Phineas Judd stared out the window. He swore and shook his head. Then he went quickly to the door and ran out onto the porch. In the cold moonlight a dim figure was walking slowly across the lower field, coming toward the house along the cow trail.
“Shadrach!” Phineas cried. “What’s wrong? What are you doing out this time of night?”
Shadrach stopped and put his fists stubbornly on his hips.
“You go back home,” Phineas said. “What’s got into you?”
“I’m sorry, Phineas,” Shadrach answered. “I’m sorry I have to go over your land. But I have to meet somebody at the old oak tree.”
“At this time of night?”
Shadrach bowed his head.
“What’s the matter with you, Shadrach? Who in the world you going to meet in the middle of the night on my farm?”
“I have to meet with the Elves. We’re going to plan out the war with the Trolls.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Phineas Judd said. He went back inside the house and slammed the door. For a long time he stood thinking. Then he went back out on the porch again. “What did you say you were doing? You don’t have to tell me, of course, but I just –”
“I have to meet the Elves at the old oak tree. We must have a general council of war against the Trolls.”
“Yes, indeed. The Trolls. Have to watch for the Trolls all the time.”
“Trolls are everywhere,” Shadrach stated, nodding his head. “I never realized it before. You can’t forget them or ignore them. They never forget you. They’re always planning, watching you –”
Phineas gaped at him, speechless.
“Oh, by the way,” Shadrach said. “I may be gone for some time. It depends on how long this business is going to take. I haven’t had much experience in fighting Trolls, so I’m not sure. But I wonder if you’d mind looking after the gas station for me, about twice a day, maybe once in the morning and once at night, to make sure no one’s broken in or anything like that.”
“You’re going away?” Phineas came quickly down the stairs. “What’s all this about Trolls? Why are you going?”
Shadrach patiently repeated what he had said.
“But what for?”
“Because I’m the Elf King. I have to lead them.”
There was silence. “I see,” Phineas said, at last. “That’s right, you did mention it before, didn’t you? But, Shadrach, why don’t you come inside for a while and you can tell me about the Trolls and drink some coffee and –”
“Coffee?” Shadrach looked up at the pale moon above him, the moon and the bleak sky. The world was still and dead and the night was very cold and the moon would not be setting for some time.
“It’s a cold night,” Phineas urged. “Too cold to be out. Come on in –”
“I guess I have a little time,” Shadrach admitted. “A cup of coffee wouldn’t do any harm. But I can’t stay very long. . .”
Shadrach stretched his legs out and sighed. “This coffee sure tastes good, Phineas.”
Phineas sipped a little and put his cup down. The living room was quiet and warm. It was a very neat little living room with solemn pictures on the walls, gray uninteresting pictures that minded their own business. In the corner was a small reed organ with sheet music carefully arranged on top of it.
Shadrach noticed the organ and smiled. “You still play, Phineas?”
“Not much any more. The bellows don’t work right. One of them won’t come back up.”
“I suppose I could fix it sometime. If I’m around, I mean.”
“That would be fine,” Phineas said. “I was thinking of asking you.”
“Remember how you used to play ‘Vilia’ and Dan Green came up with that lady who worked for Pop during the summer? The one who wanted to open a pottery shop?”
“I sure do,” Phineas said.
Presently, Shadrach set down his coffee cup and shifted in his chair.
“You want more coffee?” Phineas asked quickly. He stood up. “A little more?”
“Maybe a little. But I have to be going pretty soon.”
“It’s a bad night to be outside.”
Shadrach looked through the window. It was darker; the moon had almost gone down. The fields were stark. Shadrach shivered. “I wouldn’t disagree with you,” he said.
Phineas turned eagerly. “Look, Shadrach. You go on home where it’s warm. You can come out and fight Trolls some other night. There’ll always be Trolls. You said so yourself. Plenty of time to do that later, when the weather’s better. When it’s not so cold.”
Shadrach rubbed his forehead wearily. “You know, it all seems like some sort of a crazy dream. When did I start talking about Elves and Trolls? When did it all begin?” His voice trailed off. “Thank you for the coffee.” He got slowly to his feet. “It warmed me up a lot. And I appreciated the talk. Like old times, you and me sitting here the way we used to.”
“Are you going?” Phineas hesitated. “Home?”
“I think I better. It’s late.”
Phineas got quickly to his feet. He led Shadrach to the door, one arm around his shoulder.
“All right, Shadrach, you go on home. Take a good hot bath before you go to bed. It’ll fix you up. And maybe just a little snort of brandy to warm the blood.”
Phineas opened the front door and they went slowly down the porch steps, onto the cold, dark ground.
“Yes, I guess I’ll be going,” Shadrach said. “Good night –”
“You go on home.” Phineas patted him on the arm. “You run along hot and take a good hot bath. And then go straight to bed.”
“That’s a good idea. Thank you, Phineas. I appreciate your kindness.” Shadrach looked down at Phineas’s hand on his arm. He had not been that close to Phineas for years.
Shadrach contemplated the hand. He wrinkled his brow, puzzled.
Phineas’s hand was huge and rough and his arms were short. His fingers were blunt; his nails broken and cracked. Almost black, or so it seemed in the moonlight.
Shadrach looked up at Phineas. “Strange,” he murmured.
“What’s strange, Shadrach?”
In the moonlight, Phineas’s face seemed oddly heavy and brutal. Shadrach had never noticed before how the jaw bulged, what a great protruding jaw it was. The skin was yellow and coarse, like parchment. Behind glasses, the eyes were like two stones, cold and lifeless. The ears wer immense, the hair stringy and matted.
Odd that he never noticed before. But he had never seen Phineas in the moonlight.
Shadrach stepped away, studying his old friend. From a few feet off Phineas Judd seemed unusually short and squat. His legs were slightly bowed. His feet were enormous. And there was something else —
“What is it?” Phineas demanded, beginning to grow suspicious. “Is there something wrong?”
Something was completely wrong. And he had never noticed it, not in all the years they had been friends. All around Phineas Judd was an odor, a faint, pungent stench of rot, of decaying flesh, damp and moldy.
Shadrach glanced slowly about him. “Something wrong?” he echoed. “No, I wouldn’t say that.”
By the side of the house was an old rain barrel, half fallen apart. Shadrach walked over to it.
“No, Phineas. I wouldn’t say there’s something wrong.”
“What are you doing?”
“Me?” Shadrach took hold of one of the barrel staves and pulled it loose. He walked back to Phineas, carrying the barrel stave carefully. “I’m King of the Elves. Who — or what — are you?”
Phineas roared and attacked with his great murderous shovel hands.
Shadrach smashed him over the head with the barrel stave. Phineas bellowed with rage and pain.
At the shattering sound, there was a clatter and from underneath the house came a furious horde of bounding, leaping creatures, dark bent-over things, their bodies heavy and squat, their feet and heads immense. Shadrach took one look at the flood of dark creatures pouring out from Phineas’s basement. He knew what they were.
“Help!” Shadrach shouted. “Trolls! Help!”
The trolls were all around him, grabbing hold of him, tugging at him, climbing up him, pummeling his face and body.
Shadrach fell to with the barrel stave, swung again and again, kicking Trolls with his feet, whacking them with the barrel stave. There seemed to be hundreds of them. More and more poured out from under Phineas’s house, a surging black tide of pot-shaped creatures, their great eyes and teeth gleaming in the moonlight.
“Help!” Shadrach cried again, more feebly now. He was getting winded. His heart labored painfully. A Troll bit his wrist, clinging to his arm. Shadrach flung it away, pulling loose from the horde clutching his trouser legs, the barrel stave rising and falling.
One of the Trolls caught hold of the stave. A whole group of them helped, wrenching furiously, trying to pull it away. Shadrach hung on desperately. Trolls were all over him, on his shoulders, clinging to his coat, riding his arms, his legs, pulling his hair —
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