Sparks flew from the rails; red embers sizzled the dry spring grass and whipped against the platform’s stones. Crowds of buttoned twill coats and flat-topped caps halted. Steam billowed high towards the midday sun and fell onto rusted metal. And at once, the locomotive came to a grinding halt.
The whistles blew: shrill like a crow’s cry. A uniformed man clenched the coated latch and the doors burst open. Standing inside the train was a row of stiff-backed men. Their coats were worn and stained crimson like the bandages that dressed their flesh. The men marched one by one: shy a meter apart and with their firearms pressed against their chests.
Eyes from the crowd followed the soldiers. The civilians raised their fists into the air and called deep from their bellies. But the celebration was short.
Fifteen men had entered onto the platform, the latch locked once more. The fists faltered and the voices went silent.
With a stone held towards the heavens, the ashen-haired boy grinned. The station by the knotted weald flowed with fat-pocketed merchants. Where there’s travel, there’s coin. That was the opinion Zakris held.
He stood atop a barrel of soot and looked at his audience: six heads no taller than his own.
“A riddle, my dear friends,” the boy gazed through the crowd, “Birthed of fire and embraced tight. Uncased and brought alight to hold monuments in place-”
“For hell's sake, a rock! You're holding it even,” an ornery boy shouted.
Zakris’s grin remained. He looked to a girl with brown doe-like eyes. She caught the stone he tossed. Its bumpy craters left space for her fingers to explore. But the ornery watcher sneered.
“And? What of it? You’ve called us out here for pilfered garbage? Run out of material, is it?”
Zakris reached down to his sack and retrieved another stone and held it to his cheek.
“Three coins a piece from each of you. That’s the fee for today’s performance.”
Laughter burst from the crowd.
“You’ve gone drunk sipping goat milk on your papa’s farm, Zakris. No show of yours is worth more than spit.”
“One coin. Only one for a taste of what’s to come,” Zakris said as he brushed the stone against his lips, “And to see if I live to perform again.”
The crowd was silent and the girl’s eyes grew wide. The performer took it as his cue to continue, “One coin for me to swallow this stone whole.”
Whispers circled. Wide smiles emerged with cackling laughter. The young girl was the only one to shake her head.
From the crowd emerged the ornery boy waving a piece of bronze in the air. Zakris bowed as he took the payment.
Zakris contorted his jaw like a python and pressed the stone against his lips. It scraped against his teeth without sound and he gagged as rock reached his throat. With a final push, the stone was lost in darkness. Zakris’s face contorted and turned red. He grabbed onto his throat with both hands.
The girl gasped, but her cries were drowned out by laughter. Tears filled her eyes; Her gaze locked onto the choking boy. He turned his head towards her, smiled, and swallowed.
Zakris flipped his head back, sending his curls cascading in the air. He stuck out his tongue and sighs broke out from the crowd.
They were silent and then thrust their coins forward, “Bet the next one’ll kill him for sure.”
The boy laughed to himself as he collected the bronze pieces. Though, his smile faded as he looked at the girl. Her arms were crossed tight and her foot tapped like a beating drum. “I’ll be getting an earful after this.”
“Of all the unsavory tricks you could’ve played! Gambling your own life no less,” the girl said with her cheeks puffed like a fish.
Zakris laughed. He took a bite out of the ‘stone’. The soft creamy bits melted against his teeth.
She spun and sighed, “Have… you checked if Frej has returned?”
Zakris remained silent.
Footsteps barreled through the cobblestone streets. Zakris stood to face the sound and found four boys heads taller than himself. They surround him; in their hands, they carried chains and a burlap sack.
“What is the meaning of thi-” the girl began.
Standing at the front of the group of boys, the leader removed his cap and bowed forward, “My apologies, dear lady. But our business is with the goat shagger.”
Zakris arched a brow. The leader continued, “Word has it you cheated my little brother out of his rail-sweeping coin. I’ll be taking it back with interest.”
The gang lunged forward. The girl screamed. Despite his thrashing and clawing, chains wrapped around the ashen-haired boy and dragged off of his feet. He collapsed face forward, digging his teeth into the cobblestone.
With his fist clenched around tasseled curls, the leader spat into Zakris’s face and pulled the sack over his head. The girl watched with bulging eyes and hands clutched over her mouth. She ran off towards the train platform.
Trapped in darkness, Zakris felt his body being pulled to rocky soil. His head slammed against metal. Laughter surrounded him and he gritted his teeth. The chains tugged his skin and clamped with a pang: metal on metal.
The leader ripped the sack from Zakris’s head and allowed blinding light to overtake his vision. The boy now saw where he laid: out in the first stretch of the wealds, chained to the rails. He thrashed, but the rusted metal only cut deeper into his flesh.
“You want to put on a show, goat boy?” the leader heckled, “Let’s see a true challenge of life or death.”
The bushes rattled. Twigs broke and hares scurried. But the gang gave the forest only a short glance before returning to their prey. Their boots beat into the boy.
Zakris watched the shadow moving through the trees: it was tall and held an object with a metallic gleam. The ashen-haired boy grinned wide.
“What’s the giggle about?” the leader kicked into Zakris’s chest, “Think you can talk your way out of this one to-”
Pebbles flung into the air from the point of impact. The gang jumped and turned towards the explosion. A yard behind, a series of holes tore into the soil. They peered up to see tight-laced heavy boots. The man’s uniform was torn and he held his shotgun against his chest; smoke wafted from the barrel.
The leader took a step backward and his gang stumbled behind. Their eyes were wide and their mouths trembled.
Gravel crunched under the soldier’s boots. As he opened his mouth, the boys swiveled on their heels and ran along the railway tracks. The man stood still and shook his head before turning to the chained boy.
Zakris smiled, “Brother. I’m glad to see you’re well.”
Frej walked straight along the forest trails. Zakris followed behind, weaving between broken twigs and kicking over mounds of dirt.
“Your duty is to the farm. Father can’t tend to the herds by himself,” the soldier said.
“And when I get my coin sorted. Father won’t be breaking his back chasing goats anyhow. I’ve it all figured out.”
The soldier stopped. His lips were pressed tight and his lids stretched towards his temples pulled taunt by his topknot. The boy kept walking, but Frej’s hand latched onto him and pulled him back.
“Zak. Enough with the scams. I’ve seen the cities in the north; folk are no more well off than here. But we have the wealds to hold back the trolls and the jotun.”
Zakris pulled away from his brother, “You’re a man of yesterday and I’m a man of tomorrow. When they laid the rails, you said it’d bring only trouble. But I’ve seen they’ve brought progress.”
“You’ve had your way already. The farm spits steam just as the trains. What more machines could we possibly need?”
As the two walked, they came to a three-pronged wooden fence beside a pasture. Far along the sloping grassy fields sat a red-paneled farmhouse and a large barn that produced misty clouds. Gears churned on the towering silo that hummed and threshed stalks to grain. The goats skipped by the riverside waterwheel that churned and led a stream to the troughs.
Zakris leaned against the fence and smirked, “This is what steam provides: a farm that runs itself. Dare I say when we have a machine that milks the beasts, we can move to a flat in the city and leave the days living as hicks behind.”
The soldier grabbed his brother by the collar of his coat, “A scammer has no place calling our family ‘hicks’. Relying on machines has made you weak.”
“You’ve found your strength, brother. And I’ve found mine.”
Frej released his grip and whipped around towards the fence gates, “One’s strong when they can protect themselves and the ones they love,” he sighed, “As long as I’m unchaining you from rails, you’ll never be strong.”
Blood dripped from the old man’s body as he downed a bottle of acidic fumes. The two men stood in the doorway with wide eyes. They rushed to him.
“Father!” they screamed.
The old man brushed his hand into the air, but the two stood near and on their toes. Frej grabbed the cloth from the short-legged table, throwing bottles and plates crashing to the floor. He shredded the fabric and tied it around his father’s head, chest, and arms as Zakris rummaged through the cupboards. The man screamed as his youngest son poured clear liquid against the bleeding gashes.
“Where’d you get these wounds, father?”
Three long deep cuts from his collarbone to rib: the marks on his chest were cut clean. The skin on his arms was broken as if twisted from the bone, and one large gash stretched from his forehead to his cheek.
Reaching for his bottle, the man belched, “Ah Frej. You’re well. What of the war in the north? Are we at peace once more?”
The soldier gritted his teeth, “Father! What did this to you?”
“Fear I tried a gamble of my own.”
He took a swig from his bottle before the elder son ripped it from his hand, “What of this gamble? Is it coin you owe?”
“Tried to win a gold off a troll. Nasty fiends,” the father sighed.
“But why, Father?” Zakris pleaded, “I can make us coin all on my own. You won’t have to lift a finger as long as-”
Frej struck his brother who then looked up at him. The soldier's fists were clenched and his gaze burned into the boy. He raised his voice.
“You’re a fool to think you could set down engines and abandon your place on the farm. While you’re mucking off and courting girls in the city, father’s been working hard.”
“As am I,” the boy snapped back, “As are we all. But if steam powers the farm, we won’t have to.”
Frej shook his head, “And what if your fantasy never comes true? Will you sit by powerless and watch your family suffer? Watch them die?”
Zakris froze. The room went silent save for the gulping of wine. Frej clutched on his shotgun that hung on his back and stepped towards the doorway.
“Mustn't fight, boys. We’re all we have left,” the old man said as he drifted back into his chair.
The soldier spoke, “I’m putting down the troll, father. I’ll protect our family at all costs.”
The boy gritted his teeth and exhaled aloud as he ran his fingers through his tasseled mane. He looked to the sack seated by the doorway: stones and ash-covered cheese balls overflowed. Above the sack hung a harness with a soot-coated revolver. Zakris grabbed both.
He waved to his father at the doorway, “I’ll protect us too, father.”
Viscous spit and slime dripped onto the rock-filled ground. The brothers halted and the chewing stopped. With a mouth covered in blood, the troll stripped meat from its teeth and slung its prey down. It grinned with red-stained tusks.
Backs pressed against stone, the brothers hid concealed in shadows. With one finger to his lips and the other pointed to an alcove, the soldier stepped forward. The two split; Frej lifted a stray rock and threw it into the cave ceiling.
Tic. Tic. Tic.
The small stone ricocheted between stalactites that toppled onto the troll. With a growl, the beast rose to its feet. Its pinecone-shaped nose huffed, its wrinkled scalp scraped against the ceiling, and its bloodshot eyes bulged from their sockets.
And as the troll gazed at the fallen rock, Frej took the opportunity to charge. He fired his first shot: the beast recoiled holding its razored claws to its bleeding chest. Scattered holes burst with blood and pus. The troll wailed and swatted the uniformed man like a bothersome fly.
Zakris peaked out from the alcove with his pistol in hand. The beast was unguarded from behind. With gritted teeth, the ashen-haired boy lept from behind his rocky cover and rushed the troll. He emptied his bullets into the back of its neck. Two sunk in while the others ricocheted to the cave walls.
“Fool! I said wait for my signal,” Frej screamed.
But the troll was too quick. It swept its lanky leg against the ground and knocked Zakris to his feet. The boy plummeted to his rear, sending balls of ash-covered cheese rolling towards the alcove. Finger on the trigger, he pulled, but heard only a click. His eyes grew wide as monstrous claws reached for his body.
A meter from his face, the nails stopped. The reddened eyes twisted in their sockets; Frej dug his knife into the troll’s bicep. The two brothers locked gazes. Zakris reached his hand forward before he watched the troll wrap its bony fingers around the soldier's arm.
Zakris flipped himself upright and tilted his head up to view the towering monster. His brother’s arm dangled from the troll’s grip while the fiend laughed. The boy froze when the beast raised its second claw and scratched along Frej’s free arm. Screams continued as flesh was ripped from bone.
The boy hurled his empty pistol at the trolls head and dove onto its legs. It cackled and wrapped its finger around the soldier’s free bleeding arm.
The troll released Frej; he fell to the ground. Zakris’s eyes bulged. He watched his brother lay bleeding; his movements were slow and strained. With his gaze turned towards the boy, the beast held a clenched fist above the soldier's head.
“Stop!” screamed Zakris as he fell to his knees. The troll’s laughter shook stalactites, sending them crashing down.
The young boy struggled to breathe, “Is this what you meant, brother? To sit by powerless and to watch-”
Beside him sat a ball of ash-covered cheese. Zakris took it into his hand. He stared at it: the ‘stone’.
Zakris stood tall. He looked the troll in the eyes and he laughed. The tusked grin faded as the young boy hooted and howled. The beast stepped towards the boy and narrowed its red eyes.
“I could continue to break your friend’s bones one by one. And yet you laugh?”
Wiping a tear from his eye, the boy said, “I pity you, troll. I truly do. I’ve allowed you to have your fun for now. But I’m afraid I must get serious.”
Frej arched his brow and so did the troll.
The boy continued, “See. I figured you would’ve heard of me. Stone-bellied Zak, heavyweight stone-eating champion of the wealds.”
The soldier groaned and shook his head while the fiend ground its teeth until they cracked.
“You’re wasting my time, boy. I’ll rip the two of you flesh from bone and floss my-”
Zakris held a ‘stone’ to the air for the troll to see. It cocked its head and tried to speak once more. But the boy pressed the rock to his lips. Again, the troll opened his mouth, but so did Zakris. The boy held out his tongue, pressed the stone into his mouth and swallowed with a gulp. He licked his fingers and smiled at the troll.
The troll stomped its feet, “So what? You ate a rock. You think that’ll scare me. I could bite your limbs from your body.”
He flipped his curls from his face and shrugged, “And here I was hoping you’d have the competitive spirit, troll.”
Zakris’s eyes narrowed, “I challenge you to a test between men. We will see if you can claim my title and become the stone-bellied champion.”
Wailing like an injured wolf, the troll clutched onto a fallen stalactite. Zakris held a second ‘stone’ to his lips as the two locked eyes. They opened their mouths wide and began to feast. The boy shoveled the ash-covered cheese balls into his throat while the troll swallowed broken cave shards.
One by one, the competitors feasted on stones. Shards sliced the troll’s esophagus as he swallowed; blood dripped from his lip, but he continued to eat. Zakris panted as he ate each of his fake stones; his throat stretched and ached. But neither challenger halted.
Water dripped from Zakris’s eyes and spit poured from his mouth. His stomach puffed out, bloated. But his discomfort was little compared to the troll that hacked and clawed at its neck. Razored nails ripped into its own flesh as the beast heaved. Foam poured from its bloodied mouth.
“What’s wrong, troll? Can’t keep up?”
The clawing grew slow. And the muffled screams ceased. The troll plummeted to the ground. Before the sound had a chance to echo, Zakris rushed to his brother. Frej’s eyes flickered, he strained to rise, and he smiled.
“You’re right brother, you have become strong.”