The Brave Apprentice
AN EXCERPT FROM
THE BRAVE APPRENTICE:
"Look, there's another one."
tailor squinted at the grassy land on the other side of the river from
"I don't like it," he said to the apprentice by his side. "I'm afraid something has happened to old Osbert. Stubborn fool, I told him he didn't look well. Never should have gone out there with the herd."
"I'll find him, master."
"You're a good lad, Patch. Go on, now -- there's not much daylight left. And cross the second bridge, mind you, no sense taking chances at the Tumbles. "The tailor shouted the last few words because the boy was already running along the footpath by the river's edge.
Patch could run fast and forever, as everyone in town knew. He ran everywhere on those long colt legs, with his tangle of black hair flapping behind him like a pennant. Even when there was no cause to run, Patch ran. But there was a reason now. Earlier that afternoon one of Osbert's sheep had ambled into town unattended. And now this one had appeared across the river. It seemed that neither Osbert nor his dog was minding the flock. Besides, the old shepherd should have been back by now, at the little house next to the tailor's home, with his herd safe in its pen.
The river was running swiftly too, as it always did in spring when the snows melted in the hills of the Barren Gray. As Patch raced along the bank he tried to guess why Osbert had lost track of time and sheep. He hoped the old man had fallen asleep on a sun-warmed rock or was helping one of his flock give birth. But darker explanations tugged at the boy's thoughts, and he dreaded coming at last upon his friend's cold body, somewhere on the other side of the river.
The Tumbles were coming up. Here the banks of the river stood tall and close on each side, and the waters narrowed and hastened between them, frothing among the boulders that cluttered the riverbed. Aging willows lined the banks, and their roots reached into the swirling currents like long probing fingers. The Tumbles bridge was here. It was a simple construction, with wide, sturdy planks nailed along the trunks of two trees that spanned the gap, and no railing on either side. It was a way that few dared to take these days, even though it spared the traveler a long walk to the next bridge much farther down stream. As for Patch, he crossed here often (at least when the sun was shining), sometimes just for the thrill of it.
He took the bridge the same way as always, slowing only a little as he approached the first plank. Then he jumped high, a leap that carried him halfway across. He landed, took two more long steps, and then leaped again to soar over the far end, out of the reach of any large and ugly hand that might dart out grasping from the shadowy place under the span.
Patch stopped and turned to look back at the crossing. No such hand had appeared. But in a strange way, he almost wished that it had. As horrifying as it might be, Patch hoped that one day he might catch a glimpse of the troll that was rumored to live under that bridge.
Between two enormous rocks on the far side was the dark space where the troll had supposedly carved itself a cave just a few months before. No villager had yet gotten a good look at the creature. Once the farmer Dale came puffing white-faced into town, shouting that something had snatched three of his geese as he crossed the Tumbles. People spoke of unearthly groans and a hulking shape glimpsed in the moonlight. And everyone could smell the foul, foul stench that poured from that hole like vapor from a hot spring, the scent of things rotten and dead.
Patch ran to the first hilltop on the far side of the river and stopped to look about. He shouted "Osbert!" three times and held his breath to listen for a reply. None came from his old friend. But somewhere to the north, over the next hill, a dog barked.
He ran with his fists clenched and his thin legs slicing through the knee-high weeds, and when he crested the next hill he saw the shepherd.
Osbert was sitting slumped with his back against a boulder, rocking gently. His head drooped and his chin rested on his chest. His dog, Pip, was standing next to him with her ears raised high, and she barked again when she saw Patch.
The old man's head bobbed up. He looked toward the sound of Patch's voice, trying to focus, and then saw who it was. He called out weakly, "You miserable cur! You little rotter! You..." But he interrupted himself with a wince of pain.
Patch dropped to his knees, panting. "Osbert, what happened? How long have you been here? Are you hurt?"
Osbert's face was pale and shining with perspiration. He shuffled his shoulders against the boulder to straighten himself. "Not sure -- felt dizzy. Weak. Hurts in here." He touched his hand to his chest. "Help me up now, you villain. Got to get home." The words came in a whisper, as if even talking was painful.
Patch put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Are you sure you can make it? Maybe you should stay here. We could make a fire, keep you warm all night."
Osbert shook his head and grasped Patch's wrist. "Come on, take this old man home, before I knock you silly." He picked up the shepherd's crook that was lying next to him, and with the boy's help he got to his feet. Patch had an arm around Osbert's waist, Osbert an arm over Patch's shoulder. The old man wheezed and shuffled along, his right foot stronger than his left, which dragged feebly behind. After every few steps they stopped so Osbert could rest.
Patch heard a whimper behind them and looked back to see Pip lying on the ground, her ears flattened against her head. "Come on, Pip, he'll be all right," Patch said. The dog slunk forward, her belly practically scraping the ground.
At last Patch could hear the shushing sound of the river ahead. "We're getting near the Tumbles."
The sweat poured down Osbert's face, although the afternoon was growing cool. "I know," he said. "No choice, Patch. I'll never make it to the other bridge. We must cross here."
"We'll be fine," Patch said, squeezing the old man's side. As he and Osbert hobbled forward like an awkward four-legged beast, he peered at the shadows under the bridge. Across the river, to the west, the last sliver of sun dipped behind the trees, and the night began to draw its gloomy cloak across the world.
"Patch," Osbert said, almost too quietly to hear. "You know I never mean all those horrid things I say. You know that's just old Osbert playing the grumbler."
Patch grinned. "Oh shut your yap, you mangy bear. Let's get you home."
They stepped onto the bridge, watching the planks that creaked under their feet. Osbert was moving slower than ever now, wincing with every step.
When they were halfway across, Patch glanced behind him and saw that Pip had stopped on the other side. The dog was shaking, and her tail was curled down out of sight. She squatted and peed in the dirt.
Patch caught a whiff of something awful -- a stench both rotten and sweet that made his stomach heave and the bile rise in his throat. Near the far side of the bridge, a hand -- a monstrous, stone-colored, knobby-fingered hand -- rose from the darkness below. It grasped and held the side, and a troll hauled itself up into the dying light. Osbert moaned and slumped to his knees, almost pulling Patch down with him.
ôRun, Patchy," the old shepherd croaked.
Patch might have considered it, but a numbing fear had invaded his brain and legs, and he could only stare as the creature lurched to its feet, not three strides away. A troll, a living troll -- he had never expected to see one, unless he dared one day to visit the Barren Gray, where such things usually roamed.
The troll came up, hunched with twisted shoulders. Had he stood straight, he might have been ten feet tall. His nose curled and sniffed. And then the hand rose and pointed a long, lumpy finger at them.
"I know your smell," the troll said, in a voice like a rusty saw rasping on wood. He swayed like a drunken man. "One of you has crossed my bridge before."
Patch blinked and gaped. He didn't know trolls could talk. He'd always thought of them as dumb, blundering beasts. But this one spoke -- and remembered him.
The troll shuffled forward, and the broad finger that ended in a thick shovel-shaped nail stabbed again in their direction. "Yes, heard one of you on my bridge. Too fast for me, though. Jumps too high. But the other..." -- he sniffed again, with a wet rattling sound deep in his nostrils -- "too sick to run. Can't hardly walk now, can you?" And then the troll's wide mouth curled into a leer, as wide as a scythe.
Patch tried to help his old friend to his feet, but Osbert went limp in his arms. "You can't help me," Osbert said. "Run, Patch. For heaven's sake, run."
The troll took a half step forward, and then he paused and swayed. That was when Patch saw how diseased and decrepit this creature was. Red sores had erupted all over his pebbly, horned skin, which hung loose on his skeleton. Inside that crescent mouth, his black-red gums were populated by just a handful of jagged triangles, with black holes where other teeth had fallen out. The knee on one leg was grotesquely swollen, and the skin there was cracked and rotten. As Patch stared -- he was seeing everything with slow dreamy clarity now -- a maggot wriggled out from the cracks in the knee and plopped onto the bridge.
And something else, the most disturbing yet: those eyes. Eyes that were too small, grossly out of proportion with the rest of the ugly face. They were glazed all over, icy white, with a sickly yellow liquid streaming out like tears.
"Thought I'd had my last bite of flesh. Then I heard you two and thought, how about one more feast?" the troll rasped. "But then again, if you beg nicely, I may let you pass. What do you say?"
The troll kept his head turned to one side -- listening for them instead of seeing, Patch realized. Yes, he thought, you'd like to hear us answer. So you can find us. Because you're blind.
The troll shuffled closer, moving sideways, and stretched out his lead arm. This creature might be nearing the end of his days, but he was still wider than any man Patch had seen. Those arms were still knotty with muscles and the fingers looked strong enough to crack a man's skull.
Patch bent to avoid the hand swiping over his head. Below him he saw Osbert slumped on the bridge, clutching his shepherd's crook, with his eyes shut against this horror and his mouth moving soundlessly. Patch pulled the long stick out of his friend's grasp. "Be still," he whispered.
The troll was right over them now, probing left and right with his pointy fingers, sniffing deeply. Crouching, Patch reached out with the crook and tapped along the bridge beside the troll. It sounded like someone tiptoeing by.
The troll snarled and lurched in that direction, stepping near the bridge's edge. Patch stood up and swung the crook with all his might. There was a whoosh as the stick whipped through the air, and then a loud and sickening splat as it struck the back of the creature's swollen knee.
The troll howled. His knee crumpled, pinching the crook behind it and snapping off the curved end. The creature held his knee and teetered on the edge of the bridge, over the roiling waters. Patch drew back what was left of the staff, still five feet long. He raised it over his head and brought it down across the troll's back. The troll moaned and pitched forward, over the side and into the river. For a moment he disappeared, then came up sputtering, until the currents steered him near the bank, where the roots of the willows reached down to drink. The troll was swept under the curving roots and trapped beneath them, with the strength of the swollen river driving him under the surface. Patch saw the monster's head come up for a moment, fighting to rise above the foaming waters, and then it was gone. A moment later a gnarled foot bobbed up, moved not of its own accord but by the swirls and bubbles of the river.
People were shouting. Patch saw men and women running their way from the village, close enough to see what he'd just done. They must have heard the troll scream, he thought. He felt a touch at his ankle and saw Osbert smiling weakly up at him.
"Brave little tailor," the shepherd whispered hoarsely. "You killed a troll."