Here’s the New Year’s Eve surprise I promised: A new short story! This one has major spoilers for Redblade, so be warned, and read on after the cut!
It had been a long Saturday for Abigail Main-Drake, but in a good way. She had returned to Nortonville for the first time since she had toured Cooper College and met Beth McGill, fought against and then alongside Michiko Koyama, the Monkey Queen, and helped to defeat the sorceress Lady Midday. In the end, Abby had been invited to work with Michiko and Beth to watch and protect the Emigre communities once she had graduated from high school, and she had happily accepted.
Spring break had begun, and Abby’s parents had been pleased with her progress in swordsmanship and sorcery, so they had allowed her to spend her break in Nortonville. Abby had arrived bright and early Saturday morning, suitcases in hand, where she was met for breakfast at the Wonderland Diner and Tavern by Michiko and Beth. They had dropped off Abby’s stuff at the apartment Michiko and Beth shared after they ate, and had spent the day catching up as they visited some of the Emigres in and around town.
As night had fallen, the three women had returned to Michiko and Beth’s apartment. Pizza had been ordered and eaten, and they were now sitting on the old but comfortable couch in the living room, waiting for Gregor, the cantankerous sorcerer who had been reincarnated as a guinea pig, to fall asleep so they could watch a DVD in peace. Abby had picked out Brave, and the others happily approved.
As they waited, Beth had been scrolling through the image gallery on her tablet, showing Abby the photos she and Michiko had taken during their adventures. “This is from when you two were on a…pirate airship?” Abby said.
“Yep!” Michiko said. “We had to be careful not to get caught taking the selfie!”
“She had a very cute outfit there,” Beth added. Michiko nodded as she looked at Beth’s tablet, smiling as she saw the red vest and pants, the white blouse and the high leather boots.
“I thought you said she didn’t cosplay!” Abby laughed.
“I work on her when I can.” Beth grinned as she scrolled through the gallery. “Speaking of…” She tapped her tablet.
The screen was filled with a selfie Beth and Abby had taken several weeks back, and it was quite the contrast. Beth was wearing her green army jacket over a Gandalf t-shirt. Abby wore a light blue coat with lavender trim over a black top and pink leggings, brown leather boots, and a matching brown hat adorned with a blue feather. “I still can’t believe you sewed that coat!” Michiko said.
“I’m glad she lost that scarf,” Beth added.
“Literally.” Abby grinned.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you…” Beth tapped the photo near Abby’s right leg. There was what appeared to be a small belt wrapped around her thigh. “What’s that?”
“It’s a garter.”
“Kinky!” Michiko said with a big grin. Beth threw her head back and laughed.
Abby rolled her eyes. “Not that kind. Pervert.” Michiko giggled.
“Is that like the ones the members of the Order of the Garter are given?” Beth asked.
“Yes,” Abby said. “It’s more of a badge of honor than it is lingerie.”
“So you were…awarded that one?”
“You could say that.” Abby blushed. “It wasn’t an official thing.”
“There’s a story behind it, huh?” Beth said.
“Tell us!” Michiko said.
“All right.” Abby folded her hands and rested them in her lap as Beth set her tablet aside. “It happened last summer, when I went with my parents to see Mom’s family back on Annwyn…”
* * *
Abby blinked, her hazel eyes adjusting to the sun as she stepped outside of the Drake family house. It was morning on Annwyn, and unlike her home in San Francisco, all was quiet except for the occasional distant cluck or moo.
Usually there was some small pleasure to be found in the summer vacations Abby took to her grandparents’ farm with her family. There would be a relative she hadn’t seen in a while, a neighbor with stories to tell, a chance to sneak off to the village an hour’s ride away, swordplay lessons from Uncle Nico, even quiet time with her mom or dad.
Today had turned out different. A dignitary from several kingdoms over had insisted on meeting the legendary Theresa Drake, the farmgirl turned Bureau of Interdimensional Policing agent who had brought down the infamous sorcerer Kraimorg, and her husband Charlie Main, the Earthling with no combat skills or magical ability who still talked himself out of trouble time and again. Her extended family had been drafted into helping prepare for the visit, the horses were off limits as they might be needed for a tour of the farm, which meant no riding to town, and Uncle Nico had been delayed by business matters. Abby was on her own.
She idly wandered towards her grandparents’ barn, feeling the faint summer breeze rustle her wavy red hair. She welcomed it. Even though it was early, and she was wearing a blue sundress and white leggings to try to keep cool, the morning sun was already quite warm, promising a hot afternoon to come.
Abby knew the farm well. Her mother had been bringing her and her father there for summer vacation every year since she’d been born, and she and her cousins had used to play there often when she was younger, exploring the fields, enjoying the lazy afternoons. She didn’t miss those days, but she suspected she might as she grew older.
Abby was close to the barn when she noticed that the door was ajar. That’s odd, she thought as she stopped. Usually, Uncle Elson closes it himself last thing.
She heard footsteps coming from inside the barn, heavy ones. She quickly stepped behind a tree, glancing out as someone emerged carrying two chickens, one tucked under each arm. She held back a gasp.
The trolls of Annwyn were different from those that haunted the forests and back alleys of Faerie. On Annwyn, trolls had small horns growing from their foreheads, hairy limbs, and reddish skin. This one seemed shorter and scrawnier than others Abby had seen, but she knew not to underestimate them. She had heard the tales of the Troll Wars from thirty years ago. Some had been told to her by one of the heroes of that war, a retired knight named Sir Gareth, who owned the estate next to the Drake farm and had become friends with her grandparents.
The troll glanced about nervously as he hurried away from the barn. Abby thought for a moment about going back to the house and telling her grandparents and Uncle Elson, but she didn’t want to embarrass them in front of Lord Muckety-Muck. She set off after the troll, keeping some distance between them, glad she was wearing sneakers and not boots as she ran after him.
* * *
The small cottage stood at the far end of a wheat field. In the distance, if one squinted, a large manor house and a nearby barn could be seen. The troll slowed down as he reached the cottage, glancing quickly left and right before he went inside.
“You’re back!” said one of the men who were sitting at an old, battered table near the door. The men were coarsely dressed, in clothes that reeked from the previous night’s ale. “What took you so long, eh?”
“Now, now, Rupert.” The other man got up from the table and walked over to the troll. “He knows he has to be careful. If he’s not, he gets the stick.” He scowled at the troll, baring his teeth. The troll cringed.
“Well, Roscoe, let’s see what he brought.” Rupert joined the other man and pulled one of the chickens from the troll’s grasp. “Nice plump layers!” he chortled. “One for each of us, huh, Roscoe?”
“I can taste them now! How far did you have to go to get them?” Roscoe said to the troll.
“Just—just down a ways.” The troll shivered. “The next farm over.”
“Not from Gareth’s?” Roscoe glared at the troll. “Too many people milling around, eh?”
“The next farm over,” Rupert mused. “Whose is that again?”
“The Drake farm.” The men and the troll all jumped at Abby’s voice from the doorway. “My grandparents’. And those are two of their layers your troll friend has there.”
The humans glanced at each other and smiled. “And what are you going to do, little girl?” Rupert said with a sneer. “Run back to your granny and cry?”
That might work, a small part of Abby thought. It is three against one, after all. She ignored it as she said, “I’m going to ask you politely to give those hens back.”
“Oh, are you now?” Roscoe stepped towards Abby.
“Now, hold on,” Rupert said. “She’s with the Drake family. Maybe we should—“
Roscoe moved closer to Abby. “Here’s some advice, girl,” he hissed; Abby winced at the smell of sour ale on his breath. “Go home and forget what you’re seeing here. If you don’t—” He pointed at the troll, and Abby saw the bruises and welts on the troll’s arms and legs. “I’ll do you like I did him.”
Abby could see the troll cower, see the pain in his face, and something inside her said, That’s enough. Her eyes narrowed as she stared down Roscoe. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with, do you?” she said quietly.
“Course I do!” Roscoe laughed. “What we’ve got here is a stupid little girl who is—”
“The daughter of Theresa Drake.” Abby’s hands glowed. “You’ve heard of my mom, I’m sure.”
Rupert stepped back quickly. “Sorceress,” Roscoe said, swallowing nervously. “Maybe we should—”
“I’m not letting any little witch scare me!” Rupert grabbed a butcher knife from the table. “I’ll teach her something!”
Abby spoke softly, drawing on and channeling the magical energy that flowed through Annwyn like a brook in the forest. A green eldritch shield sprung up, attached to her left arm, as Rupert brought his weapon down.
The knife bounced off the shield. Rupert staggered back, and Abby pointed at him with her right forefinger. The spellbolt, a simple blast of pure magical energy, shot from her fingertip and struck Rupert in the stomach, knocking him back. He fell to the floor, his knife flying from his hand.
In the corner of her eye, Abby saw Roscoe closing in on her. She spun and grabbed his arm, using his momentum to push him past her. He smashed into the cottage wall and slumped against it, dazed and in pain.
Abby glared at the two humans as Rupert slowly got to his feet. “Get out,” she said.
“This is our cottage, missy!” Rupert clenched his fists. “And I’m not going to—”
The spellbolt shot between the two men, leaving a black scar on the wall behind them. “I said, get out!” Abby snapped. “Now!”
Rupert shot out the door. Roscoe glared at Abby as he followed, and she knew, even as she closed the cottage door behind them, it wasn’t over. She looked at the troll, who had curled up in a corner. “Are you all right?” she asked.
“Go away.” The troll tried to squeeze against the wall.
Abby walked over to him. “I just wanted to know—”
“No!” The troll jumped to his feet, towering over Abby, raising a fist. “I won’t let you hurt me like they did!”
Abby stepped back, keeping her breathing steady. “I won’t hurt you,” she said, trying to keep her voice from shaking. “I won’t.”
“Humans always hurt me!” The troll took a step towards Abby. “The one who killed my father tried to kill me too! Those two said they’d take care of me, but they called me names and they made me steal food for them and they beat me with a stick!” He pointed to a wooden rod leaning against the wall. “I won’t let them hurt me again!”
Abby looked at the troll and saw his fist trembling, saw him swallowing. He’s scared, she thought. He’s more scared than I am. “Neither will I,” she said softly. “I can help you, but you’ll have to trust me.”
“How can I?” the troll growled.
“The same way I’m going to trust you.” Abby spread her arms wide. “You can leave if you want. You—you can hurt me if you want. But I won’t fight you. I want you to stay. I want you to trust me.” She closed her eyes and held her breath.
Abby heard a thump and opened her eyes. The troll had fallen to his knees, hiding his face in his big hands. She could hear him sobbing. She knelt next to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right,” she said gently. “Everything’s going to be all right.”
After a minute, the troll lowered his hands and wiped his eyes. “I’m sorry if I scared you,” he sniffled. “I’m sorry.”
Abby smiled. “I forgive you,” she said. “My name’s Abby. What’s yours?”
“Well, Toby, we don’t see many trolls in these parts. How did you wind up here?”
Toby stared down at his hands. “My father was killed in a raid a few years ago, and me and my mother barely got away. We wound up with another troll clan, and one of them married my mother, but he thought I was in the way, so they threw me out.”
“How old are you?” Abby asked.
“Ten.” The troll kept his head lowered.
Abby shook her head. “That’s not right,” she said. “Not at all.”
“I wandered through the woods for a while, and then those two humans found me. They seemed so nice at first, but then they started using me to do all their work and steal from people. And when I told them I didn’t want to do that, they beat me with that stick and said I had to or they’d have me arrested and the soldiers would kill me.”
Abby looked at Toby, at the cruel welts that covered his limbs, at the ragged clothes and the sad eyes. She stood and walked over to the stick. “Toby…” As the troll looked up, she picked up the stick and broke it in half. “They’ll never hurt you again,” she said. “I swear it.”
Toby nodded. “But they’ll be back. I don’t want to stay here.”
Abby tossed the broken stick aside, thinking quickly. She knew that she couldn’t take Toby to her grandparents’ house; there might be trouble with their visitors. She couldn’t risk leaving the troll by himself, so she was left with just one option. “Toby?” she said. “We’ll need to go to Sir Gareth’s estate.”
“Sir Gareth?” The troll recoiled. “But those men told me he’d cut my head off!”
“They were lying to keep you from leaving.” Abby kept the worry out of her voice. She wasn’t actually sure how the knight would react to having a troll dropped in his lap, but she had to do something. “Come on.”
Abby walked to the door and opened it. Toby slowly stood up and headed outside. Abby could see him trying not to shake or whimper as she followed him, closing the door behind her to keep the chickens from escaping. “Do you think they waited for us?” he said.
“I don’t know,” Abby whispered, “but let’s play it safe. We’ll cut through the wheat field. Stay low.” She moved away from the cottage, crouching as she ran. She could hear the troll panting behind her.
“There! That’s them!” Abby looked up and saw Roscoe and Rupert heading towards her and Toby, followed by four farmhands carrying rakes and scythes. “That’s the troll!” Roscoe shouted. “And the stupid little girl who wants to protect him.”
Abby swallowed. “Toby?” she said. “Run. Get to the manor.”
“No!” Toby said. “I can’t leave you here!”
Rupert laughed harshly. “A brave troll is a dead troll. Get him, lads!”
“Stand down,” Abby said. “You won’t hurt him any more. I won’t let you.” Her hands started to glow.
The farmhands looked at each other. “What are you waiting for?” Roscoe hissed.
“But I know her!” One of the farmhands pointed at Abby. “She’s one of the Drake grandchildren!”
Another farmhand scowled. “Look at all the bruises on the troll. Something’s not right.” He lowered his rake.
Rupert spread his arms. “Come on lads!” he said with a phony smile. “Who are you going to believe?”
“That’s quite a good question.”
Everyone turned to see the four men riding towards them. The one who had spoken had a gray beard and a face lined with age and caution, but his eyes were sharp and he rode as if he were born in the saddle. He wore a white robe, emblazoned with a lion and a phoenix, over black tights. “Who should I believe?” Sir Gareth asked. “The men who keep poaching from my barn and squatting on my property, or the daughter of a hero and granddaughter of an old friend?”
Roscoe cleared his throat. “Sir Gareth? If I may—”
“No, you may not.” The knight turned towards the farmhands. “Men? Guard these two. I suspect the magistrate will be quite glad to see them. Dwight?” he said to one of the other riders, who was dressed the same as he was. “Would you head over to the Drake house? I know they have important visitors, but I’m sure that Master Charles could be spared for a few minutes.”
* * *
Abby was no stranger to Sir Gareth’s study; she had spent the waning hours of many summer days there as the knight spun his stories. It was cozy, lit by windows along two walls, with a stuffed bookshelf dominating another wall, next to a desk with a shelf that held trophies, medals and mementos. “I was right about the magistrate,” Gareth said as he settled into his large cushioned chair, a cup of tea on the small table next to him. “Those two have been poaching from farms for miles around, not just here.”
“I would think that their bigger crime is how they treated that poor troll,” Charlie Main said as he sat on a sofa next to Abby. Her father had been pressured into dressing up for the royal visit, so he was wearing a doublet with the Drake crest on the back, over a white top and blue tights. Abby considered it a small triumph that she had not laughed herself silly at the sight.
“Not just physically,” Abby added. “Toby said they insulted and threatened him.”
“And they also starved him.” Gareth shook his head. “The boy hasn’t had more than one meal a day in ages.”
“Monsters,” Abby said, clenching her fists. “They deserve to be locked away.”
“And they will be, for a good long time.”
“Where’s Toby now?” Charlie asked.
“Dwight took a liking to him,” Gareth said. “He insisted on taking him to the kitchen.”
“And dinner. Have you ever fed a hungry troll?” The knight smiled. “There may not be anything left for Dwight and myself.”
Abby chuckled. “We may have to bring over some of our leftovers for your farmhands!”
“Even so…it’s a good thing you spotted him.” Gareth sipped his tea.
Charlie scowled. “I still think you should have gone for help instead of facing those grifters by yourself.”
“Dad…” Abby blushed. “You and Mom were busy. And if I’d left, Toby would have been beaten for getting caught.”
“Maybe. But if you hadn’t been able to stop them…” Charlie shook his head. “Anyway, we should get back to the house.” He rose from the sofa.
“Master Charles…” Sir Gareth looked at Charlie. “Before you go, might I have a word with your daughter in private?”
Charlie looked back and forth between his daughter and the knight. “Sure,” he said. “I’ll wait out front.” He left the study, closing the door behind him.
“He seems to be a bit upset with you,” Gareth said to Abby, a hint of sadness in his voice.
“He’s very protective,” Abby said. “He doesn’t want me to be hurt.”
“I can understand that.” Gareth stood up and walked over to the desk. “Abby…why did you do it?”
“Yes. No one would ever have known if you let it be. Many would say that after all, he’s just a troll.”
Abby looked at her hands. “He…he was a boy. He was beaten. He was alone and scared. I saw how much he needed help, troll or not.” She looked up at the knight. “I couldn’t leave him there,” she said softly. “I had to help.”
Gareth nodded. “You did the right thing, my dear. I think your father is secretly proud of you for that, and I’m sure your mother will be.”
“Thank you.” Abby blushed.
“Abby…” The knight gestured towards the desk, the trophies and awards displayed there. “I’ve told you the stories behind all of these, right?”
“You have. Several times.” Abby tried not to grin.
“I do hope I haven’t bored you.” Gareth tapped a small sculpture of a knight on horseback, riding at full gallop. “This one was when I had to ride fifty miles to warn of an attack.”
“And then you insisted on riding back with the reinforcements!”
“And this one—” He pointed at a large seven-pointed gold medal on a stand. “Dwight and I held off the clan of assassins on the palace grounds until help arrived.”
“The saving of the Infant Prince!” Abby said.
“Have I ever said what my strongest memory of that day is?” Gareth idly toyed with the medal’s ribbon. “It was when Dwight jumped in front of an archer to take an arrow for me. Luckily, it only caught him in the arm.” He smiled. “I never knew until then how much we meant to one another.” He looked back at Abby. “I have other medals. They’re the ones I choose not to display.”
“Why is that?” Abby asked. She could see that there was room on the desk.
“Because of how I earned them.” The knight sighed. “All the fighting we did in the Troll Wars, and it only ended when we finally sat down and talked to them and reached a settlement. All the lives lost on both sides…”
Gareth opened a desk drawer and pulled out a small, plain wooden box. “This one, I was given for defeating a squadron of trolls.” He shook his head. “My company ambushed them in their tents as they slept.”
“Oh no,” Abby said softly.
“It wasn’t a battle, it was slaughter. Murder. This award? I only accepted it to be polite. I don’t deserve it.”
Gareth walked over to Abby and opened the box. Inside, Abby could see what appeared to be a small leather belt. “What is that?” she asked.
“It’s a garter,” the knight said. “It was meant to be ceremonial, not functional.”
“They used to do something similar on Earth,” Abby said.
Gareth took the garter from the box. “I do like the message etched on the inside,” he said. He held it up for Abby to see.
“’Character is how you act when no one is watching’,” she read. “That’s nice.”
“Abby…” Gareth returned the garter to the box and closed the lid. “You could have abandoned Toby. You could have walked away, and no one would have ever known. But you stood by him and helped him.” He knelt before Abby. “For doing the right thing, with courage and bravery,” he said solemnly, “I want you to have this.” He placed the box in her hands.
Abby had a tear in her eye as she looked down at the box, then back at Sir Gareth. “I…I can’t accept this,” she whispered.
“Yes, you can. You’ve earned it.”
“But it was yours.”
The knight stood up and smiled. “It’s not doing me any good stuck in a drawer. And as you can see…” He slapped his thick thigh. “It never would fit me anyway.”
Abby laughed. “I see your point!” she said. “Thank you, Sir Gareth.”
* * *
Beth glanced at Gregor’s cage as Abby finished her story. “Looks like he’s finally gone to sleep,” she said.
“He really doesn’t like soppy stories!” Michiko grinned.
Beth giggled as she got up from the couch. “I’ll make some popcorn,” she said as she headed for the kitchen.
Michiko nodded. “So, Abby?” she asked. “What happened to Toby?”
“He’s working on Sir Gareth’s farm now,” Abby said.
“Is that going okay?”
“Well…he has his moments.” Abby pouted. “Sometimes, he has bad dreams. He acts up a little. But he’s getting better. And he’s learning basic math, and how to read and write.”
“That’s great!” Michiko smiled.
“And he keeps asking about how I’m doing.” Abby smiled slightly. “If I can get back to Annwyn this summer, I’m hoping to see him.”
Abby looked down at the photo on Beth’s tablet. “That’s why I wanted to wear Sir Gareth’s garter,” she said. “I needed to remember what was important. I don’t want to be a hero just for the glory or the sake of battle or to follow someone’s orders. I want to help people, to give them a chance.”
“Like the chance you gave Toby,” Michiko said.
“And like you and Beth are giving me.” Abby smiled. “Everyone was telling me today about everything you two have done to help them. I’m glad I’ll be working with you.”
“Awww.” Michiko returned Abby’s smile. “Thank you!”
“I can’t wait for the chance to help you and Beth!”
“Well…” Beth walked out of the kitchen and handed a bowl filled with fresh buttered popcorn to Abby. “Like they say, be careful what you wi