"You could move in with the chief, sir. He could protect you," said Jack. He was beginning to get alarmed. This wasn't a saga or an amusing song. This was real.
The old man shook his head. "Your chief is a brave man, but he isn't up to handling trolls. She is hunting for me, and if she has found out where I am, her servants may already be on the way. I've been careless. I should have remembered that nowhere in the nine worlds is safe for me as long as she is abroad. I may even have to let her take me. Better that than let her destroy your village."
"But can't you flee?"
"Jotuns follow a trail like a hound. Her servants will come here first. If they don't find me, they'll kill all of you."
"Jotuns?" Jack said faintly.
"It's what the trolls call themselves. They can creep inside your mind and know what you're thinking. They know when and where you're going to strike before you do it. Only a very special kind of warrior can overcome them."
"We have to do something." Jack knew his voice sounded shrill, but he couldn't help it.
"We will," the Bard said firmly. "I'm on the alert now. I won't let her catch me off guard again. I should have been teaching you all these weeks, but the peacefulness of this place lulled me...."
The Bard fell silent, and Jack saw him looking out to sea. He looked too, but he saw only cloudless sky and gray-green waves bending toward shore. If there was darkness out there, he couldn't see it.
"You can go home for the next three days," said the Bard. "I'll be walking in the forest. Oh, and I wouldn't mention any of this to your family." He reached for his black staff. "We don't want to alarm them until it's necessary. Jotuns can follow a trail of fear as easily as foxes sniff out a henhouse."
"I spend half my time chasing those scurvy boys," said Father, slurping a bowl of Mother's rich cockle soup. Jack had provided the cockles from sea cliffs near the Bard's house. "They slide away like eels when there's real work to be done."
"Oh, aye. They're a useless lot," agreed Mother. She steadied Lucy's hands on her mug.
Jack didn't think the farm was suffering. The fences looked sturdy; the field was covered with oats and barley. Mustard, lavender, and coriander bloomed in the kitchen garden, and the apple trees were covered with tiny green fruit.
It was so beautiful, it made his throat ache. He'd never appreciated the little farm until now. And he saw his father in a new light. He realized that Giles Crookleg's complaints meant no more than the muttering of crows in a tree. It was a habit crows fell into when things weren't going their way. Father, too, grumbled by way of easing the disappointments in his life. What mattered was how Father went on in spite of his unhappiness, to create this beautiful place. Jack saw how lovingly the house was made, how carefully provisions were laid up so that Mother, Lucy, and himself could survive.
It could all be swept away in an instant. No one had any idea of the menace lurking over the sea.
"Jack's crying," said Lucy.
"I am not," Jack said indignantly. He turned his head away to hide the tears that had wandered down his cheek. He'd felt oddly shaken since the Bard had thrown him down. He seemed to cry more easily.
"Leave him alone, dearest," came Mother's soft voice. "His mouth is very sore."
"The Bard thrashed him," said Father.
"It was an accident," Jack said.
"Oh, aye. You may tell us that, but I know a thrashing when I see one."
Jack didn't say anything. If it pleased Father to think he'd been punished, why spoil things? And this, too, was new. Before, Jack would have argued passionately. Now he saw the lines of pain in his father's face, his hunched shoulders and scarred hands. The boy had a glimmer of another image, of his father as a child before the accident.
Copyright © 2004 by Nancy Farmer
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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