Trailing Trolls, by Olga Godim
“You’re the Adept?” A surprised frown creased the old priestess’s lined face.
“Yes.” Eriale stifled her irritation. “Do you need magical assistance?”
The multihued sunbeams, streaming through the stained-glass windows of the Scriptorium, twirled around her. They touched the golden embroidery on her tunic, bounced off the diamond buttons, and kissed her pale cheeks. She felt cherished, accepted by the sunny caress. The sunrays recognized her tremendous magical power. Only humans had trouble believing she was an Adept, one of the most powerful mages in the kingdom. Because of her short stature and expensive jewelry, most people considered her an empty-headed noble girl even younger than her twenty years. The priestess’s obvious doubts were vexing but familiar. Eriale braced herself, trying to look taller. “What can I do for you?”
The priestess winced and bowed. “Milady Adept. Yes, I need help.”
“Please, sit down and tell me.” Eriale gestured at one of the benches that lined the small reception chamber of the Scriptorium. Her official position as the royal sorceress made any magical disturbance in the kingdom her business, but what kind of a magical problem could this elderly provincial priestess have?
The priestess sat gingerly, and Eriale perched beside here.
“My temple is in Sedra,” the old woman started, her voice scratchy with age, “a village a few candlemarks north from here. Trolls stole a baby girl from one of our homesteads, while her parents worked with their sheep. Their house is some distance from the others. Nobody saw or heard anything, until they came home and discovered their baby gone.”
“Holy Twins! A baby? When? How do you know trolls did it?”
The priestess swallowed and clasped her hands together, her skin wrinkled and covered with pigment spots. “Yesterday. Who else could it be but trolls? No animal could unlock the door, and nobody saw any human or elven strangers nearby. Ours is a small village.”
“But where did they come from? There are no trolls in Varelia.”
“I think they came from the northern swamps,” the priestess said. “Recently, our hunters reported several sightings. In the last month alone, the trolls butchered a few of our lambs and goats. And yesterday, they stole the baby.”
“How old?” Eriale blurted. It didn’t matter. If the trolls stole that baby yesterday, it would be dead and eaten by now. She grabbed the end of her braid, fingering the ribbon bow securing it. The rich texture of her hair and the silkiness of the ribbon alleviated the horror of the news, somewhat, but couldn’t erase it completely.
“Three months old,” the priestess said quietly.
Eriale’s heart flipped. “Why didn’t anybody complain before? I’ve been staying at the Scriptorium library for the last month. Someone should’ve come and got me.”
“We didn’t know an Adept visited here,” the priestess said. “Besides, at first the men blamed a bear, but the hunters could never find the tracks. They looked. And then they saw trolls in the distance, and still no tracks. They couldn’t find the den. Then, we heard about an Adept at the Scriptorium, so they asked me to go for help.”
“No tracks. Magic at work. Blood magic,” Eriale said softly. “A blood mage must be controlling them.” She grimaced, staring at the dust motes frolicking in the rainbow light from the window. She hated blood mages. The loathsome parasite sucked life from anything they touched to fill their bottomless magical gullets.
“Could you help?” the priestess asked. She hesitated before adding, “How much do you charge?”
“Nothing. I serve the queen and every one of her subjects. Yes, I can deal with the blood-sucker.” Eriale’s mouth curved derisively. “He’ll rue the moment his path crossed mine.”
“Will you be safe, Milady? Perhaps, you should call for assistance?”
“Someone older, you mean?” Eriale turned her burning gaze on the priestess. “I haven’t yet met a magician stronger than I am. Or better trained. I studied with the Sisiry elves and in the Roodim Empire. I can handle the lifeless worm myself.”
The priestess’s thin lips twitched. “I’m glad, Milady. I’ll give you a list of all the trolls’ victims.”
The priestess’s list detailed the locations, dates, and descriptions of all the stolen animals, but didn’t offer a description of the stolen baby. Just the name and age: Christa, three months old. Hastily, Eriale folded the sheet once, twice, three times, to get that name away from her eyes, her hands almost steady, fingers straightening the edges of the list. She stuffed the tiny folded square into an ornate purse on her belt.
“I’ll inform you of the results. It won’t take long.” Breathing deeply to conquer her nausea, she sprang to her feet and stomped towards the exit. Three months old. Holy Twins!
“Thank you, Milady,” the priestess murmured behind Eriale’s back.
It didn’t take Eriale long to find an elven map of the area in the Scriptorium library. The village Sedra lay surrounded by hills, painted light-brown on the map, and behind the hills, all the way north to the edge of the map, stretched the verdure of the swamps. To the east of the swamps, a huge forest sported many shades of green and beige.
Eriale’s finger traced the blue ribbon of the river snaking down along the eastern edge of the map, separating the north-eastern parts of Varelia from the elven Sisiry forest. She didn’t need the map to tell her that trolls hadn’t been seen in Varelia or Sisiry for at least a generation. Where did they come from? What about the blood mage? She hadn’t heard any rumors of a blood mage in the region. Perhaps she should contact some of her fellow magicians, collect intelligence, before she rushed out to confront the enemy.
Her nail tapped at the cool polished surface of her communication medallion. She sprinkled magic on the transparent colorless convex of the lens, sent in the first magical address, and waited, while the crystal absorbed the golden mist.
Golden sparkles coalesced into curlicues and whirled inside the clear glass, demanding an answer. At last, the first of her correspondents, a middle-aged Master sorceress, appeared in the lens, grumbling unhappily. Nobody liked to be interrupted by an urgent magical call.
Unfortunately, none of the three magicians she contacted could tell her anything she didn’t already know, although the priestess’s account disturbed them all. The rampaging trolls were bad news. The blood mage was even worse, and as an Adept, she was better qualified to deal with a blood mage than anyone else.
Eriale asked the librarian to lend her the map for this crisis and returned to her room in the Scriptorium’s dorm to pack. As she stuffed a small traveling satchel with everything she might need for the trip, she contemplated what she knew about blood mages.
When she was an apprentice, her mentor had made her learn the ways of blood magic: how to extract a life force from a living creature and how to transform pain and death into magical power. She had practiced on rats and rabbits until their mutilated carcasses littered the workroom floor, and she puked from self-disgust. Eriale hated those lessons, even though she knew it was imperative for a mage as powerful as she was to know all the possible ways of generating magic. Those lessons had proved handy a couple years ago, when she encountered a real blood mage for the first and only time in her life. That experience still sent shivers up her spine. She had won that duel, but it cost her. Now, she had another blood mage to deal with.
She finished her packing and stared out the window, brooding. Gradually, darkness descended, blanketing the enclosed compound of the Scriptorium and the small town outside the walls. A few dogs barked, breaking the silence, a stray cat screeched, but the peace of the town felt bone-deep. Even a few drunks, shouting a ditty in a side alley, didn’t disturb it. She would do anything to keep that peace, to prevent the depraved blood mage from snatching another baby.
She left her room at dawn. The weather mage at the Scriptorium assured her of the fair weather all next week, before the fall rains hit, so she decided to levitate instead of riding. Tracking the trolls would be easier from the air, and she could move much faster in a straight line, no need to follow the convoluted loops of the road between the hills.
A couple of candlemarks later, she reached Sedra but she didn’t alight. She didn’t want to talk to anyone, and the house of the stolen baby shimmered to her magical sight with a faint cloud of contamination. The trail led from it into the forest. Wrapped in her cloak, she followed, floating above the festive bronze-and-honey treetops, interspaced with patches of evergreens.
Inside the forest, the thin magical threads of the trolls’ spoors crisscrossed the land like a cat’s cradle, blazing dirty-brown to her magical sight. Obviously the trolls felt at home in these hills. On the slopes, littered with gorse and heather, sheep grazed contentedly, not looking up in her direction. Neither did their shepherdess. The weather stayed dry but overcast; she didn’t even leave a shadow as she flew by.
She tracked the magical footprints far north of the village, to a series of caves at the base of a cliff. Late in the afternoon, she landed on top of the escarpment above the caves, burrowed under a stunted pine, and pulled an illusion of a thorny spurge shrub around herself, to discourage anything living from approaching.
She wasn’t tired—flying always left her rejuvenated—but she wanted to watch the trolls for a while before she proceeded to the blood mage who pulled their strings. She could see those strings clearly, tangled in front of the caves like a mass of dirty-brown pulp, shot with pulsing red capillaries. Blood magic at its worst. The disgusting rusty net reflected the lives and pain absorbed by the blood mage.
Eriale didn’t try to decipher the complex troll-controlling spell embedded in the brown sludge. She couldn’t stomach to touch it. Just being in close proximity to blood magic made her ill. Fighting the urge to gag, the effect blood magic always had on her, she studied the scene below her perch.
The six caves she could see probably housed an entire tribe. A troll appeared from behind the bushes, dragging a small goat kid towards its lair. She had never seen a live specimen before, only pictures.
Long ago, tribes of trolls had roved the continent, but with the advance of elves and humans, the troll population diminished. Wherever people and elves settled, they tended to exterminate the trolls. Nobody wanted the smelly and vaguely intelligent creatures as neighbors: too dangerous. The only trolls still living in the wilds were green trolls in the northern marshes of the Roodim Empire. Neither humans nor elves wanted to live there.
The green troll below Eriale looked like an oversized bipedal monkey, smaller than an average human, about Eriale’s height, with greenish spotted hide and sharp tusks sticking out of its muzzle. Muscle rippled beneath its fur with every step. The powerful tail swept the soil behind him, eliminating the tracks. According to the books she read on trolls, that wasn’t a natural behavior for the beasts.
As she watched, a smaller troll scampered out, carrying a baby on her back. The baby, covered by yellowish down, peeped. The approaching male barked, and the female chittered angrily before retreating inside the cave.
The male prepared to follow her but tensed abruptly and lifted his head, sniffing. His rigid body shifted. His tusks clacked ominously. Did he detect Eriale’s smell? He shouldn’t be able to see her behind her illusion. The little dead goat clutched in the troll’s claws swung back and forth, its white fleece matted with blood. She gave the troll a brief magical nudge: nothing here. He shook his head, whooped, splattered saliva around, and trotted into the cave.
Eriale examined the desolate landscape. Why did the blood mage bring the trolls so far south of their natural swamps? What did he plan for them? To steal human babies? For what? Something sinister, no doubt, like harvesting the life forces.
Whatever it was, it didn’t happen in the vicinity of the caves. She couldn’t feel a human baby nearby; no human life force at all. Only animals and the oddly shaped life forces inside the caves. The trolls. She had never seen a troll life force before. They didn’t look like animals. They didn’t look like humans or elves either. Were they sentient, and not wild beasts, as she had assumed?
She would leave that interesting quandary for another day. Today, she had seen all she needed to see here. It was time to find the blood mage. She hugged herself to stave off the chills and examined the repugnant brown mass of magic. It swarmed with red maggots, the remains of the lives the mage had consumed. A shimmering magical tentacle crept from the caves into the growing twilight, toward the forest, throbbing like a blood-sucking leech—the mage’s leash on the trolls. It should lead Eriale straight to the mage’s hidden refuge.
And then what? A fight? An argument? A chase? She would do what was necessary to protect her country and her people from the mage’s depredations, but the prospect of hurting anyone, even an evil sorcerer, made her queasy. She hated hurting people. Taking a deep breath, she grabbed her cloak to keep it from billowing, discarded the shrubbery illusion, and stepped off the cliff.
Floating parallel to the ridge top, she followed the thick magical tentacle, until the ridge flattened down and the tentacle merged with a forest path winding through the trees. Eriale didn’t touch down. She wanted to postpone her close contact with this poisoned magical snot as long as possible, so she weaved her way between the tree limbs above the path.
When the daylight completely faded, she tossed up a magical light, a golden translucent globe. It heralded her approach to the blood mage’s lair, but she didn’t care. He hadn’t attempted to disguise his magical signature. Neither would she.
Closer to her destination, the magic on the path became not only malevolent but sick. Dark green web permeated it, infected with the black stains that blended with the night. Eriale hated the necessity to step into this magical offal.
At last, the baneful magic spilled into a clearing. In the middle of the clearing stood a log cabin. Light shone from the attic window, although the window on the main floor gaped darkly. Eriale’s magical light illuminated an abandoned garden, where weeds chocked the vegetable beds. Black current bushes stood in neat rows, but nettles rioted between them. The only space clear of weeds, the muddy path, ran past a roofed-over well, past a wooden bench, past a rope swing hanging on an outstretched branch of a huge birch tree, towards a shallow porch sheltering the door.
Eriale’s light hiccupped. A child’s swing? She flicked the light back to the bench. Toys scattered underneath: a few painted cubes, a toy shovel, and a rag ball. Pieces of children’s clothing flapped on a string under the porch’s roof. The place didn’t look like an abode of an evil sorcerer. A family?
Puzzled, Eriale landed on the porch. The corrupt magic swirled between her feet, making her nauseous. To fight it off, she strengthened her shields, but before she decided whether to knock or not, the door banged open.
The gaunt woman in the doorway loomed over Eriale, at least a head taller. Her tiny magical light, the same sickly greenish-brown as the magic outside, hung unsteadily above her head. A sorceress. A few limp tendrils of oily hair escaped the loose knot at the nape of her neck and fell around the haggard, ashen face.
“What do you want?” the sorceress rasped.
“Your trolls are hunting where they shouldn’t,” Eriale said. “They stole a baby for your blood magic. The villagers asked me to investigate.”
The sorceress didn’t look as if she could fight an Adept in a magical duel. She couldn’t fight anyone. She looked too exhausted to stand upright. “That baby was ill.” She clutched at the doorframe for support. “Would’ve been a goner in a few days anyway. Her life only gave me…”
She gasped and bent double, clutching at her belly, swaying. Her magical light winked out. The sinister magical pool at their feet swirled faster, lapping at the woman.
“Mama!” A shriek from upstairs made Eriale jump.
The sorceress batted at the rapacious magic that gnawed at her, but dark formless blemishes, the same as the magic outside, encroached on her magical protections, weakening them. Eriale amplified her personal shield to include the entire house. The toxic magic slinked away.
The sorceress flinched, as if a mere contact with Eriale’s magic burned her. Breathing heavily, she lifted her sunken eyes. “I would’ve never taken a healthy baby.” Without another word, still bent like a hunchback, she turned around and pulled herself up the stairs, leaving her guest at the open door.
Eriale closed the door behind her back. “It doesn’t give you license to kill,” she muttered, looking around. Her golden light fell on piles of dirty clothing, unwashed dishes on the table, and dust balls on the floor. A foul stench wafted from behind a wooden partition, painted with finches and thrushes. Something rotted in the kitchen. Trying not to inhale too deeply, Eriale trod upstairs after her hostess.
The attic was a nursery. The sorceress curved protectively over a small bed, cooing something unintelligible, petting a small sandy-haired head above the quilted patchwork blanket. An oil lamp on a night stand revealed the same mess of dirty clothing and crockery as downstairs, but here dolls and stuffed animals added innocence to the chaos.
The child’s cries subsided. The woman turned to Eriale. “I’ll be down in a moment,” she mouthed.
Eriale tiptoed back down, her throat tight. This was not an evil blood mage. The sorceress had definitely worked blood magic in this house, more than once, but she was ill, dying. Her agony beat at Eriale’s defenses, eroding her shields, and the child upstairs confused the picture even more.
The sorceress joined her a few minutes later. She dropped into a chair and leaned on the table, her hands shaking. “What do you want?” she repeated her earlier question. Moisture glistened in her dull eyes and her voice sounded hoarse, as if she had screamed for a long time before talking to her guest.
Eriale didn’t sit. The only other chair in the room had something gelatinous congealed on the seat. “I can take away your pain,” she said. “But I’ll have to touch you.”
The sorceress stretched her spastic fingers, covered with gray, translucent skin, across the table. “Touch.”
Eriale lowered her smaller palm to cover the bony hand. She felt the source of the pain inside the woman’s belly, pulsating like a shapeless black amoeba. Eriale extended her magic to block the amoeba from the rest of the body, when unexpectedly, the woman’s magic slapped at her.
“Don’t fight me,” Eriale said. “I can’t help you otherwise.”
“It’s reflexive.” The sorceress whimpered, but her resistance ebbed. “Please, take it away, at least for a few minutes.” Her whimper ended on a sob. “I can’t do it myself.”
Eriale enveloped the black blob inside the woman’s belly with a golden cushion of her magic, disabling the black appendages that gobbled their way through the healthy tissues. “It’ll hold for a while,” she said. “I’m not a healer. I can’t do more. Sorry.”
The woman gave a short, muted outcry and dropped her head on her hands. “Thank you,” she said, her voice muffled. When she lifted her head, her dark-brown eyes were finally clear. “I forgot how it feels without pain.”
“Tell me what’s happening here,” Eriale said.
“I’m sick.” The sorceress snorted mirthlessly. “My daughter is two years old. I can’t die yet. If I die, she’ll die too. I can’t leave her alone with the trolls.”
“You’re prolonging your life by sucking it from the others.”
“Who cares about a few lambs? And who are you to judge me?” She glared defiantly. “You’re healthy. You’re rich. You have those baubles in your ears, and your magic glows like the sun. You’re playing with magic. I’m earning my bread.”
“I’m not playing with magic. I’m an Adept,” Erilale snapped. She suppressed her pangs of guilt. “And whether I’m rich or not is irrelevant. It doesn’t give you the rights to kill. Nothing excuses your murder of an innocent baby.”
“An Adept,” the sorceress echoed. Her thin fingers, splayed on the table, retreated into fists. She seemed to shrink, as if trying to make herself smaller. “They sent you to stop me, didn’t they?”
“What are you going to do?” Her tired voice was laced with fear. And relief?
“Tell me what’s going on? What is your connection to the trolls?”
“I study them. The Roodiman Master of spies wanted to—” The woman started coughing.
Eriale snuggled deeper into her cloak. She was getting cold. The insulation around the black sickness in the woman’s stomach funneled off her power. She had always been bad at healing stuff. She tightened her grip on magic. “He wanted to?” she prompted, when the coughing fit subsided.
“I don’t know. Use them as soldiers or servants, I guess.” The sorceress’s lips curled in a dour grimace. “I took the commission to study them.” She pointed at a shelf, piled high with leather-bound journals. “He paid well.” She closed her eyes. “I’m sorry about that baby, but she really was sick. She bought me only one day. Before, when I was healthy, I used small forest vermin, squirrels, chipmunks, and the like, to work with the trolls. I needed strong magic to hold them in thrall, to protect my daughter and myself. Then I got sick, and the squirrels were not enough.”
The familiar queasy disgust for blood magic curdled inside Eriale, tempered with sharp pity. “You can’t continue. You need a healer.”
The sorceress’s eyes glinted. “No healer can help me now. I’m dying. You have to punish the blood mage, don’t you? Show merci, Adept. Kill me, clean and fast. I can’t take the pain anymore. But promise me one thing: you’ll take care of my daughter. Will you?”
Eriale stared into the intense brown eyes. She wanted to cry. She wanted to help, but the woman was beyond anyone’s help, and they both knew it. The black malady inside her belly was devouring her body alive. Eriale blinked her tears away and nodded mutely.
“Don’t waste your compassion on me,” the sorceress said. “Get my daughter away from here, before the trolls get her.”
“I will,” Eriale whispered. “What will happen to the trolls, when you let go?”
The sorceress shrugged. “Nothing, I suppose. They might go back to their swamps.”
“What’s your daughter’s name?”
“Evelyn,” the sorceress said. “You promise?”
“I promise,” Eriale said around a lump in her throat. Her eyes stung. “I promise I’ll take her away and find her a good home. She’ll be safe.”
“She is gifted magically.” The sorceress took off an amber pendant on a silver chain and shoved it into Eriale’s hand. “My little witch Evelyn. Give it to her.”
“Thank you.” The sorceress inhaled deeply and smiled. “Now end my miserable life. I’m ready.” She kneeled on the floor in front of Eriale and bowed her head.
Eriale let go of her spell shielding the woman’s body from pain. The sorceress gasped, curling around herself on the floor at Eriale’s feet. Eriale crouched beside her and gripped her hand. “I can’t work both spells simultaneously. I’m sorry. So sorry. Sleep now. I’ll take care of your daughter.” She licked salt from her lips and sent her magic towards the woman’s pounding heart. And squeezed hard.
The sorceress’s body jerked once before going limp. The blood magic outside the house puffed and dissipated. The trolls, free of magical control, would come this way soon to feast. Before that happened, she should clean up. She wouldn’t leave the poor woman as trolls’ dinner.
“I’m sorry,” Eriale repeated. She scrambled to her feet, pointed at the body, and let white-hot magic leap off her fingertips. “Burn,” she whispered.
Engulfed by the magical fire, the body burned fast, sizzling faintly. There was no smell; her magic absorbed that too. When the white flames died, Eriale scooped up the remaining pile of ashes. It was cold. She heaped a little of her magic on top, adding a spell of cleanliness. Then she blew the resulting concoction into the air. “Cleanse,” she said.
The cleansing wind wafted around her, sweeping every corner, carrying away the dust and rot and pain that had accumulated in the house during its mistress’s illness. Eriale opened the door and let the ashes and the dirt escape.
Leaning in the doorframe, she glanced at the star-dotted sky, judging the time. Must be past midnight already. No wonder she was exhausted. She had been up since sunrise and she wasn’t done yet. She sighed and headed upstairs.
When she finally left the house, rising into the air from the porch, she was carrying the little girl wrapped in her quilted blanket, deep in magical slumber. A basket full of journals, the results of the sorceress’s research on trolls, hovered loyally at her side. Someone would have to continue the research. It sounded fascinating and might even be useful one day, but it wouldn’t be her. She had another task: to find a home for little Evelyn. Perhaps the parents of the slain sick baby would accept the substitution of a healthy girl toddler. If not, the priestess would know what to do. Eriale whistled up her magical light to keep her company and flew towards Sedra.
Olga is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, Canada. Her short stories have been published in multiple internet and print magazines. Her fantasy novels, Almost Adept, and Eagle En Garde were released in 2014 by Champagne/Burst. In 2015, Eagle En Garde won an EPIC eBook Award in the Fantasy category.
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Tags: family, fantasy, Olga Godim