“A story about a boy who... How the boy followed the lights in the fog and they showed him the way to the troll’s treasure.”
One of the fairies burst out into laughter, but Alina gave her a hard shove.
“This must be the most ridiculous of all your village legends,” roared the Old Troll. “What do some stupid lights have to do with the trolls?”
“They led us to you, didn’t they?!” shouted Peter back in his face. “The stupid lights led us to a stupid troll!”
The Old Troll opened his mouth but he had nothing to say. The fairies started laughing and exchanging scornful comments while he stood in front of them, feeling extremely sheepish.
“All right,” he finally said though his teeth. “The lights led you to me. And now you will have your reward--you will get to be whole-baked in clay for dinner. Congratulations.”
“Since when do you bake children for dinner?” asked Alina, still laughing. “Did the heat get to your head?”
“It won’t be me doing the baking, you little nuisance,” dropped the Old Troll, slowly regaining control of himself. “It will be the Witch. Because the imps who got ‘em here went straight to the Floating Hut to let her know about these sniveling dummies. I presume the whole party will be here any moment.”
The fairies stopped laughing.
“I will leave you to it,” added the Old Troll in complete silence. “I don’t want the upcoming scene to ruin my appetite for the rest of the day.”
“Home,” he told himself, striding firmly through the bushes. “I’ve had more than enough embarrassment for one day. I’m finally going home.”
But the odds were against him that day. He didn’t make it a hundred feet from the glade when once again, he came face to face with the imps.
“I knew it!” shrieked Zoomy, before the troll had a chance to open his mouth. “It was you! It was you who broke our lanterns!”
“Oh no,” said the Old Troll contemptuously. “I could never! I’m so old!”
The imp’s little face was burning with rage.
“Our friends will be here any moment now! You’ll get what’s coming to you!”
“You mean the Bog Witch? Why would she care about you and your blasted lanterns?” asked the Old Troll calmly, but he had a feeling he wouldn’t like the answer.
Zoomy flew so close to his face that he could feel the smell of mildew coming from the wide toothy mouth.
“Because she doesn’t like when someone takes her dinner from her! It’s the second time you did that, and she swore that there won’t be the a third!”
“What?! She thinks that I...”
The Old Troll was desperately looking for the right words to explain his role in what had happened, but they didn’t come.
“Are you lost, fellas?” asked Alina, stepping out of the bushes. “The Swamp is that way. Shoo.”
Zoomy stretched out his little arm with a bony finger pointing right at her nose.
“And here’s his usual accomplice! It all adds up!”
“I don’t like when stinky imps wave their claws in front of my face,” said Alina with a quiet menace.
“And what are you going to do, honey pot?” asked Yoomy. “Sit on us?”
“That’s one of the options.”
She made a ring out of her thumb and index finger, stuck it under her tongue and blew out a sharp whistle. Two fairies showed up from behind the trees, then two more. When the imps realized the threat, it was way too late. The fairies poured out of the bushes and swarmed them like a pack of angry hornets.
“Let me! Let me!” Alina jumped around the pile-up, trying to kick one of the imps though the mess of arms and legs, but she quickly tired and stepped aside.
The next minute was full of screams and yelps, then the imps managed to take off from the ground and the entire swarm flew above the trees. Astonished, the Old Troll watched it drifting toward the marshes like a little stormy cloud that produced claps and sparks every time some of the combatants tried to use magic.
“Come on, let’s go.”
Alina pulled on his sleeve so hard, his jaw closed with a snap.
“We’re taking the children back.”
The Old Troll stopped dead.
“Oh no-no-no! You’re not making me a part of your schemes again! I’ve already lost my reputation, now I want to save what’s left of my body!”
“I understand,” said the fairy in an unexpectedly gentle voice.
“Yes. And your only hope now is that the imps never get a chance to tell the others that they saw you with us and the children. Help me get them back to the village and I promise, no one in the Forest will ever know of this.”
“No, no, and for the third time, NO!” he turned around and walked away.
“As if it’s not enough that some snotty children walk around my forest like its their own backyard,” grumbled the Old Troll, pushing leaves and branches aside in anger, “now I’m supposed to hold their hands and walk them home! Do I have to pay those damn kids to stop coming to my forest?”
An idea suddenly struck him, bright as lightning. He froze with his right foot in the air, thinking it over; no matter which way he looked at it, he found it absolutely brilliant.
“I changed my mind,” he said cheerfully, showing up at the glade. “Let’s go!”
If the fairy was surprised, she hid it very well.
They managed to pick up a good pace at first, but even though the Old Troll was tired and the sage fairy was a poor walker, the children soon began to lag behind. The troll slowed down.
“So, Peter. Did this turn out as you thought it would?”
“No,” said Peter, avoiding his eyes.
“You thought you would just walk through the forest and find a giant chest with gold coins in the end?”
“Will you stop that?” asked Alina, quietly. “They are exhausted and we aren’t even half way there.”
“This one is an angry type,” answered the Old Troll in her ear. “And the best way to make him forget about the miles ahead is to keep that anger going.”
“You would know,” puffed Alina, but she left him alone.
“No, I didn’t think it would be easy,” answered Peter, who either didn’t hear them or was too tired to care. “I’m not stupid.”
The Old Troll chuckled, but then curiosity got the best of him.
“So why did you go, then? Did you want to buy some toys and sweets? There are simpler ways to get those, you know. Asking your parents would be one.”
“Our parents don’t have any money.”
“I see. So you decided that some ugly troll should pay for your toys and sweets?”
“I didn’t want any toys and sweets!” exploded Peter. “I wanted to help the village!”
His face was flushed with anger.
“All our families are in debt to the Fat Landlord, and we have no wheat and no rye left! Come on, Axel!”
He walked faster and his friend caught up with him. Soon, it was the troll and the fairy who found themselves lagging behind.
“What about the harvest?” said the Old Troll into the children’s backs. “I saw the fields; you should do well this year.”
“It won’t help, Mister Troll,” this time it was Axel who answered. “We heard our fathers speaking about it. Two thirds will pay what we owe to the Landlord and the rest will barely make the seed for the winter crops.”
Alina kicked the Old Troll on the ankle.
“Happy, are you?”
“Well, they don’t seem to be so tired anymore,” he answered, but his enthusiasm sounded false even to himself. The conversation had not gone at all as he’d expected.
The weather, in the meantime, shaped up to be absolutely delightful. The sun was not as hot as it had been just a couple of weeks ago, and a light breeze brought up a fresh scent of pine needles and late summer flowers. The birds sang their songs, counter-pointed by the brisk patter of a woodpecker. The Old Troll worried for a second that some of those birds could be the servants of the Bog Witch, but that unpleasant thought only inhabited his mind for a quick moment. He was melting in the tranquility of the summer forest. Little cotton clouds swam high up in aquamarine skies and it was hard to believe anything bad could happen on a day like this. The fairy probably had similar thoughts; he heard her humming quietly to herself.
“I can’t go anymore.”
Watching the birds, the Old Troll almost stepped on Axel, who was sitting down on the ground.