Sam dropped into the passenger seat and folded his legs into the footwell, closing the door with a bang. He munched on a carrot stick and held open a book in the other hand.
"Dude," Dean said from the driver's seat. "Carrots?"
Sam stopped munching and took the rest of the carrot stick out of his mouth. "You know how, an hour after every greasy, fatty, salty dinner you wolf down, you have to be within ten minutes of a rest stop or gas station or you start to panic?"
Dean looked both embarrassed and affronted.
"Try a salad sometime," Sam said succinctly, and took another bite. Then he held out the book and pointed to a paragraph with his carrot. "I think it's a troll."
"What?" Dean took the book. "Like a plastic dude with neon hair?"
"Like part of Scandinavian myth. It makes sense—all the Trickster stuff, and the fact that people think they see a shadowy creature just out of sight."
Dean scanned the text. "Why don't we just assume it's The Trickster and start sharpening stakes?"
"Because of the creature reports. And this isn't the same kind of stuff that the usual Trickster does—this is just mildly destructive and annoying."
"Sam, c'mon." Dean closed the book and tossed it on the seat between them. "If it's not that dangerous, let's leave it alone and go find something that is. We have bigger creatures from the Black Lagoon to fry."
"One hunt, Dean." Sam finished his carrot and picked up the book: Norwegian Folk Tales. "I'm intrigued."
The hunt took them from suburban Minneapolis into a rural area, where subdivisions gave way to older family farms. Dean parked the Impala on a soft shoulder and they got out, taking big Maglite flashlights and knives along with their handguns.
They had gotten a tip about weird stuff going on at the Johansson farm, so Dean opted to keep watch and investigate the grounds as much as possible while Sam talked to the landowner. But as they headed up the unpaved drive, they heard frantic barking and snarling from up ahead.
"What the hell is up with that dog?" Dean muttered, and started running. Sam took off after him and with his longer legs quickly overtook Dean.
The dog was in front of the house, just outside the pool of light cast by the outdoor floods. They could see silhouettes, a dog and something else, circling each other and attacking. The dog was in a frenzy, snarling and growling as it leapt and jumped, but the other thing was too fast to take a hit. Dean hit the button on his flashlight and trained the beam toward the dog, while Sam took out his gun.
The light showed tangled, matted gray hair. Sam made out thick, long arms and squat legs attached to a stocky body. Then the thing turned and they saw a flash of a yellow eye. Sam thought Can't be—the Yellow-Eyed Demon?, and squeezed the trigger without thinking. In that moment there was a blinding flash of white, and the world disappeared.
Sam sat bolt upright and groped for his gun. Beside him Dean rolled over and cursed. Not finding his gun, Sam scrambled to his feet and looked around.
What the hell? he thought. There were trees around him—in fact, a whole forest. The ground beneath them was soft with soil and moss and thick brush. He heard a thrashing sound and the underbrush waved as something went through. He took a few steps toward the motion, but whatever it was—an animal, or the troll—it was gone.
"What the hell is this?" he heard Dean say, and turned.
Dean had his hand pressed to his stomach, and Sam realized he was alarmed at his clothing. He wore a rough, shapeless pullover, like a sweater but loose. It looked like it had been woven from homespun wool. A leather belt was pulled tight around his waist, with a knife tucked in it.
Looking down at himself, Sam saw he wore a linen shirt under a wool cloak that had been drawn over one shoulder and secured with a large metal brooch. He heard Dean snort with amusement.
"And you're—what is that, some kind of Highlander shit?"
Sam squinted at his brother. "You tell me, Conan the Barbarian. Your roots are showing."
Dean's hair lay flat and seemed a slightly darker blond than usual, but as Dean frantically combed his fingers through it, Sam realized it was a trick of the light—Dean's hair was just dirty. Dean made a horrified face and said, "Dude, get your knife and help me out. This is a travesty."
"What, and wake up scalped? You don't know what making changes here will do in the real world." Sam reached up and felt his own hair, but the length was the same shagginess he'd had before their world had been transformed. He breathed easier with relief, but tugged on the cloak self-consciously. "Just leave it until we figure this out."
"Easy for you to say," Dean mumbled. He scratched his scalp and made another disgusted face.
They took stock of where they were, but couldn't figure out anything more about what had happened. The woods seemed deep, and nothing but natural sounds reached their ears. In fact it seemed to be late afternoon, and the light failed quickly while the temperature dropped. They had to find civilization or shelter within an hour, or they'd be helpless in the dark.
"I know how to find north," Dean said.
"What, turn ninety degrees from the sunset?" Sam rolled his eyes. "What is that going to do for us? If we keep walking long enough, we'll find Santa?"
"Shut up. At least I'm making suggestions." Dean began walking directly toward the sun. "If I go this way, I'll eventually reach the Pacific, right?"
"Or the Atlantic," Sam muttered, but followed his brother.
In fact they only walked for a few hundred yards before they came to the edge of the trees, and Dean gave Sam a satisfied look over his shoulder.
The land dropped off into a steep hill of low brush and grass. Stumps everywhere showed that it had once been forested, and a few rough patches of turned earth suggested farming.
At the base of the hill, the valley floor spread out a few hundred yards to the water of a broad inlet. Across the water, the opposite side of the valley shot up as a steep cliff. The mountains tapered into islands, and beyond, open water.
But just below them was a clutch of little buildings with thatch walls and sod roofs. Most noticeable was a huge hall made of logs, as big as a Hollywood mansion, with multiple levels and a covered walkway that surrounded the whole thing. People were everywhere, all around the buildings. They appeared to be wearing simple dress, like Sam and Dean, and were busily going about a variety of activities. Some were working the land, while others were apparently performing skilled tasks, like sawing logs and grinding metal on large stone wheels. Everything was primitive.
"Dude, where are we? Is this Canada? Did we get hijacked into a medieval faire or something?" Dean tilted his head at the scenery, then looked down at himself with a turned lip.
Sam had been wondering that himself. He stepped carefully over a tangle of high grass and said, "Could be. It looks like Washington, but not. Alaska? But the bigger question is when."
Dean watched the people below them for a little while, a frown set on his face. Finally he looked back over his shoulder at Sam and said, "Guess we have to ask."
Sam had hoped that with their new appearance, they'd blend right in, but he hadn't accounted for the fact that there was no crowd to blend into. They were instantly pegged as outsiders as they walked into the village. Men and women stopped their work and stared at them, while children went running and yelling excitedly.
Some of the kids went to a group of men standing near the massive carved doors leading into the great hall. As clearly the village elders had just been alerted, Sam and Dean slowed their pace. A few of the men approached.
"Hva heter du?" one man asked. He had blond hair, but then, a lot of the men did.
Sam and Dean exchanged glances. Shit. Language skills required.
"Uh...how's it going?" Dean offered.
The blond man turned and muttered something to his companions, but Sam paid little attention to his reaction. He whispered to his brother. "Dean!"
"What?" Dean turned his head halfway.
"We're speaking Latin. Both of us." Or at least, it sounded like Latin. In his mind they spoke their usual English, but he realized the words coming out were not the same. Yet his meaning was understood by Dean. It was yet another twist in their reality, making him think they had not simply traveled through time.
"Yeah, you're right. Great." Dean turned back to the men. "Any of you speak Latin?"
One of the men started into the great hall. The blond held out a hand in the universal sign for them to stay put.
Another man took a few steps closer. Sam turned his attention to him, and noticed that the man studied Sam very intently. He realized the hilt of his knife stuck out of his trousers, and put his hand on it protectively. But the man froze and looked up at Sam's face. His expression turned ugly, a defensive sneer.
"No, no—" Sam hastily dropped his hand and tried to look contrite. "Sorry. It's okay."
A small group of men came out of the hall. One newcomer was a little shorter, with long wavy blond hair and a blond beard. He marched directly up to Sam and Dean, noting what weapons they had, and stood out of arm's reach.
"Who are you?" he asked in clear, practiced Latin.
Sam brought himself to his full height. He glanced at Dean and said, "I'm Sam, and this is my brother, Dean."
"State your business. Where do you come from? What do you want?"
"It's a difficult story," Sam started. He looked at the men around them, the crowd growing by the minute. They'd formed a wide circle around the Latin-speaker and the brothers, but the sheer number of people was disconcerting. "We've become lost and don't know where we are. We only want to find our way back home."
"You have no horses? Or did you come by ship?" The man took a couple steps closer. "What do you do?"
At this, the man laughed. His friends questioned him and he responded, and a couple of them chuckled. The man turned back to Sam.
"So? So is my grandmother and my dog. What is your profession? Or are you a fool by trade?"
"We're professional hunters," Dean broke in. "We hunt demons."
The grin faded from the man's face, and he closed the distance to stand a yard from Dean. "What do you know of demons?"
Sam felt a chill run up his spine, thinking of the fact that when they'd been in Minnesota, Dean had had three hundred and five days left before his deal was due. "Much," Sam said quietly. "We got lost tracking one. We're not from your land, or even—"
"Magic?" the man interrupted, looking between Sam and Dean.
"Yes," Dean answered.
The man stepped back, but he didn't seem afraid. He turned toward the hall and gestured for them to follow, saying, "The sun sets. We should speak inside."
The hall was as crowded inside as it was outside. Whole families congregated there, adults talking and children running about, dogs nosing about and tasks being performed, all at full volume. It was stifling hot, due in large part to a massive fire burning in a long trench in the center of the room, with several large cauldrons suspended over it from tripods. The Latin-speaker walked past old women sewing and young men doing something with leather, skirted a group of gossiping teenage girls and even younger kids playing on the floor with toys, and finally stopped before a chair placed prominently at the head of the fire trench. Sam and Dean stopped behind him.
A middle-aged woman with very long dark hair sat in the elaborately carved chair. She gave the Latin-speaker a small smile as he inclined his head and began speaking rapidly in his native language.
Sam forced himself not to shift his weight uneasily. These people read a great deal more from body language than modern Westerners, and he didn't want to know what would happen if he showed weakness again.
At last the two finished speaking and the Latin-speaker gestured to Sam, urging them closer.
"Tell how much you know of magic."
"Well—" Sam exchanged a surprised look with his brother. Where to begin? "We know how to kill many kinds of demons, and how to protect humans from the danger of magical creatures."
"What do you know of trolls?"
Sam swallowed. "Nearly nothing. I believe we were cast here by a troll. We have never encountered them before."
The man nodded grimly, as if this confirmed his suspicions. He relayed the information to the woman. She asked a question, and the man turned back to Sam and Dean.
"You are warriors against demons?"
Sam and Dean both nodded. The description was a little flattering, maybe, but as accurate as they could be with language and cultural barriers.
"We have fears of troll attacks in lands near us. A troll warrior would be welcome."
Sam opened his mouth to ask Troll attacks?, but Dean spoke up first. "We can help you. But we want to find our way home, and the trolls may be the secret."
The man nodded, but Sam noticed his attention strayed. He followed his gaze and saw a dark-skinned, dark-haired man walking through the hall, but it was too crowded and dim for Sam to see him clearly.
"Come, you may sit. Soon we will have food, and there is much to drink." The man had refocused, and gestured toward the rest of the room. Tables and benches were being assembled around the fire, and people seemed to be settling into groups.
"What is your name?" Dean asked.
The man examined Dean for a moment, looking at him hard. His eyes were a clear, bright blue, and intelligent. "I am called Herger."
Herger gestured to the dark-haired woman next to him and made introductions. He spoke first in his own language, then in Latin. "Queen Weilow, I present Sam and Dean."
Sam didn't think about it: he bowed low to the queen, who inclined her head. As he straightened, he noticed Dean had bowed as well. At least they were always pretty good at going undercover. Dean saw his glance and shrugged.
The queen rose and extended her hand to the tables. She didn't bother speaking in her language, but the invitation was clear. Herger directed them to the end of one table, taking the corner seat of the bench for himself, at the right hand of the queen.
A lot of people clustered around the cooking fire with trenchers, bowls and spoons. A girl came up to them and offered some spare utensils, and by her bowed head Sam guessed that she was a servant. Herger was occupied in speaking with the queen, so Dean followed the example of others and ladled out some food from a large pot—some sort of meaty stew with carrots and onions in it. Sam followed his lead, watching the other people carefully.
Just as they were about to dig in, another man stepped up to the bench and sat between Sam and Herger, taking the narrow space remaining. Sam shuffled himself and his food over to give him room, wondering if he'd made some mistake or the man was just pushy.
Then he realized that the man was the same guy Herger had been watching earlier, the dark, foreign-looking one. Herger smiled welcomingly at him, then inclined his head to look down the table.
"Sam, and my brother Dean," he said to the new man.
The man blinked at the Latin, but obviously understood it when he greeted Sam in a low voice. "I am called Ahmed."
Sam was about to ask about an Arabic name when Herger laughed and jostled Ahmed with his shoulder. "Give them all of it!"
Ahmed hesitated, then turned to Sam and continued, "I am Ahmed ibn Fahdlan ibn Al Abbas ibn Rashid ibn Hamad."
Sam felt his eyebrows go up. Dean said, "All of that?" Herger laughed uproariously, and Ahmed reddened slightly before looking up at the servant girl ladling out stew for him and awkwardly smiling his thanks to her.
"We're honored to meet you," Sam said, feeling bad for him.
Ahmed nodded cordially and began to eat. "You are not from here."
They took turns explaining their problem, but not going on to say they were from the future, or some alternate world. Ahmed looked more skeptical at the mention of magic, but said nothing.
"I guess you're not from here, either," Sam said to Ahmed. Ahmed swallowed a bite of food and shook his head.
"I am from Baghdad, the greatest city in the world."
"He always says that," Herger put in. Ahmed rolled his eyes and sighed.
"So you've seen a lot of cities?" Sam asked, grinning.
"Miklagard!" Herger interjected.
"Yes, Constantinople. But Baghdad will always be the city of my heart." Judging from Ahmed's wistful expression, there was something to seeing Baghdad. Sam wasn't an expert on metropolises of the ancient world, but he knew that Baghdad had been a big deal during the tenth century rise of the Arab empire. While Britain was still muddy villages and Roman forts, Mesopotamia had been a center of knowledge and industry.
Dean cut in, asking Ahmed what he was doing in the North, so far from Baghdad. Ahmed and Herger exchanged loaded glances, and after a pause, Ahmed replied.
"I was charged to join with the Northmen to come here, and fight a great evil with them. We succeeded but at a terrible cost. Since then I have stayed."
"No no, not true," Herger protested. He looked directly at Dean. "He is being modest—he is a poet, a great teller of tales, but he is leaving much out of this. And he has stayed with us, but not without our travels in trade, and fighting for our king. Ahmed is a great man but will not tell you this himself."
Ahmed was clearly embarrassed by the declarations of his friend, and gave Dean a lean smile before returning to his meal. Herger chuckled and shook his head.
"I wouldn't have guessed you're a poet," Sam said. "I thought I saw you earlier tonight. I thought you were a…" He couldn't say slave. "Visitor," he finished lamely.
Herger took a knife from Ahmed's loose grip and gestured to him before cutting into a hunk of meat. "He is known for his stories, and his skill in fighting. It took much to bring the warrior out of him, but he is fierce when he needs to be. And he can show you the silver paid to him, to prove his worth." Herger smiled broadly, and Sam couldn't help but recognize the smile as proud.
"Sam," Ahmed said, with the air of someone wanting to change the conversation. "Dean is your slave?"
"Excuse me?" Dean yelped. Sam almost spit out a mouthful of stew.
Ahmed frowned. "It is not an unreasonable question."
"Hell yes it is—" Dean put both his hands on the table. Ahmed stiffened.
"Your hair," Herger said, grinning. "Only slaves wear it cropped."
Sam struggled to withhold a smirk. At Dean's uncomfortable expression, he failed. Herger and Ahmed both looked at him bewilderingly, but he shook his head and covered his mouth, physically holding back the rest of his laughter.
"Laugh it up," Dean muttered. "I'm not a slave, never was," he said to Ahmed, only slightly less prickly. "I'm Sam's brother, remember? Anyway, you wear your hair short."
Herger shrugged. "He is not a Northman."
Judging from the wounded look Ahmed threw at Herger, Sam thought that might not have been a welcome truth to hear. Herger continued, oblivious.
"Ahmed confuses the people here. He has wealth as a jarl does, but wears the hairstyle of a slave. It is only because I am his friend, and he has proven himself in battle, that he is accepted."
Ahmed said nothing. He stared resolutely at his food, not looking at Herger any more. Herger looked searchingly at him, apparently realizing that he had touched a sore spot, and didn't say anything more.
They finished their food soon after that, but Herger had the servants bring cup after cup of strong, dark ale, and Dean was only too happy to drink when he realized how good the beer was. Sam kept up pace, but noticed that Ahmed abstained completely. Not surprising.
Dean kept Herger entertained by telling stories about various demon hunts, adjusting more modern details so they would understand. By the time Dean was on his fifth story—about the human-sacrificing harvest god—they were thoroughly sloshed and Ahmed looked bored. Sam cut in when Dean had pretty much wrapped up the story.
"It's late; we should let you sleep. Is there anywhere we can…"
"Yes, yes." Herger climbed off the bench, carefully untangling his feet, and gestured toward a side room. "Ahmed and I sleep here. We can find you some space."
"Herger," Ahmed said with a note of warning. He rose and went to his friend, holding his forearms and leaning in close to whisper in his ear. Herger nodded a couple times then leaned back and looked in Ahmed's eyes and said something in a low voice. Ahmed sighed and dropped his hands.
"Yes…come, come with me." Herger waved them on, and Dean and Sam followed.
They found a dark, windowless room lined with chests. A small fire burned in a ring in the corner, the smoke trailing to a hole in the high ceiling. There was a table and two stools near it, and in another corner, a bed.
Herger had explained that he was a military advisor and chief protector of the queen's holdings, for although her husband was still alive, he had been sick in bed for months and was not expected to live much longer. The private room and large wood bed made sense for a man of Herger's standing, but he'd said he and Ahmed slept there, and it looked like there was only accommodations for one. Or a very cozy two. Sam looked sharply for Ahmed, but he was occupied with taking a blanket out of a chest and shaking it violently.
Meanwhile Herger stoked the fire, throwing on hunks of wood that snapped and sent up sparks. The room heated quickly, but the narrow hole in the ceiling could barely keep up, and the air became even more smoky.
Two young women walked into the room. They carried bundles of cloth, which confused Sam until they stretched them out on the floor, and he realized they were three pallets of straw-stuffed fabric cases.
"Hi," Dead said to the women, smiling toothily. "I'm Dean."
The women glanced at him. One looked away, unimpressed, while the other blushed and tugged at the cap covering her hair. Dean evidently realized that gender dynamics were a little different, because he didn't say anything else as the girls arranged the pallets on the floor.
After the girls left, Dean turned to Ahmed. "You usually have service like this?"
Ahmed examined him for a moment, his mouth tight, eyes narrowed. "It is called for," he said simply, and then stretched out on one of the pallets.
Sam turned and saw Herger pulling a blanket over his legs on the bed. He reclined back onto an elbow and looked at Sam and Dean with a carefully blank expression; not hostile, but not as friendly as he had been.
Sam took the hint and lay down, followed immediately by Dean. Sam thought about asking for a blanket or pillow, but he didn't want to push his luck.
Not that he would be all that comfortable, anyway; his feet stuck out several inches past the end of the pallet. He'd found himself towering over everyone he saw. It wasn't unusual for him, but very few of the men here reached six feet tall, Herger and Ahmed included. Everyone was a little shorter than what he and Dean were used to.
Herger reached over to an oil lamp burning in a small alcove in the wall. There was some sort of wick in the open bowl, which he pinched with his bare fingers. The room went dark, except for the fire.
Sam heard Dean's familiar breathing rhythm as his brother slipped into sleep, but he wasn't having as much luck himself. As the fire slowly died, the room grew darker, and he realized how unbelievably black the world was without artificial light. He couldn't see his hand in front of his face. The walls and ceiling closed in on him, then sprang back in a limitless chasm of nothingness. He felt himself begin to panic, and took a breath to keep calm, then another. He was not afraid of the dark. He hadn't been afraid of the dark since he was six years old.
The room got colder without the fire, too. Sam hugged himself but his body seemed to cramp as his muscles all contracted against shivering. He wondered if he should get up and do some pushups or something, anything to feel warm. The floor against his hands would help dispel the darkness, too.
Footsteps. Slow, scuffing or shuffling, gradually approaching him. He raised his head, expecting a ghost, but realized the sounds were coming from outside. Just then a voice spoke up on the other side of the door, talking in brusque, fast Norse. He tensed, expecting the door to open, but the voice and footsteps faded away.
Then, a flicker of movement. He laid his head back to appear asleep, but watched out of narrowed eyes.
Herger climbed out of bed. He looked dim in the near-blackness, a pale shape that moved silently across the room. He stoked the fire high, causing another bursting round of popping sap and needles burning with a crackle. More light filled the room, shadows jumping wildly as the flames waved.
Herger turned back for the bed, but Ahmed's pallet was next to his path, and he paused. He looked down at Ahmed. His face was in shadow; unreadable.
As Sam watched, Herger crouched and lifted a hand to Ahmed's curly dark head. Sam tensed again, wondering if Herger was going to do something to Ahmed. But he didn't do anything. Not at first.
Then the smaller movements reached Sam's straining gaze, and he realized Herger was stroking Ahmed's hair with the backs of his fingers; a small, but intimate gesture. Ahmed turned his head and sighed.
Herger returned to his bed, and Sam closed his eyes. He didn't know what to make of Herger's actions, other than that it didn't dispel his suspicion that their relationship was not strictly platonic. He puzzled about it for a little while, going over the conversations they'd had over the course of the evening, but couldn't come to any conclusions.
Sam woke to the sound of someone pissing.
He groaned and lifted his head, ready to bitch out Dean for not closing the bathroom door, when he smelled smoke and unwashed animals. He sat upright and looked around, only to see Herger standing spread-legged over a chamber pot, and he remembered where he was.
Herger finished and pulled up his trousers, then crawled back into his bed. He grunted in greeting to Sam as he passed, but that was all.
Dean rolled upright on the other pallet and half-heartedly cleared his throat. While Sam waited for sleepiness to wear off, he noticed that Ahmed was nowhere in sight.
"Sammy…" Dean whispered in a creaky voice. "Please tell me this has been a dream."
"Wish I could." Sam got to his feet. The cots were pretty lumpy and his back complained stiffly. He stretched his arms overhead and felt better. When Dean was also upright, they both went to the door.
It seemed late in the morning—there were dozens of people in the main room. Few people were still eating and many were going about their work. Sam spotted Ahmed sitting at a table and led the way over to him.
"Good morning," he said as he sat next to Ahmed, hoping he was in a better mood. Ahmed raised his eyebrows and returned the greeting, then took another spoonful of porridge. When he saw Dean sit as well, he straightened and lifted his arm, waving for someone. A girl came and he gave her some instructions in Norse, which sent her off again.
"She will bring you some food," he said to Sam.
"Thanks. Is Herger joining us?"
"He is…" Ahmed stirred his porridge while thinking. "Not a morning person."
Dean laughed. "I know how that is."
Bowls of porridge were brought, and Sam and Dean began eating. It was actually pretty good, like basic oatmeal, flavored with berries and honey. Sam realized how hungry he was and wolfed it down, then while Ahmed and Dean ate he started asking questions, and what Ahmed knew about trolls.
"I cannot say much about them," Ahmed said. He finished his porridge and a servant took his bowl while he sipped slowly at a cup of water. "From the tales I have heard, they are not believed to be fearsome creatures. It is said they are mostly harmless unless you offend them. I do not believe there is any such thing. They point to a broken twig and call it a troll's path; I say a deer went there."
Sam snorted, nodding. Dean just frowned.
"But those who believe will say that there are many trolls in these lands. There is what they call the Troll Wall, the Trollveggen. It is back up the valley, a few hours' ride. It is said they hunt in the woods and live at the top of the wall. I do not know much more than this."
"Can we see this Troll Wall?" Dean asked, pushing away his empty bowl.
Ahmed tilted his head in assent. "I will speak with Herger." He rose, and since Dean had finished eating, both he and Sam got up to follow.
But Ahmed paused at the doorway to their private room and glanced over his shoulder, as if surprised that Sam followed him. Sam stopped in his tracks. Dean shot him a glance, his expression saying, Whoops…
Ahmed went alone into the room. It was several minutes before Herger emerged, his hair in disarray and his face swollen with sleep, but he quickly became alert. Ahmed explained what the brothers wanted, and Herger nodded and sleepily scratched his head. "Yes…we must ride. I will meet you in the stables."
Ahmed led the way there, following the rough plank boardwalk to a building that was clearly made for the use of the queen and her court—there were at least two dozen stalls. Ahmed asked a servant to prepare two horses, and after a few minutes, the man brought them out with saddles and tack.
Sam stared. He'd been on horses a couple of times, and Dad had taught them to ride just in case they ever needed it, but he'd never been on a fucking draft horse. The thing was easily sixteen or seventeen hands high, and looked like something out of a Budweiser commercial. He and Dean exchanged skeptical glances, but managed to mount up.
"I can barely touch my heels to the ribs," Dean hissed to Sam, looking askance at the back of his horse's neck. "How the fuck am I supposed to ride this monster?"
"They do good with reins," Herger said cheerfully, walking up. "These are the best mounts for our warriors, traded from the wine country far in the south. If you would like something smaller, we have many field horses—"
"Oh, they'll be just fine," Dean said, forcing a smile.
They waited while Herger and Ahmed got their horses. When the two men rode out of the stables, Dean cursed under his breath.
While Herger was on another fairly large horse, Ahmed rode an Arabian. A small Arabian mare. Ahmed, mounted, barely came up to Dean's shoulder. Sam rolled his eyes at Dean and kicked his heels, tugging gently on the reins to follow the two men.
Herger led them on a road out of the town, one that skirted some of the hills and followed a river up a side valley. After riding for perhaps an hour, strangely prominent foothills sprang up out of the level valley floor. It was a surreal mix of peaceful stream-crossed meadows and incongruous hills. Eventually the hills merged into mountain ranges, and grew even steeper.
Finally Herger reined in and Ahmed stopped beside him. Herger pointed ahead.
"The Troll Wall. Trollveggen."
The road ran along the base of a massive gray cliff, a sheer wall that rose thousands of feet to spiny pinnacles. The low clouds brushed the top of the wall, fog obscuring some of the tips.
"I can see how it'd be a fitting place for a boogeyman," Dean said to Sam under his breath. Sam nodded. He examined the wall, trying to spot some sign of a nest or entrance to a lair, but it was so big and still far away—
"Can we get closer? Go up to the top?"
Herger turned to look at him, staring wide-eyed in disbelief. Sam shifted his gaze away nervously, realizing he might have asked a stupid question, but Herger wasn't about to let it go. "The few foolish men who have tried to scale the wall died horribly, flung off by the beasts to their death. Their bones are scattered at the bottom." He tossed his head toward the wall. "You want to go? Be my guest. I will go no further."
Ahmed looked at him, then back at Sam. In that moment Sam knew that if it weren't for Herger, Ahmed would take them closer. It was superstition keeping the Northman back. There was no arguing with him on that point.
They turned around and started back on the route they had come, but Dean asked Herger if they could go deeper into the woods and look for more traces of the trolls. Herger seemed to hesitate but eventually agreed, and led the way, with Ahmed trailing close behind him. He looked exasperated, and said something to Herger in Norse.
Herger replied by spitting a few words over his shoulder. His back stiffened. Ahmed sighed heavily.
"What's going on?" Dean called up to them.
Ahmed shook his head, but Herger half-turned in his saddle and said, "Ahmed does not want to waste time chasing what does not exist."
"You really don't believe?" Dean asked Ahmed. Ahmed's back remained stick-straight, but his turned his head enough to show that he had heard, and shook it once.
"What about all the stuff we told you last night? That wasn't bedtime stories for kids. My brother and I, we've lived this stuff since we were little."
Ahmed jerked on the reins suddenly, stopping and turning his horse. But she was skittish, and reared a little in protest. Her hooves waved startlingly close. Dean's horse stopped and sidled away, snorting, while Dean yanked ineffectively on the reins.
"I have seen enough evil of men to believe in that. That is what I need no proof of." Ahmed threw a lean glance at Herger, who had stopped and watched them silently. "Until I see it with my own eyes, I am not convinced."
Herger smiled then, and said something in Norse. His tone was conciliatory, and he jerked his head toward the trail as he finished. Ahmed turned his mount and nodded stiffly, riding on ahead. Herger spurred and followed, his big mount moving heavily behind the light Arabian.
"Sam," Dean muttered. "What do you think about these guys?"
Sam shrugged, but knew where Dean was probably going to go with it. "They seem to have some history. It's pretty cool that Ahmed lives here after coming all the way from Baghdad. Most people in this era didn't leave their villages for their entire lives."
"I think I know why he stayed," Dean said, smirking. "I think when it comes to him, I believe in fairies."
"Dean," Sam said, exasperated. "Really?"
Dean nodded. "Yeah—"
"No, I mean, you're really going there? You're not exactly blending in yourself."
"So why are you judging him? We don't know what kind of life he's led."
"I'm not judging him. But look at the way Herger talks to him, like a man would talk to his wife. I'm just saying, someone like that? Would he really have the inside knowledge we're looking for?"
Sam shook his head, disgusted. "You're one to talk."
"Hey." Dean pointed meaningfully at him. "I'm not bent that way. I may have a few kinks—"
"No, you're just spending every one of your last minutes alive being as hedonistic as possible. Is it so hard to understand when someone else does it?"
"Look." Dean shifted his shoulders. "I just don't want to be sleeping next to two guys who would rather be screwing than helping us."
Sam stared at his brother. Dean looked disgruntled, but a little embarrassed. Sam recognized that he'd been shooting his mouth off, probably out of frustration.
The undergrowth snapped and crunched directly behind them, and before they could look, a horse galloped by. Sam saw Ahmed's dark face and hair as he kicked the Arabian hard in the side and quickly rode ahead.
"Damn," Dean said in a low voice. "I thought they were ahead of us."
"They were. Guess he circled back again." A little spooked, Sam checked over his shoulder, but Herger was still nowhere to be seen.
The horses walked on for a few more minutes, and then a form moved among the trees and Herger appeared. He rode toward them and stopped, blocking their way. Sam sat up nervously and noticed Dean did the same.
"What can you do with a trail?" Herger asked.
Dean shrugged. "Track it; set a trap?"
Herger laughed humorlessly. "And what would you do with a troll if you caught one?"
Now Dean gave Herger the are you stupid? look. "Kill it, of course."
"Have you a sword big enough?"
"How big a sword do you need? The troll we saw was a little thing."
Herger laughed again and turned his horse. "Follow me."
A few dozen yards onward, the woods met a branch of the river they had been following. Only this clearing was more like a gash torn in the earth. Trees with trunks as wide as Sam's shoulders had been snapped in half, others uprooted entirely, and flung everywhere. Boulders had been torn out of the bank and scattered; one rested at the base of a tree where it had been flung with some force, enough to shatter the trunk; another boulder rested in the middle of the river and water was being diverted around it. The scents of raw earth and evergreen sap were thick in the air.
Herger pointed to the boulder in the river. "The trolls play with such stones, for sport, like we play with deer's teeth." He turned and smirked at Dean. "So your suggestion is the same?"
"Yeah," Dean said. "We can handle this."
Sam recognized the sound of his brother bullshitting. He looked at his brother, then at Herger. "Let us talk?"
Herger tilted his head to say the suggestion was easy enough to grant, and kicked his horse to lead the way back into the woods. As Sam and Dean turned themselves around, they spotted Ahmed behind them, waiting for Herger to join him.
When the horses had found their rhythm again, Dean turned to Sam. "Do you have any idea what to do?"
Sam shrugged. "What would one of these hunters do? That we could do better?"
"Come on, we have to think of something. Did you see the size of those rocks? How fucking big are these things?"
Sam shifted in his saddle. His ass had been thoroughly numbed from riding for hours, and he grew more annoyed by the minute. "I don't know! We can't exactly Google it. We have no source of information except these people's myths."
Dean looked as irritated as Sam felt. "It's not exactly a myth, is it?"
"Yeah." Sam sighed and looked toward their guides. Herger and Ahmed seemed to be talking, too. He wondered what Ahmed had to say, in light of Dean's faux pas earlier. Thinking back to his suggestion, he kicked his horse and caught up to Herger and Ahmed. "Herger, is there a hunt we can observe?"
Herger turned in his saddle with a bewildered, irritated expression. "A hunt? Now?"
"Yeah…I mean, do you have hunting parties going out?"
Ahmed raised his eyebrows but didn't say anything. Herger snorted. "It's spring! There's nothing to hunt."
Sam was getting tired of looking like an idiot just by opening his mouth. He muttered, "I didn't know it was spring."
Ahmed shifted his shoulders and glanced back. "Perhaps they can be taken upland to see the hunting grounds," he said to Herger.
Herger considered this, then nodded. "All right. I will have someone take you," he said to Dean.
They gave no explanation why they wouldn't escort Dean and Sam themselves. When they reached the village, Sam and Dean waited with the horses while Herger went to another man and spoke with him at length. He gestured toward the brothers a few times, and the man nodded. Finally Herger led him back to Sam and Dean.
"This is Ulfyr. He will take you upland. Ulfyr, presenterer Dean og Sam." With only that as introduction, Herger turned on his heel and left.
Ulfyr took Herger's horse—Ahmed had disappeared into the stables with his Arabian—and they went back out of the village, this time taking a trail down the fjord and climbing up the side of the valley.
Trying to distract himself from the uncomfortable saddle, Sam looked at his brother. "Wonder why the other two gave up on us."
"I don't know, but as we were leaving I saw them heading off together, toward the water." Dean shifted and winced too. "Guess they wanted to be alone."
Sam couldn't disagree, so he didn't say anything. The trail grew steeper and he had to concentrate on riding, particularly as his horse was more interested in nosing around for grass than following Ulfyr. The man had light brown hair that flowed down past his shoulders, and a bushy beard. His clothing was all in earth tones, brown and green. He practically disappeared into the forest if you weren't watching him carefully.
The trail reached the top of the ridge and continued along it until it met a chasm, a deep green valley with another leg of the fjord below. There they turned and continued up the second valley, higher and higher. After about an hour, Ulfyr stopped and gestured. "Her er vår felle."
There was a deep pit cut into the mossy hillside, probably ten or twelve feet square. Sam dismounted, walked over to the edge and saw it was at least ten feet deep. There were large boulders and some wooden spikes sunk into the ground. A pit trap, for hunting large prey.
Sam looked at his brother, and by his glance, knew Dean thought the same thing. This was great for elk, but…
Sam turned to Ulfyr. While he knew it was probably fruitless to speak in Latin, he said, "This is a fine trap, but do you know anything of hunting trolls?"
Ulfyr frowned and rubbed his mustache. "Troll? Jeg forstår ikke. Du ønsker å jakte troll?"
Sam sighed. Dean shrugged at him.
Ulfyr turned his mount. "Kom da, vil vi gå tilbake. Du kan snakke med Herger."
Sam mounted, his legs and ass protesting as they connected with the saddle. He ground his teeth as his horse cantered down the slope after Dean and Ulfyr, jostling Sam with every bouncing step until he stood in the stirrups. After all the riding, misunderstandings, and complete lack of information, he was fed up.
They arrived back at the village and when Sam dismounted, he nearly fell out of the stirrups. He wanted to kiss the ground and vow to never ride again. Damn, his butt hurt. By Dean's expression, he felt much the same way. They limped out of the stables and went looking for Herger or Ahmed in the great hall.
Herger sat at the long table, drinking from a cup, with a loaf of bread in front of him. He offered the bread to Sam and Dean as they approached. Sam sat gingerly and took it, thanking him. His mouth watered at the mere thought of food. He split the remaining hunk and gave half to Dean.
Herger looked disheveled, his hair more tangled than usual, his clothing rumpled on his body. But he was alert. He asked them about the ride and Sam said that they were unable to learn anything new about the trolls.
Herger drained his cup. "Trolls avoid men, unless they are angry with them."
Sam nodded. "Perhaps we should deliberately make the troll angry with us, if it is not already."
Herger frowned, but Sam bet he wouldn't refuse. Baiting might be the best tactic, and would a Viking warrior turn away from a fight?
"We have not had any difficulties until recently, for we have seen neither man nor market good from our thorps upland."
"What's a thorp?" Dean asked. Herger glanced distractedly at him.
"Where we grow crops and run animals, upland, in the summer. Everyone has feared and suspected it is a troll. I propose we travel up the valley to the thorps and see what has come of them."
"And encroach on their territory," Sam said, seeing where Herger was going with the idea. "Draw them out."
Herger nodded, but he didn't look enthusiastic. He got up and retrieved a small cask, then poured another cup of beer for himself. "We believe the trolls live up the Trollstigen, at the head of a nearby valley."
Dean took the cask of beer, and a stray cup from further down the table. He poured for himself. "Let's go up there, and make one of those pit traps. We will get together a force of men, and attack the troll when it is vulnerable."
"It is said that this has been tried before, and failed," Herger said, his tone more gruff. "If you and your brother, warriors as you claim to be, can present a new idea, then we may attempt it."
"Look, we have to find out more," Sam said to Herger. "We may not know enough about them now, but we make good warriors with our experience. You yourself would choose a fighter over a farmer when going to war, wouldn't you?"
"I don't believe you know anything more than how to drink beer," Herger said, flicking his hand toward Dean's cup. "But we shall soon see, or you and your brother will be fodder for the trolls." He rose from the table. "It is washing day, and you stink of horse. There is a hot bath house down the shore. You would be wise to use it, before you drive off all our women."
Just then Ahmed emerged from the room he shared with Herger. He glanced at Sam and Dean, and then Herger noticed him and went to his side. Without another word from either of them, they left the hall together.
"I'm game for that bath house, are you?" Sam asked Dean.
Dean raised his eyebrows skeptically and drank more from his cup. "Repeat the words 'bath house' back to yourself and think harder."
"C'mon Dean, this isn't the Castro District. I'm guessing it's like a sauna. I don't know about you, but I could use a rinse and some relaxation. Besides, you want to go back to Herger dirty, when he told us to wash up?" Sam got to his feet, moving stiffly. Dean grumbled but drained his cup and followed Sam outside.
Dean spotted the bath house first; a building on the fjord shore. "That's where Ahmed and Herger were going, I think," he said, taking a path through some marshy shoreline grass. As they drew closer Sam saw swimmers in the dark waters of the fjord. A short dock jutted into the water from a small wood hut.
Outside the hut a few men were gathered around a small board with game pieces on it. It looked like chess, but not quite. One of them looked up and straightened on his stool as Sam reached for the door of the hut.
"Hei! Dere må svømme først." He gestured toward the swimmers. One of his companions grinned and smacked the speaker on the arm.
"Please shower before entering the pool," Dean muttered. He headed for the dock.
There were bundles of clothes on the dock, indicating they had the right idea. Sam looked at the swimmers and stripped quickly, thinking hopefully of washing off the grime, sweat and stink from the last twenty-four hours. Dean was already ahead of him, down to his birthday suit and taking a run off the dock.
He yelled a note of glee in mid-air, then hit the water a moment later. When he surfaced, he was shouting again. "Holy mother of god!"
"Cold?" Sam called to him, hesitating before stripping off his trousers.
"Sammy, save yourself. Don't do it." Dean's teeth were chattering. He swam toward shore.
There was a burst of laughter from nearby. The other swimmers were observing them with delight, and a woman shouted something to him. Another woman laughed and chimed in.
He didn't need to understand their language to know what they meant. He tore off his pants and ran off the dock, jumping over Dean's head and into the water.
The water was so shockingly cold that he gasped reflexively and took in a mouthful. Paddling quickly to the surface, he spit it out and took in a gulp of air, coughing between gasps. His entire body had clenched into one cramping refusal of the cold. His balls were probably lodged between his lungs. He swam quickly for the dock, gasping uncontrollably.
"Told you," Dean said as he pulled himself out of the water.
As they hobbled toward the hut, Sam heard the women again. It sounded like they were catcalling. The men outside the hut smirked at them, but only for a moment, and let them pass into the hut.
Inside it was steamy and blessedly hot. A brazier sat in the middle of the floor with red hot coals. As they entered, a man ladled water over the coals and shot up a blast of steam. Dean sighed happily.
There were stools and benches around the perimeter, about half-occupied with naked men. A few talked quietly but the rest were silent, their heads reclined against the wooden walls, eyes closed. Sam and Dean found free spaces together and sat.
"Hey," Dean murmured. He pointed toward Sam's chest. "We still have the anti-possession tattoos."
Sam nodded, trying to smile despite a rush of homesickness. He remembered getting the tattoos only a month before their hunt into Minnesota, but it seemed like a lifetime ago. Suddenly he was reminded of the life they'd left behind. As miserable as it was, at least it was more familiar than this. And, there was still the issue of Dean's time running out before the crossroads demon came for him. If it was spring here, how many weeks or days did they have left? Would the demon come for him a thousand years in the past? Sam ducked his head and closed his eyes, swallowing against the lump in his throat.
"Not exactly how I imagined I'd be living out my last days."
Sam opened his eyes. "We don't know if the deal holds here."
"You're right." Dean shifted his shoulders again. "Maybe we shouldn't be hunting the troll. Although…if we didn't have a choice, if we couldn't get back…this isn't so bad."
"Are you serious?"
"What?" Dean widened his eyes. "Sure."
Sam scoffed. "No cheeseburgers, no porn, no Impala… You're shitting me."
"Yeah, but…" Dean sounded oddly sincere, and Sam shut up. "It's like the ultimate witness protection program. Sure, everyone needs a bath and the beds suck, but it's kind of like a resort ranch."
"Except for the threat of horrible death from a supernatural creature."
"Have you seen it?" Dean raised his eyebrows and tilted his head. "Maybe we need to not be so paranoid. In the meantime I'll take all the food, drink, women and comfort they're willing to give us, just for us being warriors."
Sam leaned back against the wall with a snort. "Oh yeah, I'm sure they wouldn't mind that at all. They've welcomed us with open arms. You've had some of their women and comfort while I didn't noticed?"
A voice grunted insistently. Sam saw one of the Northmen gesturing at their tattoos, repeating some word over and over again. "Rus," he seemed to be saying. "Rus?"
Dean shook his head and shrugged, baffled. The man sighed and sat back with a frown. Dean gestured between himself and Sam and said, "Herger…"
"And Ahmed," Sam added.
The man nodded, although the information didn't seem to please him.
The door opened. Herger stepped in, fully dressed. Sam noticed that a couple of the men grumbled and cast Herger nervous glances, including the man who had been questioning them.
"Get dressed," Herger told Sam and Dean. "The evening meal will be soon, and we must outfit you for the hunt."
They stood, but while they were going out the door Sam noticed Herger paying him particular attention. He frowned and hustled through the doorway, going back to his bundle of clothes and dressing. As he pulled on his soft leather boots, he heard a burst of laughter from the bath house, and Herger strode out grinning.
"What was that about?" Dean asked, tying his belt.
"I told them your brother may be a giant, but he has a girl's round ass." Herger laughed again and smacked Sam on the shoulder. "Pay it no mind. It puts them more at ease."
"If it comes down to it," Dean said, "Sam's your woman."
Herger laughed loudly, the sound echoing through the fjord as they walked back toward the hall.
Dean's joking seemed to put Herger in a good mood. When they got back to the hall, he outfitted them with loaned saddlebags stuffed with warm cloaks, bedrolls, and plenty of weapons: a spear, broadsword and shield, bow and arrows. When they were fully prepared for the next day's ride, he made certain they were seated next to him at the end of the table, and platters of food were offered to them.
It was a greater feast than the night before. There was a variety of poultry and red meat; white fish floating in butter and herbs; root vegetables steamed and tossed together with honey; flat bread; berries with cream; and of course beer to wash it all down with, but also blackberry wine and milk. It was simple food, but delicious, especially when they hadn't eaten in some twelve hours. For several minutes Sam and Dean were head-down in their food, not saying anything between mouthfuls.
When the hunger pangs had eased, Sam came up for air. "This is good," he said to Herger.
Herger nodded. "Our king is a good provider. Gain your strength and take your rest tonight. It is a difficult ride tomorrow."
They continued eating for a little while longer, and then Sam looked around. "Where's Ahmed?" he asked.
Herger shifted on the bench, and raised his eyebrows as he finished chewing and swallowed. "He chooses to be alone."
"Seems like he's that type," Dean said, tearing off a piece of flat bread.
"What Dean means to say," Sam said, looking meaningfully at his brother and then back at Herger, "Is that I'm afraid we might have offended Ahmed."
Herger snorted and took a drink. "I would think you wouldn't care, or wonder why you care so much."
Sam didn't know what to say to that. He shifted uncomfortably, but before he could fumble out a response, Herger got up and said, "There will be music to enjoy." Just that, and then he stepped back into the crowd of people filling the hall, and Sam lost sight of him.
They finished eating in silence, and then the crowd thinned and quieted. A young woman got up onto a stool and raised her chin. The entire hall fell nearly silent, and she started to sing.
The song was short, only two brief verses, but her voice was utterly pure and heartfelt. Sam watched her lips move and throat work as the sound poured out of her. It transformed her from a nondescript young woman to a force of nature, commanding obedience.
She held a last, wavering note for several seconds, her eyelids dipping closed. Sam held his breath as she did. He saw her chin lower, indicating the end. A few people cheered and the spell was broken. She laughed and took a friend's hand to climb down from the stool, disappearing into the group of people milling around her.
"Sam's in love," Dean said to himself. He was grinning when Sam looked at him.
"No, it's just…" Sam waved a hand at the crowd. "Nice to find a little beauty."
Maybe Dean had a point, about this time not being such a bad time to live in. It seemed like their world had been reset with the jump from Minnesota; maybe they should take it as a gift. Maybe it was a gift. No more hunting, no more demons, no deal. Just Sam and Dean.
Sam squeezed his eyes shut. His throat hurt and he couldn't breathe very well. He'd give his right arm for a life like that. Did that mean he had to decide that now?
As the night wore on they enjoyed more music, people playing flutes, pipes, lyres, and drums, and a lot of singing. Sam relaxed and let the melancholy thoughts slip his mind as he watched Dean enjoying himself. The crowd got more boisterous as the long twilight darkened into night. Beer flowed as men told jokes and laughed harder than the jokes deserved—not that Sam or Dean could understand, but that's the way of drunk men telling jokes. They watched some of the games being played, on patterned boards with bone and glass pieces, and the contests were fraught with tension that released in laughter or anger, depending on the outcome.
Finally, hours after the meal, people began to seek out their beds. The tone of the crowd had turned from excited, buzzed, boisterous revelry to drunken exhaustion. But the brothers' beds, such as they were, were in Herger's room, and that door was firmly closed. They hadn't seen Herger or Ahmed all night.
Finally Dean took the loaned bedroll from his supplies and threw it out on an open stretch of floor. Resigned, Sam went to retrieve his own bedroll, but just then Herger's door opened.
Herger stood in the doorway, wearing his usual leather pants, half-tied in the front, and nothing else. He gestured for them to come in, blinking a little.
Dean gathered up his bedroll. Sam smiled his thanks to Herger and followed his brother. But as he passed into the room, he caught the scent of sex, that unmistakable mix of come, sweat and musk.
Ahmed lay on the other pallet. He didn't stir as Herger closed the door and got into his bed. Herger didn't say a word as he pulled blankets over himself. Sam flopped onto his own cot and closed his eyes.
The smell of sex explained some things: where Ahmed had been, and a confirmation of the nature of his relationship with Herger. Sam wondered how tolerant of homosexuality the Northmen were, but maybe it was Herger that kept Ahmed from being cast out.
But this only served as a reminder that things were more foreign than they'd realized. They knew nothing about these men and the world they lived in. How could they possibly try to stay?
He could understand having only one person in the world, who meant everything to you, who you couldn't live without. He understood that about Ahmed and Herger. But it didn't make it easy or right to give up trying to get back to their own world.
Sam squeezed his eyes tightly shut and thought of the Impala, of their favorite cheap motel outside Racine, of morning coffee and hot donuts. Hunting the troll was just like every other hunt they'd been on. They'd pull through it, or die trying, but they would be together.
Sam dreamed that packs of dogs were pursuing him and Dean. When he'd look at them, he'd see the troll, yellow eyes flashing, and he'd wake up alone in a strange forest, then spend time looking for Dean. They would finally find each other, only to immediately hear the growls of the dogs. After the third round of this dream, he slept fitfully, waking up seemingly every few minutes. He had his eyes open when Ahmed rose and shook Herger awake, and the day started.
They had a hearty meal of porridge, eggs, ham, and bread with honey. Ahmed declined to eat the eggs, which were barely cooked and runny. Watching him, Sam felt a compulsion.
"If we offended you," he blurted out suddenly, "I'm sorry."
Herger paused in the midst of spooning porridge into his mouth. His eyebrows lifted. Sam could sense Dean looking at him.
"No offense was intended," Sam added.
Ahmed looked at him keenly. Morning light streamed into the hall through membranes stretched over the window portals, and Sam saw that his eyes were a rich, warm brown. Crows' feet crinkled at the corners of his eyes, and he smiled in a slight way. "Thank you," he murmured. Sam nodded and smiled.
"We must leave soon," Herger said. "Finish eating."
Once they were mounted and rode out of the village, Sam got a sense for why Herger wanted to get an early start.
They went up a different valley than the one they had taken before to see the Troll Wall; this valley ran along the other side of the mountains that the Troll Wall was part of, and the two valleys met like a V at the site of the village. But the second valley was more treacherous.
It didn't help that it had rained overnight, and the trail was slick mud and loosened rock. It was slow going, the horses nervous with their footing. The trail also climbed steadily, out of the cultivated farmland and into thick woods with tumbled granite boulders that gave way to sheer walls. They repeatedly ran into rockslides or washouts that demanded backtracking. Herger had formed a crew of eight extra men, so moving that many horses took time and patience. They had limited stores of patience.
After a few hours Sam heard a commotion from further ahead on the trail, and then a chilling scream ripped through the quiet. Herger kicked his horse hard and galloped ahead, leaning out of the saddle, dismounting before his horse had even stopped. Ahmed was on his heels, the Arabian skidding on loose rock. Sam rode up as fast as he could, then pulled hard on the reins when he reached a logjam of riders on the trail. He dismounted to get a better view.
Down the slope there was a man on his knees, and a horse next to him. The horse made the screaming sound again, the whites of its eyes showing as they rolled wildly. The lips were pulled back, showing large white teeth as it whinnied and shrieked. It seemed to try to get up, but one foreleg hung at an unnatural angle.
"Fuck," Sam whispered, shuddering.
The man pulled a knife from his belt and crawled over to his horse. Sam squeezed his eyes shut and turned away. The horse's next cry cut off suddenly.
He felt someone brush his shoulder and opened his eyes to see Herger climbing up the slope. "Watch your step," Herger said. "The trail is unstable."
Sam climbed back up the slope after him, reaching Dean standing by the horses. They exchanged wide-eyed looks but said nothing as they got back in the saddle. Herger and the other men rode on, not looking back.
Ahmed stayed behind. They got going but Ahmed rode slowly, letting distance grow between them and the rest of the group. He studied Sam and Dean for a long, quiet moment with an intensity that made Sam a little uncomfortable.
Then he said, "Not everyone feels as easy about death as the Northmen. It is a hard thing to live with, sometimes." He nodded at Sam and kicked his horse to catch up with Herger.
Sam waited until he was out of earshot, then turned to Dean. "It's almost like they're casual about it," he said. "You'd think they'd care more about a horse."
"Maybe they can't get too attached to things. It's just a tool, anyway." Dean looked at his own horse with disdain; no love had been lost there. "When it becomes useless, are you going to cry over it?"
"That's pretty harsh. You're evaluating the worth of a sentient being based on its usefulness?" Sam didn't hate his horse, as much as the riding had been painful. He stroked its neck and saw the ears flick. Thinking about death and attachments, and he felt a familiar tightening in his chest.
"I'm not talking about people. Horses, they—they're not pets. They were domesticated for work. But I get how these guys feel about death, in general. Why get so attached to things when a broken leg is a death sentence? Anything could kill these people, at any time: wars between kings, or the plague, or even eating bad meat." Dean shook his head, his body tense. "It's reality."
Sam felt the familiar helpless anger, but there was no way he could continue arguing the point. They had come out of the trees to the end of the valley, and like the side of a bathtub, it rose straight up in front of them. Rivers cascaded down the sides as waterfalls, the roar of the water loud enough that some of the men were shouting to be heard.
Herger gave Sam and Dean one glance, then fell into the single-file procession that continued on the trail.
"This is the Troll's Ladder," Ahmed said to them, guiding his Arabian behind Herger. "You see how it climbs?"
Sam looked again and realized the thin pale lines crisscrossing the valley walls were the trail, not merely rock features, as he'd assumed. The trail switched back on itself at least a dozen times.
Fittingly, for a troll's home, it was even more treacherous: a narrow path with no bank or wall to prevent a rider from sliding down the slope to certain death. The slope was primarily loose rock that gave way frequently, and the horses were quickly as nervous as the men were, as their hooves skidded and slipped. They had to cross the waterfalls several times, the horses delicately stepping through the cold water. On a spring day with little warmth to the sunlight that filtered through the clouds, Sam noticed a marked chill to the air each time they were around the water. It was likely all fresh snowmelt. He glanced down the slope during one such river fording, and the dizzying perspective of the water tumbling downhill made him lightheaded.
Halfway up the valley wall they encountered a bank of fog, and as they rode into it, Sam felt completely vulnerable. They couldn't see more than five feet in front of themselves, so avoiding danger on the trail was nearly impossible. It was cold and damp, too. Sam could only see Ahmed's black outline in front of him—even his white horse seemed to disappear—but he heard Herger's voice.
"Odin," Herger chanted. "Oooodinnnn. Oooodinnnn."
Other men took up the call, and at first the sound was eerie, coming like echoes through the mist. Sam shuddered and closed his eyes, praying his horse would continue leading them on safely. Then he heard a laugh, and Herger shout something in Norse. Ahmed laughed then, too. He opened his eyes and saw the trail, a tree, and the watery pale orb of the sun. They had made it through the mist. Sam tightened his sweating hands on the reins.
They turned a corner of the trail and a few men sighed and murmured to each other. As Herger turned, he said to Sam, passing below him on the trail, "Look down."
Sam looked at the ground automatically, but Herger laughed.
"No, out there."
Sam's horse rounded the corner, and Sam looked out. He caught his breath.
The fog bank was immediately below them, but beyond that was the entire valley, a fertile green bowl of unbelievable proportions. The cascading waterfalls merged into a river that tore through the valley floor, and the mountains stood up on either side, utterly straight. It was true that Scandinavia was the land of giants, because no force on Earth had conquered them. Not people, predators, or even this land.
Some men shouted above him, and Herger replied with something that sounded like, "Eh?" Then he looked over at Ahmed. "Snow," he said apologetically. "It is still early in the year."
Ahmed sighed and nodded. Herger looked past him, at Sam. "Ahmed hates the cold," he explained with a grin.
"I guess you don't stay in the North for the skiing," Sam said teasingly. Ahmed laughed, his face creasing handsomely in a broad smile. Sam grinned at him.
"Stop flirting and come on," Herger said, kicking his horse and sending a shower of pebbles down the hillside as it pushed off with its back hooves. "We're almost to the top."
"Sam," Dean said. Sam looked and saw his brother pointing at a rock by the trail.
It had deeply incised lines, depicting some sort of grinning or snarling toothy monster with wide, staring eyes. Sam glanced back at Dean, trying to decide what to make of it. Ahmed, watching the exchange, spoke up.
"A warning for travelers," he said somberly. "Danger ahead."
"Little brother," Herger said suddenly, from above them. Sam looked up automatically, confused, but then Ahmed kicked his horse and galloped up the last of the trail to where it suddenly flattened out.
The men had all stopped in a meadow a short way away from the edge of the slope they had just climbed. Before them was a farmstead—or rather, the remains of one. The house was completely destroyed, its sod walls smashed and scattered, the thatch roof blown out like dandelion down. The fields around were similarly ripped up. A few men went into the destruction to investigate, but came back shaking their heads.
"No bodies," Herger said aloud.
"Who were they?" Dean asked.
"Subjects of my king. They are farmers; they provide us with food and goods for trade."
"They will be missed," Ahmed said. Herger looked at him and nodded with a small, grateful smile.
"And our harvest will be thin," Herger continued. "Let us hope not all the thorps upland have been destroyed."
But as they rode further, every settlement they came across had been torn apart in the same way. The men stopped laughing and joking, even stopped talking. Reflecting on the idea of an entire year's worth of food—and dozens of friends—being destroyed in a matter of hours, Sam could understand their silence.
"This is all fresh," Herger said as they passed the fourth settlement. "Within the last few days."
"Something has enraged it," Ahmed agreed.
"Oh, now you believe in it?" Dean asked. Sam scowled at his brother.
Ahmed looked at him evenly. "I believe that something has done this. I cannot concede that it is magic, until I see it with my own eyes."
Herger gave no opinion.
They rode on for another half hour, and then one of the men called out and pointed. Following his arm, they spotted a dark area on a snowy hillside, and after staring at it for a while Sam realized it was a cave. Below the darkness spread a mess of red: bloody snow. Sam made out small dark shapes, and realized that one was shaped like a person. Nothing moved.
It was the remainders of lunch.
The men started grumbling, then one shouted and gestured angrily. He pulled a sword and held it overhead, yelling at the hillside. Two other men joined in yelling and pulled weapons as well. Finally Herger yelled at them, and they quieted and lowered their weapons. Ahmed watched this all silently, taking it in.
"We must find a place to camp, and organize," Herger said to Sam and Dean. They agreed, but ultimately it was others who decided where to make the pit trap they had planned.
Herger asked Ahmed to go on ahead with the horses, site a camp, and organize a meal while the pit trap was dug. Dean offered to dig. Despite Sam's size and physicality, Herger asked Ahmed to take Sam with him. Ahmed agreed, although grudgingly. He wasn't sure why Herger wanted to separate them, but he didn't want to waste time arguing. Besides, it was his chance to talk to Ahmed, try to figure him out.
As they rode ahead, Sam tried to fill the empty air between them. "My brother and I were curious," he said, carefully following Ahmed's path through the deepening snow. "What made you stay in the North, when it is so different from Baghdad?"
He watched the back of Ahmed's head for a reaction, but didn't get one. Ahmed looked up at the sky, examining the clouds gradually covering the blue. He was silent for a while.
Then, finally, he spoke without turning. "There is more for me here."
After such a cool response, Sam didn't say anything more until Ahmed found a wooded area at the base of a rock outcrop. Riding in among the trees, he found an area where the snow had not penetrated the branches, and the ground was bare and dry.
Sam first unsaddled the horses while Ahmed gathered wood for fuel and formed a fire pit with a ring of stones. Then Sam swept the tree needles into a pile for fire starter, and by doing so made the ground safe from flying sparks. Finally he was given a small iron kettle and told to either collect snow for melting, or find an open spring. He ended up with snow. Ahmed unsaddled all the horses, organized the supplies, and got a fire going.
Dusk settled in, and the shadows grew more dense. Outside the faint ring of light from the fire, Sam stared at the blue valley, wondering if he would see the other men coming back from the pit trap. He wondered how Dean was doing.
When the snow had melted, Ahmed pulled packets of dried fish and vegetables out of his saddlebags and started making a stew. He gave Sam onions and leeks and told him to cut them into the pot, while Ahmed brought the water to a boil and soaked the fish in it. When the vegetables were added and scents started to emerge from the pot, Sam's mouth started watering.
Ahmed also took flat irons and made bread, holding the long-handled iron plate out over the fire as a baking sheet. Sam went to the packhorses and retrieved a few kegs of beer, then melted more snow for water. By the time night had completely fallen, the food was ready. Ahmed served himself and gestured for Sam to do the same. He thought he'd wait for Dean, but there was no sign of him or the other men.
Sam ate, but unfortunately camp food wasn't as good as the stuff prepared back at the queen's hall. The vegetables were somewhat flavorless and the stew more like a thin soup, with tough chunks of fish. Still, he was hungry and ate quickly.
It wasn't until he and Ahmed were wiping their bowls clean with snow that they heard a call and saw shapes coming out of the darkness. The men had finally returned.
"Good fire," Herger said to Ahmed, letting a pick-ax and his saddlebags slide off his shoulder. "We could see you from a ways."
"Warm yourself, and eat." Ahmed let Herger take the bedroll he'd been sitting on. Herger settled with a grunt, accepted the now-clean bowl Ahmed handed to him, and dipped it straight into the stew pot, foregoing a ladle.
Sam found Dean trailing at the back of the group. He was filthy and looked exhausted, thin and pale under a layer of grime. "You okay?"
Dean nodded wordlessly, then gestured at the stew pot.
"Yeah, there's food. C'mon, sit down." Sam took a shovel off Dean's shoulder. He staggered to Sam's bedroll and dropped to his knees, reaching for some flatbread.
The men swamped the cook fire, intent on one thing. In the rush for food the iron pot was nearly upended, but after a few sharp words were exchanged between the men, they settled down to eat. Sam stood back and watched Dean, worried that he hadn't said anything. Dean was never without words.
"Your brother is a good worker," he heard Herger say, and looked up. Herger slurped more soup and tore off a chunk of bread with his teeth, his cheek bulging with food. His eyes looked green in the firelight. "Very strong."
"Yes, he is," Sam said. He saw Dean raise his head, and felt better.
When the hunger pangs had eased, the men dispersed a bit, spreading out bedrolls and settling in for the night. Most fell asleep quickly. Dean stared at the fire, entranced.
"Talk to me, Dean," Sam said quietly. Dean stirred.
"Sorry, just…tired." Dean scrubbed his face with one hand, blinking sleepily. "We got the pit finished. Eight by eight by twelve."
"Damn." Even with a crew of a half dozen men, that was a lot of earth to move with just shovels and pick-axes. Sam wished he'd been able to help more.
"Lined it with rocks and hacked-off tree branches. If we get anything, it's not getting out easily."
Dean was talking with his eyes closed. Sam smiled and nudged him on the shoulder, and he blinked his eyes open, although they were dull with fatigue.
"Go to sleep," Sam said. "I've got this covered."
"A night watch?" Herger said. "Good idea."
"I'll take the first shift," Ahmed said. Sam relaxed with relief.
"I'll have the second, then," Herger said, and stretched out on the bedroll. It didn't seem fair, since Sam hadn't been on pit detail, but he wasn't about to argue. He stretched out next to his brother, and within minutes Dean was fast asleep, his body a reassuring weight against Sam's back. Sam watched the fire, his eyelids growing heavier.
"It's time for your watch."
Sam blinked awake, realizing that he'd fallen asleep. The fire had subsided but the coals were still red and gave off plenty of heat. Looking out over them, he saw Ahmed on his knees, bent over Herger.
"How did you get dirt in your beard?" Ahmed continued, still whispering. Sam saw him smiling. He touched Herger's cheek, rubbing with his thumb.
Herger stretched and mumbled something. Ahmed laughed softly.
Then Herger reached up and hooked his hand behind Ahmed's neck, and Ahmed willingly let himself be pulled down. They kissed, Ahmed still smiling, Herger's own lips curling in response.
Sam closed his eyes, embarrassed to find himself so close to such a private thing. He could still hear them kissing. The wet sounds of lips and tongue were shockingly intimate, making his face burn.
But they didn't stop, so he knew he hadn't been seen. They didn't know they were being watched. Not letting himself think about his reasons, he opened his eyes again.
Ahmed and Herger had pulled apart, and through some wordless signal of hands and shoulders they swapped places, Ahmed lying down in Herger's spot. Herger bent over and kissed him again, and while Herger's blond hair hid their faces now, Sam could hear that the kisses were wetter, deeper. Ahmed's hand came up on Herger's back, his fingers curling to press insistently through his clothes. Watching them together, Sam felt his cock stir between his legs.
Herger's hand moved from Ahmed's shoulder down his chest and to his hip. Ahmed bucked gently with a quiet groan. Sam bit his lip, wondering what would happen, but then heard him whisper, "Herger, nei."
"I know," Herger said regretfully, sitting back. "Sleep now, I'm awake."
Ahmed smiled and took his hand, intertwining their fingers. Then he closed his eyes, and Herger settled himself cross-legged next to him.
Sam closed his eyes, feeling the prickle of adrenaline in his scalp as he realized he could have been caught watching. He took a few deep breaths and willed himself to sleep. He had to take the next watch in a few hours. He had to be fresh and alert, not groggy from lying awake and half-aroused, thinking about how loving those kisses had been.
He was only about half-asleep when a bellow echoed up the valley. It was a roar of sound, thunderous, vibrating. He shot upright, heart pounding, and saw the others scrambling to their feet. It sounded like a bomber was flying overhead. Even as the sound died away, his hands shook as he pulled on his cloak.
"Just your weapons! We ride light!" Herger shouted, then continued shouting at the other men in Norse. Sam ran to the horses and threw the saddle on, but the horse was nervous and shifted away. It seemed to take an eternity to tie the binding under the belly.
"Should've kept the saddles on," he heard Ahmed say. He turned and saw Ahmed still fastening his own saddle, looking exasperated. Sam nodded.
Dean caught up to them. "I'm riding with you. I don't know where—"
"Go, go, go!" Herger bellowed behind them. Sam gave Dean his hand, helping to pull him up behind him. They both kicked the horse and it took off like a shot.
Dean had one arm wrapped firmly around Sam's waist, and the other holding a cache of weapons. Even with Dean carrying his weapons, Sam struggled to maintain his balance and grip on the galloping horse, and finally just took a fistful of mane and balanced in the stirrups. Without stirrups Dean had to ride fully seated, and from the jostling, Sam could tell it wasn't a smooth ride.
It was a short one, though. The riders ahead of them were just pulling to a halt, weakly illuminated by their torches, when Dean yelled in Sam's ear, "Finally getting ourselves a hunt, huh Sammy?"
Sam laughed and pulled up on the reins. The horse jerked to a stop.
Before them all of the men approached the trap, torches raised. For a moment Sam couldn't make out anything, and then a massive pile of boulders moved and a piercing, blinding bright light swept out like a beacon. Some of the men shouted to each other.
Then two men, Ulfyr and another one who could have been his twin, raised their spears and bellowed, rushing the trap. As the pile of boulders moved to avoid them, Sam could make out the form of a four-limbed creature, lumpy and knotted, covered with lichen and moss, but a creature. It was ten or fifteen feet tall; hard to judge as it was caught in the trap, one leg disappearing into the hole. The light emanated from its head, and as the beam swept over him and focused on the attackers, Sam realized it was an eye.
The attack reached the trap and the two men thrust their spears. The troll countered by sweeping a huge arm, and Ulfyr went flying while the other man's spear hit the body. The troll bellowed again, loud enough that Sam's ribs vibrated. His ears rang when the sound stopped.
Other men joined the attack, a rush of spears and swords. Sam saw Herger standing by Ahmed, who held a light sword, but Herger pulled it from his hand and ran forward, two blades swinging up as he yelled and charged.
Dean pushed a sword into his hand. "The leg is caught," he yelled in Sam's ear. "We've got it pinned!"
Sam wanted more to ask questions first and kill later, but it was too late for planning. He rushed forward to see Herger duck a massive swing from the troll's hand, then leap forward with both swords raised. They hit home, sinking into the troll's shoulder, and another blast of sound came from the creature. Herger fell back, hands empty.
Dean charged forward and Sam followed. While the troll pulled at Herger's swords, more spears thrust from all sides, causing it to cry out, but more quietly. Finally it pulled out Herger's swords and tossed them to the ground. The blades were black with blood, thick and black and viscous like engine oil.
Dean ducked another defensive swing and charged in, but the troll had seen enough of their tactics. The troll's other hand shot in from the side and grabbed Dean by the torso, lifting him off his feet. His sword fell to the ground.
"No! NO!" Sam yelled, running forward. The troll heaved and suddenly rose, pulling its leg out of the trap with another chest-rattling bellow. Dean was held twenty-five, thirty feet off the ground, struggling against the massive gnarled fingers wrapped around him from armpit to knee. "Goddammit, no!" Sam sprinted toward one massive leg, oozing black blood from a series of punctures. He reared back for a hacking swing at what would be a weak spot, but the leg moved just as he tried to deliver the blow. Missed. He stumbled off-balance. "No! Dean! Dean, hold on—" He ran for the other leg. The troll moved away into the blackness, outpacing them by thirty feet with every footfall. It was getting away, moving back up the mountain to its lair. Sam remembered how the blood and bodies had been sprayed forty feet from the mouth of the ice cave, and he threw himself into running across the slippery, uneven ground.
"Sam—" he heard coming weakly from far above his head. And then it was gone.
"No!" he screamed, voice cracking. He spotted a horse and went for it, but hands caught him before he could mount it.
A voice shouted in his ear. Herger. "No, we can't! You expect to follow into his cave and live? We must have a plan."
"My brother will be dead by then!" Sam shook him off, but he was pulled back a second time. He stumbled off-balance and fell, and found Herger above him, hands pinning his shoulders to the ground.
"I know you would do anything for him," Herger said. His lips were drawn back in a snarl, and shadows ran across his face from the sputtering torches, making him look barbaric. "Fight, kill, die for him. But if you throw yourself at the troll now, you will be dead, with no guarantee whether he lives or not. Wait until we know more, and you have some chance of surviving another attack."
The fight left Sam's body. He nodded numbly, looking away from Herger's face, into the endless black sky.
Herger got off him and hands pulled him up, but he didn't try to help. Someone guided him onto a horse, behind someone already mounted. He grabbed a fistful of the other rider's cloak and held on as the horse started walking.
"Tilbake til leiren," Herger said. They returned to the camp.
Someone pulled him off the horse and deposited him next to the campfire. Men settled around him, arguing and grumbling to each other in Norse, all clearly angry at the way the attack had gone.
They'd been so fucking stupid. Herger had said a pit trap had been tried before, and had failed. Now Dean was probably being torn limb from limb, his guts sucked out like marrow out of a bone. Sam shuddered, staring at the ground between his feet.
"I have to bring him back," he said aloud. "I have to find him."
"Fine, but it will be in the day. Trolls sleep then," Herger said. He dropped to his haunches next to Sam and held out a horn. Sam took it and drank. It was sweet wine—mead. He took a few gulps, then handed it back. Herger pushed his hand away. "Finish it."
Sam clenched his teeth and started guzzling, not stopping until the last drops landed on his tongue. Herger chuckled and took the empty horn. Sam still didn't look at him.
A lot of the other men were talking, loudly. He wanted to tell them to shut up, to fuck off back to their filthy huts. They imagined themselves as warriors when they couldn't make a strategized attack on a single foe. Useless.
He stared at his hands, empty of everything but dirt, shaking with adrenaline. He'd been useless, too. Unable to save his brother. How did he ever think he could? When had he ever succeeded?
A cup of water was pushed into his hands, and he clasped it automatically before looking up.
"You'll need a clear head," Ahmed said in a low voice. Sam nodded and drank, while Ahmed took a seat next to him.
Ahmed glanced around, checking that the men were occupied with other things, then shifted closer. "Last winter, Herger nearly died. He had the fever. None expected him to live."
Sam looked down, uncomfortable. He didn't know how to respond to that. Ahmed continued speaking, content with Sam's silence. He knew Sam was still listening.
"He was delirious—he had visions of the friends we have lost, and of past lovers. He spoke to them as though they were by his side. It was several days before the fever broke. My mind was nearly lost. I barely slept until he looked at me and called me by the proper name. But he did."
The words came to Sam's lips before he checked them. "A miracle."
"Was it? I gave him clean water and good food, forced it on him even when he thought I was trying to poison him. Perhaps it was just as much luck, but I gave him every moment I had."
Sam nodded and drank more water. As he lowered the empty cup, he saw Ahmed watching him, his gaze warm from the firelight. Ahmed took the cup and refilled it from a water skin, then handed it back. "Try to rest, and keep hope." He rose and brushed off his clothes, and while he was bent over he murmured in Sam's ear: "And if you repeat anything of what I told you, Herger will have your tongue."
That brought a smile to Sam's lips. Ahmed returned it before he walked away. Sam finished the water and placed the cup on the ground, then lay back and closed his eyes.
He waited until the camp was silent again, and the fire had died to embers. Then he got up and went to Ahmed's horse, the smallest they had. She shied away from him a little, but he stroked her nose and let her smell him, and then he mounted her.
He had no torch, but a half-full moon had risen and given some illumination on the snow. He could see the path they'd formed before, and followed it to the pit. The earth was torn up across a large area, but that was the only thing to suggest something had happened here. That he'd failed his brother.
He looked for the troll's trail, but that was harder to see. What might have been footprints could also have been big indentations in the snow from uneven melting. He didn't see the cave, either, and in the dimness he could not remember which peak had been the one they'd spotted. There was no sign of the bloody snowfield.
He sighed and turned the horse back toward camp. She walked faster, knowing her destination. After he put her back with the other horses, he lay back in his spot by the fire, and closed his eyes again. He didn't sleep. Dawn was a long time coming.
The Northmen prepared a simple meal of flatbread and then mounted quickly, traveling light again. Sam said nothing as they retraced their path and went directly to the mountain with the bloody snow. Nobody really said anything, so it wasn't until they avoided the troll's cave, skirting around the mountain, that Sam realized they were reconnoitering the area.
After a few hours some yelling drew their attention, and they regrouped. Sam had been riding with Herger, and he went to the source of the yelling fastest, spurring his horse hard.
When the breathless Northman began to explain himself to Herger, Ahmed helped translate for Sam. "He's found a natural opening on the backside of the peak. Another way into the cave, perhaps."
"Not another cave," Herger muttered. Ahmed laughed shortly, despite himself.
"I'll go," Sam said immediately. Herger held up a hand for the other Northmen to stop talking and turned to him.
"Nobody else is going to do this." Sam set his jaw. It wasn't a statement to the Northmen's lack of bravery, but a commandment. Herger nodded, and wordlessly led the way back over the ridge until they could see the cave entrance.
"Then, a word of advice. The eye you saw. It must be a source of power. Take it, and you will have the advantage."
"How do you know?" Sam scowled. Had Herger been keeping something secret all along?
"Tales told by the old people," Herger answered, somewhat distracted by motioning to one of his men. When the man came forward, he took a short sword from a scabbard on the man's back, and handed it to Sam. "This will be better for fighting in close quarters."
Sam nodded, relieved by Herger's thoughtfulness. Herger turned away and went to one of the horses, and Ahmed stepped up.
"May the grace of whatever god you honor be with you," he said quietly. He offered a hand, and Sam shook it. He hurriedly said thanks, and then Herger called to him and motioned to the back of his horse.
They rode up to the back entrance of the cave, where Sam dismounted and lit a torch. With a circle of Northmen watching worriedly, he stepped up to the hole in the earth, mostly covered by long grass and shrubs. The prospect of climbing into it filled him with dread, especially not knowing how close death might be on the other side. But he thought of Dean, and his fear suddenly seemed inconsequential. He could face anything to get Dean out safely. He bent and stuck his head and shoulders through the opening, felt the rocky floor of a tunnel, and wiggled his way in.
Sam got all the way into the tunnel before the Northmen handed him the lit torch, and he was glad for the flame—until he brought the light in with him, the tunnel was utterly, completely black. He felt like he'd had a bag pulled over his head. Then the light illuminated the space: a tunnel maybe four feet high, of dirty bare rock that gleamed with wetness.
He made his way along the tunnel, sometimes having to clear the path for himself. Roots, loose dirt, and tumbled rocks filled the passage, constant reminders that the tunnel hadn't been carefully carved out by men. There was no telling how safe it was. He worked as quietly as possible, conscious of a troll nearby.
As he got closer, he heard a low, rhythmic booming, like a foghorn. He puzzled over it for several minutes as he continued crawling. It wasn't wind, or earth moving; it was too steady and even. It reminded him of Dean's snoring, actually.
That's when he got it. He could hear the troll breathing. Somehow, the sound resonated through the mountain. He sucked in a deep breath to hold back his uneasiness, and continued. The sound grew louder, until the tunnel suddenly widened and Sam crawled out into a large chamber.
The troll was tucked into a corner, its back and shoulder the first things Sam could see of it. The body moved with the rhythmic breathing, confirming his suspicion. But he couldn't see Dean. There were bloody, chewed body parts strewn about the floor of the cave, but it was cold enough that the smell hadn't gotten too bad.
He stayed low in a crouch and made his way around the chamber, his eyes on the troll at all times. He had the torch in one hand; the other hand gripped the hilt of a short sword. He moved slowly, placing each foot carefully so as not to make a sound. The troll's breathing was far louder than the scraping of dust beneath his leather boot.
Finally he circled the troll to another side of the cave, closer to the entrance. A cold breeze smelling of old blood and decay drifted in from outside. He paused to take stock, and saw Dean.
He lay crumpled on a stone ledge, a few feet above the floor of the cavern. Seeing him so motionless made Sam's heart stop. He heedlessly rushed across the chamber and put his hand on Dean's leg.
It was still warm. Dean stirred at his touch.
Sam sucked in a shaky breath. As Dean lifted his head, there was another sucking sound, much louder, then a low rumble.
The troll shifted, rolling over, then over again, and sat upright. Remembering Herger's advice, Sam dropped the torch and ran directly for the troll. As the big bright eye blinked open, he threw himself toward the source with both hands outstretched. He didn't expect to get his hands on anything, but maybe just distracting the troll—
As if magnetized, his hands clamped on to the sides of something big, heavy, and cool. He fell back and hit the floor, opening his eyes in confusion. The troll roared at a deafening level, and the rock floor vibrated with its movements.
Sam held a disk as big as a serving platter, emanating a clear white glow. He blinked and looked into it.
Instantly, he could see everything. It was as if he stood outside of himself, but inside, at the same time. He felt blind as he stopped seeing with his eyes, but instead saw everything within his mind. He could see himself and Dean in the troll's cavern, and the troll pressing itself nervously into a corner. He raced along the dark passage to the opening on the back side of the mountain, and saw Herger and the Northmen clustered around its mouth. They were waiting, some preparing themselves for another battle, others playing dice games out of boredom. He saw Ahmed, sitting apart, watching silently.
Looking closer at Ahmed, Sam felt a sensation like falling, and then Ahmed changed. The mountain disappeared and in its place was a golden hall of arches, dark-skinned people surrounding him, full of color and smells. A market. Ahmed smiled and his entire face changed. Some of the lines on his forehead and around his mouth were gone. Laughing, he drew a scarf over his face and picked up the leads of a camel. Herger sat mounted on a camel beside his, a wry smile on his face.
Sam wanted to turn away, not to pry any further. The vision immediately vanished and Sam was back on the mountain. He glanced at Herger and saw a quick flash of a bloody battle, horses screaming, mud sucking at boots as swords flashed and plunged. Sam blinked again.
He saw the mountain as a whole, and the other mountains beyond it, and the fjord. Beyond the fjord was the sea, and the coast, hundreds of miles of it. He could see the curve of the earth.
Give it back.
Sam blinked and saw himself back in the cave. The troll had raised its head, a black hole where the eye had been. The gnarled, filthy four-fingered hands groped wildly, reaching for something.
Need to find the offspring.
Troll? Sam thought, and looked. In a flash he saw the troll calmer, the cave clean of bones and cloth, a small bundle of black fur in its arms. In fast succession he saw the offspring grow larger, gain its feet and begin to explore, the one bright yellow eye gleaming with curiosity. Then it was gone, and the adult was frantic.
I know where it is, Sam thought. It's in my time.
Give back the eye.
Get me back to my time, and you can have it.
Need the eye to find the offspring.
Sam saw Dean stir. My brother. Release my brother and give the humans peace. Return us to our time. Then you can have the eye.
Need the eye to return.
Then we're at an impasse. Sam tightened his grip on the eye and felt power surge up his arms.
Will release you and leave the humans be. You release the eye.
All right. Sam moved his feet and saw his body backing away toward the entrance of the cave. Dean crouched on his hands and knees, watching Sam with a bloody face.
"All right, Dean?" His voice sounded strange in his ears, small and tinny.
Dean nodded and climbed to his feet. He held on to the wall for balance but moved without help.
"Back out of the cave."
They went slowly, one step at a time. Looking at Dean, Sam saw flashes of their childhood. He saw Dean washing the Impala and lovingly applying a coat of wax to the glossy finish. He saw Dean's first serious crush: a leggy, coltish girl standing with Dean outside a school—one of the dozens they'd attended while John had dragged them around the country. He saw Dean opening a present and lifting out his first pocketknife, John smiling over him. He saw Mary fixing Dean a marshmallow fluff sandwich, ruffling his hair as he munched on it in a sunny kitchen.
They were outside. The troll had crept after them, groaning and crying in low, keening tones. It stopped at the cave entrance, hesitant to go outside, shrinking from the daylight, although it could not see.
A few Norsemen were keeping watch on this side of the mountain. As Dean sat unsteadily on a heap of snow, they yelled to each other, and one spurred his horse and went riding fast for the other side of the peak.
How are we going to return to our time? Sam thought back.
Will return you. The eye the eye the eye—
"Okay," Sam said, and forced his fingers to move.
He was clumsy, the strength of the eye's power a connection not easily broken. Instead of deftly setting it down like a clean dinner plate, his hands creakily flexed open, and the disk dropped. He watched with a rush of horrified adrenaline as the shining disk hit the hard-packed rocky snow, and cracked.
The troll shrieked, a high-pitched sound that hurt Sam's ears and echoed his dismay. The troll lurched out of the cave toward the lens lying on the snow, hands groping. Sam stumbled to his brother and gave him a shoulder to lean on. Sam aimed for the area where the lookouts had been standing, a safe distance from the entrance. It seemed horrifyingly far, across a field of bloodied and gory snow. Their feet slipped and skidded on the slushy snow, and Dean fell just as the shrieking stopped.
Sam reached for his brother, but at the same time he heard crashing sounds behind them, and a boulder went over their heads, close enough that Sam could smell the dirt and moss on it. It crashed down the hillside like a horrible bowling ball. He risked a glance over his shoulder.
The troll had retrieved the eye, and it blazed a furious yellow from its place in the troll's head. A thick crack ran up the center of the lens. Still, the troll saw him well enough, and roared at him as it groped for another missile.
Dean had regained his feet, and Sam turned his back on the troll. He saw riders cresting the hill, and breathed a little easier through his tightened throat as he took a few more steps over the snow.
"Sam!" he heard yelled. Herger. He looked around and saw the troll picking up another boulder and hurling it. This time the aim was better. He grabbed Dean's arm and shoved them both sideways, harder than the tackles they'd performed in touch football, hard enough to drive a little bit of the air out of their lungs as they landed. The boulder passed by harmlessly, bouncing down the snowy hillside, sending bursts of dirt and snow and shredded bushes as it went.
"We had a deal!" he yelled in the troll's direction.
The horses pulled up. Sam saw Herger out of the corner of his eye. Someone pulled up a riderless mount, for Dean and Sam, and there was a rush of confusion as the men struggled with the terrified horses. Those mounted were having to use all their concentration and strength to keep their horses steady, while the riderless one reared and screamed, white-eyed with fear.
Then came the sound of wood cracking and popping. The men looked toward the source, over Sam's head, and started yelling. A few spurred their horses hard, and the grateful animals shot off. Feeling like a cartoon character with doom looming behind him, Sam turned.
The troll had ripped up a whole tree. As Sam watched it tore the root ball from the black earth, then turned and hurled it like a javelin. Instinctively he dropped to his belly, and felt its draft as it passed. It landed with crunching, crackling, popping sounds.
"HERGER!" That was Ahmed. Sam looked up and saw him dismount, scrambling toward the tangle of branches. "Herger, jeg komme—"
Sam looked back over his shoulder. "Troll!" he yelled, and this time the great yellow eye focused on him.
There was a pop, and the world went black.
Sam gasped for air and opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was a huge spot of yellow light, and he gasped again and forced himself to move, scrambling on his hands and feet, away.
Then he blinked again, and realized it was a sodium-vapor barn light, illuminating the door of a quonset hut.
"Dean?" He looked around. His brother was next to him, and pushing himself up with a groan.
"We're back," Sam said, and laughed with relief. "We're back."
Herger winced as the camp girl tightened the sling. "It had to be my sword arm," he muttered.
"You're lucky it wasn't worse than a pulled shoulder," Ahmed said sourly. He waited until Herger had mounted with the help of the girl, and taken up his reins in his good hand. They began down the valley, in line with the other riders.
"I thought you were dead," Ahmed murmured, riding a few feet behind Herger. He wasn't sure if Herger could hear him, but he had to let the words out of him. "The troll disappeared, and we couldn't find you—I thought it had taken you." Ahmed heard his voice shaking, and clenched his jaw.
Herger looked at Ahmed inquisitively, then slowed and let Ahmed ride up next to him. Transferring the reins to his injured side, he reached across and squeezed Ahmed's shoulder, hard. "I'm like a rat. You won't be rid of me."
"Unless we go together," Ahmed answered, nodding. They had said it so many times, in their travels.
Herger grinned in satisfaction. "Don't fall on your sword just yet, Little Brother. I believe the gods have more adventures for us."