Rivahl Williams struggled to control his gasping, fearful that his panicked breaths would betray his position behind the snow covered boulder. Calming his breathing, he looked to the east towards the approaching storm. It loomed in the distance, sinister in appearance and motive, as a fiend appears hiding in the forest.
The blizzard is almost upon us, he thought as the dark grey line of clouds closed in. The flurries of light snow were becoming thicker and heavier by the minute. To be caught up in a blizzard atop one of the most dangerous mountain ranges in all of Ranellia, Rivahl might as well have walked into the Lands of the Damned alone and unarmed - death would be just as certain. Suddenly, slaving away under the beating sun at the docks of Bartley didn’t seem such a task. For a moment, he almost regretted his decision to become an imperial soldier. There was no time to let the mind wander though for an even greater danger than the blizzard was stalking around the frozen slopes in search of him.
Snnnnnf. Rivahl could hear the deep snorting of the ice troll, only yards away from him, trying to sniff out his position. He gripped his sword tightly anticipating the worst. The ice trolls were fearsome creatures, some reaching nearly three meters in height, with the might of ten robust men. The other two pursuing trolls had moved down the slope, but this one was looking for stragglers that didn’t make it back down. They had no idea only one man had escaped the cave.
The young soldier, serving the Empire of the Crescent, dared a glance at the ogre from the edge of the boulder. This one ranged every bit of three meters in height and at least a meter in its width with dark blue, leathery skin. It donned a patchwork of goat hides and animal pelts as a kind of loincloth and around his neck - Rivahl’s stomach knotted at the sight - hang a thick leather cord threaded through three human skulls, bouncing against his bare chest with each step. The tiny crown of his head left little room to wonder if the troll was an intelligent creature or not. However, the flat expressionless face and beady, black eyes that displayed its ignorance would contort with bloodthirsty passion during a kill, mouth gaping open with drool pooling about its swollen, purple bottom lip.
Rivahl leaned back up against the boulder, shivering as a gale of wind blew in from the east. It chilled him right down to the bone. He wore a thick cloak and had layered his tunics to prepare for the conditions of the north, but the wind still cut deeper than any man’s blade. He trembled uncontrollably, soaked by the large flakes of snow that melted upon hitting his body. He knew he would have to endure the cold for now because there would be no chance of a blazing campfire and the fiery burn of a comrade’s liquor in his stomach anytime soon.
The troll’s loud snorting, now just on the other side of the boulder, snapped Rivahl out of his thoughts and lamenting of the cold. He glanced around the boulder and realized the troll was within striking distance, his thick neck stretched out and nostrils flared as it smelled the frigid air for the scent of the intruding human. Now, the imperial soldier had an ideal opportunity.
Rivahl rolled out from behind the boulder to a crouching position, poised to attack. The ice troll towering before him didn’t have a chance to lower his head completely before the cold steel dug into his throat. The ogre dropped his club, almost as big as a man, and turned to run, but collapsed, face first, after taking only three steps, throat spraying a fantastic amount of blood that steamed in the frigid air as the bulk of his body plummeted to the icy slope. The troll squirmed and reached out as if trying to crawl away. A skillful thrust, delivered to the base of the creature’s skull, ended its suffering instantly. The troll was a dreadful, murderous beast, but no living thing created by the gods deserves to suffer in the end.
Rivahl bunched the hem of his cloak up in his hand and ran it over the length of the blade, wiping the blood from it. The fierce wind at his back blew the brown cloak around his body as he crouched to plan his next move.
“Damned scholar,” he muttered as he sheathed the sword behind his back. He removed his gauntlets and rubbed his bare hands together vigorously, desperately trying to warm them. Quickly, he slipped the wet gauntlets back on. He glanced over his shoulder, down the slope. The other trolls were out of sight. “Now, I need to get back into those caves.” Without a second thought, he set off, stooped slightly, trying to find another entrance into the cave where he had been separated from his party.
He had been assigned to an escort party to accompany the imperial scholar Sezarath, an expert of lore and history, to the Frozen North. The party, having departed from a small garrison in the Flatlands, made the trip north in only two days of easy marching, save for the cold. After arriving, the scholar, believing that some carvings or other artifacts might be found, urged the escort captain to venture up into the foothills of the World’s End Mountains and then succeeded in goading him on to one of the lesser mountains after making a veiled threat of complaining during the next Imperial Council. The party was ill-prepared for such a trek, but the foolhardy captain, far too impulsive and fearful of a vengeful, fat scholar for his own good, believed that it wouldn’t hurt as long as they didn’t move too far into the range.
At the sight of a small opening that dropped off into the mountain almost vertically before leveling out a couple of yards down, the scholar rushed off, like a wild hare, excited at the prospect of a discovery even as the dozen accompanying soldiers, captain included, cursed for him to stop as they gave chase. Ordinarily, they would have never chased such a fool, but, as a respected imperial scholar, allowing anything to befall him would result in grave punishment.
The scholar, in his rashness, triggered a trap as he dashed up the narrow path in the cave prompting a rockslide just inside that crushed the two men in front of Rivahl who was bringing up the rear. Trail blocked, he was forced to beat a hasty retreat as the howls and loud, guttural sounds of ice trolls echoed from an adjoining tunnel. Now, it was up to him to find another entrance to the cave - the tunnel the trolls came from was far too risky - and find out what had become of the rest of the party. If he were still alive, he contemplated leaving Sezarath - damned fool that he was - to be torn limb from limb by the trolls.
Rivahl’s steps were nimble despite the body numbing cold that robbed his feet of feeling. The wind was howling now, increasingly so with each step of his ascent, turning the swirling flakes into daggers, cutting into the soldier’s uncovered face. The blizzard was on him now and he knew that if he didn’t get to the safety of a shelter soon he would be frozen stiff. But the snow was blinding, navigating in it being akin to wandering the Great Marshes while wearing a blindfold.
Rivahl staggered forward, each step more difficult than the one before. The thick snowflakes danced before his glazed eyes as if they could sense his agony and sought to comfort him. He allowed his eyes to close, only for a moment he promised himself. A moment drifted into minutes and a strange, bright warmth wrapped itself around the young soldier, but his eyes shot open, suddenly aware that it was a ploy by the reaper to lure him from the mortal realm. The brief warmth disappeared as he struggled on up the mountain.
As a soul stealing cold took hold of him, intent on robbing him of his life, a strange scent wafted through the air bringing him back to his senses. Blindly, he followed the scent, judging his proximity to the source by the strength of the smell, until he came upon a faint glow emanating from a crevice at his feet. His desire for warmth clouding his common sense, he planted his face as far as he could into the crevice to gather what little heat radiated from the inside. It was a choice that he would regret for the rest of his life.
“By the gods,” he stammered, scarcely believing what he was seeing. “This barbarity . . . it cannot be.”
The horror on display was worse than anything he had ever witnessed - ever imagined - before in his life. Seven hulking trolls shoved their half-cooked bounty into their slobbering mouths, slurping entrails as a man would noodles from a bowl. Each held a roasted body as Rivahl would hold a turkey drum. He stifled the vomit back as he scanned the cavern below for any surviving soldiers.
He found none.
Each troll had a whole man to himself, accounting for seven men. There was a raging fire with another close, a bubbling, earthen cauldron sitting over it. Simmering in the pot were the remains of the other soldiers in a stomach-turning soup of offal, bone, flesh, hair, and only the gods know what else.
As he started to rise and flee, storm be damned, he heard something that chilled him all the way to his heart in a way that even the environment of the Frozen North could not - screams.
Blood-curdling screams, from down below. He peered back into the crevice. Could it be that one of his comrades was still alive?
Then, in the far corner of the room partially covered by the shadows, he spotted the man shouting in terror.
“Unbelievable,” Rivahl muttered in disgust as he observed Sezarath tied to a fir branch. He had more than his share of contempt for the portly scholar because he had brought this tragedy upon him, and the rest of the party. Though he knew none of the men in the party personally, they were still brothers in arms with friends and families of their own.
“They’re saving his fat hide for last.” He almost shuddered at the thought of what was in store for the oaf. Would they candy him? It was possible, but he suspected something far more sinister. Rivahl had heard horror stories of trolls that would force their unfortunate corpulent victims to consume a stomach-bursting amount of sweet herbs and fruits before putting them over a fire for hours, and quite expertly, boiling their insides into a brew sweetened by what they were forced to ingest earlier. After this ghastly deed, they would then pass the swollen human flagon to one another, each wringing and squeezing it to release the intoxicating, barbaric concoction from any other orifice willing to yield it. Despite what he had caused to happen, the young soldier could not bear so grisly a fate to befall anyone.
“Damn it all,” he sighed as he began searching for an entrance. It did not take him long to find one.
About sixteen paces to the north, the crevice widened just enough for Rivahl to squeeze down into. He warily climbed down through the crevice, descending onto a rocky ledge jutting from the cavern wall. The trolls were about twelve meters below him. Killing the trolls was not an option: there were far too many - he had been lucky the first had went down so easily. After studying the situation, he devised a hasty strategy - it wasn’t perfect, but it would have to do.
Sezarath was off to the side, far enough away from the knot of trolls so that, perhaps, they would not notice if he quietly slipped down and cut the scholar free of his bindings. Afterwards, they would hopefully escape undetected. But climbing down to the man would not be an easy feat. Rivahl hoped that if he did slip up and make some noise, the trolls wouldn’t notice in their boisterous feasting. Slowly, he made his way, edging along the wall, climbing down when he could.
The scholar was non-stop in his screaming and sobbing. Every so often, one of the trolls would throw a wayward glance his direction and make mock screaming noises, too disturbing to imagine, and then burst into a fit of snorting and laughter with the others. When the soldier finally closed in on the scholar, just below his perched position, he had his head down weeping quietly. Rivahl shifted his weight and the ledge beneath his feet crumbled a bit, sending dust and pebbles onto Sezarath’s head. The trolls had not noticed in their glee, roaring with laughter and belching up a malodorous stench that filled the room, but the scholar looked up and a smile instantly creased his chubby face. His mouth opened as though he were about to cry out, but Rivahl snapped a finger to his mouth ordering him to keep quiet. The scholar nodded obediently as the soldier dropped behind him without a sound. In an instant, his dagger cut the scholar free from the gnarled, handmade rope of the trolls. Looking gratefully at his liberator, the scholar, his ruddy face stained with tears, pointed at a wide tunnel on the opposite side of the cavern.
That must be where they brought him in at, he thought. If that’s so, it should lead back to the trap, which they probably removed to get Ivan and Devon’s smashed bodies. He grimaced at the thought of the crushing deaths of his comrades.
Those bastards would never turn down a meal just because it was pulverized.
Rivahl looked to the left at the trolls huddled around the blazing fire. Four were still gnawing on legs and thighs while the other three were knotted together scooping stew from the boiling cauldron with stone bowls, overflowing with the viscous concoction. He turned and motioned for the scholar to follow him. The two slowly made their way towards the tunnel under the cover of the shadows that the lip of the rocky ledge above them provided. Rivahl’s heart beat so hard he feared that the trolls might overhear it. He could only guess what the scholar was experiencing.
A smile spread across his face. The tunnel was in sight. Almost there, he thought, seconds seemingly stretching into an eternity. Ironically, the raging storm outside seemed like a heaven compared to this hell.
Rivahl wrenched his head around at the same moment as the trolls. Sezarath had stepped on a goat’s discarded ribcage as he stared absently ahead, oblivious to his footing. The trolls let out an earsplitting roar as they leaped up from around their fire, tossing their morsels aside. Rivahl’s eyes went wide as the ice trolls grabbed up their stone clubs and axes and started for them in a sprint.
“Move your ass!” he shouted as he grabbed the scholar’s robe and jerked him along at his own breakneck pace.
The two moved through the tunnel quickly. The overweight scholar was actually keeping pace with Rivahl, thanks to a rush of adrenaline and fear. However, the experienced soldier knew that would only take him so far. The trolls bounded behind them, close enough for Rivahl to hear a virulent string of insults in their primal language and gurgling howls. Finally, the end of the tunnel came into sight as the twisting trail came to a steep incline, ended and jutted up vertically. The two fleeing men of the empire slid to stop. The younger solider knelt down and cupped his hands. Sezarath looked down at him quizzically as if he were unsure of what to do next.
“Put your damned foot in my hand, you fool!” he screamed. “Hurry, damn you! You want them to make a feast of you as well?” The scholar planted his foot in Rivahl’s hands and was catapulted to the top as Rivahl exploded up, hurling the load up to the opening. Sezarath managed to get his belly over the edge of the entrance, his rear still hanging and feet flailing violently inside the shaft. Rivahl jerked around to see a row of vicious trolls rounding the corner behind him. He jumped up and grabbed the ledge with one hand and pushed the academic’s oversized rear over the edge with his other. Sezarath cried loudly as his bulk cleared the ledge and he began tumbling head over feet down the frigid, rocky slope. Rivahl could not help but grin at the cry even as death approached him from behind. He scrambled out of the shaft as the trolls beneath him grabbed at his feet, missing only by centimeters.
Dashing through the blizzard, the young soldier dragged the scholar down the slope after catching up to him and snatching him by the robe yet again. The pursuers still hounded the two. Rivahl looked around in vain trying to get a fix on their location on the mountain, but it was no use. He could only see inches past his nose. Running blindly, no knowledge of the area, with poor footing and gaping gorges and bottomless crevices etching the mountain’s surface, was extremely dangerous, but stopping and becoming troll fodder was an even less attractive option.
Suddenly, almost miraculously, the snow let up and it looked as though a veil had been lifted from the frozen, alien land. Then, everything seemed to stop. Rivahl became aware of all that surrounded him; the thick clouds of steam that spewed from the scholar’s mouth like that of a heaving warhorse in winter, the crunching of the snow with each of his own bounding steps, the musty stench of his unwashed clothing, and the stinging of his lips, chapped to the point of bleeding.
And the white slope, only feet in front of him, that ended abruptly - a black chasm stretching out endlessly before it.
“Ah!” he cried out as he tried to stop, but lost his footing causing him to slam to the ground, dragging the hapless scholar with him. As the two tumbled towards the edge, a fir tree, clinging precariously to the cliff, came into sight.
His arm shot out and grabbed the lone tree, its bark crunching under his grip. The jolting stop stunned the unwitting scholar causing him to release his grip on the soldier’s forearm. Expecting as much, Rivahl grabbed Sezarath’s robe by the collar, nearly breaking his neck, his body dangling over the edge of the cliff five-hundred feet above certain death. Rivahl’s teeth gritted and arms trembled as he struggled to hold on to both the tree and the scholar. He prayed silently that their deaths would be painless if the tree should give way.
Then he heard the trolls charging down the slope in his direction, bellowing in rage. It was over in moments.
Hungry for blood and ignorant of their surroundings, the party of trolls ran headlong over the cliff, the last of which clawed at the scholar and ripped off the lower portion of his robe. The raging storm drowned out the trolls’ cries as they fell to their deaths. With all of his might, Rivahl pulled the scholar’s quivering body back up from the edge of the cliff. With the scholar safely at his side, sobbing yet again, he sighed and let his face drop into the snow.
Night had fallen.
Rivahl wrapped the cloak around his freezing body. The fur lining of the cloak soothed his aching, cold body. A torn piece of his tunic served as a makeshift sling, his right arm having been dislocated earlier when he grabbed the fir and the weight of the scholar on the other wrenched it out of socket. Rivahl had packed the entrance to the small hole, most likely a den for a small animal of some sort, with snow so that any trolls left wandering in the blizzard would not spot them in their hideaway. The tight space, ranging no more than two meters in length and width and even less than that in height, stank with the two men inside. The rocky hole was warm, in comparison to the outside, insulated with the snow and it would save them from hypothermia and death. The scholar sat huddled up beside him, sweating even in this minimal warmth. Rivahl gave a sigh of relief, thankful for the moment’s respite and the small flame they had kindled.
“I thank you for your heroics, lad,” the scholar said humbly. “If it wasn’t for you, there’s no telling what would have ended up happening to me.”
“You would have been eaten,” Rivahl said bluntly, almost callously. The scholar’s balding head nodded.
“Yes,” he answered solemnly. He was silent for a moment, as if contemplating something, before his pitch heightened and he continued, “Yes, I suppose you’re right. Next time, we won’t risk such a thing happening again.”
“Next time?” Rivahl snapped glaring at the buffoon before him. “What the hell do you mean ‘next time’? Do you realize you caused the deaths of eleven good men just because you refused to listen?”
“Well,” the scholar started, “For the deaths, I have nothing but sorrow. But, thanks to that noble sacrifice, I did get a glimpse of some breathtaking carvings in that main cavern. We return with twice - no - three times as many men and clear those trolls out so I can examine the carvings properly. There’s so much to be learned! Ancient civilizations had technology - high technology of the greatest power - that has been lost to this day. Think of the possibilities if we, the Empire of the Crescent, could harness that technology. The Empire of the Crescent would be the mos - ” But before the scholar, trembling from the thrill of his words, could finish, Rivahl struck him in the head with the hilt of his dagger. Sezarath’s unconscious body fell over with a thud.
“Ass,” the soldier barked, the contempt and anger in his voice unchecked. Though only an ordinary grunt in the army, he knew a power hungry fool, concerned only with his own lust for title and prestige, when he saw one.
Rivahl curled up with his cloak around him, placing his dagger in the front of his pants. He closed his eyes and uttered a prayer to the gods wishing his comrades well and promising them that he would see them in the afterlife on the Hunting Grounds of the Gods, where they would hunt their days and drink their nights away. Exhausted, Rivahl leaned against the rocky wall of the shelter and drifted into sleep. There would be consequences for his actions, but he would worry about that tomorrow. By no means would he rest soundly, but he would certainly sleep quietly now as he waited for the blizzard to subside.