in the Pond
by Larry Bullock
(Winner, 3rd Place, 2016)
A Mourfa struggles to get out of the Thuriad but despite her best efforts, she has to see it through to the end.
“This is where I leave you,” he said. “Your task is simple enough. Go to Naumgard. Liberate the Pebble in the Pond. Return here.”
As he turned away with a flourish, he stated “you have 3 days to complete the final task of the Thuriad!”
The group looked back at the crowds lined along the edges of the marsh. Quite a crowd to wait and see them fail. But the final test of the Thuriad was not for the faint of heart. They doubted if anyone would be following them in. The crowd would be listening for the screams.
Keri Elo gingerly took a step into the marsh. The fetid water swirled around her leg, but did not seem to bother her. She thought back to how she had gotten here. It was all a mistake.
When she left her Mourfa village, it was a cool morning. She had finished a batch of wines and was off to sell them to whoever would like them. The humans in Sindra seemed to enjoy them, much more than she enjoyed heading in to the city. However, while she did not need much, she still needed some contact with the outside world to get it.
It never took long to find a buyer. The humans seemed drawn to Mourfa wine like flies to dung. They never had trouble finding her since she literally stood above the crowd by many feet. She cringed as the children seemed to point out the giant mushroom troll in their midst. She was Mourfa; proud; more at home in the wilds than any city, not some outlander troll.
She took more care traveling in the city than she did in the woodlands. Too many fragile things around to not be careful. However, she was not careful enough. She was heading towards Magnus' stall. He never seemed to judge her, and was happy to buy all of her stores of wine so that he could resell it. She preferred dealing with Magnus. It made her trips much easier.
“Greetings, Keri!” he hailed.
“Well met, Magnus. I hope you are in need of more wine.”
“Always, my dear. I wasn't expecting you for another week though.”
“I know, but I need to get some ingredients that I have not been able to find lately, so I came in early. Will there be a problem?”
Keri leaned against her staff. Not that she had need of one. She had magic to keep her safe enough, even here. However, it helped to keep others at ease when they were near her. It made her seem more fragile and less intimidating.
She had finished her transaction and was turning to head to where should could purchase what she needed when someone called out, “You there. Troll!”
She turned towards the voice as he approached. “The council is looking for more diversity in this year's Thuriad. Are you interested?”
Keri slowly scratched her blue-capped head. The Thuriad? She had no interest in performing tricks for the assembled council. She had more important things to do, didn't she? Why would she want to put herself through this humiliation?
She ignored the young representative and turned to walk away. “Stupid troll,” she heard him mutter.
She turned and reached out with her long arm, gently resting it on the young man's shoulder. “Please, I am Mourfa, not troll.”
“Whatever” the boy started as he swung his arm towards hers to knock it away. It did not move. She grasped his shoulder a little tighter.
“What is your name?”
“Agmen. Let me go,” he stammered.
“Think about your words before you let them leave your lips, Agmen”, she said as she gently pushed him away. He turned and ran away.
Magnus started chuckling. “Maybe he learned something today.”
Keri looked a little ashamed. “Doubtful.”
Suddenly her staff was yanked from her hand by an unseen force and flew against the nearby wall. She turned and saw an old man glaring at her. His hands were outstretched, a pale green light surrounded his clawed fingers. The early market crowds backed away.
Without pause, the man gestured at her. It felt as if the air had left her lungs. She dropped to one knee. Her hand rested on the ground. She glanced at the man, as he took a spinning step forward. The green light around his hands changed to red.
No time to think, she dug her fingers into the ground. Long dead roots sprung from the ground underneath the old man's feet. He tripped and with a curse on his lips fell to the ground. Keri watched as new life sprang into the roots. They wrapped the old man up, immobilizing him.
From behind her, she heard Magnus say, “you have definitely passed the first round. You're stuck in it now.”
As her next step splashed in the murky water, she glanced at the other finalists. “Are you coming?”
Zeddicus Wicus, looked at her and then at the water. “There is no way I can go in there and be cut off from magic. How will I survive.” His face gave the impression that he was already deep in the marsh and smelt the decay.
Fischer Odio laughed and stepped in beside Keri. He sank almost to his waist and let out a cry, “that is cold water!”
“Baby,” Isolde Alryca stated, but she stepped more gingerly trying to stick to drier ground and shallower water.
Galanus Baden sneered and followed Isolde. “Come along Zeddicus.”
The group trudged through the marsh. Other than the occasional bird and splashes from something in the water, the walk was difficult, wet, but uneventful.
“I'm not looking forward to spending the night in this place,” Zeddicus said.
“Seven leagues out, seven back,” Fischer replied.
“No one says we have to stop,” Isolde said.
“Why do you think they gave us three days to finish? It will take some time to cover that distance in these conditions,” Galanus gestured at the murk and weeds, and mist around them.
“We just have to do something to keep out minds off of where we are,” Keri said.
“The troll speaks,” Zeddicus said.
Keri stopped. The group grew silent. She glanced back at them and then at the sky. “Unless we want to get to Nuamgard in the dark, we should find a place to rest for the evening.”
They pressed ahead for another hour.
“There was that small dry area we just went through. Should we go back to it?” Isodole asked.
“Let's,” Fischer said.
The group made a small camp. Fischer gestured with his hands, but nothing happened. “So much for a fire.”
The group looked forlorn. Keri sighed and brought out a tinder box. “Find some dry materials that can burn,” she told the others.
“I don't supposed anyone brought anything to eat,” Galanus asked.
Keri looked to the trees, then back to the water. The fire was stable. “Keep an eye on the fire,” she told the others as she headed out into the marsh.
As she returned, she could hear the others arguing in the distance. “So much for teamwork,” she thought. However, as she got closer she heard laughing.
“Keri,” Isolde said as she saw her. “We were just talking about how we got past the second challenge. It was pretty hard.”
Fischer smiled. “I tried to burn my way out before I realized that they were sucking the air out of the room and the fire just made that go faster. I thought I was finished. No way I was going to make it to the other side of the room; especially with the door getting further away by the second. Teleportation didn't seem to work either. I thought I heard something behind me, but I was pretty light headed by then. I ended up backing my way across the room and out the door.”
“I tried flying,” said Isolde. “But the arrows took away that route. It seemed that the faster I went, then more arrows came and the faster the door took off. It took some doing, but I was able to turn invisible. Everything seemed to go OK after that.”
Keri set down the plants she had collected and started preparing them for dinner.
“I tried summoning a demon to get me to the other side,” Zeddicus said. “Nothing happened. I almost panicked before I remembered a potion I had on me. It altered my perceptions enough that I was able to figure it out.”
“We aren't supposed to be talking about how we did it,” Galanus advised.
“Not like they can hear us out here,” Isolde chided.
“I just turned around and went out the door I came in,” Keri said.
“What!” the group gasped.
“We only needed to get out of the room as quickly as possible. No one said it had to be out the other door.”
Isolde started laughing. “Brilliant!”
“Not so brilliant,” Keri thought.
She remembered listening to the explosions and occasional screams from those who entered the room before her. Waiting. Waiting for her turn. Wanting it all to be over. She wanted to go home, but they never let her out of their sight once she won the duel near Magnus' stall. Magnus. Hard to believe he was part of all this. She just wanted out. She wanted to go home. She had considered using the Mourfa ability to separate from her body and get a peek at what was to come, but she figured that the judges would be watching for the telltale astral lights. No, better to just short circuit the contest and go back out the door she came in, be told she was a failure, and go home. Little did she expect that she would be rewarded with the best time for not even using magic and just leaving.
Keri sighed. “I'm more worried about how we are supposed to get anything out of Nuamgard tomorrow,”
“If only there was magic here,” Fischer lamented.
“There's plenty of magic here,” Keri answered. The others looked at her as if she had been drinking too much Mourfa wine. “There are birds, there are fish, there are insects buzzing about. Life is the most prolific magic there is. We just take it for granted and no longer consider it magical.”
“Does anyone even know what this Pebble in the Pond thing is we are supposed to liberate,” Galanus asked.
“And why on earth is it in Nuamgard,” Zeddicus asked as a shiver went down his spine.
No one had an answer.
Keri was getting tired of listening to the others as they approached the black walls of Nuamgard. She was definitely tired of the innuendo that being in the swamps must be easy for a mushroom troll. One good thing was that the closer they got, the quieter the others became.
The guards watched them approach without concern. Most of their clothes were wet and torn. Definitely not a threat. Fischer looked over at the road that lead to Nuamgard. “Why didn't we think to use the actual road?”
The other looked at the road and sighed wistfully. “Might make the way out easier,” Isolde said.
The group was allowed into Nuamgard without ceremony. “Now what?” Galanus asked.
What little camaraderie existing during their trek in vanished. The group split up and went their separate ways heading to different doorways into the keep. However, Isolde walked up to Keri. “We should stick together,” she said.
The duo went in search of a Nuamgard researcher. They found one hunched over various potions bubbling away. Keri had to struggle to enter the room and all of the space seemed to disappear. “Goodness,” said the researcher as he watched her squeeze in.
“What can you tell us of the Pebble in the Pond?” Isodole asked.
“Nothing,” the researcher answered.
“You don't know anything, or you can't tell us anything,” Keri replied.
The researcher eyed Keri. “Do you happen to have any wine on you? Maybe we can make a deal.”
Keri and Isolde exited Nuamgard solemnly. Suddenly, Galanus and Zeddicus accosted them from the side of the road. They were holding spears that they had someone acquired from somewhere in Nuamgard. “Give us the Pebble in the Pond.”
Keri rose to her full height. “Or what?”
“We aren't stupid. We know you have gotten it somehow, even though no one would talk to us, we knew that for some reason they would talk to you.”
“You already have the Pebble in the Pond,” Isolde stated flatly.
“Nonsense,” Galanus replied as he approached brandishing his spear as if he knew how to use it.
Glanaus and Zeddicus had worked their way to opposite sides of Keri and Isolde. “You can either give it to us or we just take it from you.”
“You already have it,” Keri stated as she used her staff to knock a spear away. It flew out into the marsh.
With the crack of wood against the spear, Zeddicus stabbed at Isodole. She was not fast enough to dodge. The spear went clear through.
Keri charged at Zeddicus who turned and fled into the marsh. Glanaus quickly followed. She watched them disappear as she went to Isodole.
“I'm sorry,” she told Isodole.
Isodole's lifeless eyes stared up at the sky.
Keri picked up Isodole's body and started down the road.
Early the next day, she was back to the beginning of the final challenge. The crowds were excited but wary; she was carrying a dead body.
“Have you liberated the Pebble in the Pond?” the guide asked.
Keri walked up and gently set Isodole down at his feet. “Do you know what happened to the others?”
“Two lost in the marsh to something large. One died trying to talk to Waldron the Mad.”
Keri snarled at the guide. “All this death for a piece of philosophy?”
The guide took a step back, afraid.
“We are all pebbles in the pond….our lives create the ripples in the pond of fate.”
Keri stood to full height and let out a shriek. The crowds scattered. The guide fell to his knees.
“Congratulations,” the guide stammered.
Keri walked away.