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630 pages
6 hours
Sep 12, 2017


Prince Kellor, cursed by the troll-witch Mandine to live as a north-bear, wrestles with the challenges of his beast form. Pain wracks his body. Unpredictable rages blur his mind. And straight thinking proves elusive, confusing his search for the loopholes that every curse possesses.

His curse turns on the choices of his childhood friend Elle. She once shared Kellor's idyllic rambles through the wilderlands. She now loves all things musical. Might Kellor persuade her to neglect her own dreams to confront his lethal nightmare? Should he?

But no troll-witch permits her prey to escape with ease. The illusory loopholes in Mandine's curse all twist back to its entombing heart.

J.M. Ney Grimm tells a lyrical Beauty and the Beast tale, rife with moments of shining glory, dark magnificence, and unexpected significance. The fate of an empire, a people, and a world unfurls from Kellor's deeds and Elle's choices.


"...Troll-magic has a certain poetic style I've yet to come across elsewhere. Descriptions are...evocative, characters are natural and complex..." — James J. Parsons

"This is the kind of book that you keep thinking about... All through the day you will find yourself hoping for just a few minutes to pick it up again. Loosely based on a familiar folk tale, the world depicted is magical, but the people are very real." — M.A. Dunn

"Troll-magic was a fun read... This story mixes adventure, romance, life lessons and, of course, magic. J.M. Ney-Grimm has created a fascinating new world. Her detailed descriptions and colourful writing style bring the world of Silmaren and the Norse-lands right off the page and into life." — W. Walsh

"Her work compares favorably with Robin McKinley and Patricia McKillip... if you're looking for an intelligent, fun and interesting read, I highly recommend this book." — Mira


In darkness he touched his nose, felt his ears. Oh Sias! They were larger. More deformed. Horror shook his fingertips. What should he do? What could he do?

Chaotic memory gripped him. Stabbing tangerine light and agonizing pain. His body taken by unfathomable force and twisted, reshaped.

What was this? Where was this? None of it made sense. And the absolute blackness didn't help. He took a deep breath. And another. There. He was steadier now. Some sort of solution existed. He could sense it, just out of reach. Closing his eyes against the dark, he stretched his mind. He'd done . . . something . . . last . . . night? It didn't matter when. What was it he'd done? He tried again to call it to mind, pressing against the blankness in his thoughts. Breathing was part of it; patterned breathing. Which reminded him that holding his breath wouldn't help. Someone . . . a teacher, had told him that tension inhibited . . . something. He sighed. Patterned breathing. Fine, he would do some. He breathed out to a slow count of three, then in for the same.

And then he had it. Patterned breathing and patterning. He was a pattern-master. Or, at least, an apprentice one. And he'd done . . . not patterning, last night, but a forbidden version of it. Something other.

Sep 12, 2017

About the author

J.M. Ney-Grimm lives with her husband and children in Virginia, just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She's learning about permaculture gardening and debunking popular myths about food. The rest of the time she reads Robin McKinley, Diana Wynne Jones, and Lois McMaster Bujold, plays boardgames like Settlers of Catan, rears her twins, and writes stories set in her troll-infested North-lands. Look for her novels and novellas at your favorite bookstore—online or on Main Street.

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Troll-magic - J.M. Ney-Grimm



A retelling of

East of the Sun and West of the Moon

from the Norse folk tales

by J.M. Ney-Grimm

Copyright © 2011 J.M. Ney-Grimm

Cover art:

Psyche Entering Cupid’s Garden

by John William Waterhouse

If the Muse could take human form,

she would be

my friend, Amy

A Note to the Reader

I encourage you to pronounce the names of the North-lands in the ways that please you most. This goes for the more precise term for troll-magic, incantatio, as well. Since my story is thoroughly permeated by troll-magic, the word occurs a lot! But for those readers who like to know how the author pronounces things, I’ll share my version. I say, in-can-TAH-shee-o. Enjoy!

Who’s Who in Troll-magic

The Prince & his Circle

Kellor – a prince in trouble

Mandine – his crazy step-mother

Cymbre – his confused step-sister

The Flautist & her Friends

Lorelin – a rural lass of Silmaren

Irisa – her closest sister

Emoirie – her flute teacher

The Emperador’s Counselors

Gabris – a minister of Giralliya

Panos – arch-antiphoner of Giralliya

The Ghost & her Family

Helaina – Kellor’s foster mother and Reice’s wife

Reice – Kellor’s mentor

Bazel – eldest son to Helaina and Reice

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10


Who’s Who in Troll-magic

Map of the North-lands

Author Bio

More Titles by J.M. Ney-Grimm

Chapter 1

In darkness he touched his nose, felt his ears. Oh Sias! They were larger. More deformed. Horror shook his fingertips. What should he do? What could he do?

Chaotic memory gripped him. Stabbing tangerine light and agonizing pain. His body taken by unfathomable force and twisted, reshaped.

What was this? Where was this? None of it made sense. And the absolute blackness didn’t help. He took a deep breath. And another.

There. He was steadier now.

Some sort of solution existed. He could sense it, just out of reach. Closing his eyes against the dark, he stretched his mind.

He’d done . . . something. Last . . . night?

It didn’t matter when. What was it he’d done?

He tried again to call it to mind, pressing against the blankness in his thoughts. Breathing was part of it; patterned breathing. Which reminded him that holding his breath wouldn’t help. Someone . . . a teacher, had told him that tension inhibited . . . something.

He sighed.

Patterned breathing. Fine, he would do some.

He breathed out to a slow count of three, then in for the same.

And then he had it. Patterned breathing and patterning.

He was a pattern-master. Or, at least, an apprentice one. And he’d done  .  .  . not patterning, last night, but a forbidden version of it. Something other.

He should try it again. It had worked. Maybe it would work again. Could he do it?

He took yet another deep breath. He had to relax. Patterning didn’t happen if you were tense. Reice had taught him that long ago.


The name steadied him further. He’d remembered another name. This was good. Reasonable memory was returning bit by bit. Who was the other person he’d recalled?

Not a friend, but someone who . . . scorned him? The strange nothingness in his thoughts oppressed him. He’d think about that later. After the patterning. Or rather the taboo not-patterning. His gut tensed again. And another cascade of crazy memory impinged. A woman’s voice, hate-laced, shrieking rhythmic syllables. Something very wrong. Snow stinging his nose and body all wrong. Couldn’t see and balance gone.

Stop, he told himself. Pull your ribs close, then relax and let the air flow in. He could do this, if he just stayed in the moment and didn’t get ahead of himself. Reice . . . ah, his teacher . . . had always said he was a stronger patterner than most.

He relaxed into a deep breath and started the centering ritual: focus on the toes first, glide to the ankles next, then the calves and knees and quadriceps. He could not, must not, think about his growing deformities. Just warm limbs and slow breathing. Continue centering, moment by moment by moment.

A quiet interval passed in the dark.

Now, allow an intricate net of hazy blue green light – that was light only in his mind, not his eyes – to spill from his belly, flowing down across his thighs and upward over his ribs. Brighter and growing, brighter to his toes, brighter still to cover his hands, gleaming silver on his face and hair. Then feed it slowly, a tiny flame sheltered by his will in the blizzard of this dark. Brighter, stronger; brighter and brighter. If it were fire, it would burn him.

Now for the other.

His belly wanted to clench again, but he wouldn’t let it. Soft, stay soft. And then the other.

Sudden brilliant lances of gold light sprang from his palms. True light, like the acrid rays that had brought him to this impasse. Light so dazzling, so coherent, it might cut.

First the feet. Thiyaude, but it burned!

He didn’t clench his jaw. He had to do this without tension. Couldn’t skip anywhere. The deformity showed first in the nose and ears, but it was latent everywhere.

He hissed as the golden knives pierced his ankles and moved on. He almost passed out when they reached the groin. Ancient gods, but it hurt. Upward and upward he guided the honed light: agony through the solar plexus and throat, beyond agony in the face and skull.

And now, blessed Jaen, he could stop.

The lights ceased: first the aching gold and then the softer mind-light of blue green. He huddled in a ball in the dark, grabbing his midriff and gasping.

Another jumbled flashback disoriented him. Slice of ice blue sky spinning into stars wheeling across the night. Couldn’t remember his name. Darkness, cold floors, bruised shins. Where was this? Body all wrong and so thirsty. Mandine! And a spire of rock rising from the sea.

His gasps shortened, then calmed as he re-asserted control.

Who was Mandine?

Where was he? The night that surrounded him remained impenetrable.

Wait, he urged himself, just breathe.

The pain was lessening. It ebbed yet more.

Then the pain was gone.

He lifted his head, straightened, and eased himself up from the floor into an armchair he couldn’t see. He reached a tentative hand up to his face.

Thiyaude be praised! His nose was normal again. So were his ears. Neither enlarged nor growing bulbous or cupped.

It had worked again.

He’d reversed the corroding effect that all incantatio brought with it. Incantatio! That was the word for the painful light of the banned not-patterning. But incantatio was performed by incantors. And incantors were punished with death.

He cringed. He was no pattern-master; he was an incantor.

A troll.

He shuddered, then stopped himself again. Descent into obsessed panic would not help his current plight.

He needed a long-term plan. He could keep doing this – this incantatio  – night after night. Indeed, he would have to. The erosion from Mandine’s curse would go forward regardless, so he must erase its depredations nightly. But he needed – desperately wanted – a more permanent solution. He must think now, in the hour after the not-patterning, when his thoughts were clearer.

Mandine. It was she who spurned him. Suddenly he remembered her wedding his father. Of course, his stepmother.

Then his own name returned: Kellor.

His brows tightened.

Surely there had been words when she cursed him. He could hear the scream of her rage and despair. He could see her contorted face, the splintering acidic light. But words? Even a verse? Something about a maiden who would freely chose?

That hardly made sense. He was alone here. And his friends had been left behind when Mandine took Cymbre and himself to Caer Seila.

Cymbre. Caer Seila. More fragments of memory and identity were returning to him. Cymbre was his stepsister. Caer Seila was the castle on the spire of rock where they had dwelt. They’d come to Caer Seila from a cavern palace called the Lainkath – the cavern palace where he now sat in an armchair.

One corner of his mouth quirked up. He shifted against the leather chair and bent his thoughts again to the curse.

A maiden who would share his bed? How was that possible? And who would want to? He wore some terrible shape by day. He had not yet worked out what it was. His eyes in that shape did not work the way he was used to as a man. And he couldn’t make out his reflection in the mirrors of the Lainkath. For the longest time he hadn’t even recognized he was in that underground home.

But worse than his fearful shape, he was half mad as a beast. His curse-twisted mind was incoherent, the thoughts spinning out of all sense. Rage would shake his entire monstrous being without any warning. Worse than hemlock boughs in the gusts of winter winds. He was not fit to live with.

By night he was a man again.

And once his outlawed re-patterning was complete, he was sane.

He now understood Mandine all too well. Why she’d uttered such strangely cruel words, acted so bizarrely.

He’d been told many times of the corrosive nature of incantatio or troll-magic. Every child in the north-lands learned why troll-witchery was forbidden. How it deformed the bodies of its practitioners. How it tore their very souls. But those explanations had been merely words to him. Now he knew from the inside.

More memories streamed through his thoughts. Every night he had to learn anew who he was. Each time he re-patterned himself and returned to sanity, a few additional pieces joined the re-emerging story of his life.

Watching Mandine change over the years had made the reality of troll-madness clearer.

She’d been beautiful when she married his father: clear, creamy skin; masses of curly, dark hair. She’d been kind too. He’d felt fortunate that his father had chosen someone who really liked children. Someone who might come to love him, young Kellor, as her own son. And little Cymbre had admired him, looked upon him as the perfect play fellow she’d always wanted. They had been happy.

For a few years.

Then disaster had fallen upon them. There was that strange plot between Mandine and the Duke of Arle. Then war with the Empire and the death of his father, Prince Syman. Flight to the far north, the rural reaches of Silmaren.

Now he knew it was all due to troll-magic. Mandine had already been practicing it when his father made her his wife. Practicing in secret. Somehow she’d found ways to stave off its corrosion. Her beauty and her warm heart were preserved longer than he could imagine possible, given what he now experienced each evening when the beast shape fell off him to reveal him a man.

No, a troll.

How had she stayed sane all those years? She was not anymore. Nor beautiful. Her nose was elongated and bulbous, her ears large and cupped. Her body had thickened, and her spine curved both sideways and forward to give her a hump. Her skin was coarse and sallow, sagging. Her visage featured watering, bloodshot eyes; bleeding gums; and missing teeth.

Worse than her ugliness was her spiteful rage, her contempt for vulnerability, and her obsession with speaking small torturing words. Always with that slight cruel smile.

Now he knew the whirling confusion behind the smile, the storms of anger that pushed the destructive actions toward self and other. The strange mental images that burst into one’s thoughts and would not be banished. He shared too much of it himself.

And poor sweet Cymbre was following in her mother’s footsteps. Mandine wouldn’t admit it. Couldn’t see it. Wouldn’t see it. But that afternoon in the herb garden of Caer Seila, when Mandine had betrothed him to his step-sister, Kellor had seen Cymbre’s ears. And her nose.

Her life must have been unbearable as she watched her mother change and go mad. The daughter unable to halt the dreadful progress of the troll-disease in the mother. Desperately wishing for the loving, steady, intelligent woman Mandine had been in earlier years.

No wonder she was tempted to reach for power the only way she knew how. The power to bring order to the chaos growing around her. The power to reverse her mother’s disease. The power of incantatio.

Kellor shook his head. This wasn’t getting him anywhere.

He had to use this hour or two of clear thought to analyze and plan. Some of the answers lay in the past. But if he spent too much time there, the confusion of Mandine’s curse would engulf him before he’d even started to determine what to do next. He couldn’t allow the troll-disease to claim him. He must not yield to Mandine’s crazed insistence that he and Cymbre marry.

He arose to pace the room, tripped over an ottoman, and stopped. He needed light. He thought better on his feet, but he could not roam the Lainkath in the dark.

It would be sensible to use enough patterning to see.

He felt around on the desk until his fingers closed over a quartz paperweight. A trickle of blue-white mind light, and the quartz began to glow. A bit more patterning energy, and he could see the room around him.

He remembered spending rainy afternoons at age fourteen reading here. Rich tapestries, depicting the hunt for the unicorn, softened the stone walls. Thick carpet underfoot, traced with a leafy design, padded the marble floor. Cinnamon leather armchairs, book-filled shelves, a desk with carved drawers and pigeonholes – and a quill that his monstrous daytime paws could not hold – furnished this study.

He picked up the glistening quartz and strode through the doorway.

Pacing the halls, he passed cultural icons without noticing: the statue of a sea serpent twined around a queen, a painting depicting a leopard-hung hunter stepping out of a starry sky, a clock with constellations enameled at each hour, and a mirror set within a frame of carved eels. He preferred to ignore this place where he’d grieved his father’s death. Where he’d known his last happiness and normal living despite that sorrow.

He pulled his thoughts into the present again. What to do?

There must be some way to break this curse. There always was. Reice had not given many lessons on curses. Few patterners needed to know much about them. But surely he’d said every curse had its demise embedded within it.

How he missed Reice! The patterner had been a second father to him. He still found it hard to believe Mandine had permitted her stepson to study with a teacher of odylogy. The relationship between tutor and student was so close. What if he’d let something slip? But he’d kept all her secrets.

Now he wished he hadn’t.

So Reice had been his teacher. It was a relief to remember him. Could Reice help him now? Somehow he didn’t think so. There was an odd sense that Reice was caught in the curse as well.

Could Kellor break the curse himself? That didn’t feel possible either. Trust Mandine to have made sure her curse had few weak points. She was never sloppy when it came to cruelty. There was something about a maiden.

He probed his memory again. Not ’til a maiden shall freely chose to share thy bed with never a ruse, one year and a day. No time to lose, thee must wake each morn to rise and woo. Pain lanced his head afresh.

Yes, those were the words.

You will not shake, he told his hands grimly. He would be calm. He would figure this out.

What would Reice say? Take it step by step. Use logic. Panic will get you nowhere. Kellor could almost hear his voice. But Reice was trapped as well.

He needed to break this curse not only for himself, not only for sad Cymbre, but for Reice. And Reice’s children. Kellor still remembered so little, but his heart told him that his teacher had children, a wife.

So, a maiden. Did he know any maiden well enough to ask her . . . he faltered . . . to share his bed? He was surely old enough to be betrothed, but he didn’t think he was on the verge of marriage, save in Mandine’s machinations.

He pushed at the blankness that hid so much of his sense of self.

He was Kellor Gide, son of the murdered Prince of Pavelle and his deceased consort, Princess Mione. (Mother!) When Mandine fled to Silmaren, he’d first lived with her and Cymbre in the Lainkath, some distance from a village called Birkliden. Later he dwelt and studied odylogy with Reice, an odylogist or pattern-master. When not practicing this subtle energy magic, he roamed the hilly, flower-spangled meadows of the region. He’d discovered a fellow nature enthusiast in Elle, who lived some distance on the other side of Birkliden.

Elle! Another friend, and another scrap of returning memory. Would he ever retrieve them all?

He and  .  .  . Elle had hiked all the way to Dragonfoss one day to see the reputed giant’s den abandoned under the peak’s steepest cliff face. And seen a herd of reindeer, a peregrine, two foxes, and griffin tracks on that expedition. Her parents and Reice – worried – had been separately irate when they returned after sundown. Silmaren was a wild land with too many dangers to foster night time roaming.

A flashback interrupted him. Sudden flare of orange. A high, wild chanting. Balance all wrong. Slamming pain in the knees. Floor so hard. Spine stretched and humped. Searing cold heat.

The madness was starting again.

Elle. He must hold onto the memory of Elle. He had not brought her to mind on any other of these awful nights. He mustn’t let her slip again.

*   *   *

Lorelin rubbed her fingers across the square of fabric, smiling at the catch of its thick softness on her calluses.

The speckles of small flowers in white, yellow, pink, and pale blue against the deep pine ground were pleasure to her eyes.

She selected a square of mint green and began stitching the two together. Just this last row and the window quilt would be ready for its batting. She almost wished it were for her own room, but Motter was partial to green, and the girls’ bedchamber had very pretty blue and white quilts for its casements.

She looked up from her sewing for a moment.

Was that Vallany screeching again?

Yes, and there was Irisa’s voice soothing the three year old. Irisa was clever with Vallany, but Lorelin figured that she had, at most, four more squares of stitching before her littlest sister arrived kicking and screaming in Irisa’s arms, to be dumped down on the rag rug covering the parlor floor.

Better use the interval to think about the flute piece she’d been working on since spring.

The timing change midway through the music confused her. She wanted to ask Emoirie about it and about an alternate fingering for the quick staccato bit. The callus from her harp playing kept slowing her littlest finger on the transition between notes. Emoirie would have good advice. She was . . . Lorelin searched for the right word to describe her skill . . . exquisite, yes, exquisite in her mastery of harp and flute and mandolin.

Lorelin was the merest beginner in comparison, but so grateful to have stumbled upon her teacher. She doubted that all Feldholm held even one other such genius.

Perhaps the Queen Anora in Ringestad listened to equally able players, but Lorelin lived not in Hamrask, Ringestad’s province, nor even in neighboring Lingevall, but near the hamlet of Birkliden in rural Feldholm. Plainsong or simple melodies on wooden pipes and hide drums, while beautiful, were not the exhilarating experience of the complex compositions from the Empire played on fine instruments worth the entirety of Motter’s farm!

Another burst of childish complaint came through the open window.

Lorelin sighed. Less than four squares.

She loved her sisters and brothers, and Motter and Patter, of course. Life here at home was good. Her family was more prosperous than many of their neighbors. She always had enough to eat, and not just gruel through the winter either, but thick stews and roasts with chewy flavored breads and sweet scarletberry preserves. Their cot was large and warm in severe blizzards. Her clothes were pretty and fit well. (She allowed herself an inner smirk – they should, given she’d sewed them herself. She found textiles a satisfying pursuit and was skilled at it.)

She was allowed to have her choice of the many household chores: the family sewing, sweeping, baking, watching Alix and Vallany, teaching Hazel and Lilli. Motter hardly ever asked her to wash dishes or clothes, knowing Lorelin hated these tasks. She even permitted her daughter to have entire afternoons free to roam the wild hilly meadows surrounding their farm, which Lorelin craved after too many days spent in the cot.

But there lay the rub.

She wanted more than an afternoon every three or four days to feel the sun on her shoulders, the grasses brushing her legs when she kirtled her skirts up to her knees, and the scented breeze fingering her face while she hiked the distant hills. She wished for weeks of wilderness rambles in the mornings and musical tutelage under Emoirie in the afternoons.

That was the dream beckoning her imagination. She could not conceive how to make it a reality.

Her family was prosperous, not wealthy. She knew no one with riches sufficient for a life of ease and music. She was not completely certain she really desired it. The round of homely chores, the fellowship of her brothers and sisters as they did the work of the homestead, the insightful chat with her loving mother – all this was precious to her.

Yet she wanted more. More, without having to give this up. She shook her head. It seemed an insoluble conundrum.

Vallany’s shrieks reached a new peak, and Lorelin looked up again from her sewing as the front door banged open. Irisa tramped through the hall into the parlor with the struggling three-year-old clutched in an unraveling embrace. Vallany thumped onto the rag rug as earlier predicted.

Can you watch her? panted Irisa. Her face was flushed, her pale blond hair straying from its braids across damp cheeks, and her blue-striped skirts muddied by Vallany’s dirty feet.

She jerked her tan bodice straight, pulled the sleeves of her white blouse down, and looked beseechingly at her older sister.

First she popped up under my elbow and got her head bumped while I was pumping water into the cistern, then she dodged around me when I picked up the trug full of sweet peas and was knocked flat by it. Next she got a face-full of water when I watered the scarletberry row. And just now she stepped between Kion and the log he was splitting. I don’t know how he missed her.

Lorelin stood and gave Irisa a hug. Ugh! What a dreadful morning! Her sister definitely needed a break. Why don’t you go to Motter? The sun’s at noon, and it’s time for dinner. I’m sure she could use your help. I’ll keep Vallany while I finish my patches.

Irisa clutched Lorelin’s shoulders, swallowing a half-groan. Then she straightened and smiled. I don’t know what got into her. Vallany’s never docile, but she’s not usually so . . . so . . . unexpected! The fifteen-year-old pecked Lorelin on the cheek – Thanks! – and bustled away toward the kitchen across the hall.

Lorelin returned to the cushioned armchair next to which sat her sewing basket. Vallany still screamed and flailed. Lorelin knew from experience that attempting to comfort or otherwise distract the toddler just wound her up further. Another patch would see the wild arms and legs lying still and the roaring voice quiet, while curious eyes peeked through a tangle of golden curls.

It took two squares, but there she was, sitting up and staring. What you do?

Sewing quilts for Motter’s and Patter’s windows. The old ones have gotten so thin and worn they don’t keep the cold out very well. Would you like me to tell you a story while I work?

Vallany climbed to her feet, rubbed her nose, and came to sit on Lorelin’s lap. Lorelin gave her a squeeze and a kiss, then set her on the floor.

I can’t stitch, Vani, with you in my arms. But you can lean against my legs, and I’ll tell you about the princess on the glass hill.

The story and the sewing finished just as Motter entered the parlor.

Motter had the blond hair of her daughters, but with some strands of silver in it, and worn in a knot. Her faded blue eyes were warm with affection, and her middle-aged face soft with pride.

Lori, you’re a daughter after any mother’s heart. Sias bless you, sweetie.

She bent to remove a crumble of dirt fallen from Vallany’s shoe, then straightened. You’ve finished the patches, I see. Those’ll be handsome pieces for our winter nights.

She lifted Vallany and caressingly rubbed the child’s bangs out of her eyes, while continuing to address Lorelin. If you’ll help me move the food from pot to table, while Irisa sounds the bell, it’ll be ready by the time your patter and the boys clean up enough to come inside.

It wasn’t quite that simple.

Baby Alix awoke in all the hubbub of ten people gathering around the kitchen table. Motter sat in the rocking chair to nurse him, and the older children got the younger ones seated. Their patter arrived last of all. He took in their expectant expressions as they looked up from ladling mint sauce over roast mutton.

I was at the three-elm field checking the bluff on its north side, he said. The stream runs near it, but not too near. And if we cleared the white birches, a cot delved into it would catch the southern sun nicely.

Lorelin’s face grew warm. Patter, I’m not even walking out with anyone yet! I wish you wouldn’t, wouldn’t . . . keep planning for my marriage!

Patter smiled, but his eyes were steady and serious. Indeed, you’re young yet. But a cot takes time to dig and build. And you’re owed a daughter’s share, Lorelin. You won’t always want to be living with your motter and patter.

Lorelin hunched and turned her gaze toward the floor.

Patter sighed. Very well. We’ll leave it for now. He seated himself. Inge, let me take the baby. I can hold him in one arm and eat with the other hand easily enough. You need food too.

Patter was a big man with a big voice, but he moved smoothly for all that. And modulated his speech enough that his words filled the room without overpowering his listeners. His red-blond hair was sandy, his fair skin lightly tanned from all his time out of doors, but his clothing stayed tidy despite his vigorous work.

Motter served him generous portions of mixed salad greens, smoked trout, buttered rye bread, and roast mutton, the latter cut into bite-sized pieces so that he could manage with little Alix cradled against his ribs.

To Lorelin’s relief, he turned his attention to Kion and then the other children as the meal progressed. He enjoyed the company of his sons and daughters, listening interestedly to their thoughts and flights of fancy. He seemed always willing to stop to answer a question or merely to notice a child’s unspoken curiosity. (And then start work again, when those interruptions came between meals. He got through a vast amount every day in an unhurried way.)

He often took time after dinner to play with Alix, Vallany, and Lilli. He always spent evenings with his family, singing, playing games, telling stories, or conversing. He remarked that it was a sorrow that his own patter died young. Uncle Randel had been good to him, but how might a patter’s attention have felt?

His own children certainly received the benefit of this awareness. Lorelin had always adored him, which made their current lack of harmony more painful. He stopped her in the foyer hall as they made their way to the parlor.

Lorelin, the rural life is the only one I know. His voice held concern. And the only one your motter and I could give you a good start in.

She shrugged in uncomfortable irritation.

His mouth compressed. It’s a good life, satisfying and comfortable.

I know that, she snapped. But . . .

But what? We’ve not got the traditions – or the connections – for an artisan’s path. Or for any other livelihood. He leaned back against the wall.

I know! I just . . . wish you’d wait.

He touched her cheek gently. Can’t you be content here?

Her frustration with him melted. Oh, Patter, I wish I were!

He snugged her in close and stroked her hair. There now. I only want you happy, child.

And that was part of the problem. He did wish her happy.

Yet he thought her restlessness could simply be willed away. That it should be resisted so that she could continue the country life that had absorbed her ancestors. He didn’t understand that her need for something more was as much a part of herself as her quietude while sewing or her desire to entertain her younger siblings.

Motter hadn’t talked with her about it, but she seemed to understand better. She certainly sent Lorelin off on solitary hikes with great regularity and little interference. She stepped into the hall now and intervened.

Arek, Lilli is hoping you might play tumbling towers with her and Hazel.

Patter gave Lorelin’s hair a last gentle smooth before he turned away.

Motter smiled wryly. Perhaps she remembered how unsettled she had been at age seventeen.

Away with you, Lori. No last minute something has cropped up. The afternoon is yours as promised. Make the most of it, honey.

Lorelin stopped on the stones of the front terrace to tighten her boot laces. She stood a moment in the sunlight, squinting, and then set off across the nearer pastures.

Once she reached the ridge beyond, she paused again to tie her skirts up and breathe in the solitude. Leagues of hilly meadows full of wild flowers stretched away to the snowy peaks of the Fiordhammars in the east. Spruce and pine forests cloaked the foothills of Dragonfoss, the closest of the mountains, and curled around to edge the northern prospect. It was a day of blue and breeze warmed by friendly sunshine.

Lorelin sniffed the delicate blossom scent blowing across the landscape. Hill pinks, candle rue, starbrights, and summer gentians perfumed the air, enticing the honeybees to industry. What a peerless afternoon! She almost danced down the slope from the pleasure of it.

Heading north toward the less distant woodlands, her strides steadied into a rhythm. Emoirie’s hut was an hour’s hike without detours. She didn’t want to spend too many moments on wilderness joys or she would lose time at the flute.

She hummed a few measures, and her fingers followed the tune as though an instrument lay beneath their tips. She had come so far and learned so much these past several years. Before that memorable excursion soon after Gide departed, she’d never dreamed that music such as Emoirie’s existed.

She’d been wandering almost aimlessly, noticing the berries on the rowans and missing her friend Gide. Wondering when she would grow accustomed again to the solitary rambles that once were all she’d known. Suddenly a liquid arpeggio of silver notes rippled through the air, burst into spangles of golden melody, then collected itself anew in a shimmering murmur like water over stone.

She stood transfixed, unable to make sense of what she was hearing, carried out of herself by its novelty and utter beauty.

The music wound on and on, repeating the spattering spangle at intervals between forging fresh rills of loveliness for her ears. She returned to herself soon enough to follow the sound to its source, weaving between spruce trees until she emerged in a small glade.

Herbs, flowers, and vegetables were planted in swirling borders around a wattle-and-daub hut so brown and mossy it seemed to have grown out of the ground from seed. A crown of blooms graced its living roof. And at its open door sat the harpist whose skill had created the joyous outpouring of melody and rhythm.

Lorelin’s rapture turned to horror.

The harpist was a troll. Unmistakably a troll, even to Lorelin’s inexperienced eyes. Enlarged and lengthened nose. Huge, deformed, cupped ears. Sagging, sallow skin. Faded, watery eyes. Twisted, dumpy body.

The ugliness of her troll form and the immanent danger of her troll-magic, coming so swiftly upon the beauty of the music shocked Lorelin into stillness. She was the hare before the wood lynx, the mouse under the peregrine’s shadow.

The troll-witch spoke, Come here, child. Let me look at you. Be not afraid. I will not harm you. Her voice was deep and gruff, but gentle.

Lorelin moved forward as though in a trance, noting the ordinary clothing worn by the troll: cream-colored blouse, sage green bodice, tan and sable striped skirt, forest green apron – neither the fabulous glittering gown of troll lore nor the towering bejeweled head dress.

What is your name, child?

Lorelin Ingesdotter, she gasped. Who are you? Was it you playing? Please don’t eat me . . . or turn me into a vole!

So you are Arek’s and Inge’s child. You have the look of your mother. But your father’s chin. Be calm, Lorelin. I said no harm will come to you. You are safe here.

Thus had begun her acquaintance with Emoirie. From this unpromising start had followed a better knowledge of the troll-woman, out of which grew friendship and affection. An exchange of confidence flourished, then the advent of lessons on flute and harp and mandolin, and at last there flowered the love typical between grandmotter and granddaughter.

Lorelin could no more imagine life without Emoirie than she could envision her home lacking the bluff within which it sheltered.

Yet troll-disease claimed a little more of Emoirie’s health every year. Her spine bent farther, her steps grew more limping, and her sight less keen. One day the troll-sickness would take her life. Theurgia, or antiphony as Emoirie called it, slowed the progression of deformity, especially when done to the accompaniment of Lorelin’s flute or her voice raised in song. But it did not halt or reverse the deterioration.

We must experiment more. Today. After my music lesson. Lorelin quickened her pace.

She was relieved to find Emoirie working in the garden surrounding her hut. (Not lying in bed and ill as she had been on several visits in the spring.) The troll-woman straightened slowly, dirt-caked trowel in her hand, and rubbed her back. All the stooping was hard on old muscles and bones. She smiled as she caught sight of Lorelin.

They exchanged greetings and a hug before Emoirie put away her tools and Lorelin carried the pile of pulled weeds to the compost heap. They sat on the bench outside the front door with mugs of cool, mint-garnished well water.

Emoirie, my patter was at it again, complained Lorelin, taking a sip from her mug.

What did he say this time? Emoirie’s face was calm, unperturbed, although her tone was sympathetic.

He wanted to know if I’d like a cot delved in the bluff by our three-elm field. Last week, when he’d planned an addition onto our family cot, I told him I didn’t want that at all. Apparently he took it to mean I wanted a home apart from him and Motter. Lorelin’s shoulders sagged. He just doesn’t understand!

It’s reasonable that he’s anxious for your future. You’re his eldest child. He’s never done this before, guiding a grown daughter as she transitions from girl into woman. From all you’ve said, Arek’s a planning sort of man. He always feels more comfortable having an idea of what tomorrow holds and what needs doing to get there.

But even I don’t know what exactly I want, sighed Lorelin. Sometimes I think I’ll stay home and be auntie to Irisa’s children when she eventually marries and has them. She’s the one Patter should be planning additions or newly dug cots for, not me. I don’t want land and flocks of my own that require my care and attention. Emoirie, do you think I could win a musician’s post in the retinue of a theign? If I went to the capital? Am I skilled enough?

Oh, You’ve skill enough, child. But posts in noble retinues don’t come for skill alone. You’d need a written pedigree of maitresses, connections that would give you value beyond your musical abilities, and someone of rank to recommend you. Emoirie tilted her head. We’ll talk of this more after your flute lesson.

Lorelin sighed again, finished her water, and followed her teacher inside. The one-room hut was tidy and clean as usual. Lorelin’s own handiwork, gifted over the years, mingled with Emoirie’s larger output. Door and window quilts were pushed aside on their rods to let in summer warmth and light. A folded comforter graced the foot of the narrow bed. Rag rugs softened the flagstone floor. And cushions made the rocker and two straight-backed chairs more pleasant for sitting.

Emoirie opened a flat wooden box on a shelf and took from it her flute: a marvelous mechanism in gleaming silver with hinged, pressure-dampened keys covering the finger holes. Lorelin’s breath still caught when she saw it. Her instrument at home was a beautiful, satiny wood pipe with mellow tones. But this wondrous artifact from the Empire gave precision and purity of sound new meaning.

A musical interlude followed, with intervals where Emoirie simply listened in pleasure, and many more when she interrupted with comments on timing, emotion, and cleaner breath management.

Teacher and pupil glowed in their intense concentration on techniques for bringing out the best in both the player and the quick, tripping, counterpointed melody under study.

The sun was considerably lower in the sky when they stopped. Lorelin separated the flute into its three component pieces and cleaned away the condensation inside with a rag kept for the purpose. Emoirie tucked the sheet music into a leather portfolio. They both stood up and stretched, then sat at the small table by the window to eat some berries, soft cheese, and bread.

Emoirie started the conversation. Shall we talk some of your future, child?

Lorelin had been staring at the garden and the conifers that bounded the troll-woman’s small preserve. Now she turned to meet Emoirie’s gaze with a little extra resolve.

I do want to discuss it with you, but there’s something more urgent. Her listener’s eyebrows flew up. Emoirie, we have to talk about you. About your health. About antiphony and troll-magic. There must be some solution. I can’t just let you slip away, let this battle be lost without any fight at all to save you.

Oh, child – Emoirie‘s voice was tired – "this battle was lost long before either you or I were even born. And it will be lost again and again after we are long dead. There is no winning against the destructive nature of incantatio, or troll-magic, as most name it."

But you said yourself that you’ve survived far longer than any other known troll. That antiphony preserves you. That music supports the antiphonic preservation. And, oddly, tears too. That your own weeping when you were young restored you in some measure. I could cry rivers, if that is what it will take. Her eyes prickled with unshed tears, and she arose to bend over Emoirie’s upturned face.

The salt water welled over her lashes, and she pressed her wet cheek to Emoirie’s dry one.

Explain it to me. I want to understand more. Not so I will agree with you that there is nothing to be done. But so that I can make smarter suggestions for what to try. Her tone was fierce, but her fingers gentle as she massaged her own tears into Emoirie’s brow, temples, and chin.

She sat down again and pulled out her handkerchief to blow her nose. Start with troll-magic and energy magic. Why is the one so dangerous, the other quite safe?

Emoirie had closed her eyes. Now she opened them, her expression one of wonder.

It still surprises me how much that helps. Rivers of tears won’t save me, child, but a few sprinkled on me from time to time do ease my discomforts.

Her color was better, both less red at the skin’s surface and less pale in its underlying circulation.

Yes, I will explain. You deserve that. Give me a moment to gather my thoughts. Emoirie took a meditative bite of bread and chewed it slowly, swallowed.

"I need to start with something more fundamental than the two magics. My antiphoner, Racolle, said that the basis of all life and experience was energy. If you could look beyond or beneath the physical realities we ordinarily see, you would perceive vibrations or patterns of energy. These are the foundations of existence.

Each leaf on a tree stems from its own unique pattern. Which is why the folk of Auberon call their antiphoners patterners, incidentally. Each tree in a forest manifests from its own specific vibrations. Each forest in the North-lands is associated with its own special arrangement of energy.

Lorelin interrupted, So you have your own pattern, and I have mine. Each unique. Yours yields you with your green eyes and gentle heart and progressing troll-disease. Mine yields me with my wavy blond hair and restless impatience and good health.

Precisely. Emoirie’s lips quirked in not quite a smile. "Most things have variations on their basic pattern. Rocks and fire have just a few, living creatures many more. Women and men and children most of all. When an antiphoner does energy magic, she repairs any small breakages she finds in a foundational pattern. Or shifts the pattern from one of its variations into another.

For example, a child who has cut its foot will have some breaks in the energy pattern of the foot together with a shift from its well body pattern to an injured body pattern. An antiphoner would repair the breaks and shift the pattern toward a healing variation. The physical manifestation is that the cut heals swiftly and without infection.

Why can’t an antiphoner do that for you? Lorelin burst in. Repair the breakages caused by troll-disease and shift your energy out of the troll pattern into a healthy woman’s pattern?

"She would have to perform troll-magic to do so. Incantatio is as much a matter of degree as it is direction. The breakages of the troll-disease are large, and the deformity of the overall pattern equally so. An antiphoner fuels her work from her own energy pattern and with but a trickle through her radices. The amounts required to repair small breaks are small. The amounts necessary to push one normal pattern variant into another are also small. It does not harm the antiphoner to draw or donate these quantities.

"But if she pulls large measures of energy through her radices, she starts the troll-disease in herself. That is what the troll-disease is. The physical manifestation of a woman’s or a man’s pattern after too much energy has been wrenched through it."

Lorelin looked at Emoirie in puzzlement. "What . . . can I ask . . . how did the troll-disease start in you? Why does it progress? You never use incantatio. Or do you?" She faltered to a stop.

"No. I used incantatio once fifty years ago when I was yet a child. And never again. That is one reason the sickness has progressed slowly in me. Most logotrices cannot resist the lure of the power available through incantatio. They resort to it repeatedly, accelerating the troll-disease with each use.

"But even a sole use breaks the anchoring points in an energy pattern irretrievably. The pattern starts its drift toward the troll shape at the moment the anchorages are loosed. They cannot be re-affixed. The breakage is too great. And the resulting drift is too momentous for antiphony to return it fully to normalcy.

Racolle monitored me carefully in the beginning and used antiphony to retard the disease. I learned antiphony from her and still use it myself for the same.

But a more skilled, more powerful theurgist might be able to do more! insisted Lorelin.

"There would be few more skilled than Racolle. No, the limitation is not in the practitioner, but in the quantity of energy needed to heal the breakage and push the pattern variant. And . . . child, even if a master theurgist might help me, how would we summon such an individual to my side? Incantatio is banned in all the north-lands, and the sanction on its practitioners is death. I have not achieved complete secrecy living here in Feldholm, yet few have discovered my presence. Most folk would turn me in to Birkliden’s marshall out of fear, if not for the reward. My arrest and death would be swift."

Lorelin moved her hands in a gesture of negation. We could explain. That you don’t practice troll-magic, never have since that first time. You present danger to no one!

Child, look at me. Look at my deformed face, my twisted body. I have almost the complete physical form of a troll. I can’t know how much longer I will keep the sanity of a woman. When might I become dangerous? I direct my antiphony almost entirely toward my thoughts and feelings and perceptions these days. I hope to avoid the troll insanity for some years. But once the troll-disease begins to erode my reason, I will not be safe any more. The marshall would be correct to order my death.

Lorelin was crying again, her throat thick with it. You aren’t ugly to me, she choked out. Emoirie pulled her onto her lap, cradling her in gentle arms.

Shh, shh. There now.

Even in this new flow of grief, Lorelin didn’t waste her tears, rubbing them into the troll-woman’s wrinkled hands.

Lori, hush, child. We’ll think more on this, I promise. I’ve no more eagerness to suffer increasing infirmity and illness than you have for accepting my eventual death. We will think on this. I will entertain more hope that a solution might exist.

Promise me! Lorelin was fierce once more.

I did! Emoirie grew brisk. It’s nearly the supper hour. You must go home. Inge won’t be pleased if you trail in long after she’s put Vallany and Lilli and Hazel to bed without your help. She isn’t going to be happy as it is, since you won’t make it to table before the meal is nearly over unless you run.

Lorelin gave a last sniff and then looked suddenly mischievous. "I will run," she declared.

That’s better. Off with you then!

The troll-woman bustled the girl out the door and stood waving until her visitor rounded a bend in the path and disappeared among the spruces and pines. As her hand dropped to her side, the briskness faded, but her face was not despondent, merely thoughtful.

*   *   *

The Russet Library was a comfortable spot.

Gabris settled his clasped hands more loosely across his paunchy middle and let the leather cushions behind his shoulders support more of his weight.

Cyneria, the Minister of Salubrity, was droning on about the measures she’d devised to combat plague in the border canton of Akarnainia. Well, not droning. Cyneria’s gentle voice was melodic, softened with concern for the catastrophe that had befallen the Akarnainians, but tempered by decision regarding the procedures devised by her ministry.

But . . . this was not Gabris’ problem.

Oh, he knew why Zaiger had requested his presence.

Anywhere civil strife or natural disaster created chaos, the chance of a troll-witch grew higher. And, as Minister of Incantors, discovering and exterminating troll-witches was his job.

But Cyneria had the Akarnainian plague under control. Zaiger really wanted Gabris’ opinion on the troll-war in Daimavar, the small nation in the southwestern peninsula, near to Akarnainia, and adjacent to three other cantons: Ghirgenti, Barinia, and Capydaicia.

They would get to that. In the meantime, Gabris tracked the discussion with less than his full attention, pondering this morning’s conversation with his daughter. She’d been urging him to move back into the family mansion, to forego his lonely lodging. They had this conversation at least once every year. But, Father, it just doesn’t seem right that you don’t live in your own home! I promise we’d cosset you to death. You can’t possibly be comfortable enough in bachelor’s quarters.

He’d hardly call his lodging bachelor’s fare. Many a noble family lived in similar spacious townhouses quite happily. And his cook was a pearl among cooks. Even his daughter’s chef, lured from a sophisticated northern eating house in Imsterfeldt, produced nothing to surpass his own Lena. But Suliya was not alone in finding his aversion to grandeur and show a little odd.

More than one acquaintance had remarked in astonishment when it came out that Gabris was Lord Gustiya and could have spent all his days in leisured administration of his lands and the three manors attached to them. Not to mention inhabiting the town mansion.

Luckily his daughter enjoyed managing the family properties.

Not that he’d call her life leisured. With six children under the age of ten and little inclination to leave their rearing to nursemaids and governesses, plus her philanthropist husband who used his social connections to benefit the charities he promoted, she rarely had a spare minute. Bustle seemed to be her route to contented happiness.

It was not his own.

What is my way? Saving civilians from troll-disease and exterminating rabid trolls.

Then why am I considering retiring?

He paused his ruminations on that query to turn his attention more fully to the cabinet discussion.

Jago, the Minister of Secrets, had given his summary concerning the reputed saint in Akarnainia. Now Bernardin was presenting his solution for neighboring Bethpaarean, where a cousinly usurper had unseated its rightful prince. The war in Daimavar was the next item on the agenda, but they would be a while getting to it.

Gabris glanced at Zaiger. The emperador never looked bored, although his left eyelid shivered in a hinted wink. Was that amusement behind Zaiger’s cool

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