Big Thrull and the Askin’ Man

Everybody knows about Thrull. Thrull like legend among us folk—biggest, greenest, meanest, nastiest, and dirtiest of all—with one big difference: legends false, Thrull true. We tell the story of Thrull and the reindeer feast, and the story of Thrull and the Mountain Witches, and the story of how Thrull wrestled Winter and wed Summer on Grandmother Rock, and the story of how Thrull broke Stone Peak making love, but the best story I know, that the story of Thrull and the Askin’ Man. Now pour some hard stuff for yourself, and pour a glass for me. Set your tape deck down and listen. This tells the day Thrull got smart.

Thrull not so slow as a box of rocks, but not so fast as a snail neither. This story tells Thrull after she had two eyes again, one big and green as usual, the other small and sharp and red—but this not the story of how Thrull lost her eye and took another in its place. Those two stories got joy to offer, and someday I’ll show you the graves that mark them true. But now I tell a better story.

Back then Thrull live in that grove upslope, the stone lean–to you see when you come over the mountain shoulder. To this day, you part the moss that hangs from the big lintel stone, and you see Thrull’s old bed, made from thornhollow with sharp bits facing up. You know thornhollow? Sometimes an old oak takes sick, and what’s left over looks like oak outside, but inside all hollow and hard, covered in spikes long as your finger and sharp as a hair. Thrull made her bed from a thornhollow oak split open, and she slept on the spikes. When old folk ask Thrull why, she answer, my hide itch, and none so good as to scratch it.

Nobody mind a good brace of nails on their hide every then and now, but to sleep on thornhollow, that some hardness. Thrull hardness and hard. Normal folk carve raw meat off the bone before they eat. Thrull eat bones and all. Normal folk draw a hot bath. Thrull bathe in a stew pot she stole from giants back before the grass was grass. She heat it up to boil and jump in. Watch out! Don’t get splashed.

But hardness not always hard enough.

So: the tale.

Askin’ Man come to town one day, just over that mountain shoulder.

Askin’ Man small and slick, don’t come up to the young folks’ ribs, when he walks the ground don’t shake. Askin’ Man step sharp, polite as never, say please and thank you. Askin’ Man wear leather shoes, and bring a briefcase with a catch. With Askin’ Man everything got its catch: his smile and his eye, his voice and his shake. Even his hunger got a hook in it.

If this were a false tale I’d say Askin’ Man came at dawn, but Askin’ Man people got their own way of making time, don’t look to sun or moon. They got ticks for telling. They listen to gears in their belly, and sometimes when they think no one watches they pull their gears out and dangle them on a chain. Askin’ Man people wound by springs. So Askin’ Man show up not at dawn, but when his gears tell him to show.

Askin’ Man ponder us from the mountain shoulder. The young folk all out minding mammoth, and the old folk slow waking. Thrull herself asleep: she spent the last three days and three nights chasing a wandering calf, and when she came back at dusk, she drank six glasses of the hard stuff, and punched and fought and cursed till her skin smoked from the fire in her. It took all the young folk together to hold her down and douse her with rainwater from a barrel. When they did she steamed and slept. They dragged her up to her house, and laid her on her bed, and left her snoring to shake the moss.

Askin’ Man does not go to the village first, not even to drink from the well, kiss the stone, bleed himself for the forest Hungries. Askin’ Man turns onto the narrow trail to Thrull–house, and stands before the moss curtain. He waits outside and watches the moss blow back and forth with breath and snore. Thrull sleeping still, you see.

Askin’ Man not brave, but Askin’ Man not dumb neither. Steps through the curtain, soft. Waits. Thrull can see in the dark better than most folk; Askin’ Man people cannot see in the dark at all. Askin’ Man barely sees, or smells, or hears. To him, I guess, Thrull–house pitch and black, and worrying soft underfoot. Leather shoes make wet sounds in muck. And as Askin’ Man eyes open to the dark, he sees mountain Thrull atop her spike bed, her piles of muscle and flesh, the points of her tusks and the glint of her red eye and the big blunt moons of her nails.

Thrull sleeps deeper than the deep mines, but she also got the knack of the trapper’s dream, and wakes up quick. Up she rolls and off her spike bed, stands head almost ascrape the roofstone, stares down at this little man.

The Askin’ Man starts small.

“Can I have a glass of water?” he says.

He got golden hair, not a line of it out of place. He got smooth skin so thin you could cut it with a knife. He got a voice that roll like honey from the comb. He got thin weak legs and a cold steady brain, but he knows how to ask, and what, and he listens when people tell him.

This what Thrull sees when she look at Askin’ Man: he wears no trophies, no clan mark on his face, Askin’ Man alone in the world, cast out, most like, and needing help. All us folk out here in the wildlands got a way: help a cast–out who asks, because you never know when you cast–out in their place. Maybe you kill folk on accident while hunting. Maybe you bed with the wrong folk at the wrong time. Maybe Summer plague or Winter cold or Mountain Witches or Great Gaum swallows your town whole and leaves you to weep. Maybe you just fight too much. Thrull herself cast–out twice, taken back three times, she knows the way. If the cast–out don’t want your help, you can’t make them take it. But they ask, you aid.

Thrull knuckles boulders from her eyes, and wanders out into steam–breath cold to get the Askin’ Man water. She punches the pond out back until the ice breaks, she fills her waterskin, rumbles back into Thrull–house, and gives Askin’ Man what he ask for. Askin’ Man arms barely strong enough to hold Thrull’s water–skin when full, but he drinks anyway. Water so cold his lips turn blue.

“I’m cold,” Askin’ Man says. Though his lips blue, he don’t shiver. “Can you please build a fire?”

Thrull not the slightest cold, but Thrull traveled far and wide, over the mountains and back again, far enough to know Askin’ Man people don’t deal so well as folk with winter. She wanders out to the woodpile, bears a few big split logs on each shoulder back home, makes a tinder twigpile in her firepit, and lights it with a mean glare.

Askin’ Man draws close to the flame. “I’m still cold. Can you build it higher?”

Thrull adds logs until the fire taller than Askin’ Man sitting down. Thrull–house too warm for Thrull to sit in comfort now. Askin’ Man draws closer, still not shivering, but asks again, “Can you build it even higher?”

Thrull lurches out into the snow to get more logs, and more still after those, until the fire taller than Askin’ Man standing up. The smoke makes Thrull sneeze, the flame makes Thrull so warm she sweats and shifts and breathes heavy. Askin’ Man never sweats. “Thank you,” he says, and smiles a thin smile, and fire dances in the black at the core of his eyes.

Thrull don’t ask where he come from. We never ask a cast–off that. Sometimes they say it of themselves, but Askin’ Man don’t. “You stay with us,” Thrull says, “you got to go down to the village, and drink the water, and kiss the stone, and give blood to the Hungries.”

“Then I will,” Askin’ Man says. “Where can I live?”

“You can build yourself a house.”

Askin’ Man holds out his hands, which are thin as spring branches and break as easy as the rest of him. “It will take me a long time to build a house. Can I stay with you meanwhile?”

Thrull says, “Yes,” and thinks, “What harm?”

She brings Askin’ Man down the mountain, but Askin’ Man walks slow. “Can I ride on your shoulders?”

She hoists him up, and takes him to the village, where she shows him the way: to dip his own hand into the well–bucket and drink from his palm, to kneel before the stone, to dig a shallow pit with his hands and shed his own blood there. His thin smooth skin parts easy.

The old folk gather round to watch and wonder. None of them ever traveled so far as Thrull, and back then they don’t know much of Askin’ Man people. They bare their teeth and jut their tusks, and ask Thrull if she brought supper.

“My guest,” Thrull says, and the folk draw back. “A cast–off from far away. I seen his people before.”

They let Thrull be.

Thrull hoists the Askin’ Man on her shoulder and returns uphill, and Askin’ Man keep askin’. Where the village stone come from, that glittery rock he kneel to? Up Grandmother Rock, like all that’s holy. Anyone herd up that way? No. Water from Grandmother Rock has a foul taste. The grass that grows on her flank gives mammoth shivers and shakes. You won’t be around all the time, will you? No, I got herding to do, says Thrull. (Thrull never herd well, she fights with other herdsfolk and lets her mammoth wander loose.) Will the old folk come here and eat me when you’re gone? No. You drank the water, knelt to the stone, shed your blood. Good as folk now. And you my guest, long as it takes to build your house. I stand for you. Anybody eat you, they got me to reckon with, and nobody reckons with Thrull. I beat ‘em all before, together and separately.

“Good,” Askin’ Man says.

Now, the way I figure, Askin’ Man must have known the answers to all these questions before he came. He chose too well for one who didn’t know already: who to approach, how to ask, what to do, and in what order. But some ask questions, questions they already know, so the one who answers has to hear herself say the answers back.

Thrull goes herding. Six big wolves worry at a calf; she busts two of ‘em and sends the others running. The hurt calf she hoists on her shoulder and takes to Old Selk who lives in the cave. “Hear you got a small pink guest,” Old Selk says as she sews up the calf nice and neat with gut thread. “From a small pink place.”

“He asks a lot of questions,” Thrull says, “but he don’t know the ways. I can help.”

“Maybe he expects that.”

Old Selk sews the calf whole, and Thrull hoists it back home.

When Thrull comes back that night, the old folk say, “Your guest walking around by Grandmother Rock. We roared at him but he didn’t leave.”

Thrull climbs the hill, and says to Askin’ Man: “You be careful. Old folk don’t like pushing around Grandmother Rock.”

“Would they try to hurt me because of it?”

“No. They know my guest, and fear my arm.”

“If you went to Grandmother Rock and they wanted to stop you, would you let them?”

“No.” But Thrull can’t see the question’s point. “But I don’t go to Grandmother Rock.”

“I think some things on Grandmother Rock will help me build my house. Can you ask the others to leave me alone when I go there?”

“I can,” Thrull says.

“Can you build the fire higher?”

She does. Sweating in the heat, Thrull makes herself dinner.

“Can I have some meat?”

She passes it to him, and he tries to sear it in the fire, but burns his hands. Thrull goes to bed. Askin’ Man tosses and turns on the ground beside her, cold in his dirty gray suit.

The second day Thrull tells the old folk to give Askin’ Man room to go about his way, even if he go to Grandmother Rock. They growl, but she growls back—and then she marches off to herd. One big cow takes sick, and she leads it to Old Selk in the cave. “Hear the old folk grumbling about you, Thrull.”

“They grumble,” Thrull says. “But my Askin’ Man don’t ask for anything but a little help. And anyways he sleeps under my roof.”

Old Selk scratches the tip of her tusk. “‘Ware,” she says, “that little helps don’t turn large.” She draws the cow’s sick with a poultice of death’s–eye root and vinegar, and Thrull leads the cow away.

When Thrull comes home that night, the old folk catch her on the path and say, “Your guest showed other pink ones the way to Grandmother Rock. We chased ‘em off, but we didn’t eat ‘em.”

Thrull climbs the hill, and says to Askin’ Man: “You bring friends?”

“Should I not?” Askin’ Man replies.

“You under my roof,” Thrull says. “Your friends, not so.”

“They will not stay here,” the Askin’ Man says. “Can they merely pass through tomorrow, and leave, carrying whatever they may carry on their backs?”

“I’ll tell the old folk,” Thrull says.

Again the Askin’ Man asks for meat, and again Thrull gives him some, and again he burns his fingers trying to sear it for himself. He goes down hungry, and sleeps uneasy on cold hard ground.

The third day Thrull tells the old folk to let Askin’ Man’s friends through, with whatever they carry on their backs, and the old folk roar. But Thrull asks again, and roars louder, and they don’t roar back.

After that fight, Thrull reaches her herd late, too late: while she’s gone a great old bull stumbles into a Slitherking nest, gets coiled up and crushed. Thrull follows the screams. Slitherking tries to catch Thrull in his coils, but Thrull waits until his mouth draws near, rips a Slitherking tooth out his jaw, and pierces that tooth through Slitherking’s eye. She burns the bull mammoth, and drags Slitherking through the forest to Old Selk’s cave.

Old Selk charms the poison from Slitherking fangs one gland at a time, like drawing moth–silk. “You got to watch when answering questions,” she says. “Some folk have a question behind their question, a need behind their need. They don’t tell you why they ask.”

Thrull frowns, and shifts where she sits. “Simple answers always best.”

About that time, Grandmother Rock blows up.

Thrull and Old Selk see it, hear it, miles away: that big dark peak just snaps in half, and there’s a bright light, and a brighter noise after the light. The whole slope slides off, and Grandmother Rock no more.

Thrull runs back through the woods. She jumps gorges and gullies, crashes through briars and busts down tree trunks, until she reaches the wreck of Grandmother. And when Thrull crashes from the woods, what does she see but a whole pile of Askin’ Man people picking through the rubble, finding stones with shine to ‘em, tossing ‘em in packs, carting ‘em away on their backs. Thrull wrestled Winter and wed Summer on the slopes that were those stones, but now they just pieces, some in bags, some tossed away.

Thrull roars, and Askin’ Man people scatter and scramble, but Askin’ Man himself comes up and says, “What you on about, Thrull? We got a deal, right? You said my friends could come through and away, carrying only what they got on their backs. Didn’t you say that?”

“I did. But you didn’t say you would break Grandmother Rock.”

“I’m sorry,” he says, though he doesn’t sound sorry. “I didn’t know it was important to you. I’m new here. Did you say I shouldn’t?”

Thrull shakes her head, amazed by now. Grandmother Rock has hung over her head every dawn for all her years, and now she lies in pieces. “Why would I say something like that? Why would you think to do this?”

“These rocks will help me build my house,” Askin’ Man says. “They like rocks like these down on the other side of the mountain, and they trade well for them. You said you’d help me build my house, didn’t you?” She doesn’t answer. “Didn’t you?” That time his question don’t have much question to it.

“Yes,” she says.

“I want to build such a house,” he says, “as no one’s ever seen before. I can sell these rocks for such a sum, and build a tower so high angels will come rest on the balcony.”

Thrull sits down, amazed. She never thought like this before. She wants to hit Askin’ Man, and kill him, and eat him, but Askin’ Man still her guest.

The earth rumbles, and the old folk come. They roar and howl and swing their clubs.

Foam–mouthed and red–eyed, Thrull rises up. She swings her club and screams them off, and they fall back.

Askin’ Man, you see, still Thrull’s guest. He lacks a house of his own. And what a guest asks, Thrull have to give. That’s the way.

Three times the old folk rush the hill, and three times Thrull throws them back, roaring to shake the mountainside, while the Askin’ Man watches and smiles.

After the old folk’s third rush fails, Thrull falls into the snow, and does not weep.

She thinks first: kill the Askin’ Man.

But no—can’t break the guest way, and Askin’ Man a guest.

She thinks second: stop him from doing what he wants.

But no—Askin’ Man knows how to ask, and what he ask, so long as it’s not killing or word–breaking, Thrull can’t refuse, because Askin’ Man a guest.

She thinks third: You got to watch when answering questions. Some folk have a question behind their question, a need behind their need.

Thrull waits in her house for Askin’ Man that night.

Soon as Askin’ Man steps through the moss curtain, Thrull says: “Askin’ Man, I fix you some dinner. You want it?”

And she holds out a platter to Askin’ Man: a match to hers, a slab of Slitherking, scale and bones and all.

Now, Askin’ Man, he got to take it, and eat it, because if he don’t, he not Thrull’s guest any more. So he eat, bones and all.

Slitherking flesh pretty vile even for Thrull, rancidish meat and sharpish scales, but Askin’ Man brave. He tenses his stomach and he bites in, and he thinks, unless I miss my guess, about the piles of gold to come his way when he get back to Askin’ Man people. Scales cut his mouth, but he swallows them. Meat gags him but he swallows it, too. Bones, he crushes between his teeth, bite by bite.

Thrull watches.

“I see you sleep rough on the ground,” Thrull says. “Why don’t you sleep in my bed tonight? Comfiest in the village.”

Comfiest for Thrull, you know.

Askin’ Man goes paler than he is, but he says “yes,” in the end, because if he don’t, he not Thrull’s guest any more.

But Askin’ Man smart. “I’m cold,” he says, and, “can I have furs to wrap myself in?”

And Thrull got no way for it but to give him furs. He wraps himself head to toe, then asks for more, and more after, until he got a mattress of fur to lay atop Thrull’s thornhollow bed. Even so, the spikes jut through the furs until they rest right against his skin. Askin’ Man sleeps fitful that night, and bleeds. Thrull sleep on soft ground between Askin’ Man and the door.

Thrull wakes up early next morning, to get ready.

“Askin’ Man,” she says when Askin’ Man just waking, “I been far and wide, over the mountains and back again, and I know your people like to stay clean.”

Oh, I see you maybe heard this part before.

Well, let me tell the rest anyway.

“I made you a bath,” Thrull says, “in my very own tub.” Which as anyfolk knows is the highest honor one of us can give a guest. Any fool can get a pile of furs, but a drawn bath’s a thing of work and art.

Askin’ Man follows Thrull through the moss curtain. The giants’ stew–pot has a full roil on, and a fire blazes beneath. Thrull already added carrots and turnips and parsnips and mallowroot and witchgrass and salt. She tests the boiling stock with her finger, just like this, and licks it clean, like that. “The water’s fine.”

Askin’ Man looks to the stew–pot, and looks to the tree line.

“Won’t you have a bath?” Thrull asks Askin’ Man.

Askin’ Man tries. Won’t nobody not give him that much. Askin’ Man reaches his pink hand out, and it trembles over the stewpot bath, and at last, at last, he forces it into the water.

But he pulls his hand out as soon as it goes in, and screams.

Then he meets Thrull’s eyes, the big ol’ green one, and the smaller red.

He runs for the tree line.

He don’t make it far.

Thrull had much answerin’ to do that day, and for a long time after the folk shunned her well, but the story of how Small Gram Got Thrull Talking ain’t this story.

Now, friend. You came here to ask about Thrull. And when I asked you why, you talked some about the folk, and how we’ve lasted so long while so much changes all ‘round. I don’t know as this story has any whats and whys inside, but if you want them, maybe they’re there to find. Maybe we mind our ways well, but we mind ‘em deep. Maybe we learn from our mistakes.

Not always. But I’ll tell those stories later.

Now: did you want to ask another question?

(Editors’ Note: “Big Thrull and the Askin’ Man” is read by Heath Miller and Max Gladstone is interviewed by Deborah Stanish in the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 9B.)

Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and nominated (twice!) for the John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award. Tor Books published Last First Snow, the fourth novel in Max’s Craft Sequence (preceded by Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Full Fathom Five) in July 2015. Max’s game Choice of the Deathless was nominated for the XYZZY Award, and his short stories have appeared on Tor.com and in Uncanny Magazine.

One Response to “Big Thrull and the Askin’ Man”

  1. nottenst

    Great story and interview on the podcast. I hope we’ll get more Thrull stories. Completely different feel from the Craft Sequence, the 5th of which I am highly anticipating later this year.

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