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The Wizard, the Troll, and the Maiden
By Ben Lacy
On the third Wednesday of every month, they walk the long road up the mountain. They line up at the gate and wait all day and all night. On the third Thursday of every month, maybe, just maybe, they will be allowed to see the wizard on the mountain, who, from the top of his tower, rules as far as the eye can see. Once a month, for a few hours, the wizard allows the peasants to see him. Only the desperate and the damned would make the trek. The wizard is unpredictable, and dangerous to those who would waste his time.
I should know; I am that wizard. Once a month, I listen to their petty problems, if they’re quick with it, and I’m not too busy. Sometimes, I may send one of my servants to deal with the matter. Occasionally, I punish the petitioner for bothering me and to discourage other fools. Once in a rare while, I might personally cast a spell on their behalf.
On this particular third Thursday, I had listened to a half-dozen petitions. They were the usual requests, end this drought, stop this plague. I wanted to get back to my latest experiment and decided to listen to just one more. My guards brought in a young girl who immediately dropped to her knees placing her head to the ground. I don’t expect such things, but it’s an appreciated gesture.
“You may rise.” She stood. She was the most beautiful young maiden I had seen in a century. She was barely more than a child, maybe seventeen. Her plain, worn but clean clothes confirmed that she was a poor peasant girl, probably the daughter of one of the subsistence farmers that plowed the rocky soil to the south. The fear on her face was evident and was the only thing that marred her beauty. I decided to try to set her mind at ease. Not just because I found her attractive, but I was genuinely curious to know what would drive such a young girl to my tower. “You have nothing to fear here. Now, tell me your name?”
“Heather, your lordship, I, I, mean your excellency.”
“What brings you here?”
“It’s my husband, your excellency,” I felt slightly disappointed that she was married, and then slightly surprised at discovering that disappointment. “I come from the southern province of Arakin. We had just gotten married. My father granted us a small plot of land to farm on the northern slope of Arakin mountain. While we waited for our first crop, my husband would go hunting. One evening he didn’t return.”
“The next day, his two brothers tracked him down. They found that he had been attacked. They followed his trail to the castle of the troll. From atop a tree, his oldest brother was able to look down into the courtyard. He saw my Jaron chained to a mill wheel along with other men, turning it to grind flour. The brothers fled before the troll could spot them.”
I had heard of the Arakin troll before. To my knowledge, he only attacked those on the southern side of the mountain. Relations being what they were with the kingdom to the south, I considered the troll something of a useful deterrent. “Why would the troll start attacking our people?”
The girl just looked at me, clearly not understanding. She could see the look of annoyance developing on my face and probably would have begun crying if the Captain of my guard hadn’t spoken. “The Galnon’s have not had our good fortune, your excellency. Famine has caused most of the people living to the south of Arakin mountain to go farther south. The troll must be short of victims on that side of the mountain.”
“Well, fine, but why haven’t the Arakin villagers dealt with him?” In spite of the girl’s beauty and humility, I was beginning to become annoyed. The locals should be able to deal with random trolls.
“They tried, your excellency,” Heather said with tears starting to flow. “Two score of our kin rode out to attack the monster. Ten were killed outright, several more were captured. Lord Ernhart says he can’t spare the men to take on the beast. You, milord, are my only hope. Please, save my husband.”
I was moved by her pleas. I was also vaguely concerned. Trolls are vicious beasts, but normally no match for a large mob. Very well. “Captain, send Lieutenant Rakel and two dozen troops. Have them get another two dozen from Lord Ernhart. The Lieutenant is to remind his Excellency that I expect my nobles to enforce the Wizard’s Peace. They shall then proceed to the troll, force him to release his prisoners, and make him pledge to leave the people on our side of the border alone. Kill him if he causes any trouble.” It was probably a waste of time to try to reason with the troll, but he had been useful in discouraging the southerners, so I wasn’t ready to sacrifice him out of hand.
If the girl was disappointed that I might show leniency to the beast who’d probably already killed her husband, she didn’t show it. She fell to her knees. “Oh, thank you, thank you.”
I didn’t think anything more about our meeting, except perhaps to recall the girl’s beauty, until another month passed. Once again, I was hearing petitioners, and once again, the girl came into my hall and fell to her knees. “Your excellency, I have waited for the past month. Could you please tell me whether your soldiers have vanquished the troll and freed my husband.”
I was flabbergasted. I had, of course, assumed the matter settled. I glared at the Captain of the Guard. He cringed underneath my gaze. I didn’t bother to speak but merely continued to stare.
“Your excellency, our men failed. Three score men attacked the troll’s castle. Half were killed outright, maybe a dozen more were captured. The remainder have slowly wandered back over the last week.”
“Why was I not told?” I asked tersely.
“We know you want us to deal with these matters ourselves. I was going to raise the troops from the garrisons in La Pont and Icatel. Five hundred men or more, surely we would overcome the beast.”
I just stared at him in disbelief. Clearly, the fear I inspired was becoming a liability. The Captain’s plan would drain too much of the garrisons. Worse, it was hard for a wizard to recruit good soldiers. I couldn’t afford to risk any more. I could also no longer suffer the troll to live.
“Lathon, come here,” one of my apprentices rushed into the room, bowing low as he skidded to a halt in front of me. “Lathon, you are old enough for your first quest. Take the Rod of Fire, go to the border of our southernmost province, and kill the Arakin troll. Be careful, he is far mightier than any troll I’ve heard of before.”
“Oh, thank you milord. I will leave at once.” He charged from the hall at full speed. Apprentices, at least, always seemed to be in plentiful supply.
Another month passed and once again Heather was on her knees at my feet.
“Oh, get up,” I told her somewhat testily. This time I at least knew that my apprentice hadn’t returned. He wasn’t dead; I would have known that, but something was preventing me from communicating with him. I looked at the girl. “How have you been living these past two months, so far from home.”
“I’ve been working as a bar maid in an inn at the foot of the mountain. The innkeeper lets me sleep out in the stable.” I felt a twinge of guilt, the caravan traffic that stopped there were a rough lot, and a girl such as she would be a tempting target. I should have let her stay here.
Bah, enough of this, it was time for action. I looked to my apprentices. They looked back in terror, too scared to move a muscle.
“Saddle Alabaster; fetch my staff. I will take care of this matter personally.” I could have flown there, but I saw now that I had become too disengaged from the land I ruled. This quest would be a good chance to see what was happening out there.
“Please, milord. I’ve waited so long. Take me with you.”
I looked at her a long moment. Anyone else I’d have told to get lost, but I admired her guts and her loyalty. All around me, my minions were scrambling to carry out my commands. I knew though that there was not one who would sacrifice a tenth as much for me as she had out of the mere hope that her husband lived. “Very well. I will be leaving at once. If you are ready, you can go.”
We went down to the courtyard where Alabaster stood, stiff as a statue.
“It’s wood,” she exclaimed gingerly touching the pure white horse.
“Something much tougher actually.” I laughed, “You didn’t expect a wizard to ride any old nag.” I snapped my fingers and Alabaster came to life. Heather hopped back with a start. She watched my construct prance around her. She then slowly approached the horse and started to pat him. A deep bellow emerged from Alabaster’s hollow insides as he nodded his appreciation.
I hopped onto Alabaster and pulled Heather up behind me. We rode out the gates at a high speed. Alabaster would gallop at twice the speed of any other horse for as long as we could stay on him, but it would still take us three days to get to Arakin.
The first day was uneventful. We ate two meals together at inns along the way in virtual silence. She was too shy, and I had lost the skill of making small talk. When night fell, we were too far from the next town and so camped near the road. I set up wards around the camp. During the night, something activated one. There was a burst of flame and a loud yelp. Whatever it was turned and fled into the woods. Heather woke up with a start and a shout of surprise. “Go back to sleep. Nothing will harm you while I’m around.” I didn’t know if I succeeded in comforting her, but eventually her breathing softened.
On the second day, we rode through the city of Gilspeth, the northern gateway to the fertile Arakin plains. I was shocked at how much poverty I saw. There were beggars everywhere. The city seemed overrun. The streets reeked from the smell of overflowing sewers. Many of the buildings had fallen in disrepair. Heather saw the look on my face. “There has been drought in much of Arakin these last two years. Refugees have fled to the city but there isn’t room for them all. The northern patrols prevent them from going farther. I had to swim across the River Gilspeth to continue my journey.”
Drought, famine, refugees, I had always thought my Empire very prosperous, the jewel of the continent, and near my tower, it was. I should have done something about this. I should have known at least. I could feel her eyes burning into the back of my head, or maybe it was just my conscience. I responded with anger, “It’s much better than it was, much better,” I snapped at her. We didn’t talk again the rest of the day.
That night we stayed at an inn midway through Anakin. There was no need to press on. Tomorrow, we would reach the troll’s castle. At dinner, over a kidney pie, Heather nervously asked me, “What did you mean, things were much worse? What happened?”
I looked at her a long moment. She was so young, she didn’t know. Most of them were too young. “How do you think I came to rule this land?”
“Uhm.” She hesitated for a long moment. “I was told that you conquered it when Good King Prule died.”
I nodded. “That’s true, as far as it goes, but it leaves out almost everything,” I sighed.
“Tell me, please.”
“I came to the mountain where I now live almost a hundred years ago. King Prule had just become king and was still a young man. We got along well. I would occasionally perform a task for him, in return, he deeded me Mount Neramiah and ensured I’d have access to anything I needed for my work. He lived a long time and ruled well, but if he had a flaw, it was that he was too indulgent toward his family. He had many sons, all spoiled, and he never established a clear heir. When he died, civil war broke out. At first, I stayed out of it. The third son was a clever soldier and seemed to be winning. His siblings though started bringing in wizards from the east, mercenaries that they could barely control. When the Conthian river caught fire and Prule city was swallowed in an earthquake, I took action.”
“The Battle of Thirteen Wizards, I’ve heard of that,” Heather said excitedly, caught up in my tale. I looked around and noticed that others in the inn were listening discreetly, while deftly avoiding my gaze. I decided that they might as well hear my story as well, so I raised my voice.
“Yes, the Battle of Thirteen Wizards, in truth there were probably closer to twenty, but it might as well have been the Battle of Two Wizards. Most of the rest died or fled within the first few days. The real battle was between Wotham and I. We fought atop Neramiah, in the ruins of my tower. We rained lightening down upon each other most of the night. Then I cast an illusion and tricked him into walking off a cliff. After what the heirs had done, I refused to allow any of them to claim the throne. Instead, I sent them into exile and took charge myself.” I lowered my voice, “But I’ve never wanted the job.” And I guess I haven’t been very good at it.
I looked off into the distance, lost in the past until I felt a touch on my hand. Heather had placed her hand over mine as it rested on the table. “I didn’t know all of that, but I believe it. You came to help me. You didn’t have to but you’ve come all this way just to help your humblest subjects.”
I was embarrassed and rose quickly. “We’d best get some rest, tomorrow we face the troll.” I retreated to my room. I couldn’t believe she held me in such high regard. My foot dragging had probably cost her husband his life.
The others in the common room beat a hasty retreat from my path. Their opinion of me hadn’t changed.
Late the next afternoon, we began to climb the base of Arakin mountain. I wondered how the peasants could beat even the most meager life out of these conditions.
As we continued upward, I began to sense a powerful magic in the air, but I couldn’t pinpoint the source. We continued for half a mile. The magic was moving toward us. The troll was coming. “Wait here,” I told her. I suddenly regretted bringing her. Whatever was going on here involved more than a rogue troll; I had led Heather into real danger. “Stay on Alabaster, if you hear anything coming near, ride for the last town we passed.”
I walked on ahead. A quarter of a mile farther, the troll stepped out of the woods and onto the road. I recoiled slightly. He was far more massive than any troll I’d ever seen. At least twelve feet tall, with limbs like tree trunks, he sneered down at me. “I know who you are. You’ll fare no better than your minions.”
He pulled a gigantic sword from the cloak he wore and began to twirl it over his head. I could see the Rod of Fire tied to his waist. The rod wasn’t the source of the magic I’d sensed; his cloak though burned blindingly bright with it. He began to advance, chuckling as he did.
I found his confidence annoying. I pointed my index finger and fired a lightning bolt. And almost died right then. The bolt bounced off an invisible shield a foot from his face and came right back to strike me full in the chest. If I hadn't been thrown back through the air, he probably would have cleaved me in two with that giant sword.
As it was, my magical protections were struggling to dissipate the power of the blast and keep me conscious. Before I could even struggle to my knees, I instinctively levitated into the air. The monster charged underneath me, but with amazing speed he spun, swinging his sword high in the air to swat me out of the sky. I barely got my staff up to meet his attack. The sword shattered on impact. I would have dropped the staff had it not been made to always stay in my hand.
I floated higher and tried to shake my head clear. He had a cloak of protection. No, he had more than that. I recognized the cloak now; it had been Wotham’s. I’d never recovered it when he walked off that cliff. The thing would throw spells back at the caster. Apparently, it also exponentially increased the strength and speed of the wearer. “Where did you get that cloak, monster,” I yelled down to the troll.
“One of these sodbusters had it. They passed it down from one generation to the next. The idiots didn’t know what it was. I’d seen Wotham once though. I recognized it right away.”
“So you started hunting my people to get it.”
He roared with laughter, “That’s right. And once I got it, I decided why go to all the trouble to cross the mountain for fresh meat. Once you’re dead, I’ll rule like a king.”
“You seem to forget something. I’m up here and you’re down there.”
“We’ll see about that.” He walked to the side of the road and picked up a boulder at least six feet in diameter. He barely strained as he tossed it straight up at me as if it were a ball. I was ready though. I increased the gravitational attraction between the boulder and the earth. The boulder slowed to a halt just as it touched my feet, then it plummeted back toward earth. It landed on the troll with a loud bang, driving him into the ground and throwing up a large cloud of dust. However, when the dust cleared, the boulder was rubble and the troll climbed from the shallow crater that the impact had formed. He had barely been hurt. Damn, that cloak.
He looked up at me. “You’ll pay for that,” he snarled. Suddenly, he began to sniff the air, then he looked up at me smiling, “What is that I smell, is it a woman? Your woman?” Heather! I had to act fast now.
“Troll, you’re a fool. I killed Wotham, cloak and all. In a moment, I’ll have something heavier and sharper to drop on you, and cloak or no cloak you’ll be dead. And you can’t do anything about it because you can’t touch me.”
“Oh yes I can,” he reached for the Rod of Fire. “I’ve used Wotham’s magic, now I’ll kill you with your own.”
He laughed as he saw the look of terror on my face. He pointed the rod at me. For a moment, it glowed a bright red. Then it exploded in his hand. A blast of flame engulfed him. The blast expanded in a ball so high that I quickly had to fly higher to avoid it. Below, I could hear his final bellowed screams. When the flames and dust had died down, all that remained was a charred skeleton, and the cloak, undamaged.
I floated down and picked up the cloak. Behind me, I heard a voice, “What happened to him?”
“I told you to stay away,” I said without looking back.
“If you had died, I don’t know if I would have wanted to go on.” I was touched. Was that sentiment for me, or for her dead husband?
“I made the Rod of Fire. Of course, I’d made sure it would backfire on anyone who tried to use it on me. The cloak couldn’t protect him because the rod was in his hand, inside the cloak’s protective field.”
We mounted Alabaster and rode on to the dead troll’s keep. Inside, we found a dozen half starved men at a turning wheel milling flour. Some of them were my men. I rusted their chains out to free them.
We continued inside, and found more men in cages, including Lieutenant Rakel, my apprentice, and Heather’s husband. She fell beside him on the ground, hugging him to her chest. He was nearly dead, his body racked by pneumonia. It would be very iffy whether he would survive.
As I watched her hold him, I came this close to finishing the job. I had already decided that if her husband was dead, I would take Heather for my own. Killing him would have been so easy; she’d never have known. But it would ruin the nobility of what I’d done today, and it would hurt her too much. So, with the barest gesture, I cast a spell to assure his recovery.
I turned from them to try to focus on Rakel’s and my apprentice’s reports. My apprentice had been devastated by his failure. "I camped out near the foot of the mountain. None of my wards went off, and I never sensed the magic. He was on me before I could react; I never even got to use the rod.”
“A good thing too. You would have merely torched yourself. The cloak would have protected him, just as it allowed him to walk through your wards, and distorted all the magic in the area.” I turned back to Rakel, “Lieutenant, assemble everyone in the courtyard. It’s time to wrap this up.” I walked away to consider my plans.
Ten minutes later, everyone lined up in the courtyard, including Heather’s husband, who appeared to be recovering nicely. I looked at them for a long moment. My time with Heather was done. I felt a hole in my heart; the first time in years. I wanted to wall myself away from the pain.
“Lieutenant, take the men through the troll’s keep. Strip the gold, the jewels, and anything else of real value. Give each civilian and soldier here a gold piece, haul everything else back to the tower.”
I walked up to my apprentice. “Do you want another chance at your quest?”
“Oh, yes, Great One.”
“Good, take Alabaster. Ride across the Arakin mountain to Galnon City. Use your skills to find whether King Larissa can be dealt with. If you decide he can, approach him as my ambassador. Tell him I want to sign a treaty and open trade routes through these mountains. Give him Alabaster as a token of my good will. Regardless of what happens, return to me in one year.”
“Yes, sir,” he bowed low.
I next walked to where Heather and her husband stood. He was a man of medium build, nothing else about him stood out, except that Heather loved him.
“You are very fortunate in your choice of wives young man.”
“I know, your excellency. Thank you very much.”
I nodded and turned to Heather. I steeled myself and spoke evenly, without emotion. “It has been good knowing you. I’ve been very impressed with your determination to help your friends and family. To reward you, I’m giving you the troll’s keep and the surrounding land. I suggest your husband and you make an inn out of it. Hopefully, there will be much traffic here soon.”
She ran into my arms and buried her head in my chest. Crying, she said, “Thank you for everything. I’ll never forget you.”
I gently pushed her back and smiled at her. “Of course you won’t. Now, everyone, I have work to do.” I pulled the cloak over my shoulders, turned and walked out the gate and on down the mountain. Getting home on foot would take a few weeks, just enough time to figure out how to end that drought.
On the third Wednesday of every month, they walk the long road up the mountain. They line up at the gate and wait all day and all night. On the third Thursday of every month, they will be allowed to see the wizard on the mountain, who, from the top of his tower, rules as far as the eye can see. He meets all who come. He tries to help those who truly need it, just as he helped the maiden, who in turn helped him by bringing him off of his mountain.