I have a bridge and it’s a very nice one, a simple arch of stone over a deep gully in the country that is my home, but I also have my flocks, near eighty head of goats, and I suppose you can gather which of the two, bridge or flocks, takes up most of my time. I’ve got forty names, since each name has its place and its time, but the one that men call me is Turnipseed, for the coat I wear, which is long, white like a turnip with a band of purple along the bottom hem. How that stain got there, well, better not to ask; I might tell you.
I’ve got a tall staff with a crook in it and a trio of black and white dogs who do not bark or growl at me. They don’t love me the way dogs love men, but they don’t cross me, I give them something better to do than try to bite me. I spend much of my time in pasturage, not the sort that the men of my land favor; they run cattle, which I find rather stupid and bland for all their size means more meat and milk. Then again, I’ve only myself and, on Sundays, my brothers to feed, so my needs are small. For our size, we don’t eat much. Or, at least, we don’t need to eat much.
There is a little charm which hangs from my staff, which looks like a little doll, blue tunic, red stocking cap, the brown hair and eyes, the pink cheeked face of a human girl. In my country, wise men dress their daughters in blue with red caps, but, as the years roll on, they tend to forget why. This is a symbol of my god, who was a human girl, in life, but became the foster mother of my people and of spiders besides, especially the great ones who live in the mountains. She was a goatherd, and so we think it is a good profession for a troll to take. I am the least pious of my brothers, and so it fell to me, for the benefit of my spirit, inasmuch as we are said to have spirits, if not the benefit of a soul I may not possess. I don’t trouble myself with the difference, or whether I hold either. I am from the earth and of it. My bones are like the iron in the base of the mountain, my flesh like the wood gone hard with age, and my blood, when it flows, flows dark and slow and brown like the pitch of the pine. I see many girls, still, dressed this way, some boys, too, when they are very small, and someone with milk in her eye tells the little pat of butter’s mum that a fate looks for that one. They tend not to remember, and truly, it’s not their responsibility to do so (one with wisdom leaves men with as little responsibility as one can, in truth, they are a shifty breed). Generally, we leave girls and women alone.
Except, of course, for the ones who grow big and strange to their mothers and sisters. Trollwives are what men call them, and they do at times come to us as lovers on their way to the mountains, but we would never keep them. Their troth is to the mountains, and they settle to live with none else.
In truth, it is good policy to leave men and boys by their way as well, since they tend to take our kind’s presence as cause to gather in numbers. You can kill a troll, if you take his head, and though it is a task to be sure, and we do our damndest to make it so, men are the shiftiest of creatures to walk in the world, and forgive us when we do not live up to our reputations, but it’s good policy.
This doesn’t mean we pass on a laugh when it comes riding up the road on a tall horse and shouting on our bridges.
The knight had his shiny shell on, sitting there on his horse for all the world like a steel composite crayfish taking no comfort in the protection of his shiny suit. I do suppose that the demands of honor and propriety are as uncomfortable and unnatural as any other demand men make for themselves. The horse was, likewise, uncomfortable, and its eyes told me so; horses have no honor or propriety, but they do have a love for men that is like that of dogs. It’s their business, and I won’t question, but there are times like this when I want to.
I see him better as I draw near. He draws his sword, for he knows that a man can pierce a troll more times than his god is pierced and the troll won’t have anything more than a couple more scars and another story to tell the next mountain-bound trollwife that comes over the hills. I see the colors of his banner, and I snicker. Trolls can snicker, but at a pitch too high for men to hear. Dogs wince at the sound, but my dogs are watching my flocks. At least they’d best be, for dog will do for meat where goat is gone.
His horse rears; an impressive animal, even without his balls. I’ve always been fascinated with horses. This one is fine and tall and gray. They hate trolls, though, and won’t spend time where they can smell us.
“You’ve missed your army,” I tell the man. “They were here not nine months past. Ate half of my flock.”
“I won’t need an army for you, fiend.” No, I’m not lying; he really said those words exact. If I’d laughed, maybe that would be the end of the story. The young knight would have charged me and I’d eat him with my brothers that night, the end. My body was feeling lazy and my tongue well-rested, and the man’s language, born as he was in a foreign land that took the rights to contend with the problems of this one, was new to my mouth, and I was eager to see what I could say.
“Truly, you look very strong,” I said. “And I only a simple goatherd. I’m afraid I am no match for you. I surrender.”
The knight looked on me and lowered his sword for a moment. Here is where I could have closed with him and, swinging my shepherds crook around my head, smashed his melon skull in that metal bowl on his head, but I had my lunch with me, and so I offered that to him. This, of course, only served to confuse him more.
“What are they?” he asked.
“Dumplings.” They were big as his fist, but they should have been recognizable, even to him.
“What’s in them?”
“Meat.” I smiled when I said this.
He sheathed his sword and waved the bowl away. Here is where I could have grabbed his arm and wrenched it from his shoulder as I pulled him from his saddle to trample in the scrub and aloes, but I did not feel like it. I could see a lock of fine blond hair plastered to his forehead. I saw the shine in his spurs, the nice new white belt.
“Where is your army?” I asked.
“We’ve taken this land, praise God,” he told me. “We control the capital; our nearest forces are stationed at the fortress where the rivers fork.”
“And you’re here by yourself.”
“Not entirely,” he said. “But I’ve been given this territory to protect, at my discretion.”
“I understand. You have a flock over which you watch, same as me.”
“No, not really; I’m not a shepherd,” he said and his hands almost made some fluttering toward a position of prayer. “There is only one shepherd that runs the flock of man.”
“So what does that make you? A herding dog?”
“Yes, I suppose it does.”
“What a thing to say about yourself,” I said. “And why are you seeking a troll to fight? I am flattered, but if I’m to die, I’m certain I’d like to understand why I am dying. I hear this is the way of your laws.”
“I can’t tell you if our laws extend to the protection of trolls, but perhaps you can explain a thing to me. The village with four wells has been suffering from night raids, coming from the north. The village on Shank Hill told me they thought you were to blame. The villagers in Four Wells claimed to have seen a great figure draped in rough cloth.”
He looked at my coat, my vest, my tunic, my trousers, and well, I supposed for a moment that I could be guilty.
“Damning evidence,” I said.
“The people at Shank Hill told me there is a troll that lives in these hills, under the bridge on the old mountain road.”
“This must sound very convincing to you,” I told him. “I have to admit, I am nearly convinced myself, but I swear that I had nothing to do with any raid on any village.”
“How can I possibly believe you?”
“Well, the people of Shank Hill are trustworthy men,” I told him. “When the wind blows right I smell fine steel and horseflesh on the breezes that pass through that place, but that could just be the wind. Still, if you need evidence of my innocence, I can provide that.”
I showed him. Under the yellow, dust-shrouded sun, my pastures were crinkle brown and delicate green, and my goats tortoiseshell, red and black, my dogs black and white. They circled around to growl at the stranger, but I know that one kindness shown by him and they would forget me forever, so I warned them off.
“I run these flocks myself, with only those three shiftless mongrels for help,” I said. “They can see to them for a short time, but the whole night is too long for any herdsman to be away from his charges, don’t you think?”
“I suppose it is possible.”
“There are at least two other bridges on this road to the mountains, and I am not the only troll that sees to them. It is a damned good thing, too, for, to my everlasting shame, I am a sickly small and pathetic specimen as trolls go.”
For the record, I am neither smaller nor larger than most of the trolls I’ve met in my time, but the pup in armor, his eyes didn’t seem to know that.
“Indeed, I am weak and slow, lame in the knee, too, else why would I raise goats instead of eat bears and wild mountain men like my brother does?”
Each troll’s got a gait as distinctive as his face, and like our faces, not one was cut from the standard mold.
“You have a brother?”
“I do indeed. His name is Mustardseed, for the yellow brown of the long coat he wears. He is a proper troll, big and broad and mean, with a mouthful of teeth like broken glass and shaving razors. He lives under the next bridge you’ll find on the mountain road. Perhaps he knows better what afflicts the village with Four Wells, perhaps he’s to blame, for he’s got a temper fouler than the summer sun in the valley below.”
The smell of a man’s body in armor is no dainty scent, and this poor man was ripe as the corpse melons in the steppe that draw the flies, so I could tell he knew all about the foulness of the sun. He nodded and his eyes showed the pain that honor and duty combined with the heat, brought him. I’m not immune to sympathy, but the one hand into which you sympathize, it never seems to fill up as fast as that other.
“Mustardseed,” he repeats.
“No, it’s not the sort of name you expect a troll to have. I’m called Turnipseed. If you talk to him, tell him I sent you.”
“Many thanks,” said the knight, and he led his horse back to the road.
You might think that I’m a bad sort of person, loosing a knight upon my own flesh and blood, but I tell you true, not a single troll was ever brought forth out of the earth who did not share the same sense of humor. Mustardseed was bound to appreciate it.
I corralled the goats into the pen for the moment. They weren’t pleased, but they would abide. I took the old hammer from beneath my bridge, a pitted, blackened thing with a handle tall enough to reach my collar bones. This I draped over one shoulder, and used the other arm to steady my run as I took the trails to my brother’s home.
There are old, old stands of cedar around where my brother lives, and the melons in his melon patches were big, and getting sweet under their leather shells. Mustardseed was weeding them, hunkered down on hand and knee when he heard the sound of shod hooves on his old bridge and the shouted challenge of the foreign knight. I snickered and he heard, looking up to see me in the cedar grove. Down he went, then, to the road and his bridge, to see what this racket was.
Mustardseed is a bigger troll than I, and with an air of menace that no troll I know can match. His chin bears a twisting, evil goatee, which makes him look sinister, and there are rusty, brownish stains on his coat in ominous shapes. I hoped that he’d not been sampling the cordial he makes from the melons; Mustardseed, for all he makes the nicest melon liquors you’ll ever taste, is the very definition of the angry drunk. Thus, he never drinks, except to taste what he’s made, once a year, as his vintages mature.
Which would, sorry to say, be around the time the knight visited.
Mustardseed had not been drinking, though, so when the knight roared his challenge, my brother did not cock back his fist and smash the fine horse into the road dirt.
“What do you want?” he growled at the knight, and the knight took note of how I was true enough to my word. I am fortunate in that my brother is one of the bigger trolls I’ve met.
“Justice for the people of the village with Four Wells.”
“I haven’t been unjust to them,” he said. “Have a melon, instead. You look hot and thirsty and all that yelling and brandishing your sword can’t be helping.”
Mustardseed dug his fingers into the skin of the melon and pulled it apart, revealing flesh as green as solidified spring, mixed with an equal part of virginity. The knight’s eyes lit up and then hardened back to his duty. Mustardseed munched the fruit while the knight began to make his interrogations.
“Your brother said—”
“Turnipseed? What did he say?”
“He said maybe you were to blame for the raids on the village, at night. The villagers saw a great figure, draped in coarse cloth, and the villagers in Shank Hill said that they thought there was a troll to blame, and Turnipseed told me he was tending his flocks, and that you were larger and fiercer than he, and maybe you did the raiding, or maybe you knew about it.”
Mustardseed reached into his pocket and pulled out a little glass bottle, stoppered with a cork and sealed with wax. He threw it to the knight, who caught it. In the process, he dropped his sword. Mustardseed did not reach under his chin and daisy pluck his head from his shoulders, but he did give the young man a nasty look, and I’m certain his face turned red.
“Did you drink any of that in the village with Four Wells?”
The knight looked at the bottle and then dismounted, going for his sword.
“I did,” he said. “Is this an admission of guilt?”
“Guilt?” Mustardseed laughed. “Man, I make that liquor. You see my melon patches; I can show you my still and my works, my barrels and where I store my bottles until they are ready. I trade these with Four Wells for what I need. Turnipseed never comes out to see, but I sort of like the men of Four Wells, and, if nothing else, I’d be losing a good trading partner. As for what Shank Hill saw, well, some nights I hear the sounds of a lot of hooves galloping from that town, and galloping hard, and sometimes I hear the whoop of a man or two with blood in his voice, but I could be dreaming.”
“So it was Turnipseed that did the raid?” the knight asked.
“Not if he knows what’s good for him, he didn’t.” Mustardseed growled. “No, I don’t think he’d do something like that. He spends all his time with his goats. Too much time, if you get my meaning. He wouldn’t leave them alone for long enough.”
“Who then?” the knight asked. “Who do you think it is who’s done this deed?”
Mustardseed looked up and stroked his scraggly chin.
“Now that I think of it,” he said, “you may want to ask my brother Radishseed, who lives just a little way up the mountain road where it passes on another bridge over the mountain stream. If you ask me, that one, he can be a bit lazy, just spends his days fishing in the stream. He’s near half a head taller than I am, though, and when you rouse him, it’s the same as throwing a stone at the snowy slope in spring and taking in the avalanche.”
“You’ll know him by his long red coat, which, these days is a little more like pink, except in the places where the blood… not to worry. He’s a pleasant fellow, most of the time, unless you catch him in one of his black moods, then, well, Sylfie take your soul.”
The knight took his leave, then and Mustardseed looked to the cedars where I was standing.
“What the hell was that all about?” he asked me.
“I don’t know. Do you think Radishseed will kill him?”
“Well, if he catches him in one of his black moods.”
“I’d dearly like to see that.”
“You could have killed the swain yourself.”
“No, I mean Radishseed in a black mood.”
“It could happen.”
Mustardseed went and fetched his axe; it was as tall as I am, and carved with a pattern of lines and hashes all the way down its handle. The single blade was forged from the smelted steel of four gravediggers’ spades. He balanced it on one shoulder and used the other to run with me up the paths to the high foothills where our brother, Radishseed, was lying with his coat open and his belly to the sun, a wide brimmed straw hat over his brow and a fishing pole like a heavy horse lance by his side.
We snickered at him from behind a boulder that ice had dropped in place many years ago. Radishseed didn’t react to us, but he did to the challenge shouted by the knight upon his bridge. He sat up and pushed his hat back on his head, peering into the late afternoon sun that outlined the knight on his horse.
“What? What’s this?” said Radishseed, and a nice fat salmon took the moment to bite on his line, so he picked up his fishing pole and began to reel it in, instead of whipping that sapling across the knight’s chest, knocking him into the water.
“I’ve been delayed long enough, troll,” the knight said. “I will know who is responsible for the night raids on the village with Four Wells, and if it was you, I will take your head.”
“Slow down,” said Radishseed. He is not the most inventive of us, but the most rational. “What raids? Where? Why did you come to me?”
The knight relayed his story, Four Wells to Shank Hill, Shank Hill to me, me to Mustardseed and Mustardseed to Radishseed. The great draped figure, trolls blamed, the path from one brother to the next. Radishseed stood, and at his full height, he is quite the figure. While the knight looked on he cleaned the fish with the sharp black nail of his thumb, and used it to carve of bits of pink-orange flesh, popping it into his mouth, bit by bit.
“Well, I see. The people of Shank Hill are trustworthy, though some nights under a larger moon, I’ve seen riders come up from the village, hooded and swaddled in sack-cloth. Perhaps that is just my imagination. Turnipseed would not go raiding and leave his flocks and Mustardseed wouldn’t risk his trade. But I certainly didn’t do it. It’s too hot, and the water in the stream is deep and cool.”
The knight, withering inside his armor, sighed.
“Have you got any more evidence in your favor?”
“Not really, but if you want my opinion, it’s probably Poppyseed who did the deed. You’d know him by his scarlet orange coat that is so vivid you’d swear it would light up the dark. He’s my brother, and he isn’t quite so big as me, but he makes up for it in mean. He’s the nastiest troll in the hills.”
“Where does Poppyseed live?” asked the knight.
“You see where the trail goes off the road, up, into that field full of poppies, well, at the end of that trail is a cave; the cave stinks like the mouth of death, but Poppyseed likes it that way, so foul is he.”
Mustardseed and I looked at one another. He nodded, and I have to say I also approved. The knight, looking weary, thanked him and started up the path, now leading his horse.
“Poppyseed?” I asked him when I came down to the creek.
“I thought of what you might do,” said Radishseed.
“What’s in that cave?” Mustardseed asked.
“My privy,” said Radishseed. “And a nice heavy rock to put in front of the door.”
“You’re a bad man,” I said “Get your chopper and come with us up to the cave.”
Radishseed went under his bridge and took up his sword, tall as Mustardseed, a single, brutal edge tapering down to a point that was sheared off and squared in a fight many years ago. This he balanced on one shoulder, using the other hand to run and we got to the entrance of the cave in time to hear the knight’s voice echo off the stone within.
Three together, we rolled the rock up to the mouth of the cave. He cursed and yelled the first hour or so. He prayed the second, and he begged the third. On the fourth, while we were lying out in the poppy field, counting shooting stars, he cried.
We left him there the night, and maybe we would have let that be his tomb, except that I started to wonder about the raids, and I could tell that Mustardseed was worried about his trading partners from the look on his face, and I suspect Radishseed was more than a little curious. So, before dawn, we rolled out the rock and dragged the man free. He had taken off his armor, at least, but he’d slept with his sword drawn, and he plunged it a whole inch into my side, before it hung up on a rib. Of course this hurt, but not badly. His lack of success in that one strike cooled off whatever was left of his ardor. We’d left his horse where he tied it, and even now, the poor thing was munching on grass just far enough away to not be too upset by the smell of trolls.
“We’ve been thinking,” I said. “I’ve got a suspicion that you already know who’s responsible for the raids on Four Wells.”
“I think that you’ve known all along,” said Mustardseed. “But all by yourself, you can’t do anything about it.”
“And I think you thought that killing a troll would let you tell everyone that you did the right thing,” said Radishseed. “Especially yourself.”
“Also,” I said, “it might let the people responsible think you believed what they told you, because one man with a lot of armor, a nice horse, and a sword is only a match for so many with armor, horses, and swords of their own.”
“I don’t have any proof,” the knight said.
“How much do you need?” asked Mustardseed. “They sent you up into the hills with dangerous trolls.”
The knight said nothing.
“It could also be that they do not like us, and they really do not like you, warrior of the conquering, occupying force,” I said. “And they figured that you or any one of us dying is a win for them. But then there are those things I smelled, and Mustardseed heard, and Radishseed saw.”
“What could I do about it, if they were to blame?”
Oh and that was the question, wasn’t it? Each of us looked to the other to see who was going to offer him a solution.
I spoke first. “Well, get your armor on, for starters. You’re going to need that. It seems to us someone has been maligning our good name, and that doesn’t please us at all.”
My brothers shook their heads.
“Now, it also seems to me, that the people on Shank Hill must have wanted you to die, otherwise they wouldn’t have sent you to us,” I said. “Mustardseed could have been drinking.”
“I don’t drink, but Radishseed could have been in one of his black moods.”
“Black moods? What the hell are you talking about? Turnipseed’s the one with the black moods.”
“True enough,” I said.
“So what does that mean?” asked the knight.
“It means,” said Radishseed, “we’ve decided to help you.”
The knight’s eyes got wide, but he went over to the cave and pulled out his armor, putting it on bit by bit.
“You saw how well your sword works on Turnipseed,” said Mustardseed. “If we went with you, not a soul could stop us. We could round up all the men and determine which of them are responsible.”
The knight stood for a few moments and we looked at him. Mustardseed snickered, but the knight wasn’t looking and he couldn’t hear. He looked up at last, and gave us one curt nod. The three of us followed him back to road and down, into the valley, below my territory, where we picked up my dogs. The knight must have seen the goats doing fine in the pen, but he did not test me on it. Soon enough we stood above the little hollow between the slope up to my home and Shank Hill, where the village was just beginning to awaken.
The knight drew his sword, and whispered a prayer, and then he shouted and was gone, racing down the slope.
“Did you really see or hear any of those things?” I asked my brothers as we stood on the ridge.
“Maybe,” said Mustardseed. “Did you smell those things you say you smelled?”
“Maybe,” I said.
“That one reminds me of the story of the old bull and the young bull,” said Radishseed.
“So, are we walking?” asked Mustardseed.
“Nah, let’s run,” I said. “The dogs like running, and we could all use the exercise.”
A moment later we rose our voices in a troll roar, and set off, loping downhill to the village, chased by my dogs, which ran with tongues out and joy in their eyes.
Taken broadly, Erik Amundsen has had an interesting life; he’s been a baker, an itinerant schoolteacher, worked for two governments and gotten in bar fights overseas. He now lives at the foot of a cemetery in central Connecticut where he writes nasty little stories and poems that shuffle around in the night when he’s not looking. Or at least he hopes it’s them; something’s got to be making those noises and it’s not the furnace.
Spread the word!