Bandir had not planned on returning to High Trees, especially in the depths of winter when the trek across the wilds would be fraught with difficulties. But Bandir had an uneasy feeling that had made him change his plans and now he found himself making the treacherous journey.
Ice wind blew into Bandir’s face. His eyes hurt from the white glare of the snow covered land, but he pressed on towards the woods. Seeing High Trees brought a sense of joy to Bandir. While his heart had always been in the wilds as a huntsman like his father, the village in High Trees was the only other place he felt at home, for he had found love there.
Finally, Bandir reached the edge of the woods and the wind calmed. Looking down, he saw a few patches of red leading into the trees. He examined it closely, realising it was freshly spilt blood. He looked up into the forest and saw a tree with blood and his keen eyes followed the blood trail deeper in. A great beast had been wounded, he thought. It had fled from the forest and out into the wilds. Whatever it was, it was big. It had leaned against the tree, weary and bloody. Sharp claws had ripped the bark from the tree and Bandir examined it, studying the way the claws had dug in.
“Mountain troll,” he whispered to himself. He caught some tracks that the snow had not yet covered and confirmed his fears. Unusual to be down from the mountain, he thought. Must’ve come looking for food. When a troll had feasted upon men, it would never satisfy its great hunger. Looking up, Bandir realised the tracks led in the direction of the village and he hurried on. The great beast had been wounded, so the villagers had managed to fight it off. But a mountain troll never gave up and would likely be back. It was probably watching him cross the snow covered wilds, waiting for a chance to strike. Despite the cold, he found himself sweating as he hurried through the forest, the snow crunching under his fur boots. There was an intense feeling of dread as he ran, for he had seen what a mountain troll could do.
It had been five years ago and he had been wandering the Grey Mountains in the north when he had come across the small village of Mountain Gap. He had heard the screams of terror as he neared and the savage growl of a troll. Diving behind a rock, he knew it was hopeless to help and had peered over to see the hulking giant destroy the village and kill anyone in its way. It was with shame he remembered that day he had been too scared to move. Leaving nothing alive, the troll had returned to the mountains with its hunger satisfied for the moment. That night, Bandir had burned the bodies of three hundred men, women and children. Turning his back on the village, he told himself there was nothing he could have done to help. As he made his way from the mountains, he heard the screech of the troll as it returned to feed upon the dead it had left; at least he had denied the monster that.
But Yaylu lived in High Trees and even though he tried, he was unable to run as fast as what his heart was beating. Spitting, he cursed his age and stopped, bent over and gasped for breath. The sun was sinking low in the sky and there was not much time before the dark came. That would be when the troll would return to finish. It had stumbled across the villagers in light and they were able to fight it away. But trolls could see just as well in the dark and it had more than likely tasted blood and would want more. The creature would return to finish feeding and to avenge those who had managed to wound it.
A creature shrieked in the distance, shattering the silence. With mounting horror, Bandir realised he had heard it before. Taking a deep breath, he sped on through the forest, picking up the main path to the village. As he hurried on, he saw further patches of blood. Finally, he saw the village before him, tucked away in the clearing at the centre of the forest. Nestled in the snow, it was eerily still. Bandir looked across the wooden fence that ran around the perimeter and saw a huge hole had been ripped through it, the logs ripped from the ground and thrown by something with terrible strength and fury.
The snow glistened red around the village. Bandir approached with caution but when he saw the first bodies slumped in the snow, he stumbled over to them. They were half eaten, chewed by a great beast. Bandir looked over the sea of dead, fearing he would see Yaylu’s lifeless eyes staring up at him. Looking at the tracks, he could discern the chaos that had ensued. The troll had come crashing through the eastern wall taking the villagers by surprise. They had charged the great beast and many had fallen where he stood. The troll had then stomped through the village, ripping at huts and spreading panic in its wake. The villagers had made a run for the main gates and a number of tracks headed into the forest. The troll had followed and Bandir hoped they had got away. As he wandered over to the fleeing villager’s tracks, he saw where the troll had been wounded. It appeared one of the villagers who were fleeing had remained between the villagers and the troll. The tracks showed a firm stance and the slightly heavier back foot suggested to him it had been an archer. A pool of dark blood told him the arrow had hit a vulnerable area and the troll’s blood led from the village and into the forest.
It began to snow heavily and a gentle blanket of white was thrown over the dead. There was still a few hours left of light and the villagers would not have got far. If Bandir left now, he would be able to follow their tracks providing the snow had not covered them. The troll would return and pick up their scent easier than Bandir would find their tracks, and there would be little chance against a troll, even if it was wounded. But if Yaylu had managed to get away, he would not be able to live with himself if he did not try to save them. Besides, he had lived a long life; perhaps it would be a fine way to die.
A cold wind blew through the trees and Bandir shivered, pulling his coat around him. To lift his spirits, Bandir began to sing an old song, most of the words jumbled up and missed out, but the tune remained correct. That was how he had met Yaylu back in the summer. He had been heading through the forest to the village within the depths, singing a half remembered song about the ancient dragons when laughter drifted to him.
“You’ve got the words all wrong,” a woman said. She was sat by the forest river, a fishing rod in her hands with the line cast into the water. Three large fish lay on the grass bank. When she smiled, her entire face lit up and Bandir paused in his song. Her hair was blonde, hanging free around her shoulders and her eyes greener than the grass. If summer looked like a woman, Bandir thought, it would look like her.
“It’s the tune I like, not the words.” He grinned, suddenly feeling foolish in front of her. He scratched his bald head and shrugged his enormous shoulders. “Did you like the tune?”
The woman turned from him and looked out at the fishing line. “At least you got that right. Dragon’s Breath is my favourite song and it is a crime to hear it mangled in such a clumsy way.”
Bandir snorted. Normally when he entered a village, his very presence caused a hushed murmur as they spoke of the legend of the great hunter. When you were a legend, Bandir thought, no one wanted to draw too close unless you were wide eyed children with innocent natures. They flocked to him, true, but just to hear his tales and badly sung songs. Only when they grew older would he become Bandir the living Legend. Now this young woman had actually criticised him. He liked it.
“Ah, but I was singing the correct northern song, not the southern one they teach you here.”
The woman threw her head back and laughed. “That’s funny, because I thought the song originated from the south. Nice try, old man.”
Bandir looked at her and scowled, but broke out into a fit of laughter. “By the Gods, woman, you are a cheeky one!” he cried out. “What is your name?”
“Yaylu,” she said, pulling at the rod as a fish had taken the bait. She pulled the rod up and upon the end of the string a fish wriggled around. “Are you going to help me or stand there all day getting the words wrong?”
Bandir wiped his eyes from the tears of laughter and grabbed the fish, pulling the hook free. “I could show you how to hunt deer if you like. Make a better dinner than these puny fish.”
Yaylu threw the fish with the others she had caught and looked at Bandir. “That why you have such a big bow?”
Bandir laughed and walked her to the village. They had chatted all the way back, but Bandir was too shy to ask if she was promised to anyone. As he stood by her hut, he looked around, unsure how to proceed. “Perhaps I could take you hunting?”
Yaylu giggled. “Only if you fish with me tomorrow,” she said.
Bandir bowed and promised to meet her. “Then I will show you how to use a bow.”
“And I will teach you the words to Dragon’s Breath.”
The memories faded as the wind grew harsh again. Bandir tugged at his long grey moustache and slung his bow over his shoulder. Singing Dragon’s Breath, Bandir hurried after the tracks. He had not gone far when a figure stepped into his path, standing tall and proud. “Have you not learnt Dragon’s Breath yet?”
Bandir wanted to cry out with joy and wrap his arms around Yaylu. He wanted to pick her up and swing her around, never letting her go. But her words of humour did not match her face. A dark expression crossed her features and her eyes were sharp glints of green. Upon her face were streaks of blood and her hand clutched the hunting bow he had made for her in the summer.
“We need to go before the troll returns.” He knew his words were cold, but he could see she needed to remain focussed. By the Gods! She must have seen her friends and family butchered in the carnage when the troll attacked.
Yaylu looked around at the dead. “You go. I’m going to stay and wait for it.”
“Wait for it? That’s suicide. It would take an entire army to bring that thing down.”
Yaylu held her bow up. “Or a good hunter?” She raised her eyebrow and looked at Bandir with cold fury. He had seen that look on people before and it was vengeance.
Unable to contain a smile, Bandir asked, “Was it you who wounded the troll?” There was a glimmer of pride within him for a moment. She had been a fast learner.
“I shot it right in the eye. We must avenge those who have fallen here today. Their spirits will remain restless until we do.” Yaylu looked around sadly, tears coming to her eyes. When she looked up to Bandir, he felt her sadness. This was going to be the village he would finally rest and leave the wilds behind. In the months he had stayed here, he had grown close to Yaylu and had promised he would return after winter.
“I do not want you to leave,” she had said on that last day. The summer was drawing to an end and Bandir had some affairs to settle in the north. There was some money owed to him he would collect and then he would have enough gold to live comfortably. In truth, he did not want to leave, but his money was spread around with trusted merchants.
“I will be back before the end of winter.”
Yaylu sighed. “But what about my dream?” She had told Bandir about a dream where a great monster had come to the village and pulled it apart. ”There is blood everywhere and the beast screams out in rage.” She trembled as she recounted it. “The beast with one eye.”
Bandir had told her it was just a dream, that there were no monsters in the land. “Besides, I will be here to protect you if a monster does come.”
Now he looked at Yaylu and the scene of destruction around them. Truth was he hadn’t been there. Why had he not listened to her dream? She was no witch, but perhaps she had the gift? Despite the grief he could read upon her face, Bandir also saw a glimmer of hope. The troll would return, and then go after the fleeing villagers. If they could slow it down, then they might just make it to safety.
“Go gather as many arrows as you can,” he said with a grin. “And perhaps they’ll sing songs about us.”
Yaylu turned to go, but she paused. With tears in her eyes, she said, “I hope they get the words right.” She began gathering arrows that had failed to hit the target and Bandir watched her, wishing it was summer again and regretting having left. But had he stayed, he knew he would have been first to die. Upon seeing the beast, he would have put himself at the front. Perhaps he would have got a few good shots in first.
Sighing, Bandir picked up as many arrows as he could find. When he was satisfied with the small pile he had made, he began sorting out those with the sharpest points. Those he deemed the best, he stuck into the snow around him, ready to use in the coming battle. In the distance, the beast gave a deafening roar. Bandir looked up across to the southern mountains and shuddered. If they were really unlucky, the beast’s roars would bring more down from the mountains. But they were solitary creatures who seldom wandered from their territory. There was always a risk in harsh winters they would come down out of desperation for food and this was the harshest winter that Bandir had known. These outer villages by the mountains seldom had the defences in place to fight them away.
“We should be able to get a good few shots in from here,” Yaylu said, coming to stand next to Bandir.
Bandir looked at the path ahead. The creature was a thing of instinct and would not surprise them from attacking at a different point. It would stumble from the trees and make a run for them. “I can get a good few shots from here,” Bandir said. “You should go further back. If it manages to get by me, then you stand a better chance in felling the foul beast.”
Yaylu shook her head. “I will stand with you.”
“That is a bold idea, but these creatures do not feel pain straight away. By the time it comes for you, it will begin to slow. You can then take that final shot.”
Yaylu began to argue, but fell silent as the roar of the beast sounded from the edge of the forest. Her face became pale and her eyes widened with fear. “You are a legend in our parts, Bandir. Did you know I would have settled down with you and given you plenty of children?”
“Aye, I hope they would have been better looking than me.” Bandir smiled as a sudden image of a settled life came to him. And to his surprise it did not scare him. “But there comes a time when a legend has to die.”
“But a legend never dies. It becomes a myth to be remembered through the ages. Myths and legends will outlast the stars.” Looking at the fallen, she continued, “Many good men and women were slain today by a creature that can only be defeated by one thing.”
Raising his eyebrow, Bandir asked, “And what is that?”
Yaylu smiled. “A legend.”
When the troll came the sun had sunk from the sky and night fell around them quickly. The sky was clear and the moon was full. Bandir nervously looked at the forest ahead. When he was a younger man, his keen eye could have shot a far off target in less night, but age had reduced his skill. While old, he knew he was still the best marksman in all of Kara. And he had taught Yaylu well. Glancing behind, he saw her across the village square, stood tall and proud with her bow strung tight. The moon cast her in ghostly white light and she shone so pale.
With a heavy heart, Bandir turned from her. Aye, they could have had a good life, he mused. Now he only hoped she could have a life, because he knew that the beast would tear him apart. He gripped the sword at his waist. Once his last arrow was shot, he would not run, but stand firm with broadsword and go down fighting. And the song they would sing of me will be great, he thought, cheering himself.
There was a mighty roar and the crashing of trees ahead. Bandir tensed and placed an arrow in the bow, raised it up and took aim at the way ahead. His arm shook and the aim moved, but he took deep breaths and calmed his mind. The aim became still and he relaxed into a stance, planting himself firmly in. Twenty good arrows were planted before him. A troll had thick skin with few weak points and he pondered the areas. Yaylu had taken one eye out, so a good shot to the other would blind it. But trolls had huge heads and tiny eyes and such a shot would be tricky. They had excellent sense of smell that would make up for blindness. Yet it would slow the beast.
There was another roar, much closer this time. Bandir thought about his target. There was a soft area in the throat, but a great protruding jaw protected that area unless it looked up. The sides were soft flesh, but the great arms were in the way unless it was scratching out with those great claws and if that was happening, he would be sliced apart. The thighs were not as scaled as the rest of it and a few good shots to them might slow it.
Twenty arrows were all he had. Twenty chances to hit vital points to do enough damage that Yaylu might stand a chance. First he would aim for the other eye. That would stun it. Then he would aim for the legs and hope the pain would cause it to stumble. Then with his last arrows he would aim for the throat and hope he got lucky. If that failed, he would strike out with his sword under the arms.
Then it would be up to Yaylu. Daring one more glance, he stared at Yaylu and sighed. Suddenly she raised her bow and tensed. Bandir turned back to the forest and saw the huge frame of the troll, tall as a tree. Cursing, Bandir dropped the arrow from his bow. He quickly picked it up, just as the beast began to charge. It lowered its great head and bent over as it came roaring at them. Bandir let loose his first arrow, quickly grabbing another and firing that. Not waiting to see where each arrow had hit, he shot off more, aiming at the places he had already decided upon. The troll continued to roar, but Bandir did not know if it was in pain or rage.
Bandir reached for the last arrow. The troll was almost upon him, bashing its way through the damaged perimeter wall. The last arrow flew from his bow. It plunged straight into the throat. The troll gave a mighty roar and stumbled. But it pulled the arrow out, snapped it in one great hand and continued to charge. Bandir threw his bow aside and drew his sword. The troll stopped a few feet away from him, lowered down and roared. Great fangs the size of a man protruded towards Bandir and his knees became weak. The desire to run was great, but he forced himself to remain, thinking about Yaylu. The smell of rotten flesh upon the breath of the troll turned Bandir’s stomach. Taking a gulp, he raised his sword.
An arrow whooshed by Bandir’s ear. Time seemed to slow and he saw the shaft of the arrow plunge into the throat of the troll. It staggered backwards, making a desperate spluttering noise. Blood poured from the wound and Bandir looked behind and saw Yaylu stood a few feet away, her bow still held up, the string humming from having just released the fatal arrow. Bandir looked back at the troll in time to see it crash to the ground and thrash about. Finally, it became still in a pool of blood. The silence that followed was broken when Bandir let out a breath he had not been aware he was holding.
“That was a good shot,” Bandir said, turning to Yaylu.
Yaylu nodded, staring at the hulking beast. “Aye, but your shots were just as good.” She pointed to the arrow sticking from the one good eye of the troll.
Bandir laughed quietly, shocked at his aim. “Not so old after all, it seems.” The snow began to fall heavily. “We should catch up with the survivors and tell them it is safe to return. The storm is going to be a bad one and the young ones will not survive it.” He went to go, but stopped as Yaylu remained.
“I belong here,” she whispered. “Go and bring them back, Bandir.”
Bandir went to go to her, but she pulled away. “Prepare a fire for our return, my love.”
Yaylu gave a soft smile and for a moment he saw a flash of the happy person she had once been in a summer that seemed too far away. “Make sure they sing a good song,” she said.
The tracks of the villagers were easy to follow and thankfully Bandir counted the tracks of at least a hundred people. They had headed north, hoping to head through the thickest part of the forest so the troll would not follow. Had they not succeeded, it would have just smashed its way through to them. Upon the night air, Bandir smelt smoke and ahead he saw a few flickering flames. Coming through the trees to small clearing, he found the villagers huddled together around a few small fires, their faces full of fear and the cold.
“It’s Bandir the Hunter!” a small child called out. “Did you make the bad monster go away?”
Bandir strode to the middle of the camp. He drew his sword and planted it in the ground in front of him and looked around the sea of desperate faces. “The troll is dead!” he cried out to them all. “I have come to take you home.”
A few of the people cheered, but the look of grief upon many told Bandir they had lost loved ones within the attack. Suddenly, Bandir wanted to be far away in the wilds. But the people needed him and he would stay. A woman approached him, shivering with cold.
“How did you kill such a great beast?” she asked.
Bandir was aware that all eyes were upon him. Softly, he said, “It was not I that killed the beast. Yaylu shot it straight through the throat and it fell back in a pool of blood.”
The woman shook her head. “Yaylu is dead. She died helping us flee. When the beast came at us, she put herself in the way and shot it straight in the eye. But it picked her up and threw her. Without her, we would never have got away.”
Laughing, Bandir said, “No, she is still alive. Come with me, I will show you.” The woman was obviously mistaken, but she remained silent. They headed back through the trees, Bandir leading the way. When they returned to the village, the snow had fallen and began to cover the troll. The villagers went to the fallen and the sound of weeping filled the air.
“Yaylu!” Bandir called. He wandered the village in search of her, but she was nowhere to be seen. When he returned to the mourning crowd, the woman who had told him Yaylu was dead took him by the hand and led him to a body that lay crumpled in the snow.
“I am sorry,” she said, leaving Bandir.
Leaning down, Bandir wiped the snow from the face of the body. Staring up at him were green eyes, yet not as bright as they once were. Reaching out a hand, he closed her eyes and kissed her gently on her forehead. “Sleep well,” he whispered.
“Make sure they make a good song,” a familiar voice said from behind.
Bandir turned and looked at Yaylu, bathed in moonlight and more beautiful then he could ever remember. The villagers went about burying their dead, paying no attention to Bandir. “Why did you not tell me you were dead?”
Yaylu sighed. “I am not dead, my sweet. Together we are legends, and legends never die as long as they are remembered in story and song.” She looked around the village with a smile. “The dead are at resting now. I can see their spirits soaring.” She went to go, looked over her shoulder and said, “I must join them.”
“Do you have to go now?”
Yaylu nodded. “There are other worlds waiting.”
Bandir did not want her to leave. These moments felt like they were slipping away and he saw her begin to fade. “Wait! Can you take me?”
Yaylu smiled. “Not yet. But when you come, I will take you fishing.”
Bandir laughed and wiped the tears from his eyes. When he had looked back to Yaylu, she was gone.
The legend of Bandir and Yaylu was made into a song. Before Bandir left High Trees, he had made one request and the village bards had complied out of respect for the old hero. So the song of Yaylu was sung to the tune of Dragon’s Breath. The bard had told Bandir that he could write a much better melody, but Bandir insisted on the ancient tune.
“If I get the words wrong, I will at least get the tune right,” he said. “Besides, it is a good tune.”
Bandir returned to the wilds, unable to settle in High Trees, despite how welcome the villagers made him feel. So it was with a weary soul he went to the mountains. He was never seen again, but the bodies of trolls were often found at the foot of the mountains and Bandir became known as the Troll Hunter.
As the years went by, the legend became a myth. And a myth, Yaylu had once said, could never die.