shore nearby creating a deceivingly relaxing air. Almost the second she set him down, Karlkenn pulled his blanket out of their travel case and wrapped himself up in it, dozing instantly.

The Dolorosa watched him for a few moments with a smile, before unpacking a few other things they might require and assessing what she’d need to buy. It would be dangerous going into the town when she was so widely sought, but it would be even more dangerous to take Karlkenn with her.

Resignedly, she wrote a note and left it by Karlkenn’s side, taking some of the currency she had managed to swipe over the sweeps and slipping out of the shack.

The thought of leaving a four sweep old troll to his own devices might have made any lusus nervous, but as he grew up, the Dolorosa had taught Karlkenn the valuable lesson of remaining hidden and, when she wasn’t there, remaining on his guard. He was quite good at camouflaging himself these days, so she didn’t feel exceedingly concerned about leaving him to rest.

She exited the little shanty and, swathed in a plain black cloak with mustard yellow trimming—a crime in itself due to the deceitful nature—the Dolorosa made her way to the village. It was a quiet evening, thankfully, so not many trolls were out. Some shops were just opening their doors, and the early evening markets hadn’t begun yet.

She tried not to linger, feeling paranoid that every sideways glance was one of suspicion. Her tension was higher than usual here, likely due to the higher number of sea-dwellers than normal. A coup must have been occurring nearby of some sort, as low bloods were slinking by trying to remain inconspicuous, and mid and highbloods were strutting around with their chins jutting proudly, openly jeering at the low bloods when a sea-dweller was nearby.

The Dolorosa was, unluckily, on the receiving end of such torment. She had been quietly observing some organic food in one of the freshmarkets, when a blue blooded troll meandered on over and demanded loudly that she pay a ridiculous price for the piece she was holding.

Not used to being bullied like this, even though it had been a long time since she was the revered carer from the Mother Grubs cave, the Dolorosa bristled and turned to glare at the troll.

“What a ridiculous demand,” she said, her voice juxtaposingly soft. “I’d sooner give my right arm than pay that much for a single piece.”

“Is that so?” the blue blood leered, and before she knew what was happening, he had snatched her by the front of her shirt and pulled her so close that they were almost nose to nose.

“Don’t think I won’t hold you to that, pissblood,” he snarled, an ugly look on his face. “It’s scum like you who are ruining the fucking markets for the rest of us. Pay the price or get out.”

It was then, she realised, that the other troll was now so close that he would easily be able to determine her true blood colour. Her eyes glinted jade, wide with fear, and she could see them reflected in his own cerulean irises, which dilated when he realised.

“Treason!” He shouted, but before he could get another word out, the Dolorosa had shoved her palm hard upwards against his ugly, crooked nose, and felt heat gush over her wrist. She vaguely heard him swear, and knew that other trolls interest had been peaked.

Trying not to panic, she turned on her heel and fled, leaving the basket of things she had collected behind. Shouts followed her as she ran, but she didn’t look back, focusing on getting to Karlkenn and leaving this place behind.

The Dolorosa took a zigzagged route back to the shanty, sighing a little in relief when she saw the telltale signs of Karlkhenn having woken not too long ago.

The relief drained however, when she saw that he had company.

Sitting in the middle of the run down old hive, was a seatroll.

The Dolorosa’s blood went cold, and all instinct told her to run. But that was absolutely out of the question, when her child was still in there.

In fact, Karlkenn seemed to be in a surprisingly good mood.

What was going on?

Taking deep, calming breaths, the Dolorosa entered the hive, fixing a strained smile on her face, before bowing low.

“Highblood,” she said softly, feeling panic bubble in her throat.

The seatroll stood and turned to her, and his expression told the Dolorosa all she needed to know. It was triumphant, glee lighting up his eyes as a smug grin sat comfortably on his lips.

“Why hello there my lady,” he said in an oily voice, faked with gentletrollianly chivalry. “I was just having a cup of tea tree water with your young pupil here. He is very much the unique little wiggler, isn’t he?”

“Mother!” Karlkenn said excitedly, skipping over to the Dolorosa. “I met this nice troll out by the sea shore when I was looking for fish! I cut my finger and he was so nice and he fixed it all up for me, and I decided to bring him back to meet you and I told him all about you and we had so much fun, didn’t we—“ he didn’t wait for the seatroll to interject— “and then he decided he wanted to stay for a while and I decided it was okay since he was so kind…”

The more he spoke, the more the Dolorosa’s dread grew. It was an infant mistake on Karlkenn's behalf, she knew, trusting someone so easily, but it endangered both their lives, and they would be lucky to make it free from this situation.

“Yes, yes indeed, he has been telling me all manner of things about you,” the sea troll said, his eyes glinting even more with that triumphant expression. “He is such a fine little lad, so kind and unique. Why, I’m certain if he was of caste, he might even be sought after as a slave.”

“Forgive me,” the Dolorosa said, feigning ignorance to the best of her ability, “I know not what you speak of, highblood.”

Karlkenn was looking between them, seeming confused, but had latched on to the Dolorosa’s arm and bouncing a little on his feet as he did so.

“Oh, forgive me,” the highblood drawled, sitting down on one of the stools and putting his disgustingly muddy boots up on the table. “I forget that living feral for so many sweeps removes basic intellect. Tell me, did you enjoy betraying your empress?”

She couldn’t take it any more. Drawing herself up, she grit her teeth and glared down at the troll, trying to keep her voice steady.

“I did no such thing,” she hissed. “I saved the life of a wiggler who was doomed, and my loss was of no significance to the Condesce.”

“Her Imperial Condescension,” the highblood corrected sharply, eyes now flashing with anger.

“You committed an act of treason by abandoning your hatched duty, and what is more, you allowed an abomination to exist. You have nowhere to go now, Dolorosa, yes,” he added when the Dolorosa flinched at her name, “I know who you are, and the second this charming young fellow spoke of you I knew I had you cornered. There is no where for you to run now, I have alerted my troops and they will be here within minutes. You will be executed for treason and your mutant will be culled without question.”

The Dolorosa tremble at these words, whether in fear or anger she wasn’t quite sure.

“I’m sorry, highblood,” she replied scathingly, “but that is not going to happen. You forget I have spent four sweeps evading the likes of you, and I can do it again.”

This caused a scathing laugh to burst from the seadweller, and suddenly Karlkenn was clenching her wrist tightly, tugging it as he glanced out the window.

“Mother,” he whispered, “there are people coming…”
That was all it took for her. She launched herself at the sea troll, who, caught by surprise, was thrown backwards. Any other time he would have taken her easily, but he clearly didn’t expect her to do anything but remain submissive.

“Karlkenn! Run and hide!” she shouted over her shoulder, and heard small feet racing to the back door, slamming it behind.

The Dolorosa wrestled with the seatroll, who was rapidly regaining the upper hand. Her forearm was pressed against his neck, trying hard to cut off his oxygen supply, while one wrist was caught in his large, webbed fingers.

“You will not. Hurt. My. Son,” she spat.

The seatroll just laughed, and managed to dislodge her by throwing his weight back, toppling her off of him. She tried to crawl away, but he caught her by the ankle and then the hair, dragging her back to pin her down with his much heavier body weight.

“Mutant filth,” he snarled back, mimicking her own strategy and pressing his forearm hard against her neck. His heavier weight mean her air supply was instantly cut off, and her mouth was left gaping for air.

“A thing like that shouldn’t exist,” he said, eyes gleaming as he slowly strangled her, “you are a disgrace to Her Imperial Condescension. You should have been culled at birth just like he was. An embarrassment to our empire.”

The Dolorosa’s lungs were burning, stars popping in front of her eyes as her brain starved. Her fingers scrabbled at his face and arms, but to no avail. He was crushing her neck and she wasn’t strong enough to fight him off.

“That thing should never have been allowed to live,” the seatroll continued, as though drilling in these words while she died would somehow make her repent, “it is an abomination, of worthy of the grand life of our planet. He’ll die not long after you, and maybe just as slow…”

She felt her body spasm as her muscles began to starve of oxygen, eyes wide and mouth agape. Her vision was going cloudy, mind blank, and she could barely understand what he was saying.

“I’ll take him out and cut his throat,” the seatroll said, voice eager with the truth of his detail, “let the world see him die. His filthy blood is not fit—“

Barely registering what was even happening, the Dolorosa suddenly found that she was gasping and coughing for air as she was released, the weight off her having lifted. Stars sprung up against her eyes once more, and she blinked, still coughing brutally as she tried to work out what happened.

Standing over her, his small face streaked with transparent tears and twisted into an expression of pure fear, was Karlkenn. He had a knife in his hand, and its silver blade was gleaming with the purple life force of the sea troll.

“Karlkenn,” the Dolorosa managed to gasp, her voice hoarse, but she couldn’t get anything else out.

“Come on, Mother,” he said, small voice desperate and afraid, “we have to get out of here, they’re coming! Come on!”

With much cajoling and hurrying, he managed to get her up.

With Karlkenn supporting his carer, the pair managed to flee, leaving the twitching, bleeding body of the dead seadweller in their wake.

--
They ran for what seemed like hours, and only stopped when Karlkenn could literally walk no more. He was on the verge of collapse, and the Dolorosa couldn’t bear to make him go any further.

“Come on, love,” she said softly, lifting him and giving his temple a soft kiss. “Not much further.”

“Mother,” he whispered against her shoulder, arms wrapped tight around her neck, “I’m sorry.”

“Hush,” she said, tiredly moving to find a thicket of trees for them to make a secure camp in for the day.

Karlkenn didn’t say any more, but she felt his body tremble with sobs as she trudged on. The shock must have been great on him.

Eventually the Dolorosa found a place for them, and wearily lowered Karlkenn down at the base of one of the huge, ancient trees. They had left everything behind, so all they had were the clothes they were in. Luckily, she still had the cloak she had worn into town, so she wrapped the young troll up securely and settled back against the tree, holding him in her lap.

“Mother,” Karlkenn whispered again when she had settled. “Why did that troll do that…?”

The Dolorosa sighed, eyes closed as she tried to forget about the pain in her neck, left behind by the seatroll’s attempt to asphyxiate her.

“It is a long, complicated story, my love. Rest now, and I will tell you when the moon rises.”

He didn’t say any more, and settled in against her, still trembling every so often. Eventually though, he stilled, and the Dolorosa managed to relax slightly, before drifting into a troubled, nightmare plagued sleep.

Chapter Text

Karlkenn woke with a start before the sun had completely set, his mind completely overridden with images of the troll trying to strangle his mother. He had slept restlessly, nightmares of a devil with a golden smile and words of silver plaguing him. He had fallen for it.

Now, awake, he couldn’t get the trolls face out of his head.

The way his eyes glowed with malice and hatred, the words he hissed, the way Rosa’s expression turned to pure fear when she saw him sitting at her table. The way he held her down by her neck and her face went green—

He felt a small pang of guilt, and turned to look at the Dolorosa. She was asleep still, and an ugly greenish welt was blossoming along her neck. It was going to be there for a while, and Karlkenn felt a little sick when he looked at it.

Softly, he disentangled himself from her and edged out through the tree line, deciding it would be prudent to make a tiny fire. No doubt they’d be moving along again soon, but he was hungry and given the choice, he would much rather eat his meat cooked.

He was distracted though. Words kept sliding through his brain as he cast about for pieces of dried wood. Mutant. Abomination. Filth. He should have been culled.

He knew what the words meant, but he didn’t understand why the troll had said them. Why should he have been culled? Why was he an abomination? Was he too short? Was it because he didn’t have a sign? Or was it just empty words that the seatroll used to force the Dolorosa’s hand?

His mother had often said to him not to go outside, not to let himself be seen. ‘Don’t go farther than where I can see you. Don’t go outside when I’m not here. Don’t let yourself be seen by other trolls. Be careful, don’t hurt yourself’.

Don’t ever trust another troll if one finds us.

And mostly he hadn’t. He had met a few young trolls around his age before, but he had never been able to make friends with them. They had always been sent on their way before he even knew their names, and he never questioned why. It was just the way things worked.

Inviting the seatroll home had been an accident. He’d been innocently searching by the sea shore not even five yards from the entrance to the shanty, and it had been (unfortunate) chance that the seadweller had found him. He had cut his finger on a sharp piece of coral in the rock pools and the seadweller had instantly taken up interest.

He seemed nice. He was so kind and carefully bandaged up Karlkenn’s finger for him and sat with him for a few minutes asking questions. The more he asked, the more Karlkenn had rambled, ending up telling him about his lifestyle and his ‘mother’. And then the seatroll had asked to come back and meet her because she had ‘seemed so nice, it would be marvellous to meet such a brave young lady’. And he had.

He’d led the troll right to her, and almost got her killed. Karlkenn was young and mostly naive, but he wasn’t an idiot. It had been his fault his mother had almost died. And the seadweller had called him an abomination, after being so kind to him.

It was all his fault.

It took him a few minutes to realise he was crying again, crouched down over the small pile of kindling he’d collected. It was all his fault. He’d disobeyed his mother and they’d both almost payed the price. Except now Karlkenn had blood on his hands.

He tried to calm himself down, allowing himself a few more moments to fall apart before wiping his face on his sleeve. He picked up the small, somewhat pathetic pile of sticks and padded back through to the campsite, where he dumped them on the ground nearby.

The Dolorosa woke with a yelp, and then sighed heavily, her hand over her heart when she saw Karlkenn.

“You frightened me, love,” she said, giving him a look he couldn’t quite decipher.

“Sorry, Mother,” Karlkenn replied quietly, his head bowed.

He wasn’t just talking about the kindling.

His guardian reached out to him, and Karlkenn crawled into her lap and curled up, clinging to the front of her dress. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed his forehead gently, rocking him ever so slightly.

They remained like that in silence for a few minutes, the Dolorosa humming a quiet tune while Karlkenn’s eyes drifted closed. His tense little body betrayed his apparent sleepiness though; giving away the fear, guilt and lack of understanding he had for the entirety of what had happened.

“Mother—“ he said quietly, but she cut him off.

“Shh, my love. A few more hours rest wont hurt.”

“I’m not tired.”

“Oh? Why do you look so sleepy then?” She attempted to smile and pinch his nose, but the effect was less than convincing, and Karlkenn’s lip only twitched ever so slightly in response.

“Am I an abomination?”

A heavy, sorrowful sigh escaped through the Dolorosa’s lips at the question. Karlkenn watch her expression flicker a little, trying to work out what was going in her mind. She looked conflicted; more than a little pained at the question, but she still didn’t speak.

“Mother?”

A tiny hand brushed against her cheek, Karlkenn’s large, sad eyes watching her closely.

“Oh Karlkenn,” she whispered, burying her head in his hair. Karlkenn sat still, listening to her breathing, but she didn’t elaborate. He wanted to believe that she just didn’t like the things said to him, but his young mind was able to process what she didn’t want to say; that something wasn’t quite right with him.
Karlkenn remained quiet, letting his guardian hold him while he waited for her to speak. She didn’t.

“Rosa,” he whispered eventually, hiding his face in her shoulder, “It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me.”

 

After a few, carefully measured breaths, she straightened and gave him a weak smile.

“My little candyapple,” she said, causing him to grin. “The only abomination around here is the people who think someone as precious as you shouldn’t exist.”

Karlkenn curled against her without responding, and they sat for a time holding one another.

By the time the sun had truly set, Karlkenn was beginning to get hungry. He sat up and slid out of the Dolorosa’s lap, and began to set about building a small fire. The Dolorosa tried to help, but he insisted she rest. There was a nasty bruise forming around her throat where the sea troll had almost strangled her, and she looked weary, the weight of the world settling on her shoulders. Karlkenn wanted more than anything to make up for his mistake, and so at least letting her rest from her ordeal was a start.

Within half an hour, he had caught a small beast and managed to sloppily kill and skin it, letting it sit on the fire. He was careful to keep it shrouded; the light was more than bright enough to attract a keen eyed troll, and now that they were on the run they had to be extra cautious. Karlkenn had first attempted to cover the fire with a small covering of leaves, but they had just burnt up, so now he just sat with a branch over it, waving away the smoke.
It wasn’t very effective at all.

Karlkenn and his guardian sat together quietly, eating their smoked beast and talking in low voices. Every so often one of them would pick a bit of fur or skin out of their teeth that Karlkenn hadn’t quite completely removed, but the conversation was subdued. The Dolorosa seemed determined to talk about things other than the events of the previous night, opting for little stories and things while in her mind planning where they would next move to.

It had to be somewhere away from the coast. Seadwellers didn’t often go too far inland, preferring to get the subjuggulators and laughassassins to do the culling and maintain order in the inner cities and villages. It would be much easier to blend in as two lowbloods inland. Perhaps the Dolorosa could pose as a hive designer and have Karlkenn as a young apprentice. This sort of occupation was rare, but not unheard of. No…perhaps it would be easier to pose as something more common. But what?

She watched her young subject chew apart his rough meat almost savagely, and chewed on her lip. Years of being nomads had all but robbed Karlkenn of any chance of learning civilian ways; in the eyes of elder trolls he was almost feral. And adult/wiggler families simply were not a thing in Alternian society. She could not say she was raising him, it would be a total give away. What to do…what to do…?

Her musings were savagely interrupted when a low shriek emitted from behind Karlkenn in the direction of the bushes. Cursing, the Dolorosa snuffed out the fire and yanked Karlkenn behind her, causing him to cry out as his shoulder strained from her strength.

“Rosa,” he whined, but she shushed him harshly. There was hardly any point though; the amount of noise they had made in the past several seconds made them sitting waddlebeasts if whoever had cried out had been a threat.

“Rosa,” Karlkenn said again, but she paid no attention to him, staring in the direction of the voice. There was rustling coming from over that way, and more funny hissing noises. Rosa kept cautious, and edged closer, instructing Karlkenn to stay where he was.

Whoever it was in the bushes, they clearly weren’t that big, as no adult troll would be easily concealed there. It lead the Dolorosa to believe that whoever this was, they were young. Or small. Or both, even.

Drawing herself up to her full height, the Dolorosa attempted to speak authoritively, but the effect was ruined by her wounded vocals.

“Who’s there?”

The rustling stopped, but the Dolorosa didn’t. She moved closer, peering into the darkness trying to find whom the culprit was. She got her answer when what appeared to be a small ball of snarling hair leapt from the direction she was moving, straight at her. It was hissing and spitting, and latched on to the front of the Dolorosa’s dress in fury.

Karlkenn’s shout was drowned by the Dolorosa’s shriek of fear, and he leapt at the ball of hair recklessly. As he got close though, he saw it wasn’t at all some hairy beast, but a small female troll, which made the hissing noises she was making even stranger.

Karlkenn managed to get his hands around the tiny trolls waist—a struggle since she was snarling and writhing so furiously—and yank her away before she could shred his guardians dress to pieces. The troll twisted out of his grip and swiped a claw across his arm, screaming as she did so. It caused Karlkenn to cry out in pain as blood spewed forth, and he stumbled backwards away from her.

Everything stopped.

“Karlkenn,” the Dolorosa whispered frantically as she crawled over to him, trying to cover the bright red now shining in the moonlight. “Hurry, get this hidden before—“

“Are you an outcast?”

Two heads turned in the direction of the third, both with identical surprised expressions. The tiny troll was crouched warily, eyes sharp as she watched them both. In that brief moment, Karlkenn was able to seize her up.

She was small and lithe, bright, grey eyes telling him she was still young, maybe just his age or a sweep or so older. Her clothes were ragged and torn, and she had no apparent care for modesty, several holes dotting around her chest and lower back. Her hair was positively wild and out of control, and she had smudges of dirt all over her face.

“What?”

The Dolorosa made to shush him, but Karlkenn batted her hand away and stepped forward curiously.

“An outcast,” the girl repeated. She gestured at his arm, where his mutated blood was still flowing freely. “Only I’ve never seen anything like that before. And like her. With you I mean.”

Karlkenn stared, and then nodded.

“Yeah. We’re outcasts.”

The girl stood and took a step closer. Apparently she’d judged them as no threat to her.

“Me too,” she said, eyes darting shrewdly between them. “I been watchin’ you for a while. I woulda stayed hidden too only I planted myself down on a nest full of biters. Got me right on the butt end too.”

Apparently this was uncivilised, because a soft noise of disapproval came from behind Karlkenn, but they were otherwise interrupted.

“What’s your names?” the girl asked.

“I’m Karlkenn,” he said, gesturing at himself. “This is Rosa. She’s like my lusus. What’s your name?”

Another brief moments silence followed, before;

“Nertinia.”

Chapter Text

 "Who killed my first mate!"

The furious roar echoed over the terrified silence of the small congrgation of trolls, all of them dreading being targeted by the livid troll standing over them. His face was puce, twisted into an expression of complete and utter rage. Fists clenched by his sides, he glared down at his consorts as he waited for a response. When none came, he snarled and rose his voice.

"Who the fuck was it! I know you filthy fucking land dwellers know, and if none of you speaks up right the fuck now I’ll see to it that each and every fucking one of you has a dusk appointment with the Grand Highblood!"

A silent shudder stirred through the room, eyes flicking to each other in fear. None of them were willing to be the one to speak, but nor were they willing to come face to face with the terrifying Grand Subjuggulator.

Their leader was as feared as he was revered, a troll who reported directly to Her Imperious Condescention herself. He was ruthless in his dealings with his consorts, and everything about him, from the jagged scars lining his face to the piercing puple of his eyes screamed intimidation. When he was calm, he was stoic but cold, and when enraged, his anger rivalled that of the uncontrollable tyrany that radiated from the High Subjuggulators. It was no surprise that no one was willing to speak. They were uncertain which was worse at this stage; facing the brunt of his wrath if they were the one to inform him, or remaining silent and hoping that he wouldn't ring true with his threat.

Apparently, a blue blood on his knees before the troll thought the former was more favourable of the two outcomes.

"Forgive me, Dualscar," he said in a low voice, head bowed low, "It seems that..."

"That what." Dualscar snarled.

"...That the one who is accountable for the death of your esteemed first mate was none other than the traitorous jade blood who abandoned the mother grub four sweeps ago."

A tense silence hung in the air while the rest of the crew held their breaths, waiting for Dualscar's response to this. His face flickered between several expressions, from disbelief to pure, unadulterated rage, back through to icily stoic.

"From what we heard tell, sir," the blue blood continued, his voice a little unsteady due to the lack of response so far from his commanding officer, "he tracked Maryam down when we landed in Asym'al'ib, and had every intention of bringing her to you. He sent word to Darkleer," the meaty blue blood standing with a dark expression beside Dualscar tensed, murderous gaze fixed on the kneeling troll beneath them, "to bring the crew to apprehend her. By the time we got there, she had escaped, and The Reliable was dead. My deepest..." his voice hitched a little and he trembled, "my deepest condolences, sir."

While the troll was speaking, Dualscar seemd to almost expand in stature, his body drawing itself up and steeling hard, eyes turning murderous. He turned to Darkleer, and though in physical size he was smaller than the blue blood, he placed himself so close to the troll that they were almost nose to nose, and to anyone looking they would have sworn that the smaller of the two was the more threatening.

"Is this true," he hissed, the low volume of his voice the only sign that he was about to lose it completely. Several trolls at the back of the congregation began to edge backwards, but stopped dead when Dualscar turned and screamed at them to stay still or so help them they would be dead before they took another fucking step.

"Is. This. True." Dualscar repeated, glaring up at Darkleer.

"Yes, Highblood," Darkleer responded with a dip of his head, "I regret to confirm that this is what happened. I saw a child with the woman, but they were both gone before I could shoot them."

Dualscar remained still for a moment, and then before anyone realised what had happened, a sharp smack rang through out the room, and Darkleer teetered backwards, holding his face.

Low murmurs broke out in response to what just happened, most trolls whispering to one another in disbelief. Darkleer had just been smacked in the face and had taken it without a murmur.

Dualscar appeared stone cold and stoic as he glared at the troll before him. His anger was barely contained, jaw set hard as he seized Darkleer up.

“Why was this not included in your report, Highblood”. The last word was said with such contempt that even Darkleer grimaced.

“Forgive me your highness,” he said, voice as low and even as ever, “It must have slipped my—“

“Don’t you fuckin’ dare say it slipped your mind,” Dualscar hissed, taking a step forward. “I know even you’re not fuckin’ stupid enough to let somethin’ like that slip. You useless fuckin’ trash, I should—“

“Fucking shut the fuck up, seaweed,” came another voice from somewhere out of sight. Every single troll in the vicinity tensed, some let out small cries of fear, others simply shrank away. They all knew to whom that voice belonged.

Dualscar visibly bristled, glare fixed on the (until now) silent observer.

“You ain’t got no authority on me, you capricious bean curd,” he spat, which caused the spectators in the room to practically groan with fear.

“Nah, you’re right, but I got all the motherfuckin’ power right up where I want it, and I could have you motherfuckin’ spitroasted within minutes if I wanna. Shut the motherfuck up, no one wants to hear your bitch squeal.”

Dualscar’s jaw clenched, and he appeared to be weighing up his options, before scoffing and turning back to the crowd.

“All of you, find me those traitors!” He bellowed. “Dead or alive, I don’t give a flyin’ fuck, just bring them to me or you’ll all lose your fuckin’ ration privileges for a pedigree!”

That seemed to be the queue for dismissal, because the sea troll flounced off the podium, snarling at the invisible troll on his way past, and out of sight. Darkleer remained still for a few more moments, then offered a deep bow in the same direction and moved off the opposite side. Slowly, still in shock from the events of the gathering, the other trolls in the room began to dissipate too.

 

“And then, I says to him, I says, ‘ain’t no one gonna make me a domestic little cat!’ and I jumped up on ‘im and bit him right in the neck!”

This was accompanied by a squeal of delight from Karlkenn, who doubled over with his arms around his stomach, while Nertinia grinned toothily. Rosa was chewing her lip, apparently torn between disapproving and being amused at the story.

“And then what? What happened next, Tiny?” Karlkenn said, eyes and face bright with excitement. He leaned towards her, bouncing on his haunches a little as Nertinia rocked from side to side; a habit born from way too much energy and a life time of hunting.

“And then I run away, din’t I?” She replied, looking incredibly smug. “I ain’t no body’s slave. My lusus taught me one thing afore she got shot down, an’ that was ‘meowbeasts answer to no one but ‘emself’. An’ I ain’t gonna let no one boss me around.”

Karlkenn clapped his hands delightedly.

“That sounds so good! She must have been such a good lusus!”

“Yeah she was.”

Nertinia’s voice quietened a little and the Dolorosa interrupted them both with a loud clearing of her throat.

“Tiny, it’s time for an ablution before we sit down to have dinner. Karlkenn, you too.”

The children groaned theatrically at the mention of ablutions, but the Dolorosa shushed them and herded them to the stream nearby their new hiding spot; a cave that Nertinia had made her home some pedigrees ago.

Once they were out in the stream, the children spent some time there playing cheerfully, splashing each other with the joyous shouts of young, carefree trolls. It usually gave Rosa the brief moments to lose herself in the stress she always kept at bay.

Nertinia and Karlkenn were entertaining one another in such a manner when the girl paused, suddenly staring into the scrub. At Karlkenn’s confused question, she shushed him, and began to prowl in the direction she was staring.

“Tiny, wait!”

She stopped at Karlkenn’s call, bristling at the appearance of a strange troll in the bushes. He looked thin, and he was shivering. Not much of a threat, at least, to Karlkenn.

“Help me,” the strange troll whispered, before he collapsed and fell face first into the water.

Karlkenn and Nertinia both leapt forward at the same time, catching him before he sank underneath. He looked about their age, maybe a sweep or two older, and he was bruised and battered around his face and neck.

“He been strangled,” Nertinia commented, and Karlkenn gave her a look that showed he had no idea what she meant. “Let’s get him back to Rosa. Only he looks like he gonna fall of the featherbeast perch if we don’ get him looked after.”

So they heaved, hauled and grunted the strange troll back to their cave, games and cleaning forgotten. Karlkenn and Nertinia both shouted excitedly at the mouth of the cave, where the Dolorosa emerged and nearly dropped her cauldron.

“Oh no, where did you find him, children?”

“Over’n the bushes!” Nertinia piped up, Karlkenn nodding emphatically along.

“Yeah he said ‘help me’ and then fell in the water! So we brought him back, and Tiny said he’s been strangered.”

“Strangled,” Nertinia cut in, and then pointed out the bruises on his face and décolletage. “See them? Someone been hurting him. He got four horns too, that’s a weirdo. Is he gonna be okay?”

The Dolorosa hushed them both, and leaned down to inspect the unconscious troll. Her expression changed at something on the troll’s clothes, and she murmured quietly.

“Whatsa psionic?” Nertinia asked, her hearing keener than Karlkenn’s.

“He’s special,” she said quietly, and then picked up the troll to retreat into the cave.

The children followed, excited by another special troll.

“Have your dinner, children,” the Dolorosa ordered. She was met with the customary dramatic whines, but the two trolls did as they were told, leaving their caretaker to look after the newcomer.

“Do you think he’s going to die?” Karlkenn asked as they dug into their stew at the back of the cave.

“Dunno,” Nertinia replied, the food all over her face. She was such a feral eater, but it was something that Rosa couldn’t beat out of her, no matter how much she tried to. “He’s special but. Rosa said so herself. Maybe he’ll look after us or something if he’s ok. Or maybe his nose will fall off and his brains will leak everywhere.”

“Ewwww, Tiny that’s gross!”

“Look, you’re eating em now!”

“Yuck, don’t put me off my food! I like this stew!”

“You’re eating brains!”

Hush,” the stern command echoed from the front of the cave, and the children fell silent once more.

“I reckon he’s a slave or something,” Nertinia said after a few more moments of quiet.

“A slave?”

“Yeah, someone who works for a big nob, like cleaning all his shoes and stuff.”

“They have those? But why is he all bruised up then if he was working for someone?”

“Them big nobs are big meaners. I seen a troll get killed once cause he didn’t tie his masters tie right.”

Karlkenn was horrified. “That’s awful! Why would they do that?”

Nertinia shrugged, and shovelled some more stew into her mouth.

“S’just’a way things are.”

Karlkenn wrinkled his nose and poked at his stew for a while longer. Eventually, Rosa came to sit by them, dishing up a serve of the stew and placing it aside. She looked troubled, but neither Karlkenn nor Nertinia said anything.

They finished their meals in relative silence, and as the sun began to rise, both young trolls sat by the stranger’s side. The Dolorosa explained to them who he was; a psionic troll, one who could manipulate the world around him with his powers. He was young though, still in training by the look of his uniform, and rather badly beaten. His wounds would heal in time, and after a good sleep, he should wake and be able to tell them his story.

“Why is he all beat up though, Momma?” Karlkenn had spent a long time looking at the bruises on the trolls grey skin, nasty, yellow welts that looked painful.

“I don’t know, Son,” she sighed. “There could be any number of reasons. We’ll have to wait until he wakes to find out.”

So they waited. The two young trolls drifted in and out of sleep as the sun rose, but the Dolorosa remained alert. Karlkenn woke several times during the day to see her staring intently at the troll, but he couldn’t decipher the expression on her face. So he rolled over and went back to sleep, only to jerk awake not long after, to the same scene.

By the time the sun was beginning to sink over the horizon, Karlkenn was curled around Nertinia, and the embers of the fire were beginning to dull. The Dolorosa was dozing lightly by the cave wall.

All three trolls jerked awake, however, when a soft groan escaped the unconscious troll by the fire.

“He’s wakin’!” Nertinia squealed, but was hushed sternly by Rosa. The tree of them leaned over the stranger, who was stirring and whimpering a little in his sleep.

He was murmuring; things Karlkenn didn’t understand, like “it hurts”, “don’t make me go back there,” and other such things.

Impatient, he leaned over and shook the troll, causing him to screech and shoot upright, a peculiar light sparking and crackling around his head.

Karlkenn yelped and jumped backwards, but Rosa was instantly by the troll’s side, murmuring soothingly, crooning words of comfort.

The troll panted heavily, eyes darting around the room, and it was only then that Karlkenn noticed their weird colour. One deep blue, the other a bright, ruby red; and they shot from troll to troll, fear written all over his face.

“Where am I?”

“In a cave!” Nertinia piped up brightly, causing the strange eyes to land on her. They flicked across to Karlkenn again, and then to Rosa, whom he visibly shrank away from.

“Don’t hurt me, please! I won’t do anything wrong I promise, I was just…” he began to breathe labouredly, and Karlkenn moved to his side, placing a hand on his shoulder.

“It’s okay,” he said, smiling at the frightened troll. “No one is going to hurt you. Not here at least. I’m Karlkenn, this is my Lusus Rosa, and that’s Tiny. What’s your name?”

The stranger swallowed hard, but seemed to calm at Karlkenn’s touch.

“I’m…I don’t have a name…”

“That’s dumb,” Nertinia piped up. “How can you not have a name?”

“They took it away from me,” he replied, voice low. “When they came and took me, they took my name too…”

“Who did?” Karlkenn asked.

“The instructors.” A lisp made itself prominent, and Karlkenn pushed Nertinia over when she giggled at the way the psionic spoke, causing her to yelp in indignation.

“Why did they take your name though?”

“Because I’m not…a troll anymore…” it sounded hollow, as though it were something recited, and Karlkenn’s expression only became more confused.

“Course you’re a troll. You look just like me and Tiny and Rosa. How could you not be?”

“Karlkenn,” Rosa spoke up, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. “You’re distressing him. Young one,” she knelt beside the troll herself then, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Would you like a name?”

He swallowed and gave a jerky nod.

“Hmmm…” Karlkenn thought for a moment, tapping his chin thoughtfully. “Oh, I know! Siimon!”

“That’s dumb,” Nertinia said, causing Karlkenn to push her over again.

“It is not! It sounds cool! What do you think,” turning back to the troll. “Do you like Siimon?”

The troll paused, and then nodded tentatively.

“Thhhhhhsssiimon,” he said, drawing out the sound of both his lisp and the name, before giving a weak smile. Karlkenn grinned widely back, and reached out one small hand to childishly shake the new addition to their group.

“Siimon,” Rosa murmured, smiling fondly at the three children. Her brood was growing by the day. “Are you hungry? There is some stew left over for you from our last hot meal.”

Siimon nodded emphatically then, and shifted so he was no longer sitting in the rather uncomfortable position he had been.

Rosa heated up the stew while the three children gabbered excitedly. Well, Karlkenn and Nertinia gabbered, while Siimon sat and gave weak smiles and nodded on occasion. He looked thoroughly shaken up, still recovering from whatever ordeal he had been through, but at least much calmer than he was when he first woke.

“So, Siimon,” Rosa began when he had a steaming bowl of delicious stew in front of him, “why did you end up out here in the wilderness? And how did you get those bruises?”

Siimon swallowed, looking down into his bowl of food.

“I was running.”

“Running?”

“Yeah. From traindetainers.”

“What are tr—“ Karlkenn began, but Rosa shushed him with a wave of her hand.

“Why were they coming for you?” She asked, causing Siimon to shrink back a little from her gaze.

“They wanted to take me in to the facility,” he mumbled into his stew. The Dolorosa’s jaw twitched.

“Is that why you’re so bruised?”

“Yeah…they knocked my hive door down and came in while I was sleeping…I tried to fight them off because I knew they’d come for me eventually. My Lusus…he—“ His voice seemed to tighten, and he bit his lip, “—he used to warn me of them and told me what to do if they ever came. So I tried to fight back…”

He trailed off, all three sets of eyes staring at him intently.

“What happened then?” Karlkenn asked, and mismatched eyes met his own.

“They killed my Lusus.”

There was a very pregnant pause.

“Why would they do something like that?” Karlkenn burst out, standing up and stomping his foot. “That’s so mean and cruel! They killed your Lusus just because you didn’t want to go with them? We should do something!”

“Karlkenn,” Nertinia spoke up, tugging at his leg. Karlkenn was the only one who seemed surprised and upset by this revelation. “Karlkenn you can’t do nothing. Sit down afore you give yourself a clot.”

Karlkenn stomped around for a few more moments before he sat back down, much closer to Siimon this time than before.

Siimon seemed frightened to continue after Karlkenn’s outburst, but he cleared his throat eventually and continued.

“When they killed him I…don’t remember what happened…” he said meekly. “I remember a lot of pain and brightness, and then I woke up here…”

“We found you,” Nertinia said proudly. “We found you in the lake.”

“Where were they taking you?” Karlkenn asked.

“The training facility,” he said, playing with his food. “To make me into a real psionic. They told me if I was really good that I could be a helmsman.”

Rosa put one hand to her forehead at that, and all three children noticed.

“Rosa?”

“It’s fine,” she said, giving a serene smile. “I’m just glad you got away from them. What are your plans now?”

Siimon chewed his lip. “I don’t have one.”

“Stay with us!” Karlkenn said enthusiastically, taking Siimon's hand. “We can be brothers!”

“Hold that thought,” came a flat voice from the cave entrance.

Siimon, Karlkenn and Rosa all turned to see Nertinia standing in the entrance, crouched and bristling. Karlkenn hadn’t even noticed she’d moved, far too fixated on Siimon’s story to pay attention.

“Tiny?”

“There’s someone coming,” she said, voice a low snarl. “And it ain’t no one friendly neither. They got arrows.”

Karlkenn looked panicked, the Dolorosa stood and Siimon whimpered softly.

“Children, get to the back of the cave,” Rosa said sternly, pulling Nertinia back from the entrance. The three of them scampered to the back, pressing themselves together in a small huddle. With practiced precision, Rosa darted around the cave, concealing as much evidence of them being there as possible. She tossed their supplies behind a rock, doused the flames and covered them with stones and grabbed her travelling cloak, throwing it over the three grubs. Once she was sure they were safely concealed, she ducked behind a rock, waiting in darkness and silence.

Karlkenn could hear his heart racing, pressed between Nertinia and Siimon against the hard stone. Footsteps sounded at the entrance, and they shrank back further.

“Anything?” a far off voice shouted.

There was a moment of intense silence, where the four trolls fate hanged in the balance for that answer. Karlkenn could practically feel Nertinia’s life flashing before her eyes, and Siimon’s frantic shaking.

And then—

“Nothing, Executor,” said a deep, husky voice.

The footsteps went away, but none of the fugitives relaxed. All four of them knew very well the dangers of letting your guard down too early.

After several agonising minutes, the sounds of the searchers diminished, but it wasn’t until a good half an hour after that Rosa finally lifted the cloak, three pale faced, frightened trolls staring up at her.

“Lets go, children,” she said, voice soft. “We must be moving on.