When the great and mighty Northern Wind has completely banished his younger Southern brother from celestial spheres, the glaciers at the tops of the Blue Mountains that had reluctantly receded during summertime begin happily growing back, and every living creature in the Northern Lands knows that the time of play and joy is over. And woe to those whose stores and burrows are not full to the top, for the Northern winter knows no mercy!
But if there was one thing the magic folk held more dearly than their winter supplies, it was their privacy. To any of them — from the tiniest gnome who could hide in a teacup, to the biggest mountain troll the size of an oak tree — there was nothing nastier than intruders, be it a fearsome foe or simply an unexpected guest.
Each tribe of magic folk has their own way of making sure that such a disaster doesn’t befall them. Sneaky witches build restless huts that walk, swim, and even fly from place to place, making it impossible to catch them on the same spot twice. Crafty wood goblins surround their homes with charms that drive strangers into hidden pits and traps, or simply make them lose the trail and wander off to their own demise. And the little gnomes make their dwellings invisible to a stranger’s eye.
A great assortment of tricks and rigs the magic folk employed to remain undiscovered, and despite all their differences, there was one thing they all agreed on — in the new times, when the entire Northern Lands had become overwhelmed with humans, this old, powerful magic was more important than ever.
A little nook behind the dining hall smelled of wet stone and earth. In summertime, Kalle would often find rain worms and big, black beetles hiding in its shade, but now, with the winter nearly upon them, the nook was cold and empty.
“I don’t care about it,” he told himself for the hundredth time.
He leaned on the stone with his back and pushed his legs against the opposite wall. It felt better than standing, and he could hang like that for hours. Another big advantage of his secret hiding place was that no one could see him from the courtyard, but he could see and hear everything.
Two gardeners with spades went by, laughing. A mason pushed a squeaky cart filled with tools and rock shards across the yard. Then a woman rushed to the kitchens, holding two headless chickens. She almost ran into a boy who was coming out the kitchen doors with four large bowls of leftovers piled up in his hands.
“Watch it, Alfred!”
Kalle balled his fists. Oblivious to his stare, the boy blew out a whistle to call the dogs.
“I hope they tear you apart!” Kalle muttered.
But the dogs only whined and danced around Alfred, trying to catch his eye. And when the bowls were on the ground, they switched their attention to the food.
There was no one else in the world that Kalle hated more at that moment. Except maybe Alfred’s friend, Peter Rasmussen.
It had taken him three days to gather up the courage and finally talk to them. As the Landlord’s son, he was not supposed to speak with the children from the village, but ever since he had heard about the secret club… his curiosity was stronger than the fear of making his father angry.
He had finally approached them this morning, when the boys were sweeping the yard. Desperately hoping they wouldn't notice how red his cheeks were, he asked them if he could come to the club’s meeting. The village boys looked at each other, then back at him.
“What club?” asked Alfred.
“I know it’s a secret,” answered Kalle in a loud whisper. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone!”
“We don’t know what you are talking about,” said Peter.
“The secret fairy club! I heard you talking about it in the kitchens...” explained Kalle with a shy smile, “I didn’t mean to, but... Fairies and trolls! Oh, how I wish I could see one!”
Peter’s blue eyes narrowed.
“So you were spying on us.”
“No, it was... I just...” Kalle looked at them and suddenly realized that if they weren’t in the middle of his father’s manor, the boys would jump right at him.
He knew how he must have looked to them, to a couple of tough village kids — a pampered landlord’s son, chubby and weak, whose only defense would be a scream for help. Kalle’s heart sunk into his stomach, he backed up a step, then another, then turned away and ran so fast, as if all monsters of the Dark Forest were chasing him.
Even now, hours later, hiding in his safe place, the memory of his shameful retreat made his face burn.
“I’m such a fool,” he thought. “They hate me so much, why would I think they’d want me around?”
Alfred went back to the kitchens, whistling, and Kalle felt angry tears boiling in his eyes.
“I don’t need your stupid club,” he said for the hundred-and-first time. “I don’t care.”
It was long past lunchtime and he was really hungry, but he was afraid to come out while there were people nearby; he didn’t want anyone to discover his secret hideout.
Just at the moment he thought the court was empty, his father appeared, followed by the red-bearded gamekeeper. Kalle stepped back into the nook.
“I told you already, is it not enough that you lost my best hunters in that triple-cursed forest? And what about your own dogs, are they back?”
“No, sir,” boomed the gamekeeper’s deep voice, “but I promise you, this time I will be more cautious. I’m so close!”
“Hey!” shouted the Landlord, his wide face darkening. “I won’t hear any more of your stories! Trolls? Gold? Enough is enough! I can’t keep you from going there again, but don’t count on any of my men, or my dogs for that matter!”
“And I would go,” replied the gamekeeper solemnly, “if only I knew where he lives.”
The gamekeeper’s words rang in his ears and woke something dark that was hiding deep in Kalle’s stomach, something he hadn’t known was there. He held his breath and stepped out.
“What am I doing?!” screamed a little voice in his head, but all he could see was two village boys looking at him with their scary eyes full of menace and contempt.
“I know someone who knows,” said Kalle.
The two large men turned their heads.
“What are you doing here, Kalle?” asked his father irritably. “Go inside, it’s bad enough you didn’t show up for lunch.”
But the gamekeeper stepped closer and put a heavy hand on Kalle’s shoulder.
“I overheard… Accidentally...” said Kalle, whose throat suddenly went dry, “the village boys talked about it. There is a girl, Mary — Mary Rasmussen. She went to the forest and met a troll...”
“Do you know where this girl lives?” growled the gamekeeper eagerly. “Nevermind, I’ll find her...”
“And what?” interrupted the Landlord. “Kidnap and torture a child? I know you think that the villagers are afraid of you, but that fear will only make it worse when they rise up to protect their children!”
The wide grin on the big, bearded face faded out.
“You are right, sir,” he said. “We need to be smart about it.”
There was something in his voice that made Kalle shiver and hide behind his father’s back. The Landlord smirked.
“You are very good at scaring children, Hans,” he said and turned to Kalle. “Do you know what they call him down in the village?”
“The Red Jaeger,” whispered Kalle. “They say his clothes are dyed with blood of people he’s killed.”
The loud laughter rumbled like thunder, making people in every corner of the manor stop their work and look up, wondering if they had yet another storm coming.
The look the young nix gave him was so full of hatred, it nearly drilled a hole in his forehead. But the Old Troll didn’t budge.
“Stare all you want, Folkmar,” he said, “the price is final. One silver penning for everything. If you don’t want to sell, I’m going to find someone who will.”
“And just who might that be?” asked Benedict, sitting frivolously on the opposite edge of the Summer Table.
Unlike his younger friend, he was relaxed and could afford to make sarcastic remarks. No matter if they closed the deal or not, he had a handsome fee coming to him — as the head of the Swamp Community, he was entitled to oversee any trade with the Forest folk and be paid for his time. His presence annoyed the Old Troll more than the bargaining itself, but he had no other choice. He desperately needed to fix all the leaks and cracks in his Stone Shack before the winter came, and the Leech Swamp nixes supplied the best masonry materials in the Northern Lands.
“A silver will barely cover the clay mix and the moss pads. I also need to pay for delivery and other… ” the nix threw a side glance at Benedict, “other expenses.”
“I don’t see how that’s my problem.”
“Troll,” whispered Olle, who always felt uncomfortable at haggling, “we also have some winter supplies we can spare. Ask if he’s interested.”
The Old Troll didn’t even look at him.
“Don’t forget,” he said to the swamp creatures, “that I’m hiring the gnomes to do the job. I’m sure they will be more than happy to bring their own clay.”
“Do you know how much they will charge you for that?” Folkmar shouted, but quickly got a hold of himself and sat back on the bench. “You know what, I think I’ll just let you find out on your own. When they give you the estimates… well, you know where to find me.”
He got up and walked away, followed by a smirking Benedict in his dripping jacket.
“What are you doing?” asked the little nisse when they left. “It will be snowing any day now and it’s too late to ask the gnomes to bring their own materials, they are coming today!”
“Let me see,” said the nisse, scratching his beard, “the first Iron Road stagecoach leaves the Blue Mountains at dawn, and it’s about an hour walk from the station… I assume they should be at the Shack around noon.”
“Fine,” replied the Old Troll. “We still have some time. They will be back, I’m sure. A nix will never turn down money.”
He sounded much more confident than he actually was. Olle was right — the winter was knocking on their door and the forest creatures knew it better then anyone. He had no leverage in this bargain, but he wouldn’t admit it for the world.
“There is still time,” he said stubbornly, then rubbed his shoulders and prepared to wait.
The sun had just come out, struggling to get any light through heavy clouds, and it felt like the day was ending before even starting.
“If he doesn’t return by noon,” thought the Old Troll grimly, “I’ll have to go to the nixes myself and offer them something else. That will be so humiliating...”
He imagined the expression on Benedict’s slimy face and shuddered.
“Hey, Olle, why can’t you fix the house yourself again? You are also a gnome, are you not?”
“I already explained,” sighed Olle, “I’m a nisse, not a mason. There are only a few things I can do to help it. The Shack is very old; its walls need some repairs from time to time. Mortar works better and holds longer than magic.”
“Damn your mortar and your magic!” murmured the Old Troll, “Why don’t I live in a cave? I’m sure caves don’t need mortar.”
It was hard to see the expression on Olle’s face through the tangles of his beard, but when he opened his mouth, it was obvious he had taken the comment to heart.
“Do you really think our home is so bad? I always thought you loved it.”
The burst of anger had passed and the Old Troll felt uncomfortable.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean that.”
They sat quietly for some time, until Olle decided to break the silence.
“Where did you get the silver, anyway?”
“I have only one coin,” replied the Troll. “Got it from my cousin back in Summer. Why do you think I insist on that price?” the Old Troll smirked. ”To be honest, I don’t think the nixes would accept gold from me anyway. They’d be afraid I’d curse it.”
Olle made a neutral humming sound that could have meant anything. He probably thought that their suspicions might have been grounded, but he didn’t want to start another argument.
“About curses,” he said instead, ”remember how I asked you about the spell you put on the coin you gave to the villagers? You never told me the ending.”
The Old Troll scratched his head.
“Hm… so there was...
Storms and lightning, grass and roots,
Keep the secret, bring the goods...
Ash and fire, snow and cold,
Leave the goodies, take the gold.”
“Argh!” Olle shook his head. “That sounds awful! Did you actually have to mention all that snow and fire?”
“I just wanted to make the spell stronger,” said the Old Troll, shrugging, ”and calling for elements is usually the way to go. Why are you asking?”
“I have a bad feeling about this. Maybe you should have found other words.”
The Old Troll winced.
“What are you now, an expert on troll magic?”
As it had always been with Olle, the sarcasm was wasted on him.
“You know that I’m not. But I don’t like this spell. Maybe that’s how you got yourself a drafty house right before winter, with all that talk about cold and snow.“
“Nonsense,” the troll dismissed his argument with a wave. “Where is the fire then? Instead of criticizing my spells, you should be thinking of where we can get the materials.”
“You know where,” said the nisse. “Go to the nixes. And I’m going home to meet the gnomes, they should come any time now.”
“Don’t be long, Troll,” he added, jumping down from the bench. “The weather is getting worse!”
The area around the Summer Table, that had been so beautiful just a couple of months ago, was now all tattered and torn, like a giant roughspun rag. For a brief moment, it seemed to the Old Troll that he was looking at a withered leaf blown away by the wind. He rubbed his eyes and the leaf turned back into his little nisse, quickly shuffling across the opening in his silly gnomish jacket. As he watched him disappearing into the forest, he felt a strange, painful emptiness in his heart.
“I might be a bit hungry, that’s all,” he told himself, but he knew it wasn’t true.
He sat alone for a while, looking at the endless swamp beside the table, until he noticed that all sounds around him had disappeared. The birds stopped chirping and the fir trees stood still with no wind to ruffle their needles. The sun, which should be high up in the skies this time of day, was nowhere to be seen, and the skies themselves looked dull and monotonous, like the inside of an iron cauldron. The air was getting colder by the minute.
“It’s a bit chilly,” said the troll out loud and his words, as if to prove him true, came out in a cloud of vapor.
He looked around to check if someone had heard his complaint and froze in mid-motion; instead of nixes or gnomes, he saw three village children emerging from the woods in complete silence. They moved quickly and lightly, like three little ghosts. Every hair on his head stood up on its end.
“Forest almighty...” said the Old Troll and blinked very hard several times, “I’m not seeing this!”
The children did not disappear, but now that they came closer, they didn't look like ghosts anymore with their old clothes, worn-out shoes, and smiling faces smeared with dirt.
“I’m so glad we found you!” panted Mary, her cheeks glowing with red. “We thought you’d leave, so we ran all the way from the Shack!”
“You are not here. It’s not you. Not again,” moaned the Old Troll in a weak voice. “Please, be gone!”
“We came to warn you,” said Peter, ignoring his plea. “It’s the Red Jaeger. Tell him, Alfred!”
“I heard...” said Alfred, struggling to catch his breath, “I heard the Jaeger… he was speaking to the Fat Landlord. He said… He said he knows where you live! They were going to get more hunters and...”
“I was so afraid we wouldn’t find the way!” interrupted Mary. “But we did!”
“Can you please speak one at a time?” requested the Old Troll.
Suddenly, she stopped talking. Her broad smile gave way to an expression of fear and disgust. Peter and Alfred both yelped and stepped back, looking at something behind his back.
“Oh, no,” said the Old Troll, hiding his face in his palm, “I can’t believe this.”
There was no need to look to know what they saw.
“Would you like to introduce us to your friends?” asked Benedict in mordant, poisonous voice.
The Old Troll gave out a moan full of pain. Just a minute ago he had desperately wanted the nixes to come back and now when they had come, he really wished that they were miles away.
“Did you come to agree on my terms?” he asked, turning around. “And where is the other one?”
But the head of the Swamp Community ignored his questions. He made a step towards the children, who looked absolutely terrified.
He screwed up his pointy face, trying to produce a welcoming smile, but it only made him look like he was chewing on a lemon. Peter grabbed Mary’s hand.
“Is that an otter?” he asked in loud whisper. “How is she talking?”
Benedict’s smile soured and turned even greener than usual. Despite the perplexity of the situation, the Old Troll couldn’t hold back a smirk.
“A muskrat, to be precise,” he said. “It was trained to make an impression of intelligent speech, but don’t be fooled, it’s just a trick she knows.”
The nix went from reed-green to a light shade of purple.
“That’s the last straw, troll!” he hissed through his teeth. “You’ve done it now!”
He turned around and sprung into the murky water. His head showed for some time above the surface, zigzagging between tussocks and sickly bog brush as he swam away. The Old Troll followed his departure with a grim expression on his face.
“There goes my cheap clay. And here comes trouble.”
He got up and hobbled towards the forest, grabbing Peter’s sleeve on his way.
“We have to go before they come.”
“Who? The muskrats? The Witch?”
“All of them,” said the Old Troll, pulling on his sleeve. “Come on.”
The children followed him meekly, throwing cautious glances at the swamp.
“It’s getting really annoying,” complained the troll. ”You get in the forest, I get you out of forest. I can’t do it anymore. I’ll take you to your beloved fairies. I hope they are still awake.”
“Why would they be sleeping?” asked Mary. “It’s noon.”
The Old Troll grunted.
“Noon? All you villagers do is tell stories about ugly trolls and pretty fairies, but you know nothing of our lives. Just so you know, your precious fairies lock themselves in their houses and sleep through winter, like groundhogs,” he nudged her with the tip of his staff. “Come on now, little dolts, we still have a chance to catch them before they go to bed.”
“Now wait a minute!” Mary stopped on the spot, glaring at the troll furiously. “We came all the way here trying to help you, and all we get for your gratitude is you calling us...”
“Little dolts, yes,” prompted the troll, amused at her anger, “and that’s only because you actually are.”
He leaned on his staff and looked at all three of them. An indignant ten-year-old girl and two young boys, with a mix of awe and curiosity in their eyes.
“Have you ever wondered why, especially with the Northern Lands crawling with men nowadays, there are still so few who could say they’ve actually seen any of the Forest Folk? It’s our old magic, the magic that shields our homes from the likes of your Red Jaeger — only those who were welcomed in my house can find the way. You didn’t find the Stone Shack, my little cherry thief, the Stone Shack let you find her, because you have been welcomed there before,” he said, then added irritably, ”thanks to my overly kind nisse and his candy-eating, winter-sleeping friends.”
The children listened to him intently, and the only sound in the forest was of their teeth chattering from the cold.
“Come on,” the Old Troll urged them, “I don’t have a whole day for you.”
They marched forward. Soon, the trail made a curve and took them back to the swamp, only two miles to the East from where they started. By that time, the air had gotten even colder and they had to walk as fast as they could to try to keep warm.
“So now when you’re taking us to the fairies,” asked Mary, shivering, “does that mean we’ll be able to find our way to their homes in the future?”
“I hope so,” answered the Old Troll and a bitter smile appeared on his face. “It will be my little gift to the fairy family. To help them experience that special feeling of someone bringing unexpected guests to your front door!”
They came out of the forest and walked on a thin, barely visible path winding among giant boulders and leafless trees. Even here, in the open, there was still not a whiff of wind, and the cold water stood perfectly still in pools and puddles along their way. The children stopped to look in one of those pools and the black mirror showed their faces sharply drawn on the canvas of dark, stormy clouds framed in an ornament of floating leaves and dry grass. Despite his terrible mood, the Old Troll couldn’t help a thought that sometimes the swamp had its own beauty — strange and unsettling as it was, but beauty nonetheless.
The party had finally reached a big patch of land. It was overgrown with tall, withered reeds, hiding its middle from the eye of a stranger. Any forest creature would immediately notice the curious way the trees grew on that land — one tree of each kind, forming a circle around the clearing in the center — but the villagers paid no attention.
“Where are we going?” asked Alfred, whose dripping nose had gotten so cold, its tip took on the tender blue shade of robin eggs.
"We're already here."
The Old Troll raised his staff and knocked on one of the trees.
"Alina!" he piped up.
Nothing happened at first. Then a giant bush of bog sage at their feet shook, gave out a squeak, and a little door opened in the bottom.
"Are you mad?" said Alina in sleepy voice. "Coming here and screaming like an imp with his tail on fire!"
The Old Troll gave her a most unpleasant smile.
“Oh, I’m sorry. You see…” he said thoughtfully, ”I found a lump of spoiled moldy cheese in my storage and I wanted to throw it away, but then I thought... Hey, this would make a great lunch for my friend Alina! I know it’s not very fresh, but...”
“You must be out of your mind completely!” she yelled, but then she saw the children and forgot all about the troll.
“What’s going on? Mary, Peter, what are you doing here?”
Neither Mary nor the boys answered — they were too busy looking around with their eyes and mouths wide open. They suddenly discovered that the shrubs, the trees, and the tussocks crammed together on a patch of dry land were nothing else but little houses, each one of different size and shape, yet all very similar. In a most capricious fashion, leaves and stems tangled, forming walls and roofs, cozy porches and fancy balconies. And the colors… although the flowers had lost most of their summertime glamour, it was still easy to tell how beautiful the place had been just a couple of months ago.
Astonished at the sight of the fairy village, the children stood silent, while the Old Troll told Alina what he knew. One by one, her sisters came out to listen, some of them grumpy, some curious, but all very, very sleepy.
“So the children heard some hunter talking to some lord,” said a slim fairy from the top of a rowan tree.
Her hair was so red, it completely blended in with the bunches of orange berries around her. “Who cares? Why did you think it was a good reason to bring them to our village?”
The Old Troll felt a wave of hot blood rising to his head.
“Why did you YOU think it there was ANY reason to bring that child into my home?” he shouted, pointing at Mary’s face. “Remember what you did back in summer?!”
The rowan fairy pursed her lips.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
The Old Troll lost control of his temper completely.
“Because if you hadn’t brought her to my house,” he roared, jumping and trying to knock the fairy off the tree with his staff, “there would be no cursed... wretched... village... riffraff... roaming around my forest! No hunters! No dogs!”
The fairy climbed higher and screamed, “Leave me alone, you old goat!”
“Enough!” shouted Alina.
The Old Troll leaned on the trunk of the tree, panting, while the red-haired fairy showered him with curses and fistfuls of large rowanberries.
“Enough!” repeated Alina. “Tamina, please! I want to hear the story from the children.”
“We overheard...” started Peter, but Alfred cut him off.
“Last night we were cleaning the pots and they came into the kitchens, the Landlord and the Jaeger. They spoke quietly and thought we didn’t hear, but we did.”
“We heard everything,” said Peter. “We heard the Jaeger say that they knew where to find the troll’s house and they were going to go there tomorrow. Which is today.”
There was a long silence, then Tamina opened her mouth.
“That’s stupid,” she said, and the fairies all started talking at once.
Satisfied to see the havoc he had caused in the recently peaceful fairy village, the Old Troll was about to leave, when a terrible suspicion struck him.
“How often does your Landlord come to the kitchens?” he asked, feeling an unpleasant bitter taste on his tongue.
There was something in his voice that made the shouting fairies quiet. The children looked at each other.
“Not too often,” said Alfred. “Actually, I can’t remember the last time he did that before. Why?”
The Old Troll turned around and ran back toward the forest, his heart pounding heavily in his ears.
“It’s just a coincidence,” he tried to calm himself down, “they couldn’t have guessed that Peter’s sister knows the way to the Shack. It’s all my imagination.”
When he was almost out of the swamp, he felt tiny bites of ice on his face — the pregnant skies finally broke out with swarms of large, fluffy snowflakes. He wiped off his face and pushed further, huffing and puffing, trying to watch his step on a trail that was getting wet and slippery.
Despite all his caution, he finally slid on glistening leaves and landed face-down on the ground. The foliage cushioned the fall, but it was still strong enough to knock the remaining breath out of him. Eyes shut tight, he called to the First Troll to spare him from broken bones, then carefully moved his arms and legs. Everything seemed to be in order. He sighed with relief, opened his eyes, and the first thing he saw was a little round rock lying right under his nose. Covered with melting snow, it shone bright red, like a smoldering ember. The Old Troll picked it up and held it in his palm, trying to understand what he was looking at, until he realized that it was a button. A red button made of polished jasper...
The rest of his way turned into a blur. He didn’t remember how he ran, choking with horror, slipping on wet leaves and leaning heavily on his staff, with only one thought in his head. He ran until he sensed a heavy burning smell and then saw clouds of smoke rising above the treetops. When, barely breathing, he finally popped into the clearing before the Stone Shack, he saw that it was all over.
Ancient walls of thick stone hadn’t given in to the fire, but the house was all charred and misshapen and it had a pile of cinders where the woodshed used to be. Right in front of his eyes, the roof slowly collapsed inside the house, blackened windows spat out the last bunch of sparks, then the flames reluctantly subsided.
“Where is my nisse?” asked someone in a hoarse, muffled voice.
It took the Old Troll a moment to understand that the voice was his own. He closed his eyes and plunged into the smoldering ruins. The heat was unbearable, but his wet clothes saved him from burns; he pushed through, right to the nook behind the fireplace. For a moment, he was afraid he would have to run out empty handed, but a second later his fingers brushed on something that could only be a little leather jacket.
“No, no, no...” mumbled the Old Troll, pulling Olle out of his nook, but then the smoke filled up his chest and all he could produce was a violent cough. It was hard to find the way out without being able to see a thing, but the shack wasn’t very big and a moment later he put Olle on the snow and fell down next to him, struggling to catch a breath.
“I thought there were just a couple of patches,” said someone right above his ear, “I’d say there is a bit more.”
The Old Troll tried to see who was talking, but his eyes, burning with ash and tears, refused to give him a clear picture.
“What happened here?” asked another voice.
The troll finally remembered about the gnomes. There were two of them, little, well-built people wearing short beards on their round faces. They looked at him, expecting an explanation, but he couldn’t make himself speak. He just sat there, nursing the body of his only friend in his lap. He tried to wipe off the tears, but they kept running, until his eyes were completely dry and his mouth felt like it was filled with hot sand. The gnomes waited, quietly talking to each other in their own tongue.
When the Old Troll finally gained control of himself, he heard a slight rustle of leaves behind his back. He turned his head and the first thing he saw was the Witch. She stood at the edge of the trees, with the toad on her chest and the owl on her shoulder, and she wasn’t alone. There was a flock of young wood goblins on her right and Benedict with two other nixes on her left. The Old Troll sat in front of them, feeling weak, helpless, and completely alone.
The swamp gang looked at him without saying a word. Some gloating, some with disdain, but the worst of all was the face of the Bog Witch. She looked at him with her eyes narrowed and full of solemn resolution.
“The little monsters brought the hunters to your home,” she said. “I DID tell you this would happen, did I not?”
Not looking at her, the Old Troll carefully put Olle on the ground and watched as white snowflakes descended on his little russet jacket in complete silence. The Witch turned to her followers.
“We must face it,” she said grimly, “since the men found their way here, none of us can feel safe in our homes anymore. And you…“ she turned back, ”you are the reason it all happened.”
“I?!” finally broke out the Old Troll in harsh, growling voice, “I am the reason?!”
The Witch stepped back.
“You and your imps, fairies and nixes, you play games with one another, lying and spying and scheming and I am the reason?”
He advanced at them, his voice getting stronger with every word.
“Even now, you stand over the body of my nisse, who was worth thousands of the likes of you, and you are giving a speech, trying to use his death to your advantage!”
The Old Troll grabbed his staff from the ground and pointed it at the crowd in front of him.
Roaring fire, raging storm…
Benedict was the first to realize what was about to happen. He sprang into the nearest bushes with a squeak.
Ash and cinders swirl and swarm…
The Bog Witch's eyes became round; she tried to reach into her robes for a potion but her hand tangled in the folds. Feeling her panic, the giant toad jumped down and the owl took wing.
Mighty blizzard, hold your turn...
The tip of the troll’s staff started glowing red. The goblins finally felt a breath of powerful magic and scattered to the sides like a pack of mice.
Here I am to see you b...
“He’s not dead!” rang a high, clear voice.
It was probably the first time in the history of spells when a troll stopped a curse at the last moment of conjuring.
The fireball at the end his staff shrunk down and disappeared with a thin streak of smoke.
“He’s breathing,” said one of the gnomes, pressing his ear to the nisse’s chest, “but he’s very weak. We need to get him to the healer right away, maybe she can still save him.”
The Old Troll looked back. The space in front of the Shack was empty. It was just him and the gnomes.
“What can I do?”
“Carry him to the station, we can still catch the last ride back to the Mountains.”
And once again on that day, he rushed through the icy forest, slipping and cursing, full of doubt and fear, desperately trying to feel any sign of life in the tiny body he was pressing against his heart.
“We’ll get you there,” he kept whispering under his breath. “Don’t worry, my little scamp, we’ll get you there.”
They reached the railroad just before sunset. The station was carved inside a small, rocky hill and it was impossible to see unless you knew exactly where it was.
The grumpy gnome who guarded the entrance didn’t let the troll past the gate, so he had no other choice but to stay outside and look at the arch where a pair of thin, barely visible rails came out of the station. By the time the stagecoach departed, he couldn’t feel his toes and fingers anymore. Pulled by a team of six giant mountain rats, a little car bolted out faster than a crossbow shot, giving him hope that the gnomes would reach the Blue Mountains before the railway became completely buried in snow.
Only then did the Old Troll notice that it was dark and the single snowflakes had given way to heavy snowfall. As if that wasn’t enough, sharp gusts of wind came from the North, picking some of the snow off the ground, throwing it back and forth in mid-air, a clear sign of a nearing blizzard.
“The winter is here,” said the Old Troll, whose heart felt as frozen and numb as his arms and legs, “and I’ve never been less ready in my life.”
was way too late for little bunnies to be out, but it was his first
snow and he couldn’t make himself leave all this white, fluffy,
swirling magnificence. Just this morning he was so confused as to why
his gray summer fur was turning white, and now it all suddenly made
sense — his new color matched everything around him and life
couldn’t be more beautiful.
The little bunny stopped in front of a giant fir tree on his way home. The lower branches, that grew into the earth many years before he had been born, were covered with a thick layer of snow, like everything else in the forest. But there was something underneath those branches, something alive. He came closer, sniffed the air, and snuck in.
He knew he wasn’t supposed to do this, because his mama-bunny told him to stay away from strangers, especially those hiding in the dark. But that’s how it is with little bunnies — when they are young, they don’t listen to their parents, and when they are older and ready to listen, their parents are not around to offer their advice anymore.
It was dry and warm inside that fir-tree house. It smelled of earth, mushrooms, and something else… The bunny remembered that smell from an old charred tree that was struck by lightning back in summer — the bitter smell of ash and cinders.
“Come in, I won't eat you,” said the Old Troll.
Bunny wiggled his tiny nose and moved closer.
“You know what… I’ve got something for you.”
The stranger took a small, blackened tin out of his pocket and opened it. The tin was full of dry leaves and flowers.
“That’s all I have left of him. The Box of Summer, he called it.”
The bunny carefully picked one of the flowers and started chewing.
“Dig in, buddy. I have no use for it now. Besides, he loved to feed animals in the winter,” said the Old Troll, because it was him and no one else.
The next leaf that the bunny took from the box came with little drops of salty water. When the box was empty, the Old Troll took the bunny in his lap.
“When the storm is over,” he said, ”we'll go to the mountains, to my nephew’s house. Just think of that! We'll drink hot rock-grog, eat pickled leeks, ramson bread… last time I paid them a visit, we had hot crab apple jam for dessert… mmm… do you like crab apples?”
The bunny didn’t
answer. He waited a little longer to see if he would be offered more
food, but since there was none, he jumped down from the troll’s
lap and slipped out.
“A ‘thank you’ would be nice,” said the Old Troll and sighed. “I wish I could eat flowers.”
He checked his pockets, but all he found was a couple of rowanberries. He slumped against the trunk and chewed on the berries, listening to the raging snowstorm outside, savoring their bitter-sweet taste in his mouth.