Cullen raised two fingers, drew one across his left eye and motioned to the left. Two trolls, no lookout. I’ll circle to the left.
The trolls were camped in a narrow valley beside a stony rivulet. Cullen crept around pines and lichen-covered clumps of granite, careful to avoid twigs and loose stones that might betray his presence. He glanced backward to see the fighter camouflaging his position with branches and loose grass.
Quiet, Luck, Cullen pleaded to himself. Luck fought well, but stealth was not in his nature.
He inched forward to gain a view down into the valley. A troll turned a rabbit on a spit over a large greenwood cook fire. Even from this distance its pale green skin, thick tusks, and turned up snout were clear. Blue Mountain trolls, of course. They weren’t very smart. In the hazy dusk the smoke billowed. The trolls were getting sloppy. He pondered for a moment then slowly moved to put the camp between himself and Luck.
The troll at the fire muttered something in its harsh guttural language and laughed. Where was his companion? Cullen paused to sniff the failing breeze. Nothing. The damned smoke obscured their smell. He craned his neck to see down into the valley. From his vantage point, only part of the encampment was visible, but across the small stream from the cook fire rose a jumble of boulders. The other troll must be there. Then again, he might still be looking out for game. A single rabbit that size would barely feed a single troll, let alone two.
The troll at the fire uttered another harsh, croaking laugh and continued his conversation, looking at someone or something amidst the boulders.
Cullen withdrew from the edge of the defile to try for a better scent. Still nothing. He paused. No, not nothing. He focused and there it was—the sharp tang of troll stink amid the overpowering resiny pine smoke. On a good day with clear air, his scout’s nose could detect trolls from hundreds of yards away. It was the stink of rotting apples overlaid with old cheese. He marveled that others had such a hard time distinguishing it. Even Luck had struggled to find the scent on the Dead Plain until they were nearly on top of the troll camp they’d found. Well, that was why he was the scout and not Luck. On a good day he could even identify individuals among the troll party. This was not a good day.
The woods were silent, gloomy in the fading light. Below, the occasional crackle and sputter of pine boughs being fed into the fire. Cullen moved forward again to peer into the narrow valley. The single troll still sat piling branches onto a fire that now engulfed the rabbit on its spit. In the glare of firelight, the troll smirked and muttered.
He’s burning that rabbit, and with all that smoke it’s going to taste like…. Damn!
Cullen straightened and broke into a sprint, heedless of the noise. He drew his short sword and prayed that Luck’s attempt at camouflage was successful. He cursed the trolls and himself. Lured into a trap like the simplest child.
At a dead run he rounded the stand of trees to find the second troll standing over Luck’s body, licking the hunter’s blood from a jagged black knife. Cullen didn’t break stride, but charged, driving his sword straight at the creature’s chest. Its boiled-leather armor turned the blade, but the force of the attack knocked the troll backward against the trunk of a twisted pine.
The green-skinned brute lashed out with the knife, slashing at the scout’s face. Cullen jerked back, but searing pain shot from his jaw to his ear.
Cullen swung again, hoping at least to knock the troll off balance. He was tall, but the ugly creature stood half a head taller and a full two stone heavier. His blade cut deep into the troll’s upper arm. It howled in pain. Cullen backhanded his sword hilt into the thing’s jaw with a satisfying crack. He also heard the troll’s companion crash through the underbrush behind him, thirty yards away.
Cullen considered his position for the space of a heartbeat, slashed again at the troll and ran. Luck was dead, his lifeblood now soaking into the forest floor. Luck—a poor name if there ever was one.
He ran knowing at least one troll drew close behind him. The woods were dark, but he had a reasonable idea where he was. He darted from cover to cover, angling for the top of the ridge. Once on the other side he’d make better time and lose his pursuers in the steep valleys leading down toward the river.
How had this hunt gone so far wrong? The trolls’ almost meandering track onto the Dead Plains and back to the forest, and now this. It made no sense.
Cullen fumbled in his pockets and found his kerchief. He pressed it to his face to staunch the blood now streaming from the knife slash. He grimaced at the pain and at his situation. When things come apart, they come apart.
An arrow whistled past his ear and thunked into a tree ahead of him. Fifty yards more and he would be over the ridge crest.
From behind came the deep, “Holoo!” of the troll’s hunting call and then the answering call of another troll in front of him. The answer came from the top of the ridge.
It just gets deeper and deeper. The injured troll couldn’t have gotten ahead of him. Three trolls? Where to go now? To the right lay a clump of boulders, to the left a clutter of deadfall trunks and branches.
Cullen sprinted for the boulder pile. Trolls were big and fierce, but they couldn’t match humans for agility. He could lose them. He must lose them.
“Holoo!” again from behind, then answered from the ridge. They were herding him. Cullen’s heart sank within him. It was a trap. The easy trail from the Plains, the ridiculous smoky fire. What kind of pitiful scout was he?
To hell with that. He leapt onto a waist-high chunk of granite and turned. That smell returned—rotten apples and old cheese. Troll stink. His face burned and blood now flowed from his slashed face, soaking his chest. His head throbbed. Sprinting up the ridge wasn’t a wise thing to do, but he was alive for now. His knees grew shaky.
“Come to me, trolls!” he shouted. “I’ll kill you here or I can hunt you down!”
In front of him the troll from the fire emerged from the woods. It laughed. “Throw your sword to the ground, human!”
“No, troll. Come closer.”
The troll shook his head and drew his bow. “I can kill you now, ugly human. Throw your sword to the ground!”
Cullen wavered and his vision swam. The troll spoke—and in the common tongue. Could they do that?
The troll put two fingers to his mouth and whistled. From below appeared the other troll, the one he’d fought over the corpse of Arden Luck. Its jaw was swollen and its right arm, drenched with blood, hung limp at its side. From above came two more trolls. No, a troll and a human—and the human wore a metal collar. A prisoner?
Cullen shook his head and a jet of pain lanced across his face. Blood flowed free from the slash. He reached up to touch his cheek and felt naked bone. This is wrong, all wrong. The iron taste of blood filled his mouth. He waved his sword from one troll to another. His knees buckled, and he fell.
* * * * *
Cullen awoke to a fuzzy light filtering through the trees. His face felt . . . numb. It should throb with pain from a slash like that. He tried to raise his hand to his face, but his hands were bound with a leather thong. He brought both hands up. A rough cloth bandage covered the side of his face.
“Don’t touch it. Let it heal.”
He opened an eye to see who spoke, but couldn’t quite focus. Where was he? What happened? Trolls. There was a battle. Well, a fight anyway. It came back: the troll at the fire, running up the hill, Luck’s body, the human with the trolls. A renegade? No, he had a collar. A slave or prisoner, then.
“Why can’t I see straight? What happened to my face? Did you bandage me? Cut me loose!”
“Quiet. Grimmun will want to leave soon and you must eat.”
“Take this. Hold out your hands.”
Something hot and greasy pressed into his hands. He sniffed at it. Rabbit. He bit into the haunch and chewed. The well-seasoned meat settled his sour stomach. This wasn’t the rabbit the troll burned in the fire last night.
“Grimmun is a warrior scout of the Three Valleys troll clan. I am Wogan. ’I’m a healer and I cook for the trolls. I belong to Grimmun, and now you do too.”
“What?” Cullen said, almost choking on the rabbit. “Humans don’t ‘belong’ to trolls. That’s nonsense.”
Wogan shrugged, but said, “Do not say that or they’ll hear. They won’t hesitate to kill a slave. Even you.”
“Even me? What does that mean?”
Wogan didn’t reply, but after a moment said, “Let me check your bandages.”
His eyes cleared a bit. As the man knelt before him, Cullen squinted. He could just make out Wogan, a lean, gray-haired figure dressed in rough skins. The man touched the bandage on his face with deft fingers.
“How does it feel?” Wogan asked.
Cullen worked his jaw and tried to decide if it hurt. It didn’t, for some reason. As with his eyes, he found it hard to focus his mind.
“It’s sore, but should hurt like hell. He split my cheek wide open.”
Wogan pressed the back of his hand to the bandage. “It doesn’t feel warm, so not much infection yet. As for the pain, I stitched you up and got some mandragora and licorice root down your throat last night. That’s also why your vision is a little off. It will clear and the pain will return. Now be quiet and eat. Grimmun returns soon.”
The healer turned, picked up a skin, and tossed it at Cullen’s feet. “Drink as much of this as you can stand. It’s what passes for trollish wine. You won’t like it much, but it will keep you on your feet.”
Cullen picked it up, fumbled to open the skin and tasted. He shuddered and spat out the vile liquid. “Ounwe’s teeth! What is that, fermented pine sap?”
To Cullen’s surprise, Wogan picked up a thick stick and swung it deftly, catching Cullen on the chin. “Don’t despise the generosity of Grimmun, Gabril Cullen!”
Cullen leapt to his feet – and tumbled to the ground. He hadn’t noticed the leather thong binding his feet. “Damn your skin, Wogan! Whose side are you on?” He struggled back to his feet. “And how do you know my name?”
Wogan shrugged again. “As to whose side, I told you that I belong to Grimmun the troll. I know your name because I sought you out. I led the trolls to you and helped them to lure and capture you.”
“Why would you do this?”
“Because, Cullen, the trolls need you.”
* * * * *
Cullen blinked and rubbed at his eyes, trying to clear the haze. At his feet lay the remains of the rabbit and the skin of putrid wine. Wogan had gone to tend to the trolls.
He examined the cord binding his hands and feet. It appeared to be supple leather, but the more he worked at it, the tighter it grew. He sat back down and tried to will his muscles to relax. The cords loosened somewhat, but not enough to remove his hands or feet. He looked around for his sword belt. It was gone, of course, and the knife he’d worn on his right hip, and his rucksack. Damn. Focus.
He breathed deeply. A stream gurgled not far away. He looked around and saw they were back in the narrow valley. Wood smoke hung light in the morning air. With some satisfaction Cullen realized that at least part of his hazy vision came from the smoke. It was a small hardwood fire, not pine. He shook his head. Wogan and the trolls had indeed played him for a fool.
The thin smoke couldn’t obscure the pervading troll stink. He turned his head and closed his eyes. In time, the bitter, musky cloud resolved into distinct scents. There were two, no, three trolls by the fire, three or more hidden among the boulders, and the fainter, human scent of Wogan. There was one more troll. Where? He turned again, sniffing. It was close by, no more than ten yards away. Cullen stood, balancing against the bonds on his hands and feet. He leaned, hoping to catch a clearer scent on the light breeze. There, in that clump of scrub oak.
“I know you’re there, troll.”
“Hur!” A deep laugh came from the knot of vegetation. With a rustling of branches a troll pushed through into the open.
“Very good, sniffer! You find me out with nose. Hah! Wogan-thing was right about you.”
It was the troll he fought yesterday, its jaw still swollen and its right arm in a loose sling. The sleeve he’d slashed now bore neat stitches, and the blood had been washed away.
The thing laughed again. It hooked a finger into its mouth and opened to show a gap in its pointed yellow teeth. “See, you knock two teeth from me! Hur! You good fighter, but we told to not kill you, else Gheen would lop off your tiny human head!”
The troll paused for a moment and examined the human. “Cullen. You are Cullen-thing. A silly human name, like Wogan-thing.” He pointed to himself. “I am Gheen, warrior of Three Valleys Clan.”
“Gheen, pakh-hu jha!”
The troll hung his head and took a step backward as Grimmun stormed across the stream and up to Cullen. Wogan and another troll followed behind him.
The troll leader unleashed a furious stream of blows at Gheen and what Cullen guessed were curses in the harsh trollish tongue. The fighter stood meekly, receiving the abuse, and then withdrew to the edge of the tangle of scrub oak, looking for all the world like a whipped dog.
Cullen blinked. His eyes cleared, yet the more he saw, the less he understood. Just two days ago, he and Arden Luck had tracked a small party of trolls, creatures he considered fierce, but not particularly intelligent. Once or twice a season they crept from their stinking camps in the Blue Mountains to raid isolated human farms and settlements. They never came in great numbers; sometimes they slaughtered those they found, and sometimes they carried them away as prisoners. Lately they’d captured more than they killed. They were barbarians at best.
Now Luck was dead and he was a captive because he underestimated the trolls. But had the trolls themselves crafted the clever trap or had Wogan done it, as he said? Either way, Wogan was a dead man.
Yet he said the trolls needed him.
“You’re Grimmun,” Cullen said.
The troll stared at him, not speaking. Was there anything behind those red-rimmed eyes and thick skull?
Wogan shot him an admonishing look and said, “Slaves do not speak to trolls unless bidden to do so.”
Cullen laughed and addressed Grimmun. “Perhaps not, but prisoners—or free men—will. What do you want from me, troll? Say your business or turn me loose.”
Grimmun remained motionless, then his face broke into a hideous grin and he gave a hearty laugh, his barrel chest rocking. “Hah! I like this one, this Cullen-thing. He has– What is the human word? Bravery? He has the bravery.” He wagged a finger at Cullen. “Be careful, Cullen-thing, you’ll scare the other human. If he is frightened, he may not see to your wounds.”
“If you need me, as the other human says, you’ll see that he does.”
Grimmun stopped laughing. “You give me commands?”
“No, Grimmun, but you are smart enough to know that if you need me, you will see that I am safe.”
“Do not value yourself over much, human. We captured you; we can kill you and capture another.”
Cullen considered. “You need a scout. Someone to hunt down others for you? That’s why you killed my companion and left me alive. Anyone can be trained to follow a set of footprints in the mud, Grimmun. My companion Luck could do that much.” He pointed to Gheen, “but not everyone has the gift, as that one says, of being a sniffer. I can track a troll by smell from a distance. But you knew that. Or Wogan did. That’s why I’m here.”
Grimmun chuckled, a deep, rumbling sound. He nodded to Wogan and walked away.
Wogan threw a bundle at Cullen. He recognized his own rucksack. It was heavier than when he last carried it.
“Prepare to travel. Grimmun graciously provisioned your pack with all that is needed for the journey to the mountains.”
Cullen eyed Wogan, slave of the trolls. “What happened to you, Wogan? Are you no longer human? Why do you do their bidding?”
Wogan lowered his eyes. “Of course I’m still human. I’m the property of—”
“The property of Grimmun. I know.”
“Make light of me if you will, Cullen, but there is more at stake than you know.”
“And what is that? Why do they need a scout?”
Wogan wrung his hands. “It is not for me to say.”
Cullen sniffed and tugged at the cords on his wrists. “You’re pathetic. I count six trolls here. I can break these cords and head over that ridge and be gone. Maybe I’ll make it and maybe I won’t, but I’ll not help these things to raid our lands and kill our people.”
“Do you think I’m the only human living among the trolls? There are hundreds of humans—our people, Cullen—living among them. They’re fighting for their lives, humans and trolls.”
“Trolls and troll slaves. Why should that concern me?”
Wogan met his eyes. “Because what they fight is a greater evil than any troll raid.”
“What could be worse than trolls?” Cullen asked.
Wogan shook his head. “I have said too much. It is for Grimmun to explain. Please, Cullen, do not resist or try to flee. They—we—are desperate for your help.”
“Maybe so,” Cullen said, “but don’t think that I’d hesitate to cut your throat.”