Authors: M.L. Forman
The rest of the company all moved back a little, spreading out in a half circle around the doorway. Alex was a little nervous, believing his victory was more luck and anger than anything else and he didn’t want to meet a second troll so soon.
Bregnest pushed the key into a small crack that Alex had not seen and turned it once. There was a loud click, and with some hard pulling, Bregnest managed to open the door to the troll’s cave.
A terrible smell filled the air as the door swung open—rotten fish and old socks mixed with dirty dishes that had been left to soak for too long. Alex thought for a moment he was going to be sick. He pulled his shirt up over his nose, but it did little to block the smell.
Thrang ignited a large dead branch that was lying nearby and carefully stepped into the doorway.
“It’s all right,” he said in a tone that sounded both relieved and happy. “The cave isn’t deep, and there aren’t any trolls.”
The rest of the company followed Thrang into the cave, wary and alert. The foul smell was stronger inside the cave, and Alex began to feel a little dizzy.
“Step outside,” said Arconn, seeing the look on Alex’s face. “You’ve had a long night, and the smell might be too much for you.”
“I should stay with the company,” Alex replied in a determined tone.
Arconn nodded in response and said nothing more.
Once they were all inside the cave, Thrang lit the several lamps that were scattered around the single large room.
Alex’s feelings of sickness were forgotten once the lamps were lit. He was stunned and amazed by what he saw in the troll’s cave. He’d never imagined so much gold and silver could be in one place at one time.
Along the back wall of the cave were two huge black cauldrons, big enough for a man to sit in, and both of them were overflowing with coins. Next to the cauldrons were several piles of leather bags, all neatly tied at the top, just like the bags the troll had been carrying in its pockets. Alex looked at everything, his mouth hanging open in disbelief.
“You’ve done well, master wizard,” Skeld laughed loudly, but he suddenly stopped.
Alex followed Skeld’s gaze to the opposite wall. Hanging there on wooden pegs were what looked like seven magic bags.
Broken weapons were scattered on the floor beneath them. The bags looked almost exactly like Alex’s own bag, though a bit more worn.
Alex’s mouth snapped shut as he realized what this discovery meant. The others looked at the bags as well and their happiness with the treasure changed to sorrow for the lost adventurers who had once owned these bags.
“Take them outside, Skeld,” Bregnest commanded. “We will not leave them in this evil place another moment.”
Skeld carefully took the bags from their pegs and carried them out into the sunlight. His cheerful face was grim and slightly pale with sorrow.
“Alex,” Bregnest continued. “Gather wood and start a fire. We will eat in the clearing while we remove the treasure.”
Alex nodded. As he left the cave, the others began hauling the treasure into the sunlight. By the time Alex had gathered a large stack of wood and had a fire burning, his friends were covered with sweat from their heavy work. In the sunlight there seemed to be even more treasure than Alex had thought and he was surprised when he reentered the cave and saw the mounds of treasure that remained.
“Let’s eat before we continue,” said Bregnest, nodding to Thrang. “It’s been a long night for us all and the food and drink will do us good.”
Alex and his friends gathered around the fire, sitting in silence as Thrang cooked their meal. Skeld began looking at the recovered magic bags while they waited. He put his mouth to the top of one bag and spoke softly into it, but nothing happened.
“What are you doing?” Alex asked.
“It’s possible an adventurer has survived inside his bag,” answered Skeld, taking another of the bags and lifting it to his mouth. “If they have, I’m telling them it’s safe to come out now.”
Alex wondered how long someone could survive inside a magic bag. Considering that his own bag had four rooms and a fair amount of food and water, Skeld’s actions seemed to make sense.
“It’s a fool’s hope,” said Halfdan, watching Skeld speak into the bags. “If any adventurer was inside his bag, the bag would be where he left it and not here.”
“Of course,” said Skeld, laying down the last bag on top of the others. “But it’s better to hope than to despair,” he said, a touch of color returning to his face.
They ate their meal in silence, too tired and sad for conversation. When they finished eating, they returned to the cave, and once more started hauling treasure into the sunlight. It was heavy work, but the labor distracted them from the foul smell that hung in the air.
It was well after midday before the cave was empty and the treasure stacked in the sunlight. Alex and the others were exhausted from the work and the lack of sleep, and they all dropped to the ground to rest for several minutes. The piles of treasure had grown enormous in Alex’s eyes. He wondered if Slathbog’s hoard was bigger than this, and if so, how they would ever move it.
After catching his breath, Bregnest stood up and walked to the pile of magic bags they’d taken from the cave. He looked at the bags sadly for several minutes before he spoke.
“It is customary that the one who recovers an adventurer’s bag returns it to the heir of the lost adventurer,” said Bregnest, looking at Alex. “These were recovered because of your victory over the troll, and so the honor and burden falls to you. However, as you are a new adventurer, I will carry this burden for you if you wish.”
Bregnest hesitated for a moment and then continued. “Any reward given for the return of these bags will be yours, of course, as it was by your valor these bags were recovered.”
Alex hadn’t considered what they would do with the seven magic bags. He wanted to do what was right among adventurers, and he suspected it wasn’t to duck his responsibility and let someone else, even Bregnest, carry the burden.
“You are very kind,” Alex said after a moment of thought. “But I will keep the custom and return the lost bags. Any reward should be shared among the company, however, as all profits from this adventure should be.”
“Well spoken,” Bregnest replied with a smile. “You have learned a great deal in a short time. The honor of carrying the bags remains with you.”
Bregnest handed the bags to Alex, bowing low as he did so. Alex returned the bow and carefully placed each of the magic bags inside his own. He had no idea how he would ever find the adventurer’s heirs, but he was pleased to know he had given the correct answer.
“Now to happier matters,” said Bregnest. “A fair amount of treasure to divide among the eight of us.”
They all cheered and Bregnest put each member of the company to work sorting the piles of treasure. He also repeated that all odd numbers were to go to Alex, which made Alex blush slightly as the others cheered again.
By the time they’d divided the treasure and stored it in their bags, the sun was sinking in the west. Tired and happy, they made their way back down the hill to their camp by the road. They were completely worn out when they finally reached their tents, and all they could think of was sleep. Instead of preparing another meal, they ate leftover stew from Thrang’s pot and the roasted birds Arconn had shot the day before.
While everyone else ate, Alex slipped away from the fire. He wanted to check on Shahree and make sure she was all right. Shahree whinnied loudly as he approached, a sound that was much happier now than it had been the night before. Alex gently rubbed the horse’s neck and let her nuzzle his shoulder.
“You did well, my friend,” Alex said softly. “You found Arconn and told him where I was. Thank you.”
Shahree whinnied again, nodding her head up and down as though agreeing to what Alex had said.
Alex looked into her eyes, and he could see for himself how grateful she was that he had saved her.
“It’s all right,” said Alex with a smile. “I may not be able to understand you like Arconn does, but I know exactly what you mean.”
“Alex,” said Bregnest as he came up beside Shahree.
“I’m sorry I broke the rules,” Alex blurted out. “I know everything turned out well, but I’m sorry I forced you to punish me.”
“A small matter,” said Bregnest.
“But . . .” Alex started, then stopped. He wasn’t sure he could put his thoughts into words, or at least not into words that Bregnest would understand.
“I know,” said Bregnest with a smile. “You were right to do what you did. You followed your heart and did what you knew was the right thing to do. Knowing when to trust yourself is far more important than any rule. And a great deal of good may come from your actions.”
“What good?” Alex questioned. “I mean, I’m glad the troll was destroyed and that Shahree is all right. I’m happy we were able to find the other horses and claim the troll’s treasure, but what other good can come from that?”
“You forget the seven lost bags,” said Bregnest. “You’ve done a great thing, recovering those bags. You have the chance to help many people when you return the bags to the heirs and families of the lost adventurers.”
“I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to do that,” said Alex. “I don’t even know how I’ll find out who owned the bags to start with.”
“The bag maker in Telous will be able to tell you who the bags belonged to,” Bregnest replied, resting his hand on Alex’s shoulder. “He should also be able to tell you who the heirs are and where they might be found.”
“Oh, I never thought of that.”
“You are learning quickly,” Bregnest said, “and I’m glad Thrang and Arconn asked you to join our adventure.”
“Thank you,” said Alex, humbled and pleased at the same time.
“Come now, let’s join the others,” said Bregnest. “Though I don’t think there will be much talk around the campfire tonight.”
“I am rather tired,” said Alex as they walked back to the campfire. “I don’t remember ever feeling as tired as I do right now.”
It had been a long day, and Alex was happy with how things had worked out. He smiled as he closed his eyes, hoping that Bregnest was right and that a great deal of good would come from returning the lost magic bags.
That night they all slept soundly with only the sound of the stream to break the silence. If any wild creature passed the camp, it went unnoticed. They slept late into the following morning, and then slowly ate the breakfast Thrang prepared. With a final cheer for their good fortunes and Alex’s victory over the troll, they rode away from what the company had dubbed the Troll’s Stream.
he Troll’s Stream was soon left far behind as Alex and his companions followed the road to the east. The weather grew warmer as the days passed, and the fields and forests became greener. They didn’t meet anyone as they traveled, and to Alex’s relief, they had no more encounters with trolls or anything worse. Bregnest insisted they keep a watch at night, however, and he had them draw marked stones from a bag to decide which watch each of them would take. Alex was happy when he drew the first watch, as it seemed to be the best to him.
Early one day, they came to a fork in the road, and Bregnest had them stop and gather around him. One road turned sharply to the south, while the other continued mostly east, bending slightly to the north.
“Which road shall we take?” Bregnest questioned.