Thighbiter Grizzleaxe surveyed the cavern full of soldiers and felt his heart swell with pride. Because they were orcs, the soldiers slouched to attention rather than standing, and their rows were definitely not ruler-straight — but they were trying, and that was the important thing.

Thighbiter cleared his throat, and the murmuring died down. “My fellow orcs!” he shouted, and had to pause until a ragged cheer quieted. “Today is a momentous day. We now have a plan to drive the elves away from our mountain forever!”

The cheering this time went on for several minutes, booming off the cavern’s ceiling so that it sounded as though the mountain itself was cheering too. Thighbiter grinned. He continued, “Tomorrow at dawn, we will send a hand-picked band of soldiers to the eastern gate with one of our best wizards, to take the elves by surprise — ”

“Oh, you think you can take the elves by surprise?” a voice called from the crowd. “I bet you can’t even find the elves, much less surprise them.”

Thighbiter glared in the direction of the voice. The soldiers were all looking around and glaring too, trying to figure out who had spoken. “Yes, we’ll surprise the elves. They won’t expect us at dawn. We’ll wait until the first rays of sunlight — ”

“Oh, brilliant, get everyone blinded by the sun so they can be killed easier. Great strategy!” The voice laughed.

“Now just listen a moment — ” Thighbiter began, but his advisor nudged him.

“Sir, we have a troll,” he muttered.e

Thighbiter took a deep breath to calm himself down. A troll, of course — the little buggers crept in all the time. He announced, “Any trolls in the cavern will be slaughtered and eaten for breakfast.”

“If you can catch a troll,” the voice called. It had moved, headed for the exit.

At least it would be gone soon. Thighbiter waited a moment, but before he could gather his thoughts enough to continue his speech, a scrimmage broke out near the back of the cavern.

He watched the knot of soldiers, afraid they’d begun fighting among themselves, but a few minutes later it broke up. Two big orcs plowed through the crowd with a struggling figure between them.

They shoved their captive up the steps onto the dais. He was a runt of a troll, elf-skinny but with a troll’s belligerent gray face. As Thighbiter watched, the troll flickered through half a dozen magical disguises, mimicking the orcs around him.

“Does your father know you’re here?” Thighbiter said.

“Sure he does,” the troll said. “He lets me do anything I want. Today he told me I should get some practice out here with the stupid orcs, but I’m going to tell him it’s too easy.”

Thighbiter controlled his temper with an effort. Trolls were just an annoyance if you didn’t let them get to you; if you did, you’d end up fighting other orcs while the troll stole everything it could get its hands on.

The troll said, “My dad says everyone in the mountains laughs at Thighbiter’s soldiers, because they let the elves take the eastern and the western gates — ”

“That’s enough!” Thighbiter shouted. He took another deep breath and said more quietly, “You can leave now, or we can eat you. Your choice.”

The troll puffed his scrawny chest out and flicked to a new disguise — Thighbiter himself. It was like looking into a mirror. “Eat who?” the troll said in Thighbiter’s voice, and laughed nastily.

Thighbiter glared, but a thought struck him suddenly. “Can you make yourself look like anything?”

In answer, the troll imitated a rock, a cave rat, and a naked she-orc in quick succession before returning to his own form. “Jealous? I’m glad I’m not an orc, you can’t do anything — ”

“Stow it, troll.” Thighbiter thought of the elf armies camped at both mountain gates. He thought of how he hated elves — the smug way they skewered orcs on their sun-forged blades, their self-satisfied battle cries, their serried ranks of impeccably dressed soldiers. He thought of what would happen if a troll got in among them.

He grinned and put his arm around the troll’s skinny shoulders. “Tell me, son, would you like to meet some elves?”

K.C. Shaw lives in East Tennessee.  Her stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies.

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