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This story is part of our 2016 fund drive bonus issue! Read more about Strange Horizons' funding model, or donate, here.


1. TheMyceliumTroll_03.02.03.audx (01:26)

There once was a troll who didn't belong—which isn't saying much. Most trolls don't belong, but this one felt especially displaced because she didn't live in a forest, or on the bottom of a lake, or in the belly of a mountain.

Instead, the troll-who-didn't-belong lived beneath an emerald city by the ocean. She had ten billion hearts, each gripped in the strands of her many hyphae. Sometimes, when she needed a breath of fresh evening air, she would pop her fruiting bodies above ground in a giant ring around the city.

One day, after many hundreds of years, she decided that a gulp of fresh air every decade wasn't enough. The city was too heavy, and grew heavier still when coded, invisible versions of itself began to pile up, layering the metropolis in a buzzing gauze like spiderwebs. The troll unearthed her pot of gibberellin-draught and drank it dry, then stretched and stretched her hyphae toward the mountains, pulling her body out from under the city, until she reached the mossy nether-regions of the peaks.

She lives there to this day, feeding upon mushroom-hunters lured into her thrall by the crimson throb of her fruit.


2. untitledpt1_03.03.03.binimp (03:11)

(Implants on: enginehush. Windowsqueak. Roadrush. Laughter, words.)

How many times have I told myself that particular troll story, in all its tedious variations? Girl leaves home. Girl leaves girlhood. Girl drops school. Girl trips on Neuronull for three days straight 'cause she’s tired and feels like cement. Girl leaves guy. Yeah, that one especially—too many times over.

But girl leaves home—that was my first.

When the cutterhead mountain-eaters tunneled beneath Dovrefjell, g-ma moved us to North America. I was six. We left because of the trolls, she said. Urban development killed all the real ones, and while the stripworlds had plenty of virtual replacements, the rules of VR were too tight in Norway. A Norwegian stripworld troll couldn't kill you, which in g-ma's mind meant it wasn't a troll at all. But here in Pacifica, our final destination, code was just another thread in the fabric of reality. She liked that the stripworlds and the real world were just the world.

When she told me we were leaving, I ran away and hid in the rubble of a demolished building. I told myself it had been a troll that stayed up too late and burst when the sun came up. I thought g-ma was lying when she said the real trolls were dead. I still think she was wrong. Trolls are like any animal: they adapt, even if it warps them. Even if it breaks them.

G-ma found me with the dead troll and bought a cone of softis to bribe me. We perched together on a slab of concrete and I told her I'd only move if she got me a pair of binaural implants. She said maybe, and we moved regardless. She was seeking danger, I think; there’s no safety net in Pacifica. Virtual and real are the same. Die in your stripskin, die in regular old skinlock, and you die everywhere.

G-ma coded trolls, and they were mean, they were bad. They killed people, but she kept making them anyway. She knew that taking care of yourself is always more important than keeping the world safe, and trolls were what kept her going. A little blood was never going to stop her. Even now, after her death, g-ma’s trolls still kill people, though not as often as they once did—a couple years before she died, she hid her creatures in the Cascades to give them a bit of peace and quiet. I've been searching for them ever since.

But I think it was these mountains, the Cascades, that really drew her here—more than the danger, maybe more than the freedom. While Norway built cities in, around, and under their peaks, Pacifica made walls around theirs, preserved them. Troll habitat is hard to come by these days, but necessary: they need mountains like g-ma taught me to need trolls—we don’t know what to do with ourselves otherwise.

There was probably a real reason for our move, but g-ma never bothered to tell me and I never bothered asking. If it wasn't a troll, we didn't care. Their stories were our nighttime. Without them we'd burst.

G-ma never got me the implants. I did a work-trade at a studio in Seattle, for an engineer whose friend was a kitchen table aug-surgeon. I dated the surgeon for a year, got my implants, and broke up with him three days later. I’d thought it was our mutual passion for birdsong that kept us together, but it was always only a trick we played on each other, a narrative I kicked ahead of myself like a ball of yarn that did more tangling than unraveling. I didn’t know why knotting myself up in lies was so attractive, but it’s clearer now: stories are the only thing I know how to love. Funny how it took me my whole life to figure that one out.

(Implants off: silence.)


3. TheGoatHornedGirls_03.02.03.audx (02:50)

A long time ago, humans were banned from the land of telling. A troll was placed at its border, and told to keep out anyone with blood in their veins. (Troll blood was fine, because it was made of wordmarrow and gold.) Many years into the guard’s long watch came a girl with three horns growing from her head. The blood in her veins was as hot as a solar flare, but still, she wished to cross into the land of telling and hear what it had to say.

I smell you, human, said the troll, and you cannot pass.

The girl, being an especially clever one due to the extra brains and other oddments she kept in her horns, had known the troll would say just this. She also knew how hungry trolls were for tellings.

So she said to him, But if I cannot cross, how will I meet my sister, the greatest tale-teller of all time?

The troll grunted, but was nevertheless curious about this greatest tale-teller of all time. Fine, it said. But if I let you cross, you must let me meet this sister of yours.

Of course, said the girl. I could never deny my dearest sister a rapt audience. And she trip-trap trip-trapped across the borderland with her hoof-soled boots, right into the land of telling. The troll followed her to the other side and watched as she broke off one of the horns on her head and scratched in the ground, There was once a girl who grew from a horn. . . and not long after, a pair of feet and then a whole new girl sprouted from the dark hollow at its base.

You owe me a story, the troll told the sister, once she had emerged.

But I've only just been born! she cried, shaking her empty horn at him. I haven't had time yet to make any good ones.

The troll took a menacing step toward her, but the first girl stepped between them. She's just nervous, she told it. When our big sister arrives, she'll feel much better, and then you'll hear your story.

Fine, said the troll.

The first girl then broke off another horn and tossed it to the ground. She grabbed her sister's hand, and together they grew a huge goat-sister from the second horn.

So you want a story, the third sister said, tucking the horn into her belt. The troll grunted and the third sister began:

Once there was a story-blooded troll who guarded the border of The Land of Telling. Humans were not allowed there, but rumor had it that anyone who drank the troll’s blood could pass freely through the realm.

The third sister grinned and plucked the remaining horn from her sister’s head.

Once, the third sister went on, there were three magic goat horns. Two of the horns had girls in them, the third a sword.

She plunged her hand into the horn and yanked a sword free. She stomped across the craggy rocks toward the troll. It yelled terribly at her and swung its boulder-fists, pounding great cracks into the ground each time it missed.

You never finished your story! the troll roared.

The third goat girl grinned and lunged forward with the sword held high. The blade sliced down, right through its neck! The End, she said, as the troll’s head toppled to the ground.

The troll said nothing.

The sisters filled their goat horns full of troll’s blood, that draught of wordmarrow and gold, drank their fill, then rolled the troll-corpse to the edge of one of the cracks it had made and gave it one last nudge, so it tumbled down into the stomach of the earth. With the troll gone and their bellies full of stories, the sisters were free to wander throughout the land of telling, and never again were they kept from the tales told there.


4. Trollhunting1_03.03.03.binimp (02:29)

(Implants on: tirespin in slush. Rockclick under car-belly. Windflap, riverdrone, through window. Voice, words.)

Two hours ago, I left Everett. In one more, I'll have left my car, and my keys will be tumbling down the Nooksack. I'm driving with the windows open while I chronicle these mangy scraps of myself, fog seeping in, wet snow blowing in, and Mount Baker cresting through the trees. I spent all of yesterday recording a couple of my favorites from g-ma’s now-defunct book, jumbled them up with the rest of these tracks I’m making. I plan on living long enough to find the last of her trolls so I can put my paltry, deceitful, audio-biographic self-story into their care—mostly ‘cause they’ll know better than anyone what to do with it.

I won't be going back. I don’t plan on leaving the mountains. Why would I, after dealing with Brenden’s treachery? I'm done with men and their tales. I've got better ones to tell.

I'll die in the muddy snow, or in the mouth of the troll I seek; I'll arrange myself on a rotting log; hemlock seedlings will come up through my belly. Two creatures will come—one with a cow tail of gold, the other of russet—and pull me underground, to the twilit world where even the code of my stripskin will crumble into lumps of gray sod.

After ninety-three years, I guess dying has lost its power to horrify; I like making up deaths for myself. Excepting my ears, I never went in for augmentations, and even the stripskin I wear in the stripworlds is nothing more than a virtual copy of me: gappy teeth, wrinkles bunching like upended wavelengths, eyes bright as green pennies. From here on out, the only thing before me is an ever-steepening decline. All I can do is lean back and glissade down the slope. But my hair hasn't turned, though I wish it had; it's still the color of a worn paper bag. In my sixties, I did regret my mulishness toward augmentation, but that doesn't mean my stubborn streak went away. At least my veins are still strong and blue, as they should be after three quarters of a century tromping around in the field with three different shotgun mics, a bivouac, and a parabola, wearing nothing but a couple pounds of wool and a rain jacket—

Oh, great. Fucking snow's clogged the road. Well, fine. What's a couple more miles?

(Tirecrunch, keyclink; door open/shut, door open/shut. Fabricswish, buckleclick. Implants off: silence.)


5. Trollwomb_03.02.03.audx (00:59)

The cryogiant Ymir had feet that were glaciers and from the trough of their slow trudge, trolls emerged. These glacial erratics unfolded themselves and looked upon their motherfather and knew they had no choice but to hide from the sun.


The cosmos, a generation ship, the gravity well of a duck. An egg in the duck. A dislocated troll-heart in the egg. Origin in origin in origin. This is a story you've heard before.


The rarest of trolls have no hearts. Instead, they are hearts—the hearts of troll children, children born from the belly of a girl with a cow tail, from the seed of a cow-tailed boy; children who dance upon the strings of the fiddlers who hide in the streams of the stripworlds. Children who can't, won’t, stop listening.


6. untitledpt2_03.03.03.binimp (02:27)

(Implants on: humming, wind-scuff, distant pikas: eeep . . . eeep. Voice, words.)

G-ma called me en trollunge, a troll child, because my mother met a troll man whose nose was so long he fucked her with it. His orgasm was a great sneeze that filled her up with mucous-y sperm. My mother carried me for three years before I popped out, a full grown toddler with a cow tail. G-ma said the tail fell off, but would grow back when I was old enough. I'm still waiting for it. There's another story about my mother that g-ma never told me, but I never wanted to hear it; I was happy being a troll child.

Waiting for the tail always gave me an excuse, something to look forward to, when things refused to go my way. There was one night during my work-trade when I went with some friends to see an old film about a songwriter and a pianist and their dead-end romance that ended exactly the way I expected it to (with music, a shoreline and the ocean beyond which probably meant fate). I wasn’t there for the film as much as I was there for a friend-of-a-friend who was also a guitarist. But when we took our seats, my roommate sat in-between us. I spent two hours pretending she was my cow tail, that it had demanded a seat of its own and was trying to warn me. That guitarist and me, we never would have worked out. I would have waited and waited for a move he would never make, because I like sitting and recording—and pressing repeat, repeat, repeat—far more than I like doing.

It's been years, decades, since I last played out the various ways that night could have unspooled. I won't start again now. Anyway, in light of Brenden's stupidity, my tail was probably right.

I've only ever fallen for musicians, I think. They're the best tricksters, which is the closest a human can get to turning themselves into a story; stories won't have sex with you, not really, so I had to make do.

(Eeep . . . eep—wingflurry, claw-scrape on stone. Blood-pulse—fades. Beak-rip. Implants off: silence.)


7. TheTrollthatwastheEarth_03.02.03.audx (07:22)

There was once a chief executive officer of a minor but lucrative VR imprint called Figments of Comfort. He had seven sons, all bachelors, all well into their thirties, and all in need of wives. As any father would, the executive wanted to provide them each with a stable, virtual future. Despite the nature of his business, however, he understood the importance of skinlock happiness, and thus sent six of his sons out into the world, to find wives of flesh, blood, and bone. However, because of love and loneliness, he kept his seventh son—the youngest, named Bernard—at home for company, while awaiting the return of the other six.

The six brothers found wives soon enough: six sisters, all daughters of a facial articulation engineer, all well-endowed with structural augmentations and perfect teeth. But as they rode the nighttime hypertube down from the engineer's mountaintop chalet, a troll rose up and wrapped her nurse-log fingers around the tube. She rumbled a spell and turned the whole of it—including its twelve passengers—to shapeless stone. No one knew where they had gone or what had become of them.

Though Bernard already had one devoted wife—a stripskin girl he had designed when he was ten, with eyes as bright as twin elderberries, hair blue as an uncut vein, and lips as flaxen as the sun had once been—he still longed for a skinlock maiden. Because of this, he couldn’t bear the thought of harm coming to his brothers and their beautiful spouses. Despite his father's protestations and wailing, he set off after them, with nothing but a handful of crispo-puffs in his pocket.

On his way to the hypertube, he came across a raven. It was so hungry and weak that, though its stripskin was strong—a superimposition of a great predator with a double-scythed beak and talons like a tangle of razored tree roots—the bird's skinlock was nothing more than a pile of bones and bent feathers.

Please, it croaked, give me food. If you feed me, you'll have my help when you most need it.

And though it was illegal for animals to have stripskins, the boy was kind and gave it a crispo-puff. The raven snapped it up—click-clack!—gave its thanks and flew off.

Not long after, Bernard came across a cutterhead tunneling salmon, its cyborg fins and tail made of jointed steel, strong enough to power through even the thickest of the stripworlds. When the boy came along it was flopping about on the ground, dislocated from its stripstream.

Toss me back! it cried. Toss me back and I'll be your most loyal servant, till the end of your many scale-less days.

Unable to resist such an offer, the boy reached down with his stripskin hand and tossed the fish back into its stream. The salmon leapt through the water, trailing glittering code.

Not half a day later, Bernard nearly stumbled over a wolf so broken down and beaten it had collapsed in the middle of the road.

Help me child, it whined. You look so fine, flayed as you are. All my life the only thing I've wanted is a stripskin. Give me yours, and I will help you save your brothers and their wives from the troll that turned them to stone.

My brothers? A troll? Stone!

Bernard couldn't believe it. The thought of his brothers and their pretty wives turned to stone made him dizzy and frightened.

Yes, yes, said the wolf. I can help you, if only you'll give me your stripskin.

Reluctantly, and only because he wanted very much to see his brothers—and, of course, their comely wives—again, he removed his stripskin and gave it to the wolf.

Ride me, it told him, when all was said and done. I'll take you to the troll and together we will destroy her.

When they arrived at the station they saw the troll immediately. She was perched on the hypertube rail, her long cedar-trunk legs plunging down and down into the dark forest.

I hear you're looking for your brothers, she said, when Bernard and the wolf had neared. I have also heard you’re looking for a wife. I will be your wife, if you'll take me.

I can't marry you—you're a troll! said the boy.

What does that matter? Anyway, the only way I’m giving back your brothers and their wives is if you say yes.

The boy chewed on his lip, thinking fast as he could. He didn’t want to marry a troll, but neither did he want harm to come to his brothers or their wives. He needed more time! So he said, Getting married is a big decision to make on such short notice. Can I have a day or two to think on it?

The troll sighed at Bernard’s indecisiveness, but granted him a single day in which to decide.

I know you don't want a troll for a wife, the wolf said when they had walked a good distance away from the troll’s perch, but if you won't marry her, then you'll just have to kill her.

But I've heard stories about this troll, said the boy, she has no heart. You can't kill a troll without a heart!

That is true, the wolf agreed. But this troll most certainly has a heart. However, you must realize that what you saw there, squatting on the hyperrail, wasn't the beast at all—she’s nothing more than the arm-hair of the actual troll.

Then where can I find the real one? Bernard asked. And where can I find its heart?

The real troll is all around you, the wolf told the boy. The stubbly forest is its fur, the nurse logs its fingers, and the pebbly ground is the pores of its skin. The oceans and rain and lakes and rivers are its eyes and the VR-stream is its tail, wrapped round and round itself—for this troll, it is the earth itself!

The whole earth! the boy exclaimed, nearly loud enough for the troll to hear, even as far off as they were.

The wolf shushed him. Yes, it said. The whole earth.

And with that knowledge, Bernard knew exactly what had to be done. The next day, he and the wolf crept back to the hypertube rail, but hid just at the edge of the forest where they couldn’t be seen. Bernard called the raven, who owed him a favor; he asked it to pluck the cutterhead tunneling salmon from its stream and click-clack! the raven dove beak-first into the stripstream and grabbed up the salmon.

What would you have me do? the fish asked upon its arrival.

The boy pondered for a moment. As he thought, a great shudder came from the direction of the hypertube rail. The troll had seen the streak of scale and water as the raven pulled the fish up from the river. Bernard could hear the creak and shake of her approaching footsteps, so he answered as quickly as he could: Salmon, you must use your strong fins and tail to burrow deep into the earth, all the way to the troll's molten heart. Then smack it with your tail until it bursts!

The troll emerged, bending the trees aside. When she espied Bernard she said, You will marry me.

Bernard took a deep breath and bellowed, NO, just as the salmon dove down and burrowed into the broiling, volcanic troll-heart. It walloped the fiery organ one-two-three times.

The heart cracked and burst, consuming the troll's body and all that lived on it in a blue and green inferno, leaving nothing but crackling bits of cooling earth-dust. Ever since then, all of humanity has had to live in the stripworlds—except the boy, who died because he gave his stripskin to the wolf.


8. untitledpt3_03.03.03.binimp (2:58)

(Implants on: mossmute, hemlock scritch, footsteps. Voice, words.)

I was in my stripworld studio three days ago, mixing Polypodium Glycyrrhiza's upcoming album, Suspension. I'd chosen precipitation to represent the vocals; at minute 01:03, when I wanted them to slip subtly around the listener, I vaporized their previous downpouring growls into mist, added a touch of compression when they shied back, and widened the pan, stretching the mist-voice up around my ears.

I stood in an orchard, surrounded by the crabapples that characterized the drums. At my left and right, I had twin hard-panned cedar trees for the guitars. The orchard dropped fruit and blossomed throughout the song, depending on how intense I wanted the snare, cymbals and kick to sound, but the cedar-guitars stayed at one level, constant and red—until one disappeared.

The guitar track in my left ear dropped out. I blinked my eyes to access another view of my mix, a grid of volume levels. The left guitar had been muted, but not by me.

I shifted completely out my stripworld studio. Brenden was standing between the patchbay and the mixer, hands innocently behind his back.

I watched at him calmly.

What? he asked. Before I could tell him just what, he asked another question: Audio engineering or trolls—if you had to choose just one, which would it be?

I couldn't choose just one, I sighed, getting ready to slip back into my stripworld.

There's a third option, he told me.

I paused. I knew where this was going and I didn't like it. Yeah? What's that? I asked.

Neither, he said. You could choose me.

I could, I said—because yes, music, trolls and men had always been my trifecta.

But you won't, Brenden went on. I'm always last.

I said nothing. He was right. I didn't regret that he was right. I sighed. Aren't we too old for this?

Old? he said. You're old. I'm not.

He was right, again. He had the face and body of a twenty-five-year-old—both in and out of his stripskin—though he was still six years older than I. Me, I'd aged well. I looked like I was in my sprightly late seventies. I could still climb mountains. That was enough for me.

What's that behind your back? I asked.

Oh, he said, and showed me. He had a small urn, a lighter, and a book: Two Trolls Across the Sea. It had no author noted on its cover, but it didn't need one: g-ma had written and illustrated it for me during our first year in Pacifica.

Brenden lit it on fire. I tried to stop him, but he was twenty-five and I was not.

(Implants off: silence.)


9. Trollhunting2_03.03.03.binimp (3:36)

(Implants on: branchsnap, treesnap, woodrattle, gutterroar. Whisperhoarse, words.)

Ha! I found you, you stone-scabbed bastard. Uglier than I remember, but I guess you’ve had a couple decades to work on that—

—GRAH! I SMELL THE SMELL OF GIRL-BLOOD.

(Digichime, stripskins linking. Trollstomp, snorting.)

IF YOU WERE A PRINCESS, I'D TAKE YOU BACK TO MY CAVE AND LET YOU PAT MY HEAD, BUT PRINCESSES SMELL OF BREAD AND HONEY AND YOU STINK OF MEAT AND SWEAT. THE ONLY CAVE YOU'LL BE GETTING IS MY BELLY-CAVE.

(Stripskin troll-eyes on: old woman. Mouth moves. Speaks.)

Your last troll is a bit too poetic for my tastes, g-ma, but still the right kind of nasty—and rude, too, interrupting my story and all.

(Woman's hood slips, reveals parabolic ears—wide, shadowed, skull-side echo-chambers.)

(Implants: Voice, words.)

Would you like to hear the end of my tale, troll? No? Well, good. It doesn't have one. It's not important. We're not together any longer, obviously. Burning my favorite book. Not that I don't know those stories by heart—still, what a bastard.

I'M GOING TO EAT YOU.

(Troll-eyes: flash of flailing troll-arms, mossy, gnarled trunks. Trees break.)

Are you? You sure? I'm worried I might be too much for your delicate appetite to handle.

I HAVE EATEN MOUNTAINSIDES, GIRL. A HERD OF MOUNTAIN GOATS IN ONE BITE. LAKES ARE PUDDLES OF MY PISS.

(Woman grins.)

Can you eat a story?

I CAN EAT ANYTHING.

This should be easy, then. Open your mouth. Good. Now, before you chew and swallow, you should know something: this is my story. It's not sweet, or savory. It's bitter and messy and undercooked. Your tongue will hate me, your belly will curse me and your bowels will swear revenge. If you still feel hungry afterwards, then you have my permission to eat me.

(Troll-eyes: woman reaches for her throat, plucks a handful of nine sound files from her stripskin. Offers to troll.)

(Implants: teethcrunchgnash. Voice, words.)

There once was a troll who didn't belong—which isn't saying much . . . .




Jenn Grunigen is a writer, folklorist, and metal drummer. She is a graduate of the 2016 Clarion Writers’ workshop; her writing has appeared in Shimmer, Spolia and elsewhere. Her SF novel, Skyglass, a wild tale of sex, elves and rock ‘n’ roll, is available now from Chromatic Press.
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