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Copyright Laurie Mahaffy 1999

The Journal of Talae Coldfoot of the Tribe

As Translated by and Annotated by:

Torvald Bonecruncher 

5th of Rebirth:

Well, we didn #146;t really get anywhere trying to figure out why those horses bolted past the village. The only thing we could agree on was that something had frightened them very badly. Whatever it was that had chased them was still unknown, but we were sure it must be something very large.

Whatever it was, it did not come close to the village last night. We were all as tense as an overdrawn bowstring but our fears were not realised. I managed to get some good rest after I had resolved to track the horses in the morning. Leythan got some rest after being turned down several times by the young women of the village. He never seems to get tired of trying for sex. I wonder if that is a Were trait or just a male thing!

Antonio and Liulni were sitting around the fire discussing the nature of our unseen foe and going over strategy for defeating the bandits when I drifted off to sleep. When I awoke, shortly before sunrise, they were still arguing over some point. I rolled over for a few more winks.

At breakfast I talked to the party about what I planned to do next. "I think we need to track the horses back to where they came from,"

"We can #146;t leave the village again," Tony replied with some heat. "We have agreed to deal with the bandit threat to this village. If we go off chasing down every trail around here we are leaving them open to attack."

"Whose horses do you think those were, Tony?" I asked. "That is probably the leg of a bandit that we found last night!"

"If that #146;s true, then maybe the bandits are all dead," Leythan piped up. "I think Talae is right. We need to backtrack those horses and make sure our job is done."

"I agree with Leythan," Liulni commented quietly. "We need to know what the status of the bandits really is. I #146;m not very happy about having a large, unknown predator out here with us, either. Besides, what good is saving the village from bandits if a big monster comes and eats them."

"All right then," I said. " We mostly agree. After we finish eating we will backtrail the horses and just see what we can see. Tony can stay here and guard the village if he likes."

 

***

 

Two hours later I was bent over the parched grasses trying to find the trail.

"I don #146;t think this is the way they came!" Leythan said for the tenth time.

"Well, if you think you can do better, be my guest!" I snapped. Leythan was really on my case today and I was tired of it. I had lost the trail twice before. There had been no rain for so long that it was hard to track. If he felt he could do better, I was more than willing to let him try.

"The way the grasses are bent over here shows that the horses ran from this way," Leythan gestured in a northerly direction. He started to move in that direction with a jaunty step that suggested that he was sure that we would follow. I felt that it was the wrong way but I followed after the party. Leythan just might be right. With the difficulty I was having following the trail we had nothing to lose by trying another direction.

We had trudged along for another hour with no results when Liulni suggested that we stop for lunch. I was sitting on a rock enjoying my cheese and fruit, being careful not to eat any meat. For some reason eating red meat makes me feel sluggish. Ever since I spoke to Ebu I have had to watch what I eat. I remember #133;

"Pass me another slice of that roast, would you, Rock?" I said.

The bulky troll tossed another slice at my plate. It landed in my gravy and splashed the front of my tunic with brown sauce. Great! Now I would have to go change before afternoon inspection. I finished up my lunch quickly and was just getting up to go change when the hall erupted into chaos. It was a Call to Arms! The Church was under attack!

I stumbled out to the yard with all of the other Paladin trainees and prepared to defend Ebu. In the yard were all of the drillmasters and seasoned fighters. As my scrambled wits sorted themselves out I realised that this was not a real attack. It was yet another test for the rookies to pass.

Determined to show Ebu that I was ready to serve I quickly armed myself with the blunted weapons used in practise and took position in the just-forming skirmish line. The Master at Arms was shouting instructions to us. The #145;attackers #146; were already too close to be repelled by missiles so we all waded in for close quarter fighting. I chose the closest opponent and charged with my trident, keeping my net in reserve for defence against his broad sword.

His first cut was a mighty overhead swing. I tried to catch the edge between the tines of my trident and twist, hoping to disarm him. Too late, I realised that the overhand was just a feint. With a deft twist of his wrist the drillmaster avoided my clumsy parry and swung the flat of his blade at the side of my head. Instinctively I brought my left hand up to block with my net. Too late. A bloom of pain exploded in my head #133;

Sulphur! My head jerked to the side. My eyes flew open. I saw white clouds in a sapphire sky. "I think she is coming around now," a voice close to my ear hissed. "I thought this one was skilled enough to avoid that old trick."

Now I could recognise the smell of the packets used to revive cadets who have been knocked out. I cautiously raised my head. I would have done better to lie still. Blackness threatened to close in again. I fought back the pain and darkness through sheer stubbornness and looked around.

The courtyard was littered with moaning cadets. Some were bleeding from small cuts and one seemed to be holding his arm at an unnatural angle. I guessed his arm was broken. The mock battle seemed to have gone against the defenders. Ebu #146;s Holy Church would have fallen to the enemy had this been more than a drill. I hung my head in shame. How could I have been caught out by the simple trick of the drillmaster? I was still unworthy to serve.

Later, after the Master at Arms soundly dressed us down, I lay in my cot thinking about my failure. In drill, I was always one of the best in the class. Why was I so slow and clumsy in the test today? I replayed the day #146;s events in my mind hoping to make some sense out of it. I had just finished a lunch of roast beef and potatoes when the alarm sounded. I ran out #150; wait a minute! As I thought back to my other failures I realised that many of the times that I was bested in combat it was right after lunch! Or dinner, or breakfast! Could that be it?

Could it be that I was sluggish after eating? But no #150; I remembered that one of my most stunning victories, when I won the open melee, was first thing in the morning. I remember it well because after I had won, all of the porridge that I had eaten for breakfast ended up all over the ground. The drillmaster said not to worry - that it was just a nervous reaction that most people get after such a tense fight. He said that I would get used to it and not puke so much after a while.

Maybe it is not that I have just eaten but what I ate that is important. The next open melee I was hit hard in the stomach very early in the combat and lost my steak and eggs, as well as the fight. In fact I think that I lost badly only after eating meat. Hmmm #133;

It #146;s been two weeks since I started my diet. No meat; only fish, grains, fruits and vegetables. In all that time I have not had a single sluggish incident. My fighting skills have been consistently good. Good enough to attract the attention of the Master at Arms himself. The attention of the Master is not an unmixed blessing #133;

 

"Talae, are you deaf?" hissed Leythan, with a poke to the ribs. "I #146;ve already asked you twice if you think that that might be smoke."

Brought roughly out of my remembrances, I squint in the direction he is pointing. "Yes, it does look like smoke. It could be the bandits #146; camp. Let #146;s get closer and have a look around."

Liulni and Tony finish up their lunch and we head out. The sun is warm on my back and the air is fresh. If we weren #146;t on such a serious errand I could lose myself in the freedom of the open country. Crack! I turn quickly, weapon to hand. Tony gives a sheepish grin and looks down at his feet. A dry branch is neatly snapped in two under his boot.

"Sorry," he says. "I just can #146;t seem to move quietly."

"Well, you had better learn," growls Leythan. "If we were closer to the smoke you could have got us all killed. In fact I think it would be best if you all stay here while I check the lay of the land."

"No, I #146;ll do better," says Tony. "We shouldn #146;t split up!"

"Just stay here! I #146;ll be back soon," Leythan grates at Tony as he spins away and disappears into the underbrush.

"That arrogant son-of-a #133;" Tony splutters.

"Take it easy, Tony," Liulni soothes. "He is a little full of himself, but he does know what he is doing. He #146;ll be back soon and then we can hear his report and make a plan."

"A little full of himself! If his head got any bigger he would have to turn sideways to get through doors!" Tony fumes.

I just check my weapons and wait. I agree with Tony. I really don #146;t think too much of the Were. He is part of our party because my superiors ordered me to work with these unbelievers, but I would never choose to include him.

After what seemed like days, but was probably only a half an hour, I heard rustling off to my right. As Leythan #146;s head poked out of the shrubs I lowered my harpoon to a less threatening angle.

"Well," I demanded, "what did you see?"

"I only saw the smoke. There didn #146;t seem to be anyone around but the smoke was coming from the entrance to a cave. I couldn #146;t get close enough to get a good look because there was no cover close to the entrance. The cave is in the north wall of a small valley," he said as he bent to sketch in the parched dust at his feet. "If we follow this ridge line for about a half a mile and then turn north we should crest the hills on the south side right across from the cave. There was a big tree about a hundred yards from the opening with enough cover for someone who knows what he is doing," he glanced at Tony, "to get there and watch. I think I should go and watch the cave for a while and the rest of you can wait at the top of the ridge to reinforce me when I start to take out the bandits."

Now I really agreed with Tony. The arrogant bugger thought he could "take out" the bandits himself and only needed us as "back-up". Well, I would play along with his plan. It really was a good idea to know your enemy, and watching for a while before attacking was always prudent if you had the time.

After Liulni had calmed down the insulted Tony, we moved out. It was tough going for that half mile along the ridge. The undergrowth was heavy and we had to fight for every yard. Branches seemed to grasp at my shirt. The roots of trees clutched my boots and threatened to trip me every ten steps. Moving quietly was not an option, even for someone who "knew what he was doing". The ridgeline sheltered us from view and hearing, thank Ebu. We made enough noise to alert a deaf Troll to our presence!

Leythan finally judged that we had gone far enough and signalled for us to quietly move north, up the hill. The scrub thinned out a little as we neared the top. I dropped down on my belly for the final summit approach. Digging hands and toes into the dusty soil I wormed my way up. The view downslope was not great. There was a gorse bush right in my face. I tried to move but as I shifted left I brushed Tony. He had been quite quiet in his approach. I hadn #146;t heard him coming.

To my right was Liulni. I was stuck with the bush. Through the wiry branches I could just make out the tree that Leythan had chosen to observe from. There was no one in sight. If this was the bandit camp they were either very quiet or all out on a raid. Maybe they were raiding the village. What if Tony was right? I was about to whisper to Tony that we should think of going back when I heard a sharp crack!

I looked up and saw Leythan bounce off a branch about ten feet up the tree. That arrogant worm! After chewing up and spitting Tony out for making noise, he falls out of the tree that he is using as an observation post. So much for knowing what he #146;s doing! I hope the bandits really are away from camp or Leythan #146;s fat is in the fire.

Any chance at surprise that we might have had was blown so I broke cover and ran for the cave. I was just about to say a prayer of thanks to Ebu when I saw the troll. It seemed to be nearly as tall as the tree that Leythan had fallen from, and as wide as a Lizzard. Dressed in rags and screaming defiance, the troll made it clear that he was out to kill Leythan. The speltch that he carried was a fearsome weapon indeed, a huge club capable of flattening a horse. Shouting to Leythan to get up, I changed course to intercept the monster.

In the time that I had moved ten feet closer to Leythan, the troll had gained twenty. I would not make it to the helpless sap in time. Taking careful aim, I hurled my harpoon at the troll #146;s head. I missed his head, but the shot did graze its arm, at least. The killing blow aimed at Leythan #146;s head was deflected to his shoulder.

My second shot quickly followed the first, but it went altogether wide. As I drew two new weapons and assessed the situation, I saw Liulni and Tony coming in fast to intercept the other two trolls. Three trolls! We were in deep trouble! I activated a rune in my boot and leaped the last thirty feet to straddle Leythan. He seemed to be disoriented. So much for our great scout.

Wham! That really hurt! No time to think on Leythan #146;s folly, that speltch was coming down on me again! I looked way up into the ugly face of my adversary and saw hatred, rage and a huge club! The speltch descended again. My left hand which was holding my net seemed to rise on it #146;s own to block the blow. As the force of the troll #146;s strike was deflected, his balance shifted. This was my chance! With a mighty upward thrust I planted the tines of my trident squarely in the troll #146;s chest. Warm blood gushed over my fingers. That was it for this troll. He was dead but didn #146;t even know it yet. My trident, however, seemed to be stuck in his chest #133;

Using a manoeuvre that I learned from my Master at Arms in Smashtown, I lunged backward while maintaining a grip on my trident. The next step, in theory, was to plant my feet in the chest of my opponent and use the leverage and weight of his body to flip him over my head, to roll and finally come up with my weapon. This troll weighed too much; I nearly ended up pinned.

Abandoning the stuck trident I quickly drew another and checked the situation. Leythan was finally getting up. Tony, unbelievably, had just doubled before my eyes! I rubbed my eyes, puzzled. That was strange, I hadn't been hit on the head, why were my eyes blurring now? Then I spied Liulni; she was frantically gesturing as a troll bore down on her.

With a smooth side arm motion my trident flew toward Liulni #146;s troll. I caught him in the back. There was some blood, but the monster wasn't distracted from its charge. From the corner of my eye I noticed a blur of motion. Leythan was streaking to Liulni #146;s aid. Before the Were could reach the combatants, the troll dropped! I mean, he just fell on his face! Liulni had finished the last gesture of her spell and put the huge troll to sleep!

As the dust from the troll #146;s fall settled, I drew my last trident and rushed to help Tony. Before I could get there, the troll #146;s speltch dropped. Tony partially blocked it with his shield but I could see that his left arm was hurt. Realisation dawned, and I became aware that my left arm was less than functional. My hand was still gripping the net, but my arm hung useless! The pain rose and fell like gusts of wind as I ran, but I still tried to help my friend.

Just as I arrived, Tony scored a good hit on the troll. Its leg seemed to buckle but the thing refused to fall. Standing on one foot, the troll raised its speltch over its head. An arrow suddenly sprouted from its armpit. As the blood ran down his side I turned in time to see the other Tony! There was no time to sort things out; if I was hallucinating, I just hoped I didn #146;t kill anything friendly. Another troll was rushing the duplicate Tony. We must have attacked a family group!

Tony seemed to be holding his own with his falchion so I rushed over to help the other one who had only a bow. That Tony got off one last shot before the troll was upon him. If he hit, it didn #146;t seem to matter. The troll hit him squarely with the huge speltch and the double went down! I jammed my trident into the troll #146;s unprotected back. The scream that rent the air nearly shattered my eardrums but the wounded troll turned and swung at me regardless.

I managed to dodge the strike but lost my footing and almost fell. Tony's double was getting up. I parried the troll in front of me until I gained solid footing again. I could see the double aiming his bow at a target behind me. I prayed to Ebu that there were not too many more of these trolls coming.

As my opponent and I danced around, each looking for an opening, I briefly caught a glimpse of the rest of our party. Everyone seemed to be still standing. Two trolls were dead on the ground, Tony #146;s troll was on its last leg, and Leythan was charging a female wielding twin cook pots.

Then came that speltch again. Ouch! My left shoulder was going be very bruised tonight! I spied an opening in the troll's defence and my trident slashed out! Blood ran down the troll #146;s chest. He was still coming and I had yet another blow to dodge. This time I did, but my counter-strike missed.

I gave ground while waiting for an opportunity. The troll lunged. Before I could complete my dodge I realised that the troll had not lunged at me. He had fallen. Protruding from his back was Liulni #146;s cuuteur!

Panting, I looked around for another enemy. There were no trolls standing. The victory was ours!

Everyone seemed to be all right. My arm was already working again. Tony cast a spell to heal his own arm. No one else was injured. Even Leythan was in good shape. His biggest "wound" was a lump on his head from falling out of the tree.

We won the fight, but I no longer had any faith in Leythan #146;s "scouting" skills. From now on I will do my own scouting. If Leythan wants to come along, I don #146;t care. He will have to earn my trust after today #146;s incident.

I dragged the fallen troll closer to its kin in preparation for looting. It was a hard won battle and to the victors go the spoils, as they say. Tony and Leythan were also dragging troll corpses into a pile near the fire. There were five trolls altogether, four males and a female. They were wearing rags; the fashionable dress of uncivilised trolls the world over.

This bunch was nothing like the trolls that I had known in Smashtown. The Smashtown trolls were all very civilised, even if they were still rough around the edges. One of my best friends at the academy, Rock, was a troll. In fact about one third of the Paladin trainees were of trollish descent. It was the wild bands like the ones piled near the fire that fuelled the popular opinion that trolls were no better than animals; and sometimes worse.

"Let #146;s check out their cave," Leythan suggested. "They may have something of value hidden away."

"I doubt it but you can check if you like," I said. "This lot seem to have been living like savages."

"We had better be careful," Liulni warned. "There may be a young one still hiding in there."

Liulni seems to know about these things. She is not a top-notch fighter, but her magic and her knowledge of the habits of trolls and undead and the like make her a valuable member of the party.

Taking heed of Liulni #146;s advice Tony and Leythan cautiously advanced into the mouth of the cave. I chose to remain outside to guard against the return of any other trolls and try to clear my head. Could I really have seen two of Tony? Was I hallucinating? I would have to think about this for a while. Putting my back to Leythan #146;s tree and breathing deeply of the fresh air I scanned the area around the cave and tried to sort out the mystery.

The men were gone for quite some time but as there was no screaming I remained vigilant outside. Liulni seemed content to stay with me and scan the valley for intruders. After about fifteen minutes passed Tony and Leythan reappeared from the cave carrying several bundles.

Tony handed me a tabard with some fancy stitching and a valent. I recognised the weapon immediately. It was a pole arm that is equipped with a crossbow; a rare find. The symbol on the tabard was unfamiliar to me.

"We found these in there beside the remains of a horse. I think that this troll intercepted and ate a priest of the church of Longstrider. Longstrider messengers carry letters for its devotees or for anyone who will pay their fees. I found the message pouch in there as well," Tony explained.

I guess Liulni is not the only one who knows things about the world that do not involve fighting. Tony has a useful store of information about Kordar and things Kordairian. It is good to travel with companions like these.

"I think we should take these things back to Thorn with us when we go," I said. "I #146;m sure the church of Longstrider would like to know what happened to their messenger. What else did you find?"

"Just some spoiled food and dirty rags," Leythan replied in disgust. "These trolls were poor."

We wrapped up the looting and headed back to the village. Being the biggest and strongest in the party, it fell to me to carry all of the acquired gear. I also had to carry the heads of three of the trolls. We had decided to ask the villagers if these were the bandits. I personally didn #146;t think so but better safe than sorry.

We walked for about half an hour before I dropped back to walk beside Tony. The pace that we were setting was brisk but I still had the breath to ask Tony my question.

"Tony," I began, "I know things were a bit crazy back there when the trolls rushed us but I thought that I saw two of you. I usually have a good grasp of the situation in a fight; I #146;m not prone to imagining things. Were there really two of you?"

Sighing slightly, Tony replied, "Yes, Talae, there really were two of me. To be more precise, my shadow took on solid form and became an exact duplicate of me. I had hoped that I could get to know you better before I would have to explain this about myself but we were in trouble and needed help. Leythan asked me about this too, while we were in the cave. Instead of explaining it three times I will tell all of you more about myself at supper."

Having said this much, Tony seemed to want to keep his own council so I lengthened my stride and resumed the lead for the rest of the way back to the village. We saw no people or wildlife on our return trip. Between the trolls and the unknown predator that spooked the horses I #146;m not surprised. Anyone or anything living near here had either been eaten or had run away.

***

The wait for supper seemed centuries long. I had so many questions for Tony. How did his shadow come to life? Why did he have this ability? Where had his shadow gone after the fight ended?

I feel like the members of this party are all hiding something or pretending to be something they #146;re not. Leythan claims to be a good scout but in my opinion could not stalk his way into a dark room with an orchestra playing. Tony can animate his shadow to come and fight with him if he gets in trouble. Ebu only knows what Liulni is hiding. I may be the only one of this group who is what they appear to be: a servant of Ebu who is out to fight the evil in the world. I have no secrets #133;

Quickly looking around to make sure no one is out here to see me, I slide down the slope of earth into my secret "cave". Laying the fresh flowers on the stones of my makeshift altar and sitting on the floor in front of it I begin my prayer. "Oh Holy Ebu, hear my call. I have waited for many suns for You to guide me. When You first spoke to me through Twig You said that I would know the time of my calling. I have waited and prayed to You but still Twig seems to be only a sparrow. I have a feeling of time flying by and I am afraid that I have missed my time and that You have already found me unworthy."

Silence. There is not even a stirring of wind. No songs of the night birds. Ebu still seems unwilling to reveal His plan for me.

I come to my secret "temple" as often as I dare. Torae is giving me more responsibilities lately and I find it harder to sneak off to be by myself. My adoptive mother thought that if I had more to do I would be less likely to get into trouble. I tried to tell her that it wasn #146;t my fault. Byar and Drea just won #146;t leave me alone. If I get into a fight it is almost always because they are teasing me.

I come here to get away from them as much as to pray. I need to be alone sometimes. I don #146;t fit in with "The People" no matter how hard I try. Being alone, in fact, is easier than being surrounded by people and still being alone. If only Ebu would Call me! #133;

 

"Talae #133;Supper!" calls Liulni.

"I #146;m coming," I reply.

Supper at last! I can't wait to hear Tony's explanation of his secret.It should make a good entry into my journal later #133;

Author's notes

I welcome any feedback you might care to offer. Please send them to the series editor at rjcampbell@home.com and carbon the Senior Editor at nhmc1@eng.cam.ac.uk quoting the title of the story. Alternatively just post your comments on the Fiction Discussion Board.

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