Athelfred

“Fred, you in there?” Rhys Jones’s voice was tight with worry.

Athelfred got up from his lunch of cheese and fruit and looked out the window. The tall, thin man in the green coveralls and muddy boots was definitely his neighbour and he was alone. He was at the foot of the stone bridge and twirled constantly, looking around. Athelfred put on the blue cap he kept by the door and checked himself in the mirror. Standing just over a meter he was a little tall for a troll. His skin, a light grey, could almost be taken for that of a sickly white human. His brown hair curled as it met the collar of his yellow shirt and grey jacket but it covered his pointed ears, which was the main thing. His nose was long and bulbous with one small wart close to the tip on the left side. He looked at the reflection of a a fairly handsome troll and smiled. Pleased with his presentation, he said a few words, and appeared behind a support on the far side of the bridge. “What’s the matter? How can I help?”

Words flowed from Rhys like a dam had broken. “You remember little David, Frank and Trina’s youngest? Seems him and my Gareth were playing in Frank’s empty pasture by the river. With all the rain we’ve been having, the river was high and fast. Well, Gareth kicked his ball over the hedge into the next field and he went to get it back. There was a roar and when he went back a section of the bank had given way, the pasture was flooded, and David was gone. Rhys ran to Frank’s place and Frank called out the police. Everyone, even them newcomers living in that estate on other side of Frank’s place, have been looking all up and down the river for the boy but we can’t find him.”

“When did this happen?” Athelfred walked swiftly across the bridge towards Rhys.

“’Bout two hours ago,” Rhys joined Athelfred, shorting his his long strides to stay together. “I wanted to call you sooner but Frank insisted on modern methods. He’s beside himself with worry and my Gareth’s upset saying it’s all his fault. My quad’s just around the corner.”

“Two hours!” Athelfred thought as he climbed onto the back of the quad-bike. “Don’t they know the longer they wait the harder it is?”

“Ready?” Rhys asked as he started the bike.

“We’ll find him,”Athelfred said.

“I just hope it’s not too late,” Rhys whispered as the bike took off down the muddy track.

Soon they arrived at the pasture where the child had gone missing. A group of searchers, including Frank, three newcomers, and Huw, the police coordinator, were huddled around a small table next to Huw’s van.

Athelfred climbed down and started walking into the pasture. After it’s initial outburst, the river had nearly receded back into it’s banks revealing a large section of raw mud and earth where the bank had given way. He cleared his mind and focused on the section of missing bank and silently muttered some words. Bits of conversations kept interrupting his concentration; “meddling psychic”, “just keep him out of the way” , “creepy old hermit”, “ugly dwarf”, “bet he took him”. Nothing. He said the words again and waited. For more than half the fifty years he had lived under his bridge in these mountains providing his help and magic to the local farmers. He hadn’t failed them before and he wasn’t going to fail them now. He looked downstream, upstream, across the pasture, and at the surrounding hedges; always softly muttering to himself. After just over ten minutes, he turned and walked back to the group.

“Good thing the water’s so muddy so you can’t see your reflection” one of the younger searchers teased Athelfred as he approached.

Athelfred went to tthe little table and pointed to a spot on the map upstream of the pasture where a pond drains into the river. “He’s here.”

Huw, Frank, and Rhys looked where Athelfred was pointing.

Huw laughed in disbelief. “That’s not possible. That is upstream of where he went into the river. I knew you’d do nothing but waste everyone’s time.”

Rhys didn’t say anything but ran towards his quad-bike.

“Don’t believe that old fool, Rhys,” Frank called. “Listen to Huw. He’s trained to do this.”

“Seems awfully sure of himself”, one of newcomers said. “I bet he does know where the kid is. I bet he’s the one that took him in the first place and knows where he left him.”

“If you’d lived here for more than a few months you wouldn’t say that,” Frank said. “Fred may prefer his own company but he’s harmless.”

“If you say so but I’m telling you the harmless ones are the ones you’ve got to watch out for.”

“Enough of that,” Huw said turning back to his map. “We have work to do to find David before it gets dark. Kyle, take your team and search here.” He indicated a section of downstream river. “I know that area’s already been searched once, but go further away from the stream this time. That river surge could have dropped him before receding like it did here.”

The sound of a train whistle came from Frank’s pocket. He took out his phone, “Yea, Rhys. Is he all right? The house is closer. We’ll get the doctor to check him out here. Thanks.” Frank leaned against the side of the van in relief. “Fred was right. David saw a fox and chased it to the pond. He’s been up there all this time trying to catch frogs. He’s wet and muddy but fine. I’ve got to get home.”

“Let me drive you,” Huw said. “I’ll come back and get the van later.” He turned to Athelfred. “I’ll be in contact with you later. I want to know if you had any involvement is in this and how you knew where the boy was.” The two men got into Frank’s SUV and raced towards the house.

“You’re either very lucky or you’d seen him earlier and knew where he was. All that standing in the field was for show,” Kyle said.

Athelfred just smiled and began walking back to his home. Once he was sure no one could see or hear him, he said the words and popped back into his home.

Just before sundown, he heard the voices on the bridge above his home. A small box containing a meat pie and a bottle of ale was left by the corner stone of the bridge.

After a nice meal of half the pie (a whole one was too much for a troll to eat in one sitting), Athelfred relaxed in his favourite chair by the fire and sipped the last of his ale. The headache and fatigue that followed an extended use of magic was beginning to wear off. With the delay, the weather, and the people around him, he had found it difficult to concentrate and focus his attention. But the child had been found and was safely at home. That was the important thing. He wasn’t worried about the policeman wanting to speak to him. As in the past a little magic and good words from his neighbours would smooth the situation. In the mean time he would sit and read his favourite book, “The Dictionary of Troll Magic”. He prided himself on his extensive knowledge of magic and worked to maintain it. What was the point of being a troll, so hideous in the eyes of humans, if you didn’t have magic?

A loud banging on his door interrupted his study. Something wasn’t right. No one should be able to find his door and bang on it. Sliding the book into his pocket he peered out the window. His visitor was about his height with a large but well shaped nose. He wore a brown suit and tan knit cap pulled low over his ears. It was another troll. He gave the room a quick check and opened the door.

“Hello, I’m Owen Jones with the Troll Settlement Office,” the visitor flashed a card in Athelfred’s face and pushed past him into the room. He looked with revulsion at the dirt floor, stone walls and worn furniture but was smiling when he turned back to Athelfred. “It has come to our attention that you have let yourself been seen by humans on several occasions and called attention to yourself. We have reliable information that acts of violence against you and your home are being planned. I have come to take you to safety.”

“I have no problems with any of my neighbours. We leave each other alone except when, like today, one of us needs help. They leave little gifts from time to time in thanks. I got one only this evening.”

“They may be friendly now but things can turn ugly quickly, particularly if the police start talking to you. Humans seem to think that means you must be guilty of something and will want you out of the area. It is also important that they do not discover your use of magic.” Owen looked at his tablet then back up at Athelfred. “Do they know you can do magic?”

“They might suspect but I’ve never done anything or said any words in front of them. They think I have special talents. That’s all. I know better than to do magic in front of humans.”

Owen glared at Athelfred for a moment then pulled his tablet out of his jacket pocket. He swiped his finger across the screen several times and scanned pages. “As I said, we have credible evidence of a planned incident. Believe me the threat to you is real. You need to be in a TSO safe house.”

“I’ve always been able to ride out any problems by using magic to hide my home and myself. I can do the same again now. I am grateful for your concern but I am fine here.”

“Protection methods that have worked in the past are no longer effective. The only sure action is to go to the safe house at once.

“No, I am needed here to help like today,” Athelfred said.

“That child would have gone home when it got dark with or without your help. They can survive without you.” Owen took a longer look at the room around him. The main feature was the hearth before him with one worn and threadbare wing-back chair facing it. A small table of rough wood stood next to it with a plain clay mug and a candle. To the right was a small food storage and preparation area. To the left a large wooden box holding straw was where, Owen assumed, Athelfred slept and a few books on a piece of slate to keep them off the dirt floor. “The safe house would be a more comfortable place to wait for things to return to normal. It has running water, central heating, electricity, soft beds, a library and all your meals are prepared for you so you can spend your time reading or doing other things.”

“I don’t think I would be able to sleep in a soft bed,” Athelfred shook his head. “I don’t need any of that fancy, modern stuff. This has suited me for a long time. I’m comfortable with it. I don’t mind looking after myself. Wouldn’t like to be a bother having others look after me.”

“It’s not just you they look after. The safe house I have in mind already has 14 or 15 trolls living there. I’m sure you get lonely and would like company instead.”

“I do get lonely from time to time,” Athelfred agreed. “I was thinking about contacting some old friends to get them to introduce me to a lovely female troll that might like to share this with me.”

Owen smiled. “Then you definitely want to go to the safe house. Did I mention that about half the trolls living there are women? A good looking troll like you should have no trouble finding someone. But I think you’ll find that they won’t trade the comforts of a TSO house for something like this.”

“IF I agree to go with you,” Athelfred emphasized the first word, “what happens next?”

“I’ve already made arrangements for you to join the TSO house at a nearby bridge. As I said, you’ll live there with the other trolls. I have also secured you a position on the bridge. In return, we provide everything you need or want. It’s an ideal opportunity.”

“This new community does sound interesting. What about the farmers? Who’ll help them if I’m not here?”

“Don’t worry. Everything will be taken care of. Ready?”

“Yes. No. I can’t leave them. They depend on me, even if they don’t know it. I’ll need to stay out of sight and help without them knowing that I am.”

“Are you aware of the hundreds of trolls around the world that have been killed and tortured for no reason other than the fact that they are trolls?” Owen asked. “Humans used to fear and respect us but now they form mobs and attack us. That’s why the Troll Settlement Act was instituted and the TSO formed.”

“I had heard a few stories,” Athelfred said, “but I thought that was all they were, stories.”

“Oh, I can assure you they are real,” Owen said, “and the problems are increasing. There are more incidents and they are more violent than ever before. If you stay here, there is a chance that someone will learn about our ability to do magic. Not only will they then use that against you but the knowledge would spread among all the humans and no troll outside a TSO house would be safe. Is looking after a few farmers more important than protecting other trolls from violence and death?”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” Athelfred said. “Of course, you’re right. My doing magic for the farmers, even if they don’t know I’m doing it, could be a danger for other trolls. “

“Do you agree to go to the safe house?” Owen asked.

Athelfred took a last look around his home and nodded.

Owen put his tablet back in his pocket. He turned in a slow circle, said some words, and stamped his left foot three times. The wind began to swirl around the two trolls until they were standing in the middle of a vortex. Then the winds died and they were standing outside a large white house on the river banks.

Athelfred looked about him. The roar of the traffic on the motorway above him was painful for a few seconds until his ears adapted. The house looked well cared for and sat on a jetty of land so it faced the river on two sides. The river was wider than any he had seen before. The green lawn surrounding the house was recently cut but there were no flower beds or ornamentation. He looked up at the bridge and cringed. It was a modern steel suspension bridge with two towers that had been painted white. “There has to be mistake. This is noisy and ugly. I don’t want to live here.”

Owen nodded in understanding. “I realize it’s very different from where you were but this is the future. You’ll get used to it. Soon you won’t imagine living anywhere else.”

“I won’t get used to it,” Athelfred said. “I want to go home. I’ll take my chances there. My magic and my friends will protect me.”

Owen frowned. “That’s not possible. It states in the TSA that all trolls must be protected by the TSO and abide by its rules. You will remain within the safety of a TSO community until it has been deemed safe for trolls to re-enter the human world. You can apply to transfer to another community but you will need the approval of the officer-in-charge at both locations before the transfer can happen. It’s for your own good.”

“Rules? What rules? You never mentioned any rules?”

“The rules are for your safety and the safety of the troll community at large. They are really simple and necessary. You live and work only in TSO authorized locations. You do the job you are assigned. Contact with humans is limited to the minimum necessary to perform your job. If accidental contact is made you reveal nothing about the existence of trolls, the TSO, or the TSA. And most importantly, all magic is forbidden.”

“But magic is one of the things that makes trolls special. It’s something we are good at. I was hoping to be able to learn from the other trolls here. You used magic to get us here.”

“As a TSO official I am authorized to use limited magic in the performance of my duties. Unauthorized use of magic is the most severe crime you can commit.”

“Why didn’t you tell me all this before I agreed to come with you?” Athelfred asked. “I wouldn’t have agreed if you had.”

“Your agreement was never necessary. I have the power to bring you here whether you wanted to come or not. I find if it seems like your choice you adapt sooner. As for the rules and restrictions, they are small price to pay for safety and peace. You’ll understand once you’ve been here for a day or two.” Owen extended his right arm towards the house. “Come, let me show you around and introduce you to the other members of your community.”