Troll Mountain:The Complete Novel(4)
Author:Matthew Reilly


    “Raf,” he said at last, “you are a clever boy, brighter than any of the others I have seen from your tribe. But cleverness is not wisdom. To be clever is to be able to think of new things, methods, ideas. This is most commendable and, indeed, the young can be clever. Wisdom, however, comes from experience, from seeing things happen again and again, which is why the young are rarely wise. Would you allow an old man to impart to you some hard-earned wisdom?”

    “I would welcome it.”

    “When you go in search of elixirs, be sure you know exactly what an elixir is,” Ko said simply.

    Raf frowned. “An elixir is a cure. A liquid one drinks that heals one from a disease.”

    “I have said what I have said.” Ko blinked once and slowly. “I hope it aids you in your quest. I would be saddened if your sister died. She always struck me as a sweet girl who cared for you deeply—”

    A wolf howled somewhere.

    Raf turned. The old man did, too.

    “That,” Ko said, “is the howl of a mountain wolf. They are coming down from the mountains to hunt.”

    Raf stared fearfully out into the darkness.

    “They are natural night-time hunters,” Ko said, “great dogs that can see in the dark as if it were day. But they only come down to the Badlands rarely, when they sense opportunity.” The old man looked outward, as if appraising the night itself. “Which they clearly do this evening. Were you planning on making camp here tonight?”

    “I … I was. Why?”

    Ko said, “A few miles from here is the Broken Bridge. Beyond that bridge, in the parts of the Badlands closest to the mountains, rogue trolls lurk in larger numbers. It is only their inability to cross the Broken Bridge that keeps them from penetrating your valley more often than they do.”

    “Rogue trolls …”

    “Normally, you would be safe making camp on this side of the bridge, but with mountain wolves about … well, wolves most certainly can cross the Broken Bridge. Perhaps you would like to take shelter in my home tonight. It is not much, but it is fortified against predators such as mountain wolves.”

    Raf frowned, considering this.

    At that moment, several other wolves answered the first wolf’s call, but from the opposite side of the Badlands. The wolves were communicating, hunting as a pack.

    Raf turned to the wizened old man and nodded.

    “Thank you, sir. I think that would be a very good idea.”

    *

    Ko lived in a small shack built on stone pilings out in the middle of a stinking swamp. Flies buzzed, frogs burped, and inordinately large snakes occasionally broke the surface of the muddy pond as they slithered by.

    To get to the shack, Ko laid out a long plank, using it as a bridge to span the moat of putrid swamp water.

    “Mountain wolves will not swim across so foul a swamp as this,” he said as they crossed the plank-bridge.

    Ko lifted it up after them. Raf winced at the rank odor of the place.

    “You get used to the smell quite quickly,” Ko added cheerfully. “One of the greatest features of the human brain: the ability to ignore a smell after a short while.”

    That evening, by the light of a small fire, Ko and Raf spoke for a long time about many things.

    Raf asked Ko about his life in strange faraway lands, while Ko frowned when Raf told him about the Northmen’s tribal hierarchy.

    “What an awfully backward structure,” Ko said. “The most successful cultures I have seen do not allow such men to rule. Eventually, people come to realize that for their society to advance they must allow everyone to contribute to the best of their talents. The strong, in particular, must choose to serve the group as a whole, not their own interests. Tribes governed by thugs do not advance. They eventually stagnate and die.”

    “Tell me,” Raf said, “do you know anything about this illness?”

    “Occasionally sailors from my homeland who went on long voyages would be afflicted by a similar disease. But no cure for it was ever found,” Ko said.

    “Do you know how the trolls discovered their Elixir?” Raf asked. “How can creatures so brutish find a cure while we cannot?”

    “No,” Ko said, frowning. “This I do not know. The mountain trolls in these parts are not known for their cleverness. Their discovery of the Elixir is a most curious thing for which I have no explanation at this time.”

    As he said this, Ko picked up Raf’s axe. After a moment, he extracted the flint knife hidden within its handle with a delighted grunt.

    “Ah, how clever!” But then he said, “Not all trolls are brutish, Raf. Indeed, some of the varieties of smaller troll have been known to be remarkably intelligent. Here is another piece of wisdom for you: don’t judge a whole race by the actions of some of its members. If I were to judge you based on the actions of your fellow tribe members, I might believe you were a boorish oaf who thinks little.”

    Raf nodded at that.

    Ko added, “And while a troll is indeed rather brutish in appearance and has a well-armored hide, it does have a weak spot.”

    “What is that?”

    “Like the crocodile, a troll has very soft skin under his chin and under his arms,” Ko said.

    While Ko inspected Raf’s knife, Raf examined Ko’s crossbow. He noted its powerful spring-loaded firing mechanism and the small collection of arrows held in notches on its left side—some had sharp points, others bulbous tips filled with ignitable material. He also noticed a length of closely woven gold-colored rope looped around two hooks on the weapon’s right side.

    “That is the finest rope I have ever seen,” he said.

    Ko nodded. “It was made by one of my country’s best armorers for my old commander, who gave it to me as a parting gift.”

    Raf held it beside his own rope. By comparison, his rope looked frayed, crude and primitive. “I thought mine was good, but this, well …”

    “Your rope is good,” Ko said firmly. “Because you crafted it with your own hands. And besides, it’s rope. As long as it holds your weight, how pretty does it need to be?”

    Raf smiled. As he did so, he noticed in the corner of Ko’s shack six small green barrels with what appeared to be candlewicks sticking out of their lids. A strange kind of writing was painted on their sides. It read:

    Raf nodded at them. “What is in those barrels?”

    “Ah …” Ko smiled. “It is perhaps my people’s greatest invention, the secret formula for which I am privileged to know.”

    Ko went over to one of the barrels and lifted its lid. He extracted a handful of thick black powder. “It is called firepowder,” he said. “My old army would use it to hurl heavy iron balls great distances into the ranks of our enemies, to topple their battle elephants and bring down the walls of their fortresses.”

    Raf gazed at the black powder. “The powder catches alight?”

    “More than that. If you light their wicks, these barrels will combust mightily, creating most powerful blasts. This strange powder won my country many wars.”

    Raf nodded slowly, impressed. “Firepowder.”

    Ko leaned forward. “Speaking of winning battles, let me give you a third piece of wisdom, my young friend, given you will be fighting your own battle soon: to bring down a four-legged beast, you only need to injure two of its legs. This rule applies to battle elephants and mountain wolves alike.”

    Raf thought about that as he went to sleep that evening—for later on, outside the thin walls of the shack, beyond the closer noises of the swamp, he heard the rustle of branches and the grunts of a pack of large wolves, very near, and he was glad he had taken up the old man’s offer of hospitality.





    Chapter 6



    The next day, Ko offered to accompany Raf on his quest, at least for part of the way.

    “I know the Badlands,” he said, “and I might be able to help you at some of the more difficult swamp crossings.”

    Raf was glad of the assistance and over the course of that day, they made excellent progress through the middle regions of the Badlands.

    Ko did indeed know the Badlands well. At those times when the path was hidden beneath wide pools that had crept across it, Ko knew where fords lay, saving Raf the many hours it would have taken to skirt the pools.

    Ko walked with an easy lope, carrying his crossbow casually in his folded arms.

    At one point in their journey, when they had stopped to eat some lunch, Raf asked, “How did you come to be in these lands?”

    “Oh, I was part of a vast army from the east, led by a great warrior-king. Over the course of a long campaign, we conquered many lands and acquired many treasures.

    “I was a medicine man who tended to our soldiers when they were wounded or fell ill. Our army stopped its great journey of conquest a thousand miles to the east of here and when it turned for home, I asked the great king if I might remain in these parts. He granted me my request, and I ventured over many hills and valleys until I settled here in these Badlands with their splendid solitude.”

    “You don’t like people?” Raf asked.

    “I don’t like what people do to each other.”

    As the sun set at the end of that second day, black shadows extended across the track. The trees seemed to reach out for Raf, their branches gnarled arms, their twigs flexing claws. Ko didn’t seem to notice the grimness of their surroundings at all.

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