The winter was still far, far away, but the forest creatures already felt a premonition of its freezing breath in the early morning hours. Hamsters and chipmunks rushed to the fields searching for grain with which to fill their underground stores to the top. Wood goblins gathered barrels of clover honey and pine nuts. Trolls and gnomes picked berries and brewed an abundance of berry jam that would later fill hundreds of clay pots that lined up on long shelves in ranks like plump little soldiers whose sole duty was to help the forest folk survive until spring.
The sun was taking longer and longer to come out in the morning. As if it had become tired of all the great work it had been doing all summer, it lingered beyond the skyline of the blue mountains in the West to get an extra moment of sleep.
On those mornings, just at that moment when the night was already over but the sun was still in its bed, a thick gray mist rose from the depths of Leech Swamp. It slowly spilled into the forest, silent and shapeless in the dim twilight, like the skirt of a giant ghost. From there--from the very thicket of the woods--it sent its soft hazy sprouts into the fields surrounding the village.
The villagers always tried to come to work a bit later on those days, just to make sure that the sun was out and it had enough time to wipe out every trace of the fog.
“See that?” they would tell their children. “The Bog Witch is making her soup again. We will let it clear, it’s bad luck to step in it.”
Naturally, the boys and girls of Skogville had many questions about the Bog Witch and her soup. What does she put in it? Peas and carrots? Or dead rats and murky water from the swamp? The only person in the village who would answer those questions was Grandpa Anders. His list of ingredients would start with
Lichen and moss
And moonlight gloss,
A birchbark flake
And ripples from a lake,
A spikelet of rye
And a bittern’s cry...
and continue on and on until the old man ran out of breath.
If you asked the forest folk, however, they would tell you that all those stories were absolutely bogus. Firstly, every creature in the Dark Forest knew that the Bog Witch made her soup every Thursday and it wasn’t every Thursday that the fog came. Secondly, how could the villagers know about what went into it? The only way for them to be invited was to be on the list of ingredients.
Perhaps it was the worst Thursday ever, or at least that's how it seemed to the Old Troll when he dragged his sore feet back home, empty handed.
As usual this time of year, while his little nisse was picking cowberries at the swamp, the Old Troll went to raid the peasants’ stores and cellars, hoping to get his hands on some of that brown sugar they extracted from beets. It was a good product, that sugar. Not only did it make berry jam much sweeter, it also preserved it better in winter than all the trollish and gnomish charms combined.
So this morning he got up well before dawn and went to the village, shivering in the chilly air and tripping on dewy roots invisible in the pre-dawn twilight.
He couldn’t recall the exact moment it happened. Being so busy trying to stay on the trail he noticed the men only when he heard their voices close and loud, as if they were standing right next to him. He snapped out of his thoughts and dropped onto the wet moss behind the nearest fir tree just in time for people with torches to walk by.
“What’s happening?” he asked himself, puzzled and scared. “What are they doing out here in the forest?”
The men stopped and looked around. The Old Troll tried to squeeze himself into the grass, calling to all spirits of the forest to help him become invisible. His legs suddenly felt too big and he was almost sure they could see the end of his staff sticking out of the leaves.
“If we knew when they left at least, we’d be able to tell how far they’ve gotten by now,” said one villager.
“Poor Rasmus,” answered another. “I heard he went to the mansion, asking to send hunters to help.”
“And?” asked someone he couldn’t see.
“What do you think? They threw him out. The Landlord said he’d better be in the fields in the morning if he didn’t want his debt doubled.”
The peasants kept quiet for a while.
“Hey!” called out another voice from the woods. “Come on, the fog is rising!”
“You’re right,” said the first man as he shivered. “Let’s go. Hey, did the dogs pick up on anything? Nothing?”
“Poor Rasmus,” said his friend again. “He swore they’d keep searching even if they had to go to the very heart of the forest.”
The Old Troll didn’t know what to make of all that. What he did know, however, was that while the forest around the village was bustling with people and dogs, he had no business being anywhere near. When the voices grew quiet, he got up and walked in the opposite direction, sinking deeper and deeper into the thickening mist with every step. He could still hear the villagers’ voices and the fog made him feel like they were coming from all around him. It was so unpleasant that he found himself walking faster and faster and then running, though he couldn’t see a thing three feet ahead.
Being at risk of having no sugar for his jam wasn’t the only problem he had to face these days.
After the recent events with a lost villager child, his relationship with the local forest community had gone downhill. To top it off, the Bog Witch then denied him a place at her Thursday table, which was a huge slap in the face in front of the entire Dark Forest. Ever since, he had been trying to avoid meeting others to spare himself their offensive looks and comments. This morning’s encounter with the men from the village, however, left him so uneasy that he felt relieved when two spots of magic green light shined through the bushes ahead. The trail took him out in the open space where the forest blended into marshes. The dull smell of stale water and reeds replaced the rich aroma of pines and rosemary.
“No matter who it is, it couldn’t be as bad as the villagers,” he told himself and stepped out of the trees.
It wasn’t gnomes or fairies, as he thought at first, but a couple of bog imps.
“Aghh...” he swallowed an angry grunt. If there were any of the magic folk he didn’t look forward to meeting, it was the imps.
Little things with leathery wings and pointy ears, they hovered in the air three feet off the ground holding lanterns. As was customary at the Swamp, the lanterns were filled not with oil, but with rotting touchwood that gave off cold, noxious light. This particular charge seemed to be enchanted to glow stronger than usual, because despite the fog and the gloom, the Old Troll could clearly see every little detail on the bat-like figures.
The imps saw him, too.
“Ha!” said one of them. “Ha-ha!”
“Hey, let me see... Isn’t it the Old Troll?” said the other, joining his friend. “But I heard he moved to the village, didn’t he, Zoomy?”
“What are you talking about, Yoomy? He lives with the fairies now, can’t you see he’s wearing a bodice?”
The Old Troll inadvertently looked down at his tunic, causing a blast of laughter.
“Is that why he’s not invited to the Floating Hut anymore?” cried the first imp in reply. “What a shame!”
The Old Troll felt his weariness fading away as his temper got hold of him. He slowly moved toward the bullies, switching the grip on his staff.
“At least I was invited,” he said through his teeth. “Trifling bugs like you will never stand a chance of getting anywhere near.”
The imps choked on their laughter.
“We just might,” one of them said, “If...”
But at that moment the Old Troll drew closer and... WHOOSH! swung his staff as quick and hard as he could.
Were he a bit younger, the blow would have taken down both imps. Unfortunately, his countless years took their toll: the imps dashed to the sides, completely unharmed. Shouting and cursing, he chased them into the forest, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get even one. They zoomed just above his head like two giant horseflies, making scornful comments and egging him on when he stopped to catch his breath.
When he could not swing any more, the imps were nearly dead from laughter.
“Oh, stop, please!” shouted Zoomy, pressing a tiny claw to his belly. “Have mercy!”
“I can’t take this anymore!” squeezed out his friend. “Look at that old thing hopping like a rabbit!”
“Oh, oh, careful, my brother demon!”
“You see how he's puffing? One more minute of this and we’ll have a dead troll on our hands! What will the fairies say?”
Yoomy laughed so hard he almost dropped his lantern. He caught it by the bronze ring in mid-fall and froze in the air, staring at the light as if trying to remember why he had it in the first place.
“Wait!” he shouted, “We forgot about our little business!”
“Oh, maggots!” answered Zoomy. “Hurry! Before they get away!”
With that, the imps disappeared so quickly that the Old Troll had a momentary feeling that he had been fighting a mirage.
He took a couple of seconds to gather whatever little strength he had left in him, then walked after the scoundrels as fast as he could. Somewhere in the back of his mind he realized how childish his behavior was, but the frustration of recent failures had been lying heavily on his heart and he craved a small victory to break the spree of bad luck following him these days.
“Yes, I’m old,” he muttered. “Old enough to know that the one who laughs last, laughs longer!”
When he caught a glimpse of green lights again, he stopped and hid behind a large rock to give himself a moment to think. It was obvious that the creatures were too quick and nimble for him, but in times like this his ancient troll magic came in handy. He thrust his staff toward the imps and strained his memory to make sure his spell had all the right incantations:
Rot and touchwood, light and flame,
Go away to whence you came,
Muck and water, dirt and sand,
Time has come for games to end.
The lights in the lanterns guttered out.
“What happened?” asked Yoomy, so puzzled that the Old Troll almost gave himself away with laughter.
“What did you do?” screeched Zoomy in a thin voice. “Did you mess up the charms again, mosquito?”
“No, it wasn’t me! Don't call me mosquito, you're the mosquito!”
Watching the imps tinkering with their lanterns and fighting was more enjoyable than anything else that had happened to the Old Troll this whole summer. He honestly couldn’t tell what was harder to hold back -- the chuckles that were tearing him apart or the imps’ lantern charms that fought his own spell, trying to break free.
“Come on!” whispered the Old Troll, clutching at the trembling staff with both hands. “Come on!”
And at just the right moment, when both imps were peering inside Zoomy’s lantern, he quickly jerked his staff aside as if tearing off an invisible string.
The effect went well beyond his expectations. The flash from the tiny pieces of touchwood was so bright that it almost blinded him through his shut eyelids. And after opening his eyes, he could finally let out his laughter, because the imps were so busy shrieking and zigzagging in the air, they could not possibly notice his presence. By the time one of them slammed into a tree and dropped in a puddle underneath, the Old Troll was in tears from laughter, unable to get off the ground.
“I’m drowning!” yelled the imp, thrashing in a puddle. “Help!”
“Coming!” answered the other one and then flew straight into the middle of a giant rosemary bush.
The Old Troll couldn’t take it anymore; he just sat there and gasped like a fish out of water. The revenge was sweeter than the peasants' beet sugar.
But sooner or later, all good things must end. The Old Troll didn't want his face to be the first one that the imps would see when they regained their sight, so he reluctantly got up and walked away. The fog around him was still thicker than jelly, but the sun already showed its blurry red edge above the tree line ahead.
“Where am I?” the Old Troll asked himself. “For the Green Forest and Blue Mountains, with all that rumpus, I forgot where I was going!”
He looked around -- there was a swamp on his left and trees on his right. He looked at the sun and realized that he was heading in the wrong direction.
“Now where is that old moose trail? It should take me right to the Western path...”
He strolled into a small clearing in the woods, humming a happy tune and feeling unusually content. As the sun was rising, the forest around him was coming to life with grasshopper schirrs and bird tweets and there was no place more peaceful on the entire Earth. Or at least it seemed so.
Of all the forest folk, the Old Troll was the first to know that the forest will always punish the careless. But on that one day, for that one moment, he let his guard down--and he paid for it right away. Because when he heard a voice shouting, “Here he is!” he was so relaxed that he froze on the spot instead of hiding. Next, there was a loud click and something stung him in the left part of his bottom.
He jumped up with a screech like a marsh hawk and swirled around, swinging his staff and holding up his Cheese Bag as a shield. A barrage of images rushed through his mind, from imps shooting fireballs to goblins setting giant bees on him. But when he reached down to check on his wound, he found a short arrow in his hand. It was the most awkward projectile that the Old Troll had seen in his life; it was fletched with what seemed to be chicken feathers and it had a tiny shoe nail for a head. Puzzled, he looked up and saw his attackers: two little boys, one holding a stick and the other one a wooden crossbow.
“Stay where you are, troll!”
The Old Troll felt his jaw dropping. Even though he’d had a strong suspicion this Thursday would be a day to remember, the reality had beaten anything he could have imagined.
“Yes, stay where you are,” repeated the other boy, “if you value your life!”
“Sure, I’m staying,” said the Old Troll. The shock gave way to curiosity. “Now what?”
The first boy took a deep breath, held up his weapon and said, “Now, you give us your gold!”
It was a huge disappointment. He was ready to hear anything, but not that worn-out tune.
“Come and take it,” he said coolly. “It’s in the bag.”
The boy lingered indecisively. He held up the crossbow and took a slow step forward. Then another. The Old Troll narrowed his eyes.
“No,” whispered the other little villager. “Wait...”
The warning came too late. The Old Troll made the last step himself, but instead of giving the boy his bag, he quickly put it over his head.
“I might be too slow for the imps,” growled the Old Troll, grabbing the crossbow, “but I can still handle a couple of naughty children...”
The crossbow got tossed right into the nearest bushes.
“...who run away into the forest, seeking after troll’s treasures,” he finished.
The shooter finally managed to pull the Cheese Bag off his head and threw it aside. The Old Troll slowly picked it up. Once again he remembered how tired he was and how the only thing he wanted was to go home, get some rest, and finally eat his breakfast.
“If you are done, my dear sirs,” he said, smirking, “I will take my leave. But don’t you worry, there will be others to keep you company.”
“Who?” squeaked the second boy.
“Oh, you will know soon enough.”
As was the tradition, he thought of adding something scary, but their faces looked so lost that he felt his earlier chuckles returning. Unwilling to break the drama of the moment, he simply waved his hand and walked away.
The lane that would take him home was easy enough to find, but as he made his first steps on it, he realized that something about those little treasure seekers was bothering him. He stopped and scratched the back of his head. The thought would not come but his anxiety only increased.
“I will never get home this way,” he told himself, and turned around and went back.
“Too many people roaming free in my forest today,” he mumbled, making his way through the bushes. “It cannot be a coincidence, there is something behind this...”
“So what are we going to do?” asked a familiar screechy voice.
Old Troll had already opened his mouth for an answer, but quickly
realized that the question was not directed at him.
“You tell me, you drowned your lantern!”
“Well, you dropped yours!”
The Old Troll crouched behind a giant pine tree, listening.
“I hate you and your damn lanterns! How are we supposed to bring them to the witch now?”
“Listen,” Yoomy suddenly shouted with agitation. “Listen! If we can’t bring the children to the witch… Maybe we can bring the witch to the children!”
“You trifling bugs,” whispered the Old Troll. “Is that how you sought to earn your invites?”
“Oh, yes!” exclaimed Zoomy. ”I love you, my brother demon!”
The Old Troll sat a little longer until the flapping of little wings faded out, then he went back to the place of his recent battle. When he peeked through the bushes, he saw the children still in the same spot. One of them was sitting on the grass, crying.
“We’ll find the way home,” said the other one. “Stop crying, Axel. Let’s go.”
“Go where?” shouted his friend, jumping up. “We don’t even know where we are! I should have never listened to you, Peter!”
“I have to admit,” said the Old Troll to himself, “I feel a bit sorry for those little brats. Their only fault is that they are incredibly stupid. But if every stupid… Wait...”
He finally remembered what had been bothering him—and where he had heard about a boy with a toy crossbow before.
“This Peter is that Peter,” he said slowly. ”Mary’s brother, Peter!”
If there was any pity in him before, it disappeared in a blink of an eye.
“I knew she would tell the whole village about me!” He was so furious, his hands began to shake. “I knew it!”
Another wave of sobs came from the glade, “We’re going to die!”
“Serves you right!” grumbled the Old Troll as he walked away.
He found Olle at the top of Cowberry Hill and he wasn’t alone -- a pack of fairies were keeping him company. Alina, as usual, ate more berries than she picked, but a dozen of her sisters worked hard and their wickers were almost as full as Olle’s.
“All are here. Perfect!” said the Old Troll.
The slope of the hill was covered with bushy green moss and short cowberry shrubs that tangled around troll's feet, making the way up an exhausting exercise. The fog was long gone and the sun was up, so by the time he made it to the top, he was steaming like a bowl of hot soup.
“Do you know what you’ve done?!” shouted the Old Troll, walking right on the berries.
“No,” answered Alina with her mouth full. “But I know what you’ve done. You just squashed half the harvest with those big ugly feet of yours.”
“The forest is swarming with peasants and treasure hunters!”
“Where?” asked Olle, looking around. “What are you talking about?”
The fairies dropped everything and came closer.
“I’m talking about the villagers! And you know who told them where to look for us?” he moved close to the nisse’s face. “Try and guess!”
“Who?” asked Olle, but then he understood. “No!”
“Yes!” As angry as he was, the Old Troll couldn’t help taking a certain pleasure in knowing he had been right from the very beginning. “Your damned cherry thief!”
“You are lying,” said Alina calmly as she got back to her cowberries. “The fairies have no equal in judging character. She could not possibly be the one who did it.”
“Is that right?” squinted the Old Troll. “Maybe you can tell that to her brother, who ambushed me and demanded that I give him my gold not an hour ago?”
His sarcasm was lost on the fairies.
“Well, did you?” asked one with thick blonde braids. She laughed when he growled at her, not able to control his emotions any longer.
“Come on,” said Alina. “We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
She wiped her hands, leaving smears of red berry juice on her dress and flew heavily down the hill, followed by the others.
“I’ll stay here with the berries!” shouted Olle to their backs. “If it’s true, please say ‘Hi!’ to Mary’s brother for me!”
It seemed like the children were too scared to move. Otherwise, the Old Troll couldn’t think of a reason why they didn’t scream and run away when a loud company of forest creatures poured out of the woods.
“Tell me,” said Alina, who had made quite an effort to keep up with her sisters and was now even less inclined towards ceremony than usual. “What are you doing here?”
“And don’t you dare lie to me!” she added, pointing her little finger right at Peter’s face. Peter swallowed, staring at her with big round eyes.
“We were just looking for the Troll’s treasure,” said his friend. “Please don’t kill us!”
“Aha!” exclaimed the Old Troll triumphantly. “Now ask who told them about the troll!”
“Quiet,” said Alina. “I know what to ask. Who told you about the troll?”
“Grandpa Anders,” answered Peter.
It took the Old Troll a moment to absorb the information.
“Who?” he asked, still hoping he hadn’t heard it right.
“Grandpa Anders! What does it matter? You want to kill him, too?”
The Old Troll tried not to look at the giggling fairies.
“Who’s Grandpa Anders,” he asked, stepping forward, “and how does he know where to find me?”
He must have looked quite scary, because the other boy started crying again.
“He didn’t know how to find you,” said Peter with a sullen look on his face. “He just told us a story.”
“A story about a boy who... How the boy followed the lights in the fog and they showed him the way to the troll’s treasure.”
One of the fairies burst out into laughter, but Alina gave her a hard shove.
“This must be the most ridiculous of all your village legends,” roared the Old Troll. “What do some stupid lights have to do with the trolls?”
“They led us to you, didn’t they?!” shouted Peter back in his face. “The stupid lights led us to a stupid troll!”
The Old Troll opened his mouth but he had nothing to say. The fairies started laughing and exchanging scornful comments while he stood in front of them, feeling extremely sheepish.
“All right,” he finally said though his teeth. “The lights led you to me. And now you will have your reward--you will get to be whole-baked in clay for dinner. Congratulations.”
“Since when do you bake children for dinner?” asked Alina, still laughing. “Did the heat get to your head?”
“It won’t be me doing the baking, you little nuisance,” dropped the Old Troll, slowly regaining control of himself. “It will be the Witch. Because the imps who got ‘em here went straight to the Floating Hut to let her know about these sniveling dummies. I presume the whole party will be here any moment.”
The fairies stopped laughing.
“I will leave you to it,” added the Old Troll in complete silence. “I don’t want the upcoming scene to ruin my appetite for the rest of the day.”
“Home,” he told himself, striding firmly through the bushes. “I’ve had more than enough embarrassment for one day. I’m finally going home.”
But the odds were against him that day. He didn’t make it a hundred feet from the glade when once again, he came face to face with the imps.
“I knew it!” shrieked Zoomy, before the troll had a chance to open his mouth. “It was you! It was you who broke our lanterns!”
“Oh no,” said the Old Troll contemptuously. “I could never! I’m so old!”
The imp’s little face was burning with rage.
“Our friends will be here any moment now! You’ll get what’s coming to you!”
“You mean the Bog Witch? Why would she care about you and your blasted lanterns?” asked the Old Troll calmly, but he had a feeling he wouldn’t like the answer.
Zoomy flew so close to his face that he could feel the smell of mildew coming from the wide toothy mouth.
“Because she doesn’t like when someone takes her dinner from her! It’s the second time you did that, and she swore that there won’t be the a third!”
“What?! She thinks that I...”
The Old Troll was desperately looking for the right words to explain his role in what had happened, but they didn’t come.
“Are you lost, fellas?” asked Alina, stepping out of the bushes. “The Swamp is that way. Shoo.”
Zoomy stretched out his little arm with a bony finger pointing right at her nose.
“And here’s his usual accomplice! It all adds up!”
“I don’t like when stinky imps wave their claws in front of my face,” said Alina with a quiet menace.
“And what are you going to do, honey pot?” asked Yoomy. “Sit on us?”
“That’s one of the options.”
She made a ring out of her thumb and index finger, stuck it under her tongue and blew out a sharp whistle. Two fairies showed up from behind the trees, then two more. When the imps realized the threat, it was way too late. The fairies poured out of the bushes and swarmed them like a pack of angry hornets.
“Let me! Let me!” Alina jumped around the pile-up, trying to kick one of the imps though the mess of arms and legs, but she quickly tired and stepped aside.
The next minute was full of screams and yelps, then the imps managed to take off from the ground and the entire swarm flew above the trees. Astonished, the Old Troll watched it drifting toward the marshes like a little stormy cloud that produced claps and sparks every time some of the combatants tried to use magic.
“Come on, let’s go.”
Alina pulled on his sleeve so hard, his jaw closed with a snap.
“We’re taking the children back.”
The Old Troll stopped dead.
“Oh no-no-no! You’re not making me a part of your schemes again! I’ve already lost my reputation, now I want to save what’s left of my body!”
“I understand,” said the fairy in an unexpectedly gentle voice.
“Yes. And your only hope now is that the imps never get a chance to tell the others that they saw you with us and the children. Help me get them back to the village and I promise, no one in the Forest will ever know of this.”
“No, no, and for the third time, NO!” he turned around and walked away.
“As if it’s not enough that some snotty children walk around my forest like its their own backyard,” grumbled the Old Troll, pushing leaves and branches aside in anger, “now I’m supposed to hold their hands and walk them home! Do I have to pay those damn kids to stop coming to my forest?”
An idea suddenly struck him, bright as lightning. He froze with his right foot in the air, thinking it over; no matter which way he looked at it, he found it absolutely brilliant.
“I changed my mind,” he said cheerfully, showing up at the glade. “Let’s go!”
If the fairy was surprised, she hid it very well.
They managed to pick up a good pace at first, but even though the Old Troll was tired and the sage fairy was a poor walker, the children soon began to lag behind. The troll slowed down.
“So, Peter. Did this turn out as you thought it would?”
“No,” said Peter, avoiding his eyes.
“You thought you would just walk through the forest and find a giant chest with gold coins in the end?”
“Will you stop that?” asked Alina, quietly. “They are exhausted and we aren’t even half way there.”
“This one is an angry type,” answered the Old Troll in her ear. “And the best way to make him forget about the miles ahead is to keep that anger going.”
“You would know,” puffed Alina, but she left him alone.
“No, I didn’t think it would be easy,” answered Peter, who either didn’t hear them or was too tired to care. “I’m not stupid.”
The Old Troll chuckled, but then curiosity got the best of him.
“So why did you go, then? Did you want to buy some toys and sweets? There are simpler ways to get those, you know. Asking your parents would be one.”
“Our parents don’t have any money.”
“I see. So you decided that some ugly troll should pay for your toys and sweets?”
“I didn’t want any toys and sweets!” exploded Peter. “I wanted to help the village!”
His face was flushed with anger.
“All our families are in debt to the Fat Landlord, and we have no wheat and no rye left! Come on, Axel!”
He walked faster and his friend caught up with him. Soon, it was the troll and the fairy who found themselves lagging behind.
“What about the harvest?” said the Old Troll into the children’s backs. “I saw the fields; you should do well this year.”
“It won’t help, Mister Troll,” this time it was Axel who answered. “We heard our fathers speaking about it. Two thirds will pay what we owe to the Landlord and the rest will barely make the seed for the winter crops.”
Alina kicked the Old Troll on the ankle.
“Happy, are you?”
“Well, they don’t seem to be so tired anymore,” he answered, but his enthusiasm sounded false even to himself. The conversation had not gone at all as he’d expected.
The weather, in the meantime, shaped up to be absolutely delightful. The sun was not as hot as it had been just a couple of weeks ago, and a light breeze brought up a fresh scent of pine needles and late summer flowers. The birds sang their songs, counter-pointed by the brisk patter of a woodpecker. The Old Troll worried for a second that some of those birds could be the servants of the Bog Witch, but that unpleasant thought only inhabited his mind for a quick moment. He was melting in the tranquility of the summer forest. Little cotton clouds swam high up in aquamarine skies and it was hard to believe anything bad could happen on a day like this. The fairy probably had similar thoughts; he heard her humming quietly to herself.
“I can’t go anymore.”
Watching the birds, the Old Troll almost stepped on Axel, who was sitting down on the ground.
“I'm tired! I’m thirsty!”
“We have no time for that!” Peter pulled him on the sleeve. “We've got to go!”
“Any ideas?” asked Alina quietly.
The Old Troll shrugged his shoulders.
“Bear Creek is about half a mile North from here, you can take him there if you want.”
“Me? You’ll turn around much faster with your long legs!”
“No,” said the Old Troll. He was not in the mood to argue, so he just sat down, leaned on the trunk of a giant cedar and closed his eyes.
“Maybe the imps lied,” he said lazily. “Maybe the Witch is not coming and we exhaust ourselves for nothing. Relax, fairy, take a break.”
The suggestion was so tempting that he didn’t have to look at her to know how much she struggled with the urge to join him. Unfortunately, that moment of peace didn’t last long. The Old Troll heard a chirr of big dragonfly wings and a shadow fell on his face.
“Karina!” gasped Alina. “You've got to clean yourself up, sister--you look like a bog owl!”
The troll opened his eyes with a moan. The blonde fairy he remembered from earlier was hovering in front of them in mid-air. Her face bore marks of the merciless fight with the imps: claw scratches, bruises, and smears of dirt. Her yellow braids stuck out in different directions--one to the side and the other one straight up.
“They are coming! The Bog Witch and her gang, I just saw them!”
All of the party were back on their feet before she finished her sentence.
“Look at them go!” panted the Old Troll, trying to keep up with the children. “I would say fear motivates even better than anger!”
Alina didn’t have the breath to answer.
It didn’t take them long to realize they wouldn’t be able to keep up that speed. Axel started to stumble and whimper and even Peter was about to break into tears.
Karina flew around nervously, doubling back and returning every couple of minutes.
“Can you stall them?” Alina asked her.
“How? Dress up like a goblin and make a boggy-woggy dance?”
The Old Troll chuckled, but refrained from commenting.
“And you?” Alina turned to him.
“I’m not even here, did you forget about that?”
“Well, you have your trollish tricks. Can’t you think of anything?”
“I can’t think while I’m running,” answered the Old Troll, “And if I stop...”
“Don’t!” screamed Alina.
“Shush!” roared the Old Troll.
All the time they had been running, he had strained his ears trying to discover the sounds of pursuit, but now he heard something else instead.
“What is it?” asked Alina.
“I can hear that too,” answered her sister instead. “It’s the dogs. Dogs barking.”
“What? The Witch chasing us with dogs? Are you mad? ”
“No, it’s coming from ahead of us!”
“That’s right, ” said the Old Troll. “Because... because they will keep searching even if they have to go to the very heart of the forest.”
He grabbed Peter by the hand and pointed forward with his finger.
“Your father is there, do you understand me? All you have to do is to run half a mile as fast as you can and you’re safe! Can you do that?”
“I think… yes.”
The Old Troll turned to Alina.
“How is that for a trollish trick?”
But before she could answer, the Old Troll shouted, “No, stop!”
With all the haste and the arguing, he had almost forgotten the reason he volunteered to come with them in the first place. He caught up with the children in three big jumps and grabbed their shirts.
“What are you doing?!” screamed Alina at the top of her lungs. “Let them go!”
“Listen to me,” said the troll to Peter, ignoring the fairy. “I will make a deal with you.”
He had to shake him a little to get a glimpse of understanding in his eyes.
“You will get a barrel of sugar and leave it outside the palisade, under the big birch tree that is right against your house. If you get it there in three days, you will get a gold krona. Do you hear me? It will be more than enough to help your family.”
“You will give us a whole krona for just a barrel of sugar?” asked Axel. “Why?”
The Old Troll felt tiny hands grabbing the sleeve of his tunic.
“They are coming!” shrilled Karina. “I just saw them!”
He pulled her off and held her away while she kicked and screamed.
“Because it’s not the only thing I’m paying for. You will not tell anyone about what you saw in the forest today.”
Peter nodded, looking at the mad fairy with wide eyes.
The children bolted forward.
“I think it would be wise for us to get out of the way,” said the Old Troll, finally acknowledging Karina. “You can tell me everything you think about me on our way home.”
They left the trail and hid in the bushes just in time for the Bog Witch and her gang to swoosh by, producing noise, shouts, and curses.
“Do you think they won’t harm the peasants?” asked Alina, when the last goblin disappeared into the woods.
“Not with the dogs. Not in the daylight,” answered the Old Troll. “And I do hope the villagers are smart enough to get out of the forest before the sun is down.”
They made a quick stop at Bear Creek before heading back home. Its waters ran lazy and shallow downstream where it merged into the marshes, but here in the forest, the creek was still narrow and feisty, tumbling over rocks with the sound of a thousand crystal bells.
“I don’t get it,” said Alina, squatting down to wash her face. ”You have always been so suspicious of the villagers and now you seem to be trusting those two. Why?”
“I know they will keep quiet until they get the gold. Because they really need it.”
“And after that?”
The Old Troll narrowed his eyes.
“Where do all these questions come from? Can’t you just assume that I found it in my heart to trust men?”
Alina stood up and looked at him with great suspicion. He returned a humble smile.
“That’s a pile of bear dung,” she said finally said. “You’re going to put a spell on that coin! What are you going to do? Erase their memories? Curse their families?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” answered the Old Troll indignantly. “Do you think I’m some sort of evil wizard? I’m just a tired old troll with an empty belly.”
He stood for a moment, listening to the rumble of his stomach, then called Karina.
“Hey you, bramble braids! Are you sure all the dinner guests went out with the Witch? No one’s left in the Floating Hut?”
“I think so,” answered the fairy. “Why?”
“No reason,” said the Old Troll hastily. “I’ve got to go.”
Things are always happening in the Dark Forest and the forest folk never lack rumors to discuss. There was one story in particular that stirred the community for some time: the one about two unruly imps who were never invited to the Bog Witch’s famous supper. It was said that they got so desperate, that on one late-summer Thursday they lured the witch and her friends out of the Floating Hut with a story about lost children. And it was said that when the Witch came back, someone had eaten all of her leech soup. Most agree that it was the imps. They were nowhere to be seen after that day--and why else would they disappear, if not out of fear of her revenge? Or maybe it was not them at all, no one really knows. And those who do know won't tell.