Forged in Fire

Sarah Jane Beauhall (Volume 3)

J. A. Pitts

Tor Books

One
 
 
I kept Katie back and to the right of me as we followed the she-troll into the clearing. Here the snow was deep enough to see the paths the troll had made and to see where she was heading. Even with the sheep slung over her shoulder and one of Katie’s crossbow bolts in her right thigh, the she-troll had stayed ahead of us, weaving in and out of the trees, climbing for the last mile or more. Not for the first time this winter, I swore over the loss of my Doc Martens. The trainers sucked in this rough terrain.
“Be careful, Sarah,” Katie called to me in a hoarse whisper.
I glanced back at her, letting a grin grow on my face. We so had this.
Halfway across the clearing, the troll spun around, launching the sheep at us. I barely got my head turned around fast enough to dive to the right. Katie wasn’t as quick. She dropped her crossbow while trying to avoid the ovine missile, but went down under two hundred pounds of meat and wool.
“You okay?” I called, rolling to my feet, keeping between Katie and the troll.
The she-troll roared, overwhelming Katie’s reply. I drew my sword Gram and squared to face the beast, expecting her to fall on me, but she stepped back, ripped the bolt from her leg, and screamed once again. Blood ran down her rough britches and stained the snow beneath her huge feet.
“I know you, berserker,” the troll growled. “I will not let you destroy what is mine.”
“You’re one of Jean-Paul’s beasties, then?” I called. Her only answer was to scoop a fallen tree limb from the ground and lumber at me.
I caught the downward stroke of her cudgel against Gram. She was strong. I nearly fell beneath the sheer power of the blow. I slid backward on the ice, barely keeping my feet.
“Not anymore,” she grunted, swinging at me again.
I parried, spinning around. It was a beautiful move, at least in my mind. It should have caught her in the neck, smashing through the arteries. Instead, my shoes slipped on the ice and I stumbled, missing her by half a foot. She lunged forward, punched me in the chest with the cudgel, and slashed my right leg with her claws.
Lucky for me, the universe is random and capricious. The wound in her leg kept her from putting her full strength and balance in the blows, so I didn’t lose my leg. As it was, she punched through my chain mail and sliced into my upper thigh.
I screamed with the pain and fell backward. Luckily, rocks and ice broke my fall. I clamped my right hand over my thigh and kept Gram up between me and the killing machine. She loomed over me and roared. Spittle flew over me, and for a moment she looked like King Kong raging on Skull Island.
“Oh, shit,” I said, trying to scramble backward with one good leg. She had me dead to rights, only we’d both forgotten about Katie.
Katie smashed the crossbow into the side of the troll’s head, causing her ugliness to lumber to the side. I rolled up onto my good knee and shoved Gram upward, sending six inches of black steel into the troll’s neck.
The troll jerked backward, flailing with both arms. She caught Katie a glancing blow. She staggered backward to fall against one of the old oaks.
I forced myself to my feet as the troll fell to her knees, clutching her throat. She looked at me, really looked into me, pleading. I could see the pain and fear in her huge green eyes. She opened her mouth, gasping something through the foaming blood. I couldn’t make out the words. Tears rolled down her pocked face as she tried over and over to say something. I think it was “mercy,” but I couldn’t be sure. After a minute her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she fell backward. The forest shook with her falling.
“Damn it,” I shouted, looking around to Katie, who was limping toward me.
“Hang on,” Katie called, pulling her pack and guitar from the underbrush. She fell to her knees at my side and pushed me onto my back. “Let me stop the bleeding,” she ordered.
I leaned back on one elbow and watched as she peeled the chain and cloth from the wound. I grunted as she pulled several links out of the rent flesh. “Fuck, that hurts,” I growled.
She looked around, picked up a small stick from the ground, and thrust it at me. “Bite down on this,” she said and pushed me onto my back.
I bit down onto the stick and tried not to make too much noise as she dressed the wound.
“Not too deep,” she assured me, pulling her first aid kit from her pack. She’d been training with our doctor friend Melanie for weeks—basic wound care and treatment. She used an irrigation syringe to clean the wound with distilled water. Then she had me hold it partially closed while she applied four wound closure strips.
“Gotta keep it open some,” she said, grimacing. “Can’t risk infection.”
She slathered the wound with antibiotic ointment and applied a sterile bandage over it. I held that down tight, applying pressure to help it stop bleeding while she tore off several lengths of muslin and duct tape to finish off the dressing.
“At least you didn’t wreck the runes,” she said, cupping my calf.
I had runes running down my left calf—Thurisaz, Dagaz, Kenaz, Gebo, Tiwaz—the same runes that ran down the length of the fuller on my sword, Gram. I inherited them when I became tuned in with the blade. Just popped up on my calf one day, pretty as you please. Damn funny thing about magic swords. They mark you in some ways. I just never figured it would be so literal.
She did a quick and efficient job of binding the wound. Within a few minutes, I was standing. I wouldn’t be running any marathons, but I could get around.
I cleaned Gram and sheathed her before examining the troll.
She was dead, for sure.
“What was that at the end?” Katie asked, looking around for a branch long enough for me to use as a cane.
“I think she said ’mercy,’” I said. “She was already dying, knew it by the look in her eyes. Why would she ask for mercy then and not when we had her cornered?”
“No idea,” Katie said. “But she was definitely making a stand here. We should look around.”
We hadn’t gone very far across the clearing when we heard crying. I looked at Katie, who shrugged and pushed forward, her short sword out. I pulled Gram from her sheath and hobbled forward, leaning on the staff.
Beyond the clearing, where the rocky slope pushed upward, we found the troll’s lair. The opening was fairly low, but firelight shown from inside. Katie went in ahead of me. The opening jagged to the left and expanded into a huge, dry cave.
The place was amazing. Most of the floor was covered in sheepskins, and several pieces of crude furniture were placed around a central fire pit. The cave went back about thirty feet. The smoke from the fire wound its way upward, being pulled out through a natural chimney of some sort.
A spit was erected over the fire and several cook pots sat off to one side. Katie and I looked at each other in astonishment. It was dry, warm, and homey.
“Christ!” I breathed. “How long has she been here?”
That’s when we heard the cry again. I’d forgotten it in the shock of seeing the way the cave had been made into a home.
“Oh, no,” Katie said, walking to the back of the cave.
I hobbled after her, expecting the worst. What I saw, however, was beyond even my worst nightmares.
In the back, buried in shadow, was a handmade crib. By the time I made it around the fire, Katie had lifted a troll baby out of the crib and was holding it to her chest, trying to quiet it.
“Sarah,” she started, her voice thick with tears. “There’s a second one here.”
I stumped over to her and looked down into the crib. A second troll baby lay sleeping. I looked at Katie, stunned. “What the hell do we do now?”
“I think he’s hungry,” she said.
I took two more steps and collapsed into a rough-hewn chair. It gave a little, and I realized it was a rocker. This was where she nursed them.
“What have we done?”
Katie handed me the child. “Hold him. I need to find what she used for diapers.”
I held the kid out from me, eyeing the drooping cloth diaper. “Great,” I said, rocking forward and holding him over the floor. I did NOT want any of that leaking on me.
He looked a lot like a human baby, only longer, like he’d been stretched. He had the normal eyes, ears, and mouth you’d expect on any humanoid.
The thought stopped me. How utterly bizarre my life had become. Humanoid, indeed. Just a year ago, I’d had a normal life as a blacksmith in Seattle, one of the coolest cities on the planet. I was shoeing horses and making swords for the local ren faires. I had taxes and lattes, too much traffic and not enough income. Then I reforged a magic sword and the dragons took notice of my sorry ass. Now I’m plagued with troll babies and dragons, giants, dwarves, magic swords, and ancient Norse gods. How had the whole damn world managed to miss all this hiding in plain sight? Why wasn’t this front-page news all over the globe? Instead, I sat with an orphaned troll and was wishing for nothing more than a hot shower and a thin crust pepperoni pizza.
The child’s fingers were long and thin with no talons. I guess they grew in later. Made me wonder if you could trim those back like fingernails. Really, he pretty much looked like a normal kid. His skin was a bit knobbly, thicker than mine, I’m sure.
“Any luck?” I called back to Katie. When I looked back, he had the greatest little smile. Probably gas. That’s what my ma would’ve said.
Katie found a stack of cloths we assumed were diapers and changed the little monster. His nappy was heavy with urine. Katie rolled it up and took it to the back of the cave. “This clears things up,” she said, carrying a shield back into the light. “This is one of ours.”
It bore the emblem of Black Briar. Nidhogg had been right, damn her icy heart.
“So she was a survivor of the battle back in May,” I said, looking down at the mewling troll baby in my lap. “She probably killed some of our friends.”
“Good odds,” Katie said, taking the child from me and sitting on the edge of a pallet of sheepskin that looked like a bed. “But she only took sheep and such since then. And didn’t try to head back north or harass us further.”
“True enough. But the farmers who lost those sheep weren’t too happy.” And Nidhogg, the dragon who claimed these parts, was none too pleased to have a beastie raiding her territory.
The second baby woke then, and we repeated the diaper routine. I ended up on the makeshift bed with the first troll baby beside me while Katie carried the second on her hip. “I don’t see any bottles or anything,” she said. “I guess she could’ve been nursing them still.” She held the second one and looked into its mouth, worming her finger around past the tight, rubbery lips.
“Plenty of teeth,” she said, pulling her finger back quickly and wiping it on her shirt. “And sharp.”
“Maybe they’re already eating meat,” I offered. “They’re not like human babies.”
So Katie returned to the clearing and dragged in the sheep the mother had been bringing to feed her children.
“If they weren’t hurting anyone, why’d Nidhogg want you to look into this?” she asked me as she began cutting small chunks from the sheep carcass.
Both troll babies were sitting on the bed with me and actually giggled and clapped as we fed them cubes of raw sheep.
“Oh, if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say she was testing me, testing my loyalty. She has high expectations for her servants. That and I’d wager a punishment for causing Qindra to be locked in that house out in Chumstick.”
“Not your fault the witch got trapped with all those ghosties,” Katie said.
“Fault doesn’t come into it. It’s spite and obligation.”
She didn’t reply to that, just worked in silence. We’d had that conversation too many times—what with Julie’s staying at my apartment since the dragon attack in May and my volunteering to help cover Qindra’s duties for the last few weeks. The only plus to it all in Katie’s mind was that I was sleeping at her place pretty regularly now.
I rubbed my eyes. It didn’t have to be this hard. I loved her; she knew it. There are just times when you have to stand up and do the right thing, even if it isn’t easy. Yes, Nidhogg was a dragon. But she had a kingdom to run, and the witch Qindra had been her face to the world. With her incapacitated, I had to step up. It was quid pro quo.
Qindra had helped our people—had come to our aid during and after the battle with the dragon Jean-Paul. Hell, she’d agreed to try and cleanse Anezka’s property in Chumstick as a favor to me. It wasn’t her fault that my substitute blacksmith mentor, Anezka, was bat-shit crazy. Nor was it her responsibility that Anezka’s home and smithy had been built on the vortex of a major ley line that ran down from the wilds of the Cascade Mountains. No one knew the whole place was a haunted house waiting to explode. Well, maybe the evil necromancer dude Anezka had dated and dumped. I’m sure he’d had a clue, bastard.
It felt right, standing in for Qindra. She was locked inside that magic dome she’d thrown over the property, protecting everyone from the demented and nasty spirits that were being drawn to Anezka’s place. My running a few errands for Nidhogg paled in comparison. Of course, I’m sure the troll I’d just killed would’ve rather I stayed out of things.
Katie butchered the sheep with efficiency. Taking out some of her frustration, I’d bet. When she turned, however, she was nothing but grim determination and sunshine. Even with bloody hands and her hair askew, she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever met.
I looked from her to the babies. They were cute, too.
“Frick and Frack,” I said as they chewed noisily.
“Nice,” Katie said, wiping her knife on the sheep’s wooly back. “Since you’ve named them, I guess we’re keeping them.”
I watched them a minute. Were they condemned by their species? Did we have the right to slaughter them? “Well, I don’t think we can kill them, do you?”
Katie looked over at me; I was lying with a bloody bandage over one thigh and two troll babies nestled into the thick sheepskins.
“No, we can’t kill them,” she said. “You’re right.”
“So what then?”
“I don’t know.”
She found a large barrel in the back filled with rain water, and we cleaned up.
I limped to the entrance of the cave and looked out over the frozen clearing. “It’ll be dark long before we can get back with me hobbled and carrying two troll babies.”
Katie stepped up and hugged me from behind. “We can sleep here tonight. It’s safe enough. Frick and Frack went right back to sleep.”
I kept watching the clearing, seeing the blowing snow begin to cover the troll mother. “Wish I hadn’t killed her,” I whispered.
“Aye,” Katie said.
Soon enough, I was back on the bed and Frick and Frack were back in their crib. Katie kept the fire stoked up for another hour or so, long enough for dark to set outside, then crawled into the bed with me.
“Smells pretty strong,” she said.
I reached for her, pulling her to my chest. “Smells like sheepskin. Doesn’t stink like you’d think for a troll bed.”
“Maybe they’re clean by nature,” she said against my shoulder. “Never knew a troll until we fought them in May.”
I wondered about the troll mother, the life she’d led that took her into Jean-Paul’s servitude. I can’t imagine living under the regime of that brutal bastard. Jean-Paul was one of those dragons who, like a nasty dictator, played with his food. I can’t even begin to imagine the brutality that any of the special creatures had experienced under his rule. Hell, I’m not sure what to call them: trolls and giants, elves and dwarves. Was it a blessing for us stupid humans, who had no clue of the dragons? Did our ignorance make the difference?
Then I thought back to Skella and Gletts, the young elves we’d recently met. They spent their whole lives living in Stanley Park under Jean-Paul’s violent rule, and they ended up being decent enough folk.
Maybe this troll momma was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And here we’d killed her for trying to take care of her children. Yeah, Nidhogg was concerned when the sheep farmers started talking about Wendigo and how something terrible was killing their stock. But, damn it. The troll didn’t need killing. She needed helping.
“You ever thought about having kids?” Katie asked me after the fire had burned low.
“I’ve never been all that interested,” I said. “I just never considered it something I needed to do. Don’t get me wrong, I think kids are fine.”
She made a noise beside me that I couldn’t interpret.
“But I just never figured on getting pregnant, bringing a child into this world. Especially now, with everything I know about the dragons and worse.”
“I thought I’d have a daughter,” Katie said sleepily. “Someone to teach to play guitar. Someone to have tea parties with and play dress-up.”
“You never know,” I whispered. She didn’t answer, and before long I heard her steady breathing that let me know she’d gone to sleep.
Katie may very well be the best thing that ever happened to me. I cared more for her happiness than damn near anything else on the planet. I’d thought about living the rest of my life with her, back when I thought I was gonna have a long one. Now with the dragons, and the sword Gram, I wasn’t sure I’d live out the winter. Put a totally different spin on things.
I tried to keep it together, not to let things spin out of control. But I’m not sure how well that was working for me. Let’s forget the fact that I fought giants and trolls, killed a dragon, forged an ancient sword, and had to deal with a crotchety and half-crazed homeless guy who either was Odin or channeled him on a regular basis. Magic really existed in the world. There were some nasty things out there that wanted to kill me. Hell, some of them wanted to eat me.
And now, filled with a righteousness that blurred the lines of right and wrong, I’d killed this troll. She was a living, breathing, thinking, caring entity who wanted nothing more than to keep her family safe. Isn’t that what we all wanted? How did this make me any different from the fucking dragons?
I lay awake for a long time, the throbbing in my leg dull compared to the one in my heart.


 
Copyright © 2012 by John A. Pitts