Back in the days when the winds blew higher and the rivers flowed faster, there was a little tribe of gnomes who came down from their mountains hoping to build a new life in the valley below.
The Northern Lands were no kinder to living creatures back then than they are now – the summers were just as short and the winters were just as long and fierce. Little gnomes, used to the comfort of their ancient mountain halls, struggled for survival out in the open. After much suffering, they had to seek shelter in the houses of trolls and witches and the men of old, who had just started building their first villages in the North.
Kind and hard-working were the valley gnomes. They cared so much for their new homes that even the very wood and stone of a house would return their love, keeping cellars extra icy on hot summer days or squeezing the logs tight together against the winter chill. The forest folk called them nisse, which is the word for “little helper” in Trollish.
Many long years passed. As more and more men moved to the North, less and less space was left for others. The magic folk had to hide deep in their forests and swamps, where no man could hope to survive. And the little nisse abandoned the busy farms and noisy villages to rejoin their gnomish tribes back in the mountains. Eventually only one house gnome remained in all of the Northern Lands. It was the nisse of the Stone Cabin where the grumpy Old Troll had dwelled since the beginning of time.
It was one of those calm summer evenings when the forest air smells so sweet and every living creature is at peace with itself and the world. The sun was hovering just above the icy peaks of the blue mountains far to the West. The fir trees surrounding a glade at the edge of the Leech Swamp looked hazy in the soft fading light.
“Your move,” said Olle, the last nisse of the Dark Forest. He and his opponent were both sitting on top of a broad ancient table made of everlasting larch. The table had been built many centuries ago by the forest folk of old who had used it for meetings and to trade with swamp creatures. It was called the “Summer Table” because during the winter it was buried under two feet of snow, like everything else in this frigid land. The larch had once been thick with resin and as the long years had turned the wood to stone, dark-yellow stripes of amber had shone through its surface.
“Give me a moment, will you?” said a tiny, plump lady in a cranky voice. It was Alina, a Sedge Fairy from the Swamp. A fierce little thing she was, with bad manners and inconceivably bushy hair that gave her head the look of a bog tussock.
“Always with your tricks, you old weasel you!” Alina looked at the board and squirmed angrily.
They were playing Shooki-Tooki, an ancient gnomish game. It required keen intelligence and concentration, neither of which she had. Her manners were always atrocious, but because she was losing the game, she was even more unpleasant than usual. Olle smiled underneath the shaggy gray beard that covered most of his face. Much like many valley gnomes, he had a very gentle character but still adored passion in others.
The table was surrounded by humble forest flowers, small yet beautiful. They produced a fine, head-spinning aroma that none of their house-groomed sisters could match. Pink puffy clovers, deep violet bunches of sage and lungwort and, of course, fire-orange globe flowers, the favorite flower of northern trolls.
Olle breathed in that floral sweetness and held his breath, trying to hold onto the smell for the long winter ahead. He would probably pick and dry some of those flowers and hide them in his nook behind the fireplace until the following spring.
The fairy was still thinking.
“The sooner you give up, the sooner we can go to the Cabin for tea and honeycombs.”
“Don't try to distract me!” Alina replied, although the thought of honeycombs clearly made her mouth water. “I know –”
She never finished the sentence. Olle turned around and saw a little girl suddenly emerge from the woods. Her thick blonde hair was full of forest debris, leaves and cobwebs; the sky-blue dress she wore was stained with mud and clay. She was clutching the handle of a woven wicker basket.
“Are you seeing this?” asked Alina in an astonished whisper.
“I’m not sure...” said the nisse and - “Oww!” - yanked a whisker from his chin to see if he was dreaming.
Oblivious to their presence, the girl stopped at the edge of the forest and gazed at the vast swamp lying in front of her. She let out a piteous moan and dropped her basket to the ground. It tipped over, scattering tiny red cherries all around.
Before Olle and the fairy had a chance to even move, her strength seemed to leave her. Her knees buckled and she disappeared into a sea of grass and flowers.
When he had seen a pack of bog fairies zipping by on his way to the Stone Cabin, the Old Troll had sensed that something was amiss. Now, seeing the door left wide open only increased his suspicion.
“That must be Alina again, that little piece of trouble! What's she done this time?” he mumbled, hobbling hastily to the house. “Didn't I tell Olle to stop feeding her my honeycombs? Not only is she fat enough already, but what's worse, she keeps coming back for more!”
He left his staff at the door and went inside.
His sharp trollish eyes adjusted to the gloom of the house in a heartbeat.
There was a squat dining table to his right and a spacious hearth to his left. In the far corner of the room he spotted Olle and the fairy sitting on the edge of his bed, whispering to one another. They stopped talking abruptly at the sight of him.
“Troll…” started Olle.
“What you got here?” grunted the Old Troll impatiently, shoving them aside.
“Troll…” said Olle again.
There was a child in his bed. A village girl.
At first he couldn’t believe his eyes. Not knowing what to think, he loomed over the girl, looking closely at her face, and sniffed. The child bore the smell of farm animals, clay and something else...
Things were getting odder by the second.
“That's a rare smell to come across in our neck of the woods,” murmured the Old Troll and at the sound of his voice, the girl opened her eyes.
The shriek that in the next moment shook the whole house almost rendered him deaf.
The Old Troll recoiled and slammed his back into the pantry rack which showered him with pots and pans and jars of all shapes and sizes.
While he thrashed about helplessly, buried under a pile of kitchen paraphernalia, the screaming girl zigzagged around the house like a little tornado.
“Stop her!” yelled the Old Troll, but it was too late.
The girl had found the door and the last thing he saw of her was a pair of bare feet flashing quickly as she bolted through the open space, only to vanish into the woods a few seconds later.
Two hours later, with order in the house nearly restored, Olle and the Old Troll were still working on a thin sheet of clear mica. Unlike men, trolls don’t make glass from sand; they use thin pieces of transparent mineral instead.
The Old Troll pressed an iron nail against the yellowish surface, trying to draw a straight line.
“Hold it tight! It's moving!”
On her way out, the girl had broken a window which they had to replace. The nisse put all his weight on the sheet, but he was far too light and the line came out squiggly.
“Can I help?” asked Alina from the corner.
“No!” they answered in unison. It was hard enough to get anything done without the clumsy fairy getting in the way and dropping things.
By the time the work was complete, it was almost dark outside. The Old Troll lit an oil lamp and only then did he remember the cherries that Olle and Alina had returned to the wicker basket. He grunted happily and plunged his bony claw into the fruit.
“Hey, those aren’t yours!” said Alina. “Those are the girl's.”
“Oh, don't worry,” said the Old Troll, tossing a cherry in his mouth. “She won't be needing them.”
“How do you know?”
“Oh, I know.” The Old Troll spat out a cherry pit and produced a sinister grin. “Trust me.”
Olle shuffled over to the table and looked into the troll’s face, deeply concerned.
“Why? She's not going to get lost in the woods, is she?”
The Old Troll chuckled. The forest folk rarely had to deal with the villagers and they couldn't imagine how anyone could get lost in the woods.
“I wouldn't worry about that.” He grabbed another fistful of the delicious fruit. “The wolves will get her long before that. Or the goblins. Or the Bog Witch.”
Enjoying the effect of this statement, the Old Troll sat comfortably in his rocking chair and held the basket in his lap.
“Yes, the witch finds her first, I wager. I've heard she has an old recipe for stew that calls for little children, rosemary and wild leeks, and... Ouch!” – a honeycomb slapped him right in the eye.
“You heartless beast!” shouted Alina, her round face burning red with anger. “That poor little girl!”
Usually, her physique didn't allow her to fly as easily as other fairies, but now she managed to get a whole yard off the floor, her tiny dragonfly wings chirring.
The Old Troll's face hardened. Chunks of half-eaten honeycomb slid down his cheek and fell on his leg with a soggy plop.
It was too much to take for one day.
“Get out, you blasted bug!” he bellowed, shooing the fairy away. Then he turned on Olle.
“Why would you help a villager in the first place? What were you thinking?!”
“We couldn't leave her at the swamp, it's not a safe place for little girls...” started Olle.
“Perfect! That’s exactly why you should have left her there!” roared the Old Troll, advancing toward them. ”If I thought there was even the slightest chance she would make it back to the village, I would feed you both to the leeches! Bad fairy! Bad nisse! Bad!”
The shouting took Olle aback. He didn't say anything, just shook his head in reproach and went to the back of the house to hide in his little nook, looking very upset.
Despite his difficult character, the Old Troll rarely managed to genuinely upset his little nisse, but he could remember distinctly every time it had happened. Because at times like those, the Stone Cabin would turn into the most unwelcoming place – drafts would come out of nowhere, the ceilings dripped water (even with no rain outside) and the fire in the stove would not kindle.
When the Old Troll had finally calmed down, he tried to mumble some apologies to the nisse, but he heard no response. So he just sat in his chair, quietly nursing his irritation. At some point he looked up and it seemed to him as if the ceiling was growing musty right before his eyes. Shortly after that, a gust of cold air washed over his bare feet, sending a chill up his back. A moment later, the lamp went out.
“Oh, come on!” wailed the Old Troll into the darkness. “What would you have me do? Go after her?!”
It was easy enough to trace the girl's steps, even in the frail moonlight. A villager, especially one who runs in panic, always leaves a trail of trampled grass and broken twigs. And if that weren’t enough, there was the fading scent of cherries marking the way.
It seemed as if at first the girl had headed in the right direction, but then she had lost her way and begun
drifting northward, which would eventually take her to the soggy shores of the Leech Swamp. That place was full of muddy pits and water traps.
“Maybe I was wrong after all,” muttered the Old Troll, jumping over a puddle. “The witch won't get to her. She'll most likely drown long before that.”
Thinking about the welcome he'd receive if he came back without the girl, he sped up.
By the time the trail had led him to the swamp, the moon was hiding in the clouds and even his sharp trollish eyes couldn't make out a safe path through the darkness. He had to first poke around with his staff each time he took a step.
Just when the idea of disappointing his little nisse was starting to seem more palatable, he heard a quiet sobbing coming from a scattering of steep rocks just ahead of him. The pale moon finally glanced down from a gap between the clouds, and there she was – a little thing on top of a giant boulder overgrown with moss and stunted bog brush. She was hugging her knees and crying.
“Comfortable, are we?” called the Old Troll and chuckled as she jumped like a frightened cat.
“Are you ...”
“A troll?” he interrupted. “Yes, that's very observant of you. Now get down and we can be on our way.”
He wasn't surprised at all when instead of coming down, she tried to back away from him.
“Where are you taking me?”
“To my house, which you nearly destroyed today.”
He snapped, “So I can chop you into pieces and make a stew out of you!”
Then he saw her eyes glistening and, with a great effort, managed to soften his tone.
“I'm tired and it's very late. If you come down right now, we can be safe out of this swamp before midnight.”
“Why? What happens at midnight?”
A large owl silently alighted on a twisted birch tree not far from them.
“You don't want to know,” said the Old Troll, eying the owl suspiciously. “But if you stay here, I promise you will find out.”
Seeing that she still wasn’t moving, he turned away and announced in the most dramatic voice he could muster, “All right then. At least I can rest assured you'll never tell anyone where to find the Old Troll's Cabin.”
As he walked slowly back towards the forest, he heard the soft rustle that one makes when slipping down from a large mossy rock.
For the first time in a very long time, the Old Troll woke up in a good mood.
Instead of his usual groaning and complaining about his sore old bones, he sat straight up in bed and stretched. It took him a moment to realize that it was a pleasant smell that had woken him up. The delicious, tempting smell of fresh-baked pastries. It was sweet and crisp and it tickled his nostrils invitingly.
The scene that appeared before his eyes as he drew aside his sleeping curtain was beyond idyllic. In the sparkling morning sunlight, the girl, now washed and brushed, was rolling a mass of dough on the big kitchen table. Alina, who seemed not to have left since the night before, was rubbing pitted cherries through a wood-framed sifter. And his nisse was standing on a stool next to the small iron stove that stood in the middle of the hearth, holding a wooden turner.
Sneaking up behind the gnome, the Old Troll saw a row of crescent doughy cushions, sizzling and spitting sunflower oil on a big cast-iron pan. He made a loud slurping noise, causing every head in the room to turn toward him.
“What is this?” asked the Old Troll before anyone even had a chance to wish him good morning. He tried to pick up one of the pastries, but it was too hot.
“Troll!” said Olle, beaming through the tangles of his beard. “Mary is making cherry turnovers!”
“Is she now?”
The Old Troll sucked on his burned finger and sat at the far end of the table. As he was pouring himself a cup of thyme tea from a large charred kettle, he noticed the girl coming over. She still kept her distance from him, but now she seemed more curious than scared. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her wiping her hands on an improvised apron made from an old kitchen towel.
“I wanted to thank you, Sir” – the Old Troll grunted at her ‘Sir’ – “and I'm sorry for... yesterday. My name is Mary.”
He kept sipping his tea, reluctant to reply, so she went on, “Would you like a cherry turnover, Mister Troll? I made them for you.”
The Old Troll looked at the little girl with a smirk and sniffed the air again.
“Village girl,” he said, “are you planning on breaking any more of my windows today? Do let me know first, as I'll have to make some arrangements to get more panes from my kinsmen in the mountains. It takes time, you know.”
He waited for her cheeks to properly redden, then he allowed himself a smile.
”All right, apology accepted. Now bring on the goodies!”
Ten turnovers and three cups of tea later, he was lounging breathless, sprawled over his rocking chair in a wood shed next to the house. He was so full, he couldn't even rock with his whole body... he just pushed against a stack of chopped wood with one foot.
The high midday sun was scorching the grass on the glade in front of the house, but it was pleasantly chilly in the shade. Just the right conditions. The Old Troll sighed happily and closed his eyes.
Olle found him there just as he was starting to doze off and managed to ruin everything within the space of a second.
“I'm glad you enjoyed her cooking, Troll. I also wish you'd left some for the rest of us.”
The Old Troll opened one eye and glared at him in disapproval.
“Is that all you came to say? I'm a little busy here.”
The nisse pulled a chopping block close to the chair and climbed on top of it.
“So when are you taking her back?”
The Old Troll had to open his second eye to give the little creature a full-on hateful glare, but it didn't help.
“You are taking her back?” Olle asked insistently. “Troll?”
“You know I can't.”
“So what's your plan then? You can't keep her here forever.”
The Old Troll shifted uncomfortably.
“I don't know yet. But she can't go back to the village, that much is certain.”
“So you'll hold an innocent child prisoner at your house? And what happens if the others find out?”
“It might be too late,” said the Old Troll, getting up from his chair. Olle stood up next to him and they watched as two hooded figures emerged from the trees and headed toward the house.
The tall figure was none other than the Bog Witch herself. It was hard to tell if she was wearing a tunic or some sort of a dress, but there were layers of dirty ragged clothes, covered with little patches of pale bog moss growing in various places.
The second figure was an old nix named Benedict, a sickening creature three feet of height, glistening all over with green slime like a giant eel. If the Old Troll recalled correctly, Benedict was the head of the bog creatures' council that attended to matters of the bog community. In order to create an air of authority, he wore a jacket that he had probably taken off some unfortunate hunter, though he wore it inside out and its leather was dripping muddy water with every step.
When the peculiar couple had finally reached the door of the Cabin, the Old Troll had no choice but to acknowledge their presence and wave them over to the shed.
“Aw. That can't be good,” he heard Olle whispering behind his back. But when the Old Troll turned around, he saw only a big rock where his nisse had been standing just a moment before.
“Gnomish tricks,” muttered the Old Troll, sitting back down in his chair.
He greeted the Bog Witch with a nod.
“What a pleasant surprise. A cup of tea, perhaps?”
“Thank you, my dear, but it's too hot for tea today!” said the Bog Witch, fanning herself with a hand.
“Some water would be nice,” croaked the nix, who was clearly suffering in the heat.
The Old Troll didn’t even glance in his direction.
“Please take a seat then,” he offered.
All three could plainly see that there was no seat anywhere around and he hoped his guests would take the hint, but they didn't. The nix just kept standing there while the Bog Witch said, “Sure!” and sat right on the rock, which gave out a short squeak.
“So we thought we'd stop by and see how our old friend is doing,” said the witch, lowering her hood.
As usual, the Old Troll couldn't take his eyes off her head, appalled and amazed at the same time.
Among tangles of greasy hair, he could see some yellow leaves and a little death cap mushroom growing on a thin stem just above her left ear.
“You look especially... mossy today,” he finally managed to utter, “and that pretty mushroom... it gives you such an extravagant appearance!”
“Oh Troll, you old snake, you always had a way with the ladies!” She gave him a playful smile, revealing her few remaining teeth, all of them brown and crooked. Then she plucked the death cap elegantly with two fingers, put it in her mouth and chewed happily on it.
Her hood slid back over her shoulders and the Old Troll noticed the head of a giant gray toad sticking out of her collar. It rested snug on her bosom, sleeping under her robes.
“A new pet?” he asked politely. The Bog Witch first looked at Benedict, but when he pointed to the toad, she laughed.
“No, this is an old one. But curiously enough, I was going to ask you the same question. Any new... creatures you have taken in recently?”
“I...” started the Old Troll, but before he had the chance to finish, a loud burst of laughter came forth from the house. It was accompanied by the rattle of dishes, as if someone had been chasing someone else around the house and had run into a cupboard.
The Bog Witch continued chewing, but stopped smiling.
“So it's true then,” she said, squinting at the Old Troll unpleasantly, “we were informed correctly.”
The Old Troll was an old hand at the evil eye himself, so he returned her look tenfold.
“I don't know what you are talking about.”
“The girl!” said the Bog Witch.
“The girl!” said the nix.
“The girl!” said the toad in such a powerful bass that the Old Troll almost fell off his chair.
“Oh, that!” he tried to recover casually, but the talking toad had really caught him off guard. “So there is a girl in my house. What of it?”
“Do I really need to spell it out for you, my dear?” the voice of the Bog Witch sounded even more poisonous than the mushroom she had just finished off. “Need I remind you what happens if she goes back to the village?”
“Please do,” said the Old Troll irritably, although he knew perfectly well what was coming.
“A disaster!” shrilled the Bog Witch. ”A catastrophe! She will know the way here, and what one man knows, sooner or later the rest of them know too. Our forest will be bustling with treasure seekers and hunters! Is that what you want?”
“The community is concerned, Troll!” chimed in the nix, eyeballing him menacingly.
The Old Troll didn't care much for their tone, but what he hated even more was that they were absolutely right.
“She won’t get out of here,” he said firmly. “I'll keep her in the Cabin.”
Benedict stepped forward, his tiny black eyes glistening.
“And what if she escapes? She'll lead the men right to your door! The forest folk are not the only ones telling tales about the Old Troll's gold!”
“There is no gold!” shouted the Old Troll, jumping up, but the nix only smirked.
“I’m sure you'll get a chance to explain that to them in person.”
It seemed as if the Bog Witch had noticed signs of doubt on his face and had decided that the moment was ripe to reveal the true purpose of their visit. She stood up and drew closer to the Old Troll's face.
“Give her to us,” she said almost tenderly. “Give her to us and you won't have to worry about this little problem anymore.”
As the Old Troll smelled the mushrooms on her breath, a rage started to grow inside him, like a small burning point deep in his chest.
“Problem?” he wanted to say. “Community? A bunch of slimy frog-people and a crazy old witch... you call that a community?” But he never let out so much as a peep. He had lived long enough to have learned that you can't speak like that to your neighbors, even if you hold them in little more esteem than you would a dead fish.
Taking a deep breath, he made himself comfortable in his chair, locking his fingers across his belly.
“Community, you say?” he replied. ”Interesting. Do you hear that annoying squeaky voice coming from the house?”
He gestured over his shoulder with his thumb.
“It's a little bog fairy who seems to be quite fond of my guest. She's a member of the community you are referring to, isn't she? Would you like to ask her if she wants you to take the girl away? Given that it was the fairies who brought her here in the first place, I would say, hmm... NO!”
His short speech had the effect he was hoping for. Everyone in the Dark Forest knew of the vast family of bog fairies and their infamously short tempers. He allowed the question to hang in the air, relishing the long faces of his visitors.
“Those fairies again,” said the Bog Witch, grinding her remaining teeth. “There were so few of them just a hundred years ago, but they spawn like mosquitoes!”
The nix coughed and stepped on her foot.
“Get your frog legs off me!” said the Witch irritably, pushing him aside. “It's not as if they can hear us!”
She added under her breath, “One day I swear I'll find a way to take down that whole brood...”
The Old Troll had to struggle to keep his emotions from showing.
“Perfect!” he thought to himself, fighting the urge to rub his hands together. “Let the Bog Witch and Alina fight this one out! Finally, that honey-guzzling little pest can be of some use to me!”
But the Bog Witch wouldn't allow him to enjoy his little victory for long. Just as he was beginning to relax and contemplate which kind of cheese would go best with the next batch of pastries, she broke the silence.
“I have just the solution,” she announced, searching for something in the depths of her robes. “We'll give the fairy a sleeping potion. Then we'll take the girl and tell her she ran away.”
Before he even had a chance to reply, she had pulled out a vile made of green glass. Both the Old Troll and the nix stared at it.
After a long moment, the Old Troll finally said, “It’s empty.”
The Bog Witch held the vile in front of her face for a moment and then shook it.
“That's odd... I must have drunk it the last time I couldn't sleep,” she said, puzzled.
“Tut tut. Look what the years are doing to us,” said the Old Troll sarcastically, and met her hateful glare with a smile.
Suddenly, the toad climbed up the witch's neck and croaked something in her ear.
“That could work,” said the Bog Witch slowly.
She reached into her robes again and pulled out a tiny bottle sealed with black wax. There was something about it that made the Old Troll feel queasy.
“Is it Raven's Milk? Nightshade drops? You must have gone mad in your swamp, I'm not going to poison a fairy!”
The mocking look on her face indicated clearly that he had guessed wrong.
Trolls knew their way around magic potions well enough, but they could hardly compete with witches. All three were very well aware of that. The Bog Witch was clearly savoring the moment. The sneer she gave him was so condescending, he felt a fleeting temptation to uncork the vial, throw the contents in her face and see what happened.
“Not even close, my dear,” she finally said. “It's a Sideswimmers Juice.”
The Old Troll frowned. Sensing his hesitation, she explained.
“It's an extract from bog sideswimmers boiled over touchwood flame in raft spider saliva. It can turn a living creature into a small inanimate object.”
“No,” she giggled, “but wouldn't that be a trick? No, it's just for several hours. Give the potion to the fairy and it will turn her into a nice little sage flower. She won't remember a thing and it will give us enough time to take care of the girl.”
The Old Troll held the bottle up to the light with two fingers and peered at it. He could see small black shadows floating in the oily liquid. He tried to come up with another argument, but he could not think of any. No matter how he turned it, his visitors were right – the girl must not be allowed to leave the forest.
They were staring at him, waiting, and he had no choice but to put the bottle in his pocket.
A soft whisper came from the rock behind the witch.
“Don't you dare, Troll!” said the voice, faint as a gasp of wind. “Don't you dare!”
The cherry is a delicate fruit.
From the warm and cozy South and from the rainy and misty East, it had taken many centuries for the cherry tree to find its way to the unwelcoming cold of the Northern Lands.
It was only the rich and powerful landowners who could afford to keep cherry trees in their gardens. They were the first people in the North who had had the privilege to see the cherry blossoms bloom and ripen and to savor the fruit’s magical taste. The Fat Landlord's orchard was no exception. Hidden behind a seven-foot-tall palisade of sharpened stakes, it hid a dozen small cherry trees in its midst.
Those trees were not as large and fertile as in the South, nor as beautiful and fragrant as in the East. They were the short and squat cherry trees of the North that yielded small and sour ruby-red fruits, but there was nothing that the village children wouldn't risk for a taste.
Every year, shortly after the Midsummer celebrations, the cherries ripened. The landlord's servants were sent to pick them right away, so if any of the little villagers wanted to get their hands on those cherries, they had to be very quick about it.
It was never easy to find the right moment for the raid. It was even harder to get on the other side of the palisade. Yet it was harder still to escape the Fat Landlord’s infamous gamekeeper, known to the world as the Red Jaeger.
No one knew who he was. One day he had come from somewhere far to the South, a large man with hair and beard the color of smoldering embers. He had come and he had brought a pack of ferocious, short-haired dogs with him. The dogs wore steel-studded collars. The man wore a russet doublet with large buttons made of red jasper. The villagers didn't like to talk about the Red Jaeger, especially after dark.
The day that would end for Mary at the Old Troll's Stone Cabin began no differently than any other.
She woke up before dawn, as usual, to help her mother bake the morning bread. Then she prepared the grass and bran mash for the chickens and Molly, the one sheep that the Fat Landlord had left her family. When she was done with the mash, she brought a big rough-spun bag to the edge of the village to get some fresh juicy nettle for the young piglets. Clear skies promised a long hot day and she hoped to be back home before the midday heat.
“Nettle for my piglets, oink-oink, my piglets!” she was singing to herself, when the window of one of the cottages along the road opened and her friend’s head popped out. Her name was Nina and judging by how red her ears were, she was bursting with new rumors.
“Hi Nina!” said Mary, hoping that Nina hadn’t heard her silly song. “What is it?”
“You know what your little brother is up to?” asked Nina, talking so quickly that it was hard to make out the words.
“No,” said Mary, frowning, “but it had better be the chores he has for today. Old Grandpa Anders gave him a toy crossbow and Mama caught him trying that stupid thing out on the chickens. She said he'd be cleaning the pigsty for the rest of the – ”
Nina didn’t give her the chance to finish.
“They went for the cherries!” she yelled. “To the Landlord’s garden!”
It took Mary a moment to understand, then her heart sank deep into her stomach.
“Adam and Axel and your Pe-e-ete-er!”
Nina had to shout the last words at Mary’s back because her bare feet were already raising clouds of gray dust on the street.
Beyond the village gates, the small street merged into a road, dry and curvy, scarred with a pair of ruts left by the wheels of countless wagons and carriages.
The road took her through the fields, where villagers, covered with sweat and earth, stopped working to watch her hurtle past them, shielding their eyes from the sun with their callous hands.
It took her past the meadows, where lazy brown cows fed on juicy grass to the soft chime of their own bells and the wistful tremble of the cowherd boy's flute.
It took her around the Fat Landlord's manor, straight to his gardens.
Until the very last moment Mary had hoped to catch the boys before they could reach the gardens, but it was too late – she heard their hushed voices from inside the orchard.
She hurried hastily along the palisade, looking for a loose stake... and there it was – the little thieves hadn’t even bothered to put it back in place properly. The gap wasn't big enough for a grown-up, but she was only eight, so she slipped through easily enough.
Just as she had suspected, the boys were acting as if this were a game. They were ducking and shushing each other while laughing and joking at the same time. Peter was jumping around one of the little cherry trees, trying to reach the juicy cherries high up, near the top. He was so busy with this task that he didn't even notice his sister, until she came up close and hissed “Peter!” right into his ear.
Mary was satisfied to learn that her brave little brother did not wet his pants, as many others would have done in his place.
“Hi Mary,” he said, forcing a smile in a futile attempt to save face, “what are you doing here?”
There was no time for questions. She grabbed his left ear between two fingers and dragged him back to the hole in the palisade.
“Wait until Mama finds out!” she kept hissing, mad with rage. “You just wait!”
“Ow-ow-owowow! Let me go!” cried Peter, but she was unshakable.
Peter's friends didn't need any explanation to realize how much trouble they were in. They followed meekly, with only Axel muttering, “Please don't tell my father! Please, Mary!” but without much hope.
As she was pushing her scampish brother through the palisade, he suddenly wrenched free.
“The wicker! We need to get the basket!”
After a quick reckoning, Mary saw that he was right.
“Go home!” she said. “I'll get it.”
But Peter didn’t go. Instead, he began to search for something in the tall grass near the broken stake, so she had to give him a hard shove to set him off.
The basket lay where he had dropped it, right next to the tree. For a moment, she considered spilling out the stolen cherries, but they smelled so sweet and looked so delicious, she decided she might as well keep them.
“They won't get back on the tree anyway,” she told herself. As she bent over to pick up the basket, a broad shadow fell on the grass right in front of her.
“No, they won't,” rumbled a deep, harsh voice. Mary’s legs turned to jelly.
He looked exactly as the rumors had described him, only bigger and scarier. He grinned wickedly, revealing a wide gap between his front teeth. The girl stood frozen, like a mouse before a coiled snake, unable to take her eyes off the shiny red buttons on his jacket.
“Such a sweet girl,” said the Red Jaeger. “What a shame!”
In the next moment his iron-hard fingers closed around her arm so tight, that her eyes exploded with tears.
“No, please!” cried Mary, trying to wiggle free, but she would have had a better chance fighting against a solid rock. She knew she was as good as dead.
It was her little brother who saved her.
A short stick with a small ball of thread on one end and some chicken feathers fletched to the other hit the Red Jaeger right in the nose! Flinching, he let go of Mary’s arm for just a split second, but that was enough. Mary bolted and before she knew it, she was out of the garden, her heartbeat drumming madly in her ears.
Peter was still standing there with his tongue sticking out, trying to load a second bolt into his little crossbow.
“Run, you fool!” she yelled.
This time he listened.
They ran as fast as they could, expecting to hear the clatter of heavy boots behind them, but it was surprisingly quiet. Mary stopped when they caught up with the other two boys who had been waiting for them on the other side of the manor. Peter's face, though covered with sweat and dust, was gleaming.
“Did you see how I got him?” he said, catching his breath. “Did you?”
“I thought... I thought...” panted Mary, “I thought Mother took that thing away from you.”
“She did,” said Peter. “Well, she thought she did.”
Since there was no sign of any chase, she doubled back and took a cautious look at the gardens. To her enormous relief, she saw that the Jaeger had only managed to squeeze one arm through the gap in the palisade, but he couldn’t get his head through. There was no smile on his bearded face any more. He gave another jerk, making the stakes creak, and then he did something completely unexpected – he put two fingers in his mouth and let out a sharp whistle.
Mary was overcome by a fit of nervous giggles.
“Is that supposed to scare us?” she asked the boys who had also come back to see what was going on.
“Look!” said Axel in a trembling voice. “Mary!”
She looked up just in time to see a dark shadow slip out of the garden, quick as lightning. Then another. They were so different from the animals they had back in the village, that it took her a moment to realize what she was looking at.
“It's the dogs!” she cried. Then, screaming at the top of her lungs… “RUN!”
They ran as fast as they could, three little boys on a dusty dirt road. She started after them too, but when she looked back, her legs turned into jelly for the second time that morning – in one minute the dogs had erased half the distance between them. They were closing in. No barking, no growling – just two silent shadows with tiny sparks of polished steel on their collars.
Terrifying images, each one more horrible than the last, flashed before her eyes. Then, Mary did the only thing she could think of. Glancing over her shoulder to make sure the dogs were following her, she jumped off the road and ran straight through the rye field toward the emerald threshold of the forest.
As the dogs drew closer, the thoughts in her head became mixed and tangled, one thought crashing into the next, “Will they jump on my back? Will they bite my legs? Oh, this is going to hurt so much!”
But before she got the chance to find out, she came to the deep trench which separated the fields from the forest. If she had had time to gauge the distance or to notice the sharp rocks and shards that the village-folk had tossed in while cleaning the fields, she never even would have thought of jumping. Fortunately, there was no time to think.
“Mama!” she screamed, as her feet left the ground in the biggest jump she had ever made.
For a brief moment she thought she was going to land on the rocks at the bottom of the ditch, but suddenly her chest and arms hit the edge of the trench on the far side. She scrambled up, breathing hard, and rushed into the woods, leaving the barking dogs behind her.
“I'm happy to know that I'm safe here now... thanks to your kindness,” said Mary.
Now that his first reaction to the story had started to wear off, he couldn't help but notice a bit of extra drama in her voice. He squinted at his nisse and at the fairy, while Mary continued.
“Alas, my poor family...” she said tragically. “My mother... She doesn't even know I'm alive, she probably thinks that the dogs tore me to pieces. She must be crying her eyes out!”
The girl dabbed at her own eyes with the lap of her dress and sniffed pitifully.
“Aha,” thought the Old Troll, nesting comfortably in his chair, “they think there is nothing better than a crying child to move an old sentimental fool like myself.”
“You poor thing!” he said, still watching the two conspirators out of the corner of his eye. “If only there were something I could do!”
Olle jumped off the bed and came over.
“You know what you can do,” he said softly, looking closely at the Troll’s face. “You can take her back home!”
“Please, Mister Troll!” said Mary, her big blue eyes glistening. “Oh, please take me home to Mama! I won't tell anyone where I’ve been!”
“I know we’ve already spoken about this,” said Olle quickly, before the Troll could open his mouth, “but it will be fine. Just look the other way and the fairies will show her the way to the village. We'll tell the others that she escaped. Oh, please!”
The Old Troll sighed deeply and looked around, making sure all three of them were looking at him. After a long pause, he finally said, “Oh well...”
“Really?” said Alina, who couldn't believe her ears.
The Old Troll couldn’t hold back his laughter any longer. He gave out a loud snort and said, “No!”
Then he sat back in his chair and took a cup from the table, enjoying the looks on their faces. For a moment, the only sound in the house was of hot tea being slurped.
Then Alina exploded into a burst of threats and curses. The Old Troll just kept drinking, watching and smirking while his nisse tried to keep the mad fairy from attacking him.
After the fairy had been subdued and swaddled in a pillowcase, Olle and Mary demanded explanations.
“First off,” said the Old Troll, “you know perfectly well that for our own safety I can't let her go. Secondly, I can't let her go because of this.”
He walked over to the window and pointed at a large birch tree outside the Cabin. It was getting dark, but it was still possible to make out the silhouette of a large bird perched among the branches.
“Do you recognize that owl, Mary?”
Mary looked outside and shook her head. The owl looked right back at them, as if she could tell they were talking about her.
“You saw this owl at the swamp where I found you last night,” said the Old Troll, shutting the window tight. “The moment you leave this house, the Bog Witch will know about it, and then...” he drew a long breath, “...no... You will stay here. It will be better for all of us.”
He grabbed the quilt from his chair and stepped outside, into the fresh and luscious air of the summertime forest.
The girl had been so upset that the Old Troll had agreed to let her sleep in his bed for the night, he himself taking refuge in the shed behind the house.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but halfway through the night he still lay awake, twisting and growling, on a pile of wood chips and pine needles.
Just when he had finally managed to doze off, a squeaky voice woke him up. Opening one eye, he saw a narrow streak of dark-blue beginning to appear in the east, just above the treeline. It was so early, even the birds were still quiet.
“Listen, Troll,” spat Alina, yanking the blanket off him, “there is just one thing we will ask you to do.”
“No,” answered the Old Troll through chattering teeth and grabbed the blanket back.
“We’ve already heard enough of your No’s,” said Alina impatiently. “Mary will stay in the Cabin... if you agree to bring a message to her parents, so at least they’ll know she's alive.”
“Take it yourself,” said the Old Troll with a great deal of hatred in his voice. “I hope you haven't eaten your way to complete immobility yet. You can manage carrying a piece of paper to the village.”
To his surprise, Alina swallowed the insult.
“It's not a letter.”
“It's not? Mighty Forest and All Its Creatures!” swore the Old Troll, getting up heavily. “Don't tell me our little cherry thief doesn't know her letters!”
“Do you?” snapped Alina.
“Of course!” said the Old Troll. “If her family can read Trollish.”
The last thing he wanted was to drag his sore old bones all the way to the village, but it seemed like a small price to pay for settling this matter once and for all. He washed his face with cold water from a barrel while Alina explained how to find Mary's house. His Special Cheese Bag was waiting for him right on the doorstep, already packed, with Olle standing next to it.
“Thank you so much, Troll!” said the nisse, helping him to heave the bag over his shoulder. “Last night she scraped up the remaining cherries and made a tart. It's an old family recipe... her mother will know it's from Mary.”
“Where is she anyway?” asked the Old Troll. “The least she could do is come and thank me in person.”
“She's still crying,” said Alina quickly. “She doesn't want to see you now.”
The Old Troll tried to peek inside the Cabin, but it was too dark. He sighed and began to set off, but Olle suddenly caught his hand.
“Now promise me something,” he said. “Promise you’ll get that tart to her parents! Promise you won't eat any of it! Not even one bite!”
The Old Troll grunted and tried to wriggle his hand free, but the little nisse only tightened his grip.
“Promise me, Troll! Promise!”
The sun finally came out and the birch tree cast a long shadow across the glade. When the Old Troll looked at the tree, he saw that the owl was no longer there. She had been relieved by a giant toad sitting on a rock beneath the white speckled branches, staring at them with its bulging eyes.
“I should have thrown you all in the swamp a long time ago,” said the Old Troll grimly. “Fine, I promise.”
Long before noon he had begun to regret making this promise. He hadn’t had anything to eat since the night before, and the smell of the fresh pastry in his bag was so strong that it easily overpowered the gentle aroma of the pine forest around him.
The sun was already high in the sky and the heat it produced was positively scorching. The Old Troll tried to choose the trails that went through the thicket in order to keep to the shade. Even so, before he knew it, he was sweating and panting heavily.
He finally reached a spring bubbling up from the ground at the foot of a small rocky hill. Local forest folk used it quite often, so the area around the little pool was always clean of dry grass and pine needles. Someone had also placed a large, flattened log next to the stream, to serve as a bench.
When the Old Troll had finished drinking the ice-cold water, he sat down and set the Cheese Bag on the log. His old legs were aching, and his head felt light from lack of sleep and nourishment.
“This is ridiculous,” he finally said out loud. “I don't know how they talked me into this, but I can’t be expected to starve to death along the way!”
He snapped the flap of the bag open in one quick motion, but before he could reach inside, the bag told him in a tiny voice, “You promised!”
The Old Troll jumped up, his heart pounding in his chest.
“What?” he asked stupidly, not knowing what to think.
“You promised!” said the voice again.
Only then did he notice that the voice wasn't coming from the bag. A little fairy he had never seen
before was sitting on the opposite end of the bench, smiling up at him. She met his wild stare with the calm gaze of her beautiful lilac eyes.
“You promised, Old Troll!”
The Old Troll sat down, clutching his tunic over his chest.
“This is Alina's doing,” he grumbled, after he had returned to his senses. “I swear by the Trolls of Yore, I will murder that flying rat the moment I get back!”
The fairy laughed in a little voice that rang through the grove like a tiny silver bell. The Old Troll growled and waved his staff at her, trying to shoo her away, but she just kept laughing.
”I will buy a whole barrel of clover honey from the wood goblins just to drown her in it!” he ranted furiously, pulling the strap of his bag over his shoulder.
“A suitable way to end her useless life!”
When he looked back a moment later, the bench was empty.
It was long past noon when a light breeze carried the smell of farm animals and chimney smoke to him. A few minutes later, the village appeared through the trees at the edge of the forest.
This time, before climbing over the palisade, the Old Troll had to walk back and forth along the edge of the woods and even climb up on the lower branches of an old tree, before he could spot the red chimney that belonged to Mary's family.
The palisade stakes were crudely cut and he had to struggle to find a good grip. It was a greater challenge than usual as he was tired, anxious and completely exhausted. By the time he had managed to throw himself over the fence and into an overgrown pumpkin patch on the other side, his hands – pierced with many splinters – were shaking violently.
“I hope, at least, there’ll be some cheese in here,” thought the Old Troll to himself as he fumbled with a rusty iron bar on the cellar door behind the house. Pied hens strutted around behind his back, clucking loudly and making him feel even more nervous than he already was. He finally yanked off the bar and stepped into the small, empty cellar. There was not a trace of cheese in sight.
“Of course!” muttered the Old Troll sarcastically. “Why would I expect anything good from a day that began with no breakfast and a bunch of crazy fairies?”
He turned around, wondering if any of those fairies were hovering in the air behind his back, but there were only a few braids of garlic and some old cobwebs in the corner.
He opened his bag, took out a bundle wrapped in old towels and laid it on top of a large barrel in the middle of the room. A scrumptious aroma made his empty stomach rumble and he could have sworn that this time it distinctively sounded like “Ta-a-art!”
No longer able to resist, the Old Troll unwrapped the towels. A small cherry tart lay in front of him, crisscrossed with strips of crisp pastry, with a big ruby-red cherry sitting right on top. The Old Troll looked curiously at that cherry and a nagging thought started to take shape somewhere in the back of his mind.
“Wait a second...” he thought to himself, but just at that moment he heard voices coming from the street. Old instincts kicked in and, before he knew it, he was rushing back to the forest, cursing and breathing heavily.
He pulled himself over the palisade with the groan of a dying bear and landed on the other side just in time to hear a pack of noisy children pouring out of the house. He couldn't see them, but he heard the chatter suddenly grow quiet and then a little girl’s voice called, “Peter!”
That voice was painfully familiar.
“Impossible!” gasped the Old Troll as the yard behind him exploded with children's screams and shouts.
He tried to peek between the stakes, but before he could find a good angle, the yard was empty again – everyone had run back into the house. He crouched there for another moment, trying to convince himself that he must be mistaken, but it was pointless.
“I hate them all!” cursed the Old Troll through his teeth, anger burning in his blood.
“Fat stupid fairies and backstabbing nisses, crazy bog witches and sneaky little girls... I hate them all so much!”
He nursed that thought all the way home. The image of the cherry stood before his eyes, fresh and glistening.
“I hate them!” he said to the birds and squirrels.
“I hate them!” he said to a couple of wood goblins, who were sitting on a stump, eating wild raspberries.
“I hate them!” he said to the giant gray toad that was still keeping watch outside his house.
The toad stared back at him and, for a moment, he thought he recognized the contemptuous look of the Bog Witch peering out of its wide-mouthed face. He rushed into the house.
“Mary!” yelled the Old Troll, still hoping he had got it all wrong. “Mary! Are you there?”
No one answered.
The Stone Cabin looked empty and uninviting inside. But this time the Old Troll was sure it wasn't due to the nisse's moods, because the face of his little housekeeper was shining with glee.
The Old Troll sat down heavily in his chair.
“How did you know the potion would work on her?”
“We didn't,” said Olle happily, “but it worked!”
“And what if I had eaten the tart?”
“I wouldn’t have let you,” rang a voice like a tiny silver bell, making the Old Troll jump up once again. The little fairy from the grove sat peacefully on the window sill and smiled at him as if she were his best friend.
“Malvina is very responsible,” said Alina, suddenly appearing in the doorway. “We weren’t too worried.”
”Olle, could you hand me that poker please?” asked the Old Troll, who felt incredibly old and forlorn, as if all his countless years had come crashing down on him in that instant.
“Could you hand me that poker so I can throw it at her head?”
Olle didn't give him the poker. Instead, he went to the hearth and brought back a wooden plate with one single turnover on it.
“I saved it from yesterday. I knew you would need it.”
The Old Troll pushed the plate away.
“No, thank you!” he said bitterly. “How long do you think it will be before those villagers start snooping around here?”
“It will be all right,” said Olle putting his plump little hand on the Troll's big bony one. “Mary won't tell anyone. We can trust her.”
“That’s right,” added Alina smiling. “She’s a good girl.”
“And what are you so happy about?” demanded the Old Troll, turning on her. “Do you think the Bog Witch will be pleased to learn about your role in this scheme? It might just be the final straw you know, before she finally decides to wipe out your 'whole brood'!”
“She... What?” Alina stopped smiling.
“Oh, our little nisse didn’t tell you?” sneered the Old Troll. “Those were her exact words. Oh, she's been planning to do it for a long time!”
“Brood!?” the fairy's plump face started to redden.
“That’s right! How did she put it?” went on the Old Troll. “Ah, yes…‘They are spawning like mosquitoes.’ Is that right?”
He turned to his nisse who stood nearby in complete confusion.
“Troll, I don't think–”
“It's not very neighborly, I agree,” interrupted the Old Troll. “But I think you've given her a perfect justification now. Even the stupidest goblin would have to agree that fairies who help villagers deserve whatever she's brewing for them.”
“Brewing for us?” Alina was nearly smoldering with rage. “Malvina, call up the girls, I think we owe someone a visit!”
The Old Troll leaned back in his chair and watched with great satisfaction as both fairies rushed across the glade and disappeared into the forest.
“The Witch is smart,” said Olle. “Eventually, she will find a way to make peace with the fairies and then you'll have to face the entire Leech Swamp united against you.”
“Eventually,” echoed the Old Troll with a dismissive wave, “but until then, the Bog Witch will have her hands full.”
The thought of a pack of angry fairies storming the Witch's Floating Hut made him feel much better. He leaned back and stretched out his tired old legs.
“Now tell me, you little scamp,” he said, picking up the last turnover, “between gorging on sweets and plotting against your master, did you ever get a chance to ask the girl for the recipe?”