Troll Mountain:The Complete Novel(3)
Author:Matthew Reilly






    Chapter 4



    Later that evening, long after the last fires in the camp had winked out, by the light of the full moon, Raf slipped away from the small collection of shanties that formed the village of the Northmen.

    As he crested one of the higher hills, he looked behind him and saw a glow on the distant southern horizon, far beyond his village: the settlement of the Southmen tribe.

    For many generations the Northmen had fought with the Southmen, but few remembered what had actually caused the rivalry. Perhaps it was their base physical differences: the Northmen were fair of skin and hair, while the Southmen had a darker complexion, with long beards, hairy forearms, and bushy eyebrows.

    As a child, Raf had been instructed to raise the alarm should he ever see a Southman anywhere near their lands. Sure, Southmen did not steal children in the night, but they were scum, untrustworthy dogs who would steal your crops the moment you turned your back.

    It was similar with hobgoblins. Smaller than a man but more cunning and sly, a lone hobgoblin could slip into your hut in the night and steal all of your allocated food from beside your bed. Acting alone, a hobgoblin was a troublesome thief and while its cackling in the night might give a child nightmares, on its own a hobgoblin was of little danger to a human—it would be quick to flight. Larger groups of hobgoblins, however, could be lethal: if a gang of them caught a man and pinned him down, they would eat his flesh while he was still alive. Hobgoblins did not build or make anything. They lived in caves in the mountains or in abandoned places built by others.

    Trolls, however, were another matter entirely.

    They did steal children in the night.

    And even a single troll was deadly.

    Any news of a rogue troll in the valley triggered great fear and panic. Fires would be lit and a night watch instigated if a rogue troll was known to be about.

    If Raf ever saw a troll he’d been told to run away as fast as he could.

    *

    The trolls lived to the north of the river valley amid some forbidding mountains that, by an accident of geography, sealed off the peninsula on which the valley tribes lived.

    The Black Mountains, they were called.

    The mountains dominated the landscape, jagged, dark and tall, and always within sight of the valley: a constant reminder to the Northmen, the Southmen and the other minor tribes of the strange foreign culture that held ruthless sway over their lives.

    For it was within those mountains that the trolls had blocked the river that flowed into the valley. And by controlling the flow of water to the peoples of the valley, the trolls exacted tribute from them: food and, occasionally, human sacrifices.

    Apart from the trolls, the Black Mountains held within them other dangers: isolated clans of hobgoblins and roving packs of mountain wolves.

    Between the river valley and those fearful mountains was a ribbon of barren land known as the Badlands.

    Once it had been a healthy forest fed by the same river that continued on into the valley, but now the Badlands were little more than a stinking waste of swamps, marshes, and bracken. It was a dead land that conveniently separated the creatures of the mountains and the humans in the valley.

    Dawn came as Raf crested the northernmost hill of the river valley and beheld the Black Mountains and the Badlands. A chill wind rushed down from the mountains, bitingly cold.

    A tribal elder had once told Raf that the trolls liked the cold, needed it, that they couldn’t survive in warmer climes—which was why they stayed in the mountains and sourced tribute from the human tribes.

    For a long moment Raf stood on the summit of that last hill, caught between two worlds: the familiar world of his valley and the unknown world before him.

    Sure, he had practiced with his weapons at the edge of the Badlands, but he had never dared to venture any kind of substantial distance into them.

    But today is different, he thought. Today I must.

    He looked behind him and beheld his own valley again, with the scar of the dead river running down its length, and for a moment he doubted his mission and considered going back—

    No. He was going to do this.

    He was going to do this for his sister.

    And so, with a deep breath, Raf turned toward the Badlands and stepped out of his old world.





    Chapter 5



    An old dirt track crossed the Badlands, twisting and turning through the barren landscape.

    Once the track had been well used and clear, but now weeds dominated it. At times the path disappeared completely beneath the undergrowth or pools of rainwater and Raf had to rediscover it further on.

    Raf walked along the track, flanked on both sides by forests of thorns. Occasionally, with a suddenness that would make him jump, birds took flight or an unseen ground animal would scurry through the brush.

    If he kept up a good pace, he estimated it would take him three days to cross the Badlands.

    On the first night, he camped by the putrid muddy stream and lit a small fire. No sooner was it ablaze than Raf saw something in the tree line.

    A black wolf, staring at him with unblinking eyes.

    Raf didn’t know how long it had been there. His hand moved to his axe.

    The wolf just stood with its head bent low, watching him. Then it slowly opened its jaws, revealing long deadly fangs, and growled—

    The second wolf came exploding out of the thorn bushes to Raf’s left.

    Raf turned, raising his axe, just in time to be hit by the beast and thrown to the ground. It landed right on top of him. Raf struggled. But the animal didn’t move. It had his axe-blade lodged deep in its chest.

    Then the first wolf attacked, bounding toward him as he lay defenseless on the ground. It leaped—

    Shwap!

    —only to drop out of the air and slide to the muddy ground right in front of Raf, with an arrow protruding from its rib cage.

    Raf spun to see a dark figure standing at the edge of the clearing, a crossbow pressed against his shoulder.

    “Lowland wolves,” the figure said, reloading his weapon. “They’ve been following you for several hours now. The birds knew they were here. That’s why they took flight. You were lucky these were lowlanders. They’re smaller than mountain wolves and not nearly as aggressive.”

    “Not as aggressive?” Raf said.

    “Oh no.” The figure stepped into the light, revealing himself to be a little old man. “A pack of mountain wolves wouldn’t have bothered stalking you. They would have just killed you on sight.”

    He said this plainly, in the manner of one expressing the most rudimentary of facts.

    Raf stared at the old man. He was, quite simply, the oldest person Raf had ever seen, far older than any of his tribe’s elders. This man had a long graying beard, oddly pointed eyes, and he wore a curious hat made of wicker. In his hands he held the now-reloaded crossbow, poised and ready.

    “Who are you?” Raf asked.

    “I am Ko,” the old man said pleasantly. “I live here in the Badlands on my own, in the tranquility that only solitude can provide.”

    As a child, Raf had heard the older boys speak of a hermit who lived in the Badlands, a stranger from the East who worked magic and evil spells. Perhaps this was he.

    Raf said, “Hello, Ko. My name is—”

    “You are Raf, brother of Kira. Occasionally, you hunt at the periphery of these lands and sometimes you fight shadows using weapons of your own devise. I have watched you often.”

    “You have?”

    “Oh, yes, and I have enjoyed doing so.” Ko smiled. “You are a keen inventor. You create a weapon and then figure out how to use it by experimentation. It is nice to see one so young trying to create new things.”

    Raf cocked his head. “When I showed one of my weapons to my chieftain, he laughed and called me foolish.”

    Ko sighed. “I have seen other members of your tribe in these lands. It is they who are the fools. Your ideas are novel and clever.”

    “You’ve seen my people?” Raf said with a start. “Did you happen to see a six-man party come through here about sixteen days ago? Three warriors and three porters?”

    “Of course I did. How could I not? They made no attempt to travel in silence. They spoke much about the trolls before they ventured into the mountains.”

    “Did you see them return?”

    “No. I did not.”

    “You say you heard them,” Raf said, “but you did not speak to them?”

    “Often, I shadow folk who pass through these lands. The ability to move silently and unnoticed is a skill my people value highly. When I was a younger man, if I may speak immodestly, I was very good at the art of silent movement.”

    Looking at the old man, Raf decided that that must have been a very long time ago.

    “How did you know my name?” he asked.

    Ko smiled again. “Your sister calls it when she comes searching for you at the end of the day. And you use hers when you rejoin her. She frets when you go out alone.”

    “Oh.”

    “And what causes you to be venturing this far into the Badlands, young Raf? This is beyond your usual range. You seem prepared for a sizable journey.”

    “My sister is ill with the sickness. I am going to Troll Mountain to procure the Elixir for her.”

    “You plan to trade your life for hers?” The old man seemed surprised. “To grant the trolls their cruel bargain?”

    “I plan to procure the Elixir for my sister,” Raf repeated.

    “Oh. I see.”

    The old man examined Raf closely, as if he was deciding whether or not to say something.

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