Changeling’s Choice Episodes 1-20

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Soren aimed a kick at the kitchen tabby, but missed. The cat hissed at him angrily before slinking away, leaving the foul-tempered prince to his grumbling. Animals and humans alike avoided the boy when he was in this state, an increasingly common occurrence. His current bad mood was a result of his elder brother Filip giving him a lesson with the sword. These lessons never ended well. Filip taunted him endlessly, and the more taunts Soren heard, the worse he became at his swordplay. This time, the lesson had ended when Filip had smartly rapped him on the backside with the flat of his blade, earning a chorus of laughter from a crowd of onlookers.

“My my, that is a dark look upon your face, my dear.”

Soren ignored his mother, striding right past her without a word. But as usual, he did not get far before she appeared at his side, taking his arm gently as she steered him in the direction of the library. It was the one place she knew she could speak without the threat of Henrik or Filip interrupting. Neither of the older princes cared much for the written word.

“Tell me, what troubles you today my handsome son?” Soren snorted at this. He knew he was the homeliest of her children, and her attempts to butter him up only darkened his disposition further. His attitude did not improve with the arrival of his sister Eva, either. The young princess strode into the library with her usual air of self-importance, her long blonde hair in perfect ringlets around her face.

“There you are, Mother. I thought we were going to go riding this afternoon. I was waiting for you.”

“I will go riding with you later, darling. First I must lift your brother’s spirits.”

“It is a hopeless cause, Mother. Soren is incapable of having high spirits.”

“Is that soot on your face, Eva?” Soren asked maliciously, narrowing his eyes at his perfect sister. She huffed at him before turning and striding out of the library again, intent on finding the closest mirror to remove the offending smudge. Not that there was one. Soren just knew an affront to her vanity was the best way to remove Eva from any situation.

“That was unkind, Soren,” Queen Abelone said softly. “There is no need to take out your temper on your sister.”

“And yet she is allowed to insult me all she wants,” Soren said, crossing his arms and staring at a shelf of books along the wall, eyes scanning the leather-bound volumes with unseeing eyes. “I do not know why you bother bringing me in here anymore. It is useless to try cheering me up. I do not belong here. I do not belong in this family.”

“That is ridiculous. You are my son, and you will always be a part of this family. You are not a Changeling.”

“Changeling?” Soren asked, turning to look at his mother with his dark, questioning eyes. “What is a Changeling?”

“A Changeling is a myth, Soren. Superstitious peasants will sometimes blame faerie creatures for the misbehavior or illness of their children. They say that their own babe was switched with a faerie babe before it could be christened. It is nothing but nonsense.”

But Soren was intrigued. Nonsense or not, he wanted to know more about these Changeling children.

2.
Queen Abelone noted her son’s interest, but she was unable to continue their conversation as the arrival of the King stopped any further discussion of the Changelings.

“Abelone, I thought you were riding with Eva this afternoon?”

“Yes, I shall go find her now,” the Queen said with a sigh, putting a hand on Soren’s cheek. “You are my son,” she repeated before pulling her thin hand away and departing the library. The King looked at his son with one raised eyebrow, but said nothing about the peculiar exchange, instead taking a seat at his desk.

“If you are looking for something, I would ask you to find it quickly and go elsewhere,” King Grimar said as he looked down, rifling through papers. “I have a very important meeting in a moment and it is best that you are not present at that time.”

“I will leave in a moment, Father,” Soren replied. “I was wondering if perhaps you had a book on peasant folk tales that I could borrow.”

“What do you need such a book for?”

“Purely academic interest. Is it not right that I familiarize myself with the superstitions of the common folk? Such knowledge could be used to our benefit in so many ways, after all.”

The King was silent for a moment. “There is a red book on the shelf over there filled with such nonsense. If that is all, I must ask you to leave now, Soren.”

“Certainly, Father,” Soren said, bowing stiffly before turning on his heel. He headed towards the indicated book, pulling it off the shelf and departed the library with all haste. Unfortunately, he ran smack into his elder brothers as he did so.

“What have you got there, urchin?” Filip asked, deftly swiping the book from Soren’s grasp before he could react, looking at the cover and smirking unkindly. “Reading children’s stories now? Do you think that might be a bit too advanced for you?” Soren scowled darkly but did not rise to the bait. Prince Filip would make a formidable military commander; he was merciless and had a talent for unflinching cruelty.

“Leave him be,” Henrik sighed. “If he has found something to keep him out of the way, who are we to ruin it? Besides, father requires our presence. You can torment him later.” Though less outright mean than Filip, Prince Henrik’s sharp wit made his subtler insults sting just as badly as his brother’s, if not worse. He would make an unrelenting, stern king. Soren shuddered at the thought of his two siblings ruling the kingdom.

“Fine,” Filip said, shoving the book back at Soren. “Enjoy your book, imp.” Soren took his chance to dodge around the older boys and dash down a corridor, eager to find a place of solitude to read in peace.

Although the shadows were lengthening, an indication that the sun would set within an hour or two, Soren took up a post outside under a tall ash tree and opened his book. Unfortunately, he did not get far into his research before being interrupted.

 3.
Soren read. And the more he read, the more he liked what he read. He continued in the fading light, squinting at the tiny print. To think he did not fit in because he was not really human. He could be a dwarf child. Or a troll. Or a fairy.

This last idea made him crinkle his nose. He did not care to be some winged sprite. But, he reasoned, it would explain why he never improved at his sword fighting, no matter how long his elder brothers beat on him. Intrigued, he leaned against the tree, watching the sky darken, the stars starting to twinkle gently.

As he watched, deep in thought, he heard something stir nearby, like the whispering of leaves in the wind, but without the wind. He looked around curiously, wondering if one of his brothers was about to sneak up on him, to frighten him as a laugh. But neither Henrik nor Filip appeared, so he leaned back against the tree as he thought about how great it would be to be a troll, and to sit on his brothers’ fat heads, squashing them flat.

Smiling through this pleasant thought, Soren took a moment to realize that something was hovering just in front of his face, half hidden by the darkness around them. It was not until a tiny voice spoke that Soren realized it was there, and he was so startled that he jumped, his head colliding with the tree behind him painfully.

“Dear me, I am so sorry,” said the squeaky voice again. “I did not wish to startle you, Prince Soren.”

“What is the big idea, sneaking up on people?” Soren grumbled, glaring angrily at the tiny floating creature. Realization suddenly dawned on him, and Soren quite forgot about his head for a moment. “You are a fairy.”

“A pixie, actually,” the tiny voice replied. Though he could barely see the creature in the dark, Soren pictured the sprite puffing out his chest, proud of his heritage as a miniscule flying insect.

“What do you want?”

“You are needed immediately, Prince Soren! Your people are in grave danger, and only you can save them.”

“My people?” Soren asked, getting excited. “Who are my people?”

“Why, the trolls of course!” the pixie cried as if it were obvious. “Your parents, the King and Queen, need you!”

“The King and Queen? So I am a prince of the trolls!”

“Oh yes! You must hurry. Your parents are being attacked by—“

But Soren never found out what was attacking the trolls. Rather abruptly, he was woken from his dream as he slid ungracefully sideways, landing in a heap.

“Stupid tree,” Soren muttered, standing and wiping the dirt off his shirt. But despite his rude awakening, Soren felt elated. He was certain that dream was a sign. And dream or not, he was determined to go find his troll family, to become their prince. It was his birthright, and he wanted it more than anything.

Soren is ready to go claim his birthright. But first he has to sneak out of the castle. 

 4.
Soren was too excited to sleep. He lay awake in the dark, waiting for the silence of the castle to become absolute. When he could no longer stand it, he slid from his four-poster bed and started towards the door, wincing as it creaked open. With a rucksack slung over his shoulder, he crept down the hall, careful to avoid any potential insomniacs. He was almost ready for his journey, but there were two things he still needed: food and a friend. The second would be easy. The first would, with luck, be even easier.

Pausing outside the kitchens, Soren took a deep breath, steeling himself for the task ahead. He had to be stealthy. He did not want the kitchen staff to realize food was missing until he was far, far away from the castle. But for all his preparation and motivation, his feet did not cooperate. Not five steps into the kitchen, there was a thunderous clatter as he tripped over a bucket, his hand knocking over a stack of pewter dishes as he stumbled.

“Who is there?” someone called loudly from the other side of the room. Peering through the darkness, Soren tried to see who had called. He remained silent. It must be one of the maids. The voice was obviously feminine, so it was not the cook.

“Who is there?” came the voice again, this time followed by the flickering light of a candle, wobbling in the doorway across the kitchen. Squinting, Soren tried to see the figure holding the light. But all he could see was the reflection of the flame off a large knife blade.

Deciding it was best to retreat before meeting the knife-wielder, he grabbed a loaf of bread and some cakes, shoving them in his sack before fleeing. He did not stop running until he was outside, away from any pursuers.

Heart still pounding, Soren went to find his friend. He was exactly where he expected him to be.

“How have you been, boy?” Soren asked with a crooked grin, bending over to scratch the ears of an old hound, lying in his usual spot by the guardhouse. “How would you like to go on a quest with me?” The dog looked up at him lazily. Knowing he would not get a better answer than that, Soren pulled out a cake he had stolen from the kitchen. It was rather squished from getting shoved into the sack, but the hound ate it anyway, rising slowly to his feet and taking the treat from the boy.

“Come on, Balder,” Soren said, brushing the crumbs off his hands. “We have a long way to go, and we have to put as much distance between us and Toten before the sun rises.” Watching Soren start towards the door, Balder stood his ground. With a sigh, Soren whistled sharply, wincing as the sound echoed off the stone. But it did the trick. Soren left through the main gate, Balder trotting obediently behind. 

5.
Soren was not meant for travel. He thought he could navigate the forest on his own. He was sure he would have no trouble disappearing amongst the trees. He was so sure of himself, so sure that he was a Faerie creature, that he made the enormously wrong assumption that he could somehow magic himself through the dense trees and thick undergrowth. It took him all morning and several hours of the afternoon just to reach the border of the kingdom, not even ten miles from his home. By then, his stomach was grumbling fiercely, demanding the multi-course meals he was so accustomed to from his life in the castle. He had skipped two such meals already, and it would not allow him to repeat this for a third.

Unfortunately for Soren, his hasty retreat from the kitchens had resulted in only a handful of old cakes being included in his travel sack, and by the time he sat down for a late lunch, they were nothing but crumbs. Balder, also tired and hungry, put his head on the boy’s knee, whining pitifully, his sorrowful eyes begging for something to satisfy his own hunger.

“Sorry, Balder, but all I have is this,” Soren said, holding out a handful of cake crumbs. The lack of cohesion amongst the cake fragments was of little concern to the dog, however. He quickly wolfed down half the contents of Soren’s hand, the other half disappearing into the grass below.

“Hey!” Soren complained, glaring as he snatched his hand away. “That was my lunch.”

Ignoring his companion’s protests, Balder turned away suddenly, a growl rumbling in his throat as he stared into the trees, back the way they had come. Soren, fearing his brothers had tracked him down, drew his small knife as he leapt to his feet. He had no chance against his brothers or any of the palace guards sent to find him, but that did not mean he was going without a fight.

Much to his surprise, he instead watched as a slight girl in a tattered grey dress pushed through the shrubs that blanketed the forest floor, her low voice not so low as to disguise the swears flowing freely from her mouth.

“Who are you?” Soren demanded, calling over the profanity.

“You should be a little more grateful,” she replied back, ignoring his question. “I am the one who is going to keep you from starving on this little trek of yours. Besides, you owe me after you stole those cakes I was cooling on the counter.”

“Watch your tongue, girl. I am your prince.”

“You will be a dead prince in two days if you keep up the attitude,” she snapped back. “Here.” She threw a sack at Soren, who promptly missed it. Adopting a dark look, he opened the bag, finding bread, dried meats, cheeses, and even some heartier pastries inside. “I am Linnea, by the way. Your new best friend. I will be coming with you.”

Linnea has brought food and invited herself along on Soren’s trek. But that is the least of his worries.

6.
“The trolls are your family?”

“Yes.”

This simple declaration caused a great raucous from the dwarves, both bursting with laughter and slapping their knees as they guffawed for several long minutes, forcing Soren to exercise patience as he waited for it to stop. It was not easy.

“Yer a troll?” the one on the left, Erik, said, wiping a tear of mirth from his eye.

“Yes,” Soren said with conviction, attempting to hide his annoyance. “I am a changeling, seeking my true family in the Wildlands, as my time with the humans has come to an end.”

“Oh-ho, what fancy talk from a lowly troll. Tell ya wot; we will let ye cross our bridge if ya do us a favor first.”

“What is it that you want?”

“It so ‘appens that we lost something valuable, and would like it back. Get it fer us, and ya both can pass.”

“What do you wish—“ Soren began, before Linnea cut him off.

“If you lost it, what makes you think we can find it? This is pointless.” She tried moving forward, attempting to cross the bridge now guarded by the dwarves. But as she approached, intent on muscling past them, they stepped backward together, just as Linnea ran smack into a wall of red light, shimmering out of nowhere and promptly disappearing as the girl landed on her backside. Balder growled uneasily.

“You can’ get past without our permission,” giggled Evert. “Troll or not, in that silly human body you are better off forcin’ your way through a tree.”

“What must we find and where must we look?” Soren asked diplomatically, ruining it by kicking Linnea as she poked the magic wall with interest, making the color ripple outward in a very distracting manner.

“Just a small trinket,” the Erik said with a toothy grin that Soren most definitely mistrusted. “A family heirloom; a small metal sphere covered in runes. It is very dear to us.”

“And where must we look for it?” Soren asked again, his suspicion growing.

“As both ye wee people are ‘uman, we hoped ya would retrieve it from the woman that stole it. She lives not far from here, but she is quite greedy and hates us Faerie folk. Her greed drove her to steal it, thinking it would bring her magic and good fortune.” This made Evert snicker wickedly. “But for her, it is useless.”

The dwarves were not subtle. The so-called “trinket” had some magical value, but he had no way of knowing what it did. Still, he had to cross the river. For that, he needed the dwarves’ permission.

“She lives just at the bend in the stream,” Erik continued. “Find our trinket and ye will be allowed to pass.”

With little other choice, Soren agreed. With two cracks like thunder, the dwarves were gone once more. But Linnea’s continued probing of the invisible wall proved they were not going any further without the trinket. They needed that sphere. 

7.
“The trolls are your family?”

“Yes.”

This simple declaration caused a great raucous from the dwarves, both bursting with laughter and slapping their knees as they guffawed for several long minutes, forcing Soren to exercise patience as he waited for it to stop. It was not easy.

“Yer a troll?” the one on the left, Erik, said, wiping a tear of mirth from his eye.

“Yes,” Soren said with conviction, attempting to hide his annoyance. “I am a changeling, seeking my true family in the Wildlands, as my time with the humans has come to an end.”

“Oh-ho, what fancy talk from a lowly troll. Tell ya wot; we will let ye cross our bridge if ya do us a favor first.”

“What is it that you want?”

“It so ‘appens that we lost something valuable, and would like it back. Get it fer us, and ya both can pass.”

“What do you wish—“ Soren began, before Linnea cut him off.

“If you lost it, what makes you think we can find it? This is pointless.” She tried moving forward, attempting to cross the bridge now guarded by the dwarves. But as she approached, intent on muscling past them, they stepped backward together, just as Linnea ran smack into a wall of red light, shimmering out of nowhere and promptly disappearing as the girl landed on her backside. Balder growled uneasily.

“You can’ get past without our permission,” giggled Evert. “Troll or not, in that silly human body you are better off forcin’ your way through a tree.”

“What must we find and where must we look?” Soren asked diplomatically, ruining it by kicking Linnea as she poked the magic wall with interest, making the color ripple outward in a very distracting manner.

“Just a small trinket,” the Erik said with a toothy grin that Soren most definitely mistrusted. “A family heirloom; a small metal sphere covered in runes. It is very dear to us.”

“And where must we look for it?” Soren asked again, his suspicion growing.

“As both ye wee people are ‘uman, we hoped ya would retrieve it from the woman that stole it. She lives not far from here, but she is quite greedy and hates us Faerie folk. Her greed drove her to steal it, thinking it would bring her magic and good fortune.” This made Evert snicker wickedly. “But for her, it is useless.”

The dwarves were not subtle. The so-called “trinket” had some magical value, but he had no way of knowing what it did. Still, he had to cross the river. For that, he needed the dwarves’ permission.

“She lives just at the bend in the stream,” Erik continued. “Find our trinket and ye will be allowed to pass.”

With little other choice, Soren agreed. With two cracks like thunder, the dwarves were gone once more. But Linnea’s continued probing of the invisible wall proved they were not going any further without the trinket. They needed that sphere.  

8.
“This is stupid.”

“Quiet!” Soren hissed, tightening his hand into a fist out of frustration. They were outside the cottage, trying to see if anyone was home before breaking in to steal back the dwarvish treasure. He sincerely hoped no one was inside, because with Linnea along, stealth was out of the question.

“My, my, what are you two charming children doing out in the woods all alone?”

Linnea screeched and fell over again. Soren whirled around quickly. His mouth fell open as he gazed at the newcomer. The dwarves mentioned a woman, but Soren had pictured an ugly hag, grizzled and wrinkled with age. Instead, he was looking at a tall, fair woman, her black hair falling down to her waist in waves. Her tight satin gown left little to the imagination, revealing perhaps a little too much of her figure. Not that Soren minded.

“I am sorry ma’am, we did not mean to spy on you, if that is your house over there,” Soren babbled quickly, pointing behind him, eyes still fixed on the brunette smiling gently at him, making his face flush uncomfortably.

“It is indeed, young sir. Would you care to come in for a bit? Some tea perhaps? You both look weary.”

“I would love some tea,” Soren said quickly, not giving Linnea a chance to reply as she stood up from the dirt pile she had landed in, pulling various leaves from her hair.

“Oh, that is wonderful. I so rarely have guests out here,” the woman said with a dazzling white smile. “Come, both of you. I am a wonderful cook, and you two look thin. I insist you stay for the evening.”

“That is very kind, ma’am, but-“ Linnea began before Soren cut her off.

“That sounds heavenly, my lady,” Soren said with a bow of his head. The woman glided out of the trees, with far less difficulty than either of them as they fought with the low shrubs and thorn bushes that surrounded the neat gardens of the woman’s house.

“Do forgive me for my rudeness and the messy state of my house,” the woman said as she ushered them inside, closing the door firmly behind them. “As I rarely entertain guests, I do not feel obligated to clean up as often as I should. Oh yes, names. I am Dania. Who might you both be?”

“I am Soren,” Soren said immediately, taking the chair their hostess offered. “And this is my servant, Linnea.” The grunt Linnea gave indicated she did not think much of being considered a servant, even though she was.

“I am so very grateful that you are here,” Dania said with a wickedly bright smile. “It gets lonely out here. I do hope I will not bore you.”

“Certainly not,” Linnea said, smiling at the hostess. “I for one love the forest and envy your beautiful home. Did you build it?”

“Oh yes, I did. And I am glad you are enjoying yourselves,” Dania said with the same smirk. “I do hope that means you will stay for a long time.”

Soren and Linnea are awestruck but the beautiful woman that supposedly stole the dwarves’ heirlooms 

9.
“Thank you kindly for the tea, ma’am,” Soren said with a smile, his eyes focused entirely on Dania. Even Balder seemed entranced by the woman, his eyes watching her glide across the floor as he lay at Soren’s feet. Linnea sighed contentedly, feeling strangely peaceful as she listened to Dania humming gently. She let her eyes wander around the cottage, taking in the odd assortment of decorations she had hanging on the walls and stacked on shelves.

“Of course, darling. Please, drink up. I have cakes in the oven too if you would like some.”

“Yes please,” Soren said enthusiastically, his smile never faltering as he watched her move towards the oven, bending over gently to open it, the smell of cakes wafting out. It was heavenly, and both children sighed happily. She carried the tray of sweets over to her table, placing the warm treats within reach. Soren took one, disregarding how hot it was, and took a bite. Too enamored by Dania, he failed to notice his own mouth being burned by the hot cakes.

“These are delicious,” he said with a content sigh. Dania smiled warmly at him, standing close to him as she poured him another cup of tea.

Linnea, while still entranced, noticed something peculiar. As Dania moved around the table, her skirt brushed against the chair leg, getting caught for a moment before falling back into place. But before it did, the girl caught a glimpse of hair, a small tuft of hair attached to a dark brown tail.

Puzzled, Linnea sat there for a moment, staring at the hem of Dania’s skirt. Why did that seem so familiar? She tried to remember, her face contorted in a scowl.

“What is wrong, dear?” Dania asked pleasantly, noting the pained expression on the face of her guest. Then it hit her. Linnea recognized that tail, and she knew exactly what it meant.

“Oh, umm, I just remembered,” she stuttered quickly, the haze of contentedness quickly fading, replaced by panic, “we were supposed to meet with my father an hour ago. He will be furious when we are late. Soren, we need to go.”

“What for?” Soren asked, sighing again, his eyes still on Dania. “It would be rude to leave so soon.”

“But we need to meet my father,” Linnea said, standing quickly and grabbing Soren’s arm, trying to pull him upright. “Now.”

“What are you talking about?” he said groggily, his eyelids beginning to droop. Linnea, close to utter panic now, tried to lead him out the door. But before they reached it, Dania appeared in the way, a beautiful smile on her face.

“Oh, but you must not leave before finishing tea!” she said cheerily, batting her eyes at Linnea. Linnea avoided her gaze. Soren was already gone, but she was not about to fall under the woman’s spell again. She knew what Dania was, and if they did not get out soon, they would all be dead. “Please, I insist. Stay.”

10.
Linnea’s eyes were darting wildly around the room. She needed to find something, anything, that could help her and Soren escape. She would need something big if she was going to drag the dazed boy out of the cottage before the huldra got him. There was no doubt that Dania was one of the malevolent creatures, not when her tail was still poking out from under her skirts.

“There is no need to be nervous,” Dania laughed melodiously. “Come, sit back down and let’s chat.”

Linnea finally found something to help, her eyes darting back and forth between the fireplace and Dania. Crossing the room impulsively, she stood beside the hearth, eyeing the two objects that were going to aid in their escape. The first was an imperfect silvery orb with runes etched across the surface, looking worn and innocuous. The second was a burning candle, flickering beside the orb. She had to think fast, but thinking quickly was not a skill she had mastered.

“This is a beautiful trinket,” she said with interest, instantly recognizing the dwarf heirloom for what it was. “Where did you get it?”

“Why, that silly thing?” the huldra said with a falsely cheery laugh. “It is nothing. Merely a pretty decoration for my humble home.”

“I think my father would love such an item. He is fascinated by runes. He is a scholar, you know. Since it is just a decoration and you seem to have no attachment to it, would you be willing to part with it? Please? It would make Father so happy.”

“Oh, I am sorry dear,” Dania said, quickly scuttling towards Linnea, reaching anxiously for the orb, but missing as Linnea shifted it to her other hand. “But I have grown rather attached to it. It just sits so well on this fireplace. I could not possibly give it up.”

“Would you consider a trade?”

“Perhaps,” Dania asked, pausing in her attempts to take back the orb. “What would you offer me?”

“How about some cakes?” Linnea offered hopefully. This was met with an unpleasant laugh that sent a shiver down her spine.

“Cakes? I make all the cakes I want. What I will take in exchange is this boy. You can keep the dog, but I wish to keep him here. He will be well cared for during his stay.”

The wicked grin on the huldra convinced Linnea there was no other way. She had to enact her simple and desperate plan. Without replying, she grabbed the nearby candle, flinging the hot wax at the huldra. Dania screamed in a high-pitched wail, fingers clutching at her face as the hot wax burnt her skin. As tempted as she was to stay and watch, Linnea grabbed Soren and bolted, hoping that the dog would follow. He did, but groggily.

“Let’s get you far away from here, Prince Soren,” Linnea said with a huff. She needed to give the dwarves their orb in exchange for passage into the fairy realm. 

11.
“Here’s your orb,” Linnea said, holding out the round sphere. Greedily, one of the dwarves reached out to take it, but the scullery maid snatched it back, holding it tightly to her chest. Soren, still dazed, stood behind her, smile upon his face. Linnea hoped she would not need backup.

“Well? Hand it over!”

“Not until you let us pass,” Linnea demanded, scowling darkly.

“Ye think ye can talk to us that way? We can take it by force if ye wish.”

“I do not,” Linnea said firmly, sticking out her bottom lip defiantly. “I just want to be sure you grant us safe passage across the bridge. No funny business until we are on our way.”

“And what guarantee do we have that you will hand over the orb?”

“Do you want to wait until the huldra comes to take it back?”

This made the dwarf pause, his beard twitching as he thought about what would happen if the sorceress came upon them all. Linnea did not know how powerful she was, but she guessed it would not be good based on the concerned glance the dwarves exchanged.

“A’right,” the dwarf Linnea thought might be Evert said with a scowl. “Ye can pass our bridge. But only if we get to hold onto that boy until we get our orb.”

Linnea puzzled over it for a moment, considering the positives and negatives of agreeing to this proposal. They had to cross; at least Soren thought they did. He would surely forgive her for whatever consequences might occur, so long as they got across the river. At least, she hoped he would. He was still her prince, and her best bet to get out of the kitchens. She would do whatever it took to never go back to that awful place again.

“You promise that Soren will be released? You will not harm him?”

“We promise,” said the dwarf she thought was Erik with a wicked grin from under his beard. She did not like that look, but she had little choice. If they did not cross the bridge, they would probably have to deal with the huldra that was undoubtedly on her way after them as they stood there on the riverbank.

Taking a deep breath, Linnea nodded. Taking Soren’s arm, she led the dazed fool onto the bridge, letting the dwarf that was probably Evert take him in a firm grip as she continued across the stone structure, Balder following obediently, his own trance gone thanks to the distance they had put between themselves and Dania.

When she reached the opposite bank, Linnea sighed with relief. “Okay,” she said, turning back to the dwarves. “Here is your orb. Let us go.” The dwarf let go of Soren, and reached his hand towards the sphere in Linnea’s hand.

“As ye wish,” the dwarf Erik cackled, and he reached out and touched one of the ruins on the orb. In an instant, Linnea, Soren, and Balder were gone. 

12.
“What happened?!”

“Well it is about time you came to your senses.”

“Where are we? Where did Miss Dania go?”

“It seems that Dania was actually a huldra and enchanted you with her magic,” Linnea summed up tartly, her look of disapproval firmly fixed on her face. “Thanks to my quick thinking, I was able to get you and your dog out of there before she ate you.”

“You were just jealous,” Soren snorted, unconvinced. “All girls get that way around someone prettier than they are.”

“Excuse me?” Linnea replied with indignation. “She was a sorceress. Of course she was pretty. I am guessing you did not see her tail, then? That was really attractive.”

“So how did we get here, then?” Soren asked, deciding that it was better not to argue with Linnea when standing in the middle of the swamp. Regardless, he was too prideful to let it go without one last comment: “Did you offend her enough with your stench to have her send us to this awful place?”

“Perhaps you should smell yourself before judging me,” Linnea snapped back. “And no, I did not. The dwarves sent us here, after I returned their orb. Again, no thanks to you.”

“How did you offend them?”

“I think it was the stupid grin on your face that annoyed them. It certainly made me want to slap you,” Linnea countered quickly, earning a glare from Soren.

He would have shot another insult back at her if at that moment he had not started sinking into the bog. With a cry, he tried to pull himself free, grasping wildly at the tree behind him, managing to free his feet before they sunk too deep. Regardless, his feet were now coated in a foul smelling green slime. The disgusted look on his face made Linnea laugh loudly and cruelly, at least until Soren threw a ball of the putrid mess at her head. She let out a screech as the muck hit her in the neck, trails of oozing mud dripping down under the loose collar of her dress.

“Ungrateful snob!” she screamed at him, bending over to scoop up some marsh grass in her hand, flinging it at Soren. He was ready for it and ducked, but the war had begun. They began flinging clumps of marsh at each other, along with rather uncreative insults.

“Whining peasant!”

“Spoiled brat!”

“Stinking commoner!”

“Peabrain!”

“Insufferable witch!”

“Stupid prince!”

“Wait, do you hear that?” Soren asked, pausing as he was about to throw another clod of mud. He was lucky Linnea’s aim was poor, or his shifting attention might have earned him an ear full of slime.

“All I hear is your annoying, grating voice.”

“Shh, listen!” Soren commanded, holding up a hand to silence her. She obeyed reluctantly, her scowl turning to a look of confusion as she met Soren’s eyes. She heard what had attracted his attention, but she had trouble believing what she was hearing.

“Is that a violin?” 

13.
With an enormous amount of effort, the traveling companions crossed the swamp. Try as they might, they could not avoid falling into the bog, and soon all three were saturated with putrid swamp water. The lack of progress finding the violin player did not help, either.

“There has to be an easier way,” Linnea complained loudly, trying to stay on the tree roots protruding from the stagnant water as she followed after Soren and Balder. The dog was far less concerned about the water than the others, and he swam through the water after Soren without hesitation. The only indication of his discomfort was the wheezing sound he made as he bobbed after the boy.

Soren still ignored his companion, so used to her endless chatter that he automatically tuned her out, focusing instead on listening for the violin and making sure his next step did not send him sliding back into the green marsh. Not that it mattered.

“Greetings friends. What brings you to the swamp?”

Both Soren and Linnea slid off the precarious path they were traversing. They both smacked into the still water with an audible slap, sending dual spouts of water into the air as they were submerged briefly before surfacing one after the other with a gasp. While they scrambled to get to dry land, wiping muck out of their eyes, the sound of laughter filled the marsh.

“I must apologize, friends. I did not mean to send you into the water. Though it looks as if it is not the first time you have suffered such indignity.”

“What do you want?” Soren asked sourly, brushing algae off his front while glaring at the newcomer. Sitting in a nearby tree was a simply dressed but handsome man, his silvery blonde hair and smiling face seemingly ageless. This was probably another magical being, Soren reasoned. But after dealing with tricky dwarves and a hungry huldra, he was in no mood to exchange pleasantries. At least, that is what he told himself. Truthfully, Soren was embarrassed at being taken so off guard and made into a fool for the third time that day.

“I simply wished to make sure you both were alright. The swamp is dangerous, and it is starting to get dark. Do you have a destination in mind, my young travelers? Perhaps I can assist you.”

“We are fine thanks,” Soren mumbled, starting forward again. Linnea, however, was having none of it.

“We were following the sound of a violin,” she piped up. “I know it sounds crazy, but we were rather unexpectedly sent here by some malevolent dwarves, and have no idea where we are, let alone how to get out.”

“Ah, I know of these dwarves. They often send travelers my way, just for laughs. By chance were they carrying a metallic orb?”

“Yes!” Linnea said cheerily. “Did it send us here?”

“It did indeed,” the man said with a dazzling grin. “But luckily for you, I can get you out again.”

14.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” Soren interrupted, sounding particularly rude as he did so, “but what exactly are you? No offense, but we have had rather poor luck when it comes to meeting the magical people that live in this realm.”

“Oh, do forgive my rudeness!” the man said, in a much kinder voice than Soren. “I am Aksel. I am one of the water spirits that live in this swamp. There is no need to fear. I swear, I will bring you safely out of this marsh.”

“And we are supposed to believe you why?”

“Quiet, Soren,” Linnea snapped, earning an outraged glare from Soren who was both annoyed at being ordered into silence and at being addressed so informally by the scullery maid. They may be in the middle of a magical swamp, but he was still a prince!

“Oh, it is quite alright,” Aksel said with a gentle smile. “I understand your hesitance, my dear boy. But I am afraid you have little choice but to trust me. This is my home and I know it well. As strangers in this land, I can assure you that you will never get free without a guide. Please, allow me to assist.”

“Of course! We would love your assistance,” Linnea gushed sweetly, forgetting that she was coated in slime and mud as she watched Aksel closely with a face of utter bliss. Soren dearly hoped that had not been the look on his own face when they had been cornered by the huldra Dania. This thought triggered something in his brain. That look was not normal. That was the result of magic. The gears in his brain began whirring, desperately trying to put the pieces together, to determine exactly how much trouble they were now in.

“Excellent!” Aksel continued, oblivious of the inner workings in Soren’s head. “Here, let me assist you. I must confess, I do think that this arrangement can work out quite nicely. You see, as guests in this realm, you must be brought before the King and Queen to seek permission to be here, and I have need to seek an audience with them as well. Perhaps together we shall be able to speak with them. I find they are often far too busy to waste their time on such an ordinary spirit.”

“You are not ordinary,” Linnea said as if this was an awful thing to say. “You are the first kind face we have seen since we began our journey. Do you think the King and Queen will be able to help us on our quest? You see, we need to find the Trolls, but we simply have no idea how to seek them out.”

“Oh dear girl, that will be no problem at all!” Aksel said with a charming grin. “The King and Queen are Trolls. And I am certain they will be most interested to speak with you. 

15.
Soren waited in silence, but he was not idle. There was less than an hour left of sunlight, and he spent the entire length of time devising ludicrous ideas of how to escape from the clutches of their deceptively generous guide. But Dania had also been deceptively generous. Look where that had gotten them. Nearly eaten, according to Linnea.

As darkness fell, their guide pulled what appeared to be a handful of fireflies from within his silvery-blue tunic. He did not even pause, but simply kept on moving, taking them along a path that appeared to rise up from the bog under his feet. Soren swore that there was nothing there before he stepped into the murky waters, but a winding path appeared before them, illuminated by the soft natural lighting. It was pretty, and Linnea’s face reflected her appreciation. Soren, however, did not appreciate the fact that it seemed their guide had no intentions of pausing for the night.

“Pardon me, Aksel,” Soren called out, stopping as they turned into another impassable labyrinth of low, mossy branches and fetid water. “But should we not stop for the night? It is getting quite late.”

“Oh, but if we continue on now, we shall reach the borders of the swamp just after midnight. There we shall be far safer, closer to the Royal Halls.”

“We have had a long day,” Soren said with a yawn to emphasize his point. “I do not think I can continue on another step.”

“Feet hurting, little princeling?” Linnea asked with an unkind chortle. “Perhaps you should just stay here. Aksel and I shall continue on.”

“No, no, it is alright. We can camp here,” Aksel said quickly, coming back towards the two youths. Much to their surprise they now appeared to be in an open clearing, a patch of earth beneath them that was unusually dry for the location. “It is best that neither of you are left to wander. This is a dangerous part of the Wildlands.”

“Wonderful,” Soren said, plopping down promptly, clearly demonstrating his disinclination to continue further. “I will take first watch.”

Much to his annoyance, though everything annoyed him these days, the young prince heard the bubbling of musical laughter from Aksel. Why was he laughing?

“There is no need for either of you to take a turn on watch. I shall guard you during the night. I have no need to sleep.”

“Really?” Soren said, feeling his plans faltering. “Are you certain?”

“Oh absolutely. Both of you go to sleep. I shall keep you safe.”

Reluctantly, Soren began settling down to sleep. Or at least to pretend to sleep. He waited until Aksel had taken up a perch in a nearby tree before quickly leaning over and whispering to his companion.

“Be ready,” he hissed.

“For what?” Linnea asked, looking completely content but confused at his question.

“To escape. We have to get away from Aksel!”

“Are you crazy? We cannot escape by ourselves.”

“We will find a way.”

16.

Soren waited. He pretended to sleep, his eyes almost completely shut as he watched their guide. Despite his warning, Linnea had promptly fallen asleep, her soft snoring indicating she was not going to be up for a quick escape. Frustrated with her attitude and lack of cooperation, Soren made the decision to just leave her. She would just muck things up, he reasoned. She was on her own.

As he was mulling over how best to sneak away, he heard the same soft violin music that had echoed through the marsh earlier in the day. Opening his eyes slowly, he caught sight of a silver violin in Aksel’s hands, the beautiful instrument letting off a soft, enchanting tune. Soren could hardly believe his luck. With that music to cover his escape, now was his best chance to run.

Inch by inch, Soren rose to his feet, eyes never leaving Aksel. The spirit’s back was to him, and the moonlight illuminated his silvery form, making it easy for Soren to keep an eye on him. Holding his breath once he reached his feet, he began tiptoeing out of the clearing, back down the path that they had taken. He would find a way around once he was out of earshot, he reasoned, backing away slowly.

But for all his efforts, he just was not capable of great stealth. He was no more than eight feet away from where he started when his foot slipped off the path, submerging in the water with a splash. He winced, freezing automatically, the cold and muddy water seeping back into his boot.

“There is little point in trying to escape, my friend,” came the melodious voice of Aksel. The spirit still did not turn around, but the violin music paused as he addressed Soren with a gentle hum. “This marsh is enchanted. You will be sucked down into the waters before you make it one hundred yards.”

“Oh, of course not!” Soren said, his voice a bit too high pitched to be believable. “No, I was just going to relieve myself. I will not go far.”

“Do hurry back,” Aksel said after a short pause. “There are more creatures in this swamp than simply me.”

Soren nodded vigorously, regardless of the fact that Aksel could not see it. He hurried down the path, intent on relieving himself since he had little other choice. He finished quickly, grumbling to himself about his rotten luck. But as he turned to head back to the campsite, he found himself suddenly staring into three pairs of large blue eyes.

“Look at this! Oh, what a handsome little boy!”

“What is he doing in this swamp, I wonder.”

“Are you lost, child? My sisters and I would be happy to help you.”

Soren stuttered, unable to find words. He was shocked and rather embarrassed that while on his bathroom break, he had suddenly been accosted by three very fair looking elves, each with a very troubling glint in her eyes. 

17.
“Well well, what a surprise to see you three here.”

Soren and the elves looked around to see Aksel had suddenly appeared behind them, a small smile on his face and a glint in his eyes.

“Aksel!” the three cried in joy, forgetting Soren and rushing towards the water spirit, clutching at him with their thin pale fingers and planting kisses on his cheeks. He indulged them in their attentions with good humor, allowing them to greet him in such an intimate fashion without comment. When they finished, he spoke again.

“My dear ladies, what has brought you three into my swamp on this night? Surely such fair creatures as yourselves would be better off dancing with your kin under the moonlight.”

“Whispers have reached our ears of trouble along the borders,” the first one said, batting her long eyelashes flirtatiously. “I can only assume this handsome boy here is the cause. Is he with you?”

“Indeed,” Aksel said with a bow of his head. “I am taking him and his lady to the King.”

“She is NOT my lady,” Soren interjected with a scowl, but was ignored.

“How chivalrous to aid the young couple!” the second elf said, taking Aksel’s arm once more and leaning her fair head against his shoulder.

“What business do you have in this realm, young man?” the third elf asked, gliding towards Soren. “It is rare that any human would attempt to enter this place, and you have gotten much farther than most.”

“I must speak with the King and Queen of the Trolls,” Soren said, trying to maintain his composure as the elf drew closer, her fingers gently reaching out to caress his cheek. The last beautiful fairy creature that had been so seductive had tried to eat him. He was more than a bit worried about this one.

“What for?” she asked softly, continuing her ministrations.

“I think I am a Changeling Child.”

The elf maid immediately withdrew her hand, her fair features contorting into a frown. Aksel and the other two elves snapped their heads towards him as he said this.

“A Changeling?” the elf before him said slowly. “What makes you so certain that you would risk coming here?”

“I do not belong at home. I do not fit in. I hate it there. I read about the Changelings and I am certain that I am actually a Troll child. It is the only explanation.”

“There are many explanations,” Aksel said warily. “The King and Queen may not be so welcoming when you share this belief with them. Changelings are not spoken of in this realm.”

“Surely they will see the truth when they meet me. I must be a Changeling.”

“Aksel, you are not welcome in the Court as it is, perhaps it is best you do not take him further. You need no further conflicts with the Trolls.”

Aksel stared at Soren for a while, his face unreadable. Soren shifted uncomfortably, waiting for the spirit’s judgment. 

18.
“Halt.”

“There is no need for such hostility, it is only us.”

“Yes, you know we are always welcome in the King’s halls.”

“What about the others?” the Troll guard asked, his beady black eyes narrowing as he looked at Aksel, Soren, and Linnea, waiting patiently behind the elves as they attempted to charm their way into the Troll King’s halls. The door did not look like much, simply a round wooden circle, undecorated except for the single handle on the left. But the two guards on either side indicated that despite its common appearance, there was something special about this door.

“Simply friends, seeking an audience with the King.”

“Is it not still the case that visitors must seek the King’s permission to wander in his lands?”

The troll grunted before pointing his axe at Aksel, looking down his long prominent nose at the water spirit. “And what about him? He is not welcome here.”

“But he has so generously promised to escort these lost children to the King’s hall!”

“He would be remiss to abandon them without seeing them safely through.”

“Could you not give him just this one pass inside? I am sure the King would not mind.”

The elves put on their most glorious smiling faces, batting eyelashes and gently caressing the Trolls’ arms with their thin white fingers. And yet, for all their sickly seductive powers, they appeared to have little effect on the Trolls, who simply grunted and eyed the strangers carefully, sparing a long look at the weary hound that followed obediently. While Aksel and the elves had not fazed him, a low growl could be heard in his throat as he observed the Trolls with as much care as they did to him.

“Very well,” the guard said after several minutes of silent glaring. “Enter.”

The elves all smiled radiantly, gliding in through the door as it opened on its own, beckoning for the rest to follow. Aksel bowed his head in gratitude as he passed, while Linnea just continued staring at him and Soren as he stared at the Trolls. They were not quite what he expected.

“Do all Trolls look like that?” Soren asked, feeling hesitant for the first time as the door shut behind them, locking them inside the dark, damp hallway. The elves led on, torches lighting automatically as they passed.

“Certainly,” Aksel said, raising one perfect eyebrow as he glanced at the boy. “What did you expect?”

Before he could answer, there was an echo of laughter from down the hallway, followed by a string of curses and a shower of fine dirt falling upon their heads. Soren and Linnea shook the dirt from their clothing, but none of it seemed to attach to either the elves or Aksel. Magic, Soren reasoned with a bit of annoyance.

“That will be the Princes,” Aksel said with a sigh, making Soren’s confidence in his current position wane even further. He was not sure he was ready for this. 

19.
“Look ‘ere Pavel. Guests!”

“I see ‘em, Pal. What do you think Poul?”

“I think they should join us for a game.”

There was a cackling laugh as the tallest of the Trolls stood firmly in the center of the path, blocking Soren and the company from continuing farther. The other two sneered wickedly from a corridor off the main hall, licking their teeth.

“Come now, you three. We are just simple travelers seeking leave from your father to travel his lands. We are weary. We would not be any fun in your games.

“Oh-ho!” the one that Soren thought was Pavel said as he clapped his large hands together gleefully. “You think you can get out of a game that easy? We know who you are, water sprite. Da will not be pleased to see you! But play a game with us, and we will ‘elp you.”

“Yes, play a game!” Pal said gleefully. “What shall we play, Poul?”

“I think we should throw them in the well and see if they can climb out!” Poul responded with a snort of laughter, grabbing a hold of Linnea. Soren felt a large hand grab his arm as Pal grabbed him, Pavel attempting to grab Aksel, but missing as the water spirit seemed to instantly jump several feet to the right.

“No fair! You can’t use magic on us!”

“Yeah, no magic!”

“SILENCE!”

The hall shook as the thundering voice echoed all around them. Immediately the three Princes squealed and ran, leaving behind their attempted playmates as they disappeared down the side corridor. The sudden loss of support from the hand made Linnea stumble, only barely catching herself on the side of the tunnel as a shower of dirt covered her once more.

“What was that?” Soren asked, eyes wide as he looked around warily.

“That was the King.” Aksel said softly. “Come. We must not keep him waiting any longer.”

They continued down the hall for some time, before a flickering light indicated an end to the tunnel, opening up into an enormous throne room, which was filled with trolls, elves, pixies, dwarves, and all sorts of other creatures Soren could not identify. The three elves that had come with them quickly bowed to the King and Queen, sitting up on their high thrones, before flitting away to join their sisters.

Soren followed Aksel hesitantly as the spirit approached the royal Trolls, bowing elegantly.

“Aksel, you are bold to come into my halls,” the King thundered, making Soren wince. Unconsciously, he attempted to hide behind the tall spirit.

“My sincerest apologies, Your Eminence, but I come purely on a mission of goodwill. I have come to escort these young travelers.” He stepped quickly out of the way, leaving Soren in full view of the King and Queen. He swallowed nervously. Opening his mouth, no words came out. Now that he was here, in the Troll Kingdom, he had no idea what to say.

20.
“Speak!” commanded the King, pointing a carved scepter at Soren.

“My apologies, Your Grace,” Soren said, words spilling out of his mouth in a rush. He bowed as gracefully as his nerves would allow, wishing Linnea had the sense to do the same. But she merely stared openly at the King. “I do not mean to come so underdressed and unbidden into your kingdom, but I had need to seek your wisdom. Do forgive my companions, for I could not have made the journey without their help.” It was a good thing Soren’s royal upbringing had taken control of his voice. While it was true, he was loath to admit his failings out loud. He hoped his polite and humble speech would help soothe the mood of the Troll King.

“And what brings you to these halls, led by that wicked man?” The king jabbed his scepter at Aksel instead.

“I do not know what ill he has caused, but he saved my servant and me from the swamps. Please, Your Highness, I wish to ask a favor of you, though you owe me nothing and I have no right for you to hear such a request.”

“Harrumph,” the Troll King snored, before gesturing for Soren to continue.

“It is my belief, My King, that I am not a prince of Toten as I once thought. Recently, I have come to believe I am a Changeling, a child of Faerie sent to the world of Men. Please, I implore you, let me stay here, in your realm, where I belong.”

At his declaration, there was a wave of gasps and buzzing whispers that echoed through the hall. The sour look on the King’s face grew even darker as he glared down his long nose at Soren. The young prince instantly knew he had said the wrong thing.

“A Changeling? How dare you speak of such vile things in this hall! You are not a Changeling; you are not even worthy to look upon me and my court. Be gone, wretched child! You have insulted us more than even that cursed water spirit you call your guide. Is this all your doing, Nokk? Did you steal him from his home to bring shame upon me and my kin?” Aksel opened his mouth to defend himself, but did not have the chance.

“Calm yourself, husband,” came the stern but regal voice of the Troll Queen, speaking up for the first time. “Do not worry yourself over such foolishness. They are but children, no more deceitful and malicious than your own. There is no need to be so harsh over such a simple thing.”

“Simple!” the King snapped, glaring once more at Soren, Linnea, and the poor dog huddling frightened behind them. “I will show you simple!”

With a flash of light and a bang, Soren and Linnea found themselves back where they started, outside Soren’s family castle, the prince’s name being called from the parapets. He groaned. They were in so much trouble.

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