In the shadows
All men are tested
The darkness clan
Soaks a banner in blood
They raise a war boast to their lords:
Zorak Zoran and all the black gods
They claim dominion of the surface
But we shall not let them have it
We are the men of the air and great sky
We unleash spears of lightning on them
And take their breath away
Air Day, Fertility Week, Earth Season to Fire Day, Fertility Week
Neela and Orvald, with the Vingan warrior Magana in tow, wait for Fastulv at the old troll stone, way up in the forested hills. They are carrying the essentials needed for a few days away from the stead, with packages of food and bundled cloaks to serve as blankets. Fastulv eventually rolls in, lopsided grin on his face and alynx padding at his heels.
Orvald and Neela notice for the first time that Fastulv’s expression is more a grimace than a grin. Since he bargained away some of his happiness to the spirits he has a shadow of his old humour. The scout agrees to lead the band to a safe campsite. Together, they trek carefully up into the hills, into the deeply wooded fringes of the troll lands.
Before they left the Blue Starling Stead, Orvald heard some disturbing news from the steadwives. The Lunar column that had passed by recently had stopped outside Goodhaven for the night. A story has come back that while there, a Kendring woman was assaulted by soldiers. No details were given, but by the time Orvald departed the Big House to go up into the hills, the rumour had multiplied to a whole group of women succumbing to the red troopers. It stuck the young thane that the fear amongst the steadwomen had been tangible.
Thinking forward to the troll hunt, the group is full of confidence, with Neela and Orvald especially bullish about their chances of bringing back troll heads. However, something nags at the back of Fastulv’s mind. The Night Brothers keep the secrets of troll fighting to themselves to discourage youngsters from haring off into the hills unescorted and getting themselves killed. They prefer to initiate candidates into their mysteries and control the hunts. But Fastulv and his kinsmen were defying convention and trying to make a name for themselves as troll-killers. They were playing a risky game.
Fastulv goes over what he knows of the trolls. Clan lore tells of the many breeds of troll, all the children of the goddess Deloradella (known by the Uz as Kyger Litor, the mother of the trolls). There are the Uzko, or Dark Trolls, who once dominated the world. Then there are the Uzdo, or Great Trolls, the powerful warrior slaves of the trolls, said to have been made by the fire witch Cragspider in her mountain to the north.
The Enlo are the wretched and stunted trollspawn, known by Orlanthi as ‘trollkin’. These Enlo are the product of a great curse upon the troll race’s fertility. Since the curse, fewer dark trolls have been born and more litters of Enlo have been produced until much of the population of the troll lands are these misshapen and pathetic creatures. They are said to be cowardly and permanently hungry, and serve as drudges and sword-fodder for the dark trolls.
There are stories of another breed of trolls: the Mistress Trolls, feared leaders of the race. However, none of these monsters have been seen in Dragon Pass for generations.
The group sleeps far enough from the troll land to feel secure, spending a cool night wrapped in blankets, with no fire to signal their presence. In the night they are disturbed by the passing presence of a bear, snuffling through the woods, but both the party and animal leave each other well alone.
Next morning, while Magana and Orvald don their battle armour, the thane and Fastulv concoct a plan. They decide to find a natural trap in the limestone hills into which trolls could be drawn and butchered. Fastulv finds such a place, a bowl-shaped defile in the forest with steep sides and a dead-end that cannot be climbed. He sets an ambush there, Orvald and Magana positioning themselves near the entrance, while Neela climbs into the branches of an Elm. They settle in for a long wait.
Fastulv and his alynx slink off into the forest, looking for trouble. If the trolls are abroad, Fastulv will break cover and try and pull them towards the ambush.
Fastulv makes his way uphill, through the trees and heavy undergrowth, up the sharp limestone terraces towards the place he believes the trolls may live. He is purposely incautious, trying to be noticed. The forest teems with wildlife and birdsong and there is little sign that anything else is there until a sharp little yipping sound can be heard further up the slope. It yaps briefly and then stops.
Then, looking across a small ‘V’ in the hills to the far side of a stream, Fastulv sights something moving through the forest. It is hard to make out because of the trees, but he can see enough. It looks like a column of giant insects; maybe five of them. Even from this distance Fastulv can see they are huge, giant beetles with carapaces almost the height of a man. As Fastulv and his alynx creep closer, they can see that there are bundles strapped to the backs of the monstrous creatures. A few small humanoid figures walk alongside.
Fastulv tries to parallel the column, remaining unseen, but suddenly the yipping sound is heard again, much closer now and still uphill. It is answered by other yips from the forest to the right and left, as if there were a line of beaters just up the slope, trying to flush him out. Realising he might be compromised, the scout climbs into a bush, nocking an arrow and ready to stand and shoot.
Fastulv hears the sound of something snuffling in the forest just ahead. Heart in mouth he stands and sees, a surprised troll standing in front of him. It is humanoid, with lanky arms and a great pot belly. But it is well-muscled and looks powerful, holding an enormous club. The darkness rune can be seen tattooed on one arm. It’s head is clearly inhuman, with a long animal snout and small tusks poking up from its lips. It is dressed in light cloth, with filthy fetishes made from leather and matted hair hanging from a necklace of stones.
Fasulv releases his arrow, seeing the shaft bury itself in the troll’s chest. With a small exhalation the creature collapses backwards out of view. At that, the scout turns and begins to run, breaking out of cover to head pell-mell down the slope towards the ambush.
The yips now start up from behind and on either side as Fastulv, his alynx bounding alongside, threatens to bowl himself over as he runs downhill. Chest bursting, he rushes into the ambushment, running to the end wall of the trap and turning, firing an arrow into the first thing to break cover.
The creature that takes the shot is small, just over half a man-height. It is humanoid, but with twisted features. The trollkin spins about under the impact of the arrow, but tries to swing its pathetic club at Fastulv. Four more trollkin burst out from the bush behind it, coming at the scout with clubs and knives made of bone. One of them sees the stricken leader and leaps on it, trying to bite it.
At this moment Orvald springs the trap and Neela, Orvald and Magana leap from hiding to press the pathetic trollkin against a wall of rock. The enlo go down fast, two to Magana’s and Orvald’s spear and the biting trollkin to a mighty swing of Neela’s hammer. Fastulv shifts to his spear in time to help finish the last of the attackers.
At that moment shots whiz out from the end of the dry gulch. Something in the heavy undergrowth is hurling small shot at them. Magana and Orvald, in lockstep, raise their shields while Neela and Fastulv take cover behind. They are suddenly aware that they are now bottled up inside their own trap. Neela and Magana yell to each other that they should try and get away. The shield-maiden has to pull Orvald back and stop him charging the place where the slingshots are coming from.
Gingerly, the group try to edge out from the entrance to the dead-end, the two armoured warriors shielding the others from the clatter of lead shot. Then a few of the slightly more brave trollkin break cover to swing their slings and launch shots at the Kendring clansmen. At this, Magana and Orvald leap on the things, trying to beat them down, and then with a shout Orvald orders everyone to run for it. They set off helter-skelter down the hill with the sound of yips and grunts in pursuit behind them.
Looking back, more shapes of trollkin can be seen and a few larger shapes loping on behind them with huge strides. Calling on the breath of Orlanth, Magana raises a wind to blow in the faces of the group’s pursuers. Praying to Mastakos, the god of movement magics, Orvald makes great, superhuman leaps across rocks and fallen trees. They all follow Fastulv, who with supernatural skill finds paths that keep the group exposed as little as possible to the zinging slingshots.
But in spite of all their magics the band cannot escape the ground-eating stride of the trolls behind them. At least three great shapes can be glimpsed now between the trees.
As one last-ditch attempt to throw the trolls off, Neela turns and casts the magic of the lowfires upon the forest undergrowth. Magana raises a wind to feed the fire and blow it towards the chasers. In moments flames are dancing back up the slope into the path of the trolls.
The sounds of grunts and yips behind them fade as the group finally makes their getaway.