The man aimed his crossbow into the night, waiting for something. He was crouched in the bushes sixty feet from a small house, beside the dark woods, staring across the road at the roof of the house.
Come on out, he thought restlessly. No blodbak is going to escape my sight.
The moon was nearly full, and the man thought he might have some werewolf work to do soon enough. But for now it was a simple enough case of blodbaks.
On the roof was the carcass of a sheep, which the man had killed by strangulation. It was still full of blood, and so the blodbaks would be attracted to it. Primitive creatures, they were, that was the truth.
There were two other crossbows, already loaded and cocked, laying on the ground beside the man. He had three shots. Hopefully there wouldn’t be more than three blodbaks. If there were more, then that was serious. It meant that there was probably a colony nearby that had moved in recently, and the man would have to destroy it.
The first flutter of movement happened, and his sharp eyes of course caught on at once. A blodbak had come.
He watched the dark flapping shape flutter nearer and nearer to the roof, tentatively venturing farther and farther. Its wings were batlike, and it certainly did resemble a bat, except for the fact that it had a wingspan of five feet.
Finally it alighted on the edge of the roof and scurried forward quickly, staying low on the roof. It dislodged a shingle, and the man heard the clattering.
Don’t get up, the man thought. Do as I instructed you. He hoped the family hadn’t heard the noise, the children especially. If anyone came to see what was the matter they would be attacked by the blodbak.
The blodbak paused, but then regained its courage and quickly hopped along the roof, making not a sound. Then, when it was five feet from the sheep carcass nailed to the roof, it suddenly darted forward, sinking its teeth into the dead body. The man could nearly hear the sucking sound as the blodbak greedily drank the sheep’s blood. The blodbak didn’t care whether its food was alive or dead. Victims had much more pain if they were alive though, there was no doubt.
Were there any others? None appeared, certainly. The man took careful aim with his crossbow. His finger tightened on the trigger.
Another flutter startled him, and he almost pulled the trigger of the crossbow. Another blodbak!
This one was braver than the other one. It swooped in immediately, sinking its long fangs into the sheep beside the other blodbak. They didn’t squabble or fight over the meal; they would both drink their fill and then attack each other afterwards, trying to consume the other’s blood. It was rather savage and barbarous, but what should one expect of night creatures other than brutality and viciousness?
The man aimed again and pulled the trigger. The first one dropped dead with a small squeal. The other was too busy with the lamb’s body to notice. The man quickly got another crossbow and aimed again. The wind started up a little so he aimed a bit to the north. He pulled the trigger.
The crossbow bolt went flying through the air, whipping toward the blodbak at high speed. The man scowled and quickly got the third crossbow as the bolt hit the blodbak’s wing.
It shrieked in fury and pulled its long fangs from the lamb. The man took instinctive action, swinging the crossbow up and firing in one fluid motion.
The blodbak gave out a last squeal as it tumbled down from the roof. The man got up and wiped the sweat from his brow. He had gotten them both.
He heard the air intensifying, something moving through it at high speed. He looked to his left but was buffeted to the ground. He couldn’t see a thing because his face had been slammed into the dirt. He felt two sharp searing pains in his back, and he grunted in exertion as he got up. Something was beating against his back, and he knew what it was.
A third blodbak. It had been targeting him, not the lamb. He hadn’t taken it into account. A possibly fatal mistake.
He reared back, slamming the blodbak into the ground. He rolled over and over, trying to shake it off.
He got to his feet, already feeling weaker. A normal blodbak could drain your blood in thirty minutes, and this was no normal blodbak.
He pulled his knife from his sheath and tried to reach behind to get at his back, but he couldn’t quite reach the blodbak. “Help!” he shouted in the direction of the house, and sank to his knees. “Bring a pitchfork or something!”
He felt himself begin to grow dizzy as the creature greedily sucked at his back. He was lucky it hadn’t snapped his spine with its fangs as it buried them in his back.
A light turned on inside the house, and the man felt a sense of hope kindle within him, only to be snuffed out as he collapsed on the ground.
He woke up groggily, feeling a sharp throbbing in his back. He opened his eyes to blinding sunlight and quickly closed them. He groaned. He realized he was on a soft bed. The man tentatively opened his eyes again and found that he was in a small bedroom, with sunlight streaming through the open window. He was lying on a bed beside a nightstand with an unlit candlestick. He looked over toward the door and saw a man sitting in a chair, a man he thought he recognized.
A boy came in with a basin of water and gave it to the man. “Here you go, Dr. Reed.”
The man remembered who the one sitting in the chair was. “Felix?” he croaked groggily.
The other man nodded. “Yes, it is I, Oban.”
“Where am I?”
Felix answered, “You are in the guest room of the house you were defending from blodbaks. If it were not for your cries for help you would have died of blood loss.”
“Dead. Mr. Caner had the sense to kill it, after he ripped it out of your back with his bare hands. A strong fellow, he is.”
“Was he hurt?” Oban asked.
“No, he wasn’t,” Felix said. “He had a pretty big carving knife with him. His wife scolded him for ruining it.”
“May I inspect the blodbak bodies?”
“You can look at the one on the roof. The other two Mr. Caner burned.”
“Didn’t have the energy to climb up and get the last one, eh?”
Oban tried to sit up in bed but only felt a sharp pang. He groaned and lay back down.
“Some bad damage,” Felix said. “I got here three hours ago. Mr. Caner was riding like the wind, and he made a ten-minute ride only take five. You really must thank him for saving your life twice.”
“I will,” Oban replied.
“I will need to tend to your wound now, Mr. Rust. You’ll find that underneath that tunic is a very large bandage.”
Oban nodded. He could feel it.
“I’ll need to make sure there’s no infection and then redress the wound. You’ll need a piece of leather to bite down on.”
“It’ll be that bad?”
“I am afraid so,” Felix told him.
“Will I get back into full working order?”
“If you let the wound heal. But to do that you’ll have to wait at least six weeks.”
“Six weeks? Felix, is there any faster way?”
“No, there is not. I am afraid that you won’t be able to Tainhevik all over the place for about two months.”
Oban groaned. “Ye gods!”
“Yes, I know you have your sense of duty, but if you don’t wait you won’t fully heal, and if that happens then you won’t be able to protect others from the darkness.
“I give in. When do you need to clean my wounds?”
“Very well then. Bring my staff, and I’ll walk to the table.”
Felix went out of the room and came back a few moments later, carrying a large gnarled oak staff. “Here it is,” he proclaimed. “Rise and shine.”
“When I rise I will do anything but shine,” Oban told him. “I’ll probably be groaning and wincing every step of the way.”
Felix nodded. “Should I help you up?”
Oban shook his head, braced himself, and sat up, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. He winced as an excruciating wave of pain hit him. He got up and clutched at the staff, leaning heavily on it.
Felix supported him as he staggered out of the room into a small hallway. He painfully stepped all the way into the living room, where a table had been placed conveniently in the center of the room.
After a bit of painful maneuvering, Oban finally managed to get onto the table, taking off his shirt with Felix’s help and laying on his front. Felix gently unwrapped the bandages. Oban clenched the leather strip between his teeth to keep from biting his tongue as Felix probed the wound.
“Bad laceration,” Felix said, almost to himself, as his gloved fingers moved throughout the wound. “It’ll need about six weeks at least.”
Oban heard footsteps and craned his neck. The boy from earlier had come to watch.
He was pale-skinned and lean, with dark curly hair and—peculiarly—purple eyes. He looked about twelve years old, maybe thirteen.
Oban’s body racked and he sobbed into the leather as Felix touched the worst part of his wound.
“It’ll be all right, Oban,” Felix reassured him.
Oban wanted to kill Felix there and then for saying his name in the presence of this child. It had been a mistake when he had let the doctor know his name six years ago when they first met.
“Hello,” said the man. “I’m Felix. And you are Oban, I presume?”
Oban stared up in surprise. “How do you know my name?”
“After that bloodwitch got you, you had a restless sleep. You talked to yourself.”
But Oban let it pass. It was only a child, after all. What harm could he do? But he would prefer to be called Tainhevik. It was his name, really. The past ten years, only Felix had called him Oban. Everyone else who knew it had either forgotten or died, like his master.
“What’s your name?”
“And you wish to be a Tainhevik?” the Tainhevik asked.
“After you, sir, yes,” Oban said.
“You’re only fifteen,” the Tainhevik said.
“I’m strong, sir. And I’m not lazy.”
Fifteen years later, it was hard to remember what had happened after that. But all Oban knew was that when his master had been killed by the bloodwitch of Glana ten years ago, he had avenged him fully.
“A Tainhevik is lucky if he lives until he is sixty. He constantly braves the dark and one small mistake may lead to death.”
Oban was relieved that Mr. Caner had come to his rescue. Many people would have been too afraid to come near and would have let him be killed. Sometimes it was a lonely life being Tainhevik. The Warden of the Night had a solitary post. One man against all those forces of evil that lurked out there, everywhere. A lone traveller, daily trudging down the road to face what might be his death. Oban knew his master had probably been glad to teach him, if only for the company.
Felix told him, “All right. Pouring the alcohol.”
Oh, shath, Oban thought. He howled into the leather and shook as Felix, carefully holding him down, administered alcohol to clean the wounds.
Oban ground his teeth against the strip of leather as the alcohol burned away, cleaning out the carnage and infection of his wound.
Oban sat down at the table, wincing slightly. Mr. Caner and his two boys were sitting at the table, and Mrs. Caner was in the kitchen, preparing the midday meal. The oldest boy was the one Oban had seen earlier, and the younger boy was about seven years old, with blue eyes and brown hair.
“Daddy,” the smaller one asked, “can I play with Dribb after lunch?”
“Yes, Morton,” Mr. Caner replied. Morton’s face lit up, and he almost bounced in his chair.
The older one’s name was Merlin, and he was very quiet at the table, and kept looking at Oban when he thought he wasn’t looking.
“Thank you, Tainhevik,” Mr. Caner said. “You have my deepest thanks, and you may stay here until your wound heals.”
“Welcome.” Oban suddenly remembered Felix’s advice to thank Mr. Caner. Felix had left after the cleaning of the wounds, but he had left some painkilling cream and instructions to stay rested and drink plenty of water. “Thank you,” Oban said. “You saved my life...twice.”
“I’m counting riding as fast as you could for Felix.”
“Oh. No matter, Tainhevik. I was obligated to do so.” Oban nodded, and nothing more was said on the matter.
Lunch was good, and afterwards, Oban hobbled out of the house, leaning on his staff. Mr. Caner went up to the roof and got the last blodbak body down for Oban to inspect.
Its wings were unfurled, black and leathery, with a six-foot wingspan. The body had two legs equipped with giant razor-sharp claws. It was very like a bat, except fatter from its blood feast. Oban knew the world was better off without it as he looked at the crossbow bolt embedded in its mottled gray-black lower body. An almost perfect shot, and it had been done in the darkness, too. Oban almost smiled. He had developed a keen night vision over the fifteen years since had started his work, and it helped greatly.
“I’d say this one is fully mature,” Oban told Mr. Caner. “Were the others this big?”
“The other one you killed was half this size,” replied Mr. Caner, “but the one that attacked you was twice as big as this one!”
“Twice as big?”
“Nerevian blodbak, then. Dangerous. I’m lucky to have survived.”
A month later, Oban was lying in bed, grimly thinking of all the night creatures running amok while he lay in bed. His wound had healed considerably. There was still a good deal of pain, but not nearly as much as at first. Oban had already formulated a plan. It was time for him to go.
He waited in bed until it was nice and dark and then got up, careful not to hurt himself too badly. He grabbed his staff, hat, and cloak from beside his bed and moved stealthily out of the room.
He walked down the hall quietly and carefully and he crept to the front door. He cautiously pulled it open and stepped out into the night air.
There was a town only an hour of walking from there. He could buy some provisions to get back to his home in the Hithnaen Mountains. Oban set off down the road, walking as fast as he could without aggravating his back muscles too much.
It began to rain. Oban groaned. Now he would be soaked through by the time he reached the town.
He looked back at the house. Should he attempt again the next night?
No, he decided. He had been through worse than a little rain. He kept walking down the road.
Oban decided to get off the road after about a minute of being buffeted by the increasing storm. The winds picked up as he ducked into the pine trees for shelter. He knew the direction of the town and he could get to it through the woods without getting as soaked as he would be going on the road.
Oban quickly hiked through the woods, wanting to get as much distance between him and the Caners’ house as possible.
He walked as quickly as possible, not pausing for anything. He felt the cloak brush against branches as he made his way through the trees.
He felt a sudden feeling that he was being watched, and he turned his head discreetly. Nothing.
“Never trust your eyes, apprentice. They often lie. Listen to your instincts.” Oban remembered his master’s words, so often repeated to him during his training. He turned his head back and continued walking, but he was listening for any sign of a follower.
Oban leaned on his staff as if taking a rest, and suddenly turned his head. Nothing.
Oban kept on walking for a full thirty minutes, trying to make any pursuer comfortable and lazy in following him. But he couldn’t hear a thing, so he was beginning to think that he was just paranoid.
A twig snapped under someone’s boot; Oban whipped round and stared.
The boy. Merlin Caner had been following him all this time.
The purple eyes flashed in the darkness. The boy stared at Oban defiantly. “I know your name,” Merlin said quietly.
“Ha! You cannot hope to defeat me! I know your name, and I knew your master’s, too!”
He looked desperately around; he couldn’t see the bloodwitch, and he knew he was alone with the dark. Then, suddenly, two red, gleaming eyes flared in the darkness; the bloodwitch.
He got out his dagger, his silver-handled dagger, once his master’s. “I outcast you, bloodwitch!” He drew it slowly across his hand and then in a swift motion he rammed the dagger into the ground. “I execrate you by my very blood and drive you from all lands! You shall never return to this kingdom again!”
Oban drew his dagger instantly. “Get back, fell warlock!” he shouted.
“I mean you no harm!” Merlin shouted frantically. “Please, sir! I wish to be Tainhevik.”
Oban raised an eyebrow. “Come here, boy,” he commanded. Merlin quickly rushed forward. When he got there, Oban contemplated boxing his ears and sending him home, but then he saw the determination in this boy’s eyes. Merlin would get his wish.
“Why do you want to be Tainhevik?” he asked.
“Why did you?”
Oban was taken aback by this response. He knew the answer of course. But he had not expected this boy to ask him that. But Oban didn’t let his surprise show. “That’s none of your business,” he said gruffly. “But you need to get back to your family. They’ll grieve that you are gone.”
Merlin smiled and handed Oban a letter. Oban broke the seal and read it. I, David Caner, do consent that Merlin should follow the Tainhevik, and if the Tainhevik be so willing, be trained in the art of the Tainhevik, to become a hunter of the dark and a soldier of the night. “This means nothing,” Oban said. “I can still refuse you.”
“You won’t,” Merlin told him.
“Two weeks. Keep up.” The Tainhevik handed the boy the letter and began walking. He knew Merlin was smiling triumphantly, and he really wanted to wipe the smile off that smug little boy’s face. Two weeks. The Tainhevik hoped he got some really good business, maybe a witch. That should scare the boy off well enough. Or possibly a soul eater. That would frighten him.
The clouds kept raining, and the Tainhevik kept walking. Merlin walked behind him.
Three days later, the Tainhevik had gotten back to his home in the Hithnaen Mountains. Merlin had tagged along the whole time, never complaining about the distance or turning to go home. The Tainhevik had fed him every night on the salted meat he had in his pack, and Merlin had never complained. The Tainhevik had slept without a fire, and Merlin had lain down without one as well. The Tainhevik did not speak to the people in the towns they passed; neither did Merlin.
The Tainhevik got out his keys and unlocked the stone door. He swung it open and stepped inside, boots clacking on the stone tiled floor.
As he stepped in he saw three letters on the floor, which had been pushed through the mail slot in the door. The Tainhevik picked them up off the floor and came into his house.
The living room was sparsely furnished and spartan, and the whole thing was made of stone. There was a fireplace and a rug, but there was no other furniture, besides candles on the walls.
The Tainhevik walked through the living room, straight into the dining room. He set down his things on the table, and so did Merlin. The Tainhevik nodded to Merlin and gestured out the window. “That’s the backyard.”
Outside was the mountain, gently sloping, and heavily wooded. The trees surrounded the house like watchful guardians. The sun broke out above the mountaintop; it was late morning, and its shining rays pierced into the dining room.
The Tainhevik led him into another room. This one had shelves upon shelves of books and scrolls. “The library, obviously. You are allowed to read everything, and even encouraged to do so, except the things beyond the fifth shelf.”
The Tainhevik walked five shelves into the library, and then he stopped. “Beyond here are the texts you may only read if I allow it.”
The Tainhevik turned to the side and opened a door at the side of the library. He came into a small unfurnished room with two doors, one on each side.
“The one on the right is my bedroom,” said the Tainhevik as Merlin entered the room. “The one on the left is yours, as long as you stay. It’s up to you to decide whether to stay today. If you leave, you can never come back. If you stay you can never leave until you’re fully trained.”
Merlin nodded, and the Tainhevik went back into the library, through the dining room, and into the living room once more. He opened a door and stepped outside, smelling the fresh air of the mountain breeze. “This is the backyard, Merlin.”
Merlin took a good look, and then the Tainhevik shut the door. “I’ve got work to catch up on. Wouldn’t be surprised if one of the people who sent me a letter was dead, killed while I was gone.”
“But, sir, your back needs to heal.”
“Duty comes first. I’ve given it enough time,” said the Tainhevik. “It can heal up on the job.”
Merlin nodded, and the Tainhevik led him back to the dining room. He picked up one of the letters. “Go ahead and set your things in your room, Merlin, all right?”
Merlin nodded. “Okay, sir.” He picked up his bags and left the room.
The Tainhevik ripped open the letter and read it. A case of trolls, it looked like...it was at least worth his time. Then he grabbed the second one and opened it. It was rubbish; the writer thought his neighbor was a witch, just because he’d seen her laughing as she cooked some soup. The last letter was about an infestation of rats—why had the person written to him? Some people were very strange, the Tainhevik thought.
Very well then. Trolls it was.
The Tainhevik walked down the road, wearing his leather cloak and broad-brimmed hat and carrying a sack of gold pieces as he walked, leaning on his staff for support. His back still wasn’t fully healed, so it ached a little every step he took. He was glad to have the staff.
Dalshire was a nice place, and the Tainhevik had only been there once before. The beautiful land was a breathtaking sight at places; this land, nestled in the Western Mountains as it was, was a wonderful place.
Trolls, eh? The Tainhevik knew how to deal with trolls.
Merlin tagged along behind him, wearing a thick tunic and breeches, with good quality boots on his feet. The Tainhevik wouldn’t get him a cloak, hat, and staff until the boy was fully grown; things like that were expensive, and he didn’t want to have to buy bigger ones each year. He knew that when he had been with his master he had never been allowed those things, which signified the trade of the Tainhevik.
The Tainhevik kept walking, sniffing at the air as he went. They were in a shallow valley, entering the mountain range. According to his map there was a town a few miles away. He would get there and ask for directions to this John Grand’s house.
The Tainhevik stopped and looked back at Merlin, who was trudging along doggedly, carrying a pack on his back and also leading the pony, Bristle. A Tainhevik always needed a pony, to carry his things as he traveled. But a Tainhevik never rode. If he needed to get somewhere faster he hitched a ride with a local person. It was a bit costly on certain rush jobs, but it was tradition. “Tradition governs the Tainhevik. A Tainhevik must stay true to it.” The Tainhevik remembered his master’s words.
The Tainhevik sniffed the air and looked at Merlin. “Smell that?”
Merlin sniffed. “I don’t smell anything.”
“That’s because you’re inexperienced. Do you have that book in your pack?”
“Good. Read the rest tonight.” The Tainhevik had noticed that Merlin had been staying up to read it, but he wasn’t finished, and the Tainhevik would like him to be before they began work. It was a book about trolls, the best copy around. It was the best copy because the Tainhevik had written it himself. Of course he wouldn’t let Merlin know that the leather-bound tome was actually his master’s work.
The Tainhevik kept walking, and Merlin pulled Bristle along as they kept walking down the road.
When they reached the town that evening the Tainhevik did not book inn rooms. He would wait and see if the client had any place for them to stay. It was tradition to do that. Of course if the client needed him not to be staying with him, then it was all right to stay at an inn.
The Tainhevik walked into the single tavern of the town, Merlin following him. A few people out of the many crowded into that room looked up and nodded respectfully; they knew he was the Tainhevik, judging by his clothes.
The Tainhevik reached into the folds of his cloak, pulling a few gold pieces out of the satchel of money. He told Merlin, “Go look after Bristle, will you?”
Merlin nodded and went out of the tavern to check on the pony. The Tainhevik clenched gold in his hand and walked up to the bar.
“Tainhevik,” he said to the bartender, laying down the gold pieces on the counter. “Where does John Grand live?”
“Oh, sir! Hello. Thank you,” the bartender said as he gathered the money up and put it in his pocket. “John Grand? Aye, he’s here right now. Sort of a tall gentleman, with pitch black hair and tanned skin. Kind of a hooked nose, too, and he has a black beard. Right o’er there.”
“Thank you,” said the Tainhevik. He slipped into the crowd. It was a busy night at the tavern, and as the door opened and three people carrying instrument cases entered, the Tainhevik figured out the reason.
The Tainhevik saw Grand a few paces away. He slid between people until he came to him. He tapped Grand on the shoulder.
Grand turned and saw him. He looked surprised. “You came faster than I expected,” he said. “Let’s talk. Where would you like to go?”
“Your house, preferably,” the Tainhevik told him.
“I can do that. Let’s go.”
The Tainhevik knocked on the door. Merlin’s voice called out, “Come in.”
The Tainhevik opened the door and came in. “Ready?”
“Yeah,” Merlin replied.
“Good. Let’s get going.”
They went out of the house and hiked into the nearby pines at the foot of the mountain. They had to find evidence of trolls: dung, tracks, and things like that. If they could find tracks then they would follow them and try to find the lair.
“So how do we get the troll?” Merlin asked as they passed through a little clearing.
“Well,” the Tainhevik said, “trolls can’t be in the sunlight. They turn to stone at the light of day. If we could find the lair in the day, it would be easy to build a bonfire in front of the cave mouth and kill the troll. If it came out, it would turn to stone. If it stayed inside the smoke would kill it.
“If we can’t find its home, though, then we will have to set out some bait and wait for it to come. A few animal carcasses would do the trick. Then we would have to keep it eating as long as possible. The easiest way would be to get a few of them out a bit of a distance from the mountain. Hide upwind, and when it comes to the first carcass we trace its tracks back to its lair and set up a bonfire. Trolls are afraid of any light other than the moon and stars, and even though fire isn’t lethal to them like the sun, they are deathly afraid of it. The troll will hightail it into the woods, afraid of our fire. When the sun comes up, it turns to stone, and we’re done.”
“What’s that?” asked Merlin excitedly, pointing up ahead, in the direction the wind was blowing.
The dark pile was unmistakably one thing: troll dung. The Tainhevik hadn’t smelled it because the wind wasn’t blowing the smell to them.
The Tainhevik rushed forward, eager to find any clues of the troll’s whereabouts.
He wrinkled his nose as a wave of stench hit him. He pulled his cloak up over the bottom half of his face to cover it from the reek. He tried not to look at the pile of dung.
The Tainhevik looked at the ground, but it was hard around this area; no chance of tracks. He had discovered the troll, but as for its lair, he didn’t know. Well, it was plan B, then.
The Tainhevik and Merlin lurked upwind of the first sheep carcass. Mr. Grand had been a little miffed to have had to give them four sheep, but as long as it kept a troll from eating his livestock again, he was willing to make the long term decision. In the end, with a troll running loose on the mountain, four sheep would be much less than what the troll would take.
They had set them leading away from the mountain, so that on the return trip the troll would take as long as possible, and they’d have plenty of time to make a fire. The Tainhevik had brought some highly combustible mixtures to help speed the fire along.
Merlin was nervous, the Tainhevik could tell. He was fidgety on his first job, almost unable to contain his excitement. The Tainhevik remembered his first job with his master; he had felt this way too.
There was a rumbling sound, the roar that marked the troll’s arrival. The Tainhevik had been expecting that.
Merlin’s eyes went wide in the darkness as the troll crashed into the clearing. It was over ten feet tall, a burly, muscular creature with a blunt face and huge, sniffing nostrils. The troll’s black glinting eyes were small by comparison. Its mouth was stretched wide in a leering grin as it reached greedily down and wrenched the sheep carcass off the ground, snorting heavily. Its stocky legs were as large as tree trunks, and its gargantuan arms could easily rip a cow in half. The Tainhevik knew from experience.
As it started to gorge itself, noisily crunching with giant yellowed teeth, the Tainhevik motioned to Merlin. They got up as quietly as possible while the troll was preoccupied, and the Tainhevik lightly stepped to where the troll had come to the clearing. Merlin anxiously followed him.
The Tainhevik was an expert at tracking, even in the night. He quickly found the trail of the troll, pretty easily too, since it had just barged straight through, smelling the fresh blood of the sheep.
They followed the trail quite far, and then they came to a cave opening in the side of the mountain. The Tainhevik almost missed it, since it was concealed by a huge rock in front of it.
“We don’t have much time,” the Tainhevik said. “Hurry!”
He and Merlin plunged into the brush, ignoring the stink of troll that hung about the area. They gathered anything that could burn easily. The Tainhevik got out an ax and chopped a few limbs off some trees while Merlin got mostly twigs and things.
They finally got a decent pile of things to kindle. The Tainhevik reached into the folds of his cloak and pulled out a canteen. He unstoppered it and poured the rank-smelling liquid onto the pile, drizzling it everywhere. “There,” he said, and got out his tinderbox.
Merlin warned him, “We better get this going fast, Tainhevik. I think the troll is coming.”
The Tainhevik got a fire going and placed a torch on top of the pile. “Let’s get out of—”
A blasting, ear-splitting roar shattered the quiet of the night. The Tainhevik swore. “Merlin, run!” he said. “I’ll distract it.”
“No, you’ll die,” Merlin said with nervous energy.
The Tainhevik growled, “Get going now!” He looked over at the building fire. It had gotten underway enough by now not to need the torch; as it built it crackled, and the Tainhevik could feel the rising heat in front of the cave.
He ran up to the fire and quickly grabbed the torch from the swarming flames, drawing a dagger from within his cloak. Dagger in right hand, torch in left, he quickly approached the spot where he knew the troll would come. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Merlin dash into the darkness of the trees.
The troll broke through the pines and roared, charging him. The Tainhevik hefted the torch in his hand; he had one shot at this.
The troll dove for him, and the Tainhevik at the last second hurled the torch and leapt out of the way of the charging monster. He felt the ground shake as the troll landed a few feet away from him. It roared in pain.
The Tainhevik got to his feet, brandishing a second dagger now. His plan had worked! The troll’s moonlit face was blackened by fire. The Tainhevik wagered that it was developing a stonelike quality.
The troll jumped to its feet and growled, a low menacing sound. The Tainhevik yelled and sprinted into the pines, going the complete opposite direction than the one he had seen Merlin going.
The troll charged into the trees, giving chase. The Tainhevik had to make it lose the scent. There was a stream near here, he vaguely recalled. Yes, of course. He had seen it while looking for a good place to put a sheep for the trap.
He felt the adrenaline of the chase building up, and he hoped he could get there before the troll found him.
There it was! The Tainhevik didn’t hesitate for a moment; he jumped right in, throwing his hat back behind him so the troll would get confused. He immersed his whole body, holding his breath. Then he got up and bolted across to the other side. The troll wouldn’t be smart enough to follow him, having lost the scent.
Oban Rust had shaken off the troll. He had made sure the bonfire built. And he noticed his back hadn’t hurt the whole night long. He switched directions and went back toward John Grand’s house.
Merlin looked up at Oban. “So we’re going back?”
“Yes. Now, it’s up to you. Are you staying? It’s a dangerous job; you can’t take this lightly.”
“Save me the warning,” Merlin told him. “I’m sticking with you.”
“All right. Go get Bristle, and we’ll leave.”
Merlin exited the room to go get the pony, which was out in the stables of John Grand’s property.
John Grand came into the room. “Thank you, Tainhevik.” Oban shook hands with him. “Here’s your money,” Grand said, handing over a bag. Oban pocketed it and nodded.
John turned to leave, but then turned back. “If there’s anything I can do in the future, just send a letter. I’ll do my best.”
Oban nodded and watched as the man walked out the door.
A Tainhevik had rough nights and rough battles, but if he was good enough, careful enough, he lived to see the next day. And he enjoyed the day, unlike the creatures he hunted.
The Warden of the Night was always watching.