‘Do you need any help with that?’
Fraid peered around the tree, careful to cover her pack before she did so. Her eyes narrowed when she saw who it was that had spoken. It was the troll, the so-called ambassador they had picked up from their stop at Marbrekhal.
‘No, I don’t need help,’ she said, not caring enough to disguise her irritation. It was peace and quiet that she valued, and so far the others respected that. They knew who she was and what she was capable of. They were not fools, at least, not for the most part, and they certainly weren’t trolls.
‘Are you sure?’ said the troll, leaning on the tree.
Fraid turned sharply and jumped to her feet. He was a little more than a head taller than her, and she didn’t doubt that there would be those who found his grey skinned narrow face with that wild auburn mane to be quite imposing, that was without even mentioning the two jutting tusks that broke out from his lips like bone from a wound or the great curled horns that sat atop his head like those of some mythic demon. She, however, was not like those people. All she saw was a monster – and a witless one at that.
‘I don’t need your help,’ she repeated, forcing herself to appear calm though she could feel the anger rising inside.
‘I’m sorry,’ said the troll. ‘Didn’t mean to be rude. Just looked to me like you were having trouble pitching your tent.’
Fraid frowned, then glanced back at her pack. Immediately her expression changed, eyes widening in sudden realisation. Her lips parting to expose a mocking grin.
‘That,’ she said, pointing at her pack, and the loose brown cloth she had used to conceal it, ‘that is not a tent. That’s a sleeping bag.’
‘Oh,’ said the troll. He didn’t seem to understand. ‘Do you… need help setting it up?’
‘No,’ said Fraid, her eyebrows raised in disbelief.
The troll just nodded and glanced back at the others. Fraid followed his gaze and saw that for the most part they were all set up for the night. Only a few stragglers remained trying to find the best spot upon which to lay down their heads, while others sat together outside their completed tents. The troll and herself were the only two with nothing much to show.
‘Where’s your tent?’ she asked.
‘I don’t have one,’ said the troll. ‘I’ve never travelled this far before.’
‘You don’t have one?’ said Fraid. She rolled her eyes. ‘You’ll catch your death from exposure.’
The troll smiled.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘I’m used to the cold. Been in it most of my life.’
‘I wasn’t,’ said Fraid in annoyance, and then added, ‘worried, I mean. Vieris wept, I don’t even know you.’
‘I’m Heljak,’ said the troll, extending a hand.
She looked at it with distaste and against her better judgment, took it in her own. Her hand seemed tiny compared to his, almost fragile, delicate. She disliked that fact. She was anything but “delicate”.
‘Fraid,’ she said. She felt the troll’s hand enclose around hers, and a rush of adrenaline swept through her body. To her surprise his touch was gentle, almost warm. ‘So, what’s your role in all this? Not usual that the commander takes a hayseed with us.’
Again the troll didn’t seem to understand.
‘A hayseed,’ she said, ‘someone fresh, untested. Someone who can’t fight.’
She didn’t try to hold back the barbs behind the words. She didn’t like the man. He would be a liability, whether he meant to be or not. Besides there was clearly no point in being polite to the troll when he was clearly an idiot.
‘Well, I guess,’ said the troll, seeming to carefully pick his words, ‘I just managed to convince the right people.’
Fraid nodded and bit her lip. With the adrenaline rush leaving her system, a familiar pain arose to replace it.
‘Are you all right?’ asked Heljak, apparently noticing that something had changed. ‘You look pale.’
‘I’m from Ordanon,’ hissed Fraid, ‘we’re all pale there. I’m fine, and I still don’t need your help.’
The last words she found difficult to get out, but the troll didn’t press the matter further. Instead he nodded and turned to rejoin the others.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘I’ll leave you to set up your… sleeping bag.’
Fraid didn’t respond, instead she watched him with suspicion as he left. What was his game? What did he really want?
The pain had begun to gnaw at her insides now, like a void had opened in her chest, slowly pulling her guts inside its cold embrace. She gritted her teeth cleared her mind of everything but the pain, then turned to face her pack.
Resting down in such a way that she obscured the bag from view, she pushed her hands beneath the cloth and inside. Fraid reached around until her hands fell on something cool and metallic. She closed her eyes and allowed herself a long, silent sigh of relief.
The pain receded, and she felt a calmness descend upon her.