Back in the days when the winds blew higher and the rivers flowed faster, there was a little tribe of gnomes who came down from their mountains hoping to build a new life in the valley below.
The Northern Lands were no kinder to living creatures back then than they are now – the summers were just as short and the winters were just as long and fierce. Little gnomes, used to the comfort of their ancient mountain halls, struggled for survival out in the open. After much suffering, they had to seek shelter in the houses of trolls and witches and the men of old, who had just started building their first villages in the North.
Kind and hard-working were the valley gnomes. They cared so much for their new homes that even the very wood and stone of a house would return their love, keeping cellars extra icy on hot summer days or squeezing the logs tight together against the winter chill. The forest folk called them nisse, which is the word for “little helper” in Trollish.
Many long years passed. As more and more men moved to the North, less and less space was left for others. The magic folk had to hide deep in their forests and swamps, where no man could hope to survive. And the little nisse abandoned the busy farms and noisy villages to rejoin their gnomish tribes back in the mountains. Eventually only one house gnome remained in all of the Northern Lands. It was the nisse of the Stone Cabin where the grumpy Old Troll had dwelled since the beginning of time.
It was one of those calm summer evenings when the forest air smells so sweet and every living creature is at peace with itself and the world. The sun was hovering just above the icy peaks of the blue mountains far to the West. The fir trees surrounding a glade at the edge of the Leech Swamp looked hazy in the soft fading light.
“Your move,” said Olle, the last nisse of the Dark Forest. He and his opponent were both sitting on top of a broad ancient table made of everlasting larch. The table had been built many centuries ago by the forest folk of old who had used it for meetings and to trade with swamp creatures. It was called the “Summer Table” because during the winter it was buried under two feet of snow, like everything else in this frigid land. The larch had once been thick with resin and as the long years had turned the wood to stone, dark-yellow stripes of amber had shone through its surface.
“Give me a moment, will you?” said a tiny, plump lady in a cranky voice. It was Alina, a Sedge Fairy from the Swamp. A fierce little thing she was, with bad manners and inconceivably bushy hair that gave her head the look of a bog tussock.
“Always with your tricks, you old weasel you!” Alina looked at the board and squirmed angrily.
They were playing Shooki-Tooki, an ancient gnomish game. It required keen intelligence and concentration, neither of which she had. Her manners were always atrocious, but because she was losing the game, she was even more unpleasant than usual. Olle smiled underneath the shaggy gray beard that covered most of his face. Much like many valley gnomes, he had a very gentle character but still adored passion in others.
The table was surrounded by humble forest flowers, small yet beautiful. They produced a fine, head-spinning aroma that none of their house-groomed sisters could match. Pink puffy clovers, deep violet bunches of sage and lungwort and, of course, fire-orange globe flowers, the favorite flower of northern trolls.
Olle breathed in that floral sweetness and held his breath, trying to hold onto the smell for the long winter ahead. He would probably pick and dry some of those flowers and hide them in his nook behind the fireplace until the following spring.
The fairy was still thinking.
“The sooner you give up, the sooner we can go to the Cabin for tea and honeycombs.”
“Don't try to distract me!” Alina replied, although the thought of honeycombs clearly made her mouth water. “I know –”
She never finished the sentence. Olle turned around and saw a little girl suddenly emerge from the woods. Her thick blonde hair was full of forest debris, leaves and cobwebs; the sky-blue dress she wore was stained with mud and clay. She was clutching the handle of a woven wicker basket.
“Are you seeing this?” asked Alina in an astonished whisper.
“I’m not sure...” said the nisse and - “Oww!” - yanked a whisker from his chin to see if he was dreaming.
Oblivious to their presence, the girl stopped at the edge of the forest and gazed at the vast swamp lying in front of her. She let out a piteous moan and dropped her basket to the ground. It tipped over, scattering tiny red cherries all around.
Before Olle and the fairy had a chance to even move, her strength seemed to leave her. Her knees buckled and she disappeared into a sea of grass and flowers.
When he had seen a pack of bog fairies zipping by on his way to the Stone Cabin, the Old Troll had sensed that something was amiss. Now, seeing the door left wide open only increased his suspicion.
“That must be Alina again, that little piece of trouble! What's she done this time?” he mumbled, hobbling hastily to the house. “Didn't I tell Olle to stop feeding her my honeycombs? Not only is she fat enough already, but what's worse, she keeps coming back for more!”
He left his staff at the door and went inside.
His sharp trollish eyes adjusted to the gloom of the house in a heartbeat.
There was a squat dining table to his right and a spacious hearth to his left. In the far corner of the room he spotted Olle and the fairy sitting on the edge of his bed, whispering to one another. They stopped talking abruptly at the sight of him.
“Troll…” started Olle.
“What you got here?” grunted the Old Troll impatiently, shoving them aside.
“Troll…” said Olle again.
There was a child in his bed. A village girl.
At first he couldn’t believe his eyes. Not knowing what to think, he loomed over the girl, looking closely at her face, and sniffed. The child bore the smell of farm animals, clay and something else...
Things were getting odder by the second.
“That's a rare smell to come across in our neck of the woods,” murmured the Old Troll and at the sound of his voice, the girl opened her eyes.
The shriek that in the next moment shook the whole house almost rendered him deaf.
The Old Troll recoiled and slammed his back into the pantry rack which showered him with pots and pans and jars of all shapes and sizes.
While he thrashed about helplessly, buried under a pile of kitchen paraphernalia, the screaming girl zigzagged around the house like a little tornado.
“Stop her!” yelled the Old Troll, but it was too late.
The girl had found the door and the last thing he saw of her was a pair of bare feet flashing quickly as she bolted through the open space, only to vanish into the woods a few seconds later.
Two hours later, with order in the house nearly restored, Olle and the Old Troll were still working on a thin sheet of clear mica. Unlike men, trolls don’t make glass from sand; they use thin pieces of transparent mineral instead.
The Old Troll pressed an iron nail against the yellowish surface, trying to draw a straight line.
“Hold it tight! It's moving!”
On her way out, the girl had broken a window which they had to replace. The nisse put all his weight on the sheet, but he was far too light and the line came out squiggly.
“Can I help?” asked Alina from the corner.
“No!” they answered in unison. It was hard enough to get anything done without the clumsy fairy getting in the way and dropping things.
By the time the work was complete, it was almost dark outside. The Old Troll lit an oil lamp and only then did he remember the cherries that Olle and Alina had returned to the wicker basket. He grunted happily and plunged his bony claw into the fruit.
“Hey, those aren’t yours!” said Alina. “Those are the girl's.”
“Oh, don't worry,” said the Old Troll, tossing a cherry in his mouth. “She won't be needing them.”
“How do you know?”
“Oh, I know.” The Old Troll spat out a cherry pit and produced a sinister grin. “Trust me.”
Olle shuffled over to the table and looked into the troll’s face, deeply concerned.
“Why? She's not going to get lost in the woods, is she?”
The Old Troll chuckled. The forest folk rarely had to deal with the villagers and they couldn't imagine how anyone could get lost in the woods.
“I wouldn't worry about that.” He grabbed another fistful of the delicious fruit. “The wolves will get her long before that. Or the goblins. Or the Bog Witch.”