If Only in My Dreams (Part 1)

Who could use a Christmas story? Here is something featuring characters and settings from my work-in-progress, Shadow of the King, in all its unedited glory. Enjoy!

The snow stopped an hour ago, and a starry night was just barely visible behind thinning clouds. Wet, slushy snow crunched beneath Rune’s boots. He zipped his well-worn bomber jacket up to his neck against the icy breeze coming in from the river.

To Rune’s left was the playground at Waterfront Park—deserted this late at night, and with the water play area closed for the season. To his right was the ice-cold Ohio River. His destination lay straight ahead: the Big Four Pedestrian Bridge connecting Louisville with Jeffersonville, Indiana.

He stopped to listen. His sensitive elfish ears had no trouble homing in on the slow, even breaths of massive lungs not too far ahead. He cleared his throat to signal his approach. Rune hadn’t gotten this far in life without learning not to take a troll by surprise.

“Janks?” he called, striding toward the bridge. He tried to make his footsteps louder, then realized, first, that it was nearly impossible for him to do so and, second, that his contact had already marked his coming.

“Rune,” a gravelly voice answered from under the bridge. A figure emerged: nearly seven feet tall, wide-shouldered, big-nosed, bundled in a dark brown long coat, with a green toboggan cap pulled down over his forehead and a matching scarf around his massive neck. “‘Sup?”

Rune took another step forward. “Can’t complain.” He stopped a few yards in front of the troll. “Not much going on around here.”

“It’s Christmas Eve night,” Janks said. “That ain’t exactly peak season for an outdoor playground and water park.”

“I guess not.”

“Kinda like the peace and quiet, though,” the troll continued. “At least every now and then.” He gestured for Rune to approach. “But this ain’t a social call.” There was no malice in his voice and no distrust. He was simply assessing the situation. And, of course, he was right.

“I’m looking for a kid,” Rune said. “A goblin girl. Thought maybe you’d know something.”

“A kid?” The troll’s eyes widened beneath his bushy brow and his froggish mouth curled into something like a grin. “How old?”

“Almost grown.”

Janks frowned. “Too tough,” he said. “A goblin, you say?”

“That’s what my client says. She stole something. I’m supposed to get it back.”

Janks perked up. “So she’s been naughty, eh?” He rubbed his hands together and licked his lips. “That makes things more interesting…”

“Janks,” Rune threatened.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding!” the troll protested. Rune was not at all sure he was kidding. “Like I said, they’re too tough at that age. I’d rather eat shoe leather.”

“I just wanted to know if you’d heard anything about a goblin girl in these parts. My client says she was wearing shabby clothes and one of those stupid pointy hats everybody wears this time of year.”

“Not a peep,” the troll said. “Far as I’m concerned, you can have her.”

“Too tough?” Rune said, quirking an eyebrow.

The troll spread his hands. “I’m just messing with you. You know that, right? That age, they’re just not fun to scare anymore—and their emotions are all over the place.” He made a face as if something left a bad taste in his mouth.

“Fine. I guess I’ll—” Rune stopped short when what Janks said finally registered. “You pick up on emotions, don’t you?”

“I never knew a river troll that couldn’t.” He puffed out his barrel chest.

Rune considered this for just a second. “D’you have any plans tonight?”

Janks eyed Rune warily. “You want me to help you? That’s gonna cost.”

“I’ll owe you one,” Rune said. “And so will my client.” He turned away. Trolls loved excitement, anything out of the routine. That’s what he was counting on. But Janks wouldn’t be forced or cajoled. He had to make up his own mind.

“Shabby dressed, you say?” the troll called after him. “Maybe check over at the rescue mission on Jeff Street. I mean, just a thought.”

Rune stopped. He wiped the smile off his face before he turned back around. “Sounds like a longshot,” he said, “but we’ve got to start somewhere.”

Janks’s eyes lit up. “Just a minute,” he said, hustling forward. He took off his knit cap and shoved it into his long coat. Then he pulled a different had out of an inside pocket, a battered, plaid flat cap. As soon as he put it on, his trollish features dissolved: his eyebrows, nose, and mouth all shrunk to more human proportions, and he might have even seemed a little bit shorter.

“A shamlee cap?” Rune said. “Impressive.”

“We don’t all blend in as good as elves,” Janks said.

“I suppose not,” Rune said. When the troll caught up to him, he turned his back to the river, and the two trudged away together through the snow.

Part 2