Troll Mountain:The Complete Novel(7)
Author:Matthew Reilly

    Raf bit his lip in thought.

    Then he said, “If it’s the only way, it’s the only way. Düm, you said you wanted to help me. Well, now you can. If you take me through the realm of the hobgoblins and within sight of Troll Mountain, I will consider your debt paid.”

    With a worried look, the big troll nodded.

    Chapter 9

    The next day, guided by Düm, Raf and Ko crossed the final section of the Badlands and entered the foothills of the Black Mountains.

    Düm was not at all happy to be heading back into troll territory. But since they were veering east and not sticking to the main road that followed the river, and since Raf had saved his life, he did it anyway.

    As they walked, Raf asked, “Is there any way an exiled troll can make amends for his crime and be readmitted to troll society?”

    Düm said, “Only one way to undo exile. That is to bring Troll King an offering of fresh human flesh.”

    Raf stopped walking. “What!”

    Düm bowed his head. “Human meat great delicacy for trolls. Especially soft meat of human woman or child. Man-meat very tough, not as nice.” He threw Ko a bashful look: “And some trolls like marrow of old human bones. Say it has extra flavor.”

    “Why wouldn’t it?” Ko said flatly.

    Something occurred to Raf. “When exiled in the wilderness, will a troll become hungry very quickly?”

    “Oh, yes, Master Raf. Trolls need much food. Hungry troll very sad to see: it get desperate, ravenous, lose all control.”

    Raf was thinking of the stories he’d heard about rogue trolls; he also remembered the troll he’d seen abducting his mother. Rogue trolls behaved erratically and killed indiscriminately, and they nearly always took women or children.

    Now he knew why: rogue trolls were exiled trolls. When they killed humans, they were doing so either because they were starving or trying to acquire human meat to gain readmittance to the troll tribe.

    They wended their way through the foothills.

    The landscape was gray and harsh. Any trees that still lived were leafless and dry, eerie skeletons.

    Düm said, “But trolls been dying off for some time now. Trolls suffer from illness. Lucky that old troll, Vilnar, create Elixir and Elixir cure trolls.”

    “Vilnar?” Ko looked up at the name. “Vilnar was the name of a famous field troll, a very wise little troll who experimented in potions and salves. This is the same Vilnar who found your cure?”

    “The same,” Düm said.

    “I thought Vilnar lived in the northern lands—”

    “He did. But when Troll King defeat tribe of field trolls in north and destroy their lands, he bring Vilnar back to Troll Mountain as prisoner to serve as potion-master for him.”

    Ko looked stunned. “Vilnar toils as a slave for your king! Well! That is not right, not right at all—”

    They rounded a curve in the rocky path and stopped suddenly.

    Two posts flanked the road. Crudely impaled on top of them, mouths open in silent screams, were a pair of troll skulls.

    Beyond the grim posts, the path ended at a large stone doorway set into a rock wall. Glyphs and runes were cut into the frame of the ancient doorway, the writings of a civilization that no living person could now decipher.

    A massive unbroken spider web spanned the yawning portal. No one had passed through it in a very long time.

    Raf stared at the two impaled skulls. They were large, with tusks on their lower jaws; they looked like an unholy cross between a human skull and a bear skull.

    “We have arrived at the realm of the hobgoblins,” Ko said. “These stakes are a warning from the hobgoblins to their troll neighbors. Are you still sure you want to do this, Raf? If there are hobgoblins still in there, this will not be pleasant.”

    Raf didn’t hesitate. “If this is the only way to reach Troll Mountain undetected, then this is the way I must go. You, however, have come far further than you promised, Ko. You have done more than enough for me. There is no need for you to face this danger.”

    The old man looked back down the road, as if seeing his little shack in the distance. Then he turned back to face Raf.

    “I have indeed come further than I intended,” Ko said. “And yet now I find myself wanting to come further still. If the trolls of Troll Mountain hold the wise old field troll, Vilnar, as their slave, then this is a wrong that I cannot let stand. If you will have me, I would like to go with you.”

    “I would be happy to have you by my side,” Raf said, rather relieved.

    He stepped forward and with his flint knife cut a long slit in the spider web sealing the entrance. Then, guided by the firelight of a torch, he led Düm and Ko into the abandoned kingdom of the hobgoblins.

    Chapter 10

    The realm of the hobgoblins was a dank collection of dark tunnels and immense stone caves, all cut out of the living rock. Exposed sections of a strange rust-colored stone could be seen in its walls. These sections were framed by long-abandoned scaffolds and ladders.

    “What is this strange stone?” Raf asked, touching it.

    Ko said, “This ‘kingdom,’ it would appear, was actually once a mine. Similar mines were common in my homeland, for that substance you see is raw iron which, when smelted in a furnace, can be used to make very effective weapons.”

    “I have heard tales of an ancient tribe of men who lived in these lands,” Raf said. “They were clever men, and they wore shiny armor and bronze helmets with red plumes. But they left when their home city, across the sea to the south, was attacked, and they never returned.”

    A short way down the first tunnel, Raf’s group came to a broad pit in the floor, spanning the entire width of the passageway. At the base of the pit were a dozen upwardly pointed wooden spikes. In among the spikes, Raf saw the remains of a troll, skewered by no fewer than five of the deadly stakes.

    The troll, he noticed, was not very decomposed. “That corpse hasn’t been here long,” he said.

    “A rogue troll seeking shelter, I would guess,” Ko said.

    “It must have entered from the other side,” Raf said, “for the spider web sealing our entrance was undisturbed.”

    Düm just nodded in agreement, saying nothing.

    Two small stepping stones protruded from the right-hand wall of the pit: the only way across.

    Raf and Ko skipped easily across the stepping stones, but Düm needed the help of a rope to get across. It was a simple but effective trap to stop a troll from entering the cave system.

    They passed through two massive mine-caves, each connected by long straight tunnels that contained other traps. Grim hobgoblin decorations flanked the walls: more troll skulls, and some bear and wolf skulls.

    In the first of those caves, Düm found a large wooden sledgehammer near some other mining tools. For a human, it was a large thing, to be wielded with both hands in a slinging over-the-shoulder motion, but Düm held it lightly in one hand.

    Flanking the entrance to the next tunnel were the rotting corpses of not one but two trolls: they were both affixed to the wall with their heads sagging and their arms spread wide, their giant hands nailed to the stone wall.

    Raf stared up at the dead trolls in disgust.

    Düm just averted his gaze.

    “Hobgoblins did this?” Raf gasped.

    “Yes,” Ko said softly.

    They passed between the two hideously displayed trolls, entering the narrow stone tunnel beyond them.

    “Why would the hobgoblins leave this place?” Raf asked. “It gives ample shelter and good defense against the trolls.”

    Ko said, “Hobgoblins are most unpleasant creatures, not just because of their cunning but because they only consume. They do not build anything. They do not domesticate animals or plants. They do not renew. Hobgoblins live in places built by others and they simply consume what is available for as long as it is available. Then they move on to another place and slowly destroy it. Hobgoblins cannot see beyond the needs of the present moment. They stayed here for as long as it sustained them and then moved on.”

    “Are trolls any different?”

    “Oh, trolls are much smarter,” Ko said. “Why, this is the cause of your current dilemma. The trolls deduced that they needed to secure their food and water supply for the future. They did this by damming the river and essentially enslaving the human tribes downstream. They give you just enough water to survive and you give them food. This enforced tribute feeds the trolls with minimal labor on their part. In this regard, the troll is much smarter than the hobgoblin.”

    They edged further down the tunnel.

    “What exactly is a hobgoblin?” Raf asked.

    Ko shrugged. “Hobgoblins are smaller than men, but they speak like men. They have hands and feet just like ours but their skin is coarser, leathery, more bristled. If they were not once men then maybe they were once apes—it is as if they are an animal caught halfway between the two, for they share features of both.”

    As Ko said this, Raf realized that the tunnel through which they were walking was becoming oddly warm and humid.

    They came to a doorway and stepped out into an enormous cavern.

    Raf stopped at the sight that met him.

    A broad lake of steaming water filled the floor of the mighty space. Raf had seen thermal springs before, but not an entire subterranean lake.

    A low wooden bridge spanned the hot lake, giving access to a most unusual feature that dominated the far wall of the massive cavern: a railless stone path cut into the rock wall itself. It switched back and forth up the three-hundred-foot cliff, steadily ascending. Any slip or stumble would result in a fall into the steaming pool at its base. Bored into the huge rock wall beside the path were many man-sized mini-tunnels.

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