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by Margo Fallis
The Trolls

          Corin, Braden, and Gorbal followed Sami through the aspen woods.  Birds fluttered in their nests. Creatures crept through beds of fallen leaves. Owls hooted. They plodded up and down mounds, ancient burial hills, covered with layers of dirt and wild grasses. They waded across rapid flowing streams, struggling to keep balance as the icy water rushed around their legs, until they came within viewing distance of the Caves of Arton. The moons of Vespar cast their incandescent rays upon the ground, brightening the night sky. The stars twinkled and shot across the heavens like auroral arrows.

They looked across the valley separating them from the trolls. Dark pines blowing in the wind silhouetted against the evening sky like thin giants waving their arms. Three caves, carved into the bottom of tall granite cliffs, looked like gaping holes of black nothingness. From where they sat they saw no sign of any trolls. “I can’t see them, but I can sure smell them,” Corin said, puckering his face. “Now I remember why I hate trolls!”

“They are stinky creatures,” Gorbal said, plugging his flat nose with his short, pudgy fingers.

“Where are the wild dogs?” Braden saw no animals near the caves.

“They’re there, inside the cave’s entrance,” Sami said, anxious to enter.  “So, what’s our plan? It’s still too dark to see anything.”

“Let me think about it for a while,” Corin said, “but let’s move in closer. We’re too far away to see or hear anything. Dawn will be here in a couple of hours.”

The four of them crept closer to the caves. The entrances were lit up with the flickering flames from burning torches. Being careful not to step on any twigs or loose rocks, they moved through the aspens. The leaves fluttered back and forth in the wind, like crickets rubbing their wings together in a droning sound. “Shhh. The dogs have good ears.” Sami warned the others.

Continuing towards the entrance. Gorbal stepped on an acorn. His fat foot throbbed with pain. He let out a loud howl and then danced around holding his foot.

Corin knocked him to the ground and put his hand over Gorbal’s mouth and whispered, “Shut up, you fool!”

Gorbal held his foot, trying not to make any more noise. A few squeals escaped his covered mouth, much to Corin’s annoyance.

Braden looked at the caves. “They are much larger than I had first imagined. I don’t see any dogs.” He sighed with relief.

  “I’m going up there.” Sami ran off before anyone could stop him. He neared the first cave entrance. With his back plastered against the wall, Sami peeked into the dark hole. Not seeing any dogs, he slipped inside.

“What’s that boy doing?” Gorbal rubbed his foot and complained. “He’s going to get us all killed. He’s the fool, not me.”

Sami appeared and waved at them to come into the cave. They climbed over sharp rocks and broken tree limbs. As they entered Gorbal wanted to throw up. Bile raised in his throat. Bones lay all around. Bluebottle flies and maggots crawled on pieces of rotting flesh; the stench hung powerful and overbearing with a putrid odor. “See the chains.” Sami pointed to the rusted links hammered into the stone wall. “I wonder where the dogs are. We’d better be quiet and careful.”

Moving deeper into the dark void, they came to a huge cavern. Lying on the floor were hundreds of scattered bones and chunks of rotting flesh. “I can’t take this stench,” Gorbal said and ran back outside to vomit.

Corin examined the carcasses. He saw the look of horror and fear on Sami’s face. “It’s all right boy. The bones aren’t human bones. Probably belong to a mastodon or something big like that.” Dirty, filthy, blood encrusted blankets lay on the floor of the cave. Torches hanging on the walls burned, allowing them the unwanted view.

“Where are they?” Gorbal came back into the cave. He wiped his mouth with his tunic sleeve.

“They’re not here, but were not too long ago. Maybe they’re in another one of the caves.” Braden patted Gorbal on the back and walked outside. They all breathed in the fresh woodsy air. It was a relief to be in the open. “I’ve never appreciated fresh air as much as I do right now.” Braden took several deep breaths.

Making their way to the next cave, they stepped over more bones and half eaten bodies of deer and other large game animals. “What’s with all the meat? Is that all trolls eat? They’re filthy creatures!” Gorbal felt his stomach lurching again.

Sami went ahead to look for the dogs. “None in here either.” He called in a whisper to the others, “I wonder where they are.”

Inside the cave the granite walls, coated and splattered with still dripping blood, turned their stomachs sour. The red goo covered everything in sight. Corin gagged at the smell. “What is this?” Gorbal ran back out and refused to go back in.

“It’s blood and it’s horrible.” Braden winced at the mess.

Sami ran out and vomited along with Gorbal.

Braden followed him out. “You two better stay out here. We’ll be back soon. Take cover though and stay here!”

Sami sat on the ground with his back against the wall, breathing deeply, trying to regain his composure. Gorbal lay on his fat tummy, moaning and groaning.

Braden and Corin went further back into the cave. Puddles of clotting blood covered the floor and stuck to their boots. They tried not to walk through it, but there was so much that it was difficult to avoid. Torches, blazing and hanging on the walls led them into the main cavern, bigger by far than the first one. A rusting chain with thick links stretched across the cave from wall to wall. Hanging by their tails at intervals, ten dead black dragons dripped blood from every pore onto the cave floor. Five looked raw and had obviously been skinned alive; their wet bloody black scales lay on the dirt beneath them. “That explains the blood,” Corin said, sickened by the sight. “Looks like our trolls were planning a feast tonight. Roasted dragon. There’s enough meat here to feed an army and then some.”

“They must be the main course, not the appetizers. Take a look at this.” Braden pointed to the back of the cavern. Small fires dotted the floor. Spits lay on rocks on top of them. Roasting on the spits, nearly blackened and charred, lay dozens of baby dragons, each about two feet in length. Corin counted twenty-two of them. “By the look on the baby dragon’s faces, they’d been skewered and roasted alive. Let’s get out of here. There are no trolls here, just death and torture.”

Back outside of the cave, they spotted Gorbal and Sami. “Are there any trolls in there?” Gorbal‘s curiosity overcame his sickness and revulsion.

Corin shook his head no. He took Gorbal aside and told him what they’d found inside the cave. Braden went to check on Sami, who lay curled in the fetal position among tall grasses. A loud wail echoed through the still night. They turned at the noise. Corin shook his head back and forth. “Where are those blasted creatures?”

                   *  *  *

Screams came from the last cave - human screams. “Oh no!” Sami cried out in fear. He jumped up and ran towards another hole in the stone cliffs.

Corin caught up with him. “Boy, wait. The dogs are there. I can smell them.” He held onto Sami. “Calm down and let’s think this out. All right, boy?” Sami stopped moving and Corin let go of him. “Our first task is to get rid of those guard dogs. If the trolls are all in this cave, which means all six wild dogs are in there too, so we must kill them first.”

“But how?” Sami sniffed the air.

Gorbal took out his Book of Spells. He turned each page until he came to WILD DOGS. “Oh, okay. I’ve got it. Here’s what to do. Corin, Braden, go back and get six of those roasted baby dragons and bring them here.”

“Roasted baby dragons? What roasted baby dragons? Were there some in the cave? Never mind. I don’t want to know,” Sami noticed the looks of disgust on Braden and Corin’s faces and knew the answer.

Corin and Braden ran back to the cave and showed up a while later carrying six of the charred dragons in their arms. Sami gaped, but didn’t utter a sound.

Gorbal sighed. “What a waste of life. Such a waste.” A tear ran from his eye. He wiped it from his cheek. “Sami, I need a distraction so I can sneak closer. The dogs must be close enough to hear my spell. Can you help Corin and Braden with the dragons?”

Sami gulped and lifted one of them out of Braden’s arms.

They moved as close to the entrance as they could get. Corin heaved a dead infant dragon and it landed a few feet away from the hole on the opposite from where they stood. The dogs noticed and grew wild in a mad effort to get to the meat. Braden tossed one a little closer to the dogs. The snarling became more intense. Sami tossed his. The dogs left the other half eaten carcass and darted to the new one, ripping the blackened meat to pieces and biting each other. Gorbal, seeing his chance, began to chant. Corin and Braden each threw another dragon. The dogs, crazed with anticipation and desire and having a ferocious hunger, didn’t notice the gnome. He climbed on a rock and shouted the spell. Within seconds the wild dogs fell asleep. Gorbal called down to the others.  “I don’t know how long this will last, so let’s go!” Each of them kicked the dragons out of the way and entered the cave. Loud human screams echoed off the stone walls, each sent waves of terror their direction. Sami stopped, not wanting to go any further. Braden took his hand and they entered the cavern. From where they stood they saw at least 100 trolls, each covered with wiry gray hair, matted and soaked with drying blood. Two horns grew out of the tops of their heads and green-veined eyeballs bulged from the sockets. Sharp, brown-colored teeth, stained from years of blood lust, hung from their mouths; some with the remains of their latest meal dangling. “Corin, Braden, can you see any people?” Gorbal was too afraid to look for himself.

The two men moved ahead. Rage filled them when they spotted dozens of frightened men and women standing against a wall; all thin, dirty and naked, with chains around their ankles, linked together like zoo animals.

In the center of the cavern a huge fire burned. Sparks popped into the foul air. Hanging over the fire, a black pot about ten feet in diameter and filled to the brim with boiling liquid, sat waiting the next victim. Dangling above the pot, a man with his hands tied together with rope, struggled to free himself. The four watched in horror as a troll lowered the man into the pot. He screamed in agony. His legs went into the boiling liquid. The troll pulled a rope, raising the man out of the pot, still screaming. Blisters formed on his scalded legs and skin fell off into the pot. The troll untied him and threw him into a pile of rotting fruit. The man writhed in unbearable pain. Bluebottle flies flew from the fruit and covered the man’s wounds. The trolls laughed at the man’s pain. Some of the chained people fainted with terror, knowing it would soon be their turn. Others wept and others stood still, numb and unable to move. Sami couldn’t breathe. “Go outside and get some air, boy.” Corin knew this was more than any young lad should have to watch this. Sami ran outside.

Corin looked around. He spotted two ladders leaning against the cave wall not far from them and pointed them out to Braden. He understood what Corin wanted to do. Corin whispered to Gorbal and Sami. “If we don’t make it back, get out of here. Go back to the village, get the children, the Princess, and Cafania, and leave as quickly as you can. Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” Sami said.

“Okay,” Gorbal said, “but be careful. Help those poor people.”

Braden and Corin snuck into the cavern. The trolls have moved to the side of the cave, poking and prodding at a half-dead dragon. They found amusement in teasing it with sticks to see how it would react. Seeing an opportunity, Corin and Braden each grabbed a wooden ladder. Corin pulled his hands away as he felt something gooey. “It’s covered with mold and slime and who knows what else.” He wiped his hands on his pants and took hold of the ladder. They carried them above their heads.

When they neared the huge black pot, they leaned the ladders against it, relieved that it didn’t sway. Corin and Braden climbed, being careful not to let their feet slip on the slime. Nodding to each other, they tore off pieces of their shirt and wrapped them around their hands. Corin shouted, trying to get the trolls attention. When one turned around and saw the two of them near the pot, it grunted and groaned. The beasts ran toward the ladders. Corin and Braded grabbed the sides of the pot and after rocking it back and forth, they were able to tip it over, spilling the contents on top of the trolls. The boiling liquid, made from animal blubber, flowed out of the pot, burning through the troll’s hair and seeping into their tough hides. Deafening screeches and howls bounced from wall to wall, echoing. The trolls fell to the ground dead or dying. Some tried to run, but Corin aimed more of the spilling oil towards them, emptying the entire pot. The people watched, gasping in horror and disbelief.

One troll escaped the hot oil. Neither Braden nor Corin noticed. It snuck up and grabbed the bottom of Corin’s ladder and shook it back and forth. Corin slid off, falling to the ground. The troll grabbed Corin’s hair, pulling him high into the air. Its sharp claws moved closer to his belly, ready to disembowel Corin when a spear shot through its heart. The troll dropped Corin onto the rock floor and clutched the spear jutting out of its chest. Blood spewed from the wound. It let out a sharp scream and fell dead, landing on top of Corin. He pushed the filthy creature off, watching as its blood flowed into the boiling oil. It bubbled and popped as the two liquids mixed. Wondering who had saved his life, he turned to see Sami standing a few feet away, shaking with fear.

Braden moved from troll to troll making sure none breathed another breath, piercing their hearts with his knife if they still breathed.

Gorbal ran inside the cave with his sling shot and stones he’d picked up outside. Seeing all the dead trolls, joy surged through his body. He spotted keys lying on the ground. He picked them up and unlocked the people’s ankle bands, freeing the villagers. Some, too weak to walk, fell to the ground. Others ran out of the cave howling with shouts of freedom. Some stood still, staring with a blank look in their eyes, too shocked by the whole ordeal.

Corin joined Gorbal in releasing the rest of the people. Braden walked to the pile of rotting food, swooshed the flies away, and picked up the man who had been dipped in the oil; his scalded legs, fragile and damaged. When Braden lifted him up, the flesh fell off both his legs, exposing bone and raw nerves. The man howled and passed out.

 Sami came running, he saw the man. “Father.” He wept. “Father.” His body wrenched with sorrow at the sight of his suffering father. Braden spread out his shirt and lay the man on top. Sami held his father’s hand and caressed his brow.

Braden called, “Gorbal, come here quickly please.”

Gorbal saw the man and his horrific wounds; stifling a sob when he saw Sami’s tears and how tenderly he held the man. “Say no more. I know what to do.” He took the healing stone out of his pocket, along with the Book of Spells and placed it under the man’s chin.  He took his other hand and chanted the spell, the same spell he used to heal Princess Jasmine. A crowd gathered around. Before their eyes the man’s legs produced new flesh, tissue, muscle, and skin. Within moments healed completely.

The man regained consciousness. His eyes flew open and he saw his son. “Sami.”

The others, now free, followed Corin out of the cave.

“Take them to the stream,” Braden said. “It’s light outside now.”

The stars and the moons had disappeared and dawn’s first rays broke over the horizon. Gorbal, Sami, and his father, and Braden headed for the village. “There are a lot of children that will be very happy when they wake up,” Braden said, looking around at the crowd. “We’d better get these people washed up and put some clothes on them. Unload your packs and at least get the women dressed in something.”

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