by Sam Medina
Katarina and Oren head into the valley of Achor while on the run from a party of trolls...
|There's been no sign of pursuit, and dawn approaches." Oren climbed onto the seat and took the reins." With another look over his shoulder, he turned aside to the east and onto a worn forest path.
"Now that it's day, won't the trolls seek shelter so they don't turn to stone?" Katarina asked.
Oren laughed. "That only happens in children's fables." He let the reins go slack. "The trolls of the south are creatures of the night. The light of the sun is blinding to them, and painful to bear. If they remain in the light for long, it pierces them to the bone and causes a stiffness to take hold of their bodies. They call it 'dayfrost,' and it renders them rigid, unable to move until the dark of night thaws them out. This makes a troll easy prey, and so they rarely go abroad during the day."
Oren slowed the cart and pointed ahead. "We will stop there. It is time this poor beast had a proper rest." Not far off the path an old farmhouse stood amid tall weeds.
"Do people still live in this valley?" Katarina looked around. The trees here are young, and the paths between them are not badly overgrown.
"I would have thought so, for the Valley of Achor was for a long time a refuge for the half-elven. Behold the fields!" Beyond the stone walls of the yard spring wheat stood uncut and rotting. "This farm looks to have been abandoned during the summer."
"Why would someone abandon it?" They would have had a good harvest. The cart came to a stop behind the house.
"We'll have a better idea once we've taken a look," Oren whispered. He shouldered his satchel and drew one of his daggers. "Unhitch the mule, and bring him. Keep close."
They circled the house warily. The sun was rising over the valley when Oren pushed open the broad door of the house and stepped in. From the entrance steps descended into a large main room with a massive fireplace and plain, heavy furniture. Kat secured the mule to a heavy post. The house was empty of inhabitants save for a few mice and a number of large spiders. A survey of the larder revealed a small supply of dried fruit and meat in heavy jars, and broken pottery littered the floor.
"Those who lived here left in a hurry," Oren said as they entered the main sleeping chamber, where clothes still hung from hooks, and the bed was in disarray. There were no windows in the house, other than a tiny one at the entrance. Light, however, streamed in through heavy translucent rocks set into the wall. Oren ran up the steps to the entrance and barred the door. He stood at the small window for some time before he spoke again.
"See if there's a clean pot to be had and boil a handful of this." He tossed a small pouch onto the table, and then knelt to inspect the mule's legs.
"There's no water."
"Use your eyes, child! Next to the hearth."
There's nothing there but a bent iron tube sticking out of the floor. Katarina looked more closely at it. It's got some kind of handle.
Oren looked over his shoulder. "Have you never seen a hand-pump, girl?" He took a pot, set it under the bend in the pipe, and lifted the handle several times. To Kat's surprise, clear water poured from the pipe and into the pot. "It would seem that the knowledge of the elves was not entirely lost here."
Kat hung the pot over the fire and sat on the hearth to warm herself. There were no tubes like that in Moonshadow. Oren added wood to the small fire, and Katarina raised her eyebrows."Won't the smoke be seen?"
Oren sat down across from her and stretched until a series of cracks could be heard. "This fireplace is of an elvish design, and the wood is very dry. Unless I miss my guess, the smoke is directed through flues which pass under the house before exiting some distance from here, and the vent is likely concealed by shrubs or rocks. A troll might easily pick up the scent at a distance, but it is likely that they are no longer in pursuit, or at least hiding from the sun at present." They could still be afoot if they made it to the heavier patches of forest here.
Oren took the pot off the fire and poured some of its contents into a cup. "Drink that, and try to get some sleep." Katarina finished the sweet, white liquid as Oren took some of it and made poultices for the mule''s legs. She set her cup down, leaned back against the warm stone of the fireplace and fell asleep.
* * *
Katarina opened her eyes. Oren sat facing the door, eyes shut. His breathing is so quiet, and he's so still he looks dead. Kat looked into the fireplace, and saw that just a few coals remained. I'll have to add some wood soon. She rose carefully and crossed the room. The mule is asleep, too. Kat stole her way to the steps, and looked back when she reached the top. He hasn't moved. She grasped the edge of the small window, and finding toe-holds in the rough stones of the wall, she pulled herself up to take a look outside. Behind her, Oren opened a single eye.
Katarina frowned. It's past noon and there's nothing out there but weeds and a wasted harvest. A wide shadow fell across the window, and then a dark shape leaped into view before her. Kat fell back with a shriek, and then looked up to see a fat crow crowded onto the windowsill. Oren's laughter brought color to her cheeks but she did not turn around.
"I hope old Kalanhu did not give you too much of a scare," Oren said. "When avoiding pursuit, windows do less to inform you than they do to expose you."
Katarina spun around, fists clenched. "Then why didn't you say anything if I was endangering us?"
"I knew Kalanu was on the roof before you woke, and I thought the lesson in discretion would be better remembered this way." His tone was jovial, but the sternness of his gaze made Kat look away. He rose to his feet. "Kalanhu would have given warning if any mischief were afoot, and in any case trolls have never been had in reputation for stealth." He threw a few small logs onto the fire. "Let the bird in, but be quick about it."
Kat grumbled as she slid the bar back into place. It feels like wood, but it's as heavy as iron. And yet Oren lifted it with ease. She started back down the stairs, and saw that the crow was perched on the mantel, and Oren leaned close, listening intently as the bird twittered urgently. I wish I could understand what he's saying, Katarina thought.
Oren sat by the fire. "I suppose it can't be helped. It could be worse." Katarina climbed up onto the mantel next to the crow. The bird looked at her, then tucked its head under a wing.
"What is it, Oren?"
"Kalanhu tells me that the war party is scattered. At least half of them are dead, quite burnt to a crisp and partly eaten."
"A dragon?" Kat jumped down from the mantle. Who would want to eat a troll?
"Not just a dragon, but one big enough to send a party of trolls fleeing for their lives." Oren's face darkened, and to Kat he seemed worried. "Kalanhu did not see the dragon himself, but a young magpie told him that it was golden in color, with bronze talons. But we cannot be certain."
"Why? And why is the color so important?"
"Because there are many colors of dragons, and to a great degree much of their strength can be known by their hue. Green, gray, and brown are fairly common, and rarely possess much fire, unless they have reached a great size, which they seldom do. Bronze and blue are less common, while gold is quite rare. A gold dragon can be as much as thirty meters in length, and when mature their flame can melt ordinary steel."
"And what about black?" Katarina leaned forward.
"Only four black dragons have hatched in the last fifteen thousand years. As for your other question, we cannot be certain because magpies are, for the most part, liars." He untied the mule and moved toward the door. "Come, we have about an hour for grazing and a lesson in tactics."
"We're leaving, then?"
"No, but Kalanhu says that a few of the surviving trolls hid themselves in a ravine nearby, and he heard them talking about coming this way after dark."
* * *
Katarina looped the thin wire around the tree stump. The fat crow took to a pine bough nearby and watched. "I'd rather come with you and fight."
Oren set the other end of the trap and then came to her side. "First, our main objective here is to find out what these trolls were doing so far south, and, if possible, which dragon attacked them and why. As for fighting, you will do as I say and spring the traps if the trolls do not, and then hide beyond that clearing."
"But I can fight!" She stood with her hands near the hilts of her swords.
"You killed a young, sick and careless dragon, using gifts of which you have neither control nor understanding."
He laid a gloved hand on her back. "That will change in time, but for now caution will serve you best. These are blooded warriors with the strength of twenty men. Even a single glancing blow from them can be deadly. Stay hidden, and watch carefully." He rose to his feet, and walked toward the ravine, leaving no footprints.
Kat seized the ends of the traplines in her hand and took up her assigned position in the pine with the crow. She reached for her belt and drew the spyglass Oren had passed to her earlier. She followed the path the elf told her he would take, and found no trace of him. A moment later, she saw the shadowed hollow where four monstrous figures sat. Ten meters to the west of the trolls, low shrubs swayed in the wind. One of the shrubs winked at her. Oren! As the wind stilled, she could see that Oren had not disguised himself, as some assassins do, but had instead somehow managed to let the shadows of the foliage cover him in patches in such a way that she would not have seen him had he not winked. He faded into the greenery again, and the trolls stirred.
A heavyset troll with a broken tusks waved his club at the others. "Dayfrost near got us, Kremzyk, and for what? There's no meat here."
"There's no dragon here, either," said the largest of the group, a heavily scarred individual with iron bands on his tusks and a headdress of red feathers. The leader? Katarina frowned. The one I saw on the plains! My eyes weren’t playing tricks on me, after all! But then, how did I see so far? "And I tell you, Gorm, there's elf meat." He stroked the handle of the huge axe at his feet. "Only two of them. Easy meat."
"They don't nose like elf."
"They nose like lunch to me, with horseflesh in the bargain." Kremzyk roared, and rose to his full height of over three meters. "Men don't travel here."
"But maybe dragons do." A lean, haggard fellow with great wooden rings in his ears leaned toward the leader. "That sun-lizard shouldn't track on the plains, either. Maybe it nosed us here. Maybe you might like us for dragon bait, track yourself away safe. Like you did to Czyxk." Kat's pulse quickened. They might kill each other.
"Grush tracks it right, I say." A smaller troll with a crooked longsword stepped closer to Kremzyk.
The leader leaped forward with a roar, and struck the smaller troll in the face with the blunt side of his axe, knocking him down.
"Czyxk was a dead-foot, and that dragon nosed it." He loomed over his fallen comrade. "You got more to say, or we track on like I nosed?" The fallen troll bowed in submission, and Kremzyk stepped back, satisfied. He leaned back against a boulder and spat a curse.
"What's our track after we roast those elves?" Gorm sat on a fallen tree and glared toward the top of the ravine.
"Lay low, long-leg it to the hills. Back to Anqash and then-" Kremzyk stopped and sniffed. "Rilluk, put some mud up your nose and quit leaking. You bleed too much."
The smaller troll shook his head. "Ain't me."
Kremzyk looked at Gorm. The fat troll shrugged, then strode over to Grush. "Grush, you old slug, you hiding wounds again?" He gave the old warrior a shove, and he fell over, dead. I never even saw him do it, Kat thought. Where is he? The trolls roared and brandished their weapons. Without a word, they formed a triangle around the corpse, facing outward. Just like Oren said they would. Know the character of your enemy, and make use of it, he'd said. "Come out, you backstabber!" yelled Kremzyk.
The carcass shifted, and from beneath it a figure emerged without a sound. Oren hamstrung Gorm, and stabbed Rilluk in the armpit before slipping through them in a blur. The wounded trolls snarled and cursed, and Kremzyk charged toward the undergrowth that Oren had vanished into.
His axe crashed down and struck a hidden boulder, sending up a shower of sparks. The trolls roared and cursed and spat, but Oren gave no answer. Frustration is an excellent weapon when used discreetly.
Gorm bound his leg, while Rilluk sagged against the fallen tree. "The coward has run off, but he'll be meat tonight," Rilluk said, coughing blood.
Kremzyk's axe swung again, and Rilluk's coughing ceased. Gorm gave his leader a puzzled look. "Maggot-brain! That weasel of an elf was waiting for the pup to bleed out, maybe he noses you for a dead-foot, too."
"I'm no dead-foot. You might like to track your eyes on that nasty elf. He's got the tricky-leg."
Kremzyk nodded, and made some gestures with his left hand. He picked up a handful of rocks, and threw them into the brush. Gorm followed suit, and the two showered the undergrowth with rocks for a few minutes. Gorm snarled and said, "This elf don't flush. Maybe we cracked his head good."
"Or maybe you've got the aim of an old fishwife, No-tusk." Oren stood near the top of the ravine, grinning. Few trolls can stand to be called a fishwife, and no troll with broken tusks likes to be reminded of his limited prospects in the mating season. Gorm charged up the ravine, and Oren ran, keeping just out of reach. Their aim was't quite that bad, Oren thought as his left shoulder throbbed.
Oren leaped over the wires, and Kat sprang the trap. The first wire rose up from the ground. Gorm tripped, and roared in pain and anger. Fresh blood seeped from his leg, and several iron barbs clung to his arms and chest. Kat pulled another wire, but instead of running for the clearing, she kept still to watch as the bent pines sprang back upright, and the troll was bathed in sunlight. Gorm screamed with such ferocity Kat nearly fell from her tree. Kremzyk hung back. He stood at the lip of the ravine, and let out a stentorian laugh.
"Your tricky-leg games won't work on me, elf. Come out and fight!"
This troll is smarter than the others. Katarina tightened her grip on the branch. And more skilled. Oren hasn't wounded him yet.
Oren emerged out of the shadows like a whirlwind. Gorm was stiffening already, but still swung his axe wildly at the elf. Oren slipped under his guard and drove his daggers into the troll's massive neck, twisting them before leaping away. Kremzyk drew a throwing axe and hurled it at Oren's back. The elf twisted in mid-air and deflected the spinning axe with the pommel of his dagger, sending it into Gorm's shoulder. The wounded troll bled heavily now, and struggled in vain to move. A look of horror seized his features as the dayfrost took hold.
Oren skipped back out of reach and gave no sign that he'd seen Katarina. Foolish child, she'd better hide. The sun may set before the one troll dies, and the other is too wary to be easily slaughtered.
"What business do you have in the lands of the Elven Dominion?" Oren shouted. This smart one is a warchief, perhaps even a clan-prince.
"Troll business! You might like to mind your own, little elf. Dominion's gone dead-foot a long time, anyway."
"It was not dead-foot to Bokwa." Oren studied the warchief. His shambling gait is a ruse. He is agile and clever, and his harness bears the ornaments of many battles. Nekreth claws, scales from a brown dragon of a fair size, and other tokens of an okachak, a seasoned warrior.
"Bokwa's a soft-tusk." Kremzyk fingered his axe. "Old and ready for the stink-hooks."
Oren raised an eyebrow. Bold words, spoken far away from the gigantic clan chief who'd killed a few dragons in his day, and who even stood his ground before the dragon-lord Ceranyx. "If that were true, you would be hanging him up to rot and not running hot-foot from a little sun-lizard."
Kremzyk snarled, but eyed the horizon from the shadows. "I am okachak! You think I run from lizards, come here and fight."
Not until I have the answers I need. "I think you might be rabbit-blood to hot-foot it so far from a puny lizard." Oren gave the troll a dismissive wave and a sneer.
Katarina frowned. What is he waiting for? The sun will set soon, and then the troll will have his full strength.
Kremzyk growled. "You got the frog-mouth, little elf. Croak all day, making noise but don't nose the trouble till you're lunched. You nose me for a rabbit-blood?" He flexed his arm. Under the scarred, scabby blue skin, huge muscles rippled. "You'd hot-foot that dragon, too, if you had sense. Big, nasty gold-skin it was, bigger than a garrak!"
Unless he exaggerates, it looks like that magpie told the truth. There are few gold dragons of that size. The gentle oxen of the hills were often more than four meters at the shoulder, and massive. No dragon with any sense would be interested in the tough, foul flesh of a troll, either. This bodes ill. Oren relaxed and focused on his joints. The soreness in his shoulder eased as the power of the kravada combat discipline pulsed in his blood. With a well-developed focus, even very little magic can work wonders, he'd told the girl earlier. He pushed the stiffened body of Gorm aside and looked into the yellow eyes of the warchief. "If you tell me why you intruded upon our lands, and agree to depart in peace, I will let you live."
Kremzyk stood silent, and his eyes betrayed uncertainty. He tightened his grip on his axe and shook his tusks, as if mastering an unwanted impulse. Then the troll threw back his head and laughed heartily. "I'll stew your bones, and fry that little rabbit of yours in her tree."
He knows I'm here! Katarina reached for her swords, but the crow pecked her arm and motioned toward Oren with a wing. There was a sound like a faint breeze, and then Oren was behind the troll. Kremzyk grinned, and threw an elbow back to crush Oren's skull. His elbow met instead with a dagger. Blood sprayed, the troll snarled, and Oren pivoted, using the impact to spin away out of reach.
Kremzyk wheeled about with alarming speed, and sprang toward Oren. He swung the axe in short, precise strokes which the elf parried. The old master ghostwalked again, and the troll turned, sweeping the axe behind him. Oren slipped under the axe and slashed at a tendon below the troll's kneecap.
Katarina gasped, and jumped out of her tree. Oren moved with blinding speed, striking and seeming to vanish as he moved around his opponent. The great axe fell from nerveless fingers, and the warchief stretched his length on the forest floor. "Come, little miss." Oren stepped away from the body, and began walking back toward the farmhouse.