The dirt path through the forest that Wallace walked upon had been well worn by the boots of the guards who had walked this same route in years past. Wallace barely needed the lantern to know the twists and turns of the trail, but the orange, flickering light was a calming presence in the darkness of a moonless, autumn night. Its light only barely pierced the heavy darkness that had swallowed the naked trees of the forest, but some light was better than nothing.
Forests are never quiet, especially not at night. The wind hissed through the leafless branches, making a clacking sound like a drumbeat. Insects clicked and buzzed all around. Every so often, an owl would let out a low hoot, as if it was asking a question to whoever was listening. Wallace had gotten used to the sounds of the forest on patrol, but he would never get used to the sounds that his boisterous partner made every time he opened his stupid mouth.
Randolph, matching Wallace’s pace, was in the middle of telling a story that Wallace had been ignoring, as usual. Randolph tended to grate on the nerves like a knife on a grindstone. He walked with the casual swagger of a man who was trying to impress people on the street. His pike was held in one hand, supported on his shoulder, while his other hand was being used to make wide, sweeping gestures to punctuate the story he was telling.
“…And so then she says to me – and may the Gods strike me down if I tell a lie-” Randolph’s clamorous voice changed to a pitch that he thought sounded feminine, but had more in common with the common rooster. “‘But Randolph, I don’t have a twin sister!’”
Wallace braced himself. Sure enough, Randolph began to roar with laughter that echoed through the forest. Still caught up in the humor of his own story, he slapped Wallace’s back, making the younger boy stumble and almost drop the lantern. Wallace, fifteen summers old compared to Randolph’s seventeen, rolled his eyes as he recovered from the friendly smack. After a minute, Randolph’s laughter finally petered out, and he turned his attention to Wallace, finally noticing the completely blank expression on his face.
Randolph nudged Wallace with his elbow. “Wallace? Wallace, don’t you get it? It’s – it’s supposed to be funny, Wallace. See, when you hear something funny, you’re supposed to laugh, see? Wallace? Wallace, why aren’t you laughing?”
Wallace sighed, his breath clouding the air with mist. “Oh, I thought it was hilarious,” he said, knowing that Randolph had no understanding of sarcasm. “I was just so busy keeping an eye out for trolls that I forgot to laugh.”
Randolph groaned. “God, you’re such a killjoy. ‘Ooh, look at me, I’m Wallace, I don’t have a sense of humor and I’m scared that I might get eaten by a big, scary troll! Ooh, ooh!’” He danced around like a bad jester, imitating what he thought Wallace’s voice sounded like. Wallace, for his part, ignored his patrol partner’s antics, content to keep his eyes on the forest around them.
He did have to admit that Randolph was right about one thing: Wallace was afraid of trolls. He thought it was a very sensible fear. His mother had frightened him into good behavior as a child by telling him stories about naughty boys who were dragged away by trolls in the middle of the night because they didn’t do their chores like they were supposed to. Now, he was a grown man, fifteen summers old, and he’d learned that the trolls in his mother’s bedtime stories were as terrifying as newborn puppies compared to the real thing.
Everybody knew about trolls. As tall and broad as two strong men, they were a horrible parody of the human form, created by the Devil himself to mock and defile God’s creations. A single troll could overpower five strong men, and an entire tribe of them could destroy a village.
Wallace had heard stories about what trolls did during their raids, and had been kept awake for days afterwards. Out of a burning desire to protect his home and his family, he had volunteered to join the village watch for the harvest season. Trolls were at their most active and most dangerous during harvest season, desiring easy sources of food to help them survive the cold winter. Nobody had seen any trolls in the area in years, but troll packs were nomadic. The king’s army had tried, time and again, to hunt down the troll packs and exterminate them, but victory was difficult when the enemy was gone before they could get there. Even when the army met a troll pack, the odds were usually in favor of the eight-foot tall beasts with the strength of a behemoth.
Wallace knew that since he was only armed with a pike and a lantern, he was probably doomed if ever a troll appeared on his watch. He might not be able to fight a troll, but if he was lucky, it might choke on one of his bones.
He tried very hard not to think about that possibility.
He and Randolph continued on their patrol, with Randolph refusing to shut up no matter how much Wallace told him to. It was almost a tradition, after so many weeks. Every patrol was exactly the same. They would meet just before sunset, collect their gear, and head off on the circular path around the village to keep an eye on the forest. At the first sign of trouble, they would send out a warning on the signal horns provided to them. Thankfully, they’d never had to use them.
As that thought crossed Wallace’s mind, the silence was broken by a rustle in the underbrush.
Wallace and Randolph froze, both completely silent.
“Did you hear that?” Randolph whispered, the quietest he’d been all night.
“Yeah,” Wallace answered, equally quiet. Randolph, hands shaking, removed the signal horn from his belt
Another burst of rustling. Close by. Both guards took in sharp breaths, scanning the forest to try and find the source. Wallace swallowed, though his mouth had gone dry.
More rustling. Randolph brought the horn to his lips.
A great brown shape burst out of the forest not five yards away.
Randolph let out an echoing note that pierced through the cold air and traveled for miles.
The deer, startled by the sudden noise, bounded across the trail and vanished into the darkness.
Wallace and Randolph watched it go, their hearts still pounding like mad. When it had disappeared into the darkness, both men let out a nervous laugh.
“Almost jumped out of my skin, I did,” Randolph confessed. He brought the horn back to his lips, and sounded three short notes, signaling to whoever might have heard that it was just a false alarm. With that done, he returned the horn to his belt. “You should have seen the look on your face,” Randolph continued, turning his head to look at Wallace. “If I was any good at painting, I’d-”
In the forest, a branch snapped. Wallace, feeling like he was moving through thick syrup, twisted around to look, and got his first sight of a troll as it leapt from the trees, silent as a swooping owl.
The stories Wallace had heard were, in essence, correct. The troll was a massive, ugly beast, a horrible parody of the human form. From a distance, its size and shaggy fur might make it look like a bear, but up close, the illusion was broken. The troll had the arms and legs of a man, and its eyes, illuminated by the lantern in that brief moment, were frighteningly, disturbingly, terrifyingly human.
They weren’t the dopey, slow eyes of a behemoth, or the quick, flighty eyes of a chicken. They were vibrant, observant, calculating, human eyes.
But the one thing even more terrifying than that was the log-sized club it carried in one hand.
The troll hit the ground barely even a yard away from them, bringing its club down on Randolph’s skull. His head burst like an egg, and he fell to the ground, never to tell a stupid story ever again.
Wallace screamed. The troll turned its attention to him, lifting the bloody club and swinging it sideways at Wallace. During all of this, the troll hadn’t made a single sound. A bear would have burst out of the forest roaring, an intimidating wall of fur and muscle and noise. The troll was as quiet as a hunter stalking a deer.
Wallace ducked under the club, and took off running into the forest, dropping his pike and lantern in his unadulterated fear. Still, he screamed in terror, and he could hear the troll loping after him, breaking through the underbrush like a plow through untilled soil.
Wallace kept running, adrenaline pounding through his veins. Branches whipped against his sides and thorns scratched his shins as he ripped his signal horn off his belt, tearing the leather cord that had kept it there. Behind him, the sound of the troll approaching was growing steadily closer, and Wallace made a sudden turn to the left, hoping the beast wasn’t good at sharp turns. In the darkness, he could barely see what was ahead of him, only narrowly avoiding tree trunks as they suddenly loomed out of the dark. Still running, he brought the signal horn to his lips, took a deep breath, and-
A moment of weightlessness as his foot caught hold on an unseen root. The horn flew from Wallace’s hand, disappearing as he crashed to the forest floor. The wind knocked free from his lungs, Wallace crawled forwards, still aware of the sound of the troll charging through the undergrowth behind him. Wallace searched desperately for the horn, knowing that he was going to die here. Snippets of his life rose to the front of his mind, but Wallace ignored them. This troll was probably only a scout. The rest of the pack would be close behind it, and if the village wasn’t warned…
Wallace’s fingertips brushed against the familiar material of the signal horn. He lunged to grab it, turning over onto his back as he brought the horn to his mouth. He took a deep breath-
The troll broke out of the bushes, club prepared. Its eyes locked onto Wallace, and Wallace almost saw what looked like understanding in the troll’s expression.
As he blew out a single, clear note, the most beautiful sound Wallace had ever heard, Wallace understood why the troll had attacked Randolph first. The beast had seen Randolph blow his horn when the deer ran out of the forest – was the troll responsible for that, Wallace wondered – and knew what the instrument’s purpose was. And now that Wallace had played that warning note, the sound that he knew would be heard for miles, the village would be able to prepare for the imminent troll raid.
Wallace had won, and the troll knew it.
Abandoning all pretense of stealth, the troll bellowed, loud and throaty, as it lunged at Wallace, still lying prone. Wallace couldn’t stop himself from smiling, safe in the knowledge that he had beaten the troll, even as the club came closer and closer, until it was the only thing in his vision.
A short, intense pain-
The troll, breathing heavily, stood over the fallen human. He lifted his club, trying not to look at the bloody, bony, squishy pulp that was all that remained of the human’s skull. He had failed. The human had warned its clan. It had won, even at the cost of its own life. A respectable death, if a messy one.
The troll’s eyes fell on the instrument, still held in the human’s lifeless hand. An idea came to him. The other human had blown the instrument when the deer had appeared, but after realizing its mistake, had used it again. The troll, mind thundering like a glacier towards inevitable understanding, felt a rush of relief.
He reached down and took the instrument from the dead human, wiping the saliva off the tip with his fur. He spent a moment inspecting the instrument, and then brought it to his mouth, trying to imitate what the human had done.
It took a few tries, but the troll was able to get the hang of it. Three short, sharp notes tore through the forest. The troll hoped that his interpretation was correct, and felt a small twinge of pride in his chest.
The troll lifted his club over his shoulder, and loped away from the corpse of his fallen adversary.
He kept the instrument. It would make a fine trophy.
Author’s Notes: Another short story written for an assignment, this one about ‘heightening the drama’. It’s set in a world where certain species of megafauna didn’t go extinct. For example, the troll is meant to be a species of giant ape, somewhat similar to Bigfoot. I’ll let you guess what a ‘behemoth’ is supposed to be.