This story first appeared on 12. April 2021 in Land Beyond the World Magazine.
“Your first search and rescue?” Silfur asked from the driver’s seat.
The snowflakes dancing outside the windshield, illuminated by the bright headlights against the darkness outside, looked like stars flying past a spaceship. They were driving into the unknown, on roads covered in several layers of ice and snow.
“Yeah,” Alana replied. “Just finished training in the capital.”
It was the last week of March, when the first delicate buds of flowers broke through the fresh soil in most places on Earth and sunshine gleamed through soft specks of clouds, awaking nature and humans after months of hibernation.
“Well, things here in the East can get a bit rougher than in the West.”
Iceland was still in the depths of winter, with half a meter of solid snow outside the capital area, and frequent storm and avalanche warnings almost everywhere else.
Alana’s colleagues in the “Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue” referred to this time of year as the “tourist filter”: when the weather took care of reckless hikers and overconfident visitors. She had learned early on that crude jokes like these masked harmless banter to make an otherwise taxing job bearable.
“Probably another idiot who expected spring together with Northern Lights and then got stuck on a hill in a cheap rental Kia,” her boss, Halldor had growled.
He could fill a lunch break with more stories of adventurous rescue missions than Scheherazade but was strangely taciturn today.
“You two take care out there.”
With these sparse words of comfort, he had sent Alana and Silfur into the night, equipped with three sets of winter rescue gear in the biggest jeep available. Alana had to use the provided extra step to make it into the white vehicle.
They had been driving for over three hours, and the weather got worse by the minute. Half an hour ago, they’d left the main road for a small trail up the mountain, their only guides the red and white posts at the side of the road they could more guess at than see under all the drifting snow.
When she had emigrated to Iceland, Alana played tourist for a year and visited everything worth seeing. Every spot was swarmed with other tourists, armed with colour-coded rain jackets and selfie-sticks. She still marvelled at every waterfall, volcano, ice cave and glacier she came across. She had never seen anything like it.
One spot remained her favourite, a waterfall an hour’s drive from the capital: the “golden waterfall” Gullfoss. The endless masses of water took Alana’s breath away the first time she had laid eyes on it.
She had lost herself watching the clear blue water washing over the stones, splashes dancing over the waves like the rain that had poured down all day. While her gaze lingered over the water, mesmerized by the forces that pushed it on and down, day after day, year after year, she saw something else: tiny fairies dancing in the spray, their wings almost invisible in front of the water.
A scream cut through the air. Alana blinked, and the fairy-tale vision vanished.
She hurried to the railing of the platform she was standing on and peered over towards the path below. A young woman, barely older than sixteen, lay on the wet and icy path, her leg bent at an unnatural angle. The girl was sobbing and screaming while a group of people rushed towards her, some already on their phones, others offering their jackets, water, and words of comfort.
Shortly after Alana reached the shivering girl, four rescue workers arrived. With practised motions, they loaded her onto a gurney and lifted her into the helicopter, which was hovering perfectly still into the air, several dozen meters above the roaring waters.
What impressed Alana most that day was not how the girl thought it’s a good idea to walk on solid ice with converse sneakers—nor her pale face when it dawned on her how badly she had broken her leg in the attempt. It was the reassuring faces of the rescue workers and the calm expression on the girl’s face when they took her away. A sense of promise that everything would be alright.
That day, Alana decided she wanted to be one of them.
Silfur stopped the car. It took Alana a few seconds to see the other vehicle through the snow, fifty meters in front of them on the side of the road. Halldor had been wrong; it was not a small Kia, but a medium-sized jeep lodged into a snowdrift, the snow piling up all the way to the windows.
“Guess we found our missing tourist,” Silfur said and turned off the engine.
She and Alana zipped up and grabbed their bulky backpacks full of gear and two flashlights. Silfur had left the floodlight on their vehicle on, bathing the front of the stranded jeep in light.
When Alana stepped outside, tiny ice shards dug into the exposed skin on her cheeks and she wrapped her scarf and hat tighter around her. According to the thermometer in the car, the temperature was minus eight degrees Celsius, but the harsh wind made it feel much colder. Her heavy boots sunk into the snow-covered ground, and she had to lift her legs up like a stork with every step towards the vehicle.
“Maybe they’re still inside?” Alana volunteered when they reached the car.
Silfur walked around the vehicle, shining her flashlight over every corner, while Alana peered through the windows and saw no one inside.
“No sign of an accident,” Silfur murmured.
“Yeah. The inside looks abandoned. Should we try to force the door open?” Alana asked.
At that moment, Alana noticed the footsteps outside the passenger door, leading away from the car. They were almost invisible in the fresh snow, a faint outline of white against white. No signs of struggle were visible in the tracks, either. They simply led off into the darkness and dancing snow outside the radius of the artificial light.
“Seems like our poor tourist is outside on foot in this weather.”
Silfur smacked her lips, then headed back to the rescue jeep and fetched another bag. She wrapped her clothes more tightly around her, then nodded towards Alana.
“You ready for this? Might be a long hike…”
Alana nodded. Without another word, the two women followed the tracks. Alana shone her light over the car one last time, an abandoned metal behemoth. The snow had piled up so high that whoever had driven the car probably abandoned it several hours ago. There was no guessing in what condition they would be whenever their small rescue team found them.
When she looked over the tracks once more, she noticed something strange. The footsteps were larger than her own, much larger. Too large for an average human, even with bulky boots.
Alana followed Silfur ahead of her and soon lost all sense of time as they trudged through the knee-deep snow. Their surroundings lay in pitch black darkness; only the two slim rays of their flashlights illuminated the ground before them. The snow was still falling heavily, disrupting the blackness with dancing white spots. It was magical and frightening at the same time.
As they walked further from the road, nature engulfed the two women completely, until Alana lost her sense of direction. All she could rely on were the tracks in front of her and Silfur’s silhouette, the only sign that she was not alone in the icy wilderness.
Her calves and thighs ached from the straining hike, her cheeks and eyes burned from the wind and icicles hitting her skin. The rescue gear lay heavy on her back, but Alana was grateful for it, as every layer of clothing and every item in the backpack would—and was—saving her life.
Alana stumbled twice, the second time landing face first in a snowdrift. Silfur turned around, asked if she was ok. Alana waved her off before standing up again. Strange, the footprints had not changed, as if their owner never got tired, stumbled, or fell. They had the same pattern as they had in the beginning, like a metronome.
After a while, the snow underneath their feet melted with every step, layer after layer of ice peeling away until the ground underneath was visible. After a few more steps, they stood on the lush green moss that covered the entire island during summer. It seemed to glow. Alana turned around, but the landscape behind her was still covered by a thick layer of white, snowflakes dancing in the surrounding night.
“What in-?” Alana started, but Silfur swirled around and put a finger on her lips.
She opened the bag she had taken from the car and pulled out a handgun. Alana took a step back. Even the police didn’t carry guns in Iceland.
“Don’t worry. Trust me.”
Silfur mouthed the words more than spoke them over the wind and motioned for Alana to continue. Reluctantly, she followed her partner onto the strange snow-free ground. Alana felt a warmth creeping up her legs, as if the earth itself was giving off heat. Not only had the snow under her feet disappeared, but the snowstorm was also absent in this area.
Every now and then she saw dancing lights, like fireflies or glowing bugs, just outside her vision, eluding her when she turned to look at them.
“What is this place?” Alana whispered.
Then she almost bumped into Silfur, who had stopped. She looked past the woman and wasn’t sure if she could trust her eyes.
Before them, surrounded by an unearthly glow, was a large rock in the shape of a human. It took Alana several more glances to realize that the opposite was true: it was a large human who looked like a rock.
She had read about trolls in children’s books and stories of Icelandic sagas, but none of the simple illustrations did the creature sitting before her justice. It was at least twice as large as a human, all its limbs made of dark stone; green and white moss grew here and there, drawing patterns like tattoos on its coarse skin. Its head was almost as big as Alana’s body and looked like a crude portrait carved out of stone. Its eyes reflected light like cat eyes, observing them.
It took her several more seconds to see what the giant figure was cradling in its thick arms, shielded from the storm howling in the distance: a man, dressed in a bright winter jacket with a camera dangling from his neck. Alana feared the worst, but his chest went up and down slowly; the man was still alive.
“You finally came.”
The voice of the troll sounded like marbles grinding over gravel, slow and deliberate, weighing each word as if it were precious.
“Took us a while. The weather is not exactly pleasant outside of your fairy circle,” Silfur replied.
She still had the gun in her hand, finger on the trigger.
“How did you find him?” She asked.
“His car went straight into the snowdrift,” the troll replied. “I heard him call for help, but I didn’t know when you would come. It was so cold—I couldn’t leave him.”
With the utmost care, as if he were handling a new-born, the troll laid the man down on the moss. He twitched on the rough ground, but his eyes were still closed, his breathing flat.
“He is still alive, but not for long,” the rumbling voice said.
Alana rushed forward, slinging her backpack with the first aid kit from her shoulders. Silfur held her back with her free hand, the gun pointed towards the troll. No, not the troll, Alana realized. Silfur’s gaze was fixed on the rocky face, but the barrel pointed towards the human lying on the ground.
“Did he see anything?” Silfur asked, her voice cutting through the air like the ice outside.
“He was unconscious when I reached him, and the entire time after that,” the troll replied after a moment of consideration. “I swear it.”
Silfur waited a few more seconds. Then she snapped the safety back on and put the gun away.
“Alright, let’s help that poor man,” Silfur sighed.
The two women got to work under two glowing eyes made of gems.
Hours later, when the first gentle rays of the morning sun stretched over the horizon, Alana and Silfur sat in the warm rescue jeep on their way back to town. They had provided emergency care for the lost tourist, arranged transportation, and saw him to the nearest hospital. He had suffered frostbite and his lungs were rattling, but he would likely survive. The troll had left them shortly before the ambulance arrived.
Alana had spent the last hours thinking of what to say, and how to say it, but she couldn’t find the right words. The images and happenings of this night still occupied her every thought. They didn’t have much time before civilization would swallow them again, so she asked the first thing that came to mind before it was too late.
“That creature… It’s not the only one of its sorts, is it?”
Silfur shot her a sideways glance.
“No. But you already suspected that.”
Alana nodded silently.
“So… all the stories about elves and fairies and trolls and water horses…”
“They’re all true,” Silfur said. “Well, most of them, anyway.”
They were silent for a few more minutes.
“Why does no one know? Are they dangerous?” Alana asked.
“Not all of them. And none if we do not disturb them. It is mostly tourists who accidentally stumble onto them, but those encounters rarely end in fatalities. We protect humans from them as best we can—and them from humans.”
“What do you mean?”
Silfur turned to look at her, sadness in her eyes.
“People hunt and kill what they don’t understand,” she replied. “But those creatures were here long before us—who would we be if we killed them for that?”
Alana nodded. Once more, she was glad about her decision to join the search and rescue teams—she swore to protect all inhabitants of this desolate island in the North.
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