Part Six of The Lost Children of Guérande
Reginald strode along a deep, slow churning stream. His eyes constantly scanned the brush and trees for the quarry he sought. The marsh was silent besides the soft squelching sound his boots made as he tread over the mud. The sun shined wanly through trees and Reginald tried to remain in the shadows as he moved forward.
The knight hadn’t encountered any of Laurent’s men and didn’t know whether that was a good thing. Reginald certainly couldn’t afford being detained by the sheriff, but the knight knew they could overpower the troll together. Again, the alienation his damnation caused hampered everything he tried to accomplish. He could only hope the troll ran across the men of Guérande and they managed to cripple or kill the massive creature.
An increasingly unlikely scenario if Clemence’s instructions were correct. Up ahead Reginald saw “the stone steps” the little girl had mentioned. Large, flat stones formed a natural bridge across the deep water and onto the elevated bank on the other side. Reginald crossed the stream with ease and quickly moved back into cover as he looked for the next landmark.
A roar sounded in the distance and Reginald froze in his tracks. No boar or bear could make such a noise. After several tense moments without hearing anything more the knight resumed his search. His surroundings grew dark as the trees became clustered and their branches blotted out the sun. Up ahead he could see a clearing.
What had to be the “skeleton tree” that Clemence described, stood in the middle of the glade. It was a decaying silver birch tree. Leafless, its pale limbs were rigid with death. Reginald’s eyes caught movement around the trunk and saw several will o wisps entering a hole within the tree. Given their vicinity to the troll’s lair – the knight knew these were the same creatures helping the beast to lure children out of Guérande.
Reginald wasted little time in gathering whatever tinder he could find. When he was sure he had enough for his purposes he raced up to the hole and jammed handfuls of moss into the will o wisps home. The knight saw tiny, pale arms sticking out the barrier as the wisps attempted to crawl free of their impending doom. Reginald denied them. More moss followed and then pieces of dried birch bark.
Sparks from his flint ignited the death trap and in moments a fire blazed brightly. Reginald could hear the wisp’s muffled screams as they were burned alive within the tree hollow. Reginald watched a moment more to insure none of the winged fiends escaped to warn the troll of his approach. Satisfied with the extermination, he proceeded through the glade.
Finally the hollow came into view. The knight’s hand grasped the hilt of his sword as another roar broke the silence. This time Reginald was able to locate its source. Several yards ahead of him was a cave that served as the troll’s lair. Reginald found cover to hide behind as the beast stepped out into the light. As he viewed the massive monster from afar – Reginald waited until it left the area to enact his plan. The creature eventually plodded down a path into the marsh.
Reginald immediately began digging deep, narrow holes along the path. The foothold trap his father had taught him was a vicious way to snare an animal or man. A deep hole was dug into the earth. Then sharpened stakes were embedded into the sides of the hole in an angle. A snare with a slipknot was then placed over the hole and tied off to a nearby tree. When the unsuspecting prey stepped into the hole, the sharpened sticks would dig in and the snare would tighten as the prey attempted to jerk free.
Reginald doubted such a trap would cripple the troll, the thick rope he purchased might even snap given the beast’s incredible power. Still, the trap would serve his needs if it managed to restrain the monster long enough for him to use the heavy crossbow. Reginald could fire the weapon safely while the beast remained leashed to a tree.
Andre Laurent marched through Brière irritably. The peasants behind him grumbled constantly about the dampness and the cold. The militiamen under his command whispered to one another that this expedition was a fool’s errand. Unlike the peasants, they knew what lurked in the eerily silent marsh. Having battled the troll last night, the pressured Sheriff of Guérande knew they were right.
But there was nothing else to be done. The villagers were in a state of panic. If he took no action he risked loosing their confidence in his ability to protect them. This was an unacceptable outcome for the proud Laurent. His duty to the people of Guérande would be fulfilled when the beast’s severed head rested atop a pike on the village wall. Such a victory would remove the bitter taste left by his recent setbacks. Especially the thrashing he received from the mysterious knight named Reginald.
Laurent was a noble. He was trained since childhood to bear arms in his family’s name and in service to the king. To be disarmed and so soundly defeated was a humiliating outcome. Laurent’s anger was only blunted by his immense curiosity. Reginald claimed to have come to Guérande seeking a possible reward if he ended the threat to its children. At first Laurent suspected the English knight of being the actual culprit. But last night he saw Reginald in the village, locked in single combat with a troll. A creature he thought existed only in children’s stories. The troll was most likely the reason for the lost and presumably slain children. So the knight had spoken truly.
If so, why did he still hold such a strong loathing and suspicion of Reginald?
The ground shook suddenly and Laurent knew the troll was upon them before he even saw the monster. The Sheriff of Guérande turned and saw the troll had charged them from behind. His green skin had concealed him in the surrounding vegetation and allowed him to ambush the peasants under his command. In stunned horror, Laurent witnessed on man simply explode into bloody scraps of meat and bone. His body obliterated by the giant club the troll held. With the blood of their fallen comrade sprayed over their faces – the peasants fled.
If Laurent hadn’t acted it would have been a rout.
The pike militia fell into line behind Laurent as he rushed the towering troll. Seeing so many enemies arrayed against it, the monster retreated a few steps. The giant femur it held poised to sweep aside the men. Laurent needed to keep the troll off balanced to prevent it from brining its full force to bear.
The sheriff signaled for the detachment of bowmen to take a position on the troll’s flank. The pike men formed a loose formation up front. Their weapon’s length kept them out of the troll’s reach as the crossbowmen got into position. Seeing the discipline of the militia, the peasants regained their nerve and joined the fray with a ragged charge. Laurent’s forces had held together, despite the terrifying display of the troll’s power.
Laurent slashed at the monsters legs. His attacks served more as a distraction than a genuine threat. The steel pikes of the militia began to pierce the troll’s armor of leather hide and scaly skin. Black blood oozed out of the wounds the men afflicted. The monster tried to advance, but another hail of crossbow bolts drove it back. For a moment it seemed the Sheriff of Guérande would have his redeeming victory.
Then the troll roared.
A deafening war cry that froze the men around it – their attack stalled. It was all the time the troll needed to rear the femur back and strike. Laurent saw a pikeman’s arm torn free at the elbow, the weapon he held snapped in two. Another man went down when the troll’s club collided with his knee. The leg snapped like a twig and he collapsed to the ground in agony. Seizing the opportunity, the beast stomped on the prone man’s chest. His ribs caved in and he writhed in agony, gurgling blood before he died.
The peasants wavered. Their courage faltered in the face of the troll’s renewed onslaught. Their hesitation gave the green titan the opening it needed to attack the detachment of crossbow men. Being lightly armed, they broke rank and fled. One of the militia did not flee fast enough and was grasped from behind. The desperate and condemned man flailed his limbs in a futile effort to escape. The troll lifted the man above his head and squeezed. Like a wrung towel, blood poured out of the twisted wreckage of the body and into the troll’s gaping maw.
“My god…,” Laurent whispered.
He pushed through the fleeing peasants and joined the remaining militia that gave ground as the blood soaked monster advanced. The nobles finally joined Laurent – but their backward glances towards home told the Sheriff they weren’t committed to the battle. Defeat was a certainty. Survival would take a miracle…