Troll Mountain:The Complete Novel(5)
Author:Matthew Reilly


    As night fell, they came to the old Broken Bridge.

    “Broken” was an overly complimentary term, Raf thought as he looked at it.

    In truth, it was no bridge at all anymore.

    A broad muddy stream cut across the track here, part of the dry river that meandered down to Raf’s valley. Over the centuries, in times when the river’s flow had been stronger, it had cut a deep gash in the brown landscape, about thirty feet across and fifteen feet deep, with sheer muddy walls. The streambed itself was a muddy bog: moist, brown, and stinking.

    At some point in history, someone had bridged the stream, but the bridge had long ago been washed away or its planks pilfered for other uses, so now all that remained in its place were the stone pillars on which it had stood. They spanned the muddy streambed at regular intervals—intervals across which a man could leap with a bounding stride and good balance.

    Raf saw another thing in the mud of the streambed.

    Footprints.

    Only they were not human footprints.

    They were larger and deeper than human footprints, the stub-toed prints of trolls.

    Ko said, “The Broken Bridge is a great protector of your river valley, Raf. Trolls do not have the same kind of toes as humans. Theirs are smaller, less dextrous. The chief consequence of this is that trolls do not possess the same level of balance as humans. For a troll to leap from one of these pillars to the next would be a considerable feat, hence the relative infrequency of rogue trolls reaching your valley.”

    Raf nodded at the trollprints in the bog. “The prints only come halfway across the streambed. Why?”

    Ko nodded. “The mud of the streambed is deadly. It is gripping mud, with the texture and malevolence of quicksand. Once you are stuck in it, it slowly takes you under. The prints only come halfway across because by then the unwary troll is hopelessly stuck and the bog swallows him.”

    Raf stared at the muddy bog in horror. A bubble popped on its surface, as if it were alive.

    “Trolls are far stronger than humans are,” he said. “But they are not very clever, are they?”

    “Apart from the smaller field trolls, yes, that is correct,” Ko said. “In his ultimate wisdom, the Great Creator made sure that no one creature got every talent. Yes, trolls got immense size and strength, but as compensation for those talents, they have only rudimentary balance and limited intelligence. Humans received ingenuity but little raw strength. Wolves have cunning, and heightened senses of smell and hearing, but thankfully no opposable thumbs.” Ko smiled wistfully. “I like to think the Great Creator just wanted to make life in this world interesting.”

    Raf looked from the footprints in the mud to the rather sinister terrain on the other side of the Broken Bridge. The forest of thorns on that side seemed thicker, the shadows more menacing.

    This was becoming too real. Real wolves, real trolls, real darkness. Cold fear shot through him and for a moment he considered turning back. Boldly venturing out on this quest had seemed a lot easier from his hovel back in the valley.

    But then he thought of Kira, dying from the illness, and his resolve returned.

    He turned to Ko. “Are trolls naturally cruel? Ever since I was a child, I have been told that every troll is a monster bent only on feasting on human flesh and wreaking havoc and destruction.”

    Ko looked at Raf for a long moment before replying.

    “This is a most perceptive question, Raf. Many humans live their entire lives without questioning the ‘truths’ they’ve been told.”

    “And?”

    “Despite a mountain troll’s commanding physical size, its brain is small, so it is incapable of complex thought. This does not mean, however, that it is incapable of thought. Simple brains just think simply: eat, kill, gain advantage, but most of all: survive.

    “A troll eats humans to survive. A troll exacts tribute from humans to survive. Yes, some trolls are cruel, so their array of simple thoughts includes more wicked ones like: dominate, control, hurt, humiliate.”

    “So trolls are not naturally cruel?”

    “I don’t think so. A significant proportion of humans are cruel but that doesn’t mean all people are. It is only when the cruel sit in positions of power that cruelty can become accepted. This is as true for trolls as it is for people, but with trolls it can happen more readily as the simple-minded are more easily led.”

    Raf thought about this, and then realized something.

    “I have seen good people stand silently by while a cruel chieftain beat a tribe member out of sheer spite. The others all accepted the cruelty for fear of being subjected to it themselves, not because they agreed with it. And they were shamed by doing so.”

    “Emotions like shame and guilt,” Ko said, “are the price of having a larger brain: the human knows he can choose to stand up to cruelty. The troll can at least claim limited mental faculties.”

    Raf said nothing.

    “An interesting theoretical discussion,” Ko said. “I haven’t had one of those in years. One of the downsides to being a hermit, I suppose.”

    He looked around them. “Now. We face a choice. We can cross the Broken Bridge now and make some headway into the farthest regions of the Badlands through the night, or we can camp here.”

    Raf gazed across the muddy stream at the forbidding terrain on the opposite bank. Night was almost upon them. The full moon was rising above the mountains.

    “What about the mountain wolves?” he asked.

    Ko shrugged. “At some point in your journey, you were always going to have to make camp close to the mountains, Raf. A quest would not be a quest if it were easy. If we stay on this side, we will at least have time to make a defense against the wolves. That is the best we can hope for.”

    “I think we’ll camp here for the night,” Raf said.

    “A wise decision,” Ko said.





    Chapter 7



    The sound of something large crashing through the undergrowth woke Raf.

    His eyes snapped open. It was still dark. He peered into the moonlit forest around him.

    Beside him, Ko was already awake. The old man’s head was perfectly still as he listened intently.

    The loud crashing noises were coming from the other side of the stream.

    Then Raf heard more noises: branches snapping, heavy footsteps pounding on damp earth, and then—suddenly, cutting through the still night air—deep voices.

    “There he is!”

    “Get him!”

    The voices had a depth that the human voice box cannot reach.

    “Trolls?” Raf whispered.

    “Yes,” Ko said softly. “Stay under your blanket and don’t move.”

    At Ko’s suggestion, they had been sleeping just inside the tree line on their side of the muddy stream, without a fire, and with dense layers of leaves covering their blankets, creating a kind of camouflage. Raf huddled under his leaf-covered blanket and stared across the streambed, thankful that it lay between him and whatever was coming through the underbrush—

    A huge gray shape burst out of the thorn bushes on the opposite bank and skidded to a halt at the edge of the foul muddy gorge.

    Raf gasped at it in wonder.

    By the light of the moon, he could see it clearly.

    It was six feet tall, with monstrously broad shoulders, monstrously large fists, a monstrously thick neck, and a monstrously solid head.

    Indeed, the only things about it that were not monstrously sized were its legs—they were disproportionately short, thick, stubby things that held up its huge upper body.

    It was a troll.

    This was Raf’s first glimpse of one since the day his parents had died. Only this troll, despite its imposing size, was itself frightened.

    It was running for its life.

    The troll stood at the edge of the stream, surprised to find its escape route cut off.

    The deep voices came again from the thorny forest behind him: “Here! Tracks! Heading toward the bridge!”

    “Where are you, Düm! We’re coming to get you!”

    Raf glimpsed flashes of fire in the forest behind the troll: his pursuers were wielding flaming torches.

    The fleeing troll looked this way and that, agitated and desperate, before realizing that there was no choice but to attempt to cross the muddy stream by way of the Broken Bridge’s leftover pillars.

    Raf watched as the big creature measured his first leap onto the nearest stone pillar: this appeared to require all of the troll’s concentration.

    The troll jumped …

    … and landed on the first pillar, swaying precariously but managing to regain its balance.

    It was at that moment that his pursuers—four other trolls—rushed out of the forest bearing torches in their enormous hands. If it was at all possible, these trolls were taller and weightier than the first one: they were almost seven feet tall, with broader shoulders and longer arms. But they still had the same stubby legs.

    The four pursuers spotted the first troll wobbling desperately on the pillar, high above the mud of the streambed, arms held out for balance.

    They howled with laughter.

    “Look at him! Stupid Düm!” one guffawed.

    “Don’t fall in, Düm!” another cackled. “That foul gunk beneath you is gripping mud!”

    Then a third pursuer threw something at the fleeing troll. It bounced off his back, spraying liquid, before falling into the bog.

    Raf saw it land in the gripping mud with a soft gloop: it was a goblet of some sort. Within seconds, the mud sucked it under.

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