She reached into her robes again and pulled out a tiny bottle sealed with black wax. There was something about it that made the Old Troll feel queasy.
“Is it Raven's Milk? Nightshade drops? You must have gone mad in your swamp, I'm not going to poison a fairy!”
The mocking look on her face indicated clearly that he had guessed wrong.
Trolls knew their way around magic potions well enough, but they could hardly compete with witches. All three were very well aware of that. The Bog Witch was clearly savoring the moment. The sneer she gave him was so condescending, he felt a fleeting temptation to uncork the vial, throw the contents in her face and see what happened.
“Not even close, my dear,” she finally said. “It's a Sideswimmers Juice.”
The Old Troll frowned. Sensing his hesitation, she explained.
“It's an extract from bog sideswimmers boiled over touchwood flame in raft spider saliva. It can turn a living creature into a small inanimate object.”
“No,” she giggled, “but wouldn't that be a trick? No, it's just for several hours. Give the potion to the fairy and it will turn her into a nice little sage flower. She won't remember a thing and it will give us enough time to take care of the girl.”
The Old Troll held the bottle up to the light with two fingers and peered at it. He could see small black shadows floating in the oily liquid. He tried to come up with another argument, but he could not think of any. No matter how he turned it, his visitors were right – the girl must not be allowed to leave the forest.
They were staring at him, waiting, and he had no choice but to put the bottle in his pocket.
A soft whisper came from the rock behind the witch.
“Don't you dare, Troll!” said the voice, faint as a gasp of wind. “Don't you dare!”
The cherry is a delicate fruit.
From the warm and cozy South and from the rainy and misty East, it had taken many centuries for the cherry tree to find its way to the unwelcoming cold of the Northern Lands.
It was only the rich and powerful landowners who could afford to keep cherry trees in their gardens. They were the first people in the North who had had the privilege to see the cherry blossoms bloom and ripen and to savor the fruit’s magical taste. The Fat Landlord's orchard was no exception. Hidden behind a seven-foot-tall palisade of sharpened stakes, it hid a dozen small cherry trees in its midst.
Those trees were not as large and fertile as in the South, nor as beautiful and fragrant as in the East. They were the short and squat cherry trees of the North that yielded small and sour ruby-red fruits, but there was nothing that the village children wouldn't risk for a taste.
Every year, shortly after the Midsummer celebrations, the cherries ripened. The landlord's servants were sent to pick them right away, so if any of the little villagers wanted to get their hands on those cherries, they had to be very quick about it.
It was never easy to find the right moment for the raid. It was even harder to get on the other side of the palisade. Yet it was harder still to escape the Fat Landlord’s infamous gamekeeper, known to the world as the Red Jaeger.
No one knew who he was. One day he had come from somewhere far to the South, a large man with hair and beard the color of smoldering embers. He had come and he had brought a pack of ferocious, short-haired dogs with him. The dogs wore steel-studded collars. The man wore a russet doublet with large buttons made of red jasper. The villagers didn't like to talk about the Red Jaeger, especially after dark.
The day that would end for Mary at the Old Troll's Stone Cabin began no differently than any other.
She woke up before dawn, as usual, to help her mother bake the morning bread. Then she prepared the grass and bran mash for the chickens and Molly, the one sheep that the Fat Landlord had left her family. When she was done with the mash, she brought a big rough-spun bag to the edge of the village to get some fresh juicy nettle for the young piglets. Clear skies promised a long hot day and she hoped to be back home before the midday heat.
“Nettle for my piglets, oink-oink, my piglets!” she was singing to herself, when the window of one of the cottages along the road opened and her friend’s head popped out. Her name was Nina and judging by how red her ears were, she was bursting with new rumors.
“Hi Nina!” said Mary, hoping that Nina hadn’t heard her silly song. “What is it?”
“You know what your little brother is up to?” asked Nina, talking so quickly that it was hard to make out the words.
“No,” said Mary, frowning, “but it had better be the chores he has for today. Old Grandpa Anders gave him a toy crossbow and Mama caught him trying that stupid thing out on the chickens. She said he'd be cleaning the pigsty for the rest of the – ”
Nina didn’t give her the chance to finish.
“They went for the cherries!” she yelled. “To the Landlord’s garden!”
It took Mary a moment to understand, then her heart sank deep into her stomach.
“Adam and Axel and your Pe-e-ete-er!”
Nina had to shout the last words at Mary’s back because her bare feet were already raising clouds of gray dust on the street.
Beyond the village gates, the small street merged into a road, dry and curvy, scarred with a pair of ruts left by the wheels of countless wagons and carriages.
The road took her through the fields, where villagers, covered with sweat and earth, stopped working to watch her hurtle past them, shielding their eyes from the sun with their callous hands.
It took her past the meadows, where lazy brown cows fed on juicy grass to the soft chime of their own bells and the wistful tremble of the cowherd boy's flute.
It took her around the Fat Landlord's manor, straight to his gardens.
Until the very last moment Mary had hoped to catch the boys before they could reach the gardens, but it was too late – she heard their hushed voices from inside the orchard.
She hurried hastily along the palisade, looking for a loose stake... and there it was – the little thieves hadn’t even bothered to put it back in place properly. The gap wasn't big enough for a grown-up, but she was only eight, so she slipped through easily enough.
Just as she had suspected, the boys were acting as if this were a game. They were ducking and shushing each other while laughing and joking at the same time. Peter was jumping around one of the little cherry trees, trying to reach the juicy cherries high up, near the top. He was so busy with this task that he didn't even notice his sister, until she came up close and hissed “Peter!” right into his ear.
Mary was satisfied to learn that her brave little brother did not wet his pants, as many others would have done in his place.
“Hi Mary,” he said, forcing a smile in a futile attempt to save face, “what are you doing here?”
There was no time for questions. She grabbed his left ear between two fingers and dragged him back to the hole in the palisade.
“Wait until Mama finds out!” she kept hissing, mad with rage. “You just wait!”
“Ow-ow-owowow! Let me go!” cried Peter, but she was unshakable.
Peter's friends didn't need any explanation to realize how much trouble they were in. They followed meekly, with only Axel muttering, “Please don't tell my father! Please, Mary!” but without much hope.
As she was pushing her scampish brother through the palisade, he suddenly wrenched free.
“The wicker! We need to get the basket!”
After a quick reckoning, Mary saw that he was right.
“Go home!” she said. “I'll get it.”
But Peter didn’t go. Instead, he began to search for something in the tall grass near the broken stake, so she had to give him a hard shove to set him off.
The basket lay where he had dropped it, right next to the tree. For a moment, she considered spilling out the stolen cherries, but they smelled so sweet and looked so delicious, she decided she might as well keep them.
“They won't get back on the tree anyway,” she told herself. As she bent over to pick up the basket, a broad shadow fell on the grass right in front of her.
“No, they won't,” rumbled a deep, harsh voice. Mary’s legs turned to jelly.
He looked exactly as the rumors had described him, only bigger and scarier. He grinned wickedly, revealing a wide gap between his front teeth. The girl stood frozen, like a mouse before a coiled snake, unable to take her eyes off the shiny red buttons on his jacket.
“Such a sweet girl,” said the Red Jaeger. “What a shame!”
In the next moment his iron-hard fingers closed around her arm so tight, that her eyes exploded with tears.
“No, please!” cried Mary, trying to wiggle free, but she would have had a better chance fighting against a solid rock. She knew she was as good as dead.
It was her little brother who saved her.
A short stick with a small ball of thread on one end and some chicken feathers fletched to the other hit the Red Jaeger right in the nose! Flinching, he let go of Mary’s arm for just a split second, but that was enough. Mary bolted and before she knew it, she was out of the garden, her heartbeat drumming madly in her ears.
Peter was still standing there with his tongue sticking out, trying to load a second bolt into his little crossbow.
“Run, you fool!” she yelled.