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Issue Thirty-three, A Hero Reborn

Flashback - Issue 32, the Protectors are fleeing the floating island and Max has just bailed out of the plane ...
		*		*		*		*
Max flew, untouched through the storm back toward the floating island. After a few false starts, he broke free of the storm and saw the island in the distance. He flew toward it at full speed.

Max dove down and under the water, flying to the point where the Queen's hut was located. Once there he rose, through the dungeon, noticing that from a certain angle the support pillar did sort of looke like a chicken leg, and then up to her apartment.

The Queen was not in her room, nor was anyone else so far as Max could tell.

Max glanced around the room briefly. Satisfied that his target was not here, he pressed his ear against the door and listened.

There was no sound from the other side, so Max pushed his face through quickly and checked. The receiving room was also empty.

Max quickly moved through and repeated the process at the door to the outside. There were two guards on duty at the outside door, as there had been before.

Wanting to avoid confrontation, Max slipped back through the door and considered his next move. The Queen was somewhere public. Shooting through the roof, he took in the view of the floating city from above. He looked for a large gathering.

He didn't see anything immediately, but it occured to him to look at the most southward point of the island - the side facing the storm. There was a small gathering there which looked somewhat suspicious to his eye.

Dropping lower, Max took a look.

The Queen stood on a small boat at the edge of the island, staring south by southwest toward the storm. On either side of her stood large bear-like creatures that reminded Max a little of the monster beneath the waves, only much smaller. Off to one side watching the proceedings were Roger and another two guard.

Max floated above the craft, concentrating on the feelings he had had before in the belly of the beast. As he felt his body shifting, he called out in a loud voice. "Your tyranny ends now, Baba Yaga!"

Max plummetted toward the woman, who turned as he shouted.

Max hit with a solid impact and deflected off to the side although he did knock the queen forward and over the railing. She plunged down into the sea as Max sank an inch or two into the deck.

Max knew he was in over his head. He could only hope that his actions would help his friends escape. That meant being the biggest thorn he could manage. The bears were a bigger danger than the human guards. He threw two punches, hoping he was tougher than these two creatures.

Both punches landed and Max was surprised at how solid his blows felt. With the second punch the creature gave a howl and began to dissipate.

"Now, fool, suffer my wrath," came a voice from behind him. Max turned and saw what he guessed was the Queen, althought it didn't look like the Queen he knew, but rather like Sting's description of the young and sexy one. She was being held by another bear creature, this one with a pair of wings, who was hovering just a few feet off the deck. She was wet and angry. She gestured and Max felt a hammerblow strike his mind, he was shocked but no more so than the sorceress. "Ah, you are strong, I see."

The remaining bear-guard lumbered over and swung ineffctually at Max. The human guards, Max noted, were nowhere to be seen.

Max gritted his teeth, hoping she had hit him full force the first time. In the back of his mind, he saw flashes of happy times in the kingdom. Now, here he was, one monarch fighting another. And the survival of his friends was at stake. The other creature had to be dealt with immediately, the Queen could wait her turn.

Max dropped low and punched a superdense fist into the creature's belly. It folded and evaporated like the first. He turned around again to the Queen as he felt her mental fingers clutch at his mind.

Pulling the happy memories up from the back of his mind, he tried to fight her attempts to overwhelm him. Max had fought long and hard to survive on the streets. He had built a better world for himself and those who chose to follow him. He was a Duke. No, he was a King. And he was damn sure not going to allow this escapee from a bad fairy tale bet him.

Again and again she battered at his mind, and Max kept the images before him.

"Perhaps a change of tactics," said the woman, and she chanted something in a harsh langauge Max did not understand. Before his eyes, a vapor appeared, swirled and took on the now familiar bear-like form. This bear seemed larger and more muscular than the two he had just dispatched.

The bear-thing lumbered toward Max, who promptly ghosted out. The Queen said something that sounded slavic and somehow managed to sound obscene even though Max had no idea what she said. She gestured and spoke and a second bear-thing joined the first.

The first bear-thing took another experimental swipe through Max and looked confused. His 'brother' joined him and had a similar reaction. The Queen looked up at the one carrying her and said something, the thing obediently set her down on the deck.

Max ran through the bear-things, solidified as he ran and dove at the Queen. As he launched, he slipped on a wet patch of deck and went wide barely catching himself on the railing to prevent going over himself.

"Ah, you can be touched now, can you?" said the Queen. "Then back where you came from!" She gestured and a wind whipped up, tossing the off-balance Beggar King back toward her two minions. "Crush him!" she cried.

As the first bear-thing's hand closed around Max'es arm, he ghosted out and passed right through them before braking on the other side.

Max fished around inside a coat pocket. After all, he was only trying to keep her busy. He didn't have to beat her physically. "I wonder if all those wonderful books of yours are flammable," he said, producing a metallic lighter.

With a smile, he flew off toward the Queen's quarters, singing. "This is the way we torch the books. Torch the books. Torch the books."

The Queen set off in hot pursuit.

Max found his ambush location and became solid. And then became *really* solid. When the Queen round the corner, he fired a punch, which landed solidly, stopping her in her tracks.

"How rude that you are following me," Max said, marveling that even his voice sounded different. He attempted to land two more punches like the knights had taught him.

One landed, and the Queen rocked back again. Then Max felt the tendrils creeping at his mind.

Max steeled his brain and again fought off the intrusion of the enemy mind.

Changing tactics, she gestured and another bear creature sprang into being. "Get him!" she indicated Max.

As the first beast began to swing, she gestured again and a second one appeared.

Max ghosted out just before the blow landed. The woman shrieked with rage and danced off to a distance of perhaps eight meters.

"Can't kill what you can't catch." Max, all smiles, waved at the Queen as he dropped through the floor of the structure.

Resolidifying outside the door, Max called for the Queen's attention. "Yoohoo. Queenie? Where are you, you reject from a bad Russian folktale? I've got little children for you to try and bake in your giant oven."

He was rewarded with silence.

"Fine then. I guess I'll have to burn down the gingerbread house myself." He ghosted out again and faded back through a wall.

Max ghosted back through to check up on the Queen, she was still there, although a little further in the direction of her quarters, checking around corners rather than just running past them this time. Her bruisers were nowhere to be seen.

Max floated toward her, as sneaky as could be. Apparently his last ambush had made her paranoid enough to keep searching around her constantly, since she turned and saw him when he was still ten meters away. She turned to face him. "Beggar King," she said. "Join me. Our two kingdoms would be mightier than either alone." She laughed seductively, "A Royal Marriage, eh?"

"I don't know if that work out. We are about as opposite as you can get. I mean, I'm an air sign and you're a murderous fiend. Granted, you're an utter hottie, and that wins you points. But this whole drowning your opponents thing would be difficult to explain to the guests. Not to mention the issue of in-laws..." Max smiled the practiced smile of a street predator. "And this little stall tactic will do you no good. I will eventually get you."

"Or I you," smiled the woman with a smile that showed all the charm and civilization of a rabid wolverine. "You are hard to catch, I'll grant you that. And your talents could be most useful. But if you stay and continue to defy me, you *will* die."

"I've been dead twice now. It only makes me stronger." Max reassured her as he faded through the floor once again.

Max flew at top speed toward her sanctum. He arrived to find it empty of occupants.

Max ghosted a stack of books down through the floor into the dungeon then ghosted a couple more out the front door where the Queen couldn't help but seem the when she entered, then he waited by the door.

After a moment or two, he heard some noise outside in the other room, the door banged open and the Queen and two of her bear-things charged into the room.

Max was hoping that if he kept her mad, she would be easier pickings. That meant taking the fight directly to her. As she charged in, he leapt at her with an attempted tackle to put distance between her and her bodyguards.

Max hit her high and pushed her back into the far wall. "Kill him," she screamed and suiting action to word lashed out at his mind.

Max held off the worst of her mental assault though it felt like someone was sticking an icepick in his head. He wasn't so far gone that he didn't notice the the two bears lumber up next to him and start swinging, so he was able to dodge their blows.

Max'es luck held and he ghosted out as the bear-thing struck.

The bears took a swipe or two at the ghostly Max, while the Queen backed off a few steps and gathered her books looking daggers at him.

Max shifted phase to his ultra-dense state and took a swing at the nearest bear-thing. He feinted left and then landed a stiff-right. The creature seemed almost to discorporate, but remained in this realm. The beasts attacked him as soon as they realized he was solid.

Max tried to flip ghostly for a moment to avoide the punch, but was too late. The bear thing's paw slapped him upside the head.

Max tried the flip again, and this time the bear's fist passed through him and he resolidified as it passed. The bears continued their attack, but Max avoided the flurry of blows directed at him and retaliated with several of his own. When he was done, the two bear-things were gone. Unfortunately, the Queen had just created another.

Working his way closer to the Queen, he attacked the bear-thing before him. "Oh, I hope that stack of books by your bed weren't important. I dropped them through the floor into your dungeon. How long is it until high tide?"

Max punched through the bear which dissipated and then found himself next to the Queen. "There is no tide, idiot, we float!" she said before summoning another bear-creature. "But, you, you will simply die!" Another wave of force washed toward the Beggar King's mind.

Max steeled his mind, and the Queen cursed and waved her hands, summoning another bear creature, before retreating to the far side of the room.

The bear slapped at Max, who tried to ghost clear of the bear's punch, but was a moment too late, the blow slapped his neck around leaving him seeing stars.

"No tide?" Max said. "Damn. I guess I'll have to do it the hard way."

With that, Max turned and headed for the door, hoping to buy enough time to catch his breath.

"Not so fast," cried the Queen, summoning a third beast to pursue. The trio lumbered after Max, reaching him just as he ghosted out.

Max turned back to the Queen, waved and dropped through the floor to the dungeon.

Max caught his breath in the dungeon and tried to recover his wits. He rested a few moments then heard the door to the dungeon open. Three bear creatures appeared in the doorway and started down into the dungeon.

Max slipped away to the far corner, ghosted out. The bears came down and two began to search the area while the third gathered up the books. The search began to close in on the place where Max was hiding.

Max slipped through the wall and circled around to the front door. As he poked his head out, he saw another bear thing take up a position near the door to the dungeon.

Max, still ghosted, flew carefully through the wall back into the Queen's chambers. As he arrived he saw a bear-creature forming at the Queen's command, joining another who waited nearby.

The Queen turned at his arrival. "Back again? So be it!"

"What are you really after here?" Max asked, staying in his ghost phase. "What is so damn important that you would risk having Port Alexander's Protectors here?"

She laughed, "Is this the part where I reveal my master plan and put you in an inescapable death trap? You have shown yourself far too resourceful for that. You must die, and must die now!" Her mind lanced out toward Max'es. He screamed and blood began to run from his nose and ears.

Max faded through the floor of the room without a word. This had turned deadly and he was not prepared to take her life. Grimly, the Beggar King admitted defeat. He headed toward one of the outlying ships to gather a compass, a life preserver, and some basic emergency supplies before leaving the floating city. His only thought of comfort was that his actions had bought his companions a chance to escape in the jet.

He flew through the storm.

	*		*		*		*
The girl stopped in her tracks, then ran forward toward the figure slumped on the beach. She tugged on the motley clad figure's arm and was obviously surprised by how heavy it was. The man, if man it was, opened his eyes, saw a halo of golden hair surrounding a pale face, then collapsed again into unconsciousness.

	*		*		*		*
Max opened his eyes to the smell of something wonderful. Coffee and some kind of soup? The girl was there, she hadn't been a dream. She turned and saw Max awake. She spoke to him in a language he did not know, full of gutteral sounds. The meaning was clear, though: did he want some food.

He tried to sit up, but his body betrayed him the first time. After a second attempt, he was vertical and dizzy. His stomach ached from hunger. He knew this feeling, but he did not know when he had been this hungry before. How long had he been out? He could not remember being awake before. There was a flash. An angry face. Pain. Then, it was all gone. He could remember nothing. The girl asked her question a second time. Max nodded.

"My stomach must think my throat's been cut," he said weakly.

The girl gave no sign of having heard it, but brought him a bowl of soup, fish soup, and a cup of coffee. She watched as he ate, the asked him a few questions. Max couldn't follow the language, but somehow the intent was clear: she wanted to know his name and where he came from.

"Max," he answered. "I don't know where I'm from."

She looked quizzicaly at him, then repeated, "Max." She nodded as if satisfied, then introduced herself, "Halldora Sigurthardottir."

"Halldora?" Max responded.

She nodded, eyes shining.

	*		*		*		*
Once awake Max healed quickly, and soon became familiar with Halldora's home, a tidy if small house in a village called Dj˙pivogur that appeared to be mostly dedicated to fishing. He found himself picking up the language with incredible swiftness, and soon could answer Halldora in her own tongue.

There was something in the back of his mind. He began to help out around the town in a way to earn his keep. In another, he wanted to repay the kindness of the woman who had taken him in. He felt comfortable here; a place he fit. Max had no idea why that was so new a feeling. Perhaps he had been unhappy in his old life. He was still disturbed by his lack of memory, but at least had something.

Another feature which Max found slightly odd was that Halldora addressed him as "Gunnar" and at least once as "Gunnar Trollbane." In fact, most of the people with whom Max had regular contact referred to him as Gunnar.

Max knew of trolls. Legends, he thought. Yet, something about this place stirred half remembered thoughts. He saw men in armor. He saw archers firing from castle ramparts. These were not images that he had second hand. These were things that he had lived. None of it made sense. If only he could remember. A word played around in his mind. "Protector."

Was that him? Was he some sort of mythical Protector? He said the word aloud while helping carry baskets of fish up from the boats. It felt good. Regal, even. "Protector." He said again. With everyone looking at him, Max smiled weakly. He was being ridiculous. This was reality. The fish were heavy and smelled of the sea. The people of this town were simple, hard-working folk. Just like... no, the thought was fleeting. He could not make himself remember it.

It was all so confusing. He knew his name was Max. But other names flooded his thoughts on occasion. How many names did he have? Who was Todd Green? Who was Maximillian? Who was Gunnar? It all had to be sorted. He needed to start with the one name he could get answers about.

After the day's work, he sat down with Halldora. They spoke of the day, as had become their custom. It amazed Max how connected he felt to her. He looked forward to his evenings with her. If her smile was any indication, she like his company as well. Max finally felt an appropriate place in the conversation for his question.

"Halldora, why does everyone call me Gunnar?"

Halldora looked at him for a long moment. "You come from the sea, in our hour of need. The legend says that Gunnar Trollbane will come from the sea, born of a sea-witch and a Troll. Some call you, him, Gunnar Half-Troll. When I found you, your body was heavy as if made of stone, like a troll."

Max thought about her words before shrugging, "Okay. I'll go with that. Need? What need?"

"Trolls," said Halldora.

"Trolls? What sort of trouble are trolls causing?"

"We have seen trolls in the mountains, and a fishing boat was lost a few weeks ago," she said. "We fear the trolls are preparing something. Your arrival here confirmed our fears. For," she concluded triumphantly, "since you came our need must be great."

"Are these trolls active in the day?" Gunnar asked.

"Not that I know of," said Halldora.

"Then tomorrow I will go into the mountains and take a look," Gunnar said. Protector, indeed.

That night as Max lay in his bed, he heard a rustling and then a warm figure slipped into bed with him.

		*		*		*		*
The next morning arrived and Gunnar rose early. Sunlight was just visible over the horizon as he packed a small bag with dried meat, hard cheese, and bread. He did not know how long he would be away from the village, but he limited himself to enough to survive two to three days. Halldora rose as he shuffled around the small cottage.

"I did not mean to wake you," he said softly. "I'm going to hike up to the place these trolls have been seen. I suspect I will be gone for at least a day or so. Once I know what sort of beasts they are, I will be better able to deal with the threat. I will see you when I return."

He embraced her, already missing her warmth. He rolled a blanket and tied it loosely to his bag. In another place, he would have appeared quite comical. In his mind, he cut quite the heroic image. He smiled to reassure his blond angel before striking out. "It's a kind of magic, eh?" he muttered to himself.

Gunnar hiked into the mountains following the directions he had been given. After a few hours, he was at the top of a ridge looking down onto one of the many hot-springs in the area. This one was smallish, but warm and inviting on a cold day. It was a popular destination for hikers from the village for that reason. The troll sightings had all been in the area of the springs.

Here he broke for his morning meal. It was on these peaceful mornings that he felt himself truly blessed. The hole in his mind still tugged at his curiosity, but less with each day. His greatest fear was that he was a horrible person before his arrival in this idyllic location. The image of a vicious woman flashed in his mind. Someone known to him as Queen, perhaps. There were corpses at his feet...

Gunnar pushed the thoughts from his mind, recognizing once again the nightmare that had been plaguing him for the last few nights. Perhaps it was some sort of prescience. Maybe these trolls were lead by an evil queen, sort of like Grendel's mother in the epic Beowulf. He let out a deep sigh. The day was beautiful. He was alone in the semi-tamed wilds that surrounded his home. He was finishing Halldora's wonderful bread.

He thought of it as home. How strange the thought struck him. Home. Why could he so easily accept this as home when he did not know who he really was? His thoughts were too trying for the day. He was here on a mission. Trolls haunted his people. People he had sworn to protect. "Protector," he said to the wind.

To push the thoughts from his mind, he wrapped his food up and placed it back in the bag. He would spend the daylight hours scouting the surrounding environs. Deciding to wash his hands and face in the spring, he approached it and realized that someone was there. A man relaxed in the spring as so many had before him. Like those before him, too, he had left his clothes and walking stick leaning against a tree nearby.

As Gunnar approached, the man looked at him and Gunnar saw he had a patch over one eye and seemed quite old, though spry. "Welcome young man," he said. "Care for a soak?"

"Not today," Gunnar replied. "I've work to do. Though I'm not sure if we have met before. I am Gunnar, recently of the village a short walk that way."

"So, Gunnar of the Village, what work do you have to do that is so pressing?"

"Members of the village have been attacked in these parts. I am looking for the man or beast responsible." Gunnar looked at the older man. "If you don't mind me asking, where are you from?"

"I travel a lot," he laughed. "No fixed address, you might say. I've heard there were troubles about these parts. I'm glad someone is looking into it. Any idea what you're looking for, young man?"

"Maybe someone who is very evasive?" Gunnar remarked coolly. "The villagers seemed to think it was trolls."

"Trolls." The man nodded carefully. "That would make sense. But, there are many kinds of trolls. You don't seem armed to fight trolls, though." He observed. "Why don't you take my spear, it will serve you well against such foes as you may find." He pointed to his walking stick, which Gunnar noticed was actually a spear of good length and stout size.

Turning back to the old man, "Why would you give me your spear? What are you arming yourself with?"

The man laughed, "I'm not going troll hunting."

"But you carry a spear... hm," Gunnar said. He hefted the spear and gave it a look. "Well, since you aren't hunting trolls, I guess you won't need it for the next little while."

"Enjoy," said the man, leaning back in the pool and closing his eyes.

"I never did get your name," Gunnar said.

"I never gave it," he said. Opening his one eye, he stared up at Gunnar with a piercing gaze. "You, of all people, should know that there is power in names. It doesn't do to go tossing them about carelessly." He chuckled, "But you can call me Father Greybeard, some folks do."

Gunnar shrugged. "Works for me. I just needed to know who to thank."

With a wave, Gunnar left the pool to begin a search of the surrounding area. In the back of his mind, he knew there were questions he should have asked. He had looked so peaceful in the hot spring that Gunnar really hated to disturb him. So, he ignored the urge to return with questions. There were trolls to be found.

As he walked, he found the spear felt so very right in his hands, as if it had always belonged there. The spear was wound round with runes and the tip was fearsome to behold. Gunnar felt sure that he could wield the spear head to deadly effect, or use the butt of the weapon should he wish not to slay his foe. Thinking these thoughts, he searched for signs of the trolls. Looking up, he noticed a twisted bare tree shaped roughly like a man, for some reaons it reminded him of Father Greybeard. It seemed to be pointing, pointing at a rock face covered over with scrub evergreen bushes.

Taking the sign at face value, he wandered over to the rock. As he approached, he grew more and more cautious. He watched around and above.

Nothing untoward met his eye, but he did realize that the entire face of the rock was obscured. To be completely accurate, he did not see a rock face, he only saw bushes apparently growing from a rock face.

Gunnar tried to move the branches of the bushes for a view.

Behind the branches was a large open space, a cave or tunnel heading back into the mountains and down. Slumped on either side of the tunnel were creatures that could only be trolls! Large and lumpy, they looked strong but not too bright. They were also asleep.

Gunnar pulled the spear tight to his chest. He could strike now. Yet, that would be cold blooded. He was sure he was not a killer. Something laired here. He just needed to see if it were more than trolls. For a moment, he stood and examined the creatures. They seemed anachronistic in one sense while remaining quite real in his sight. He needed to see what was further in the cave. With stealth, he approached the cave mouth. He kept the spear ready. He would not kill the creatures while they slept, but was ready to defend himself to the death.

Quickly he passed the sleeping guards and was down into the tunnel. The entire place seemed to him to glow slightly, so that he could see though it was still dark. Down the tunnel went, then it began to sprout branches though the central way was clear. Then suddenly the tunnel opened in a wide cavern, which sparkled with inset crystales and gems on every wall. Passages honeycombed the walls and in the center were several depressions in one of which sat a rude stone throne upon which sat a troll larger than any he had seen before. Other trolls labored in the cavern, but not in large numbers, there were perhaps half a dozen moving about in the cavern.

To one side was a boat, with a start Gunnar recognized it as a fishing boat like those used in his village.

Gunnar watched the proceedings for several minutes. The trolls it seemed, with the exception of the one on the throne seemed to be moving baskets full of something from some of the outer passages into the one of the central depressions. At least some of the baskets contained fish, he decided.

After a few moments, he made his way carefully down to the fishing boat. From the name on the side, he determined that it was the one that had been lost a few weeks before. Approaching closer, he realized that there was movement from within the boat, which had been wedged upright as though sailing the stone. Creeping closer he saw the fishermen, three of them, were still alive and on the boat, although looking pale and thin.

At that moment he knew there would be a fight. He could see no way to get three weak fishermen to safety without conflict. Yet it would take a special sort of fool to stand and fight a cave full of trolls. Gunnar was a fool, just not that sort. It was time to sew some chaos. He slipped away from the boat.

He found a tunnel that one of the trolls was working in and realized that the troll was coming and going from a storeroom of sorts to the central depression. He picked a spot to conceal himself and prepared to ambush the troll as it came by.

When the troll returned, Gunnar struck quickly bringing the butt of the spear down against the base of the troll's neck. The brute staggered forward and then slumped to the ground.

Gunnar was pleased with the easy he dispatched his foes. He marveled at the craftsmanship of the fine spear. He might have some natural skill at arms, but he recognized the spear for what it was. This was a magical artifact. He had a new respect for Father Greybeard. With this advantage, he knew what had to be done.

Moving quickly but silently from tunnel to tunnel, Gunnar with his trusty spear was able to disable all the trolls doing their work and only one was able to cry out before he fell, but even that raised no alarm. Then he crept back to where the Troll-King sat on his throne with the goods heaped up near him. He did not seem to notice the dissappearance of his fellows.

Perhaps Halldora was correct. Perhaps Fate had drawn him to this place. If that were the case, he had but one last thing he had to do. Taking a deep breath, he said a silent prayer for protection which he addressed to no particular divinity. He hoped this faired better for him than Beowulf's mythic encounters. His nerves steeled, he stepped out into the opening. There was the Troll-King. Here strode Gunnar Trollslayer for their first, and final, meeting.

As he stepped out, the ground near the Troll-King cracked and from the hole stepped out dwarves, for dwarves they must be. The dwarves, legendary metal-workers and forgers of weapons and tools. They stepped out and faced the Troll-King. "Have you brought my weapon?" he asked. "Have you the price?" the asked in return.

The Troll-King pointed at the goods in the depression nearby, "There!"

One of the dwarves smiled and raised a huge mace. "Here is your weapon."

"At last!" cried the Troll-King, reaching for the weapon.

The spear flew from Gunnar's hand aimed at the head of the mace. Alas, he threw too late and the troll's hand closed around the weapon and lifted it from the spear's path. The spear swooped past the surprised dwarves and Troll-King to return to Gunnar's hand.

"Who invades my land?" shouted the king turning to face Gunnar. "A manling?"

"With a dwarf-make spear," commented one dwarf wryly.

"I am no normal man," he started. "I am called Gunnar. You have been attacking those under my protection. I am here to end it."

The Troll-King whirled his mace around his head and, howling, charged, "You are in my domain, manling!"

Gunnar hurled his spear at the charging troll. The wiley beast dodged the cast, but the weapon returned and Gunnar cast again. Again the creature dodged.

Then the giant Troll-King was upon him! The first massive blow the Troll-King aimed was off-target and easily avoided by the young man. It smashed into the floor sending up a cloud of dust. Behind the Troll-King, Gunnar could see the dwarves calmly entering the depression where the goods were stacked.

The Troll-King recovered himself and aimed a wicked blow at Gunnar but slipped on the rubble he had just created and with a howl of frustration, he fell to one knee.

Gunnar saw his moment and began to batter at the troll with his spear. The rubble tripped him up as well, and he fell to one knee. Oddly, this gave him a better angle and he thrust violently upward with the spear. The tip barely penetrated the creatures rocky hide, but Gunnar was rewarded with a bellow of outrage and a think trickle of what he decided must be blood.

Both man and monster were on their knees, as the monster roared with rage and swung his dwarven mace with abandon.

As the mace came towards him, Gunnar suddenly became vaporous as a ghost. Images flooded his mind; he had done this before! Clothes, he had worn strange clothes, and people, face, danced in his mind. So distracted was he, that he ignored the current situation and the mace cracked into his ribs.

Gunnar sailed back away from his foe, who howled with joy, rose to his feet and closed in.

Gunnar kicked out at the Troll-King and used that impact to set up another jab with his spear. The troll spoke, "Damn you, little manling!" He struck back with his mace.

Gunnar tried again to become ghostly, even as, in the back of his mind, he wondered about the name Gunnar. He felt himself fade out and was astonished when the mace connected with his ghostly form and knocked back anyway. The Troll-King closed in as Gunnar returned to his normal form.

Gunnar forced himself to concentrate on the here and now and not the images flooding his mind. He drove his spear into the Troll's belly and as the Troll-King fell to his knees, Gunnar struck the mace with his spear-haft and sent the weapon clattering away. Helpless, the Troll-King knelt before the hero.

Holding the spear to keep the threat on the Troll-King, Gunnar spoke. "They have called my Trollslayer since my arrival in the village. Tell me now why I should not live up to that name."

Babbling now, the Troll-King sputtered out promises and entreaties, swearing not to plague the folk above, and crying for mercy.

"Enough," said a voice from behind Gunnar. Turning he saw Father Greybeard, walking down into the cavern. He leaned on a spear that was like to the one Gunnar carried, but which was somehow *more.*

"Troll-King, so you have named yourself," said the man. "You have lost. A human hero has come, as you swore none would come, and bested you in combat, as you swore none could do. You have lost our bet and the forfeit is therefore mine."

"You cheated," screamed the troll leaping to his feet. "You gave him a dwarf spear to fight me."

"You, too, were dwarf-armed, do not forget," said the man. "And you can feel it, too. The geas is done, the wyrd fullfilled. You have lost and you are mine."

The troll hesitated, then gathering himself fell to one knee, in an oddly dignified posture. "It is true. The wager is lost, the forfeit is yours."

"Then keep the weapon," said the old man lifting the mace easily despite its size and weight and bringing it to the troll. "And remember your oath."

"I shall," he looked up and his eyes glittered, "Every word of it."

The old man laughed and turned to Gunnar. "Shall we go, then?"

"Of course. I am done here."

Together, the old man and the young made their way out of the troll-cave. When they emerged, blinking into the sunlight, the old man turned to Gunnar. "Now will you have a soak in the spring?"

Gunnar looked toward the sky. There were half images and partial memories plaguing him. For the first time, he felt fear. Fear that this would all fade away into nothingness. He looked at the old man with a new sense of appreciation. Seeing the kindly smile on his face, Gunnar thought that a good soak would be nice.

"I think I've earned it," Gunnar Troll-Almost-Slayer said.

"I think so, too," said the man. He led Gunnar back to the spring, stripped off his clothes unselfconsciously, pulled a wineskin out of his pack and settled into the spring with a sigh of contentment. He took a drink from the skin and offered it to Gunnar with a single word, "Mead."

Following suit, Gunnar took the skin. "Thank you." He drew a large mouthful and allowed the flavor to fill his senses.

The old man seemed content to sit quietly and pass the skin back and forth.

Gunnar also allowed time to pass. After a while, he finally broke the silence. "How long did you have your wager before I came along?"

"Quite a few years," was the reply. "Things all came to a head in the last few months, though. He was beginning to be forward and move out in this world with more boldness. It was good you came along."

"Yes, it would seem." Gunnar paused for a moment. "Although I have no idea why I am here or even who I am."

"You are here because it is your wyrd, your destiny," said the man. "I think you are as much yourself now as you have ever been, but ..." he held up a hand to forestall Gunnar's comment, "your memory will return soon. It has already begun, has it not? A few days more and you will recall it all."

Gunnar thought of Halldora. He knew in that instant that she was the first woman he had ever loved. "What... what if I don't want to remember?"

"You will remember, but memory alone does not guide your wyrd," said the man. "You may still follow your heart and spirit, even when you remember whence you came." He stood and stepped out of the pool. Gathering his clothes, he dressed quickly. "Your heart will not lead you wrong." He turned to go, then stopped and looked back over his shoulder. "The spear," he said, "is named Girngrun." Then with a wave, he set off into the mountains.

Gunnar remained in the spring until long after sundown. He thought on all that had happened. It never occurred to him to question any of it. These things did not bear questions well. He finally crawled from the warm embrace of the water. After dressing quickly, he stood by the tree where the spear rested.

"Girngrun," he addressed the spear. "I'm sorry you did not taste the death of a single troll today. These things are not what a Beggar King does."

He did not know why he said that name, but it felt right. He held up his hand. With little mental effort, he caused it to change from a solid thing to something ghostly. The hand passed effortlessly through the tree but stopped at the spear. Gunnar felt both actions curious, but again knew not to question. He took the spear in his hand and headed for home.


Last Updated 19 September 2003