When Aziz had left, the forest had been untamed but friendly. Now it loomed around him like a predator waiting for a moment’s weakness, the opportunity to pounce. It felt as though even the animals were keeping quiet for fear of being eaten.
If what the two women had said was true, the village was in far more trouble than he and Ky had expected. A supernatural threat beyond Aziz’ understanding was bad enough, and a problem he couldn’t do much about. Trolls, however, were something quite different. Trolls he could fight, could kill. No need to seek the aid of mysterious strangers to cut down a troll.
He had been through this part of the Wood many times, going from his cabin to the main road. Here and there stumps bore silent witness to his work as a lumberjack, many covered in moss and one defiantly sprouting small branches. The forest would survive, would recover, no matter what happened. Neither strange magic nor a horde of trolls would defeat the wilderness.
Aziz paused upon spotting his cabin. It seemed deserted, though the lack of weeds on the dirt path from the village suggested it had seen some use during his absence. He scowled, but hadn’t really expected the villagers to leave the place alone while he was gone.
It seemed strangely quiet around here, though. If the forestfolk had made their way here, like the woman claimed they intended, he had expected to spot sentries on his approach or at least campsites this close to the village. Perhaps they had possessed enough foresight to camp on the other side of the village, furthest from where the trolls were.
Opening the door and stepping inside, he quickly realized the cabin had been used as some sort of meeting place; his table had been moved to the middle of the room and several chairs had been brought from the village. It made sense, he supposed. It was probably the largest room available in the village, what with Aziz being as big as he was.
He grunted irately, then moved over to his stash. There was a reason he came here, and it wasn’t to reflect over things he couldn’t change.
Jaeworl looked at the two children pouting at him. A human girl had given a collection of flowers to one of the younglings. The boy, upset that she would go about killing plants for no reason, had yelled at her. The girl had responded by pushing him over, and the whole thing had escalated from there.
Jaeworl, being nearby, had intervened in an attempt to sort things out.
Both had welts and bruises on their faces, scratch marks along their arms, and seemed thoroughly sullen about the whole affair. The girl was nursing her nose, though Jaeworl’s magic had stemmed the blood flowing from it.
He took the time to explain to the boy that she was just trying to be friendly and that picking flowers to enjoy their beauty was hardly wasteful, especially when they would not grow together to be enjoyed unplucked. To the girl he had less to say, all she had done was try to be nice only to have her gift ruined.
He gathered up the flowers, noting a couple of rare herbs in the mix, and brought both plants and children with him for a lesson on how to preserve the blossoms by drying and pressing them.
“Master ‘Ziz, you taller than I remember…” The little boy was staring up at Aziz with wide eyes.
Aziz looked down at him with a wide grin. It was almost surprising that the boy even recognized him. His head was shaved, his thick beard was combed with a single braid holding three beads, and Ky had insisted on buying him new clothes. He still wore a vest, now bright red with pale blue lining the edges, and pants, a darker blue matching his vest, but they were whole and clean. More importantly, the colors had not been faded from years under the Twin Suns.
Despite the many years he had spent away from his homeland, he never could quite get used to there being only one sun.
“Maybe ye’ve grown shorter?” Most likely it was the fact that Aziz was thinner than when he left. Travel had a way of doing that. He wondered if Trudi had taken the time to bake even with all the visitors around. He hoped she had.
The boy looked thoughtful, taking his time to mull over Aziz’ suggestion.
Aziz didn’t bother to wait for a reply. “Do ye know who’s in charge of them forestfolk?”
The boy nodded and pointed in the direction of Marcus’ house. “Uncle Marcus says it’s the old man what hangs ‘round with ‘im.”
Jaeworl watched the children playing with each other, one trying to catch the others as they ran around the village’s… watering hole. He had been in the middle of explaining the properties of a herb when the girl had been pushed by one of the children, and promptly she had run off to join the game. The boy, seeing some of his kin playing, had soon followed.
“Hello!” The deep voice boomed from behind Jaeworl, yanking him out of his contemplations regarding the poor manners and strange ideas children were taught these days. Startled, he turned around to look at the speaker. Finding himself staring at a scarred stomach, he tilted his head back and looked up at the bearded face of the large man.
“Do I know you?” The face seemed vaguely familiar, but he could not even begin to place it.
The man let out a chuckle. “No, I don’t see how ye would. I’m Aziz Magistrate of the village. I understand yer the one who’s been in charge while I was away.”
Jaeworl nodded, motioning around him. “We have been trying to make it easier to hold off the trolls.”
Aziz Magistrate looked around, then motioned for Jaeworl to follow as he moved off to a more isolated location. “I spoke briefly with a friend of yers, Imaerla. She mentioned something about the trolls being part of yer community?”
“You spoke to Imaerla? How was she?”
“Fine, if burdened by guilt from walking the wrong way. The trolls?”
“They used to live with us, yes.”
“How did ye keep ‘em from eating everyone?”
“We used the magic of the Fair Folk. Their faerie servants kept them relatively calm.”
“Huh…” The man’s jaw worked behind his beard, though he was obviously not chewing on anything but his thoughts. “Why’d it stop working?”
“The Fair Folk called their servants back. Likely because of the dark magic festering in the Wood.”
“Aye, that thing’s trouble. I hope ye can help us fight it when this is over. Do ye know how many trolls there are?”
Jaeworl shrugged. “I am unsure, Aziz Magistrate. Perhaps as many as there are humans in this village? You should speak with the hunters who attempted to draw them further into the forest, they would know better than I.”
The man blinked a few times, seemingly stunned by the suggestion. “No, no… My name is Aziz. I am the magistrate of this village. It’s a position, like elder.”
“Ah, I see.”
“Now, where are those hunters?”
“Nay, there’s no way we can fight that many trolls. We’ve got to go west, hope to outrun them long enough that the horde scatters. To stay here is to die.” Despite being taller than any of the others to begin with, Aziz had positioned himself astride the well to make sure he would be heard by all.
Aziz paused while Jaeworl translated, using the moment to look around at the crowd of humans and forestfolk. They had gathered almost everyone, with only a few of the sick too infirm to participate in the meeting, or moot as the old man had called it.
“What about our homes?” “Why hasn’t the governor sent help?” “It’s their fault!”
Aziz could tell from the expression on the old man’s face that the forestfolk weren’t any more hopeful with their replies.
“Calm down, everyone.” The old man was seated on one of the rooftops overlooking the village square, though how he got there was anyone’s guess. “Aziz is correct. There are too many trolls for us to fight. We have to flee.”
“Where will we go?” “How will we find food?” “What about the baron?” “We’re all gonna die!”
“Alright, listen up!” Aziz bellowed, pausing to make sure he had everyone’s attention. “Less talk, more action. Hunters, find the main horde. Find out how long we have before they get here! Go!” A trio of villagers took off toward the forest. “The rest of ye, start preparing wagons, mounts, packs, sleds… Anything and everything to help move food, water, and wounded!”
Aziz watched as the villagers scattered, many casting suspicious glances at the forestfolk. He wondered if it had been wise to tell them about the trolls’ former home, but he knew Marcus to be right; it’d get out eventually, and better upfront now than a betrayal later.
Over by his side of the gathering, Jaeworl said something to the forestfolk before a group broke off and moved to catch up with the hunters, a giant moth trailing a cloud of purplish glitter leading the way. The rest headed back toward their camp, likely to prepare for another flight.
Where was Ky when ye needed one of his plans? Aziz took a deep breath and sat down on the edge of the well. Exhaling slowly, he thought back to the many campaigns he’d fought over the years. He’d never held command, but even a grunt picks up a few things after a while. Couldn’t be too different from fighting, right?
Trolls, like nephaim, are big. They win through intimidation. Ye think ye’ll lose, ye’ve already lost. So, win first, then fight. In other words, figure out how to escape the trolls before they got here.
They’d need a diversion, something to stall the trolls long enough for the refugees to escape and get a good headstart on the road to the safety of Norston. No, better they go west to Crosswater. A little further and no roads, but it wouldn’t take them along the forest and Banow didn’t skimp on patrols so they’d have a better chance of finding help.
“Alright!” Aziz hopped to his feet and clapped his hands together. He had a strategy, now he just needed a plan for that diversion. “Hey, Jaeworl! A word!”