Chapter Seventeen

Through The Bog

 

The group sleeps uncomfortably on the soft earth, surrounded by the sounds of the dark forest around them. Insects chittering, frogs calling and answering, and unknown heavy shapes overhead in the tree canopy, rustling leaves as they move about far above. Mathos keeps first watch with the elf, Kavin. The mage sits with his sensitive tail on the ground, feeling for any vibrations that might indicate the heavy footsteps of trolls coming their way. The special vision of the elf allows him to see clearly, even in the thick darkness of the Trollbriar. It doesn’t allow him to pierce the looming walls of vegetation that enclose them on either side, and so he sits on edge, peering into the darkness at the sound of every small creature creeping over the forest floor, disturbing plants and bushes.

Halfway through the night, the exhausted mage is startled from half-sleep by a dark shape tapping him on the shoulder.

“Jake? Is that you?” Mathos squints and reaches out into the space where the dark shape stands. His hand presses against something soft. “Jake?”

A hand grips the mage’s wrist, twists painfully. Mathos winces, tries to pull back.

“Not Jake,” hisses Scarlet, leaning close so that her breath is warm on Mathos’s cheek. “Go to bed. I’ll take over.”

“I’m fine, really,” the mage whispers back. “I can–”

“Go. Now.” She growls threateningly.

Mathos scurries a short distance away, briefly illuminating one of his magical orbs at a barely perceptible level, enough to see where the others lie sleeping, dark shapes on the ground, and where his own abandoned bedroll is stretched out waiting for him. In minutes, he has crawled inside and is fast asleep.

Scarlet watches the mage until he extinguishes the orb and is seemingly swallowed up by the darkness. She peers in the direction where she knows the elf is silently keeping watch, a few dozen paces farther along the road. Slowly her eyes readjust to the total darkness and after a while she can just about see the outline of the elf crouched in the road. She assumes he can see her clearly, staring through the darkness towards him. Probably can hear pretty well too, she thinks, with those large pointed ears of his.

She grits her teeth and then shakes her head to clear it, suddenly realizing that her thoughts are lingering on the elf and his ears. His stupid ears. So big and fleshy and pointed. She feels heat warming her cheeks.

Growling, Scarlet walks a short distance down the cleared road in the opposite direction, stepping carefully in the pitch black, and then settles into a crouch with her back against one of the tall trees that stands just on the edge of the road. She can feel the elf’s eyes on her. The bastard’s probably grinning.

Still, she thinks, there’s something about those ears.

Catching where her mind has returned, she shivers at the thought. She’d rather fight more trolls, she tells herself, frowning. She forces any further thoughts for the elf from her mind.

Noiselessly she slips a knife out, twirls it casually in the dark.

* * *

Scarlet’s eyes have adjusted to the darkness well enough that she can pick out the darker shadows of the tall trees rising against the background blackness of the forest. To her right, the shapes of her companions are huddled close together several paces away on the road, tucked into their bedrolls. Some of the individual drooping leaves of the largest fern bushes at the cleared path’s edge become visible whenever a breeze disturbs them enough that they shake against each other. No hint of morning light has yet crept through the thick canopy overhead, at least to her eyes. She can guess at the time, based on the speed of her thoughts, but it would only be a guess.

Movement from farther down the road, in the direction of the elf, catches her attention. A moment later, she can see that it is the elf, padding silently past the sleeping Companions towards her. She watches as he comes to her, crouches down in front of her. His pale skin seems almost luminescent in the darkness. His eyes big and wide.

The knife spinning in her hand stops in her grip.

“It is time to wake the others,” he tells her, his voice soft but unwhispered. “Already the sky begins to brighten.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” she grumbles, pushing herself away from the tree trunk that she has been leaning against.

“I hear the nighttime creatures slithering away into their holes for the day.”

“You can hear that? You must have amazing . . . your ears . . . I mean . . .” A twinkle of amusement appears in the elf’s eyes. Angry at suddenly being flustered, she jams her knife back into its sheath, purposefully making the action as loud and aggressive as she can. “Are you just going to stare at me all morning, elf?”

“Would you like me to?”

Growling, she leans closer to him until they’re almost face to face. What she’d like to do is reach out and grab those two large ears in her hands and . . . She sets her mouth in a tight line — she’s definitely not going to tell him that.

“Don’t we have people to go save?” she snaps.

The elf blinks, as though breaking free of some spell. The playfulness slips from his face until only a somber, thoughtful expression remains. “You’re right,” he says, pulling away and then standing up straight. “It is time to wake the others. We should start moving.”

He walks away. She watches him curve around the slumbering shapes on the ground and continue farther along the road. She frowns at the pang of regret that tugs at her as she watches his figure become just a dark shape in the darkness and then finally fade away into the black.

Scarlet pushes herself to her feet, and then wipes her hands on her pants. She strides over to the sleeping shapes of her companions. Crouches down beside the biggest. “Ham.” She touches the big man gently on the shoulder. He comes awake with only the slightest jolt, eyes snapping alert and finding Scarlet. “Time to wake.”

She moves to the next bedroll, bends down. “Jake.” She shakes the swordarm.

Jake mumbles something that might be a declaration that he’s awake. Standing over him, she presses a foot against his body, shakes him again.

“Five more minutes,” he says, voice muffled.

She pushes him again with her foot, harder. He moans.

Scarlet leaves Jake and next wakes the mage, nudging him with a toe. He startles awake, peers up at her. She can see his eyes shining in the darkness. “Oh, Gods. Don’t kill me,” he pleads, sounding groggy, before becoming more fully awake, blinking, and realizing that it’s Scarlet. “Don’t kill me,” he says again.

Shaking her head, she steps over the mage in his bedroll and kneels at Elaine’s side. The young cleric is already awake, her eyes open and watchful. Her hands are visible, clutching the top of the blanket up to her neck. Thinking back to a moment earlier, to her wandering thoughts of the elf and his stupid pointed ears, Scarlet feels a sudden flicker of shame as she looks down at the innocent young cleric. Frowning, that feeling is quickly replaced by anger. Cleric or not, why should she care what Elaine might think?

“Get up,” she snarls, harsher than she intends. She then turns away, but not fast enough to avoid seeing the confused hurt that appears on Elaine’s face.

Scarlet returns to Jake’s shape in the darkness. “Get up, Jake.”
“Four more minutes.”

She kicks a random spot in the middle of the dark shape. Hard. The swordarm grunts in pain and rolls away. “Not four minutes,” she growls. “Now.”

Not waiting to see if he complies, she turns and strides away back into the darkness. She can feel the elf’s eyes on her back. And the others. Elaine.

Cursing under her breath, she angrily regrets finishing off her flask with Hamfrd the previous evening. Lets out a long slow breath through clenched teeth.

* * *

“We are near Stolhme,” the elf tells them as they walk.

They have continued moving along the road cleared by the men working for Madeline Le Campe, following its oft hidden turns deeper into the Trollbriar. The road bends and curves much more frequently here, rarely remaining straight for very long, but it seems less to do with obfuscation of the path and more in order to keep the road raised up on the highest available land. Around them, the bog of the Trollbriar is beginning to thicken, stinking standing water pooling off to either side of the road. Fewer plants survive here, where the ground is perpetually submerged.

They have walked for two or three hours, and now the grey light of morning noticeably brightens the gloomy forest. This is partly because the canopy is thinner overhead as the tall, straight trees grow fewer in number and more of the sky becomes visible between them. The group are reaching the edge of the forest, where the big trees give way to shorter, mostly leafless varieties that appear half-dead as they stick up out of the mud and marshwater. The buzz of swarming insects is an almost constant hum. Scummy algae-like moss climbs the treetrunks, and thick clumps of saucer-shaped mushrooms cling to the rotting bark. The stink of decay hangs in the air.

“I shall not take you there,” the elf announces. “To Stolhme. I urge you to forget its existence.”

Jake balks. “One of the most amazing discoveries of our time, an actual lost city just sitting there somewhere nearby under the mud, and you want us to forget about it?”

“Then I implore you, human. Leave it be. If others become aware of the city’s continued existence, more and more of you will spill into the Trollbriar. More like this Madeline Le Campe and her men, and less like you lot. Some of you humans will even make it past the trolls and the other creepy crawlies of this miserable forest, all the way to Stolhme. Eventually, you might uncover the portal once again.”

The swordarm looks longingly off into the distance, through the thinning trees to where more of the grey sky is visible. The eastern edge of the Sunreach Gulf must be somewhere in that direction, drowning much of the former shoreline and the great port city of Stolhme that was once situated there.

“We elves left this world behind,” says Kavin, “because of the encroaching darkness that will one day swallow this land. Even now, that darkness looms ever closer, like a shroud in the heavens about to fall. That you humans fail to sense it, I can scarcely believe.” He shakes his head. “Greensake is the home of the elves now. There is no safer place, but the portal must remain secret. And that means Stolhme must remain a secret too, if at all possible.”

“Maybe we could just poke around, bring out a few artifacts.”

“Jake.” Elaine’s tone is sharp. “The city is a tomb for thousands of innocent, ordinary people who lost their lives. We would be no better than Madeline Le Campe if we were to profit from that.”

“Of course we’re better than that bitch,” snarls Scarlet, glancing over with disgust. “Don’t compare what she’s doing to us. Using slaves — mind-fucked slaves — to do her dirty work. Not to mention what they did to this one’s people.” She indicates Kavin with the point of her knife.

“It would still be wrong,” Elaine says, lowering her eyes, but refusing to back down.

Scarlet snorts, says no more.

They walk on in uncomfortable silence until several minutes later when the elf brings them to a stop.

“From here,” he says, “we leave the road.”

The Companions look dubiously out over the boggy marsh stretching away from them. Trees covered in moss and fungus rise up from the soup of the forest floor, dangling thick groping vines towards the ground. Here and there, shelves of damp land peak out from the filthy brown water, like stepping stones. Sickly plants cling to the earth and leafy vines hang over the side, floating limply on the surface. Fat air bubbles appear and burst with noisy glops, disturbing the water and sending ripples racing away.

Some creature, huge and brown, passes overhead, leathery wings flapping. The thing recedes into the distance, lost behind tree trunks and tangled hanging branches and vines.

“What was that?” asks Elaine.

“Not what we’re here for,” the elf tells her. “Forget it.”

An unseen creature screeches somewhere deeper in the gloom of the swamp.

Down by their feet, at the edge of the road, a fat black serpent with a pattern of silver diamonds along the length of its body slithers past through the weeds, hissing at the group as though annoyed at being disturbed. Elaine shivers and takes a step back. Hamfrd, at the cleric’s side, cracks his knuckles. Jake grimaces.

One of the horses whinnies nervously.

“We leave the animals here,” the elf says.

“Out in the open?” The swordarm shakes his head. “They’ll be killed for sure. Trolls will find them. Or something else just as horrible.”

“We cannot take them with us, human. The way is too difficult. Tie them here,” the elf instructs.

Elaine lays an hand on Jake’s shoulder. “It will be alright,” she tells the swordarm. “I’ll place a blessing of protection upon them. Nothing will hurt them.”

“Nothing? You can do that?” Jake’s eyes grow wide.

“Well, hopefully nothing. It’s more of plea to the Allway than a certitude. I’m just trying to make you feel better.”

“Well it doesn’t work if you tell me that, Elaine.”

She smiles meekly. Nevertheless, she follows Hamfrd and Scarlet, who are leading the horses to a nearby tree where they can be secured. “Don’t tie them up,” she says.

Hamfrd and Scarlet both turn towards the young cleric

“Are you kidding?” Scarlet glares at her. “If we don’t, they’ll likely be gone when we come back for them.”

“They also won’t be able to get away from danger if they need to.”

Scarlet stares at the young cleric. Grinds her teeth. Glances at Hamfrd, who shrugs.

“I will do what I can to fill them with courage and strength,” says Elaine. “If the Allway wills it, they will be here waiting for us, safe and unharmed.”

Scarlet looks to Jake. The swordarm nods. Dropping the reins that she holds with a sound of disgust, she strides away to rejoin the others.

Hamfrd nods sagely, and then places a big hand on Elaine’s shoulder before following Scarlet.

The young cleric pulls out the medallion of the Allway which hangs around her neck, and begins murmuring prayers while standing amongst the nervous horses, placing her hands on each of the animals. The medallion begins to glow.

* * *

When she has finished her prayers, Elaine tucks the medallion of the Allway back into her robe, spares a moment to take comfort in the lingering warmth and the weight of the holy symbol against her bare skin.

Kavin waits for her to return to the group, and then he leads them off the road.

They walk single file behind the elf, Jake following immediately after, followed by Hamfrd, Mathos, Elaine, and then Scarlet trailing behind the others, scanning the stinking marsh for signs of danger.

For a while, following in the elf’s footsteps, they are able to stay on solid, dry ground, walking in between pools of the stagnant dirty water. Sometimes they have to take long reaching steps across the water almost hopping from one dry island of land to another. Eventually even that option is exhausted, and soon they are splashing ahead slowly through warm water up to mid-thigh, the thick mud underfoot sucking at their boots with every step.

Annoying, jumping insects skitter across the surface of the water. Disturbed by the group’s passage, they bounce and leap into faces, earning swatted hands and curses. Flies the size of Hamfrd’s big thumb buzz around their heads. Slapping the slow insects out of the air is satisfying for a time.

“How deep does this filth get?” growls Scarlet, splashing along at the back of the group.

“Worried about your hair?” asks Jake, over his shoulder.

Scarlet forces a couple mirthless laughs, pulls out a knife and twirls it once. Throws it.

Jake ducks to the side, diving under the water with a splash. He surfaces a second later, sputtering. Soaked completely with the stinking water. Wiping at his eyes, it takes him a moment to find the knife Scarlet has thrown — sticking harmlessly into the trunk of a tree several paces wide of where he’d been a moment earlier.

Hamfrd roars with laughter. The elf shoots him a warning look, silencing the big man abruptly. Still, his shoulders shake with mirth and his grin is wide as he turns and catches Scarlet’s attention, nods approvingly to the woman. Even the elf’s lips twitch with amusement.

Meanwhile, Elaine glances back over her shoulder. Scarlet doesn’t meet her eye; instead, she ignores the cleric as she splashes through the muck towards the tree where her knife protrudes, yanks it free.

“This area gets no deeper than this,” says the elf eventually. “Just stay behind me. And quiet. We’ll be back on solid land again soon.”

* * *

After a miserable march through the filthy bog water, the level finally begins to drop. Soon they are splashing through ankle-deep water, and then climbing out of the water altogether onto dry land, rockier and more uneven than what they left behind. Ahead, the ground continues angling slowly upwards. Here and there, large boulders, sometimes sitting in groups of three or four are scattered around, moss-covered and slick.

“This way,” the elf urges, his voice softer. “Not far.”

The group creeps forward, weaving among more numerous boulders that provide excellent cover. For them and for potential dangers. The ground is hard under their boots, the vegetation here thinner and less wild. Continuing ahead, the gentle upwards slope remains almost constant. There are fewer trees, and twice a clearing of sorts opens up the view to their left: the hazy blue water of the distant gulf is visible against the faded blue sky at the horizon. They keep moving, climbing higher.

Before long, the elf holds up a hand to stop the group. Waves them all closer so that he can speak quietly and be heard.

“Their camp is just beyond the next group of rocks. They use a small natural cave for shelter. The prisoners are kept in a separate space somewhere inside.”

“You’ve seen them?” asks Jake.

“Heard them.”

The swordarm makes a dubious face.

“We have signals,” the elf clarifies. “Whistles. I couldn’t get close enough to see deep into the cave’s opening, but my call was returned. They are still alive. Or they were a day ago.” His handsome features are troubled.

“And these trolls, how intelligent are we talking. Do they keep guards posted?”

“Nothing like that. Not that I’ve seen. They linger around, staying outside mostly where their cookfire is located. They seem to gather inside together in the evenings to sleep.”

“Could we sneak up on them then, while they sleep?”

“I could. You lot would need light or be like helpless babes. I believe the creatures see better in the darkness than you. And any light would alert them. Not to mention once we’re in there, it’d be tight quarters against fearsome foes. Not ideal.” The elf shakes his head. “And another of their prisoners may be killed before then. No, we strike now. In the light. In the open.”

“Works for me,” growls Scarlet.

“Aye,” says Hamfrd, his voice a low rumble.

“I can feel them now,” says Mathos. His eyes are closed as he concentrates on interpreting the vibrations that he can sense through his fleshy tail.

“Coming this way?” asks Jake.

“Not approaching,” the mage clarifies. “Just moving about. Impossible to say how many. Certainly a group.”

“I counted twelve,” says the elf. “Give or take a couple. They all seem to be adults. I saw no young ones.”

“That makes two for each of us,” says Jake grimly, looking around at the others.

Hamfrd cracks his knuckles.

“We don’t have to fight them,” whispers Elaine. “We could try–”

“Holy child,” says the elf, “I already told you. These are beasts. Yes, they are clever, but they are still only beasts. There will be no reasoning with them.”

“The Allway shall find a way,” she says, holding her chin high.

The elf shakes his head, but doesn’t argue. “Such faith,” he murmurs, almost sadly. “You are so young, holy child.”

Elaine’s mouth is a tight line as she bites back an angry reply. Instead, she forces herself to breathe and relax. “Just lead the way,” she tells the elf.

The young cleric then turns and faces the rest of the group, meets the eyes of the Companions one by one. “Let me try this my way,” she says. “I’ll handle the trolls. Take care of freeing their prisoners.”

“I don’t know,” Jake says. “Are you–”

“Jake. Let me do this,” she snaps at the swordarm.

His mouth stays open like he wants to protest more, but at last he relents. Nods his head.

Hamfrd looks upon the cleric with bright eyes. Scarlet stares without expression, except that the corner of her mouth is curled up ever so slightly.

* * *

The elf leads them silently up the slope, actively holding a finger to his lips at one point and gesturing to his left. A few minutes later, the group circles almost all the way back around and it is clear that the elf is bringing them around to the top edge of the trolls encampment, which sits on a slope. The wind picks up at one point and briefly brings the scent of a woodfire. Jake smells it and tries to put out of his mind the fact that it’s a cookfire. And what exactly the trolls use it to cook. The swordarm shivers at the thought.

Finally the elf brings the group to a halt beside a large boulder sunk deep into the ground. Points.

Peeking around the rock, the Companions can see three or four of the trolls standing together, growling and gesturing with agitation. They seem to be arguing. Or maybe that’s just how they communicate. Close by, the unattended fire burns in a shallow pit, orange flames dancing within a crude circle of stones. A few thick branches are stuck into the ground on either side, and after a moment of examination, their purpose becomes clear: other long branches are meant to lie horizontally between them, holding whatever the trolls happen to have secured for dinner above the fire to cook.

“This is messed up,” Scarlet mutters, eyes on the scene below.

A sharp whistle startles the group.

Kavin, with a hand to his mouth and couple of fingers within, makes the same shrill sound a second time.

The trolls stop growling and shoving one another and look around, confused.

A second whistle, the same as the elf’s but muffled, comes from somewhere out of sight below. A third answers from nearer, is cut off halfway through.

The visible trolls appear to be upset. There is more growling and angry shouts.

Out of sight, the sounds of a scuffle. A small figure in tattered clothes stumbles into view, falls to the ground. Three more of the trolls follow this person, reaching out and grabbing and pulling the unlucky person to their feet.

The elf huddled beside the Companions tenses. “Poryonddel.” His hushed voice is pained. “Po,” he murmurs. “My kin.” He gathers his bow, slips an arrow free of his quiver. “Enough of this,” he growls.

Elaine puts a hand on his arm. “No.”

The elf stares.

“Let me.” She meets his intense eyes, her own gaze steady. “You free the rest of the prisoners.”

“Elaine–” Jake begins.

“All of you,” she says, voice low and firm.

“But–”

“Jake.” It’s Scarlet, her voice a harsh growl. “Do as she says.”

Elaine nods with gratitude to the other woman, and then turns and scurries out from behind the boulder. Her hand goes into her robe, pulls free the medallion of the Allway, which she slips up and over her head, and clutches tightly in her hand.

Scattering pebbles as she scampers from their hiding spot towards the camp, she begins murmuring prayers.

* * *

“Stop!” The young cleric’s voice is loud and clear. “Hear me, creatures of this wood.”

The gathered trolls, numbering more than half a dozen, roar in surprise and anger, and gesture at the uninvited figure. Several start towards her, a few of these either already carrying weapons or reaching for one. The elf on the ground, arms bound and lying on the ground, glances up. His eyes grow wide at the appearance of the cleric.

The trolls advance.

“They’re gonna get her,” Jake says, cursing. “We have to–”

Scarlet puts an arm out. Her eyes are locked on Elaine and the scene down below. “Give her a chance,” she snaps.

“The prisoners,” says the elf beside them. “Come with me.” Without waiting for any reply, he disappears around the opposite side of the huge boulder.

“Ham and I will watch over Elaine,” says Scarlet. She shoves the swordarm to snap him out of his worry. “Jake, go with the elf. Free the others. She’s fine, look.”

Jake is looking. The trolls that started aggressively forward have paused. The group of eight or nine creatures are standing still now, weapons held in limp arms. Mesmerized by the young human cleric in their midst.

“Hear me!” Elaine cries, her voice sounding amplified as it bounces around the rocky encampment. The medallion in her hand, which she holds high up for all to see, is glowing with white light. “Be not afraid,” she tells the trolls. “I am here in peace. The blessing and the protection of the Allway be upon this place, upon you, and upon us all.”

“Go!” Scarlet growls, pushing the swordarm.

Jake shakes his head, and clears his throat. “Right. Free the prisoners. On it.”

He turns and follows Mathos, who has hurried around the boulder after the elf.

Jake catches up with them near the entrance to the cave which the elf has spoken of. Together, the three of them crouch out of sight as a few more trolls spill out the cave’s entrance, no doubt curious what all the noise and shouting is about.

As soon as they’re out of the way, the trio slip behind them into the darkness of the cave. Jake risks a peek over his shoulder, sees the trolls who have just exited the cave now standing still like the others, entranced by Elaine’s presence.

The interior of the cave is almost pitch black once they move deeper inside beyond the reach of the light from outside. The foul stench of sweat and filth and worse is thick in the oppressive darkness.

“Is it all clear?” whispers Jake. His hand is on Mathos’s shoulder. The darkness is thick enough to hide the mage completely from sight. “I can’t see.” Mathos, likewise, has an outstretched hand on the elf in front of him.

“All clear,” the elf informs them.

Mathos brings an orb of light into being, its magical light flaring to life and casting its glow onto the rough stone walls. Sleeping mats and discarded weapons and trash and filth are scattered across the floor. Up ahead, a crude gate made of mismatched logs tied clumsily together blocks the entrance to a another darkened portion of the cave. The gate is simple and without hinges. It slides aside to grant access, and is presently tied in place with several loops of heavily frayed rope. Kavin removes these.

“Help me with this,” the elf grunts, trying to pushing the gate out of the way. Jake adds his own strength to the elf’s and together they’re able to slide the heavy makeshift gate a few paces, unblocking the mouth of the small prison area.

“Who’s there?” rumbles a voice on the other side.

A weakened female voice calls from the darkness. “Kal?”

“It’s me,” Kavin assures the unseen voice, hurrying forward.

Unseen until Mathos brings his orb around and sends it inside.

A wide-shouldered man comes barreling through the opening, brushes past the elf, and nearly collides with the Mathos’s light. He ducks aside, grunting. “About time someone came.” The man has a bald head and a thick black beard and a fearsome scowl is made more menacing by the dried blood on his face. His clothes are in tatters. His hands are bound behind him, possibly with pieces of his own clothing. “Good work,” the man says, acknowledging Jake and Mathos. He turns around, showing his back and bound hands to the swordarm. “Do you mind?”

Jake reaches out his blade and the man slides the bindings along its edge until the cloth splits and falls to the ground.

“Ah, that better,” the man says, rubbing his wrists. “How many are you?” he asks Jake. “Time to turn the tables on these foul creatures, yeah?” He searches around on the dirty floor of the cave until he finds something. “That’ll do,” the man says, hefting a discarded hatchet.

The big man lumbers forward towards the cave’s main entrance.

Jake shouts after him, “Wait!”

Kavin appears with a ragged and obviously exhausted, yet still incredibly beautiful female elf leaning against him. One side of her head and her silver hair is dark brown with dried blood, but her skin glows in the soft light like Kavin’s, her big eyes calm and alert.

“That was Rock,” Kavin tells them, practically spitting the man’s name. “He lives still. He shall not survive this day, I swear it.” To the swordarm, he says, “This is my sister, Lynsandrasa. Take care of her and the other two men in there.” He indicates with a nod of his head the shadowed space back within the trolls’ crude prison cell.

He guides his sister forward to Jake.

“I’m fine,” insists the female elf, but she stumbles onto Jake’s arm and sags noticeably against him. “Help the others.”

Kavin turns and rushes after the man called Rock.

* * *

Outside, the trolls have all gathered together close to the center of their open encampment, around the flames of the fire pit. All of them are keenly watching the human cleric in their midst, who stands before them, her medallion upraised. The divine symbol glows bright.

“We need not fight,” Elaine is telling them. “We can be friends. I am only here to free the people in your possession. I respect your right to live and to exist. I understand that you must eat, and perhaps we can work out some sort of arrangement in the future. We can trade perhaps.”

A few of the trolls growl and mutter, but none make any moves towards the cleric. “I understand these people came into your wood,” Elaine tells them, “but they didn’t know you were here. They didn’t know that these woods were your home. Now that we know, we all can co-exist together–”

The man called Rock comes staggering out of the troll’s cave, takes only a moment to see all the trolls distracted by something else, some woman. Several have their backs to him, and none of them have noticed his appearance as yet. You’re doing the Gods’ work, honey, he thinks, eyeing the young woman standing before the trolls with her glowing bauble. Just a few seconds longer.

He strides up to the nearest troll. The hairy creature is facing the other way, absorbed in whatever tripe the woman is telling them.

Rock raises the hatchet, sinks it deep into the creature’s skull with crunching thunk. He pries the blade free as the foul beast collapses.

`The other trolls notice him now.

Angry roars explode from the throats of the creatures. Howls of rage and betrayal.

Several of the nearest turn to engage Rock. Laughing, the big man readies the hatchet, urges the creatures on.

The trolls farther from Rock look around in confusion and fear and fury.

Elaine takes a step back, the light from her medallion winking out.

The spell is broken.

Many of the savage faces settle on her. The trolls bark guttural noises back and forth. Half a dozen of the beasts focus their anger upon the young cleric. Let loose furious howls.

Watching from a short distance up the slope, obscured behind the large boulder, Scarlet curses.

“Gods’ damn it,” she growls, drawing her knives. “Come on, Ham.” She starts down the slope, thankful to see Ham is already moving along with her.

Up ahead, Elaine stumbles as she backs up. “No!” she cries. “No, we can be friends! Please! This is a misunderstanding!”

The trolls rush forward.

 

<<<Chapter SixteenChapter Eighteen>>>

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