A Lesson to You Young Ones

A Spiritwalker Universe story (a coda to the trilogy)

“That reminds me,” said Maester Godwik, “of the story my grandsire used to tell us young ones when I was no older than you rats and clutch-children are now.”

The old troll tapped his cane on the ground and, with this aid to manage his weight, settled his arthritic limbs more comfortably on the bench. He sat at the front of the schoolroom. The pupils were mostly human children, but a number of young trolls sat among them in the twos and threes of clutch-siblings. The youth were a restless crowd today. Harsh winter weather had kept everyone indoors for five days, and even the long corridors of the mage house used as raceways could not contain quite so much vitality for so lengthy a period with not a single respite for outdoor play.

“What story is that?” prompted the teacher from where he stood at the back of the room.

“Why, as small and as great a story as how trolls came to walk in this world. In those long ago days, you see, there were no rats, only trolls of all shapes and sizes that strode upon Earth and flew over and swam amid its vast territories.”

“If there were no rats, then where do humans come from?” asked the teacher.

“Do you rats not have your own explanations on this account?” replied Godwik with a grin that displayed his impressive teeth.

“Of course we do, although some strike me as more fanciful than plausible. I am besides that acquainted with all the most up to date theories through my correspondence with various natural philosophers and educators who concern themselves with scientific matters. But I am curious about your own reflections, for you are a personage of venerable age and eminent wisdom, Maester.”

“Whatever theories I may have in this regard, they are not part of the story I tell today, for rats came but recently into contact with trolls. As the sages say, ‘share everything, but guard your clutching territory to the death.’ So it is with us that in the long ago days, which our scholars measure as epochs rather than years, a sudden cataclysm shattered the paradise of trolls. This catastrophe caused a great cloud to conceal the sun and kill all the plants. Snow fell for years instead of months, and all the world became covered in particles of dust and ice. So many creatures died that their bones littered the ground like wheat scythed down at harvest.”

By now the restless children had quieted, eager to hear more about such a violent upheaval. A few glanced warily at the windows, wondering if the weak light of a cloudy day heavy with falling snow presaged a coming doom. In truth, the teacher’s resplendently orange and green dash jacket brightened the room far more than did the occluded sun. Godwik’s vivid blue feathers and black and green crest matched the fabric for visual eloquence.

“Within this devastation, this wilderness of fear and hunger, only the smallest could survive.”

“So it always appears, that a few do survive, else Earth would be a barren wasteland,” remarked the teacher.

“Yes, this we know for certain, even if the specifics of the truth remain in doubt. As Earth made countless revolutions around the sun, the ancestors of our people slowly expanded to fill the territories where once their greater brethren had shaken the very earth in their passing. They were as yet mindless, like the beasts, but the terrors and dangers of the world caused them to grow in cunning.”

Godwik paused, puffing up his crest as trolls did when faced with danger so as to appear as big as possible. The children stirred, murmuring with excitement at this rare demonstration on the part of the famously mild-mannered old lawyer.

The teacher said, with a smile, “What could possibly terrorize a fearsome troll, Maester? For your teeth, your claws, your intelligence, and your rebelliously inquisitive natures are surely a match for any creature on Earth.”

“On Earth, indeed they are. But I speak of the creatures who inhabit what you rats call the spirit world, the world beyond our mortal world which lies intertwined with our own in ways even the wisest among trolls and rats do not comprehend. The worlds are a maze with many paths and we but wanderers lost amid its twists and turnings. Now there came a time when an Age of Ice settled over Earth. This tremendous cold was the consequence of disordered energies brought about by a war fought beyond the ken of mortal creatures. Vast ice shelves crept down from the north to cover our homelands. Our ancestors survived in valleys and pockets of land amid the ice. Those you rats call the courts began to seek power by culling energies from among the rats, and those you call the dragons did the same, only among trolls. By eating the bones and energy of our kinds each side in the spirit world sought to gain advantage over their enemy. As we trolls struggled to save ourselves from the rapacity of our elder cousins we became caught between the ice and those that hunted us. Thus, our minds grew sharp with need.”

“The need not to be eaten is a powerful goad, is it not?”

Maester Godwik’s grin grew wider, teeth gleaming. “Let this be a lesson to you young ones,” he said, letting his gaze rest on each tender face as they waited in expectant silence for some lurid detail of savagery pitted against pluck. “Sharpen your minds as assiduously as cooks and butchers sharpen their knives. A well-honed mind is the only defense against the predators of sloth and indolence. If you wish to eat instead of being eaten, you will read all of the texts assigned you, complete your grammar and mathemathics exercises, and work with eager intensity on the essay questions each class has been given.”

Many of the children groaned outright, while others sighed in disappointment or rolled their eyes. Not bothering to hide his smile, the teacher dismissed them and was himself almost immediately called into the corridor to deal with a scuffle in the hallway.

As the last of the children hurried out, eager to get to their midday dinner, one small human child and a pair of troll youth politely approached the old troll.

“Yes, young ones. I see you. Have you something you wish to say?”

The troll clutch-siblings nudged the human child, who stepped from one foot to the other to gather up courage before speaking in a soft voice.

“Wasn’t the magister rude, to ask so many questions and interrupt so much while you were speaking?”

Godwik’s crest flared, feathers rising with amusement. “No, no, child. He was being obedient to the most important rule of storytelling: Among us trolls, no tale is complete without numerous interruptions. Each question is a gateway to a new story, and to a fresh thought.”

The three young ones looked at each other, and the young trolls showed a bit of teeth in anticipation while the rat nodded enthusiastically.

“In that case, how did trolls and rats first come to meet?”

“Ah, a refreshing question. That reminds me of a story . . . ”