The troll lived in a decaying hole among the mountains. He had been terribly wicked in his youth; wreaking havoc among the villages below, catching unwary travelers in his nasty traps, and generally being as disagreeable as possible. But he was old. The antics of his youth no longer amused him.
He thought – now – that he should have been more discerning in his havoc wreaking. Perhaps he might still enjoy it. But his own wickedness was nothing more than a dull repetition of heinous events, the past replaying itself in his mind, usually as he lay down at dawn, safe within his hole, surrounded by the trinkets of the dead. Such thoughts used to put him right to sleep. But of late he found himself still lying awake as the sun crept up over the mountain, thinking of all he had done, unable to sleep.
Was it a change of heart or merely age? Or had he done too many horrible things for one more to have any effect other than to leave him with a vague feeling of discontent?
At night instead of terrorizing the passes he rearranged his hole, sweeping the floor free of stones, dusting the cobwebs from the darkened ceilings, and shaking his furs out. The traps he set caught nothing more than his dinner, roasted on the narrow ledge, which overlooked the valley below.
From this perch he could see the road twisting up from the foothills into the frosty crags, watch as travelers made their wary way. At times their pointless fright was more amusing than any real attack might have been, though he often wished he could see their faces when they reached the other side. He would've liked to see the relief etched in their cold features, their frosty breath coming out in one long thankful sigh.
But it was too cold in the peaks and he could imagine it easily enough without having to see it. Besides, he was old, too old to be traipsing about for the simple sight of hope realized.
So he watched them as they went, amused by their backward glances, the white knuckled grips on the hilts of their swords and knives, and the silently mouthed prayers to whatever gods they believed in.
Then he would slip back inside his hole, surveying its lovely darkness, admiring the trinkets in their niches, and wishing – occasionally – he had someone to share it with.
Of course, the time for that was long past. He'd been too busy to think of a mate, never dreamt a time would come when he might want one. Certainly he never guessed the time would come when the thrill of fear and loathing would not – could not – satisfy him. And now, so many years later, it was too late. Why? How? When did this happen?
But there was no one there to ask, no one but the bats, and they never spoke to him. They spoke of him; that much he felt in his bones. But while content to share his hole they had no intention of sharing conversation. To them he was simply another inhabitant; no more or less important than the spiders he periodically swept away.
Sometimes he could hear the humans in the village below, but if they spoke of him at all it was with old fear. Most knew nothing more of him than what their ancestors had told them, nothing that could tell him what he might want to know. Once or twice their fear had turned to rage and they had come up into the mountains, intent on finding him and killing him. But though they passed close by his doorstep they never found the way in. Later, after they had gone, he followed close behind, picking off one or two of their number, striking anew their terror. But that had all happened a long time ago, and now they did not think about him much, only used him to scare their children into obedience.
Occasionally he considered going down to remind them of his presence. But such thoughts no longer had the power to rouse him. Instead he would close his eyes and listen to the moonlight and the grass singing of wild rain and fairies. And then – because thinking of fairies always put him in a contemplative mood – he would wander about his craggy back yard and wonder, just how long would he live? Was he very old for a troll? He had no idea. No one had ever told him.
Like all trolls he had been abandoned shortly after his birth, left beneath the shadow of the mountain to live or die. He remembered that, in a dim sort of way, remembered the worn face of his dam as she set him down in a cushion of snow. No words were spoken, but he felt her thoughts in his tiny bones – the way it is, always has been, always will be – and the fainter thought, nearly buried beneath so many others: hope; for his survival, a long life, and a mate to keep him company in his old age. And then his sire's voice, gruff and snarly – Come away now. And then they were gone, leaving him in the cold snows of the mountains, wolves howling in the distance, and the wind shivering over his naked form.
Well, he thought, she had gotten two of her hopes. He had survived (the wolves had not). And he was old.
Trouble was, he didn't feel old, at least, not in the way humans did. He was still quick and clever, still had that yellow gleam in his eye, could see clear down to the valley and hear the eagles in their aerie high above him. He had no aches or pains and could easily remember what he had for supper two nights ago: three rabbits, a pheasant, five trout, and a wayward goose. No, the only difference was this curious change of heart, this odd lack of interest in his old pursuits, the total absence of any desire to instill that old terror upon the populous below.
Maybe he was older than he thought.
In the village below a pall of death hangs over the chapel. The wind is cold and damp, crying down from the mountains in whoops and gales. Only two have come to see an old man in his grave; one, the parson, wrapped in black cloth to sing the song of the dead in his whispery voice, a song barely heard for the wind. The other does not care to hear it. He has heard it before. He knows how it goes. He waits, his cloak billowing out behind him like a black winged bird.
The parson snaps his book shut and bends down to grab a handful of earth. He throws it into the grave. Black on white. The winding sheet shrouds the old man in its stark, eternal embrace. The parson rises, opens his mouth to speak. But the dark face forbids it, the black eyes want nothing more of him and he turns away without a word.
The young man takes up the spade. It is raining before he has finished, a hard pelting rain that slants down from a wretched grey sky. He kneels and thinks: there should be a marker, something more than the grave to remind him who the old man was. Perhaps he would make one. The old man deserved that much.
He reaches down to the sodden ground, touching it, feeling a terrible urge to dig it all back up and take the old man home where he belonged. Wake up! He would say. You've slept enough! But of course, he would do no such thing. They would all think him mad and the parson would be the first to say so. Not that he cares much what they say about him. He has heard their back-sided whispers too often to be bothered by them now. Besides, the urge is an irrational one. The old man will not wake up.
He rises then, brushes the dirt from his clothing, blinded for a moment by the rain in his eyes. Or is it tears? He does not know, stumbles forward, the wind wailing down from the mountains, whipping wildly through the sodden grass.
The lane winds up away from the chapel, away from the village nestled in the shelter of the valley, into the untamed foothills beneath the mountains. The ground is broken and soft, rutted with the tracks of a thousand wagons. Sparse grass clings tenuously to a hillside littered with rocky crags and fir trees. A second narrower track leads into a small clearing, and there, beneath the shadow of the mountain, stands a stone cottage.
It is dark now, dark and cold within, still smelling of the morning's dying. He lights the lamp on the table – a table the old man made – and then the fire. He strips before it and wraps himself in a blanket woven of goat hair and dyed three shades of red. He closes his eyes, listening to the wind and the rain howling about the place.
He should do something, he thinks.
Perhaps he would just go, away from here, away from this place, which will only remind him at every turn how empty and silent it is. But where? He has never been anywhere, only heard the gossip of travelers and peddlers.
He opens his eyes and they fix on the sword above the mantle. It is an ancient weapon, hand wrought in a time when a man made his own weapons if he wanted them. It is not pretty, less so now with the years upon it. But the old man liked it, especially when questioned as to its origins.
'Oh, that,' he would say with a pleased smile, 'that was my grandsire's sword. Took it into the mountains he did, went after that troll.'
And this of course would prompt the tale, a tale the old man never tired of telling. It was never quite the same. Sometimes the troll took the whole party - except for the old man's grandsire. Sometimes the troll never took a one and was chased off. The truth lay somewhere in between.
There would be a chuckle or two, or maybe, if the listeners were still young enough not to have heard the tale in all its variations, a question: what happened to the troll? Is it still there?
The answer varied, according to whim and mood. As far as the old man was concerned a teller reserved the right to embellish his own tale as he saw fit. Once though, when there was no audience to entertain, he had asked the question.
'I expect he's still up there,' the old man had said, glancing up at the snowy peaks, 'waiting maybe, biding his time. But he'll be down again. They get a taste for a place sometimes.'
He wonders if it is true.
Part of him hopes it is and he almost wishes the troll would come down. He can think of a number of people who would make a nice tasty meal.
Probably wasn't any troll up there anyhow, he thinks, probably the old man just liked to tell tales.
The fire begins to die, slumbering into embers, hissing and popping as it goes. He climbs the ladder to the loft, burying himself in the blankets, knowing he could take the old man's bed but unable to do so.
He dreams. Of the troll.
In the dream the troll is big and ugly, with a great protruding nose and a knobby chin. His fingers are thick and stubby, with long yellow nails and when he grins he reveals an uneven set of sharp teeth. He lumbers down from the mountain, roaring through the village, snatching a child here, an old woman there, ripping them apart with a gleeful howl. He leaves a trail of blood in his wake and the young man follows it up into the mountains, past the snow line, and into a narrow crevice.
It is dark and he fumbles his way forward, tripping over unseen rocks, brushing against the cold stone of the walls, following a trail he cannot see. He climbs what seem to be stairs but are too rough and uneven to be anything so refined. The walls grow tight and wide at intervals, the passageway twists and turns, ending abruptly as it opens onto a great cavern hung with stalactites and bats. The troll is there, standing on a ledge with his back to the passageway. The young man rushes forward with his sword raised, hacking off the troll's head in one fell swoop.
When he comes down with the head the villagers cheer. Men slap him on the back and offer to buy him an ale. The parson blesses him. A pretty girl kisses his cheek. They mount the head on a stick and build a fire about its base. And while the flames rise up into the crisp night air they dance.
Morning. The first pink light of dawn creeps in under the eves. He wakes and gathers the blankets about him, exhaling a frosty plume of breath. The fire has gone to ash below, leaving nothing but blackened embers sitting in a bed of grey.
He looks up at the sword above the mantle and trembles, remembering his dream. For a long while he stares at it. The sun comes, slanting in through the windows, flooding the room with a warm golden light.
He throws off the blankets and dresses quickly: woolen shirt, leather jerkin, trousers, socks and belt. He takes down the sword from the mantle, buckling it onto his belt. He throws his cloak over his shoulders and steps into his boots and out into the morning's light.
He sets off with the dream still fresh in his mind, the sword heavy at his side. Walking becomes an exercise in balance. The effort warms him, bringing a sweat to his brow.
The road veers up about the crags, skirting the tall pines and firs. The mountain looms above, peaks swathed in a frosty mist.
He has never been up the mountain before and when at last he stops to rest, he looks back the way he has come. The village sprawls over the valley below, smoke rising from the chimneys. On the other side, low hills rise up from the floor and he can just make out the dark line that is the road south. He does not know where it goes and, pondering this, he realizes he does not know much at all. A frown crosses his face darkly and he turns away.
The sun is high when he reaches the snow line and the road becomes a sloppy track. The trees have grown sparse, still frosted with snow and ice, drooping under the extra weight. How far? he wonders, trying to remember the old man's tale. But there is nothing that recalls distance or time and he trudges onward.
A splash of red draws his eyes and he steps away from the road into the snow. Blood stains the white mantle, smeared in an ugly line across the crusty surface.
He follows the trail, a clear red spatter leading in the direction of a stand of tall spruce trees. But once among the trees the trail becomes spotty and he walks in circles before finding another telltale blot.
The wind has risen with the afternoon and the warmth of midday quickly dissipates beneath the shadow of the mountain. His boots are wet now and he can feel the cold seeping into his feet. Still he follows the bloody trail, climbing over snow-capped crags, beneath heavy branches, and through drifts that rise above his knees. His eyes are burnt and snow blind, and the trail withers to a careless drop here, a dribbled smear there. It ends abruptly at the base of a wall of grey stone.
He steps forward, looking wildly about. But there is nowhere to go but back. He looks at the wall again, trying to focus on the glassy surface. A line of black catches his eye, half hidden beneath the icy rivulets. It is an opening of some sort, but terribly narrow, surely too small for a great troll. He steps closer and a smell wafts out.
It is not a good smell.
The young man looks again at the opening. Is he too large? Could he possibly fit through so tiny a crack? No, he thinks, even as he tries to slip through, squeezing himself impossibly into the crevice. His breath pops out of his body all at once, as if he's been blown up and punctured. He looks back at the opening, still bright with the day's last light. His skin stings and burns. But he is – amazingly – in.
He looks about but what little light there is limits itself to the vicinity of the opening, revealing only a portion of the wall and floor. But the smell is there and when he turns away from the light it grows stronger.
He follows the smell as he followed the blood, carefully now in the blackness of this place, holding his arms out before him to feel his way. The walls close in at either side and the ground beneath him is littered with small stones.
He does not know how long he has walked but his stomach tells him it is long past supper. The air grows steadily colder until it is like the frigid air of dawn in the dark dead of winter. The passageway ends abruptly, the walls falling away. The moon has risen, casting a pale light over a cavern open to the night. The place reeks of something he cannot name.
The troll rose from the fire he made, leaving his dinner hanging above the flames. He turned away from the night, focusing his yellow gaze on who had come.
He was a young man, with wild black hair and eyes to match. Fear hung as dark as the cloak he wore over his lean frame. There was a sword at his side but the troll knew he had never used it. If he had his hands would have already gone to it. But his hands were hanging slack at his side, his body frozen in mid-step.
The troll had seen him coming, heard his labored steps. But unlike the others who had come, his thoughts were not focused on where he was or what he was doing. They were scattered and distant, tinged with grief and layered with questions. Among all these thoughts was that he would kill the troll. But it was not foremost in his mind nor did it hold the hatred and rage such a thought might. Instead, it was simply a single thought: I will kill the troll.
The troll had considered killing him. It would’ve been easy enough to go down and meet him on the snowy slopes, easy enough to kill this young man who had never wielded a weapon of any kind. But instead he had watched and listened until hunger gave him reason to leave his hole. As he hunted he wondered what might happen if he let the young man find him. Curiosity made him leave the trail of blood from the goat he'd snared. It was not an easy trail and even if the young man was able to follow it there was always his front door, a crevice so narrow no one had ever guessed it to be an entrance to his lair. The men below did not know much about trolls, had no idea what a troll could do when he set his mind to it.
But the young man had found the crevice, and though he had seen how impossibly narrow it was, some other sense told him it was indeed the way in, and he squeezed himself through, despite the fact that it was too small for him.
The troll had smiled at his surprise upon finding himself inside, felt his distaste at the smell, and listened to him fumble his way forward, deeper into the dark.
And now the young man was here, here in his hole, the first human being to have ever stepped foot in the place. The troll left his dinner to cook and stepped into the dark to have a better look at his visitor.
The young man steps back, his mind regaining control of a body frozen in fear. One hand goes to the weapon at his side, pulling the ancient sword free of its scabbard.
The troll does not move, simply watching him with bright amber eyes. He is big and ugly, with large rough features: a knobby nose, protruding forehead, and heavy lidded eyes. If he is wearing any clothing the young man cannot see what kind but neither does he seem to be without covering. Perhaps it is hair, the young man thinks, the troll seems to have a great deal of it. But why doesn't he move? Why doesn't he attack? Isn't that what trolls do?
'I've come to kill you,' he says in a voice trembling with his own fear.
'I know,' the troll replies, 'Do you think you can?'
This is not said as a dare but rather as an honest question and the young man hears himself answering in kind:
'I don't know.'
'Would you like to eat before you try?' The troll asks.
The young man stares, unable to respond, unable to comprehend such a question under the circumstances. The troll grins, and reveals an uneven set of blunt yellow teeth.
'I am very hungry,' he says, almost sheepishly, as if he knows how foolish he is to think of food but unable to help himself, 'and if I am to die I would like to do so with a full belly. Perhaps you will find it easier to kill me after you have eaten.'
The young man still stares. His mouth drops open stupidly and he wonders if maybe he is still dreaming after all.
The troll shrugs.' I think I will eat,' he says, 'you may kill me if you like – or join me.'
'But...but, why aren't you killing me?' the young man stutters, spitting the words out.
'I don't know,' the troll frowns, 'I suppose I should. But I haven't killed anyone for a long time.'
The troll says, 'I've lost my taste for it.'
'But that's ridiculous!' the young man sputters, 'You're a troll! That's what you do!'
'Did,' the troll corrects him.
The young man shakes his head, 'I don't understand.'
'Neither do I,' the troll answers with a sad sigh.
He turns away from the young man then, steps back out onto the ledge. He begins ripping off great chunks of meat from the roasted goat. Fat drips into the fire, hissing as it burns.
The young man watches in utter bewilderment. Then his mouth begins to water and his stomach reminds him he hasn't eaten.
'Will you join me?' the troll asks, glancing back at the young man, 'We could call a truce while we eat, if you like.'
'How do I know I can trust you?'
'You don't,' the troll readily admits, 'no more than I know I can trust you. But I am too hungry to think about it.'
The young man watches him another minute, his stomach rumbling, then he puts his sword away and joins the troll on the ledge. The troll tears a piece of meat off, handing it to the young man.
And for a short while the only sounds are those of the night: the occasional hoot of an owl, the hushed sound of snow slipping off the trees below, and the hiss and crackle of the fire. The sky is clear and dark, and there is a hint of a breeze brushing the flames from side to side. Sparks shoot up into the night sky, rising with the breeze before vanishing into the chilled mountain air.
'It is time,' the troll said, licking the last of the grease from his fingers.
'But...but I am not done yet,' the young man said.
'You are not hungry,' the troll said.
'What do you mean? How can you know?'
'I mean, you are not hungry anymore,' the troll said, 'I can feel it in my bones.'
'What do you mean 'you can feel it in your bones'?'
'I am a troll. We feel things in our bones. That is how I know that you are not hungry.'
'What else do your bones tell you?'
'Oh, lots of things. I know that your people are mostly sleeping now. Some are mating, some are thinking about tomorrow or yesterday, but mostly, they are sleeping.'
'They are not my people,' the young man muttered.
'No, they are not,' the troll agreed.
'Can your bones tell you who my people are?'
'No, my bones only tell me how people feel, or if there are goats nearby, or maybe if someone is coming along through the pass. That is how I knew you were coming.'
'You let me come.'
'Mmm, I suppose I did.'
'Curiosity? Boredom? I do not know. Maybe I only wanted someone to talk to for a while.'
'Then why don't you live with other trolls? Why are you here all alone?'
'It's the way it is, always has been, always will be,' the troll said, repeating his dam's words, 'of course, most trolls find a mate at some point, to keep them company.'
'But you don't have a mate?'
'I was too busy to think of it, and now...now it is too late.'
'I don't understand,' the young man said, 'Why is it too late?'
'I am too old,' the troll said, 'and there is too little time to explain properly.'
'I could...I could stay,' the young man offered, 'and you could tell me.'
The troll smiled, 'No, though I appreciate the offer. I think...no, I know it is time for you to do what you came here for."
'Kill you?' the young man whispered.
'But...but we've shared a meal, I...I am not sure I can kill you now. I don't even think I want to. I did...I thought it might make things different somehow. But it won't.'
'But it will make things different for me,' the troll said.
The young man shook his head, 'I can't. Not now.'
'You must,' the troll insisted, 'It is time.'
'Time for what?'
'Time for me to die. And you may find that things are different, though not in the way you imagined.'
'Why is it time now? Do you want to die?'
'It isn't so much that I want to die but rather that I have so little interest in living. I am very old. And now would be a good time for me to die. I have had a good meal and a pleasant conversation.'
'But I don't know how to kill you, or anyone! I've never even used this damn sword!'
'I know,' the troll sighed, 'but as long as you can raise it you can kill me.'
'I could help you find a mate...'
'No, no, no. I am too old. Too old to go looking and too old to care about such things. It is time.'
'Then go down to the village! They'll kill you. They'd be happy to do it!'
The troll looked at the young man, horrified.
'That would be dreadful,' the troll shuddered, 'to be killed by those who despise me. No, I would rather rot up here for a thousand more years than that. Better for it to be done by one who has some understanding of what it is he is doing.'
The young man rose, a tortured expression on his face, 'But I don't want to kill you.'
'I need to die,' the troll said, looking back at the young man with the same expression.
The young man rises, turning away from the night and the stars and the fire. He shakes his head. Madness, he thinks, to have come all this way for this. He looks back at the troll who watches him with amber eyes lit by the flames, gleaming, burning bright.
He is not so ugly, the young man thinks, not really.
'Very well,' he says.
'Thank you,' the troll sighs with relief, rising. 'I think I will look out over the mountain so that they will be the last thing I see. And maybe it will be easier for you not to see my face.'
'No, not easier,' the young man says, 'Nothing can make this easier. But look out over the mountain if you like.'
The troll nods and turns his back. The young man pulls the sword free.
When it is done the troll falls back with a wet sigh, his blood pooling about his head and neck. His amber eyes stare upwards, glassy now, dead things. The hair so thick and dark falls away like ash, flesh shriveling until there is nothing left but dry bones.
Down in the village below a cock crowed in the rooftree.