The further the two men penetrated into the warren of caves the stronger and more pronounced the scent became. Vanderhof tried to think of something similar to compare it to. The nearest he could come was wet muskrat, the scent resembled that of wet muskrat. Although, upon reflection, Vanderhof realized that he had probably never encountered a wet muskrat in his life. But the oppressive funk was no less real for all that.
Devereaux swung the torch back and forth. The flame revealed a scene of barren desolation: shattered blocks of stone, bare rock walls, puddles of inky shadow. It wasn’t Vanderhof’s definition of the concept ‘home’, not by a long shot. But then, Vanderhof was not a troll.
“Something up ahead.” Devereaux thrust the torch forward. The light revealed a niche carved into the wall wherein lay a collection of buttons. They numbered in the tens of thousands: red buttons and grey buttons, black, tan and white buttons, large, small, plastic, metal, bone, every manner, shape, form and interpretation of button imaginable.
“Can you believe this?” Devereaux was incredulous. “How many decades do you think it would take to assemble a collection like this? How many centuries?”
The trolls were great hoarders of trinkets. It was a constitutional weakness of the species, a violent craving which the trolls made no effort to restrain or to hold in check. Not only did they hoard objects but the more nearly useless an article was, the greater its appeal. They were not partial to gold or to silver but to candle stubs and broken alarm clocks. It was an odd quirk in their psychology, one which undoubtedly revealed much about the nature of trolls. But the two men, Vanderhof ex-military and all around gun-for-hire, and Devereaux, biologist and Audubon Society enthusiast, had entered the cave not to plumb the depths of troll psychology. They had come to find the egg.
Devereaux picked up one of the buttons, examined it under the light. “Hah!” he exclaimed. “Coral. I thought as much. This will make a nice little memento.” He started to slip the button into his pocket.
“What are you doing?” Vanderhof declared, aghast.
“I’m taking it with me. Something to commemorate our visit.”
“Are you out of your mind?” Vanderhof grabbed the button out of Devereaux’s hand, replaced it back amongst the others. “You don’t think the trolls would notice that it was gone? You don’t think they’d miss it?”
“Oh, come now.” Devereaux offered an indulgent smile. “One button? Out of so many? No one could possibly notice its absence.”
“The trolls could. Trust me. They possess a sixth sense where such matters are concerned. And when they did notice, they would be hopping mad. It might be only a trifle to you. To them, it represents years of painstaking effort and sacrifice. They would no sooner part with it then you would with your liver. Do not underestimate the covetousness of trolls. To do so is to court all manner of trouble.”
Vanderhof was beginning to wonder if it had not been a mistake bringing Devereaux along with him. The biologist subscribed to all of the standard prejudices against trolls – that they were dull, slow-witted brutes, of coarse appetites and peculiar habits – without recognizing that the reality was more complex and the trolls more multi-faceted than common report had it. But Vanderhof needed Devereaux’s expertise, if not his company or his conversation. And so the two of them had joined as a team. But it was an uncomfortable association and one that Vanderhof would have preferred to have done without.
They made their way deeper into the cave. The muskrat funk was ever present and Devereaux complained about it frequently and loudly. Vanderhof, on the other hand, used it to gauge their progress – and to measure the nearness or remoteness of trolls. It was a reliable indicator and an invaluable one. Vanderhof had no wish to meet up with a troll, even under the best of circumstances. Come as they had to plunder part of the trolls’ hoard – such an encounter was to be avoided at any cost.
Following the buttons, they discovered a hoard of empty perfume bottles. And, behind a great protruding wall of stone, another of discarded teddy bears. The bears all bore various injuries: split seams, stuffing spilling out, missing limbs or eyes. The torchlight seemed to invest the bears with an odd pathos, a haunting emotional resonance which seized one by the throat and lingered long afterward.
The two men hurried away, eager to forget the sight. The oppressiveness of the cave weighed upon them more than ever. They navigated a series of twists and turns, picking their way with care. Finally they ended up before a broad, overhanging ledge of rock that looked as though it had been placed where it was by design. Underneath, sheltered from any disturbance and nestled in a bed of hay, were the eggs. It was a collection every bit as impressive and as varied as that of the buttons.
“My god, so it was true after all!” Devereaux crouched down over the eggs, rubbing his hands as he might before a fire. He was the very picture of a miser, exulting over his hoard. To Vanderhof, they were only eggs, nothing more. He made no distinction between them except to observe that some were larger and others smaller. “This right here,” Devereaux selected an egg with a delicate blue cast, “is the egg of the Wedge-tailed Shearwater, native to Indonesia. Who would have thought to find such a trophy here? And look! Over there. Unless I am mistaken . . .”
Vanderhof was forced to cut short this flight of enthusiasm. “Doctor, if you please. Time is not our ally. We need to remember what we came for. We, you in particular, cannot afford to be distracted.”
“Yes, yes, you’re right, of course. Only I hardly expected to find such a variety. So many, and so many that are rare and unusual. I confess, I did not think the trolls capable of such taste and discrimination.” Devereaux began to sort through the eggs, examining each in turn. Vanderhof paced back and forth, aware that the pervading funk was growing stronger minute by minute, a certain sign of approaching trouble.
“Bless my eyes! Here it is.” Devereaux held up a large, speckled egg bearing a tint resembling that of antique ivory. “Most remarkable. And a perfect specimen in every regard.”
Vanderhof stepped over with eager haste and took the egg. “This is it? You’re certain?”
“Certain as a human being can be. It conforms to everything we know about the eggs. It’s sufficiently distinct and unusual that I would hesitate to assign it to any other bird. And, indeed, could not do so.” Devereaux turned back to the trove of eggs. “But we cannot leave these here. It would be a crime to do so. Let me pick out a few choice specimens. It’ll take five minutes, no more.”
Fifteen minutes later, when Devereaux looked up again, Vanderhof was gone. The muskrat smell was overpowering. Devereaux extended the torch to see what was in front of him and a troll shuffled forward out of the shadows. Its face was contorted in a venomous scowl and its eyes radiated pale fire.
At the entrance to the cave, Vanderhof heard the first of the screams rising in harsh crescendo. He ignored the sound, lost in contemplation of the egg. It was, as Devereaux had said, a superb specimen. It would make the man who had hired Vanderhof very happy indeed. The patrons of the Zoo would be no less pleased. For where else in the world, in all the wide globe, would they have a chance to view a living, breathing dodo bird?