Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Troll Game

The boardwalk has been deteriorating the farther I go. Nearly all of my traveling today involved wading. The boards are there, under the water, but you have to tread carefully or risk putting your foot through a rotten one. Still, despite its erratic condition, the boardwalk is the only way to travel through much of the Great Shwamp without swimming. It's inevitable that such an important route would eventually attract trolls.

For the most part, I object to trolls. I wouldn't mind paying their tolls if they actually provided something in exchange. Some of them do; there are many roads in the Railway Regions that would be completely impassable by now if not for their curmudgeonly but dedicated troll keepers. Few people in the Regions are particularly interested in roads. It's easier to take the Train. Most trolls, however, do nothing but get in the way.

The troll booth was built on the only unsubmerged piece of boardwalk I'd seen all day. Someone had done some work to keep that section, if nothing else, above water. There were so many posts and tree trunks wedged under and around it that it looked like a funnel shrike's nest. Many of them were held together with string. The house itself was more or less mushroom-shaped; the bottom floor was only as wide as the boardwalk, while the second looked just wide enough to lie down in. It was quite obviously a troll house. They're built to get in the way as much as possible.

As if that wasn't enough, the troll herself was sitting outside, fishing. She was one of the Northern trolls - built like a foothill, with a nose the size of a loaf of bread. She was wearing a coat made of strips of odd, shiny leather. They were quite obviously hagfish skins. Most people at least take the heads off first.

Normally, I would simply have swam around the booth.* I have no objection to getting wet. My books and supplies are not quite so waterproof, though. The only way to get them past intact was through the troll's front door.

She stood up when she saw me, her coat creaking in protest, and leaned her fishing pole against the house. The hook was baited with a slice of cucumber. She grinned at me as if she'd just caught a particularly large fish. Her teeth were a mix of brown, gold, black, blue, and missing. One of her tusks had knot patterns carved into the tip. I could see mice climbing through her hair.

"Gots any moneys?"

"Yes," I said quickly. Trolls often see a lack of money as an excuse to take whatever they want.

"Tha'sh good." Her voice creaked more than her coat, and the tusks made her speech even harder to understand. It sounded something like a rusty doorknob being ground up in a landslide. I began digging for change in my pockets, but she held up a long-nailed hand to stop me.

"NO! Firsht we plays ze Game."


She grinned again, even wider, and pulled a pack of battered cards out of her coat.

"Ze Game o' Pickerel Shproot."

From her explanation, I gathered that, unlike most trolls, she preferred to gamble with her victims before taking their money. If she won, she would take twice as much as usual. (What "usual" was, I have no idea.) She didn't say what would happen if I won. It seemed overly optimistic to hope that I would get by for free; a more likely possibility was that I would be eaten in revenge. Maybe no one had ever won before. I suggested that I could just pay her right then and be on my way, but she was quite firm about that.

"No wan getz by wizhout playsh ze Game. Boring here, eh? Gotza have shomething te do."

I couldn't very well argue with that.

From somewhere in her closet-sized downstairs, she pulled a card table with three legs and set it up on the boardwalk. From her coat, she pulled an enormous porcelain pipe; she wedged a lump of coal in the bowl and lit it. The smoke was black. She breathed in deeply and sat down, dealing the cards with the machinelike speed of a professional.

"Now liszen good," she said, "'coz I'z only gonna tell ye ze roolz wance. Ye gotz ninedy-sevhen cardsh in Pickerel Shproot. Twenny iz Flatz, shirty-six iz Numverz, elevhen iz Shproots, nine is Doublez, ten is Upz, ten is Downz, an' wan iz ze Shpit. Ye gotza make pairsh and Threezies. Firsht ta get three pairsh, or two Threezies, an' ye win..."

The rules were long and complicated, and I won't go into them all. I don't even remember half of them now, though I'll probably try to write down as much as I can recall later. I want to know more about this game. Does it even exist anywhere else?

I was surprised at the cards when I finally got to pick them up. The fronts of the cards were unmistakeably the madly detailed engravings of Reddish Crill. I'd never heard of him illustrating a deck of cards, but it's not particularly surprising. He did practically everything before his dramatic high-altitude demise. In my hand, I had the Nine of Corkscrews, the Three of Speckles, the Two and a Half of Rocks, the Reverse Sponge, Toothache, and a card with nothing on it but pink flowers. I tried to keep the backs of my cards hidden as much as possible. I wouldn't have been at all surprised if the troll was able to identify them by the coal stains.

Amazingly, I won the first game, more by beginner's luck than anything else. It's lucky that I pick up game rules fairly quickly; these ones were more confusing than most. The troll was not happy. The coal in her pipe glowed brighter, and smoke started coming out of her nose. She didn't say a word; she just shuffled the cards and laid them out again. I had won, so I got up to go.

"Besht two outta shree," she growled.

It didn't seem wise to argue.

She won the second game, after which she started to look happier. I had enough of a grasp of the rules to play the game, but not enough to be good at it.**

In the third game, I did my best to play badly, preferring to pay twice whatever the usual fee was rather than find out how gracious the troll was about losing. It didn't seem to matter. She was clearly not pleased with her cards. The coal in her pipe glowed hotter and hotter as the game went on, cards clenched in her rootlike fists. It only took a few rounds before it started shooting sparks; after that, it was only seconds before one of the sparks landed on her house. It started smoking immediately.

"FIRE!" roared the troll, erupting to her feet, upsetting the card table, and dropping her pipe in the Shwamp.*** She tore off her coat and began beating the flames with it.

Unfortunately, this was too much for the structure. Many of the strings had already been weakened by fire. At this new assault, they snapped. Knots broke, boards sagged, and as we watched, the entire house slowly tipped over into the Shwamp.

That put out the fire, at least.

Roaring with rage, the troll leapt into the water and sloshed over to her house. It was already starting to sink. It stopped when she dug her hands under it and heaved, lifting the entire structure several inches. I could hear dishes breaking inside.

I decided that that was a good time to leave. She seemed to have the situation in hand. As quietly as I could, I gathered up my luggage and crept over what was left of the boardwalk. I could hear her shouting unintelligible curses at her house long after I was out of sight.

I still wonder who would have won that last game.

*After checking for chekaraul and alligators, of course.

**Besides, the rules of drama require that every contest be decided only in the last round.

***It had obviously spent time in the Shwamp before. There were barnacles on it. From the look of them, some of the cards had been there as well.

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