CHAPTER 4: GHEEN
Gheen watched the insect flit from leaf to leaf on the low shrub. It was gzz, what the humans called a horsefly. Horsefly is a stupid name, he thought. It didn’t look like a horse or sound like one. It sounded like “gzzz” in your ear. Human used poor words. How smart could they be if they always used the wrong names for things? (If they so smart, why always did they use wrong words?) Just an example…I’d like you to work on Gheen’s cadence. It might help if it is noticeably different, if it gives us a sense that he speaks another language.
He inched an open palm toward the gzz from behind the bug, where it didn’t see well. He paused as the thing settled on a leaf and shook its tiny wings once, twice. Before it could flutter a third time, his hand flashed forward, stunning the insect and trapping it in a closed fist.
The troll smiled. He shook his fist sharply to daze the creature within, and then popped it into his mouth. He rolled it across his tongue, savoring the sharp, gritty taste.
He glanced across at the human. The pakh-hu Cullen fidgeted with blades of grass and bracken stems.
“Why does Cullen-thing do this thing?” he asked the human.
“Do what?” Cullen said.
Gheen pointed at the grass, now plaited into a small rectangle with repeated patterns in the weave.
The human started, like a troll youngling with his hand caught in the ghor-nok. He tossed the grass-thing to the ground.
“It’s just a habit,” Cullen said. “Just something to pass the time.”
Gheen scratched himself and smiled. “Teach Gheen to make habb-et with weeds.”
The human covered it with his foot. “No, it’s not a habbet, it’s called a— Okay, fine. Yes, it’s called a habbet.”
Gheen pointed at the pakh-hu’s foot. “Show what you dropped.”
Cullen shifted and made a strange expression. Gheen wished he could better read the pakh-hu’s face. Like their words, their faces carried confusing meanings.
“That one was bad,” Cullen said. “I’ll show you how to make a better one. Easy to do.” He ground the thing underfoot.
Gheen raised an eyebrow. What was the pakh-hu—the hooman—doing?
“Is there meaning in the pattern of grass?” he asked.
Cullen shook his head. “No. I used to make these for my daughter at home.”
“Then why you destroy with your foot?” Gheen shouldered Cullen aside and reached down to retrieve the object from the ground. The pattern of woven lines was just recognizable in the tattered remnant. He pointed to the skies. “Warriors of the Heavens give skills to all, even to hoomans. It is wrong to destroy thing made by such skill.”
Cullen snorted. “Warriors of the Heavens? Heavenly creatures may do such things for trolls, but they don’t involve themselves in the lives of humans.”
The troll shook his head and carefully pocketed the plaited grass. “Cullen not know.”
Grimmum appeared through the trees, with Malbah and Wogan close behind.
Gheen shot to his feet and bowed his head to the troll leader.
“The pakh-hu Cullen is in your charge. If he attempts to escape, kill him. If he leaves your care, I will take your head.”
Gheen touched his forehead in assent.
* * * * *
Grimmun led the party off the Scarp and down onto the northern plains as the sun fell into the west. Gheen watched Cullen and Wogan-thing as they picked their way down the slope. Though their facial expressions remained a mystery, it was clear that Cullen didn’t like the other pakh-hu. For what reason? Weren’t they both of the same skin? Gheen wondered at the way these creatures treated one another. He’d been taught the Kinship of Trolls from an early age. Trolls, no matter caste or rank or clan, treated each other with honor. He shook his head. Pakh-hu—humans—had no such teaching and were only animals.
* * * * *
They set a brisk pace, marching northward to clear the edge of the forest and then, thankfully, eastward toward the distant peaks and home. It would be good to cross the river and leave the human lands, Gheen thought.
He settled in, loping along beside Cullen. Though the human was a full head shorter and scrawny, he kept up with the trolls’ pace.
The moon rose in the early evening and a chill breeze blew down from the northern wastes.
“Will you try to flee from us?” Gheen asked, panting.
Cullen shook his head from side to side.
Gheen nodded at that. He recognized the gesture shared by trolls and humans. “Can trolls trust the word of a pakh-hu?”
Cullen laughed. “Do trolls always talk so much?”
The moon rose clear of the mountains ahead of them, casting silvery light on the plains.
“Why run at night?” the human asked.
Gheen grunted. “Might be pakh-hu tracking parties on plains in day.” He watched as the human gazed northward. “Do not forget the words of Grimmun. It will not go well for you—or me—if you try to escape.”
Cullen spat. “Gheen, I don’t care a lick about your tribe or clan or whatever you call it. They could all be swallowed up by this demon creature and I wouldn’t weep. But I gave Grimmun my word that I would do what I could to help. In return, all the humans, all the pakh-hu’s, will be freed. If they aren’t, if Grimmun is false, my people will come to your precious mountains and kill every troll living, demon or no.”
The human looked up at the troll loping along beside him. “I like you Gheen, if that isn’t some kind of heresy. I’d hate to have to kill you, if it comes to that.”
Gheen gave a panting, rumbling chuckle. “I am glad Cullen pakh-hu an can make joke.” He looked down at the human, but Cullen wasn’t laughing.
* * * * *
When the moon was high overhead, Grimmun called a halt beside a broad streambed. Chest-high banks and low thickets of arrowbrush and chokeberry gave enough cover for the entire party to spread out without being seen.
Gheen pulled off his pack, sat against the bank and took out a large seedcake. He broke off a chunk and began to gnaw at it.
Cullen stood a little apart, scenting the breeze and turning this way and that.
“What does Cullen-thing smell?” Gheen asked.
The human didn’t speak for a moment, but stood, as if savoring the taste of the breeze. After a moment he pointed and said, “There’s a herd of aurochs and antelope away north a league or so. It’s moving eastward as well.”
Gheen chuckled again. “You tell this from sniffer?”
Cullen nodded and pointed southward. “Grimmun and Malbah are a hundred yards south and east, probably looking at the way ahead. Wogan is in the same area, but I can’t smell humans as well. They don’t stink like trolls.” He faced north again. “Toleg and Burnah are at the stream in that direction, fifty yards, in a patch of chokeberry. May they choke for what they did to Arden Luck.”
Cullen turned to face west. He sniffed, shook his head and sniffed again. “The other troll, Tail, is—”
“Gurmah,” Gheen said. “He is Gurmah. He has no tail.”
“Gurmah, then, is back behind us somewhere.”
Gheen nodded and motioned for Cullen to sit. “Eat, Cullen-thing. Keep up strength. Fill skins with water if you won’t drink wine.”
He chewed for a moment, then said, “You are good sniffer. Grimmun and Wogan-thing chose well when they pick you to find the stolen trolls.”
Cullen took off his pack and sat. He broke off a bit of the dense cake and chewed for a while, taking sips from his skin at intervals.
“What do you know about these disappearances, Gheen? Did you know those who were taken?”
Gheen nodded. “Is always the oldest and wisest ones; never the young. Those who go, the gray demon calls them in their dreams,” he said. “Demon is from Morag, the Dark Place. Who else has power to enter dreams?”
“There are no such things as demons, Gheen.”
Gheen looked at the pakh-hu in the darkness. Of course there are demons. How could anyone say such a nonsense thing? “Cullen not know,” he said with a dark, petulant look. He chewed in silence for a while. “You must find them, human.”
“I gave my word to Grimmun that I would try.”
“Do not try. Do. You must.”
Cullen shook his head in the pale moonlight. “It’s urgent for you, is it? Imagine that, Gheen. I do this for my reasons—to help those humans you trolls hold captive, not from the goodness of my heart. There is no ‘goodness of my heart’ where trolls are concerned. Your people enslave and kill and eat my people. You eat my people!” he repeated. “Don’t you see that’s wrong? My wife, Magda, died in a troll raid when she tried to run from our burning house. My daughter Jana—my Isabo’s twin—tried to help her. I watched as a fat, hulking troll bashed that little girl against a tree, killing her on the spot. I killed him with my bare hands after I hunted him down.”
He took a long drink from the skin, then went to the stream to refill it. When he returned, he sat against the bank and closed his eyes. “Gheen, I said before there’s no such thing as demons, but I was wrong. It’s you and your kind. I will rescue my people from the demons any way that I can. If it takes going under a damned mountain to free a few trolls, I’ll do that.”
Troll and human sat silent for long moments. The wind whistled in the grass and the thickets, gusted a few times and then dropped. From northward came the heavy lowing of the aurochs grazing in the darkness.
Gheen reached into his pack and pulled out a small bundle wrapped in leaves. It smelled faintly of wood smoke. “Cullen, can I tell you a thing?”
He waited, silent, until Cullen said yes.
“I am Gheen, the son of Guruk and Ama. I am only a mountain troll of low caste. Grimmun is high troll of different caste. He will be leader of my clan one day. We are different, but of the same Three Rivers clan. Grimmun and Gheen could never be friends, but we honor each other because we wear same skin. Trollim duruk is most important thing among trolls.”
He continued without looking at Cullen. “What is word for all humans who are of your family? Your Magda and children and brothers and cousins?”
“Kin,” Cullen said. “They are—were—my kin.”
Gheen grunted. “Trollim duruk is kinship of trolls. No troll would dishonor another, though we are of different caste. Does Cullen understand?”
“Second most important for trolls thing is to show honor to bravest foes in battle. We do this with amok jala, Feast of Warriors. From your words Gheen knows it is shameful for humans to eat others’ flesh, but for us is the way to share in their bravery.”
He held up the bundle. “This is amok jala for pakh-hu Arden Luck. I honor him.”
Cullen glared at the troll as realization came upon him. “It was you that killed him. What do you want me to say, troll? You want my blessing to eat my friend?”
Gheen shook his head. “It is a thing of honor.”
Gheen stared at the human. How could he not understand the importance of these things? It would have been shameful, even sacrilegious, to leave the flesh of the human for beasts to scavenge.
At once it dawned on Gheen what the human Cullen meant. “You think me a beast, pakh-hu.” It wasn’t a question.
Cullen gave an angry laugh. “You are worse than the beasts, troll. And you seek to instruct me in the noble ways of the trolls.”
“The trollim are not evil, not beasts. Maybe we learn from you, and you from us.”
“Don’t hold your breath, troll.”
Gheen raised an eyebrow. “Why would Gheen hold breath?”
From their right came the sound of someone tramping along the stream bed. Grimmun and Wogan appeared.
“The time to rest is over,” Grimmun said. “Fill your water and make ready to march. It is still two days march to the river.”