Most wonderful thing it was, watching the Dark Forest come back to life after a long winter.
The revival sets in motion gently, step by step, with just little hints and indications at first. Birds chirp a bit louder, foxes run a bit faster and a big grumpy bear rolls over in his den, trying to make the most of his last days of sleep.
Then a little mouse shows up on the surface. He sniffs the air, jiggling his whiskers so fast, they turn into a blur for a moment. The snow still lies cold and dead and it looks like the winter will rule the Northern Lands forever, but the little mouse is not afraid of it anymore. For all the snow and ice in the world cannot fool him, he smells the spring coming, and he knows that the life in the forest will soon start anew.
Next comes the water. Bubbling up from under the ground, dripping down from myriads of icicles, the water is the first and the most powerful sound in the Spring Orchestra: when it plays, the entire land has to answer.
Bunnies and squirrels would lose their luxurious white coats and change into humble summer colors. Dears, starved on a bark and twig diet all winter, would start digging through the last callous snow, looking to nip on the first sprouts of grass. And by the time sap starts flowing in the thres and the first green bud makes its appearance, the Dark Forest is full of noise and happy rumpus, as if there were never-ever such a thing as Winter.
“Where are we going?” asked Peter, trying to keep up with the Troll’s purposeful stride.
“We need to find out where the Witch and her gang is.”
“What are we going to do? Do you think you can convince them not to fight with the villagers?”
“Oh, I just have the right words.” said the The Old Troll.
He lied. He had no idea what he was going to say.
Mary was unusually quiet, it looked like she couldn’t come to her senses after the Old Troll’s surprise appearance. He chuckled, remembering her face when he popped up in the hayloft when she was on her time out, working the spin wheel with a pile of sheep wool in her lap. She still looked confused, not at all like Peter, who was thrilled to be rescued from the cow stall -- his punishment involved two days worth of manure shoveling.
“Did you really think you could stop the raid?” he asked Peter again, “The entire village?”
Peter nodded so proudly, as if they actually managed to accomplish anything with their little rebellion.
“How far do you think they advanced?” the troll asked Mary.
“They started gathering right after dawn.” she replied, “We tried to tell our dad not to go with the Jaeger and the hunters...”
“And got yourself grounded.” finished the Old Troll, “I heard that story already. Three times.”
“I don’t think they could have made more than five miles into the forest by now.” said Peter.
“Not to mention that the hunters took the long trail.” added the Old Troll, ”I think we have passed them already.”
He didn’t have anything to eat since early morning and the smells of the spring forest made his head spin. There were still patches of snow and ice hiding here and there in the shadows, but the first flowers didn’t wait, for the Northern summer was short and they had plenty of growing to do.
The Old Troll stopped by a pine tree to harvest some of the bright-green shoots off its branches. He cleaned them from the soft, tender needles and sent chewy steams in his mouth. The sprouts would go splendidly dipped in cowberry jam. Olle always had some jam stashed away in case the spring comes late and they would need to last a couple of extra weeks on their last-year supplies.
Thinking of his friend made the Old Troll clench his teeth. How many more of the magic folk will get hurt if he doesn’t find a way to stop the raid? And how many of the simple, innocent villagers, fooled and scared by the Landlord, will perish when they start fighting back?
“I couldn’t save you.” said the Old Troll to himself, “And the only thing I can do now is try to save the others.”
With his mind at those thoughts, the Old Troll stepped on the shores of the Leech Swamp.
The sun was already high up and the swamp was steaming like a giant bowl of soup.
“How do we find them?” asked Peter, looking around from under his hand, “There is no one here!”
“Not that I expected to hear anything smart from you,” said the Old Troll, “but even the villagers should know that the Swamp is never empty.”
As to illustrate his words, a large log sticking out of water shook up, yellow withered grass growing on its dry end rustled. The children jumped away and hid behind the troll’s back, but he paid no attention to the log -- he finally found what he was looking for. When the log that stopped moving, he carefully stepped on it, reached out with his staff and poked right in the middle of a large tussock sticking out of the water.
“Benedict!” the Old Troll bellowed, “Knock-knock, you old weisel, guess who it is!”
A pointy head came up to the surface, surrounded by a whirlpool of bubbles and reed. It sported a tiny, soaking wet bonnet, that was probably made for some peasant’s baby girl many years ago.
“What’s with all the comotion?” the head squeaked, blinking in the sunlight, “Is it those goblin kids again? Off with you! Benke’s not home!”
“Grandma Nix,” said the troll politely, “It’s me, the Old Troll. Do you know where he is?”
“Oh, it’s you.” the old nix lady climbed up on the log and brushed the reed off her face, “I haven’t seen you in a while.”
She rested her little hands in front of her chest, which made her look like a large and wet squirrel. The Old Troll took a deep breath, trying not to hide how anxious he was
“I’ve been away, visiting my cousins in the Blue Mountains.”
“Oh how nice of you! How are they?”
“Fine. Do you know where I can find your Benke?”
“Or, I believe they went to a war, or something to that tune.”
The Old Troll couldn’t keep his calm anymore.
“Oh, that awful Witch,” continued Grandma Nix, ignoring his questions, “I told him to stay away from her, she’s nothing but trouble.”
“Where can I find them?”
The Grandma Nix scratched her head under the bonnet.
“They are gathering by the Bear Creek, if I’m not mistaken.” she said and finally noticed the children who were too afraid to draw a breath.
“Are those little villagers?” she asked, confused, “Why are they here? That’s not right.”
Before the Old Troll had a chance to answer, the log shook once more and suddenly stood up on its end with a splash. By the time the children stopped screaming, Grandma Nix had already retired to her underwater house.
“For the Trolls of Yore!” shouted the Old Troll, cleaning his face with a sleeve, “I always manage to wake them up!”
The log bent slightly in the middle, spun around and suddenly, it took the shape of a woman. It looked like she was hugging her shoulders, shaking in the cold wind. Dry yellow reed framed her face with subtle, indistinguishable, but magically beautiful features. Peter seemed to forget about his wet clothes and everything that was about to happen, he looked at her with his mouth wide open like there was nothing else in the world. The Old Troll, however, felt far from being enchanted.
“Stupid huldra!” he grunted, “Couldn’t you stay still for one more minute? Shoo!”
He waved his staff at the creature. It turned away from him with such grace, one could easily mistake it for a young woman, but when it was facing the swamp again, the illusion disappeared and it was nothing but a large old log.
They watched quietly as the creature slowly descended into the murky water with no splash or ripples, it looked as if huldra’s slender body was melting away.
“What was that?” Mary asked first, because Peter was still unable to talk.
“It’s a huldra.” said the Old Troll, “You’ve never seen one? They freeze up during the winter and come back to live in spring. When they wake up too early, they often lie at the bottom of the swamp, waiting for the last snow to melt.”
“I heard about huldras.” finally said Peter, “I heard they lure men into the swamp and drown them.”
“Why would anyone walk after a huldra?” asked the Old Troll, “They don’t even talk. It’s just an old tree spirit that can move sometimes.”
“Because...” Peter hesitated, “Well, some people believe the huldras are women and they want to...”
His cheeks reddened.
“They want to catch one and...Get married.”
It took the Old Troll a moment to understand, but when he did, he bent over in the burst of explosive laughter.
“Ma… ma…. married!” he cried, “To a huldra!”
“How is that funny?” asked Peter, offended, but the troll just kept laughing away.
Peter’s face got so red, Mary could help but smile. When the Old Troll couldn’t laugh anymore, he stood up and wiped off his tears.
“Oh, Forest almighty!” he said, leaning on his staff, “Thank you, boy! Today might very well be the last day of my life and I really needed a good laugh before I'm gone.”
On the way to the Bear Creek the Old Troll felt pretty confident, he kept joking and chuckling and even managed to make Mary smile, but as soon as they climbed the hill that opened the view to the Bear Creek Valley, his good spirits went away, leaving only a cold, painful emptiness in his chest.
The water babbled in the bottom of a shallow, overgrown ravine, winding between age-old cedars and mossy rocks, getting wider and wider as it approached the Leech Swamp.
The Old Troll made the last step and looked down where the Creek split into dozens of shallow streams before merging into the wetlands. The clearing on the Western side of its mouth was bustling with the magic folk. Goblins, nixes, imps and many others crowded around a giant cauldron that exuded large clouds of green, yellow and purple steam.
The Bog Witch, who looked even scarier than usual, loomed over the cauldron with a three-foot long ladle. She stirred its contents left and right, reciting incantations and with every word the steam changed its color, until it reached stable deadly green. It was the sign that the concoction was ready.
“What's she doing?” asked Peter.
“I think it's a little something she made for your friends and family. I would guess it should turn them into frogs or lizards.” said the Old Troll and added, “If they are lucky.”
Peter's face crumpled.
“I don't want my dad to turn into a lizard! Mister Troll, please, do something!”
Indeed, it was the time for mister Troll to go there and do something, but he couldn't make himself move.
A new sound took him out of his stupor. It was the sound of dogs barking. Many, many angry dogs, ready to jump, bite, and tear to pieces every last of his fellow magic folk.
He looked at the children for the one last time and asked, “Can you stay here please?”
Mary nodded and took her little brother's hand. The Old Troll closed his eyes and made a step. He felt like he was about to jump in ice cold water.
“What are you doing?” screamed a voice in his head, “Run away!”
“I've been running away too much lately.” the Old Troll replied, “And look where it got me. I want to try something else today.”
When the dogs got a scent of the magic folk, their bark turned into mad howl. The hunters prepared their muskets and the peasants behind their backs clutched their clubs and pitchforks. It was still too far to see all people's faces, but the Old Troll recognized the Red Jaeger who marched ahead of the mob with his monstrous arquebus at the ready.
On the other side of the valley, the magic folk didn't lose a single moment. Following the will of the goblin circle, the willows around the clearing began to twist and shake, as if trying to pull their roots out of the ground. The nixes joined in and the waters of the Creek swell up, getting ready to swamp the soil under the feet of the intruders. Just over their heads, swarmed little imps and every one of them held a little fireball. There was so much magic in the air, it was sparkling and cracking like a cloud of fireworks. Everything was ready for the imminent clash.
The Old Troll suddenly forgot all about his fears and now he was only afraid he wouldn't make it in time. He sprinted forward and his old knees responded with pain, protesting.
When the hunters got close enough, the Bog Witch raised her hands and the green mist started to pour over the age of her giant cauldron. While it slowly crept towards the villagers, the hunters stopped and fixed their guns on stands.
“Stop!” yelled the Old Troll.
No one looked at him.
“Ready! Aim!” the Red Jaeger shouted his commands so loud, they echoed across the valley.
There was no time to produce any spell, there was only one thing that came to the Old Troll's mind. He clutched his staff with both hands and pushed the runes etched on its sides with his thumbs.
“Burn!” he shouted and stuck it into the mud as hard as he could.
Those were very old runes that he etched on his staff when even the oldest of the trees in the Forest was nothing more than a seed.
The willow of the staff caught on bright fire and in the next moment the Old Troll had to step back, giving room to a ten-feet tall blazing torch.
“I'm sorry.” he whispered to his old faithful companion, as its powers were going out in flames, turning the magic staff into a useless charred stick.
The rival parties froze on the spot and even the Witch's evil stew pulled its green tentacles back into the cauldron.
“Shame on you!” said the Old Troll, and his voice suddenly rumbled across the raveen like thunder, “What are you doing?”
“So you're still alive, you old buffoon?” said the Witch loudly, “Haven't you done enough to us? Step aside, let us deal with those invaders once and for all!”
“It is you and your ilk who needs to be dealt with!” sounded a low, husky voice.
The Old Troll turned around and saw the Red Jaeger with a smirk in his fiery beard. But it wasn't him, it was another man who was talking, a big man with a big belly hanging over a wide buckskin belt.
“We will not leave until the forest is clean and we can all feel safe!”
The peasants behind his back babbled and shook their pitchforks.
“Stop it!” cried the Old Troll again, but this time he sounded completely helpless, as indeed he was, without his magic staff.
“What's the hold up?” shouted one of the hunters.
The dogs were tearing up their leashes and the peasants started to scream and shake their weapons again.
“That's the troll! Shoot him! He’d snatch our children!”
“It's not true!” sounded a clear child's voice.
Of course, if the children didn't listen to their own parents, why would he think they'd listen to some old troll? Still holding each-other's hands, Mary and Peter came over and stood by his side. One of the peasants gasped and sprinted towards them.
“Mary, Peter, get away from this monster! He will eat you alive!”
“It's not true!” said Mary, “They lied to you!”
“And he's not a monster,” added her brother, “He's our friend.”
A loud murmur of confusion went among the rival parties. The villagers were putting down their weapons and the charms on the other side of the valley were dissolving in the air, unused.
The Red Jaeger looked around.
“It will take more than a couple of kids to stop us.” he said, lifting up his weapon, “Hunters! Aim!”
The Old Troll was very glad he couldn't feel his legs, otherwise they would carry him away against his will. He looked helplessly into the narrowed eyes of the men before him and suddenly, he saw a very familiar glimmer in their eyes. It was hard to mistake for anything else, for it was the lust for gold, an ancient curse of the human race, the curse that ruined countless lives. He knew how to deal with that.
“All right.” the Old Troll said, “I will make a deal with you. I'll give you my gold. All of it.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Witch's jaw drop. The men before him exchanged glances.
“I'll give you my gold.” continued the troll, “If you send those people home and never set foot in our forest ever again.”
The Fat Landlord pushed down the Jaeger's gun and grinned.
For the second time on this sunny Spring day, the Old Troll found himself at the shores of the Leech Swamp. This time, however, instead of two frightened children, he was followed by two dangerous men, one of whom held him at gunpoint.
“Don't you think for a second to pull a trick on us,” said the Fat Landlord for the tenth time, “It will be the last thing you'll do in your wretched life!”
The farther they went, the more nervous he was getting. The Red Jaeger, on the contrary, looked extremely contained, as if everything went according to his plan.
“We're here.” said the Old Troll.
He pointed to a little island connected with the shore by a thin lane of dry soil. It had a giant boulder that looked like a human skull right in the middle of it.
“See that rock? There is a hole at its foot on the Western side. The gold is all there.”
The Red Jaeger gauged the distance and said, “My lord, I can't let the troll go there, I will not be able to shoot him if he runs. You'll have to go.”
The Fat Landlord's face reddened, but he didn't argue.
“I'll remember this.” he uttered, treading carefully on the narrow path.
“Sure, my lord.” replied the Jaeger into his beard.
He watched his master grunting and searching in the withered reed until his hand sunk into the secret hole.
“It's here!” shouted the Landlord in agitation, “I can feel it!”
He pulled out a fistful of golden kronas.
“Stay where you are.” said the Red Jaeger, breathing heavily.
The Old Troll wanted to reply, but when he saw the Jaeger's face he only flinched and shut his mouth, for he was looking into the eyes of a mad man. Shoving and cursing each-other, the treasure hunters pulled out a large pot filled to the brim with shiny gold. With great effort, they carried it onto the shore and sat on the trunk of an old tree, holding the gold between them.
“Oh! Oh!” cried out the Landlord, brushing coins with his fingers, “I'm the richest man in the Northern Lands!”
“Of course you are, my lord.” said the Red Jaeger softly.
He stood up straight, looming over his master, and The Old Troll suddenly realized what was about to happen. He looked away. There was a sound of quick fight, wheezing and grunting and finally, a loud splash. When he turned back, the Fat Landlord was nowhere to be seen.
“And now one last thing.” said the Jaeger, picking up his gun, “Oh, how long I've waited for that moment! Any last words?”
The Old Troll looked into the black abyss of the barrel and said calmly, “You shouldn't have put the gold on that log. It's really easy to wake them up this time of year.”
The Jaeger looked back and, to his terror, saw that the tree trunk started to slide into the water, carrying the gold with it. He threw away his gun and leaped like a giant frog, catching the pot with both hands. Next second, the huldra sprung from her winter lodging, throwing him back-first into the murky waters of the swamp. The Jaeger tried to swim with one hand, but the gold was too heavy.
“Drop it!” shouted the Old Troll, “Drop the pot and swim!”
“You won't trick me!” Red Jagger's mad cry echoed over the marsh, “It's mine! Mine! Mine! Mine! Mi...”
Before starting her descent, the huldra turned her beautiful wooden face toward the Jaeger and they went to the bottom together, a big scary man and one of the ancient magic creatures he hated so much.
The Old Troll stood quietly for some time, watching the last ripples reside on the surface, then he picked up the musket and threw it in the water. He felt completely empty and emotionless and had no idea what he was supposed to do next.
“I knew your gold was cursed.” said a familiar cranky voice.
The Old Troll looked at the Witch and shook his head.
“No.” he said, “There isn’t a curse in the World like man's greed.”
The Witch suddenly showed all of her few teeth in the widest grin he ever saw on her face.
“Come on now, Ithink there is someone you want to see.”
When he realized they were going to the Stone Shack, the Old Troll's old heart started drumming in his chest so hard, he had to stop to catch a breath. The Witch didn't say a word, only giggled like a little girl. Halfway there, a big barn owl silently alighted on her shoulder, then turned her head around and kept looking at him with her round unblinking eyes.
“Where is your toad?” asked the Old Troll to break the silence.
“Oh, she’s still sleeping.” said the Witch, “I really miss her, but the heart of the Swamp is still frozen, so I’ll have to wait. On the bright side, we have a couple more days before those noisy fairies wake up, so that’s good.”
“We’ll need to ask the kids to bring Alina back to the forest by then, if they learn that their sister was in a cage, they will turn the Landlord’s Mansion to fairy dust.”
The charred stone of the Shack showed between the trees ahead and the Old Troll couldn’t help but to slow his pace. A tight knot stuck in his throat and the memories of what transpired there just several months ago came live in his memory. It all seemed so long ago and so recent at the same time!
“Come on, old goat.” piped up the Bog Witch and nuded him with her bony finger.
There was no usual hostility in her voice, but a hidden smirk, as if she was about to present the Troll with the surprise of his life.
He closed his eyes and stepped forward. When he opened them again, he couldn’t believe what he saw.
Three little figures were sitting on a stone in front of the Cabin, eating something from a tiny picnic basket. Two of them were mountain gnomes in grey hats and the third one…
“Olle!” tried to scream the Old Troll, but his throat only let out a little squeak, “Eh!”
It was enough.
The nisse threw away his sandwich, jumped off the rock and ran toward his friend as fast as his little legs could carry him.
The Old Troll fell on his knees and hugged his friend so hard, the gnomes started exchanging glances, wondering if they should come to their cousin’s rescue.
While hot tears ran down his face, he heard nisse telling him how he spent all winter in the Mountains, how he heard about the Troll disappearing from the Forest and how no one knew where to find him.
“It was your nephew, the Mountain Troll, who told me about you. He told me all about all letter and the troubling news. I hopped on the stagecoach right away. Oh, I was so afraid you’d get yourself in trouble!”
“Oh, he had.” chimed in the Witch, who’s been standing behind their backs, smirking.
Olle pulled away from the troll with familiar concern in his eyes.
“What did you do?”
The troll hesitated and the Witch responded in his place.
“He ruined the best magic potion I ever brewed, that's what he did.” she rolled her eyes, “Oh, it would turn all those damn villagers into rats and dung beetles… It was supposed to be magnificent!”
“We have a lot to catch up on,” said the Old Troll, wiping his nose with a sleeve.
He sat on the frozen ground, in front of what remained of his house, holding his friend’s hand. He was hungry, tired, homeless, he was completely, utterly broke… and yet, he’s never been happier in his life!
In the Dark Forest, far away in the Northern Lands, where summer is short and winter is ruthless, lived an Old Troll, so old, that Time itself did not remember when he had been born.
On one sunny evening in Spring, when birds were chirping oh so lovely, and the fresh breeze brought sweet, sweet aroma of early wildflowers from the forest, he found himself perching on a large rock at the very heart of the Leech Swamp.
On his right side, there was a little house gnome, Olle, his best friend in the whole wide World. And on his left side, sat the ugly and scary Bog Witch, who’s been his sworn enemy for longer than he cared to remember.
All three were looking at something very few in the history of magic creatures ever saw -- it was the witch’s Floating Hut and it was sitting on eggs, like a giant, ten feet tall mother goose
“Any time now,” said the Witch, “They should hatch any time now.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it.” replied Olle, holding his breath, “I didn’t even know she can lay eggs!”
“No wonder, it only happens once in hundred years.” said the Old Troll
“More like millennia,” the Witch shook her head and suddenly added in an unexpected fit of generosity, “Would you like a hatchling? On the account of you being homeless and all. She would grow into a full-size house in a couple of years”
“Thank you” said the Troll with a smirk, “I will take my chances with the Stone Shack. With my nephew’s help we can get it rebuilt before the Summer ends.”
“On a day like this, it’s hard to believe it will ever end.” said Olle dreamily.
All three sat quietly for a while, each thinking of their own, until the evening sun touched the trees at the edge of the Dark Forest. The Old Troll put his hand on Olle’s shoulder.
“We have to go home now,” he said, “There will be a new day tomorrow.”