An ancient rite for modern times.
Magellaneg’s legs ached. That was the whole point of the exercise, she knew, but trolls weren’t built to kneel.
To her left, Gallamemnit sensed her discomfort. “Can’t be long now, Mag,” he whispered. Cousins born mere weeks apart, they’d always been close—although they often joked that if there were any sort of psychic bond between them, it was a one way street.
“Shhhhh,” Yarkenissen hissed from her right, prissy as always. “You’re supposed to be contemplating the deeds of our ancestors.”
Mag returned her attention to the throne of bones set before them. The jagged monstrosity had haunted her nightmares since she’d first caught a peek at it as a young girl. The bulbous skulls grinning from the tips of its arms were the worst part. It was made of the remains of the tribe’s most accomplished members. Her grandfather’s knuckle bones were supposedly in there somewhere. Looking at it inspired neither awe nor reverance, but a deep dread of death. The thought of spending eternity as part of a piece of furniture didn’t seem like much of a reward for a life spent in dedication to the tribe.
Traditionally, the throne would’ve been kept in a place of honor in a troll longhouse, perhaps at the head of a formal dining table or in a special room reserved for important rituals. Here, in the modern world, the Renevarinein tribe kept their throne of bones in the dingy basement of the apartment complex they called home, around the corner from the laundry room and underneath a heating duct that clanked loudly in the winter months.
Would the bones’ former owners be disappointed in the throne’s placement, Mag wondered. She liked to think that at least a few of them would be impressed that the tribe and its traditions had survived at all. Such had been the way of all the troll enclaves hidden in human towns and cities: maintain what they could, sacrifice what they must, and ensure that the next generation had a chance. The sort of honor and glory pursued by ancient trollish heroes was as obsolete as the hourglass and the abacus. A fair trade, Mag thought, in exchange for safety, security, and modern conveniences.
But that didn’t mean there weren’t great deeds to be accomplished in service to the tribe—which was why the young trio had spent the afternoon in plain leather pants and vests, kneeling on the dirty concrete floor of the drafty basement in quiet-ish contemplation.
Mag wondered how her human friends in the complex across the street were spending their day. Reggie and the twins were surely up their ears in video games and snacks. Mrs. Warren would be baking up a storm and singing to her cats. Given the sunny forecast, the Hongs were probably at the park with the baby. It seemed likely that none of them were pondering the nature of their species and the deeds of their forebears in preparation for committing the remainder of their lives to a mission bestowed upon them via an ancient ritual of legendary origins.
Sometimes, Mag envied them deeply, which she knew was not a very troll-ish way of thinking. Humans were physically inferior, after all. Scrawny. Soft. Barely capable of opening stubborn jars, let alone defending their property and loved ones.
But at least they could show their true selves to the world, and leave their homes without having to hide under the protection of a cloaking talisman that made them appear to be someone and something they weren’t. Mag wasn’t allowed to leave the apartment building without slipping on the heart-shaped pendant that made the world see her as Maggie, a blonde human teenager with a mole on her nose and a love of dark clothing.
None of the trio noticed the matriarch’s approach until she stepped between them. Lenciellinir moved with a grace that belied her advanced age. Mag hoped she’d look that good when she turned 300.
“Rot, I hate sitting in this thing,” the old troll croaked as she settled herself onto the throne of bones. Tradition dictated that any who sat on that seat do so in the nude, but Grandma Lencie had allowed herself a plain white nightgown. She’d lead the tribe since the 80s; no one was going to object. Her favorite necklace of tiny pixie teeth hung delicately from her thick neck.
“Welcome, would-be legends of the Renevarineins,” she said warmly, her jowls quivering around the short tusks sticking out of the sides of her cavernous mouth. She pulled her gray braid down over her shoulder so it wouldn’t get stuck in the nooks and crannies of the throne.
“Thank you for having us, Beloved Matriach,” the three younger trolls intoned together. Mag thought Yarkenissen sounded a bit robotic.
Grandma Lencie dismissed their comment with a wave of her sausage-like fingers. The remains of the bright orange polish she’d let her great-great-granddaughters paint on her nails caught the fluorescent light. “It’s not everyday three such as yourselves insist on taking the Oath of the Selfless. I haven’t done one of these since ’85. Please bare with me, I’m out of practice.”
“I’m sure you’ll do great, Beloved Matriarch,” Gallamemnit replied. Normally that sort of blatant ass kissing would’ve earned him a punch in the arm, but Mag knew this was neither the time nor the place. Maybe later.
The old troll grunted. “I’m not the one you need to worry about here. You all understand exactly what you’re getting your young selves into, correct?” They nodded, but she clearly wasn’t convinced. “You—suck up—explain it for us, so we can all be sure.”
Gallamemnit perked up. “The Oath of the Selfless binds each of us to a mission in support of the tribe,” he recited as if reading the answer from a book.
“And how, exactly, is such a thing dangerous?”
“Because our missions can bring us into conflict with the Selfless of other tribes, and because the magic involved will kill us if we can not complete our task within a year.”
“Why, then, would we allow promising adolescents to take such a risk? Why not send them off un-oathed and unenchanted?”
“Because the magic of the oath grants insight into the means of completing the fated task.”
She paused to let all of those words sink in. Though this information was nothing new to any of them, hearing it there, in the presence of the tribe’s matriarch, with their knees throbbing and their backs sore and a life-changing moment looming, granted it all a weight that hadn’t been there prior. The mood in the room turned heavy.
“’Fated’ is a fascinating choice of word there,” Grandma Lencie said, wincing a bit as she shifted herself on the ominous throne. “Consider the process: each of you will be given a bag of ten tokens. After a short ritual to activate the necessary magic, you’ll blindly draw three of those tokens, press them to your flesh, and wear the resulting brand henceforth. The resulting combination of runes will spell out, in the old tongue, the name of one of our legendary ancestors, in who’s footsteps you will then tread. I have filled each of your bags with tokens I hope will result in one of a variety of tasks that will make use of your individual talents and benefit the tribe, but I can not guarantee the result will do either.”
Mag swallowed in a dry throat. Put that way, without the flowery language used by her teachers and in the textbooks, the whole thing sounded downright insane.
The matriarch’s eyes narrowed. “So I ask you: are any of the missions on which you’re about to embark truly ‘fated?’”
“Of course they are,” Gall replied immediately, incredulous. “What appears as random chance is in fact the invisible hand of our ancestors, joining their wisdom with your own to guide our paths.”
“Beloved Matriarch, I’ve been preparing for this since the day I stepped away from my mother’s breast,” Yarkenissen added. “What could have driven me so, if not fate?” A few options popped into Mag’s mind, but she kept her tongue still.
Lenciellinir watched them, considering. Mag felt the room constricting around her. This was not a discussion in which she was prepared to participate. When the old woman finally spoke, she about jumped out of her skin. “Magellaneg, what do you think?”
She flashed back to the scene that had led to her decision to take the oath, to her mother and father sharing a cup of tea at the little table in their three room apartment. They’d thought Mag asleep around the corner, but she’d sense something amiss at dinner and had made sure to keep herself awake. “There’s no money,” her father had said. “We’ve got six months before the bank takes the whole complex. The Renevarinein tribe needs a miracle.”
Were they meant to believe that their ancestors had the foresight to fix such a problem, but perhaps not enough to have avoided it in the first place? Mag wasn’t sure. “If the magic of the oath is truly random, then that is just cruel. I can not believe in such evil, so I believe in this, Beloved Matriarch.”
Grandma Lencie clapped her hands and cackled. “Wonderful! That is so wonderful, and insightful, and…naive. Which I think is why this ceremony is reserved for the young. Only those who have not yet learned to fear the dark can lead us to the light.” She looked past the three teenagers kneeling before her. “Rod, my love! It’s time!”
Once a heavily-muscled, towering specimen of stereotypical troll males, the matriarch’s husband was a bent shell of his former self. Gone were the bulging biceps, broad chest, and confident stride Mag remembered from her childhood. Seeing Rodnirellikib shuffle, bent almost double, through and around the complex was heartbreaking—and yet his smile never dimmed. That familiar smile warmed Mag’s bones as he set a small leather bag and a styrofoam coffee cup down before her. When he winked at her, she knew the runes would fall her way.
His task complete, Rod disappeared. The Oath of the Selfless had always been a private ceremony—perhaps, Mag suddenly realized, to minimize the chance that undesirable results would lead to conflict or even violence. Her own parents had not been thrilled when she’d announced her intentions.
“First, open your bag, reach in with one hand, and count the tokens inside,” Grandma Lencie instructed. “There should be ten. If there are not, I will correct that. If your bag does not contain ten tokens and you attempt to go forward with the oath anyway, your liver will melt and flow out into the world through your colon.”
“Really?” Mag asked in shock.
Lenciellinir shrugged. “That’s what someone said on the matriarchs’ Facebook page. Better safe than sorry.”
The little leather bag was secured by a slender string of the same material. The knot gave easily with a gentle tug. Mag reached inside with her left hand and fished around. The tokens inside were each the size of a quarter, made of wood and sealed with slick shellac. A tribe in Seattle had cornered the market on producing them. Supposedly they were popular among certain groups of humans as well, who bought them on Etsy.
Mag counted ten tokens and then let the bag be. The matriarach waited until each had finished before proceeding.
“The cup before each of you holds a carefully concocted potion that will facilitate the necessary enchantment. When you remove the lid, it will stink to the high heavens. Ignore the stench, pour the liquid into the bag, and then spit in it. Used to be we’d do this with blood, but self-mutilation isn’t considered PC anymore. Lucky for you, saliva works just as well. Get to it.”
Plastic scraped against foam as the three teenagers opened their cups. The stench hit immediately.
“Rot, that is nasty,” Yarkenissen said, gagging.
“That is the placental blood of a goat, blessed by the light of the full moon and quick burst of matriarch magic and left to ferment in natural yeasts,” Grandma Lencie said. “High quality stuff. Please try not to get any on the floor.”
Nothing in Mag’s brief time on this earth could equate to that smell, so she stopped trying to describe it and got on with the pouring. The dark brown liquid oozed out of the cup and down into the bag like maple syrup. The first step complete, Mag spat a gob of saliva down into the mess and cinched the opening shut.
“Very good,” the matriarch said. She leaned forward, setting her hands on her knobby brown knees. “Now you will take the bag up in your hands, close your eyes, and repeat after me.”
Mag lifted her bag gingerly, worried the putrid mixture within would leak out through the leather—but her hands remained dry and unfouled. Warmth and something akin to static electricity radiated gently outward from whatever was happening inside.
“Oh ancestors of mine!” Lenciellinir intoned reverently. She waited after each phrase for the others to perform the necessary repetition. “With your souls as my witness and your deeds warming my heart, I beseech thee: grant me insight into my destiny and the power to see it through!”
Mag knew the corny incantation had been simplified significantly over the years, but shouting it out in time with her peers felt great anyway.
She flinched in surprise when her bag began to move. If she hadn’t known better, she would’ve thought it contained a small animal desperately struggling to escape. She loosened her grip to avoid the unpleasant sensation. On the throne of bones, Grandma Lencie leaned back and grinned, clearly enjoying the teenagers’ discomfort.
The activity within the bag ended as abruptly as it began. Somehow, it felt lighter. Had its contents changed? Mag hadn’t been around much magic, but she was pretty sure it could do things like that.
“Open your bags,” the matriarch said. “There should only be three tokens inside. Dump them into your palm and then press them to your arm and hold them there.” She hesitated. “If there any of you have do not have exactly three tokens, we should probably run.”
They all did as they were told. Mag could not have been more relieved when three blocky white tokens spilled out into her hand, clean and dry and lacking any discernible aroma. She couldn’t read the blue runes herself, but she thought they looked sort of happy, in a way. She hoped that portended a positive result. She made sure she had a good hold on the tokens and then pressed them to her bicep.
White hot pain seared the skin of Mag’s arm where it touched the tokens. Each of the three trolls flinched, objected verbally, and dropped his or her runes. Grandma Lencie cackled. “Ah, that’s always been my favorite part!”
Mag looked from the tokens smoking on the floor to the trio of symbols throbbing on her dark green skin. She supposed this meant they’d done everything right.
“Yarkenissen!” the matriarch said imperiously. “Let’s see what the ancestors and I settled on for you.”
The summoned youth rose and approached the throne. He’d chosen to add a row of studs to the shoulders of his leather vest. A curved knife passed down through his male ancestors was sheathed at his hip. Even if Mag hadn’t known him to be a violent hothead, his desired role would’ve been clear: Yarkenissen taken the Oath so that he might become a mighty warrior. But if he got what he wanted, Mag wondered, would that alone be enough to make him more than just another thug?
“Let’s see who’s name is on your arm,” Lenciellinir said, raising a pair of bifocals to her face. “Ah, you’ve been blessed by Hornaringenstad, a mighty hunter who kept his people fed during a terrible blizzard!”
Yarkenissen swelled with pride. A hunter wasn’t quite a warrior per se, but he’d still get to kill things and show everyone he was super tough.
“Larla up on 7 has the rolly cart and the rewards card,” Grandma Lencie said. “I believe I last saw the rat spear with Rinx in 2B.”
“Wait,” Yark replied, “Beloved Matriarch…I beg your pardon?”
“Hornaringenstad fed his people so shall you!” When Mag realized the matriarch had just put Yarkenissen in charge of grocery shopping she almost burst out laughing.
“But…you said Hornaringenstad was a mighty hunter?”
“Have you seen the size of the rats we have around here? Were Hornaringenstad alive today, he’d also be a mighty hunter of beans, rice, and those grapefruits I like so much. The world we live in has changed, and the way the tribe acquires the things it needs to survive have changed right along with it. You’ll make a lot of people happy here, kid. Get to it.”
For just a moment, Mag thought Yarkenissen was going to explode. She sensed Gallamemnit tense beside her, ready to spring into action if the enraged youth dared to get physical with the matriarch.
“Yes, Beloved Matriarch,” Yark finally said. He stomped out of the room with his head down and his face red.
“Gallamemnit! Let’s get a look at you, dearie.”
He exchanged a worried glance with his cousin before he rose. Mag watched him approach the matriarch with her heart in her throat. What if Gall gets saddled with the violent destiny Yarkenissen was looking for? He’d always been a gentle soul. Would he go along with it, or just let his time run out and allow the magic to take him? She prayed to her ancestors that she’d never have to find out.
“You’ll like this one, I think,” Grandma Lencie said after examining Gall’s runes through her glasses. “This spells out the name of Bellerphondent, a matriarch who peacefully united three warring tribes under a single banner and established the first tribal congress. You’re on your way to Talvayne, boy, to join other representatives of our race in lobbying the Throne of Light on our behalf—a task you’re well suited for, dare I say.”
Gallamemnit looked back at Mag and smiled. As children, they’d always dreamed of one day visiting the fairy capitol. Supposedly it was a beautiful, dynamic city populated by every nonhuman race imaginable, ruled by a benevolent monarch and a beloved princess from within the majestic Palace of Light. Though outsiders owed the monarchy no fealty, Talvayne served as a central hub of trading and diplomacy for nonhuman communities across the globe.
Mag couldn’t have been happier for her cousin—or more relieved for her tribe. Having a direct line to Talvayne could certainly lead to a solution to their money troubles.
“I can stay for Mag’s, right?” Gall asked.
“Of course, child,” Grandma Lencie replied, beckoning her forward. “It’s my hope that we’ve saved the best for last.”
She barely felt her feet touch the ground. This was it, then: the establishment of the path on which she’d spend the rest of her life. It would be better than growing old and dying in this apartment complex. It had to be.
The matriarch studied Mag’s runes for what felt like forever. “Herschenvelt,” she said, a tremor in her voice. “Oh dearie, I’m sorry.”
Mag’s blood turned to ice. “What is it?”
Grandma Lencie leaned forward to read the runes one more time. “You’ve heard the legend of the Great Bhangoo?”
“He was a mighty troll warrior who defended Talvayne from Axzar and his demonic horde,” Gallamemnit said.
“Yes. And Herschenvelt spent his life traveling the world in search of the Great Bhangoo’s reincarnation. He never found what he was looking for, or even proved that it was real.”
“So…why is his name even a possibility here?” Mag asked, panicking. She didn’t know exactly why she needed to be worried, but the matriarch’s attitude had left her shaken.
“It’s a quirk of the various intended combinations. Very rare—and very deadly.” Grandma Lencie took Mag’s hands in her own. “I’m sorry, Mag, but we’ve never found a functional modern equivalent for Herschenvelt’s mission. It could be that you must find the Great Bhangoo’s current reincarnation yourself, if that’s even possible. But we know this: no one who’s taken the Oath of Selfless and received this result has survived their first decade on the job.”