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.