When Sona first came upon the velvet sack lying just beside the road, she almost passed it by after a quick and curious glance. But with a sigh, she veered off the path and knelt down to inspect the sack. It was partly hidden beneath a bush, and the velvet was the color of leaf and dirt, so it was no wonder that another traveler had not yet found it and picked it up. She lifted the sack and checked it for markings, a monogram or crest stitched into the fabric, or perhaps something a bit more subtle. With one hand, she raised the sack, as she waved the other before her eyes, casting a lensing spell that would allow her to see any magical markings upon the sack.
Indeed there was a magical mark, not on the sack, but on its contents. The sack was filled with gold coins, and they all bore the scrawling scratching mark of a claim in a script she could not read, but recognized at once. The script of the trolls.
Sona pushed down a surge of panic that rose within her. She whipped her head about to check for any interlopers. Finding none about, she then looked at the sack and frowned.
If the coins were marked by a troll, they had surely been stolen from their rightful owner. A trickle of anger began to seep past the panic. For Sona knew a thing or two about having what was rightfully hers stolen from her. She had left behind just such a defeat in the western city. She was heading home empty-handed, when she should have been carrying riches worth as much as what was in the very sack she held.
Sona was the eldest daughter, and she had spoken—sometimes even boasted—of her great ambition to be a master mage. And yet, after all that she had studied, and all the tests that she had born and passed, and the good work she had done with the magic she had learned, the ultimate reward had been awarded to another.
Many told her that she should have won the reward. Many others told her that it was not yet time for an eastern mage to be granted any prizes in the western city. Sona herself had been confused. She would not have been if she had failed any of the tests, or if she had proven herself unreliable, self-serving, wicked, or even just foolish. But she had done well. She had channeled her own joy through her spell-casting.
She decided then that she would find the true owner of the treasure. Once she found them and restored to them what was theirs, the troll’s claim would vanish. (And if it didn’t, Sona was determined to help by trying a few tricks she had learned in her seven years of study.)
She tried first every home she passed along her way. But none claimed the coins and none could tell her whom they belonged to. When Sona first approached a doorway, she did not know how she would be greeted. Some were kind and cordial. Some were indifferent. Some were suspicious. But after showing the coins, all turned anxious, anxious to have her be on her way. Sona could have sworn that even without any magical lenses to reveal the troll’s mark, the people in the surrounding lands seemed to know that there was something undesirable about the coins.
And most did not tell her why they seemed so anxious, even when she gently asked. She did encounter one old healer, living by herself in her retirement, who warned Sona to discard the treasure, somewhere it could not be found by another.
When Sona asked why, the old healer only glared at the velvet sack and said, “It’s trouble.”
Even when Sona revealed that she was a practiced mage, capable of protecting herself from most common dangers (it was, in fact, why she was traveling alone and on foot), the woman was unimpressed, and insisted that Sona leave the coins be. And she would not take the velvet sack when Sona offered it to her.
Neither did the young shepherd she came across upon a hill a few days later. He was of the opinion that Sona should keep the treasure. For he could have done wonders with it had he come upon himself. But he deemed Sona the rightful owner of the coins now.
When Sona revealed that she was a practiced mage, his eyes grew wide, and proclaimed that it was all the more reason for Sona to keep the coins.
When Sona asked why, the young shepherd only gazed at the velvet sack and said, “It’s treasure.”
Upon entering the next town, Sona went to the office of the constabulary, and inquired on reports of any thefts. She kept the velvet pouch hidden at first, a part of her worrying that if she presented it, then the constable would take it from her—report or no report—or worse, he might suspect her of the theft. But after the constable asked question after question, each more specific than the last, Sona produced the velvet sack. She warned that there a troll mark on the coins. And she expected the constable to reach over—perhaps after a suspicious or disapproving glance at her—and take the velvet sack, thank her for being an honest citizen of the realm, and dismiss her.
Sona felt equal parts regret and relief.
When the constable said nothing, Sona began to turn away.
“Wait,” the constable said. She turned back to him.
To her surprise, the constable informed her that without a report of theft for the coins, they belonged to whomever possessed them. That was Sona.
When Sona smiled and asked if she should make a donation of the coins to the constabulary, the constable shook his head vigorously, and informed her that the constabulary of that town was honest and could not receive gifts and favors for their trade beyond the gratitude of their fellow townsfolk.
Sona peered at the constable’s eyes, trying to read beyond his civil smile.
But even if she were to place a hundred magical lenses before her eyes, she would not have been able to see or glean any more than she did with her own natural eyes. Such were the mysteries of the human soul.
So Sona took the velvet sack. And later that day, as she munched upon an afternoon meal in the bustling market by the town square, she let her thoughts wander and she let her mind wonder.
She had made honest—some might say painstaking—efforts to find the true owner of the gold coins. Sona had again considered abandoning the coins. But then she imagined herself returning home with nothing to show for her seven years of study save for what many would consider mere illusions of misdirection (as if such tricks were themselves so easy to execute). She imagined the disappointment of her parents, the indulgent support of her friends, the bafflement of her younger siblings. And the mocking of her rivals.
She went in search of knowledge. Most of what she knew of trolls, she had learned from childhood stories. Half of it was untrue, or partly true. And some of the reason for such disparate stories was that trolls—like humans—were a disparate people. Some were cowards. Some were bullies. Some were fearless. Some were dim and feckless. Some were bright and cunning. Some were large and strong. Some were small and quick. Some even looked much like humans, save that their eyes were of different hues, yellows and oranges.
Sona especially searched for knowledge pertaining to magical claims on treasure, especially a troll’s claim. Unlike curses, which took skill and practice to cast, magical claims were fairly easy. Indeed, they could be purchased at markets in the cities and even some large towns. Most such claims were meant to be seen, or at least felt even by those who did not see it. That could explain why all the people she spoke to had seemed uneasy about the coins. As she had suspected, though they could not see the troll’s mark on the coins, they must have felt something, some warning.
Sona was close to deciding that she would find some bog to throw the coins into, or some deep ditch to bury them in, when she came across a bit of knowledge—common knowledge apparently—that gave her pause.
Magical claims on treasure—if not properly locked in—would vanish if that treasure was spent. If the treasure was merely exchanged for more of the same (an emerald for another emerald for example), than the claim would remain. But if the treasure was exchanged for entirely different goods, or even services, then that claim would break and vanish.
Sona tested this with two of the coins. One of them she spent on purchasing all new travel attire for herself, including a dashing coat with many hidden pockets. She watched through her magical lens as she handed the coin to the merchant. She saw the magical claim vanish.
She next spent a coin to buy herself a ring, a band of five woven metals inscribed with alchemical symbols. She thought that perhaps the purchase of rings and jewels, being considered treasures themselves, might not break the magical claim. But she watched the claim on that second coin vanish as well.
After that, she had no doubt about keeping the coins. All she need do was spend them all, and the troll who had claimed the treasure would be foiled. Indeed, she began to wonder if that troll was still a threat. He might be long dead. Perhaps the treasure had been abandoned by one who discovered the troll’s claim as she had but had succumbed to fear and ignorance rather than seeking knowledge.
She tried too, to translate the message of the claim. It seemed a generic warning, and was signed by a name that was common among the trolls.
When Sona returned home, she would not lie, she decided. But nor would she reveal where she had gained the fortune she carried unless she was asked. In the absence of details, people would invent the details. And the most likely details people would invent was that she had gained the fortune by casting spells for a wealthy patron.
Sona could and would buy gifts for all those whom she loved and missed during her time away. This she did after counting the coins and setting aside the larger portion to take home. For her father she bought a variety of sweets and for her mother she bought a ruby ring. She bought five toys each for her youngest siblings; paints, brushes, and rolls of canvas for her artistically inclined sister; a rich cloak and boots for her traveler brother; a set of rare spices for the brother who was studying to be a cook; and a modest carriage for her sister who was the next eldest.
It was in this carriage that she road home.
The journey was long. It was to be seven days before she entered the borders of her home town. She stopped in two more towns. She picked up even more gifts, this time for friends and close neighbors. The carriage grew heavier. As it did, another burden settled upon Sona. A feeling that she stood within a shadow. In her dreams, she abided within a foggy darkness and a chill that seeped below her skin. The shadow was so vast that she could not run far enough to reach its borders, though she glimpsed light and felt the promise of warmth at the edges of those borders.
She cast many different magical lenses before her eyes to see the coins from every angle and check for any curses or traps. She found none. And when she took a few coins to a prestigious mage in the last town before her own, that mage cast spells far simpler than the ones that Sona had cast. Sona thanked the mage, paid her with the very coins that she had examined, and continued on her way.
Sona’s homecoming was a joyful one. All the more so after she stopped her father from paying the carriage driver, declared that the carriage she rode in belonged to her, and would soon belong to her sister, and was filled with gifts for all.
Sona laughed as her youngest siblings surged forth without hesitation and dove into the back of the carriage. She had envisioned presenting all the gifts in an orderly fashion. But her youngest siblings put an end to that vision. They pulled the bags and boxes off the carriage, as gently as they could, and soon with help from their older, more hesitant, siblings. As Sona had labeled the gifts to aid her own memory, the youngest ones were able to practice their reading skills in the most enjoyable manner, as they read names and handed off gifts.
Her parents held each other and watched, smiling cautiously. Her eldest siblings took her aside and asked her how she had managed to keep the fortune she was amassing a secret. She thought they would be suspicious. But they too were smiling, and far less cautiously than their mother and father.
Sona’s parents soon left their other children to sort out the gifts, while they swept their eldest daughter into the house, and insisted that she settle into their guest quarters and rest until dinner.
But Sona did not rest much after refreshing herself with a bath and a change of clothes. Her youngest siblings wanted her to play with them. She levitated their dolls and made them walk about. And she produced sweets in their pockets. Her father jested that she might help him lift a fallen tree from one of the paths they used to get to the nearby river. But Sona explained that her magic could only lift what her arms alone could lift.
That night, all ate Sona’s favorite dish of spiced beans and flatbread, complimented by various other foods and snacks, many of which she had brought herself. Her father had baked a rich caramel cake, of which—in his impatience at her arrival—he had tried a slice.
Sona had enjoyed her time away—save for those last difficult weeks—and she typically enjoyed time alone. But sitting at dinner with her whole family, she felt a cozy warmth and a familiar comfort that relieved that strange chillness she’d felt since claiming the gold coins.
Sona had planned on not revealing the true origins of the fortune she carried unless asked and pressed. Of course her own family would ask. And of course her family would press. She had expected it. She had even rehearsed various answers. Her family did not know as much as she did about magical things. She was certain they would first panic, and that she would not have time to calm them if she told them the entire truth to begin with. And yet, when they actually asked, she spoke none of the words she had rehearsed. They had no need to press, or even ask twice. She told them the truth.
A clatter of dropped forks and spoons sounded around the table joined by the sight of dropped jaws. Her eldest siblings stood and pushed their chairs back from the table.
“What have you done, Sona?” her mother said.
Her eldest sister’s eyes were wide and incredulous. “The troll will trace his treasure. Trace it straight to us.”
“The treasure doesn’t belong to him,” Sona said. “He took it.”
“If he took it, then it belongs to him,” her mother said.
“By that logic, it belongs to me now, as I have taken it.”
Her youngest siblings joined the quarrel.
“You plan to fight him off, don’t you, sister?”
“With your magic!”
“My magic does not work that way, little brother. Those stories you’ve read are all about combat magic. That is entirely different.”
“Then what kind of magic do you practice?” her eldest sister asked.
“And can it help us not be killed by a troll?”
“My magic is centered around…seeing.”
“Then why did not see that you would put your family in great danger?” her mother said. She rose and glared at Sona.
For a moment, all at the table were silent. Sona had time to think about what to tell her family about her skills. She was practiced in some defensive magic. But none would be effective against a troll. Trolls could not see past illusions, but Sona could not cast illusions. Her magic was centered around seeing past illusions. Trolls could not breach powerful shields, but Sona could only cast weak shields, at least by herself.
But even if Sona were capable of such defenses, she would not be able to maintain them.
“What if it’s cursed?” Sona’s eldest brother said. “What if the reason the coins lay on the side of the road is that someone tried to take the coins from the troll and the curse got them, and they dropped the coins to try and escape the curse. And maybe they did. Maybe we can do the same.”
“I did not see any curses on the coins,” Sona said.
“I have known you to be selfish, daughter,” her mother said. “But I have never known you to be so reckless.”
She called her youngest children to her, and they hopped down from their chairs and went to their mother as bidden. She placed her hands on their shoulders. “You have doomed them.”
Had she been younger, Sona would have felt scared then. Scared of the false calm of her mother’s expression, a false calm that hid a cold wrath. But Sona rose and faced her mother. Had she been younger, she would have reminded her mother of the expectations of greatness that she had placed upon Sona’s shoulders. It was those expectations that pressed upon Sona’s thoughts when she decided to keep the coins. And yet…the decision had been hers.
“If there is any doom to come, it will come to me,” Sona said. She took a breath, ready to explain what she had learned and seen through her lensed eyes, that the magical claim was broken on all the coins she had spent.
But her mother spoke first and instructed all the rest of her children to gather all the gifts that Sona had brought and set them back in the carriage. In the morning, Sona would take it all away. And she was not to return until she was rid of every coin and everything she had bought with that coin.
“Taking a treasure that so obviously belonged to another was unworthy,” her mother said. “But you have done even worse than mere thieving. You have cursed us all by spending the troll’s treasure on us. We are all tainted by the mark of death.”
Sona knew this to be untrue. Her mother was falling back upon those childhood tales that were so full of errors. And yet, when she met her mother’s gaze, her heart began to fill with doubt. It was a feeling that had been festering within her during her travels home. A feeling as soft as the pudding she had eaten, but bitter where the pudding had been sweet.
Her mother left the table and the room. Her father, with a sorrowful glance to Sona, followed, as did most of Sona’s siblings.
Her eldest brother circled around the table, where the food was still warm and fragrant. “She is afraid, sister,” he said. “But she will calm, and in the morning, you can speak with her again.”
“We will stand by you,” her eldest sister said.
“I will go now,” Sona said. “Mother will indeed be calm in the morning, if she learns that I am already far away.”
Sona was tired, but she had traveled by night before, and in a carriage, she would be comfortable. She would have to drive the horses herself, for she had dismissed the driver. But she had magical lenses that let her see at night as well as a cat.
She sighed and turned, but her sister gripped one arm and her brother the other. They insisted that she stay the night, that with their help, she would load the wagon much faster. They guided her, not to the guest quarters, but upstairs to her eldest sister’s bedchamber.
Sona woke early the next morning, but found that her eldest sister and brother too had woken and were ready to help her, not in loading the carriage, but in speaking to their mother.
But Sona began to carry the gifts she had brought into the carriage. It was a chill morning, still dark. She had eaten no breakfast, for she wanted to leave before her mother woke.
Her brother and sister did not stop her. They began to help her, and they remained silent. Sona expected they would make a final plea before she hitched the horse to the carriage.
So they were outside when the rider arrived. By the crest on his shoulders, they knew he was a messenger from the town’s western gate.
He dismounted and approached them, asking for Sona.
“There is a troll at the gates of the town,” he said, his breath misting before him. “He is asking for entry. He claims that he has followed his treasure here. The guards said that you asked them to send for you if a troll should ever come.”
A surge of panic rolled through Sona’s chest. She inhaled a gasp. What the messenger said could not be true. She had held the gold coins in her possession for a few weeks now. In the first days, she had worried, but the more time passed, the more certain she had grown that the troll who claimed the coins was long dead. But now, she did not know why she had thought so.
The messenger waited, glancing among the siblings.
“Tell them I’m coming,” Sona said at last.
The rider nodded. He saw that she was ready for travel. He mounted his horse and declared that he would ride ahead.
“We should run,” her brother said, finding his voice after the messenger left. “We can empty the carriage and put everyone in. Flee through the eastern gate.”
“We should fight,” her sister said.
Her brother shook his head. “We should hide. I can think of a few places.”
Her sister turned to him. “Perhaps we can reason with him.”
“You can’t reason with a troll. At what point are you reasoning with this troll? When he’s spitting poison in your face or when he’s dismembering you?”
“This is no time for humor.”
“I’m laughing in the face of certain horror and death, sister. Because soon I will be weeping.”
“I’ve heard there are some that can be reasoned with.”
Sona listened to her brother and sister try to solve a problem that they had not created. Neither of them mentioned what the messenger had just revealed, that Sona had foreseen the problem. That their mother was right.
A sudden calm descended upon Sona, for she had decided what she would do. It was not what she had intended. And her mother was not entirely right. Sona could and would ensure that no doom fell upon her family. But there was only one way she could ensure that.
Today is the day I die, Sona thought. But I will not do so before the eyes of my family.
“I will go out and meet him,” Sona said to her eldest brother and sister. “You two keep everyone here.”
She turned toward the shed. Her brother stepped before her. “What are you going to do?”
Sona looked up at her brother. “I have some tricks that might work.”
He peered at her with furrowed brow. She had not yet revealed to them what she had learned in her seven years of study. Her brother did what their mother had not done, and perhaps could not do. He trusted Sona and stepped aside.
“Someone should go with you,” her sister said.
Sona shook her head. “I was alone when I picked up the treasure. I was alone when I spent it. I will be alone when I reckon with it.”
Sona rode as hard and fast as she could upon the mare that was meant to pull carriages not race down icy paths. But the mare brought her to the eastern gates before an hour had past.
Without hesitation Sona nodded to the guard who stood before the small side door through which she passed to meet the man who stood before the gates.
He seemed to be a man, a tall man, and not even as broad as her father. It was drizzling and he kept his cloak’s hood upon his head. So she could not see his ears. But she saw his eyes. They were a vivid orange. For he was no man. He was a troll.
Sona did not give him her name. Nor did he ask for it.
He sniffed the air, and she wondered if he could smell the gold coins she had hidden in the inner pocket of her coat, the very coat she had purchased with one of those gold coins.
The troll too did not give his name. He only explained that a fortnight past, he became aware of a treasure he had lost some time ago. He sensed that the treasure had been found, for he had placed a magical claim upon the treasure. So he followed that mark and he came upon a town where he learned that someone had inquired about the owner of a velvet sack full of gold coins.
“I have come to reclaim my treasure,” the troll said.
“I was searching for the one who earned the coins,” Sona said, “not the one who claimed them.” She cast the keenest of magical lenses upon her eyes.
The troll took a step toward her. She noted the long axe that hung at his hip. And she heard footsteps shifting on the icy dirt behind her, the guards, ready to defend her.
“Claiming is earning,” the troll said.
“Then I claim the treasure for myself,” Sona said. “Indeed, I have already spent it.”
The troll grinned. “That is not true, else I would not still sense it nearby.” He narrowed his eyes. “But if you have spent some of it, then I will be content to take the things you have purchased.”
Sona narrowed her own eyes. She was afraid, but also puzzled. The magical claim on the coins was simply a claim. It could not be used to track treasure. And she had searched for any spells of tracking, any alarms. She had found none.
Perhaps I did not look closely enough, she thought.
Now, she did look, not at the treasure, but at the troll.
She focused and refocused her eyes, struggling to keep her breathing steady as the troll watched her.
When she saw them, she gaped. Fine glowing golden threads emerged from the troll’s skin and dropped to the ground. She traced each and every thread to the velvet sack in the inside pocket of her coat. She had not seen them before because she had not been looking for them. The golden tethers were slack, lying on the floor, because the troll was close to the coins. But the tethers must have been taut when the troll was in the west and Sona was moving eastward.
What have I done? Sona thought of all the coins she had spent. The tethers upon them would have led the troll right to the merchants and the artisans and others whom she had paid. Panic rose within her. Had he found all those people? Had he harmed them?
She pushed down her panic. She had to remain calm, so she could think. As she calmed, she remembered. She had spent a coin in her own town. Just one coin. She had paid the carriage driver. She had watched the claim upon the coin vanish. The driver was still in town, staying with friends who lived just across the river. If the tether remained even after the magical claim vanished, she would have seen it, a golden thread moving past her and through the town gate. But she only saw the tethers upon each of the coins in the velvet bag. And the troll had demanded all the things she had purchased with the coins, as if he had abandoned the spent coins. Or perhaps, he was untethered from the spent coins.
He can’t see them, she realized. The troll could not see the tethers, only feel them.
That was why he had not found the treasure before. He must have lived in the region where she came upon the treasure. And even if he traveled away from the region until the tethers grew taut, he would not have been able to find the treasure if it lay unclaimed on the side of the road. He only found Sona now because she had been announcing herself and her velvet bag of coins to everyone along her path. He was bluffing about sensing the coins. He must have been, else he would have fallen upon her and taken them from her. But he must have thought she had more sense than she actually had, that she had left the coins behind the gate, or with a trusted ally.
“Why are you tethered to the coins?” Sona asked.
The troll’s orange eyes grew wide, then narrow. “Filthy mage. Return my treasure now and I may not kill you. You can see your town guards are outmatched, can you not?” He shifted aside his cloak to further reveal the axe that hung by his hip. Sona could not tell if he was bluffing now, but she would not take any chances with lives of the town guards.
“It is not your treasure,” Sona said, her heart hammering, but her voice steady. She raised the velvet sack. “But it is not mine either.”
She turned the sack over as if to pour the coins onto the ground. The troll licked his lips with a warty tongue. The coins did not fall to the ground. They floated in the air, glinting in the first rays of dawn that shone from behind her.
“You are tethered to them,” Sona said. “You are compelled to follow them if they move away from you, aren’t you.”
The troll sneered. And he snapped his teeth. But his gaze did not leave the floating coins.
To do what she planned next, Sona needed to feel anger, for she needed the heat of anger. She thought of her mother, but she no longer felt anger toward her mother. She thought of the troll and his false claim to a stolen treasure. And though he stood before her, held at bay only by the shimmering coins that floated between them, Sona did not feel anger toward him either. She felt a restrained fear. It was only when she traced her steps back to when she first came upon the velvet sack of gold coins, and remembered why she ever deigned to keep them, that she found the first traces of anger.
She hadn’t earned the coins. She did not care about them. She may not have even bothered to investigate the sack had she not needed a reason to stall on her journey back home. What she truly treasured, or would have treasured, was the prize she had been denied, being named a master mage. That was a treasure and honor that she had earned.
The first rays of anger dawned within her. She harnessed their heat and channeled it.
She channeled the heat toward the coins.
The floating coins began to melt. The troll growled. He was a clever one. He knew what she was doing. He ran toward her, swinging out his axe. But something struck him. Sona glanced toward him to see a bolt sticking out from his shoulder.
The gate guards were defending her.
She took a breath and fed the furnace of her anger with the memories of another trying to claim the same treasure that Sona was claiming. Many weeks earlier. Sona had channeled her joy then. Perhaps she should have tried anger.
All the coins were melted now, and the flowing gold began to break apart into globs, then drops, and smaller drops.
The troll recovered and dashed toward her again. He dodged another bolt, then another, then was struck by a third. This one glanced off his leg, slowing but not stopping him.
Sona raised both her arms. The magical mark of claiming was still present, though now there were thousands, as many marks as there were drops, and the drops divided again and again, growing smaller and smaller, until Sona could not see them. And with each divide the tethers were split. There were millions now. The heated air formed gusts as it met the chill morning air.
Sona flung her arms out directing the gusts to flow through what was now a cloud of gold dust.
The dust was blown in all directions. Each tether was now thinner than a line of spider silk. As the tethers separated, the golden shimmer began to fade. Sona could hardly see them now, but she knew they had not vanished.
For the troll dropped to his knees and cried out. When he rose again, he shivered and clawed his hands, as if he felt a terrible itch upon his skin.
He glared at Sona. “You have made an enemy today.”
So have you, Sona thought. But she did not say so. Instead, she raised her hands toward him. Her anger vanished when she did. She could not have done to the troll what she had done to the gold coins.
But he did not know that.
Sona took a step forward. The troll took a step back.
He sneered at her one last time before turning and limping westward. Sona watched him go. She watched him shiver every so often, and she understood what affect that magical tether had upon him. He would not have done that to himself. She wondered then if he was merely a proxy, or a servant, sent by the one whose claim had been on the coins, and still lay on the gold dust.
She had risked her life to pour enough heat into the dust to make it so small that it would never land upon the earth again. She had feared that if even a speck of that dust landed somewhere, then some innocent person or creature might suffer the troll’s wrath.
But she now feared that she had made a greater enemy than the troll she had faced that morning.
Why, why did you take something that did not belong to you? she asked herself. What kind of fool tampers with a troll’s treasure?
“The kind of fool that still has much to learn,” she said to herself, gazing westward.
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel