For the first time since they’d landed here in the middle of that terrible storm, Einarr could see the night sky. He had thought, of course, that by seeing the stars they would be able to guess where in the sea they had been taken. It was not to be.
In other circumstances, he would have loved being able to show this sky to Runa. The moon was a brilliant silver orb, and all around it shone more stars than any man could hope to count, so brightly that the sky itself seemed a shimmery blue rather than black. But the sight that was so beautifully vibrant above also proved that they were in no place Einarr could even guess at. He could not see a single constellation that might help point their way home.
He shared his watch with Jorir, but while the dwarf knew herb-craft better than Einarr expected any man of the clans to he had made plain he was no navigator. The stars were beyond his ken. Still, however, for the best that Runa watched with Erik. He was the best fighter of the four of them, but also the most reckless. Einarr heaved a sigh: that didn’t mean he had to like it.
“What’s on yer mind?” Jorir asked from his perch at the top of the rise.
“Where are we?”
“The Isle of the Forgotten, we’ve been told. I think the Lady might be better equipped to tell you that than I.” Jorir did him the courtesy of not feigning ignorance of the question, at least.
“You’ve never seen a sky like this before either, then.”
“Never. Although…” As his voice trailed off, Einarr heard the sound of a body sliding down a grassy slope, and then the dwarf’s footsteps approached. “If we’re tryin’ ta avoid the attention of a troll, now might not be the moment to talk about this.”
Einarr nodded. “You’re right, of course. My turn on the rise?”
“If you would.”
Off in the distance, further along the trail they had been following, there was a great crash of stone cracking against stone. Einarr cracked a wry smile, knowing nobody else would see it. “It seems I was right.”
“Quite. It also seems as though your troll is hunting elsewhere.”
“For now. Perhaps.” With a nod to himself, Einarr bent over and half-crawled up the slope of the hill. At the top, he stretched out on his stomach to make a less obvious target for anyone who happened to be looking. Or throwing.
Another crash, this one from the way they had come. What was it doing? Einarr knit his brow: the only answers that occurred to him were ones he definitely did not like – ones that suggested this troll was far more clever than ordinary. He would move them if he thought they were in danger of being hit by a flying rock, or if it seemed like the creature was otherwise close to finding them, but he’d meant what he told Runa. If it came down to it, the four of them could probably defeat the troll, or at least drive it off. But there would be a price, and probably a heavy one, and he needed them all in good health to get out of here.
Over the course of the rest of his watch, Einarr listened as the stones narrowed gradually in on their location. While they came nearer, he still didn’t think the troll knew where they were. He sat up to begin scooting down the slope.
A blast of earth and rocks pelted him from behind, throwing him forward into a tumble down the hill. A curse escaped his lips as he somersaulted down the slope: “Shit!”
Erik and Runa were already up by the time he regained his feet, and Jorir was tossing his pack over a shoulder. It hardly seemed necessary, but Einarr gave his order anyway. “Run!”
No-one tried to argue. Erik threw his baldric over a shoulder and took off. Runa and Jorir were right behind. Was this proof that the troll knew where they were, and would soon be on top of them? No, and it was also possible that by running they had given themselves away, much like a grouse in the woods. It was also possible, probable even, that the next stone would have landed in the middle of their camp.
The rocky trail shone silver in the starlight. They raced for it, stones exploding from the ground around them as they went. Einarr took the lead. They would be more visible on the path. He turned alongside it, hoping the others would follow suit.
The ground beneath his feet was rough and stone-pocked, and would have been even without the troll’s attentions. Einarr was forced to slow after the third time his ankle turned under him and threatened to send him crashing to the ground.
The trail was leading them closer to the ridge. Einarr paled but did not slow as he realized the trap they were in – how the troll hunted. They could not leave the path, as they had no other way to find the village. But the path was no safe haven, not here. Auna had warned them, but he had not understood. He set his jaw and ran faster.
Ahead of him, the ground shook, although it was not the sound of stone on stone that assaulted Einarr’s ears this time. He raised his head and pulled up out of his headlong run to stop. They could run no farther, for there, on the trail ahead of them, stood a man the size of a bear that made the huldrekall look handsome. Its skin appeared dark grey in the starlight, and its broad, drooping nose obscured the rotted mouth from which fetid breath blew. Long shanks of lank black hair hung from its head and blended with the black skin it had draped itself with.
The troll had found them.
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