Most wonderful thing it was, watching the Dark Forest come back to life after a long winter.
The revival sets in motion gently, step by step, with just little hints and indications at first. Birds chirp a bit louder, foxes run a bit faster and a big grumpy bear rolls over in his den, trying to make the most of his last days of sleep.
Then a little mouse shows up on the surface. He sniffs the air, jiggling his whiskers so fast, they turn into a blur for a moment. The snow still lies cold and dead and it looks like the winter will rule the Northern Lands forever, but the little mouse is not afraid of it anymore. For all the snow and ice in the world cannot fool him, he smells the spring coming, and he knows that the life in the forest will soon start anew.
Next comes the water. Bubbling up from under the ground, dripping down from myriads of icicles, the water is the first and the most powerful sound in the Spring Orchestra: when it plays, the entire land has to answer.
Bunnies and squirrels would lose their luxurious white coats and change into humble summer colors. Dears, starved on a bark and twig diet all winter, would start digging through the last callous snow, looking to nip on the first sprouts of grass. And by the time sap starts flowing in the thres and the first green bud makes its appearance, the Dark Forest is full of noise and happy rumpus, as if there were never-ever such a thing as Winter.
“Where are we going?” asked Peter, trying to keep up with the Troll’s purposeful stride.
“We need to find out where the Witch and her gang is.”
“What are we going to do? Do you think you can convince them not to fight with the villagers?”
“Oh, I just have the right words.” said the The Old Troll.
He lied. He had no idea what he was going to say.
Mary was unusually quiet, it looked like she couldn’t come to her senses after the Old Troll’s surprise appearance. He chuckled, remembering her face when he popped up in the hayloft when she was on her time out, working the spin wheel with a pile of sheep wool in her lap. She still looked confused, not at all like Peter, who was thrilled to be rescued from the cow stall -- his punishment involved two days worth of manure shoveling.
“Did you really think you could stop the raid?” he asked Peter again, “The entire village?”
Peter nodded so proudly, as if they actually managed to accomplish anything with their little rebellion.
“How far do you think they advanced?” the troll asked Mary.
“They started gathering right after dawn.” she replied, “We tried to tell our dad not to go with the Jaeger and the hunters...”
“And got yourself grounded.” finished the Old Troll, “I heard that story already. Three times.”
“I don’t think they could have made more than five miles into the forest by now.” said Peter.
“Not to mention that the hunters took the long trail.” added the Old Troll, ”I think we have passed them already.”
He didn’t have anything to eat since early morning and the smells of the spring forest made his head spin. There were still patches of snow and ice hiding here and there in the shadows, but the first flowers didn’t wait, for the Northern summer was short and they had plenty of growing to do.
The Old Troll stopped by a pine tree to harvest some of the bright-green shoots off its branches. He cleaned them from the soft, tender needles and sent chewy steams in his mouth. The sprouts would go splendidly dipped in cowberry jam. Olle always had some jam stashed away in case the spring comes late and they would need to last a couple of extra weeks on their last-year supplies.
Thinking of his friend made the Old Troll clench his teeth. How many more of the magic folk will get hurt if he doesn’t find a way to stop the raid? And how many of the simple, innocent villagers, fooled and scared by the Landlord, will perish when they start fighting back?
“I couldn’t save you.” said the Old Troll to himself, “And the only thing I can do now is try to save the others.”
With his mind at those thoughts, the Old Troll stepped on the shores of the Leech Swamp.
The sun was already high up and the swamp was steaming like a giant bowl of soup.
“How do we find them?” asked Peter, looking around from under his hand, “There is no one here!”
“Not that I expected to hear anything smart from you,” said the Old Troll, “but even the villagers should know that the Swamp is never empty.”
As to illustrate his words, a large log sticking out of water shook up, yellow withered grass growing on its dry end rustled. The children jumped away and hid behind the troll’s back, but he paid no attention to the log -- he finally found what he was looking for. When the log that stopped moving, he carefully stepped on it, reached out with his staff and poked right in the middle of a large tussock sticking out of the water.
“Benedict!” the Old Troll bellowed, “Knock-knock, you old weisel, guess who it is!”
A pointy head came up to the surface, surrounded by a whirlpool of bubbles and reed. It sported a tiny, soaking wet bonnet, that was probably made for some peasant’s baby girl many years ago.
“What’s with all the comotion?” the head squeaked, blinking in the sunlight, “Is it those goblin kids again? Off with you! Benke’s not home!”
“Grandma Nix,” said the troll politely, “It’s me, the Old Troll. Do you know where he is?”
“Oh, it’s you.” the old nix lady climbed up on the log and brushed the reed off her face, “I haven’t seen you in a while.”
She rested her little hands in front of her chest, which made her look like a large and wet squirrel. The Old Troll took a deep breath, trying not to hide how anxious he was
“I’ve been away, visiting my cousins in the Blue Mountains.”
“Oh how nice of you! How are they?”
“Fine. Do you know where I can find your Benke?”
“Or, I believe they went to a war, or something to that tune.”
The Old Troll couldn’t keep his calm anymore.
“Oh, that awful Witch,” continued Grandma Nix, ignoring his questions, “I told him to stay away from her, she’s nothing but trouble.”
“Where can I find them?”
The Grandma Nix scratched her head under the bonnet.
“They are gathering by the Bear Creek, if I’m not mistaken.” she said and finally noticed the children who were too afraid to draw a breath.
“Are those little villagers?” she asked, confused, “Why are they here? That’s not right.”