“Oh boy, this is so exciting! Do you think I could get a cutie mark for troll hunting? I mean, we already tried getting a creature catcher cutie mark, but that didn’t end up turning out so good; Fluttershy had to save us from a cockatrice. But I’ve got a good feeling about this time. Or maybe, maybe I’ll get a marshal cutie mark! Do you think I’d make a good marshal, Mister Graves? Huh? Do you?”
The faint sound of grinding teeth was the only outward sign of annoyance the young man gave. Inside, however, he kicked himself for being fool enough to take the little girl along.
They hadn’t even gone more than half a mile into the forest, and Sweetie Belle was already driving him bonkers. When he’d stopped by his house - which thankfully was still free of lace doilies - to pick up his equipment, she’d run around poking and prodding everything she could get her hands on. Once they’d left, she’d asked if she could stop by Rarity’s boutique so she could change into something more 'monster huntery', whatever that meant.
And now, as he was trying to track down the wayward troll, she just wouldn’t stop talking.
“Miss Sweetie Belle,” he said, finally having enough, “first rule in the field: keep quiet.”
“If our target hears us, it can find us.”
“And that’s bad?” Sweetie Belle asked, confused. “I thought we wanted to find them.”
“We do, but we want surprise.”
“Why? It’s not like we’re throwing it a party or anything.” Graves just looked down at the girl in disbelief. There was no way she could really be that dim.
Rubbing his temples and praying to Celestia for strength, Graves thought about how he could explain the intricacies of marshal field work to a little girl, without blowing his top.
“Wild animals are dangerous. Surprising them makes them less dangerous. They hear us, we lose the surprise, and they’ll probably eat us. Hence, quiet is good.”
“Oh, I get it,” Sweetie Belle said, the light bulb finally coming on for her. “Yeah, that makes sense. One time, I wanted to give Opal a bath – she’s Rarity’s pet cat, by the way – but she kept getting away from me, so I had to hide in the laundry basket and–”
Graves stared down at the girl, which prompted a guilty grin.
“Right, quiet. Sorry.”
The two resumed their trek through the shadowy woods, and mercifully, Sweetie Belle finally stopped her incessant chatter. Picking their way through the tangle of vines and dense underbrush, Graves silently slipped between the misty trees as Sweetie Belle scampered in his wake.
After perhaps half an hour of walking, Graves suddenly stopped and motioned for Sweetie Belle to stand still as well. It was quiet, eerily so in the way only enchanted forests could be. But there, just on the edge of audibility, a faint rumble came from deeper in the grove.
Advancing much more slowly, Graves carefully picked his way through the foliage, holding aside branches and vines for the little girl. The closer they got, the louder the rumble became, till it coalesced into the thumping sound of heavy footsteps.
Pushing aside a small bush, Graves found himself looking at a clear, sunken hollow some two hundred paces across. And there, lumbering about like a living boulder across the middle, stood a massive, full-grown mountain troll.
“Wow,” Sweetie Belle whispered quietly, looking out in fascination at the monstrous creature. "That’s a troll?”
Sweetie Belle’s disbelief was rather understandable, since she’d probably never seen a troll before. Well over nine feet tall, the behemoth towered a full one and a half times the height of the marshal and was covered in grey, leathery skin the same color and texture of granite. Stumbling about on two stumpy legs, the troll dragged a log-sized wooden club behind it, peering out into the forest with beady eyes over a squashed, piggish nose and mouth full of dirty yellow teeth.
“What’s it doing?” Sweetie Belle asked as the troll turned around and began walking back where it came.
“Not sure. Trolls aren’t the brightest creatures in Equestria; hard to understand them sometimes.” As if to prove a point, the troll dropped his crude wooden club to scratch at his… nether regions through his soiled loincloth. Sweetie Belle wrinkled her nose in disgust.
“So why’re we out here anyway?” the little girl asked again. “I mean, it’s not like he’s really doing anything bad, is he?”
“Not now, no,” Graves replied. “But trolls eat their body weight daily in whatever they get their hands on. If he makes his way to Ponyville, well… that’s bad.”
Sweetie Belle’s eyes grew large.
“Whatever they get their hands on? So… does that mean that they would eat…” she gulped, “… little girls?”
Graves looked down at Sweetie Belle. Technically, mountain trolls only ate earthy substances, like rocks, dirt, sand, etc. The trouble he’d been talking about was if the troll decided to go munching on Ponyville’s buildings and what not. However, it seemed that Sweetie Belle didn’t know that and thought that the whatever had included diminutive child-folk as well. The opportunity was just too good to pass up.
“Only if they can catch them,” he said with grim tones and a face solemn as an undertaker.
Sweetie Belle squeaked in fright as her eyes grew very, very large indeed.
“What do we do?” she whispered, turning her attention back to the lumbering troll. She kept her eyes glued on it, lest the creature sneak up on her and gobble her up.
The stoic soldier let the brush settle back in place and motioned for the little girl to fall back. Walking back perhaps fifty paces, the marshal found a large, sturdy oak and climbed into its lower branches. Sweetie Belle, not quite as nimble as the young man, had to be hauled up by the marshal with the strap of his spell gun.
“What are we doing up here?” the little girl asked as she squinted to watch the troll turn around another time and walk right back to where it had started.
“Troll hunting,” Graves replied. Pulling out a small wrench, he began adjusting a few knobs on his spell gun as Sweetie Belle’s eyes widened in excitement.
“Wow, really? You’re gonna blow him up from all the way over here?”
“Just gonna knock it out,” he said, hefting the rifle and checking the sight line. “Keep it nice and clean.”
“So… no blowing up?” Sweetie Belle checked. Graves shook his head.
“Well then,” the little girl huffed as she crossed her little arms. “When we get back, Scootaloo’s got some explaining to do.”
The young marshal’s lip curled into a slight smile. And then, as quickly as it had appeared, it vanished. His face hardened into a mask of stone and his normally distant grey eyes focused into shards of polished steel. It was time to go to work.
Leaning against the tree trunk, Graves brought up one knee and rested his rifle across it. Peering through the scope, the squashed face of the mountain toll leaped into view.
The marshal took a single deep breath and held it for a moment before he slowly began to exhale. As his breath blew out, a faint hum and a pale, silver glow appeared around the spell gun as magical energy charged within. Trailing the mountain troll’s head - always aiming for the eyes, just as he’d learned - the marshal shadowed its every movement and slowly tightened his finger on the trigger, waiting for just the right moment.
The troll’s foot dropped.
Thunder roared and gale winds howled as a crackling bolt of silvery lightning exploded from the barrel. Covering the distance in the blink of an eye, the electric lance struck the mountain troll in a burst of brilliant white light.
The creature didn’t even have time to cry out as darkness overcame it. Tottering on its feet, the behemoth succumbed to the magic and fell to its knees, finally collapsing to the ground with a deafening crash. There, it lay still.
“Wow, that was amazing!” Sweetie Belle cried, the need to be quiet forgotten in the heat of the moment. “I can’t believe you hit him from all the way over here!”
“It wasn’t that far,” Graves said as he gave his hat a little tug. Coming from someone else, it might have been false humility. Coming from the him though, well… truth is truth.
Hopping down from the branches, the marshal caught a giggling Sweetie Belled who jumped down after him. The two then backtracked to the brush from before, this time pushing through them to enter the clearing where the mountain troll lay.
“Oh boy! A troll!” Sweetie Belle squealed. Previous apprehension completely forgotten, the little girl ran ahead to take a closer look. Somewhere along the way, she acquired a stick, no doubt intent on poking and prodding the unconscious creature. Graves almost felt sorry for it.
“Is it dead?” she called back, currently jabbing the troll in the side.
“Just unconscious,” the marshal repeated, walking across the clearing towards her. “The Princess doesn’t like us hurting creatures if we can–”
Pausing mid step, Graves froze as he felt a familiar chill run from the base of his neck to the bottom of his spine. It was a feeling he’d gotten many times before, and one that he really, really didn’t like to feel.
Something was wrong.
Eyes darting to and fro across the clearing, Graves tried to pinpoint the source of his apprehension to no avail. Everything appeared as it should be. Save for him and Sweetie Belle, the clearing was empty. The only present danger was a single troll, and in its current state, hardly constituted a threat at all. Why, Sweetie Belle was still happily prodding away at the creature where it lay, dropped in its tracks by a perfectly executed…
And that’s when it hit him. Tracks. A single, uniform, line of tracks.
Trolls weren’t smart. In fact, calling them dumb as a sack of rocks was an insult to both the rocks and the sack. Left to its own devices, a troll would trudge along aimlessly in all manners of directions, going from one food source to another in no discernible pattern.
But that’s not what this troll had done. Since they’d found it, the creature had only walked back and forth, crossing the same stretch of earth in one direction and then turning around to cross it again. It was movement with a purpose, a purpose Graves was well familiar with.
The troll was standing guard.
“Miss Sweetie Belle,” Graves called out, his words charged as he quickly slung the spell gun over shoulder and jogged towards her. “We have to go. Now.”
“Now?” the little girl asked, confused. “Why, is something wrong?”
As if by some cruel joke of fate, the moment she uttered the question was the moment a familiar rumbling returned. Only this time, it was several times greater, growing louder and more pronounced till it shook the very ground they stood on.
Another troll appeared. And another. And another. Emerging from the dense growth on the other side of the clearing, no less than a dozen gigantic mountain trolls lumbered into view, each one just as massive as its fallen brethren. All except for one.
Standing in the middle, with deep-set eyes and a thick, moss-like beard, grasping a club that must have been carved from an entire tree, stood a troll that was well over half again as tall as any others.
His orders had been wrong. He hadn’t been sent to deal with a single troll. He’d been sent to deal with a full pack, and one led by none other than a genuine Mountain Elder.