A hulking figure trudged through the waist-deep snow of the canyon, lumbering uphill with a purposeful gait that dared the blizzard to stop him. He left a deep trench in his wake, heavy clawed feet ripping up the loose shale beneath the snow with every step. Howling winds billowed his patchwork cloak of stitched-together hides, and the figure pulled it tighter around his body.
Even among trollkind,was huge; his muscles like rocks rolling beneath thick blue skin that was the texture of leather left out under the desert sun. Not that Trundle had ever seen a desert, but he knew what one was.
Thehad told him about a place beyond the southern mountains where the sun burned you red, and the snow was like little bits of gritty rock that got all up in your nethers and didn't melt.
Sounded a bit far-fetched to Trundle, and what was the point of snow that didn't melt?
He carried a giant leather sack slung over one massive shoulder, bulging with the carcasses of elnük, drüvasks, feral hogs, and clumsy mountain goats. It had been more days than he had fingers since he'd left his cave, and the meat was starting to give off a deliciously ripe stink, and the blood pooling inside had frozen black and solid.
Soaring cliffs of ice reared up to either side of him, blue like an ocean wave that had suddenly frozen in place. Maybe they had, Trundle didn't know. The Ice Witch had told him about a long ago time when magic did all sorts of mad things to the world, so maybe he was walking through a rolling ocean at the top of the world right now. He liked that idea, and wondered if he'd see any skeletons of sea monsters this far north.
Sea monsters in ice, yes, that'd be a good story to tell when he got back. Didn't matter if it wasn't true. Most trolls didn't have much rattling around in their skulls anyway, and would believe pretty much any tale he told.
He stopped thinking so hard for now.
He was going to need all his best thinking later.
This wasn't his territory, there were more ways to die up here than he could count, and he could count a lot higher than any other troll he knew.
He might fall into a crevasse, get swallowed by a riddling ice-wyrm, or get cooked in the pot of one of the wild troll clans that lived up this way. Bigger than most other trolls, they didn't have the good sense to know they needed a king to be in charge of stuff and didn't give an elnük's fart for titles.
They'd rip his arms and legs off for a snack if he tried to be all fancy.
Which made the need for this journey all the more strange, because he'd heard stories of a giant troll called Yettu who was going about telling the other clan-trolls that he was the troll king. Trundle had needed to bash a few heads together when some uppity trolls heard those stories and got to saying stupid stuff out loud. Stupid stuff like, if anyone could call themselves king, then why did they give Trundle the biggest share of the food and do what he told them?
Yeah, something needed to be done about this Yettu before things got out of hand.
Just because he'd newly thought of becoming a king like Grubgrack and the other ancient troll lords, didn't mean anyone else got to think like that!
The wiry hairs on the back of Trundle's neck tingled, like he was being watched.
He couldn't see them yet, but he could smell the stink of their ripe bodies hidden beneath the snow ahead. Any troll that called himself king didn't get to stay that way for long without having a sense for when blood was about to be spilled.
He kept going, walking all casual, like he was just out for a morning emptying of his guts. He pretended like he was having a big, wide-fanged yawn as he scanned the lumpy snowbanks ahead of him.
Hard to see much of anything through the swirling blizzard and howling winds.
There, two humps of snow that were just a bit too big and too regular to be natural.
Also, he could see a foot sticking out of one, and a tuft of hair from the other.
Trundle grinned a wide, gap-toothed grin and shook his mane of ragged red hair free of frost.
Then he reached under his filthy, patchwork cloak to grip the frozen haft of his faithful war-club, unhooking it from his belt. He trudged onward, making sure to look like he was struggling against the fierce wind and driving snow.
A pair of long fingers with long, yellowed nails poked through the snow of the mound to his left. They slipped back into the mound, and a pair of yellow eyes appeared, staring right at him.
Trundle waited until he was a club's length away from the mound before hauling out Boneshiver. Instantly, the temperature dropped, and icy cold stabbed into his hands as the eternal ice frosted the air around him. The club was an enormous chunk of True Ice mounted on an obsidian handle, and it had never failed him in battle.
The eyes inside the mound widened in surprise as Trundle sprang through the air and slammed his giant club down into the snow with a satisfying crunch.
A troll with greenish skin like mossy tree bark rose unsteadily from his hiding place, the back of his skull a smashed-in crater. He waved a stone-bladed sword at Trundle, but his knitted brow and cross-eyed glare told him he was trying to decide if he was dead or not.
“I fink I'm dead,” said the troll.
“I think you're right,” said Trundle, and the troll toppled over into the snow.
The second ambusher leapt out with a throaty roar, lifting a giant stone club over his head and slamming it down where Trundle had been standing a moment ago. It looked puzzled there wasn't a dead troll on the end of its weapon. And in the span of time it took for him to notice the only dead troll was his fellow ambusher, Trundle had a meaty fist wrapped around his throat.
He lifted the troll from the ground, a middling-sized thing with a rust-brown hide covered in gnarled lumps and sprouting tufts of wiry hair from its armpits and nethers.
“Right then, you rascal!” said Trundle cheerfully.
“You supposed to be dead,” gurgled the troll. “I meant to hit you with me club.”
“I saw that,” said Trundle, squeezing the troll's neck until his face turned a pretty shade of purple. “But turns out I'm alive, and looks like you and your friend here got the dungy end of the stick, don't it?”
Trundle dropped the troll, who fell to the snow with a rasping wheeze of breath.
“This is King Yettu's land,” gasped the troll. “Whatcha want 'ere?”
Trundle held Boneshiver close to the troll's head, who grunted in pain from the nearness of its icy power.
“My name's Trundle, the Troll King, an' I want you to take me to Yettu,” he said.
The troll with the rust-brown hide was called Sligu, and he led Trundle through the blizzard toward a series of dots in a glacier that looked like cave entrances. Sligu wasn't the chattiest of trolls, but after a couple of encouraging taps from Boneshiver he discovered a whole lot of things he wanted to say.
Trundle knew trolls were, by and large, not exactly imaginative, so when Sligu described Yettu as a mountain with eyes, a fighter with fists like boulders, and a belly as deep as a ravine, he began to get an idea of what he might be up against.
“So where does he get off on calling himself a king?” asked Trundle.
“He heard you was walkin' about calling yourself king and that everyone gave you all the best food first,” said Sligu. “Soon as he 'eard that, it was king this and king that all the time!”
“I thought you northern trolls hated titles like that?”
“We do, but Yettu said if it were good enough for a warmskin southern troll like you, then he wanted to be a king as well. And once he killed all the uvver clan-chieftains who said he weren't no king, it didn't seem too clever to not agree wiv 'im.”
“He killed them all?”
“Yeah, punched the chief of the Rock-Eaters' head right off his neck,” said Sligu. “Flew right over to the next valley, so it did.”
“Not bad,” said Trundle, wondering how far he could punch a head.
“And then he smoked out trolls of Ice Cave Glacier and took their lair.”
“How'd he do that?”
“Ate a load of cave mushrooms and elnük dung, then blocked the cave entrance and let loose a bum-ripper down their air hole.”
“Clever,” said Trundle. “Nasty, but clever all the same.”
“And then he ate the biggest troll of the Night Soilers from the knees up.”
“Why the knees?” said Trundle. “There's good eating on feet.”
Sligu shrugged, and a tiny rodent poked its head out from the dense knot of fur at the back of his neck with an annoyed squeak. “Dunno. I fink 'e said summat about them being too smelly. Said even a midden-licker wouldn't touch 'em.”
“Nice 'n' crunchy, feet are,” said Trundle, taking a sidelong glance at Sligu's. Wide and flat, just the way Trundle liked them, with good, crusty-looking toenails.
“More of a fingers troll meself, but I likes a good foot too,” agreed Sligu.
Trundle prodded the troll with Boneshiver, and said, “You was telling me about Yettu.”
“Oh, right, so I was,” continued Sligu. “Well, he 'eard about the big troll horde you 'ad, and wanted one for 'imself. Someone told 'im only a king could have an army, so figured he needed to be a king.”
“Does he have a crown?”
“What's a crown?” asked Sligu.
“It's like a spiky hat that tells everyone you's the king.”
“A hat does that? It's magical, like?”
“I think some of them are,” said Trundle.
“Oh, well, then yeah, he's got a crown.”
“Where'd he get it?”
“He told us he got it from an ice-wyrm's belly wot he walked through like a big smelly tunnel, but my mate, Regi, says it looks like he made it from some teef and antlers wot he found in a dung pile.”
Dung pile or not, Trundle wanted a look at that crown now. Couldn't have some wannabe king saying he was better than Trundle just because he had a bigger crown!
“How far is it to Yettu's cave?”
Sligu pointed a crooked finger up toward a blue-sheened glacier at the end of the canyon that looked like it had been crudely carved to resemble a giant troll's head. The giant icy face was the second biggest thing Trundle had ever seen, with giant eyes that still managed to look beady and cunning, fat lips and jutting tusks below a giant, warted nose.
“That supposed to be Yettu?” asked Trundle, trying not to sound impressed.
Sligu nodded. “Yeah, but they 'aven't quite got his nose right.”
A winding series of rocky paths and bone-scaffolds offered a treacherous path up the sheer face of the glacier.
“Right, let's get to climbin' then,” said Trundle.
The sun was going down over the edge of the canyon by the time Trundle and Sligu reached the entrance to Yettu's cave. That entrance was through the wide nostril of the carved head, and the water dripping from the icicles inside it had a peculiar greenish color.
A pair of wild trolls stood guard, carrying giant bone axes, and naked but for helmets made from hollowed-out drüvask skulls.
They were big, all right, orange-skinned and wiry, birds' nest hair sprouting from the empty eye sockets of the dead animals. Both were bigger than Sligu—who Trundle was now beginning to realize must have been chosen as a sentry because he was skinnier and sneakier than the rest.
If these boys were this big, how big might Yettu be...?
“Who goes dere?” said the first guard.
“It's me, Sligu.”
“Your brother, dung-for-brains.”
“Oh, that Sligu,” said the guard. “Why you not say so? What you want?”
Sligu jerked a yellowed thumb in Trundle's direction and said, “This one's 'ere to see Yettu.”
“No one get to see Yettu,” declared the second guard, his beady eyes like two lumps of coal.
“He'll want to see me,” said Trundle.
“Me? Who's Me?” said the second guard. “Is it you?”
Trundle tried to follow the guard's logic, but gave up when it began to hurt his brain.
“I'm Trundle,” he said. “Trundle the Troll King.”
“I heard of you,” said Sligu's brother. “You not from here.”
“You's a clever one,” said Trundle.
The troll shook his head and waved his axe at the beady-eyed guard. “He clever one.”
Trundle whacked the clever, beady-eyed guard over the head with Boneshiver, and turned back to Sligu's brother. The troll took one look at the glittering mass of True Ice that used to be his fellow guard, and Trundle could almost hear the rocks in his brain grinding together as his eyes went back and forth between the club and its owner.
Knowing a troll's thought processes could take a while, Trundle swung the large sack down from his shoulder and held it open before Sligu's brother. An irresistible stench of maggoty meat and rank, coagulated blood wafted from its ragged neck.
The troll licked his lips, and thick ropes of yellow saliva drooled between his jutting tusks.
Trundle reached into the sack, lifted out a dripping hunk of meat and handed it over.
“You get come in,” said Sligu's brother with a hungry smile.
Sligu's brother, it turned out, was also called Sligu, so Trundle came up with the bright idea of calling one Big Sligu, and the other Little Sligu. Even the guard he'd bashed over the head would be able to tell one from the other now, if he forgot he was dead and got back up.
Big Sligu led him deeper into the glacier, a sparkling network of smooth tunnels carved deep into the ice. No trolls had cut these passageways, but something about them didn't strike Trundle as being natural. He got a gripey, magical feeling from them, the same as he had when he'd been deep in the frozen maze beneath the palace of the Ice Witch.
They passed caves with spiky roofs of ice and filled with trolls of all shapes and sizes. Trundle couldn't help but notice that most of those shapes and sizes went from just really big all the way to massive.
Trundle quickly lost count of how many trolls he saw.
“You northern trolls are a big bunch,” he said.
Big Sligu nodded. “Lots of monsters here. Want to eat trolls. Only big trolls live.”
Trundle took a better look at Little Sligu, wondering how he'd managed to survive, guessing there was maybe more going on inside his head than most. Amongst trolls that wasn't saying much, but cleverness was something a cunning troll like Trundle noticed.
Maybe he might take Little Sligu back with him. Didn't do to leave clever trolls alone for too long. Sligu might only be little, but sooner or later he might get some big ideas.
Eventually, Big Sligu led them into a gigantic cavern deep in the heart of the glacier. A beam of moonlight speared into the cavern through a hole in the roof that made the towering walls of ice shimmer with dancing lights and ghostly shapes. Trundle thought it looked pretty until he remembered how Yettu had won these caves, and tried not to imagine his warty backside pressed through that hole and disgorging the foggy contents of his guts.
“Big trolls hang out here with king,” said Big Sligu.
A lot of very big trolls indeed were gathered around a gigantic blue rock covered in slimy moss and knots of what looked like taiga grass.
Except it wasn't a rock.
It was a troll, and somehow it managed to get even bigger when it turned around, catching wind of the sack Trundle was carrying.
Yettu was nearly twice the height of Trundle, his rangy arms like tree trunks and his legs like even bigger tree trunks. His head was like a boulder that had rolled down from a mountain top, gathering up all the frozen moss and gorse along the way before landing on an even larger boulder. A long black-bladed knife of smooth stone from the steaming haunches of a fire mountain was sheathed across his chest in a fold of his skin.
He stared at Trundle the way a pack of rimefangs looks at a fat elnük with a limp.
Trundle had planned to smash Yettu's head in with Boneshiver the moment he came face to face with him. Looking at the northern troll's giant head, he decided against it. Between Yettu's skull and Boneshiver's True Ice, Trundle wasn't sure which would come out best.
Time for a new plan...
“You got meat,” said Yettu with a rumbling, gravelly voice.
“I got meat,” said Trundle, reaching into the bag and hauling out the stinking remains of a curling-horned mountain ram. Yettu's eyes widened and he snatched the carcass from Trundle's hands to stuff it whole down his gullet.
Yettu wiped his blood-greasy chin and belched.
“You Trundle?” he asked. “One who says he troll king?”
Yettu reached out and lifted Trundle's patchwork fur cloak.
“This far north too cold for you, little troll?” said Yettu, and the trolls around them grunted with laughter, the sound like avalanches colliding in slow motion.
Trundle shrugged. “Troll King gotta look good, right? I suppose you're Yettu then?”
“Who else I be? You see any other troll here wearing a crown?”
Trundle took a closer look at the great mass of moss on Yettu's head, now seeing that woven into the wiry thatch of thorny briars and ice were various bloodstained animal bones, horns, and antlers.
It looked like an upside-down storm cloud spitting bolts of bone lightning back at the sky.
“So that's what a crown looks like,” he said.
Yettu nodded and stomped toward Trundle.
“You not so big,” said Yettu, tapping a thick finger on Trundle's matted red hair. “I 'erd you was biggest troll ever. That you scraped your head on the sky and could drink seas.”
“That was a good one. I made trolls tell that one wherever they went,” said Trundle. “Did you hear the one about how I used the tallest tree in the Big Green Forest for a toothpick? Or the one where I ate a mammoth for breakfast and then used its skull for a bath?”
“What is bath…?”
“It's when you… Never mind,” said Trundle. “Or the one where I jumped over the southern mountains in a single leap to wrestle the Whitestone Giant? That I broke his tail across my knee and took it home to dig out the inland sea at Rakelstake? That's my favorite.”
“You fight giants a lot,” said Yettu.
“It's the only way to get a good fight,” answered Trundle.
“You come here to fight me?” said Yettu with a grin, putting up his fists that were, as Sligu had mentioned, like giant boulders. The other trolls made a rough circle around them and began stamping their feet, just waiting for Yettu to bash him good.
Time for a plan so cunning it would make the Ice Witch's hair melt.
“Fighting ain't always done with fists,” said Trundle.
“Yeah, sometimes I kicks things to death,” agreed Yettu.
“That ain't what I mean,” said Trundle, tapping a curling, yellowed claw to his forehead. “If you're a king, a real king, you gotta use this.” Yettu nodded. “Headbutts. Yeah. I likes them too, I do.”
“I mean the thing inside your head,” sighed Trundle. “The brain that does your thinking!”
“It'd be a battle of wits,” said Trundle, then, under his breath, “Lucky for me it looks like you're unarmed.”
“How do we fight wiv our squishy brains?”
Trundle grinned a toothy grin and upended the sack to spill out the rest of the animal carcasses between them in a stinking red pile of fur, bones, and rotten meat.
“An eating contest!” said Trundle.
“'Ow's that usin' our brains?” asked Yettu with a confused look at his trolls.
“You'll see,” promised Trundle.
More meat was brought up and placed in the pile between the two seated troll kings. Giant hunks of flesh torn from the bellies of giant sea creatures, ribs from hairy mammoths, slithering piles of rotten fish, giant wings from the flightless birds of the tundra, entire elnük heads, and squirming heaps of wriggling body parts that Trundle was glad he didn't recognize.
As well as food, giant stone bowls of frothed liquid were brought out, stuff that made the hairs in Trundle's nose curl up. The stench was like the cracks in the earth around the mountains that spouted smoke and fire, and Trundle had a feeling it would taste worse than the amber water the squishy folk of the south called beer.
Truly this was a feast fit for a king, but only one of them could walk away from it.
“We just eat?” said Yettu.
Trundle nodded. “Eat and eat. First one to die loses. Last troll standing is the real king.”
Yettu grinned and said, “You got some good stories, Trundle, but you only got little belly. Real king needs the biggest belly, and Yettu's bigger and meaner. Once ate two whole mammoths when yawned and didn't even notice.”
The trolls around the two kings oohhed.
“That so?” said Trundle. “Well, I once drank so much that when I had to pass water I made the sea at Rakelstake.”
The trolls aahhed.
Yettu's brow furrowed and his eyes rolled around their sockets as he tried to dredge up a memory from only a few moments ago.
“Wait, you said you dug land to make sea at Rakelstake…”
Trundle retorted without missing a beat. “Dug it out to make a hole big enough to pee in.”
The heads of the trolls around them went back and forth as the two troll kings exchanged boasts, each one more outlandish than the last.
Finally, Trundle said, “Just before I came here, I climbed yetis' mountain and took a bite of the moon.”
The trolls laughed at this outrageous boast until Trundle pointed up at the crescent moon shining down through the hole in the cavern's roof. Every troll's head lifted to follow his pointing finger, and they muttered among themselves with a newfound respect.
While they were looking up, Trundle stuffed the now empty sack beneath his patchwork cloak and pulled it tight around his body.
“No more stories,” growled Yettu. “We eat.”
Trundle nodded, and the feast began.
He began by tearing the meat from a giant rib, making sure it was picked clean before cracking it open over his knee and sucking out the marrow within. Yettu wolfed down the flank of a drüvask, chasing it down with a hearty mouthful of the frothed liquid in the stone bowls.
“Drink!” commanded Yettu. “Not feast without frustbogga!”
Trundle took a proffered bowl and swilled it down in one, chugging gulp. His eyes watered at the noxious flavor of it, somewhere between corpse-blood swamp runoff and the red rock that flows. It burned his throat as it went down, and he felt it light a fire in his belly he knew was going to wreak havoc on his backside when he was forced to empty himself out.
He forced a smile and said, “Not bad. I've had stronger.”
Yettu grinned, seeing the sweat on Trundle's brow, and leaned forward, grease dripping from his chin. “I see fire in belly. Burn you up, little troll.”
In response, Trundle picked up a crawling hunk of whale meat and devoured it in three giant bites. He spat the gristle and bone aside, and hungry trolls pounced, fighting for the splintered scraps.
Yettu tilted his head back and slid an entire Aurma fish down his throat, smacking his lips together as its tail disappeared into his gullet. Trundle scooped up handfuls of meat and guts, stuffing them into his mouth with relish and chewing the meat to paste before swallowing.
On and on they ate, their audience cheering with every rotten mouthful of food and every bowl of frustbogga they drank. The mountain of meat seemed to get no smaller, no matter how many chunks they ate. Yettu popped a shovel-like handful of tiny skulls into his mouth, crunching them and rolling the pieces around his mouth like they were some kind of delicacy.
“Found these when boat made of trees wrecked on sea,” said Yettu. “Lots of little people all dead and going to waste.”
Trundle didn't mind eating the meat of the small people, but tried to avoid it where he could since most of them didn't have much in the way of eating on them and their brittle bones got stuck between his teeth.
Another carcass of ribs and meat was washed down with frustbogga, and he knew he was going to pay for this feat on the way home. The northern king stuffed his face with the furry meat of a mammoth, but Trundle saw the telltale signs of a full belly in the redness of Yettu's face and the slowed pace of his eating.
Trundle, too, was feeling the effects of so much meat and frustbogga.
Yettu belched, a belly-rumbling roar that shook snow from the ceiling and sent a bunch of giant icicles falling from the roof. Trolls jumped out of the way, and Trundle used the distraction to lift the neck of the food sack beneath his patchwork cloak up under his fat and blood-soaked chin.
He looked up and saw Little Sligu staring at him. The clever little troll must have seen him hide the sack under his cloak. Little Sligu gave him a slow nod and Trundle grinned, leaning forward to grab yet more meat and bone. He shoved it toward his mouth, but instead of eating it he tipped most of it down his front and into the sack. He took his time, taking slow bites here and there, all the while stuffing entire wings, heads, and racks of blackened ribs into the sack until it was full and he could fit no more in.
Trundle's belly rumbled and he belched a stinking cloud of yellowed gas.
“Full yet?” said Yettu, chewing on a leg bone of something long and heavy.
Trundle slapped his bulging midriff and shook his head.
“Full? Me?” he grinned through a mouthful of crunching bone and dripping fat. “I'm just getting warmed up. When do we get properly started?”
The other trolls laughed, and Yettu roared at them to shut up.
“I king here!” he yelled. “Not him.”
Trundle grinned. Yettu was king here because he was the strongest, meanest, and hungriest troll, but Trundle knew that kind of king was easy to topple.
But the cunningest of kings? That kind of king could stay king forever.
Trundle leaned back and yawned, stretching like he was ready to go for a nap.
“Hey,” he said, holding his hand out to Yettu. “Can I borrow that big knife of yours?”
Yettu eyed him suspiciously through red-rimmed eyes swimming in grease.
“What for? Fink you gonna cut me?”
“Nah, just got to make room for next course.”
The northern king gripped the stone handle of his knife and pulled it from the flesh of his chest. He tossed it over the remaining mound of bloody meat, and Trundle caught it in his sticky palm. For a weapon of trolls, it was surprisingly well made and wickedly sharp.
Trundle pushed himself carefully to his feet, holding the bulge of his cloak and letting out a thunderous fart that swiftly cleared the space behind him.
Then, he took Yettu's knife and sliced it across his cloaked belly.
He let out a convincing groan of relief as the vast quantities of food he'd stuffed into the sack spilled out around his feet in an avalanche of chewed meat, gnawed bones, and fragments of half-eaten gristle.
“Ah, that's better,” he said, handing the knife to Little Sligu with a sly wink, who returned the blade to Yettu. The big troll stared in amazement at Trundle as he lifted yet another handful of meat and stuffed it into his mouth.
Yettu looked from the knife to Trundle, and rose to his full height with a roar of laughter.
“You gonna let him beat you like that?” said Little Sligu.
Yettu shook his head.
“Nobody beats me,” he snarled, and plunged the knife deep into his own stomach.
The northern king sliced the razor-sharp blade across his belly and lifted the bloody knife high with a triumphant grin.
“Yettu make room for food too!”
Trundle watched the northern king's grin fade as his belly yawned open like a second mouth and all the half-digested food he'd just eaten came spilling out in a torrent of his own blood and coiled guts.
“Something wrong?” asked Trundle, pulling the skeleton of a fish carcass from his throat.
Yettu tried to answer, but his mouth just flapped as his innards continued to pour from his opened belly. The knife dropped from his hand and his knees buckled.
Yettu sank to the ground, trying in vain to hold the sliced flaps of his belly together.
“That don't feel good…” he said, before falling face first into the mound of meat.
Little Sligu came forward and Trundle eyed the smaller troll with a mixture of suspicion and respect.
“Now I think I know how a little troll like you's managed to survive up here among all these big boys,” said Trundle. “You're clever.”
“A bit,” said Sligu with a modest shrug.
“Maybe you should come back down south with me,” suggested Trundle in a tone that made it clear it was anything but a suggestion.
“Yeah,” said Little Sligu, looking around at the other trolls. “Change of scenery might be nice.”
“Then you knows what you got to do now, yeah?”
Little Sligu lifted Trundle's arm.
“Trundle is winner!” shouted the clever little troll. “True king of trolls!”