It was a sunny afternoon in Thellarion, warming up the land from that morning rainstorm. White mists rose from the forest and climbed up the hills where they collected back into white puffy clouds atop mountain peaks. A gentle breeze blew and the sky was a deep dark blue, clean and washed. It was an ideal time for an adventure and four friends from nearby villages were already on their way up to where applecherries grew.
“Quite a storm this morning,” said Desmon, a twelve year old human boy. “Hope the hail didn’t smash all the cherries.”
“It didn’t,” said Nuala, a one-hundred-and-twenty-one year old elvish girl. “My dad says that the applecherry trees generate a magical aura with their canopy, which helps protect them from bad weather. I’m pretty sure that the hail was smashed, not the fruit.” She gave Desmond one of those cheeky looks that made him blush. Nuala was very pretty, with her fair purplish skin, deep green eyes and long silvery hair, that looked like strands made from stars themselves.
“Oh, right,” Desmond said, trying to hide his blush by looking away. “I knew that.”
“What makes them magical?” asked another girl, a five year old orc called Krunch, the tallest of the group. And the most muscular. Her green skin, and black dredd hair made her look much older than she was, but orcs matured very fast. When her tusks start to grow, she’ll never hear the end of it from other race’s boys.
“It’s their roots,” explained Nuala, sounding very confident. “They penetrate deep into the earth, all the way to Gaia, Nature’s Mother. All those who drink from her pool grow magical abilities.”
A scratchy and hearty laugh echoed from the fourth member of the group. Dornolir, the thirty-five year old dwarven boy was soon going to enter puberty, just like the rest of his friends. But unlike the rest of his friends, Dornolir had already grown a handspan long bushy beard under his chin.
“What’s so funny this time?” asked Nuala, rolling her eyes.
The dwarf wiped a tear in his eye. “You elves think it’s all about flowers and roots and stuff, but lemme tell ya; I live the nearest to those trees! My da has his mine set up in the foot of the mountains there and I know what makes those cherries magical.”
Nuala puffed and shook her head, making Desmond gawk over the way her pretty hair moved.
“Tell already,” said Krunch, eager to know.
Dornolir chuckled. “You won’t like the taste of ‘em if I do.”
Krunch started to growl, a thing she did every time someone annoyed her. “Spit it out or I punch you!”
The dwarf boy sighed. “Troll poop. Their diet consists of pixies, which makes their poop magical. The trees grew out from that.”
“Well, that’s one good fertilizer then,” said Desmond, grimacing. “Do you think their poo also tastes as heavenly as the applecherries?”
“Oh my god…” Nuala placed a hand at her mouth, pretending she’s sick.
Dornolir laughed loudly again.
“Desmond has a point,” said Krunch. “In my tribe, we’re not picky. We eat what we can find. You’d be surprised how much nutrients animals don’t digest.”
Nuala spread her arms out. “Can we please change the subject!”
Dornolir chuckled. “Dung is also part of nature, your elfness. Or perhaps elves don’t have to shit?”
Nuala shot an angry look at the dwarf. “Only because I live in the forest, doesn’t mean I love everything about it! Besides, we have manners. We are clean and well manicured.”
“What does that mean?” demanded Dornolir, suspecting the comment was aimed at his beard.
“Guys, shut up,” said Krunch. “Look.”
“The applecherry!” Desmond pointed.
Their hike through the forest took some time, since the applecheries grew quite deep in the woods, where the slopes of the mountains began to rise steeply. Before them rose a small orchard of wild applecherry trees. These trees were taller than most castle towers and their trunks were so wide that gnomes often carved their homes into them. The bark was thick and often cracked at the bottom, allowing for perfect footholds.
And the fruit. Delicious, deep red cherries, the size of apples. Their taste was downright heavenly and they even possessed some magical powers of their own. People say that if one ate enough of them, they could grow magic within themselves.
“Last one to the cherries is a smelly goblin!” Nuala shouted and dashed first towards the tree.
“Hey, wait up!” Desmond fell in behind her.
“I’m not a smelly goblin!” shouted Krunch like it was an insult and sprinted on all fours at the tree, easily overtaking the elf and the human.
Dornolin sighed audibly and slowly walked after his friends. He didn’t know how to climb.
Krunch reached the foot of the tree first and jumped on its trunk, getting a firm foothold and then propelled herself up like a squirrel. Her dredd hair waved behind her like a general’s cape and her mouth spread in a competitive grin. Desmond reached the tree a few seconds after her and started climbing, but his foot slipped. The bark was still wet from the rain and before he found a solid foothold, Nuala was already there. She made a show of gracefully walking past Desmond and then walking up the trunk, like it was normal ground!
The human boy gawked again at elven magic, amazed as though he’d seen it for the first time. Nuala bathed in his attention and walked onto the first branch, sitting down on it, legs dangling. She tapped the branch at her side.
“Come on,” she invited him, like some puppy.
And Desmon, like some puppy, climbed after her.
In the meantime, Krunch was already half up the tree, laughing and shouting, snapping small twigs and leaves as she went. Competition seemed to made her forget all about why they came here.
“What’s the matter, Dornolin,” mocked Nuala from her branch, as the dwarf dragged his feet to the tree. “Can’t climb a tree?”
“Nonsense!” the dwarf barked. “Of course I can! I just don’t see the reason to. I’m a carnivore, I don’t eat stupid fruit!”
Desmond managed to reach Nuala’s branch and he went to pick the first fruit. “Are you sure Dornolin? But you told me the other day that you’re afraid of-”
Desmond paused, realizing he was about to reveal his friend’s secret. “Um, I mean, the way you climbed our town’s mage tower was quite impressive, yes.”
Dornolin ran a hand down his face. Nuala’s eyes widened and she shouted down at the dwarf.
“I knew it! You can’t climb because you’re afraid of heights! That’s why you talk mean of us elves, you’re jealous of me living on a tree!”
“Ah shove yer breath down yer lungs and choke!” Dornolin barked, face red.
Desmond tried to change their bickering by biting into an applecherry. The sweet taste made him shiver with delight. “Guys, these cherries are really good, you should try them.”
“Bah!” came a sound from down below, followed by a barrage of juicy dwarven curses that luckily no one understood but Dornolin himself.
Nuala wore a satisfied smirk on her face. “Would you pick one for me too, Desmond?” She extended her arm expectantly.
“Of course Nuala,” said the human boy and quickly walked the thick branch on a quest to find the perfect fruit.
As Desmond went, suddenly an applecherry fell directly in Nuala’s lap, from up above. Nuala yelped and as she looked up, she saw Krunch coming down the tree towards them.
“Watch it, you brute!”
Nuala shut her mouth. There was a worried expression on the orc’s face.
“Trolls,” Krunch hushed. “I saw one coming here, from the top of the tree. We must climb higher and hide! Where is Dornolin?”
Nuala’s eyes widened. “He’s down there. But he can’t climb!”
“Here you go, Nuala,” said Desmond, bringing a ripe juicy applecherry, a true masterpiece of a fruit. Nuala smacked his hand away, causing the fruit to fall and splat on the ground.
“A troll is coming,” she hushed.
Desmond drowned in her beautiful, wide open, deep green eyes, filled with focus and concern. “What?”
“You two are idiots,” said Krunch and turned down to Dornolin, who was still mumbling curses to himself and kicking at the splatted applecherry on the ground. “Pst, hey Dornolin!”
“Yes, yes, I can’t climb because I’m afraid of heights, are you happy now?!”
“Dornolin, you fool, a troll is coming!”
Behind the dwarf, something moved in the trees. Something big.
Dornolin slowly turned around. “By the beard of Dralin…”
“Climb, you fool! Climb!”
A spruce tree cracked loudly and fell to the ground, as a hulking mass of a body made its way over it. It was indeed a troll! Some fifteen feet tall, with arms and legs as thick as most trees, covered in thick yellow-brown skin. Its head was huge, small beady eyes darting around nervously, until locking on the dwarf, who stood there, jaw dropped.
“Dornolin!” shouted Desmond. “You’ve got to climb!”
“The fool is in shock,” said Krunch. She took the applecherry that fell in Nuala’s lap and threw it at the dwarf’s head. It was a direct hit.
“Get up here!”
Dornolin realized what was happening and launched himself at the tree. He struggled desperately to get a footing, but it was no use. Panic and inexperience with climbing were too much. And the first branch, that his friends were on, was just too high to reach.
“Can’t you use your magic to lift him up?” asked Desmond. “Or perhaps drive the troll away?”
“I don’t know how to lift him!” Nuala expressed, her voice stripped of all snarkiness. “I guess I could throw a fireball at it, but I doubt it would do anything.”
“No,” said Krunch. “You’ll just piss it off more. Come on Dorn, CLIMB!”
“I’m bloody trying!” Dornolin finally got a footing. “Ha-ha! Never underestimate a dwarf!”
Then, he began to fly, feeling weightless all of a sudden. He thought that Nuala must have lifted him with magic somehow, but judging by the expressions on his friends’ faces, that was not it.
The troll picked him up and roared at the rest of his friends, causing them to scramble higher up the tree in fear. Dornolin tried to break free from the giant palm that held him, but he wasn’t even remotely strong enough. The troll, satisfied with his catch, turned and left.
“No, DORNOLIN!” Desmond shouted desperately from the tree. They could all see the troll slowly lumbering away, and they could hear their friend cursing loudly. At least that meant that he was alive, for now.
“We must go after him!”
“Yes,” said Krunch. “Before he gets eaten!”
“Hm, do we really, though?”
Desmond was shocked. “Nuala, he’s our friend! What if the beast took you instead?”
Nuala shook her head. “Yes, you’re right. But how will we get him back?”
“We’ll worry about that later,” said Krunch and jumped to the ground. Her strong orcish legs managed to absorb the impact without breaking her bones. “Come on!”
“Wow, did you see that?” said Desmond, amazed. “She just jumped!” It was nearly twenty feet to the ground.
Nuala rolled her eyes. “Big deal. I can do that too.”
The elf stood up and jumped. Desmond was about to shout, but Nuala was gently gliding through the air until she touched the ground with her bare feet.
“Get down already, Desmond!” shouted Krunch, who was already on the troll’s trail. In the distance, Dornolin’s screams could still be heard.
Eventually, the three of them followed the troll trail to a huge cave entrance. It was located at the foot of the mountains, where the rocky slopes began to rise steeply. It was wide and tall enough to allow for trolls to enter.
“This must be its lair,” said Krunch, sniffing the air. “There could be more than one inside.”
“Guys, I don’t like this,” said Nuala. “Dornolin’s home isn’t far, perhaps we should get help?”
“The longer we wait, the higher the chance our friend gets eaten,” said Desmond. “Trolls have a big appetite.”
“We go in,” said Krunch and did not linger to argue further.
“Hold my hand, Desmond,” said Nuala and pressed herself against him. Desmon felt a surge of butterflies in his stomach at the touch and fires lighted in his cheeks.
He placed his arm around her. “How will we see anything in there?”
The cave seemed to go deep inside the mountain, and there were no signs of inner light. “My mother gave me this for my 100th birthday,” said Nuala. She produced a beautifully designed necklace and held it to her mouth. She whispered a few elvish words, which sounded like a song to Desmond’s ears, and the necklace began to glow in a soft blue light, illuminating the darkness a few feet around them.
“Good,” said Krunch. “You guys keep low and keep quiet.”
The three of them went deeper into the cave. They walked in silence for some time, accompanied only by their footsteps and the distant echoing shouts of their kidnaped friend, who was still cursing. They never thought they'd be glad to hear that.
“What do you think the trolls will do to him?” asked Desmond after some time.
“Don’t think about that now,'' said Krunch. “Focus on the rescue.”
“I mean, clearly they would eat him, right?”
“I heard that trolls can’t have babies of their own,” said Nuala. “That’s why they steal other people’s children and raise them as their own. They feed them troll milk until they become big and ugly like them.”
“I’ve heard,” said Desmond, “that they take other people as slaves. Dornolin is a dwarf, perhaps he’ll have to dig for them or clean their cave...”
“You two are fools,” said Krunch. She paused. “Dornolin said that trolls eat pixies, right? Well, it’s only logical that he’ll have to take care of raising pixies for them.”
“That’s not that horrible,” said Nuala. “I always wanted to have a pixie to play with.”
Up ahead, a rainbow of colors seemed to illuminate the cave. The trio proceeded carefully and as they came close enough, they noticed the light was coming from hundreds, if not thousands of caged pixies. Each of them was a tiny creature, no more than a hand tall, and locked inside large glass bottles, many at a time.
“Save us…” they whispered with their tiny voices.
“Oh, the poor things…” whispered Nuala and squeezed Desmond’s hand firmly.
“We’ve got a bigger problem,” said Krunch and pointed. Up ahead, the cave widened. There were pixie bottles placed all over the cave, in the corners, hanging from the ceiling. And in the middle of the cave, three trolls sat on individual boulders. They were talking lively and laughing.
“What the… is that Dornolin?”
“What is he doing?!”
Dornolin stood on the chest of one of the trolls, a sharp blade in hand and encroaching the beast's neck. The trio watched closely as he got a hold of the troll’s beard and then…
...he cut it!
“Beard trimming is a highly valued profession if you ask my father,” Dornolin explained as he cut the troll’s beard. “It is a long and ancient dwarvish tradition. Said to be a way of paying our respects for the long winter we lived in the Wilderness in the old days.”
The trolls mumbled with interest!
“Dornolin,” exclaimed Krunch. “What are you doing?!”
“Oh, hey guys!” the dwarf waved at his friends.
“You’re trimming their beards? We were worried sick that they would eat you!”
“Eat him?” grumbled one of the trolls. “Why would you think that? We don’t eat dwarves, or other races for that matter. Bones hard to swallow and harder to digest.”
“And,” said Dornolin, “they don’t even eat pixies, as I thought. They only use them for light.”
Nuala seemed to ease a little, hearing that.
Krunch frowned. “What do they eat, then? Rocks?”
“Close,” said another troll, his voice booming. “Stone golems. They grow in caves and such.”
The trio exchanged looks. “So,” said Krunch, suspiciously. “You’re not evil and hostile creatures?”
Now the three trolls exchanged looks. “We thought,” said one of them, “that you are the evil ones. Hunting and killing our people and using our skins as carpets. That’s why we were afraid of simply asking your friend to cut our beards and kidnaped him. Sorry about that.”
“Well, this is awkward,” said Desmond and scratched the back of his head.
The three of them just stood there for about an hour, waiting for Dornolin to finish with the beards. When he was done, the trolls looked much better and more civilized than before. They were so pleased that they paid him with gemstones.
“Can’t eat the hearts of stone golems,” said one of them. “You can have them if you like.”
The dwarf’s eyes shined and he agreed that he would become their personal barber. Then they said goodbye and the four friends left the troll cave. It was getting dark outside and it was time they headed home, lest they want their parents to grow worried.
“Well, that was quite something,” commented Krunch, once they were out.
“I think we’ve learned an important lesson here,” said Nuala and raised her finger.
“Oh yeah? What's that?” asked Dornolin, not really interested. He carried an armful of gems.
“I think we learned we shouldn’t judge someone simply for how they look and what others say about them.”
“Word,” said Krunch.
“You’re right, Nuala,” agreed Desmond.
“Mhm,” mumbled Dornolin.
Nuala smiled. She was happy, knowing there was a pixie tucked safely in her pocket, one that she stole from the trolls with her magic.
What a fine doll it will be for her.