“He… It’s too dangerous!”
“Aha!” Olle pointed his little finger at the troll’s nose. “So you agree it’s dangerous then?”
“No, what I wanted to say--”
“You just said it was dangerous!” said Alina. “I heard it.”
“WILL YOU EVER SHUT UP?!” exploded the Old Troll at the top of his lungs.
Little birds scattered off the roof and a poor squirrel made a run for its life up a nearby tree.
Alina muttered, “Psycho...” and kept chewing.
The Old Troll expected that Olle, who was a stranger to long walks, would soon start whining and maybe even ask to be carried on his shoulder. He even made up a sarcastic comment for when it would happen and spent quite some time polishing it in his head. What he didn’t expect though, was cheerful and overly enthusiastic chatter pouring out of his little friend like berry jam from a broken jar.
“You have left the house before, right?” finally asked the troll with a great deal of annoyance in his voice. “What’s come over you?”
“Just happy to be out on a beautiful day like this. Look at the sky, I’ve never seen it so deep!”
“It was exactly like that two days ago,” mumbled the Old Troll, but he couldn't help raising his head.
His sight plummeted into a vast grey abyss that opened up right where the pine tops ended. A crisp, near-winter chill gave the air a striking, almost painful clarity, and somewhere halfway into those depths, he saw a wedge of cranes making its way to the South. The Old Troll held his breath just in time to hear their faint, unearthly cry, as if the Summer itself were leaving the Northern Lands… his head spun around, making him stumble and lean on his staff.
“It does look… a bit unusual,” he had to admit in a much softer voice than he intended.
Olle smiled, “I’m glad you see it too.”
“You know what,” said Alina, who had volunteered to keep them company for some time, “I’m going to leave you ladies to your emotions.”
She turned onto a hidden path in the underwood that only she could see and disappeared before they had a chance to say goodbye. They walked the rest of the way quietly, each one thinking his own thoughts.
Since this time he would have to help his nisse over the fence, the Old Troll chose not one of the richest houses, but one with a lower stockade. It was just past harvest time, so he knew that even the smallest storage would be bursting with supplies.
They crossed the backyard undisturbed, but once they reached the cellar door, the Old Troll got a strong feeling that something wasn’t right. It didn’t take him long to understand what it was: the padlock was missing and an old rusty clasp was dangling freely on its bolt.
“Let me check, maybe they just forgot...” he whispered, but before he finished the sentence, a child’s laughter came from inside.
“It’s Mary!” shouted Olle, leaping forward. “I’ve got to see her!”
“No, no, no!” horrorstruck, the Old Troll tried to grab him by the jacket with a free hand. He missed.
Their appearance must have made a strong impression, judging by the astonished faces of the children sitting on the floor in a circle.
“Hi,” said the Old Troll.
A girl in a blue, worn-out dress was the first one on her feet.
They ran towards each other and hugged.
“We told you!” cried out another child.
He had a different set of clothes and no dirt on his face, but it was still easy to recognize Peter. “Didn’t we tell you! See, Alfred? Take a good look!”
The boy he called Alfred had his mouth open so wide, a little bug flew in and out completely unruffled. Peter’s friend, Axel, was there too.
“Good morning, Mister Troll.” He was probably still embarrassed about his behavior during their forest escapades, so he tried to cover it up with some extra manners. “It is nice to see you again, sir. I hope you found our product statis… sratis... stratis-factory.”
“What?” the Old Troll still couldn’t get his thoughts together. “You mean the sugar? Oh, yes, satisfactory.”
The children seemed to recover from the first shock much quicker than he did--they crowded Mary and Olle, jumping and shouting all at the same time. The situation was positively getting out of hand.
“Well, it was nice seeing you all,” said the Old Troll in the most resolute tone he could muster, “and now we’re leaving.”
No one paid any attention to him. He tried to fish out his nisse from the crowd, but alas, it wasn’t any easier than taking sweets from a bog fairy.
“Do you remember me, Mister Troll?” said a little boy, tugging on his sleeve. “I’m Knut. You said you were my aunt, but I knew you were not, so I was like…”
“Knut? Aunt? I…”
Suddenly, he remembered where he was.
“Speaking of aunts, where are your parents?”
“Oh, don’t worry!” Mary turned to him. “Alfred’s family is working at the Landlord's mansion on Fridays. That’s why we have our club meetings here.”
“Yes,” she said, “I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that we are dedicated to keeping everything we know about you a secret. And that’s why we started a secret club!”
As much as he was worried and confused, the thought of someone starting a club in his honor was unexpectedly flattering.
“You started a troll’s club?”
“Well, not exactly...” Mary hesitated.
“It’s the Fairies and Nisses’ Club!” said Alfred.
“And I painted a plaque with the name!” declared little Knut proudly, “For short, we call it FaN-C.”
The boy picked up a piece of wood smeared with bright colors and put it right in his face.
“Is this awesome or what?”
“I see,” said the Old Troll, staring at the “И” with the middle stroke on the wrong side. “Fancy.”
He turned back to Mary and Peter, but they were busy talking with Olle. He sighed and sat down on a cutting deck in the corner.
“At least Alina will be happy,” grumbled the Old Troll when the village fell well out of sight. “She has a fan club of her own.”
The nisse was too tired to answer. Bent under a bag full of goodies presented to them by the children, he could barely draw a breath. If someone were to look at them from a distance, he would see a troll followed by a bag that walked on its own, making little puffing noises.
“Pfff… Maybe you could carry it just a little bit?”
“Those are your gifts. Your gifts, your burden.”
The Old Troll still struggled to decide if things had gotten better or worse. An unpleasant sensation that he had lost control of his own life, that had first appeared after Mary’s escape, now had settled deep, deep in his stomach. He also had an irrational feeling that Olle was somehow responsible for everything that had happened lately. Obviously, blaming all his trouble on a little house gnome was unfair, but he couldn't help the way he felt.
“Maybe this is what the cranky old creature was talking about,” he brooded. “Maybe somehow he knew that if I went to the village today, Olle would tag along and we’d have a fight, and I’d risk losing the only friend I have in this whole blasted world?”
He looked at Olle, who had already begun to stumble, and took the bag off his back.
They marched in silence until they reached a large clearing in the woods. In summertime it would make for a nice place to sit down and rest, but now it looked much less inviting. The thick grass that covered the clearing before was all brown and withered, covered with wet leaves and other debris. Recent rains finished the job, turning what used to be a lively meadow into a dreary fen, spotted with patches of naked earth and muddy puddles. The view complemented the troll’s mood perfectly.
“I don’t understand where this whole club thing came from,” he said. “The spell was supposed to simply make the little scamps keep their mouths shut, that’s all.”
“Do you remember how it went?” asked Olle, relieved that the Old Troll was speaking to him again.
“Let me think...
and lightning, grass and roots,
Keep the secret, bring the goods...”
“Well, it looks like it worked… I mean, we got the goods, the children are keeping the secret. And we even got some of that storm and lightning you mentioned. Is that all?”