This time he listened.
They ran as fast as they could, expecting to hear the clatter of heavy boots behind them, but it was surprisingly quiet. Mary stopped when they caught up with the other two boys who had been waiting for them on the other side of the manor. Peter's face, though covered with sweat and dust, was gleaming.
“Did you see how I got him?” he said, catching his breath. “Did you?”
“I thought... I thought...” panted Mary, “I thought Mother took that thing away from you.”
“She did,” said Peter. “Well, she thought she did.”
Since there was no sign of any chase, she doubled back and took a cautious look at the gardens. To her enormous relief, she saw that the Jaeger had only managed to squeeze one arm through the gap in the palisade, but he couldn’t get his head through. There was no smile on his bearded face any more. He gave another jerk, making the stakes creak, and then he did something completely unexpected – he put two fingers in his mouth and let out a sharp whistle.
Mary was overcome by a fit of nervous giggles.
“Is that supposed to scare us?” she asked the boys who had also come back to see what was going on.
“Look!” said Axel in a trembling voice. “Mary!”
She looked up just in time to see a dark shadow slip out of the garden, quick as lightning. Then another. They were so different from the animals they had back in the village, that it took her a moment to realize what she was looking at.
“It's the dogs!” she cried. Then, screaming at the top of her lungs… “RUN!”
They ran as fast as they could, three little boys on a dusty dirt road. She started after them too, but when she looked back, her legs turned into jelly for the second time that morning – in one minute the dogs had erased half the distance between them. They were closing in. No barking, no growling – just two silent shadows with tiny sparks of polished steel on their collars.
Terrifying images, each one more horrible than the last, flashed before her eyes. Then, Mary did the only thing she could think of. Glancing over her shoulder to make sure the dogs were following her, she jumped off the road and ran straight through the rye field toward the emerald threshold of the forest.
As the dogs drew closer, the thoughts in her head became mixed and tangled, one thought crashing into the next, “Will they jump on my back? Will they bite my legs? Oh, this is going to hurt so much!”
But before she got the chance to find out, she came to the deep trench which separated the fields from the forest. If she had had time to gauge the distance or to notice the sharp rocks and shards that the village-folk had tossed in while cleaning the fields, she never even would have thought of jumping. Fortunately, there was no time to think.
“Mama!” she screamed, as her feet left the ground in the biggest jump she had ever made.
For a brief moment she thought she was going to land on the rocks at the bottom of the ditch, but suddenly her chest and arms hit the edge of the trench on the far side. She scrambled up, breathing hard, and rushed into the woods, leaving the barking dogs behind her.
“I'm happy to know that I'm safe here now... thanks to your kindness,” said Mary.
Now that his first reaction to the story had started to wear off, he couldn't help but notice a bit of extra drama in her voice. He squinted at his nisse and at the fairy, while Mary continued.
“Alas, my poor family...” she said tragically. “My mother... She doesn't even know I'm alive, she probably thinks that the dogs tore me to pieces. She must be crying her eyes out!”
The girl dabbed at her own eyes with the lap of her dress and sniffed pitifully.
“Aha,” thought the Old Troll, nesting comfortably in his chair, “they think there is nothing better than a crying child to move an old sentimental fool like myself.”
“You poor thing!” he said, still watching the two conspirators out of the corner of his eye. “If only there were something I could do!”
Olle jumped off the bed and came over.
“You know what you can do,” he said softly, looking closely at the Troll’s face. “You can take her back home!”
“Please, Mister Troll!” said Mary, her big blue eyes glistening. “Oh, please take me home to Mama! I won't tell anyone where I’ve been!”
“I know we’ve already spoken about this,” said Olle quickly, before the Troll could open his mouth, “but it will be fine. Just look the other way and the fairies will show her the way to the village. We'll tell the others that she escaped. Oh, please!”
The Old Troll sighed deeply and looked around, making sure all three of them were looking at him. After a long pause, he finally said, “Oh well...”
“Really?” said Alina, who couldn't believe her ears.
The Old Troll couldn’t hold back his laughter any longer. He gave out a loud snort and said, “No!”
Then he sat back in his chair and took a cup from the table, enjoying the looks on their faces. For a moment, the only sound in the house was of hot tea being slurped.
Then Alina exploded into a burst of threats and curses. The Old Troll just kept drinking, watching and smirking while his nisse tried to keep the mad fairy from attacking him.
After the fairy had been subdued and swaddled in a pillowcase, Olle and Mary demanded explanations.
“First off,” said the Old Troll, “you know perfectly well that for our own safety I can't let her go. Secondly, I can't let her go because of this.”
He walked over to the window and pointed at a large birch tree outside the Cabin. It was getting dark, but it was still possible to make out the silhouette of a large bird perched among the branches.
“Do you recognize that owl, Mary?”
Mary looked outside and shook her head. The owl looked right back at them, as if she could tell they were talking about her.
“You saw this owl at the swamp where I found you last night,” said the Old Troll, shutting the window tight. “The moment you leave this house, the Bog Witch will know about it, and then...” he drew a long breath, “...no... You will stay here. It will be better for all of us.”
He grabbed the quilt from his chair and stepped outside, into the fresh and luscious air of the summertime forest.
The girl had been so upset that the Old Troll had agreed to let her sleep in his bed for the night, he himself taking refuge in the shed behind the house.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but halfway through the night he still lay awake, twisting and growling, on a pile of wood chips and pine needles.
Just when he had finally managed to doze off, a squeaky voice woke him up. Opening one eye, he saw a narrow streak of dark-blue beginning to appear in the east, just above the treeline. It was so early, even the birds were still quiet.
“Listen, Troll,” spat Alina, yanking the blanket off him, “there is just one thing we will ask you to do.”
“No,” answered the Old Troll through chattering teeth and grabbed the blanket back.
“We’ve already heard enough of your No’s,” said Alina impatiently. “Mary will stay in the Cabin... if you agree to bring a message to her parents, so at least they’ll know she's alive.”
“Take it yourself,” said the Old Troll with a great deal of hatred in his voice. “I hope you haven't eaten your way to complete immobility yet. You can manage carrying a piece of paper to the village.”
To his surprise, Alina swallowed the insult.
“It's not a letter.”
“It's not? Mighty Forest and All Its Creatures!” swore the Old Troll, getting up heavily. “Don't tell me our little cherry thief doesn't know her letters!”
“Do you?” snapped Alina.
“Of course!” said the Old Troll. “If her family can read Trollish.”
The last thing he wanted was to drag his sore old bones all the way to the village, but it seemed like a small price to pay for settling this matter once and for all. He washed his face with cold water from a barrel while Alina explained how to find Mary's house. His Special Cheese Bag was waiting for him right on the doorstep, already packed, with Olle standing next to it.
“Thank you so much, Troll!” said the nisse, helping him to heave the bag over his shoulder. “Last night she scraped up the remaining cherries and made a tart. It's an old family recipe... her mother will know it's from Mary.”
“Where is she anyway?” asked the Old Troll. “The least she could do is come and thank me in person.”
“She's still crying,” said Alina quickly. “She doesn't want to see you now.”
The Old Troll tried to peek inside the Cabin, but it was too dark. He sighed and began to set off, but Olle suddenly caught his hand.
“Now promise me something,” he said. “Promise you’ll get that tart to her parents! Promise you won't eat any of it! Not even one bite!”
The Old Troll grunted and tried to wriggle his hand free, but the little nisse only tightened his grip.
“Promise me, Troll! Promise!”
The sun finally came out and the birch tree cast a long shadow across the glade. When the Old Troll looked at the tree, he saw that the owl was no longer there. She had been relieved by a giant toad sitting on a rock beneath the white speckled branches, staring at them with its bulging eyes.
“I should have thrown you all in the swamp a long time ago,” said the Old Troll grimly. “Fine, I promise.”