Dark hooves churned the earth as horse and rider closed the long distance between themselves and their quarry. The gap was still considerable, but not insurmountable, and they were gaining. The hunter’s eyes pierced the distance for miles ahead.
He could not see the Destroyer, but he could feel it. And he could sense its fear. After its long years of captivity, the bane of all humanity on Aeonith would not want to be caught again. The hunter knew the creature would kill everyone and everything on Aeonith to stay free. He could not let that happen, not again.
The sun disappeared behind the tall trees of a small forest. The failing light of dusk cast the woods in an eerie red glow. Trees on either side of the road seemed to close in, as if trying to bar the way forward. There were not enough trees in all of Aeonith to deter the hunter. His black cloak swirled behind him as his mount surged forward. She sensed his urgency, and shared it as well.
The moon’s pale illumination made the night seem even more ominous. The atmosphere had little effect on the hunter; he was himself a creature of the night. His friend slowed their progress, however, and the hunter began to sense in her a growing trepidation. A small grin formed on his lips, though he knew she’d be unable to see it from her vantage point.
“Not getting scared, are we?” The hunter asked, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice and having little luck. Silence filled the air, but the hunter heard her answer clearly. He laughed out loud, hardily, and gregariously. “Fair enough.” He answered to the night.
Stallia slowed to a halt. A narrow wooden bridge suddenly appeared in the moonlight across a wide chasm. The wood looked incredibly old, the planks and rails covered with long cracks and dark spots that seemed filled with age and rot. The bridge looked incredibly unstable, yet this was their path. It was far too wide for even Stallia to jump across. The hunter regarded the crossing for a moment longer before urging his friend forward.
As Stallia began toward the rickety bridge, a low rustling sound suddenly emerged from underneath. The hunter’s friend halted as a dark shape loomed large in the night before them from beneath the old bridge. The figure was tall and wide, and the hunter marveled at the sight of this strange creature as the moonlight displayed its features.
It was vaguely man-shaped, a head, arms and legs ending in something resembling hands and feet. The similarities ended there, however. The creature was well over man-sized at nearly eight feet or more. Green mottled skin covered its body in a sickly membrane that made it appear diseased all over. Large, black eyes peered out above a long, pointed nose. The arms and legs of this gangly creature appeared weak, but the hunter knew better. The trolls of Aeonith were known to be fearsome creatures indeed.
“Well, well, what have we here, ey? Someone about to cross my bridge? They’ll have to pay the toll, they will. So, how much gold are my customers paying for crossing my bridge ey?”
The hunter studied the troll for a moment, wondering if the creature was being facetious, or was actually allowing him to determine the charge.
“I’m sorry, good sir, but we carry no coin of this world. If we cannot cross without passage, I suppose we must find another way. Good night to you.”
“Wait!” The troll responded loudly, taking both the hunter and his friend off-guard. The hunter suddenly hoped he was not about to need his weapon. “Wait, please, I’m sorry if I startled you. I don’t see other people very often. I didn’t mean to frighten you. If you need to cross the bridge, go ahead, I won’t stop you. But I would ask for something, if you don’t mind. It won’t cost you anything but time.”
The hunter felt it unnecessary to inform the troll he hadn’t actually frightened them at all. The troll’s sudden change from belligerent to concession did cause the hunter some small concern. He was intrigued as well, by both the troll’s offer and the creature’s new tone of speech.
“And what would you ask of us, my friend?” The hunter asked.
“Come to my house, for a short visit. Just a few moments of your time.”
The troll’s expression had gone from harassing to nearly forlorn. His black eyes were narrow and piercing when he first jumped out from beneath the bridge, but now were soft and pleading. The creature’s intelligence also seemed unusual for its kind. Though the hunter would have to admit he’d met few of the creature’s kin in his time on Aeonith, those he had encountered seemed more interested in clubbing him and eating his bones than engaging him in conversation. This troll was an enigma indeed.
“Very well.” The hunter answered after a moment of deliberation. “Though we have very few moments to spare.”
The troll’s expression changed immediately, from gloomy to cheerful in a matter of a second. His smile was somewhat disconcerting, not from any particular malevolence, but merely because it seemed so out of place on the large, green-skinned monster.
“Oh, wonderful. My home is not far at all. Please, come this way.”
The troll motioned into the forest and immediately set off into the woods.
The hunter regarded the troll curiously.
“Yes, he is a rather strange individual.” The hunter remarked, to seemingly no one in particular.
The hunter and his constant companion followed the troll deep into the small forest. The creature seemed to know its way insticively. The hunter was also surprised at how light on its feet the troll seemd to be. One might expect such a large creature to lumber through the forest knocking things down and making all kinds of noise. Yet this monster walked almost delicately, taking great care to watch its steps.
At last the procession came to small house nestled between two huge trees. Again the hunter was surprised by the strange creature. The yard outside the home was relatively free of debris, and a small path led to the tall doorway that would be just tall enough to allow the creature entrance. The house was constructed of well-made wooden planks put together in neat fashion. The roof appeared to be made of large oak branches cut to match one another and laid side by side. The troll opened the door, turning back to wave the hunter inside.
The black-clad hunter slid off his friend, patting her head gently.
“I’ll admit, he’s got my curiosity raised. Don’t worry, we won’t be long.”
The hunter smiled to his companion and disappeared into the troll’s home.
The inside of the dwelling was as surprisingly neat as the outside. Furnishings were sparse, yet those appointments were obviously well-kept. A careful look about the front room of the dwelling showed nothing out of the ordinary, until the hunter noticed a small bookcase near one wall. Books were the last thing the hunter would have thought to find in a troll’s house. The troll suddenly appeared from behind a doorway.
“Would you like something to eat, or drink?”
“No, thank you.” The hunter replied politely.
“Very well. Please sit down a moment.” The troll motioned to one of two tall chairs nearby. The hunter sat down and suddenly felt silly. The huge chair dwarfed him, making the hunter feel as though he might be a child who’d just sat down in his father’s chair. The troll sat opposite the hunter, smiling brightly.
“So,” the troll began, “what brings you to these woods? Not many pass through here these days.”
The hunter suddenly sensed an ulterior motive from his host. The frightening thought that his quarry had affected this creature in a manner similar to the villagers leapt into his mind. He hadn’t detected that either, a fact that still concerned him greatly.
“Just passing through, really.” The hunter answered warily. “I’m curious, did you build this house yourself?”
“Yes, I did, actually.” The troll replied with a proud smile. “One of my finer accomplishment’s I think. Built this furniture as well. Took a lot of time, but I think it was well worth the effort.”
“Indeed it was,” the hunter replied, “Both have quite fine workmanship.”
The hunter waited awkwardly for the troll to continue their conversation. The creature did little more than regard him with his bright smile.
“Have you always lived in this forest?” The hunter asked at last.
“Oh yes, it’s a wonderful place. It does get lonely sometimes, though. No one else around, you know. And there isn’t likely to be either, seems no one wants to live near a troll.”
The hunter felt a pang of grief at the troll’s loneliness. This creature was quite different than most of its kin, and seemed highly intelligent.
“Perhaps if you didn’t jump out at strangers from beneath bridges.” The hunter smiled, hoping the troll would understand he was merely joking.
The troll smiled back, a small, desolate grin that bespoke of his true feelings.
“Yes, I can be somewhat, forward, I guess. It’s in my nature, I suppose. I do my best. Being eight feet tall and green doesn’t seem to help either. But you don’t seem scared or nervous at all. May I ask why?”
Careful here, the hunter thought. Was it truly the creature asking, or was he being influenced by something else?
“You’re not as frightening as you seem to think you are.” The hunter replied. “In addition to not surprising your guests, might I suggest you engage them in conversation a few moments.”
The troll leaned toward the hunter at that, listening intently. It seemed they may have arrived at the troll’s purpose.
“What else can I do? Please, anything that could help?”
The hunter’s concern about the possibility that the destroyer had influenced his host began to fall away. The troll seemed genuinely concerned about the hunter’s advice. The hunter, however, had run out of friendly advice, he wasn’t exactly an expert on human welcoming rituals. He was merely relating what he’d seen others do.