By Matt Byk
The old grump troll settled back in the comfortable chair. His joints creaked in protest as they eased into place, his mouth finally uttering a loud whoosh of air as his frame settled in to the soft cushions. He closed his eyes; peace washed over his face like a wave. The wrinkles in his fingers, which actually looked more like cracks in blue slate, expanded and contracted slightly as he flexed his fingers over the ends of the arms of the chair.
"Squire," he said, his eyes still closed, "Ale." The request was tired, not forceful. The troll made it every evening in ritual fashion. The words echoed off the stone walls of the chamber, mingling with the crackles and pops of the fire, until they faded completely. As the young troll entered, the older one's eyes opened. His gaze fell upon his squire, a boy of no more than twelve summers, and he frowned, partly out of envy, partly out of realization of what was to come for the childling in the years ahead. The boy placed the tray of ale and fresh baked rye bread on the small table next to the chair, then turned to leave, as he had done every night since Sir Mikel Thunderfist had taken him on.
"Wait." The voice like a low rumble of thunder came from the mass of muscle and sinew on the chair. This was not expected. Usually, Sir Mikel's evenings were spent in solitude. The boy stopped in his tracks.
"Sit, squire. I would have you join me this evening for some conversation." The younger troll looked around the room, trying to find a suitable resting spot and trying to contain his eagerness at the same time. He did neither completely successfully. Sir Mikel managed to turn his chuckle of amusement into a soft grunt to save the boy's pride. "Here. Here is fine," he said, patting a spot on the corner of his bed, not far from the chair. The boy walked over to the bed and sat down, his back ramrod straight, eyes locked obediently upon his master. Sir Mikel grunted his approval.
"Here, boy. Have some ale." The older troll handed the large mug, still frothing from the tap, to the boy, who took it hesitantly. "But, Sir Mikel... I'm too..." the boy started to protest.
"Too what? Too young?" boomed Sir Mikel. "You've seen how many summers? Twelve?"
The boy nodded, still holding the mug carefully in his hands. "Boy, you'll soon be thirteen, a wilder, a troll warrior. You'll hold the power and responsibility of life and death in your hands. A few gulps of ale won't hurt you any."
The boy smiled and nodded, and lifted the mug to his lips, closed his eyes, and drank deeply. A sour look spread across his face seconds before his mouthful of ale spread across the floor. Sir Mikel's deep laughter filled the room. "It's an acquired taste, lad. You should sip quietly until your tastebuds are sufficiently deadened." The hue of the boy's blue face deepened a few shades, but he nodded, and sipped gingerly, wincing only slightly as the pungent flavor swam over his tongue and down his throat. The older troll nodded approvingly. "That's it, boy. Nurse it." Sir Mikel's gaze turned to the fire, and he fell into a contemplative silence. He let his thoughts run free through his mind while he waited for the ale's warmth to envelope the boy before he spoke again.
"I'm old, Timothy," he finally said, his voice low. The boy, settled comfortably in the warm blanket of ale, looked at his master with surprise. In the three years he'd been squired to Sir Mikel, the knight had never used his real name.
"Sir Mikel, you're only 30 years old, still very young," the squire offered. "My father's at least forty!" Sir Mikel shook his head.
"Timothy, you're looking with your mortal eyes. Look at me with your fae eyes. Tell me what you see." The huge troll turned to face the boy, who looked him over with wide eyes.
"I see... I see a powerful, honorable warrior knight," the boy said, "with many years of glorious battle before him..." Sir Mikel cut him off with a snort.
"Don't lie, boy! It's not befitting a troll." Sir Mikel stood, his joints singing out a chorus of aches until he'd reached his full height. His face, once smooth and proud, was now lined with crags of age. His arms, although still quite solid, were covered with scars and pockmarks. His skin, once the texture of smooth blue marble, had weathered down to the consistency of slate. His beard and hair, once gold as wheat, was now a dirty gray. When he flexed his fingers into a fist, his knuckles cracked loudly. "What do you think now, squire? Am I a magnificent warrior, or an old man?"
Timothy shrunk into himself. "I... I... I don't know, Sir Mikel." The knight let out a loud sigh, and sat back down in his chair. "Squire, you've still a lot to learn." He fell back into silent contemplation for a few more minutes. The boy quietly sat on the edge of the bed, the mug resting in his lap. Finally, the elder troll spoke.
"You know of my adventures and my companions; my travels into the Dreaming, the many quests I've been on?"
Timothy nodded silently, some bit of wisdom creeping up from within to keep his mouth shut. Sir Mikel nodded as well. "I'm sure you are. You've heard the songs and the stories told around the freehold. Well, lad, my adventures are nigh over."
The boy nodded again, and took a sip of ale. Again, wisdom granted him silence.
"You know of Casimir, my Eshu friend, whose tongue could charm the ears off a sidhe. You've met, briefly, Marcus, my brother troll. I've told tales of Matthias the pooka... Ah, what a talent he had for getting into trouble... He and Stephan the satyr... They were quite a pair. Fathers were well advised to hide their maiden daughters when Matthias and Stephan were out for the evening...Timaeus, my nocker friend... He made my sword, you know, as a gift for saving his life.
"We battled all sorts of monsters, met all kinds of wondrous adventures in the Dreaming, Timothy. We were unstoppable. We slew dragons, rescued maidens, stopped rampaging chimera and nervosa, aided the weak, witnessed magical feats beyond the imagination. But slowly, the adventures stopped. My companions, one by one, started to venture along their own paths."
Timothy finally offered a comment. "Yes, they all died glorious deaths in battle. Casimir lost his life to the breath of a dragon. Marcus was ripped to pieces by a band of redcaps, but only after he sent half their number to the grave. Matthias was taken through the cold iron of Dauntain treachery. Stephan lost a duel to a sidhe noble whose daughter he'd wooed. Timaeus blew himself up in an experiment. Glorious deaths, all of them."
The old troll scowled, showing a row of yellowed sharp teeth. His brow furrowed like dark storm clouds; anger flashed like lightning in his eyes. The soul of the warrior came to the surface.
"Glorious death? Boy, if you learn no other lesson from me, learn this: there is no such thing as a glorious death." Sir Mikel's eyes bore into Timothy's. "Death is a dirty, nasty, bloody thing. Never enjoy bringing about the death of an enemy, and never seek your own death, as 'glorious' as it may seem. I killed many warriors in my day. I never enjoyed it. Many came to fight the legendary Mikel Thunderfist to prove themselves. I fought them for honor's sake." The ancient troll sighed. "I would gladly give my right hand if I could bring just one of the foolish bastards back.
"But what you've heard of the methods of my companions' deaths is just legend. I'll tell you what truly happened, in hopes that you'll learn and keep your Dreaming for longer than they did.
"We adventured for many years, nearly fifteen, never wanting to settle down, pledging an oath to stay with each other until we were all undone. Oaths are not eternal, I've found. Marcus was the first to go. He lost himself to despair. He became disillusioned by the mortal world's lack of honor. He went out of his way to be the troll knight even to mortals, even when it was not called for. Most did not appreciate his chivalrous nature; the modern world has no room for knights in shining armor. Most took advantage of his selfless good nature, or mistrusted him from the start. Soon, Marcus believed that he was alone in his honor, and gave in to Banality. He was undone six years ago.
"Casimir, our leader, gave in to his ego. In our early wilder years, he was carefree. But as we aged, he began to care more and more what others thought of him, especially mortals. He couldn't stand the odd looks and comments he'd get from mortal friends when we would show up to drag him off on another quest. The questions from his family got to be too much for him. He started by refusing to go with us on adventures here and there, which slowly started to grow cancerously into a denial of his Fae self. Cas succumbed to the mists not long after Marcus.
"The rest found mundane pursuits to be more comfortable than our adventures in the Dreaming. Matthias moved out to Arizona and got some woman pregnant. Her nagging and the responsibilities of a new child were too much for him. Stephan, too, met a mortal woman who forced him to 'clean up his act'. Words of death to a satyr. Timaeus let his love for airplanes take over his love for chimera, and left to join the Air Force. No time left to play for him; he was too busy defending America.
"They've convinced themselves that our adventures were some sort of game that we wasted too much time playing. They even gather semi-regularly to play a tabletop roleplaying game, but it's no longer about dreams for them. It's all in the numbers, who has the highest dice pools, who's got the best magic items..." Sir Mikel let loose another deep sigh, issuing forth from the depths of his soul. He suddenly looked much older to Timothy than even the boy's own father. "My own time is near, Timothy. I will soon pass into the Mists. My companions are gone, and the hope is quickly leaving me. There are times when I forget... everything."
Timothy shook his head violently, jumping off the bed to his feet, which sent the mug spinning across the floor. "No! You... You can't! You're Sir Mikel Thunderfist! You've killed dragons single-handedly! You've waded through redcaps like they were tall grass! There's nothing that can defeat you!"
Sir Mikel sighed. "Boy, even I can't stop time. As much as you try to cling on to hope, it slips through your fingers like sand. And the few grains of hope I have left aren't enough to keep me here. Soon, I'll be Mikel McMonigal again. Just a mortal." The old warrior watched and listened as the boy threw all his anger at him. Finally, the boy, exhausted, sat hard on the bed, brooding. Sir Mikel smiled softly.
"Timothy, keep that kind of anger, that kind of drive in you, and you will live a long life. If you cultivate that kind of determination to fight Banality, you will not succumb for a very, very long time." He rose again from his chair, and walked to the wall where his claymore was mounted. He removed the sword from its place of honor reverently, and carried it over to the boy.
"Timothy, I want you to have my sword. I'm done with it." The boy protested, but Mikel cut him short. "Timothy, my days of adventuring are done. Take my sword, and carry on my legacy. I'll not take no for an answer." Timothy rose hesitantly, then took the offered sword in his hands. A spark of chimerical electricity jumped from Mikel to the sword to Timothy. Mikel sagged a bit; his blue color started to drain away. "Now, go. Remember the anger you felt tonight at my surrender to the Mists, and keep it in your heart for your own battle against Banality." Timothy nodded and headed for the door, quickly turning his back so that his mentor could not see the tears welling up in his eyes. Without another word, the boy left.
At the sound of the soft click of the door closing, Sir Mikel Thunderfist, Champion of the Court of Carriages, Slayer of the King Dragon of the River, Bane to Redcaps, the Last of his Friends, wearily settled down in his chair, closed his eyes, and went to sleep.
"Hey, Cas! Pass the chips, will ya?" A bag of potato chips came flying across the table towards the large man with glasses. "Aw, shit!" the latter cursed, "You're gonna knock my dice all over to hell!"
"Calm down, Mikel," the large man sitting next to him said. "He didn't do any harm." Casimir rubbed his hands together.
"Anway, where were we?"
"I was about to draw both my swords, do a triple backflip into the air, come down with them spinning like the Blades of Death that they are, and decapitate those two orcs in front of me," said the smallish guy in glasses. A chortle passed around the table.
"Roll 'em high," Cas grinned. "You're gonna need luck for this one, boy..."