Under different circumstances, there would have been nothing sinister in a father knocking at the wooden door and waiting patiently for his son to let him in. But when the father had the body of a man and the head of an eagle, and the son was a much older man who had recently turned himself into Grendel and kidnapped his own mother, “sinister” was probably putting it mildly. Especially when the man with the eagle’s head was the Warlock, Chameleon, who was intent upon destroying the whole world, and much of the known and unknown universes with it.

He knew his plans were working to perfection. He had already started upon his conquest of Hedral when he had come across the Lady Meadow at the Aldi Oracle (almost literally, as she had worn very sheer white robes and even a Warlock has his needs). “Tell me my fate”, he had demanded of her, and she had obliged. He would devastate the planet with his troll army, she had declared, scattering before him all the Amazons, dwarfs and men who tried to oppose him. But just when victory seemed certain, a king would appear from another planet, Harold Godwinson of the Saxons, who would defeat him at Crow Hill, and send him fleeing back to his lair beneath Mount Leiden. There, he would be sealed inside the mountain by the wizard, Ostosis, using Harold’s magical sword.

A thousand years later, he would try to escape, but would be defeated again. This time, his adversaries would be weak and clueless, which would make his defeat all the more bitter. There would be the wizard, Halfshaft, who knew just two spells, neither of which were of any practical use at all; the Amazon, Takina, who had been the runt of her tribe, being under six feet tall, and therefore spurned by her vertically blessed sisters; and, worst of all, the Earthling named Rod, a frequenter of ale houses and some strange butchers called “kebab shops”, who would treat the battle for mastery of the planet as “a bit of a laugh”. She did not know how they would defeat him – it was too far in the future for her to be that specific – but defeat him they would. And this time, they would destroy him forever.

But his fate had changed when all the strangers had started to appear on Hedral. Lady Meadow had told him that they were making “a film”, but however much she tried to explain it to him, he had failed to grasp precisely what that meant (other than it was some sort of illusion which you could watch on a wall). But it did not matter. All he needed to know was that Time was being twisted and torn by people who were appearing on Hedral who had no right to be there. And amongst the first of them had been Rod and Takina, the imbecilic Earthling and the failed Amazon who would defeat him in a thousand years’ time.

“Tell me my future again,” he had demanded of her on his second visit. “Time is different now”, she had replied. “The wizard, Halfshaft, is coming back, too. You must keep close to Rod and Takina, and wait for the wizard to arrive. And when they go in search of King Harold on Earth, you will go there with them, and kill him. With his death, your Fate will be changed.”

He had taken her prophecy as a blue-print for what he must do to avoid a millennium of imprisonment. So close had he kept to Takina, that he had impregnated her (whilst in the form of the wood-elf, Troy, whom she idolised so much). His time with her had led to the additional benefit of finding the Flame of Eternal Youth at Spartan Castle. He had bathed in it for longer than any non-shape-shifter could have tolerated, and knew now that he would live for a very long time indeed; if not forever, then very close to it. The longer the better. There was no point conquering the world if he died without having centuries to gloat over its destruction.

As Lady Meadow had foreseen, the wizard had come, he and Rod had gone to fetch Harold, and he had accompanied the pair of them back to Earth and had brought about the death of the unwary Harold on the battlefield of Hastings. He had returned to Hedral, leaving Rod and Halfshaft in the midst of thousands of angry Saxon warriors to face their fate. He would have liked to have left Takina there, too, but she was under the protection of Osiris of the Dark Elves and, without assistance, even he would have struggled to get to her there.

He had continued to turn Hedral to rubble for three years, but could not rest easy knowing that Takina was still at large. He had visited Lady Meadow for a third time. He had half expected her to hide from him, but she was still at the Aldi Oracle. She could see into the future, and knew what he would do to her if she took flight. This time, she had told him that Rod and Halfshaft had survived the Battle of Hastings and returned to Hedral, that they would reunite with Takina and would lead an army against him. The only way to defeat them would be to collect all his forces and do battle against his three foes at Crow Hill. There, he would crush them, and his legacy would be secure.

“Couldn’t I just kill them now, painfully, one by one?” he enquired, with more than a touch of pout in his voice.

She had shaken her head. “The future is written already. You must fight them at Crow Hill. Any other way, and your doom will be certain.”

“What of Ostosis?” he had asked her, Ostosis the wizard who had been destined to seal him in the mountain before the actors came and changed everything. “Do I still need to fear him?”

She had declined to answer. “You have three questions. You have asked one each of the three times you have visited me. I can tell you no more.”

She had told him more, though. A lot more. He had dragged her around the Oracle by her hair until she had screamed for mercy. He had massacred most of her apprentices in front of her eyes. He had done things to her of which a lesser being would have been ashamed. And it had all been worth it, for she had told him that Ostosis was in fact his son; the child of his union with Takina. And that he was a shape-shifter, too.

A plan had occurred. He would recruit Ostosis to his side, by force if persuasion failed. He was very good at using force, after all. With two shape-shifting warlocks fighting side by side, the world would bow down before him twice as quickly, and his three foes would have no time to rally an army against him. And once his victory was secure, he would convince Ostosis to kill his own mother and then imprison him beneath Mount Leiden, taking revenge for his own future imprisonment which would now never happen. The symmetry was perfect.

In the meantime, he had kidnapped Rod (and the idiot boy who was with him) as added security. Lady Meadow had warned him against killing any of the Three, but she had said nothing about Fate forbidding him from tying one of them up and torturing him a little before their final battle. Just to pass the time. Fate should have been more specific if it disapproved of this.

The door opened. An old man stood before him, a man with a foolish smile on his face, a grin which evaporated the moment he realised who was standing on his doorstep.

“My son,” said the man with the eagle head, with no warmth at all.

The old man looked on the verge of tears. He tried to close the door, but the Warlock pushed it open, disappointed that he could do so with such ease. His son would need more fighting spirit than this if he was to help him with the tasks ahead.

“What do you want?”

The Warlock tried to smile, but his beak made it difficult to do so without sneering.

“You,” he told Ostosis. “I want you.”

 

#

 

The moment Rod realised he was being pursued by a huge hairy troll, he set off in the opposite direction like an overweight greyhound with half the usual number of legs. But the troll’s limbs were twice the size of his, and the distance between them was shrinking rapidly.

“Friend!” he shouted out over his shoulder, in the vain hope that this might make a difference. “Sod off! Friend! Friend!”

The troll caught up with him within seconds. It grabbed his arm, bringing him to a shoulder-wrenching halt.

“Friend,” he said again. He held out his free hand for the troll to shake. “Rod. Friend. Mates.”

“Rod?” the troll asked, surprised. “The Rod?”

Rod was not sure he understood the question, but nodded anyway. It seemed like the right thing to do in the circumstances. “Yeah. That’s me. The Rod.”

The troll took Rod’s hand and shook it, causing him only a mild degree of soft-tissue damage.

“Crug,” he said. “Lord of the Trolls. Can you help me get back home?”

It had been a funny old day, Rod reflected. He had been rescued from marauding trolls at Spartan Castle, which was good. It had turned out that his rescuer was in actual fact the Warlock, which was bad. The Warlock had taken Harold’s sword from him (which he would need later on to lock the twat away in a mountain) (bad again) and stuck him in a cart surrounded by trolls who were having difficulty keeping themselves from eating him (very bad indeed). And now he had been freed by these other trolls, which would ordinarily be good, but they were trolls from one thousand years in the future, who had previously tied Halfshaft and Takina to rocks with the intention of stripping them naked and sacrificing them to their gods to celebrate it being Thursday. So whether his rescue from the cart-trolls by the naked-Thursday-sacrifice-trolls was a good thing or a bad thing was a bit tricky to work out. He didn’t want to be a naked sacrifice if he could help it, especially when all the trolls were blokes. He only took off his pants for women as a rule. But turning the bloke down didn’t seem to be an option right now.

“Of course I can help you, mate,” he assured Crug. “I’m the Rod. I can do anything.”

He looked around. The cart stood nearby, its rear axle broken where one of the Warlock’s trolls had tried to climb in to eat him. More of the cart-trolls lay scattered around it, dead or dying. Larger trolls walked amongst them, clubbing those who were still twitching. If it wasn’t for the fact that he was the Rod, he might have been quite intimidated by his new friends.

Another troll approached them. “Alright, mate?” he greeted it, determined to make as many friends here as he could.

“He’s the Rod,” Crug whispered reverentially to the newcomer.

“I know that,” replied the second troll, a little huffily. “I am Runt, the Great Troll Philosopher. I know a Rod when I see one.”

“Nice to meet you, Runt,” Rod nodded, relieved that Runt was not offering to shake hands as there was only so much soft-tissue damage his palms could take in one day. “I was just telling Crug here that I’m happy to help you get home, if you like.”

“I don’t like,” Runt scowled. It is hard for a troll to pout as their faces are not made that way, but Runt came as near to it as he could manage. “I want to stay here. There’s fighting here. There’s nothing to do back where we came from except sleep and pick our body cavities.”

“What’s a cavity?” Crug asked curiously.

Rod shrugged. “Buggered if I know. I’m hoping it just means nose, or I’m really regretting shaking your hand just now.”

“Why not stay here?” Runt asked the Lord of the Trolls, ignoring his question altogether. “We could spend the day killing and maiming. Instead of picking -”

“Our vacaties?”

“Our cavities.”

“Because it’s not home.”

“It could be.”

“And our ladies aren’t here.”

“Who needs ladies?”

Crug stared at him. “Don’t start that again. Ever since we stripped those sacrifices and found that they were men dressed as women, you’ve been trying to get us to dress in ladies’ clothes. I won’t have it. If I was Lady of the Trolls, instead of Lord, everyone would laugh at us.”

“There’s no need to get all funny about it,” mumbled Runt defensively. “It was just a bit of fun.”

“I’m not doing it again, alright? I didn’t like the way you were looking at me when I was wearing that grass skirt. Like I was just a slab of human-meat.”

“I could see between the fronds,” the Great Troll Philosopher recalled, smiling at the memory.

“You could see between my what?”

Runt blushed. “Fronds. I could see between the fronds.”

“Is that the same as vacaties?”

“Cavities,” Runt sighed, shaking his head sorrowfully to show just how much more he knew than his boss. “I hate my life. Is it any wonder that I need a bit of make-believe from time to time to get me through it?”

Another troll approached, eyeing Rod greedily. “Dinner! Can I have a leg? I like the dark meat better.”

“He’s not for eating,” the Lord of the Trolls ruled, turning to the newcomer. “This is the Rod. No-one touches him, understand? He’s going to take us home.”

“Can’t he do that on one leg? Or we could just nibble his knee-caps a bit, if you like.”

“No.”

“An arm, then? He only needs one arm to point out the way home. I’d settle for an arm if I have to. I’m not an unreasonable troll.”

The Lord of the Trolls was trying to keep his temper, but was fighting a losing battle. He did not know how many more ways he could make himself clear without bashing his subject in the face until he stopped talking, and he was trying to stop doing that so much as it made the others a bit uncomfortable. So he settled for another “no” instead.

“His face, then?” persisted his subject, not picking up on the non-verbal hints. “An eye? An ear? His nose, maybe? He doesn’t need his bloody nose to guide us, does he?”

“I said “no”!” Crug shouted in the troll’s face. “You’re not eating him, alright? If I see anyone tucking into his cavities when I’m not looking, I am gonna go bastard-bloody-mental!”

 

#

 

They had reached Spartan Castle.

As Takina headed towards the gates, with Halfshaft the Wizard scurrying along at her side, she prayed to the Amazon Goddess that Rod would be inside. When he had freed her from the slave-sheds of the Dark Elves, she had left him in the care of two witches, Doris and Mo, whilst she went back in to liberate the other slaves. But the two women had taken Rod away to use as a donkey, presumably bringing him back here, the last remaining island of witches in a sea of marauding trolls. There were signs that their sanctuary had been violated, though. A dead troll here; a couple of witch corpses over there. There had been a battle – very recently by the freshness of the bodies – and she could only pray that Rod had survived it.

Even if he was still alive, and had not run off somewhere to hide (which was his stock response to danger), there was no guarantee she would be able to free him from the witches anyway. Whenever they captured men, they would ride them around like donkeys until their knees gave out or they caught the dreaded galloping-hiccough. Trying to prise a man-donkey from a witch was like trying to separate an amorous wood-elf from her lover: you pretty much needed a crow-bar to do it.

She had mixed feelings about Halfshaft being here with her. On the one hand, he was her best friend ever. She had been separated from him for the last three years, and even though he would slow her down it was still a comfort to have him back by her side. On the other, there was always a risk that the witches would take him for a donkey if she turned her back on them for so much as a minute. When they had last been here, they had taken a fancy to his beard, and had taken it in turns to caress it in a disturbingly intimate fashion. A beardy donkey would be highly-prized by such women and she would have to do all that she could to protect him from them.

As they neared the castle, a man appeared on the drawbridge, closely followed by a cave-troll. Takina came to a halt. Cave-trolls were the most destructive creatures on the planet. One blow from their clubs could drive your brain down into your pelvis. Although men were used to having their brains down there, it was not the way a woman chose to have her anatomy arranged if she could help it.

Halfshaft kept on walking, apparently unaware of the cave-troll menace ahead, which rather illustrated her point. Men were never the sharpest javelins in the weapon hut.

“Stop!” she called after him, making a grab for his arm to try to haul him back to her side. “There is a man over there with a cave-troll!”

“It’s okay,” he replied. “That’s just Archie Watkins, and his fiancée, Georgina. They’re on our side.”

“He is getting married to a cave-troll?” she asked in surprise. The two species did not usually form romances, mainly due to the cave-trolls’ tendency to eat a human on sight.

“Yes. Rod and I have met the family. They seemed very nice.”

Archie Watkins – a middle-aged accountant from Hastings - was approaching them. Georgina, his cave-troll “intended”, lumbered along behind him. Every so often, he turned and shooed her away. She mewed miserably, but kept on following him. It was no easy task for him to shoo-away a love-struck cave-troll when she was intent on them being together.

Takina started walking to the Castle again. She trusted Halfshaft’s judgment, and if he had made up his mind to greet the man and his cave-troll then she needed to be there to look after him if anything went wrong. Not that there was a great deal she would be able to do against a cave-troll when she had no weapon with her, but she could at least show solidarity with her friend if he died.

“Thank goodness you’re alive!” Archie greeted them when they were still a dozen yards apart. “I thought I was the last sane person left on this crazy planet!”

The cave-troll mewed again. He rounded on her. “Look here, Missy. I told you that it’s over between us. Now you go away right this minute, and leave me in peace, or I’ll get an injunction or something! You wouldn’t want that, believe you me!”

A large tear-drop rolled sloppily down her granite face. She held her arms out to him, seeking the comfort of his embrace. He recoiled a step or two, although his cold and distant expression melted a fraction. “Look, Georgina, I’m sorry. It’s not you, it’s me.”

She whimpered.

“I just need a little space. We’re better off apart for a while. It’s best for both of us.”

More trollish whimpering, even sadder than before. She was dying a little inside.

“A good-looking girl like you; you’ll find someone else, no trouble. There are plenty more fish in the lake.”

The cave-troll started jabbering at him, still sobbing as she did so. He listened for a while, shaking his head condescendingly as he did so.

“No, no, of course they wouldn’t. It’s not your fault that you’re like this now. It could have happened to anyone. No-one would hold that against you.”

“What’s going on?” Halfshaft asked in puzzlement. “Why did you two break up? I thought you were in love?”

Archie sighed. “We were. I would have done anything for her, I really would. But then one of the witches here gave her a tiny pair of mouse testicles, and that kind of put me off her. Not that it would put anyone else off you, Georgina, it really wouldn’t. You’re still beautiful; anyone can see that. I’m just allergic to rodents, that’s all, and I might come out in a bit of a rash on our wedding night if our testicles come into contact. It’s best she finds someone else, don’t you think, Halfshaft, someone who could love her for who she is, miniature mouse-balls and all? You don’t want her, do you? She likes humans better than trolls. You could do a lot worse. She knows how to treat a man, I can tell you. There have been times I could barely walk!”

Halfshaft shook his head furiously, trying to fight down the panic. “No. No.  I’ve got nothing against mouse testicles or anything. I’m sure they’re – very nice. But that’s not really the bag I’m into. No pun intended. She’s far too good for me, anyway.”

Georgina approached him, and stared deep into his eyes. She mewed a little.

He could not help but glance down at her nether-regions. Sure enough, there was a small grey hairy sac, just where Archie had said it would be. He looked back to her face, and tried to give her a reassuring smile, but it came out more as a grimace. “Sorry,” he stammered. “It’s nothing personal.”

She started jabbering at him.

“She says she likes you,” Archie interpreted. “She’ll marry you, if you’ll have her. Right here and now. You’ll have to shave the beard off, though, because it might give her a rash down below.”

Halfshaft looked frantically to Takina for support. She was smirking, which was adding insult to injury. This was the Amazon for whom he had been yearning from the moment they had first met, the woman with whom he was desperately in love, even though all she had ever offered him in return was her friendship (which was all very well, but wasn’t the same as a proper relationship where intimate cuddles would have been part of the deal). He had hoped that she would jump jealously to his defence, to drive away this potential love-rival, but, rather hurtfully, it looked like she found the whole episode hilarious.

“I’m already married,” he told the hulking cave-troll, deciding that he would get no help from Takina and would have to deal with this awkward situation unaided. “I’d marry you if I could – you’re a real catch, and I’m really not just saying that in case you bite my head off – but I’m married to a witch named Gertie, and I can’t marry you, however much I’d like to. Damn my bad luck!”

He gave Georgina a nervous grin, and awaited her reaction. She stared at him for a few seconds, her brow furrowed, and he took a couple of steps away from her, concerned how his jilted lover might react. But then the muscles in her face crunched into a smile, like tectonic plates shifting into position, and she gave him her gentlest hug (which very nearly crushed him senseless), speed-licking his face all the while.

“What is it?” he gasped, when she had dropped him gently back to the ground. “Why did she do that?”

A very relieved-looking Archie helped him up, and offered him his hand to shake. “Male cave-trolls are polygamous. They can have as many mates as they like. You told her you love her little ball-bag and you want to marry her. She’s not worried about your other wife; she forgives you for that.”

The wizard went pale. “You’ve got to explain to her that I’m in love with another woman.”

“She’s really not worried about your wife. She can eat her later.”

Halfshaft looked at Takina, blushing just a little. “I wasn’t talking about my wife.”

“Well you’re quite the ladies’ man, aren’t you?” Archie chuckled. “Two wives and a mistress! Well, not to worry. You can still see your other women if you like, even though you’re married to Georgina. Cave-trolls are polygamous, like I said. As long as she doesn’t catch you in the act, of course. She’d most probably eat the pair of you if she caught you in flagrante with another woman.”

“I can’t marry her,” Halfshaft insisted, deciding that letting her down gently wasn’t working very well, and that he would have to be rather more direct if he wanted to extricate himself from this awful situation. “She’s a cave-troll with mouse testicles! I’m a wizard with a beard. We have nothing in common.”

Archie chuckled away to himself. “I’m afraid it’s far too late for you to have second thoughts, young man. You should have thought about that before you married her.”

The wizard went paler still. “Before I married her? What are you talking about? We’re not married!”

Archie laughed louder still. “Oh yes you are! She’s given you the old cave-troll lick-and-cuddle. That’s their equivalent of a marriage ceremony. I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride.”

“Lick and cuddle!” exploded Halfshaft. “What sort of stupid marriage ceremony is that? I didn’t cuddle her.  And I certainly didn’t lick her! I’m not doing it okay? She can find herself another husband. It’s you she wants, not me!”

Georgina closed in on him until she was just a few inches away. She put a heavy hand on his shoulder, squeezing it just a little. He looked up at his bride, staring at the underside of her lumpy chin. He had never been so intimidated in his life.

“What does she want?” he squeaked. “I have a headache. I’m not in the mood for you-know-what, if that’s what she’s after.”

“No, no, she’s just sending your Amazon friend over there a message that you’re hers now, and that she’d better not try and have sex with you if she knows what’s good for her.”

“Damn my bad luck,” Takina chuckled, seeing a funny side to this which Halfshaft was struggling to spot himself. He thought his first wife, Gertie, was bad, but at least she was pretty; at least she was human! And perhaps most salient of all, at least Gertie didn’t have a furry little mousey ball-bag dangling between her legs.

It was then that he started crying a little.

And, seconds afterwards, that the witches appeared.

 

#

 

Rod was back at the land-trolls’ camp, although “camp” was not the word he would have chosen for it. It was more a small hill with a bare branch sticking out of the summit like a bereft flagpole.

There were more trolls here, almost all of them male. They numbered maybe forty or fifty in all. The ones who had not been involved in the battle with his captors all grouped around him, choosing which parts of him they wanted to eat, apparently under the impression that Crug had brought a human take-away home with him.

“I like humans,” one of them remarked to his neighbour, “but they’re not very filling. You always want another one five minutes later.”

“He’s not gonna go far between the ten of us,” grumbled another, proving that trolls are as proficient at maths as England are at winning football tournaments. “We’ll all be fighting over his back legs in a minute.”

“Did anyone remember the egg-fried rice?” enquired a third.

Crug, Lord of the Trolls, tried to wave his subjects to silence. When that didn’t work, he bit one of them in the face until they had all stopped talking. “This man is not for eating yet.”

“Yet?” asked Rod uncomfortably. “No-one’s gonna eat me, mate. Not in that way, anyway.” He looked over at the handful of ugly troll women standing together nearby. “Not in any way, actually.”

“You just carry on thinking that,” Crug replied, which wasn’t all that reassuring. He turned his attention back to the trolls who had circled around them, picking troll-face-flesh from his teeth.

“This is the Rod!” he explained to them, pointing to the human in case they were in any doubt who he was talking about.

“The Rod!” they cooed in wonder, genuinely impressed. Many of them had never seen the Rod before.

“Yeah,” Rod confirmed, knowing that making an impression would be his best chance of not ending up on the menu. “I’m the Rod. So show some respect, or I’ll smack you one.” He raised his fist to show them he meant business, although none of them seemed all that impressed by it.

“The Rod will show us the way home,” the Lord of the Trolls announced.

“Yeah. I’ll show you the way home,” Rod echoed. “As long as no-one tries to eat me or anything, cos you’re on your own if you do.”

“Where is the way home?” one of them asked.

Fifty trolls’ faces stared at him, awaiting his reply. Rod shifted uncomfortably. It was always tricky responding to a direct question like that when you have no idea what the bastard answer might be.

He picked a direction at random. “That way.”

“Great,” smiled Runt, the great Troll Philosopher. “We know the way home. Now we can eat him.”

The Lord of the Trolls glared at his right-hand troll. “We’ve got more chance of getting home if we keep him alive for now.”

“Keep him alive, you mean,” interjected Rod. “Can you drop the “for now” bit, mate? It makes me think you’re just using me.”

“We’re better off here,” Runt continued, ignoring his dinner’s ramblings. “Think of all the fighting we can do. Back home, we’ve already eaten everyone worth eating. But here, it’s like a whole new menu. Those trolls back by the cart; they were delicious, you have to admit it. Why would we want to leave when the larder’s full?”

“We’re going home, Runt,” Crug insisted. “All our womenfolk are there.”

“Thanks for that!” came a high-pitched voice from the back.

“Okay, all out womenfolk except Sally.”

“Charming!” came another outraged voice.

“And Betty.”

“I find that very insulting,” came another one.

“And maybe Michael.”

“I prefer to be called Michaela now.”

“Enough! Look, we’re going home. To be with the rest of our womenfolk, the ones who aren’t here already. That’s final. I like eating people as much as the next troll, but when we’ve had a good meal we want to go home and have our ladies look after us, give us massages, put butter on our rocks to make them nicer to nibble on. Wash our knees when they get too smelly.”

“We can do that for each other,” protested the Great Troll Philosopher.

Crug gave Runt his hardest stare. “You ain’t going anywhere near my knees, Sunshine, you got that?”

Runt pouted, but said nothing.

The Lord of the Trolls turned to face the rest of his subjects again. “Have you ALL got that?”

“We’re not going anywhere near your smelly knees,” they chorused.

“Not that bit. The other bit. The Rod stays alive until we get home. Then I’ll share him out amongst you myself. In the meantime, we do what he tells us, go where he says. Which way did you point? I can’t remember after all that talking and thinking.”

“That way,” Rod confirmed. “You can get home that way.”

“What’s that way, then?” asked Crug. “We haven’t been over there yet.”

“That’s the Realm of the Dead,” Runt put in, more than a little sulkily. “It’s a bit dangerous there. We’ll probably all die.”

“That way!” said Rod, pointing in the opposite direction. “I meant that way.”

“All die, you say?” mused the Lord of the Trolls. “Cool.” He clapped Rod hard on the back, sending his new guide sprawling to the ground. “You and me are gonna have such fun together before I eat you.”

 

#

 

Halfshaft had to resist the urge to flee as a dozen witches emerged from the castle and scuttled towards him, chuckling to themselves as they ran. He had had unfortunate experiences with witches before, ranging from intimate beard-stroking (his, not theirs), being ridden like a donkey and –worst of all – being tricked into marrying one of their number. But at least his witch wife was young, beautiful and intelligent, unlike his new bride, who had the looks and the IQ of a leprous hippopotamus with severe learning difficulties.

He watched as the old hags closed in on him. They all had their own distinctive runs. The larger ones bounced along like tumbleweed, while the spindly ones scuttled along like half-starved scorpions in skirts. He felt like running himself, but knew it would be hopeless. He would be frazzled by a hundred spells before he managed to get out of range, and as one of the spells in their repertoire appeared to involve mouse bollocks he decided that, just for once, running like buggery was not an option. Instead, he inched behind his new troll-bride, hoping that she would protect him against the onslaught of cackling hags.

The witches arrived and quickly circled him and his friends (and also his second spouse, who took quite a lot of circling).

“Hail, Sisters,” Takina greeted them. That was a good start, he thought. It sounded pretty witchy. It was handy having someone with them who spoke the lingo.

“Hail, Amazon,” one of them greeted her back. “I am Martha, of the Black Forest Wartyrumps. We’ve come for our donkeys, but we see you’ve brought one of your own.”

“Yes,” Takina confirmed, putting a proprietary arm on the wizard’s shoulder. “This is my donkey.”

“I wish,” Halfshaft muttered under his breath, but Georgina turned around and gave him such a murderously jealous glare that he buttoned up straightaway.

“Would you swap your one for my cave-troll? It’s hard for me to get my knees around her, she’s so big. And she keeps crying for some reason. It’s really hard to gallop around and enjoy yourself when you have something weeping between your legs, I can tell you!”

“No. I am keeping my donkey all to myself,” the Amazon replied. “You would not want him anyway. He is old and ugly, and his knees are spent.”

Halfshaft opened his mouth to retort, but thought better of it and closed it again. He rubbed his knees a little and contorted his face in over-acted pain. “Ouch.”

The witch regarded Takina steadily. “I know you, don’t I, my girl? You were here before. Two or three years ago?”

The Amazon nodded. “I was.”

“And your donkey, too. I remember stroking his beard. I’d like to stroke it again, if I may? We all would. You wouldn’t begrudge an old lady a quick stroke, would you? Where’s the harm in that?”

Takina shook her head. “No. This is trickery. You will use your spells on him and take him away from me.”

“Quite probably. But there’s a dozen of us, and two of you, so a stroke I shall have, whether you like it or not.”

“Four of us.”

“Those other two are my donkeys already. They don’t count. Now come here, Wizard, and let me fondle your whiskers before I lose my patience.”

Halfshaft took a reluctant step forwards. He had been a donkey before, and he had no wish to trot along that particular path again. For all he objected to his beloved Takina saying he was old and ugly, she was right about his knees, and the thought of carrying one of these hags on his back for the next few years was frightening to say the least. Some of them looked like the worst of the “before” pictures in the Weightwatchers’ classes they used to run at Spartan Castle in his youth, and he was worried that if they tried to mount him his knees might crumple the moment they lifted their carbuncled feet off the ground. But what choice did he have? Like Martha had said, they were outgunned twelve to four, even if you included the donkeys, and if the mood took them they could make his testicles mouse-like in the blink of a vindictive eye.

Martha reached out a quivering hand, her eyes closing so as to better enjoy the experience of touching up the facial hair of a frightened elderly man. Georgina the Cave-troll started growling. He was her husband, and she was not about to let him get groped by a cackle of witches, whatever the consequences.

“He is MY donkey,” Takina said again, taking hold of the witch’s wrist. “Leave him alone or you will have me to answer to.”

Martha opened her eyes. She looked Takina up and down with an expression midway between amusement and contempt. “Take care, hussy. We witches have never had a female donkey before, but some of my sisters prefer surf to turf, and would be more than happy to saddle you up given half a chance. Take your hand off my wrist this instant, or all four of you will be grazing in the same field come suppertime.”

Takina shook her head. “Make me.”

Halfshaft looked anxiously from woman to woman. He was desperate to be saved, and if he was going to be rescued by anyone, Takina would have been his first choice of saviour. It kind of made up for her “old and ugly” comment earlier. But she was putting herself in danger for him. That was the last thing he wanted.

“It’s okay,” he told her, removing her hand from Martha’s wrist. “She can stroke my beard if she wants.”

“It is a trick. She will put a spell on you. Make you her donkey. She must not touch you.”

“They didn’t do that when I was here before. They just – stroked me. Quite a lot.”

“This one was not in charge before. I do not trust her. You must not let them do this. I will protect you.”

“We’ve no weapons. There’s twelve of them.”

Takina shrugged. “We have beaten worse odds.”

“No, we haven’t. Please. Let them do it. I don’t want them hurting you.”

Martha tutted. “This is all very touching, but I’m getting bored now. I’m stroking him whether you like it or not. You need to walk away, Amazon. Take the cave-troll as compensation if you wish; I have no need of her anymore. Now step aside, or one of my sisters will be mounting you the same time that I climb upon your friend’s back.”

Takina shook her head. “No. I am going nowhere without my donkey by my side.”

Georgina stepped next to her. She made a threatening growl of solidarity. Halfshaft’s cave-troll wife, and the woman of his dreams, were united in their determination to fight for him, despite the witches outnumbering them six to one. He had never had fourteen women fighting over him before, and if it was not for the part about being ridden round the countryside like a donkey afterwards, he might otherwise have been quite flattered.

Martha raised her hands above her head. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“No!” cried Halfshaft. “It’s fine. You can have me.”

Georgina turned on him, growling jealously at her husband’s proposed infidelity. They had only just this minute got married, after all.

The wizard backed away, his hands held up to placate her. The other witches closed in behind him, leaving him nowhere to go.

Martha cackled. “Donkey fight! Donkey fight!”

Takina tried to step between the wizard and the cave-troll but Georgina pushed her effortlessly out of the way. Halfshaft looked from Takina to Georgina to Martha (who was partially obscured by his new wife), not knowing which of them he should be most concerned about. The witch’s hands raised still further above her head. She was about to unleash a spell, and he had no doubt that it would lead to either him or his Amazon-love braying like a donkey. He had to take action, but the cave-troll was in his way and he did not fancy his chances of getting past her when she was in this mood. He could go neither forwards or backwards. He was trapped.

“I can’t wait to get my fingers on that beard of yours,” crowed Martha. “I do like a donkey with something to hang onto.”

All hope had gone. He closed his eyes, praying it would be him she transformed, and that Takina would be safe.

“I’ve found it!” someone shouted from the distance. “I’ve found it!”

There were screams of delight, and the sound of running feet. He opened his eyes, one cautious eyelid at a time. The witches were disappearing back into the castle at speed. The four of them were safe again, if only for the time being.

“That was close,” he sighed. “Come on. Let’s go, before they come back again.”

“Do you not want to know what it is they have found?” Takina asked. “It might be something important. Something which can help us fight the Warlock.”

He shook his head vigorously. “I couldn’t care less. Besides, it’s probably just a bloke with a handle-bar moustache or something. You know how excited they get about facial hair.”

“We should look.”

He crossed his arms. “I’m not going anywhere. We’ll get caught again, and no way am I going to let them ride me like a pony. Let’s just go, while we still can.”

Takina started walking towards the castle gates. She gave him a mischievous smile over her shoulder. “You are right. I will go in alone. I need to see if Rod is inside. You stay here and get to know your new wife.”

Halfshaft glanced over at his bride. She was staring at him, and licking her lips in a manner so suggestive that it sent shudders down his spine.

“Wait!” he called after the Amazon, as he hurried to catch up with her. He would rather the witches ride him like a donkey than his new cave-troll bride mount his bony ass.

 

#

 

Two eagles landed atop the golden pyramid which towered over Vorgas, the sparkling city of the Dark Elves. The moment their talons made contact with the flattened apex, they transformed into two men, although one of them retained his eagle head for effect.

They surveyed the city below them for a full minute, the man with the eagle head glancing over at his companion from time to time to read the emotions on his wrinkled face.

“You must hate them.” It was as much an order as an observation.

The second man, old and bent, shook his head. “No. I don’t.”

“After what they did to you? They sold you to the Knights of Hrothgar. They wanted you to die. I would hate them if they did that to me.”

“They didn’t sell me. It was -”

“The witch. Gertie. Their leader. But they are guilty by association. Any one of them could have struck her dead with headache, but none of them saw fit to save you. They should pay for that. You should make them pay.”

The old man shook his head again. “Vengeance solves nothing.”

The Warlock laughed aloud, finding the statement amusing. “Vengeance solves everything, you fool. You will be a much happier man once you realise that.”

Ostosis chose not to reply.

“My son,” the Warlock continued. “I am not asking you to kill them. I will do that for you. It will be my pleasure, my gift to you. All I ask is that if I fall, if I die, that you resurrect me.”

“I can’t.”

“You can. You are a Warlock, as I am. You have the power to bring back life where there is none. I have shown you how. Another gift I have bestowed upon you. There is no need to thank me.”

“I must not.”

The Warlock huffed. “You can, I say.”

“I can. But I mustn’t. I know how dangerous the Dark Elves can be. You will not take them on unless you know that I will bring you back to life if you die. I won’t be responsible for you exterminating them. So no, you will have no help from me.”

“Then I will kill your mother.”

Ostosis face crumpled just for an instant. Although he was now an old man, he had only been born three years earlier, and there was still something of the child in him even now. He had sent his mother, Takina, away, turning his back on her because she had been intent on destroying the Warlock and his troll army, choosing the path of death and destruction just as his father had done. But she was still his mother. He did not want any harm to come to her, especially not in his name.

“I will kill her if you do not help me here,” the Warlock repeated. “You know I will.”

He did. His father was totally amoral. Ostosis was a man of peace, a man of love, a man of science. He knew that violence could solve nothing. The Dark Elves were a despicable race, enslaving witches and destroying anyone who stood in their way by literally exploding their brains with headache. If anyone deserved to die, they did. But the point was that no-one deserved to die; no-one at all. There was not a creature alive whose ways could not be mended by dialogue and good example. And however much he dreaded his father killing his mother in his name, he could not offer him any encouragement in the genocide he had planned.

“I won’t help you.”

He tried not to shudder as the Warlock placed an arm around his shoulder. “You will. Have I told you that I have the Lady Meadow, the Aldi Oracle, in my power? My trolls are “looking after” her for me. She tells me the future, if I persuade her long enough. She has told me your future. We will be together in the end, you and I. We will think and act as one. The world is falling to me already; just think what the two of us could do together, side by side. Father and son, ruling everyone, everywhere. The Dark Elves are the only ones left who can stop me. They have great power, as you know. Power enough to challenge me in battle, the Lady Meadow tells me, which is not something I can tolerate. But they will not be expecting to be attacked here, here in their heartland. If I wipe them out now, my legacy is assured. We will rule together, you and I, until the end of time. And it is not as if I am asking you to kill anyone yourself. I want you to heal, not to slay. All you have to do is bring me back to life if I die.”

“No-one lives until the end of time.”

“I do. You can, too. I have bathed in the Flame of Eternal Youth. I can show you where it is; help you regain your youth. Think how much you can do, if you were to live forever. Think how much better you would feel if you were young again.”

Ostosis shook his head wearily. “Not at a price such as this.”

“You must reconsider. You will be doing them all a favour. Not them – not the Dark Elves – I need to wipe them off the face of the world, every one of them – but the others, the survivors. If I rule alone, I will show them no mercy. But with you at my side, you can intercede on their behalf. Make me see reason, if you can. If you march with me, you could save thousands of lives. Do it for them, even if you will not do it for me.”

Ostosis faltered. That made sense; he could intercede for the victims, talk his father into sparing at least some of them. But it still felt terribly wrong to align himself with a warlock committed to genocide, whether his intervention would save lives or not. The dilemma was terrible. “I don’t know what to do.”

“You don’t have to do anything. Just bring me back to life if I fall. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? How can bringing a man to life be against even morals such as yours?”

Before he could work out his response to this, the Warlock had transformed into a rat, and was scuttling down the stone steps of the pyramid towards the square below. Ostosis sat down, hugging his knees to his chest. He would rather have ran, ran as fast as his elderly body could manage, but he knew that wherever he went the Warlock would find him, especially if he had the Aldi Oracle at his side. He had to make up his mind here and now whether he would aid his father (and in doing so help the thousands of people who might otherwise die at the Warlock’s hands) or turn his back on him, spurn his proposed unholy alliance, and have all their deaths on his conscience.

“Tim would’ve known what to do,” he muttered to himself.

A tear ran down his cheek.

He was still crying when a scream rang out from below, closely followed by another one.

“Kill him!” shouted a voice in panic.

“Kill who? There’s no-one here.”

Another scream, then a fourth, a fifth, a sixth. This was happening too fast. He needed time to think, to weigh up the pros and cons, but Dark Elves were dying already, and that was all down to him.

If only he could flee and leave all this behind him. But the elves would continue dying, whether he could hear their cries or not.

As would his mother.

As would all the thousands of people he could save if he stayed with his father, interceding for their lives. How would turning his back on the slaughter help them?

He could kill his father, of course, and save more lives still. But that would be murder, blood on his hands, just what he had condemned his mother for. That would be worse still.

Against his better judgement, he stayed put, trying desperately to steel himself against the screams of pain and agony haunting him from below. The tears flowed freely, but did nothing to wash away the pain and the shame he felt inside.

 

#

 

“I’m not going down there, mate.”

Rod stood at the cave entrance, with his arms folded across his chest to show the troll he meant business. He had been in caves before, loads of them. Mostly it had been here on Hedral, but a few times he had tried it with Carrie, an ex-girlfriend back on Earth who would only ever put out if they were underground (she was a bit weird, like that). They had come close to breaking up after she had started making him wear a miner’s helmet and bring a canary with him, but the final straw had come when she had tried to insist on him joining a Welsh male-voice choir, which was never gonna happen in a million years.

It was dark inside, darker than any cave he had ever been down in (or gone down in, in the case of Carrie). He was not the type to believe in ghosts, but there was something about this particular cave which freaked him out. No matter what the trolls said to him, he was staying out here.

“In you go, the Rod,” commanded Crug, pushing him gently towards the entrance. “Tell us if the way home is inside.”

“No.”

“Move!” commanded Crug, pushing him much more firmly this time.

“No way.”

Crug folded his huge arms, and gave him “the look”. “We’ll eat you if you don’t.”

“Maybe just this once, then.”

He took a step towards the cave-entrance. He stopped. It was so dark. He really didn’t want to do this.

“Come on,” grumbled the Lord of the Trolls. “You said this would help us get home. If you’re quick, we could all be back in time for tea.”

“Let’s just eat him,” suggested the Great Troll Philosopher. “We wouldn’t need tea if we eat him. There’s plenty of him to go round.”

Crug glared at him, but said nothing. He looked back at Rod. “I’m gonna count to five. One, Two.”

He faltered. He looked to the Great Philosopher for help. “What’s after two, Runt?”

“Three,” pouted Runt, upset that the Lord of the Trolls only ever sought his advice when it suited him. What was the point in being the Great Troll Philosopher if all he was ever asked about was counting to three? He had so much better knowledge in his head, so much more valuable information than that. He had been the one, after all, who had first discovered when it was Thursday.

“Three,” continued Crug, wishing he hadn’t started this counting malarkey. “What’s after three?”

“Nobody knows,” the Great Troll Philosopher replied. “It’s one of the mysteries of the Universe. I think it might be twenty-seven, but I haven’t been able to prove it yet.”

“It’s four,” Rod prompted.

Runt looked daggers at him. “You think you know it all, do you? You’ll be after my job next! Let’s just eat the arrogant little bastard and have done with it.”

“Not until we reach five,” the Lord of the Trolls told him. “I said I’d count to five, so that’s what I’ll do. What’s after four? The Rod will know. Is it five yet?”

But “the Rod” was nowhere to be seen, having decided that even an ominous cave was better than the countdown to cannibalism to which he was being subjected.

It really was pitch black in there. He felt his way along the wall, with the intention of getting just far enough into the cave so that the trolls outside could neither see nor hear him. Then he would wait for them to get bored, and he could then come out again while they were wandering off. Job done.

He had no idea what a troll’s hearing might be like, which made it tricky staying quiet enough. He tried to breathe without making any noise, but the more he tried, the more laboured his breath became. Best to go a bit further into the cave, he thought, in case they heard him and came after him. There was only so much of their counting he could take.

He was maybe forty side-steps in, now.  That was enough. There was no way of knowing whether there was anything lurking in the darkness, and he needed to be able to get out in a hurry if he had to.

He listened. He heard a sneeze. For a moment, he thought it had come from inside the cave, but it was probably just an echo from one of the trolls outside. He reckoned they would be loud sneezers, by the look of them.

He might be in here for quite a while. What to do to pass the time? He thought of Carrie again. He might have been too hasty chucking her. Okay, her fetish about miners was well weird, but it really got her going. It got him going, too, if he was honest. He had some very happy memories of her licking his helmet. If it wasn’t for the fact that he was spending all his dole money on batteries for that bastard lamp, he might have stuck it out a bit longer.

He realised that Carrie had given him a semi, even after all this time, even in the predicament he was in. The thing had a mind of its own, and right now it was obsessing about his Ex whipping her knickers off for him by headlamp-light.  He tried to think of other things, but it was no use. Standing here in a cave, the smell of damp, the cold: all these things brought the sight and touch of her naked body back to him, and his semi had turned into a three-quarters at least.

He had an idea. He dismissed it. It was too pervy, even for him. But it was the type of idea that, once thought, refused to bugger off, however hard he tried to un-think it. And it would pass the time while he was waiting for the trolls to wander off. He would have a cheeky wank in homage to his ex miner-loving girlfriend. What harm could it do? It wasn’t as if anyone was going to find him out anyway, as long as he didn’t pant too heavily.

He unzipped himself quietly and got it out. He turned so that his back was against the wall; he didn’t want to risk jizzing against it, in case he brushed against the stuff on the way out. It would kind of give the game away if there were still any trolls around when he left. It wouldn’t have taken the Great Troll Philosopher to work out what he had been up to if he had bodily fluids dripping off his jeans.

“Right, then,” he said. “This one’s for you, Carrie.”

He set to work.

“What the heck is that?” cried an outraged voice from the depths of the darkness.

He replaced his appendage and zipped himself back up so quickly that he very nearly circumcised himself.

“What the...? Who’s there?”

“What were you doing?” came the deep-voiced reply. “Dirty bastard!”

“I wasn’t doing anything.”

“Then why did you have your thing out?”

“I was just – airing it.”

“Airing it? It don’t need airing, Fella.”

“Mine does. Who is that? Is that you, Runt?”

“What did you just call me?”

“Runt. I thought you were this troll I know. Who are you? I can’t see you in the dark.”

“Obviously not, or you wouldn’t have been waving your thing at me, you pervert!”

“Can you show yourself?”

“I think we’ve had more than enough of people showing themselves, don’t you? Freak.”

 “Let me see you, I mean. Where are you?”

A light flickered in the darkness. Little by little, it took the shape of a phosphorescent troll. It glowed unsteadily, just a few feet away from him, almost close enough to touch, which made what he had just been doing more embarrassing still.

Worse still was that his new companion was lighting up like a cheap Christmas tree. This was no ordinary troll. It was a bloody ghost! He knew it had been a mistake coming in here.

What to do? It was too soon to run from the cave; Crug and his mates would still be outside, and they would just chuck him right back in again. Best to do what he always did when he met someone new, and chat them up a bit.

He held out his hand.

“Alright, mate? I’m the Rod.”

“Yeah, I saw,” replied the ghost acidly. “And there’s no way I’m shaking your hand after what I just caught you doing!”

 

#

 

Halfshaft and Takina hurried after the cackling witches into the bowels of Spartan castle. The wizard was convinced that any minute the old hags would turn on them, seizing them and turning them both into donkeys, but the witches seemed to have more important fish to fry, and were ignoring them completely.

Georgina, Halfshaft’s new cave-troll bride, galumphed heavily along behind him, with such momentum that he worried that if he came to a sudden halt she would mow him down and make herself a widow.

He had been down here before, with his other unintentional wife, Gertie. Last time round, he had been a guest at the castle, and Gertie had led him down here so that he could bathe in the Flame of Eternal Life. They had not been married at the time, and she had suggested that he enter the fire so that he could make himself younger to give him a better chance of winning Takina’s heart. She had gone first and made herself young and beautiful (more for his sake than hers as witches highly value their warts and wrinkles, youth being something of a curse for them). But when he had stepped into the flames, it had made no difference to him at all. He had stayed old, and he had stayed ugly, and at that moment he had known for certain that Takina would never be his.

Sure enough, the witches had found the room in which the Flame was burning. It was a large chamber, virtually every inch of the walls covered with heavy tapestries of gold and silver illustrating heroic and erotic events from the past. Here, a man gripped a seven-headed snake in his hands, trying to throttle it; there, a woman gripped a swollen-headed man with both hands, trying to swallow him. Under different circumstances, he might have enjoyed spending time in this room, perusing the frenzied stories which were unfurling around him.

At the far end of the room, just as he had remembered it, stood a dais upon which burnt a flame, eight feet high, flickering with all the colours of the rainbow and more.

“The Flame of Eternal Life,” he whispered to Takina, eager not to attract the attention of the two dozen witches between him and the stone steps which led up to it.

“The Flame of Eternal Youth,” one of the witches corrected him. “It doesn’t give you eternal life; that’s a basic school-girl error. You can still die; you just age really, really slowly.”

“Are you ladies going in there?” he asked, intrigued. He had had so much hope when he had stepped into the flames three years earlier; hope that his wrinkles would drop away, that his face would tighten, that his knees would be strong and pain-free again. Greater still, hope that he would become a man young and handsome enough for Takina to love him. But the flames had done nothing for him at all, even though Gertie had become a fraction of her age when she had bathed in them seconds before him. He wanted to know if it was just his flesh which refused to succumb to youth, whether he was the only person they rejected. He would have felt better if some of the witches had been left untouched, too.

“Oh no,” the witch replied, making a face. “There’s no way any of the sisters would want to be young again. We spend years making ourselves as ugly as feck; why would we waste all that hard work?”

He felt a little guilty. Gertie had stepped into the flames for his benefit. He had not really appreciated the sacrifice she was making for him at the time. She had done truly terrible things since then, not least tricking him into marriage and locking Takina in a shed for years, but he still found it hard to forgive himself for what she had put herself through, just to make him happy. Maybe it was her sadness at being young again which had driven her to do the things she had done afterwards. Maybe Takina had lost her liberty for all that time as an indirect consequence of him trying to make himself attractive for her. How could he ever forgive himself if that was so?

He realised that the witch was asking him another question. She hadn’t noticed that he was no longer paying attention, as he had automatically switched on his Unengaged Listening Face which gave the impression to all and sundry that he was giving them his undivided attention (unless they knew him well, in which case they called him out on it every time). She was waiting for a response.

“That sounds nice” he said, smiling. That usually worked, whatever the question.

“Are you sure?” enquired Takina, sounding more than a little worried. “It sounds very dangerous to me.”

 This threw him into confusion. He had no idea what he was agreeing to, but was now wondering whether it might have been better if he had listened to the question after all.

“He’s a grown man,” snapped the witch. “You Amazons can be so patronising. If he says we can throw him into the Flame of Eternal Youth for a laugh, then you shouldn’t try and talk him out of it. He’s quite capable of making up his own mind. Aren’t you, Wizard?”

“Yes. I mean, no. Yes, to the own mind bit, but no to the fire part. I’ve had second thoughts. Us men get them quite a lot, you know, ask anyone.”

The witch was no longer paying any attention, not even bothering with an Unengaged Listening Face (which was a bit rude). “Girls! Girls! There’s a wizard back here who’s happy for us to throw him in the flames!”

“Doesn’t it have to be at certain times of year or something?” asked another witch. “Won’t we just burn him to buggery if we do it now?”

“Let’s hope so! He’s up for it, though. Let’s just chuck him in and see what happens. If he doesn’t burn, let’s see how long he can stay in there before he forgets how to walk.”

“No,” cried Halfshaft. “I’ve changed my mind, I said. I’m just going for a walk outside. Takina’s coming, too.”

Martha Wartyrump, the head witch, blocked his path. She did not look like she had taken kindly to his change of heart. “Do you know what we do with wizards who change their minds about stepping in the fire?”

“No,” he shrugged.

“We throw them in the fire!” she chuckled. “So you’re buggered either way.”

 

#