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A bundle of clothes lay on the table between us.The heap included a torn pink miniskirt, a white blouse, a pink cowboy hat, pink four-inch heels, and a pink vest covered in sequins and beads.
I adjusted the ice pack with my right hand and glared at Gloria's dad.He sat at the far end of the kitchen table, too far for me to get up and strangle him before he could make a run for it.The cold helped kill some of the throbbing from the left side of my face, but not all of it.I winced and felt the patch of gauze on my stomach with my other hand.Luckily, the switchblade had just given me a four-inch long scratch.I didn't even need stitches.
"I drove around the city three times naked.I wore this outfit at the Bloody Chainsaw Bar.I managed to sing two Patsy Cline songs on the karaoke stage before the skinheads dragged me off.Now that you've tried to humiliate me and get me killed, what's the third task?" I asked.
Maybe I should describe Gloria's dad.He looked like a bishonen hero from a Japanese manga.He even dressed the part.A V-neck green silk shirt showed off a slice of muscled chest, and tight black pants advertised his slim legs.But the feature that really stood out was the pair of six-inch, pointed ears that pierced the slick curtain of white-blond hair.
I felt kind of lackluster in comparison.People tell me I have that All-American, boy next door look.I have brown hair and blue eyes, and the build of a quarterback.
He flashed his teeth and shrugged."I didn't ask you to do anything that I haven't done myself.It's all in fun, right?It's not like I don't want you to marry Gloria."
My jaw almost hit the table.I had nothing to say to that revelation, except maybe a comment about mental institutions that he might take the wrong way.A few gargling sounds came out of my mouth, but nothing that resembled real human speech.
"No, the problem is that all elves are stupid!" he proclaimed, thrusting a finger up into the air.
I snapped my jaw shut."I could have told you that!" I growled through clenched teeth.
"No, no, I meant we're cursed to be stupid.Haven't you noticed Gloria?She's usually brilliant, but sometimes she becomes a complete ditz?She's only half elf.I have it a lot worse," he said.
I nodded to myself.Gloria's moments of insanity had made me a bit hesitant about the relationship.But most of the time she was gorgeous, smart, and level-headed.
"Your third task is to break the curse!" he shouted.Gloria's dad bounced up and down like a three year old and started to hum.He waved his index finger in the air and grinned maniacally.
"But I don't have any magic!How am I supposed to remove a curse?" I protested.
"Not to worry!"Gloria's dad winked at me."I'll give you everything you need to face the Most Ancient Troll."
"Troll?" I squeaked.My fingers trembled as I picked up my coffee cup.The dish rattled. I had a very bad feeling about my future life expectancy.
Gloria crouched by my side.Her long, brown hair brushed my neck as the breeze blew strands over to caress me.I squinted as the sun topped the mountain up ahead and stabbed into my eyes.The scent of crushed roses wafted over from my fiancée, and I breathed deeply.
"John, why are we hiding behind the car?" she asked.
"So the trolls won't see us," I answered.I patted the side of my yellow '78 Camaro and smiled at her."Your dad put a glamour charm on it to make it invisible."
"Which means that the trolls can see through the car and spot us," said Gloria.She turned towards me, crossed her arms, and rolled her slate blue eyes.She stuck out her lower lip and blew hair out of her face. "My dad is not too bright, remember?"
"Damn," I muttered."Can you cast a glamour on us?"
As I stood up, I tugged on the chain mail vest.The elf-made metal felt as light as aluminum.I felt a bit silly wearing the thing, but it beat having a sharp foreign object make a home in my chest.I nearly tripped on the worn brown scabbard that hung off my belt.The end of the three foot blade brushed the top of my white sneakers.A brown leather backpack felt like lead on my back, and stank with that acrid, new-leather smell that hangs around fancy shoe stores.Otherwise, I wore my usual outfit of blue jeans and green football jersey.
Gloria tugged on her chain mail vest and stood up beside me.The armor looked odd next to her grey skirt, boots, and pearly blouse.She hefted a longbow.A quiver of arrows and a dagger hung off a broad belt.
"I already cast a glamour," she said, and smirked."Way ahead of you.It should last long enough to get in the tunnels."
I shook my head and chuckled."Thanks.Maybe that blow to the head..."
Gloria snorted."I healed your head and your knife cut yesterday.You can't use that as an excuse."
That was the Gloria I loved, smart, witty, and way ahead of me.I just hoped she didn't have one of her ditzy spells at a critical moment.
The car sat in a gravel lot.A grassy hill swept down from the lot and rose up again.Greenish-yellow grass and wildflowers covered the hills.The scents of flowers, the buzz of bees, and the hum of crickets filled the air.White and ochre lumps of limestone thrust up from the grass here and there.In the distance, a dark wall of pine and oak ringed the grassy meadow.The forest rose up into foothills, and finally mountain peaks.
About a hundred yards away, I spotted a crack in a big rock, right at the base of the opposite hill.As I watched, a gray hand reached out of the darkness and into the sunshine.I gripped Gloria's arm.
"We're here," I whispered."Just like your dad said."
Gloria nodded.She fitted an arrow with a goose-gray fletching on her bow.She stalked forward.I carefully eased my sword out of the scabbard and followed.I couldn't hear our footsteps or the rustle of the grass.I guessed that Gloria had cast another spell.We approached the cave entrance at an angle, so that the sentry would hopefully not see the grass bending from the touch of invisible feet.I breathed shallowly through my nose, though I wanted to take in big gulps of air.Sweat trickled down the tight knots of muscle at the back of my neck.It felt like it took us half an hour, but a quick glance at the bulky diver's watch on my wrist told me that the walk lasted three minutes.We stopped just outside the cave.
Gloria glanced at me.She moved her eyes towards the cave and mouthed something.Her right hand left the bowstring and gestured towards the cave.I nodded and leapt into the darkness.
The abrupt change from morning sunshine to blackness disoriented me.I barely registered the massive figure in front of me before my blade slid into its chest.The blade flared with pink light as it struck, and the pink spots that danced in front of my eyes disoriented me even more.
As the figure fell, a stone club in its hand smacked the wall.Echoes banged through the tunnel and faded away slowly, leaving only the faint sound of dripping water, and the gasp of my breath coming in and out.I felt Gloria's bow touch my back.
"It's cold in here," she said.She shivered.
"I hope no one heard that," I whispered.
My eyes adjusted to the dim cavern.I realized it wasn't completely dark.Glowing green moss hung in patches on the walls here and there and gave off a cold light.The tunnel stone was white and yellow.A mix of clay and crushed rock paved the floor.
"Uh, why is the troll pink?" I asked.
We looked down.Now that my eyes had adjusted, I could see the troll better.The gray, warty skin had turned a bright pink.So had the tusks that jutted from either side of its mouth.The still form measured nine feet from its wrinkly head to its knobby feet.It wore a rough skirt of bear hide.Heavy muscles wrapped the body, except for the big, bulbous beer-belly.The chest rose and fell.The troll abruptly let out a snore, and its floppy nose jiggled and thick lips flared as breath whistled out.The stench of cabbage and not so fresh meat assaulted our noses.I couldn't see a wound on its chest where I'd hit it with the sword.
"Wow, dad gave you the great blade Ebenezer," said Gloria.
I looked at the pink metal of the broadsword in my hand."Uh, he said something about that.What's so special about the sword?"
Gloria snorted."Look at the troll.Ebenezer doesn't leave a mark.It turns the victims pink and makes them sleep for eight hours.It's good to have around if you don't want to, say, kill all the Most Ancient Troll's followers and really piss her off so that she won't bargain with you.It's also nice to have around if you're an insomniac."
I loved the way the corner of her full lips quirked and her eyes glanced at me sideways when she made a sarcastic remark or pointed out something stupid I'd said.Sometimes I said dumb things just to see that look.
"Huh," I said."So, which way?"
"Didn't you even look at the maps?Left," said Gloria.
"Sorry, I have no sense of direction," I muttered.
We edged past the sleeping troll and came to a fork.Gloria put her hand on my belt.We inched down the dim tunnels.
We walked for a few minutes before the grunt and heavy tread from a side passage warned us.A tusked face opened in surprise just as I stuck Ebenezer around the corner.The troll let out a groan and slumped to the floor.I heard a bellow, and Gloria and I sprinted around the corner.It opened into a cavern.Three trolls faced us.
The leftmost troll chucked a spear at me.I yelped and ducked as the missile smacked into the rock above me with a deafening clatter.It spun off into the tunnel behind us.
Gloria raised her hands and muttered something.A golden glow wafted out of her palms and struck the troll on the right.It grunted, dropped its club, and raised both hands to its nose.The nose stretched and wound around the troll like a snake.In seconds, the troll lay in a grey cocoon made of its own proboscis.
I nearly laughed as the grey bundle heaved and jerked across the floor, but the center troll didn't give me time to appreciate the joke.He trumpeted like an elephant.He raised his club and leapt forward, determined to give me a lesson in how to make jelly.I thrust Ebenezer forward and hit him in the knee.The troll groaned and slid to the side of the tunnel.His club sparked as it dragged across the ceiling, and then fell down with a thundering crash.The ton of troll meat half-blocked the tunnel so that we could only see part of the room.
The spear-throwing troll looked up from his struggling comrade and glared at us with red eyes.He scooped up the other troll's club and advanced in a crouch.His club extended in front of him, making it impossible for me to hit him with my sword.I backed up.
"Uh, now what?" I squeaked.
That's when I heard the giggle.My blood froze.
Gloria's inner ditz had just come out.
A ray of pink light flew past my ear and hit the troll in the chest.In a cloud of sparkles, a pink tutu appeared around the troll's waist.Gloria laughed.
"Gloria, quiet!" I hissed.
I warily inched forward, but the troll narrowed its eyes and kept his club in place.He walked forward again.I backed up and bumped into Gloria.
"Gloria, snap out of it!"
She hummed and threw a sphere of yellow light at the troll.With a bellow, its feet picked up and clumsily stomped and hopped around the cavern.The troll yelled at the top of his lungs and waved its club around in big arcs.
I ducked and ran forward.It resembled my best football move, except for the addition of the extended sword.The troll screamed in a rather girly way, turned pink, and fell over with a thud.
I sheathed Ebeneezer and grabbed Gloria by the shoulders.She smiled at me and blinked her unfocused eyes.
"Oh, that was so funny!The nose!The tutu!" she said, and doubled over laughing.
"They know we're here by now," I said."We'd better get to the Most Ancient Troll quick.I just hope she hears us out."
Gloria said, "What?Oh, we've got plenty of time.Maybe we can find more trolls to play with!"
I spotted the map poking out of her pack and grabbed it.Paper crinkled as I frantically traced tunnels with my finger.I realized I had the map upside down, and flipped it.
"This way... I think," I said.I grabbed Gloria by the hand.
We edged past the snoring trolls.I stuck the wiggling cocoon with Ebenezer as we passed.That troll stopped moving too.
I pulled Gloria towards a doorway on the far side of the cavern.A grinning human head carved on the lintel leered down and stuck its tongue out at us.Moss grew on its head and made it look like it had a big green glowing afro.Some chiseled marks on the wall nearby looked sort of like Greek letters.
We ran through the doorway, and skidded through several tunnels.Luckily, Gloria let me lead her and did nothing but snort with laughter and hum.I felt completely lost and disoriented.I hoped I picked the right turns, but all the tunnels looked the same on the paper.My head nodded up and down between the map and the tunnels in front of me so much that I felt like a bobble-head doll.
I heard a troll voice bellow in the distance.A sense of despair settled over me like a cold blanket.Would we ever get out?We were going to fail, I thought, and it was all the fault of the curse!I started to shake as I thought about Gloria in the hands of the trolls, and I wrinkled my brow and thought harder about the map.We'd come from that tunnel, or was it that one, or....
I stopped and held the map to my face, growling in frustration, hoping the squiggles would start to make more sense.Gloria snatched it out of my hands.
"Hey," I said and reached for it, but Gloria smiled at me.
"Sorry about that.I'm over it.This is the wrong way.We need to go there."She pointed at a tunnel entrance back the way we came and grabbed my hand.
After a few turns, we entered a big cavern, jumped over a trickle of water that ran through the center of it, and slid to a stop in front of a wooden door.Two troll guards on either side grunted and lowered spears at us.Unlike the other trolls we'd seen, these two wore steel helmets and armor made of metal bands that covered their whole bodies.
"Sheathe your sword!" Gloria hissed at me.I hesitated for a second, but slammed it into the scabbard.
Gloria stepped forward, palms out."We ask to see Cindy, the Most Ancient Troll," said Gloria."We come from my father, Alethan of the Elves.We have brought the cure to an affliction that has plagued Her Wartiness for some time, and seek to bargain with her."
"Cindy?" I asked."Cindy?"
Gloria elbowed me in the ribs."She's the Queen of All Trolls, she can call herself what she wants to!" she hissed.
A muffled voice called through the door, "Let them in."The voice sounded like a bear gargling gravel.
The two trolls in armor shifted their spears so they pointed upright.Each one took hold of an iron handle on the door, and they pulled it open.We stepped into Cindy's inner sanctum.
Cindy sat on a throne made of white bones.Five skulls of big animals, perhaps bears or lions, decorated the top.The Most Ancient Troll measured only eight feet tall.Her skin sagged all over, and I saw far less muscle on her than on the trolls that Gloria and I had fought.One tusk ended in a jagged stump, and a white puckered scar made a line from her floppy ear to the edge of her blubbery lips.She wore a bearskin kirtle.Withered breasts sagged on her chest.Her nose jutted out several inches in front of her face, and masses of black nose hair crept from the nostrils and dripped to the floor.
Gloria curtseyed.As I made an awkward bow, Ebenezer's tip clanged loudly on the stone floor.Cindy laughed.
"I can't believe you have the nerve to show up here.I will never forgive your father for that nose hair growing spell!I can't take it off, and I haven't left my chambers in fifty years!State your business and be quick about it," she growled.
"We propose a trade," I said."We want you to lift the curse you placed on the Elves.What will you take in return for revoking the spell?"
The Most Ancient Troll stroked her chin.The wattles on her throat bounced."I want an antidote to his spell, and a seventeen foot written apology!" said Cindy.
"He knew you'd ask for that."I pulled off the backpack and lifted the flap."Here you go," I said.I handed her a thick scroll and a vial of glowing lavender liquid."He wrote twenty feet just in case."
"At last!"Cindy gulped down the vial.She pulled a small bronze mirror from somewhere and held it up to her nose.The black hairs shriveled up and vanished.Her blubbery lips drew back in a smile.She tucked the mirror behind her and perused the scroll.
For the next twenty minutes, the scroll crackled as she slowly unrolled it.She said "Hmmm... hmmm..." periodically and nodded.We shifted from foot to foot.
Finally, Cindy rolled up the scroll and grinned at us."It all seems in order.Here."She handed me a vial of putrid green stuff."Just pour it on the head of any pure-blooded elf and the curse will break."
"So, that's it?" I asked."We did it!"I took the vial and stuffed it in a pocket.
The Most Ancient Troll laughed."Oh, you humans are so funny.I fulfilled our bargain, yes.But who said I had to let you out of here alive?Guards!" she shouted.
Cindy raised glowing blue hands.I whipped out Ebenezer and stuck the troll in the arm before we could find out what spell she intended to cast.The Most Ancient Troll slumped sideways.
"Um, where to?" I asked Gloria."Gloria!"
Her white face snapped around, and her gaze met mine."This way!"
We ran for a small door to our left, just as the main doors crashed open and the two troll guards lumbered in.They howled in rage.As we slammed the small door behind us, a spear head pierced the door and slid within an inch of my face.
Gloria grabbed my hand and yanked me away.
I don't remember much of that nightmare run.We fought at least a dozen trolls on the way.Gloria tripped them and blinded them with flashes of light, and tossed silvery spheres filled with gas.I stuck several trolls with Ebenezer and left them snoring in our wake.Once, a troll with a necklace of skulls threw a beam of yellow light at me that I blocked with the flat of my blade.
Gloria lost it again and conjured paper mache mastodons to block the tunnel, and laughed as the trolls bashed the piñatas with their clubs and sent candy flying.I dumped my canteen on her head and snapped her out of it.
It seemed like an hour later when we emerged from the tunnel entrance and blinked in the harsh sun.Gloria and I clung to one another and panted like dogs.Sweat soaked our skin.A cut marred Gloria's leg, roughly bound by a torn strip from her skirt.I held my ribs.I knew that without the Elven mail, I'd have a Trollish spear stuck through my ribcage.Every breath hurt.
"Good thing... trolls can't... go out in sunlight," said Gloria.
We staggered up the hill. As I turned the key in the ignition, I heard the howl of trolls from the cave entrance.A spear shrieked across the hood of the car, throwing sparks as it skated across the metal.
"Dammit!" I yelled."I just painted this thing!"I pressed the pedal to the floor and yanked the wheel.With a spray of gravel and a roar, we turned and sped home.
"I still can't believe your dad is the voice of Dizzy the Octopus," I said."I grew up on that cartoon!"
Gloria and I limped up the path made of gray stepping stones and crushed white gravel.The lawn stretched forever to the left and right.Five white pillars held up the broad front porch of Alethan's three-story, red brick house.
"The funny thing is, he acts like that in real life, not just on the set," said Gloria."He's on a perpetual sugar high."
I gazed at the house."So how come you never told me you were rich?" I asked.
Gloria shrugged."Duh.You don't tell boyfriends you have loads of money until after they propose."
She slipped her hand in mine and leaned against my shoulder.As we walked, she pressed harder onto my bruised side when she put weight on her right leg.We both groaned in unison, and then laughed.The sharp scent of sweat now overlaid her rose perfume.The strands of hair that blew against my neck felt heavy and wet.
I sighed in relief as the porch roof cut off the glare of the noonday sun.Gloria fumbled in her bag.Keys jingled, the lock clicked, and then she pushed open the polished oak door.
"Mom?Dad?We're back!" shouted Gloria.She kicked off her right boot, and then leaned heavily on me as she struggled with the left one.She sighed as her feet touched the cool white marble of the foyer.
I swung the backpack off my shoulder and dropped it by a black umbrella stand.I unbuckled my belt and stuck Ebenezer next to a white and red striped umbrella.
"Could you help me with the armor?" I asked.Gloria limped over to me.I could feel her small fingers play with the ties on the side of my vest.I had the thing half-over my head when Gloria's mom and dad stepped through an archway.I could only half-see them through the chain mail links.
A blurry lady in a yellow sundress tackled Gloria.Her dad bounced on the balls of his feet and yanked the vest all the way over my head.
"Ow!" I complained.
"Oh, my baby!" said Gloria's mother.Though she had a death grip on her daughter, I saw that she looked like a somewhat older version of Gloria.She had the same hair, and a similar face and build.
"Uh, we did it!" I said.I dug the green vial out of my jeans pocket and held it out to Alethan.
He grabbed the vial and dumped it on his head.Gloria's mom stepped back from her daughter to watch.
A mist floated from the vial and enveloped him completely.A spear of green light shot from the cloud and hit Gloria in the chest.She glowed green for a second before it faded away.More green spears shot from the cloud and zoomed out the open.It sounded like a fireworks display.After a minute, Alethan stopped glowing.I lowered my hands from my ears.
He and Gloria looked subtly different.They looked more like the way Tolkien described his elves.I didn't see stars in their eyes, but I did see a gaze that was noble and grave and wise.
"Thank you," Alethan said."John Summers, you completed three tasks that I set for you.In return, I grant you the hand of my daughter in marriage."He lifted Gloria's hand and put it in mine.
I saw tears glisten on my fiancée's cheeks.She made a muffled sound that was the illegitimate offspring of a laugh and a hiccup, and threw her arms around my neck.I could feel my mouth stretch, and knew I was grinning like a fool.
Gloria's dad said quietly, "You know my daughter will live hundreds of years.I can extend your lifespan, if you like.I did it for Alice."He squeezed his wife's hand."It means you'll see all your mortal friends grow old and die.You'll have to change your names and move after a time... think about it before you say yes."
When Gloria finally released me, and I was rubbing my partially crushed larynx, I croaked, "You know, this is all like a fairy tale.A week ago, I didn't know elves were real!"
Gloria grinned at me and stuck an elbow in my ribs."Now my mom and I have to spend the next year planning the wedding, and making your life a living hell."
"You call that happily ever after?" I complained.
Everyone laughed.Gloria grabbed my hand, and she led me into the house.
This story originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Flagship.