Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

Two Stone Trolls and a Prince

by Glenn Hackney


It must have been after midnight. Sparky was barking again, probably at some small animal. And he would not stop. Diane got up. Her parents were in bed in the other room. She opened the back door and walked out, trying not to wake her parents, so she could find the dog and tell it to be quiet. It was standing at the door of the barn which was open. The cow was making quite a racket now, too. Sparky ran forward barking then quickly back. But Diane soon forgot about the dog for she heard a sound the like of which she had never heard before though she could not guess that it was anything other than the scream of a cow. She ran to the barn door, but it was too dark to see inside. So she ran back toward the house to get her parents who were already coming out as she neared the house. Her father told both of them to get inside and strode toward the barn with a woodcutter's axe. He kept it sharp but had never used it to fight.

Diane immediately obeyed, but mother ran after father pleading with him to not go. She stopped about halfway, though, with father yelling at her to get back. She just stood there neither helping nor leaving. In fact, she seemed to be doing nothing other than annoying father. He told her to get a lamp with which she returned in a few minutes still pleading with him while he ignored her. He could be stubborn like that. As he entered the barn, Diane wondered if he even thought about the danger the lamp posed. He backed out quickly, falling down and dropping the lamp. Then she saw it-- a tall, broad creature like a giant, gleaming pale in the dark as it advanced on father. His courage suddenly gone now that he stood face to face with it, he scrambled backwards. When he finally rose, one fatal blow came down from the creature's right fist.

####

Drip, drip, drip. Normally the sound would have had Liam tearing his hair out, but here in the otherwise silent darkness, it may have been the one thing that enabled him to retain his sanity, some of it at least. It was a wonder the Troll had not tried to follow him into the tunnel. Perhaps the stench of the cave had masked his scent. But then, it would have been a tight squeeze anyway.

The two Stone Trolls had taken up residence in a small cave in the foothills of the Hearken Mountains. This was not generally considered a safe thing. More shadows and larger caves were in the higher mountains, and a Stone Troll would die at the merest touch of sunlight, die and turn to stone and crumble due to wind and rain and lichen and moss.

Liam knew not how long he had lain nor how far he had crawled. Half a league, he guessed, driven on by his thirst even in the damp and by the fear of pursuit, though the tunnel was so small that he could not stand. He had slept in the darkness, from exhaustion. If it were light outside, surely they would be home now. Liam knew the mountains well, the tops of them that is, but had little experience beneath.

Even though he could not see, he decided to crawl a bit farther, hoping to find the source of the dripping. The stone was clammy beneath his hands, and he had not realized how much he had hurt his knees during the previous episode of crawling. It sounded closer now, just a little farther ahead. He rose up carefully, hunched over, and walked, both in his haste to reach the water and in his desire to relieve his knees. The left side of his head slammed into a rock. He had not been moving fast, but the rock was quite solid. There was no telling how much more rock was on top of it. He dropped to his knees with a groan, not even noticing their soreness, and put his hand to his head. He had not realized how easy it would be to hurt himself with what would have been a slight bump had it only been from a wooden table top or some similarly light object. He huddled down and put his head between his knees.

After a few minutes, the pain subsided, and he began crawling again, approaching the drip. When it was a little to his left, he cautiously put out a hand to the floor, making a gentle splash. It seemed to be only a puddle from the depth, but Liam did not know for sure that he was not on the shore of a lake. He quickly crawled to it and put his lips in to suck the water up, forgetting for a moment even the darkness. He tried to refill his waterskin for the journey back, but he could not for it turned out indeed to be just a puddle without sufficient depth. So he only got the skin about half full.

He turned around, defying the protest of his knees, and began crawling back in the direction from which he had come. He thought that perhaps even if it were day he could escape the cave since it was small. The tiresomeness of the dark and the cramping gave him courage. If the occupants pursued him into the daylight, so much the better. When he had crawled another hundred cubits or so, it seemed that his knees were screaming with every step. He stretched out on the floor and turned over, groaning again. After several minutes, he continued, crawling and resting then crawling some more and resting some more, until it seemed like getting out was taking longer than getting in. He figured it was probably his imagination.

He wished for light, even a small, dim lamp, anything, to see even just the floor. The darkness surrounded him and pressed in as if to smother him as he began to seriously wonder if he had taken a wrong turn, having expected to be back to the Troll cave in half this time, and had there been another tunnel, he would not have seen it. He contemplated going back and looking for another passage, but even if he did, he would not know if it was the correct one. At least the one he was on seemed to be leading toward the side of the hill from which he had entered.

He began to tremble slightly as he crawled. Beasts and Trows he had defeated, and he could survive in the mountains alone with only his knife. But under them? He increased his speed, not because he had forgotten bumping his head, but because it seemed that he could not stop himself. His desire for light and the open air and even for speed itself had mastered him. His breath came faster, and he felt faint.

Then his left hand bore down on the air. Being pitched forward by his own momentum with his knees and right hand sliding along the slick hard floor, he tumbled down in the darkness. Though the landing jolted his arms, it caused no great pain, besides those he had already, so he thought nothing was broken. At least, his arms had kept the fall from breaking his neck.

He had landed in something soft, even springy, and having neither the faintest idea what it was nor any light at all, he had no hope of finding out. After recovering most of his breath, he stood, holding his hands above his head just in case there was a rock above him. Then, he turned around, and holding his hands in front of him, he walked forward and felt for the wall. It was a little difficult to walk through the springy substance because it came up over his knees.

He found the wall soon for he had not fallen far and also found the shaft from which he had fallen. He tried several times to climb into it, but the rock was simply too slick for him to manage. Finally, after having fled from the Stone Troll, finding himself lost in absolute darkness, and being unable to even return to the tunnel which led ultimately back to the Troll cave, he sat down and sobbed. He knew that he should not cry, having now passed his sixteenth birthday, but he did not care.

After a few minutes, he stopped and just sat there in the silent darkness until he noticed that it was not silent. He heard a call like that of a bird then another from in front of him to his left. Then, from only several yards away, he heard a muffled rustling. The Trolls with whom he had lived said that there were creatures that dwelt in the caves beneath the mountains, but Liam had never spoken with any who told him that they had seen them. However, it was said that the Trolls of other clans had dealings with them. These Trolls were natural Trolls not the stone ones from which he had fled. Of these they were bitter enemies.

He rose and again tried to climb back up the shaft, not having any interest at all in confronting invisible beasts. The result was the same. Once, he had almost gotten his knee up, but every time, he slipped back down. Then, while he was sitting in complete silence again, he felt a prick as if something had pierced his shoulder. He reached for it immediately and removed it, feeling the warmth of his blood trickling down his arm. He jumped up in vain without being able to see where to run to or even whether there was anything to run from, but in a very little time, his legs grew weak. Then he fell to his knees. He was glad to land on the soft turf rather than rock. Still, he did not want to die alone there, left for whatever birds or beasts of carrion scavenged in that alien wilderness.

He heard another rustling ahead, much louder than the one before, then dainty footfalls and disturbance in the turf. And he knew that they were there. He had spent much of his life hunting and occasionally being hunted. One had to be wary in the mountains. Trows were common. But, though they were many, they were not strong. These, however, were not Trows for they were not so subtle, nor could even they, creatures of the night though they were, have found the paths in this deep darkness.

He reached for his dagger, but his hand was too clumsy to hold it. It was almost as if all of his limbs were asleep. His knife was snatched from its sheath on his right thigh. A cord of some sort was drawn about his ankles and held taut. He tried to fight, but it was all he could do not to fall on his face. Then his wrists were bound. More movement in the darkness. He was lifted, perhaps not even a cubit off of the ground, by many small hands and slowly carried before being dropped like a sack of grain that one was glad to be letting go. He hit a flat surface, harder than the material that covered the cavern floor but not as hard as rock, with a loud thud of which a part came from his head.

He was apparently on some sort of low cart or bier for he soon began to move, still with many footsteps about him. Also, from all directions came chirping and clicking almost as if he were surrounded by birds. The movement seemed slow to him because it was not as fast as he generally walked. It was however faster than he would have walked there, and he decided he was glad that he did not have to find his own way. He had not thought he would have an easy time getting himself out of these caves, and perhaps these beings, whatever they were, would show him the way out when they decided that he was not a threat, that is unless they had already given him a fatal poison. After all, he had feared at one time that he was going to be eaten by Trolls, and that situation turned out quite differently when they decided to foster him.

Twice the contraption got stuck, and twice there was scurrying and straining and sounds coming from the place that was stuck. When it came to its final stop, Liam did not know how long he had been traveling for he had lost the ability to even guess time. There was silence, then the chirping and clicking again but now coming from only one place.

"I was lost," Liam said in the Troll tongue which he was wont to use, "I was fleeing a Stone Troll and found myself here. I did not intend to disturb you." His tongue was clumsy and slow, barely able to make the sounds. More chirping and scurrying. Soon the floor seemed filled with creatures all about him. The strange sounds, muted, now seemed to rise like whispers from a thousand lips. Then, he heard words that he understood for they were spoken in the Troll tongue, but they were spoken with an accent that he had never heard and in a pitch higher than Liam himself spoke. Before, he had never even heard it spoken by any being which was not a Troll, save himself. So, the strangest accents he had heard had been that of Trolls from other clans.

"What are you?" it asked.

"A Man," came Liam's simple reply.

"I guessed as much given your appearance. What brings you down into our place?"

"Stone Trolls. I was fleeing them when I got lost." He thought it best to leave out the fact that he had been exploring their cave for clues on how to destroy them seeing that he did not know for sure whose side these creatures were on.

"How came you to speak the tongue of Trolls?"

"I was reared by them after my mother and father died." This answer was not sufficient, and he had to tell the story of the destruction of his village and how he was found by the natural Trolls that live in the mountains. After he was finished, he continued with a request, "Please, do you have any light?"

There was a little talking among the creatures. He figured that he had guessed correctly that the chirps and whistles and clicks constituted speech to them, though he could not imagine learning it. It was stranger to him than that of the Trolls had been when first he heard it.

There was a pause, then hope rose along with a fear that his mind was seeing things that were not there for he saw a faint red light which moved slowly toward him. His anticipation grew as it approached. It was produced by coals lying in a pan. These were poured out onto the ground, and something similar to kindling was laid on top of them so that it blazed up with an orange light. More material was laid on top of this, like to the wood which Men burn. As the fire grew, he was blinded again, and as his eyes adjusted to the light, the being with which he had been speaking took shape like a sculpture chiseled out of the darkness, and there before him he saw a creature odder than any he had ever imagined.

It stood, as Liam had guessed, about two cubits at the crown of the head which possessed two very large ears which stood upright with folds in them. Beneath these, it bore a short and broad hooked beak. It's skin was of an unpleasant pink hue and was completely bare, clad in neither fur nor feathers nor clothes. Indeed, it seemed to Liam to have no need of clothes because he saw no sign at all of sex. It had hands like those of a child, except that they ended in white hooked nails that seemed to be composed of the same material as the beak, and it stood on cloven hooves of the same color. But the most unsettling aspect of its appearance was its eyes or, actually, its lack thereof because the same pink skin that covered its body went down smoothly from its forehead to its beak.

It was good that Liam was not standing, otherwise he might have stepped backwards and stumbled into one of its many surrounding fellows which had spears pointed at him. Beyond those with spears were even more so that he was hemmed in by many on every side.

"Our appearance is strange to you. You may be assured that most of my companions have also never seen a Man." Then he gestured to one standing on a rock nearby, "This one sits beneath the king. You are not able to pronounce his name. I am called 'Nettie' by the Trolls with whom I trade. What is the name of your clan?"

"The Children of the Singing Brook," Liam answered.

The creature turned and spoke in its own language with the one who sat beneath the king then turned back to Liam. "You are to be taken into our village as soon as you are able to walk where you will be held awaiting the word of the king. You will be provided light. We have no food of Trolls or Men, but I trust our food will be acceptable to you."

Liam was pleased to find that food was brought quickly. With his being still quite weak, not to mention bound, a few of them helped him to sit up, then one fed him with a small spoon like a baby. The fair was bland to the eye, but to the tongue, it was acceptable. He began with a sort of thick mush that might have been made from a root crop such as a turnip or potato. From time to time he drank from a small cup something which he was not able to guess. He continued with what seemed to be roasted nuts and white leafy vegetables which were handed to him after his wrists were unbound. The mushrooms he would not eat. Finally, the meal was concluded with a sour pastry.

When he had nearly recovered the full use of his limbs and his ankles were loosed, he allowed those who remained to guide him into their village. He had decided that he might as well not resist, for the time being at least, seeing that there was no way he would be able to make it out by himself. Some of the fire was scooped up and placed back in the pan which one of the creatures held for him so that he would not stumble or bump his head.

He knew not how large was the cavern that he was in, but in its side were two double doors that stood open on the inside. These marked an entrance for the creatures' home. It seemed that they lived in a network of tunnels and chambers. He did not see any steps; this was probably a good thing as they would likely have been slippery. However, Liam would rather that the place have had a taller ceiling as he had to stoop for much of the way just to be careful. It was, however, well above the heads of his hosts in all places that he saw.

He came at last to a small barred cell. Liam wondered if these creatures would ever release him since they clearly did not have a great deal of familiarity with Men and did not trust him, but he walked in and sat down on the straw.

The Gnomes, however (for so he learned to call them), though they feared him, were not cruel. They kept a small fire burning for him just outside his cell. Liam cleared an area near it of straw. They brought him food once a day. Nettie came back to see him as promised and through Nettie he asked for more frequent meals.

His translator would return from time to time to check on him. The hours between the visits were very tiresome, sitting alone with just the fire and the guards for company. Nettie always carried what looked like a small cage when coming to his cell. On one of the visits, Liam asked what it was.

"This is a lamp. Come to the fire." Nettie walked over to the fire and held the cage down near it, and Liam looked inside. "Do you see that potato? Well, it is not actually a potato, but it is very similar."

"Yes."

"And do you see the cricket attached to it."

Liam looked as carefully as he could in the dim light before he answered, "No."

"Right there, the bump on the potato."

"I see a bump on the potato."

"That is the cricket."

It clearly was not a cricket, but Liam thought it wise to not argue.

"Crickets like these are spread all over our world. They attach themselves to the trees, and they sing. Their music is as light to us."

"How do you find your way by music?" Liam asked.

"How do you find your way by light?" came the response to which Liam had no answer.

####

Sitting alone, Liam had much time to ponder, and his thoughts turned to how he might destroy the Stone Trolls if ever he got out of the dungeon. He wondered if he could acquire a large mirror if perhaps the light of the sun reflected into the cave mouth would kill them. He had never heard that this had worked, but then again, he had never heard that anyone had tried. If a fire could be started in the back near the tunnel, that might frighten them but probably would not be enough to drive them out to certain death. Besides, they were quite strong, and Liam did not want them to be hurling heavy objects at him even from the inside.

It was during one of these musings that Nettie arrived unexpected, accompanied by the current guard and four very large Gnomes which came up to about the level of Liam's shoulders. These bore drawn swords and wore mail and helms which gleamed dully in the orange light. "The king requires your attendance," Nettie announced as the guard unlocked the door. Liam stood with difficulty given that he had not stood much for the last few days.

"Make haste," Nettie advised, "You would do well not to keep him waiting. He has no love for Men." With one of his legs being asleep, Liam had trouble complying with that admonition, but he did his best. When he was out of the cell, the four Gnomes that had accompanied Nettie fell in at his sides, two before and two behind. Leaving the prison block, he once again entered utter darkness; then his translator informed him that it was safe to stand up straight. He could hear the hooves of the Gnomes clicking softly on the hard stone floor. He still felt that he was about to bump into something.

"Why is it that your king bears no love for Men?" he asked.

"That is a very old story and well known among our people."

"The Great War," Liam interrupted.

"Indeed."

"He had an ancestor, a very powerful king of great wealth with two wives which is a rare thing among us and many children. This one was chosen by all the colonies that followed the Sidhe to lead a great host into your world to help in the war against the Jotun. Clearly, they could not easily find their way in that dangerous time using only lamps, so they trusted Men to lead them, a host of greater than three myriads.

"But the Men betrayed the Sidhe and the Gnomes. They led the Gnomes through a forest during what is day to you while Men that served the Jotun lay in wait among the trees beyond the lamplight. Many of the lamp bearers were shot down by your archers. Others tried to hold up the lamps, but many of these were cut down and the lamps smashed. When the crickets stopped singing, we had no hope either in fighting or in fleeing. Some Gnomes can learn to find their way without the crickets, but most have not developed this skill. The king alone was taken alive with no others returning to our world. The greatest known house of the Gnomes at that time was nearly annihilated, and to this day, it has never recovered its glory and its wealth or been cleansed of the shame of leading those of other colonies to fruitless death in the world above."

After a few minutes, they entered a large tunnel where Liam could hear the footsteps of many Gnomes. They went straight for quite a while before turning to smaller tunnels. He did not know how, but he knew which was larger and which was smaller. Then Nettie informed him that they were about to enter the king's hall where he sat in judgment and that it would be wise to kneel. Once inside and kneeling, there was silence for a long while before the king began to speak. Liam was surprised to learn that he also knew the tongue of the Trolls, but his words were forthright and not gracious.

"What brings you into my kingdom, descendant of traitors?"

"Your Majesty," Liam began. Though he had not been instructed in how to address the king and had not even considered that such a need might arise, he thought "your majesty" would be better than nothing at all. "I was simply fleeing from Stone Trolls and lost my way in the cave."

"Why were you fleeing Stone Trolls?"

"They were harassing villages and country families, and I was spying out their dwelling to learn how we might destroy them."

Liam heard a hiss. "I have known of Men who fought the Bastard Children in word but not in deed. Why should I not cast you into a chasm as a traitor?"

"I am no traitor for I am true, and though the blood of Trows is on my hands, I am innocent of ever shedding the blood of Gnomes for I have never touched one of your people for harm."

"Perhaps, you came not to spy the dwelling of the Bastard Children but our own. It is said that Men rape the world above and kill for pleasure and betray even your own kin."

"Yes, Your Majesty, these things are done by Men, but that is not my purpose here, and if you are an enemy to the evil creatures of the Jotun, then we are allies for it is the desire of my heart that I might destroy them. Send your people to search the tunnel from which I fell. They will find the cave of the Stone Trolls."

"I doubt not that they would find them for they are your allies, not us."

Liam's felt the heat in his face. "Were my dagger at hand, I would find you even in this wretched darkness and cut out your heart and hold it up dripping. This I would do though a thousand guards unseen encompassed me."

A blow came hard across his face. He sprang forward in a rage but stumbled over something and fell flat onto a rug. His ankles were bound again as were his hands, and he was carried by unseen hands back to his cell where he was dropped on the floor. Soon, the fire was put out. Then the damp darkness only and silence. As the pain subsided, he began to sleep.

When he awoke, his situation was the same. He knew not how much time had passed. He crawled about as a worm with no limbs in a vain attempt to find the water jug he had used before. As hunger gnawed him and no food came, he began to reconsider his response to the king. Perhaps, he should have kept his head. Eventually, though, he heard the patter of cloven hooves on the rock.

"I can tell you have spent time in royal courts." Liam assumed it was the voice of Nettie, though he did not have the experience to discern.

"I will not be called a friend of Stone Trolls and Trows. They killed my family."

"The king has spent the last day deciding what to do with you. Actually, your response may have saved your life. You clearly are not in league with them, that is, unless you are a very good actor.

"This is the king's decision. You have one chance for there is a service you may be able to perform. You must go with us to one of the deep lakes. There is a fruit that grows on it. The king wishes you to bring this to us. If you succeed, you shall be released, and we shall help you return to the surface. Are you willing?"

"Of course, anything to get back to the light."

"I will see that the king is informed, but heed my words. Do not threaten him again." After the Gnome left, his bonds were cut. The fire was also restarted and food and water were brought promptly.

####

Before they were ready to leave, Liam counted three days by the visits of Nettie who seemed still fascinated with him, having never previously met a Man. He was led outside of the Gnome tunnels. A copper lantern had been fashioned for him which used a fuel of a consistency between that of lard and that of wax. The mechanism of the lamp was like that of a candle except that the wick was longer, being curled up within the base of the shaft. When the fuel ran low, he could pull the end up with tongs and put more fuel in and press it around the length of the wick. The Gnomes were well acquainted with fire. They used it not for its light, of course, but for its heat, both in cooking and in the working of metal. It could be very difficult to start a fire in their world, but they could do so by means of an oily bark. Its flammability did not generally present a great hazard in the damp forests.

By the lamplight, he saw that a caravan of beasts of burden had also been prepared. Most of these bore supplies because the Gnomes were going to walk, but one was fitted with a saddle that had been especially designed for Liam. These beasts were of the same kind as the one that had pulled the cart on which he had been brought to the colony, being not entirely unlike elephants. They stood taller than the average Gnome at the shoulder but were quite docile. They were pink and hairless like the Gnomes, each possessing a trunk which it used for picking fruit, this being its primary food. Indeed, most of the party's supplies consisted of fruit and nuts. The trunks, which were each about three times Liam's height, the beasts kept curled up when they were not using them.

Their party included ten of the large Gnomes like the four which had first escorted him from his cell. These were all armed. Three others went with them, and Liam was glad to learn that one of these was Nettie. The tall ones took various positions around the caravan, and Liam upon the suggestion of Nettie put out his lamp then climbed upon the back of his mount where he was surprised by its lack of warmth. Then he began to move, trusting only the beast and those who led it.

Liam heard many sounds from the forest. He had just been about to ask Nettie how the trees could grow without light when he was distracted by a frantic squawking as of some beast being killed by another. Nettie did, however, tell him many things about the creatures there, not the least strange of which seemed to Liam to be the Gnomes, themselves. Some of this strangeness he learned when he asked what was the purpose of the fruit they were seeking.

"The king is old," Nettie told him, "and he has had no son."

"But did you not say that all of the Gnomes in the colony were his offspring?"

"They are, but we are not all kings and queens."

"I do not understand."

"Out of thousands of Gnomes that are born, maybe only one will become a prince. And therein lies the need for the fruit. Our healers know how to make medicine which helps young Gnomes to grow into princes. The recipe has been passed down among our people for millennia."

"And what is the need for me?" Liam asked.

"Ah, indeed the need for you is great. Do you remember the deep lakes I told you about?"

"Yes."

"It is only on one of them that the fruit is known to grow, and no one of our colony has ever gone down there and taken it and returned for it is very hot. This causes two problems for us. First, we cannot take our crickets down there because they stop singing. There are some among us that can find their way without the crickets. However, this is not the normal way, and it is more tedious and less precise. Second, our bodies do not endure heat as easily as do the creatures of the world above. Down there, without crickets, you would not have the same disadvantage that you have here. In fact, you might even have the advantage for you could carry fire. And the hope is that you are able to endure the heat."

Liam did not relish the idea of going down to the lake alone, but there seemed no other way to earn the king's goodwill. The thought occurred to him that, perhaps, he could even acquire some help dealing with the Stone Trolls if he succeeded in his quest.

"How will I know this fruit?" Liam asked.

"If you succeed, you will find it floating near the shore of an island in the lake," Nettie answered.

"If you cannot go down there, how did you discover it?"

"The world is full of wonderful creatures, Liam, yet not so much as it once was. A race with which Gnomes traded lived down there long ago, and they were not the deepest. Another lived still farther down. Be glad that our king does not require you to go there."

"What happened to them?"

"No one knows. A tale says that traders went to meet them at the usual time and they were not at the usual place. Soon afterward scouts went below, but they found them not. Of the deeper ones, we also know not. They may still be there, but we cannot go. We never had contact with them."

####

On the third day, Liam noticed that they were going downhill. Nettie told him they had actually been doing so since the day before, but the descent had become steeper. During this portion of the journey, he first noticed a lessening of the chill, and that night they made camp earlier than usual. It was more difficult there for the Gnomes to find their way during what they considered night.

For supper, they had small pies made with some sort of fruit that Liam, of course, did not recognize. Many of the foods they ate were sweet. He found this tiresome. One of the kinds of what Nettie called "trees" possessed a thick and sweet sap which constituted an ingredient in several recipes. Nettie had told him that if it were boiled down enough it could even be used to preserve meat. Some among the Gnomes hunted with poisoned arrows. The poison used, however, was not deadly lest the pricking of a finger or a wayward shot kill. They indeed kept a violent poison for battle but were not commonly in need of it.

Each member of the party had a blanket. They put these under themselves and used no covering, but they had been thoughtful enough to pack four thick ones for Liam, two of which he lay on while using the others as a covering. Even during the waking hours he often used one as a cloak. Tonight, though, in the warmth of this place even Liam had no need for covering, so he slept on top of all four.

By the end of the fourth day's journey, the air had become muggy. The next day, the Gnomes were using the little cages that Nettie called lamps. "In this place are beasts," Nettie told him, "that make their own sounds to see by."

The fifth day, Nettie spoke to him before they set out. "We will retreat lest the crickets die. Only two will be going with you today. They will take you to a shaft, one that leads to the lake. A spike has been driven before its mouth from which you can lower yourself on a rope. The way is long and narrow. You will need two lamps, one to carry and the other to set on the shore of the lake that you may find your way back. Use the larger of the lamps for this for if you cannot find the spot from which you entered the lake, you are lost. And do not set the lamp too near the shore lest the waters quench it for they rise and sink in cycles. It will be difficult for you to get down the shaft for you must take a boat, though it is not heavy. Take care that no fire touches it."

After breakfast, he put on a pack which one of the larger Gnomes had handed to him, as well as two skins. One was for water and the other was of similar make though it was larger at the mouth. This one contained fuel for the lamps. The pack contained fruit and the larger lantern and a scoop for the fuel.

"They will leave you after you reach the bottom, and they will leave the rope. There are no other passageways until you come to a wide place at the lake. When you return, do not concern yourself with the boat or with your food. Fill your pack with the fruit from the lake. Your guides will return to the shaft every few hours until you return. If you have not returned in three days, they will abandon you."

By the time Liam had lit his lamp, the main body of the party was already beyond the light, and Liam went on following his two remaining companions which carried the small boat between them. He was glad that it did not look heavy, but he was not glad that it did not look very sturdy. It also looked easy to tip because it was narrow. Soon the tunnel became even steeper. After only about half a league, it seemed warmer to Liam, but this might have been because he was walking, now. About this time they reached the end, at least the end of the part that could be walked. There Liam could see under an overhanging boulder a very short shaft leading in the same direction they had been going. And there he found, going down into the depths of the earth beneath the boulder, a hole; out of it, came a warm draft. Before it was an iron spike, as Nettie had said, which was caked in rust.

He tied an end of the rope to the ring on the boat, and taking it away from the Gnomes, he began to let it down the hole. He realized now why the boat had to be narrow though he was still glad that he knew how to swim. He soon decided that he had better also tie his pack to the rope for there might not be room for him if he were wearing it. He thought about just threading the other end of the rope through the arm holes, but he feared for the boat which he decided to untie. He tied the pack a few cubits from the end of the rope and the boat at the end. He then proceeded once again, letting down the boat first then the pack. It required most of the rope which was thick and knotted at regular intervals and quite long, more than ten yards. He secured the other end to the iron spike, using a knot he had learned from the Troll that had become his foster mother's husband.

He blew out the lamp. Then, after giving it several seconds to cool, he descended into darkness no greater than that he was leaving, and he had to rely on the rope for the stone was too slick to give resistance. He could feel the heat rising through the shaft and wondered if it would be too hot down there even for him. When he thought he was nearing the bottom, he climbed more slowly lest he damage the boat.

When the incline became less steep and he could almost crawl, he felt the pressure of his pack against his feet and pushed it gently. In this way, gently pushing the pack and the boat with his feet while not releasing the rope, he came at last to a level floor. He lifted his hand and felt nothing then felt through his pack to find the box that held the coals, opened it, took out a glede with a pair of tongs, and lit the lamp.

He could see little save the boat and the pack and the mouth of the shaft, but the air was pungent. The climb down had not been easy what with both the exertion and the heat. It was hotter than any summer day he had known, and he was already drenched in sweat. He put away the coals, donned the pack, and walked in a straight line from the hole hoping to come upon the lake quickly. Soon, however, he turned around and went back to the boat having decided that he would rather light the other lantern immediately than risk losing his way already. After doing so, he set it in front of the boat about a yard away. It really was not very long, though, before he stumbled into the lake, not being able to discern clearly in the faint light where the water met the shore.

He left the small lamp there and retrieved the boat and the large lamp. The boat was quite light, so he carried it without much trouble, though it was a little bulky, and laid it down. Then he untied the oar which was fastened to the side and put the boat into the water before setting the little lamp in its place and waded out. When he was about knee deep, he laid his pack down in the boat and climbed in, taking care not to tip, and with a backward glance at the other lamp for confidence, he slowly paddled out into the lake, hoping there were no thieves down there.

He noticed no movement made by the waters except for the ripples made by the boat and the paddle. It was not long before all he could see about him was the water. Then, almost before he saw them, the bow pressed softly into white leaves. They were like the leaves of maple trees in shape but not in size, being larger than the leaves of melon vines.

He put his left leg over the side of the boat to step out. It was too late when he realized that one should not assume that the waters around a floating island were shallow because when he began to shift his weight over the side of the boat, his leg went down along with the rest of his body, flipping the boat over and leaving him upside down underwater with the air coming out of his nose. It did not take him long to regain a proper orientation though, and he soon kicked off his shoes and began to tread water, coughing until he was able to take hold of the boat, hoping that the paddle was nearby. It was, and he swam the short way to the shore hauling the boat with the paddle underneath.

He climbed up amongst the leaves onto the springy turf, turned the boat over, and set the paddle in it. Now his mishap would have not been a great one had it not been for the loss of the lamp and of the pack. He was operating solely by touch, now. All he could see was the distant light of the lamp on the other shore. He felt the boat, finding the setting for the smaller lamp but not the lamp itself, and he had no interest in diving down into the water to feel for it, having no idea even how deep was the lake there and fearing to lose track of the boat; therefore, he climbed into the boat as carefully as he could and paddled around searching in a vain hope that the pack would be floating somewhere nearby.

He arrived at the stone shore disheartened at the prospect of having to go back in failure and return with more equipment. He carried the boat and paddle along with the lamp to the mouth of the shaft and, setting them all down again, began the ascent. When he had climbed nearly halfway, the skin containing his fuel got hung up as he tried to squeeze through a narrow place. Upon having his attention turned to this, he realized that he might be able to make a very crude lamp on the stone shore with a mound of the fuel and a cord from the rope, so he climbed back down into the light and got to work fraying the end of the rope. This took quite a while, and his thumb was sore after he was finished. At this point, he had what was essentially a very thin rope less than half a cubit long. He used the flame to sever it.

He went back to the shore and made a mound around his makeshift wick with some of the fuel from the skin. He had to dig it out with his hand since the scoop had been in the pack, but this was easy because of the heat. The fuel had been much firmer where the air was cool. With another cord, he made a small candle that he used to transfer the flame from the lamp to the mound. He thought also to use cords from the rope to secure the lamp to the front of the boat where the small lamp had been since the large lamp would not fit in its place. At this point, the flame had burned down so low into the fuel that the wick needed to be pulled up, and there being no tongs with which to grasp it; he blew it out and waited for it to cool, but not long enough. He pulled it up with his fingers and put some fresh fuel around it, burning himself in his haste. Then he relit it, dragged the boat back into the water, and began paddling to the island again.

The trip seemed much quicker the second time, and he was glad for he wanted to quickly get out of the heat. This time, he did not attempt to set foot on the island, but rather rowed carefully along its edge, looking for the fruit. Soon he caught sight of it. It was orange, almost the color of a pumpkin, but about the size of a honeydew melon and was floating on the edge. There were a few together, but two were more orange than the others. These were also among the largest, and Liam assumed they were the ripe ones. So he collected these only. In this way he continued collecting them as he followed the perimeter of the island until he had as many as he dare take in the boat which was more than he expected to take because they were lighter than they looked. This job would have been easier if he had had his knife. Then he went back to the land. He unloaded what he had and brought in another load, figuring that more might bring him more of the king's favor.

Having performed the task to this point, he left his lamp burning just outside the mouth of the hole and climbed back up where he waited in the darkness until he heard hoof steps. His guide stood still for quite a while, presumably waiting for Liam to pull up the pack. Then it started whistling and chirping in their strange tongue before at last it led him back to the other guide which Liam could hear because the two were speaking. Together they went back to the main party.

"Where are the melons?" came a voice from the darkness.

"The pack fell into the water." There was an awkward silence before a rhythmic squeaking arose from first one then a few of the Gnomes.

Then the familiar voice again, "I see you decided to go swimming." More squeaking. Liam's face grew warm.

"I fell into the water, and it slipped off," he said then hastened to add, "but I have more than a pack-full down by the lake if we have another pack." Then there was more speaking among the Gnomes.

"We will consolidate some of the remaining food. You can carry sacks back down. How many do you need?"

"Maybe two."

After receiving the two sacks, he returned to the shaft with his guides and climbed back down. Though he hated going back into the heat, he was glad for the light which came only from the mound now because the lamp had gone out. So, he lit it again. He had deposited the fruit in both bags and had already tied one of the bags to the rope when he realized it was so full that it might get stuck and the fruit might be damaged, so he took some out of both bags, tied the bags a few cubits apart since he had some extra length of rope, and climbed up before hauling the bags up. Then, he carefully lifted the fruit out of the bags and set them down before returning to take the rest up. With the last two loads, he hauled up the lantern which he had blown out.

On the evening of the second day back, they made camp near a wall. As was his wont at mealtimes Liam lit his lamp with a coal from the spare box. It was difficult for him to endure the darkness even from meal to meal. After supper he took a short walk, always fearing to stray far from the Gnomes. It was then that he stepped on a stick a part of which lodged itself in his foot. He took fewer barefoot walks after this. He did, however, during that walk, notice a streak of sulfur in the wall. He had seen sulfur back when he lived with his parents because it was kept as a weapon. That night he dreamed that a Stone Troll was standing on a sulfur floor, and when Liam lit it, the Stone Troll started dancing and wailing. Liam found it quite amusing. It was certainly preferable to the other dreams he had of the Bastard Children. Oftentimes he dreamt that his mother was being tortured by Trows,

Before breakfast the next morning, Liam lit his lamp and spoke to Nettie, "After we made camp, I found a sulfur vein. I might be able to use it against the Stone Trolls."

"What did you do?"

"I found a sulfur vein."

"You found what?"

"Some sulfur in the rock," Liam answered, nearly becoming exasperated.

"Sulfur? What is sulfur?"

Liam started to reply that it was a yellow mineral before realizing that the reference to color would not help at all. "It is a mineral that burns. It is one of the great weapons against the Jotun and their seed."

"Show me."

It did not take him very long to find it, and when he did, Nettie said, "Oh that. I did not know your word for it. We have some of that not far from the colony. If the king allows, it will be no trouble to get some for you."

"Do you think he will allow it?"

"I know not," Nettie answered, "but what you have done could redress great evil. His chance of having a prince is greatly increased."

"Is only one chosen to eat the fruit?"

"No. Tests will be given, both of mind and of body. Several will be chosen based on their success. And the fruit is not eaten either. It is mixed with milk and left in the shell. After it becomes thin and has a certain smell, it is drunk."

####

They crossed several brooks that day. It seemed that there were many in this land. When they came to them, the Gnomes would sometimes get down on all fours and take the water into their beaks, turning their heads up and drinking like birds. Sometimes, one would scoop water into a pitcher and pour it into the mouths of others as they knelt. One evening they camped by a lake. Liam caught Nettie standing as if looking out toward it. "I wish you could see," Nettie said, "the musics when they merge at the changing of the times. To me this is the most beautiful, when they echo off the lake and the fine leaves of the trees here scatter them."

During the night after the fourth day, they arrived back at the colony, being received with great excitement, especially when it was made known that they were successful, and they were brought in immediately before the king who had commanded that he be waked upon their return. Liam was allowed to retain the use of his lamp so that for the first time he saw the royal court room.

Three thrones were before him. Three steps went up to a platform on which the smallest was set alone. This one was vacant, and five more steps went to the higher platform where were set two more. Both of these were occupied. All three were made of white marble. On both platforms, large Gnomes like the ones that had gone with him on the journey appeared to be standing guard. These were armed. The Gnomes seated on the two thrones at the top were also large, the one to Liam's right less so than the guards but the one to his left even more so. Each was clothed, and each also wore a circlet of gold on the head, though Liam could discern no jewels set within.

He saw no wall to his left or his right, though he saw one behind the thrones. On top of the main floor before the steps which led up to the thrones, as well as under his feet, a great rug was laid. The ceiling was well above Liam's head, and from it, were hung many bronze baskets in which grew what the Gnomes called trees. These hung high enough so that he was in no danger of bumping his head. Again, there was what would have been an almost startling lack of color had Liam not already grown used to it.

Four Gnomes brought the fruit in sacks and displayed it, then the smaller of the seated ones spoke in the Troll tongue, "I am in your debt, Liam. You have surpassed my expectation. I would like to discuss your payment tomorrow if you would be willing to take your supper with me."

Liam was startled by this request but soon regained his composure or at least as much as one could have in the presence of a king and a queen. "Certainly," he answered, forgetting to say "Your Majesty".

The king, for that was the one that had been speaking, spoke in his own tongue for a moment then raised a scepter, and Liam was escorted from the hall. This time, to his great relief, he was not taken to a cell. He was taken, instead, to a room with a ceiling high enough to allow him to stand upright. It even had a bed. Nettie begged his pardon for its lack of length, though it was much longer than the average Gnome. The floor was polished stone. He was brought a meal, and an attendant was stationed outside of his door with a supply of lamp fuel. Liam wanted to keep the fuel in the room, but Nettie told him that being in the king's favor he was too important a person to be fueling his own lamp. However, a bucket of water with a dipper was set by a cup on a table.

When Liam stretched out on the bed, he found for himself the purpose of Nettie's concern over its size because his feet stuck out beyond the end. Yet, it was not this but, rather, his relief over the change in his circumstance that kept him from sleep even given his fatigue. He kept the lamp burning, having no wish to be back in the darkness, and the last thing he remembered before drifting off was wondering how he might use the sulfur to destroy the Stone Trolls.

When he awoke, the lamp was still burning, but he must have slept long for he felt refreshed. Before he rose, he noticed that there seemed to be no wash bowl in the room. He thought that perhaps his hosts did not wash their faces upon rising, having a very different type of face from that borne by Men. Upon the table, was a plate of the small fruity pastries that the Gnomes often ate for breakfast, that is, if one can call it breakfast, for it was the only regular meal of which the Gnomes generally partook, though they would sometimes eat a bit from time to time during the day. Suppers such as the one the king had invited Liam to were usually only prepared for feast days.

####

The banquet table was composed of two half circles which were carved into the stone of the hall. The ends did not meet so as to allow the servants room to pass between. The king sat in the middle of one of the semicircles with Liam on his left. In the center of the semicircle opposite them, sat the queen with Nettie on her left. Also at the tables, sat the Commander of the Army, the Commander of the Guard, the Chief Reader, the Chief Healer, the Chief Metal Worker, the Chief Artist, the Chief Forager, the Chief Hunter, and the Chief Treasurer. The one who sat beneath the king was not present.

Personal dishes were set before each of the guests, and the meal was served in courses. The passageway to Liam's right served as the entrance for the servants and the one to his left as the exit. The first course consisted of a sweet pastry, smaller than the ones they had for breakfast. After that, came small fruit like grapes in size. These were tart. For the third, which was apparently the main one, they had crisp stalks, not terribly unlike celery in both taste and texture, along with portions of meat. This was the first meat Liam had eaten since he had been there. Nettie described the beast as being one that dug in the ground with its paws and ate roots. The fourth course was of what seemed to Liam like bread; with this, were brought small cups of a sauce with vinegar in it which was for dipping. The fifth was a very salty soup made with the bodies of something similar to insects. He thought about how much effort it must have taken to catch them all. They reminded him of the grasshoppers he ate sometimes in the meadows during the summer. Finally, they had what Nettie considered a great delicacy. Each received one eyeball of some sort of predatory flying creature, and Liam received two. It had taken over a year to acquire enough for everyone at the table. Nettie informed Liam that after they were taken they were first salted heavily for preservation. In preparation for the banquet, they had been boiled to remove the majority of the salt then roasted with bitter seeds. The eyeball itself was also bitter. As for Liam, he had a lot of trouble with it and kept it down by taking deep breaths and thinking of a breeze blowing amongst the flowering bushes of the mountains. With each course, the servants brought a different type of tea or juice or wine, save for the first for which they brought only water and the last for which they brought nothing. Liam had been surprised at how much the Gnomes were able to eat when they chose. They could easily store up food for later use and would not eat much for the next few days.

After the last course, the banqueters were entertained by a trio of singers. Of course, Liam understood their song not at all, but it sounded intricate. The king explained to him that each of the singers sang a different verse at the same time. The song had fifteen total verses, so the time it took to sing them all was the same as if only one Gnome had been singing only five verses. The listeners, being very skillful at parsing sounds, were able to understand each verse of the three almost as well as if it were being sung alone.

After the singers were finished, the Chief Reader read a story to them. The story was not like those read by Men, at least as far as the mechanism of reading was concerned. As Liam was later to discover, it was written on hard spheres, the insides of which bore protrusions that represented words while the outsides bore small hexagons that fit together. The reader held two little hammers for striking. Each protrusion was directly on the other side of one of the hexagons, and when the reader struck its associated hexagon, the sphere emitted a distinct sound. At least, that is what the king said. As for Liam, many of the notes sounded the same. Only a small portion of the members of the colony were readers as this skill was quite subtle, involving also the making of the spheres, but all learned to recognize the sounds of the different characters.

Though he was initially fascinated with their method of reading, he soon became bored, being aware only of what seemed to him the monotonous tinging of the hammers. He was impressed, however, with the way the reader was able to roll the sphere with its forearms without disrupting the rhythm of the hammering. The sphere being read was set in a smooth depression that offered little resistance. The king informed Liam that he would be expected to give the story of the quest for the fruit to the readers.

After the reading, remained but one order more of business. "Tell me, Liam," said the king, "what your payment shall be, and I shall pay it. Do not say you wish only to go home."

"Your Majesty," he began, though he still knew not how he should address the king, "I desire only sulfur, that I might destroy the Stone Trolls." At this point, Nettie interrupted and conversed with the king in their own tongue.

"Nonsense," replied the king, "this is too mean a price for such a deed as yours. Since you know not what to ask, I will grant you a gift such as is seldom given to those who are not of our race. It is a little bit of knowledge. There are rhythms that when played will call any Gnome that hears to seek you, and I do not think it will come to do you harm. But I caution you; this is a high gift. Do not use it lightly, and never summon a Gnome for harm. For that, any king would kill you."

Liam appreciated the gift and thanked the king, but at that time he would have preferred the sulfur. This preference, however, he kept to himself. "You do not know how great a gift the king has given you," Nettie told him while escorting him back to his room, "never in my lifetime has he permitted any who is not a Gnome to be taught this."

"I am just glad to be going back home," Liam replied, "I just want to see the sun again."

"Oh, you will not be leaving yet. Your quest is a matter of historical importance and must be recorded by a reader."

Liam sighed. "How long will that take?"

"Not long, we should be done in about a week. Every member of the party must give an account three times. This is done individually. That should take only three days because each member will be assigned one reader for a day. For each of the next two days, the member will be assigned to a different reader. Unfortunately, since you are unable to speak directly with a reader, I must translate for you. When all of the initial manuscripts are complete, we must all convene to discuss the final version."

This, of course, was not the news that Liam wanted to hear; nonetheless, he sighed and accepted his fate, recognizing that at least he preferred this to being kept indefinitely in his cell or being executed. When he retired to his room, an attendant was at the door like the night before. Once again, Liam left his lamp burning. He soon went to sleep but woke after a few hours. It took him several minutes to realize that he was hungry. Then he requested food from the attendant who left and returned with another Gnome. Each bore a large bowl containing several pieces of fruit, certainly more than he could eat at one sitting. Apparently, his appetite had become something of a legend among these creatures. After eating a few pieces, he did become a bit sleepier though the sleep itself was slow to return.

The next morning, the attendant awakened him before he would have preferred. It gave him his breakfast pastries and soon escorted him to a higher level where a reader and a translator who was not Nettie awaited him in a writing room. The room had both a lamp and a stool for Liam's use. It also had several narrow tables. Liam had to recount first a summary of his journey which the reader wrote with a copper stylus on slabs of a material not entirely unlike clay which lay on the tables. This type of writing was similar to that of men for the reader could decipher it by the movement of fingers over the etching. Liam had to give the story in as much detail as he could remember. There was quite a bit of questioning at this stage, and it indeed lasted for the better part of the day.

That afternoon, Nettie escorted him to a blacksmith. It seemed that he was getting another gift because the blacksmith, having heard that Liam was a hunter, had offered to make a spear for him. The smithy was unlike any that he had seen. It had only a very small fire which rose sputtering through a hole in a sort of table. "How can you melt iron with only that small fire?" he asked.

Nettie replied, "It is very hot. Beneath the hole is a large supply of fuel of the same type as that which is in your lamp but mixed with an oil which thins it. These two are also mixed with the bark of a certain tree which burns not easily but very hot. The oil and lamp fuel are easily lit but get hot enough to start the bark."

While with the blacksmith, Liam performed various strength tests, and the blacksmith took note of his height and proportions. "He will make a spear to fit you," Nettie said, "with a head of metal that surpasses that of Men and that it will not soon need to be sharpened again."

####

As Nettie had told him, each day he had a fresh reader; however, Nettie had been mistaken on certain points. Since he required a translator, the king decided that greater care was needed in the transmission of his part of the story. So he was given not just three days but five to complete the task, leaving him with five manuscripts, and Nettie was never chosen as his translator for the writing. He had a new translator each day to go with each new reader. Then, there were not just one but two days of arguing between the members of the party with all the involved translators and readers present, plus the Chief Reader. At last, three days after this, the story was completed in the spheres. The king declared the second day after the completion of the story a holiday, and there was feasting and singing and the giving of gifts. Nearly all of the Gnomes heard the story since various readers played it outside the home tunnels for different groups. Because the number of Gnomes in the colony was too great for them to all gather close enough to hear at one time, it was played in sections as the different spheres were transported among the gatherings.

The next day Liam spent learning the music that the king had promised him. The morning after this, he broke his fast with the king with a merry heart hoping at last to see the light again. Upon exiting the front gate of the village amid the singing of a choir on the outside, he noted that his request had been granted, seeing that a cart stood laden with sulfur ground to powder, much more than he would have asked for. It was at this time that the blacksmith with great pomp presented him with his new spear. It had a hard and shiny brown shaft. Liam was surprised by its lightness.

He actually stayed then for the rest of the day because his thoughts about how to defeat the Stone Trolls finally began to come to completion, and with the help of Nettie, he prepared a concoction with the sulfur and the blacksmith's fuel, then he spent the night, preferring to be rested when he started the journey which he hoped would end in the destruction of the Stone Trolls. Nettie and one other who knew the Troll tongue escorted him on the journey as did five of the close servants of the king and queen and three others who were hunters. They left again in a caravan with Liam riding and his concoction being carried in bags on the beasts.

####

It was less than half a day's journey back to the tunnel from which he had fallen. This time, the box he used for standing on made it considerably easier to get back up, even though he still fell the first two times he tried. The rock was quite slippery at the mouth and little grew there. Only the two translators went with him into the tunnel, and even they had a little trouble getting up. So he helped them with a rope. For the rest of the way, he crawled without light and depended on his companions. It seemed much shorter going back with them to guide him than it had coming in when he was lost, but it still hurt his knees. He tried tying rags around them, but he found it so much trouble to keep them in place while he crawled that he gave up and took them off. When he began to see light ahead, he asked the Gnomes to wait and continued alone because he feared that the Stone Trolls would be able to hear the little creatures that sang for them. After seeing enough light to determine that it was day outside, he went back to his two guides and then back with them to the main party to bide his time that he might sneak into the outer cave while its inhabitants were abroad at night. He had not had a chance to explore it the first time he had been there before he was interrupted by the return of one of its denizens.

After several hours, he returned, this time with them all. Each Gnome bore a pack containing some of Liam's sulfur concoction. They had a convenient way of traversing the small tunnels. Their arms were shorter than their legs, but they could still walk on all fours after the manner of beasts since their knees bent like the knees of fowl and did not bump the ground when they crawled. Each also held with its beak a cage containing one of the singing creatures. Once again Liam had the others stop after he saw light.

This time he crawled all the way to the mouth of the tunnel. He could see nothing in the cave having only an awareness of the dim light. He opened his coal box, took out a glede with a pair of tongs, and lit his lamp. He held it out looking this way and that and hoping that his enemies were not waiting for him to crawl out before attacking. Not seeing them, he crept out until he could stand then began to search the cave carefully. About fifty cubits ahead was the entrance, fresh air and natural light, even if it were only starlight. But that was outside; inside, the stench was even worse than before. To the right, from his perspective as he had come from the tunnel, was a pile of bones, as well as the cause of the smell-- a half-eaten corpse, Man or Woman Liam was not sure. On the other side of the chamber, a few mattresses lay pushed together, doubtless they had been taken from the farmhouses the Stone Trolls had plundered, their former owners represented by the bones.

####

When day came, he sneaked out of the hole again, bearing a torch. This part of his plan was very dangerous for if either of the Stone Trolls had waked, he might have nabbed Liam before he could get out into the sunlight or back into the tunnel. He made four mounds of his mixture, dumping them out from skins. He then crept to the mattresses on which the Stone Trolls were sleeping. Each of Stone Trolls was about the size of a natural Troll, the type among which Liam had lived, that is about six cubits in height, and each bore a great shaggy and unkempt mop of hair, the one red, the other brown. They were not covered in fur like the natural Trolls, and their skin was of a sickly pale hue with a hint of grey. Their appearance was not entirely unlike that of very large Trows.

At their heads was a water skin which he set outside the cave. Then he went around to the far side of the mattresses and began starting fires on them. The first Stone Troll to wake was the one nearest the flames. His hair had caught on fire. Liam immediately hit him in the face with the lit end of the torch and ran for the cave entrance. It did not catch him because it had to stop to beat the flame out of its hair. It did take up the pursuit, however, and Liam noted that when he realized that he was going perilously close to the cave mouth he tried to halt. But such weight traveling at a great speed is not easy even for a Troll to stop. He was still going forward when he turned to stone, beginning first with the left hand that was slightly extended and spreading quickly throughout the body. Then the whole thing came crashing down just outside, not far from Liam.

It was clear now from the bellowing inside that the other had awakened. He came near the entrance, but not as near as the other had, and peered out. Upon seeing Liam, he began cursing and threatening. At this time, the four regular-sized Gnomes came suddenly out of the tunnel, two bearing each a torch and a cage and the other two bearing deep, broad-bladed shovels. The ones with the torches lit the mounds which quickly flared up. The others each got a shovel full of a mound, the remaining Stone Troll still not having even noticed them yet, and, rushing upon him, they threw the fire on him. After his clothes had caught, they quickly climbed back into the hole. The Troll, screaming, turned towards the mattresses and, seeing the fire still there, turned again and began running straight for Liam. Then Liam beheld as he had in the Gnomes a sight the like of which he had never seen before, because as his enemy turned towards him and he saw his face lit by the fires that blazed on his body, he saw the sight not the oddest but the most dreadful that he had ever seen as it seemed that he beheld the face of a great and evil Man whose life was drawing to an end without hope. But this was only for an instant, and it turned out the same as with the other. When it got near the door, it turned to stone then fell, and the fire burned some of what was left of the clothes then went out.

####

Along with the Gnomes, he searched the cave for spoil. They found two partially burned bags of copper and a smaller one of silver under the ashes that had been the mattresses. Various articles of bronze and copper were piled in a corner with some branches laid carelessly over them as if that meant they were hidden. They also found two axes, a spear, a war hammer, three knives, and two daggers, but Liam's dagger was better anyway. One of the knives, however, was superior to his, so he kept it. The Gnomes were at first unwilling to take anything, but he insisted. So they agreed to take the bronze and copper articles that were not weapons to remake into forms that would be useful to them. Liam also happened to find one plain golden ring; he suggested that they take it back to their queen.

At last, he bid farewell to Nettie, and the Gnomes returned to their home in the bowels of the earth. Nettie did make a brief reappearance with his spear since they had left it in the tunnel. Liam then carried away the plundered weapons that he could and sold them in town before returning for more. He also, of course, kept the coins, and though he wanted to take the heads of his enemies into town, when he had tried to break one off with the war hammer, it had proved so stubborn that he had given up. Then, when he informed the mayor's secretary of his accomplishment, he received only laughter for his reward. Well, he thought, they will figure it out eventually.

THE END


© 2010 Glenn Hackney

Bio: Glenn Hackney was born in Macon, Georgia in 1966 and now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. He received a bachelor's degree in biology in 1988 and a non-thesis master's in microbiology in 1995. Glenn's novella A Shadow in the Hills appeared in the July 2009 Aphelion.

E-mail: Glenn Hackney

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.