'Right!' I exclaimed, unable to listen to their incessant chatter about that damned book any longer. I shovelled the last spoonful of meat into my mouth and swallowed hard, 'we've got trolls to hunt.'
Finnegan smiled and nodded. He hadn't touched his meal.
I looked over to my father, 'did you say the infestation was in Hollyfell?'
'Yes. From what they told me, there seems to be a group of around nine; they've taken up residence in the cave systems nearby.'
'Cave systems?' Finnegan groaned, his hatred of small confined spaces (where, I might add, no pretty plants grow) wasn't going to make this task any easier. He turned his eyes to me, silently pleading that I take someone else with me.
I smiled widely and picked up an apple from the bowl on the table, grinning as I gnawed at the skin.
'You're coming with me. End of.' I said through a mouthful of food. He cringed away as bits of apple flew from my mouth and my father rolled his eyes, snatching the offending item away from my fingers.
'I thought I told you to stop eating with your mouth full!' He chided. Finnegan and I snickered as him.
'Father, you mean talking.' I corrected him eventually, feeling a little guilty for laughing at him. My father was foreign, he came to this country and soon met my mother. He used have a daring lifestyle; being a ranger he was always living on the edge. But when he married my mother, that all changed. He retired from his job and decided to train my up in his steed.
'That is what I said.' His brows furrowed in confusion and I reached over to pat his head. Scooting my chair back, I strode over to where my axe sat waiting for me. Once I had wrapped my battered green cloak around my shoulders, I slung the weapon over my back and beckoned by finger.
'Come on, Finnegan. We need to be back by midnight or else your mother will worry.'
He stuck out his bottom lip, 'I do not need my mother to worry about me, I am no longer a child.'
'Yes, yes, come now. I'll see you later, Father - do not expect me to split the pay with you!'
It was a three hour trek to Hollyfell and we spent the majority of it in silence, sometimes Finnegan would stop and admire the foliage of the forest we were walking through.
By the time we had reached our destination, Finnegan’s pockets were overflowing with wild herbs and leaves. He stank of the wilderness, and said in response once I had told him this, ‘if I don’t smell of a human, maybe the trolls won’t go for me straight away!’
I rolled my eyes and made my way to the centre of the town, where a small group of men were waiting for our arrival. They caught sight of us and walked over briskly.
‘Hello, you must be the ranger?’ The tallest of group said to Finnegan.
I narrowed my eyes and stepped forward, ‘I’m afraid he’s about as useful as a new born when it comes to mountain trolls. I am Fauna, the ranger.’
His bright blue eyes widened in surprise and he threw me an unconvinced look, ‘oh. I see. Well I hope you can understand that we will only discuss your payment once the cave has been purged.’
I nodded and cracked my knuckles, ‘point me in the right direction and I’ll be on my way.’ Finnegan trudged after me glumly, and I looked at him, ‘you can stay here and wait if you want to. I’m fine going by myself,’ I said quietly, putting my hand on his shoulder.
He met my worried gaze guiltily and I saw the conflict in his eyes. Slowly, he walked ahead of me, ‘couldn’t leave you all alone with a group of big, scary trolls now could I? You’re a girl!’
He dodged my half-hearted punch and we began walking away from the small town of Hollyfell. I could feel the scrutinizing stares of the group behind us; they were convinced we wouldn’t make it.
‘If they think I can’t handle couple of mountain trolls…’ I muttered under my breath, ‘they should just go and slaughter them on their own.’
Finnegan bumped his shoulder into my and reached around to pluck his bow from his back, ‘they’re too scared to fight. They probably have wives and kids.’
I hummed in agreement and helped him unbuckle the quiver from his back.
I knew we were drawing closer to the trolls’ den because a putrid stench hung thick in the air, so heavy you could taste it in your mouth. As we ventured deeper in the forest which surrounded Hollyfell, the light around us was growing sparse as the trees grew thicker and taller. Soon enough, it felt like we were walking in the dead of night.
‘Creepy,’ I grinned wickedly, but my childish joy soon diminished as the number of animal carcases we passed become more and more frequent. I heard Finnegan’s sharp intake of breath, when I looked to him, his face was white-pale and his lips slightly parted.
‘Fauna…’ He said shakily, pointing towards a pale lump of flesh which was sitting on a large boulder, ‘is that… an arm?’
‘Oh, by the Gods!’ I breathed, wracking my brains for an explanation as to why it was here, ‘I knew something was odd when they said the mountain trolls were coming into the village and causing major disruptions… It didn’t even think on it!’
‘Fauna, what is it?’ Finnegan whimpered, his usual boyish bravery was failing to make an appearance.
‘We need to go back now, Finnegan! Now, hurry.’ I grabbed his wrist and dragged him back the way we came.
Finnegan stopped, yanking me back to face him, ‘what’s going on, Fauna?’
‘It’s not mountain trolls.’ I finally managed, ‘they don’t eat humans, and they don’t even eat livestock that often!’ I trembled a little, my courage wasn’t rising up to the challenge of the unknown beast which faced us, ‘mountain trolls are only about nine foot tall, Finnegan! Look at these tracks, they are far too big. We need to go back, we’ll come back again tomorrow with Father!’
Finnegan nodded mutely and gripped my hand tightly in his sweaty palm, we made our way back at a slow jog. Panic encroached my heart.
No matter how far we went, the sun didn’t make an appearance.