A Shadow in the Hills
by Glenn Hackney
Unwholesome creatures dwelt in the shadows of the mountains, shrinking from warmth and fearing the sun. The sun, however, had just sunk beneath the treetops when Liam began rounding up the goats to drive them into the village. It would not do for them to be outside the walls after dark. Nor would it do for Liam to be out. Life in the hills was not only dangerous but meager. It was meager because plants used for food were not in as great variety as in the warmer lowlands, but, actually, the village wealth made up for much of this. Men without land came to work here for, though the life was difficult, the pay was good. A man could work here for twenty years or so and then have money enough to buy a small farm where he could spend the remainder of his life in the greater safety of the lowlands. This was generally the intention at least, but in practice, many had to stay longer with some even moving out of town as old poor men seeking easier and safer employment elsewhere. Not everyone was as careful with money as was Liam's father.
Liam's days were spent primarily in herding. The milk provided a modest second income for the family which consisted of just himself and his parents, Robert and Constance. He let the goats graze in the boundary between the village and the forest. For a furlong around the wall, the land was kept clear of trees and shrubs. This provided pasture for the goats though they were not the reason for it.
Certain foul creatures were more likely to travel beneath the shade of the trees than across the sunlit pasture, Trows especially. Trows seldom traveled by day, but they could. In full sun beneath the village walls, however, they would be nearly helpless. Also, the villagers preferred to be able to see who was coming by day or by night.
The name of Liam's village was Dardus. It sat in the foothills of the Hearken Mountains, so named because of their propensity to facilitate echoing. This was more a feature of the mountains proper than of the foothills, though. A copper mine supported Dardus. In the mornings, the men would go out to the mine with an ox-drawn cart. In the evenings, they would bring back the cart, laden with ore. The next day, the men would take a different cart while women would separate the ore into grades. They did not recognize many grades, only the more and the less pure. Once a month, a caravan came from Hopkins. This was when the village received supplies. The caravan would then leave with the ore which would be refined in town. Some of the copper was used to make various utensils, especially those used in cooking while some was sent from time to time to Gibson where there was a royal mint.
The name "Dardus" came from the man who had discovered the vein. Another mine supported the neighboring village of Pardue. Liam had never been to Pardue though his father had for a reason unknown to Liam. Pardue and Dardus had the same namesake, or so the story went. The actual name of the discoverer of both veins was Pardue. The deeds for the mines were ratified in Hopkins, a town to the West that lay before the hills. Supposedly, the handwriting of the town clerk was atrocious, so much so that the assistant to the clerk mistakenly copied the name of Pardue as Dardus. The error became a jest in the town. So the first mining village was named Pardue and the second, Dardus.
Liam had the goats in well before the gates were shut. There was no need for any other pen because each one bore his family's brand. They wandered freely within the walls at night. There were many huge mastiffs also about; however, these almost never disturbed the goats for they had been carefully bred. And if any growled unprovoked at a child, it was killed.
There were twelve families in Dardus, many single young Men, and a few single old Men. In addition to these, one single young Woman lived alone. Her name was Annabel Russ. She lived far away from Liam's house, over on the other side of the village near the tavern. Liam's mother never spoke to her except when the occasion required it which was not often, and she usually made some sort of derisive noise if someone made a reference to her. In fact, Liam had been shushed once for making such a reference, so now, he never mentioned her at all in his mother's hearing.
His mother came of parents that had been both poor and strict. The lack of luxuries in Dardus seemed not to disturb her at all. Her marriage to his father had been an afterthought. She had been betrothed to a Man three decades her senior, but he had died of influenza less than a year before they were to be married. She had since decided that she preferred Liam's father anyway. He was only four years her senior.
Of course, most of the village Men worked in the mine as did most of the older boys. There were, however, a few of other professions. These were kept in business in part by what would have been considered exorbitant prices in some places being driven up both by the high salaries of the miners and by the perils of mountain living.
As Liam passed near the center of the village, he saw the rough stone keep which served as a second level of fortification to which the villagers could fall back if the wall was breached. Inside was not only a great deal of food and water but also the village's repository of sulfur. It was in part to withstand fire that the stronghold was made of stone. The creatures of the dark did not use fire, but fire could be hurled down. Burning sulfur in particular was a terror to them.
When Liam reached the one room log cabin that served as his family's house, he found his mother inside, as he had expected, cooking on the stove that also provided warmth. As he walked in the doorway, she immediately led off with her usual question without even turning around, "How was your day?"
"Were the goats hard to keep track of?"
"Did anything interesting happen?"
Liam shrugged again.
"You never tell me anything," she whined.
"Did you talk to anyone special?" the pitch of her voice rose, and he could hear the smile.
"I thought perhaps Fiona had found some time to go out to see you. Have you not been talking to Fiona a lot, lately?"
Liam shrugged again. "Sometimes."
"She is quite pretty. Do you not think so?"
His father came in, rescuing him from the conversation. Liam had heard his father express his regret several times for bringing him and his mother to Dardus. Liam had been born on a large farm near a town named Edwards Hill. His father had been born an heir to the same farm. Upon the deaths of Liam's grandparents, his father had bought out his two brothers and one sister. Then, after failing to keep up with the payments, the creditor took over the farm. So, Liam came to live in Dardus at the age of two. He remembered nothing of life elsewhere except climbing out of his crib one day and falling down.
Mother was serving supper now on the small wooden table. Turnips and potatoes and bread, not fancy, but there was plenty of it. And taken with the sturdy, dark ale, it was substantial. "Bradley was back at the mine today," his father informed them.
"Do you know where he was?" asked Mother. Bradley had been missing for over a week.
"He said he wandered off in a fever and got lost. It's a wonder he made it back."
Bradley had been in a bit of trouble with the village elders lately. He seemed to have committed some crime, though Liam had not been able to ascertain what it was. In any case, he had been ordered by the village council to marry old Lord Turnip Bowden's widow. Lord Bowden was not actually a lord of anything except the general store, but people called him "lord" because of his age. He had been by at least twenty years the oldest man in Dardus. No one was really sure why he stayed there in his old age, given that he was wealthy. He said he liked the way the mist hung at the hilltops over the village in the mornings. But his daughter said he liked the high prices the miners paid.
Bradley, having intended to wed Penelope Rye, had raised quite a stink about the demand for the marriage to the widow, but, eventually, he had acquiesced when he was threatened with a flogging and expulsion from the village. He actually received a black eye from one of the widow's sons who were none too pleased with him, apparently. Father said that the elders were hypocrites since no one did anything about "that girl on the other side of town" as his parents liked to call Annabel. Liam did not know what "hypocrites" were, so he figured that they must be wise people since they were elders. To the general shock, within two weeks of the marriage, Penelope was found hanged in the forest about half a league from the village. She was right next to the trail the miners took to and from work. They happened to be later than usual returning that evening.
Liam had heard her mother screaming on the other side of the village. She had also bloodied Bradley's lower lip. But her husband quickly restrained her, and standing in front of her, he carried her bit by bit back to their house, lifting, carrying a little, and setting down, then lifting again, carrying a little, and setting back down. All the while, she was shouting murder and maiming at Bradley. It was the next day that Bradley had disappeared after saying he was too sick to go to work, and Penelope's father had hardly been seen outside their cabin since.
Liam's mother wondered if Bradley had cracked, what with the trouble. She also seemed to think it strange that he had gotten into this trouble in the first place. It had something to do with the widow's age who, though she was not nearly so old as Lord Bowden, was quite old enough to have been Bradley's mother. But, of course, Liam did not understand this either. Mother started crying and had to get up to get a hanky. Liam's father did not know what to think of Bradley's disappearance, though he did not think the story about the fever sounded likely. Various theories would be floating all about the village soon. Little happened in Dardus. So people extracted a lot of gossip from what did.
Presently, Mother stopped crying for the time being, and they finished supper. Liam gathered the bowls containing the leftovers to one end of the table and folded the table cloth over them. They were for tomorrow. Then he went outside and joined his father where they sat on rocking chairs just outside the door while Mother washed the dishes. He and his father exchanged greetings with a couple of the Robinsons who lived next door on the left. The house to the right was probably empty at the moment. Verne Huey lived there, but he was usually at the tavern in the evenings and, in the mornings, was often quite sick.
When Mother was through, the three of them sat around the table and played cards by lamplight. One of the young Men of the town had given the deck as surety for a debt to Liam's father and had not repaid. His father was not a hard Man, but he had decided that it would not do the youth harm to be without the cards. After a few games, Mother went out, as usual, for a visit to one of the outhouses just before bed. When she returned, Liam saw the moonlight streaming in the doorway from the East. Then Father put out the lamp, and they all climbed into the bed they shared and got under the quilt. There were other quilts available at the foot. It would be cold by morning. Father would get up first and light the stove. Then Mother would get up and cook porridge for breakfast. Last of all, they would make Liam get up.
This was one of many nights he did not sleep easily. He lay awake staring into the darkness above for a while. Then he propped his head up on the pillow where he could see slivers of moonlight still sneaking in through cracks around the door. He wondered if he would ever get to sleep. He loved the night, wishing he could walk forest trails in the starlight without fear, but, still, his sleeplessness troubled him.
He awoke to the sound of his mother's screams. Little could be seen in the darkness. The door was open, but the moonlight was no longer coming in. Now he sat up. His father knelt next to the other side of the bed coughing and heaving. Liam could hear the liquid surging out of his mouth and splashing onto the floor as blow after blow rained down on him. The attacker, a shimmer in the darkness, wielded a weapon above him.
Mother, already on her feet, tried to rush Liam out of the house. But another stopped her abruptly, slamming her against the wall with the butt of his axe. He turned to Liam then. His mother stumbled dizzily toward the attacker screaming, "Not my baby!" The intruder turned and grabbed her by the hair. Liam ran.
He was out the doorway, but now, where could he go? Trows were running all about the village. How had they gotten in? Stone Trolls could have beaten down the walls. But they rarely traveled this far from the taller mountains, and, even so, the alarm should have been raised. Liam looked ahead to his left where a small group of men, mostly armed with spears, had managed to get organized around a house on the eastern side of the village. The mastiffs were doing the work for which they had been bred and trained. Here and there, two or three were taking down one Trow at a time, some were, at least, but the Trows were many, and they were armed.
He ran around to the side of his house, to get out of site of the Trows that were probably still alive inside. He saw the orange glow of a fire springing up from the house where the gathering was. He scanned the area, looking for a way to the men, but they were surrounded as far as he could tell. He looked westward to the gate, but it was guarded by at least a dozen Trows. Then, next to the wall, south and east of the fire, he noted one of the troughs for the beasts. Not knowing anything else to do, he ran for it.
When he was about twenty cubits away, he heard the heavy pounding of feet accompanied by a gruff voice shouting behind him, "Hold up there, lad, don't be running off." A rough hand took hold of his shoulder, flinging him backwards onto the ground. Pain shot through his side as a kick landed in his lower ribs and knocked the breath out of him.
Then a sudden snarling, and, as if the kick were not enough, a mastiff landed on him. Liam heard a shriek, louder than the others because of its proximity. The dog, which was more than half the height of the Trow, had the Trow by the left arm and was stumbling over Liam. Almost instantly, another had him by the right leg. They lifted him from the ground, pulling him between them like a rag doll over Liam and shaking their heads. Blood was pouring out of their mouths. The Trow was splayed out by the brutal strength of the beasts. With his right arm, he was clumsily swinging his axe at the one on his leg. He managed to make a shallow gash in the dog's left shoulder. It did him no good, though, seeing that the dog released its grip on the leg but went for the arm. The Trow, flat on his face and being dragged by the other mastiff, was helpless as the jaws clamped shut.
The first dog had dragged their victim off of Liam. Still not able to properly catch his breath, he struggled to his feet and began hobbling toward the trough. When he reached it, he crawled behind hoping to be able to hide until dawn.
After a few minutes, he could feel the heat from the burning house. It was bright now, and the Trows were hanging back. Three men with torches ran for a house next door, but their enemies took them down with javelins. The fire would not last until dawn unless they could light another building, and the remaining men were thoroughly outnumbered. Liam shrunk in his place behind the trough.
He was shivering in the cold hour just before dawn. He had heard much of the carnage but had seen little for he had feared to peek from his hiding place. The sky had turned grey in the East, and few stars were visible. The Trows seemed to have all left about an hour ago, jeering their captives, women and children and frail old men whom they had bound in a train, and, with them, they took the mules. He peeked around the western end of the trough toward the gate. The doors were off the hinges now, hacked in pieces, not standing open the way they had during the raid.
At last, as the sky turned slowly to blue, cautiously he stood, still behind the trough, his side tender from the kick. He saw the ashes of the one house only. The men had not succeeded in lighting another fire. He walked about calling in vain to see if anyone -- or any beast -- had survived. The bodies of men and mastiffs were lying all around, callously left for birds and beasts of carrion. He saw goats, too, with other families' brands, as well as his own, butchered and left. But there was also no paucity of dead Trows.
He went to his house where he found his father's corpse huddled in a pool of cold blood and looked away. He did not see his mother. He had never been without his parents before. He was alone now for the first time, without even the other villagers to care for him. And, though he had never ventured more than a league from his village, save once, for which he had received a whipping, he knew he could not stay now. Often Trows would return the night after a raid to break down the walls. They had only fled the dawn. He must not tarry for them.
A person needed skill to survive alone in the hills. This skill Liam did not possess being not even good at moving quietly. In fact, when he was younger, one of his little friends had told him that when they played hide and seek in the woods he was as quiet as a litter of nursing pigs. Fortunately, Pardue was only seven leagues to the North. Still, he would be hard-pressed to reach it by nightfall without a mule since there would be scarcely nine hours from sunrise to sunset.
The way back west to the flatlands would be safer, less chance of running into Trows or other foul creatures as night approached, but longer. He wanted to be within walls by dark. Besides, the other villagers should be warned. Perhaps, the Trows were not finished. If he had known how to write, he could have sent a pigeon. Anyway, he did not even know if any had survived. He considered burying at least his father, but he feared to leave a sign that someone was still alive, and he needed to begin as soon as possible. The men of Pardue might not even accept a stranger after dark.
In a calm that belied the terror of the night, he opened the family hamper and began rummaging through it for warmer clothes. He found a stout pair of wool trousers for which he quickly exchanged the light cotton pair he had worn to bed that night. He completed his outfit with a wool shirt and a thick coat. Armed with enough clothing to begin driving back the chill, he went out and looked around the village one last time in a fruitless search for his mother's body. Back inside his home, he went to the pantry where he found a few small loaves of bread. One of these he began eating as he found a sack into which he placed his oiled cloak, several loaves, and a few turnips and carrots.
He walked outside and toward the gate. As he reached it, he saw the corpses of two Trows, one with his skull split clean in two, lying near the body of big Jerome McAllister. Jerome's great axe that he had used for chopping wood lay beneath his chest, and his right foot had been severed. Perhaps, he had tried to escape that he might hide as Liam had. Perhaps, he had tried to hew a path for his wife and daughter. A coward or a hero, Liam did not know. However, he remembered the hatchet his father had kept on a shelf near the door and ran back to fetch it. It had a convenient leather holder of one piece with a belt made from goat hide. He also thought to put the deck of cards in his pocket, a reminder of his family.
The trail that led to Pardue ran through the forest that began where the pasture ended a furlong from the village. He walked northward from the gate carrying the bag that held his food and cloak and found the path easily. He had traveled a portion of it many times. It should be simple to follow it to the village.
This could have been any autumn morning to one who did not know about the devastation of the night. The stench of death had not yet filled the air. Perhaps, it never would if the Trows returned to devour the slain. He smelled the tart scent of pine wafting on the gentle breeze and saw the dappled light as it lay on the thick coat of moss and needles that covered the forest floor, but the light would soon dim because clouds were moving down from the North.
Once, a turkey hen came flapping carelessly and lit almost right in front of him. Seeing her error, she quickly took flight again. Liam's leg began to ache because she had reminded him of a recent injury. Though he had been in practice a herder of goats, he fancied himself a hunter and used a toy bow for which his father made arrows that were just pointed sticks, not even having feathers. A few months earlier, he had heard a turkey in the woods just beyond the pasture and had attempted to sneak up on it to shoot it. When he was nearing the range of his small bow, he stepped into a soft spot in the ground that had been left by a rotten tree. If the turkey was not alerted by the snapping of his shin, at least it was by his subsequent yelling and crying.
Liam realized within the hour that he had forgotten to take water. He should be okay for one day's travel, though, since the hills had streams. It was about halfway to noon when he came upon the first, one which he could easily jump over. But, before crossing, he knelt and drank. He had become thirsty and warm due to his exercise despite the coolness of the day. Afterwards, he sat down against a tree and pulled one of the carrots out of his bag wanting to eat while he was near water. As he munched, he began eating another of the loaves. When he was full, he realized how tired he was, not having slept much the night before. Now with a full belly, he slumped down and looked up at the trees. Though the forest had become gloomy under the clouds, it was peaceful and quiet except for the wind. He decided to rest for a few minutes.
It was well past three o'clock when he started awake. When he moved, a lynx lifted its head from a kill. It looked at him in surprise for a moment before seizing it and bounding off into the woods. Unlike wolves, lynxes hunted alone, and, though there were many in the mountains, Liam had never seen one. They were creatures of night and winter like the Trows.
Liam thought that at best he could barely be halfway to Pardue by sunset. It looked like the night would be a dark one because of the clouds, but Liam did not care to be out in the night whether it was overcast or moonlit. He could be a target for many creatures, even for a Trow searching for food. He scrambled up and threw his bag to the other side of the stream before leaping over it himself. The road led downhill again. The hollow would soon be in shadow.
Later in the afternoon, he came upon something he had not expected. Another path branched off to the West, and he wondered where it led. He had always heard that Pardue lay to the North, so that was the path he should take, he thought. Anyway, he figured he had to hurry not having time to waste on considering and doubting, especially when he knew not which road was correct. He ignored the one that led west and hoped that Pardue was not that way. Soon, the path he kept to bore off slightly to the East and entered a stand of chestnut trees before turning north again. The stand was not at all an uncommon thing in the mountains. Liam liked chestnuts, especially roasted. At other times, he would have stopped to crack and eat some, but, now, he dared not let anything slow him down.
When evening came, the autumn chill deepened. It had cooled during the day, but Liam's walking kept him warm. Even though the clouds were blowing over already, he saw no sunlight, now, only lighter and deeper shadow. He could hear an owl hooting every few minutes, and, soon, he heard also the rushing of a creek. He hoped the road would lead to a place where it could be forded. Bridges could not be maintained in the hills as the Trows tore them down. They seemed to tear down anything Men built. As he reached the depression through which the creek ran, he had to turn east again. He found the water swift at the ford and wider than he had hoped. He began searching for a staff to help him cross. It was already a little hard to see. The sun had sunk beneath the mountain behind, and the moon had not yet risen over the one before.
He found no suitable sticks that were down. One was the right size, but it was rotten. He did, however, find a young oak tree of suitable girth, so, unstrapping his hatchet, he laid into it's base as furiously as his bruised side would allow. He hoped he was not heard by anything dangerous, but he wanted to be on the other side as soon as possible. When the tree fell in a few minutes, he easily lopped off the small branches. He promptly strapped his hatchet back on its belt, grasped the staff in his right hand, flung his bag over his left shoulder, and went back down the bank. He could still make out where was the seeming line of rocks that led to the other side. He hoped the water did not reach above his knees.
He then proceeded to step into the creek, putting his staff first on the first rock before following with his right foot. It seemed secure. Then, foot after foot after staff, he made his way carefully. By the time he reached the middle, the water was up to his waist. The current was much stronger than he had expected, and he felt disoriented struggling against the rush of the water in the dusk. Even with his staff, it was all he could do to keep his footing. He had not crossed a creek of this size before, but since his father must have crossed on his way to Pardue he figured he should be able to make it. The rocks in the middle were slick, but, as he neared the other bank, his footing felt a bit firmer.
Then, when he put his staff on another rock, he felt his left foot begin slipping. He seemed to fall slowly, as if he were hovering. Then he splashed. He was swept downstream, still clutching his staff and trying to regain his footing while keeping his head above water. The current had spun him around so that he was facing the bank he had come from when his left shoulder crashed into a large rock which broke the surface. Despite the pain, he remained clear-headed enough to thrust the end of his staff into the rocks below. Then, he crawled up on the big one and saw that he was actually closer to the other side now, though not by the path he would have wished. And testing the water with the staff, he found it only about knee deep. Stepping down once more, he made his way to the other side and began climbing the bank.
He had brought no means to start a fire, not having intended to be out into the night. Besides, he did not want to be seen. Fortunately, it was not cold enough to get frostbite yet. He walked back upstream to the ford and was able to find the other side of the path in the dim light. This time, drenched and dripping, he would be going up as the path curved around the next hill. He realized that in his panic he had let go of the bag that held his oiled cloak and his food. He ran back down the bank and tried to peer downstream, but it was hopeless. Everything was probably somewhere under the water by now except perhaps the oiled cloak, in which case, it was probably well downstream. Climbing again, he continued up the path in the fading light.
He began shivering. A stiff breeze was blowing, and the temperature was probably dropping though Liam could not tell. He could tell only that he felt colder. The biting wind seemed to reach a hand right through his soggy coat into his innards. So he tried jogging, not only in his haste to reach his destination but in an effort to drive away the chill, and he wished he had not lost his cloak.
After a while he began to feel a bit warmer. He could see the evening star now blinking in and out through the forest cover. Katydids and cicadas were singing because there had not yet been a freeze to kill them. It was actually a beautiful night and might have been a pleasant walk under different circumstances. All about him, lightning bugs were blinking amid the trees. Perhaps, he had exaggerated his danger from the Trows earlier, seeing that the chance of a hunting Trow's happening to come upon a lone boy walking in the mountains was not really very great. Anyway, he was not sure that he cared. Liam figured he could probably outrun it, or maybe even kill it with his hatchet. He stopped to admire the moonlight as it glowed from behind the hilltop to the east.
He was getting tired, but he had to press on. He stumbled briefly, but, at least, he was comfortable now. Soon, he wondered why he really needed to reach Pardue that night. His face collided with a shrub. He spat and backed out. What was a bush doing growing in the middle of the road? He went several yards in another direction and it seemed his feet had been knocked out from under him. Maybe, he should just crawl into bed and go to sleep. This situation would be easier to figure out in the morning. The last thing he knew was his mother's telling him to get up for breakfast. He told her that he was already up.
He awoke on a bed with layers of quilts on top of him, and opened his eyes to see a giant brown face. It was broken by a grotesque grin composed of large flat teeth spaced well apart from one another above which were two small, shiny brown eyes peering down at him. The face was attached to an enormous creature larger than any man and nearly any kind of beast Liam had ever seen which was stooping over him. Liam cried out, bounced off the bed, fell down with his foot tangled in a sheet, scrambled up again, and, seeing a door, ran and clutched at it.
It had a heavy latch about on a level with his shoulders. He fumbled with it clumsily in a panic for what seemed like a long time. Then two great warm hands slipped underneath his arms from behind and lifted him easily. They carried him over to the bed and set him back down on it. Liam screamed and thrashed about trying to escape from the iron grip. The creature turned him around, picked him up again, and drew him close, holding him against its breast and making unintelligible sounds in a deep rumble. Liam began to flail, hitting the creature's back with one fast blow after another. He might as well have been fist fighting a boulder, so hard was its flesh. After a few minutes, he gave up with aching hands. They would be bruised like his shoulder if he survived long enough.
"You would not want to eat me. My shoulder is bruised, my side, too" he cried.
He had never seen Trolls before, but he had heard a description, flesh of stone, a hide thicker than that of the fierce woolly aurochsen they tended. Rarely, one would come to the village to trade. They had only come after Liam was in bed, though. That was just as well for he had never wanted to see one. They generally avoided men anyway being lovers of the night. The ones that came to the village had never hurt anyone, but, in the village, they were outnumbered. He had been told that they were savage in the wild. When he was little, he would cry when one of the older boys would tell him about a Troll that lived in a cave and ate little boys. But that was probably a Stone Troll which this one clearly was not. The Stone Trolls were light colored and without fur, or so his father had said, and so Liam hoped. But he wanted nothing to do with any Troll, stone or whatever the ones that were not stone were called.
However, this one was still holding him against its breast, stroking his back, and making those deep rumbling sounds. It sat down in a chair by the door, set Liam on its knee, and began to bounce him, holding both of his hands and seeming to sing. Liam began to think it didn't want to eat him. But, then again, maybe it just wanted him to calm down so he didn't escape before breakfast.
Presently, it set him back down on the bed and, turning its back to him, strode to a giant table. When it turned back around, it held a pewter mug that seemed small in its hand. It then offered this to Liam with that same grotesque smile it had shown earlier, and he accepted. It was convenient size for him. After taking it, he saw that it was filled to within an inch from the top with milk. Overcome by the strangeness and fear of his situation, he had not realized how thirsty he had become. He promptly drank it all.
He then began to take stock of his surroundings. He had waked in a large room, much larger than that he had shared with his parents. The air felt warm and dry, probably because of the stove in the center. In front of him, was a wooden table while a wall to his left bore a painting of a Troll picking berries, and a lamp hung from the ceiling.
Taking a potholder, the Troll went to the stove and picked up a simmering covered pot. Carrying it to the table, it then spooned some of the contents into a wooden bowl. After completing this task, it returned to the chair and picked up a piece of yarn from a basket to the right of the chair and began to crochet. That was an odd sight. A gigantic brown hairy creature, of a greater size than many a bear, sitting in a chair and making what appeared to be a bedspread or maybe a shawl. Liam had never considered that Trolls might engage in any form of art.
His mother had crocheted, making doilies sometimes to put under lamps. Liam had hardly thought about her since leaving the ruins of his village. Now, he wondered again what the Trows would do with her. Perhaps, they would make her work in a mine until she died from lack of food and rest. He had heard how they would sometimes make sport of their captives. In fact, if they captured a person of high position or an especially hated enemy, they often kept him for many years, and though they knew little of art in general, torture they knew well.
He recalled how he had run out of the house, taking thought only for himself when if he had taken his father's spear from above the mantle, maybe he could have given his mother a chance to escape with him. Well, the spear would have been too long for the house, but he might have used a butcher knife. Or, maybe, he could have exchanged himself for her, distracting the Trow while she escaped. No, she would not have abandoned him.
After a few minutes, the Troll set down its yarn and needle, and rising from the chair, it picked Liam up and set him in a chair which, though basically of the appropriate width for his frame, reached the table. This made it appear thin for its height. The bowl, now before him, contained what appeared to be a greyish brown sort of gruel which was still steaming. This he lifted to his mouth with a wooden spoon. Since it was quite hot, he blew on it until he felt dizzy. When he finally tried some, it was salty with a twang a little like a green apple, an odd combination, not something he would normally have chosen. This, however, he did not realize until later. At the time he saw no problem and ate it all, burning his mouth in the process. When he was finished, the Troll set him down on the floor and returned to its crocheting. Liam sat in a small rocking chair he had spied along the back wall not far from the bed.
Hours seemed to pass while the Troll continued its work. Liam sighed and leaned back, yawning. Finally, the door opened and another Troll came in, one even larger than the first and wearing a brown leather skirt with a green wool shirt. It's eyes got wide when it saw him, and it said something in an even deeper voice to the smaller one. Liam stopped rocking and shifted to the front of the chair, his legs and arms tense, watching the two Trolls as they talked for a bit before the big one walked back out.
After a few minutes, it returned with an even larger companion causing Liam to wonder how big the next would be. This one must have been around six cubits, maybe more. It strode over to Liam and towered above him bearing huge hands that looked like they could tear his head off. It was said that Trolls were made of the stone of the mountains and that the strength of the mountains was in their arms.
However, it did not tear his head off. It squatted down and spoke in words he understood, though with difficulty, for they sounded rough coming from its mouth, "Hello sir. You are quite lucky indeed. A forager found you lying cold and wet and sleeping near Spruce Creek and brought you back here. We did not know if you would wake. It is dangerous for a child of men to be wandering about wet on these autumn nights." It paused and looked him over then spoke again, "My name is Bret."
Liam's voice caught in his throat. He had never been spoken to by a Troll before, not in words he understood. At last, he responded, "Liam Roberts, Sir. Thank you for your hospitality." He certainly did not want to be rude.
"And what were you doing wandering about?"
"I was trying to get to Pardue." And then it started, heavy, hopeless, chest-wrenching sobs, tears pouring out in a flood with Liam being neither able to speak nor to stop shaking. The horror, the memory of fear and death and the awareness of bondage, came in a giant wave. He had not fully felt it before because when he woke at home in his bed, he had to get away or hide. Then, behind the trough, he did not dare to make a sound. Then he was tired and focused on reaching Pardue. But now it struck him that everyone he had ever known, his comrades from childhood, his parents, they were all gone. Then there was a hand on the back of his head and a towel in his face or, maybe, a handkerchief. Anyway, he blew, and again. It was the smallest of the Trolls stroking his back now and speaking in that savage tongue.
"T-Trows... killed everybody." He was gasping. "All the village. The mastiffs, too... the goats."
"Where? Which village?"
"D-" breathing heavily, then after a minute, "Dardus."
"This news has not yet come to us."
Liam took a few slow breaths. "They came last night. They were in the house before I was awake. I know not how. They took my mother, killed my father by the bed. We have to go to Pardue, let them know the Trows are at war."
Bret gazed into his eyes for a long moment before speaking, "I will go. They may not attack Pardue, but the men should be told. You shall stay here. You came close to death tonight." He spoke with the other Trolls in their tongue for a moment before turning to the door.
"Oh, you may call this one Hilda," he said, turning back and gesturing at the middle sized Troll, "And this one Freda. She is the daughter of Hilda. She will be your caretaker until you find a family of your own kind, perhaps in Pardue though it may not be safe there. We must wait and see."
Bret warned the villagers, but the Trows did not come to Pardue. Nevertheless, Liam feared to live there because of the terror of them, and not lightly would they attack a Troll clan. To his own wonder, he grew to love the Trolls that once he had feared. Indeed, he came to love Freda as a mother and she him. Perhaps alone among men, he was fostered by them and learned their tongue, and, to a few, he taught a bit of his own and came to know them as his own kin. He found even that Brett shared his love of chestnuts and that Hilda made a pies with them. The Trolls were quite good at cooking with nuts and wild fruits.
Liam learned, also, to live alone in the mountains and to walk quiet as the cat that stalks the hare in the snow as is sung in the Lay of the Lynx. Though the melody and the rhythm are here lost, the sense of two verses is rendered:
Over and over and over again, he dreamed of the night he fled the house alone.
As he dreamed, he brooded. As he brooded, the memory, the knowledge,
the existence of the bastard children of cold and darkness, the twisted
handiwork of the Jotun, gnawed like a maggot in his mind.
Thus began the story of Liam Shadowfoot, Liam the Lynx,
who crept silently on evil creatures in the dark. And the last sight
of many who had robbed of child and friend and brother and with murder
had poisoned the night was the head of Liam's arrow covered in blood
in the moonlight or the gleam of his bronze dagger in the shadow.
© 2009 Glenn Hackney
Bio: Glenn Hackney was born in Macon, Georgia in 1966 and now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. He earned a bachelor's degree in biology in 1988 and a non-thesis master's in microbiology in 1995. His writing tends toward dark fantasy. The world about which he is writing (in this piece, for example) contains both science fiction and fantasy elements.
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