Image by xedos4, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
The road was long and damp and dark. In days gone by you would have had to go slow on that road. No, perhaps not even that, perhaps you would have had to crawl then, just to get to that place. It was in the heart of the Enchantment Belt, it was the heart itself. That was back when the Mendway was all part of Goombe, the forrest-land without farmers, without men as masters.
But you want to hear about the troll don’t you? Of course you do, you wouldn’t be asking about the Goombe because no one talks of it anymore. Just because I remember it, or perhaps your grandmother or your grandfather would remember it, does not mean that what happened there matters one bit anymore.
No one could be sure whether the Troll had always been lurking in the Mendway copse or whether he had wangled his way there after the Goombe trees fell. But they found him there when they made the crossroads and saved the few straggling trees to hang highway men on. He did not come out to greet them, it not being in his customary way but they found him alright. Now they have to pay the men handsomely to hang the gibbet cages up at the Mendway, and they have to pay them even more to take the empty cages away.
It’s true, no one goes that way now if they can help it. Some of the folks who live in Limey use the old road because they are canny and the enchantment is all over them. But no one from outside the region would have business there, not unless they went in search of magic as is not unheard of.
“Either you runs from it or you runs to it.” That’s what my father used to say about magic.
“But there as some what’s bound up to it and canna leave it awah” he would sigh when he saw the children pouring out of the classroom. He would look out from his workshop window and his eyes would follow them sadly. He would always watch for the ones lagging behind, who walked slower than the others, who stumbled on the cobblestones.
“The day-dreamers.” he would whisper. Then he would bow his head and carry on as if nothing had happened, but I would know that he was thinking about his own childhood then, and of the darkness inside the Goombe where he had lost them.
When I was a child they tore down the Goombe, and yes perhaps you were right, perhaps it was because of what had happened to my father. But he was not the first to lose someone to the forrest. Centuries before, there were no settlements in the area, only hunters and the hunters would not go into the woods. They left the wild creatures of that place to roam and would not touch them. Then a new migration sprawled into these remote places, and new towns and villages replaced most of the old hamlets. The influx of life in these wild lands meant that more food was needed, more land to work, more wood to chop. They weren’t afraid of the forrest.
In the end they tore the Goombe-Land down, they burned it first. They wheeled in the great trebuchets to crush it, shot fire into it’s heart with flaming arrows, with torches, burning tar. I watched it from the edge and my father held my hand as he cried. It was a nightmarish scene, and the sounds the forrest made as it burned alive I shall never forget. Now the magic spills out into everything but it has no lord save man, and he cannot control it. Not in the manner of which the forrest controlled it. Now the Troll has made the Mendway crossroads his dominion, for it was not long after they made the roads that the copse sprange up like a great green mouth around the crossing. Not even the sunlight escapes through the gaps in the leaves, and it is always darkness there. Like I said, the magic must be all over you, or in your family, to go to that place. The people roundabouts believe that only the thieves and the worse kind of murderers and traitors are lost to the hunger of the monster, but it’s not true. I’ve seen the troll before with my own eyes, it was a month after my father died.
I took my axe in my hand and off I went, off to the crossroads where the empty, silent cages hung.The entrance to his dwelling place was through a rough hole in the hedgerow just big enough for a man to pass. I beat the thorns off with my gloved hands but they tore at my face until the blood came dripping.
Once inside that dark place I was aware of the Goombe again, how it had seemed from the outside. It was as if the very air was concentrated around you, as if all the guilty secrets anyone had ever told were all about you, whispering. No birds sang and no insects chirped in the leaves at my feet or the branches about me. The whispers were all there was.
I waited. Then he spoke to me, it was a dread sound.
“Who is it that is coming?” The voice was sudden and all around me. Dark and booming out, old and wretched. Foul and wicked.
“Who is it that is here?” The voice asked. but it was not a question. It was eager, filled with monstrous anticipation.
“Show your face then!” I shouted out, but the beast remained hidden.
“Death,” he said. “Death, I smell it on you. You reek of it.”
I turned around as I heard the bushes part to on my right side. I saw him, the pitiful thing. Five times the height of a grown man, maybe more, but still he was pitiful.
“An axe, no fire.” He said as he saw me properly now and I saw him. “No axe can fell me. No might of man can kill me.”
“I wish only to defend myself” I said, and my voice shook with fear, with anger.
“But you cannot defend your father.” The laughter sounded out, cruel and treacherous.
“Never you mind about him,” I answered it. “Explain yourself!” I shouted.
“Do you want to know the story? Shall I tell it to you?” The troll leaned towards me, he bent his back and I saw myself reflected in the sallow, lugubrious eyes.
In truth, I really had meant to kill the beast. I had brought my sharpest axe, the old handle forged from Goombe-wood itself. When my father died I went into a kind of madness and every night I would dream of the troll’s head rolling on the forrest floor and my hand having felled it.
“Show me then.” I said to him because try as I might I could not find the strength to strike the killing blow.
He laughed his poisonous laugh again and opened his eyes as wide as they could possibly go until I thought they would burst, then the shadow of my shape in his eyes receded, and I saw my father again, as a boy.
I knew it was him because my heart told me, I thought it must be him. He stood at the edge of the forrest and in his right hand was a stick.
“That is the place.” He said and he pointed with the stick towards the Goombe. I knew it too, even though its branches were no longer burning.
There were two other children with him, a boy and a girl. The girl had a long, pale face sprinkled with freckles, the boy was stocky and covered with mud. He spoke first:
“It doesn’t look that foul t’me.” He said with a shrug of his shoulders but the girl shook her head.
“Tha’s fouler than you think. I know the stories.”
“What stories?” My father cried, “Tales for biddies” He dismissed her with a glance.
“In we go.” The muddy one said, and they made for the forrest. The sun was waning over the hills, I saw it in the trolls eyes, I saw my father suddenly, up close. There was something strange in his face, something new that I had never seen before. But then, I had never known my father as a young man.
Once inside the Goombe the trees leaned in close. I saw the muddy boy frown and move closer to the others. I saw how the girl watched my father, followed so closely his movements but he moved forward oblivious.
The earth beneath their feet was a ragged carpet of moss, tendrils snuck back and forth across the ground and dusty flecks drifted through the air around them.
“Listen.” The muddy boy said. The others stopped. They waited, listening.
At first I too strained hard to make out a sound but everything was still, the world inside the Goombe was expectant and silent.
“Listen at what?There’s not a sound, just the forrest.” My father asked finally, not hiding his irritation.
“Whispering there was, sounded as though the trees themselves were talking.” The boy said, his face a mask of uncertainty.
“Tis your day-dreaming,” My father said in reply. He pressed on and again the others followed, beating a path through the trees.
“But where are we going?” The muddy boy asked.
“To the centre.”
“Centre? How’d you know there is one?” The boy asked my father.
“There’s always a centre,” he replied.
Sure enough they walked and stumbled and grasped their way through the forrest and came at last to a clearing. There the vegetation was so thick that daylight was strangled on its way in, and could give no real comforting light at all.
“Here. I told thee,” my father said. He threw his stick onto the ground and sat down on a jutting rock. The other two hung back, the girl hugged her arms. The boy searched around, his eyes saw the trees, how tall they were and how close their branches seemed now.
“Well, now we’ve found the centre, what to do now? There’s nout here.” The boy kicked at a large, gnarled tree root that had gripped its way out of the ground. Then the forrest shook.
“Who is it that is coming?” a voice said.
“Who is it that is here?”
“Magnus!” The boy cried, he shouted my father’s name.
“I heard it,” my father answered.
“Let’s get out!” The girl cried, she pulled at my father’s shirt sleeve, but the troll came upon them. He burst out of the wood, and his eyes were burning. It was not like a real fire that is hot but an enchanted fire, an eternal, flaming malevolence.
“Children” he said, “Only children playing.”
I flinched, the troll must have blinked, the image dazzled before my eyes but it returned again.
“Why have you come here?” The troll asked. It was my father who spoke up.
“Why not?” His voice wavered, but his feet held firm in the face of that terrible creature who stood before me now.
“Why not.” The troll answered back, in mimicry. He grimaced wide and barred the teeth like iron bars.
The mud stained boy and the young girl hung back, silent from the beast, but my father held his ground.
“What manner of thing are you?” He halted, “Well, you aren’t so fearsome. Don’t think I’m afraid!” My father kicked at the ground, dislodging stones. I saw a fear in his eyes, the strongest, most naked emotion I had ever witnessed in him. Again the troll before me blinked as I heard his voice from out of the past, laughing.
“Do you recognise your father? Do you? Look again.” The troll sneered. He reeled back, he stretched his gigantic frame up so that I thought it might block out what little sunlight was left. I readied my axe.
“Do not mock my father! I have no more fear of you than he had.” I lied.
“Fear?” The troll’s head lolled now as it looked at me.
“I can show you fear.” He said with relish, as smoke hissed from his eyes.
He lunged forward and I was once more plunged into another world of familiar images made strange. This time I could hear the voice of the troll narrating and his voice was like nails scratching.
“Do you see the men waiting in their baskets? The villains. I hear them come to leave me their offerings. Stinking and foul are the men they bring me. Sinners, murdering mutinous sons of whores! See them swinging in the breeze half dead with the rags falling off their rotting bodies, not fit to be pecked by crows. I can smell them you see, I hear them and I smell them on the wind and I snuff them out. I come out from my kingdom and I barrel down on them in the darkness. They are too weak and wretched to scream out. What do you think I do with them? These unwanted? The men rejected. Do you believe I put them into my mouth and crunch on their bones? Ripping the flesh? Plucking the eyes? Drinking the blood? Your kinsfolk believe. Your kinsfolk.” Here he laughed and it was ominous. He never waited for my answer.
“Here, see your father now, surrounded by my men, my soldiers. For that is what these trees are to me. My servants, my slaves, the minions of my empire.”
I could indeed see my father. He watched on like a stone as the troll grabbed his playmates and drowned them with fire. His eyes and his mouth and his nose, a streaming torrent of flame.
“My fire is not your fire.” The troll was saying as I saw this. “My fire is older. Yours burns, mine obliterates.”
I tried to turn my head away from the vision and the monster’s voice but I was fixed in place, held down by some evil magic.
The image showed my father and the troll, now alone. The troll in the vision resumed speaking, his whole body still smouldering, he scattered the ashes of the dead he had consumed onto the wind.
“You. You I’ll keep, forever.” He said to my father.
My father stammered, I could see the fear again and the rage in him.
“Kill me then!” he screamed, he fell down onto the ground and buried his face in the grass.
“Never. Not one so clever as you boy.” The troll said. “No,” and he began to burn again, but with an eerie light, green and mystical as the forest. I saw how my father’s body burned too with this light, transfered from the great beast. The air all around was humming. It was humming in my ears, I could almost feel the sorcerous wind on my face.
Just then the light changed again, it soared above my father’s body, and the troll seeing the change, motioned to one of the trees on the edge of the circle. The tree split open with the creak of a trapdoor and I watched in horror as the body of my father was sucked inside. The door snapped shut.
There was silence. Nothing moved in the forest. Only the smouldering troll at its heart appeared alive at all.
“What did you do to my father?” I cried, at last able to speak.
“Your father?” The troll snickered at me. “Your father? Hah!”
Something moved in the image, another of the trees was glowing bright, but it’s light was eerie and cold, and it fluctuated in its brightness.
“Here is your father.” The troll said finally.
The glowing tree tore open as the last one had done, and a shadow emerged from within. It was a wraithlike wisp with shackles on its arms, the face obscured by mists of darkness like a shawl all around it.
The figure struggled forward, I saw how it looked up at the troll and when approval was given, it approached my father’s tree. The tree door opened again, the wraith slipped inside. The door closed. The troll cackled. Slowly, softly, so low that it was more like the threat of an earthquake coming.
“Here is your father.” The voice of the troll now repeated to me.
The door to the tree opened, my father emerged and he was so like himself that I wept. I saw him stumble away as the troll’s laugh grew louder and louder until it was all around. I saw him push his way from the centre of the Goombe back out into the world.
The troll moved away from me again so that I could no longer see the vision in his eyes. He spoke.
“Sinners, murderous, mutinous, sons of whores.” His cackle sent shivers through me.
“What did you do to my father?” I asked again, weak and weeping on the forest floor, where my father had once lain.
“The trees ate him up. Then you burned him alive, all of you. Along with the others, your kinsfolk.”
“No!” I cried out. “I saw my father weep as the forest burned! He was as good a man as any!”
“So was the sailor they hung up in that basket to die.” The troll said. “They gave, and I took away. They gave and I took away!” He shouted out, so that the trees rustled, shedding leaves to the ground.
When the noise had faded away I asked him, defeated, “Then what am I?”
“Nothing.” The troll said, then he vanished.