Einarr could not get past the idea that this was somehow still a trap. The troll, apparently guileless, led them up to the ridge, to the place where he was apparently accustomed to climbing back up. There was one immediate problem.
“I can’t climb that,” Runa stated. Even had she dressed like a man, in trousers, Einarr expected that would have been the case. She simply hadn’t had the opportunity for much rock climbing in her life.
“Erik? Are you up to carrying a passenger?” Einarr was already thinking of alternate solutions: it was not a tall ridge, but the hand holds looked tricky. Einarr was quite certain he would not have the strength to take a second person.
The big man stared dubiously at the rock wall before them. As he opened his mouth to answer, however, Runa screamed.
The troll, without so much as a by-your-leave, scooped Runa up in one grimy paw and tossed her over his shoulder. She looked faintly green as he turned and put that same paw up on the wall.
Einarr drew Sinmora and leveled it at the creature. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The troll turned its head to look at the warriors following it, its expression that of a befuddled hound. “Troll help music lady. Music lady fix bad-head. Come. We climb.”
The troll started up. Runa squawked and clutched at the greasy skin that the monster wore by way of clothing. Reluctantly, Einarr sheathed his sword once more and shared a dubious look with Jorir and Erik. There was nothing to be done, though – not just at the moment, anyway – and so he climbed after, keeping as sharp an eye on the brute as the ascent would allow.
Eventually, though, they came to the top of the ridge and the line of evergreens that Einarr had noted earlier. The troll stood patiently, making no move to leave them behind – but Einarr wondered if he had forgotten Runa was thrown over his shoulder.
“Run now?” It asked, sounding hopeful.
“No. Now you put her down, and then we follow you like we did below.”
“Oh.” It had the temerity to look disappointed. “Puny ones move faster? Poison light soon.”
Poison light? The sun? “Fine. But the Lady walks on her own.”
The troll heaved a sigh, but set Runa down without further complaint. “Troll cave this way.”
Then he was off at a lope, and Einarr was stunned to realize it probably didn’t think this was fast. It was probably moving at about a horse’s trot – but a horse’s trot is still faster than most men could run, let alone dwarves.
Einarr called back over his shoulder: “Jorir! I’ll mark trail. Catch up as you can!” And that was all the breath he could spare for a while. Not that marking a trail was particularly difficult: neither the troll, nor he, nor Erik, paid much attention to the brush as they crashed through it. Most likely they left a trail a blind man could follow.
The troll led them in essentially a straight line through the underbrush, over fallen logs and through brambles (although nothing so thick as they had seen below), and soon Runa, too, was having trouble keeping up. The troll had not so much as looked back. Perhaps, if they simply stopped running and hid in the forest until daybreak…? But no. Runa had promised the benighted creature help, and he would not make her go back on her word. “Troll!”
“Man!” A sound like chuckling carried back toward them. “Nearly there.”
“Slow down! Music lady not so fast as you.” Neither was Einarr or Erik, but the troll only needed Runa.
The troll stopped to look back at the panting humans. Impatiently, Einarr thought. “Poison light soon. Must cave be.”
“Why were you so far out in the first place?”
“Talk later. Cave now. Music lady shoulders?”
Einarr was about to refuse again, but Runa raised a forestalling hand as she half-stumbled past him.
“No, it’s fine.” She took a deep breath. “He smells bad, and I’ll want a bath, but it’s fine.”
Einarr glared at the troll, but Runa paid him no mind as she stepped forward. “More gently this time, if you please.”
For a wonder, the troll not only understood but obliged, setting Runa upright on his shoulder as delicately as though she were made of glass. Einarr frowned. Something about this didn’t mesh with what Afi had taught him about trolls. Was it perhaps loyalty to another of its kind – its mate, perhaps? Or was Runa right – was this his Calling coming to the fore once again? If that was so, was that even a troll?
Einarr shook his head: he had no more time to wonder, as the brute was loping off again, this time with his bride on its shoulder. And there was no way in all the Realms he would let them out of his sight.
The troll’s path led them out of the strip of forest and into another meadow in the shadow of the mountain, and by the time Einarr could see firelight coming from the mouth of the cave the horizon had turned from indigo to grey. Whatever his faults, the troll had been honest with them thus far. Thus far. It’s too early to relax. There’s still no promise the cure for whatever “bad-head” is won’t involve eating us.
The troll came to a stop by the fire just outside of a large granite cave mouth where the edge of the field began to slope up into the mountain. As Einarr and Erik jogged to a stop, Einarr nearly gagged as the smell of rot assailed his nose from within the cave. Runa was patting frantically at the creature’s shoulder to be let down and taking quick, shallow breaths. For the smell to affect her this much even after riding on the troll’s shoulder all this way… Einarr was suddenly glad to be a sailor.
“Music lady fix bad-head now. Inside.”
Runa turned her face from the cave mouth, trying to smell less of it. She still looked as though she wanted to throw up. “No.”
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