“Listen, kiddo,” his Grandpappy had said on John’s seventh birthday, sitting the boy down on his knee in the corner of the warm bakery kitchen. “Now that ye a Boy Skylark and old enough to start adventuring outside, there’s things ye have to know. Thing about the outside world, yeah?”
“What things, Grandpa?” he had asked absently, fidgeting with the new hat and feather he’d been given for his Skylark day as the wizened man bounced the small boy on his leg.
“One thing’s for sure, kiddo. Never go outside at night unless ye got ye Pappy or Strider with you. There are things out there in the dark that will take the meat right off your bones and use your teeth for stews! Ye may be a Skylark now, and ye might have ye feather and ye knife, but that won’t change anything out in the real world. The war’s still raging out there and we don’t want you getting lost or eaten, yeah?”
“But the battles don’t come this far east, Grandpa. There’s nothing to worry about!”
“Sure, but what if they do, kiddo? What’re you gonna do then if you’re outside in the dark and get taken by the Dersites? Besides, there’s worse things out there – things with big nasty pointy teeth that will shank you in a second.”
“You mean the trolls, don’t you?”
“That’s right – the trolls. Listen to me kid – never trust a troll. Never talk to a troll, never acknowledge a troll – meet eyes with one and they think it’s a challenge. Most of them only come out at night and they’re twisted and feral, and some might come out during the day, but you don’t trust those ones either, alright, even if they do seem more civilised. Trolls are wicked, violent creatures, and they steal our livestock and turn on each other as soon as the tide turns. You got that?”
“Sure. Never trust a troll.”
“That’s right kiddo. You remember that well.” And he had patted the new Boy Skylark on the head and escorted him through the maze of busy cooks to the servants’ door, opening it to the sunny midday air. The wide world of Skaia existed outside – finally, now that he was of age, he was free to explore the White Queen’s land on his own, and his feather bobbed with excitement at the thought of his new found freedom.
But John didn’t forget what he had been told, and what was repeated to him like a mantra for years afterwards.
Never trust a troll.
“And this delivery is for your Breath Master, and that one is for his apprentice. The addresses are on the box. And don’t trip and ruin them all like last time! Pappy was so annoyed at everyone then, I don’t want to get yelled at again, alright John?”
“Sure Jade, it’s cool, I can look after myself. Dave tripped me that time anyway, it wasn’t my fault!”
“Oh, I don’t know!” His sister puts her hands on her hips as he takes the two packages, and pouts at him over her huge glasses. “Sometimes I wonder, you know? I know you try hard and want to learn with the Master, but going outside at night isn’t a part of your studies, John! Pappy and Grandpappy would be furious if they knew! And you shouldn’t be putting the blame on Dave anyway; he’s a good man and doesn’t deserve that.”
“Oh come on, Jade,” John says, adjusting his grip on the packages of sweatmeats as she opens the servants’ door for him, grinning at her. “There haven’t been any battles around here for years, and it’s quieter out in the woods at night. Easier to practice the Windy Thing.”
“What about the trolls? You know there’s been missing livestock over the past couple of months.”
“Listen, I’ve been training pretty hard with the Master and Dave, I’m sure it'll be fine, as long as you don't tell dad, right? Anyway, I know you’re sweet on Dave, at least if I'm out training in the woods you have time to flirt with him, haha!”
He ducks, narrowly avoiding the spoon she playfully swipes at him. “You’re impossible John. Just get to delivering those, okay? There are lots of things to do today.”
The sun is blazing as he starts down the road, hat pulled low over his eyes to protect his face from the heat. Another dull day in a dull life. He sighs half-heartedly at the packages in his hands, as though they’re directly responsible for his problems – which, he supposes, in a round-about way, they are. If his father had of chosen something exciting and respectable instead of being a baker maybe he would have had a better lot in life. Sure, he eats well and has a loft to sleep in at night, but when he sees his best friend Dave practising fencing in the yard with his brother, his heart shrivels and dies with envy. It's not so much that he minds, more that... he just wishes for more excitement.
At least he has the chance to train secretly with his friend when the other knights aren’t looking. Dave is always more than happy to exchange clumsy sword blows with John (though he has a suspicion that half the time it’s just so he can show off), and he sighs and wishes that he could have the chance to sneak into the barracks today. But Jade is right – there’s a lot of work to do today in preparation for the White Queen’s feast later tonight, celebrating the arrival of Dreamer envoys from Derse in the West. John will be too busy with his father the entire day, and Dave will be participating in his first Knight’s March at night, as he was granted his apprentice Knighthood on his fifteenth birthday last year.
Which is sad, he thinks to himself as he pushes his glasses up on his face, watching the people totter about around him down the main street, because he’s planning to adventure even deeper into the Shade Woods tonight and he would have had liked for Dave to come with him. Jade’s harping is silly – he knows she’s only looking out for him as his twin sister, and he loves her ridiculously, but his fifteenth birthday was a month ago, and a fully fledged Scampermaster with adequate training shouldn’t have to worry about monsters.
It’s what he tells himself, at least. He’s never been as deep into the woods as he plans to go, but it’s only people in fairy tales that get eaten, right?
He delivers the packages to his Master and the master’s other apprentice, and though he would have liked to stay and have a lesson with him (the Breath Master is an easy going man and John enjoys having him as a teacher) he has more things to prepare as his father’s gopher. The rest of the day sees him running through the expansive city, boots ringing on the cobblestones as he delivers supplies, breads and cakes to countless businesses, all who prepare for the envoy feast along with his father. It’s tedious. It’s backbreaking. It’s hard to keep a cheerful outlook and a smile on his face when so exhausted but somehow he manages it regardless. He plans his night-time adventure out as he jogs through the streets and the thoughts sustain him.
Night falls agonisingly slowly. Candles light up throughout city windows as the Prospitian people prepare for the festival. John watches from his small bedroom in the loft outside the bakery, where he, his sister and his father live. He finds it odd that the White Queen celebrates the arrival of Dersite princes and Princesses, since though there haven’t been as many wars in the past few years, Derse still is the enemy, and likely always will be. It feels as risky as inviting a troll into one’s house for dinner.
His short sword is laid out in his lap and he cleans and sharpens it while he watches from the window. Already he’s prepared his satchel for his adventures tonight and has hidden it under his bed – food in case he gets hungry, water, his coat, a special lantern, his journal for writing anything down (this is, after all, a chance to practice his wind powers peacefully), bandages and a medicine kit in case his clumsiness causes any accidents. His sword – Dave likes to call it Trollfucker – was a gift from the apprentice Knight for John's fiftheenth birthday (although Dave had stolen it from his brother, Sir Strider, in the first place, which put the claim of “gift” in somewhat dubious light) and while John is confident nothing will go wrong tonight he packs it away just in case.
The plan goes off without a hitch, just like it usually does. An hour before the parades are supposed to start, he tells his father and Jade that he’s off to give Dave good luck before his first official Knight March, and that he’ll meet up with them later (though Jade reminds him that they won't be needed in the kitchens, and he wonders if she's giving wary consent to his adventure).
He never does see them again that night. He feels terrible that he’s ditching his dad on the night of a big feast, but he knows that it’ll be too chaotic in the palace to realise that a certain Scampermaster has vanished, and this is way too good of an opportunity to be by himself. He's sure they won't mind. Instead, John grabs his bag and his hat and, halfway to the barracks, turns and picks his way through the crowds, heading for the city gates, beyond which lie the Wind and Shade Woods. When the gate guards aren’t looking he dives around the corner, into a thicket of bushes, and then scampers off before they can realise what’s happened. They’ll lower the gates later into the night, but John knows a secret way in under the thick city walls.
The sun is beginning to set as he shoulders his pack, buckles Trollfucker through his belt, and sets off into the dusk, humming a thin victory tune as he goes. Life at the bakery is always so rushed and busy – it seems he rarely has time to himself, not since he became old enough to deliver bread around the city anyway. It’s nice to be out in the wilderness, the grey vein of the road into the city stretching out for miles to his left, the dark smudge of the Shade Woods to his right. They beckon: “come, John, and see what exciting things you’ll find inside!” Time alone, time to wander and get lost and have thoughts all to himself that are never interrupted by hurried cooks and chirpy sisters.
The woods aren’t far away from the city gates – he reaches them in fifteen or so minutes, the scraggy trees that lurk around the borders of the forest growing thicker and larger as he goes. But the sun is beginning to crawl behind the mountains when he does get there, and shadows are lengthening across the fields – he takes a little lantern out of his pack, opens the shutter door, and breathes softly into it.
A hum, a whirl – a glowing brilliant blue light slithers into the space where a candle should be, its pulsating glow casting surreal shadows on the gnarled bark of the trees. John takes a deep breath as he raises his Heir-light Lantern, smelling the pines and the mossy undergrowth, the wonderful fresh air as it circles around him like an old friend. Grinning, with excitement already bubbling in his chest, he creeps through the roots of the first trees into the rapidly encroaching darkness of the forest, pine needles muffling his footsteps underneath.
Under the branches the woods grow thick, the bases of the tall pines surrounded by twisting trees with clawed roots, nettles and little red flowers growing between them. Little grey moths flutter around his Heir Lantern, brushing his cheeks with their dusty wings. John lets out a long pleased sigh, smiling as he picks his way through the undergrowth, not really having any direction in mind except the need to go deeper, to explore more. He knows these woods now (he even thinks of them as his woods), knows its secrets and it’s path ways, and he isn’t afraid about being unable to find his way out – the Breeze will always guide him in the right direction, and he follows it even now, trusting it to lead him to wherever it decides he should be. He has faith that it will always lead him safely through and safely out, away from the imaginary monsters his sister is so frightened of – though he doubts that anything other than the friendliest of brownies and salamanders live in here.
He loses track of time after some point, loses track of how far he has walked and in which direction, taking twisting detours around fallen trees and outcroppings of rock. Crickets chirp and he can sense curious salamander eyes on his back. Maybe an hour has passed – he doesn’t know, it could be less. He still hasn’t found a place to stop and practice, but the joy of adventuring and the freedom – something he’s always loved since he first became a boy, and then a man – is too enticing to sit down yet. Vaguely he thinks about the festival back in the city, and how much they’re missing out on. Only at night can the true forest be seen – rivulets of dark, oily water creeping through the rocks, bright eyes of little creatures welcoming him from the branches above, the Breeze whispering and dragging him onwards towards some unknown destination–
Abruptly, he’s snapped out of his thoughts. He can hear something, all of a sudden, something different that seems violently out of place. John cups his hand to his ear, willing the breeze to carry the sound, and faintly he can make out… voices.
He swallows nervously, pleasant thoughts seeping out to be replaced with alertness. They’re strange voices – growling laughter and hoots, three people at least, and all with bizarre accents he’s never heard of. The capital of Prospit is a centre of trade throughout the west, and John has had a lot of contact with foreigners (even Dersites, like the respected Strider family, who had fled Derse generations ago when the wars started up again) – yet, he can’t place these accents. They’re barking, sharp, with weird clicks and odd chitters thrown in.
Whatever it is, he doesn’t like it. Never before has he encountered anybody else in the woods at night, and though this is deeper than he’s ever been before that should only lessen the chance of somebody being in there. He huffs on the glowing sphere in the lantern, extinguishing it, and with adrenalin pounding excitedly in his heart, he grips Trollfucker’s leather wrapped handle firmly.
Just in case, of course.
The voices are getting closer. John crouches low to the ground at the base of a thick pine tree, letting his eyes adjust to the oppressive darkness. The two moons, which he can just make out through the branches high above, are only thin crescents – barely enough to give any proper light, the purple one only just shedding an eerie glow. As carefully and as quietly as he can, he unsheathes his short sword from its old scabbard, the metal hissing slightly against the leather as it’s drawn out. He winces – even though the voices are still too far away to hear the sound – and, possibly against his own notion of self survival and driven by intense curiosity, he follows after them. Low to the ground, soft boots muffled against the pine needles and moss, lantern packed safely back into his bag and sword at the ready.
There comes a point where he’s so close to them he can see four shadows walking, holding something big between two of them, and he thinks he can almost make out words but the thick accents make them incomprehensible anyway. They’re walking confidently and loudly on a higher level of the forest, a sheer cliff of at least ten feet separating them, with John crawling along the rocky base in darkness as quietly as he can. He has no idea what he’s doing, but the breeze keeps leading him in that direction; he figures it might be a sign that this is something he has to pursue (as long as he doesn’t have to risk his own skin that is. He swallows nervously and thinks that it might have been better to have listened to his sister after all).
They stop after a while, and John instinctively presses himself against the rocks and roots behind him, being so quiet he can hear his own heartbeat pounding roughly in his ears and through his veins. There is muffled laughter, vicious coarse words – and suddenly, a whoosh, followed by heavy solid thumps as something large is thrown down the steep incline. John shudders, chewing his lower lip viciously and wondering what the hell is going on. The voices recede back up the way they had come, footsteps smashing against twigs and rocks and making a hell of a racket – it’s all kinds of intimidating. Are they huntsmen, who know the wood back to back… or are they something else, so armed to the teeth that they don’t fear anything? Goblins or wildermen, maybe?
His sword feels small and worthless in his hand, but he clings to it tightly anyway, shivering in the darkness until he’s absolutely sure the group is completely gone. The breeze doesn’t meander after them, but even if it had of he sure as fuck wouldn’t have followed.
Instead he picks his way through the thorny bushes and brings out his lantern, lighting it again with his breath and lowering the shutters to a tiny slit that he can easily direct. Instantly the darkness is sliced with the ghostly blue colour, throwing logs and rocks and leaves into stark relief and he has to blink nervously, holding his palm over the slit just in case the group spot it. Above him, the upper level of the earth sheers off into the small cliff. He can see a path of squashed plants where something heavy was rolled down.
And at the base of the cliff is a long, suspicious bundle of dark rags that makes a tight lump form in his throat. John tries to imagine what it is – anything but what he thinks it is. It’s just trash that’s being thrown out. Just old rags that aren’t needed anymore. M-maybe the remains of a… meal… of some description….
He doesn’t want to go down that line of thought.
Sword in hand, he approaches cautiously, heart hammering against his throat, stomach coiled in anticipation and fright.
He nudges the bundle gently with the tip. It doesn’t move, but it’s solid and… his size. Long and thick. It isn’t tied together with anything. Gulping, he uses Trollfucker to nudge the corners of one of the rag wraps until it comes undone and flops to the side, exposing its contents.
And clapping a hand over his mouth he recoils. It’s a body; he can’t see properly in the wavering blue light of the lantern, but it looks like a young boy, maybe his own age and definitely human. His skin seems strangely dark and a hood is drawn over his face that’s stained with something John fears to be blood. The boy doesn’t move, but that doesn’t mean that he’s dead.
He creeps closer to get a better look, but the hood is pulled too low over the head to see his features properly. He’s dressed in what looks like a long tabard and his dark hands are coated in something wet and sticky that’s spread to his side. John summons his courage: if there is any chance that this person is alive, it’s his responsibility to help him, whoever he is, as not only did he bring a little first aid kit in case of emergency, but leaving the body here would be giving him a death sentence – if he’s still alive, that is.
So John crawls up to the body’s side and reaches out a hand nervously. He’s never seen or touched a dead person before; he hopes this won’t be his first time. Fingers on the boy’s neck, which is wet with what he presumes to be blood, and….
A pulse. It’s weak and thready and definitely not healthy, but at least it’s there, and John’s breath catches in his throat with relief as he gently turns the boy over into his lap and examines the blood around his side. It looks like his clothes and the rags have clotted together to create a makeshift bandage, but it still seems like he’s lost a fair amount of blood, especially with his heart beating so slowly. Setting the lantern on a rock beside them (after lifting up the shutters to shed more light), he pulls out the bandages from his kit and sets about carefully wrapping them tightly around the boy’s waist, trying to move him as little as possible. When finished he bites his lip uncertainly, hoping that’ll be enough to keep him alive, at least to get them back into the city where they can treat him properly. Jade knows better first aid than he does, and in the morning they could find a proper doctor to treat him, in case the wounds are too large or infected.
Lifting the kid is surprisingly easy. He’s so light and feels skinny in his arms though the soaked rags, and the Breeze helps keep the weight manageable. With the lantern perched precariously on a thin chest, John's chews the inside of his cheek, fretting as he picks his way as fast as he can through the tangled wood, letting the wind direct him back to the city.
The way is slow going. John doesn’t want to move the wounded boy more than he needs to, so short cuts through thick bushes and trees are avoided in favour of painfully long detours. Sometimes, when the canopy of pines thins, he can see the moons in the sky and is able to judge that it’s now late night. The festival will last until morning and likely all the doctors and herbalists will be attending, and probably Jade and his Dad as well. Man, he’s going to have hell to pay when he tells them that he was in the woods at night, let alone being far too close for comfort for an unknown enemy who had clearing viciously wounded a young boy and left him for dead. He almost thinks to himself, “I really should have listened to Jade,” but reasons that if he had he wouldn’t be saving somebody’s life now.
His heart kind of swells at that.
But whatever, what happens to him when he gets home is a moot point – all that matters is getting the kid to safely and getting his wounds cleaned. He isn’t awake but at least he seems stable, and there doesn’t seem to be any blood seeping through the bandages (or, well, at least what wasn’t already from his clothes). John ignores the nagging thought that maybe it isn’t all his own.
Finally the forest thins. The sky can be seen more clearly; the wind picks up pace and begins to whistle gloomily into the fields beyond. His arms are aching when they finally break through, the high yellow sandstone walls of Prospit below given a ghoulish red cast by the purple moon. He approaches – the gates are closed now, but around the side is a hidden entrance to the city, used for hunters and knights who patrol the road west and keep a look out for roving bands of bandits (or even worse, trolls); it’s this entrance that he uses (after spending minutes making sure everything is absolutely quite), sneaking through the narrow tunnel that cuts straight through the thick walls and into the back alleys of the city, his patient still bundled gently in his arms.
He dashes through the empty, lamp-lit streets, suddenly even more thankful that everybody is occupied around the Queen’s palace. When he does pass by people (most of whom are drunk), he holds the bundle close to his chest and pretends to be carrying goods of some description instead of a body. He’s not even sure why he does it, just that the effort it would go to explain that he’d been illegally out in the woods at night and coming back with a body would be too great of a risk to take. It’s easier to make his way through the city without having to find his way through a forest in the dark, let alone be questioned by noisy drunks or off-duty guards.
When he reaches the bakery – his home, as well as the family business – he ignores the main building itself and circles around to the back where the storage building is located, as well as his room in the attic. There’s nobody around except stray alleycats that scatter on sight. Juggling his patient in his arms, John manages to open the storage house door and squeeze through.
Inside is musty and smells of flour and ingredients. The light from his Heir Lantern, still sitting on the wounded boy’s chest, helps him climb over sacks and boxes to the steep stairs that lead to his attic bedroom on the second floor, a small loft room that overlooks the main city street below – as good a place as any to keep an invalid until morning, and somewhere he can keep an eye on him just in case. As the kicks open the door to his room it strikes him how terribly strange the night has been – what had only meant to be an exploration had turned into a rescue mission with this strange, wounded person now in his room. So much for a quiet moment to himself.
His room is narrow and the walls are lined with crates and bags of flour, but it's home, and he has a padded mattress on the floor and a low table to sit at and a couple of books and the privy isn't far away outside. It's good enough - the boy can sleep on his bed, since at least that's moderately comfortable.
Speaking of the boy. He lays him down gently on his bed pad, the light from the lamps outside filtering softly through his open window onto the mess before him; unrolling the rags from the body, he can see that they’re dark with red blood, as is the wad of bandages and his red tabard and loose black undershirt and breaches. The hood, still drawn far over his face because he hasn't bothered to raise it yet (getting him to safety is more important than anything like that), is rimmed with blood as well.
John takes the boy’s bony hands, intent on moving out of the way so he can remove the bandages… but pauses. Confused.
The boy’s skin is grey, now that he has the light to see. His nails are hard and black. John swallows hard and quickly checks the patient’s pulse, but he’s definitely still alive and his thin chest is rising and falling raggedly and in that case why is he grey. In the darkness of the woods John had assumed that his skin was dark because it was dark brown – maybe he was a plainsman from the west. But no, here it is and… definitely a rich grey, dried blood plastered over his palms.
His heart hammers into life suddenly. This isn’t right, this is definitely not normal. His nails almost seem like claws, shiny and slightly curved, and John rolls up the sleeve of one arm revealing dark blooms of bruises on the long expanse of more hard, leathery grey skin.
He’s starting to doubt that the boy is human.
A mantra of “what the hell what the hell” turning around in his head, John reaches out with hands that shake with a sharp mixture of fear and anticipation and pulls back the hood to finally see the boy’s face.
Angular and drawn, bright red blood caked over his forehead from a long slash into his scalp; thin black lips and a wide blunt nose; tar black hair; grey skin. Not a human. Not a human.
He holds his breath, body shaking with mounting horror, and his heart almost stops when he reaches up and feels into that mass of dark hair. And he feels something he’d never wanted to see in his life, let alone touch.
Horns. Small and blunt, but they’re rooted firmly into the boy’s scalp.
He’s brought a troll into Prospit.
Into his house.
He gives a cry of terror and stumbles back to the wall, tripping and falling as he does, away as far as he can from the creature. Hand clutched to his hammering heart, John stares at the comatose body for well over five minutes, not able to do anything but feel numb with abject terror. The body across from him doesn’t stir, except for its chest which rises and falls with fragile breaths.
When he stands with weak knees, he pulls his sword out of its sheath with violently shaking hands that are already covered in blood.
Suddenly the name Trollfucker seems a lot less hilarious.
There is an absence of sound. Not as though it’s quiet – more like sound was never meant to exist in such a horrible moment as this. John can’t hear his boots on the wooden boards because of the ringing silence in his ears and he can’t even hear his heartbeat or breath and for a moment he thinks he might have just stopped breathing and functioning entirely.
Never trust a troll.
Never acknowledge a troll.
Never look at a troll.
Just glancing at one in the eyes is enough to cause it to kill you.
All trolls are savage and feral. None are civilised – none are kind.
If you have the upper hand, kill any troll on sight.
He’s broken every single rule, every single line of the mantra that has been repeated to him his entire life by not only his father, but everyone he has ever known. Over a decade of ceaseless reinforcement of that one simply, unwavering fact, crushed and smashed by the brittle creature lying in front of him.
John stands at the foot of his bed, sword gripped with both hands. He’s rescued a troll boy. He’s pretty sure that wasn’t even on the list to begin with; nor would any sane, rational person ever make that mistake. How could he have been so stupid? Why didn’t he question everything from the beginning – the way the body was just dumped in the woods to die, the way its skin had been dark, its lack of weight. Why couldn’t he have just raised the hood?
The way he raises Trollfucker now? He swallows heavily, body shaking and tears standing out in his eyes. The troll’s head is slumped to one side, the gash on its face bleeding sluggishly. It doesn’t look anything that he might have imagined a troll to look like – he’s been told they’re hideous, monstrous creatures with sharp horns and rows and rows of teeth, but the boy before him is broken and half dead and it looks human, with a thin build and defined face. There is nothing ugly about it, except for the wounds and its strange alien skin colour and those little horns that are a troll’s trademark. It reminds John of children, his own age, that he sees throughout the city, and tears are pouring down his face.
But this is his responsibility, isn't it? He’s brought a troll into his household, and even if it was through good intentions, the lives of his himself and his family are at risk! If the thing wakes up, it’ll rampage savagely without a moment’s hesitation, wounds or no!
Kill any troll on sight.