Cullen sniffed to see where the trolls had gotten to. Gheen sat near a tree twenty yards away and the others were down near the stream. He turned away from Gheen, reached down and tore a few blades of mulegrass growing at his feet. He worked quickly, knotting the grass and weaving in a few pine needles. Sooner or later someone would find this camp, and with luck they’d find the message coded into the grass weave. With Ounwe’s blessing, they’d take word back to the village.
When he finished, he laid the woven message beside the stump and placed a small twig atop it.
Gheen grunted and stirred and Cullen turned his attention to his rucksack. Everything seemed to be there, except his knife. The trolls—or Wogan—added three large seed cakes wrapped in leaves and some dried fruit. Strapped to the pack was another skin of wine. He sniffed at it and recoiled.
“Gheen!” he shouted.
The troll stood and lumbered forward from the trees, looked cautiously to locate Grimmun, and then approached Cullen. He didn’t speak.
Cullen threw the skin to Gheen, who caught it and frowned. “What does Cullen-thing want from Gheen? Why give this to me?”
Might as well have a friend, even a stupid one. “It’s what we humans do, Gheen of the Three Valleys Clan. We give things to each other. Besides, your drink is too strong for me. What do you call the stuff?”
The troll scratched himself and cast a quizzical eye at Cullen. “It is called wine.”
At the fire, two trolls butchered a large animal. Cullen couldn’t make out the carcass. A deer? Strips of meat hung on a tripod over a low, smoky fire. One of the trolls draped a skin over the tripod and fire to enclose the meat. He nodded. They were smoking the meat in preparation for the journey to the mountains. Cullen considered. That much meat would take at least another day to dry, yet Wogan said they would leave soon.
“Gheen,” he said, “aren’t those trolls coming with us? It will take some time to smoke all the meat from the deer.”
The troll shifted, but didn’t meet the scout’s gaze. “No. They follow us in another day when the . . . deer is dried.”
* * * * *
They traveled throughout the day, always north and east. Cullen wondered at the trolls’ unaccountable speed and relative silence. He’d encountered trolls many times over the years, sometimes tracking them for a week or more. He tracked them by scent alone or by the signs of their careless passage: trampled grass, discarded skins, still-smoldering cook fires. But until Grimmun and these Three Valley trolls, he’d never known them to worry about leaving signs of their movement.
They walked in a file, first Grimmun, then another troll called Malbah, then Wogan and Cullen, followed by Gheen. At some distance behind came another troll, whose name Cullen hadn’t heard.
He watched Grimmun and the other troll pick their way through the forest. They were concerned with the signs they left behind, but not overly so. Grimmun approached, considered, and then circled a muddy patch, careful not to leave tracks, but then bulled through a copse of young alders, snapping branches and trampling the soft grasses beneath. They also made more noise than any self-respecting scout. For all that, they were far stealthier than any band of trolls he’d ever seen.
Cullen puzzled. Someone had taught them the rudiments of stealthy movement. If trolls could learn this, they might grow bold and their raids more frequent and deadly.
“Wogan,” he said. “Where did these trolls learn scout craft? Who taught them?”
The slave stumbled over a root and sprawled headlong in the dirt.
“Not from you, I warrant,” Cullen said, lifting Wogan to his feet.
The man pulled away from him. “It’s not for me to say,” he muttered.
“You haven’t given me a direct answer since I met you.”
Wogan shook his head and lowered his eyes. “It’s not my place..”
* * * * *
Cullen crouched beside a boulder atop the Scarp, a low ridge on the edge of the Dimwood. The Scarp looked northward over a green, rolling plain. Far to the north, he just made out the rise of the Chalk Cliffs. Somewhere at the base of those cliffs lay the human stronghold of Cleft. With luck, they had hunting parties out. Far to the east, the Blue Mountains rose—the home of the trolls and their apparent destination.
He twisted a few blades of grass into a pattern and dropped it to the ground, nudging it against the boulder with the edge of his foot. Despite Grimmun’s earlier comment, he doubted they’d be in a hurry to kill him. Still, the troll leader wouldn’t take it well if he were obviously leaving signs for someone to follow.
After a week trekking through the eastern reaches of the forest, Cullen gave Grimmun and Malbah grudging respect. They’d led the group quickly and silently. Cullen approved of the silent travel, both for trolls’ budding wood-sense and because he had no desire to speak to them. They’d tell him in their own time why they captured him.
* * * * *
Cullen closed his eyes, breathed once, then again, and tasted the air. He turned and sniffed. Grimmun and Malbah lay ahead, near the top of the ridge. Gheen was fifty yards to the left, pissing behind a rock; Cullen wrinkled his nose at the acrid waft. The fourth troll remained below, back along the trail. Cullen shifted, trying to localize its scent.
Grimmun and his companion gave off the rotten apple, bad cheese odor Cullen associated with trolls. To this, Gheen added the rancid scent of troll wine. He’d drunk his own skin of wine along the trek as well as that which Cullen had given him, slopping much of it down his front.
The fourth troll—Cullen named him Tail—was harder to locate. He’d fallen into a swift-moving stream two days ago and just managed to pull himself out. Since then, Cullen struggled to detect him, especially since he followed far behind.
Cullen shook his head. He knew his own gift for scent was rare, but Tail aside, these trolls just plain stank. It was well that trolls didn’t think much of bathing; otherwise they’d be more difficult to track.
“Wogan,” he said.
The little man puttered about the small cook fire preparing the noon meal. “I’m busy, Cullen,” he said.
“Just give me a moment,” Cullen said.
Wogan placed the cookpot on the ground. “What is it?”
“I want to try something. Stand here and close your eyes.”
“Cullen, I don’t have time—”
“Just do it.”
The old man shook his head, but closed his eyes.
“Point to where Grimmun and Malbah are.”
“Can you smell them?”
“I’m no scout, Cullen. That’s why they need you.”
Wogan closed his eyes and sighed. “I don’t know.” He pointed in a vague northward direction up the ridge.
“Now Gheen,” Cullen said. “Where is Gheen?”
Wogan shook his head, paused, and pointed to the right.
“Pah! You’re not even close. You’ve been among them too long.” He stood and stretched, which was difficult because of his bonds.
He stopped. A thought came to him. “Wogan, those trolls know some scout craft. A scout taught them, or tried to. Do any trolls have my scent gift?”
The wiry old man shook his head. “No. I’ve never seen a troll with the gift. We—they—captured only a few human scouts in my time with them. Just one scout, a woman named Dannick, had it. It’s rare in humans and I’ve never seen it in trolls.”
Cullen considered. “I knew Dannick. She was from Tall Grass, away in the southern plains. She tracked a runaway boy almost twenty leagues on foot through the grasslands.”
He eyed Wogan and spat on the ground. “She was smart. Too smart to fall into such a simple trap as I did. Did you betray her to the trolls too?”
“No, not me,” Wogan said, shaking his head. “It was another.”
From the valley below them came a low, just audible “Holoo!”
Gheen appeared from behind the pines to Cullen’s left. He faced down the hill and repeated the sound.
A moment later came an answering call, repeated twice.
Gheen smiled, his tusks flashing against his pasty gray-green skin. He turned to Cullen. “Toleg and Burnah come. They stay to smoke the . . . meat.”
“Venison?” Cullen asked, with a dark glare.
The troll dropped his eyes and muttered, “Venison.”
“It’s Arden Luck, isn’t it?” Cullen snapped at Wogan. “My companion, whom the trolls slew?”
Wogan nodded, but didn’t look away. “It is.”
“And if I refuse to help Grimmun, the same will happen to me.”
Wogan shrugged, then nodded.
Cullen glared at the troll slave. He couldn’t think of Wogan as human. “You eat man-flesh as well?”
Wogan looked at the ground. “It is only for trolls.”
* * * * *
An hour later the trolls gathered at crest of the ridge. They conversed in low, guttural tones in their own language.
Cullen and Wogan stood twenty yards down the Scarp preparing their gear for the march north and east toward the mountains.
Wogan drew a knife from his pack and passed it to Cullen. “We’re going out onto the open plains and need to move swiftly. Grimmun gave permission for me to return this to you. You may cut your bonds.”
“Grimmun gave permission, eh? You’ll have to thank your master for me.” Cullen drew the knife through the cords at his hands and feet. He examined the supple material for moment and stuffed it into his pack.
“How did you know me, Wogan? Where are you from?” he asked.
Wogan cinched his pack tight and hefted it onto his shoulders. “I grew up in Stone Bow away west along the southern edge of the forest. Arden Luck was a sort of cousin. I knew he tracked with you on occasion.”
Cullen shook his head. “You knew him and let the trolls kill him in order to capture me? I should kill you now out of respect to the man.”
“Do as you will, Cullen. Use the knife Grimmun returned to you. But know that you’ll be dead—or worse—if you do. I regret Luck’s death. He was a close friend of my family. But we’re trying to stop something far worse than anything you could imagine. Fighters like Luck are important, but you’re more so. Please, don’t resist the trolls.”
Cullen spat on the ground. “It’s time to end this, Wogan,” he said. Without a pause, he seized Wogan by the arm and held the knife to his throat. The fierce, sharp blade drew a thin line of crimson across the old man’s throat.
Wogan didn’t flinch.
“Grimmun!” Cullen shouted. “Come rescue your slave.”
A collective growl rose from the top of the ridge. Within seconds, each of the trolls had a scimitar or long knife in his hand. Malbah and Gheen drew near.
Grimmun growled a command. The two halted and all the trolls sheathed their weapons.
“Wogan-thing,” Grimmun said with a touch of anger, “you have served me. Die now.”
At that, Wogan lunged against the blade at his throat.
Cullen jerked the knife away in horror.
Blood coursed down Wogan’s chest, but the man still stood. “I am sorry, Grimmun-ush,” he said, dropping to his knees. “I was unable.”
“Enough!” Grimmun roared. His shout echoed from the trees. “We’ve no time for this. Cullen, bind his wound!”
“Bind it yourself, troll pig.” Cullen wiped the knife clean on his sleeve and returned it to its sheath.
Grimmun growled. “Do you think I’ll not kill you, human?”
“No, troll, I don’t think so. You need me. For what, I don’t know. Tell me now why you need a scout to help you or let me go. Or kill me.”
The troll scowled—or at least his face twisted into what Cullen took for a scowl. He made a harsh, phlegmy sound deep in his throat, spoke a few words in trollish, then walked away toward the top of the Scarp.
Gheen, Malbah and the other trolls stared wide-eyed at their leader.
Wogan moved to stand beside Cullen. Blood soaked his shirt.
“What just happened?” Cullen asked.
“Go to him, Cullen, now. He said nothing is more important than bringing you whole to the camps in the mountains. He’ll tell you what you want to know.”
* * * * *
Grimmun stood beside a lightning-blasted tree at the crest of the ridge. He gazed eastward along the edge of the forest to the peaks of the Blue Mountains in the far distance.
Cullen couldn’t read the troll’s expression. Maybe it was the upturned tusks or the sneer baked into the creatures’ faces. He sensed that some of the anger was gone from Grimmun, but he couldn’t tell what emotion took its place.
“Wogan said you would speak to me, Grimmun.”
The troll looked at him, then turned back to the mountains.
“What do you know, Cullen, of the dark things under the earth?”
Cullen chuckled. “Fairy stories?”
The troll snarled and shook his head. “No, human. I speak of the dark, evil things that live in the belly of the earth.”
Evil? Cullen hawked and spat. He contemplated a remark about trolls who raided human lands. “I’ve never seen such things,” he said. “I’ve no reason to think there are malevolent, evil creatures, at least not under the ground. They’re tales told to scare children.”
Grimmun glared at him. His pig-like snout twitched. “You’re a fool. Do you think there are no wind golems or even cave rats because you’ve never seen one?” He waved an arm to the mountains now gray and orange in the afternoon sun. “Do you see the double peak to the right? Those are The Guardians. In their valleys live my people, my clan. Some of your people live there as well.”
“Come to the point, Grimmun.”
“Something is stealing my people.”
Cullen leaned back and laughed, long and hard. Great peals of laughter echoed from the ridge. Grimmun stood silent, waiting for him to finish.
At last, Grimmun cuffed Cullen, knocking him to the ground.
“Enough,” he shouted. “You insolence angers me.”
Cullen stood and wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes, but when he finished his face was set and grim. “Grimmun, your clownish arrogance makes me want to vomit. Ounwe’s arse! How could you think I’d help you after your kind has killed and kidnapped my people for generations?”
“Cullen, Wogan-thing tells me you have younglings, a daughter and a son. Perhaps they also have the scent gift.”
“Troll, are you threatening my family? How long has it been since humans and trolls fought in open war? A generation? It can happen again.”
Grimmun growled low in his throat and clenched the hilt of the sword at his hip. “Don’t anger me further, human.”
The two glared at each other for tense moments. At last Grimmun chuckled. “You are a fierce one. You would make a fine troll.”
“Is that meant to be a compliment? I’ll never understand your kind, troll.”
Grimmun shrugged. “I don’t ask you to do that, but to find my people.”
Cullen grunted. “When this is done, I will walk free, as will any other humans you’ve taken.”
This caused Grimmun to laugh. “We’ll discuss terms of this understanding when we arrive at our camp in the mountains. But yes, if you find our people, you’ll be freed.”
“How do you know it wasn’t another troll clan who took your . . . people?” Cullen asked. It was hard to think of trolls as people. Humans were people. Trolls were creatures.
“All clans lose trolls,” Grimmun said. “Three Valleys Clan, the Stone Breakers, the Deep River clan. All. It is not trolls doing this thing against us.”
“What thing? Where have they gone? Tell me what in blazes you think I can do, Grimmun.”
“They’ve gone into the mountain. We need you to find them, human. Or find what became of them.”
Cullen looked from the troll to the mountain and back again. “I need a drink.”
Grimmun raised a bushy dark eyebrow, but handed his wineskin to the human without a word.
“Two seasons ago, our old ones began to have dark, terrible dreams, terrifying dreams. They left our camps and went into the caves. They would not be stopped. They said a gray thing called to them, bidding them to come. ‘Aruk he is called, and he will slay all if we do not come,’ they told us.
“We followed them into the caves and down to the very limits of our tunnels. We found a new opening none had seen before, a new tunnel. It was as if some great beast had chewed its way up through the stone from the fires of Morag itself.”
Cullen sniffed. Grimmun’s scent had changed. The troll was afraid.
He uncorked the skin, held his breath and swallowed a draught of the nasty stuff, then handed it back. The foul wine burned his throat and he suppressed the urge to spew it out.
“You couldn’t block the tunnel or keep them from going in?”
Grimmun swallowed deep from the skin and shook his head. “We filled in the entrance to the tunnel, but they pulled at the rocks until their claws bled. We restrained them with cords, but they cursed and spat and howled until we released them. When we let them go, they went straight to the tunnel and entered in. Our hunters and scouts followed them, but it was as if some power drew them in hidden ways through the tunnels. We could not find them. We lost many hunters seeking after them.”
“How many have gone?”
“Dozens from Three Rivers Clan. As many from the other clans.”
The tall troll glanced down at Cullen. “The first was Urgan, once chief of our clan. Our shaman, the Holy One of the Three Valleys Clan, said we needed a human scout with the scent gift. You’re not the first scout we captured.”
Cullen nodded and whistled low. “Dannick, I know. She’s smart. Was it she who taught you scout craft?”
Grimmun would not meet his gaze. “We learned much from Dannick-thing. She could not find the old ones, though she was tracked them far under the mountain. Only someone with the scent gift can find their way through the maze of tunnels.”
“What happened to her?”
The troll secured the skin to his pack.
“Grimmun, damn your eyes, what happened to her?”
“She made several journeys deep in the tunnels. She found a cavern with a black river far under the mountain. There she lost the scent. On the last journey Dannick-thing did not return to the mouth of the tunnel. We entered in as far as we dared. That’s where we found her. Her body was whole, but some thing flayed her mind. She raved and gibbered like a wild thing and died in terror a few days after. None have gone searching since then, though every few weeks Aruk calls more trolls into the caves.”
Grimmun glowered at Cullen, but the human saw something—desperation?—in his features.
“Human, if you can find our people or find the thing that is doing this, the Holy One and the leaders of the other clans will reward you—and set you free.”
“Grimmun, I’ll do this for the trolls, but my price will be high.”