The winter was still far, far away, but the forest creatures already felt a premonition of its freezing breath in the early morning hours. Hamsters and chipmunks rushed to the fields searching for grain with which to fill their underground stores to the top. Wood goblins gathered barrels of clover honey and pine nuts. Trolls and gnomes picked berries and brewed an abundance of berry jam that would later fill hundreds of clay pots that lined up on long shelves in ranks like plump little soldiers whose sole duty was to help the forest folk survive until spring.
The sun was taking longer and longer to come out in the morning. As if it had become tired of all the great work it had been doing all summer, it lingered beyond the skyline of the blue mountains in the West to get an extra moment of sleep.
On those mornings, just at that moment when the night was already over but the sun was still in its bed, a thick gray mist rose from the depths of Leech Swamp. It slowly spilled into the forest, silent and shapeless in the dim twilight, like the skirt of a giant ghost. From there--from the very thicket of the woods--it sent its soft hazy sprouts into the fields surrounding the village.
The villagers always tried to come to work a bit later on those days, just to make sure that the sun was out and it had enough time to wipe out every trace of the fog.
“See that?” they would tell their children. “The Bog Witch is making her soup again. We will let it clear, it’s bad luck to step in it.”
Naturally, the boys and girls of Skogville had many questions about the Bog Witch and her soup. What does she put in it? Peas and carrots? Or dead rats and murky water from the swamp? The only person in the village who would answer those questions was Grandpa Anders. His list of ingredients would start with
Lichen and moss
And moonlight gloss,
A birchbark flake
And ripples from a lake,
A spikelet of rye
And a bittern’s cry...
and continue on and on until the old man ran out of breath.
If you asked the forest folk, however, they would tell you that all those stories were absolutely bogus. Firstly, every creature in the Dark Forest knew that the Bog Witch made her soup every Thursday and it wasn’t every Thursday that the fog came. Secondly, how could the villagers know about what went into it? The only way for them to be invited was to be on the list of ingredients.
Perhaps it was the worst Thursday ever, or at least that's how it seemed to the Old Troll when he dragged his sore feet back home, empty handed.
As usual this time of year, while his little nisse was picking cowberries at the swamp, the Old Troll went to raid the peasants’ stores and cellars, hoping to get his hands on some of that brown sugar they extracted from beets. It was a good product, that sugar. Not only did it make berry jam much sweeter, it also preserved it better in winter than all the trollish and gnomish charms combined.
So this morning he got up well before dawn and went to the village, shivering in the chilly air and tripping on dewy roots invisible in the pre-dawn twilight.
He couldn’t recall the exact moment it happened. Being so busy trying to stay on the trail he noticed the men only when he heard their voices close and loud, as if they were standing right next to him. He snapped out of his thoughts and dropped onto the wet moss behind the nearest fir tree just in time for people with torches to walk by.
“What’s happening?” he asked himself, puzzled and scared. “What are they doing out here in the forest?”
The men stopped and looked around. The Old Troll tried to squeeze himself into the grass, calling to all spirits of the forest to help him become invisible. His legs suddenly felt too big and he was almost sure they could see the end of his staff sticking out of the leaves.
“If we knew when they left at least, we’d be able to tell how far they’ve gotten by now,” said one villager.
“Poor Rasmus,” answered another. “I heard he went to the mansion, asking to send hunters to help.”
“And?” asked someone he couldn’t see.
“What do you think? They threw him out. The Landlord said he’d better be in the fields in the morning if he didn’t want his debt doubled.”
The peasants kept quiet for a while.
“Hey!” called out another voice from the woods. “Come on, the fog is rising!”
“You’re right,” said the first man as he shivered. “Let’s go. Hey, did the dogs pick up on anything? Nothing?”
“Poor Rasmus,” said his friend again. “He swore they’d keep searching even if they had to go to the very heart of the forest.”
The Old Troll didn’t know what to make of all that. What he did know, however, was that while the forest around the village was bustling with people and dogs, he had no business being anywhere near. When the voices grew quiet, he got up and walked in the opposite direction, sinking deeper and deeper into the thickening mist with every step. He could still hear the villagers’ voices and the fog made him feel like they were coming from all around him. It was so unpleasant that he found himself walking faster and faster and then running, though he couldn’t see a thing three feet ahead.
Being at risk of having no sugar for his jam wasn’t the only problem he had to face these days.
After the recent events with a lost villager child, his relationship with the local forest community had gone downhill. To top it off, the Bog Witch then denied him a place at her Thursday table, which was a huge slap in the face in front of the entire Dark Forest. Ever since, he had been trying to avoid meeting others to spare himself their offensive looks and comments. This morning’s encounter with the men from the village, however, left him so uneasy that he felt relieved when two spots of magic green light shined through the bushes ahead. The trail took him out in the open space where the forest blended into marshes. The dull smell of stale water and reeds replaced the rich aroma of pines and rosemary.
“No matter who it is, it couldn’t be as bad as the villagers,” he told himself and stepped out of the trees.
It wasn’t gnomes or fairies, as he thought at first, but a couple of bog imps.
“Aghh...” he swallowed an angry grunt. If there were any of the magic folk he didn’t look forward to meeting, it was the imps.
Little things with leathery wings and pointy ears, they hovered in the air three feet off the ground holding lanterns. As was customary at the Swamp, the lanterns were filled not with oil, but with rotting touchwood that gave off cold, noxious light. This particular charge seemed to be enchanted to glow stronger than usual, because despite the fog and the gloom, the Old Troll could clearly see every little detail on the bat-like figures.
The imps saw him, too.
“Ha!” said one of them. “Ha-ha!”
“Hey, let me see... Isn’t it the Old Troll?” said the other, joining his friend. “But I heard he moved to the village, didn’t he, Zoomy?”
“What are you talking about, Yoomy? He lives with the fairies now, can’t you see he’s wearing a bodice?”
The Old Troll inadvertently looked down at his tunic, causing a blast of laughter.
“Is that why he’s not invited to the Floating Hut anymore?” cried the first imp in reply. “What a shame!”
The Old Troll felt his weariness fading away as his temper got hold of him. He slowly moved toward the bullies, switching the grip on his staff.
“At least I was invited,” he said through his teeth. “Trifling bugs like you will never stand a chance of getting anywhere near.”
The imps choked on their laughter.
“We just might,” one of them said, “If...”
But at that moment the Old Troll drew closer and... WHOOSH! swung his staff as quick and hard as he could.
Were he a bit younger, the blow would have taken down both imps. Unfortunately, his countless years took their toll: the imps dashed to the sides, completely unharmed. Shouting and cursing, he chased them into the forest, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get even one. They zoomed just above his head like two giant horseflies, making scornful comments and egging him on when he stopped to catch his breath.
When he could not swing any more, the imps were nearly dead from laughter.
“Oh, stop, please!” shouted Zoomy, pressing a tiny claw to his belly. “Have mercy!”
“I can’t take this anymore!” squeezed out his friend. “Look at that old thing hopping like a rabbit!”
“Oh, oh, careful, my brother demon!”
“You see how he's puffing? One more minute of this and we’ll have a dead troll on our hands! What will the fairies say?”
Yoomy laughed so hard he almost dropped his lantern. He caught it by the bronze ring in mid-fall and froze in the air, staring at the light as if trying to remember why he had it in the first place.
“Wait!” he shouted, “We forgot about our little business!”
“Oh, maggots!” answered Zoomy. “Hurry! Before they get away!”
With that, the imps disappeared so quickly that the Old Troll had a momentary feeling that he had been fighting a mirage.
He took a couple of seconds to gather whatever little strength he had left in him, then walked after the scoundrels as fast as he could. Somewhere in the back of his mind he realized how childish his behavior was, but the frustration of recent failures had been lying heavily on his heart and he craved a small victory to break the spree of bad luck following him these days.
“Yes, I’m old,” he muttered. “Old enough to know that the one who laughs last, laughs longer!”
When he caught a glimpse of green lights again, he stopped and hid behind a large rock to give himself a moment to think. It was obvious that the creatures were too quick and nimble for him, but in times like this his ancient troll magic came in handy. He thrust his staff toward the imps and strained his memory to make sure his spell had all the right incantations:
Rot and touchwood, light and flame,
Go away to whence you came,
Muck and water, dirt and sand,
Time has come for games to end.
The lights in the lanterns guttered out.
“What happened?” asked Yoomy, so puzzled that the Old Troll almost gave himself away with laughter.
“What did you do?” screeched Zoomy in a thin voice. “Did you mess up the charms again, mosquito?”
“No, it wasn’t me! Don't call me mosquito, you're the mosquito!”
Watching the imps tinkering with their lanterns and fighting was more enjoyable than anything else that had happened to the Old Troll this whole summer. He honestly couldn’t tell what was harder to hold back -- the chuckles that were tearing him apart or the imps’ lantern charms that fought his own spell, trying to break free.
“Come on!” whispered the Old Troll, clutching at the trembling staff with both hands. “Come on!”