Uncle Baldur jerked his head to the left and pointed. "Down there, among the trees yonder. A matter of half a mile. Beside the brook." He sounded quite civil for once, and Peer was encouraged. Perhaps his uncle could be normal after all.
To his surprise, Uncle Baldur spoke over his shoulder again. "Home!" he cried in his shrill toad's croak. "Lived there all me life, and me father before me, and his father before him! Millers all."
"That's nice," Peer agreed, between chattering teeth.
"Needs new machinery," complained his uncle. "And a new wheel, and the dam repaired," he added. "If I had the moneyif I had my rights"
Well, you've got my money now, thought Peer bitterly.
"A pity your father was dirt poor," his uncle went on. "I'm proud of that place. I'd do a lot for that place. I'm the miller. The miller is an important man. I deserve to be rich. I will be rich. Hark!"
He leaned back hard, forcing the oxen to stop. The track here plunged between steep banks, and the cart slewed, blocking the road. Loki yelped as the string yanked him off his feet. Peer cried out in distress, but Uncle Baldur twisted around, straining his thick neck and raising one hand.
"Quiet!" he muttered. "Hear that? Someone coming. Catching us up."
Peer stared uneasily into the night, listening. It was too dark to see properly. What had Uncle Baldur heard? Why would he stop on this wild, lonely road? He held his breath. Was that a bird shriekingthat long, burbling cry drifting on the wind?
"Who is it? Who is it?" Uncle Baldur hissed eagerly. "Could be friends of mine, boyI've got some funny friends. People you'd be surprised to meet!" He giggled, and Peer's skin crawled. The darkness, the whole wild hillside, suddenly anywhere seemed safer than staying with Uncle Baldur in this cart. He tugged the twine that held his wrist, testing it. It felt tight and strong. He couldn't jump out and run.
Stones clattered on the track close behind. Loki scuttled under the tail of the cart, and Peer heard him growling. He braced himself. What was coming?
There was a loud, disapproving snort. Out of the rain emerged the dim shape of a small, wet pony picking its way downhill, carrying a rider and a packsaddle. On seeing the cart, it flung up its head and shied. There was no room to pass. The rider shouted, "Hello there! Can you move that cart? I can't get through."
Uncle Baldur sat motionless for a second, taking deep breaths of fury. To Peer's amazement he then flung down the reins and surged to his feet, teetering on the cart's narrow step. His shock of black hair and tangled beard mingled with the thunderclouds: he looked like a mighty headless pillar.
"Ralf Eiriksson!" he screamed. "I know you, you cheating piece of stinking offal! How dare you creep around up here, youyou crawling worm!"
"Baldur Grimsson!" groaned the rider wearily. "Just my luck! Shift your cart, you fat fool. I'm trying to get home."
"Liar!" Uncle Baldur swayed dangerously, shaking his fist. "Thief! You watch out. If the trolls don't get you, I will! You'll steal no more. That's finished! If the Gaffer"
Troll Fell cracked out a blinding whip of lightning and a heart-stopping jolt of thunder. The rain began falling twice as hard. Beaten by the downpour, Uncle Baldur threw himself back onto his seat and grabbed for the reins. The oxen slowly plodded forward. Without another word, the rider trotted briskly past, and soon struck off along an even rougher track that led away to the right.
Gritting his teeth, Peer clung to the side of the cart as it crashed and slithered down the slope.
Well, that's it, he said to himself. Uncle Baldur is mad. Completely crazy.
Sick, cold, and miserable, he tried to picture his father, as if the memory could blot out Uncle Baldur. He thought of his father's bright, kind eyes, his thin shoulders hunched from bending over his chisel and plane. What would he say now, if only he knew?
From Troll Fell. Copyright 2004 by Katherine Langrish. All rights reserved. Excerpt reproduced by permission of the publisher, Harper Collins. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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