The air blew off the mountains, filling the air with fine ice crystals.
It was too cold to snow. In weather like this wolves came down into villages, trees in the heart of the forest exploded when they froze.
In weather like this right-thinking people were indoors, in front of the fire, telling stories about heroes.
It was an old horse. It was an old rider. The horse looked like a shrink-wrapped toast rack; the man looked as though the only reason he wasn't falling off was because he couldn't muster the energy. Despite the bitterly cold wind, he was wearing nothing but a tiny leather kilt and a dirty bandage on one knee.
He took the soggy remnant of a cigarette out of his mouth and stubbed it out on his hand.
"Right," he said, "let's do it."
"That's all very well for you to say," said the horse. "But what if you have one of your dizzy spells? And your back is playing up. How shall I feel, being eaten because your back's played you up at the wrong moment?"
"It'll never happen," said the man. He lowered himself on to the chilly stones, and blew on his fingers. Then, from the horse's pack, he took a sword with an edge like a badly maintained saw and gave a few half-hearted thrusts at the air.
"Still got the old knackaroony," he said. He winced, and leaned against a tree.
"I'll swear this bloody sword gets heavier every day."
"You ought to pack it in, you know," said the horse. "Call it a day. This sort of thing at your time of life. It's not right."
The man rolled his eyes.
"Blast that damn distress auction. This is what comes of buying something that belonged to a wizard," he said, to the cold world in general. "I looked at your teeth, I looked at your hooves, it never occurred to me to listen. "
"Who did you think was bidding against you?' said the horse.
Cohen the Barbarian stayed leaning against the tree. He was not sure that he could pull himself upright again.
"You must have plenty of treasure stashed away," said the horse. "We could go Rimwards. How about it? Nice and warm. Get a nice warm place by a beach somewhere, what do you say?"
"No treasure," said Cohen. "Spent it all. Drank it all. Gave it all away. Lost it."
"You should have saved some for your old age."
"Never thought I'd have an old age."
"One day you're going to die," said the horse. "It might be today."
"I know. Why do you think I've come here?"
The horse turned and looked down towards the gorge. The road here was pitted and cracked. Young trees were pushing up between the stones. The forest crowded in on either side. In a few years, no one would know there'd even been a road here. By the look of it, no one knew now.
"You've come here to die?"
"No. But there's something I've always been meaning to do. Ever since I was a lad."
Cohen tried easing himself upright again. Tendons twanged their red-hot messages down his legs.
"My dad," he squeaked. He got control again. "My dad," he said, 'said to me -" He fought for breath.
"Son," said the horse, helpfully.
"Son," said the horse. 'No father ever calls his boy 'son' unless he's about to impart wisdom. Well-known fact."
'It's my reminiscence."
"He said . . . Son . . . yes, OK . . . Son, when you can face down a troll in single combat, then you can do anything."
The horse blinked at him. Then it turned and looked down again, through the tree-jostled road to the gloom of the gorge. There was a stone bridge down there.
A horrible feeling stole over it.
Its hooves jiggled nervously on the ruined road.
"Rimwards," it said. "Nice and warm."
"What's the good of killing a troll? What've you got when you've killed a troll?'
"A dead troll. That's the point. Anyway, I don't have to kill it. Just defeat it. One on one. Mano a . . . troll. And if I didn't try my father would turn in his mound."
"You told me he drove you out of the tribe when you were eleven."
"Best day's work he ever did. Taught me to stand on other people's feet. Come over here, will you?"
The horse sidled over. Cohen got a grip on the saddle and heaved himself fully upright.
"And you're going to fight a troll today," said the horse. Cohen fumbled in the saddlebag and pulled out his tobacco pouch. The wind whipped at the shreds as he rolled another skinny cigarette in the cup of his hands.
"Yeah," he said.
"And you've come all the way out here to do it."
"Got to," said Cohen. "When did you last see a bridge with a troll under it? There were hundreds of 'em when I was a lad. Now there's more trolls in the cities than there are in the mountains. Fat as butter, most of 'em. What did we fight all those wars for? Now . . . cross that bridge."