Before the Old Troll had a chance to answer, the log shook once more and suddenly stood up on its end with a splash. By the time the children stopped screaming, Grandma Nix had already retired to her underwater house.
“For the Trolls of Yore!” shouted the Old Troll, cleaning his face with a sleeve, “I always manage to wake them up!”
The log bent slightly in the middle, spun around and suddenly, it took the shape of a woman. It looked like she was hugging her shoulders, shaking in the cold wind. Dry yellow reed framed her face with subtle, indistinguishable, but magically beautiful features. Peter seemed to forget about his wet clothes and everything that was about to happen, he looked at her with his mouth wide open like there was nothing else in the world. The Old Troll, however, felt far from being enchanted.
“Stupid huldra!” he grunted, “Couldn’t you stay still for one more minute? Shoo!”
He waved his staff at the creature. It turned away from him with such grace, one could easily mistake it for a young woman, but when it was facing the swamp again, the illusion disappeared and it was nothing but a large old log.
They watched quietly as the creature slowly descended into the murky water with no splash or ripples, it looked as if huldra’s slender body was melting away.
“What was that?” Mary asked first, because Peter was still unable to talk.
“It’s a huldra.” said the Old Troll, “You’ve never seen one? They freeze up during the winter and come back to live in spring. When they wake up too early, they often lie at the bottom of the swamp, waiting for the last snow to melt.”
“I heard about huldras.” finally said Peter, “I heard they lure men into the swamp and drown them.”
“Why would anyone walk after a huldra?” asked the Old Troll, “They don’t even talk. It’s just an old tree spirit that can move sometimes.”
“Because...” Peter hesitated, “Well, some people believe the huldras are women and they want to...”
His cheeks reddened.
“They want to catch one and...Get married.”
It took the Old Troll a moment to understand, but when he did, he bent over in the burst of explosive laughter.
“Ma… ma…. married!” he cried, “To a huldra!”
“How is that funny?” asked Peter, offended, but the troll just kept laughing away.
Peter’s face got so red, Mary could help but smile. When the Old Troll couldn’t laugh anymore, he stood up and wiped off his tears.
“Oh, Forest almighty!” he said, leaning on his staff, “Thank you, boy! Today might very well be the last day of my life and I really needed a good laugh before I'm gone.”
On the way to the Bear Creek the Old Troll felt pretty confident, he kept joking and chuckling and even managed to make Mary smile, but as soon as they climbed the hill that opened the view to the Bear Creek Valley, his good spirits went away, leaving only a cold, painful emptiness in his chest.
The water babbled in the bottom of a shallow, overgrown ravine, winding between age-old cedars and mossy rocks, getting wider and wider as it approached the Leech Swamp.
The Old Troll made the last step and looked down where the Creek split into dozens of shallow streams before merging into the wetlands. The clearing on the Western side of its mouth was bustling with the magic folk. Goblins, nixes, imps and many others crowded around a giant cauldron that exuded large clouds of green, yellow and purple steam.
The Bog Witch, who looked even scarier than usual, loomed over the cauldron with a three-foot long ladle. She stirred its contents left and right, reciting incantations and with every word the steam changed its color, until it reached stable deadly green. It was the sign that the concoction was ready.
“What's she doing?” asked Peter.
“I think it's a little something she made for your friends and family. I would guess it should turn them into frogs or lizards.” said the Old Troll and added, “If they are lucky.”
Peter's face crumpled.
“I don't want my dad to turn into a lizard! Mister Troll, please, do something!”
Indeed, it was the time for mister Troll to go there and do something, but he couldn't make himself move.
A new sound took him out of his stupor. It was the sound of dogs barking. Many, many angry dogs, ready to jump, bite, and tear to pieces every last of his fellow magic folk.
He looked at the children for the one last time and asked, “Can you stay here please?”
Mary nodded and took her little brother's hand. The Old Troll closed his eyes and made a step. He felt like he was about to jump in ice cold water.
“What are you doing?” screamed a voice in his head, “Run away!”
“I've been running away too much lately.” the Old Troll replied, “And look where it got me. I want to try something else today.”
When the dogs got a scent of the magic folk, their bark turned into mad howl. The hunters prepared their muskets and the peasants behind their backs clutched their clubs and pitchforks. It was still too far to see all people's faces, but the Old Troll recognized the Red Jaeger who marched ahead of the mob with his monstrous arquebus at the ready.
On the other side of the valley, the magic folk didn't lose a single moment. Following the will of the goblin circle, the willows around the clearing began to twist and shake, as if trying to pull their roots out of the ground. The nixes joined in and the waters of the Creek swell up, getting ready to swamp the soil under the feet of the intruders. Just over their heads, swarmed little imps and every one of them held a little fireball. There was so much magic in the air, it was sparkling and cracking like a cloud of fireworks. Everything was ready for the imminent clash.
The Old Troll suddenly forgot all about his fears and now he was only afraid he wouldn't make it in time. He sprinted forward and his old knees responded with pain, protesting.
When the hunters got close enough, the Bog Witch raised her hands and the green mist started to pour over the age of her giant cauldron. While it slowly crept towards the villagers, the hunters stopped and fixed their guns on stands.
“Stop!” yelled the Old Troll.
No one looked at him.
“Ready! Aim!” the Red Jaeger shouted his commands so loud, they echoed across the valley.
There was no time to produce any spell, there was only one thing that came to the Old Troll's mind. He clutched his staff with both hands and pushed the runes etched on its sides with his thumbs.
“Burn!” he shouted and stuck it into the mud as hard as he could.