Exactly where the notion of a large, thick-skinned, semi- intelligent and usually hostile creature known as a troll originated is not known.
Some anthropologists have postulated that the term ‘troll’ was used by early humans to describe isolated groups of declining hominids: Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons, or even the so-called ‘Missing Link’
in the human evolutionary chain. Others suggest that trolls were simply another species of mega-fauna—like mammoths and sabre-toothed cats—that became extinct as northern climates warmed . . .
Once upon a time in a river valley far to the north, there lived a tribe whose members suddenly started dying from a mysterious illness.
It was a singularly horrible way to die. Pus-filled sores would appear on the victim’s skin, then their gums would begin to bleed. Soon, unable to move, covered in boils and with their teeth falling out, the victim would fall asleep, never to wake.
Then, as if to compound the tribe’s misery, the river that flowed into their valley from the north dried up.
Even though the tribe had sent forth its annual tribute to the trolls, the trolls had decided to cut the flow of water from their dam upstream. This was something the trolls did from time to time, for no other reason, it seemed, than to remind those who lived in the valley of the trolls’ cruel domi- nance over them.
In a few short months the lands in and around the valley became dry and barren. The soil crum- bled. Game became scarce. It was said that even the hobgoblins—who with their wiry little bodies could survive for longer in tougher conditions than just about any other creature—had aban- doned their lair in the low mountains in search of more plentiful lands.
For the Northmen tribe, things became parlous. The harvest was so poor that food was rationed. And it soon became apparent that the lack of both food and water was aiding the spread of the illness. Tribe members fell ill in greater numbers.
Prayers were offered to the gods. They did no good.
Sacred essences were burned. That also did no good.
More members of the tribe were struck down by the disease.
Something had to be done.
Two elders were dispatched to begin talks with the trolls, to beseech them to release more
water. They departed wearing their best robes and the distinctive wooden necklaces worn only by elders.
Those elders never returned.
Then came worse news.
It became known that the trolls themselves were also suffering from the terrible illness but that they had chanced upon a cure for it, an elixir of some sort. It was further said that upon payment of a ‘special tribute’ the trolls promised to cure any tribe’s victims of the disease.
Some leaders of the smaller tribes in the valley had gone to Troll Mountain with their sick to enter into this pact with the Troll King and, at the same time, to beg him to release more water.
A week later, the sick returned to the river valley, miraculously cured of the disease, with tales of drinking the fabled Elixir—a stinging yellow liquid.
Unfortunately, they reported that the Troll King had flatly refused to release any extra water from his dam, keeping the tribes of the river valley firmly under his thumb.
More ominously, the tribal leaders who had conveyed their sick to Troll Mountain did not return.
The cured had no knowledge of what had happened to their leaders in the Mountain King’s halls, but deep in their hearts they all had the same suspicions.
Such was the life of the people of the Northmen tribe.
After a time, however, it was noticed by some that while the river dried up and the crops failed and the Northmen fell ill in greater numbers, the head family continued to eat well.
For generations, the chieftain’s family had been taller than the other members of the tribe, sturdier, stronger, and so they designated themselves the tribe’s warriors. And since it was imperative that they remain healthy so they could defend their people from the other major tribe in the valley, the Southmen, the head family got first rights to the already limited supply of food—and only then, of course, after tribute had been sent to the trolls.
‘They are only the warriors because they keep the art of wielding weapons within their own
family,’ Raf grumbled to his sister, Kira, as they left the chief’s elongated hut one day, having just delivered to the head family an extra share of their meagre harvest.
‘Quiet, Raf,’ Kira whispered. ‘You’ll get into trouble again.’
‘And the more they eat, the stronger they remain, so they perpetuate their high status—’
‘What can they do to me?’ Raf said.
‘They can banish you.’
‘The way things are, banishment is hardly much of a punishment. What difference is it to anyone if I starve here or elsewhere?’
‘It would make a difference to me,’ Kira said softly, touching his arm. Their parents had died when they were young. Kira shrugged. ‘It is how things are, and how they have always been. The big have their way. The small, like us, survive.’
Raf frowned. ‘I don’t like the way things are. They could be better.’
But the truth was, Raf was small and had always been so. Even though he had just reached his seventeenth year, he was boyish in appearance, thin and gangly, with a mop of unruly sandy hair.
However, what he lacked in strength, he made up for in speed: he was nimble and fast, which in his younger days had helped him avoid a thrashing or two at the hands of bigger boys. And he was an exceptional climber—of trees and high rocks—which had also helped him dodge a few beatings.
It should also be mentioned that Raf was inven- tive. He spent all his spare moments designing new farming implements, cooking utensils and some- times—in defiance of the tribe’s rules—weapons.
The invention that Raf looked upon with particular pride was his rope: an ultra-long spool that he himself had braided together over many months. Fully extended, it was perhaps fifty feet long. And it was strong. It had to be, since Raf used it to scale the cliffs at the rim of the valley, hundreds of feet above a sheer drop.
His mother had actively encouraged his inven- tiveness. Serene and calm, she would examine each of Raf’s new inventions and ask him pointed ques- tions, sometimes causing him to dash off to make amendments to his original designs. But when the item was finished, she would always use it, which made the young Raf especially proud.
Sadly, encouragement of this kind was not common in Raf’s tribe.
Once, as a boy, Raf had offered to help the chief build weapons for the tribe’s warriors. He’d even made a special sample to show the chief: a double-bladed axe. Till then, the tribe had only used axes with a single blade.
The fat chief had roared with laughter, saying in a booming voice, ‘What fool would use a double- bladed axe in battle? I only need one blade to bring down my enemies! Leave the fighting to us, boy!’
The other members of the head family had guffawed, especially Bader, the chief’s third son who, although the same age as Raf and once his childhood playmate, now stood a foot taller than Raf and ordered Raf around as if he were an elder.
Raf had left the chief’s hut embarrassed and humiliated. On a tribe based around families and a ruling clan, it didn’t help that Raf and his sister were orphans.
It had happened when Raf was twelve and Kira eight.
One day their mother had not returned from gathering berries in the hills with the other women. Instead, one of the women had raced into the village, screaming: ‘Troll! Rogue troll!’
Their father had immediately dashed off toward the berry hills, followed by a group of warriors (who, Raf thought, hadn’t moved quickly enough).
Leaving Kira with a neighbour, Raf had hurried after them, tracking them first by the sound of their voices and then by their footprints.
As he arrived at the berry hill on the eastern rim of the valley, he heard the troll.
A deep guttural roar echoed through the trees, followed by shouts, the crash of branches and the swoosh of a giant hammer being swung.
‘Force it back! Force it back against the cliff!’ Raf arrived at a spot where the top of the berry
hill met the base of a high rocky wall. There he was stopped by one of the younger warriors.
‘Raf!’ the youth said. ‘Don’t go any further! You shouldn’t see—’
But Raf had to see.
He pushed past the young warrior and burst out into the clearing to behold—
—a great troll gripping his mother like a rag doll and bellowing at the five adult warriors surrounding it and prodding it with spears.
The great grey creature was only a couple of handspans taller than a man, just shy of seven feet, but it was far bulkier than any man Raf had ever seen: it had broad shoulders, a thick neck, and a brutish block of a head that was all forehead and jaw. Its skin was a thick hide like that of an elephant.
The troll stood with its back to the rock wall, trapped, holding Raf’s mother around the waist
in one of its mighty hands while with the other it lashed out with a huge battle hammer.
In horror, Raf saw that his mother’s eyes were closed and that her body swayed lifelessly with every movement the troll made. His mother, his beautiful, calm and encouraging mother.
His father rushed forward to grab her hand.
‘No—!’ someone yelled, but it was too late. The troll swung its massive hammer round and it struck Raf’s father square in the head, sending him slamming into the rock wall. He hit the wall with terrible force and crumpled, killed in an instant.
Raf screamed in horror.
Then, with another bellowing roar the troll discarded its hammer, threw Raf’s mother over its shoulder and clambered up the rock wall, out of sight.
Raf never saw his mother again.
As he grew into his teens, Raf kept more and more to himself.
His sister Kira worried about him, doted on him, and often shushed him when he voiced his
increasingly dissatisfied views of the head family. He had felt the warriors’ efforts to save his mother had been half-hearted, ineffective, and hadn’t justi- fied their extra allotment of food.
Which was why, when he wasn’t farming his little plot with Kira or constructing implements that made their toil a little easier, in secret he would practise with his weapons.
He made his double-bladed axe smaller and lighter so that it could be wielded with greater speed. He even gave this new model a hollow handle, inside of which he slid a long, thin knife made of flint.
When he went hunting at the edge of the Badlands, which lay to the north of the river valley, Raf would practise extracting the knife from the axe’s handle, executing the move very quickly so that if he were ever confronted by an enemy, he would have weapons in both hands in the blink of an eye. He practised thrusting and slashing with his weapons in a dance-like motion. Had anyone been watching him, Raf thought, they surely would have thought him mad.
As it turned out, unbeknownst to Raf, there was often someone watching him as he practised alone by the edge of the Badlands.
At the height of his disgruntlement, during one year’s summer harvest festivities, Raf did an outrageous thing: he asked to compete in the annual harvest games.
During the harvest, the ruling family always held games. These usually involved fights and wrestling matches between the chieftain’s sons, allowing them to show off their warrior skills. Even in lean times, the games were very popular among the tribesfolk.
When Raf asked to compete in a wrestling match, the fat chief laughed loudly, just as he had done before—but this time Raf asked him in front of the tribe and all were watching the exchange closely.
The chief threw a look to his sons before nodding nonchalantly. ‘Are you certain you want to do this, lad? Farm boys should not challenge warriors. I would not like to see you get hurt.’
Some of the tribesfolk tittered.
‘I would still like to try,’ Raf said.
The chieftain shook his head and said to the crowd, ‘Let no one say I didn’t warn him!’ He turned back to Raf. ‘Fine. You shall wrestle Bader then.’
His heart pounding, Raf stepped into the makeshift dirt ring and faced off against Bader. As the fight began, they circled each other, and then Raf pushed off the ground to engage with Bader, but as he did so, one of Bader’s brothers stretched a surreptitious foot through the ropes of the ring and, unseen by any of the other tribespeople, tripped Raf.
Raf fell and Bader pounced on him, wrapping him in a headlock and pounding him against the ground. What followed was a humiliation, as much to crush Raf’s spirit as it was to provide an example to the other members of the tribe. It took weeks for the cuts and bruises to fade and Raf was an object of ridicule every time he passed the ruling family.
He would just bow his head and walk on, fuming.
And so Raf spent his days as an outsider within his own tribe—farming with his sister, inventing his
weapons and training himself in their use, climbing and hunting alone at the edge of the Badlands. It was during this time that water became scarcer and people started dying in greater numbers.
And then came the day that Raf’s sister fell ill with the disease.