Authors: M.L. Forman
“What are you doing?” Andy asked in alarm.
“I’m not sure. I . . . I just feel that I have to go.”
“We were told to stay here,” Andy protested, grabbing Alex’s shoulder. “We should do as Bregnest said. He is the leader.”
“I know,” Alex answered, pulling free. “But I have to go, I can’t explain why.”
Alex felt desperate, and he was determined to go, no matter what. Following the distant sound would mean leaving the post Bregnest had assigned to them, breaking an important rule of adventurers.
“Go,” said Andy
after a moment of thought. “If you run into trouble, call out or light a fire and I’ll come. If you find the horse, return as fast as you can.”
Alex nodded and started off along the stream. He didn’t know why he had to go into the darkness alone, but something inside him
knew he had to get to the frightened horse. The feeling was stronger than his fear of breaking the rules and upsetting Bregnest. Something in the terrified and lonely whinny of the horse called out to him, and Alex knew that the only thing that mattered was finding the horse, and fast.
He moved quickly along the bank of the stream in the darkness. The ground was mostly clear and the moonlight reflected off the large rocks and bushes in his path, making them easy to see and avoid. Alex tried to move as quietly as he could. He had never seen a goblin or a troll and he hoped he wouldn’t be seeing either of them tonight.
Alex heard the whinny again. It was closer now, and off to his left. Leaving the stream behind, he moved deeper into the trees, stopping to listen. He heard nothing, so he moved forward, trying to head in the same direction as the whinny. He climbed a small hill and stopped to listen again. There was a sound of movement in front of him: hooves stamping the ground nervously.
Moving cautiously, Alex tried to stay silent. He had no idea what he might run into, and he didn’t really want to think about the options. Putting his arms out in front of him, he was able to keep the small tree branches from slapping his face and poking him in the eyes. He moved as fast as he dared in the darkness under the trees, worried about every little noise he made. Soon the trees began to thin, and he could see moonlight filling an open clearing in front of him. His eyes, accustomed to the darkness beneath the trees, could see clearly across the open ground.
On the far side of the clearing stood Shahree, stamping her hooves in fear. About halfway across the clearing was a massive figure—ten feet tall, five feet wide, and with long arms and oddly bowed legs. Alex’s mouth went dry, certain he was seeing a troll for the first time.
The troll was closing in on Shahree, a huge club raised over its small, round head. It was clear that Shahree was afraid to run into the darkness under the trees, and the troll was using that fact to trap her.
Alex could see Shahree’s terror, and her helpless fear filled him with an anger he had never felt before. Even though he had only known the horse for a few days, he already felt a great fondness for her. He wouldn’t let this troll kill her.
“Over here!” Alex shouted, jumping out of the trees without thinking. “Over here, you stupid troll!”
The troll turned away from Shahree. It spotted Alex moving into the clearing and lowered its club slightly. The troll tilted its head to one side, as if considering how dangerous Alex might be. Then, without any warning, the troll charged. The creature was faster than Alex would have thought possible for something so large.
Before Alex could stop it, the huge club came down, missing him by inches and shaking the ground under his feet. Alex staggered backward, tripping over an unseen rock and falling to the ground.
The troll grabbed Alex by his left leg and lifted him up until they were face to face.
“Run, Shahree!” Alex yelled. “There is nothing in the darkness to fear. Run, and find the others.”
The troll, apparently understanding what Alex had said, turned to look at Shahree. The horse whinnied loudly, and without hesitation, she bolted into the darkness under the trees. The troll made angry sounds that Alex thought might be curses, and when it looked at Alex again, anger burned like tiny flames in its eyes. Alex wondered if the troll would club him on the spot, but then the troll lowered its arm to its side—Alex’s head almost hitting the ground—and started off toward the far end of the clearing.
Swinging along upside down and helpless, Alex knew he was in trouble, but he had no idea what to do. His sword hung at a strange angle to his body and he couldn’t draw the blade. His friends were far off and scattered, looking for the lost horses, and it was unlikely anyone would hear him if he yelled for help.
Looking at the troll’s heavy leather boots gave Alex an idea, an idea he almost lost when he noticed the troll was wearing three boots—three boots for the troll’s three legs. Putting aside his surprise, Alex pointed his finger at the boot nearest him and called out.
Three things happened almost simultaneously: the boot burst into bright red flames; there was a deafening roar as the troll stamped madly to put out the flames; and Alex was dropped on his head.
Rolling away from the troll’s burning, stomping foot, Alex rubbed his head. He hadn’t expected to be dropped quite so quickly, and he felt lucky the ground was soft and damp. Scrambling to his knees, he saw the troll had almost put out the flames on its burning boot and was turning around to look for him.
Alex called again, focusing on a different boot.
The second boot burst into flames and the troll howled even louder than before. The troll stormed around the clearing, trying madly to douse the flames in its boots. A stream of angry sounds flowed from the troll, and this time Alex was sure they were curses.
Alex knew he couldn’t kill the troll by lighting its boots on fire, and in its rage, the troll might simply ignore the flames and rush him. For a moment Alex considered running, but he didn’t think he could outrun the troll, even with its burnt feet.
Stepping a little further away from the troll, Alex drew his sword. The sword’s edge shone like blue flame in the pale moonlight, but he didn’t have time to appreciate its beauty. Alex watched for an opportunity to strike as the troll continued to curse and stomp around the clearing.
Seeing his chance, Alex summoned his courage and leapt forward, swinging his sword with all his strength. He thought he was close enough to hit the troll, but the blow seemed to miss completely, and Alex spun around, falling with the force of his own swing.
The troll’s screaming and howling convinced Alex that he had managed to injure it after all, but he feared he hadn’t done much damage. He scrambled to his feet, ready to strike again. A strange heat was growing inside of him, but he didn’t have time to wonder what it might mean.
To Alex’s surprise, his first swing had completely removed one of the troll’s three legs. Off balance, the troll lifted its club and swung wildly. The club caught the edge of Alex’s sword, knocking it out of his hand.
Alex reached for his sword, but he could see the club coming down again. He rolled away to escape being crushed by it. He tried to get back to his feet again, but the troll was right on top of him, its curses filling the air. Alex managed to roll away a second time, but as he did, he hit his head on a large, sharp rock. His eyes blurred as he struggled to get up, and he could see strange flashes of light in front of him. Something warm and wet ran down the side of his face, but Alex didn’t have time to think about it.
He was in more danger now than he had been before. The troll had him cornered, and Alex couldn’t get to his sword. He looked up at the troll as he tried to clear his vision. Its eyes were burning with rage and its club was raised, ready to strike the fatal blow. Alex wondered what it would feel like to be squashed by the huge wooden club.
Alex yelled in desperation, his hand pointing at the troll’s body.
Alex closed his eyes, waiting for the club to fall, but nothing happened. Opening one eye, he looked up. The troll was still there, but it wasn’t moving. Its mouth was slack and its eyes had lost their burning anger.
Alex staggered to his feet and hurried to retrieve his sword. He wasn’t sure how or why, but the quench command had frozen the troll in place. He leaned on his sword, dropping to one knee as he gulped in the cool night air, wondering what he should do next.
“Alex!” Arconn’s voice called loudly. “Alex, where are you?”
“Over here,” Alex called back, his voice weak and shaking. “I’m here.”
Arconn, Thrang, and Bregnest came crashing into the clearing, their weapons raised and ready for battle. The three of them stopped as soon as they spotted the frozen troll. They looked from the troll to Alex and back again.
“What have you done?” Thrang asked in wonder, his eyes fixed on the troll.
“I quenched his fire,” said Alex, wiping the blood off his face. “At least, I think that’s what I did.”
“What—?” Bregnest asked without lowering his sword.
“Is Shahree all right?” Alex interrupted. “Did she find you?”
“She is fine,” said Arconn, moving to Alex’s side and examining the cut on his head. “She told us where to find you. She is helping the others find the rest of our horses.”
“She told you?” Alex asked.
“We elves can speak to many animals,”
Arconn replied. “She knows what you did for her, and she will not forget the debt.”
“I had to,” said Alex, feeling tired and shaky. “I mean . . .
I . . . I couldn’t let that . . . that thing just kill her.”
“Tell us exactly what happened,” said Bregnest, his eyes fixed on the troll. “We should know all before deciding on a punishment.”
“Punishment?” Alex tried to stand up, but he couldn’t manage it.
“You left your post and put yourself and the company in danger,” Arconn said, gently pushing him back to the ground. “This is a serious matter, even if all turns out well. Tell us everything—what you thought, what you felt—as you undertook this task.”
Alex took a deep breath and gathered his thoughts. He told them how Shahree’s terrified whinny had called to him, and how he felt that he
follow, even though he knew he shouldn’t leave the camp. He told them that Andy was against him leaving, and how he had gone anyway, following a feeling he couldn’t explain. He told them everything as calmly as he could, and when he finished, the others remained silent for several minutes.
“It is not yet harmless,” Bregnest finally said, breaking the silence and pointing at the troll with his sword. “Though dawn’s light will finish the job you started.”
“We should check its pockets before it turns to stone,” Thrang commented. “Might be worth the trouble.”
“Turns to stone?” Alex questioned.
“Trolls turn to stone in sunlight,” Thrang answered. “And what’s in its pockets will turn to stone as well.”
“Check them,” Bregnest said to Thrang. “I’ll be ready if it moves again. Though I doubt it ever will.”
Thrang cautiously approached the troll and reached up to pat the large pockets.
He drew his short sword and cut the bottom out of each pocket, letting the contents fall to the ground. Moving quickly to retrieve everything that fell, he hurried away from the troll once more.
“Have to wait for daylight to see what there is,” Thrang commented, squinting at the pile of items in his hands.
“Dawn will be here soon,” replied Arconn. “And punishment should be decided before it arrives.”
“Very well,” said Bregnest, looking grim. “As punishment for disobeying orders, Alex, you forfeit your extra share of any treasure found with the troll or in its lair. You will still receive an equal share, as agreed upon in the Adventurer’s Bargain, but even though you defeated the troll in single combat, you will not have the honor of dividing this treasure.”