Since the beginning of time, the Dark Forest has been home to many legends, old and new, long and short, sad and funny.
Some of them were written in old books, books with soft leather bindings and grey pages made of flattened reeds. Some survived only in the memories of the Forest folk, retold over and over from mouth to ear, year after year. Some have been forgotten forever.
Among the tales that have outlived the others, there was one about the First Troll. It has changed throughout the ages, switched times and places, lost many details and gained even more new ones, but one way or the other, the story has lived on.
The First Troll, as his name implies, was the first troll in all of the Northern Lands. Some of the Forest folk go so far as saying that he was the one who created our World. Others argue that he didn’t create it, but he was the first magic creature to walk the face of the Earth. Be that true or not, everyone agreed that he was the one to put all things in good order.
When the First Troll came into this world, he saw forests and lakes, fields and rivers, high mountains and the deep blue sea. Beautiful, yet terrifying, was our world, for it existed in restless chaos and turmoil. The big beasts ate the small beasts and then turned on each other. The forests were destroyed by wildfires, volcanoes erupted, mountains crumbled and clogged the rivers, and mudslides turned clean lakes into murky swamps plagued by vicious mosquitoes.
The First Troll laid his eyes upon the world of chaos before him and cried for many days and nights, until his eyes were sore and his throat was dry and itchy. Then he rolled up his sleeves.
He created little gnomes out of stone and dust and sent them to take care of the rocks and mountains. He put together forest flowers and duckweed and turned them into fairies and nixes to keep the meadows, lakes, and rivers in good order. Then he took twigs, pine cones, and some of last year’s yellow grass, worked on it for a while and made wood goblins who had the power over trees and beasts, every insect and bird, big and small, all the same.
When they were ready, he and his army of little helpers got to work. The lakes and the rivers were cleaned, raging volcanoes tamed, the beasts and the fish were taught how to live in peace with each other. And thanks to the smart and relentless wood goblins, the forests turned into the most marvelous places in the whole World.
Of course, all that toil took its toll. There came a day when the First Troll couldn’t keep himself going anymore; big effort required big rest. Before he retired, he accomplished one more task. He scraped off a little piece from every bit of matter, every plant and mineral he could find on Earth and with it he conjured other trolls, made in his own type and image. He sent his trolls off to every corner of the World to help and guide his magic creations, while he took his epoch-long slumber in a giant cave somewhere in the depths of the Blue Mountains.
As old and beautiful as this legend was, not all magic folk liked it equally. The trolls, of course, were proud of being the descendents of the First Troll, but some others took offense at the idea that their ancestors were created by some troll, be that first or second. The ones who disliked that premise most were the wood goblins. A strong and respected family, they thought their traditions to be more ancient and their magic more powerful than the trolls’. Needless to say, the trolls didn’t take those claims seriously.
“Higher! Don’t stomp, walk!”
“Higher! Lower! Ufff, Olle, you are useless!”
The Old Troll tried to sit up, but the pain was still too intense.
“You are way too light for a proper back massage,” he said. “Where is that obnoxious fairy of yours? After all the food she’s eaten at my house, I could use her weight now!”
As usual, the little nisse took the troll’s words literally.
“You want Alina to help you with your back? I doubt she’d be willing to come over in weather like this. But I can try to speak with her.”
“It was a joke,” said the Old Troll grimly. “She’d break both my spine and the bed if she did.”
“Oh, don’t say that. I mean… she’s not that heavy.”
The Old Troll sighed and tried to turn over to see what was going on outside the window.
Frankly, there was not much to see. There was mostly rain and darkness--and beyond that, even more rain and more darkness. ‘Uninviting’ was a gentle word to describe that view. He shuddered and rolled himself up in his thick quilt. It seemed like the very walls of the Stone Shack were oozing with ice-cold water. A little iron stove in the hearth was glowing red but it still couldn’t dry out the entire house.
“There is something about the rain that makes it ever so ghastly this time of year,” complained the troll out loud. “It brings that near-winter chill that goes right to my sore old bones!”
“Well, try to see it differently,” replied Olle. “Save the memories of this rain for next summer. Then you will remember how cold it was and enjoy the sun even more. I always do that.”
The Old Troll didn’t share his sentiments.
“Only if we live long enough to see another summer,” he grunted and threw yet another look at the window.
It was the same as an hour, a day, and two days before--a shroud of falling water. Endless, relentless, unstoppable water. He gave out a muffled moan.
“You know what I heard?” said Olle, sitting at his bedside. “I heard the wood goblins use bees to cure backaches.”
“Goblins and their bees,” replied the Old Troll. “I remember the old times when wood goblins were fighting wildfires and taming rogue bears. What do they do now? They pick berries and keep bees. As the Forest is my witness, I swear the magic folk dwindle down with every passing generation... So how do they cure back pain? Pour hot wax on it or something?”
“No actually, it’s very peculiar,” said Olle, lighting up at the chance to explain. “They put a live bee on your back and let it sting you, then another one, until...”
He noticed the look on the troll’s face and closed his mouth.
“I knew you wished for my death,” said the Old Troll tragically, “but I never thought you’d be so blunt about it.”
“I...” started Olle, indignantly, when someone knocked on the door.
They exchanged looks.
“Your friends?” asked the Old Troll with suspicion.
Just as Olle shook his head, the door swung open and a wood goblin came in.
It was one of those self-assured youngsters that the Old Troll had been seeing at the Leech Swamp more often than in the Forest, in the company of the Bog Witch and her friends. The goblin looked around the house with a squeamish expression on his face, as if he had accidentally stepped into a cave filled with old bear droppings.
The Old Troll was the first to break the silence.
“Did you bring me the bees?”
“Bees?” asked the goblin blankly. Rainwater slid down his grey mantle, forming a little puddle on the floor.
“Yes,” said the Old Troll. “Bees for my back.”
“No bees,” answered his guest, after a short pause. “Elder Bokker wants to speak with you.”
It was the Old Troll’s turn to be puzzled. Goblin elders rarely took any interest outside of their communities, least of all in talking with trolls.
“Well, tell the Elder he can stop by,” he said after a long pause.
Clearly, it wasn’t the answer that was expected of him.
“Elder Bokker was hoping,” said the goblin through his teeth, “that you would be so kind as to pay him a visit.”
“And I was hoping,” replied the Old Troll, who was starting to lose his patience, “that I would have a quiet evening without random creatures barging in and making a mess on my floor.”
The goblin involuntarily threw a quick glance at his boots, then looked back. He saw the Old Troll smirking at him and red spots shined through the greenish skin on his cheekbones.
“Fine. I will pass your words on to the Elder.”
The hard slam of the door made the Old Troll wince.
“Olle, please, help me get in the chair.”
“Right now? I know Elder Bokker; he’s not a person who is likely to come out in such nasty weather. That is, if he comes at all.”
“I’m sure he will,” replied the Old Troll, trying to prop himself up on the bed. “If he cared enough to send one of his cocky lizards here, he obviously thinks he has something important to say.”
His words proved true in less than an hour.
When the elder arrived, accompanied by another young goblin, the Old Troll was sitting in his chair, covered head-to-toe with a blanket. The visitors took off their rain garments and the young one appeared to be a young goblin girl. She was unusually tall--not as tall as the Old Troll, but at least two inches taller than the goblin that had come earlier. Apart from that, she was a lot like him--same arrogant look, same grey clothes, she even wore the same birch-bark bracelet, probably following some new forest fad.
“Please come in, Elder,” said the Old Troll, ignoring her. “Take a seat.”
The wide mouth on the wrinkled, fern-green face opened like a crack in the trunk of an old tree. As to complete the resemblance, the voice that came out of it was dry and crackly. That was how a tree must sound, if trees could talk.
“Salutations, honest troll,” said Elder Bokker, carefully descending on a stool, “on this night of leafage fall.”
The Old Troll had to make an effort to hide his emotions when a scream of desperation went off inside his head--he had completely forgotten about the custom of goblin elders to speak in rhymes and riddles. Now that he searched his memory, he recalled that it went back to the old ages, when goblin chiefs and shamans served as keepers of their tribe’s history and spells; poetry was the best form for memorizing. In time, goblins learned to keep their knowledge in books and this necessary skill became a respected, but vestigial tradition upheld only by the elders.
“Greetings to you too, neighbor,” he answered, squeezing out a polite smile. “What brings you here?”
Elder Bokker gave a thankful nod to Olle, who handed him a steaming cup of thyme tea.
would like for you to learn
That I carry deep concern:
Day of Equinox is coming
And our fate will take its turn.”
“And that’s related to me… how?” asked the Old Troll, who didn’t like the way the conversation had started. As he feared, the elder launched into a poetic tirade:
a troll to be a thief,
Bad enough of a mischief,
But your gold in hands of humans,
Will result in utter grief!”
“Aha,” thought the Old Troll to himself.
He leaned back in his chair and took a sip of tea. Then another. The tea was scalding hot, but he needed a moment to craft a proper retort in his head.
“You know,” he finally said, “I remember a young wood goblin who also tried to take something from the villagers. It was a long time ago, when men were still scarce in the North, just a few farmers here and there. And one of them kept bees in his backyard. When that little goblin saw all those bees locked in wooden boxes, he got it in his head that he should set them free. He was not very bright, that one, but he was daring, I’ll give him that.”
Elder Bokker seemed not to move a muscle, but the Old Troll noticed how strained his posture became--he knew the story that was about to come. The goblin girl, on the contrary, lost her sneer and now looked at the Old Troll with genuine interest.
one morning when the farmer was in the fields, that little wood
goblin sneaked in and tried to take the hives out. I assume he wanted
to move the hives to the forest, so the bees could live free. But the
thing was, those farm bees didn’t want to go anywhere. When
they were done with that little thief, his face was all swelled up,
big and round. Looked like a pumpkin, an ugly one too. The Forest
folk called him ‘scarecrow’ for a long time after
The girl sniggered, but saw the elder’s infuriated face and quickly covered her mouth.
“It was over a century ago,” said Olle, who clearly felt very uncomfortable. “Why...”
“Was it?” interrupted the Old Troll. “Interesting. Seems like it was just yesterday. Anyway, he was quite a dummy, that little goblin. One would think that he’d have learned to stay away from other people’s business, but if you ask me...”
“Yes, I was young,” said the elder in a high-pitched voice, trembling with anger. “Young and naive. Among other things, I thought that with age always comes wisdom. But then I discovered that for some of us, it’s just the age.”
Olle didn’t know where to put his eyes, but the Old Troll only smiled wider than before.
“Oh, that was very clever,” he said. “It doesn’t rhyme, however.”
The old goblin pushed himself to his feet, leaning heavily on the arm of his escort and they left as fast as his old legs could carry him. The poor pinewood door was slammed for the second time that night, even harder than before.
“Why do they all do that?” murmured the Old Troll and squirmed in his chair when a gust of cold air went through the house.
“That was monstrously rude,” said Olle.
“I know! They didn’t even say goodbye...”
“I was talking about you,” said Olle and went directly to his nook.
The Old Troll sat quietly in his for chair some time, going over the conversation in his head. The rain outside sounded as dull as before, the air was as chill and his back was as sore. It was easy to imagine that this strange visit had never happened, if it weren’t for the rainwater on the floor and empty teacups on the table.
“Do I have to clean up now?” he asked, but no one answered.
As if the weather decided to make up for a whole week of ill temper, the following morning started with a magnificent combination of clear skies and a fresh breeze pouring in through the window. The Old Troll felt really good. He jumped out of his bed and even went so far as to do some twists and stretches to shake off the unpleasant aftertaste of the previous night. He had barely eaten anything because of his backaches, so he was hungry as a bear.
“I need something special for my breakfast,” he declared in pleasant anticipation, “and I believe I know just the thing!”
He found his nisse sitting on a bench just outside the house, holding a plate of homemade lollipops. After their recent acquisition of two barrels of beet-sugar from the villagers, Olle quickly learned how to melt it to make hard candy. After that, every morning started with him making treats in the shape of different animals, colored with red and purple berry juice. The troll didn’t like the overly sweet and bitter taste of burnt sugar, but Alina turned out to be a huge fan. As he’d suspected, she was already there, making a wide range of sucking, crunching, and slurping noises.
“Agh…” he curled his lip “That’s sickening! Are you trying to ruin my appetite?”
“Yes,” replied Alina as she reached out to get a little red dog on a stick. “I need your appetite ruined so you don’t steal any of my sweety-sweets, you big ugly glutton.”
“I... What? YOUR sweets?” started the Old Troll, but then remembered why he had come out.
“I was hoping to get some cheese patties today,” he turned to Olle. “I remember there was some of that fluffy white cheese left in storage.”
“I’m so sorry, but it went bad a couple of days ago. I had to throw it out.”
The Old Troll felt like the sun had faded in the sky and the world had become submerged in shadows.
“Gone?” he repeated. “Is there any cheese left at all?”
“Not really,” said Olle with a sigh. “I’m sorry. I can make oatmeal, if you want.”
“Ew!” said the Old Troll. “Oatmeal on a glorious morning like this?”
“I can put blueberry jam in it,” Olle tried to mollify him. “Oatmeal goes nicely with blueberry.”
The Old Troll’s face twisted.
“No. I’d rather die,” he said and added with a chuckle, “or worse, I’d rather sit here and watch Alina eat.”
The fairy didn’t bat an eye.
“Look at him laughing at his own jokes,” she said. “What a sparkling sense of humor.”
The Old Troll stopped smiling.
“It’s no time for jokes. I need to go and get supplies before the weather turns bad for good.”
Olle jumped off the bench so briskly, Alina had to grab the plate with her precious candies to save them from spilling.
“What about the warning?” said the nisse. “Didn’t the elder tell you it was dangerous?”
“Oh, come on!” replied the Old Troll with a wave. “I thought you were smart enough to see through his rhetoric.”
“Yes. Don’t you see, he obviously found out about my deal with the village children.”
“You mean the sugar? I don’t understand...”
“Oh, my naive little friend! He’s worried that the Forest folk will start getting their winter supplies from the farmers and the goblins will be stuck with all their honey and berries.”
Alina took a lollipop out of her mouth.
“That must be the stupidest thing I’ve heard from you this year. Forest folk shopping for food in the village? I can imagine you showing up at a county fair with that tattered bag of yours. ‘You call that cheese?’” she growled, “‘Looks more like dry bear poop to me!’”
“Look at her laughing at her own jokes,” said the Old Troll. “I DID buy that sugar you’re eating, didn’t I?”
“It was a one-time occasion, you know that,” returned the fairy as she bit off a giant piece of candy with a loud scrrrunch.
“I’ll go with you, then,” said Olle.
It was so unexpected, the Old Troll forgot about his argument with Alina.
“What?” he asked. “Why?”
“I’ve never seen the village and...” Olle met the troll’s suspicious look and gave up, “well, I’m worried about you, all right?”
“What makes you think that can make my trip safer and not the opposite?”
“I don’t know. I just feel like I should be by your side this time.”
“That’s insane!” exclaimed the Old Troll over loud munching noises. “I’m sorry, but if anything, you would hinder me and--”
“I won’t, I promise!”
“Why do you think he will hinder you?” asked the fairy with her mouth full.
“He… It’s too dangerous!”
“Aha!” Olle pointed his little finger at the troll’s nose. “So you agree it’s dangerous then?”
“No, what I wanted to say--”
“You just said it was dangerous!” said Alina. “I heard it.”
“WILL YOU EVER SHUT UP?!” exploded the Old Troll at the top of his lungs.
Little birds scattered off the roof and a poor squirrel made a run for its life up a nearby tree.
Alina muttered, “Psycho...” and kept chewing.
The Old Troll expected that Olle, who was a stranger to long walks, would soon start whining and maybe even ask to be carried on his shoulder. He even made up a sarcastic comment for when it would happen and spent quite some time polishing it in his head. What he didn’t expect though, was cheerful and overly enthusiastic chatter pouring out of his little friend like berry jam from a broken jar.
“You have left the house before, right?” finally asked the troll with a great deal of annoyance in his voice. “What’s come over you?”
“Just happy to be out on a beautiful day like this. Look at the sky, I’ve never seen it so deep!”
“It was exactly like that two days ago,” mumbled the Old Troll, but he couldn't help raising his head.
His sight plummeted into a vast grey abyss that opened up right where the pine tops ended. A crisp, near-winter chill gave the air a striking, almost painful clarity, and somewhere halfway into those depths, he saw a wedge of cranes making its way to the South. The Old Troll held his breath just in time to hear their faint, unearthly cry, as if the Summer itself were leaving the Northern Lands… his head spun around, making him stumble and lean on his staff.
“It does look… a bit unusual,” he had to admit in a much softer voice than he intended.
Olle smiled, “I’m glad you see it too.”
“You know what,” said Alina, who had volunteered to keep them company for some time, “I’m going to leave you ladies to your emotions.”
She turned onto a hidden path in the underwood that only she could see and disappeared before they had a chance to say goodbye. They walked the rest of the way quietly, each one thinking his own thoughts.
Since this time he would have to help his nisse over the fence, the Old Troll chose not one of the richest houses, but one with a lower stockade. It was just past harvest time, so he knew that even the smallest storage would be bursting with supplies.
They crossed the backyard undisturbed, but once they reached the cellar door, the Old Troll got a strong feeling that something wasn’t right. It didn’t take him long to understand what it was: the padlock was missing and an old rusty clasp was dangling freely on its bolt.
“Let me check, maybe they just forgot...” he whispered, but before he finished the sentence, a child’s laughter came from inside.
“It’s Mary!” shouted Olle, leaping forward. “I’ve got to see her!”
“No, no, no!” horrorstruck, the Old Troll tried to grab him by the jacket with a free hand. He missed.
Their appearance must have made a strong impression, judging by the astonished faces of the children sitting on the floor in a circle.
“Hi,” said the Old Troll.
A girl in a blue, worn-out dress was the first one on her feet.
They ran towards each other and hugged.
“We told you!” cried out another child.
He had a different set of clothes and no dirt on his face, but it was still easy to recognize Peter. “Didn’t we tell you! See, Alfred? Take a good look!”
The boy he called Alfred had his mouth open so wide, a little bug flew in and out completely unruffled. Peter’s friend, Axel, was there too.
“Good morning, Mister Troll.” He was probably still embarrassed about his behavior during their forest escapades, so he tried to cover it up with some extra manners. “It is nice to see you again, sir. I hope you found our product statis… sratis... stratis-factory.”
“What?” the Old Troll still couldn’t get his thoughts together. “You mean the sugar? Oh, yes, satisfactory.”
The children seemed to recover from the first shock much quicker than he did--they crowded Mary and Olle, jumping and shouting all at the same time. The situation was positively getting out of hand.
“Well, it was nice seeing you all,” said the Old Troll in the most resolute tone he could muster, “and now we’re leaving.”
No one paid any attention to him. He tried to fish out his nisse from the crowd, but alas, it wasn’t any easier than taking sweets from a bog fairy.
“Do you remember me, Mister Troll?” said a little boy, tugging on his sleeve. “I’m Knut. You said you were my aunt, but I knew you were not, so I was like…”
“Knut? Aunt? I…”
Suddenly, he remembered where he was.
“Speaking of aunts, where are your parents?”
“Oh, don’t worry!” Mary turned to him. “Alfred’s family is working at the Landlord's mansion on Fridays. That’s why we have our club meetings here.”
“Yes,” she said, “I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that we are dedicated to keeping everything we know about you a secret. And that’s why we started a secret club!”
As much as he was worried and confused, the thought of someone starting a club in his honor was unexpectedly flattering.
“You started a troll’s club?”
“Well, not exactly...” Mary hesitated.
“It’s the Fairies and Nisses’ Club!” said Alfred.
“And I painted a plaque with the name!” declared little Knut proudly, “For short, we call it FaN-C.”
The boy picked up a piece of wood smeared with bright colors and put it right in his face.
“Is this awesome or what?”
“I see,” said the Old Troll, staring at the “И” with the middle stroke on the wrong side. “Fancy.”
He turned back to Mary and Peter, but they were busy talking with Olle. He sighed and sat down on a cutting deck in the corner.
“At least Alina will be happy,” grumbled the Old Troll when the village fell well out of sight. “She has a fan club of her own.”
The nisse was too tired to answer. Bent under a bag full of goodies presented to them by the children, he could barely draw a breath. If someone were to look at them from a distance, he would see a troll followed by a bag that walked on its own, making little puffing noises.
“Pfff… Maybe you could carry it just a little bit?”
“Those are your gifts. Your gifts, your burden.”
The Old Troll still struggled to decide if things had gotten better or worse. An unpleasant sensation that he had lost control of his own life, that had first appeared after Mary’s escape, now had settled deep, deep in his stomach. He also had an irrational feeling that Olle was somehow responsible for everything that had happened lately. Obviously, blaming all his trouble on a little house gnome was unfair, but he couldn't help the way he felt.
“Maybe this is what the cranky old creature was talking about,” he brooded. “Maybe somehow he knew that if I went to the village today, Olle would tag along and we’d have a fight, and I’d risk losing the only friend I have in this whole blasted world?”
He looked at Olle, who had already begun to stumble, and took the bag off his back.
They marched in silence until they reached a large clearing in the woods. In summertime it would make for a nice place to sit down and rest, but now it looked much less inviting. The thick grass that covered the clearing before was all brown and withered, covered with wet leaves and other debris. Recent rains finished the job, turning what used to be a lively meadow into a dreary fen, spotted with patches of naked earth and muddy puddles. The view complemented the troll’s mood perfectly.
“I don’t understand where this whole club thing came from,” he said. “The spell was supposed to simply make the little scamps keep their mouths shut, that’s all.”
“Do you remember how it went?” asked Olle, relieved that the Old Troll was speaking to him again.
“Let me think...
and lightning, grass and roots,
Keep the secret, bring the goods...”
“Well, it looks like it worked… I mean, we got the goods, the children are keeping the secret. And we even got some of that storm and lightning you mentioned. Is that all?”
“Of course not. There’s always the second part. But it’s not in it either. I mean, the club.”
“A bear cub,” said Olle and stopped short.
“No, not a… What?” asked the Old Troll, blinking.
“Actually, it doesn’t look like any bear I’ve ever seen. What do you think it is?”
The Old Troll followed the direction of Olle’s gaze and a wave of instant cold ran through his body.
“That’s naa...” he could barely command his tongue, “that’s not a bear.”
The second creature, exactly like the first one, came from behind the trees on the far end of the clearing. It was way too far and the skies were completely overcast, but he could have sworn he saw sparks on the collars where the steel studs should be--the guard dogs looked exactly the way Mary had described them. He remembered the story of her escape from the Landlord's garden in every detail.
“Run,” he said to his friend in a husky voice. A strange feeling rose in his chest, as if he had just become a part of that story too. “Save yourself! RUN!”
His last shout came along with the growling of approaching beasts.
The Old Troll had no illusions about his ability to run or cast instantaneous spells like demons or fairies could, so he did the only thing he could do--he met the first dog with the tip of his staff, holding it like a spear. The impact was so hard, it pushed him back, but he still managed to hold the animal pinned to the ground for a quick moment, just in time to see the second one leaping at his throat. He flinched and deadly teeth merely missed him by an inch.
“ARRGHH!” with all his might, he swung his staff round and round, shouting and cursing, promising painful death and terror not only to the dogs themselves, but also to their pups and grand pups, as well as to the entire canine species. The curses didn’t impress the dogs too much, but four feet of iron-hard willow did. It kept them at a distance long enough for the troll to retreat to a large aspen tree at the edge of the clearing. Quicker than squirrel, he climbed as high as the tender branches would allow him, then perched among them like a giant stork. Though still struggling to catch his breath, he managed to produce something resembling victorious laughter.
“Ha-ha! Is that it?” he coughed out. “Stupid dogs! You’d better grow some wings if you want to get me!”
“There will be no need,” said a deep voice and the dogs stopped barking.
The Old Troll’s eyes fixed on three hunters that seemed to appear absolutely out of nowhere. Two of them were dressed in traditional hunters’ jackets over roughspun tunics. Their faces were half-hidden in the shadows of large hoods. The third one had his head uncovered. A thick, dark-red beard crept down his face from eyes to neck, scraping the edge of an ornate doublet dyed in the color of aged wine. When he passed the dogs, they backed off from him, writhing on their bellies, like two giant worms. The Old Troll prepared to meet the enemy with one of his famous blood-chilling glares, but the second he saw the man’s eyes, he knew it would be pointless.
There was no menace in those cold blue eyes, no anger and definitely no fear. The Red Jaeger observed his prey with pleasure and satisfaction, like a farmer who had managed to grow a particularly large and juicy squash. And now the squash was ripe and it was time for dinner.
“I knew it,” he said. “I knew it when I saw that old krona that the Norbergs gave my master for their cattle. I can smell troll’s gold from a mile away.”
He put his heavy hand on the trunk of the tree, making its yellow, heart-shaped leaves shake.
“That’s what the elder spoke about! He tried to warn me,” thought the Old Troll with belated regret. “He came to me in night and rain, he wanted to help, but all he got in return were taunts and mockery!”
One of the dogs made an attempt to storm the tree, but fell down halfway before reaching his legs. Sturdy claws left deep scratches in the bark.
“Trolls of Yore! If I survive this day, I promise, I’ll give him all of my cheese! I might even apologize, just help me to get out of here!” ran the thoughts in his head, but his mouth said something else.
“You’d better take your bearded face out of my forest, before I turn you and your jumping gerbils into rainworms!”
Although the Old Troll did his best to sound confident, it didn’t look like his threats reached their goal. All three men guffawed so loudly, he had to grasp at the branches in momentary fear that he could fall off.
“What a funny thing!” said one of the hunters. “We should put it in a cage and show it at the fair!”
Watching them laugh, the Old Troll felt his panic fading away and all that remained in him was anger. But his magic staff was lying on the ground where he dropped it, so the only thing he could do was to grind his teeth and growl.
“I told my master there was a troll in our forest,” continued the Red Jaeger, after the laughter died out, “but he wouldn’t believe. That was until he saw the second coin two weeks ago.”
“YOUR forest!” echoed the Old Troll through his teeth. “You are in for a big surprise, if you think this forest is YOURS.”
He was so mad, he was ready to jump down and tear the intruders apart with his bare hands, but his rage only resulted in a second round of laughter.
“I like how bold you are, old creature,” said the jaeger, still sniggering, then added quietly to his friends. “Time to load my arquebuse.”
One of the men took a large tube off his shoulder and put its butt on the ground, while the second one reached into little bags on his belt. The Old Troll had never seen a fire weapon before, but he had heard of them, and all his senses screamed in fear when he watched the hunters putting the charge in.
“It’s stuck,” piped up one of them. “The wad is too big.”
“Idiots!” roared their leader and stepped away from the tree to help.
It was the troll’s only chance. He didn’t actually hope to grab his staff and cast a spell before the dogs jumped at him, but it was either try or be shot down like some fur animal. He closed his eyes and the last image he saw before he jumped was his own head, mounted over a fireplace as a hunting trophy.
His plan failed before he reached the ground--a tiny evil twig caught his robes on the way down. He flipped mid-fall and landed right on one of the dogs with the most desperate cry the Forest had heard in ages. The beast squealed too and dashed into the bushes, dragging along the troll, who instinctively grabbed onto its collar with stiffened fingers.
To be fair to the dog, its startle lasted only a second. It bore down with all four paws, making its rider skid and roll into the bushes. By the time the troll stopped rolling, he was covered with enough mud and debris to build an average-sized beaver hut. He lifted his head just in time to see a slimy muzzle full of sharp teeth right in front of his face. He closed his eyes...
A heartbeat. Another. Nothing happened. The Old Troll opened one eye. The dog was still in front of him, but now it hung at nearly five feet from the ground, held up by some strange-looking branches that weren’t there just a second ago. For a moment, the magic plant took the shape of a giant hand with hundreds of long, twisty fingers. The terrified animal tried to bite and claw on them, but to no effect whatsoever. The troll opened his second eye. The limbs grew longer and longer, they curled and tangled with a quiet crackling sound, until they formed a thick wall between him and the hunters.
“Troll! Troll!” that was Olle, standing next to him, looking extremely worried. “Are you hurt? Can you walk?”
“What… what… what is that?”
The Old Troll approached the mass of twigs and branches. He found a little peekhole that showed a narrow view of the glade behind.
“What’s happening?” he whispered.
The dog managed to wriggle out of its trap and now joined the hunters who ran in circles, jumping and waving their arms, as if...
“Wild bees,” said the Old Troll as it suddenly dawned on him. “Where are they?”
Olle didn’t need to clarify whom he was asking about. He just pointed to his left and there they were: Elder Bokker and a dozen of his tribesmen. They sat in a circle with their eyes closed, quietly humming some monotonous tune. The Old Troll looked back at the giant hedge that still pulsated in its middle, like a tired animal breathing after a long run. He shivered.
“I didn’t know they could still do that,” he said quietly. “I haven’t seen real goblin magic in hundreds of years.”
He peeked into the hole again, just in time to see the bees driving the hunters and their dogs toward the swamp.
“That must hurt a lot,” said Olle when the screams faded out in the distance. “I really wish there was a better way.”
“Look at the bright side. If any of them had back pain, I’m sure it will be gone forever.”
As usual, the little nisse looked puzzled, trying to understand if his friend was joking.
“Come on,” sighed the Old Troll as he looked back at the goblins. “We need to find my bag. I hope the food didn’t get squashed. By the way, do you know how to make gift baskets? I don’t believe I’ve ever made one.”
The most secret and mysterious club in the history of Skogville was having its third meeting. This time it was in a hayloft on the top of a cattle stall in Knut’s backyard. There was only one piece of news they were discussing that night, the one that Alfred had told them after visiting his parents at the Landlord's mansion: the Red Jaeger, who left with two other hunters three days ago, was back. He returned alone, all swollen and starving, but very much alive and even scarier than usual. The members of the club spent the rest of the night guessing what happened to him and the other hunters, but just as they thought they’d come up with a good explanation, Knut’s mother climbed up the ladder and sent them all home.