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.