I suppose it isn’t easy being different among strangers. Nor is it easy being different and alone. I am thorn, one of three clans to have descended from the trolls of old. It doesn’t help that I have typical thorn features. My girth would resemble a bear, shorn of all fur but a thick, greenish, sometimes yellowish mane that covers my head and shoulders. My deep face is adorned with a pronounced snout had my clan glyph scared on my left cheek, a mark that my family loves me and wants to leave their trace on the world through me. The black and red apprenticeship robes I wear covers that body fairly well. My people wear no clothes as a rule–what do we have to hide, anyway? I have come to understand human sensitivities and have accepted the simple garment. It also delayed the “how do you make babies?” questions. Cuddle in a nest with several thorns I like and plant the seeds and keep them safe. That seemed to worry them. Father? Mother? Naw, we do it together. How do you do it? That kind of cheek got me latrine duty for a week. Well, I was hungry, needing some time in a crowded forest to take in nourishment. Well, yes I eat anything alive. As a thorn we need more convergent essence, more of that energy that makes you more than a lump of chemicals. I just prefer the flavor of the forest to an urban center. And hunger, especially that kind, makes me sharp, rebellious, even.
I’ve read the texts, codices, tomes. I practice the rites and formulae, mastered their odd language and its writing. Enchanting tokens of metal, fair. Tokens of wood and stone, excellent. Meant to enhance success with the women, complete failure. It turns out one must desire the sort of person the charm is meant to charm. I find humans interesting, just not like that. Conjure and binding circles I’ve had mixed results. My heart just wasn’t in it. And by that time I was questioning my reason for being at that Sagewort. Was it to help, entertain? Fill a hole left when dwarves burned my family in their home? Even a vanir would lose hope after three years of demoralizing treatment. Well, maybe they’d need twenty.
Lost, I entered this forest to commit suicide. The ring of wood is my hope that I could dissipate, rather than regenerate. As a thorn, that might take a year.
• º •
Well, that is a lot of speech just to say, hello. Of course I survived, and am quite grateful, I assure you. To explain why I suppose we must explore why I might want to die.
I had some troubles at Sagewort, most of them because of my race. I suppose a thorn is difficult to live with, sometimes we have trouble doing it. Where most see themselves as a body with a spirit we see ourselves as a spirit with a body. You see, it all started millions of years ago when the first trolls built their first bodies. ‘Tis said they did that from inspiration from the elves or li-tongi, though others turn that around. There are few enough trolls left in the world and neither are old enough to remember any of that. The main difference between the elf or li-tong (who accomplish the same feat as the elf the same way) and the troll is they started with beings who already existed, the elf with a branch of humans and the li-tong with a branch of dragons. The troll, however, started from scratch, from the dust and water of the good earth beneath our feet. We three branches of cabiri descend from them.
Trolls are odd. I understand that’s why they call us that, A particularly odd individual with a particular way of getting something done. They, our ancestors, look a lot like trees with legs, arms and feet, they do. Well, I’ve never really met one, though my grimmy shared xer stories with me. Where am I going with all that, an education?
Like I said, we don’t as a habit, wear clothes. So, I showed up at the academe thinking I’d get a job. I was young, suppose they considered me odd for a human, and thought I was there for an education. Well, I showed talent, aptitude, mastered their languages, spoken and written, readily. I was reading within three months. Maybe I learned it in a previous sprout, I don’t know.
Trouble really started in my third year when my maturity began to blossom. Arms and legs got bigger, face filled out more, grew a luxuriant mane about my head and shoulders streaked with a brilliant red, and a hint of orange. Dove even said I looked like a bear mostly shorn. I find that interesting. Then one instructor who never really liked me became cross and decided to take it out on me. A student he favored kept getting a recipe wrong and I became the reason for it. Alba badgered me until I, partly in the heat of my blossoming, growled that he ought to ask his student. I mean, why would I care if he got it wrong! He means nothing to me.
That’s also when I made my first friend. Dove brought me water while I was in ‘repose’. Well, that’s what the masters call it when they lock you in a room for a day to think about your sins. Had I been human I would have died from thirst without Dove’s help. It was while following him into that hall that the headmistress learned of my plight. Oh, she and some of the headmasters were quite cross and discussed it at great length. Alba seemed quite contrite, but I can see the shadow of a scowl under his frown.
Over the next two years things changed. Dove and I became very good friends. I helped him blossom his voice. His ears could pick up sounds others would have missed though they listened very carefully. He could even hear the song of the plants in the garden and the courtyards. I just had to point it out to him. When we discovered the Green Growing Song he needed little help bringing it to blossom, and only a little more to keep it on the light and useful side. He taught me about the rhosswine who love their horses as much as children and parents, not like pets or slaves.
Yet there was Alba and his favorite pet, eh, sorry, I meant student, Tano. See, Tano would wait until a project was due to start it. Of course that was my fault, or Dove’s. See, we distracted him, kept him from doing his part to succeed. We tried to stay away from them, but there’s only so much we can do. Me, the abuse was mostly verbal, especially after I righted a statue of Cerridwn, the Sovereign Spear, after an earthquake toppled her. I was thinking there was something wrong about the visage, too pretty really, when someone cleared their throat. They had finally arrived with the ropes and leavers to do the job I’d just done with my hands.
Dove, however, didn’t have any of that going for him. He had a slight frame and seemed to have difficulty breathing at times. Some of that improved as we wrestled, just for fun, of course. Tano and his gang often abused him, dropped water on him, or him in the water. He put a good face on it, all in fun, you see. I can still see the breaking heart under the jovial face.
The last ember fell when I walked to a class in talismanship when we spotted Dove strung up from the rafters, naked. I didn’t wait as ordered, couldn’t. I could see the glow of his life ebb and fade. I ran to and up the column, halting at the rafter. It looked like it could fail under my weight. So, I brought my native gifts to bear. I reached out with my mind and lifted the rope holding his wilting form. I then gathered my sweat into a ball of hot gas, ignited it with my electricity, and shot the rope free. I then lowered him to the ground.
I couldn’t wait. I dropped to the ground, tore the ropes loose, and watched as my friend’s breathing recovered and his glow improved. That made me very happy, and worried, too. He wouldn’t have been there had he not been my friend.
Then, I noticed the class keeping their distance, even the professors who’d been an ally against Alba. I stood, growled, “See to it he survives!” and left.
So, that is why I formed that circle, hoped to die and dissipate with my family. Would they have been so cruel to the boy if we weren’t friends?
It started when Dove was five years old. His family traveled through the Bridges and spent a night at an inn. Being a land of gnomes you’d think every room a hole too small for a full sized man. You’d be wrong. This town entertained many a traveler on the Greater Kings Highway and the dwarf roads bellow. To the embarrassment of the Shires and Townships they’d even been known to entertain an orc or more. Let’s just say that was the start of little Dove’s education.
His family had just taken the sad step of selling a dozen of their lesser horses in Glasserheim Port. See, the last two years winter moved on and summer didn’t follow on the Tool Steps where the rhosswine rear their children and horses, and it would have been better to send some abroad than watch them suffer and starve. They passed through Southampton Bridge seeking rest for body and heart for them and the two horses they’d take home with them.
That night the gnomish staff practiced their age-old tradition of the supper song, the idea being that you would leave the table with at least one compliment. They sang an abbreviated version of Mighty Billow-bag Ebenezer and the Battle of the Wolves–that is, took ten minutes rather than sixty. When they finished they looked to the paying guests for their approval. Dove thought that meant it was his turn, and sang two phrases from the Creiwkiva. His grandmother had sung them as lullabies while he suffered from that nightmare of him being devoured by bugs.
While the boy coughed and cleared his throat, the hosts and guests applauded, impressed by the clean tones and rich timber. One guest even spoke about it with his parents. In the morning, rather than travel home the stranger lead them to Sagewort. Through much heart breaking tears the boy became a student while his parents went home, hoping their son would eat well when times became very lean and parched.
With the close of the first month much of the heartbreak had mended while the boy made many, unexpected friends. Friends came easy, he’d approach each as he would an unfamiliar horse, a quiet song filled smile and indirect gazes. Except a teacher, Magus Alba, and a couple of his favorites, found the voice unnerving and the gaze insulting. Well, by that time the boy had become popular and made friends with Llast.
The thorn was not much older or larger at the time. He could almost pass for human if you didn’t get into the details. Physically Llast held a bit more strength that his older peers. That bond of friendship added some protection, for both, really. Dove unknowingly tutored Llast in human customs, explained the value of clothing and the use of flatware. Llast, on the other hand, helped the boy learn the more subtle qualities of his voice and hearing.
That friendship had put the boy in greater risk, though. As Llast blossomed into adulthood and began looking less human that professor became rather agitated. It was like a rule he didn’t realize didn’t exist had been broken and someone needed to be punished for it.
Here’s an interesting side note for you. Llast and Dove sat in the library reading random codices for fun and laughs. See, two days earlier Dove had been pushed down some steps, which left his arm in stitches. Then, this morning Tano thought it funny to drop the boy in the cesspool. While Tano spent the morning in the rooms of repose, the older wound had become infected. Llast watched in amusement and horror as the life of the infection grew.
At the moment, the boy had lost the world in warming meditation. The parchment he studied told of a concept called the Green Growing Song. No, no words for the song itself, just a dissertation, illustrated, of course. Yet, somewhere he could hear it. First he hummed the tones. Then he gave a few hoots, some that stayed on the same tone, some that rose, others that fell, like the flight pattern of an owl dropping for a mouse. Some measures were quick, staccato, barks of notes. Others seemed to last impossibly long.
But deeper, Dove and Llast could feel there was something more going on, something the ears couldn’t really hear. And it began to sing to him, then through him.
Llast felt that in xer skin like a tickle from a lullaby.
Oo-we, oo-we, how-do-key the boy drew out soulfully, melodious like a chorus from wolves or ravens. It didn’t make sense, only made the thorn miss xer family.
When the boy finished he took a quiet breath, wondering where that came from, and choked on a round of wet coughing.
Llast then noticed something. “Look to your left.”
When Dove did he watched an already dehydrated, struggling vine gain another six inches of rich growth.
“Did I do that?”
“Through that remarkable song.” Llast then watched his friend slump forward, his life force pulsing in panic.
Yeah, in panic Llast leaped over the table and felt at xer friend’s brow. A surge of life force flooded through xer body, and into Dove’s. With it xe could feel xer deep hunger grow, and xer heart tugged at Dove’s. Xe didn’t want to, afraid it could kill xer friend. After a struggle xe broke contact. Strangely, xe felt exhausted and refreshed.
When xe looked up at xer friend he had revived, gloriously. The cut, barely a scar, the fever, gone. And the boy’s life force seemed larger, less well contained by the vessel it still inhabited.
Llast turned to go.
“Where are you going?”
“Refresh myself in the garden.”
“Mind if I join you?”
“Never would, Satay, never would.”
In the garden they had to pause. Llast often worked there as it refreshed xer and eased xer deep hunger. Dove often joined xer for similar reasons. So, they knew how ordered and neat it always was. Seeing a jungle of chaos and maturing plants left then scratching their heads.
“That song?” Dove asked.
“That song. Must be troll song.”
The thorn sniffed at the air, “The plants are hungry.”
“We fertilized yesterday.”
Llast thought for a moment. “Then that song, and now we do it again, or starve ourselves.”
Dove slept in the room of recovery, mostly because he was just that tired. He never really liked the place. Stone beds inside alcoves that always gave his ears too much to worry over. And that gave him a headache. They said they tuned the alcoves so the healers could learn better what diseases were facing the patient. Dove had the cure, either teach Tano to behave or send him packing.
For the moment he studied the dream he had while the rope constricted his breathing. He saw a man, elf by the look of him, bright eyes that looked larger than they were, rich red hair, and a strange mix of delight and regret in his smile.
While he reviewed the image, comparing it with memories he’d had from books, another visage revealed itself. Really, it looked like a pile of hair entangled in a fishing net. The smell, yes, the dream came with smell, reminded the boy of the lower side of Glasserheim Port, the side with the rotting fish and sewage. Yet, he couldn’t, not for the life of himself, bring himself to be even a little offended by it all. The voice, which came from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, quietly sang to him, ‘Wake up, Bright Eyes, you’ve got a long way to go and so much yet to learn before you get there.’
So, he took in that deep breath and felt every joint in his back snap. Then, he had an irresistible urge to stretch, and that snapped a few more joints. Odd, really, ever since Llast cured him from that sepsis his ability to recover from most injuries had expanded greatly. After that day the boy learned more about trolls and thorns and their kin, the vanir and jotunr, than the academy’s library. You would think it would know more, but most of what it did know was speculation and misrepresentation. You’d think they got it just from their imagination. From that time Dove took greater care to learn what his senses really told him. One benefit of that was Tano had a harder time ambushing the boy. It just happened that this morning–was it still that same morning?–The boy felt lightheaded and dizzy from something he may have eaten.
That’s it, something in his food had distracted him. And there he was slung from the rafters like a bag of hay. With that thought an emotion he rarely felt, and more rarely entertained, blossomed and began to mature, anger. There’s only one way his food could have been poisoned, a member of the staff had to help. Why, because of his friend? “Are they such cowards?”
“What was that?”
Dove looked up and watched Professor Erlang approach. He sat up, glowering at the professor so the man wanted to find a dark place to hide. He looked down at his naked body, “I said, where are my clothes?”
“Tano is refusing to say. I tell you ….”
“… The robes were a gift from the academy. Surely you can spare another.”
Apparently that hadn’t occurred to anyone yet. While the man left to get that done the boy spun around, tore a length from his sheets, and quickly wrapped his waist with it. His ears still rang from that alcove, and he was sure Tano was lurking around ready to pounce again.
Within minutes he walked down the hall, following the professor with his ears and feet. He’d just gotten to the antechamber to the building when Tano and two of his associates stepped in. Tano smiled.
Tano lost his.
Tano began his negotiations, “Now hear this, you little orc, you and your little troll need to leave. If ….”
“Thhhh ….” Dove said with his very wet tongue out.
“If you don’t ….”
“Now stop that, you little ….”
Dove bounced on the balls of his feet, “Doing, doing, doing.”
“I am going to so break you, ….”
“Break, break, the biddle bake,
to marry whom you will.”
“Shut up, you little half-bred troll!”
“Compliments, and not very well done. Try something simple, Tano, your skills to impress. That camel sward at your side, let her grow before our eyes. After you.”
“I can’t do that.”
“If you actually studied, instead of bribing your way ….”
“Oo, so close to the truth I might as well be a marksman. Now, about that plant.”
“It can’t be done and you know it.”
“It can be done and you know it, for you’ve seen it just about a year ago done. So, care to try it?”
“Don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
Dove clicked his tongue inside his cheek, “Books, scrolls, codices by the hundreds and not a one has even been dusted off by you. What did you come here for, the men?”
Dove stopped, wondered where that came from. Was it something subtle, something veiled or elusive? And is that really how this boy gets his grades? What will he do when hired as court mage? Is there a king or emperor under the Mother and the Mouse who would even pay that way? While his little mind entertained those thoughts, he reflexively dropped to the left, swung a hand around pulling at an unwieldy weight, and before he knew what he was even doing he had Tano pinned to the floor, blood trickling from his nose.
Dove took in a deep breath while Tano tried not to cry while catching his. “Well, isn’t this an interesting turn of events. I suppose there are times when the sword is mightier than the pen. As for you, my poorly governed affliction, no, you aren’t really that, are you? Just a bully, and not a very good one at that. So, I will leave you to ponder your choices, and how they got you what you have.”
Professor Erlang stood there with a fresh robe and britches, mouth agape, eyes round with unaccustomed fear. While Dove stood and received them, Magus Alba Banks approached, “You shall spend three days in the rooms of repose for that.”
“Or be expelled.”
“If I am to be disciplined for defending myself from attack, while my attacker remains free to move about the academy then I know there is no justice here, for there is no mercy.”
“Listen you crebin…”
“Fairy Mary was so hairy,
no sweater did she need.”
“… little troll lover, ….”
“The Mother sings unto the Mouse,
so early do you rise.
The Sun he rises to the top,
The Mouse to bed he sighs.”
“… you will keep …”
“… silent and do as …”
“… you are told!”
“Tell us, oh mighty sorcerer, did you poison my breakfast or did you have someone else do it?”
“How,” the professor changed course quickly, “can you ever hope to prove it?”
“If not you another staff member did it. And because of it I was nearly murdered, by a cowardly prostitute.”
“Take that back!” Tano yelled through his blood-clogged nose.
Dove slipped his new britches into place, “Ha, give it back if you can.” While he swung the robe onto his shoulder, he added, “Murder, even the treat of it, would have you exiled and outlawed for a year-and-a-day, back home. As for the academy, I can get a real education elsewhere, and my fame and fortune you shall not enjoy.”
“Now see here,” Professor Erlang stammered, “This is a respected institution.”
“That has tried to murder me dozens of times in the last eight years.”
“That is regrettable, but the experience has made you a man, finally.”
“No, not a man, only a youth warming his heart to the quest. As for you and this festering den of thieves and murderers,
‘The mountain frames the sky,
As shadows of tergons fly by,
Like clouds hanging at its edge,
A warrior proves her courage in thorny hedge.’”
Professor Owlchi, who taught practical arts like making paper and string, offered his thoughts on the quatrain, “Nice rhythm, but a bit vague in meaning, don’t you think?”
Though Dove liked the short man, his wrath at being poisoned that morning welled up against all the staff, “Care to explain how my breakfast was poisoned this morning?”
“Are you sure that’s what happened?”
“Yes, as sure as anyone can be.”
“But that means a staff member had to do it, for they alone are permitted in the kitchens, to prevent such things.”
Professor Erlang swallowed hard, “Alba, was that you?”
The Magus stood up tall, “Yes, the little troll lover needed to learn a lesson.”
“And this is the lesson I’ve learned. You are cowards, cheaters, murderers, and my enemies. I made some friends but have always had enemies, even before Llast and I became brothers. So, enjoy the fruits of your victory.”
“Prove it!” Tano yelled. “Prove you can make plants grow just by asking.”
“Get the fertilizer out, for it will starve them, and then you.”
Dove tightened the cords around his waist, and began walking toward his quarters. While he did so, he thought about that song, quietly tooting, hooting, and clicking like a cricket. By the time he was under the partly sunny skies the professors thought him crazy.
Until Professor Owlchi pointed at a nearby rocktrumpet, “It’s growing before our very eyes. Oh, what have we just lost, what have we just lost”?
Dove began to skip, dance, and sing a song he’d been working on for the last week.
I am a solitary Wanderer,
a Watcher, a Bandar, whose breath,
whose blood boils with
the echoes of Mother s lullaby,
of birth of star,
of death of day.
I soar over the abyss,
over the water,
over the spring,
over the grave.
I dwell in the netherlands, I dwell in the hitherlands.
I dwell ever dying, I dwell ever birthing.
Sing with me, dance with me.
See, am I alone? Well, at least, I am not lonely.
When the professors finally stepped out into the courtyard they marveled as their neatly manicured garden and hedges rapidly grew into a small forest.