One of the younger huldra showed them to a trail that, she said, would lead eventually to the human village on the north shore of the island. Then, without another word, she vanished as though she had never existed. Einarr stood blinking, surprised that the person he had been about to thank could be there when he opened his mouth and gone before any sound left it.
“The hulder are hidden ones,” Runa said softly by way of explanation.
Einarr shook his head, disbelieving, and started down the trail. It bothered him, a little, how baldly ignorant he was about these matters. Would any of them have made it this far if he hadn’t given in to Runa? If she were not his intended bride, this would be utterly intolerable.
The trail the huldra set them on meandered like a deer track, although it was too wide and well-established to be only that. Best of all, it led away from the battlefield between the hulder and the leshy, and probably out of the territory controlled by either group. “Good riddance,” he muttered as he hiked. “If I’m ever attacked by grass again, it will be too soon.”
Erik, in the rear, managed to hear him and laughed. “And it’ll take a lot of beer to get me raspberry picking for a while.”
Now all of them laughed, Runa’s musical notes rising above the earthy rumble of the men’s chortling.
“So let’s hurry up so we can get off this rock, shall we?” Without waiting for an answer, Einarr picked up the pace.
The sun approached its zenith as Einarr followed the trail out of the heart of the wood and into the sparsely treed hills beyond. As he crested a hill at the outer edge of the wood, he stopped. All around them stretched rocky meadows where elsewhere he might have expected to see goats foraging. Elsewhere, because they had been warned this was a treacherous area to travel in, although Einarr could see no sign as to why. Off to his left, a ridge rose above the hills in the same pale stone as below, and beyond it the mountain that would anchor this island in any normal sea.
The path continued on, of course, although the packed, loamy dirt of the forest had given way to lighter, rockier ground – almost gravel. It almost looked like someone maintained the trail. Well, there was really nothing for it. With half a shrug, Einarr started down the slope ahead of him, towards where they were told they would find people.
The further they went on, however, the stronger Einarr’s feeling grew that they were being watched. He could not keep himself from glancing up at the sky, gauging how much daylight they had left to get past here and to the town. He had done this several times already when movement from atop the ridge caught his eye.
He stopped. “Did anyone else see that?”
“See what?” Runa, for all that they still had miles to go before sunset, looked winded in a way that she had not in the forest.
“Up there.” He pointed towards the top of the ridge. “I thought I saw a creature.”
“From all the way out here?” She sounded skeptical. “It would have to be as large as a bear, wouldn’t it?”
“Are you sure it wasn’t?” Jorir asked.
“A bear wouldn’t be watching us as we cross its territory, and I’m certain something has been.”
Runa opened her mouth again, but Erik cut her off. “No, I’ve felt it too. Like the hairs on the back of my neck prickling.”
“I suppose it doesn’t matter,” Einarr said, shrugging again. “Let’s just hurry on, so whatever it was doesn’t decide to come ‘investigate’ while we sleep.”
He walked faster now, the gravel crunching under his feet, but the sense of being watched only grew stronger – and hungry. Whatever that was, the creature on the ridge or something else, Einarr hoped the island was small enough they would not have to spend the night in the land it claimed. When the sun was setting, however, they were still traipsing through the same rocky, hilly meadows. Here and there they passed jagged boulders along the path – some of which appeared to have once blocked the trail. For once, Einarr thought he might know what claimed this land, although he could not bring himself to be happy in this knowledge.
“We’ll have to camp,” he said finally. “Let’s put our backs to a rise between us and the ridge. Double watch, no fire.”
“Einarr?” Runa seemed perplexed.
“My old afi taught me some bushcraft. We only ever went out tracking deer, but he taught me the signs for some more dangerous creatures, as well. And there’s been troll-sign all over these hills.”
Jorir cursed. Erik smacked himself in the forehead, as though realizing what he’d missed. Runa, though, moved from perplexed to skeptical.
“You said something was watching us all afternoon, though. Trolls can’t go in sunlight.”
“Not direct sunlight, no. But you see that thick line of trees on top of the ridge? An especially canny troll could move about under there during the day without too much trouble, I expect.”
Runa did not look convinced. When she opened her mouth to protest again, Einarr held up a placating hand. “Just, humor me? I could have been wrong about being watched. I’m certain about the troll sign. And if I’m wrong, all we’ll have given up is one night’s fire.”
“Oh, very well.”
He smiled at her, then, and clapped her on the shoulder. “Thank you. I’d rather not have to fight off a troll at all, but if I must, better to do it now than when we’re loaded down with supplies.”
“I wasn’t aware there was a special way one needed to fight trolls.”
“There isn’t. They just don’t go down, not without a terrible fight.”
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