Long before noon he had begun to regret making this promise. He hadn’t had anything to eat since the night before, and the smell of the fresh pastry in his bag was so strong that it easily overpowered the gentle aroma of the pine forest around him.
The sun was already high in the sky and the heat it produced was positively scorching. The Old Troll tried to choose the trails that went through the thicket in order to keep to the shade. Even so, before he knew it, he was sweating and panting heavily.
He finally reached a spring bubbling up from the ground at the foot of a small rocky hill. Local forest folk used it quite often, so the area around the little pool was always clean of dry grass and pine needles. Someone had also placed a large, flattened log next to the stream, to serve as a bench.
When the Old Troll had finished drinking the ice-cold water, he sat down and set the Cheese Bag on the log. His old legs were aching, and his head felt light from lack of sleep and nourishment.
“This is ridiculous,” he finally said out loud. “I don't know how they talked me into this, but I can’t be expected to starve to death along the way!”
He snapped the flap of the bag open in one quick motion, but before he could reach inside, the bag told him in a tiny voice, “You promised!”
The Old Troll jumped up, his heart pounding in his chest.
“What?” he asked stupidly, not knowing what to think.
“You promised!” said the voice again.
Only then did he notice that the voice wasn't coming from the bag. A little fairy he had never seen
before was sitting on the opposite end of the bench, smiling up at him. She met his wild stare with the calm gaze of her beautiful lilac eyes.
“You promised, Old Troll!”
The Old Troll sat down, clutching his tunic over his chest.
“This is Alina's doing,” he grumbled, after he had returned to his senses. “I swear by the Trolls of Yore, I will murder that flying rat the moment I get back!”
The fairy laughed in a little voice that rang through the grove like a tiny silver bell. The Old Troll growled and waved his staff at her, trying to shoo her away, but she just kept laughing.
”I will buy a whole barrel of clover honey from the wood goblins just to drown her in it!” he ranted furiously, pulling the strap of his bag over his shoulder.
“A suitable way to end her useless life!”
When he looked back a moment later, the bench was empty.
It was long past noon when a light breeze carried the smell of farm animals and chimney smoke to him. A few minutes later, the village appeared through the trees at the edge of the forest.
This time, before climbing over the palisade, the Old Troll had to walk back and forth along the edge of the woods and even climb up on the lower branches of an old tree, before he could spot the red chimney that belonged to Mary's family.
The palisade stakes were crudely cut and he had to struggle to find a good grip. It was a greater challenge than usual as he was tired, anxious and completely exhausted. By the time he had managed to throw himself over the fence and into an overgrown pumpkin patch on the other side, his hands – pierced with many splinters – were shaking violently.
“I hope, at least, there’ll be some cheese in here,” thought the Old Troll to himself as he fumbled with a rusty iron bar on the cellar door behind the house. Pied hens strutted around behind his back, clucking loudly and making him feel even more nervous than he already was. He finally yanked off the bar and stepped into the small, empty cellar. There was not a trace of cheese in sight.
“Of course!” muttered the Old Troll sarcastically. “Why would I expect anything good from a day that began with no breakfast and a bunch of crazy fairies?”
He turned around, wondering if any of those fairies were hovering in the air behind his back, but there were only a few braids of garlic and some old cobwebs in the corner.
He opened his bag, took out a bundle wrapped in old towels and laid it on top of a large barrel in the middle of the room. A scrumptious aroma made his empty stomach rumble and he could have sworn that this time it distinctively sounded like “Ta-a-art!”
No longer able to resist, the Old Troll unwrapped the towels. A small cherry tart lay in front of him, crisscrossed with strips of crisp pastry, with a big ruby-red cherry sitting right on top. The Old Troll looked curiously at that cherry and a nagging thought started to take shape somewhere in the back of his mind.
“Wait a second...” he thought to himself, but just at that moment he heard voices coming from the street. Old instincts kicked in and, before he knew it, he was rushing back to the forest, cursing and breathing heavily.
He pulled himself over the palisade with the groan of a dying bear and landed on the other side just in time to hear a pack of noisy children pouring out of the house. He couldn't see them, but he heard the chatter suddenly grow quiet and then a little girl’s voice called, “Peter!”
That voice was painfully familiar.
“Impossible!” gasped the Old Troll as the yard behind him exploded with children's screams and shouts.
He tried to peek between the stakes, but before he could find a good angle, the yard was empty again – everyone had run back into the house. He crouched there for another moment, trying to convince himself that he must be mistaken, but it was pointless.
“I hate them all!” cursed the Old Troll through his teeth, anger burning in his blood.
“Fat stupid fairies and backstabbing nisses, crazy bog witches and sneaky little girls... I hate them all so much!”
He nursed that thought all the way home. The image of the cherry stood before his eyes, fresh and glistening.
“I hate them!” he said to the birds and squirrels.
“I hate them!” he said to a couple of wood goblins, who were sitting on a stump, eating wild raspberries.
“I hate them!” he said to the giant gray toad that was still keeping watch outside his house.
The toad stared back at him and, for a moment, he thought he recognized the contemptuous look of the Bog Witch peering out of its wide-mouthed face. He rushed into the house.
“Mary!” yelled the Old Troll, still hoping he had got it all wrong. “Mary! Are you there?”
No one answered.
The Stone Cabin looked empty and uninviting inside. But this time the Old Troll was sure it wasn't due to the nisse's moods, because the face of his little housekeeper was shining with glee.
The Old Troll sat down heavily in his chair.
“How did you know the potion would work on her?”
“We didn't,” said Olle happily, “but it worked!”
“And what if I had eaten the tart?”
“I wouldn’t have let you,” rang a voice like a tiny silver bell, making the Old Troll jump up once again. The little fairy from the grove sat peacefully on the window sill and smiled at him as if she were his best friend.
“Malvina is very responsible,” said Alina, suddenly appearing in the doorway. “We weren’t too worried.”
”Olle, could you hand me that poker please?” asked the Old Troll, who felt incredibly old and forlorn, as if all his countless years had come crashing down on him in that instant.
“Could you hand me that poker so I can throw it at her head?”
Olle didn't give him the poker. Instead, he went to the hearth and brought back a wooden plate with one single turnover on it.
“I saved it from yesterday. I knew you would need it.”
The Old Troll pushed the plate away.
“No, thank you!” he said bitterly. “How long do you think it will be before those villagers start snooping around here?”
“It will be all right,” said Olle putting his plump little hand on the Troll's big bony one. “Mary won't tell anyone. We can trust her.”
“That’s right,” added Alina smiling. “She’s a good girl.”
“And what are you so happy about?” demanded the Old Troll, turning on her. “Do you think the Bog Witch will be pleased to learn about your role in this scheme? It might just be the final straw you know, before she finally decides to wipe out your 'whole brood'!”
“She... What?” Alina stopped smiling.
“Oh, our little nisse didn’t tell you?” sneered the Old Troll. “Those were her exact words. Oh, she's been planning to do it for a long time!”
“Brood!?” the fairy's plump face started to redden.
“That’s right! How did she put it?” went on the Old Troll. “Ah, yes…‘They are spawning like mosquitoes.’ Is that right?”
He turned to his nisse who stood nearby in complete confusion.
“Troll, I don't think–”
“It's not very neighborly, I agree,” interrupted the Old Troll. “But I think you've given her a perfect justification now. Even the stupidest goblin would have to agree that fairies who help villagers deserve whatever she's brewing for them.”
“Brewing for us?” Alina was nearly smoldering with rage. “Malvina, call up the girls, I think we owe someone a visit!”
The Old Troll leaned back in his chair and watched with great satisfaction as both fairies rushed across the glade and disappeared into the forest.
“The Witch is smart,” said Olle. “Eventually, she will find a way to make peace with the fairies and then you'll have to face the entire Leech Swamp united against you.”
“Eventually,” echoed the Old Troll with a dismissive wave, “but until then, the Bog Witch will have her hands full.”
The thought of a pack of angry fairies storming the Witch's Floating Hut made him feel much better. He leaned back and stretched out his tired old legs.
“Now tell me, you little scamp,” he said, picking up the last turnover, “between gorging on sweets and plotting against your master, did you ever get a chance to ask the girl for the recipe?”