“Miss Sweetie Belle. Don't. Move.” Graves said this while trying his best to do just that, every muscle frozen and hardly even a twitch coming from his lips. His eyes remained trained on the pack of monstrous creatures before them, especially the bearded giant in the middle.
Trolls had long lives but fortunately, rarely lived the full term of it. Aside from the constant warring and brawling between individuals that thinned the population, constant mishaps and accidents stemming from their low intelligence took care of the rest.
However, every now and then, one troll would manage to survive for a good deal longer than average. Constantly gaining size as it aged and intellect as well - albeit at a much slower pace, fortunately - these anomalies could become strong enough to physically dominate other trolls and clever enough to organize them as well. One troll was nothing special, but gathered with some semblance of order? That was trouble with a capital T.
“Just stay calm,” the marshal continued, slowly edging towards the petrified little girl. There were still a good twenty paces between them, a seeming eternity at the snail’s pace he was progressing. Luckily, the trolls were not advancing and simply stood still, content to loll around and stare dumbly at the diminutive creature before them.
All except the Mountain Elder. Hefting its massive club, the giant troll glared down at Sweetie Belle who sat next to its fallen brethren. It didn’t know quite what to make of the situation. The squishy little ball of fluff couldn’t possibly have taken down one of its pack, but there it was, standing over him. As a boss, he didn’t like that, and as a boss, when he didn’t like something, he made it known.
Like the sound of a distant avalanche, the Mountain Elder growled and bared a mouth full of dirty fangs at the little girl. Sweetie Belle’s eyes grew wide and color drained from her face as she faced down an open display of hostility that made even cougars and wildcats retreat in fear.
She opened her mouth.
“No,” Graves called, his whisper hoarse as inside he prayed to Celestia as hard as he could. “I’m begging you, don’t. Whatever you do, don’t-” But it was too late.
Sweetie Belle screamed.
Crying like a frightened banshee, Sweetie Belle let out a piercing, high-pitched keen that could have shattered every crystal glass within a mile. Fortunately, there was no crystal around to shatter. Unfortunately, there was a pack of trolls.
Clapping hands to ears, the monsters winced at the little girl’s shriek. Loud noises hurt their ears. Trolls didn’t like it when their ears hurt, and the Mountain Elder was no exception. Seizing up its club, the giant roared out something in the troll’s harsh, native tongue and thrust the tree trunk out at the little girl. The other trolls joined in, bellowing with force enough to match a landslide, so loud that it drowned out Sweetie Belle’s cries entirely. Seizing up their clubs, the land began to shake as the mass of enraged behemoths thundered into a charge.
Finesse be hanged. Throwing caution to the wind, Graves dashed forward and caught up Sweetie Belle by the scruff of her dress. Tucking her under his arm like a loaf of bread, he turned and ran, sprinting across the clearing and into the cover of the trees.
The marshal ran, feet racing across the forest floor with ground-eating strides as he surged forward, weaving between the gnarled trunks and leaping over pits and ravines that marked the treacherous terrain. Despite the gravity of the situation, Sweetie Belle couldn’t help but gasp in wonder, relishing the exhilaration that Scootaloo must have felt like when she flew. Minus the bumping, of course.
Graves winced as he heard the sharp splintering of wood behind him: the trolls had reached the trees and were rampaging towards them. Putting on a fresh burst of speed, the marshal looked down to the girl under his arm.
“You okay, Miss Sweetie Belle?” Graves called down to her, not daring to stop and let the trolls chasing them gain ground.
“I-I-I th-th-i-i-n-n-k s-s-o-o-o-o,” she replied, her voice shaking more from the bounce of the marshal’s stride than any nerves at the moment.”Wh-wh-wh-a-a-a-t h-a-a-a-p-p-p-e-e-n-n-n-n-e-d b-a-a-a-ck th-th-e-e-r-r-e a-a-n-n-n-y-y-y-w-w-a-a-a-a-y?”
“Noise,” Graves huffed. “Trolls hate it, and screaming’s pretty dang noisy.”
“O-o-o-o-o-p-p-p-p-s-s-s. M-m-m-y-y-y-y b-a-a-a-a-d.”
Graves didn’t respond. Not that he held it against her or anything, it’s just that he really didn’t have the luxury of talking at the moment. Normally, he’d have no issue outpacing a troll: he was much faster than the monstrous brutes which, despite their much larger size, also had stubby legs and much more bulk to move.
But this wasn’t normal. Right now, he was carrying a small child under one arm and weaving between trees, and what trolls lacked in speed, they made up for in relentless brute strength. The crackling of branches and even tree trunks continued behind them as the troll pack barreled through the forest, literally running through any obstacle that got in their way.
Graves stumbled as his foot got caught by a wayward tree root. He managed to keep his balance and continued running, but only just as the trolls continued their unstoppable charge. His chest was beginning to burn and a creeping leaden heaviness began to seize his legs. There was just no way he could outrun a pack of trolls like this.
Swerving to the left and ducking under a low branch, the marshal was taken by surprise as the ground suddenly dropped from under him into a steep slope. Sweetie Belle’s cry was masked by the sound of crumbling earth as they slid down the hillside in a cascade of gravel, Graves hugging the little girl close to shelter her from debris.
The slope eventually deposited the pair in a deep, dried up river bed. Scrambling to his feet, the young man threw himself against one earthen wall and pressed his body against it. He held his breath despite his body’s cry for air and he placed a hand on Sweetie’s Belle’s mouth for silence. As his heart raced, Graves pricked his ears for any sign of approaching trolls.
The rumbling thunder of pounding feet grew closer and closer. Graves loosened the strap of his spell gun, the barrel already starting to glow with silver light. If they were caught, he might just have to fight a way out. Not an ideal situation, but still better than the other gruesome possibilities.
However, the crisis passed as the footsteps began to die away, growing fainter as the distance between the two groups grew.
Ever so slowly, Graves let out a sigh of relief and removed his hand as the little girl took a noisy breath as well.
“That… was really scary…” Sweetie Belle gasped, staring up at the marshal with wide-eyed earnestness.
“Agreed,” he nodded as he took several deep breaths and filled his lungs with sweet, sweet air.
“So, what do we do now?” the little girl asked, peaking up over the edge of the riverbed. “Are you gonna shoot all the trolls like you did with the first one?”
“Can’t,” Graves replied, taking a seat to rest his weary legs. “Takes a while to charge a shot strong enough to drop a troll. With this many in the trees in the way, I’d be too close to get them all before they got me.”
Sweetie Belle took a seat next to him, twiddling her thumbs idly as the marshal recovered from their recent flight. Glancing up at him, the little girl looked away again, her face downcast and gloomy.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, still looking at her hands, still not looking at the marshal. Graves looked down at her with one eyebrow arched in curiosity.
“Sorry? For what?”
“For not being a very good marshal. If I hadn’t screamed, then the trolls wouldn’t have gotten so angry, and then we wouldn’t be in this mess.” Here, the young man was quite surprised and daresay even startled to see that the little girl’s eyes were beginning to brim with tears.
“It’s fine, really,” he said in a hasty attempt to assure her. “Lots of marshals, even grownup ones scream when they’re scared.” Granted, a good marshal wouldn’t let out so much as a peep for anything less than a charging Ursa Major, but Sweetie Belle didn’t need to know that.
“You’re just saying that,” she pouted as she stuck out her lower lip dejectedly. “I always mess things up, just like when I try to help out Rarity.”
“I’m sure it’s not that bad,” Graves offered.
“One time, I wanted to make Rarity breakfast in bed, but I ended up burning it all.”
“Even the juice.”
The taciturn soldier sat there for a moment, unsure of how to respond. I mean, what could you say to that? How the hay does one even burn juice? But as he saw the dark cloud steadily growing over Sweetie Belle’s head, he figured he had to do something, say something to cheer her up...
“Once,” he began slowly as a particularly silly idea began to form in his head, “when I was training for the marshals, I thought I’d go and practice against a gorgon.”
“A what now?” Sweetie Belle asked.
“Gorgon. Big bull with scales that breathes fire.”
“Right. Anyway, there’s one corralled on base, so I go there and try to tag its flank with a shot. Problem was, I forgot their scales reflect a good bit of magic.”
“What happened?” the little girl asked, her formerly teary eyes now full of curiosity.
“As luck would have it, one of the captains comes by right then. I shoot a fire bolt at it, but it bounces clean off and tags the captain square in the butt.”
“No way!” she gasped, her shock quickly followed by a stifled giggle. Graves couldn’t help but grin as well.
“Set his britches on fire,” the young man confirmed with a nod of his head. “I tell you, I never saw a man jump as high as that captain did there and then.”
“So what happened?”
“Spent the next month elbow deep in dishes,” Graves smiled wryly. “For ‘gross negligence’ and ‘severe damage to a commanding officer’s posterior’.” Sweetie Belle couldn’t help but giggle again, only this time with unrestrained, childish amusement. After all, what kid doesn’t laugh about stories involving fire and butts?
“Point is,” the marshal continued, “people aren’t perfect, not even marshals. What’s important isn’t that you never make a mistake, it’s that every time you do, you learn from it and become a better person. Got it?”
“Got it,” Sweetie Belle smiled, tears now dry and long forgotten. “Thanks, Mister Graves.”
He gave her a gentle pat on her cotton candy head.
“Don’t mention it.”
“I really am sorry about the screaming, though,” the little girl apologized yet again. “I guess I made your job a lot harder, huh?”
“Like I said,” Graves shrugged, “we’ll figure something out.”
Though to be perfectly honest, he really didn’t know what to do. It really did take a good bit of magic to take down a fully grown mountain troll, and accumulating that kind of magic took either lots of time or exponentially more effort to rush it. Problem was that with so many trolls running loose, neither was really an option. Maybe he could run and gun them down one by one, but having a small child in tow made that highly doubtful. Perhaps if he dropped her off back in Ponyville? But what if the trolls followed him?
“Ooh, ooh, I have an idea!” Sweetie Belle exclaimed, breaking the marshal’s train of thought. “What if we chased them into a cave and block it up with big rocks?”
“Not enough time,” Graves replied.
“Sing a lullaby and put them to sleep?”
“They’d probably squish us first.”
“Sic a dragon on them?”
“Where would we even get a dragon?”
“Oh, right.” Sweetie Belle lapsed back into silence, her little brain churning away furiously, trying to figure out a plan. “Ooh! What if we dug a hole? Like, a really, really big hole and pushed them in?”
Graves just stared at her blankly.
“Wait, no, that wouldn’t work,” the little girl said, wilting at the marshal’s lack of response. “It would have to be a really, really big hole, like a crater or something.” Here, Graves’s eyes widened.
“Or maybe,” Graves continued, an idea slowly dawning on him, “a gorge.”
“Miss Sweetie Belle,” he said, standing up and offering her a helping hand, “how good are you at annoying people?”