Find the troll that killed the wizard Shellefen, and you’ll find Shellefen’s enchanted dagger.
Apparently, so the rumor goes, Shellefen’s dagger once blasted a griffon out of the sky.
For this reason alone, every adventurer in the kingdom is obsessed with Shellefen’s dagger. Many of them have gone on a dagger quest, as they’re calling it. None of them have returned.
I’m not one these adventurers – obviously – but I have been paid three silver coins by two cocky adventurers to pacify this troll with my Sociomancer skills.
This troll’s lair is somewhere inside the ruins of Castle Kahn, which I cautiously approach, my two employers following me.
One of my employers, a Magic-maker, calls a halt before a collapsed section of the wall. Broken stone and mortar have clogged the gap in the wall, spilled across the bailey. Rubble, rubble, nothing but trouble; a dozen nasty creatures could easily find a place to hide.
“Before we set foot in this keep,” says the Magic-maker, sliding a wand out of his belt, “allow me to locate the troll.”
He hums as he waves his wand in a circular motion in front of his eyes. They say it is the tone of the hum that determines the type of spell.
The Stealth-stabber, my other employer, grips his sword handle, sliding half the blade out of its scabbard. I look at the forest canopy above, where the Stealth-stabber’s perceived threat is lurking. Oh, for Mahla’s sake! It’s just a squirrel jumping from tree to tree.
The Magic-maker stops humming, returns his wand to his belt. “I have located the troll in its lair, in a dungeon in the bottom of a well.”
I guide my employers to the gatehouse, like I was paid to do, pushing low hanging branches away from my face.
Following the curve of one of the gatehouse towers, I almost trip over a row of rock stacks, each stack with a squirrel skull on top.
“Goblins,” says the Stealth-stabber, glaring at the rock stacks, pulling the same facial expression one would pull when a bug flies into their mouth.
Not just any goblins, nimble ones, both physically and mentally – a lethal combination in a goblin. You can tell by how high the rocks are stacked. Most of the stacks in front of me are eight rocks high and still standing, despite their precarious balance. This rock-stacking grandeur would intimidate any goblin tribe which was planning a raid.
For human adventurers, the rock stacks are fun to kick over, plus a sign that it’s time to draw your sword.
I lead the invasion into goblin territory, the three of us darting into the gatehouse passageway, pressing our backs to the wall. Through the second entrance, we can see the well in the center of the bailey.
“Go to the well after the goblins have surrounded me,” I say to my employers, “not before. Understood?”
The way they’re gawking at me, you’d swear a goblin had already chopped off my head.
“What if the goblins attack you? How will you defend yourself?” asks the Magic-maker. No doubt, it wasn’t my death by goblins that had him worried; rather, it was the inconvenience my death would bring to our dagger quest.
I smile. “Don’t worry. I’ll just convince the goblins that I’m harmless, and they’ll have no reason to attack me.”
The Stealth-stabber glances at my belt where no sword in a scabbard hangs, not even a dagger. “So, all ya do is talk? Why aren’t ya dead?”
I smile again. I’m always smiling. A smile is the only sword a Sociomancer will ever need. “A sword will hinder my talents. I explained this to you before you hired me.”
“Oh, I’m startin’ to wish I’d never hired ya.”
“We had no choice!” the Magic-maker says to his partner. “We didn’t have enough silver coins to pay a warrior’s fee.”
This obsession with swords, how will we – as humans – ever rise above it?
This is why a Sociomancer is forced to sell their services for half the cost of a sword-swinger’s fee.
My employers draw their swords, because, you never know, I may just be the swordless failure they believe me to be. They watch me stride through the passageway, murder holes in the ceiling above me, rows of rock stacks on either side of me, and out into the bailey to face the goblins alone.
Dead leaves and branches crunch and snap under my feet. Good. My noisy arrival will be heard by the whole tribe. The more goblins surround me, the more efficient my talents will be.
Ah, there’s one now, popping its head out of the rubble from a tower that has collapsed in on itself. Up there on the wall, three more of them are sneaking about on what remains of the parapet. Goblin children lean out the windows of the keep, digging snot out of their nostrils with clawed fingers as they stare at me.
How unconventional I must seem to this tribe, whose territory has been constantly invaded by an armored sword-swinger, carrying a sword with a blade taller than the tallest goblin; or a magic-maker humming lethal blue fire into existence. Yet, here I am, dressed in a woolen tunic and leggings, looking like I had just stepped out of a hamlet to travel to the markets to purchase a goat. My backpack and my bloated wine skin are the only clue that I lead an adventurous life.
All of the tribal warriors, armed with anything ideal for stabbing, scamper over rubble to reach me, their footwork on shattered stonework as nimble as their handiwork when stacking rocks. Even the runts have joined the alphas, confident that they can kill me with little risk to themselves.
I relax my body into an open posture, my hands spread wide to demonstrate my trustworthiness: Look goblins, no sword. They swarm me, jostling each other to be the one close enough to murder me.
“If anyone stabs the human in the balls, I’ll kill them!” the biggest one, with the longest horns, shouts in its own language. “I will have his scrotum as my dice bag.”
This goblin may be the biggest warrior in its tribe – it certainly looks to be the fiercest – yet it’s still only knee-high to a human.
“But that’s the only sensitive spot on a human within easy reach,” wails another goblin, only half the size of the biggest goblin. The lower jaw bone of a wolf looks lethal in its tiny clawed hand.
“I can see that you are all angry,” I say, speaking goblin, hoping that my hooting and tongue clicking was correctly pronouncing each word. “I would be angry too if someone entered my home uninvited.”
The goblins freeze, glance at each other, blinking their large owlish eyes, their hooked ears twitching.
“How’d you learn to talk our talk?” asks a small goblin, its horns thin and crooked like its limbs.
“We Sociomancers have studied many languages,” I say, trying to maintain a calm voice, which is difficult when there are so many sharp objects pointing at my penis. “We consider everyone worth talking to.”
“It’s a trick!” hoots an alpha, saliva spraying out of its mouth. “Kill him! Before he kill us!”
Goblin spit splatters my tunic, yet I remain calm, my professionalism is the only reason this encounter hasn’t escalated into violence. “What reason have I given you to attack me?”
The alpha’s hoots and tongue clicks are low and menacing. “You’re human, that’s reason enough. You humans come here with your swords-” The alpha gasps, gapes at my waist where no weapon hangs from my belt.
“Mm-hmm,” I say, tilting my head slightly to show the alpha that not only am I listening, I’m interested in what it has to say as well.
The alpha growls, its long sharp nose quivering. “You’re hiding a sword behind your back.”
It’s an effort not to frown. Why would it think that when I have my open hands displayed in front of me.
The runts are restless, glancing at the alphas, waiting for them to do something – anything – so they can follow their lead.
I must keep them talking, shift their minds away from hostility. “Tell me, why do you think your home is always invaded?”
“Because a troll lives under our home,” says a goblin with horns curved like a ram.
All of the goblins hiss, bare their needle-sharp teeth. I feel their rage slide off me, slithering off in another direction. Good, my Sociomancer techniques are working.
“How does this troll make you feel?” I say with genuine concern – never mind the goblin spit soaking into my tunic.
Like rabid dogs, foam erupts out of the mouths of goblins as they rage against the troll. I’m sure that if they could’ve acted upon this feeling, the troll would’ve long been dead.
To keep their anger away from me, I ask them more questions concerning the troll, then I listen, and listen some more as they complain about the bullying, the abuse, and the forced servitude they have suffered.
All of the goblins lower their weapons, their chests heaving from excessive panting. Being angry is exhausting work. No one can keep it up for long.
When I look at a goblin, I don’t see evil like others do. Sociomancy has taught me to reject the duality of good vs. evil. What I do see is a creature no taller than a human child, who feels frustrated and powerless due to the abuse they suffer from ogres and trolls – much bigger monsters carrying much bigger loads of emotional baggage. Is it any wonder that goblins sneak into human kingdoms, raiding hamlets and assaulting lone travelers? It’s the only way they can feel like they’re in control of their lives.
“This is how I understand the situation. When we humans arrive at this keep to fight the troll-”
“Slaughtered by the troll,” interrupts a runt, small enough to wear a rabbit skin as a cape.
“Thank you for correcting me. When we humans arrive at this keep to be slaughtered by the troll, your tribe is furious, because we humans have to invade your home to reach the troll.”
This is something they can all agree on.
“Besides expressing your anger, what else could you do when your home is invaded?”
“But anger is a natural response. I’m peeved just thinking about it.”
“That’s great. You’re acknowledging your feelings. But I’m asking what action could you take?”
I remove the cap from my wine skin, squeezing the bladder to shoot a line of wine into my mouth. All this hooting and tongue clicking is harsh on my throat.
“You mean, like, we should hide ourselves when you humans invade our home?”
All the goblins cackle, their mirth echoing off the defensive walls and the keep.
“That is an option. But what else could you do?”
The goblins “um” and “ah,” some of them scratching their bum cracks as they consider their options.
“We could help the humans fight the troll?”
Ugh! This suggestion is appalling. All of the goblins gasp. The one that spoke receives a head slap from an alpha.
“I wouldn’t want to see that. Many of you would die fighting someone else’s battle. But did you know that there’s another ruin in this forest? There’s an old church just north of here.”
The thin goblin with the crooked horns and limbs rubs its pointy chin. I’m guessing it must be the one who does most of the thinking for this tribe.
“Do any monsters lair in this ruined church?”
I shake my head. “None whatsoever.”
“. . . and, does this church have a dungeon?”
“Only a cellar.”
“We should move there!” shouts someone from somewhere in the back of the group.
“New Home! New Home! New Home!” the runts chant, beating their weapons on their horns to the rhythm of their hoots.
“Let’s go tell the Matriarch,” says the biggest goblin, shoving its way through his smaller kin. “The almighty mother will know what to do.”
“What about the human?”
“What human? All I see is the troll’s new chew toy.”
All of the goblins stampede across the bailey, bounding over each other to be the first to reach the keep.
Climbing down the well will be easy, as the Stealth-stabber’s rope remains tied to an iron spike hammered into the stonewall surrounding the well. Not once did the goblins or I hear the hammer strike the iron spike. The Stealth-stabber’s talent for muffling noise is truly astounding.
The midday sun is directly above as I descend into the well, sunshine warming the top of my head, even as I reach the bottom. I can’t see my employers, so I’m guessing they’re hiding inside the tunnel. I have guessed correctly as the Stealth-stabber’s voice comes from the narrow strip of darkness that is the tunnel entrance.
“What do goblins have to talk about?”
“The usual stuff: their feelings, their fears – goblins aren’t much different to humans.”
I notice the streaks of mold on the damp walls. Hopefully it’s non-toxic.
“Buggah that! Ya should’ve stabbed ‘em all in the head with a sword. That’s what they’re gonna do to us when we leave.”
The Magic-maker clears his throat. “The goblins will be of no concern once we have Shellafen’s dagger. I can use it to blast us out of this castle.”
Ah, I was wrong about the Magic-maker. He isn’t in the tunnel; he’s standing beside me, hidden by an invisibility spell.
I remove my backpack, dropping into a crouch so it’s easier to open.
“You gave us your word that you could pacify a troll,” says the Magic-maker. He must be pacing as I could hear the pebbles crunching under his boots. “Trolls don’t speak. How will your Sociomancy deal with that?”
“There are other ways to communicate,” I say, using a flint striker to spark up some tinder from my tinder box. “I can see that you’re both feeling frustrated. My talents must seem unusual.”
I introduce the small flame to the lantern’s wick. Light flows through the tunnel entrance, exposing the Stealth-stabber. His sword is drawn, hostility etched into his frown.
A roar reverberates along the tunnel. The Stealth-stabber flinches, balances on the balls of his feet, ready to flee. I can only hear the Magic-maker’s whimper.
Leaving my backpack on the floor of the well, I enter the tunnel, my lantern pushing back the darkness. “The troll will make a lot of noise when I approach it. Don’t be concerned as it’s just being territorial.”
The Stealth-stabber grabs the sleeve of my tunic as I walk past him. “Make sure ya lead the troll into an open space. It’s the only way I can remove the dagger.”
I nod, attach a smile to the gesture.
“And don’t aggravate the troll. I don’t wanna see those gems on the dagger gettin’ scratched. They’re worth a lot of money.”
“You’re not removing the gems!” shouts the Magic-maker.
“Go,” says the Stealth-stabber with a sneer, letting go of my sleeve. “Tell the troll I said hi.”
Twenty feet into the tunnel, I notice an adventurer, their broken corpse sprawled across the floor, their broken sword beside them. The head is missing, either bitten off, or pulled off – I can’t tell which.
Another ten feet along the tunnel, the circle of lantern light reveals a four-way intersection.
The troll’s roar blasts out of the tunnel I am facing, so I move forward. The tunnel is eight feet high and three feet wide. I only mention this because the troll is eleven feet high with the same width as a cart.
The tunnel connects to a massive rectangular room. My lantern light illuminates only a small portion of this extensive space, with smashed wood littering the floor. The wood could have been anything from furniture, to barrels, or boxes on shelves. Whatever it was, it has gone to rot, providing fertilizer to a colony of drab mushrooms.
I stride forward; the lantern light smashing through the darkness like a battering ram. The room is a graveyard for dead adventurers and their swords, each corpse a failed attempt to win Shellafen’s dagger.
The sword blades start to rattle – the floor is vibrating! I feel the quivers through the soles of my boots.
I hear the troll’s movements, like a wet bear skin rug being dragged across a stone floor. I stride forward, until the lantern light collides into a wall, the light exposing another tunnel.
The vibrations intensify the moment I step into this tunnel, wobbling my calf muscles. A thunderous roar has my ears ringing from now until tomorrow.
I pass a side passage, tighter than the tunnel I’m in. I will nominate this passage to be my emergency exit, should I fail to calm the troll.
Finally, that confrontational moment that has killed dozens of adventuring parties is upon me. The troll drags itself into the circle of light, its bulk so tightly packed into the tunnel that it may as well be declared a wall. Its flat face is pressed into its square head, sharp teeth framed by curved tusks. Those clawed hands, big enough to wring my body like a wet rag. The ringing in my ears may have muted the troll’s roar, but I still feel its breath, as hot and muggy as a humid summer day.
How is it that such a large creature can fit into a human-sized space? The secret is in a troll’s ability to dislocate their bones.
The troll has relocated its shoulder blades to a forward position, decreasing its shoulder width. All of the bones that make up the ribcage are flattened and separated, giving it an elongated torso. Its legs are limp and bendy like cooked noodles. Clawed fingertips pierce the floor, the troll dragging its wobbly, rubbery mass through the tunnel with its hands.
Mesmerized by the troll’s ferocity, I wonder what would be worse: having my head bitten off by the troll’s pointy overbite, or having my face pushed into the back of my skull by one whack of the troll’s blockish head.
I hold the wine skin above my head, give it a vigorous shake. There’s no need to speak, as the troll understands the language of wine.
The sloshing liquid is loud as I walk backwards along the tunnel, heading for the spacious room. The troll goes wherever the wine goes, its cooing laced with desire.
Passing the side passage I had spotted only moments before, I glimpse rainbow fragments glittering along the troll’s left rib cage. The glitter that has caught my eye is light reflecting off the gems adorning Shellafen’s dagger.
Trying to appease a hostile troll by offering it wine, what was I thinking? What if the troll didn’t like wine? Or it wasn’t thirsty? What if the troll only drank white wine and all I had was red wine?
The truth is that I already know this troll won’t kill me. In fact, I know everything there is to know about this troll. After all, I’m the one who wrote its behavioral plan. You see, each Sociomancer is assigned a zone. My zone is this forest. All the monsters who reside in this forest make up my caseload. My role as a Sociomancer is to study each case, to learn their personalities and document them, so they can be used as a guide during my social interaction with each case.
This troll, who is case number thirty-nine, will bully humans or humanoids until they hand over their coins. It will then proceed to the highway and approach a heavily armed merchant caravan, to purchase a flagon of wine.
One day – hopefully in my lifetime – the people of the kingdoms will ditch their swords in the grass, leaving them to rust, and embrace Sociomancy. Under the guidance of a Sociomancer, the people will talk to goblins, walk with ogres, or play with trolls, welcoming all monsters into their communities. That is my dream. That is why I chose Sociomancy.
The troll screams in pain, a sound charged with more rage than its belligerent roar. Behind the monster, I spot the Stealth-stabber, his feet wide apart, keeping himself balanced as he pushes the blade of his sword deeper into the troll’s side.
With alarming speed, the troll drops its shoulders and head low to the floor, raising its buttocks to the same height as the Stealth-stabber’s head. A shriek of surprise is muffled as two pillows of flesh grip my employer’s head.
The troll clenches its buttocks, shattering the Stealth-stabber’s neck and skull.
Having neutralized the threat behind it, the troll can attack the threat directly in front of it. Oh, for Mahla’s sake. That would be me.
I flee, to distance myself from biting teeth and slashing claws, but – as always – the troll is faster. One slap of its hand sends me airborne, my body gliding out of the tunnel and into the spacious room. What goes up must come down, and when I do, I’m engulfed by pain the same way fire engulfs a log that has been tossed into a bonfire.
My lantern shattering on the floor is a worry. My wine skin flip-flopping across the floor is a relief. The wine skin didn’t burst; I still have wine to calm the troll, but how will I find it without a light?
In the darkness, the vibrations I feel along the floor have stopped. I shudder, listening to bones wriggling inside the troll, the pop, pop, popping of joints reinserting themselves into sockets.
In this room, it has ample space to walk freely, to swing its arms about, kill me if I don’t hurry up and find that wine skin.
I crawl in circles, my hands moving faster in every direction. All I can feel is cold, damp flagstones. I clench my teeth against the agony burrowing through the torn tendons in my wrist. The troll’s feet pound the floor only a few feet away.
My fingertips brush the wine skin’s strap. There it is! Where did it go? It was right here? It must be over there. If only I had a light.
I hear humming, with a melody that is bright and breezy. A sudden burst of light, as if the sun had dropped out of the sky to join me in this adventure.
The Magic-maker stands beside the troll, the light radiating from a ball he holds high above his head. With his other hand, he reaches for Shellafen’s dagger, yanks the blade out of the troll.
The Magic-maker backs away from the troll, drops into a fighting stance.
“Feel the power of Shellafen!” He shouts, pointing the dagger at the troll the same way he would a wand. He is triumphant and so he should be. He has the dagger, he has the power. If Shellafen’s dagger could blast a griffon out of the sky, imagine what it would do to a troll.
I drop to the floor, shield my eyes with my hands. No way will I allow my eyeballs to be melted by a magical blast.
The Magic-maker gasps, his voice trembling. “What? No!”
I look up to see dainty lights radiating from the gems set in the dagger’s handle. The lights shift and pulse like a rainbow trapped in a kaleidoscope. I wouldn’t say the dagger’s magic is lethal, but it sure is pleasing to the eye. I can’t stop looking at it.
The rainbow swirl loops in on itself, the pattern is relentless. I can’t tell if the colored lights are expanding to fill my vision, or the pattern is pulling my mind towards the dagger. What I do know is that I’m captivated by the rainbow dazzle, but not in an enthralling way, more of a terrifying way, as if I’ve been strapped into a chair of torture. I have no control over my mind or body.
At the edge of my peripheral vision, I glimpse the troll lunging at the Magic-maker, its lower jaw dislocating so a human-sized head can fit into its mouth. Shellafen’s dagger slips out of my employer’s fingers, clatters on the flagstones. The Magic-maker’s headless body teeters on wobbly knees before collapsing next to the dagger.
I’m back! My mind, it’s mine once again. And my mind is screaming at my body to move, move, MOVE! Away from the troll before it pulverizes my innards with one slap of its hand. I stumble sideways, the troll’s fist striking the space where I stood only a heartbeat before.
I glimpse the wine skin, dive for it.
The troll roars, stomps after me, raising its foot to squish my prone body under its heel.
Kneeling before the troll, I offer it the wine skin.
A grunt of surprise hijacks the troll’s fury. It lowers its raised foot, sniffing the half a gallon of wine I hold in my hands, the corners of its mouth curve upward, forming the shape of delight.
The troll snatches the wine skin out of my hands, squats in front of me, squeezing the wine skin to shoot a dark red stream into its mouth.
I leave the troll to it, slowly backing away from the monster, moving towards the Magic-maker’s corpse. The troll is too focused on the pleasure of fine wine to concern itself with me, so I needn’t worry as I kneel to retrieve Shellafen’s dagger.
What an amazing weapon. This Shellafen was a genius.
A dagger blasting magical energy – ha! What’s the use of that if a sword-wielding enemy dodges the attack? All it takes is one swing of a sword to kill a magic-maker.
Shellafen’s solution was to enchant her dagger with hypnosis magic, to hypnotize any threat that threatens her life with a sword. Hypnotizing her foe gave her the option to either stun them long enough to slash her dagger across her attacker’s throat, or suggest that they do something else other than attacking her.
It’s just a shame Shellafen had to find out the hard way that trolls are resistant to her dagger’s hypnosis.
What’s even more of a shame is that many adventurers have risked their lives – no, lost their lives – questing for this dagger, believing that it would grant them the power to knock dragons out of the sky or blast a king off his throne. This dagger is much more powerful than that, more powerful than the most imaginative adventurers imagining of power. A power to subvert an attacker’s mind, to divert their aggressive thoughts in the opposite direction, to convert a person’s ill will to good will.
Hmm . . . I feel it is in the best interest of all the kingdoms that I should be the one to keep Shellafen’s dagger safe, to prevent such powerful magic from falling into the wrong hands.
I slide the dagger’s blade into my belt, retrieve the glowing ball. Hopefully it will have enough magic left in it to guide me out of this dungeon and back to the well.
I hurry out of the room just as the troll grunts with disappointment, probably due to having sucked the wine skin dry.
The story first appeared in Bewildering Stories March 2020.
Glenn Bresciani is an Australian who works in community aged care. Fantasy and sci-fi are his favorite genres to read and write about. His fantasy short story, set in ancient Japan, has been published in the Valor: A Dragon Soul Press Anthology. Glenn's Facebook page is here.