PART II: The Forest of Egergrel
The midday sunshine followed the boys into the forest, but didn’t stay long. Within a dozen steps, it seemed like evening, and after a dozen more, such little light snuck through the canopy of leaves and branches overhead that it might as well have been the middle of the night. If not for the rattling of their horses’ bridles, the boys might have each believed that his friends had been swallowed up by the darkness, that he was now making his way through the Forest of Egergrel alone.
It was Bruce who eventually asked, “Hey, are we still on that path?” He whispered the question, but not for any real reason. In that ink-black forest, whispering simply felt right.
“I think so,” Gehry answered, whispering as well. “I mean, we must be. Right?”
“Right,” Kinsmere said. “If we weren’t, we’d be crashing into branches and trees and stuff.”
And rode and rode.
The forest seemed as endless as the fields the boys had crossed in order to reach it.
“Egergrel . . . ” Gehry said after a little while longer. This time, he didn’t whisper, but he still spoke softly, as if to himself. “Egergrel . . . ”
“What about him?” Kinsmere said.
“I’m pretty sure I was right,” Gehry answered.
“About his being a troll.”
“Oh yeah?” Kinsmere chuckled. “Lovely.”
“Gehry . . . ” It was Bruce, and there was more than a hint of worry in his voice. “Are you sure? Because if you are, then we should probably turn around.”
“Turn around?” Kinsmere said. “Nonsense. This is an adventure, Bruce. This is exactly what we’ve been looking for.”
“Okay,” Bruce said. “Right. Sure. But trolls, they’re – they’re fa-famous. Famous for being unfriendly to humans. And – and – ”
“Perfect,” Kinsmere said. And he meant it, too. The shine of his teeth, flashing through grinning lips, was just visible in the forest’s gloom. “That makes the whole thing even more adventurous.”
Bruce gave up. He knew he couldn’t convince Kinsmere to turn around. He doubted whether he could even persuade Gehry, who was now nudging his horse forward, urging the animal to go faster. He seemed eager, as dead-set as Kinsmere was on continuing through the forest. And if that was the case, Bruce figured he should conserve his energy. If they did run into a troll, he was going to need as much of it as he could get.
And rode and rode and rode.
Time passed differently there in the forest. It was as if the darkness seeped into each second, turning it sluggish and extending the minutes into what felt like hours, like days.
But at last, the gloom began to ease. Some kind of brightness had leaked into the blackness. It wasn’t sunlight. Looking up, they could see that the crisscross of branches and leaves was tighter and thicker here, deep inside the Forest of Egergrel, than it had been anywhere else. Besides, the light was too orangey to be sunshine, and it kept flickering in a decidedly un-sunlight-like way.
“Fire,” Gehry said.
And as the boys steered their horses around the biggest, knobbiest tree that any one of them had ever seen, they saw that Gehry was right. There was a fire. A massive one. It was wider than the gates of the castle back home, and tossed up flames that reached as high as any of that structure’s towers or turrets. Behind the fire loomed a large, long-haired, wart-and-sore-covered lump of a creature. He was ugly, and dirty, and smelled like death.
“Well, Gehry?” Kinsmere said. “I don’t know if it’s a giant troll or a troll-giant, but it looks like you were right about that, too.”
Once the horses got over the initial shock of encountering a creature such as Egergrel, they dumped their riders and darted off, quickly putting as much distance as possible between themselves and him.
The boys, however, stayed put.
Gehry was too fascinated to do anything else. His mind was racing so fast, he felt like he might fall over and start turning somersaults. He had read about troll-giants – who were different from regular trolls and regular giants, and different as well from giant trolls – and had even looked at drawings of them, but nothing could have prepared him for seeing one in the fetid, bug-ridden flesh.
Kinsmere stayed because this, at last, was it. Adventure. Also, of course, staying was the knightly thing to do. Fleeing in the face of danger was cowardly and dishonorable and, perhaps most importantly, an excellent recipe for long-term boredom.
Bruce, meanwhile, didn’t move because he had just been hurled to the ground by a spooked horse, and now he couldn’t seem to get his legs to work. Had he been able to, he would’ve been fleeing right behind the animals.
Not that it would have mattered much if Bruce – or any of the boys – had tried to run. Egergrel, in whose forest they were currently trespassing, had already spotted them, and running away from an angry troll-giant with six foot-long legs was no easy feat.
The troll-giant displayed the benefits of his size presently by leaping over his humongous fire toward the boys. He soared through the air and landed with an earth-shaking thud just a handful of feet away from them. Leaning down, then, and so low that the hairs on his wart- and sore-covered chin scraped the forest floor, the troll-giant roared at the boys:
“WHO DARE ENTER THE FOREST OF EGERGREL?”
The words were carried on a strong, sour-scented wind. And no number of years of being belched at back home could have possibly prepared the boys for such a scent. Imagine a hunk of meat that has been rotting for decades inside an old man’s favorite pair of boots. It was like that, only worse.
But the awful odor did do some good. It got Bruce’s legs working again. After a quick whiff, the boy was able to scramble to his feet. At which point he continued scrambling, first over to a nearby tree, and then behind it.
Kinsmere plugged his nose against the scent, but stood his ground.
Gehry did, too, and even managed to leave his hands hanging down at his sides. Kinsmere was inspired by what he believed to be his friend’s astounding display of bravery. In truth, however, Gehry simply understood that there was no use in trying to keep the horrid scent from slipping into his pores and wreaking havoc on his insides.
So he stood there, waiting to see if the smell would fade some – it didn’t – before answering the troll-giant’s question.
“I am Gehry,” he said, speaking slowly, loudly, and clearly, enunciating each word individually, as if it were its very own sentence. This was the way he had always imagined the knights in books spoke. Also, Gehry could see the grimy clumps of wax poking out of the troll-giant’s ears, and figured the creature might have some trouble hearing him if he did anything other than shout.
“GEHRY?” Egergrel roared. “WHAT KIND OF A SILLY NAME IS GEHRY?”
Clearing his throat, puffing his chest out in front of him, Gehry told the troll-giant, “The name was given to me by my father, Beribahn, King of the Realm and eldest son of Galaghand and Handelhar, who was daughter of Baghagelbisn, overseer of the Great Siege of Curnaffleflaffer and son to the one and only Todd, brother of Ferghelwergel, otherwise known as the Giant Slayer, and also sometimes Fungi Foot, who led the up – ”
It was there that Gehry stopped, having all of a sudden realized what he had just said. The thing about his great-great-granduncle, Ferghelwergel. Gehry didn’t know Egergrel all that well, but he had a feeling that the already-angry troll-giant wouldn’t be too impressed by the fact that he, Gehry, was related to a guy nicknamed “the Giant Slayer.”
The troll-giant, still crouched low to the forest floor, leaned in closer to Gehry. Now it wasn’t only the creature’s chin-hairs, but also his nose-hairs, that scraped the ground. Thick and stiff as broom handles, the hairs clawed at the dirt, raising up little puffs of dust that blew directly into Gehry’s face. The boy fought back the urge to cough. He stood completely still, preparing himself as best he could for the fury his words had no doubt provoked.
“IT’S NOT EGERGREL’S FAULT,” Egergrel howled at him. “EGERGREL CAN’T HELP IT.”
Gehry frowned, feeling baffled. He had never heard a troll-giant whine before, but it certainly sounded like this particular troll-giant was doing just that.
“DO YOU THINK EGERGREL WANTS TO BE LIKE THIS?” the creature continued. “DON’T YOU THINK IF EGERGREL COULD’VE DONE SOMETHING, EGERGREL WOULD’VE DONE IT ALREADY?”
The sadness and shame aroused in Egergrel by Gehry’s words literally stirred up the troll-giant’s insides. New smells wafted out alongside his cries. And with the scent of a sea’s worth of long-dead fish assaulting his nostrils, the smell of a hunk of rotten meat inside an old man’s almost-as-old boot seemed to Gehry like a pleasant memory. The boy couldn’t help but stagger back a ways from the troll-giant.
“YOU SHOULD MEET EGERGREL’S BROTHER,” the troll-giant went on. “HE’S WORSE THAN EGERGREL. EGERGREL ONCE SAW HIM SLAY A WHOLE PASTURE OF CATTLE JUST BY LIFTING UP HIS LEFT FOOT. AND THE RIGHT ONE’S EVEN WORSE. EGERGREL’S NOT THAT BAD. EGERGREL NEVER KILLED AN ANIMAL. NOT LIKE THAT.”
Now Gehry was more than just baffled. He was befuddled, bewildered, and even a tad flabbergasted, too. He was also still stuck on the idea that he had angered Egergrel by mentioning his giant-slaying relative.
“I never even met the guy,” he tried to explain. “And a lot of those nicknames? You know how it is. They get overblown so easily. I mean, he may not have ever even slayed a – ”
A hand – a human one, fortunately – clapped over Gehry’s mouth before he could finish.
“Shhh.” It was Bruce, hissing in Gehry’s ear. The boy had crept out from behind his tree just in time. “Trolls, Gehry,” he said. “What are they famous for?”
Gehry had no clue where his friend was going with this, but he answered the question all the same. “For being unfriendly to humans,” he said.
Bruce shook his head. “What else, Gehry?”
“For being . . . well, for being really, really dumb.”
“You mean – ”
“ – he thinks I called him ‘Fungi Foot?’”
Several feet away, out of earshot of his friends’ discussion, Kinsmere snapped his fingers. “Psst. You guys gonna tell me what’s going on, or what?”
Gehry smiled over at him, but turned back to Egergrel without telling Kinsmere a thing. Because he was clever, Kinsmere. Gehry knew he would catch on quickly enough.
“I think,” Gehry told the troll-giant, “that there’s been some sort of misunderstanding.”
Egergrel’s face drooped in confusion, and the sudden displacement of all that flesh caused a handful of warts to pop. Small gusts of warm, putrid air crashed across Gehry’s face, but the son of King Beribahn did not falter.
He said, “It seems you think I called you a mean name.”
“YOU DID!” Egergrel shouted. “YOU CALLED EGERGREL . . . YOU CALLED HIM . . . ” The troll-giant couldn’t even bear to repeat the hateful insult. He sniffled sadly, upsetting the leaves and twigs on the ground beneath his nose.
“No,” Gehry said. “Listen. You’ve got it all wrong. I wasn’t calling you that name.”
“YOU . . . YOU WEREN’T?”
Gehry laughed at the absurdity of such a thing. “Of course not,” he said.
“THEN WHY’D YOU SAY IT?”
“Well,” Gehry said. “Because I, ah – I was – errr – ”
“He was calling himself that!”
Kinsmere gave Gehry a wink as he strode over to stand beside him.
“See,” he went on, “back where we’re from, that’s what everybody calls him.” He stuck a finger out toward Gehry. “That and other, even meaner things.”
Egergrel sniffled again.
“But we came here,” Kinsmere said, slipping into the same bouncy tone of voice used by marketplace peddlers all across the Realm, “into the lovely Forest of Egergrel, for the sole purpose of giving you – Mr. Egergrel, sir – a piece of very big and exciting news.
“You see,” the boy said after a long, dramatic pause. “My friends and I – ” He tapped the brown, black-spotted wart on the tip of Egergrel’s nose with a fingertip. “ – we’ve found a cure.”
The troll-giant’s enormous eyes grew a little more enormous.
“Are you insane?!” This was Bruce, who had crept over to Kinsmere to hiss in his ear. “What do you think you’re doing?!”
“I think,” Kinsmere answered quietly, “that I’m saving us from becoming this guy’s lunch.” He shoved Bruce away, then turned back to Egergrel. “That’s right,” he said, sounding like a marketplace peddler again. “A cure. Now, Mr. Egergrel, I ask you – what do you say to that?”
The troll-giant’s face drooped lower as he mutterered to himself, carefully picking apart Kinsmere’s words.
Finally he said, “WHAT’S A CURE?”
“What’s the cure?” Kinsmere asked.
Egergrel shook his head. “WHAT’S A CURE?”
“Oh,” Kinsmere said. “Like, what’s the word mean?”
The troll-giant nodded.
“Well, it’s a way of getting rid of something,” Kinsmere explained. “A way to take something bad and make it better. Much, much better.”
It took Egergrel another minute to piece things together. At which point he said, “EGERGREL WOULD LIKE THIS.”
“Oh?” Kinsmere said, as if he hadn’t been expecting such a response. “If that’s the case, then we can go get it.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “We don’t have it here, but we can go grab it and bring it back.”
“EGERGREL WOULD LIKE SOON.”
“Of course you would,” Kinsmere said. “And it won’t take us long. It’s not far. We can be back in a jiff.”
Egergrel examined each of the boys in turn – Kinsmere, then Gehry, then Bruce – as if deciding whether he could trust them. Should he pass up doing terrible things to a few defenseless humans in exchange for a cure that could forever rid him of the rancid collection of infestations that had been savaging his feet for decades? It was, for Egergrel, a difficult question. The troll-giant brought his nose down close to his feet, wiggled his toes, gave a quick sniff – and reared back in disgust.
“OKAY,” he said, standing up to his full, imposing height and aiming one of his massive fingers down at Kinsmere. “BUT SOON.”
“Of course,” the boy said. “Soon. Very soon.”
He took a step back. Then he took another. He waved at Gehry and Bruce to follow, and they did, moving slowly at first, but speeding up once they had made it past the big tree that had earlier blocked Egergrel and his fire from view.
It was only once the flickerings of that fire could no longer be seen that the boys felt safe enough to talk to one another. Bruce spoke first. There was something he had been wanting to say ever since they had left the troll-giant behind. And just before the boys were swallowed up by the forest’s gloom again, he turned to Kinsmere and said it. “You’re an idiot.”
Finding one’s way out of the Forest of Egergrel was no simple task. Thanks to the darkness, the boys were as good as blind. Now and again, a sliver of light managed to squeeze through the leaves and branches overhead, but never enough to illuminate the path that had led the boys into the forest in the first place.
Gehry led the way, his hands held out in front of him to feel for trees. Kinsmere and Bruce were close behind him, arguing at great length about whether Kinsmere’s deception of the troll-giant had been a stroke of pure genius, or a blunder of epic proportions.
“Look, Bruce, are we, or are we not, at this moment being mashed up in the jaws of that thing back there?”
“It’s not a question of at this moment,” Bruce said. “It doesn’t matter what’s happening right now. What matters is what’s going to happen later.”
“Nothing’s going to happen later.”
“And in the name of the Realm,” said Bruce, “how do you know that?”
“Because trolls are dumb,” Kinsmere said. “Outrageously, impossibly dumb. You said so yourself. And back there, Egergrel proved himself to be a particularly blockheaded specimen. He’s probably already forgotten about us, and that we ever even promised him a cure for his gross feet.”
Sighing, Bruce said, “I wish you would’ve paid a little more attention during lessons. Or, really, just any amount of attention at all.”
“Because then you would’ve known not to cross a troll. And especially not a troll-giant.”
Now Kinsmere sighed. “I really don’t see what the big deal is,” he said.
Bruce shook his head. “Gehry!” he called up to his friend. “Besides being unfriendly to humans and being really, really dumb, what are trolls famous for?”
“Revenge,” Gehry promptly answered.
“Now you see?” Bruce asked Kinsmere.
“Whatever,” the boy said. “One day, when the stories of our adventures get written down for future generations, they’ll change all that. People will say, ‘It’s never wise to cross a troll – unless your name happens to be Kinsmere the Great! Crosser of Trolls and – ’”
There was a thud.
Kinsmere had walked into a tree.
Bruce forgot all about his Kinsmere-related frustrations and Egergrel-related fears. He erupted with laughter, and quoted Kinsmere back to himself as best as he could between bursts of hilarity.
“Did you just – you said – hold on, hold – Kinsmere the Great! Crosser of Trolls and – and – ”
There was another thud.
Bruce had walked into a tree.
“Ha!” Kinsmere shouted back at Bruce. “That’s what you get, you – you – ”
“Guys.” Gehry cut Kinsmere off before the argument could turn into the usual battle of escalating insults. “How about we focus on getting out of this forest. Is that something the two of you can agree on?”
In a low, mopey singsong – like the voices of children who had been caught doing something they knew they shouldn’t have been doing – both Kinsmere and Bruce said, “Yes, Gehry.”
The boys pressed on.
Text copyright © 2020 by Jarrett Lerner
All right reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.