The tall figure was none other than the Bog Witch herself. It was hard to tell if she was wearing a tunic or some sort of a dress, but there were layers of dirty ragged clothes, covered with little patches of pale bog moss growing in various places.
The second figure was an old nix named Benedict, a sickening creature three feet of height, glistening all over with green slime like a giant eel. If the Old Troll recalled correctly, Benedict was the head of the bog creatures' council that attended to matters of the bog community. In order to create an air of authority, he wore a jacket that he had probably taken off some unfortunate hunter, though he wore it inside out and its leather was dripping muddy water with every step.
When the peculiar couple had finally reached the door of the Cabin, the Old Troll had no choice but to acknowledge their presence and wave them over to the shed.
“Aw. That can't be good,” he heard Olle whispering behind his back. But when the Old Troll turned around, he saw only a big rock where his nisse had been standing just a moment before.
“Gnomish tricks,” muttered the Old Troll, sitting back down in his chair.
He greeted the Bog Witch with a nod.
“What a pleasant surprise. A cup of tea, perhaps?”
“Thank you, my dear, but it's too hot for tea today!” said the Bog Witch, fanning herself with a hand.
“Some water would be nice,” croaked the nix, who was clearly suffering in the heat.
The Old Troll didn’t even glance in his direction.
“Please take a seat then,” he offered.
All three could plainly see that there was no seat anywhere around and he hoped his guests would take the hint, but they didn't. The nix just kept standing there while the Bog Witch said, “Sure!” and sat right on the rock, which gave out a short squeak.
“So we thought we'd stop by and see how our old friend is doing,” said the witch, lowering her hood.
As usual, the Old Troll couldn't take his eyes off her head, appalled and amazed at the same time.
Among tangles of greasy hair, he could see some yellow leaves and a little death cap mushroom growing on a thin stem just above her left ear.
“You look especially... mossy today,” he finally managed to utter, “and that pretty mushroom... it gives you such an extravagant appearance!”
“Oh Troll, you old snake, you always had a way with the ladies!” She gave him a playful smile, revealing her few remaining teeth, all of them brown and crooked. Then she plucked the death cap elegantly with two fingers, put it in her mouth and chewed happily on it.
Her hood slid back over her shoulders and the Old Troll noticed the head of a giant gray toad sticking out of her collar. It rested snug on her bosom, sleeping under her robes.
“A new pet?” he asked politely. The Bog Witch first looked at Benedict, but when he pointed to the toad, she laughed.
“No, this is an old one. But curiously enough, I was going to ask you the same question. Any new... creatures you have taken in recently?”
“I...” started the Old Troll, but before he had the chance to finish, a loud burst of laughter came forth from the house. It was accompanied by the rattle of dishes, as if someone had been chasing someone else around the house and had run into a cupboard.
The Bog Witch continued chewing, but stopped smiling.
“So it's true then,” she said, squinting at the Old Troll unpleasantly, “we were informed correctly.”
The Old Troll was an old hand at the evil eye himself, so he returned her look tenfold.
“I don't know what you are talking about.”
“The girl!” said the Bog Witch.
“The girl!” said the nix.
“The girl!” said the toad in such a powerful bass that the Old Troll almost fell off his chair.
“Oh, that!” he tried to recover casually, but the talking toad had really caught him off guard. “So there is a girl in my house. What of it?”
“Do I really need to spell it out for you, my dear?” the voice of the Bog Witch sounded even more poisonous than the mushroom she had just finished off. “Need I remind you what happens if she goes back to the village?”
“Please do,” said the Old Troll irritably, although he knew perfectly well what was coming.
“A disaster!” shrilled the Bog Witch. ”A catastrophe! She will know the way here, and what one man knows, sooner or later the rest of them know too. Our forest will be bustling with treasure seekers and hunters! Is that what you want?”
“The community is concerned, Troll!” chimed in the nix, eyeballing him menacingly.
The Old Troll didn't care much for their tone, but what he hated even more was that they were absolutely right.
“She won’t get out of here,” he said firmly. “I'll keep her in the Cabin.”
Benedict stepped forward, his tiny black eyes glistening.
“And what if she escapes? She'll lead the men right to your door! The forest folk are not the only ones telling tales about the Old Troll's gold!”
“There is no gold!” shouted the Old Troll, jumping up, but the nix only smirked.
“I’m sure you'll get a chance to explain that to them in person.”
It seemed as if the Bog Witch had noticed signs of doubt on his face and had decided that the moment was ripe to reveal the true purpose of their visit. She stood up and drew closer to the Old Troll's face.
“Give her to us,” she said almost tenderly. “Give her to us and you won't have to worry about this little problem anymore.”
As the Old Troll smelled the mushrooms on her breath, a rage started to grow inside him, like a small burning point deep in his chest.
“Problem?” he wanted to say. “Community? A bunch of slimy frog-people and a crazy old witch... you call that a community?” But he never let out so much as a peep. He had lived long enough to have learned that you can't speak like that to your neighbors, even if you hold them in little more esteem than you would a dead fish.
Taking a deep breath, he made himself comfortable in his chair, locking his fingers across his belly.
“Community, you say?” he replied. ”Interesting. Do you hear that annoying squeaky voice coming from the house?”
He gestured over his shoulder with his thumb.
“It's a little bog fairy who seems to be quite fond of my guest. She's a member of the community you are referring to, isn't she? Would you like to ask her if she wants you to take the girl away? Given that it was the fairies who brought her here in the first place, I would say, hmm... NO!”
His short speech had the effect he was hoping for. Everyone in the Dark Forest knew of the vast family of bog fairies and their infamously short tempers. He allowed the question to hang in the air, relishing the long faces of his visitors.
“Those fairies again,” said the Bog Witch, grinding her remaining teeth. “There were so few of them just a hundred years ago, but they spawn like mosquitoes!”
The nix coughed and stepped on her foot.
“Get your frog legs off me!” said the Witch irritably, pushing him aside. “It's not as if they can hear us!”
She added under her breath, “One day I swear I'll find a way to take down that whole brood...”
The Old Troll had to struggle to keep his emotions from showing.
“Perfect!” he thought to himself, fighting the urge to rub his hands together. “Let the Bog Witch and Alina fight this one out! Finally, that honey-guzzling little pest can be of some use to me!”
But the Bog Witch wouldn't allow him to enjoy his little victory for long. Just as he was beginning to relax and contemplate which kind of cheese would go best with the next batch of pastries, she broke the silence.
“I have just the solution,” she announced, searching for something in the depths of her robes. “We'll give the fairy a sleeping potion. Then we'll take the girl and tell her she ran away.”
Before he even had a chance to reply, she had pulled out a vile made of green glass. Both the Old Troll and the nix stared at it.
After a long moment, the Old Troll finally said, “It’s empty.”
The Bog Witch held the vile in front of her face for a moment and then shook it.
“That's odd... I must have drunk it the last time I couldn't sleep,” she said, puzzled.
“Tut tut. Look what the years are doing to us,” said the Old Troll sarcastically, and met her hateful glare with a smile.
Suddenly, the toad climbed up the witch's neck and croaked something in her ear.
“That could work,” said the Bog Witch slowly.