Discover more from The Xen'in Universe
What Paths Men Take (Part 4 of 6)
Epic Fantasy / 2000 words
IV - A troll way to die (or not)
The knights barely had time to gather that they were hit by the wave. The trolls came charging with maces and axes. They knocked the men off their horses and pummelled them into the ground. It was a bloody mess. Bones cracked, heads rolled, guts spilled.
When the slaughter was over, the knights all lay dismembered and quite dead. Without even a glance at the two remaining humans, the trolls turned and rushed back whence they’d come.
All in the course of minutes.
Hatash blinked at the scene of carnage and looked at Sebharan, who stood by him unperturbed.
“What just happened?”
The stranger looked at the village chief as he pointed to his right.
“Why don’t you ask him?”
When Hatash turned, he saw the head of a troll popping out from behind a boulder, peering at them. It promptly disappeared when Hatash looked.
He frowned and walked up to the boulder, circling around it. There, he found the small creature squatting and groveling. It pressed its forehead to the ground and let out a sniveling whine.
“Oh! Please, master! Do not hurt I!”
“What? No, that’s...” Hatash stopped, staring at the creature. He was even more confused now, with so many questions he didn’t know where to start. So he decided to go with something easy. “What is your name?”
“Oh! Master is too kind. Wants to know I’s name. Grednek am I, yes, Grednek am I.”
Still it held its head pressed to the ground.
Hatash clicked his tongue. “Please stop doing that, it’s embarrassing. Get up.” The creature’s head lifted slightly, barely enough so it could look at the man in disbelief. “Yes, yes,” he insisted, “come on up. I’m not going to hurt you.”
The creature used its hands to push itself up. It could not set itself completely upright. And as it stood slightly hunched, its head barely reached the level of Hatash’s waist.
“Alright. Now, how about you tell me why you trolls attacked us?”
“Oh no, no! We not attack master! We save master!”
“What? And stop calling me ‘master.’ My name is Hatash.”
“Of course, master! But master is safe now.”
Hatash sighed and pointed at the bodies. “So, if you did not attack us, why are these men dead?”
“Oh! Master knows not? These men bad! Very bad. Killers of trolls and of other men. Kill kind men like master. Very bad, these!” It hissed and spat at the corpses. “Good thing they dead. Yes, very good! Pleased master safe am I.”
Hatash grimaced as he rubbed his neck. “And how would you know we are not like them?”
“Oh, oh! Master tries trick I!” The troll waved a finger as if to chide Hatash. It must have felt guilty, because it promptly stopped and lowered its head in shame. “Sorry, master! But master is well known to I and I’s people. You are good, yes you are! You will save us all. Destiny is yours.”
The troll bopped its head up and down. “Yes, yes! Master understands! Wonderful!”
“No, I don’t understand at all. How about you explain it to me?”
The troll looked confused, then concerned. “But, but... master! You must understand! You are the savior! Our priest has said so. A man like you come to rescue our people—all people! Destroy the tyrant.”
“The tyrant? Who is the tyrant?”
“The king, of course! He keeps trolls enslaved. And men, too, many men! Gentle master must kill king to free us all.”
Hatash turned startled eyes toward Sebharan, who just stood there and said nothing. Great help he was, that one!
With a sigh, he looked back at the troll.
“And why did you stay behind?”
Grednek smiled a toothless smile.
“Protect you, shall I! Of course.”
“All by yourself? You would protect me? What if more knights came? Would you kill them on your own?”
The creature shook its small head. “No, no, of course not! Run would I. Then come back with trollkin. Crush them all, would we!”
Hatash snorted. “So you want to follow us?”
“Follow you, I, yes!”
He sighed. “Alright. I suppose I can’t stop you if that’s what you want to do. But I’m warning you, I’m not going to kill a king—or anyone else, for that matter. That’s not in my nature. I just want to see the valley of Gabenach.”
The troll brightened. “Of course! Of course! As you should. Kill later. Come, come! Show you the way, will I.”
“You know the place?”
Already, the troll had turned and was rushing off toward the north. “Of course, of course! Very well! Come, come...”
Hatash and Sebharan went after it.
The creature kept yapping while they walked, though he stopped paying attention after a while. It was a strange thing. The troll was both irritating and comforting at the same time. He wasn’t sure it would be of any use to them, it might even turn out to be more of a hindrance, but he couldn’t force it to stay away.
After a couple of hours, they reunited with the stream they had seen in the forest, though now it had turned into a river, its current flowing rapidly.
“Soon, soon!” chanted Grednek.
And soon indeed, they saw a bridge in the distance. As they approached, a shape pulled itself from underneath the structure, rising from the water, and slowly made its way to the bridge.
It was an ogre, three times the height of Hatash, holding a club twice its size.
The giant settled right in the middle of the bridge and waited, staring at them.
When they reached the bridge, the ogre sneered.
“You may not pass.”
Hatash could feel the troll shaking behind him. The little creature tugged on the back of his shirt.
“Give it secret word, master!” it whispered.
“Secret word? What secret word?”
Having not lowered his voice, the giant heard him. Frowned.
“You know the word?”
“I can’t say that I do.”
The ogre nodded. “As I thought.”
“But if I did know it—”
“Then you would be permitted to pass.”
“And what is this word?”
The ogre scowled. “Do you try to trick me, little man? Would you like me to eat you?”
“I would rather not, if it’s all the same to you.”
Hatash glanced at Sebharan. As expected, the other man stood quietly behind him, watching, his face expressionless.
“Alright,” he said as he looked back at the ogre. “How about you give me a clue?”
The giant frowned. “Why would I do that? You either know the word or you don’t.”
“Ah. Yes, I suppose. Except not necessarily. Imagine I had known the word but after being attacked by red knights and hit on the head, I were to forget said word. Then wouldn’t I both know and not know it at the same time?”
The ogre looked confused for a moment.
The little troll tilted its head enough to peer from behind Hatash at the other creature.
“Is true!” it dared to cry out. “Red knights everywhere! They attack master. Nasty, nasty men are they!”
The ogre grunted. “That, they are.”
“I’m sure,” said Hatash hopefully, “that if you gave me a few clues, it would come back to me.”
“This is very irregular.”
“So was the red knights attacking us.”
“That is true.” The ogre pondered this for a moment. “Very well. I will give you one clue. It was never born and can never die.”
Hatash scratched his head. “Only one? But, surely, you must see the problem with this. There can be too many answers. The wind was never born and can never die. So was hope, or even the gods! This does not help me at all.”
The ogre frowned again. “I do not like your tone, little man. Are you sure you ever knew the word?”
“Am I sure? Of course I’m sure! Quite positive. I just need a little help, is all.”
“Fine. I will give you another. It can be a giant, an elf, a dwarf—anyone, but never itself.”
Hatash turned the words in his head for a long while, but try as he might, he couldn’t make sense of it. How could anyone be anyone else but himself?
He looked back at the ogre.
“You must give me another.”
“You speak in riddles, Lord Ogre, and riddles always come with more clues than you give. How is one to make out the truth when there are so many paths one may take?”
The ogre took a step forward. He somehow seemed more menacing.
“Fine. Here is your third. Its appearance is always changing, though it wears no disguise.”
Hatash thought of the wind again, but it did not have an appearance to change. Not to mention, it could not be an elf or any of those other things the ogre had mentioned. No, that couldn’t be it. He looked up at the sky, then at the river under the bridge, then back at the ogre.
“This is no good, friend! Again, you give me no help. It could be clouds, it could be water, it could be so many things! You must do better.”
The ogre growled. “My patience is wearing thin, little man! I will give you one final clue. But I warn you. If you do not give me the secret word after this, I will have to assume you are trying to trick me. And then I will hit you on your tiny head and it will squash like a rotten fruit and spill all its contents on the earth. I might eat the rest of you then. I have not quite yet decided. Are we clear on the terms?”
Hatash gulped and nodded.
“Good. Now listen closely because I will not repeat this. Nor will there be any further clues. It sees all things, though it has no eyes.”
As soon as he’d finished, the ogre stepped up and stopped at the edge of the bridge, lifting his club high, ready to strike. And he waited.
The village chief thought back to all the clues and tried to put all the pieces together. The first one made no sense to him, but he felt like he should know the answer. A thought tickled him in the back of his head, though it refused to form plainly.
He looked at the water again and something caught his eye. His face. In the water. Looking back at him.
His eyes went wide.
He laughed. Looked at the silent Sebharan, then back at the ogre who, from his expression, must have disapproved of the sudden outburst.
“The secret word is ‘mirror’.”
The ogre’s scowl turned to a startled look. The club came down. He stepped off the bridge and to the side.
“You may pass,” he grumbled.
“Master is so smart!” said the troll as they made their way over the bridge.
Hatash rather thought he was lucky. He had never heard the word until just a few hours before. Had it not been for the stranger... Then again, without him, none of this would have happened at all and he wouldn’t have had to solve riddles.
He glanced at Sebharan. “Still not going to tell me what all this is about, are you?”
The other man just gave him a slight smile, but said nothing.
The troll suddenly ran ahead of them, up a hill.
“We here, master! We here!” He waved a finger in front of him.
Hatash recognized the place and knew Grednek was right.
When they reached the top of the hill, he looked down upon Gabenach and his heart sank.
The once beautiful valley—which he remembered covered with golden flowers that glittered in the sun—was now littered with bones.
And the sky above them darkened.
Want to read more of my Fantasy stories? Check out these titles, if you haven’t already:
What Once Was Said… (Laroch protects a heiress from a strange creature from her past)
Thief of Souls (apprentice thieves assist in stealing a man’s soul)
If you enjoyed this story, please feel free to forward it to your friends or to share it on social media.
And don’t forget to like by clicking the little heart below this post ;)
Text (c) 2023 by Alex S. Garcia.
Header: royalty-free stock images, edited by me.
Want to read more free stuff?
Sign up to The Sample for a large selection of nonfiction (and some fiction.)