“I'm tired! I’m thirsty!”
“We have no time for that!” Peter pulled him on the sleeve. “We've got to go!”
“Any ideas?” asked Alina quietly.
The Old Troll shrugged his shoulders.
“Bear Creek is about half a mile North from here, you can take him there if you want.”
“Me? You’ll turn around much faster with your long legs!”
“No,” said the Old Troll. He was not in the mood to argue, so he just sat down, leaned on the trunk of a giant cedar and closed his eyes.
“Maybe the imps lied,” he said lazily. “Maybe the Witch is not coming and we exhaust ourselves for nothing. Relax, fairy, take a break.”
The suggestion was so tempting that he didn’t have to look at her to know how much she struggled with the urge to join him. Unfortunately, that moment of peace didn’t last long. The Old Troll heard a chirr of big dragonfly wings and a shadow fell on his face.
“Karina!” gasped Alina. “You've got to clean yourself up, sister--you look like a bog owl!”
The troll opened his eyes with a moan. The blonde fairy he remembered from earlier was hovering in front of them in mid-air. Her face bore marks of the merciless fight with the imps: claw scratches, bruises, and smears of dirt. Her yellow braids stuck out in different directions--one to the side and the other one straight up.
“They are coming! The Bog Witch and her gang, I just saw them!”
All of the party were back on their feet before she finished her sentence.
“Look at them go!” panted the Old Troll, trying to keep up with the children. “I would say fear motivates even better than anger!”
Alina didn’t have the breath to answer.
It didn’t take them long to realize they wouldn’t be able to keep up that speed. Axel started to stumble and whimper and even Peter was about to break into tears.
Karina flew around nervously, doubling back and returning every couple of minutes.
“Can you stall them?” Alina asked her.
“How? Dress up like a goblin and make a boggy-woggy dance?”
The Old Troll chuckled, but refrained from commenting.
“And you?” Alina turned to him.
“I’m not even here, did you forget about that?”
“Well, you have your trollish tricks. Can’t you think of anything?”
“I can’t think while I’m running,” answered the Old Troll, “And if I stop...”
“Don’t!” screamed Alina.
“Shush!” roared the Old Troll.
All the time they had been running, he had strained his ears trying to discover the sounds of pursuit, but now he heard something else instead.
“What is it?” asked Alina.
“I can hear that too,” answered her sister instead. “It’s the dogs. Dogs barking.”
“What? The Witch chasing us with dogs? Are you mad? ”
“No, it’s coming from ahead of us!”
“That’s right, ” said the Old Troll. “Because... because they will keep searching even if they have to go to the very heart of the forest.”
He grabbed Peter by the hand and pointed forward with his finger.
“Your father is there, do you understand me? All you have to do is to run half a mile as fast as you can and you’re safe! Can you do that?”
“I think… yes.”
The Old Troll turned to Alina.
“How is that for a trollish trick?”
But before she could answer, the Old Troll shouted, “No, stop!”
With all the haste and the arguing, he had almost forgotten the reason he volunteered to come with them in the first place. He caught up with the children in three big jumps and grabbed their shirts.
“What are you doing?!” screamed Alina at the top of her lungs. “Let them go!”
“Listen to me,” said the troll to Peter, ignoring the fairy. “I will make a deal with you.”
He had to shake him a little to get a glimpse of understanding in his eyes.
“You will get a barrel of sugar and leave it outside the palisade, under the big birch tree that is right against your house. If you get it there in three days, you will get a gold krona. Do you hear me? It will be more than enough to help your family.”
“You will give us a whole krona for just a barrel of sugar?” asked Axel. “Why?”
The Old Troll felt tiny hands grabbing the sleeve of his tunic.
“They are coming!” shrilled Karina. “I just saw them!”
He pulled her off and held her away while she kicked and screamed.
“Because it’s not the only thing I’m paying for. You will not tell anyone about what you saw in the forest today.”
Peter nodded, looking at the mad fairy with wide eyes.
The children bolted forward.
“I think it would be wise for us to get out of the way,” said the Old Troll, finally acknowledging Karina. “You can tell me everything you think about me on our way home.”
They left the trail and hid in the bushes just in time for the Bog Witch and her gang to swoosh by, producing noise, shouts, and curses.
“Do you think they won’t harm the peasants?” asked Alina, when the last goblin disappeared into the woods.
“Not with the dogs. Not in the daylight,” answered the Old Troll. “And I do hope the villagers are smart enough to get out of the forest before the sun is down.”
They made a quick stop at Bear Creek before heading back home. Its waters ran lazy and shallow downstream where it merged into the marshes, but here in the forest, the creek was still narrow and feisty, tumbling over rocks with the sound of a thousand crystal bells.
“I don’t get it,” said Alina, squatting down to wash her face. ”You have always been so suspicious of the villagers and now you seem to be trusting those two. Why?”
“I know they will keep quiet until they get the gold. Because they really need it.”
“And after that?”
The Old Troll narrowed his eyes.
“Where do all these questions come from? Can’t you just assume that I found it in my heart to trust men?”
Alina stood up and looked at him with great suspicion. He returned a humble smile.
“That’s a pile of bear dung,” she said finally said. “You’re going to put a spell on that coin! What are you going to do? Erase their memories? Curse their families?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” answered the Old Troll indignantly. “Do you think I’m some sort of evil wizard? I’m just a tired old troll with an empty belly.”
He stood for a moment, listening to the rumble of his stomach, then called Karina.
“Hey you, bramble braids! Are you sure all the dinner guests went out with the Witch? No one’s left in the Floating Hut?”
“I think so,” answered the fairy. “Why?”
“No reason,” said the Old Troll hastily. “I’ve got to go.”
Things are always happening in the Dark Forest and the forest folk never lack rumors to discuss. There was one story in particular that stirred the community for some time: the one about two unruly imps who were never invited to the Bog Witch’s famous supper. It was said that they got so desperate, that on one late-summer Thursday they lured the witch and her friends out of the Floating Hut with a story about lost children. And it was said that when the Witch came back, someone had eaten all of her leech soup. Most agree that it was the imps. They were nowhere to be seen after that day--and why else would they disappear, if not out of fear of her revenge? Or maybe it was not them at all, no one really knows. And those who do know won't tell.