“How often does your Landlord come to the kitchens?” he asked, feeling an unpleasant bitter taste on his tongue.
There was something in his voice that made the shouting fairies quiet. The children looked at each other.
“Not too often,” said Alfred. “Actually, I can’t remember the last time he did that before. Why?”
The Old Troll turned around and ran back toward the forest, his heart pounding heavily in his ears.
“It’s just a coincidence,” he tried to calm himself down, “they couldn’t have guessed that Peter’s sister knows the way to the Shack. It’s all my imagination.”
When he was almost out of the swamp, he felt tiny bites of ice on his face — the pregnant skies finally broke out with swarms of large, fluffy snowflakes. He wiped off his face and pushed further, huffing and puffing, trying to watch his step on a trail that was getting wet and slippery.
Despite all his caution, he finally slid on glistening leaves and landed face-down on the ground. The foliage cushioned the fall, but it was still strong enough to knock the remaining breath out of him. Eyes shut tight, he called to the First Troll to spare him from broken bones, then carefully moved his arms and legs. Everything seemed to be in order. He sighed with relief, opened his eyes, and the first thing he saw was a little round rock lying right under his nose. Covered with melting snow, it shone bright red, like a smoldering ember. The Old Troll picked it up and held it in his palm, trying to understand what he was looking at, until he realized that it was a button. A red button made of polished jasper...
The rest of his way turned into a blur. He didn’t remember how he ran, choking with horror, slipping on wet leaves and leaning heavily on his staff, with only one thought in his head. He ran until he sensed a heavy burning smell and then saw clouds of smoke rising above the treetops. When, barely breathing, he finally popped into the clearing before the Stone Shack, he saw that it was all over.
Ancient walls of thick stone hadn’t given in to the fire, but the house was all charred and misshapen and it had a pile of cinders where the woodshed used to be. Right in front of his eyes, the roof slowly collapsed inside the house, blackened windows spat out the last bunch of sparks, then the flames reluctantly subsided.
“Where is my nisse?” asked someone in a hoarse, muffled voice.
It took the Old Troll a moment to understand that the voice was his own. He closed his eyes and plunged into the smoldering ruins. The heat was unbearable, but his wet clothes saved him from burns; he pushed through, right to the nook behind the fireplace. For a moment, he was afraid he would have to run out empty handed, but a second later his fingers brushed on something that could only be a little leather jacket.
“No, no, no...” mumbled the Old Troll, pulling Olle out of his nook, but then the smoke filled up his chest and all he could produce was a violent cough. It was hard to find the way out without being able to see a thing, but the shack wasn’t very big and a moment later he put Olle on the snow and fell down next to him, struggling to catch a breath.
“I thought there were just a couple of patches,” said someone right above his ear, “I’d say there is a bit more.”
The Old Troll tried to see who was talking, but his eyes, burning with ash and tears, refused to give him a clear picture.
“What happened here?” asked another voice.
The troll finally remembered about the gnomes. There were two of them, little, well-built people wearing short beards on their round faces. They looked at him, expecting an explanation, but he couldn’t make himself speak. He just sat there, nursing the body of his only friend in his lap. He tried to wipe off the tears, but they kept running, until his eyes were completely dry and his mouth felt like it was filled with hot sand. The gnomes waited, quietly talking to each other in their own tongue.
When the Old Troll finally gained control of himself, he heard a slight rustle of leaves behind his back. He turned his head and the first thing he saw was the Witch. She stood at the edge of the trees, with the toad on her chest and the owl on her shoulder, and she wasn’t alone. There was a flock of young wood goblins on her right and Benedict with two other nixes on her left. The Old Troll sat in front of them, feeling weak, helpless, and completely alone.
The swamp gang looked at him without saying a word. Some gloating, some with disdain, but the worst of all was the face of the Bog Witch. She looked at him with her eyes narrowed and full of solemn resolution.
“The little monsters brought the hunters to your home,” she said. “I DID tell you this would happen, did I not?”
Not looking at her, the Old Troll carefully put Olle on the ground and watched as white snowflakes descended on his little russet jacket in complete silence. The Witch turned to her followers.
“We must face it,” she said grimly, “since the men found their way here, none of us can feel safe in our homes anymore. And you…“ she turned back, ”you are the reason it all happened.”
“I?!” finally broke out the Old Troll in harsh, growling voice, “I am the reason?!”
The Witch stepped back.
“You and your imps, fairies and nixes, you play games with one another, lying and spying and scheming and I am the reason?”
He advanced at them, his voice getting stronger with every word.
“Even now, you stand over the body of my nisse, who was worth thousands of the likes of you, and you are giving a speech, trying to use his death to your advantage!”
The Old Troll grabbed his staff from the ground and pointed it at the crowd in front of him.
Roaring fire, raging storm…
Benedict was the first to realize what was about to happen. He sprang into the nearest bushes with a squeak.
Ash and cinders swirl and swarm…
The Bog Witch's eyes became round; she tried to reach into her robes for a potion but her hand tangled in the folds. Feeling her panic, the giant toad jumped down and the owl took wing.
Mighty blizzard, hold your turn...
The tip of the troll’s staff started glowing red. The goblins finally felt a breath of powerful magic and scattered to the sides like a pack of mice.
Here I am to see you b...
“He’s not dead!” rang a high, clear voice.
It was probably the first time in the history of spells when a troll stopped a curse at the last moment of conjuring.
The fireball at the end his staff shrunk down and disappeared with a thin streak of smoke.
“He’s breathing,” said one of the gnomes, pressing his ear to the nisse’s chest, “but he’s very weak. We need to get him to the healer right away, maybe she can still save him.”
The Old Troll looked back. The space in front of the Shack was empty. It was just him and the gnomes.
“What can I do?”
“Carry him to the station, we can still catch the last ride back to the Mountains.”
And once again on that day, he rushed through the icy forest, slipping and cursing, full of doubt and fear, desperately trying to feel any sign of life in the tiny body he was pressing against his heart.
“We’ll get you there,” he kept whispering under his breath. “Don’t worry, my little scamp, we’ll get you there.”
They reached the railroad just before sunset. The station was carved inside a small, rocky hill and it was impossible to see unless you knew exactly where it was.
The grumpy gnome who guarded the entrance didn’t let the troll past the gate, so he had no other choice but to stay outside and look at the arch where a pair of thin, barely visible rails came out of the station. By the time the stagecoach departed, he couldn’t feel his toes and fingers anymore. Pulled by a team of six giant mountain rats, a little car bolted out faster than a crossbow shot, giving him hope that the gnomes would reach the Blue Mountains before the railway became completely buried in snow.
Only then did the Old Troll notice that it was dark and the single snowflakes had given way to heavy snowfall. As if that wasn’t enough, sharp gusts of wind came from the North, picking some of the snow off the ground, throwing it back and forth in mid-air, a clear sign of a nearing blizzard.
“The winter is here,” said the Old Troll, whose heart felt as frozen and numb as his arms and legs, “and I’ve never been less ready in my life.”
was way too late for little bunnies to be out, but it was his first
snow and he couldn’t make himself leave all this white, fluffy,
swirling magnificence. Just this morning he was so confused as to why
his gray summer fur was turning white, and now it all suddenly made
sense — his new color matched everything around him and life
couldn’t be more beautiful.
The little bunny stopped in front of a giant fir tree on his way home. The lower branches, that grew into the earth many years before he had been born, were covered with a thick layer of snow, like everything else in the forest. But there was something underneath those branches, something alive. He came closer, sniffed the air, and snuck in.
He knew he wasn’t supposed to do this, because his mama-bunny told him to stay away from strangers, especially those hiding in the dark. But that’s how it is with little bunnies — when they are young, they don’t listen to their parents, and when they are older and ready to listen, their parents are not around to offer their advice anymore.
It was dry and warm inside that fir-tree house. It smelled of earth, mushrooms, and something else… The bunny remembered that smell from an old charred tree that was struck by lightning back in summer — the bitter smell of ash and cinders.
“Come in, I won't eat you,” said the Old Troll.
Bunny wiggled his tiny nose and moved closer.
“You know what… I’ve got something for you.”
The stranger took a small, blackened tin out of his pocket and opened it. The tin was full of dry leaves and flowers.
“That’s all I have left of him. The Box of Summer, he called it.”
The bunny carefully picked one of the flowers and started chewing.
“Dig in, buddy. I have no use for it now. Besides, he loved to feed animals in the winter,” said the Old Troll, because it was him and no one else.
The next leaf that the bunny took from the box came with little drops of salty water. When the box was empty, the Old Troll took the bunny in his lap.
“When the storm is over,” he said, ”we'll go to the mountains, to my nephew’s house. Just think of that! We'll drink hot rock-grog, eat pickled leeks, ramson bread… last time I paid them a visit, we had hot crab apple jam for dessert… mmm… do you like crab apples?”
The bunny didn’t
answer. He waited a little longer to see if he would be offered more
food, but since there was none, he jumped down from the troll’s
lap and slipped out.
“A ‘thank you’ would be nice,” said the Old Troll and sighed. “I wish I could eat flowers.”
He checked his pockets, but all he found was a couple of rowanberries. He slumped against the trunk and chewed on the berries, listening to the raging snowstorm outside, savoring their bitter-sweet taste in his mouth.