The Unicorn Curse

O friend, have you yet to meet
the unicorns in their froth-maned flock?
Hooves of onyx, fierce and fleet
and their hides pale white like marble block.
Fear them, O friend, and their gaze,
their eyes like pure-polished porcelain
that flinch not from brightest rays
or from any malign course of sin.
They look like frolicking steeds
galloping across the Springtime plains
alike to many horse breeds,
but they will suffer no mount or reins.
Suffer! To suffer, indeed!
For they bridle a man’s life instead,
as they did me, and mislead,
like a mug of witch brew to the head.
Their aspect is not equine,
but headed like babes but a year old,
and their hearts are not divine,
but unfeeling, cruel, deathly cold.
But what favor they show oft
to virgins who dare to travel far
to touch such a mane…pure…soft…
following Virgo, from star to star!
But what of virgins oft said
to be honored among these pure things?
Come, if you dare; lay your head
in their laps and see how their touch brings
a curse such as no man wants,
such a curse of loveless wanderlust
until ones memory haunts
the lonely years, one’s youth gone to rust.

Mariana’s Song

Another eve passed alone
and I ponder my cold bed,
the night air chilling to the bone,
the hearth of day dark…now dead.

Single candle, you burn low
on the window sill nearby,
your flame is small, your wax aflow
as the teardrops from an eye.

Do I fret the solitude
and its all-too-silent hours?
Do I linger in this dark mood
of a wine that quickly sours?

I take turns about my room
and recall your lips to mine;
and in that mournful midnight gloom
I can see the full moon shine.

It shines afar—ghostly wan
with the daylight it borrows
from a fickle sun that has gone
to happier tomorrows.

Away! Away! Flee you far
from whence you oft wished not leave;
you were as constant as a star—
now dew athwart spider-weave.

My looking-glass shines no more,
nor can it with thin moonbeams,
nor my eyes, nor my smile, nor your
gilded glamor in my dreams.

When I shine, now, I am pale
with the distant light of you,
you are memory of a tale
I tell myself: I love you.

Your scent no longer remains
nor shadows from your light;
I cannot clean these linen stains
of wine, and blood, red on white.

Offal’s Lessons In Manners

Offal, the court fool, speaks:

“A lord marked a swineherd at his morn meal.
‘How came you by such uncouth manners, friend?’
The swineherd spoke while he ate to his fill.
‘Manners are not so hard to comprehend.
My hogs have manners, too, which oft contend
with the highest lord ruling in his land,
for though they lay in the filth they expend
it behooves them to not use a hoofed hand,
their snouts deep in what they don’t understand.”

“The lord, astride his horse, snorted disdain.
‘You would do better to learn from your lord.’
The swineherd swallowed and, without refrain,
laughed aloud, eyeing his lord’s long, sheathed, sword.
He said, ‘I have learned much from my swine horde.
Indeed, they are not afeared of the blade
for they are too happy among filth, lord,
to know the blade till its kiss has been made
across the throat and their life debts are paid.’

“The lord blinked, confused at such unconcern.
‘Had you sense you would not speak quite so free.’
The swineherd did not flinch, but took a turn
around his sty, watching his hogs till he
saw the sow roll in grime and gunk and glee.
He then said, ‘Had you sense you would know how
filth can come out of either end of me,
but I find truffles well as any sow,
which I gift to you, lord.’ He gave a bow.

“‘You bring me no truffles!’ the lord replied.
‘Indeed, I think you hoard them for yourself!’
The swineherd smirked from ear-to-ear, quite wide,
not unlike a mischievous bogle elf.
‘Go to my larder and look at each shelf.
I am deprived of truffles, and of care,
for I have not your manners or your wealth.’
The lord dismounted his horse, haughty his air,
and went to the cottage to look in there.

“Meanwhile the swineherd went to the lord’s horse
and fetched the lord’s blade from the bridle’s sheath.
He said, ‘Oft one must be careful, of course,
for swineherds among hogs may come to grief
wherefore fallen—however long or brief—
they may feed their lessers with the fumble
for hogs rush to claim what others bequeath,
even if unwitting be the stumble.’
The lord came out, then, with a gruff grumble.

“‘I found my truffles, knave!’ he growled aloud,
his arms cradling truffles like a farrow,
but afore he could say aught else, he bowed,
his neck split from a slash, clean and narrow.
Away fled his spirit, like a sparrow.
The swineherd fed the body to his swine
and buried the bones beneath a barrow.
‘Ill-mannered hogs may begrime when they dine,
but they may yet end a royal bloodline.'”

The Queen’s Beloved Tower

Twas a queen in long agone times
whose husband was an old king
who ruled many lands, many climes,
and bound her with a wedding ring.

He gifted her a gemmy crown
studded with jewels all aglow,
yet the queen did but frown and frown
for the grave sadness she did know.

‘My dear darling,’ the great king said,
‘what ails you, my lovely flower?’
She said, ‘It is a matter of my bed,
for it is in a short tower.’

‘How doth that ail you?’ the king said.
And she answered, ‘Such short towers
bring no pleasure to those abed
in the lonely, feverish hours.’

So the king had his servants build
for his queen a looming tower
made of riverstone, in a field,
and in this did she embower.

‘Tis a fine tower,’ she remarked,
‘and nice, at its own modest height.
But,’ she added with an eyebrow arced,
‘Tis not so tall as is aright.’

So the king had more stones piled up
and the tower grew taller still,
the turret lofty like the cup
of a giant toasting his swill.

‘It is of adequate size now,’
the queen said with a blushing smile.
She raised a coquettish eyebrow
and bethought a wonderful wile.

The old king smiled, too, like a naif.
‘I am pleased you are pleased, my love,
and glad it is high, and, so, safe,
for tis like a bough for a dove.’

Yet the tower was now too high
and the king too old to walk it,
the steps making him groan and sigh
as his bones ached in each socket.

‘Will you not rejoin me?’ he asked,
‘for I miss you in my own bed.’
The queen said, ‘No, love,’ her face masked
with a smile rare since she was wed.

‘Husband, I am pleased being high
among the stars and the moonlight,
for it pleases me as I lie
abed and dream through the long night.’

She added, ‘Nor lonely am I,
but have my bard sing a sweet song
to put me to sleep, up so high
atop his tower—all night long.’

The king let be, happy his queen
was pleased and no longer forlorn,
and she was pleased, indeed serene,
coming to court happy each morn.

The Goblin Maiden

Behold the great goblin maiden
with her sharp nose spiraling round,
her ears long and her head laden
with curly white hair to the ground.
Her laughter is not like a harp
and her voice is not sweet honey;
her skin is green, her teeth are sharp,
and her large yellow eyes runny.
She does not enjoy any fruit
nor the fragrance of perfumed oil,
her nose is like a long taproot
seeking worms beneath the dark soil.
She snacks on fat bugs like bonbons
and slumbers in a bed of withe,
awaiting the oncoming dawns
in a swamp swarming with her kith.
Although no knights seek her green hand,
they seek her when upon their quest
through the soggy, boggy upland
to pierce her hungry-hearted breast,
for she steals the false hearts of men
with her glamor, cunning, and guile,
plucking the crimson meat out when
enchanting their greed with each wile,
with each pile of gold and gemstones
mined from deep beneath the peat bog
where men shrink to leather-bagged bones
and phantoms swirl in the pale fog.
Yet, come knights, come kings, come all priests:
they shall fail, shall fall, are thus slain
and gutted, in turn, like dumb beasts
in this butcher maiden’s domain.
For what are her truest treasures
except the skulls of foolish men?
What are her keenest of pleasures
except hearts overripe with sin?

Tangleroot, Chapter V

An Excerpt from a fantasy novel currently in progress.

 

CHAPTER V. Stones, Clouds, And Bogs

“Beware, Edmund. There is no stronger magic than the magic a wizard works upon himself. There is no stronger enchantment than self-delusion.”—Master Avon’s warning.


All poetry was fancywork. That was what Edmund thought (quite bitterly) as he walked across the heath in a general Eastward direction. He was staring down at the calfskin, reading the poem over and over again in the hope that he might come to understand it more clearly. Nothing came of this, however. He wondered, once again, if Master Avon was testing him, or having a lark at his expense. He had often been used for a laugh by the other squires. They told him at times that such-and-such maiden was asking about him. When he went to call on the maiden at her residence, the servants would fetch her, then return, telling him that he was not known at that residence. Edmund had fallen for this mischief more times than he cared to admit. Even when he knew he was being tricked, he could not convince himself not to seek out the maiden. Of course, the squires employed others to trick him as well. Even the knights had taken part in the chicanery, and laughed just as loudly as their squires when Edmund returned the next day, looking downcast and friendless.
The heath was vast. The night settled quickly, too, and the wind blew with a colder edge than in the Midlands. Edmund deduced from this that he was in the Northerlands. Thus, he was in the direction that the Black Knight took Princess Felicia, though Edmund doubted that Master Avon meant for him to rescue the Princess presently.
The sky darkened over distant mountains, and then overhead, and stars sparkled in the cloudless black dome. The night was moonless, however. There were shrubs aplenty along the heath, and pink-colored gorse, and occasionally larger trees that had managed to make a home of the vast solitude. It was beneath one such tree that Edmund decided to await the morning. He was not so cold to need a fire to be warm, but he did value its light. So, he conjured a fire and fed it some of the shrubs he gathered from the heath. Laying next to this fire, he fell asleep for a time.
He awoke late in the night. What woke him, he did not know. Not at first. Slowly sitting up, he looked out upon the heath. The stars were bright, but the starlight did not illuminate much of the heath. He did fancy he saw some of the gorse bushes trembling. The wind was still, yet the gorse shook anyway. He wondered why. He glanced about, then lay down closer to the fire. He was tired after a long, eventful day. He fell asleep.

It was a white night come the next morning. A thick fog blanketed the heath, reducing the sun to a white shadow in the clammy mist—more moon than sun—and sight was hindered. A ll things not within a stone’s toss were hidden. Edmund sat up and rubbed his eyes. The fire he had conjured in the night had extinguished. The cool air made him shudder, and not just because it chilled him. It seemed to cocoon around him covetously, as if it had been summoned from a witch’s cauldron. The sun was like a blind witch’s eye in the sky. Edmund feared he would see three witches approach him from out of the fog (for witches always worked wickedness in threes, as everyone knew).
Edmund stood up and stretched. Sleeping on the moor was no worse on him than sleeping on his mat at home. It had not been uncomfortable. What made him uncomfortable was the milky murk that swirled around him. He looked up at the pale sun and followed it Eastward, leaving the tree behind. As he walked, he peered at the calfskin in his hands and reread the poem. It did no good. No new meanings came to him. At length, he tucked the calfskin into the sleeve of his father’s tunic and walked with his eyes focused on the fog and the gorse.
At midmorning the fog parted, thinned, and then dissipated. Trees grew more frequent as he progressed across the heath. This did not comfort him as much as it should have. They were twisted willows with heavily-laden heads. Some seemed to swoon leftward or rightward, as if to fall, and some were bent doubly, as if groveling toward their own roots. The heath, too, changed. The gorse fell away, giving way to spidery grass and becoming soggier beneath Edmund’s shoes. Though the fog had parted, the sky was as much overcast as not. The mountains still seemed faraway and the smell of rotting vegetation grew. Edmund’s unease grew, too.
Edmund started to feel famished. He had not had anything to eat since the mushroom soup yesterday. Thus far he had not seen any animals except the occasional birds and mosquitoes, and a single heron flying overhead. It would not have mattered if there were deer and elks and sheep out here. Edmund had been raised as a weaver, not a hunter.
Still, his stomach would not listen to reason. It was empty and wished to be full. Having no other recourse, Edmund sat down on the grass and thought for a moment. Part of him wanted to tear open the All Ways, walk the path of the Betwixt, and return home. Obviously Master Avon had set him upon another trick quest. Much like with the books that proved to be less than crucial to his lessons, the poem must have been less than crucial to his quest.
Edmund’s stomach grumbled loudly. Such a loud complaint broached no debate. Knowing he needed to eat, Edmund spoke a spell, imagining the Betwixt and the threads on his mother’s loom. Shortly thereafter a cluster of mushrooms sprouted from the grass. However, he had been careful not to indulge the spell overmuch. The mushrooms were enough to feed him, and no more than that. They were also none of them poisonous. He then summoned another fire, gently roasting the mushrooms over the flame. He ate the mushrooms quickly, then stood up. It was as he stood up that he realized that there was a gigantic hairy hand outstretched toward him.
Edmund yelped, then leapt back. The hand remained where it was, straining toward him. The hand was as big as Edmund’s torso. The palm was peach-colored—not unlike Edmund’s own hand—but the hair on the knuckles and the back of the hand was thick and white. The arm to which the hand was connected was large and muscular and covered in white hair, also. It extended out from under a willow tree. The willow tree’s foliage bulged with the large figure beneath it. Edmund did not know what to make of the figure, for it was more concealed than revealed beneath the willow tree’s tresses.
Strangely, the figure could have easily emerged from the tree and overtaken Edmund, but it did not. In fact, the gigantic hand flinched back as a cloud parted above and sunlight speared through to lance at it.
“I mean no harm, surface dweller!” a voice boomed from under the willow tree. “I only need help!”
Edmund stayed warily away from the tree, but he did call out to the creature.
“How can I help you?” he asked, “and who are you?”
“Who am I?” the voice boomed. “I am Flint-Tusk.”
“What are you?”
The creature known as Flint-Tusk grumbled. “Have you no worldliness, surface dweller? Have you no etiquette? I am a troll!”
Edmund’s stomach turned to icy slush. He had heard of Trolls. They were, invariably, eaters of men. Though out of reach of the large hand, Edmund nonetheless took a few more steps back. He wanted to put the whole of the heath between them.
“Why should I help an eater of children?” Edmund said, turning away. “I must leave.”
“Wait! Wait!!!”
Edmund paused, looking over his shoulder. The troll had withdrawn his hand back under the willow tree. His bearded face peered out from between the spindly tresses of the tree. He had sharp features in an apish face. His tusks jutted out of both corners of his mouth, vertically, near his cool-blue eyes. There was a white mane from the creature’s forehead, flowing back to either side of his bearded face. The beard and the mane were divided and bound into two tufts apiece by what appeared to be golden bracelets. Edmund wondered to whom the golden bracelets had belonged before the troll had taken them..
“I am at your mercy, young surface dweller,” Flint-Tusk said. His tusks scraped against his teeth as he spoke, and sparks flew like fireflies, occasionally landing on his beard and singing it black here and there in places. “I had trusted too much in the fog this morning to assure my safety. As you may or may not know, trolls cannot endure direct sunlight. I was returning to my cave in the mountains when the sky suddenly parted. I flung myself beneath this tree, and here I have remained.”
“You sought breakfast…?” Edmund said. The realization that he could have been eaten dawned on him. He grimaced with horror. “You tried to eat me?!”
The willow tree shook with the troll’s clumsy form. “No, no, no! Indeed, not! Had I wanted to eat you, I would have eaten you. But you were too measly a morsel. I instead ate the bear that was sniffing about your campfire as you slept. Indeed, I saved your life, surface dweller.”
Edmund was overwhelmed. He did not know whether to believe the troll or to run away while he could. He took another step back and felt something beneath his shoe that was not gorse or shrub or spidery grass. Looking down, he saw a bear’s paw under his shoe. It was only a bear’s paw. Nothing else remained.
“You ate the fur, too?” Edmund asked, feeling disoriented. The world tipped sideways slowly, but he put his hands on his knees and breathed.
“That is the best part,” Flint-Tusk said, “besides the fat and the bones.”
Edmund steadied himself, then stepped away from the bear paw. “So you saved my life?”
“Inadvertently,” Flint-Tusk said, his tusks sparking on each syllable. A spark caught on the willow, and then the willow caught fire. “Oh no,” the troll said. “My cover is burning.” He tried to pat out the flame, but his words sparked more flames upon the willow tree. “I do not mean to hurry you,” the troll said. “But if you could somehow save my life, I would be forever in your gratitude.”
Edmund watched the flames wind up the side the willow, even as the troll attempted to snuff them with his big hands. The flames did not seem to bother the troll, but he was certainly squeamish about the sunlight, saddling away from the side of the tree that was burning away. Before he could stop himself, Edmund focused on the intermittent clouds, the Betwixt, and his own worded will.

“Clouds, become mountainous in the sky—
converge, overcast, spread far and high.”

The brightening morning suddenly darkened with clouds that grew thick and vast overhead. Shadows pooled and deepened all around the heath until the morning had become crepuscular in its tones and tints and hues. The willow tree continued to burn around the troll, but he still cowered beneath its flames until nought was left of it but blackened branches over his furry white shoulders. Flint-Tusk held his large hands over his head as if awaiting a pitiful end. After a long moment of cringing, he looked up, through his splayed fingers, and saw the clouds hanging heavily overhead. He lowered his hands.
“Ah,” he said, “you have saved me, magical surface dweller. Thank you.”
Edmund nodded. “You saved my life, too. It was only right that I should return the favor.”
“Indeed,” the troll said. He stepped out from beneath the smoldering remains of the willow tree, his white hair tinged with smoke. He was massive—far larger than Grenneth, Gwenneth, Stanneth, and Alfreth, though he certainly reminded Edmund of them as he approached the Apprentice. “That is quite some power. We trolls can move mountains, but could never aspire to move mountains in the sky.”
Edmund marveled at the feat, too. It was the most extravagant feat he had thus far accomplished. He wondered what consequences would be wrought from it, and he feared them.
“I believe they spread far enough that you may return to your cave,” Edmund said, looking at the clouds and their road toward the mountains.
The troll nodded, his giant fists on his hips, arms akimbo. Edmund realized, then, that the troll was nude, and so he looked away, embarrassed. The troll did not seem embarrassed. Being nude was natural for a troll, it seemed.
“Well, come along,” the troll said, starting toward the mountains.
Edmund lingered behind.
“What?”
“Come along with me,” Flint-Tusk said, tusks sparking as he spoke. “I have not yet returned to my cave.”
“Why must I go with you?” Edmund asked, alarmed.
“Because I do not trust mountains made of air,” Flint-Tusk said. “They do not stay still like mountains made of stone. They are not as trustworthy.”
Edmund looked from the troll to the distant mountains. He opened his mouth to protest, but realized that the troll had, in fact, saved his life. Thus, Edmund was honor-bound to make certain that the troll returned safely to his cave. After all, it was not as though Edmund was obligated to enter the cave; only to see that the troll entered safely. He followed the troll, but stayed beyond arm’s reach. They spoke as they walked.
“Have you never met a troll before?” Flint-Tusk asked.
“No,” Edmund said. “I have read of your kind before. In tales of heroes.”
“Surface dwelling heroes?” Flint-Tusk asked. His muscular large arms swung at his sides as he walked. He could have smashed a tower down with such arms. “We have been maligned by such heroes. Not all of us eat children.” He shrugged. “Only a handful.”
The troll shook his head ruefully.
“Grah!” he growled. “That really burns my beard! We are not all of us eaters of men!” To prove his point, Flint-Tusk’s gnashing teeth and tusks sparked a flame that caught on his beard. “Oh! There goes my beard again!”
The troll pinched his beard until the flames were wisps of smoke.
Edmund let the point rest. Instead, he tried to recall what he knew about trolls from the heroic tales and from what the Gran Stone knights had told the squires. Generally, they were big and strong and dumb. They ate women and children and babies. They had to be slain. Yet, Flint-Tusk seemed articulate and uninterested in Edmund as food. He was certainly big and strong. He had read somewhere that trolls were Elementals born from rocks. Flint-Tusk seemed born of rocks. The troll’s face was seemed to be made of h mountainous ridges forced outward, extruding in an apelike exaggeration. There was nothing soft of such a face, nor did the white mane render him cuddly such as it might have for a dog or cat. His tusks extended up from the bottom lip, past the upper lip, and its under-bite, and up past the shelved-brow with its beady, nearly blind eyes. The troll’s nubby nostrils were slits angled downward and inward toward the lips. All in all, Flint-Tusk was just what Edmund had always imagined a troll to look like, only he did not seem to act too much like a troll.
“What is your name, surface dweller?”
“Edmund,” Edmund said.
“‘Edmund’? That is a strong name. It sounds like…like…mound. Like…bed-mound. Yes, much like the mound of rocks we trolls sleep on. Your name makes me feel refreshed, Edmund. It makes me feel as if I am ready for a new night of hunting.”
“Thank you?”
“And where are you from, Edmund?”
“I am from Gran Stone.”
“Grand Stone, you say?” the troll said, mishearing him. “A fine name for a strong city! But I doubt it can compare to the glory of The Behemoth’s Backbone. And the sea surrounding it! The Behemoth’s Blood could drown the earth with its waters! If you could only see it! Wide and vast and red as virgin blood!”
“Is it real blood?”
The troll frowned over his shoulder at Edmund. “What?! No! Course not! There’s some kind of mineral there which reddens it. Also heals sick trolls, or so my mother claimed. We trolls are considered the children of the Behemoth, after all, along with giants and ogres and orcs, so it would only make sense that we could be healed if we bathed in the blood of our mother.”
Edmund remembered, then, that he had read or heard somewhere that trolls had been born of the great Behemoth; a colossal beast whose bones had been burned to stone by Mathara’s flames, and it was the body of the Behemoth that formed the land on which the World-Unfurled unfurled.
“What about goblins?” Edmund asked. “Are you related to goblins?”
Flint-Tusk’s white mane bristled at the question, his tusks sparking as his teeth.
“Trolls and goblins related? Those lichen-licking elven half-breeds?! No. No, we are not. Goblins are of the Unseelie Court. Us trolls are of the Behemoth’s blood…the Behemoth’s bloodline, I mean to say, not the sea, though there are some who think we may have come from the sea rather than from the actual Behemoth. Personally, I don’t know what to think. I don’t get up in the morning to ask big questions like that. I get up in the morning and want to eat something, so I eat something, or someone, then I go to take a nap, and so I nap.” He nodded at his own words, ratifying their wisdom. “Eating and sleeping. Yes, a simple life is always best.”
“I was wondering about goblins,” Edmund said. “They live in bogs, don’t they? Or swamps?”
“They do,” Flint-Tusk said. “The muck-sucking half-breeds.”
Edmund could see a swamp spreading to the East, beneath the mountains. The soil beneath his own shoes had become soggier. Trees grew haggardly up from the peat, like the broken, gnarled fingers of witches. Moss hung from their twisted branches.
“Perhaps…” Edmund said, “…perhaps I must meet with goblins to come to an understanding of something.”
Edmund stopped by the edge of the swamp, looking out over its expanse. The misty murk seemed to dissolve everything at the distance, from the mountains to the sky. Edmund wondered if even the sunlight could pierce the dimness of that teeming-cauldron of mist.
Flint-Tusk stood beside Edmund, looking out over the swamp. He was twice Edmund’s height, and tenfold his breadth.
“You might reconsider, lad. A skinny boy like you is but slim pickings for a troll like me, but those goblins will make a banquet of your skin and bones. Or at least season their broth with the skin of you. They are not picky.”
“I do not know what I am supposed to do,” Edmund said. “Master Avon sent me here, but I do not know why.”
“Master Avon?” Flint-Tusk said. “The Master of All Ways?”
“Yes,” Edmund said, not knowing whether it was good or bad that the troll should know him.
“So you must be his Apprentice,” Flint-Tusk said. “The Master has not had an Apprentice in a long time…not since Master Avon was Apprentice Avon.”
When Flint-Tusk saw Edmund’s look of astonishment, the troll chuckled. It sounded like stones grinding in the back of his throat.
“Yes, I know Master Avon. I became acquainted with him shortly after hatching from my stone egg. He knew my father—may the stones rest his bones—and he was always welcome in our cave.”
“Who was the Master then?” Edmund asked, curious.
“There was no Master then,” Flint-Tusk said. “There was a Mistress. Mistress Lorne.”
“Oh,” Edmund said. He was confused. “The tales never mention there being a Mistress.”
“There were several,” Flint-Tusk said, pinching another beard-flame to smoke. “Men and women both have been Masters of All Ways.”
“I know so little,” Edmund said, shaking his head at his own ignorance.
“Most mortals know even less,” the troll said. “Which is why I tell you not to go into the swamp. Goblins are not to be trusted. None in the Unseelie Court should be trusted. They are wily by nature.”
The troll glanced up at the clouds again, then hurried off toward the mountains. Edmund lingered a moment longer, staring out into the swamp. He then followed the troll.
“Trolls are of solid making,” the troll said as they continued their walk toward the mountains. “We are made of firm stuff, of stuff that is to be trusted. You can stand on stones. They are grounded, so to speak. Your peoples make homes of stones and things, and use them for protection. I cannot say I agree with doing this, but I must say that it signifies a certain trust of your people in stones. No such trust may be placed in goblins. They are made of swamp roots and muck and such. They are not solid, but changing, shifting, like peat. They are like the bog itself. At a glance it seems you can walk on it, but all at once you fall in and are swallowed up! That is how goblins are.”
This was a lengthy speech, and so there was a lot of fire wreathing Flint-Tusk’s apish face after he had finished. He snuffed the flames in his beard and mane, both of which, by now, were more black than white. Edmund, meanwhile, was thinking about goblins and what he had heard and read of them. They lived in swamps and bogs and stole and ate children, and they were not to be trusted—that was about all he knew. He wondered, however, if all of this was true or if this was another situation such as with trolls; that the legends vilified them for the sake of a good story and to glorify the heroes that defeated them. Then again, he thought, Flint-Tusk did not trust goblins. On the other hand, Edmund had heard that a lot of Elementals disliked one another inherently. It was similar to how Gran Stone and other Midland kingdoms disliked one another on principle.
“So,” the troll said. “When do you return to this Grand Stone of yours?”
“Gran Stone,” Edmund said. “It is called Gran Stone, meaning ‘old’ stone, or so my mother told me.”
“Old stone?” The troll laughed. It was like the sound of a boulder rolling down a mountainside. “You humans always use more words than you need, thinking it makes you more intelligent. Worse than elves in that respect—though not so vain. All stones are old stones. They are the bones of the earth. Might as well say ‘wooden tree’ or ‘wet lake’. We trolls know how to name things in proportion to the thing in question. Take my name, for example. Flint-Tusk. Such a name as that tells you all you need to know about me without wasting any air. By the Behemoth’s belly! There I’ve gone and set my beard ablaze again!”
True to his word—and true to his name—Flint-Tusk’s talking had set his beard ablaze again. He batted at the mischievous flames with his meaty fists and eventually smothered them out with such force as would pulverize mortal men into pixie dust. He then yanked at his beard, pulling it up to get a better look at it and the damage done. As bad luck would have it, he uprooted more hairs than were burned by the small wildfire along his jaw line.
“See?” he said. “This is why it is good to eat the pelt of a bear! It helps me grow my hair back again.” The troll sighed and it was like a wind through an echoing cave. “Remember this, Edmund, if you remember anything at all: you never know when what you say may catch like wildfire. Better, then, to make sure when you speak you are calm and true so what you say is calm and true.”
Edmund agreed, though his eyes wandered up the slopes of the mountains. When had the mountains become so large? He had been so preoccupied with other thoughts that he had failed to notice the drastic change in their distance. They loomed larger now—reaching up into the clouds Edmund had summoned—and they ran from West to East, ostensibly without end. They were grayish blue, but dark blue where the clouds drifted over them. Where the pinnacles and crags cut through the clouds it was like the fangs of a dragon biting through the fleece of a sheep. The summits reminded Edmund of Gran Stone, but covered in snow and ice. For a while Edmund feared that he would have to follow Flint-Tusk up the mountain. This fear proved misplaced, for the troll soon pointed out the mouth of a cave at the base of the mountain.
“That is the opening to my home,” Flint-Tusk said. “I would not trust any surface dweller with the knowledge of it—for I would fear for my clan’s safety—but you are Apprentice. I trust you as I would trust Master Avon.”
“Thank you,” Edmund said. “Speaking of trust, Flint-Tusk, why did Master Avon visit you when you were a…um…hatchling?”
“He was not Master Avon then,” Flint-Tusk said. “He was the Apprentice. And he has visited us many times since then.”
“Right,” Edmund said. “But why?”
“To speak to us about the rumblings,” the troll said. “To make sure they are brief and not frequent.”
“Rumblings? Of the mountain?” Edmund stared up at the mountain. It was beyond the scope of his experience for comparison. It blocked out the sky. “Is the mountain a volcano?”
“No,” said the troll. “It is the Behemoth’s Backbone, as I told you. And the Behemoth sleeps. Master Avon wishes that it not waken.”
Edmund was taken aback. “You mean it is the actual backbone of the Behemoth?”
“Of course,” Flint-Tusk said. “Did you not hear me when I say that we trolls name in proportion to the thing being named? We do not waste time or air on superfluities.”
“I see,” Edmund said, feeling quite nervous. “And, so, the Behemoth is sleeping? What would happen if it were to awaken?”
The troll threw up his hairy hands in a gesture of non-commitment. “I suppose the Behemoth would tear the All Ways asunder and everything would fall into chaos. It would be as it was before the Behemoth went to sleep.”
“And…” Edmund hesitated. “And Master Avon fears it will awaken?”
“Eventually it will,” the troll said with less gravitas than the truth warranted in Edmund’s estimation. “But I will not live so long that it would matter to me!”
He laughed again and it seemed that the whole mountains shook with his laughter. Edmund nearly told him to be quiet lest the Behemoth wake, but he was himself silenced by the sight of the other trolls huddling near the mouth of the cave.
“My family,” Flint-Tusk said. “My wife, my daughters, and my son.” He held up his fists in a gesture, knuckles to knuckles. The trolls did likewise, all smiling—or smiling as much as trolls might smile. They all had white manes and white beards like Flint-Tusk. “They are pleased. So am I.”
Flint-Tusk suddenly halted and turned to Edmund.
“Apprentice Edmund,” he said. “You have aided me in my time of need.” Edmund attempted to interject, but the troll would not allow him. “For what you have done, I should invite you into my clan’s cave tonight and feast with us. However, it is the time of the Great Grind. This is a volatile time for trolls—a violent time—and would certainly prove deadly for any outsiders.”
“This is all finely thread,” Edmund said. “You saved my life first. You owe me nothing. There is no need for tassels and lace.”
At this, Flint-Tusk scratched one of the tufts of his beard. “I was not entirely truthful, Apprentice Edmund. I ate the bear that would have eaten you. That much is true. But that was only after I noticed the bear. Before I noticed the bear, I noticed you. And I was seeking to devour you.”
Edmund felt the blood drain from his head down to his feet. He had no idea where his blood had gone.
“You were going to devour me?” Edmund asked.
The troll wrung his gigantic hands in discomforted penitence. “Yes. But only because I was very hungry. Normally I would not deign to eat such a hairless, fatless creature. Fur and fat and bones are what we trolls value in our meals.”
Edmund felt himself grow very queasy and nearly swooned. However, the thought that the troll might still eat him—especially if he were to faint—sobered him.
“I…I thank you for not eating me,” Edmund said.
“But you see,” Flint-Tusk said, “this is why I still owe you a debt. I did not save you from the bear. The bear saved you from me. And you have saved me from the sun. Therefore, I owe you a debt.” The troll knelt, then, on the soggy heath and pushed his fists together. “I, Flint-Tusk, vow to aid Apprentice Edmund in his time of need. So long as the mountains touch the sky, I am indebted to you.”
Edmund blinked rapidly, still trying to overcome the shock of knowing that this troll had nearly devoured him.
“I accept your vow,” he said.
The troll rose to his feet.
“Thank you, Apprentice Edmund. And when you see Master Avon, recall me to him. I know he will remember. He bandied me upon his knee once. I was his favorite among my parents’ hatchlings.”
The troll then went to the mouth of the cave, under cover of the clouds Edmund had provided. He rejoined his family with much celebration.
Edmund wondered if he had abetted someone who might eventually eat an innocent man, woman, or child. Then again, he knew Master Avon and Master Avon was not concerned with these trolls; only in the Behemoth. Edmund told himself he should, perhaps, concern himself with world-ending events, too.
And yet…what if the trolls ate children? What if they stole into a village at night and devoured every villager, young and old? It was a horrible thought, as was his own culpability in the potential scenario. Edmund’s mercy today may have doomed countless innocents tomorrow.
Edmund looked at the cave again. Flint-Tusk was with his wife and children. They embraced him as any human family might their own father. Relief faintly softened every hard-chiseled face. Notwithstanding their tusks, their fur, their apish faces, their strength, and their size, they were almost like any family in Gran Stone. Their nudity, too, ruined the resemblance, but that was negligible. Perhaps Edmund had done some good in the World-Unfurled. He did not know, but he hoped so.