The autumn equinox. The equinoctial winds churn the sea into a froth of annihilating waves. A little skiff; sails ripped ragged, boom snapped and crashing into the sides of the beleaguered vessel, as if to punish it for venturing into these vicious waters.
On board, a Norwegian merchant, Magnusson, crazed, wild-eyed. And wishing, wishing so hard, he had stayed at home like his daughter had wanted, rather than making this one last trading voyage from their home amongst the fjords to Hjaltland, or Ultima Thule, as the Romans named these islands to the west. Wooden tools and trinkets, he sells; toy dogs and cats and hens and sheep, carved by him during the dark winter months, then sold at great profit in these islands where trees are a rarity, and the only wood either imported or washed up on the storm-tossed beaches from halfway around the world.
Fiddles too, full-sized and child sized, and teeny tiny ones: the real thing, simply mouse sized, that if you could ever find someone with fingers small enough, could be played as fully as an adult one. A great novelty they are in these islands of musicians where pretty much every family has half a dozen fiddle players amongst their number, who along with singers and dancers, gather on winter nights and make merry hell with their tunes and stomping and bodies flying around the place.
Such are his customers. The miniscule fiddles are much loved, and he always carries a few in his pockets as gifts to loyal customers, and to those he hopes will part with their money in exchange for his goods.
And so it is, on this night of tempest and the very devil abroad in the air, as the skiff is thrown from wave to wave, hour upon hour till he has no idea where he is, that his body pitches into the waters. Tossed like flotsam on the breakers rushing at the shore, he is hurled onto a deserted coastline, his boat smashed to matchsticks along with all his goods, other than the small number of tiny fiddles still snug, though drenched, in his breast pockets.
And now here he is, semi-conscious, face down in the sand, with the waves lashing at his feet. There is a moon up there in the scurrying sky, and in between darknesses it emerges pale and livid to show him, as he comes to, just what a mess he is in. Deserted beach, no habitations in sight, no signs of life or…
Up there, high up, at the top of the menacing cliff, shapes, moving rapidly, shapes with arms and legs – rescuers. Local people who will have seen his plight and are coming…
They are coming nowhere; they are dancing. Can it be? It can – they are; flying in a circle as if in crazed celebration of this storm; flying as if exhilarating in this…flying…they aren’t dancing, they’re flying.
He lets out a gasp and, even amidst the roar of the storm, it is heard.
The heads of these inhuman creatures snap around in his direction. And as if their eyes were made of scrying glass, they spy him, his dark shape on the white sand. Very distinctly human-shaped, he is.
A roar goes up that would match the thunder for fierceness, and they launch themselves off the cliff top like giant sea birds, arms spread wide to navigate the drafts that send them lurching up and down and ever closer to him, like malevolent gulls, screeching their delight at having spotted prey.
He is frozen in horror, never having imagined that being shipwrecked would be the least of his worries. With an explosion of adrenaline, he is up and running across the sand to who knows where, anywhere, as long as it’s away from those flying fiends, closing in on him like harpies.
Trolls. That is what they are: beasts from his own lands that in the murky depths of the past migrated across the water and settled on this god-forsaken island. Beasts it is pointless to flee, since there is no escaping them once they have set their fatal sights on you.
But his body does not know this lore, and feet slipping and sliding on sand that allows him one step forward for two steps back, he glances over his shoulder. To see this flock of monsters ever closer, enjoying the hunt, not bringing him down with speed and precision, but playing with him, enjoying his attempts at escape, like cats with any small animal they can get at their mercy.
That is when he realises it is futile. There is nowhere to run that they cannot get to quicker than he can.
Other than…grasses, a forest of them. He dives into them and down on his hands and knees, mercifully hidden from sight. Then his blood chills as he hears a new sound – sniffing.
He ducks down, but they smell him, he can hear them, sniffing like bloodhounds. He stumbles on through the grass and finds himself on sand again, the sea stretching out before him; trapped. Has he come full circle? No – it is a spit of land, and he has simply crossed it and now has nowhere to run, but there – a glimmer amongst the reeds. He runs towards it in the hope of finding habitation, but to his dismay finds only more sand, drifted into high dunes against the ruins of a building. Yet there was light, he saw it, he’s certain. He stumbles on, over tumbled stone walls. His pursuers are in no hurry to bring him down, it seems, and he can hear their cawing and snuffling as they lunge through the reeds, scrabbling for him like it’s a game. More fools they, for these ruins may be his salvation, as there is the light again, impossible to tell how close, like a wink, on and off, beckoning, encouraging his forward momentum so that he wonders if it is a trick.