Enjoying the effect of this statement, the Old Troll sat comfortably in his rocking chair and held the basket in his lap.
“Yes, the witch finds her first, I wager. I've heard she has an old recipe for stew that calls for little children, rosemary and wild leeks, and... Ouch!” – a honeycomb slapped him right in the eye.
“You heartless beast!” shouted Alina, her round face burning red with anger. “That poor little girl!”
Usually, her physique didn't allow her to fly as easily as other fairies, but now she managed to get a whole yard off the floor, her tiny dragonfly wings chirring.
The Old Troll's face hardened. Chunks of half-eaten honeycomb slid down his cheek and fell on his leg with a soggy plop.
It was too much to take for one day.
“Get out, you blasted bug!” he bellowed, shooing the fairy away. Then he turned on Olle.
“Why would you help a villager in the first place? What were you thinking?!”
“We couldn't leave her at the swamp, it's not a safe place for little girls...” started Olle.
“Perfect! That’s exactly why you should have left her there!” roared the Old Troll, advancing toward them. ”If I thought there was even the slightest chance she would make it back to the village, I would feed you both to the leeches! Bad fairy! Bad nisse! Bad!”
The shouting took Olle aback. He didn't say anything, just shook his head in reproach and went to the back of the house to hide in his little nook, looking very upset.
Despite his difficult character, the Old Troll rarely managed to genuinely upset his little nisse, but he could remember distinctly every time it had happened. Because at times like those, the Stone Cabin would turn into the most unwelcoming place – drafts would come out of nowhere, the ceilings dripped water (even with no rain outside) and the fire in the stove would not kindle.
When the Old Troll had finally calmed down, he tried to mumble some apologies to the nisse, but he heard no response. So he just sat in his chair, quietly nursing his irritation. At some point he looked up and it seemed to him as if the ceiling was growing musty right before his eyes. Shortly after that, a gust of cold air washed over his bare feet, sending a chill up his back. A moment later, the lamp went out.
“Oh, come on!” wailed the Old Troll into the darkness. “What would you have me do? Go after her?!”
It was easy enough to trace the girl's steps, even in the frail moonlight. A villager, especially one who runs in panic, always leaves a trail of trampled grass and broken twigs. And if that weren’t enough, there was the fading scent of cherries marking the way.
It seemed as if at first the girl had headed in the right direction, but then she had lost her way and begun
drifting northward, which would eventually take her to the soggy shores of the Leech Swamp. That place was full of muddy pits and water traps.
“Maybe I was wrong after all,” muttered the Old Troll, jumping over a puddle. “The witch won't get to her. She'll most likely drown long before that.”
Thinking about the welcome he'd receive if he came back without the girl, he sped up.
By the time the trail had led him to the swamp, the moon was hiding in the clouds and even his sharp trollish eyes couldn't make out a safe path through the darkness. He had to first poke around with his staff each time he took a step.
Just when the idea of disappointing his little nisse was starting to seem more palatable, he heard a quiet sobbing coming from a scattering of steep rocks just ahead of him. The pale moon finally glanced down from a gap between the clouds, and there she was – a little thing on top of a giant boulder overgrown with moss and stunted bog brush. She was hugging her knees and crying.
“Comfortable, are we?” called the Old Troll and chuckled as she jumped like a frightened cat.
“Are you ...”
“A troll?” he interrupted. “Yes, that's very observant of you. Now get down and we can be on our way.”
He wasn't surprised at all when instead of coming down, she tried to back away from him.
“Where are you taking me?”
“To my house, which you nearly destroyed today.”
He snapped, “So I can chop you into pieces and make a stew out of you!”
Then he saw her eyes glistening and, with a great effort, managed to soften his tone.
“I'm tired and it's very late. If you come down right now, we can be safe out of this swamp before midnight.”
“Why? What happens at midnight?”
A large owl silently alighted on a twisted birch tree not far from them.
“You don't want to know,” said the Old Troll, eying the owl suspiciously. “But if you stay here, I promise you will find out.”
Seeing that she still wasn’t moving, he turned away and announced in the most dramatic voice he could muster, “All right then. At least I can rest assured you'll never tell anyone where to find the Old Troll's Cabin.”
As he walked slowly back towards the forest, he heard the soft rustle that one makes when slipping down from a large mossy rock.
For the first time in a very long time, the Old Troll woke up in a good mood.
Instead of his usual groaning and complaining about his sore old bones, he sat straight up in bed and stretched. It took him a moment to realize that it was a pleasant smell that had woken him up. The delicious, tempting smell of fresh-baked pastries. It was sweet and crisp and it tickled his nostrils invitingly.
The scene that appeared before his eyes as he drew aside his sleeping curtain was beyond idyllic. In the sparkling morning sunlight, the girl, now washed and brushed, was rolling a mass of dough on the big kitchen table. Alina, who seemed not to have left since the night before, was rubbing pitted cherries through a wood-framed sifter. And his nisse was standing on a stool next to the small iron stove that stood in the middle of the hearth, holding a wooden turner.
Sneaking up behind the gnome, the Old Troll saw a row of crescent doughy cushions, sizzling and spitting sunflower oil on a big cast-iron pan. He made a loud slurping noise, causing every head in the room to turn toward him.
“What is this?” asked the Old Troll before anyone even had a chance to wish him good morning. He tried to pick up one of the pastries, but it was too hot.
“Troll!” said Olle, beaming through the tangles of his beard. “Mary is making cherry turnovers!”
“Is she now?”
The Old Troll sucked on his burned finger and sat at the far end of the table. As he was pouring himself a cup of thyme tea from a large charred kettle, he noticed the girl coming over. She still kept her distance from him, but now she seemed more curious than scared. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her wiping her hands on an improvised apron made from an old kitchen towel.
“I wanted to thank you, Sir” – the Old Troll grunted at her ‘Sir’ – “and I'm sorry for... yesterday. My name is Mary.”
He kept sipping his tea, reluctant to reply, so she went on, “Would you like a cherry turnover, Mister Troll? I made them for you.”
The Old Troll looked at the little girl with a smirk and sniffed the air again.
“Village girl,” he said, “are you planning on breaking any more of my windows today? Do let me know first, as I'll have to make some arrangements to get more panes from my kinsmen in the mountains. It takes time, you know.”
He waited for her cheeks to properly redden, then he allowed himself a smile.
”All right, apology accepted. Now bring on the goodies!”
Ten turnovers and three cups of tea later, he was lounging breathless, sprawled over his rocking chair in a wood shed next to the house. He was so full, he couldn't even rock with his whole body... he just pushed against a stack of chopped wood with one foot.
The high midday sun was scorching the grass on the glade in front of the house, but it was pleasantly chilly in the shade. Just the right conditions. The Old Troll sighed happily and closed his eyes.
Olle found him there just as he was starting to doze off and managed to ruin everything within the space of a second.
“I'm glad you enjoyed her cooking, Troll. I also wish you'd left some for the rest of us.”
The Old Troll opened one eye and glared at him in disapproval.
“Is that all you came to say? I'm a little busy here.”
The nisse pulled a chopping block close to the chair and climbed on top of it.
“So when are you taking her back?”
The Old Troll had to open his second eye to give the little creature a full-on hateful glare, but it didn't help.
“You are taking her back?” Olle asked insistently. “Troll?”
“You know I can't.”
“So what's your plan then? You can't keep her here forever.”
The Old Troll shifted uncomfortably.
“I don't know yet. But she can't go back to the village, that much is certain.”
“So you'll hold an innocent child prisoner at your house? And what happens if the others find out?”
“It might be too late,” said the Old Troll, getting up from his chair. Olle stood up next to him and they watched as two hooded figures emerged from the trees and headed toward the house.