Grim Glower-Eye and the Pit Troll
The rain came in drenching torrents. The mud of the road stuck to the traveler’s boots. He bent his hooded head against the wind, wrapped his dark cloak around him and trudged ever onwards, his gaze kept low. Grim was his name of this traveler, and grim was his nature. He was called Glower-Eye, for though he had but one eye, the other lost to a Bulgar’s pike, it smoldered in its socket and all who were fixed with its baleful gaze would cringe and know the hour of their death had come.
Grim Glower-Eye was a red-handed reaver of the most brutal sort. He had gone a-Viking many times and ranged far and wide, raiding all he could. He had fought for the Byzantine emperors in the Varangian guard of far off Milklagard, slain scores in holmgang duels across the Northlands, and fought with the great armies of Europe over the green fields of Ireland, the frozen plains of Muscovy and lastly with King Harald Hardrada in England, at a bloody patch of earth and water known as Stamford Bridge. It was there that the Viking Age ended, and with it, Grim’s place in the world.
Grim’s tangled beard was now long and streaked with gray, but the years had not dulled him. His round shield, Viking sword and bearded axe of a warrior gave warning to all who saw him. His sword, its blade wrapped in a leather scabbard, was mostly used now as a walking stick to keep his footing along the muddy road.
“By Odin’s bead!” he muttered darkly as he walked. “Would that my foe stood before me this instant! But instead I must slog through leagues of muck to find him.”
Grim Glower-Eye’s new master had entrusted the old Viking with a sacred task — to slay a Pit Troll, the last of its kind. The troll lurked in a pit surrounded by gray hills deep in the windswept country. For weeks now the beast had slipped from its cave to slaughter cattle, sheep, men, women and even children to sate its preternatural hunger.
But it wasn’t for them that Grim walked toward the pit. In truth, neither was it to satisfy his master. Never a man of charity, Grim fought for the love of battle, the thrill of the fight, the blessings of the Skald’s tongue, and the echoes of glory brought on by victory. Ever since his youth in the coldest northern climes of Scandinavia, when he had seen his father hacked down by the axes of a rival clan, constant battle had been his life. Battle gave his life purpose and filled his dark heart with a darker pleasure.
By the time the sun reached its zenith in the mist-shrouded sky, Grim Glower-Eye had reached the gray hills that surrounded the pit. Grim moved slowly, his sword now strapped across his back, his axe on his belt and his round shield’s handle knotted around his left arm. He saw pieces of human bone scattered along the sides of the hill, many half-buried in the gravel and wondered how many victims had the Pit Troll taken.
“By the waters of Mimir,” Grim whispered to himself. “He makes the hillside his feasting hall.”
The Viking doubled his pace, and reached the crest of the highest hill. A single Standing Stone was there, looking as old as the hill itself. It was rounded and coated in jointed, crudely drawn runes, many of which were familiar to Grim, and many of which were simply too old to be known.
At the foot of the Standing Stone were the remains of many candles, the ancient wax spilling down over piles of ancient bones, covered in layers of dust and of the same sickly shade of yellow. These were not the trophies of a hunter, but offerings left for a local spirit. Grim prodded the bones with his feet, pushing aside the crumbling jawbone of a long dead bull. It had been a long time since anyone had left an offering below the Standing Stone.
Grim walked past the Standing Stone and looked down the steep slope of the hill, into the gray stone pit where the troll dwelled. It was a jagged, narrow valley, cut as if single great claw had carved it out of the earth. Grim tightened his grip on his shield, grabbed the hilt of his sword, and began to walk down the hillside.
Reaching the bottom of the pit, Grim Glower-Eye saw a large crevice, that opened into a narrow cave. Darkness lay within, and it seemed to spill out and consume the rest of the pit. “Who dwells here?” Grim demanded .“Do I stand alone in this cursed place?” He took a halting step towards the cave. “Is this cold land empty, except for the drops of rain and the roaring winds?”
“No,” thundered a voice from the cave, sounding, like a rumbling avalanche gaining in speed and strength as it pounded down a stony mountainside. “No. There is another here.”
“Then show yourself!” Grim cried.
The troll emerged from his lair. Though he was hunched over, the Pit Troll still stood twice as tall as Grim, and he regarded the Viking with watery yellow eyes. His long arms dragged through the dirt as his squat legs propelled him forward. Muscles moved under his gray hide, and his flat snout widened with each hacking breath. Yellowed tusks projected from a wide mouth in a round head wedged between shoulders like mounds of rock.
“Little man,” the troll asked, breathing slowly between each word. “What do you want of me?”
“I am Grim, called Glower-Eye,” Grim said.
“Ah! And a truthful name it is,” replied the troll, waddling forward. “I have no name. Or, if I ever did, I have forgotten it. Come here among these rocks and sit with me in the sun. It is cold and dark in the cave, and I love the warmth of the sun.” The troll sat down on a flat gray stone, looking like nothing less than a defeated, dejected king on a shabby throne.
Grim stared at his watery eyes. “You are doomed, Troll. You kill our people,” he said.
The troll nodded his round head. “I have dwelled here, since the world was fashioned from Ymir’s corpse. The people nearby respected me out of their fear. They would bring me meat and offerings. In return, there was peace. They fed me, I didn’t eat them.” He stopped. “But now they send nothing, nothing at all.”
Grim glared at him. “I have come to slay you.”
The troll bowed his head. “Is it because I have ripped the flesh from their bodies for my evening meal, and split their bones to suck their marrow?”
“Yes,” replied Grim, drawing his sword and letting the blade gleam in the dim light, said. “You should have known this would happen.”
The troll nodded. “I did.” He tapped his clawed fingers on the ground. “But what choice did I have? The men stopped leaving their food. They no longer cared for me, so I know longer cared for them. The old ways, the respect, the traditions – they are all gone now. Replaced by a new god. I ask you, Viking, what would you do? I am a troll, and this is the way I live.”
“Aye,” Grim agreed. “But I still must slay you, for I made an oath to one of the old gods, and I cannot break it.”
“I spit on the old gods!” growled the troll. “What use are they? Our time passed, and they stood by, and did nothing.” The troll let out a creaking keening, and Grim soon realized it was a whine. “I never wanted to hurt people. I was hungry, and there were no offerings below the Standing Stone.”
“You must die for what you have done,” Grim said. He held his sword tightly.
“There was no honor in eating children, no respect!” declared the troll defiantly. “I am…I am sorry that I have done it.”
“That may be,” Grim replied. “But my master has commanded me to slay you. I have no choice in the matter.”
“This should not be my end,” the troll muttered. “I am a child of the earth and I deserve better! For centuries I have lived here, and it shouldn’t end now! It shouldn’t!”
Grim wished to tell the creature to face death with dignity, but he knew his words would ring as hollow as the interior of his eye socket. The troll had lived peacefully until the world had changed. Was that the troll’s fault? Was it his fault that his hunger needed sating? The troll was the last of his kind, a living vestige, a reminder of what once was. Where was the glory in killing an innocent creature, especially one so alone and forlorn?
“I could make it fast…” he finally said. “Painless.”
“You may try, but I promise you a fight. Perhaps you would be lucky, perhaps you would not,” the troll muttered. “I would fight, because I must. I have that much dignity left, I think.” He snorted, a deep rumbling from somewhere back in his round head. “Grim, reconsider. We are two of a kind, and it would be a shame to kill you.”
The troll’s words echoed through his mind like the clash of steel. He looked at the troll’s tired eyes and saw his reflection. Slowly, the grip on Grim’s sword lessened. He let it fall with a clatter to the stones. “By Odin’s Beard!” he muttered. He grabbed the sword and returned it to its sheathe. Without a backwards glance, he left the troll, and starting clambering up the rocky slopes of the gray hills.
Grim Glower-Eye returned to the muddy road. He was soon joined by a tall, thin man in rich, black robes. The tall fellow was as slim and beardless as a boy, and his eyes were topped with long lashes. His thin fingers were folded together over his chest, and his long hair tumbled down to his shoulders. His skin and dark robes glowed faintly in the dim sun, and neither rain nor mud stained him. Grim Glower-Eye lowered his head and snorted lowly. He approached the tall man, but did not meet his eyes.
“And what do you want?” Grim demanded, angrily.
“Can you not guess?” replied the man.
“I can guess nothing, Lie-Father,” Grim said. “Only that you are slippery as a salmon in the river.”
“Hah!” laughed the tall man. “Grim Glower-Eye,” he said, skipping in slow circles. “A tongue such as yours belongs in the mouth of a skald! You sing my praises, even as you insult me.” He walked across the road. “But you already know what I want, what you promised me?”
“I cannot do it,” Grim answered, a rebellions growl in his voice. “There is no glory in it.”
The tall man wrapped his arm around Grim’s wide shoulders, crouching down until his head was level with the wandering warrior. “Do you remember when I saw you first? Walking slowly through the red fields around Stamford Bridge, tears streaming down from your one eye, weeping that there were no more battles to fight. Weeping that the age of the long ship and the berserkergang and the horned helmet were as dead as King Harald, as dead as the Vikings at your feet.”
Grim nodded slowly. “Aye, Sky-Walker,” he said. “And you made me an offer.”
“Yes. You would do my bidding, be my agent upon Midgard, and in return I would ensure that you never lacked for battle.” The tall man stepped back from Grim, spreading his arms like the wings of a soaring eagle. “And I kept my promise. I brought you here, to the pit, to battle the troll that dwells there and slay him.” He cocked his head. “Why do you now hesitate?”
“The troll is a mere beast, and one with no evil in his heart, no glory in his death.”
“But it has killed many men, women, children,” the Lie-Father pointed out.
“What choice did he have?” Grim demanded. “The new faith abandoned him, as it abandoned me, and left him to starve.”
“The new faith abandoned all of us. You would do well to remember that.” The tall man resumed his skipping, merry gait.
With a slow snarl, the Viking pulled the leather scabbard from his blade. “Do not remind me. Ragnorak has passed. All the old ways are dying. Don’t you mourn?”
The tall man, the Lie-Father, the Sky-Walker, the God of Fire, the Son of Giants and the Father of Monsters, threw back his head and laughed. “Mourn, Grim Glower-Eye?” Loki shook his head and smiled. “No. I rejoice in the progress of the world. Now go to the hills and kill that troll. I have kept my word. You cannot break yours.”
“I wish that the Norns had cut my thread short in Stamford Bridge!” Grim shouted. “I wish that I had died rather than serve you!”
“Don’t blame the Norns,” Loki said. “Blame yourself. You wanted endless battle, now you have it. You wanted everlasting glory and now your name shall be heaped with praises in all the feasting houses and taverns of the world. Grim Glower-Eye – Slayer of Monsters! Grim Glower-Eye – killer of trolls! Who wouldn’t want such praise?”
“I don’t want it!” Grim shouted. “I won’t fight for you!”
“Then I’ll free you,” Loki offered. “Turn on your heels and run! And what will the Skalds call you? What will the sagas say? They will tell of Grim Oath-Breaker! Grim the Coward! Grim who fled from battle for the fear of his own precious skin!” Loki danced about Grim, laughing all the while. “And don’t try and trick me, Grim. No one tricks the trickster.”
“Who would believe you?” Grim demanded.
“Everyone,” Loki said coldly. “Everyone, for all time.” Loki laughed. “And what would you do? You live for battle, fancy yourself a king of swords. How would you live with yourself if you knew that you ran from a battle? So you see, you have no choice.”
“Loki, you are a bastard.”
Grim turned around and saw that Loki was gone. Once more he was alone on the dirt road, except for the drizzle of rain and the mud underneath his boots. He narrowed his eyes and walked forward, muttering curses all the while. He descended again into the pit, once more to confront his foe.
When he reached the cave, the troll dashed out to meet him. “You’ve returned!” the troll cried. “So soon! So soon! What brings you back, Grim Glower-Eye? What brings you back to…”
The troll stopped. He stared at Grim’s naked sword, flashing in the Viking’s hand.
“Oh…” the troll dug his claws into the dirt. “Must you?”
“That is…,” the troll said softly, “a pity. I will kill you, Grim Glower-Eye. Like I have killed so many others.”
The troll snorted, and charged forward. His great hands dug deep into the earth, sending a spray of pebbles behind it. He leapt for Grim, raising a hand with claws like long daggers, long enough to slice Grim open in a single blow.
Grim threw himself backwards, his cloak fluttering about him as he raised his shield. The troll’s claw crashed onto the shield with all the fury and speed of a bolt of lightning. The wood splintered, and Grim knew it would not last long. The Viking stabbed forward with his sword, driving the long blade deep into the troll’s exposed forearm.
“Curse you, Grim!” the troll cried, pulling out the sword and tossing it away. “I curse you! I curse you to walk alone amongst the gray stones of the earth, and never know rest nor solace, and for the rocks themselves to make war against you, until even your bones are dust!” The troll’s words rang as he raised both claws above his head.
Grim drew out his bearded axe from his belt and dove forward. The troll’s hands pounded into the dirt behind him, sending up waves of dust. Grim swung the axe with all of his might into the troll’s chest. With the axe still buried in his midsection, the troll stepped backwards, and the stout wooden handle slipped from Grim’s hands.
The Viking faced the troll and waited. Slowly, the troll grabbed the axe and tugged at the handle. It came free in a shower of dark blood, and troll tossed the axe over his round shoulders.
Grim’s eye widened. “By Odin’s beard!” he cried. “What strength you have!”
“When all else desert me, strength remains,” the troll replied, charging forward. He cracked the back of his hand against Grim, sending him flying backwards. Grim toppled through the air and landed hard on the ground. Every bone within him ached. He lay on the ground, dazed. He willed himself to stand as the troll approached, but his strength would not come.
Grim looked around at the advancing troll, and saw his sword lying in the nearby gravel, not far from where he lay. He gritted his teeth and reached for it. Grim’s fingers scraped the handle He could smell the trolls breath as it neared. With a great last effort, he pulled the sword closer.
“You have not asked me for any favors, after I kill you,” the troll said, his voice rumbling through the pit. “You have not asked me to bury you, or burn you, or set you adrift in the ocean. So I will eat you, and live for a few more days off of your meat, tough and stringy as it may be.” The troll stalked towards Grim, twitching his thick lips and snorting loudly. “I am growing hungry now, I think.”
The troll now stood above Grim, staring down at the Viking. Grim staggered to his feet, swinging up the sword and leaping forward. He rammed the blade into the open mouth of the troll, feeling the blade stab through flesh and bone until the bloody tip of the blade projected out from the back of the troll’s gray, round skull.
Grim sank down as the troll stepped backwards, tottering about in pain as sprays of blood ran down his short neck. Long arms flailed about wildly, claws carved deep groves from the earth, and still the troll did not fall. Grim Glower-Eye spotted his axe near the entrance of the troll’s cave, and ran for it. He circled wide around the troll’s spinning arms, and grabbed the handle of the bearded axe. Grim risked everything on a final charge, swinging the axe above his head. He slammed the blade down into the troll’s back, and finally the squat legs crumpled under the mighty beast.
Gasping for air as his lifeblood drained from him, the troll called out to the Viking. “Before I am finished, grant me a final request.”
“Name it, and it will be done,” Grim said.
The troll cleared his throat and his beady yellow eyes were wet. “Go to the Standing Stone above the pit. Set my head there as an offering, and light the candles once more.”
Though Grim was weakened from the battle and tottered on his feet, he followed the troll’s words. He pulled free his sword, and slid it into the scabbard across his shoulders, then raised the war axe and brought it down on the troll’s neck until the beast’s mangled head came free.
Grim picked up the huge head and held it with both hands. The troll’s yellow eyes looked like embers in a dying fire. Grim tucked the severed head under his arm and clambered up the slope of the hill, until he reached the base of the Standing Stone.
It was near evening now, and the shadows grew long around the gray hills. Grim set the head of the troll at the base of the Standing Stone, and withdrew tinder and flint from his cloak. He struck them until he a fire blazed on a waxy wick of the old candles, and used that to light the rest.
“By Odin’s Beard,” he whispered. “You fought well, Pit Troll. Never will there be a day that I do not remember you.” The hair on Grim’s neck prickled. He turned around and saw Loki standing behind him, grinning smugly at his handiwork. “It is done,” Grim muttered. “Another of the old creatures is no more.”
“Excellent,” Loki agreed. “Let it pass into dim memory and then myth and legend.” He leaned down next to Grim. “Rest here, my champion. There are more monsters that you must kill for me – great wolves in the north, Frost Giants in the frozen plains, elves in their barrows, ghosts in the old burying grounds and serpents in the deep.” His laughter was faint. “I will uphold my oath and give you endless battle; you will uphold yours and serve my will.”
“Why?” Grim demanded, turning on Loki. “Why must these beasts, these brothers of yours, vanish from the land?” He glared hatefully at Loki. “And what of you and the other Aesir? Will Asgard not be emptied by such slaughter?”
“Ah,” Loki agreed. “And so it will be, and so it must be. For a trickster alone realizes that to survive, the gods must die.” He turned away from Grim and walked around the Standing Stone. “As gods we cannot last against this new deity, this Christ who sends his agents scurrying over the world and will tolerate no equals. But as legends, as memories lost in the mist-shrouded past, we will never perish. Men will still tell our tales and sagas, and such legends will last forever.”
“And what of me, then?” Grim demanded. “Who will remember me when your task is done and I am gone?”
“Hah!” Loki laughed. “Oh, Grim Glower-Eye, you will perhaps outlast us all. Legends will grow around you, for slaying these monsters. And there is no greater legend than one born of a man of flesh and blood?” Loki turned away from Grim. “I will leave you now, Glower-Eye. I will return in the morning. There is much to be done.”
“Aye…” Grim said. He watched Loki fade away into the darkness, until only his smile was left, and then nothing more. Grim Glower-Eye crouched down before the Standing Stone, wrapped himself in his cloak, and waited for morning.