“Of course not. There’s always the second part. But it’s not in it either. I mean, the club.”
“A bear cub,” said Olle and stopped short.
“No, not a… What?” asked the Old Troll, blinking.
“Actually, it doesn’t look like any bear I’ve ever seen. What do you think it is?”
The Old Troll followed the direction of Olle’s gaze and a wave of instant cold ran through his body.
“That’s naa...” he could barely command his tongue, “that’s not a bear.”
The second creature, exactly like the first one, came from behind the trees on the far end of the clearing. It was way too far and the skies were completely overcast, but he could have sworn he saw sparks on the collars where the steel studs should be--the guard dogs looked exactly the way Mary had described them. He remembered the story of her escape from the Landlord's garden in every detail.
“Run,” he said to his friend in a husky voice. A strange feeling rose in his chest, as if he had just become a part of that story too. “Save yourself! RUN!”
His last shout came along with the growling of approaching beasts.
The Old Troll had no illusions about his ability to run or cast instantaneous spells like demons or fairies could, so he did the only thing he could do--he met the first dog with the tip of his staff, holding it like a spear. The impact was so hard, it pushed him back, but he still managed to hold the animal pinned to the ground for a quick moment, just in time to see the second one leaping at his throat. He flinched and deadly teeth merely missed him by an inch.
“ARRGHH!” with all his might, he swung his staff round and round, shouting and cursing, promising painful death and terror not only to the dogs themselves, but also to their pups and grand pups, as well as to the entire canine species. The curses didn’t impress the dogs too much, but four feet of iron-hard willow did. It kept them at a distance long enough for the troll to retreat to a large aspen tree at the edge of the clearing. Quicker than squirrel, he climbed as high as the tender branches would allow him, then perched among them like a giant stork. Though still struggling to catch his breath, he managed to produce something resembling victorious laughter.
“Ha-ha! Is that it?” he coughed out. “Stupid dogs! You’d better grow some wings if you want to get me!”
“There will be no need,” said a deep voice and the dogs stopped barking.
The Old Troll’s eyes fixed on three hunters that seemed to appear absolutely out of nowhere. Two of them were dressed in traditional hunters’ jackets over roughspun tunics. Their faces were half-hidden in the shadows of large hoods. The third one had his head uncovered. A thick, dark-red beard crept down his face from eyes to neck, scraping the edge of an ornate doublet dyed in the color of aged wine. When he passed the dogs, they backed off from him, writhing on their bellies, like two giant worms. The Old Troll prepared to meet the enemy with one of his famous blood-chilling glares, but the second he saw the man’s eyes, he knew it would be pointless.
There was no menace in those cold blue eyes, no anger and definitely no fear. The Red Jaeger observed his prey with pleasure and satisfaction, like a farmer who had managed to grow a particularly large and juicy squash. And now the squash was ripe and it was time for dinner.
“I knew it,” he said. “I knew it when I saw that old krona that the Norbergs gave my master for their cattle. I can smell troll’s gold from a mile away.”
He put his heavy hand on the trunk of the tree, making its yellow, heart-shaped leaves shake.
“That’s what the elder spoke about! He tried to warn me,” thought the Old Troll with belated regret. “He came to me in night and rain, he wanted to help, but all he got in return were taunts and mockery!”
One of the dogs made an attempt to storm the tree, but fell down halfway before reaching his legs. Sturdy claws left deep scratches in the bark.
“Trolls of Yore! If I survive this day, I promise, I’ll give him all of my cheese! I might even apologize, just help me to get out of here!” ran the thoughts in his head, but his mouth said something else.
“You’d better take your bearded face out of my forest, before I turn you and your jumping gerbils into rainworms!”
Although the Old Troll did his best to sound confident, it didn’t look like his threats reached their goal. All three men guffawed so loudly, he had to grasp at the branches in momentary fear that he could fall off.
“What a funny thing!” said one of the hunters. “We should put it in a cage and show it at the fair!”
Watching them laugh, the Old Troll felt his panic fading away and all that remained in him was anger. But his magic staff was lying on the ground where he dropped it, so the only thing he could do was to grind his teeth and growl.
“I told my master there was a troll in our forest,” continued the Red Jaeger, after the laughter died out, “but he wouldn’t believe. That was until he saw the second coin two weeks ago.”
“YOUR forest!” echoed the Old Troll through his teeth. “You are in for a big surprise, if you think this forest is YOURS.”
He was so mad, he was ready to jump down and tear the intruders apart with his bare hands, but his rage only resulted in a second round of laughter.
“I like how bold you are, old creature,” said the jaeger, still sniggering, then added quietly to his friends. “Time to load my arquebuse.”
One of the men took a large tube off his shoulder and put its butt on the ground, while the second one reached into little bags on his belt. The Old Troll had never seen a fire weapon before, but he had heard of them, and all his senses screamed in fear when he watched the hunters putting the charge in.
“It’s stuck,” piped up one of them. “The wad is too big.”
“Idiots!” roared their leader and stepped away from the tree to help.
It was the troll’s only chance. He didn’t actually hope to grab his staff and cast a spell before the dogs jumped at him, but it was either try or be shot down like some fur animal. He closed his eyes and the last image he saw before he jumped was his own head, mounted over a fireplace as a hunting trophy.
His plan failed before he reached the ground--a tiny evil twig caught his robes on the way down. He flipped mid-fall and landed right on one of the dogs with the most desperate cry the Forest had heard in ages. The beast squealed too and dashed into the bushes, dragging along the troll, who instinctively grabbed onto its collar with stiffened fingers.
To be fair to the dog, its startle lasted only a second. It bore down with all four paws, making its rider skid and roll into the bushes. By the time the troll stopped rolling, he was covered with enough mud and debris to build an average-sized beaver hut. He lifted his head just in time to see a slimy muzzle full of sharp teeth right in front of his face. He closed his eyes...
A heartbeat. Another. Nothing happened. The Old Troll opened one eye. The dog was still in front of him, but now it hung at nearly five feet from the ground, held up by some strange-looking branches that weren’t there just a second ago. For a moment, the magic plant took the shape of a giant hand with hundreds of long, twisty fingers. The terrified animal tried to bite and claw on them, but to no effect whatsoever. The troll opened his second eye. The limbs grew longer and longer, they curled and tangled with a quiet crackling sound, until they formed a thick wall between him and the hunters.
“Troll! Troll!” that was Olle, standing next to him, looking extremely worried. “Are you hurt? Can you walk?”
“What… what… what is that?”
The Old Troll approached the mass of twigs and branches. He found a little peekhole that showed a narrow view of the glade behind.
“What’s happening?” he whispered.
The dog managed to wriggle out of its trap and now joined the hunters who ran in circles, jumping and waving their arms, as if...
“Wild bees,” said the Old Troll as it suddenly dawned on him. “Where are they?”
Olle didn’t need to clarify whom he was asking about. He just pointed to his left and there they were: Elder Bokker and a dozen of his tribesmen. They sat in a circle with their eyes closed, quietly humming some monotonous tune. The Old Troll looked back at the giant hedge that still pulsated in its middle, like a tired animal breathing after a long run. He shivered.
“I didn’t know they could still do that,” he said quietly. “I haven’t seen real goblin magic in hundreds of years.”
He peeked into the hole again, just in time to see the bees driving the hunters and their dogs toward the swamp.
“That must hurt a lot,” said Olle when the screams faded out in the distance. “I really wish there was a better way.”
“Look at the bright side. If any of them had back pain, I’m sure it will be gone forever.”
As usual, the little nisse looked puzzled, trying to understand if his friend was joking.
“Come on,” sighed the Old Troll as he looked back at the goblins. “We need to find my bag. I hope the food didn’t get squashed. By the way, do you know how to make gift baskets? I don’t believe I’ve ever made one.”
The most secret and mysterious club in the history of Skogville was having its third meeting. This time it was in a hayloft on the top of a cattle stall in Knut’s backyard. There was only one piece of news they were discussing that night, the one that Alfred had told them after visiting his parents at the Landlord's mansion: the Red Jaeger, who left with two other hunters three days ago, was back. He returned alone, all swollen and starving, but very much alive and even scarier than usual. The members of the club spent the rest of the night guessing what happened to him and the other hunters, but just as they thought they’d come up with a good explanation, Knut’s mother climbed up the ladder and sent them all home.