~ Chapter II ~

The trolls at the entrance had no warning. The still waters of the swamp were empty one moment, then, the next, they were not, as the army of strange creatures arose from them and began the attack. Stunned, they stared in horror at the invaders for the precious seconds that might have saved them.

The wave of frogloks swept over them, and several fell before they could cry out. But the guards, surprised and dismayed though they were, still managed to raise the alarm.

Grobb mobilised. As few as they were, the trolls were a people based on war, and war had come to them in their own place. It was not the first time they had faced an army bent on destruction. They had shaped this home that they had built for themselves on the belief that it would be attacked.

They fought viciously. Those who came running at the alarm held the gap of the canyon, and more came to join them to repel the invaders. They braced themselves and held firm against the tide of nightmare creatures that boiled up out of the water.

They were outnumbered, and one by one, they fell. But the alarm had spread, and the people of Grobb rallied to barricade the canyon. Slowly, the thin line of trolls began to pull back.

They made each step they gave count, paid for in blood.

 

M’jou gasped as the soldier who had been her protector fell, an arrow in his throat. She ducked quickly, as another followed it, passing through the spot where she had been. “Healer!” she cried, as she leaned her weight on the warrior to still his thrashing before he caused more damage to himself.

“Hold still,” she told the warrior, catching his hands as he reached for the arrow, his eyes panicked. “Hold your breath, you’ll be all right.”

She cast her eyes around the battlefield, seeing the carnage, and the figures of the shamans and priests as they tried to heal the wounded that had been dragged back from the melee.

“Healer!” she cried again, and felt relief as a head turned and a brilliant orange froglok hurried towards her.

He settled down beside the warrior, and he bent to examine the set of the arrow.

“I’m here to help,” he told the soldier soothingly. “You’ll be alright. You’ll have to trust me. This will hurt more before it gets better…” He laid his hand on the warrior’s head, murmuring a spell. “The arrow will have to come out before we can do anything else.”

M’jou kept her grip on the warrior’s shaking hands as the orange froglok worked, until he tossed the arrow away, and bent his will to a chant in a clear, deep voice as warm as brushed velvet. She watched him as he worked his magicks, recognising him as the shaman who had been beside her in the General’s own squad. He looked up at her, and inclined his head.

“Thank you for the help. I’ve got him now,” the young shaman told her. “I’ll catch up with you.”

She nodded and got up. She no longer had an escort, but she was far from helpless. She hurried a few more steps toward where the melee was ongoing.

She studied the battle to pick a suitable target. When she spotted the troll with the bow, she fixed her attention on it. It was nocking an arrow, taking aim at one of the priests. M’jou raised her hands, calling on her power, and a white-hot column of flame fell from the heavens to roast it where it stood. It collapsed into a smouldering heap.

Her eyes traversed the front line, and she felt a sudden pang of fear as she focussed on the general. He had disengaged from the fight when he had finished the opponent he had been fighting, and had stepped back to call out orders. His head was tilted back, his throat swelling as the deep tones of the ancient-tongue reverberated from him, carrying above the clash of battle.

The sound seemed to come from everywhere, but at least one troll had homed in on the source. Whether it understood the orders, or merely had noticed the swelling vocal-sac and figured out what was going on, the result was the same. Leading several of its fellows, it had made the general its target. Skilled Grägok might be, but hatred and the determination to eliminate at least one of those that led their enemies painted their faces. They pushed towards him, uncaring of those in the way.

She had to warn him, or stop them. Or both.

Her incantation was one of the more difficult ones, and she concentrated, her eyes on the leader of the group of trolls. With a sound of rushing wind, the sky above it changed, energies sizzling as they gathered in a swirling mass.

The troll glanced upwards, startled, as the storm of arcane power dropped on it and those with it, flaying skin from flesh, and flesh from bone. The trolls scattered, fleeing the magickal maelstrom. The leader was not so lucky, for it had borne the brunt of the magicks. It fell, an unrecognisable mass of shredded meat.

His commands issued, the general stepped back to survey the battlefield before him. The squads wheeled as he had directed, driving the trolls back towards the canyon that led into the city.

He turned briefly, to look back towards the wizard. Her actions had not escaped him. He had seen the wedge pushing towards him, but had concentrated on getting the orders out. Once they had been delivered, his part in this battle as leader was done. From here, it was all a push, and each one who fought was as capable of directing that as any ‘general.’ His personal safety was secondary to the needs of his people.

Not that he was anxious to be cut down by a bunch of angry trolls. Grägok turned back to the battle, and frowned as he watched first one, then another of the beasts that had been coming for him turn, and begin to force themselves through the battle again.

But this time, he was not their target.

M’jou saw the trolls that had survived her spell start looking for her, and she strove to make herself inconspicuous. Not that a spotted sky-blue froglok on brown mud can be inconspicuous, she thought wryly, as two of them headed her way. She had time enough to cast a last spell before they reached her, and one exclaimed angrily as it sank down to its knees in the ground. She backpedalled to get out of range as the other grabbed for her.

It uttered words in its foul tongue, and followed, and she again ducked out of the way as it reached for her. She was brought up suddenly by the stone of the bluff at her back, and she glared up at the troll as it grinned.

It bent towards her, and she dove between its legs, leaving it to curse behind her as she made distance between them. M’jou spun, to face it again, her dagger clutched in her hand as she drew a mystic symbol in the air, muttering a word of power.

A circle of brilliant flame appeared around her, and sped outwards. Both trolls shrieked as they were enveloped by it. One covered its face, and staggered sideways, seeking a way out of the fire. The other scowled at her, as it pulled itself free of the mud, and took a step forward, only to be knocked sprawling by the blow that took it from behind.

Grägok drove his sword down into the creature as it heaved beneath him, trying to throw him off. It screamed in pain, and collapsed. He took its head off, to be sure, then whirled, looking for the wizard.

He met the fist with his chin as he turned. It was a powerful blow, snapping his head back and sending him flying. His sword fell from his hand as he struck the stone of the bluff, and bounced off, landing face down. Dazed, he struggled to rise.

He looked up as he levered himself to his knees, and saw the spear poised for the thrust that would finish him. He tried to fling himself aside, but he had not yet regained his equilibrium, and he fell again. Grägok stared upward at the troll, seeing his death written in its face.

It pulled the spear back, taking aim. Then, as he stared at it in amazement, it stopped, crying out in fear. His eyes widened as a mist rose all around it, solidifying into a block of ice. Its cries stopped abruptly as the mist rose to obscure its head and face. He gulped, looking up at the frozen troll, its spear still gripped ready to thrust.

“General Grägok?” The voice radiated concern, and he pulled his eyes from the troll to focus on the shaman that bent over him. It took him a moment to remember the healer’s name.

“Arglug.” He raised himself to his knees again, still dizzy. “Thank you. It was about to skewer me.”

“That wasn’t me.” The shaman helped him to his feet, steadying him. “A suggestion: Never tick off a wizard of that lady’s skill.” He looked up as the wizard in question ducked under the troll’s spear to join them.

“Is he alright?” M’jou asked worriedly, relaxing as she saw the warrior on his feet. “You should be more careful, General. You’re too important for us to lose.”

He shook his head to protest, but Arglug cut him off before he could speak.

“She’s right, sir. You’re a symbol, as much as a leader. People will be looking to you. Don’t let them down.” He touched the warrior and spoke a word of healing. Grägok’s dizziness vanished. “There. I’ll follow the rest of you. There are still others here who need my attention.” He paused, then moved his hands again, dropping several layers of magick onto the old general, before hurrying over to where another armoured froglok lay still in the mud.

Grägok turned, to find M’jou standing beside him, offering him his sword. He accepted it with a bow. “Thank you,” he told her. She smiled at him, then turned back towards the battle.

“I should rest a moment after that,” she told him. “You’d best go. They’re starting to retreat again.”

“A good move on their part. They can hold that small space for a long time. This will be a difficult fight.” He nodded to her, and sped back to the main battle, pausing once on the way to boom out another order.

M’jou watched him go, then turned her eyes to the cleft of the canyon and its funnel shape. She stared at it, then her eyes narrowed. She nodded, then searched the field for another who could assist her. She smiled grimly when she saw a familiar face. “Sergug!” she called, as she hurried over to him. “I have an idea, but it will take several of us…”

Grägok scowled at the trolls, who had shored themselves well in the narrow tunnel. The cursed things would be nearly impossible to push back. They only needed a few to hold off the froglok army. He scratched his eye-ridge, and thought about the best way to force them out. Perhaps getting Giidib and his bunch to come in from behind…

That would cost them a lot, but it could be done. The hard part would be getting up the narrow path from the river. That place, like this, could be held nearly indefinitely with only a small force. He shook his head in reluctant admiration. The trolls had planned the city well. It was made for defence. He sniffed. Maybe the idea of the squad through the underground stream wasn’t such a foolhardy one after all…

He watched the melee as the quick, darting shapes of his warriors and of the Swords slipped in and out of the reach of the defending trolls. They moved with a sureness and speed that allowed them to strike, and retreat before the trolls could do more than take aim. But while the quick strikes would wear the trolls down, they, too had healers, who bent their wills to aiding their fighters. If only there had been more of the belts…

He reached down to touch the sash he wore at his waist. Conferring a speed beyond any normal movement, they were a gift from the god Himself. Two boxes had been left in the tiny chapel that the cavern city boasted. Each had held ten of the precious sashes. Ten bore the Helm, the symbol of Marr used in the worship by the priests of Guk. The other ten bore a fiery sword, a symbol which had been adopted by Marr’s own Swords, the paladins who bore his touch. The strongest of both the warriors and the paladins bore them now. Most of those were below, harrying the trolls.

Grägok briefly considered passing the one he wore on to another warrior, but one or two more – if Faltip did the same – wouldn’t make much of a difference. Ten or twenty… Well. The gods always preferred to aid those who aided themselves.

Another troll fell at last, and the general shook his head again. This would be a very long, very difficult fight.

The messenger found him then, and he listened to the request it carried. He nodded slowly, then added to the message and sent the runner on to Faltip. He looked at the canyon and its shape, and his lips twisted into a smile. This might not be such a difficult push after all.

 

Faltip’s orders carried across the battlefield, the ancient tongue booming out, and the two prongs of the attack pulled back from the canyon.

There, in the widest part, they waited, while the trolls regrouped below them, rallying at the retreat of the nightmare-creatures that harried them. Into the space between the two divisions, four robed figures stepped, and together, began to craft a spell.

It took all of M’jou’s concentration to shape the words, to grasp the forces and bend them to her will. Beside her, Sergug muttered, also weaving the strands of power, and Uklo gathered the magick, feeding it into the growing ball of mana that floated in the centre of their circle, contained by the final wizard, Vrukk.

An arrow flew towards the group, as a troll spotted them working, but it missed them, and they took no notice of it.

A snapped order sent a squad to protect the wizards as they worked, and subsequent arrows were blocked by the linked shields of several Swords, while the warriors with them sent their own shafts back down the canyon, forcing the trolls to keep their heads down.

“Clear away!” Uklo, the only one of the four who could spare the breath cried the warning, and the protectors scrambled out of the way, as the four turned towards the canyon.

On some unspoken signal, they released the spell, and sent it flying towards the trolls.

Devastating in and of itself, the firestorm that baked mud and cracked stone as it moved would have decimated any force that it rolled over. But the funnel of the canyon kept it from spreading and dissipating, kept the fire concentrating into a smaller and smaller area, and the wall of flame that finally struck the trolls was a blinding white-hot furnace that stole the air from their lungs and melted flesh like wax. It carried on over them, as they fell, and burst from the tunnel that led into the city proper. Only charred corpses lay behind it.

Any opposition that the trolls might have mounted melted away in the panic that ensued. It was a rout. The orders of the two war-leaders released their troops, who poured into the city in a single-purposed flood. All that stood to oppose them were cut down, and the survivors were driven out into the swamp.

The four wizards had collapsed in exhaustion. They sat, looking at each other with a measure of pride, and watched wearily as their army overran the city.

“When this is done,” Uklo confided, “I’m going to find some quiet place, and spend the rest of my days doing research. I don’t think I’m cut out for fighting.”

Vrukk nodded. “I’ll join you in that,” he said, as M’jou and Sergug chuckled.

“I don’t think any of us are really cut out for fighting,” M’jou told them. “Settling down when we’re done here sounds good to me, too.”

“I’ll go along with that,” Sergug agreed. “Leave the fighting to the warriors.”

“Well, this warrior wouldn’t have been able to do his job without you. So I, for one, am glad you are with us.”

They looked up, and blinked as Grägok came to join them. “Well done,” he told them. “I wanted to be certain you heard that from me, before I go make sure the others aren’t ransacking things they shouldn’t. Faltip went in with the rest, but he’ll be making sure the trolls are all gone, not watching our people.”

“We should come with you,” M’jou told him, as she pulled herself to her feet, staggering slightly. She wavered, on the brink of unbalancing, and found a hand offered in support. She used it to steady herself, and stood, blinking for a moment, staring at the general, before she shook herself and continued. “The trolls have dark magicks, and may have left… surprises. We should be able to find those, and disarm them.”

Grägok released her as soon as he was sure she wasn’t about to pitch over. He rubbed his hand surreptitiously, as he listened to the mutters of agreement from the other three wizards. They were as exhausted as M’jou was, and he extended his hand to the next to help him rise, although he had second thoughts about it. M’jou had given him a good jolt when she touched him. His fingers were still tingling. He glanced at her, but she seemed not to have noticed anything. He was relieved when there was no such reaction from touching the dark green froglok who accepted his assistance.

“That sounds like a good idea. Would you like me to find a squad to accompany you in case of trouble? That little show looks like it came with a price.”

Sergug nodded as he, too, hauled himself to his feet. “Took everything I had left. I couldn’t light a candle at the moment,” he said wearily, “and I doubt any of the others can either. But we still have our senses, and magick has a feel to it. So long as we don’t need to actually cast spells, we should be alright. I’m looking forward to a chance to rest, though.”

“We all are,” the warrior told him. “Soldiers don’t like to fight any more than you do. We just do it so you don’t have to.” He nodded to them, and turned to make his way into the city.

The city was a stinking, foetid morass of refuse and blood. As he emerged from the tunnel into the protected city, Grägok surveyed the bodies that littered the mud, and swallowed hard against the stench.

The tang of blood mixed with the sweet odour of burnt flesh, and the result was nauseating. He moved forward, away from the charred bodies left by the wizard-fire. A stream ran through the courtyard, and he followed it with his eyes, scowling when he caught sight of the cage.

There were more dead here, but they were of lesser interest than the cage of lashed poles that stood up against one wall. It held two frogloks, one who pressed up against the bars, eyes huge and clinging to the general, with an expression of hope so pure that his gut twisted. The other sat with dull eyes, staring at nothing. He took a step towards them, but stopped suddenly as a movement caught his eye. He stood still, eyes sweeping the mud and moss of the courtyard, his nerves on edge, seeking the source of the tiny movement he had seen. It came again, and he focussed on one of the trolls. Slowly, wary of a trick, he approached it.

It was badly burned, and had taken a sword thrust through the thigh. The wound bled, but the mud that had coated the creature when it fell had saved its life. He studied it for a moment. The style of helm it wore and its cuirass marked it as one of the guardsmen that had fallen in protecting the city. He stared at it for a moment, until its breast heaved again as it took a ragged breath.

He drew his sword, and set the point in the hollow of its throat. One thrust, and it would be out of pain…

“If you do that, General, you lower yourself.”

He looked up, and frowned as the sky-blue wizard approached him. She studied the unconscious guard. “What do you propose to do with it, then?” he asked her. “Killing it is mercy.”

“Take it prisoner. Heal it. Learn from it. We are not like them.” She reached out, to touch his hand, and he slowly lifted the sword from the creature’s throat. “If we kill their wounded, we become like them. Do we not serve Mithaniel Marr? Does he not treasure honour? Where is the honour in killing the helpless?”

He looked at her, meeting the eyes that shone a startling silver. She held his gaze steadily, waiting to see his response.

“Very well. I’ll send a team to take it prisoner. And a healer. Although that will wait until we have treated our own, first.” He shook his head. “I must be a fool.”

“No. You are a true servant of Marr, General.” He looked back up at her, feeling a strange stirring within as she smiled at him. “I am glad to know you.”

She turned, and a look of sorrow touched her face as her eyes found the cage. “Here is a thing for me to do, while you find your men.” She indicated the slaves. “I’ll see to them.” She began to pick her way across the courtyard. He watched after her, then turned towards the nearer of the buildings, where the sounds of froglok voices suggested that those who were within were in need of something to do.

M’jou reached between the bars to touch the face of the slave. He stared at her as if she were a vision, or a Messenger of Marr. She smiled at him, as he pressed up against the bars. “Do you know where the key is?” she asked, as she examined the chain and the lock that secured the door. He made no reply, but pointed at one of the corpses that littered the area.

“He has the keys?” she asked, and the slave nodded. She frowned. “Can you not speak?” she asked softly, straightening again, reaching through the bars to touch him once more. In response, the slave opened his mouth, and she swallowed hard as she realised his tongue had been cut out. “We’ll get you out of there,” she told him. “And get you home. The shamans and priests might be able to help.” She looked down at the second slave, but it sat still on the floor of the cage, eyes huge and staring at nothing. It flinched from her hand as she reached out to it.

“The shamans should be able to help him, too,” she told the first, sadly. “They are gifted mind-healers.”

The slave nodded again, and remained pressed against the bars, watching her, as she crouched down beside the dead troll. After a few moments of searching, she found the keys on its belt, and stood up.

She turned back to the cage. “I’ve found them,” she said, and took a step towards the slave, frowning as she took in his expression of terror. She turned as he pointed.

It came as a blow. Something within him vibrated, as if a bow-string had been plucked.

He had never felt such a thing. He frowned, as the odd resonance began to fade, being replaced by a wrongness, a stretching and fraying, as if something was being torn away from him. He turned, somehow knowing where to look

Horror and denial swept over him, as he focussed on the troll. It stood, the hatred and anger in its face directed at the crumpled figure at its feet. It was wounded, and the smears of blood and mud upon it made it one of those they had thought safely dead. It raised the sword it held, taking aim again at the froglok it had just struck down.

A haze as red as the blood that stained its blade crept over his vision, and he screamed a challenge as he charged the monster.

It looked up in surprise, startled, as he crossed the space between them, then smiled as it set itself to meet him.

It was over twice his size, and wore armour of solid plate. The confidence in its stance was a warning. This was no terrorised guard. But the orange shaman’s magicks were still upon him, and the sash he had been given to wear still bound his waist.

The troll was so slow. Even set to meet him, prepared for his attack, it almost died in the first instant. But some instinct had it duck sideways as it brought its weapon across in a vicious slash that would have cleft him in two had it connected.

He wasn’t there. At the last instant he had leapt, his own great blade swinging scythe-like through the space where the creature’s neck had been. He landed behind it, and spun to face it again.

A flicker of something – could it be respect? – touched the creature’s eyes as it whirled to face him. But Grägok was not waiting for an invitation, and even as it turned, he was already moving.

Another leap, another swing, but this time the troll was ready, and the sword caught Grägok in mid-air, where he could not dodge. The force of the blow sent him tumbling, and he careened with a crash into the cage imprisoning the slaves.

Wood splintered beneath him as the force of his landing broke through the barrier. He began to pull himself out of the entangling remnants of the broken poles.

The troll didn’t wait for him to free himself. With a lunge, it pressed him back again, bringing its weight to bear down upon him. Its sword was poised, ready to thrust. The warrior lashed out before it struck, kicking with all the force his powerful legs could muster, his toes balled tightly into fists. He caught it just below the belt, and it let out a great whoosh of air as he connected.

Hands from behind him pulled the splintered wood from him, and he surged to his feet. A lunge of his own allowed him to drive his shoulder into it, throwing it off balance. His sword flicked out, to score again, and it staggered back a pace, anger in its eyes.

Grägok edged sideways, and the troll moved with him. The warrior smiled grimly, as he drew the troll away from the shattered cage. From the corner of his eye, he could see the slave that had aided him lift the other to its feet, and guide it cautiously out the of the prison. It paused beside the wizard, then hurried away towards the tunnel and the freedom of the swamp, dragging its companion with it.

The general took stock. He seemed to still be in good shape, although pain lanced through his side as he moved. He clenched his jaw against it. There would be time later to see what damage had been done. Whatever it was, it was not incapacitating. Yet.

As he paused there, the strange sense that something was tearing away from him came again, and once more his attention was pulled towards the source. It was coming from the wizard.

He felt the rage that filled him fuelling his strength as he moved to renew his attack.

The troll’s hand flicked out in a gesture, and it mouthed a word in its foul tongue. Grägok’s attack faltered, as he stumbled. Dark strands of magick entwined themselves about him, catching at him, making movement difficult, and his heart sank as he realised he faced one of the trolls’ dark Swords.

The troll grinned as it fell upon him, and he struggled to repel its attacks. It was strong, and each blow that he met jolted him through to the core. He would not be able to stand up to this for very long.

But it was still so slow that he was able to strike back in between blocking its blows. As tough as its armour was, if it wanted to move, it had joints exposed.

He drove his sword through the side of its knee as it swung at him, and he ducked beneath the slash. It roared in pain, and twisted away, staggering back from him.

He followed. His blade flicked out to find a place at the ankle, and the troll roared again, then flung another of its foul magicks at him.

Grägok felt the wave of fear that the troll had summoned roll over him, but from deep within came an answering surge as the strange vibration that had filled him gave him an inner strength that the fear could not lessen.

The troll’s eyes widened as its magicks passed over him harmlessly. An expression of uncertainty touched its face, and it took another halting step backwards. Its eyes narrowed, and it shifted its grip on its sword.

He lunged, for the strands that had bound him had finally dissipated. As he moved, the troll did likewise, reaching out towards him as he came, with a hand that was surrounded suddenly by a swirling darkness, shot through with lightning of a sullen red.

Instinctively he knew that if it touched him, he was finished. If it touched him, it would kill him, leaving it free to finish off M’jou, and go on to wreak more havoc before it was brought down, or it fled. Knowing this, he knew he had to slay it, whether it took his own life or not. It could not be left alive.

He, too, changed his grip on his sword.

He flung himself at the troll, then tumbled, making it seem as if he had tripped. Some part of his brain that watched dispassionately told him he was a fool, but he did not listen. The troll bent towards him, the hand with its dark aura moving with an inexorable slowness towards him.

He tucked himself low, and it bent still further, reaching. And the sword he had released as he had thrown himself at it buried itself in the hideous creature’s throat. He slammed into the leg he had damaged and it gave way, the troll toppling over. The grasping hand with its dark aura missed him by the barest margin.

It hit hard as it fell, driving his sword deeper, and to his amazement, it struggled to rise again. The darkness about its hand had vanished, however. He stepped forward, and yanked on his sword.

It came free, followed by a fountain of blood, and the troll finally collapsed, its eyes fixed on him, its lips moving soundlessly. He took no chances, and drove his sword through it again, feeling the shudder that passed through it as it finally died.

“Regenerate that,” he told it as he straightened up. Turning his back on it, he hurried to see to the wizard, who was moving feebly where she had fallen. Icy tendrils of fear traced his spine as he saw the blood that had soaked her robes.

He dropped to his knees beside her, and took her into his arms. A cry of dismay fell from his lips as he saw the wet coils bulging from the great slash that had laid her open. Deep, and long, it had sliced upwards diagonally, and the hand she clutched to it could not hold inside what spilled out as she moved. Blood, fluids, and clear jelly flowed between her fingers.

“M’jou!” The scene around him seemed frozen and distant, as if there were none left in the world but the two of them. “M’jou! No!”

Her eyes opened, glazed with pain, and her lips shaped a word. His name.

“Healer! I need a healer!” A distant part of him heard his voice shouting, but his eyes were locked to hers, and there was nothing else more important than being there with her.

“Don’t leave me,” he whispered, as her eyes closed, and she went limp in his arms. “M’jou!”

And then there were hands on him, trying to pull him from her, as his arms and soul clung to her.

“No. Let him be. He holds her here,” the voice of the young shaman Arglug took on tones of authority. The shaman dropped himself down beside the pair, and the clear blue light of healing spread from his hands to the wizard.

Arglug’s mellow voice rose and fell as he worked his magicks, the chant somehow soothing to the warrior’s ears. Grägok closed his eyes, and held the wizard close. A wave of love so deep it frightened him poured into his soul, welling from depths he had been unaware of. The movement of her breath on his cheek was a caress. Again, the world shifted, and all else faded to the edge of his awareness. She was breathing. She was alive.

Arglug’s voice rose again, his chanting done, and commanded with a strange urgency for water to be brought. Quick footsteps hurried away, and back, and muttered voices rose and fell, but the general paid them no mind.

“Grägok?” A hand shook him from the distant place his soul had gone, and he blinked up at the shaman. “Grägok. This is important.”

“Will she…?” he began, as the edges of fear prickled at him. The shaman’s hand squeezed his shoulder.

“She’ll be fine. She’s going to need a rest, and there are better places than here for that.” Arglug’s eyes lowered to M’jou’s face. “But there’s another problem. There are things we can’t heal.”

The warrior stared at the young froglok, and it was a moment before he could force himself to speak. “She…”

“Not her. I told you, she’ll be okay. But… we couldn’t save her eggs. They are … both part, and not part of her.” The shaman shook his head. “The magick doesn’t see them as part of her, and forced them out as we healed her.” He indicated a huge helmet that sat propped beside them. “What would you like us to do with them?”

“What… would I like…?” He stared at the shaman in disbelief. “Why me?”

“Well,” Arglug’s voice was dry. “I suspect that under other circumstances you would be doing something about them sooner or later anyway.”

Grägok shook his head. “Arglug, I haven’t felt the mating frenzy in years. Besides, it’s weeks before the season even begins. I don’t think I can…”

“I can help with that. That’s the easy part.” Arglug muttered something, and rested his hand on the warrior’s head. A tingle passed through him, and he blinked. “We’ve always been asked to help with fertility. That’s one of our jobs.” The shaman pointed to the helmet. “And you still have a decision to make.”

Grägok released the wizard reluctantly, laying her down gently on the moss. She made a soft noise as he did, as if she knew he was letting her go. He stood up slowly, and looked down into the helmet.

Built to fit a troll’s head, it was huge, and bucket-like, more than large enough to hold the six small lumps of jelly, and the water they floated in. He frowned as he studied them.

“Only six?” he asked worriedly. “There are normally 30 or more!” These looked as large as any that had been scattered across the swamp in the days he had worn his old shape.

“It’s a month before mating season. These would have gotten a lot bigger. We don’t know, yet, what will happen when mating season comes. I have a feeling it will be different than the way we knew.” Arglug watched the warrior. “These may be too small, too unformed to give life. If you wish, we can send them with the fallen who are beyond any restoration. They, too, are casualties of battle, and are deserving of honour.”

It was on his lips to agree to that, but he looked again at the face of the unconscious wizard, and knew that she would not agree. How he knew, he could not say. But he knew. He pulled his armour and breechclout aside, and let his seed fall on the eggs.

“How long until we know? Will they take the same time to hatch?” he asked, then shook his head. “I don’t know why I asked. You don’t know anymore than I do.” He stared down into the helm. “We’ll have to see what happens.”

He turned to the shaman, all business again, although his heart yearned to stay beside M’jou until she awoke. “We have a lot to do before this place will even be fit to camp in. Can I leave her with you?”

Arglug nodded. “We’ll take care of her. And the eggs.” He watched as the warrior spun on his heel, and marched away.

He wasn’t fooled.

* * * * *

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