And at just the right moment, when both imps were peering inside Zoomy’s lantern, he quickly jerked his staff aside as if tearing off an invisible string.
The effect went well beyond his expectations. The flash from the tiny pieces of touchwood was so bright that it almost blinded him through his shut eyelids. And after opening his eyes, he could finally let out his laughter, because the imps were so busy shrieking and zigzagging in the air, they could not possibly notice his presence. By the time one of them slammed into a tree and dropped in a puddle underneath, the Old Troll was in tears from laughter, unable to get off the ground.
“I’m drowning!” yelled the imp, thrashing in a puddle. “Help!”
“Coming!” answered the other one and then flew straight into the middle of a giant rosemary bush.
The Old Troll couldn’t take it anymore; he just sat there and gasped like a fish out of water. The revenge was sweeter than the peasants' beet sugar.
But sooner or later, all good things must end. The Old Troll didn't want his face to be the first one that the imps would see when they regained their sight, so he reluctantly got up and walked away. The fog around him was still thicker than jelly, but the sun already showed its blurry red edge above the tree line ahead.
“Where am I?” the Old Troll asked himself. “For the Green Forest and Blue Mountains, with all that rumpus, I forgot where I was going!”
He looked around -- there was a swamp on his left and trees on his right. He looked at the sun and realized that he was heading in the wrong direction.
“Now where is that old moose trail? It should take me right to the Western path...”
He strolled into a small clearing in the woods, humming a happy tune and feeling unusually content. As the sun was rising, the forest around him was coming to life with grasshopper schirrs and bird tweets and there was no place more peaceful on the entire Earth. Or at least it seemed so.
Of all the forest folk, the Old Troll was the first to know that the forest will always punish the careless. But on that one day, for that one moment, he let his guard down--and he paid for it right away. Because when he heard a voice shouting, “Here he is!” he was so relaxed that he froze on the spot instead of hiding. Next, there was a loud click and something stung him in the left part of his bottom.
He jumped up with a screech like a marsh hawk and swirled around, swinging his staff and holding up his Cheese Bag as a shield. A barrage of images rushed through his mind, from imps shooting fireballs to goblins setting giant bees on him. But when he reached down to check on his wound, he found a short arrow in his hand. It was the most awkward projectile that the Old Troll had seen in his life; it was fletched with what seemed to be chicken feathers and it had a tiny shoe nail for a head. Puzzled, he looked up and saw his attackers: two little boys, one holding a stick and the other one a wooden crossbow.
“Stay where you are, troll!”
The Old Troll felt his jaw dropping. Even though he’d had a strong suspicion this Thursday would be a day to remember, the reality had beaten anything he could have imagined.
“Yes, stay where you are,” repeated the other boy, “if you value your life!”
“Sure, I’m staying,” said the Old Troll. The shock gave way to curiosity. “Now what?”
The first boy took a deep breath, held up his weapon and said, “Now, you give us your gold!”
It was a huge disappointment. He was ready to hear anything, but not that worn-out tune.
“Come and take it,” he said coolly. “It’s in the bag.”
The boy lingered indecisively. He held up the crossbow and took a slow step forward. Then another. The Old Troll narrowed his eyes.
“No,” whispered the other little villager. “Wait...”
The warning came too late. The Old Troll made the last step himself, but instead of giving the boy his bag, he quickly put it over his head.
“I might be too slow for the imps,” growled the Old Troll, grabbing the crossbow, “but I can still handle a couple of naughty children...”
The crossbow got tossed right into the nearest bushes.
“...who run away into the forest, seeking after troll’s treasures,” he finished.
The shooter finally managed to pull the Cheese Bag off his head and threw it aside. The Old Troll slowly picked it up. Once again he remembered how tired he was and how the only thing he wanted was to go home, get some rest, and finally eat his breakfast.
“If you are done, my dear sirs,” he said, smirking, “I will take my leave. But don’t you worry, there will be others to keep you company.”
“Who?” squeaked the second boy.
“Oh, you will know soon enough.”
As was the tradition, he thought of adding something scary, but their faces looked so lost that he felt his earlier chuckles returning. Unwilling to break the drama of the moment, he simply waved his hand and walked away.
The lane that would take him home was easy enough to find, but as he made his first steps on it, he realized that something about those little treasure seekers was bothering him. He stopped and scratched the back of his head. The thought would not come but his anxiety only increased.
“I will never get home this way,” he told himself, and turned around and went back.
“Too many people roaming free in my forest today,” he mumbled, making his way through the bushes. “It cannot be a coincidence, there is something behind this...”
“So what are we going to do?” asked a familiar screechy voice.
Old Troll had already opened his mouth for an answer, but quickly
realized that the question was not directed at him.
“You tell me, you drowned your lantern!”
“Well, you dropped yours!”
The Old Troll crouched behind a giant pine tree, listening.
“I hate you and your damn lanterns! How are we supposed to bring them to the witch now?”
“Listen,” Yoomy suddenly shouted with agitation. “Listen! If we can’t bring the children to the witch… Maybe we can bring the witch to the children!”
“You trifling bugs,” whispered the Old Troll. “Is that how you sought to earn your invites?”
“Oh, yes!” exclaimed Zoomy. ”I love you, my brother demon!”
The Old Troll sat a little longer until the flapping of little wings faded out, then he went back to the place of his recent battle. When he peeked through the bushes, he saw the children still in the same spot. One of them was sitting on the grass, crying.
“We’ll find the way home,” said the other one. “Stop crying, Axel. Let’s go.”
“Go where?” shouted his friend, jumping up. “We don’t even know where we are! I should have never listened to you, Peter!”
“I have to admit,” said the Old Troll to himself, “I feel a bit sorry for those little brats. Their only fault is that they are incredibly stupid. But if every stupid… Wait...”
He finally remembered what had been bothering him—and where he had heard about a boy with a toy crossbow before.
“This Peter is that Peter,” he said slowly. ”Mary’s brother, Peter!”
If there was any pity in him before, it disappeared in a blink of an eye.
“I knew she would tell the whole village about me!” He was so furious, his hands began to shake. “I knew it!”
Another wave of sobs came from the glade, “We’re going to die!”
“Serves you right!” grumbled the Old Troll as he walked away.
He found Olle at the top of Cowberry Hill and he wasn’t alone -- a pack of fairies were keeping him company. Alina, as usual, ate more berries than she picked, but a dozen of her sisters worked hard and their wickers were almost as full as Olle’s.
“All are here. Perfect!” said the Old Troll.
The slope of the hill was covered with bushy green moss and short cowberry shrubs that tangled around troll's feet, making the way up an exhausting exercise. The fog was long gone and the sun was up, so by the time he made it to the top, he was steaming like a bowl of hot soup.
“Do you know what you’ve done?!” shouted the Old Troll, walking right on the berries.
“No,” answered Alina with her mouth full. “But I know what you’ve done. You just squashed half the harvest with those big ugly feet of yours.”
“The forest is swarming with peasants and treasure hunters!”
“Where?” asked Olle, looking around. “What are you talking about?”
The fairies dropped everything and came closer.
“I’m talking about the villagers! And you know who told them where to look for us?” he moved close to the nisse’s face. “Try and guess!”
“Who?” asked Olle, but then he understood. “No!”
“Yes!” As angry as he was, the Old Troll couldn’t help taking a certain pleasure in knowing he had been right from the very beginning. “Your damned cherry thief!”
“You are lying,” said Alina calmly as she got back to her cowberries. “The fairies have no equal in judging character. She could not possibly be the one who did it.”
“Is that right?” squinted the Old Troll. “Maybe you can tell that to her brother, who ambushed me and demanded that I give him my gold not an hour ago?”
His sarcasm was lost on the fairies.
“Well, did you?” asked one with thick blonde braids. She laughed when he growled at her, not able to control his emotions any longer.
“Come on,” said Alina. “We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
She wiped her hands, leaving smears of red berry juice on her dress and flew heavily down the hill, followed by the others.
“I’ll stay here with the berries!” shouted Olle to their backs. “If it’s true, please say ‘Hi!’ to Mary’s brother for me!”
It seemed like the children were too scared to move. Otherwise, the Old Troll couldn’t think of a reason why they didn’t scream and run away when a loud company of forest creatures poured out of the woods.
“Tell me,” said Alina, who had made quite an effort to keep up with her sisters and was now even less inclined towards ceremony than usual. “What are you doing here?”
“And don’t you dare lie to me!” she added, pointing her little finger right at Peter’s face. Peter swallowed, staring at her with big round eyes.
“We were just looking for the Troll’s treasure,” said his friend. “Please don’t kill us!”
“Aha!” exclaimed the Old Troll triumphantly. “Now ask who told them about the troll!”
“Quiet,” said Alina. “I know what to ask. Who told you about the troll?”
“Grandpa Anders,” answered Peter.
It took the Old Troll a moment to absorb the information.
“Who?” he asked, still hoping he hadn’t heard it right.
“Grandpa Anders! What does it matter? You want to kill him, too?”
The Old Troll tried not to look at the giggling fairies.
“Who’s Grandpa Anders,” he asked, stepping forward, “and how does he know where to find me?”
He must have looked quite scary, because the other boy started crying again.
“He didn’t know how to find you,” said Peter with a sullen look on his face. “He just told us a story.”