He ran fast and hard, letting his instincts guide him through the forest. The long hours, the training day and night- it had all been for this, and now that training was all that stood between the young ranger and certain death.
Behind him, the troll thundered along, its long legs making up for the slower strides as it chased after Thorin- chased after the bone necklace the ranger boy wore draped across the back of his neck.
But Thorin couldn’t worry about that now, he could only worry about the route he had planned so carefully in his head. Turning right at the tree with the cut, turning left at the rock with the mark on it, and leaping over the log he’d marked with an errant branch. Every point brought him closer to his goal, and every step seemed to bring the troll closer to him!
Finally, with the troll’s grasp only inches from his throat, he hit the edge of the dry riverbank and leapt into the air. Green and brown were traded for sun-bleached white and grey stones as the ground fell away underneath him, and the dropoff at the river’s edge left him hurtling through the air. Despite the dropoff of several feet, he didn’t have time to stop and climb down, and could only hurl himself into the air and hope that he could make the landing.
When he came down, his foot slipped, but he managed to keep himself from falling by dropping into a shoulder roll on that side and come up running without losing any momentum.
It was a close thing too, for as he came up the troll exploded from the bushes in a mighty crash and landed where he’d been only moments before. The mighty beast was too single-minded to be concerned about the change in surroundings, and continued its mad rush at Thorin, but this time there was no series of obstacles to slow it down- it was a straight flat run to the other side of the river, and the troll had the advantage.
Still, seemingly heedless of his poor situation, Thorin ran. When he hit the thin wide trickle of a stream, he began jumping from rock to rock. Using each of the small boulders as a bridge to avoid the slowing grasp of the water, hopping his way across the water.
Of course, the troll didn’t care about getting wet, so it continued its rush after him as it hit water that just barely came up to its knees. It slowed the beast down, however, and that gave Thorin the moments he needed to get a head start as he rushed toward the forest cover of the far side.
But, instead of running, Thorin stopped on a rock halfway across the green water and turned to face his pursuer. In a single motion, his bow was in his hand, and an arrow, one of his last, was being drawn back.
He loosed it.
The arrow shot harmlessly over the troll’s head.
This caused the wading troll to pause for a moment, surprised by his prey’s sudden change of heart, but only a moment, and then the troll let out a roar and was rushing at him again like a charging bull.
There was little Thorin could do but dodge, and he did, jumping to another rock, and using the boulders as cover to slow his pursuer down. As long as he stayed ahead of the now-slowed troll, and kept the large rocks between them, he was out of the troll’s reach.
And then, the unexpected happened- as he was leaping between rocks, the troll scooped up a chunk of floating wood and threw it at him. The driftwood caught him just as he was landing, knocking him off the rock and sending him tumbling into the river.
Surprised, Thorin splashed around for a moment, and struggled to get his feet under him. When he finally did, a shadow loomed over him, and he was forced to dive aside as the trolls club-axe cleaved the water where he had been. Frantic, all Thorin could do was try to put one of the boulders between him and the troll, but now the troll was the one with the advantage, and it easily maneuvered around the smaller human to keep him from escaping.
Then the troll’s huge hand was gripping Thorin’s chest and hauling him from the water, pulling him out to slam him against one of the boulders. Thorin let out a cry of pain as he was pinned against the rock and for a moment the world went black, then it returned to blazing color as he found himself face to face with the troll.
Dripping, hurt. The two faced each other.
Thorin was surprised to find he wasn’t afraid. His heart was beating hard, but he didn’t feel fear- only determination. For once, he had done his job. For once, he had acted like a real leader. He thought of his father, and hoped that this final sacrifice would be enough.
The troll raised his club-axe, and Thorin turned his head and closed his eyes. As he did, he wondered whether the sound of thunder that rushed in his ears was the sound of his heart or…
Then he and the troll were both swallowed by a wall of water.
Thorin’s first sensation was the feeling of lips pressed against his.
Then his eyes shot open as he coughed and gasped for air, clutching at his throat. He remembered the thunder and the drowning blackness, and now… He was alive?
He looked over at Feena, who was kneeling next to him.
“You owe me,” she said, wiping her mouth with her arm and spitting.
Thorin rasped. “You owe me for being so damn slow. I told you to open the floodgates on the dam when you saw my arrow.”
Feena tapped her bandaged arm in the sling. “One hand, remember? It was stuck.”
After a moment, Thorin nodded. “Yeah. It’s okay. Good work.”
He looked around the riverbank, seeing only rocks and wood.
“Did you see it? Where is it?”
Feena shook her head. “I only found you. The water probably washed it downstream.”
Thorin pulled himself to his feet. “We’d better check.”
They found the troll a short time later, its green scaled chest heaving as the creature lay face-up in the shallow water at the river’s edge. Its club-axe was nowhere to be seen, and one of its arms was bent at an odd angle.
“It’s hurt,” Thorin said, watching the bruised and battered creature.
He heard a knife being drawn. “But it ain’t dead…yet.”
Thorin watched his teammate step forward, preparing to cut the creature’s throat. He couldn’t help feel sorry for it, and reached out to grab her arm.
“Maybe it will leave now,” he said. “It’s hurt. We should just let it go back.”
“Go back?!? Are you crazy?” Feena shook of his hand. “Who knows how many people this thing has killed? Look, if you can’t handle it, just go over there. I’ll do it.”
“No,” Thorin stood his ground, stepping between her and the troll. “It’s a living thing.” He doubted he was in any condition to stop Feena, but he felt he had to try. He was done letting her push him around. “We need to respect that.”
“It’s a killer,” Feena stared him down. “A killer, a monster, and a…”
“…a father.” Came another voice, and both of them turned around.
From the forest, Myra emerged, and behind the elfin girl a small troll dressed in rags followed.
“Or mother,” she continued. “This is Apple. It’s child.”
As Thorin and Feena watched, the young troll rushed past them to the larger one, kneeling down next to it and began to wail. The larger troll, awakened by the sound of the little one, opened its eyes and lifted a hand to stroke the arm of the wailing child.
“I found her in the human settlement,” Myra continued. “I believe they were using her as a slave.”
Thorin considered. “Maybe that’s why it came here. To get this child back. The other trolls are just trying to help this one get back its child. This was a rescue mission.”
“Trolls ain’t smart enough for that,” Feena commented, but Thorin shook his head.
“Yeah, well, looks like they are.”
Then there was the sound of wood cracking as the larger troll pulled itself to its feet, towering over the rangers. Holding the little one to its side, it looked down at the three, its lips pulling back to reveal snarling teeth.
“Put your knife away.” Thorin ordered Feena.
With a snarl of her own, Feena thrust the hunting knife back into its sheath at her hip.
Summoning his courage, Thorin stepped forward and pointed downstream, toward the Southlands.
“Go,” he said.
He doubted the troll understood his words, but it seemed to get his gesture, and then it took the little one’s hand and gave the humans a final snarl before it turned and left.
Watching it go, Thorin felt conflict in his heart.
Had he done the right thing? Trolls were trolls, and this one was clearly dangerous.
And yet, as he watched the display of parental love before him he couldn’t help thinking that maybe they weren’t so different from humans after all. So, maybe there might be hope yet.
Fatigue began to take him again, and he almost fell over, only staying up when Myra helped to steady him.
“Are you okay?” She asked, her large brown eyes filled with concern.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “I’ll be fine.”
And, for the first time today, he meant it.
* * * * * * * * * Want to put a little something in my tip jar out of appreciation? Click here and donate!