The Forager pushed aside saplings with her axe, taking slow steps, walking lightly to avoid the crackle of dried wood underfoot. Bird’s shrieked a cacophony in the branches above her, masking all but the loudest noises in the forest.
Still, it paid to be cautious; the troll clan would not welcome her presence here.
The sun fell in strips, torn by leaf-edges into mere ribbons of light. They swarmed with bark dust and spores, with bug dung and seeds; they held the breath of the forest within their beams.
The Forager pressed on, step by gentle step. Her axe caught the sunlight and sang the silent song of metal in bright heat, remembering all of its days up until this day, all of its chops and clobbers. She pulled it back into the shadows lest it send out a beacon of joyous light and unknowingly alert the clan.
She could hear them, not too far ahead. She could hear their laughter, like boulders falling down a waterfall, and she could hear their gravelly words in a language which only Forager’s could understand, now. She had learned the troll tongue as an elfling, learned it from her mother, and from her mother before her; from the long line of elven women who lived on within her blood, within her beating heart. She had travelled to this place many times as a companion before she had been left to walk alone. She could almost feel her mother beside her, taking silent steps between the trees.
On she went – quietly, quietly – breathing slowly around the racing knot in her chest. She could feel the damp of the rotting leaves beneath her feet climbing her mulberry cloak and the smell of dank things, of moss and mildew, filled her nose. It is no easy trek through a forest of leaves when you are as tiny as an elf: her satchel was heavy on her back and her blonde hair loosened from her braid and rose skyward in the late afternoon humidity.
Finally, she reached a granite shelf and brushed her hand across its face, pushing fingers into grooves worn smooth by time. She had spent many long hours behing this rock, waiting; her fingers knew every dip, every valley, every rise. She took comfort from the cool rock and pressed her cheek briefly against its surface.
Sudden movement at the mouth of the cave stilled her head and she watched silently, her face squashed against the granite. Her breathing halted, held inside frozen lungs.
A troll emerged into the diffused light and looked around. It was taller, even, than a man and truly massive to the tiny elf pressed against the rock. It’s black hair hung in tangles over wide shoulders down to a swollen belly. It’s sparse clothes were made of crudely stitched leather and it’s incredible feet were hairy and bare. It turned its head to the telltale breeze and sniffed so deeply that the leaves settled at its feet swirled closer. The Forager dared not even blink. She was as much the rock as the slick lichen coating its surface.
After staring hard in her direction for so long that The Forager’s whole body began to tremble with the exertion of staying absolutely motionless, it huffed and turned away. The elf stayed trembling against the rock and closed her eyes, too afraid even to follow its movements. Troll’s live their lives in dimness and their eyes are keen. Even a tiny elf can be spotted and squashed in a moment.
She heard a tearing sound and the discordant shriek of hundreds of startled creatures as the troll tore a branch from the nearest tree. Still glancing around suspiciously, it returned to the cave, dragging the large branch – the size of a young tree itself – along the leaf-strewn ground. Both the branch and the troll’s heavy feet left great valleys in the moulding earth and soon water seeped in and made puddles in their wake.
As the troll disappeared into the darkness, a clamouring roar burst from the cave and the elf staggered away from the rock, her skin shuddering. And then, the wet slurp and crunch of dinner, magnified by the cave and the trees into a tuneless confusion of sound.
It was time.
She crept from tree to tree, keeping as low and quiet as she could, edging closer to the rocks littering the mouth of the cave, aiming for the usual tear in the canopy where tired sunlight fell through. Forager elves had been pulling saplings from this spot for a hundred years or more, clearing the ground so that sun could find rock.
Because this was where the troll moss grew. Troll moss is so rare that almost nobody remembers it, only forager’s and apothecaries. It can only flourish in the most precise conditions.
First, a cave must form in a forest over a hundred thousand years of rain and rockfalls and landslides. Then, an ancient tree must fall so that sunlight can penetrate the deep dark of the forest. Finally, trolls must arrive and claim the cave as their home. It is the only way the moss spores can survive: they need the hot, wet breath of the troll’s and the stark sunlight burning the darkness away.
But troll’s are scarce now, gone as soon as forgotten.
Suddenly, the land below The Forager’s feet slipped away. She reached desperately with her right hand and grasped a root rising awkwardly from the ground. In her left hand, her axe skidded and almost slid from her fingers. She tightened her grip and swung the axe furiously across her body and into the wet earth, where it stuck with a squelch. Letting go of the axe handle, she grasped the root with both hands and pulled herself back onto solid ground. Then she reached down and pulled the slippery axe from the mud and the leaf rot. She wiped it on her muddy cloak and felt the damp press through to her skin.
Back among the leaves and the roots, the forager elf took a moment to catch her shaking breath – but only a moment. Time was short; the troll’s would soon be finished with their meal.
She surveyed the ground between the troll moss and herself and her heart clenched. The troll’s heavy footprints and the long path of the dragging tree branch were great lakes between her and her prize. There was no way across, no place where the land would not simply slide away beneath her feet.
The Forager sank to her knees in momentary despair. Without the moss, there would be no medicine; the apothecary – indeed, the whole of Elvenrealm – was depending on her. She looked all around with fiercely focused eyes. She could already hear shuffling and lip-smacking as the troll’s finished their meal and returned to the mouth of the cave to await twilight. She was almost out of time.
There! A break in the canopy on the other side of the cave, above the largest oak the elf had ever seen. But the break was not as old as her usual clearing, maybe not old enough. She moved parallel to the great pools of water blocking her way, her eyes skidding from the new break in the canopy to the cave mouth and back again.
Finally, she was close enough to see clearly and she stood up straight, risking everything for one glimpse of the ground beneath the tree. Saplings littered the sunlit clearing: the troll’s had been feasting there for many weeks. And beneath the golden beams were moss covered rocks glowing so brightly it brought tears to her eyes.
Troll moss. Only, how to reach it, that brilliant beam? How to cross the mouth of a troll cave and live to tell about it?
Another great burst of laughter escaped the darkness and the elf just ran. She went without hesitation, swinging her cloak around her body, clenching her fist around the axe in her left hand. She moved as though dancing, sweeping across the mouth of the cave as light as air. If the troll’s were to look up at that moment, they would see nothing but swirling leaves spun northward by the woodland winds.
Or, they would see an elf in a mulberry cloak and all would be lost.
Faster and faster she turned, blonde braid shaking loose to give her away. Faster and faster, feet twisting in the dirt. Faster and faster, axe head glinting her secret. Still, they didn’t look out. Still, she spun.
And suddenly, she was in the shadows. Pressing through the undergrowth. Gasping silently for breath. Crouching down and lowering her head into the crook of one arm to end the spinning in her brain.
They didn’t see her, they hadn’t heard. She was safe, for now, to forage. But soon they would emerge into twilight and she must be finished and away through the woods to Elvenrealm.
She slid her satchel down her arms, opened it and removed a glass vial wrapped in green felt. The vial was stopped with a cork and she pulled it out and placed both cork and vial on the ground. Then she took up her axe and slid the sharp blade between the rock and its mossy coat. The moss came away easily, saturated and teeming with microscopic life, but it was heavy for The Forager to manage and her cloak and braid were quickly soaked through. With effort, she rolled up the moss like a towel and twisted it over the vial. Clear water streamed off the tips of her elbows and poured from the moss into the vial. The moss sighed quietly and shrank almost to nothing. The elf unrolled it and placed it gently back onto its rock so that it might fill itself once more. Such is the way of the forest: if you take care, you will find more of what you need than if you are harmful. The moss had already begun to swell as The Forager wrapped the cork vial in its woollen blanket and placed it in her satchel.
Her hands were shadows as she slipped the satchel back up onto her shoulders. Twilight was coming and soon the troll’s would leave the cave and roam the forest looking for the weak and the weary. The moon and her borrowed light could not turn them to stone as could the sun’s midday rays. They were safe in the darkness, safe to cause their mischief. Safe and large and powerful. The elf must move fast.
She did not need to cross the cave mouth again: there are many ways home if you know them. Instead, she raced into the forest, hacking at leaves and vines with her axe, flitting over the uneven ground as only a creature raised in the undergrowth can. She ran until the breath burned her lungs and her legs lost all feeling. Elven mile after elven mile. She heard the troll’s as they crashed violently from the cave, heard their shouts as they fought and tumbled about the clearing.
Even before she saw the tree, she was pulling the key from inside her shirt. She tore the cord from around her neck and shoved the key into the keyhole at the base of the oak. Her hands were shaking so wildly that she could barely keep a grip on the warm metal.
And then, the ground beneath her feet began to tremble as the troll’s turned in her direction, chasing her scent on the wind. Only two strides and they would be beside her, above her. She was so small and they were so so big. She turned the key as a roar rose up behind her and hot breath bathed her skin. The door opened. She fell through and kicked it shut. The whole world was darkness.
Had she made it? She wasn’t sure. But this pounding pain in her chest must mean that she was alive, that she was through the door. She looked around at the shadows: there a chair, there a fireplace.
She was home.