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.”