Finnigin looked like he had just seen the ghost of Denville. He opened his mouth wide as it could stretch and shouted at the top of his lungs. “Trolls! We got trolls!”
Outside the cave, the farmers heard him and a wave of murmurs ran through their ranks as they shuffled in place, looking sideways to each other for some semblance of guidance. The troll spread its gangly arms, each longer than an average man’s by a half foot, and splayed its claws wide. Its skin was green as swamp moss, covered in calloused bumps. Tufts of greasy black hair matted the backs of its hands and hung in a thick mane around its neck.
“Come on, then,” Finnigin dared the monster, goading it with a wave of his club.
The troll opened its jaws wide, displaying a mouth full of crooked yellow teeth. Each looked sharp as a dagger. It let out a roar. Gordy thought he might wet himself but somehow stood his ground. Finnigin was the first to move, lunging forth and cracking his club hard against the troll’s chest. His aim was true and strong, but if the troll felt the bold attack, it certainly did not show it.
Finnigin’s jaw dropped as the troll slowly tilted its head to gaze down at him. Gordy could swear he heard the hunter whimper just before the monster backhanded him in the face, throwing him sideways. He was impressed to see Finnigin stay on his feet.
“Ain’t gonna drop me that easy,” Finnigin snarled.
The troll rushed in, and Finnigin barked as he swung his club into the side of its head. Though it was a desperate maneuver that depended more on the blessing of Sorla’s divine kiss than any manner of true skill, the blow connected just right. Sensing the incoming danger, the troll tried to ward off the club, but it was too late. Hard oak cracked against its wrist, and shrieking, the troll slipped on the same puddle of dark liquid that had caught Gordy. The monster lost its footing, stumbling backwards three steps before tripping on a bone and tumbling to the cave floor. A loud crack rang across the cave as the troll’s head connected with a jagged bit of rock, splitting its skull open.
Finnigin and Gordy stared in shock at the troll’s still body. They waited long moments for some sign of movement. When it was clear the troll was not going to rise up again, Finnigin jumped forward and brought his club down onto its face. Over and over he bludgeoned the creature in a wet splatter of gore, lost in the throes of bloodlust until Gordy pulled him back by the shoulders.
“That’s enough,” Gordy said. “You’ve done it. It’s dead.”
The hunter rounded on him, and for a split second Gordy was certain Finnigin was going to attack him, murder still fresh in his eyes. They stared at each other for a long moment. Then a flicker of movement caught Gordy’s attention, and Finnigin followed his gaze.
A female troll, haggard and stooped, stood watching them from the other side of the long cave. Her yellow eyes were wide as saucers, snapping between the bloodied body on the floor and the club in Finnigin’s hands. When they looked in her direction, she gasped and darted down a side tunnel neither had noticed before.
Finnigin immediately pursued her, shouting over his shoulder as he ran. “Trolls, ye damn fools! Get yer sorry arses in here. There’s a whole nest of ‘em!”
Gordy remained rooted to the ground, his heart thumping as the farmers outside piled into the cave behind him. He pointed numbly to the tunnel, and they filed past with pitchforks and lanterns. Soon screams of battle filled the cave system. Gordy’s insides flipped when he heard Harry Lud being torn apart by one of the creatures. It took three men to bring down the brute who gutted Harry and another yet to behead the behemoth.
The caves were a honeycomb of smaller rooms and shallow channels that had been dug out when the miners tried to make their fortune in these hills. At least a dozen of the carnivorous humanoids had made it their home, evidenced by the stripped carcasses of animals littering the floor.
Gordy did not find the strength to move again until the battle was dying down, meekly making his way past some farmers who were hacking apart one of the creatures. He might have felt bad for it had it not been wearing a human skull around its neck. He wondered how anyone could do something so despicable as to wear another humanoid’s skull as jewelry, like it was some trophy to be displayed and not once a living, breathing person with feelings. Once upon a time that person had had a past. They had looked to the future and harbored dreams.
He was studying the skull so intently that he did not even see the troll hiding in the dark alcove behind him. It jumped out with a roar and wrapped slimy green fingers around his throat. Its grip was strong as an ape, cutting off his oxygen as it gnashed its teeth in his face. Gordy tried to scream and desperately flailed his arms to keep the monster back, but it was for naught. Its rotten breath was hot on his face and he closed his eyes tight, unwilling to watch the monster’s teeth rip through his cheek.
Gordy’s face was suddenly splattered with a spray of blood when Farmer Rickard brought a shovel down over the monster’s head. The troll stared blankly then slumped sideways, its neck broken. The other farmers fell on it like a pack of rabid animals.
Gordy stumbled backward in a daze as his kindly neighbors tore the troll apart. Finnigin was nearby, speaking with someone around the bend of the main tunnel, and Gordy eagerly followed the hunter’s voice, needing to get away from the scene of carnage.
He entered a small room off the side of the tunnel and found Finnigin with his back to the entrance, bent over and mumbling in the corner. At his feet lay the bludgeoned body of a female troll. The side of her face was caved in. Bile burned the back of Gordy’s throat and he quickly looked away. He focused instead on Finnigin, who was giggling in a way that made the hairs on the back of Gordy’s neck stand up.
“What have you got there?” Gordy asked, afraid to hear the answer.
Finnigin snapped his head around. His eyes gleamed in the dark cave like those of a rat. They looked wild and ravenous for a flickering moment before shifting back to normal.
“Caught us a little monster,” Finnigin said, turning so Gordy could see what was in his hands.
It was a baby. A tiny, green-skinned naked boy. He could not have been more than three months old.
“They had a baby in here?” Gordy said, as if it had only just occurred to him that the trolls could have children.
Finnigin nodded with a sour scowl and turned to set the child on the stone cairn the troll woman had used as a bed. Gordy’s eyes flickered over the slain troll’s face and caught sight of something far more grotesque behind her. Tucked between the wall and the cairn was the still body of another troll boy, limp and covered in blood. Gordy guessed the child was around six years old, just a wee green lad.
Finnigin licked his lips and smiled wolfishly at the baby on the cairn. Gordy had a fleeting mental image of the hunter swallowing the child whole like some draconian demon of lore. Finnigin raised his club high overhead and Gordy screamed.
Finnigin heard both the scream and the sound of Gordy’s dirk hitting the cave floor. He quickly spun about, certain the farmer had just been mauled by another of the creatures. Nothing could have mentally prepared him for the sight of Gordy Vance rushing him. Gordy slammed him hard into the stone wall of the tiny cave, knocking the club from his hands and blurring his vision.
“What in the tits of Gnash are you doing?” Finnigin snarled, clutching the wall to keep from falling over.
Gordy snatched the baby from the cairn and pressed it close to his chest. “You stay back from him,” Gordy said.
“Have you lost your wits, man?” Finnigin scowled, rubbing the back of his head. “It’s a troll.”
“He’s just a baby,” Gordy said.
Finnigin narrowed his eyes, clutching the side of his head with one hand, and reached for the child. “Don’t be daft, man. That there’s nothing more than a monster waiting to happen. Give it here.”
Gordy clutched the baby tighter to his chest and took a step back. “I said stay away.”
Finnigin grimaced and snatched his club from the floor. He curled his lip back and glared at Gordy. “I’m only going to tell you this one more time, Gordy. Hand over that monster right this minute.”
Throughout his life, people might have said a lot of things about Gordy Vance. He was a kind man who was never ill-tempered, the first to come to your aid should you be in need. Though not the sharpest Westfaller, he was generous of spirit. He did not have much to his name, nor was he the bravest of individuals. However, there was a great difference between bravery and sheer cowardice. And the one thing no one would ever say about Gordy was that he was a coward. Sure, the very idea of battling a monstrous bear scared him stiff, but he had still been the first to enter the cave with no argument. And whereas trolls trying to eat his face might terrify him, Finnigin did not.
“If you’re thinking about taking a swipe at me with that club,” Gordy said, standing firm and squaring his jaw, “you’d better make it count. Because I guarantee there won’t be a second chance.”
Finnigin appraised him for a moment. Gordy could see the hunter calculating his odds behind bloodshot eyes. The corner of Finnigin’s mouth twitched. The hunter had never noticed how large Gordy was before that moment. He spit to the side and took a step toward the farmer.
“Oy, what’s going on here?”
Finnigin snapped his attention over Gordy’s shoulder. The wickedness washed from his face in an instant. Barth, the village mayor, stood in the tunnel, frowning at them. The leader of Westfall knew there was something off the second he rounded the corner and heard the men arguing.
Finnigin feigned relief. “Oh, Mayor, thank the Almighty you’ve shown up. The trolls have bewitched poor Gordy here.”
“Is that right?” Barth said, clearly unconvinced.
“He’s trying to kill a baby,” Gordy said, refusing to take his eyes off Finnigin.
Barth furrowed his brow and stammered. “What were they doing with a child? Whose can it be?”
When Gordy turned to show him the baby, the mayor’s eyes bulged and he sputtered.
Finnigin grinned wickedly. “You see? He’s lost his senses, defending a fiend that would sooner eat your flesh than be swaddled in a diaper. We have to kill that thing. It’s a monster.”
“He’s just a baby,” Gordy insisted. “He hasn’t hurt anyone.”
Mayor Barth recovered from his initial shock and eyed the baby seriously. “It is a troll though, Gordy.”
“So what? Are we just going to bash in his skull for the crime of being born?” Gordy said.
The mayor clamped his mouth shut and thoughtfully tapped a forefinger to his lower lip.
Gordy pressed on. “He’s done nothing to deserve such a fate what comes at the end of Finnigin’s club.”
“It’s a mercy,” Finnigin said. “Better a quick death now rather than leave it here to starve. Same as we would do to a nest of moles, no different than any extermination of vermin.”
“I have no intention of leaving the child here,” Gordy said.
“You can’t be serious?” Finnigin squawked.
Gordy proudly lifted his chin.
“Oh ho, he is! That’s done it. There’s no doubting this fool’s lost his mind now. He actually wants to take that filthy creature back into our village!”
“Me and Magatha will raise the boy as our own,” Gordy said stubbornly. “We’ll teach him the difference between right and wrong, make sure he doesn’t turn into a monster like his kin. All he needs is love, and we’ve more to give than we know what to do with.”
Finnigin cackled and slapped his knee. “He thinks he can keep the monster as a pet! Imagine that—instead of a hound, Gordy Vance plays fetch with his troll.”
Gordy turned and shouted at him, “Not as a pet, as one of our own!”
“Now friends,” Mayor Barth said, stepping between them with upraised hands, “let’s keep our wits about us, shall we? No way to make a sensible decision shouting at each other.”
Finnigin’s mirth dried up and he stared at the mayor in disbelief, unable to comprehend that the man was actually considering Gordy’s proposal. The air was thick with tension. His hands squeezed the haft of his club, and Gordy balled his fist up tight, glaring at the hunter.
The silence was broken by the baby, who let out a low sob that turned into a long wailing cry. Finnigin frowned, his eyes tightening in confusion, as the troll infant’s cries were exactly like that of a human baby. The sound of it filled the network of caves, and soon more of the villagers made their way down the tunnel, standing behind Gordy and trying to peer into the small room.
“How did they get a baby?” one of the farmers demanded.
“Is the child hurt?” another added with worry.
The mayor slipped past Gordy, back into the tunnel, as the farmer turned to show them the wailing child. “Gordy’s found a baby troll,” Barth said.
When they saw the child eyes widened on some and confusion bloomed on others. Gordy placed the baby on his shoulder, patting his back and shushing in his little green ear. The child made a soft cooing noise and snuggled in against Gordy’s face, a sight that pulled on the heartstrings of everyone present, all except Finnigin.
“Wh-what are we going to do with it?” Jasper the baker asked, his voice shaken with guilt.
“Good man that he is, Gordy here has offered to take the troll in,” Mayor Barth said. He caught a couple frowns from the group and quickly added, “As a household pet, of course. His donkey has been ill of late, so the timing could not be more perfect. Gordy and Magatha will break the beast in and use it to work their farm.”
“And what happens when it turns on them?” Finnigin snarled.
The mayor met Gordy’s gaze evenly. “Then he will put it down, for the good of the village and his own family. Right, Gordy?”
Gordy nodded once and it was done. In retrospect he was not sure why the farmers agreed to such an outlandish request, reasoning that it most likely had to do with the cloud of guilt that had settled around them as their bloodlust faded, washed away by the simple sound of a baby crying out for its mother. They realized that although they had rid their village of a yak-eating menace, they had also nearly committed genocide to do so.
And so, while the farmers returned to the village with quite a tale to tell of their run-in with a pack of trolls, Gordy Vance went home with his adopted child. He never worried once what Magatha’s reaction would be. She was kinder by spades than he, so when she spirited the baby away from him in the blink of an eye, it did not surprise him in the least.
He knew Magatha saw the baby for what he was, a blessing.
Though they never shared as much with their kinfolk, Magatha had been diagnosed with a barren womb. She could never conceive a child of her own, and they had long ago resigned themselves to that reality. But now a miracle was laid bare before them. She coddled the small babe with the same gleam in her eyes that any new mother would have and tickled his belly with the tip of her finger. The troll giggled and clutched her finger with both hands. “Oh, he has the most beautiful purple eyes,” Magatha said.
“Aye, I never thought such a creature could look so adorable,” Gordy agreed.
“What should we name him?” Magatha asked.
Gordy studied the baby for a long while and tilted his head to the side. He had spent some time in his early twenties working for a merchant in the Southern Isles and had encountered a good many elves during his time there. Their names came to him now as he looked down at the exotic baby.
“His name will be Kwado Vance.”