EATW Chapter 2 – A Little Dream of Mine, a Little Nightmare of Yours

EATW Chapter 2 – A Little Dream of Mine, a Little Nightmare of Yours

Esko tried to convince himself he didn’t care. He didn’t care about the implications of what might happen if he got his revenge. He didn’t care about who might die if he let the Trolls through the city walls. He didn’t miss his mother and father. He didn’t want to see them again. He was doing just fine living in the woods as a societal outcast with a water monster who was so caught up in his pride that he might as well be drowning. He was fine. This was fine.

 Sunlight crept into his little den by the lake, now shared with Finner, who still couldn’t touch water for fear of further damaging his gills. They slept curled up together like animals every day, and Esko would always use Finner’s hair to shield his own eyes from the light (much to Finner’s distaste). Adjusting to a nocturnal lifestyle was hard, and Esko genuinely envied Finner’s ability to completely pass out whenever the sun was in the sky. It led to long days awake on his own, taking walks until dusk came and Finner was finally available to talk or play him a melody or two. Today was one of those days.

 Esko lifted his body up over another log, arms trembling with the effort. He was built like a twig, and definitely not meant for anything that involved upper body strength like climbing around did. On nights when he walked with Finner, he usually ended up getting carried or boosted in one way or another. Embarrassing, but decidedly necessary. Internally, he cursed himself for having never worked out before and prayed that the strain against his chest bindings didn’t harm him in any way. He’d had to hype himself up to take them off every evening since Finner joined him, and he couldn’t imagine sustaining some kind of injury that might stop him from wearing them for an extended period of time. Was this how Finner felt about not being able to go back into the water?

 A sharp “Oi!” and the impact of the tip of his toes on a tiny body stopped both him and his train of thought in their tracks. Before him stood the run-down remnants of a house, overgrown and clearly reclaimed by the wild by now. Something with a pointy red cap peered out at him from under one of the rotten beams on the forest floor, rubbing its cheek where he’d accidentally kicked it. It glowered at him from behind a curtain of dark bangs that covered its eyes.

“Sorry,” Esko quickly replied, drawing his feet back into himself so as not to get bitten by the indignant little thing, which displayed sharp teeth in its anger. “I didn’t see you there.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it. ‘Ohh, Gnomes are so short, Gnomes are so hard to see!’ Great job, buddy. Watch where you put your feet next time.”

“Hey, don’t put words in my mouth,” Esko replied firmly, narrowing his eyes. “It’s not that you’re a gnome, it’s that I wasn’t looking where I was putting my feet.”

The creature in the underbrush snorted, crossing its arms. “Oh, so you’re always a big clumsy fool? Good to know, good to know.”

“Hey, I really didn’t mean to kick you. Honest.”

The little creature watched him put his hands up in a gesture of surrender, some of its unruly brown hair falling in its face as it did. “Hey… you’re a human! Man, I’ve never seen one before! You guys are big! What’re you doin’ out here?”

Esko’s heart twisted like a towel being wrung out for a second, and he looked away. He really didn’t want to answer, it felt like his tongue was being coated in lead, but he knew this indignant little thing wouldn’t shut up if he didn’t answer. It already seemed like the type to badger in the few seconds he’d known it. “I… got sacrificed to the things in the wild.”

“Ohh. Sorry to hear that. It must suck.”

“… It’s okay,” the words tumbled out rather stiffly, heavy and weighted with the effort not to cry. “I’ll live.”

“Well, I’d sure hope so. You and I, alone in the world, right? My name’s Astrid, by the way.”

“Esko,” he replied, then paused, choosing his next words carefully. “What… happened to make you alone?”

“Oh, I left on my own. My folks have a few too many kids, got too crowded for me. Also, apparently pranking the head of your village is ‘too much’ and ‘unacceptable in this society.’”

What kind of prank? Do I even want to know?”

Astrid looked up at him from behind her messy bangs that covered her eyes and made her look like one of those mop-shaped showdogs. “Nnnno?” she spoke, hesitantly drawing out the letters as though still debating whether or not to inform him of her crimes. She reminded him of a guilty toddler, probably because of her size.

“Should I assume it was equivalent to a war crime so I can be pleasantly surprised if you ever decide to tell me?” Esko asked dryly, not really meaning any of his comment.

“Sure, if it works for you,” Astrid hopped up onto the log next to him like a cat with surprising ease. He noticed she had a knife strapped to her back. Not gnome-sized, though. No, it was just like what you’d find in a human kitchen, big enough to look like a shortsword compared to her and sitting in a makeshift sheath. The sunlight hit her, and she hissed like an angry kitten. “Goddamnit, that’s bright…”

Esko may not have been able to do much to shield Finner from the light if he were here, but Astrid was small enough that he could easily scoop her up and use his hair as a curtain for her. He definitely owed it to her for kicking her earlier. “Here, I’ll let you hide in my hair. Not sure how well it’ll work, but it’ll probably be better than facing sunlight directly.”

“Thanks,” she scrambled around on his shoulder like an oversized rat, smiling with sharp teeth. “Would it be too much to ask to be carried back to wherever you’re camping? If you have a camp. I’m all alone and everyone knows a gnome’s strength is in numbers.”

“You know what? Sure. If you can pull your weight around camp, I’ll even let you stay. Can you fight with that thing?”

Astrid nodded eagerly as he gestured to her knife, grinning like a little maniac. “Just you wait! You should’ve seen how I took out a fox’s eye with it the other night!”

“Finner?” Esko called into the darkened den, Astrid repeatedly hitting him in the back of the neck with her swishing tail. “Finner, I’m back.”

The sleeping shape in the hollow of ferns and rocks slowly heaved itself up, yellow eyes blinking at him out of the darkness like fog lights. Finner groaned as though the whole world was crushing him, but was at least polite enough to shake off some of his grogginess to actually speak. “Mhh… Esko…? What’re you doing? Still light outside…”

“I brought a new friend. Her name’s Astrid.”

“Mmm… no new people… I’m sleeping…”

“Too bad, you don’t get a choice. She’s already touching your violin, by the way.”

Finner shot up with a growl, tail lashing. Astrid did, indeed, have her hands on his fiddle, lightly poking it and running a gentle hand over the wood. Hastily, he snatched it away. “Don’t touch that. I need it to hunt,” he snarled through bared teeth. Esko lightly pushed him against the wall of the den, making him grunt.

“Hey, no fighting. I need you two idiots alive if I’m gonna make it out here, especially if we’re going to breach the walls,” Esko admonished, nose crinkling slightly.

“The walls are not a today problem, Esko…” Finner mumbled, flopping back on the little bed they’d made of moss and whatever else they could find. He tugged Esko down on top of him, firmly nestling the smaller man into the bedding next to him. “Back to sleep, come on…”

“I can’t! I’m not nocturnal like you,” Esko tried to squirm away. He didn’t mind being cuddled up next to Finner, they did it all the time to conserve heat or just to stay comfortable, but he did mind it happening in the middle of the day when he was awake and not the least bit tired.

“You are the most insufferable man I have ever met!”

“Same goes for you, dolt!”

“You fight like an old married couple,” Astrid said, making herself comfortable in the corner so she didn’t get trampled by her larger roommates while they quarreled. “It’s entertaining, but would you mind shutting up so I can sleep?”

Finner, who had Esko’s head pinned in the moss and was leaning away from his adversary so as not to get his face clawed, made a sound like an irritated horse. “I’m trying, but this little jerk just won’t listen!”

“I’m not nocturnal! You can’t just make me sleep!”


Esko flinched at Finner’s roar, going completely still as the Troll shut his mouth and blinked in shock. Slowly, the lake creature pulled off of him, shaking lightly. “Esko… Esko, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean-”

“It’s fine,” the smaller man squirmed out from under his grip, largely disinterested in getting any further into the mess at hand. “You’re tired and injured and hungry and the world’s been upside down lately, I get it.”

“It’s still not an excuse.”

Esko blinked. Finner, in the few days Esko had known him, almost never said sorry or admitted he was wrong. He was too proud for that. The last time he’d apologized at all was on the day they’d met, and even then Esko was certain it was only because he was tending to  Finner’s gills and he felt he owed him something. It felt so… alien to hear Finner refuse to let an offense he’d done slide like this, and yet in the low light of the den, those firefly eyes were full of genuine remorse. Talons hesitantly reached for him, stopping just short of touching his leg.

“I shouldn’t have snapped like that. It wasn’t right and it wasn’t civilized of me at all. I am a man, not a monster. Let me make it up to you.”

In the background, Esko could hear the cautious scrambling of Astrid, approaching the pair over the moss to climb on top of Esko and check him for injuries. She wasn’t very good at it and really only ended up prodding him uncomfortably in different places, but he supposed he could appreciate the effort.

“You really want to? This isn’t a trick?”

“Since meeting you, I’ve had no reason to trick you.”

Esko paused for several long, silent heartbeats, thinking. Was there anything he wanted? Anything Finner could give him that he would take? He didn’t think so at first, but looking at those lithe claws, holding skills honed by practicing the same art over and over again, he felt the spark of an idea. “Is there any chance that you can play something that doesn’t make something try to drown?”

“Well, first off, it doesn’t ‘make something try to drown,’ it hypnotizes things into coming closer to me. Usually I’m in the water when I do it, which is where the drowning comes in,” Finner explained in a somewhat offended tone, as though he thought Esko was stupid. It took a moment for realization to come to him, lighting his face like the early rays of dawn. “But… yeah, I can. I can play a lot of things.”

“Are you asking him to play you to sleep? Can I join?” Astrid piped up from Esko’s lap, tail dancing across the moss in anticipation. She tried to clamber up to Esko’s shoulder, only to fall off and be caught by Finner, who gently set her aside as if she was nothing more than a stuffed toy.

“If you want me to play you to sleep, I can. Just keep in mind it’ll make you want to crawl all over me, got it?”

Esko paused. Finner was, as far as he knew, a big fan of personal space and not much else. The idea of invading Finner’s space because of a song, all because he was trying to make up for yelling at him, didn’t sit entirely well with him. “You’re sure you’re willing to? You don’t like being touched.”

“It’s fine. If it gets you to shut up, then I don’t care.”

The first notes filled the air with bulrushes and lilypads, slowly submerging the den into the dark waters of sleep. The last thing Esko felt before going unconscious was Finner’s scaly, heavy tail landing gently on his waist, a weighted blanket that whispered; Shh… Get some sleep…

Esko awoke at dusk with his head on Finner’s chest. The violin that had played that afternoon’s melody sat off to the side, the sleeping Finner instead having opted to tangle his fingers gently in Esko’s hair for reasons unknown. Astrid was curled up between the two like a kitten, her head resting on Esko’s leg and lightly drooling on his knee. Oddly peaceful for a situation with a human and two Trolls. Esko knew any other human probably would’ve been torn limb from limb by now. For the first time since Ellen passed, he almost felt… lucky.

Finner twitched lightly under him, one long, pointy ear flicking as his eyes slowly fluttered open. His clawed hand slid down from the blonde’s head to rest on his back, almost caringly. With the other hand, he pushed perpetually soggy-looking black hair from his face.

“Good evening, fish-boy,” Esko said, emerging fully from the calming muck of sleep.

“Good evening, human.”

Esko sighed, leaning more into Finner, mostly just to make him uncomfortable. “‘Human?’ Is that all you can come up with?”

“Well, all you can come up with is ‘fish-boy,’ so I think the bar is pretty low here. Would ‘dinner’ be better? ‘Dessert?’ ‘Scaleless freak?’ ‘Sun-bleached branch?’”

“‘Sun-bleached branch?’ Where’d that come from?”

“You’re pale and skinny. That said, that’s the part you’re hung up on? Not ‘dessert?’”

“You and I both know if you eat me the whole plan goes to waste.”

“Esko, there’s barely a plan at all.

“Yeah, but I could still be a helpful resource once we come up with one. I know a lot about humans, considering I am one.”

“Esko,” surprisingly gentle claws gripped his chin and turned his head so he was looking Finner in the eyes. “Stop. You don’t need to bargain for your life with me. I’m not going to eat you.”

Esko paused, dumbstruck. Only now did he notice the fear that had begun to claw at his heart and the anxious edge to his voice, terror at the idea of teeth rending apart his flesh. Finner’s teeth. How had the Troll been able to tell? Was he that obvious, or did Finner already know him too well? Either way, it wasn’t a mystery to solve right now. God forbid he showed any emotions around the other man. He had no interest in being soft or open with anyone, not after he lost Ellen.

There’s no point in it. They’ll fall off or die, too. A waste of energy and time.

Yet still… Finner’s hand in his hair… why did it feel good? Why did it feel… nice? Why did he feel cozy and… safe? Quickly, he found and spat out the words required to change the subject. “Do your victims usually have dreams about lakes when you play?”

Finner grunted slightly, looking off into the distance in genuine thought for a moment. “I… don’t know. They’ve almost always been animals, and they never live to tell the tale anyways, so I’ve never really even thought about it,” he paused, choosing his next words carefully. “Did you… have a dream?”

“Yeah,” Esko found himself replying bluntly. “Endless trees and water, with fireflies and lilypads and bullrushes taller than my head.”

“Hm. I used to dream about that too, sometimes, back when I was little and my father would play me to sleep.”

“So you’re not impervious to it, either?”

“No matter who you are, it’s always easy to get lost in the notes of a song, even if it’s coming from your fingertips alone.”

In the calm silence, Esko began to realize just how warm Finner was, despite his fishlike nature. His personality was still blunt and as chilly as the lake waters he was from, but lying on top of him felt a little like being on top of a heated water bottle, like the ones Esko had to use every time he got his period. He was not looking forward to when his time of the month came around out here, even more so than he did back home.

Maybe you should let Finner know? Ellen’s voice suggested gently in his head, but he shook her off. No, it was none of Finner’s business, and it shouldn’t have to be Finner’s problem. Also, there was no time to tell him anything, because suddenly the Troll was on his hooves, dumping Esko and a now groggy and disgruntled Astrid from his lap.

“Uuugh… do you mind?” Astrid groaned, sitting up and brushing hair from her face to reveal sleepy green eyes. Finner’s tail lashed, and he held up a hand to signal silence.

“Shhh… do you hear that? Something moving around outside?”

Esko didn’t hear anything, but Astrid immediately perked up after a few heartbeats of listening. “Yeah. Sounds big.”

She darted over to the entrance of the hollow, crouching low in the ferns and peering outside like a frightened rabbit from its warren. Over the wind gently rustling the reeds and trees, Esko was beginning to hear it, too. Heavy paws moving across the ground in a slow, relaxed gait, nose whuffling softly in the silence, seeking… something.

“Bear,” Astrid said in the same heartbeat that Esko thought it. He wasn’t sure how he knew, he’d never actually encountered a bear before aside from on the other side of glass in a zoo, but he knew. He knew.

Finner hunkered down as far away from the entrance as possible, teeth bared. “Okay, ease away from the entrance… I don’t think it’s small enough to fit in here but I’d rather not risk it.”

“Does it smell us?” Esko whispered, searching hurriedly for something he could defend himself with. A rock, perhaps? Maybe a stick?

“Don’t know, don’t want to know,” Finner replied, pressing himself against the wall as though he wanted to become one with it. “I think we should just wait it out in here and pray it leaves soon.”

“Like cowards?” Astrid asked, turning her head to glance at them over her shoulder. “Come on, boys, you can do better than that.”

“Astrid, we can’t just fight a bear,” Esko’s voice was hushed, his tone clipped. He went to reach for her, but she bared her teeth at him like a frightened puppy and backed just out of reach. He watched with wide eyes as she pulled her knife from its sheath and faced the entrance.

“You two stay in here, I’ll take care of it.”

Esko wanted to yell ‘Astrid, NO!’ but his mouth went as dry as a desert in mere seconds. On her tiny legs, Astrid dashed from the safety of the hollow and into the perilous wild beyond.

“She’s going to die,” Finner said with wide eyes, pupils fixated on the entrance. “That girl is going to die.”

The air erupted into a cacophony of war cries and roars, words carried away on the breeze. Claws hit the earth again and again, but not once did Astrid scream or let out any indicator of pain in the slightest. Brave as the creature she was battling, she faced it off and roared right back at every sound it made. Rumbling bellows turned to strained cries, then to whimpers and finally silence. As quickly as it had begun, it was over, the scent of blood hanging in the air as painful silence returned to blanket the area. Anticipation clamped down around Esko’s lungs, refusing to let him breathe.

Footsteps hurried through the foliage outside, a small, bloodied shape slipping back into the den with sharp teeth bared in a grin. There was Astrid, covered in red and yet wholly unharmed, beaming with more pride than every instance Finner had ever displayed combined. Her knife thudded softly to the floor, hands shaking as a laugh began to bubble up from her chest.

“What happened?” Esko found himself exclaiming like a worried parent, reaching concerned hands towards her figure. Astrid only waved him away and continued to laugh.

“I took care of it, duh!”

“You killed a bear?!

“It’s not that hard if you manage to go for the throat.”

You could’ve heard a pin drop by the time Finner whispered “I believe I have grossly underestimated you.”

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