My ear had already healed by the time I made my way home. I turned the small stud in my ear as Mayor Kayne warned me to keep the post from sticking while it healed. A slight pulling sensation was the only feeling I noticed.
My mind wandered back to when I had just entered my fifth summer. Joel and his friends had pushed me down causing me to scuff my knee. Jonathan had seen it and rushed over, chasing off the others. He had then kneeled and as he studied the scrape, his eyes grew wide. I had leaned over to see what it was that bothered him. My knee was whole with only a bit of blood to mark there had ever been a scratch there. At that point, I did not understand the significance of the event. As I grew older, I recognized it to be yet one more thing that separated me from everybody else.
I leaned through the doorway, walked around the table and between the chairs in front of the hearth. On the mantle, I pulled a match from the small wooden matchbox we kept there, and lit the little oil lamp in the center of the mantle.
Jonathan would be in a foul mood if he tripped over a chair in the dark again, and I wanted to hear what he had been planning to tell me, especially where it regarded my father. Jonathan had always been very close-lipped where my parents were concerned. I never quite understood the reasons behind why, but I trusted his judgment. After all, what could he tell me other than what I already had figured out?
I knew he kept some jewelry that had been my mother’s, and I secretly suspected he had known her before the troll had gotten to her and had been in love with her. That would explain everything. I had still been half of her, and I knew from others that having physical reminders of such a relationship often made a loss easier to deal with.
I still wondered about the difficulty of raising the child whose birth had caused her premature death, but he had never spoke of such things to me.
Jonathan arrived a few minutes later; a slight grin etched his features as he walked to the hearth and sat in his much smaller chair. Jonathan was not a small man by human standards standing nearly as tall as Farmer Corner’s prize plow horse, and it measured nearly 18 hands tall. Still, I was easily head and shoulders taller than he was and weighed easily twice as much so I had needed a much larger and sturdier seat.
After sitting down, Jonathan brought out his pipe, filled the bowl and lit it with a match from the mantel. I was listening intently from my chair, trying not to show any anxiety over the news I had been waiting all of my life to hear.
“Your mother was a good woman. She had come to town nearly two months pregnant, looking to sell some jewelry so she could set herself up down the road in some old cottage. The place had been a wreck for years before she got to it, but she wanted to do the repairs. My father, this was just before he passed, told me to let her be. Said I should leave women with children alone. Maybe he was right, but I never listened to him anyways so I was there as often as possible helping to replace the roof or some other thing.” He paused to take a draw from the pipe. He breathed it out slowly, watching the smoke or perhaps meditating on something else entirely before continuing.
“I… fell pretty hard for her, I must admit, but your mother was not ready for such a thing. She had just lost your father. I still don’t know the particulars, but your father was apparently married to her if only very shortly before he was—” Jonathan paused, seemed to reconsider before finishing, “before he died.”
“My mother married a troll?” I pictured what my mind had always construed as a troll: hugely tall, and muscular in a fatty kind of way. Horns spouted from the sides of his head and he was covered from head to toe in coarse black fur. The idea of a smallish human woman contentedly at his side danced between hilarity and perversion.
My face must have echoed my thoughts for Jonathan then continued saying, “I thought about it in much the same way. How could a woman desire such a thing? But he must have been very good to her, because she had still loved him and was true to his memory.”
I was still picturing the two of them when he shifted the conversation. “Before she passed, she showed me his dagger. I have tried to recreate the material the blade is forged from, but to no avail. I’d have liked to make a matching sword, but…” Jonathan shrugged apologetically.
He emptied the charred remains of the bowl into the fireplace. “How’s that ear?” Jonathan pointed at the earring.
I waved it off. “It’s fine. It was healed before I got home.”
“That’s always amazed me.” He shook his head.
“I—” A sound at the door interrupted me.
“Who could that be at this hour?” Jonathan stood to his feet to open the door just as it was kicked in. Four men started into the room, brandishing short swords. I jumped to my feet as the door hit the floor.
Stepping between Jonathan, who still stood next to his chair, and the brigands who were already advancing on us, I quickly regarded our opponents. Their armor was mismatched and bore none of the insignias of the kingdom. The first one in the door made no pretense of officiality, making no orders to disengage them or to drop our arms. His weapons gracelessly jabbed in at me and barely missed the front of my leather tunic.
“We’ve got a biggun.” He turned his head slightly to warn the other two entering behind him.
Forgetting about the blade on my belt, I lashed out at him with a fist. I sent him backwards through the air into the two behind him. The man who had come in with the first chopped deeply into my forearm leaving bone exposed with his wide blade. Jonathan ended him with the poker from the fireplace.
The two others scrabbled back to their feet. One darted back through the door, the other charged us. I swept his sword blow to the right, and Jonathan brought the poker down on his head.
Jonathan ran out the door after the fourth man with me lurching my way through the tiny door right behind him. The road into town bore the footprints of a large force. I did not think Jonathan noticed the footprints on the unlit road as we ran toward Stumpton.
“Jonathan, we’re running straight into an entire band of them!”
“I know. The town will need all it can muster to survive this onslaught.”
I lowered my head and continued to run. I heard cries and the ring of iron pitted against iron from the town center. Only then did I remember the blade. I pulled it from its scabbard as we cleared the last corner entering the square.
The townsmen were fighting, some in nothing but bedclothes. One man I recognized as being Joel’s father, Artur, was wearing nothing but some slippers. Jonathan and I found opponents of our own, and for the first time in my life people in the town looked glad to see me.
I brought my knife down on my first opponent, splitting his head like an overripe melon. Another took his place. The speed with which my home had transformed into a hell was only surpassed by its apparent effect on me, as I felt the small town farm boy become replaced by a violent monster.
The brigands who had made this attack were neither fools nor cowards, and when they saw their force begin to diminish in contrast to the townsmen they hurriedly left, but not before a number of the buildings that surrounded the square were burning hot and fast. Jonathan and a number of others began to give chase, but the mayor called out to them, bidding they stop. Mayor Kayne, the sprightly, old man who always had a smile on his face was not smiling that night. He stood there, small but unwavering in his resolve. Blood dripped from his small cane sword as he motioned the townsmen to circle around him.
Pointing fingers and calling out groups of men, the mayor gave direction to us all, distracting us from the terror that threatened to unman us with the necessary errands to both prepare for another assault as well as see to the maintenance of the town’s people and buildings. Men armed themselves with buckets to put out fires, built temporary fortifications along the road, and carried the wounded to the pub and we sorted our dead.
Jonathan had been stabbed in the leg, a painful, but mercifully small wound that, with some care to keep it from getting infected, he would survive with naught but an impressive scar. The gash in my arm had healed to less than a scratch by the time they looked at me. Arden Sawbones, the town physician, looked up at me, eyes raised. “Jonathan had said you received quite a gash earlier.”
“Uh, he worries like an old hen sometimes. As you can see, I’m quite alright.” I shook my head, trying to sound convincing.
“You know, trolls can regenerate lost limbs and such. The only way to keep them from growing back is to cauterize the wound as you inflict it.” Arden turned to place on of his tools back in his bag.
“You know about trolls?” I could not hide my curiosity.
“From my days in the king’s infantry… ” He said. “They look as human as you do but bigger… much bigger. Looks like you have some of their healing ability.”
I cringed as he pointed out his awareness of my lie, a note of indifference in his voice. “I’m not your friend, but I’ll tell you this as your doctor. Lie about your parentage to yourself all you like; the only victim of such a lie is you, but if you lie to someone else, you’re likely to get someone else hurt… maybe even killed.”
I thought about what he said as I walked out of his section of the bar. At least a dozen men waited in the main portion of the tavern. Those who had serious wounds had been laid out on blankets. Most of their faces were taut with pain. A few slept. All were dying.
Jonathan met up with me as I exited into the street. “So?”
“It’ll heal.” I answered while hiding my arm under the wool cloak I still wore.
“I see.” He nodded knowingly. “I’ve been told to go home and rest. You are to report to Kayne. Has some errand for you to run.”
“Are you going to be alright? That brigand I hit might still be there.” I knew what he would say before he got it out.
“Eh? I will be surprised if he is still alive after that blow. If he is, he will probably be unconscious or at least wobbly. I’ll tie him up and have him brought before the council for sentencing on the morrow.” Jonathan grinned as he waved to me and turned to go home. I, charged with more than a bit of curiosity, hurried to see what the mayor wanted me to do. Probably needs me to take a shift of guard duty.
Kayne was at the north edge of town, still giving orders to various people. The activity of the night was showing on him. He sent Joel and Ox off toward the town for some coffee as I walked up.
“Ah, Rickter, I am glad to see you apparently did not come to any harm. I have a task for you. This is Zenur.” He motioned to an extremely short man that I recognized as one of the seasonal field workers from Bridgeton. “He will be escorting you to Bridgeton, where you need to report to the Sheriff so they can dispatch a rider to Evincere of the situation here. Ordinarily I’d send a messenger by horse, but none of the farmers who’d normally make the run are currently available, due to being wounded or caring for their families, and there’s no horse in town that could carry you. King Ira needs to know of this.”
“But…” My jaw worked but the words failed to come. I had never even left town let alone made the two day journey to Bridgeton.
“No ‘buts’, I will tell Jonathan of this tomorrow but you must leave tonight.” Kayne reached behind him. “Here take this pack I had prepared for you. It has food, bedding and some other things you will need on the road, and here are a few silvers to get rooms at inns on the way, you should not sleep on the road any more than necessary. Don’t test fate on that one, you hear me?”
I stood there looking at the mayor, dumbfounded, for a moment, before Zenur spoke up. “Let’s go, m’boy.”
I nodded and followed him, too lost in my own shock to respond to his attempts at conversation as we followed the north road out of town. We could not been on the road for even two hours when the exhaustion of two sleepless nights and a battle hit me like a falling tree.
I was cold and the blanket that had been covering me was wet with dew when I woke up the next morning. Zenur was a few feet off leaning against a tree, with his blanket over him. I could tell he had not slept last night by the dark pockets under his eyes.
“You could have told me you needed sleep.” The small man was irritated. “When you collapsed last night, I was worried you’d been injured internally. I spent an hour just trying to get at the pack you had to get our blankets. What did your father feed you–whole cattle?”
“Um… I am sorry about that. Too many things going on at once, I guess.”
He waved his hand in dismissal. “Don’t fuss over it too much… just worried me was all.”
“So, um, Zenur… “
“Rat’ll do, m’boy.” The small man smiled tiredly.
“A nickname, and, as unpleasant as it might sound I prefer it, if you don’t mind.” He dusted himself off. The dew had not spoiled his blanket as badly. Rat scratched at his ear-to-ear beard and moustache.
“Doesn’t that itch?” Very few people I knew wore a beard. It was considered an ill mark by all the people I had ever known. Jonathan, in fact, had taught me to shave before I even could grow anything on my face.
“Maybe… occasionally.” Rat smiled as he folded the blanket. “But people tell me I’ve no jaw to speak of, so I grow a beard to prove to myself it’s still there.”
We finished stowing what Rat had so arduously extracted from my pack and then started down the road again. I would have been quite happy to set the pace, as I had grown tired very quickly of the chill that had settled into my flesh. However, I proved unsuitable to the task, as, not quite a minute into our walk, Rat called out to me.
“You keep walking like that, I’ll fall so behind as to be walking backwards.”
I slowed my stride. I figured I had better get used to it as we would be walking for at least two weeks together at this pace, but that proved more difficult than I had imagined. I lost count of how many times I looked around to find Rat a few hundred feet behind me. Around noon, I noticed that once again he was trudging along several score of paces behind me. I stopped and leaned against a nearby tree. I tried to be patient. The man could not help being short. He is just another oddity… not so unlike me when you think about it.
That thought made it easier for me to be more understanding and the rest of the day found us walking together much more often.
We shared lunch while walking. Jerky and hard biscuits were common road food, but they were damnably dry and soon after we were nearly desperate for something to drink, and canteens for water had not been provided.
“What fool would give a man no canteen on a journey?” The little man croaked.
As much as I had to agree, I thought the look on the little man’s face a spectacle of hilarity, and had a very difficult time keeping a straight face.
“You sure are strange. We’re thirsting to death out here, and you’re practically beaming.”
A bit of laughter cracked my resolve and in the space of a few moments, I found myself tearing up with the strain of laughing.
“What’s got inta you?” Rat looked up at me.
“I’m sorry, Rat, but the look on your face was…” I didn’t know how to say it without possibly offending him, so I tested the waters by being blunt. “…adorable.”
An exaggerated roll of his eyes told me that I needed to change the subject. “Well. You followed the road to get here from Bridgeton. Are there any streams or such on this road?”
“I think I remember seeing some a ways off from the road, but to get to them we’ll have to keep walking into the night.”
“Hmm… Well, I don’t want to go for too many days without water. Maybe that would be best.”
“Did they give us torches or a lamp?”
“No, but that shouldn’t be a problem.”
“I don’t know why not, the trees don’t lighten up for the rest of the trip. Without even moonlight to see by, you’ll be stepping on me.”
“Um, that reminds me. You might as well know, since we’re traveling together. I’m not…” I hesitated, wondering if he would even continue the journey with me if he knew the truth. “I’m not entirely… human.”
“I’d wondered about that.” The little man just turned around and started walking again. “Half-troll, eh?”
“No, but you’re too big to be normal. Even really tall people don’t wear their muscle like that.”
“I’m still a person. I’m just not…”
“I meant humans… really tall humans. Sorry.” The little man shook his head. “You really had me questioning myself, though. Most half-trolls start a conversation with a threat. I’d not received even a dirty look from you… well, except when you were repeatedly stopping for me this morning; yet another thing no ordinary half-troll would do.”
“I didn’t know there were others like me.”
“They’re not like you. Other than race, there are no similarities I can see… yet.”
I watched as Rat continued walking, waiting for him to turn back, but he didn’t.
“What misfortune brought you into the company of half-trolls?”
That comment stopped him. Looking up at me, he answered. “Misfortune indeed, but I’ll keep that to myself for now.”
* * *
Rather than walk into the night, Rat suggested that I let him climb into the pack on my back, freeing me to walk at my own pace. The pack was apparently large enough on the inside to accommodate him as he not only fit in but managed to get comfortable enough that he fell asleep. Rat didn’t snore nearly as loud as Jonathan.
Last night wore him down as well, sounds like.
We made far better time for the remainder of the day, and just as the sun set I stopped to set up our would-be camp about fifty feet from a small creek a little ways from the road.
A small fire would be nice.
The act of getting one started busied me for quite some while, as dry fuel was a difficult find. When I came back to the site Rat had woken up.
He seemed quite pleased with himself as he spoke. “That worked quite conveniently. Now I can keep watch while you sleep. The idea of needing anything approaching a sentry had not occurred to me.”
“You think that’s necessary?” I asked.
“Doubling back on an enemy is such an old trick even animals do it. We’d be fools to think we’re out of danger as yet.” Rat replied.
We choked down some more biscuits and jerky for our evening repast, and washed it down with creek water. Following that, I settled in and fell asleep.
* * *
A small hand covered my mouth as I woke to a whisper in my ear.
“Get up, we’ve got company.” Rat’s voice was impossibly small. I grabbed my blanket, stuffed it in the bag and then opened the top of it, letting Rat crawl in again before putting it over my shoulders. Two feet are quieter than four, and if I have to run…
Three men hid behind trees about ten feet from the camp, assuming the darkness hid them from me. I pretended not to notice them as I walked toward them and the road. They wore the same mismatched armor and weaponry as the men who had set upon Stumpton. Under my cloak, I pulled my blade from its scabbard slowly, hoping my weapon would go unnoticed.
I was between them when I made my move, lunging to the right toward the pair that stood there. My knife flew through the neck of the first victim in its wide arc, removing the head from his shoulders. Its journey ended halfway through the throat of the other. A cry from behind me warned me to step aside as the third jumped at the pack on my back. His short sword buried deep into the chest of his still-standing compatriot. My left fist drove his head into the tree behind him with a gruesome crunch.
I was nauseated, but I ran anyways, managing the distance to the road, before losing my dinner. Afterwards, I looked around from where I stood. No one else came from the trees.
Rat jumped out from the bag, onto my shoulder, hopping down from there and ran back to the camp. “Follow me.”
I did not want to go back there and see the wreckage I’d made of them. I did not want to confront once again the damage caused by the monster that was in me. “Why?”
“We’ll need to bury those bodies, and hide our fire in case they send more like them. I can’t carry them by myself.”
We made our way back to the grisly scene. I retched again.
“You’ll get used to it. It’s that way for everyone the first time. Well…” He stopped but he did not need to speak it. “Except for half-trolls,” was written all over his face.
Beset by dry heaves, I pulled the three of them into our camp. Rat, with a practiced hand, relieved them of money, weapons and unbloodied pieces of armor. Then, going through their packs, he grinned at me as he lifted his hands to show me two canteens and some more food. He stuffed all that he could into my pack, removing what was left of our victuals as well as our flint and iron to place in a pack he took from one of them.
When that was finished, we threw the charred remains of our fire into a bramble. Then we disrobed, so we could place the bodies into a deep part of the creek, weighing them down with some of the larger stones we found there. I was glad to return to our dry clothing when we were done.
“It would seem like you have some practice at this.”
Rat shot me a dirty look.
“Don’t be mad. I meant nothing by it.” I was in such a state that just the thought of having Rat mad at me made me jittery.
He broke the silence with an exasperated sigh, raising his hands in resignation before letting them fall back to his sides. “True that. Skills from a life long left behind, but every life, even that of a criminal still has its strengths.”
“You don’t have to tell me anything more.”
“Yes, I do. It took a lot for you to share with me your greatest shame. I wouldn’t be half a man, even in spirit, if I didn’t respect you enough to do the same. I was a thief—a murderer. I got caught, and spent years in prison for it. That didn’t bring back the people I’d killed for a few coppers. I’d ended good men’s lives with nothing on my mind but a good dinner and a cheap whore. I’ll have those memories until I die.”
Rat seemed even smaller as a moment of silence passed, his chin hung down on his chest.
“Well, you saved me tonight. That’s got to count for something.”
He raised his gaze to mine, a tearstain on his cheek, and with the faintest of smiles he spoke. “Yes, I suppose so.”