Lissa felt like she was going to pass out, or throw up, but it was probably just going to be both. The trolls were terrible in their own right; towering and powerful, ugly and cruel, wielding swords that were as tall as Lissa. She’d seen trolls as a child, when they raided the village proper during a festival, but never so close and never in such a hopeless situation.
At first she had thought to stand her ground with her brothers and Kern. Yet the instant the trolls entered the clearing her little mace felt useless and her shield seemed inadequate to protect her against those great swords. When Sorsasta, Imra, and Nanthee fled, Lissa had first thought to run after them so they didn’t get lost in the forest or caught by some other beast. Then she’d seen Marissa collapse, and without thinking she had rushed to her side.
The elf clutched both hands over her stomach, and at first Lissa thought one of the trolls must have thrown something, but although her robes were dark it was easy to tell there was no blood on them. Marissa wasn’t moving, her eyes were shut very tightly, and Lissa dropped her mace to clutch at her friend. She looked up when she heard a heavy thud, as the burning and gurgling troll that Marissa had struck with her spell flailed chaotically.
“Curtis!” She cried out for her brother, seeing him standing over the smoldering corpse.
As the warrior turned around, several things happened at once. On the far side of the field Kern avoided the swing of one troll by rushing at it with a bellowing roar; he and the troll went tumbling to the ground in a heap. The other troll he’d been fighting raised its sword for a killing blow, but was flung back as something from the surrounding forest struck it in the chest. Its scream was similar to the one so recently killed.
Not far from Curtis, the troll that Marissa had flung away had regained its feet and now charged at her. Its sword was raised, heedless of its companions’ torments as it eagerly moved in for the thrill of murdering a helpless victim. Something struck it in the back as well, and the beast’s arms flung out as its beady black eyes widened in shock. The troll’s sword fell from its limp hand, and the massive blade struck Curtis’ head in a spray of blood.
Lissa screamed in horrified grief, and even Gale cried out in shock and anger as the warrior dropped without a sound. Even as they screamed, more projectiles hurtled through the air and struck those two trolls repeatedly. Smoke began to rise from them, and as they whirled in agony Lissa saw what looked to be brightly glowing crossbow bolts sticking grotesquely from the beasts in stark contrast to their many piercings.
Kern was flung from the troll he’d charged, but the beast only served to make itself a target as it rose to its feet; three bolts struck it all at once. The troll howled and raged, struggling just like its companions to pull the horrendous burning things from its flesh. Kern staggered to his hooves and backed away, looking around with his weapon raised for a new enemy to come forth.
Though she hadn’t yet helped Marissa, Lissa ran to her brother with a sob. She reached his side about the same time Kern caught sight of him, or perhaps her run attracted his attention, but the warrior gave a strangled cry and ran to join her at Curtis’ side. The back of his head was a mess, his hair matted thick with blood. There were more strange, red-hot crossbow bolts from the surrounding trees that struck the trolls, again and again, until the beasts dropped to the ground in terrible heaps, but Lissa was barely cognizant of what was happening.
She held Curtis’ head in her hands, cradling him as she cried, and she realized that she was saying something over and over but she didn’t have any idea what the words were. Kern was next to her, clutching at Curtis’ shirt with his large fist and Lissa knew he was saying something too, but she couldn’t understand. She couldn’t think.
When someone touched her shoulder she didn’t even know it had happened, until the person pushed her forcefully and yelled something. It didn’t snap her completely out of her horror, but she looked up and stopped repeating whatever she’d been saying. She was looking at a stocky bearded man with a weathered face and a stern expression. He said something, but she didn’t hear it.
Suddenly he struck her on the face, leaned in, and said something. Lissa only understood the word “priestess,” and she understood somehow that he was asking her a question. Somehow she managed to nod.
“Pray,” the bearded man said in a firm voice. Lissa blinked, and then the man pointed at Curtis, and her heart felt like it would stop.
In a rush, everything came crashing back to a semblance of reality and she felt like she was going to be sick. She smelled burning troll flesh, she heard Kern begging Curtis to hang on, and when she felt something wet on her hands she looked down to see they were covered in her brother’s blood. It took a moment, she swallowed hard, and though she didn’t regain full control of herself she had enough.
Leaning forward she hugged her brother close, wrapped her arms around him and ignored everything that wasn’t her big brother Curtis Fry, and her beloved goddess Elissah.
“Forest keeper,” she sobbed in a quiet whisper, “please show him mercy. I beg you; don’t let him go just yet. I’m selfish, Goddess, please don’t take my brother away.”
Curtis coughed, and stirred slightly. Kern gave a heavy sob of relief, and reached up to the fallen warriors’ head. Lissa watched as the serkethian ran his hand across the back of her brother’s skull; matted with blood but intact and firm. He groaned, and with a sudden rush of her Goddess’ compassion Lissa knew that her brother would be fine. She gave a little sobbing laugh, and clutched him tightly.
“Ye care about the elf?” Asked the bearded man, and Lissa gasped in horror. Letting go of her brother, she gently gave him over to Kern as she crawled back over to Marissa.
Her three handmaidens had returned, and were crouched around her with worried faces. Nanthee held the wizard’s head in her lap, and the other two flanked her. The three elves looked up as Lissa returned, and they gave her room as she crouched next to the fallen elf and leaned in close. Marissa’s eyes were closed, and her expression was one of pain rather than peaceful sleep. Her breathing was fast and shallow, and her crimson skin was covered in sweat.
With one hand on either side of the elf’s head, Lissa prayed again. “Elissah, please don’t take her either; I beg you to show her your mercy. Look past her wizardry, see the good and kind woman that she is, see that she’s a loving and loyal servant. Please save her.”
There was a small moment of silence, and then Marissa sighed quietly. Her muscles relaxed, her face eased into the calm of sleep, and her breathing settled into a steady, peaceful rhythm. Imra gasped in delighted relief, and hugged Lissa impulsively. The young priestess returned the elf’s hug, mortified beyond belief that she had at all forgotten that Marissa had needed her prayers.
“I’m so sorry,” she sniffled, pulling away from Imra. “I didn’t mean to leave her…”
“Nonsense, Lissa,” Sorsasta said with a little smile, wiping away tears. “Your brother needed you, the Queen would understand. You still came to her when she needed your help, once again.”
She smiled with relief, and let out a heavy sigh of relief. It seemed odd to her, in a sudden realization, that just a few short minutes ago everything had been a peaceful morning.
There was a sound behind her, and she turned to see the stocky bearded man approaching. He wasn’t nearly five feet tall but he was very well built, with weathered brown skin and a dark brown beard. His eyes, which were a vibrant green, fixed on her with a steady gaze. Two other stocky bearded men stood on either side of him, all three armed with powerful crossbows. They smelled very strongly of pine.
“Dwarves?” Gale said in astonishment from near where Kern still held Curtis. “Thought this was an elf trail.”
The three men in front of Lissa glowered, and the leader turned to fix Gale with that steady gaze of his. On the far side of the little clearing a fourth member of the unexpected troupe raised his own crossbow and aimed it at Gale.
“Can I stick him?” The far one asked in an ominous tone.
“Maybe you should,” the leader responded in an equal tone.
Gale raised his sword slowly and his face took on a fierce expression. “What the fuck is your problem? First you save us, now you point a crossbow at me?”
The leader of the group marched straight over to the taller human and stopped right in front of him, glaring up at him within easy range of Gale’s deadly rapier. He stood with his arms crossed, and for a moment Lissa feared that Gale would stab him or the bearded man would order his friend to shoot her brother. She didn’t know what to do, and so as most people in such situations she did nothing. It ate at her, but she didn’t know what she possibly could do.
“Call us dwarves again, boy,” the leader spat that word at Gale, “und it’ll be the last words you speak. We’re dormal, to be specific, earthen folk if you’re being general. Say it.”
Gale was silent for a few moments, glaring down at the stocky man, but he flinched when his opponent made a gesture as if lunging forward. “Alright! Fucking dormal,” he replied angrily.
The leader said nothing, but glared at Gale for a few moments more, then turned and stomped back over to where Lissa still crouched by her unconscious friend. She watched him in utter bafflement, still not sure what was going on. Her confusion was abated for at least a moment as Bindi came rushing up to her, scampering across the trampled flowers and leaping up into her lap. She smiled at him and petted him, dearly glad he’d managed to survive another terrible situation. He was so good at that.
“Seems the critters like you,” the dormal leader said when he stood in front of her again.
Lissa smiled and picked her little friend up, putting him on her shoulder again. “His name’s Bindi,” she said, sniffling and trying to regain her composure. She stood up, and gave their rescuer a respectful bow. “My name’s Lissa Fry. The man there is my brother Curtis, and I apologize for my other brother Gale. The serkethian’s name is Kern, these elves are…” she hesitated for only an instant as she wondered whether to tell the dormal that Marissa was a queen. “They are Marissa, Imra, Nanthee, and Sorsasta. We all owe you so much.”
Quiet through her introductions, the leader gave a small nod. “I’m Till, these two are Gisfrid und Baldric. That one’s Lutz,” he pointed at the one across the clearing, who waved and smiled. “All four of us Earthheart clan, from Unterbaum.” The last he said with considerable gravity and Lissa noted that each of the dormal squared their shoulders as their clan and home were mentioned. It wasn’t difficult to deduce they held their clan and home as considerable marks of pride.
Lissa smiled at each of them in turn. “Till, Gisfrid, Baldric, Lutz…thank you for saving us. With all my heart, thank you so very much.”
“No thanks, but you’re welcome,” Till replied with a smile and a shake of his head. “Now let’s get you folk back to Unterbaum, before the rest of the trolls’ friends show up.”
“Friends?” Lissa couldn’t hide her fear.
“Oh crap,” Kern said, still kneeling next to Curtis. He seemed to have realized something that still eluded Lissa.
“Ah, the serkethian gets my meaning,” Till said and his face became serious again. “There’s an army about, priestess, und it isn’t an army of Elissah. You came to the keeper’s forest in dark days.”