Tavros woke up to find himself curled on his side with his head in someone's lap. His weapons and armor were gone, and his nostrils were filled with the smell of dust and straw and unwashed bodies. It was the urge to sneeze that had awakened him.
"Easy there," said a soft voice, just above him. "You've been out for a while."
"Not by choice," he muttered, clenching and unclenching his muscles in sequence to make sure nothing was torn or broken. Then he lifted his head and opened his eyes.
He was in a small hut or barn, warm and humid with the breath of too many other people, cloying with their scents. He sat up slowly, then stood; the old woman who'd been serving as his pillow shook her legs out and stood up with him. "My apologies," he offered, looking down at her.
She grinned, gray eyes a sharp contrast to her dark skin; her curly hair gone to silver. "Not at all," she said. "It's been a long time since I've had a handsome young paladin lay his head in my lap."
Tavros offered a brief prayer of thanks that his embarrassment didn't show in the color of his scales. "For handsome, you want Tarric. Maybe even Anica."
The woman shrugged. "It's a matter of perspective, and from where I'm standing you look strong and sleek. Too young for me now, but if I were ten years younger or you were twenty years older..."
"I would run screaming," Tavros assured her, and was rewarded when he saw her grin. "Who are you?"
"Nowadays? Mother Mia, though I never had children. The title comes with the years. I mend nets and other things, trap animals for meat and fur. I even learned to keep a small garden. Or I did, until these fellows came through." She gestured towards a small door, in which was set a smaller window sealed with metal bars.
Tavros crossed to it and looked out, seeing goblins and hobgoblins and bugbears... and a human, dressed in what seemed to be pants and an overcoat of leather and fur. The human was striding towards their prison, and he drew back as the man approached.
"Well then!" said the man. "How are you feeling? Ready to fight for your life -- and those of your friends?"
Tavros cracked his neck. "What is it you want from us?" he asked.
"A champion," answered the man, smiling broadly. "Procrustes demands it. He is the chief of this tribe, you see, and his law is that any captured prisoners must produce a champion to fight against his champion. If the champion can meet his measure, then all the prisoners will be released."
"Admirable," said Tavros drily. "And he's just like his namesake, I suppose?"
"Oh, very good. If you weren't about to die, I might like to keep you around. So few among the tribe recognize the old stories."
"You're one of them, then?"
Moro sniffed. "I came to study them, years ago. Gave them gifts, got them to accept me. But their beliefs and their practices were crude, and I knew so many interesting customs and rituals that I could share with them. They do things with ever so much more style now, and I have become a person of importance among them. And when the food stores were found lacking as we approached the spring, well... clearly it was time for another feast day. So Procrustes and I sent them out to find some sacrifices, and here you are."
Tavros suppressed a growl. "Fine," he said. "So tell me about this champion."
"Oh, he's unbeatable -- even for a beast-man such as you. You'll see."
"But if I beat him," Tavros asked, "everyone here goes free?"
The man feigned a yawn. "That is the rule, as we established it ten years ago. The matter has, frankly, never come up."
"You've never needed to take prisoners before?"
"We've never had anyone defeat our champion. Get some rest now, warrior-lizard... or whatever you are. The challenge begins at sunset."
Tavros turned away from the door, noting with relief that Anica, Tarric, and Olvern were still unconscious in a row along the back wall. "Very well," he said firmly, looking around the room. The people here were human: women and children, a couple of older men. Some of them met his eyes; most looked away. "I'll face their champion."
He glanced back at the door, but Moro had gone. "Even if I win, I wouldn't count on these goblins to let you go. I need you to be ready to run, just before the end of the battle, no matter who seems to be winning."
He dropped his gaze and stepped forward, finding himself face to face with Mother Mia.
"You're right," she said. "They'll cheat. Let's see if we can wake your friends; we'll need them. And after that, you and I can talk about how you're going to win."