Chapter Two: Into the Hills
A sound like thunder echoed through the valleys as the elves swept into the grey hills. They rode like a wind beneath walls of rock that twisted in menacing shapes and stabbed the sky with jagged peaks.
The cavalcade passed under the westering sun, rumbling down stony paths, and the creatures that dwelt in that land hid in their lairs, wary of the glorious elves.
The warriors swept over the land like a tide, clad in many colors and shining plates of armor. At the head of the procession, a sublime host led the way forward; beautiful elf beings, some of them glowing with the light of stars, moving with a musical grace no earthly creatures possessed.
Three elder lords rode at the front: Ragner led the warriors, clad in his blue tunic, with Peledomn in his white cloak at his right and Dhaen at his left. Near them rode two younger lords, Chaelos, the mighty Fire Lord, and blond Wyn, the Bearer of the Blue Flame, enchanted with a rare power that few Braey of old possessed. Wyn rode astride his pale steed, wearing a white shirt with a longbow slung over his shoulder.
Behind the elf lords were four youths: Callob, his tunic and flowing cape as green as leaves, Sefaf, attired in shades of blue that matched the sea, Ebin, clad in black garments with brown curls that fell to his shoulders, and Efkin, the son of Ragner, a coppery lad in a red tunic whose curious gaze was often turned to the sky.
“I have not seen any trolls,” said Callob.
Ebin smiled. “Perhaps they have seen us.”
Efkin laughed at his friend who seemed at ease in this dark territory. Their passage through the foulest regions of the elven isle did not diminish his blithe manner. Amidst a company of stern faces, his bright eyes displayed a rare confidence that could not be dimmed and there was no presence among the warriors or mighty lords more dauntless.
Before them, a hill rose up like a jagged rock, looming dark against the pale moon. As they came nearer, they saw a black hole cut into its side. There were no creatures near, but there was the sense of wicked eyes upon them.
Efkin glanced around, wary of hidden terrors that lurked in shadows or behind large rocks. He had never gone this far into the hills and was struck by the desolation of the place. No trees stood in this grey land of stone, no grass came from the ground. It was a barren place where no living things grew, a dire land where the trolls had their lairs. They were creatures of the night who shunned the light of sun and all things that grow in that light. Trolls never came out in the day and dared not enter the forest where the touch of grass weakened them. They were fiercely strong, yet the scent of leaves blowing in the breeze could topple them with nausea and send them running. But now something had changed and trolls had come into the forest, defying the curse of wood that was laid ages ago, in a time long forgotten.
The elves hastened forward in the fading twilight. They went down the sloping landscape into a wide space surrounded by hills that stood like sheer walls of rock under the shadow of the jagged troll lair. Efkin stared up at the black rock as the cavalcade made its way into the cave. Ragner and the other lords led the way, disappearing into shadows, and the warriors followed behind them, flowing steadily into the darkness.
At once, the cavern was alight as Peledomn cast a glowing sphere into the air. The bright orb hovered over them and illumined their path as they rode their horses across a wide space beneath great stalactites that hung overhead like a thousand spears.
The cavern became narrower and the warriors dismounted. They marched through tunnels that sloped and twisted, descending deeper into the troll lair, their winding course lit by the floating sphere. They heard shrill cries echoing through the caves. The shrieks pierced their ears as they passed into a foul-smelling chamber and strange forms stirred in the shadows. Then at once a thousand trolls surrounded them. They were wretched, hissing things, packed together in a dense throng, a mass of sickly green flesh spreading around them. Most of the trolls were unarmed, but some held crude weapons, which they brandished menacingly. Despite their belligerent shrieks, the trolls kept a wary distance from the elves whose powers they feared.
In the center of the cave, a great stalagmite thrust up from the rock floor, broken at the top as if cut by a giant blade. Through its torn shell, a foul being peered at the elven host. Efkin saw the troll-king seated upon a throne that jutted out of the stalagmite, carved from the very rock, and felt the cold stare of his black eyes upon him as he turned his terrible gaze on the warriors. He was a horrible thing to behold, fouler than any creature he had ever seen. The troll turned his gaze to the elf lords and his face contorted with hatred as Ragner stepped forward. Then his features softened with guile, and something resembling a smile crossed his face as he eyed the elf lord.
Ragner stared back at the troll. “We come in peace,” he said, “to speak with the trolls who border our lands in the north.”
Thog paused. He stared at the mass of warriors, regarding them with a cold malice.
“You have entered the forest and attacked our folk,” said Ragner. “The trolls must leave these hills and dwell only in the farthest mountains.”
The troll grinned a wicked smile. “Have trolls entered the forest? The elf wood so long forbidden? How can this be?”
“I know not how,” said Ragner. “You must leave these hills.”
Thog sat very still for a moment, his malevolent gaze upon Ragner. He leaned back in his grey throne. When he spoke, the cavern echoed with his croaking voice. “The elves will make no demands in this land where they are trespassers. The curse of wood will bind us no more.”
“Then we come to slay you,” said Ragner.
Thog laughed. “You are bold, elf lord, for we are many and you are few.”
“You forget the might of the elves.”
“Indeed,” said Thog. “The elves are a mighty folk with great powers, but I believe we have a mightier ally among us.” The troll turned his gaze up toward the ceiling. He raised his clawed hands high as he spoke strange words that seemed to strain his throat, as if he uttered an incantation in some alien tongue. A curling black mist appeared suddenly above him. It hung over the troll a moment, and then spread through the cavern, rolling like a billowing fog that covered the rock ceiling. The elves stared bewildered at the dark cloud as it spread, bubbling with menace, black tendrils of smoke whipping in the air. Then three wicked forms appeared, spawned of the black mist, and the elves felt terror.
“Flee this cave!” Ragner shouted. “The shaith are upon us!”
The trolls rushed forward with a sudden fury and, surrounded by a mass of screaming flesh, the elves braced themselves, ready to meet the beasts with blades of elfin silver.
Extending a glowing hand, Lord Chaelos produced a wall of flame around the warriors and many of the trolls halted, but some ran into the blazing barrier and were incinerated in a flash.
The first wave came unarmed, a hundred howling monsters attacking with hideous strength and slashing claws. Behind them came others, unsheathing crude swords, and at once the air was thick with the stink of iron. It was the smell of poison for the elves who fear a mere cut from an iron blade no less than a mortal wound.
Taking up his sword, Ragner turned to the warriors once more. “Flee this cave!” he cried. Then he made his way toward Thog.
Despite their desire to stay and fight, the warriors obeyed Ragner’s command and fled the cave. Among the most reluctant to leave was a coppery elf who stood staring at the shadowy forms spinning overhead as if bewitched by the wicked things. Unable to tear himself away and escape, he stood watching them, mesmerized by their curling patterns in the air.
A blazing shaft sliced the air and slew one of the shadow beings as Wyn fitted his bow with another arrow that lit with a blue flame at his touch.
“Come, Efkin,” Ebin called to him, “This is not our fight.”
Efkin turned to his friend. “We cannot leave! We must help our lords fight the shaith!”
Ebin smiled. “Do not fear for them, their powers are greater than any sorcery.”
Still spellbound, Efkin made no reply.
Seizing his arm, Ebin tried to pull him away from the dire things. “We must leave, Efkin.”
Efkin nodded and was about to retreat with Ebin, when he saw Ragner lift his great sword in a sweeping blow to meet Thog’s axe in a clash of silver and steel, engaging in a battle that was begun ages ago and would not end this day in the hills.
Ebin pulled him again. “Come, Efkin!”
Swords flashed and arrows flew. Spied through the wall of flame, the fighting was a surreal scene of deathly conflict framed in a fiery blaze.
The angry horde lurched forward past the fading flames and, at last, Efkin fled with Ebin and the warriors out of the lair and through the tunnels, the din of battle behind them.
Thog was wounded. A grey substance spilled out of his shoulder, but he fought on, still strong, swinging his axe with might. Ragner dodged the blade and dealt the troll a swift stroke, slashing his chest. More grey slime oozed out of Thog’s body and the floor became slippery with his alien blood.
Despite his wounds, the troll wielded his axe with a monstrous strength, lowering the iron with such force that it clove the stony ground like soil. He swung in a rage, his every blow deflected by the elf’s swifter blade. Then his strength waned and Thog stumbled, barely keeping his balance, flailing recklessly. With his last breath, the troll flung himself forward, both hands at his axe, and Ragner thrust deep into his side. Thog fell, collapsing onto the blood-soaked floor with a splash.
Arrows flew as Wyn loosed his glowing shafts at the shaith and they scattered. Each arrow he cast blazed with the enchanted Flame of ancestors that all dire things feared. Behind the archer, Peledomn and Dhaen fought two other beings, their combined powers matched against dark sorceries, while around them trolls scattered to escape Chaelos’ flaming wrath.
Overhead, the shaith mingled in a dark blur, spinning wildly, defying Callob and Sefaf as they retreated with the warriors, hissing and mocking the young lords whose powers could not dispel them.
Ragner raised a hand and a blast of lightning flashed through the air, scattering the shaith. The dark things flitted in confusion for a moment and then renewed their attack.
“This may take some time,” said Peledomn.
Ragner came beside him. “Then let us begin.”
They stood ready to receive the creatures and their forms glowed with the ancient power of the elves.
Outside, the night was aglow as beams of light poured out of the cave and a host of warriors stood in awe as the ground trembled.
And far away in the forest, a worried queen looked out her window to the distant hills.