(A work in progress, this is the first chapter of the first in a series of short stories set in the Shetland Isles, working title ‘An Imagined Shetland Folklore’.
Note: ‘Hjaltland’ is the old name for Shetland.)
Just as there are good and bad humans, so it is with trolls, or ‘trows’ as they are called here in this place that feels like the ends of the earth. There are those trolls who live and hunt in packs and love to taunt and kidnap humans, either to enslave as wives and mothers to their half human half troll children (of whom more later), or to use as musical entertainment for “one night only”; a terrible trick this, for that one night is more, so much more, than it appears on the surface. For what appears to be one night of playing and festivities and happy fun, lasts one hundred years or more in human time, and so the poor kidnapped fiddler, far from having had the best night of his life and a pocketful of gold in payment, finds he has suddenly outlived his own lifetime, and his family, his friends, all familiar existence vanished and replaced by a future he could never have imagined before he stepped into that cursed troll barrow.
And then, rumour has it, there are the good ones, though not many can claim to have come across one of those. Half-breeds, they are called, somewhat unkindly; offspring of those dreadful raids on human habitations, they are not true trolls but some unfortunate blending of troll and human, and so, though reputed to be sweeter tempered than their troll forebears (or some of their human, come to that), they are nonetheless shunned by all for being neither one thing nor the other.
Understandably their resentment of both species has grown over the centuries, and though not known to be as murderous as pure-bred trolls, it is wise to give them a wide berth, for loneliness can lead to crazy behaviour. And anyway, no good can ever come of a meeting with a troll.
Or can it? Eh? Ask him, this poor soul, wandering the dusty paths here as though he’s lost his marbles and is intent on finding them again. Ask him. Go on.
He flies at you when you speak to him as though you might be the devil and he can save himself only if he catches you by surprise. Not open to a civil chit-chat, this one, sorry I tricked you into asking. But I needed you to see for yourself the effect a troll encounter can have. For a half-breed troll saved him and led to this, this madness, as if a whole world of troll curses were transferred over to him in that one act of kindness. No. No good can ever come of a meeting with a troll.
You want to know how he got that way? Read on then…
A wild night. Wind churning the sea into a froth of annihilating waves. A little skiff, sails ripped ragged, mast hanging on for dear life, boom snapped and flailing and crashing into the sides of the beleaguered vessel, smashing at the boards as if to punish it for daring to venture into these vicious waters.
On board, a man, him, the crazy man, wild eyed and wishing, wishing so hard, he had stayed at home like his daughter had wanted, rather than insisting he make this one last voyage from their home amongst the fjords to these islands west of them where he sells his goods – wooden trinkets, tools, toys, carved by him during the long winter months, then sold at great profit in these islands where trees are a rarity, and the only wood either imported or washed up on the storm-tossed beaches from halfway around the world.
He had seen his chance long ago, when still a child and helping his father on these exotic trading trips. The Hjaltlanders had ‘oo’ed and ‘aah’ed over the carved bits and pieces he whittled to pass the time while his father traded cloth and cheese and spirits, and he had spotted the gap in the market. So, when the time came for him to take over the family business, it wasn’t akvavit and sweet cheese he loaded into the little skiff, but his wooden spoons, toys and knick-knacks; crammed them in by the sack load he did, and sold them cheaply and still made more money in one trip than his father would in three.
Fiddles too were in his sacks now, full-sized and child sized, and teeny tiny ones: the real thing, simply mouse sized, that if you could ever find someone with fingers small enough, could be played as well and as fully as an adult sized one.
A great novelty they were in these islands of musicians, where pretty much every family had half a dozen fiddle players amongst their number, who along with singers and dancers, would gather on winter nights and make merry hell with their tunes and stompings and bodies flying around the place in merriment.
Such were his customers, and the miniscule fiddles were much loved as gifts and ornaments, and though much harder and fiddlier to make (ho ho), he always carried a number in his jacket pockets to give as gifts to his loyal customers, and to those he hoped would become loyal, and come to part with their cash in exchange for his goods.
And so it was that, on this night of tempest and the very devil abroad in the air, as the skiff was thrown from wave to wave, his body was pitched into the waters, tossed like flotsam onto the breakers rushing at the shore, and he found himself hurled onto a deserted coastline, his boat smashed to matchsticks along with all his goods, other than the small number of tiny fiddles still snug, though drenched, in his breast pockets.
And now here he is, semi-conscious, face down in the sand, with the waves lashing at his feet but at least not trying to drown him anymore.
There is a moon up there in the scurrying sky, and in between darknesses it emerges pale and livid to show him just what a mess he is in. Deserted beach, no habitations in sight, no signs of life or boats or lights, other than…
Up there, high up, at the top of the menacing cliff face, a shape, many shapes, moving rapidly, shapes with arms and legs – saved! Rescuers! Local people who will have seen his plight and are coming…
They are coming nowhere; they are dancing. Can it be? It can – they are flying around in a circle on the hilltop like they are in the midst of a mad celebration of this storm, flying in a circle as if exhilarating in this… flying! They aren’t dancing, they’re flying!
He lets out a gasp and, even amidst the roar of the storm, it is heard.
The flying stops, and the heads of these inhuman creatures snap around in his direction. And as if their eyes were made of scrying glass, they spot him, his dark shape sprawled on the white sand. Very distinctly human-shaped, he is, and that rouses their interest.
A roar of delight goes up that would match the thunder for fierceness, and suddenly they are launching themselves off the cliff top and soaring down on the violent air currents like giant sea birds, arms spread wide to navigate the drafts that send them lurching sickeningly up and down and ever closer to him, like malevolent gulls, squawking and screeching their delight at having spotted prey.
He is frozen in horror, never having imagined that being shipwrecked would be the least of his worries, but luckily this state of affairs doesn’t last long and with an explosion of adrenaline he is up and running across the sand to who knows where, anywhere, as long as it’s away from those flying fiends, closing in on him like harpies.
Trolls. That is what they are: beasts from his own lands that somewhere in the murky depths of the past migrated across the water and settled on this god-forsaken island.
His feet slipping and sliding on sand that allows him one step forward for two steps back, he glances over his shoulder to see this flock of trolls ever closer, enjoying the hunt, not bringing him down with speed and precision, but playing with him, enjoying his attempts at escape, like cats with any small animal they can get at their mercy.
And that is when he realises it is futile. There is nowhere to run that they cannot reach quicker than he can. No one to help, to open a door and drag him inside to safety. No lights to indicate a possibility of salvation.
Other than…there, grasses, a forest of them. He dives into them and down on his hands and knees, mercifully hidden from sight for a while. And then his blood chills as he hears a new sound – sniffing.
Terrified, he ducks his head down, but he knows in his bones they’ll sniff him out and be back on his trail. He stumbles on through the grass and finds himself on sand again, the sea stretching out before him, trapped. Has he come full circle? No – it is a spit of land, and he has simply crossed it, and now has nowhere to run, other than there – a spot of light, a glimmer amongst the reeds. He runs towards it in the hope of finding habitation, but to his dismay finds only more sand, drifted into high dunes against the ruins of a building. Yet there was light, he saw it, he’s certain. He stumbles on, briefly out of sight of his pursuers, who clearly know he has nowhere to run and so are in no hurry to bring him down. More fools they, for these ruins may well be his salvation, as there is the light again, like a wink, on and off, beckoning him, encouraging his forward momentum so that he wonders if this is a trick. Is it? Is it a lure? Is it the trolls?
That stops him mid-stride – what if it’s a trap? And then he hears that sound, the hideous flapping and snuffling coming up behind and above him, and he knows that light is his only chance of salvation, and so he flees, hurtles towards that glimmer of hope, feet sliding in the sand, hands struggling to find purchase to propel him forward, away from that terrible sound so close behind now he can smell their fetid breath. And just as he thinks he is lost to them, the ruins loom up before him, an apparition risen out of the gloom and into his reality, a solid wall with a huge wooden door that stands slightly ajar as if especially for him, with the soft glow of a lantern above it, signalling the way.
He hurls himself at it and it swings opens with ease into a vast, dark space, which holds less fear than the rough hands and tongues lashing out from behind. Hurtling inside, he throws himself against the door, slamming it shut with such force and such a sound it is as if thunder has exploded within these walls.
Outside, the roars that explode from his thwarted pursuers almost fell him with their ferocity, and he uses the last of his fast-vanishing strength to propel himself backwards into the gloom and away from the malice behind that door, as far away from it as his failing body will carry him, right up until it fails completely, and he collapses, mercifully, into blackness.