With a thud as hard as one of the boulders he had been tossing, the troll whose presence Einarr had suspected showed himself. A hideous specimen even for the breed, he glared at them with red eyes from beneath a heavy brow. The stench of unwashed flesh assaulted Einarr’s nose.
In that same moment, the great stupid man-beast threw back its head and roared. It swung its club overhead so fast it whistled. Einarr drew Sinmora and hefted his shield: he had hoped to avoid this, but not really expected to. Erik and Jorir, too, had set themselves for battle, even as Runa hopped backward a few paces.
The troll charged straight down the middle and brought its thigh-size club down. Jorir flung himself to the side. The impact of the club against the ground sent gravel flying. Jorir rolled to his feet, though, apparently unharmed, shook his head, and dashed in towards the troll’s feet.
Erik had to dodge a backhanded sweep as the troll brought its club back up, but that too was an opportunity. He rose from under the swing of the troll’s arm and chopped at its elbow. Blood welled, and the creature roared, but it seemed Erik’s strike had been just off the mark: it could still use its arm.
Einarr moved in, then, as the creature tried to focus on Erik and avoid Jorir’s harrying of its legs at the same time. Its back was wide open, and Sinmora cut a broad swath across it. He had to be missing something, though: the troll that had flushed them out by throwing rocks would have to be a clever specimen, and this one was not fighting like he had any brains at all.
As though on cue, the gash that he had just opened along its back began to knit itself together. Einarr bit off a curse: how were they supposed to drop the thing, or even drive it off, if they couldn’t hurt it?
Is that why it fought stupidly? Because it had never needed to learn to fight well? That gave him the sliver of an idea. Einarr gave up on large, sweeping cuts: he had Erik for those, and Jorir to keep it on its toes. The Vidofnings would be the wolf pack, and the troll a stag, and soon enough the sun would rise or the troll would decide they were too much trouble.
Erik began to circle the creature, hacking at the arm that held the club at every chance. It wasn’t long before he, too, realized that he wasn’t actually hurting the beast – or not enough to matter.
“Keep going!” Einarr called as he hacked down at the thickly muscled neck. “Time is on our side!” Especially if Runa…
Yes. She was beginning to Sing, the same Song she had used on the boat early that spring to keep his strength up. The same song she had bottled to get him and Erik and Tyr through the storm around Svartlauf. So long as her voice held out, they could hold.
So long as Runa had stayed silent, however, the troll had been content to focus its ministrations on the three warriors among them. Now that the voice of a Singer rang over the fields, Einarr realized his error.
With a mighty kick, the troll sent Jorir tumbling away from its knees. The dwarf rolled to his feet almost immediately, but even in the dark Einarr could tell he looked winded.
Einarr moved in to strike at the creature’s hideous face right as it began to swing its club in a full circle around it. He felt the wind driven from his lungs even as he saw Erik be bowled aside like firewood.
And then the troll charged at Runa.
Einarr found sufficient air to dash to his feet. He was not aware of crossing the distance, only that one moment he saw the troll’s aim – Runa – and the next he was there, between the avalanche of beast-man and his bride.
He set his feet and braced his shield for the coming blow. “Over my dead body.”
The troll’s momentum bowled it into Einarr and pushed him back a distance of several paces – right through where Runa would have been, if she had not had the good sense to get out of the way.
“Music lady need,” the troll grunted. Einarr rocked back on his heels, surprised.
“You can’t have her.” He held Sinmora ready, even though he knew there was little he could do with his blade.
“Music lady need. Fix head-bad. Music lady take.”
Einarr rolled his eyes and hoped Runa would forgive him what he was about to say. For all he knew, ‘fix head-bad’ would still mean ‘throw in stew.’ “‘Music lady’ woman mine. ‘Music lady’ no take.”
“Einarr… perhaps we should go with it.”
“You want to end up in a cookpot?”
“I didn’t say we trust it. But have you ever heard of a troll seeking help before?”
Einarr shook his head.
“Then might I suggest this is your Cursebreaker calling, bringing us a new puzzle to solve and maybe even a new friend to make?”
“Yes! Yes! Music lady come, fix head-bad, troll no hurt music lady friends.”
“There are hours left until daybreak. What have we got to lose, really?”
Einarr had a few ideas. Chief among them, their heads. But this, right here, was not a fight they could win now. Reluctantly, he nodded. “Fine. We’ll see what it wants.”
He turned to their erstwhile opponent. “Troll. Music lady will come. Rest of us, also come. Troll no harm music lady or warriors?”
“Troll no harm. Troll-friend now. High honor.”
Einarr was sure it was. To the trolls, anyway. As the creature lumbered happily off toward the ridge, he rubbed his forehead. If Runa was wrong, this could get very bad, very quickly.
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