I am Kurr. I am young at seven hundred seasons.
I am not yet wed, I have caught no manchilds, and the mountain thinks me odd.
But as with many things, when I sit to think on this I see that what is seen as odd is often seen through odd-seeing eyes and that is what I tell myself, that I am not so odd perhaps as the mountain thinks I am, and this I sometimes tell my father and sometimes tell his father and sometimes tell his father too who is over four thousand seasons old for we are an enduring race in more ways than one.
My father’s name is Krull. His father’s name is Barr. His father’s name is Hirka and he is the wisest troll alive.
I say this to them not to argue with my elders but to be true to what I see and how I understand things but they do not understand me or they disagree with me or maybe don’t even listen to me and instead look at me as if I wish to argue with my elders which is not such a good thing to do, and so they say nothing to me in return.
They think me odd, I think.
Mother agrees with the mountain and certainly thinks me odd. Trolls marry at five hundred seasons, she says, or sooner and prods me with her walking stick so hard it hurts or bats me with something near at hand a pan a ladle maybe or a broom so hard it hurts and then leaves me with my ribs or head still smarting and all this so fast I have no time to think of an answer before she looks more hurt than I do as she stomps out and away from me to have such a son that no one wants, ashamed she sometimes tells me that the whole mountain thinks me odd—she is very quick though with that walking stick or that broom, I think. Especially for her age.
But on one thing I agree with her for I too believe she has a son no one wants for the shefolk of the mountain all think me odd as well and few will even talk to me. Fewer still (I can count them on my left thumb) have asked to dance with me at feast and none has ever held my hand. Most shefolk look at me as if I belong with the wolves.
But that does not worry me so much. What worries me is that the mountain laughs at Mother behind her back for having such an odd son who no one wants. That is one thing I worry about and sit to think on often. That Mother is unhappy and that I am the reason.
Father, he does not care, leave the boy be he says, he will marry soon enough but then he is not shefolk and no one will laugh behind his back unless he wishes himself married to the earth for Krull is our chief.
I have caught no manchilds. That is odd for seven hundred seasons says Mother. By now any son of mine she says should have caught at least two, maybe three. Your father, she then almost always adds, had caught four manchilds at your age and she prods me again with her walking stick or something else close at hand, a broom or a ladle, so it hurts.
Father, I think but never have time to finish thinking and then say before she stomps out again, reached my age before the roads grew wide and before the rail arrived when catching manchilds was not very hard. And, I add to myself, but would not tell her even if I had the time, of the four manchilds Krull caught I hear two died of fright when they first saw him and should not count as caughts for they must be alive when we boil them to count as caughts. Also, I think to myself but wouldn’t say that either, Father likes the hunt and I have no thirst for that.
I think perhaps this is my own private oddness. I should have the thirst, for it is a troll thirst, but I cannot find it anywhere no matter how hard I look for it or where I look or for how long.
But now I must catch a manchild. I and a shefolk called Hulgur. We were the ones who chose the blue fetching stones.
Oden is angry with us. And Hirka who is the wisest among us and who never has to shout to be heard even though he whispers mostly has decided that we must once again catch a manchild and boil it as an offering to Oden to please him and make him favor us again.
I do not understand Oden. I have thought on him often. If we are his first people, as I have been told all my life and which I believe to be so, why does he drive us farther into the mountain and deeper into the earth? Why does he give more and more of the forest to manfolk like he took our grasses and lakes many seasons ago and gave them to manfolk? Why did he give them roads and iron rail and engines to fly on them like the fastest deer?
Hirka says it is Oden’s way to make us stronger. I know Hirka is wise but I am not sure he is right.
I have asked Oden to answer this question for over two hundred seasons now but if Oden chooses not to answer he does not answer, that is what the wisest among us say. For sure Oden chooses not to answer me, for he never talks back.
The only good thing I can see about the wide roads and iron rail is they drove away not only us but the wolves too.
Yes, all things considered (and reconsidered often) Oden must be angry with us. And so, at Hirka’s whispered wish, my father called a meeting of the whole mountain.
The great hall was lit with many torches and not a troll was missing. They stood in murmuring groups by clan or family except for the children who didn’t care about such yet and sat mixed along the walls, wide-eyed and silent for a change. Each of us were to choose one stone from the many in the skin held open by Barr. One by one my father called our names and we heard it and walked up to Barr and stuck our hand within the skin and rattled the stones and tried to sense the color blue with our fingers, some to choose it and some, like me, to avoid it. But trolls do not see color through touch so many were disappointed to find their stone red or green or gray or black or white or many-colored like flint, and I was disappointed to find mine blue. Hulgur seemed pleased to find that the stone she chose was blue, but she also seemed disappointed that I found the other. She thinks me odd.
Now she and I must find and bring a manchild back to the mountain to boil for Oden or he will stay angry with us and drive us to the center of the earth where there is nothing but darkness and no fire will ever burn.
“You Kurr and you Hulgur chose the fetching stones,” my father said from his high seat. “Leave the mountain for the lower country and bring us a manchild before next new moon. We will boil it at first sliver.”
Not yet the eldest, but past being chief, Barr squatted between the two tall chairs, my father’s to his right, and Hirka’s to his left, holding between his pointed knees the skin now closed and all stones returned to it. He has hair like gray rivers. He has black and angry eyes. He said nothing. It is not his place to speak and you can tell that he is not much fond of holding his tongue.
Hirka sat very big and silent and was now expected to say something. The hall was long noiseless to give him time to think. He did not speak and did not speak and in the end lifted his hand and its pointed finger and slowly carved the air with them at me and Hulgur. “Go,” he said and I wonder at how slow he thinks.
“Go,” said my father, and so we did.
The whole mountain sees us leave the hall. Hulgur a step or two behind me. I look back before I step outside, she does not.
Once outside, I look up and I see less than a quarter waning moon sitting just above the trees. We do not have much time.
I stop and turn and look at her and I think Hulgur wishes she could marry the earth. She doesn’t say so, she doesn’t say anything, but I can see so on her face and by her eyes who do not look at me. Or she wishes that the wolves would come and take me, the sooner the better.
I show her I do not notice this and I ask her, “Hulgur. Do you know where we catch manchilds?”
“Kurr,” she says to me, now looking at me without really looking at me, “You are hefolk. You answer.”
Hulgur is not a fine looking shefolk. She is tall and thin and has a scrawny tail with a scrubby tuft.
“I have never caught one,” I say. “Maybe by a road.”
“Maybe,” she says.
“Or by a farming house.”
“Maybe,” she says.
“Or by the lakes.”
“Maybe,” she says.
“Do you know of any farming houses?” I ask.
“I have not crossed a road for many seasons,” she says.
“Nor have I,” I say.
I did cross a road one summer twelve seasons ago. Mother thought I had run away or married the earth and she was very angry with me when I came back. Father asked what had I done away so long and when I answered that I had been looking around he didn’t answer and didn’t answer, then he walked away.
“Do you know how to think like a tree?” I ask.
“No,” she says.
“Nor I,” I say.
I look for and find a stone suitable for sitting and I sit down on it to think on this. She doesn’t sit but finally looks at me for real.
“Shall we hunt as one or as two?” I ask.
“You answer,” she says.
Catching manchilds was never simple. Not to hear Father or Barr or even sometimes Hirka tell it. But I know it was never as hard as it is now.
Five hundred seasons ago, when I was a child and the roads were few and narrow and the rail had yet to come with its flying engines that sound like they’ve been running a full season or even longer without stopping once to find their breath and wolves were often seen and shunned or fought, catching manchilds was, some say who are not known to brag, like netting salmon. All you did then, they say, was find a farmhouse or a camp or a road or a grass and then a place in shadow to stay very still and think like a tree so they don’t see you. One is bound to come near you sooner or later and when it does you nab it and walk off. What could be simpler?
I can think of few things simpler and I wish that then were now for I don’t know nowadays who among us can think like a tree. I cannot. Father says he can but also says he has not done so for many seasons. Maybe Barr or Hirka. I asked Father once to teach me. He sat down to think on that. After a long time he said that thinking like a tree is not taught, it is known. And then he did not say more, even when I asked more. And then he stood up and walked off.
Oden is angry with us. Yes, I think so too. I am not sure why, though, and he will not answer my questions. But he must be angry for a reason and that is why manchilds are harder to catch these days. That is why manfolk are now many and strong with their blast pokes that kill an elk or a deer or even a bear from a hundred paces and make loud noises like little thunders.
Fura was the last to catch a manchild. This was almost a hundred seasons ago. He stalked for three moons he says, all through one summer, and even so he says, for Fura is honest, it was luck that in the end let him catch one.
It was his very good luck that one of the manchilds strayed from the camp he stood close by trying to think like a tree and then tripped and hurt her leg so badly she couldn’t run. Fura is not one to brag or tell it better than it was.
Not that we can’t run as fast as manchilds, we can run much faster than they can, but they are small and hide easily in cracks and up in trees and get away from us which they mustn’t do for then they can tell the manfolk they have seen us and where.
If a blast poke can kill a bear, it can surely kill a troll, not that I have ever heard of that done, but more than one of us have seen how quickly the bear falls to marry the earth.
The manchild had fallen and hurt her leg, Fura tells, and no one heard her cry for help. Except Fura who says he did not manage to think like a tree and thought that maybe he had scared the manchild to death when she saw him for she went white as a new moon or as snow and fell very silent so silent he says he thought that perhaps she had married the earth, but then he listened closely and heard her heart and heard her breathing and lifted her into the skin he had brought, he says whenever we ask him to tell us about it.
Then he ran for a day and a night and a day to reach the mountain and the manchild was still alive when he got here. A true catch. Not like other catches where the manchild dies before the cauldron.
They boiled Fura’s manchild the same evening without fattening her any to please Oden right away for he was angry with us then too and the manchild was very loud in the cauldron and struggled hard with the thongs that kept her still and then she screamed and screamed and turned pink then red then silent. Each of us got a morsel which was very small for there wasn’t much to her but we ate her in Oden’s honor and Barr said over and over that Fura was a hero and that this pleased Oden well but I don’t think it pleased Oden so well for by the very next moon the very tall though not very careful about where he placed his feet Eras had slipped and fallen not a stone’s throw from the mountain and pierced his eye on a sharp branch and also cut his head in the fall which made him bleed like a river. Many heard him cry out and many tried to stop the bleeding but there was no stopping it and so he bled to death not a stone’s throw from the mountain and Oden did nothing to stop the blood to keep him alive.
I think sometimes that Oden likes manchilds alive and not boiled. And I think that perhaps this is why he gave manfolk their blast pokes and their iron rail and their screaming saw that can cut a tree as easily as you break a reed with your fingers so now the woodsman comes with a large engine cart and cuts more trees in a day than I saw him cut in half a moon when I was a child at one hundred seasons, while he gave us nothing.
And I think that perhaps this is why he gave them the little light that burns at night by their doors and the magic wooden boxes that hold inside them many small manfolk talking and singing and fighting and running while the blue light flickers in the window if you watch it from a distance or from the edge of the woods or from the other side of the road, while he gave us nothing.
And I think that perhaps this is why he has made manchilds so hard to catch.
I once asked Barr about this and he said that Oden chose manfolk over us because we angered him. What did we do to anger him? I asked. We have not boiled enough manchilds for him, he said. I did not understand this so I asked him, if he wants them caught and boiled why does he make them so hard to catch? Barr does not answer this or is still thinking of an answer when he gets hungry, he says, and walks away.
I want to ask Hirka the same question, but no one asks him questions these days, at least not young ones like me. I once asked Father to ask him for me, but he said these were questions not meant to muddle the brains of children.
I sometimes think Father asks the same questions and finds himself as short on answers as I do. But Father never lets on.
One moon ago Talla drowned in Big River and Hild who is his daughter ran for a day and a night to reach the mountain and cried and told Father who then told Birk and Vaka to go fetch Talla so he could marry the earth properly. They ran and Hild ran too to show them where it had happened and they found him after looking up and down Big River for two days but Birk broke his foot on the way back carrying Talla with Vaka, for Talla was very heavy and hard to carry so Birk slipped and broke his foot. Hild ran back for more help and we got Talla back and helped Birk back but the foot had turned ugly and Birk got sick and screaming and staring but seeing nothing and then he died three nights ago and Oden did nothing to stop the screaming or to heal the foot.
Hirka, whose memory says Father is both strong and long, then told Barr and Father that never before had two trolls in their prime died in the same moon except during the Quarrel or by the teeth of wolves.
Father then told the assembled mountain that Oden was hard angry with us now and we must appease him. And that is why Hulgur and I must catch a manchild to boil.
The first in a hundred seasons.
“We leave tomorrow at first sun,” I say to Hulgur.
“I will be ready,” she answers then walks away swinging her scrawny tail like an angry cat wishing she could marry the earth I think, or that wolves would find me so someone other than Kurr the odd one must choose the blue stone to go with her instead.
“Honey, I know you don’t want to go,” said her mother, “but you have to.”
“But why?” she asked again.
“Because I’m going too, and because Daddy wants you to.”
“Why can’t I stay with Elsa?”
“You know we can’t leave you.”
“But she gets to stay.”
“She is older.”
“I’m old enough.”
“No, darling, you’re not.”
“Mom. It’s not fair.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sure we’ll have fun. You’ll see.”
“Not at the farm. Not alone.”
“You’re not alone, we’re with you.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean that.”
“You’ll survive. And better get your stuff ready tonight, honey. We’re leaving early.”
Her mom closed the door behind her and Britt knew it was hopeless. No way around it, she would have to go with them. She found her soccer tote bag at the bottom of her closet and began picking out what to bring.
She’s up ahead by ten paces or so, her tail still lashing now and then telling me to keep my distance and to leave her be. We have not yet decided how we will find and catch the manchild, only that we will walk down the mountain and through a day and a night of Beckforest before we cross first Big River and then Little River. A road lies just beyond Little River. We both know this. Once we reach the road we will think some more on what to do next. We have agreed this much.
But we have not agreed to walking closer than ten paces. She is not a good-looking shefolk so I don’t mind this so much but it would be nice to talk with her for until we get closer to the road there is no need to walk silently.
Still, I am happy to be walking. The trees climbing the long mountain slope are tall and thick and pat me now and then as I pass. I feel the wind in my hair and in my eyes and I smell the outside of the mountain with more than just my nose it feels.
Thoughts tumble onto me like soft boulders I don’t know from where and bounce and are gone. There is no need to sit and think on them for they are happy to be here with me under the real sky and I wish again Hulgur would slow down a little so I can tell her I am happy walking, even if it is ten paces behind her.
She disappears around a bend and when I get there I find her sitting to think on something. The stone she sits on is large and gray and white and black with moss. Her feet look like side-by-side badgers asleep with toes and I smile at them like I would at side-by-side badgers with toes and she sees that I do.
“Why do you laugh? she says.
“I do not laugh,” I say.
“At your feet,” I say. “They look like sleeping badgers.”
She looks down at her feet and her hair falls forward like many brown streams rushing down her face and I cannot see her eyes but I think she looks to see if her feet look like sleeping badgers.
Then she looks up and brushes some of the little streams of hair aside to peek at me with black eyes and says she does not think they look like badgers. More like otters, she says.
“But otters have no white,” I say.
“Some do,” she says and I smile at that and for a moment I think she will also smile but then there is no smile from her, just her question. Perhaps the one she sat down to think on.
“Does it matter girlchild or boychild?”
I think on that for a while, for nothing was said about that.
“I don’t think it matters,” I say. “As long as it is a manchild and we bring it back alive.”
“That is good,” she says. But she doesn’t stand up to walk, so she is not done thinking or asking and I stand and I wait for her voice some more.
“Kurr,” she peeks at me again through her hair. “Why do you think Oden is so angry with us?”
That is a question and she has asked it. She has surprised me and looks at me to see if I have an answer or if I have no answer. Even though I have thought on this often I still have no answer and Oden himself will not give me one but after a while I come upon what to tell Hulgur, which is not the reason but which is what I think best to say, even though she seems to have thought on this often as well.
“Are those thoughts not best left to our fathers?” is what I have come upon to say, for it is what Father has taught me to answer if young ones or shefolk question Oden’s way. It is not for them to ponder, he says. It is for your father and his father and his father to think on.
But Hulgur has surprised me, for I didn’t know shefolk would think on things other than berries and weaving and maybe the hunt so I am surprised at her question but at the same time I am glad I came upon Father’s answer for I would not know what else to say.
Then she surprises me even more. “That is the hefolk answer,” she says. “That is not your answer.”
She is right and I am silent. She still peeks at me through her rivers of hair. Black eyes from among the strands. This I need to sit to think on.
The stone she sits on is large enough for two but there is no need to share and no invitation to and I want to see her eyes which are fine and not scrawny like the rest of her and her tail but large and quick, so I sit on the trunk of a tree fallen in a storm long ago, soft now with green and yellow moss. I stretch my legs before me and stretch my feet and stretch my toes, for it feels good to sit and set my feet free. They do not look like badgers or otters. They look more like foxes with their red and white with toes.
She looks at my feet then back at her own feet as if to compare them then brushes her hair back over her head with several scoops of long and thorough fingers. Then she does nothing for a while to give me time to think. But it is not really nothing that she does for she looks at me with her black eyes and I find it hard to find an answer when I know she is looking at me and when I know I have no answer to find.
But in the end I find a path to carry what I think and then I speak this path to her.
“I don’t know why Oden is angry,” I say. “Maybe he is not angry with us. Maybe he likes the manfolk.” I know I am speaking my thoughts as they grow which I should not do for we should let them grow fully before we speak them says Father, and then only to other hefolk. But I speak them as they grow to Hulgur now and I am surprised at what I hear leave my mouth and reach for air.
“Perhaps it is because he likes them,” I say. “Perhaps that is why he gave them road and iron rail.”
“And blast poke,” she says.
“And blast poke,” I say. Then I think it best to add, for my own sake as well has for hers, “But deeply he favors us.”
“For we are his first folk,” she says so soon I was unsure at first had I heard it from her or had I only thought it.
“Yes,” I say then, “Yes, we are his first folk. So says Hirka and many fathers before him. So says Krull. And I believe it is true. I believe we are Oden’s first folk.”
When she did not answer me, but only looked at me with those big, dark caves of curiosity, I heard myself continue, “Manfolk did not yet walk the world when we lived the forests and grasses and not the mountain. We had yet to see manfolk when we warred with wolves.”
She thinks on what I have said and I think on her eyes again. Then they look at me and catch me looking at them and I quickly find something stuck to my foot, a twig or a leaf, and bend to pick it off and still she thinks on what I have said before answering.
“So we must please him,” she says then. “So he will not forget his first folk.”
These are strange words to hear from a shefolk and I am surprised again.
“Yes,” I say. “We must please him.”
“We must please him true,” she says.
“Yes, we must please him true,” I say.
“What would please him true do you think?” she says.
“Catching and boiling him a manchild,” I say. Perhaps more like suggest.
“Are you sure?” she says. “True sure?”
“That,” I say, after a while, for in my heart I am not true sure about that, “is something I have not thought on enough.”
“Nor I,” she says. And then she stands up and walks off, her tail not lashing so much now, and maybe not so scrawny chasing her down the path.
The inside of the car was quiet and warm and hummed with engine and road. She tried to sleep but could not get comfortable enough although she had the whole backseat to herself. It wasn’t that long ago that she could stretch full length in the back and not touch the sides of the car with head or feet, but now, when she lay down, she had to bend her knees to fit and she could not find that sweet place where sleep opens up, welcomes you in, and drifts you off.
Mom and Dad were saying things now and then in the front, softly as if not to wake her. Outside, the sun was already up—it barely set at this time of year—but was still hugging the treetops. She missed her bed. She missed the apartment. She almost missed her sister. Her older-than-you sister that got to stay in town when she had to go with them to the farm. She tried to hear what Mom was telling Dad but couldn’t quite make it out. Her voice was comforting though, the way it comforted her at home when she was in her own bed and could hear that voice in the other room, not as words but as Mommy, and she must have drifted a little then for when she looked out again the sun had climbed and lit all of the trees from above as they rushed by and no one was talking now.
She sat up.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“Almost eight,” said her mother.
“When will we be there?”
“It’ll be a few hours yet.”
“You want some hot chocolate?” said her dad.
“Yes, please,” she answered and saw her mom bend down to find the thermos flask somewhere on the floor. She found it and poured a cupful. The sweet smell, like something soft and at home, reached her even before her mom turned to hand the cup to her.
Britt took it with both hands and blew on the creamy surface to cool it a little. It was hot and warmed her hands and almost burned her upper lip. But it was good and the steam rising from it into sunlight was good and Mommy asking if it tasted good was good and maybe this trip wouldn’t be so bad after all.
I can hear Big River. He is still half a morning away but I have good ears and I can hear him beyond the many small voices of dawn between us and him.
Big River comes from mountains larger than ours where snow falls early and stays all through spring and sometimes even into summer. I have not heard him for ten seasons and I am happy to hear him now. Hulgur has slowed down a little and walks not so far ahead of me and she hears Big River too for she stops and listens and nods so her hair rustles and then looks back over her shoulder at me. I nod too that I can hear him and she is almost smiling when she sets out again.
Now I can smell Big River and the things that grow close to him and the things that live in the water, like fish, especially salmon which I love to eat when fishers like Talla have good netting trips and bring them back to the mountain and the shefolk serve us large silvery wedges of good pink meat. That was before Talla drowned.
Now I see Big River. Running darkly through the trees. He is broad and he swirls slowly in the middle and I think he is deep now that I can see him better, although calm. In other places I have seen him roar and leap over rocks and down cliffs and there he is very hard to cross, angry with anyone who tries. I can hear some angry places from where we are. But here he is calm, though very deep, I think. Dark and brooding and deep.
We come to the edge of Big River and now that I see him clearly I sit to think on how best to cross him. It is true, he is definitely deep where we are and we may have to swim which I do not like and will not do if I can help it.
“Do you know a ford?” says Hulgur.
“No,” I say. “Maybe we swim.”
“I do not like to swim,” she says.
“Nor do I,” I say.
I stand up and walk down the Big River’s edge for many, many paces. There is no ford. I turn and walk back then past Hulgur where she sits and up Big River’s edge for many, many more paces. There is no ford. I turn and walk back to Hulgur.
“We must swim,” I say.
She shrugs and her hair rustles again and she breathes a long breath. I can tell she does not like this. But she rises and she follows me as I wade out into the water.
Big River embraces us with cold fingers that touch everywhere. He is not angry here, but neither is he friendly. I feel him on my arms and fingers and on my belly and legs and toes and tail. He is cold and is moving slowly but strongly and it is hard to walk on his soft and muddy bed and with each step my feet slide a little and then the bed sinks away into deeper river and feet find neither soft nor mud and I have to swim.
No troll likes to swim and I am no exception. I do not like this watery nothing beneath my feet. I do not like to float halfway between fish and troll. I do not like the wet and cold. But for all that I am a good swimmer and while Big River clings to me and pushes me downstream I am still heading for his far side, a little closer with every stroke.
I turn my head back to see Hulgur behind me. Her large eyes are larger still and I see that she likes this less than I do. Her eyes do not see me; they see only the swimming and she is not a good swimmer.
I think for a short moment the worst thought I could think but the thought is too strong to think on without sitting but I look back again anyway and see her eyes very open seeing only the swimming. She is slapping the water now in many places but makes no forward way. Then all I can see is her face and her eyes, terrified now, barely above the surface and wild arms gripping and gripping but finding no hold and then I know that I must and then I do turn and make for her and she does not see me coming but only sees keeping her nose and mouth above the cold, uncaring surface and in the air and then, with a hard breath and quick like a shriek not at all like a troll’s, she is gone.
I see a swirl on the dark surface, part water, part Hulgur’s hair, then the swirl is nothing but water. I sink with my eyes open to see but my eyes are not meant for water and I see nothing or so much dark water that it is like nothing—only cold, wet night. I sink more and put all my seeing into my eyes and slowly shapes form. I make out the long strands of water grass that bend with the current and I feel myself moving with them. I see a tree long sunk with two leafless branches still reaching for the sky above. I see fishes flying away. And I have to breathe but I know I must not. I see more grasses waving in the water wind and then I see her among them. She seems small and she is beating at the grass with her arms and her hair is like a cloud around her. I drift with the water but she does not drift for the grass has taken her.
For a moment the worst thought I could think comes back but I refuse to think it and instead make for her despite the strong water wind against me with one stroke and then another and I have to fill my lungs with air but I know I cannot and one more stroke and one more and I get closer and closer still. I can see her eyes now still open and still not seeing me and no longer seeing the swimming or the air, now they see only the sinking, the drowning. They see only the worst thought I can think.
One more stroke and I must not breathe and I touch her and one more and I find her arm and I pull. But the grass has taken her, and wants to keep her.
I pull again and she has stopped beating at the grass and is calm and I see where they have her around her foot and ankle and I reach down and I have to breathe so hard my lungs scream at me in all this water about air but I know I must not and my lungs scream again and hurt like full of melting stones and I reach the grass that keeps her by her feet and I tear it and find the grass strong and I tear it again and then the grass lets go for I am stronger than this grass.
My legs know too that I need air or they will die and Hulgur will die too and they run and kick to stay alive as we rise through the watery sky of Big River and at last here is the real sky.
I swallow it whole and never has air tasted so fine.
But Hulgur has not tasted it yet. She is heavy in my grasp as I keep her afloat and I swim with her for the other edge. I am strong and air is all I need and I have all I can use now. We drift, I can see that, but I make it closer to the shore with every stroke and I keep my head and her head above the surface as I must. And then I feel bottom, weak and muddy at first then firmer. Then I can walk and I stand and I carry her out of the water and as I lay her down on the forest floor that comes all the way to the river here she feels heavy with water.
She is no longer breathing.
I need to sit to think on this but I know there is no time to sit but still I have to sit and I do and I look at her in a pile on the moss and never have I thought so quickly. And I think what to do: I stand again and I lift her up and over my shoulder like a sack of bark and I jump up and down with her folded and heavy on my shoulder on the edge of Big River to make her spit.
Then she much more than spits. She vomits water and coughs and I feel the river again down my back but I keep jumping for she is getting a little lighter with each jump and I know I am doing right.
Then she stops coughing and then she is all shefolk again.
“Put me down,” she says.
I do and she stands for a moment and looks at me then sits down with her back against a pine that I think stands too close to the river for its own good, for pines don’t care much for water.
She looks at the ground and then out at Big River. “I do not like to swim,” she says, mostly to the river.
The sun was high now and the sky was cloudless and blue as they turned off the wider asphalt pavement onto the narrower dirt road. Now she knew where they were, but from here it would be at least another two hours before they got to the farm. That’s with Daddy driving. Longer had Mommy been behind the wheel. It was obvious that Daddy was happy. He was humming a tune, even whistling a little now and then, and pointing things out, familiar signs. Remember this? He calls the farm his little piece of paradise.
He was driving fast. A little too fast for Mommy’s liking and Britt knew the signs and that she wanted to say something about it, for she was not at all fond of speeding, especially not on dirt roads, something she has informed Daddy of many times in the past. But she didn’t this time and that was good because sometimes when she did they would have one of their discussions, as they call it, and that’s never much fun, and never less fun than in the car where there is nowhere else to go, and where they both get mad at her if she stuffs her ears with fingers in protest.
To be honest, Britt liked the farm too, and before Elsa started to hang with stupid boys and would come as well, she would always look forward to going, count the days, pack her things well in advance. The farm with Elsa in it was a wonderful place.
With Elsa there, they used to go on forest expeditions and look for fairies. There was this trick to it, her sister would explain: If you want to see one you mustn’t look for them, you mustn’t even think about looking for them. They know if you do.
They can only be seen by chance, and if they feel your eyes looking for them, or hear your thoughts wanting to see them, they hide. But, and here she would bend over close to Britt’s ear and whisper, but if you don’t keep your eyes wide open for them you’ll miss them.
“So you are looking for them?” she’d ask her.
“But you mustn’t look for them?”
“So how do you look for them without looking for them?”
“That’s the trick.”
Well, it never really worked, this looking for without looking for, though Elsa swore she had seen one of them once and then Britt swore too that she had seen one as well but Britt knew they were both making it up. At least she was pretty sure Elsa was making it up, too.
Mrs. Falk, on the other hand, said she had seen fairies, or the fairy folk as she called them, and more than once. Britt did believe that. Mrs. Falk was too old and too friendly to lie. Sometimes you can just tell when someone is pulling your leg and on the subject of fairies Mrs. Falk was not pulling hers, Britt was sure of that.
And then Britt wondered if Mrs. Falk would be home. That would be the first thing she would find out, as soon as they arrived. She would go visit Mrs. Falk.
The sun is our friend and what clouds there are keep away from her and I am soon dry. Hulgur too. Her hair is last to dry. She is not walking far ahead at all now and turns often to look at me. Her tail is calm and her sun-dried tuft is thicker from Big River’s washing.
There is less needle than leaf on these trees. And these trees sing like Hulgur’s hair sang before big river washed it. They are greener and lighter and filled with bird song and I am happy to be off the mountain and roaming. I wish we were not here to catch a manchild. And I take a deep breath of the green air and I wish very much we were not catching a manchild at all but only roaming the forests off the mountain.
I can still hear Big River not so far behind us when I hear Little River as well. They run side by side, some walking between them, and never meet until they reach the sea—or so says Barr who when he was young roamed often and long and has seen the Sea with his own eyes he says. I know that Little River has many fords and is not very deep. There is no swimming to be done, I am certain of that.
Hulgur ducks under a branch and turns again to look at me. She does not smile but neither does she frown and she looks right at me and her eyes do not let go for a full breath. I think of smiling but I don’t and Little River is a little louder now.
Britt kneeled on the back seat and looked out the rear window. They were leaving a long cloud of dust behind them, thick up close and thinner and thinner as the road slipped away but still dust all the way to the bends and hilltops that hid the road behind them. She leaned forward and turned her head to see more sky. She could not see a single cloud now and was happy she had come. There was so much summer here. Much more than in the city. She wanted to get there now, to climb the apple trees in the back, to fetch water from the well out front, to smell the cold air musty with wood and sweet with long ago hay when you first open the barn doors in the morning. She wanted to run through the meadow down to the lake, all the while looking out for cow dung and snakes.
And she wanted to see Mrs. Falk again.
“How much longer?” she asked without turning her head.
“An hour. Maybe a little less,” her dad answered.
“You want a sandwich?” said her mother.
Here, Little River more dances than runs. Dances like Big River dances higher up the mountains. There are many rocks and stones for our feet to step on and we do just that from one to the other easily and almost do not even get our soles wet. Hulgur gets to the other side first and I can see she is both relieved and pleased. Mostly pleased. Pleased that there was no swimming, pleased that the sun is shining. Pleased that she is all dry and fluffy. She looks up at the sky and I do too. I can see no clouds now. It is a very fine day.
Hulgur sits and looks at Little River. She doesn’t look so scrawny sitting like that. Maybe it is Big River’s washing. Maybe it is my eyes seeing better.
She looks at her feet for a while and finds something stuck between her toes and picks it away. Again, she looks out over Little River. “What would please him true, you think?” she says to the river but it’s meant for me.
I know she thinks of Oden again, and of the hunt, and I have to sit to think of an answer, so I find soft ground beside her. Not too beside, though.
We once lived in the forest, off the mountain. Maybe here by Little River, maybe even farther downstream. Hirka, who was a young troll then, never mentions names or findable places in his telling, only the forest. They used to live in the forest, is what he tells of. There were few manfolk then and those few manfolk knew to fear us if they saw us which they did whenever we didn’t want to think like a tree. We were Oden’s first folk and he let us catch the manfolk and boil them and eat them as we pleased and Oden was pleased too that we did and he let us keep the grassy land around the lakes for us to walk on and tickle our toes in, says Hirka, and the forest for us to live in, and the weather was always fine in those long-ago days.
But the trolls who lived down here off the mountain so many, many seasons ago grew lazy, says Hirka, and they no longer wanted to hunt manfolk for they were always more trouble than bear and deer and elk and fowl and fish and they no longer boiled a manchild every moon but only one every season or so and then only one every spring and then for many seasons none at all.
This, of course, was long before I was born but Oden even then was not at all pleased and gave the manfolk sharp sticks and taught them to make metal to make the sticks sharper still and then it happened that a manfolk slew a troll with one of their long, sharp sticks and they knew then that Oden was not pleased with us for until then only wolves had known how to slay a troll.
Hirka calls this the Quarrel, the seasons that followed this first slaying, when trolls would never set eyes on manfolk and manfolk would never set eyes on trolls without one killing the other, or at least do his very best to do so. Many, many trolls died in the Quarrel and many manfolk did too, and we boiled many manchilds but this did not seem to please Oden true, for in the end the manfolk roads grew wider and the iron rails came and the trolls had to move higher up in the forest and then higher still and then all the way up into the mountain.
I have thought on all this often but I am no closer to knowing what would please Oden true. “I don’t know,” I tell her.
She doesn’t answer but stands up and I do too and we set out again for the road, her otter feet ahead of my fox ones.
I don’t think any troll knows what would please Oden true. I don’t think Hirka knows or Talla would not have drowned and Birk would not have broken his foot and then died too, both in one moon. I try to think on this while we walk but it is hard to walk and think on things at one and the same time and instead I watch her otter feet close enough now to watch and I am glad it was Hulgur who picked the other blue stone.
I hear the road before I see it. It is one of their engines and it is far away but I have good ears and I hear it clearly, its loud stomach that roars high and low to fly like a deer along the road. The engine is far away but the road is close, for the sound is getting louder and the engine is coming our way.
Hulgur has stopped and she listens too. I can see she knows what it is and I can see that she is not afraid which makes me feel a small pride which I cannot see where it comes from and she is not scrawny standing up either. But she is too tall for a shefolk.
Then there is the road. Brown and sandy and not as wide as the black road which lies farther down Little River’s way and which I have only seen once. The engine is coming closer still, roaring and humming. I can smell other engines here, long passed, for they leave a bitter trail which stings the nose and which I do not like.
Hulgur steps into the shadow of a tree close by the road to wait. Her hair meets the green and gray of branches and trunk and seems to melt into it.
“You can think like a tree?” I ask, for she leans into the shadow and the trunk as if joining them.
“No,” she says. “I told you so.”
I do not know what to answer to that so I answer nothing.
Then she says, “We must stay out of sight, and we must think on what to do next.”
She is right, so I say, “Yes, we must.”
And I find another trunk and another shadow and I try to join them like Hulgur has and to not be seen and I still wonder if she cannot think like a tree after all.
It went by so fast that she knew the sun and the shadows and the dusty way Daddy drove the car not slowing down in the least had played a trick on her, but what a trick: Two trolls. Tall and hairy and big-eyed. Still as trees, and by the trees, but not trees. Then they were gone, hidden by the dust. She moved closer to the pane to look harder. More dust. Then the road made a bend.
First she tingled, then she shivered at little. If only they could have been real. She must remember to ask Mrs. Falk about trolls too.
The engine is loud and it screams as it rushes for us. In a very small moment it is by us louder still as it tears at the road. The road responds into brown and yellow cloud that finds my lungs and eyes and makes me want to cough and cry. But I must be still. Like Hulgur. Still as a tree.
Now I cannot see the engine through the cloud and then the road turns away and the engine with it and it is gone. Just its screaming stomach still and the dust on everything.
Hulgur moved. “Did you see her?” she says.
“I saw the manfolk steering the engine,” I answer.
“No, the manchild.”
“I saw no manchild.”
“I saw her,” Hulgur says, “and I think she saw me.”
“It went by too fast,” I say.
“I saw her,” Hulgur says again, beating my head a little with it.
“I do not doubt you,” I say.
“Her eyes were on me as the engine passed then she moved to see better.”
“How could you see through the cloud?”
“I have good eyes.”
“I do not doubt you,” I say again, for I do not. Then I sit, for what Hulgur says needs thinking on.
“Do you think she will tell?” I ask.
“I think she is not certain,” she answers. “For she made to get a better look.”
“That is good,” I say.
“Yes, that is good,” she says.
I feel when I listen to her that I am listening to Father or Barr or Hirka. Even though she is shefolk I feel I should listen well to her words and think on them. She is not like the shefolk I know like Mother and my sisters full of berries and moss to seal the cracks and netting and stores for the winter that you face with much patience and many nods. She thinks as fast as any hefolk I can name and deeper. I am gladder still now that she chose the fetching stone. I am glad Big River didn’t marry her.
She thinks on something else as she looks at the road, up then down, and the dust is now all but settled.
“Shall we wait here?” she says.
“What do you think?” I say.
“I think we should follow the engine,” she says.
“It is much too fast,” I say.
“It must stop somewhere,” she says.
“That could be many days from now,” I say.
“This road does not run for more than one more day,” she says.
“How do you know?” I ask.
“It is too narrow to run for much longer.”
And again I have to look at her to see for sure that I am not talking to Father or Barr for I know she has thought true.
“You are right,” I say. “We should follow the engine.”
It was almost noon now and they were turning familiar bends. Three more to go, then two, and now she could see the lake. Like a big silver fish with ripples for scales surrounded by green. Then the last bend and as she leaned forward between her parents she could see part of the house and then, farther through the bend, the flagpole came into view, then the well and then the barn.
They had arrived.
Her dad stopped the car, pulled the handbrake and shut off the engine. Here at last, is what he seemed to say although he didn’t say a thing. She opened the rear door and stepped out to feel the ground make a little sparkling as she put her foot on it. Same with the other foot. She took a deep breath and looked around her. The field grass had grown high and all the way to the edge of the yard. The air was fresh. The wood was very close, big trees standing guard just the other side of the barn. She walked up to the house. The front steps creaked a bit as she climbed them.
“Come and help with the bags,” said Mom by the car trunk.
She went back to the car and accepted two of the lighter ones, headed back to the house with them, Dad ahead of her now, by the door, opening up, letting them in.
“My little piece of paradise,” he said. He always opens up and he always says that. She looked back at her mom, who rolled her eyes but smiled.
We make our way through the woods alongside the road. There is no path here, for who but trolls would want a path within seeing a road? Anyone else would walk the road. But we cannot for we must not be seen. Even though we have seen no other engines since the red one scattered dust everywhere, nor any other manfolk, we must be careful and we must make sure.
Then I hear a distant screaming again. It is deeper this time, the voice of a larger engine. I think it is one for trees and I am right, for when it comes it is steered by a woodsman, I can tell by his hat and shirt, and it has many logs on its back and tears up more cloud than the little red engine did and soon disappears not completely in the cloud but then completely down the road. We do not seek trunks to hide by, for we are farther in among the trees here and the woodsman manfolk is alone in the engine and only looks ahead at the road. Still, we stop to stand unmoving while it passes. Moving trolls are more easily seen, says Father, and he is right.
Then everything is still again. If I listen hard I can still hear the engine-for-trees as it works with its load. Then I cannot hear it at all, though I can still smell it.
We come to a place where the road splits. Or more like grows a branch. We both move closer to see it better.
“Which way do you think?” I ask.
“The narrower,” she says and points.
And I smell what she must smell. Yes, the little red engine steered this way.
Another big engine is coming, although still far off. We both move back in among the trees and stay still. Another one for trees with another load of trunks but it stays on the wider of the two roads and follows the first engine. When we can no longer see it, we set out by the narrower road but after a while we walk not by it but on it for only the little red engine has driven here for many days or since the last rain anyway and things are very still. The forest is close upon us, for it is a small road and the trees seem unwilling to let it through. This road is not often walked.
The sun is past its crown now and it is warmer. We brought no water and I am thirsty. Thirsty and hungry a little. We can go for days without food especially when hunting, but we cannot go for days without water and I tell Hulgur to tell her eyes and nose to look for water. I tell my eyes and nose to look for water too.
Mrs. Falk did not have a telephone. This thing, this black thing, she told her once, it startles you half to death and won’t leave you alone. I wouldn’t have one for anything. If they want to talk to me they can come here. I like to see who I’m talking to.
She liked the way Mrs. Falk told her things. It wasn’t like Mom or Dad, or even Elsa these days, who always talked to her like she was a child who only now and then could be treated as an almost grown-up. No, when Mrs. Falk talked to her it was more like they were either both grownups or they were both children, for when they talked there was no difference between them. Sisters. Often Mrs. Falk would lean over to her and whisper something in confidence, just like Elsa used to do before she grew so much older than her and started tolerating boys.
“Can I go over and see if Mrs. Falk is home?” she asked.
Her mom looked at her watch, then at her dad, who shrugged. “Fine,” she said. “Just be back for dinner.”
“Oh, sure. I just want to see if she’s home. To let her know we’re here,” she said.
There were two ways to get to Mrs. Falk’s farm. There was the road which took a good hour by foot and twenty or so minutes by bicycle. And there was the fifteen-minute forest path. In the morning, or in the middle of the day, it was always through the forest. After nightfall—or if nightfall was close—it was the road if you were alone, or the forest if you had company. Those were the rules.
Britt stepped out into the sunlit yard, took another deep breath of the fresh air, happy, yes happy, she had to admit, with or without Elsa, happy to be here. This was summer, the way summer was supposed to be. She drew another deep breath of it, so much summer. A hundred and twenty percent, as Dad used to say, which of course was stupid since nothing could be more than a hundred percent, she knew that, and so did he. But, then again, this was lots and lots of summer, maybe even a hundred and twenty percent.
A couple of thrushes were making a fuss over by the barn. They seemed to have some sort of argument, or perhaps they were only playing, for now and then the red-breasted one would stop and trill a scale ever so sweetly. Husband and wife, she decided. A friendly argument. A discussion, as Mom or Dad would put it.
She recognized a sparrow, and then another. And the swallows, quick and fork-tailed, now and then they squealed a little—like little cries of joy—as they darted in and out of the barn, busy building nests or feeding their young, she didn’t know which, but she was amazed at their speed as they aimed for the small openings under the eaves and each time hit it square on without as much as slowing down, not even a bit, as if it was no big deal.
And the smells. They came tumbling one after the other. The pine and spruce of the forest, the grass and the coltsfoot, the dandelions who could grow just about anywhere, and did. She could even smell the lake, perhaps not the water, but the lake nonetheless, something about it being close by smelled of so much summer. A hundred and twenty percent summer.
Not far from the barn stood several tall pines. Their longer branches almost touched the barn roof. It was like, she thought, they were tapping it on the shoulder telling it to go back to where it came from. It had no business here. The house and the barn were old, for sure, but the forest was older, the trees were here first. The barn, though, was a proud old barn, and wouldn’t budge.
Then she realized she hadn’t measured the steps yet, the distance between the two big, black barn doors and the spot where the path set out into the woods. For every time she came here it seemed like those trees had moved just a little closer in, as if the forest were inching its way toward the barn (and so slowly that no one would notice), and she would always, just to make sure it was indeed staying put, measure the steps, that was her word for it, the steps—how many of her steps to the woods. At last count, this spring, there had been twenty-two. So, now she ran over to the doors, turned, and started walking with even, measured steps, counting. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, and yes, twenty-two. Precisely. Good for the trees, they had stayed put.
Last summer there had been twenty-three normal and one short step, but she knew this was because her legs were shorter then, any fool would realize that.
Now for another thirty-six steps to the mossy stone by the first bend in the path. She set out, thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six and there was the stone, and here was the bend, and she knew that eight more steps would take her into the forest because if you took those eight steps and stopped and turned, the stone would block the house and the barn and you would see nothing but trees. And the stone, of course. Take another twenty or so steps along the path from there and you were swallowed by the forest. There might as well never have been a house or a barn. Which suited the forest just fine.
The path was narrow and winding and was crossed here and there by roots who didn’t care much for paths, but it was soft and inviting nonetheless with a carpet of brown spruce and pine needles—so soft that her feet made almost no sound as she walked. The sun was high, she could see the light and blue sky if she looked up but she had to look straight up. Down here on the path it was almost like twilight except for when you passed through little clearings, which was like stepping from behind the curtains out onto the stage at school plays, they were so bright.
The path rose and fell and wound and skirted rocks and trees and hollows where Elsa once had told her the fairies lived in the summer—she said that in the winter, when they were all back in the city, they would live in their barn—well, they had been here a few times in the winter too, so how come they were not in the barn then? They left, of course, said Elsa. Which way? she wanted to know, I see no footprints. Fairies don’t leave footprints, Stupid, Elsa would say and that would be that.
The path forked twice, but if you veered left at the first fork and left again at the second it led directly from their farm to Mrs. Falk’s. If you took either of the other branches of the path you’d veer off into different parts of the forest. She and Elsa had tried both of these, of course, many times, looking for fairies, and one went on for a very long time and up and up and arrived at an old mountain pasture, it was called a shieling, where the milkmaids brought the cows for the summer in the old days. The cabins where they used to live were very old and falling down and no one lived there anymore. Maybe the fairies did. The other branch that didn’t take you to Mrs. Falk’s house instead took a long curve to the right and finally let you out at the Pettersson farm. She wouldn’t take either of those forks today.
No matter in which direction you looked (other than up, of course, or down) all you could see from the path were trees all brown and green and gray and sometimes so close together it would be tricky to get through. And if you tried anyway, the low branches would soon catch you and hold you—and eventually eat you, Elsa used to add. Trees don’t eat people. These do, I can promise you that, she would answer.
On each side of the path the forest floor was so green with lingonberry and blueberry plants and moss and grasses that it looked like the trees had come through the top of a green cloud. Things rustled in that cloud. She could hear them if she stood still. She knew what they were even though she couldn’t see anything. They were mice, hedgehogs, could even be a badger. They’re snakes, said Elsa. Vipers. If they bite you, you can die. No way. Yes way. Ask Daddy if you don’t believe me. She hadn’t asked Daddy, but she had asked her teacher and had been amazed to learn that Elsa hadn’t lied. Yes, a young viper’s bite could kill a child, if she wasn’t treated right away, but this was very uncommon, her teacher had explained, it would never happen to you.
But vipers didn’t make any sounds. She knew that, or was at least pretty certain of that. Still, she walked a little faster. Then she slowed down again (don’t be stupid, there are no vipers here), but then her legs moved a little faster again, even ran a few steps, then stopped. Look, there is nothing here. Besides, they won’t bite unless you step on them or something, her teacher had told her that as well. Even so, she wasn’t dragging her feet.
She reached a clearing and breathed a little easier until she heard Elsa’s voice again, this time telling her that if there’s one thing that vipers like it’s the sun and they loved to bathe on top of stones, just like the stones right here, just perfect for viper sunbathing, and her legs took off again through the clearing and back into shadow and away from the viper stones.
This was ridiculous. She made herself stop and told herself she was being a stupid child and maybe she should look for fairies instead of snakes. A woodpecker suddenly started up just to her left and she startled. She tried to find him, craned her neck up several trunks before she saw him. Red and yellow and black and hard at work at a dead trunk still standing. Very loudly. Then he took a break and she heard off in the distance the cuckoo bird. Far off and beautiful, until the woodpecker started up anew and again drowned the cuckoo’s song.
She set out again. Snakes. Oh, please. She made herself walk the rest of the way. At times even slower than normal, just to make a point.
The manfolk farm is just two houses, a smaller one for them and a larger house for their beasts. The beast house lies close to the trees, almost touching them. I recognize the small red engine in the yard and the smell we have followed. Beyond the houses and at the bottom of a long slope of grass lies a lake, shimmering in the sun. The manfolk stir and talk inside their house. I can hear them well, for the door is open. A shefolk comes out of the house with a pail and lowers it into the well for water. The man comes to the door and speaks manspeak to her and she turns her head and smiles and answers while still pulling on the rope to bring up the pail.
Hulgur and I are back in the woods a ways looking out at the farm. We have good eyes and good ears and good noses. We stand very still about ten paces in and look and listen and smell for many long, slow breaths.
“There is no manchild here,” I say then.
“I saw her,” she says.
“I do not doubt you,” I say.
We stand still for many more breaths and still I see or hear no manchild, nor do I hear any beasts in the beast house. They probably have no beasts, I think, for one would have stirred by now. They usually know when we are near. Or perhaps they are out in the fields, feeding.
There was a message in large, once-blue letters written on a gray, dog-eared piece of cardboard which hung from a small hook on Mrs. Falk’s door:
“At the store,” it said. It was an old sign. She had seen it before, when the letters were a little bluer than this. It’s how I let them know where I am, she said once, and showed her four or five different signs. “At the store,” said one, this one. “Away,” said another. That one means do not bother to wait around for me, she told her, you’ll be waiting a long time. “Out walking,” said a third. It means you can go ahead and wait if you have the time, I’ll be back soon enough, just don’t know when. “At the store” was another you-can-wait-if-you-have-the-time sign, shouldn’t be all that long. Good. She would wait.
She sat down on the top step of the little porch and it creaked (not an unfriendly creak) as she settled. She looked up into the clear sky. More birds. All these birds. High above her she saw three swifts chasing each other. Darting, circling, showing off almost. How she wished she could fly, just like that. They spun and darted and chased some more and laughed she thought, but not at her for not being able to fly, just for being happy they could. She watched them for a long time, then they dove behind Mrs. Falk’s big brown barn and must have had a home back there somewhere, for they did not return.
Bees were buzzing round the yellow and white flowers Mrs. Falk had planted along her front wall and a soft wind touched Britt’s face. It brought the smell of cow dung and fresh grass, and of the old house. Yes, she sure was happy she had come. The city and the apartment seemed far off now—no longer part of the world.
Then she heard: wheels on dirt and pedals squeaking just a little, and then she saw: first the front wheel then all of Mrs. Falk’s bicycle come round the corner of the barn and into view, Mrs. Falk on it.
She didn’t see Britt right away. She was intent on the ground straight ahead as if cycling took some doing. Maybe it did for Mrs. Falk. She was quite old after all. Especially with her big blue bag on the back of the bicycle, filled with groceries it looked like. That would make it harder to balance, Britt knew that from her own experience.
Mrs. Falk came to a stop, stepped off the bicycle, and took a deep breath as she folded down the kickstand with her right foot. Then she stretched and arched her back, hands on her hips. Only then did she look up towards the house. And saw her. Her wrinkled face turned from shadow to sun and she smiled a big grin and spit her snuff out on the ground and came up to her.
“Britt. Oh, what a wonderful day this turns out to be.”
“Hi, Mrs. Falk,” she answered and walked down the steps to meet her. Mrs. Falk held out her arms for a hug and Britt almost ran to her. Hugging Mrs. Falk was more than just an embrace, it was also falling into a swirl of her favorite smells: The friendly mixture of soap, garlic, coffee, birch wood smoke and snuff which made Mrs. Falk so unforgettable, to her nose as well as to the rest of her. And she was warm and soft and dressed in layers of many colors, and all this was hugging her like she hadn’t seen her for years. Looks a bit like a gypsy, her dad said once, but it hadn’t come out very nicely and Britt said she does not either, and got upset, and Dad said he was sorry, it had been a wrong thing to say. But he was right, she did look a little like a gypsy, she thought. Like an old gypsy woman from some other, far away land or time, just visiting.
“Bless my heart, it is fine to see you again,” said Mrs. Falk once she had relaxed the hug, and instead now held Britt by her shoulders at arms’ length, inspecting her. “Look at you,” she said, “you’re still growing.”
“A bit, I guess,” she said.
“You’ve been here long?” she asked.
“No, just a few minutes.”
“No, I mean at your farm.”
“Oh. No, we came today. Not very long ago.”
“And Elsa? Is she here too?”
“No, she stayed. It’s just me and Mom and Dad.”
Mrs. Falk looked at her kind of closely, wondering. “Boys, huh?”
Mrs. Falk let go of her shoulders.
“Give me a hand with the groceries and we’ll have some coffee. Do you drink coffee yet?”
“Well, some juice then. For you.”
Britt unstrapped the big blue bag from the carrier at the back of the bicycle and lugged it up onto the porch. Mrs. Falk put the bike away in her barn, then returned to open the front door to let them both in the house. She unhooked the gray cardboard sign on the way and stored it—along with the others—just inside the door.
Mrs. Falk soon had her kettle on the stove and now brought out a large, round tin clearly marked “Coffee” from her cupboard. Britt sat down by the table and watched as Mrs. Falk scooped a handful of beans into the mill and began to turn the handle. The beans protested noisily but still gave up their aroma which soon filled the large kitchen. Britt loved the smell of coffee, especially as you ground it—but she didn’t care much for the bitterness of the drink itself.
Mrs. Falk looked back over her shoulder. “I like to grind them myself,” she said, as if Britt was wondering.
“I know,” said Britt.
Mrs. Falk then pulled the little drawer—now filled with the ground coffee—from the bottom of the mill and emptied it into the kettle. She turned the burner on high and set the coffee to boil.
“Would you like some rusks? Some cookies?”
Mrs. Falk was humming to herself a tune Britt recognized but could not name while she poured a large glass of raspberry juice and placed it in front of Britt. Then she brought out some cookies, for me, she explained, but you can have some too if you change your mind, and then, as soon as the coffee was ready, poured herself a large mug of it and sat down opposite Britt.
The sun shone through the old mullioned window and lighted the marred but shiny tabletop and the pink and white linen cloth that covered it only partially and Britt wondered if Mrs. Falk had woven it herself. She did have a loom somewhere in one of her small rooms, she remembered that.
The coffee steamed as Mrs. Falk brought it to her lips and she blew on the black surface to cool it. Then, as Mrs. Falk took a short slurpy sip, Britt remembered the trolls. The almost trolls by the side of the road.
“Remember when you told me you had seen fairies?” she asked.
Mrs. Falk put the mug back down on the table and looked at Britt with interest. “I do.”
“Well, is that really true? Have you really seen them, or were you kidding me?”
“What do you think, Britt?”
Britt thought for a while: she wanted to be honest. With Mrs. Falk, you wanted to be honest. Then she said, “I think it is true. I think you have seen them.”
“Then it’s true.”
“You have seen them?”
“What about trolls?”
Mrs. Falk had brought her steaming coffee to her lips again for another sip, but at the question she returned it to the table without sipping it.
“What about trolls?” she asked, looking at Britt more intently now, a little concerned almost.
“Have you seen them too?”
Mrs. Falk looked at her mug, as if wondering something about it, for some time before she answered.
“Once,” she said.
“What do they look like?”
Mrs. Falk reached over and took one of Britt’s hand in hers. Her hand was gnarled and soft at the same time. Warm. Then she studied her closely again. “Why do you ask, Britt?”
Britt wasn’t sure whether this was the time to tell her about what she probably hadn’t seen anyway, so she just said, “I’m curious.”
Mrs. Falk looked at her some more, “Do you really want to know?”
“Or are you just poking fun at an old woman?”
“No,” Britt shook her head. “I wouldn’t do that.”
Mrs. Falk held her eyes, then patted her hand softly and let it go. “I know, I know,” she said.
Then she told her, “It was a long time ago, Britt. I wasn’t even your age yet, and not half as tall I think. Children grow tall so fast these days.
“Anyway, it was at harvest time and it was very warm that summer and I and Mother and our maid had brought juice and coffee and freshly baked cinnamon buns for the men working in the fields. The mid-afternoon sun was so hot that once we had served the men Mother worried a little about me, for we hadn’t brought any parasols or anything, and she asked me to go over to the edge of the forest and seek some shade. Not very far from here, it was.”
Mrs. Falk fell silent while she looked out of the window in the direction of the fields. “You can almost see it from here.”
“Where?” said Britt, leaning forward over the table and looking out the window in the same direction.
“Almost,” said Mrs. Falk. “Over there by the edge, where the trees form a prow into the field, beyond that, maybe twenty paces, you can’t see the exact spot from here.”
Britt smiled and leaned back into the chair, and Mrs. Falk continued.
“Happy to be out of the sun, I watched my mother and our maid refill the workers’ cups and I remember wondering how they could drink something so hot as coffee on a day like this. Even the juice wasn’t cold enough for me. Then I saw my father smile at my mother, and wipe his brow with his handkerchief. He said something to Mother, who answered, and Father turned to find me with his eyes, and did. He smiled and waved and I waved back.
“Then I heard a soft rustle behind me, as if a deer or a tree had suddenly moved, and I turned to look, but there was nothing. Just the trees, all still. But when I looked back over the field I heard the rustle again and I felt someone behind me coming closer. I turned again and then I saw him. I say him but I don’t know. With trolls it can be hard to tell.
“He was very tall, half again as tall as my father, who was a big man.”
Then she smiled at Britt as she added, “I’ve got my mother’s stature, you understand. She was not a large woman.”
Britt nodded that she understood.
“But the troll was very tall. Covered top to bottom with fur. He had large yellow eyes with black holes in the middle. A large nose that reminded me of a loaf of bread, maybe baked a little too long. And big ears. Not as big as an elephant’s of course, but it has made me think of one later. And a tail. Like a cow’s tail but furrier, from what I saw of it.”
Mrs. Falk finally took that sip of her coffee.
“Yes,” she said once she’d put the mug back down on the table with a soft sound almost like a pat. “It was like a cow’s tail, but furrier, and it had a big brown tuft at the end, that I could see clearly.”
Then she looked hard at Britt, “But let me tell you, I was lucky I heard him, or he would have caught me. He was coming for me, only a step or two away. I sprang up and into the field and the sun and screamed as I ran. He didn’t follow.”
Britt sat very still and listened. As she did, she looked back at the trees and the trick of light and shadow as their car sped by to show her trolls. And now she wasn’t all that sure it had been a trick after all. For the trick of the light had looked very much like what Mrs. Falk now described.
“I think I’ve seen them too,” she said.
Mrs. Falk became very still.
“Bless me, my child, what are you saying?”
“I think I’ve seen trolls too,” she said.
When Mrs. Falk didn’t answer, she went on.
“Just this morning on the way here. By the road. First they looked like two thick, kind of strange tree trunks but they had eyes, and ears like you described and they were tall too. Very tall. And I thought I saw a nose just like you said, a small loaf of bread.”
“Are you sure?”
“No, not really sure. It went by so fast. But they looked like what you said.”
“I hope you’re wrong,” she said.
She looked into her coffee again for a while before answering.
“If they are all the way down here,” she said. “It can only mean that they are looking for a manchild.”
Then she fell quiet again, and Britt didn’t know what to say. “Where did you see them?” Mrs. Falk asked after a while.
Where had it been, she had to think. “Just before you turn off the main road and onto the old farm road.”
Mrs. Falk’s face showed that she was not pleased. Not at all. “That’s no distance for a troll,” she said. “Did they see you?” she added.
“I don’t know.”
“I hope not,” said Mrs. Falk.
Trolls have much patience. Mother likes to remind me of that. They have the patience of trees, she says, and often and mostly for my benefit I think. I was not given the full measure of it, she says and I think she is right, for I find it hard to stand by this tree and look at these houses and not itch to do something else. The little red engine is cold now and the door to the house has stayed shut for many, many breaths. I can hear the murmur of manspeak inside, none of which I understand.
There is no sign of a manchild. I have mentioned this to Hulgur one time too many, I think, for she no longer looks my way now and then.
Then I hear movement on the road. It is a small crushing sound moving this way along with soft manspeak voices. They come into view and it’s an old shefolk and a manchild on one of their rolling rides. The old shefolk is steering and walking on it and the manchild sits behind holding her around the waist. They reach the house and stop by the door and the manchild jumps off. She says something to the old shefolk who smiles but shakes her head and turns her rolling ride around and starts walking on it again to make it move back to where it came from. The manchild stands for some breaths watching the old shefolk move away then she turns and walks up the small steps and into the house.
I turn to look at Hulgur who is looking at me again and now with that look that shefolk can put on when they know that you have wronged them and they want to let you know that they know that you have.
“I said I did not doubt you,” I say.
She does not answer me.
Britt was not sure whether to tell them or not.
“How is Mrs. Falk?” her mother wondered as Britt stepped into the kitchen, closing the door behind her against the cooling evening air.
“So the old girl’s still alive and kicking, huh?” said her dad.
“Yes, Dad. She sure is.”
Mrs. Falk hadn’t said she couldn’t tell but neither had she asked her to. Trolls. Boiling children. Britt was some ways from sure she could believe it all herself. That’s what they did in fairy tales, not in real life. Not here, not in the real world with cars and kitchens and mommies and daddies and sisters and televisions.
But Mrs. Falk does not lie, that was the confusing thing. You can tell when someone is pulling your leg, you can. And you can tell when someone is telling you something true, it feels true. You can tell by their eyes, they look at you as if saying: I have nothing to hide and I wish you well. That is how Mrs. Falk’s eyes had looked when she told her. I have nothing to hide and I wish you well, that’s what they said. And not only that, she had looked concerned. Worried even. And would not hear of her walking back through the wood or even along the road on her own.
I’m taking you back on my bicycle, she said.
Don’t be silly, she answered, I’ll be fine.
I’m not being silly, she replied.
“You missed a good soccer match,” said her dad. “Unless you watched it with the old girl.”
“She doesn’t have a television, Dad,” she answered. He knew that. Dad was being funny.
“Ah, yes,” he said, as if remembering.
It still happens, Mrs. Falk had told her, a child disappears. Maybe it drowned, maybe it got lost in the woods and broke a leg and starved to death. Maybe many things. But maybe it was taken.
And they boil them?
It’s what they do, she said. I don’t know why.
“You’re not even going to ask who won?” said her dad.
“Who won?” she asked.
“Hammarby, two to nothing. My team,” he added, proudly, as if the outcome had been mostly his doing.
And you must not walk in the woods, she had said.
But that’s what I like to do.
Promise me, she said. And she had taken her hand in her gnarled and soft ones again and held it really tightly. Promise me, she said again.
There was no way she could tell them. She could just see her dad; he would laugh at the whole thing and would make some stupid joke about gypsy women and ask Mom to please take his daughter’s temperature.
Mom would put on her serious look at first and listen quite intently, but then she would switch it for her concerned look, which Britt had never really gotten used to and didn’t much care for. Mom would not believe her but would nod as if she did while growing more and more concerned. Not concerned in the way Mrs. Falk was concerned about her, but concerned like someone who knows so much better than you would be concerned about whether an imagination that active could be good for you. She did not want to go there. Not worth it. She decided that she wouldn’t tell.
“We killed them.”
“Elfsborg. We killed them. Two to nothing.”
“Who scored?” she asked. That made him happy. He told her all about it.
“Is she child enough, you think?” I ask, for she looked to me older than those I have seen boiled.
“I think so. You don’t know?”
“What does your father say? Or his father, Barr?”
“They have never talked about size, or age. They have never told me when a manchild is no longer manchild. I can tell manfolk, but I don’t know where a manchild crosses into manfolk.”
Hulgur sits down to think on this, and I sit down too. Not too far from her. She no longer minds where I sit.
“This one,” she says after a while, “she is still a child, I am sure.”
“How do you know?”
“She walks like a young thing.”
I think of the manchild, how she watched the old shefolk walking her rolling ride away from her and then turned and in a few quick steps was by the porch and how in two more she had jumped onto it and yes, those were quick legs, and yes, they looked like young legs, child legs.
“She looks fast,” I say then, for my thought had turned to the catching.
Hulgur looks up at me and her eyes shine a little golden in the dusk, with the fading day. “So you think she is the one we must catch?”
“We have seen no other,” I say.
“You speak true,” she says.
Britt woke up early, for her room faced east and was brimming with sunshine by five o’clock. She opened her eyes and immediately recognized the ceiling. Flowers, leaves and flowers on the ceiling, painted there long ago by no one could really tell her. It was like no other ceiling anywhere else. She was at the farm. She looked over at the clock on the night table, saw the time and promptly turned over to burrow beneath the quilt for more sleep.
She almost made it all the way back when she came to, as if she had touched something very cold: Trolls.
Again, she saw them through the boiling dust behind the car: still trees with large ears and yellow eyes, and she knew there was no going back to sleep.
She opened her eyes. She didn’t notice the ceiling this time: could Mrs. Falk really be right?
She got out of bed. The room was cold and she slipped into her sweat suit, cold too at first, but soon comfortable. Then she sat down at her desk by the window. From there she had a clear view of the meadow spreading down to the lake and of the lake itself. There was mist on the water and dew on the grass and she leaned forward to open the window to let the smells in. The air was cool but fresh and full of summer. Far away she heard the cuckoo bird again, and wondered if it was the same bird. Farther away still she thought she could hear a capercaillie’s short drum roll of a call, but she wasn’t so sure about that. Other, closer birds made their own noises that all came in through the open window. For them the day begun with the sunrise and they all sounded as if they had been at it for a while.
Trolls. She was wide awake now and full of morning. She looked around the room, at the rumpled bed, at her soccer tote bag, at her clothes, little piles on the floor. No, she thought, there was no way. Trolls.
She went downstairs to make herself some tea.
I much prefer my own chamber and my own bed. Sleeping on the ground may be what trolls did for many thousands of seasons before we had to settle in the mountain, which is how Hirka tells it, but I prefer a good straw bed, where you wake up warm and dry.
I am stiff with night and I drip with dew.
Hulgur fares no better and looks no happier.
We sit up, look at each other, say not much, and we wait.
She could hear the radio play in the kitchen when she got to the stairs and halfway down them she could smell the bread. That meant Mom was already up and baking. She must be on her farm schedule already. The kitchen was warm and awash with rising dough and covered baking sheets.
“You want some tea?”
Mom, all efficiency, already had some steaming water on the stove and now she put a good pinch of black leaves in the strainer, poured the hot water over them and into Britt’s farm mug, which she handed to her. It was large and bright blue with white dots of many sizes and was a present from Mrs. Falk. Chipped a little where she had dropped it on the floor two summers ago, but it had survived the fall and other than that was as good as new. She took it from her mom with both hands, found it too hot to hold and quickly grabbed it by the handle instead. She brought it to her nose. The tea smelled of morning.
Mrs. Falk, she thought. Trolls.
“Any plans for today?” her mother wanted to know.
“Dad wants to go hiking. Want to come?”
Dad’s too noisy, he scares the fairies. And Mom wants to pick every berry she sees, and those she doesn’t see she wants to look for. She had had enough of that.
“No. Not really.”
“Okay. That’s fine.”
Mom put several slices of steaming bread and a dish of butter on the table and Britt helped herself.
The butter melted into the bread almost right away and she had to eat quickly not to drip it all over the table. This was one of the best things she knew and now that she came to think of it, one of the reasons she loved this place. It was a tradition: Mommy bakes at the farm.
“You make the greatest bread, Mom.”
Her mother smiled back at her from the stove. Nodded proudly.
The smell of fresh bread finds my stomach and kicks it hard. The shefolk in there knows how to bake and I find that I am very hungry.
“We must eat something,” I say to Hulgur.
“We must wait,” she says.
“I am hurting from the smell,” I say.
“I am too, but we must wait.”
And she speaks true. We are here to capture a manchild, not to eat. I stand up and shake the dew away. I am wet, I am cold, and now I am hungry as well. Hulgur looks at me and puts up a hand to fend off the drops flying her way. She does not seem to mind her own dew. She looks silvery with it. Like a very large fish.
“Have you thought on how we capture her?” she asks once I sit down again.
“I have,” I say.
“How?” she says.
“I have not thought an answer yet,” I say.
“I have thought on this too,” she says.
“Have you thought an answer?” I ask.
“How?” I ask.
“First we wait,” she says.
“We are waiting now,” I say.
“We must wait until she comes into the forest,” she says.
“That may be never,” I say. I have walked these same thoughts this far already and I worry that the manchild will stay close to the manfolk and then go away in the little red engine without letting us catch her.
“We need trees to hide behind,” she says.
“She is fleet,” I say. “You saw her bounce into the house fleet as a mouse.”
“We must be near,” she says.
“We must find a spot near enough to reach her if she walks the path,” I say.
“That is what trees are for,” she says.
“She is fleet,” I say again because she is and it worries me. “If she sees us she will be too fast to catch among trees.” I say that for I worry that she may see us and run away and tell the manfolk and I do not want to meet a blast poke and I do not want Hulgur to meet one either.
“If she is looking she will see us. If she does not look she will not,” she says.
“I hope then that she does not look,” I say.
“I hope that she has business in the forest,” she says.
“I hope that too,” I say.
My stomach will not go quiet, I am cold and I am wet and I think again that Hulgur looks like a large strange fish in her clothing of dew.
Although it was only a little after seven o’clock now, the sun had already climbed well up into the sky when she opened the front door and stepped out into the morning air. She took a deep breath and it brought to her the dew on all things around her. The grass, the leaves, the roof of the barn, even the car, they were all covered by early summer morning. She took one look at all this and felt like leaping off the porch, so she did.
The shoulder bag thumped against her hip as she landed and she adjusted it a little for the ride. She could feel the warmth of the fresh bread inside it against her hip. It was for Mrs. Falk. She would be up early too. She always was.
Her bicycle was in the barn. Even though it was silly—it really was—she had decided to take the road instead of the forest path so Mrs. Falk wouldn’t get upset with her. Really, just for her sake. She had been so serious about not going into the forest at all. Not even five steps in, she had said. Not even three steps? Britt had asked to be funny. Don’t make fun of an old woman, she’d answered. Trolls are serious business, especially for a little girl.
It didn’t seem very serious to her now, especially not in the fresh, sunny morning, but she had promised, and she didn’t want to make Mrs. Falk mad at her. Besides, you should always keep your promises.
The big barn doors swung open easily, with just a little groan, and she stepped into the musky quiet. The wooden floor gave a little and creaked softly as she walked across it to the bicycle stand. Hers was the only one in good repair. Mom and Dad didn’t go biking much anymore: Dad did all the biking he needed in the city, he said. And would always add, the farm is for walking.
Elsa’s bike was missing its front wheel. Britt remembered that it had a flat. Daddy was supposed to fix it. He hadn’t yet. She saw the lonely wheel over by the workbench.
She pulled her own bike out of the stand and checked the tires. They were both flat. Well, she had kind of expected that. Now where was that pump?
She slipped her bag off of her shoulder and onto the floor, and after some rummaging around in the “things” box—on the side of which (could it have been only two summers ago?) Elsa and she had painted “THINGS” in large black letters, fading now—she found it. A little rusty, not in good shape.
In fact, it barely worked. Boy, if Dad was still biking they would have had a new pump in here long ago, and it would have had its own special place on the wall—probably marked “PUMP” in Elsa’s big letters. She had to work hard to get air into these tires. This was almost too much work just to keep Mrs. Falk happy. Really.
Still, she had promised, so she kept at it and in the end had filled both tires with so much air that she could barely indent them with her thumb. She tossed the pump back in the box, retrieved her shoulder bag and flung it back on. She rolled the bike out, closed the doors behind her and set out for Mrs. Falk’s.
A minute or so down the road she felt the back wheel thump-thump-thumping against the ground and she stopped to look. No air. The darn thing had a flat.
Now this was a problem. Did she get Dad to fix it? Or to take her in the car? Now? He wasn’t even up yet. No, that was not an option. Or Mom could drive her. No, she was too busy baking. Fix the flat herself? No. She really wasn’t sure how to, nor did she know where the patch kit was, or if they even had one—probably why Elsa’s tire wasn’t fixed yet. No, there was only one thing to do, what she should have done all along. She walked the bicycle back to the barn.
Mrs. Falk might get a little upset, but the fresh bread would soon put things right again.
I watch the manchild walk away on her rolling ride. I still smell the bread in her bag. She goes around the corner of the barn house and is gone.
“Maybe we can follow her,” I say.
“We should not go on the road,” she says and I can tell she is thinking my words unwise.
“We wait then,” I say.
“Yes,” she says.
I hear the manchild walk her rolling ride away from us but after a few breaths she stops. Hulgur and I look at each other, not sure what to think. Then we both look down the road as if it knows the answer. And it does, for we see the manchild return, now walking by the side of her rolling ride, leading it back to the barn as if it was injured. She opens the big black doors again and leads it inside. Then she comes back out without the rolling ride and closes the doors behind her.
Then she comes for us.
I rise quickly and Hulgur does too. We both move away from the path, in among the trees behind us. I don’t doubt that the manchild means to walk into the wood, and I look at Hulgur who is holding her breath, and she seems certain too.
We must not speak now, for even softly our voices find manfolks’ ears easily and then they wonder where we are and come looking for us with blast pokes, at least that is what Father says.
The manchild reaches the path and follows it. We stand as still as the trees and look. She is looking too, but not at us. She is looking up and to her right, and now she has passed us and moves away in among the trees. Still we cannot speak though I have to ask Hulgur what she thinks best. We watch the manchild disappear down the path.
Then I move close to Hulgur and say in as soft a voice as I can, “We follow her.” This is not really a question, but still it is a little bit of one, for I want to know her answer.
“Yes,” she says.
“One run ahead, one walks behind,” I say as I think of it.
She thinks on that but not very long and says, “You run ahead, I walk behind.”
I look at her looking at me and I am certain that we understand each other. It is a good feeling. We know together what to do. I am beginning to like her. And now, with the dew gone, she no longer looks like a strange fish.
I set out to walk a fast half-circle from the path to find the path again ahead of the manchild. Hulgur walks onto the path and starts out behind her. I want to run but I am afraid to make too much noise. But I walk with my longest strides just short of running and I am making good speed among the ferns and the little blueberry bushes. The trees are letting me through and I feel not hungry anymore but I feel quick with the hunt, perhaps even with a little thirst.
The rustle was louder than the whisper of leaves, softer than the rumble of stones. And far to her left. But she heard it and stopped to listen closer. It stopped too. There was nothing. Just the birds and the wind. She gripped the shoulder bag strap more firmly and started out again.
The only animal of the forest she was outright afraid of was the badger. Well, the bear and the wolf, but you never saw them around here. Badgers, though, you could. Dad had once told her, and Mrs. Falk had told her too, so Daddy had not fibbed her, that a spooked badger, or a mother defending her young, will run for you and bite until they hear the crack of bones. And they have very powerful jaws. That’s why, if you’ve seen badgers around, you should wear rubber boots with small sticks down their legs, so that if he catches you and bites, the sticks will soon crack and the badger will think it was your bone and let go. That was Mrs. Falk’s advice and Britt normally took her advice to heart.
But this morning she was not wearing rubber boots, and sneakers had no bootlegs to put sticks in. She hoped that had not been a badger back there. She walked a little faster.
And there was that rustle again. Off to her left. She stopped again, and again it stopped too, but not right away, not for just an instant. She was not making this noise herself. Something else was. Out there. Moving. Moving with her, and stopping with her.
Badgers don’t attack people though. They only attack if you threaten them, or if you threaten their cubs. And aren’t they only out at night? This probably wasn’t a badger, and she wasn’t about to threaten anybody’s cubs. So, not to worry.
She set out again, a little bit faster still. Just in case.
Then, there it was again. Now it was a little ahead of her, to her left. Definitely. Something was definitely moving. She could see nothing though; the forest was too thick.
She stopped, and it stopped too, almost right away.
Now she knew that taking the path had not been a good idea. Not at all. Of course it wouldn’t be a troll or anything, but whatever it was that moved was keeping an ear out for her. Like playing some sort of game with her. Or like not wanting to be heard. Would a badger do that? Then she saw Mrs. Falk’s face again and how serious she had been when she told her to stay out of the woods. Not to enter it alone for any reason, and not just at night. Not even five steps. Not at any time for any reason. Not even three steps. And here she was, right in the middle of it.
Her stomach tightened and grew cold.
The manchild has very good ears. She has heard me. She stops to listen and I stop too but it is hard to stop when she stops, for she knows the when of her stopping and I don’t.
She has stopped again, is listening again, and I think she is certain I am here. I do not know what best to do. I cannot see her for the too many trees in the way but I do not hear her moving. She is still and I am as still as the trees and I wait for her next sound. And I wonder how far behind her Hulgur is.
Then she moves again. But not for where she was going, she is going back the other way, and now she is running. Surely, she knows I am here and she flees. She will soon meet Hulgur.
Then I run for the path, for I think Hulgur will send her my way.
She had felt this way only once before in her life. That was on the lake, a year ago last March, or it may have been early April. Dad had told them not to go out on the ice, several times told them not to, and she didn’t really mean to but Elsa was chasing her and was catching up and Elsa wouldn’t dare follow her onto the ice now, would she? No, she didn’t, she stayed on the shore and yelled, come back, you idiot, it’s too thin. For her maybe, she was heavier, but not for me, she thought and ran farther out. Then she turned around in triumph. Elsa was still yelling when she heard the first crack. Then another. That’s when her stomach filled with this thick cold thing that sank into her legs and rose into her arms and hands and to the roots of her hair so hard she could barely breathe. Stand still, she told herself, I must stand still, moving will make it break. I must stand still. I must not move.
Elsa must have heard the cracking too, for she yelled, lay down, lay down, you idiot, and spread out. Lay down. Yes, that was the right thing to do, to lay down, and she made to do so but even at that tiny movement the ice cracked again, and she knew she mustn’t move at all, not even to lay down. I can’t, she yelled back to Elsa, who still screamed for her to lay down. I can’t, she cried again, and felt tears in her eyes and Elsa was blurry as she ran for the house faster than she had ever seen her sister run.
But now there was no Elsa and no Dad with a ladder to save her, running too faster than she had ever seen him run and with Mommy close behind. Here it was only her and the rustle that stopped whenever she stopped only not exactly right away and it was like the ice cracking around her and she could not move, not even to lay down.
But I must move, she thought. I must get back. And the cold that filled her became fear, became heat, became speed as she turned around and started running.
At first it looked like a tree. A tree sprung up in the middle of the path where there had been no tree just a few moments ago. But this tree had big eyes in a large head with big ears and nose like a loaf and it looked surprised.
She stopped and stared. What couldn’t be, was. But it still couldn’t be. What couldn’t be stared back. This was no tree. This was a troll.
She turned, and now she ran for her life.
I reach the path as I hear her running stop. She has seen Hulgur then. All is still for two quiet breaths. Then she is coming this way again. She must be much afraid now, for she is moving very fast. I wish I could hide, for if she sees me she will turn again and perhaps, if she is fleet, get away from Hulgur. Or maybe she will turn into the woods or climb a tree or burrow in a badger hole. It would be good if she didn’t see me.
I take one step off the path and press my back hard against a tall pine that stands there. I wish it would swallow me and I try to think myself into the trunk to vanish from sight. Then the tree wants to know who I am and what I am doing here and I find myself thinking like a tree for I tell it I am Kurr and we are catching a manchild for Oden and it says who is Oden and then I see the manchild. She is running with mouth and eyes wide open and fine hair flying around and behind her.
Without even thinking, I step back onto the path. Her eyes look straight ahead which is where I now stand but she does not stop and now I know she cannot see me for I think like a tree and now I see Hulgur too chasing and then the manchild runs right into my arms.
The soft path, the patches of sun here and there, the heavy feet behind her, the pain in her lungs, and the tears in her eyes became as one as she ran, and as one they said over and over again: away, away, away. She didn’t see where she was going, her feet did their own looking, but she knew that she was running for her life. Everything Mrs. Falk had said about them was true. They were down from the mountains, and they were here to catch a child.
And she was the child.
The thump, thump, thump behind her grew louder. She found the strength to move her legs even faster despite their burning when she ran into something that should not have been there. One moment she was racing, the next she smashed into something large and brown that had not been there a second before and she felt big, furry arms seize her and lift her up and then the ice finally cracked open and the black lake swallowed her whole.
I look at Hulgur looking at me with eyes large with questions. The manchild hangs limp over my shoulder.
“I forgot to bring a skin,” I say, “to put her in.”
Hulgur looks at me still. “The manchild didn’t see you,” she says. “You have learned to think like a tree.”
I am not sure if she asks me or tells me.
“It asked me who I was and what I was doing,” I say. “I answered it.”
“How did you make it ask? How did you hear the question?”
“I leaned hard against it and wished myself into it,” I say, for that is what I remember.
She looks at me long. “You have become a true troll,” she says. “I am glad I was here to see it.” She steps up to me and touches my face with her hand.
I do not know what to say. Her hand feels good on my face and I think her beautiful. “I am glad too,” I say. “Glad that you were here to see it.”
She takes back her hand and it leaves a little emptiness behind. She looks into the woods for a breath or two but does not say anything. I wonder at her thought.
Then, huntress again, she looks at the manchild. “Is she dead?” she asks.
I listen and hear the faint but fast tap-tap-tapping of her heart. “No,” I say.
“We have no skin,” she says.
“I forgot to bring one,” I say again. “I will carry her on my shoulder.”
“I can carry her partway,” she says.
“Yes, we can share,” I say. “Now we must walk fast.”
She knows I speak true, for manchilds can be loud even inside skins and we do not have one. We must hurry away from houses and roads where there are manfolk ears and back to the mountain. If we can, we will walk all the way without stopping even once. If I am strong enough and if Hulgur is strong enough.
I settle the manchild firmly over my shoulder and we set out for home with our longest strides.
The whole lake was moving beneath her, around her, and her stomach and chest hurt. The last thing she had heard before the ice opened beneath her was still there: the thump, thump, thump of the tree that was no tree, only now there were two thump, thump, thumps and then there was no longer a lake and they were trolls and they were moving quickly through the forest and they had caught her.
She opened her eyes and saw a back and a tail and the rear of two long, furry legs moving in fast strides, thump, thump, thump. Each thump made her stomach and chest hurt again as she bounced up and down on a hard shoulder.
“Put me down,” she said. But she made no sound, just a croaking and she had trouble breathing.
“Put me down,” she screamed. It hurt to scream, but at least she could hear herself.
“Put me down,” louder still.
Then the other thump, thump, thump said something that sounded like a rumble of mossy stones that she did not understand and then the thumping stopped altogether.
The troll that carried her stopped and for a moment she could see the large, furry feet of the troll following. Then her carrier turned around and she could see nothing but mossy and ferny ground. Her troll said something too, she could feel the rumble with her body, and they spoke in turns, slowly and in very deep voices, soft rocks falling.
“What does she say?” says Hulgur.
“I don’t know manspeak,” I say.
“She was loud. Is she hurt?”
I lift the manchild down from my shoulder and put her on the ground. I make sure not to let her arm go, for she can run, this one. She almost falls, then stands firmer with my help. She looks at me. I see fear first. She looks over at Hulgur too. Her eyes are wide and her mouth is open. But as she looks back at me, she looks more curious than afraid, and I do not think this manchild will die before we get her in the cauldron.
“I think not,” I say.
“Shall I carry her?” she asks.
“If you wish,” I say.
Hulgur comes towards us and makes to pick up the manchild. She struggles in my grip and makes a face as if I am hurting her arm. I loosen my grip a little but do not let go until Hulgur places her hands round her sides and lifts her up like a wriggling stick. Then she turns her around and places her on her shoulders to sit one leg on each side of her neck just like we carry our young and I can see the manchild knows how to sit like this. I hope she knows to look out for branches too.
Then we start walking again.
The thump, thump, thump started up again but at least now she could see better. She wasn’t quite tall enough to gain a clear view over the troll’s big head but she could look around it and see where they were going. Often she had to duck behind it when the trees grew close and came for her and she held on to the coarse hair like you would to the mane of a horse and the troll didn’t seem to mind.
She knew, though she didn’t know how—maybe because she had been gentler in lifting her up, the feel of her hands perhaps—that the troll carrying her now was a woman troll, and the other one a man, although woman and man did not quite fit with trolls.
Their long legs moved them very fast through the forest and never slowed. They were in a hurry, that much was for sure. What was happening could not be happening, but she was alive and she wasn’t dreaming, for she could feel the air on her skin and the speed of their strides and the up and down on the she-troll’s shoulders and the wonder of it warmed her icy stomach, if only just a bit.
And through brief flashes of memory she was riding almost as fast though not with as much thump, thump, thumping on her Dad’s shoulders. He was running through the grass with her, smaller than now, holding on to his forehead and laughing, and the cold thing in her stomach almost thought of leaving and for a brief moment she felt like laughing again. But before the laugh could reach the air the trolls were back beneath and in front of her, and again she heard Mrs. Falk say that if they are all the way down here, it can only mean that they are looking for a child.
Why, she had asked, why are they looking for a child? To boil, she had answered. To boil. No, that could not be possible. And she tried to tell that cold thing in her gut to listen and stop hurting her and to leave her alone, for they couldn’t possibly boil her, it just wasn’t done, but the cold thing did not listen nor did it go away and instead answered that she couldn’t possibly be riding on the shoulders of a large she-troll racing through the forest looking out for branches either.
And then the chill spread throughout again, freezing as it filled her, and she was back on the cracking ice holding on to these long, barky locks as hard as she could.
My legs are very tired. I am hungry and not a little thirsty. Hulgur who carries the manchild must feel even worse, but she has not complained once. She is a fine shefolk. I wish we could keep walking through the night but I know now that we cannot reach the mountain without rest. I hear Little River up ahead and think we should stay by him for the night. I tell my legs to stop walking but at first they will not listen. I tell them again, not so softly this time, and they slow. I tell them again, and finally they stop. A good thing too, for another step or two and I would have met Little River again. Hulgur stops too. My lungs think they are still moving. Hulgur’s too, I think. It takes a while before I can find air enough to speak.
“We should rest,” I say.
“Yes,” she says.
“I wish we had a sack,” I say.
“I will braid a rope,” she says.
She lifts the manchild down from her shoulders and hands her to me. She doesn’t wriggle now. A branch or two has caught her face, for I see fresh scratches and some pine needles in her hair. I take her and put her down. She sits down and I do not let go of her arm. I am not holding so hard and she does not make a painful face. She is tired too, I think.
She looks at me and over at Hulgur and then at Little River. She speaks some manspeak. Then she looks at me and speaks the manwords again. It sounds like a question but I cannot know what she wants to know. She speaks it again and sees I don’t understand and looks back at the water. I wonder if she is cold and if the little flying pests are bothering her like they bother our young, for she uses her free arm to beat on them in the air. I reach up with my free arm and break off the end of a birch branch and beat the air around her with it to fend them off. She looks at me and I think she smiles. I give her the branch so she can do her own fending.
She takes it and does a fine job sending the pests on their way. She learns quickly. Much faster than our young, who break the branch and try to eat it many times until we beat some sense into them and they learn to chase the pests with them. Then again, maybe she already knows, maybe she has used a branch before to chase the little flying pests.
Hulgur is among the trees somewhere behind me and I hear her pull and gather. I hear Little River gurgle and sing and I sit down by the manchild and think for the first time on how good it is that we have caught a manchild. And in good time, too, for the old moon is still waning and first sliver of the new will not come for several more nights. I have become a true troll, said Hulgur when I thought like a tree, and I have become a true troll, mother will say now that I have caught a manchild. And I feel good that Mother can be happy that her son can think like a tree. I feel good but I also feel very hungry. And I need to drink but I cannot let go of the manchild to reach the water. So I wait for Hulgur to do her gathering.
Hulgur comes back full of grass and lingonberry plants and sits down to braiding. I watch her long fingers separate the stems and leaves and start from no rope at all to just a finger’s width to a thumb’s length to more and more a rope of grass and lingonberry stems and her fingers know exactly what to do. She is a clever shefolk. The manchild watches too and doesn’t try to wriggle free of my grip as the rope grows out of Hulgur’s hands.
“You braid well,” I say.
“I have a shefolk’s fingers,” she says.
“I have seen many shefolk’s fingers less able,” I say.
She doesn’t answer that.
“The manchild is watching you,” I say.
Hulgur looks up at her. The manchild makes big eyes at Hulgur’s braiding and Hulgur sees that, for she smiles at the manchild and I see the manchild smile back. Hulgur looks back at her fingers and keeps braiding.
I smell the water and I am very thirsty.
They came to a river and there they stopped. The she-troll lifted her down from her shoulders and handed her to the he-troll. Her legs had gone numb, for she couldn’t stand, and had the he-troll not held on to her she would have fallen. He helped her sit down in the moss and then sat down beside her. His big hand held all of her upper arm like a little stick. He didn’t squeeze though. He looked at her with eyes as large almost as her head, at least as large as her hand spread out, and they were yellow with the low sun shining through the trees. The large black pupils did not look mad or angry or anything, more like curious, and she couldn’t imagine they would boil her like Mrs. Falk had said they had come down from the mountain to do.
Then she wondered what time it was and what Mom and Dad would think when they came back from their hike to see that she wasn’t home yet from Mrs. Falk’s. They would wait a while for her to return but then decide to drive over there to find her with Dad muttering about the crazy woman didn’t even have a phone for Pete’s sake and then they would discover that she had never arrived.
And what would Mrs. Falk think? Would she tell them about trolls? She didn’t think so. No way would her parents believe even a fraction of that. No one would. Except her.
If only she had listened, really listened. If only she would have taken Mrs. Falk seriously. If only she had stayed out of the forest.
“Are you going to boil me?” she asked then.
The big yellow eyes looked at her face, then at her mouth, but they didn’t understand.
“Are you going to boil me?” she asked again, slower, hoping that would help him understand.
But the big yellow eyes could not make out a thing. She could see that. She looked back at the rushing water and the spots of gold cast here and there by the sun and then the first mosquito bit her.
She had forgotten all about them. Around the farm you never went into the forest, especially not in the evening, and especially not close to water, without mosquito repellant. She looked up at the small brown cloud of gnats and mosquitoes now forming around her and she knew she was in serious trouble.
In the rush through the forest she hadn’t noticed them, for what gnat could have kept up with trolls striding at speed, but now, sitting still, they were coming for her as if to make up for that. She killed the one that was biting her with a smack on the skin. It left a bloodstained little smudge. Then she waved through the air to keep the others, the now thousands of others, away.
The he-troll, who didn’t seem to mind them one bit, reached up and broke off the end of a branch and fanned it around her face and knees. It cleared the air for a while. He handed her the branch so she could use it herself and she took it. It worked fine.
The she-troll who had gone off into the forest now returned with a bundle of lingonberry plants and grasses and sat down and began to work with them. At first Britt couldn’t tell what she was doing, then she realized that she was braiding. She had never seen anything like it. It was as if a rope simply grew from her fingers, she was so good at it. For a moment she forgot everything except watching her. It was like a magic trick. Then the she-troll looked up at her and her big mouth grew corners and she could see teeth in her smile and smile in her eyes. She smiled back. It was funny but the troll seemed embarrassed by her smiling back, for she quickly looked down at her braiding and did not look up again.
Then another mosquito bit her and she returned to her own task of fanning.
Hulgur’s rope has grown to four paces and she says that should be long enough. I agree. Then she braids one end of it around the manchilds neck as a collar and now we have her on a leash. I can let go of her arm and I do.
The manchild does not look much pleased but she does not wriggle or try to run away. She is too bothered by the flying pests, for she fans the branch around her without stopping much.
Now I can finally get to the water.
I have my fill and Hulgur does too and she says what about the manchild and I say we have nothing to fetch it in. Hulgur walks off and strips a sheet of bark off a young birch and again her hands show their cleverness and she has soon folded a scoop to hold water and she brings some to the manchild who drinks deep and fast. She too was thirsty. Hulgur gets her some more. She drinks that too.
“We rest now,” I say.
“You rest,” she says. “I will help the manchild with her branch or she will not sleep tonight. She does not have skin like us that makes the little pests give up and fly away. If she stops her fanning she will be bitten raw. Look at her.”
I see that Hulgur speaks true and I wonder at her caring for the manchild and then I fall asleep where I sit.
I wake up past dusk but before morning and I see Hulgur leaning against a trunk by the manchild, still fanning the branch now and then. The pests are fewer now but they still come to try the manchild’s blood and Hulgur still keeps them away. The manchild is asleep but huddles and looks cold.
I rise and take the branch from her and tell her to sleep now, I will do the fanning. She looks at me pleased and moves to where I have left a warm seat in the moss and soon she is sleeping too.
The manchild’s skin is pale and prickled like a plucked grouse from the cold and the mist from Little River. But still she sleeps. Her hair is fine and like a little flaxen stream with moss and pine needles down over her eyes and very small nose. Her cheeks are flushed too, with cold I think, but she breathes deeply and evenly so she is not ill. More pests come and I fan them away. Pest rumor of a sleeping manchild by Little River must have reached all the forest by now and by morning they will all be here to take a look I think, hoping they’re not too late for a nice breakfast.
I try but I can feel no thirst for this manchild. No joy at having caught her. But we chose the fetching stones and that means more than what I feel or do not feel. I hope boiling her will please Oden true.
I hear Hulgur snoring softly. I look over at her, fallen over and curled up like a young one. She is a fine-looking shefolk, I think.
The she-wolf stopped and again sniffed the air, and again it spoke to her of blood and enemies. It also spoke faintly of lost wolves to avenge, of the long and bitter feud. Setting out again, she veered left, ran many paces, sifting the air as she moved, fainter, fainter. She turned around—a little crazed now, for she was almost certain—and ran again, toward stronger now, and stronger, scent now rising to certainty. Again she stopped, and searched the ground with quick, black nostrils and here she found the spoor.
She touched the earth with her nose as she breathed deeply, sifting. And now there was no doubt: trolls had passed here. Two of them. The ground scent was fresh and strong: half a day old, perhaps younger.
There is no other smell like it. She had first smelled it as a pup when her mother called her over to the faint trace along the path, three, perhaps four days old. Smell this, she said. Smell this deeply, and remember. This is the enemy. This is the smell of troll. She had filled her lungs with air and felt the pain of dark odor rushing in. She had sneezed and backed away, trying to shake the irritation away. This is the scent of our enemy, her mother had said again. They are more our enemy than man is. If you can, kill them, else avoid them. They are the foul the gods placed in our forest to give the sunrise and the sweet wind and the warmth of the flock their opposites.
The she-wolf breathed the trace again. Again she discerned the scents of two different trolls, but no more than two.
Two young males stole up behind her and stopped. Sniffing the air too. Alarmed.
They had been on the hunt for two days and one night now and were all hungry. Still, the scent of ancient enemies did not fail to stir the blood in a different direction. The two younger wolves searched for and caught and recognized the scent too. Their nostrils widened with revulsion while their hackles rose and their gray heads turned skyward to feed on cleaner air.
She turned and looked at first one then the other and asked. They both agreed. They were three, the trolls were two. Yes, they could kill them. And honor demanded it: they must be killed. They would hunt troll tonight.
Their hunger replaced now by one much deeper and darker, the three wolves set out down the scent.
They must have approached from downwind for I never smelled them, and they must have been very, very quiet for I never heard them. But then a dark, terrible memory stung my nostrils and it spun my head around to look for them even before I knew what I was looking for. Then I knew.
I see their yellow eyes. There are two, no, three pairs of them. Slits of yellow danger carved from night, watching us. They move about softly, but having seen them I know what to listen for and now I hear them as well.
Perhaps there are more than three. I have frozen to stone where I sit and I have stopped fending the pests away. This makes the manchild slap herself awake and she stirs and opens her eyes. I see this but my eyes do not care about her for they see moving yellow eyes and again I try to count the pairs but they move in and out among the trees and their low branches and I cannot be certain of the number. I think three and I hope not more than three. Not fewer, though, I am certain of that now. And I am certain they are wolves for I smell them clearly now, and my fear knows them very well.
“Hulgur,” I say.
“Hulgur,” I say louder.
She stirs and opens her eyes. She is very tired from too little sleep.
“Hulgur,” I say again. “Wolves.”
She sits up, straight and still. All awake. I look back into the woods and her head turns with mine. I can count only two pairs now. No, there is a third.
“How many do you count?” I ask.
She is quiet for a while, while she looks and looks. Then she says, “Three.”
“I count three too,” I say.
Their smell was everywhere, foul and rousing. The younger wolves wanted to rush blindly at the trolls but she held them with a deep growl.
She now confirmed what she already knew, that there were only the two, a she-troll asleep and a he-troll keeping pests off a sleeping manchild they have caught. She also noted that these trolls were young and large, fit and strong.
She moved back again to scout for an approach and again cursed the river for cutting her options in half.
The troll by the manchild now tasted the air and turned. He had smelled them. Now he was looking for them, at them, counting eyes.
The rumbling that was his voice reached her and she could feel her lips pull back across her teeth and her hackles rise. He was rousing the she-troll and now she too looked their way. Counting eyes.
Then she saw what to do. She led her pack not because she was the strongest, but because she was the clearest of thought. And here she could see clearly. It was the manchild stirring that suddenly told her. The trolls were bringing her back to their mountain and she knew that they wanted it alive and unharmed. So, they would attack the manchild first. This would confuse the trolls and make them more vulnerable.
She shared her seeing with her two companions and then outlined their approach. One of the young males would circle upriver and the other down river. Then each would steal within a running leap of the manchild. Her growl would be the signal.
The trolls would expect them at their throats, not the manchild’s, and would confuse long enough for the young wolves to kill it. The trolls, seeing their catch dead, would madden and rage, chasing caution and plan out of their big heads. Careful wolves can kill such trolls.
The two would bring the she-troll down and open her throat, while the she-wolf would leap from hiding at the he-troll to bring him down. The two would then find his throat.
It was a good plan. It would work. And although she had no quarrel with the manchild, she had no second thoughts. Killing it would help kill trolls. To help kill trolls she would kill anything, except wolves.
The young males silently set out in their opposite directions.
There were mosquitoes everywhere and Britt was freezing. She killed one, then two more, then she looked up and remembered but the memory was that of dream. And again she tried to remember the awake and again she remembered dream. Then she realized that she was awake and that the memory was not dream. She was looking at a troll. It was the he-troll and he held the birch branch that the she-troll had fanned last night to let her fall asleep. He was not fanning though, he was very still and looking into the woods behind them. Looking for something, looking at something. She turned her head and looked too, and then she saw them as well. Yellow eyes in gray dog-like faces. She knew they were wolves. The he-troll spoke and the she-troll answered. The yellow eyes moved back and forth among the trees and then they came together as if to confer and then spread out again.
The he-troll spoke again and the she-troll stood up. She came over to where he was. The he-troll stood up too. Britt could no longer see the wolves.
I think I know what they will do.
“Hulgur,” I say. “Come here.”
She rises and comes.
“Have you fought wolves?” I ask and rise too.
“Never,” she says.
“Nor I,” I say.
I can see gray behind yellow eyes approaching from upriver and I see sharp and strong teeth. That is one wolf. I look around for the others but now I cannot find them.
“How many do you see?” I ask.
Hulgur looks around too. “One,” she says, then turns. “No, two.”
I look where she looks and there is the second wolf coming from down river. The third must be waiting in the woods still. Hiding.
I have not seen many wolves, and those I have seen I saw from a distance. I have seen none up-close and so cannot tell their size well. Nor can I tell if these are large or small as wolves go. And I wonder at my fear which is still rising and as real as hunger, for I’ve heard how wolves can tear a troll’s throat so deeply their head comes off. Yet, I don’t see how they can jump all the way to reach my throat—but then I remember from stories back in the mountain how wolves attack in packs and mostly lone trolls. But I remember it said too that they will not attack unless they know they can kill, so these wolves feel very certain they can for they are coming closer. The one from upriver and the one from down river. But though I look and look, I can still not see the third wolf.
Then they reach us. My hands think about my throat and begin their journey to protect it when I see the two wolves are not leaping for us, they are leaping for the manchild. I think Hulgur sees the same thing, and sooner than I, for she has already sprung to the other side of the manchild to fight the wolf from up-river while I stand where I stand unable to move.
I am very afraid and things move very slowly. My hands scream out to protect the manchild from the wolf leaping from down-stream and then they do move and fast and they find a wolf head midair and then one wolf ear and I hold it and tear to stop the head and the ear comes loose with blood and a fierce cry from the wolf who falls short of the manchild but immediately gets on his feet and lunges for the manchild again.
But my hands are awake and quick now, and they find a wolf leg before he finds the manchild and I pull him back screaming as I swing him over my head and then—with all the strength I can find—against the trunk of a pine and his head catches first and he goes very limp but I swing him again and his head catches first again and I hear it crack and I know that he is dead and I swing him again and toss him as far out into Little River as I can.
Then my arm catches fire and falls downward with the weight of the third wolf with jaws sinking and yearning to meet through my arm. I hear my own voice bellow, for this is pain such as I have never known, and the wolf thrashes his head back and forth and I feel him reaching bone and still he tears and now there is blood covering his face and his ears and I realize the blood is mine and it is gushing now and suddenly I feel as if a boulder has tumbled onto my chest, for I lose my breath and my legs feel soft and I sink down to the ground and now I know how wolves kill trolls.
The last thing I see is Hulgur tossing something gray and limp into the river and then seizing a leg of the wolf at my arm.
Britt saw the two wolves approach, one from upriver and one from downriver, and she knew by their gaze and their teeth that they meant to kill the trolls. But when they charged and leaped, they did not leap for them but for her. It happened too fast for true fear to rise, she simply crouched and covered her head to protect herself. Then she heard the loud yelp of a hurt dog and opened her eyes to see the he-troll swinging a wolf by its hind leg to smash it against a trunk. He did it again, and she heard the crack and knew the wolf was dead. The he-troll tossed it out into the river and it fell with a soft splash but didn’t sink. She heard another cracking and looked over at the she-troll. She had caught the other and was bending its head back. The cracking must have been the neck. The wolf hung limp in her hands and then she tossed it out into the river as well.
Then everything was a roar from the he-troll and she whipped around to see another wolf hanging on his forearm, thrashing and tearing. The scream did not stop and something hot and sticky filled the air and fell on her face and her dress and her arm and she saw it was blood. Dark and warm from out of the jaws of the wolf and onto its face and out into the air as the he-troll tried to shake the wolf away.
Then the he-troll fell down just as the she-troll leaped for the wolf and caught its leg and pulled, but the wolf would not let go. Still the she-troll pulled and pulled at the wolf, and then Britt heard a loud crack which must have been the wolf-leg breaking, for the wolf screamed and finally let go its grip and turned toward her, jaw filled with troll flesh, and snapped a loud crack in the air, just missing the she-troll’s fingers. The she-troll, who still held its leg, swung the wolf through the air and down against a flat rock once, twice, many times until the rock was red and the wolf very still. Then she tossed this wolf into the water as well and leaped over to where the he-troll lay.
He was very still and looked dead, but Britt didn’t think he was, for the only wound she could see was on his arm. The she-troll looked at her and looked at the he-troll’s arm and at the blood that flooded out through the large tear and she simply stood there. Britt could tell she did not know what to do, only that something had to be done. She looked at her as if pleading for help, and she wondered a little at a troll who could braid a rope from grass but who had never heard of a tourniquet.
Britt looked around for something to bind the upper arm with. She thought of her dress and was going to tear out strips of cloth when she noticed her leash. It was hanging from her neck, braided grass. She lifted the end of it and tried to undo her noose but it was braided fast and she could not get her head through it. The she-troll saw what she was trying to do and quickly unbraided the noose and handed her the rope of grass.
She bound it around the he-troll’s upper arm then made a good knot with a loop and looked around for a strong stick to do the twisting.
She found one and began to bear down. It was easy at first but his arm was very thick, and in the end, no matter how hard she twisted, the blood kept coming.
But the she-troll understood now and sat down beside her and took over the turning. She was ten times as strong and in three more turns the blood stopped.
The she-troll held the stick firm and looked over at her. She wished they could talk, said her eyes. But mostly they said thank you.
The she-wolf growled her signal and the two younger wolves charged as one. But one instant later she knew her plan had gone wrong. While the he-troll confused like she had hoped and stood still, the she-troll did not and was quicker than she had allowed for. The she-troll leaped with the speed of a mother protecting her young and then the he-troll sprung to life too. The he-troll caught Rodi’s ear and tore it off. Rodi yelped and fell but leaped again for the manchild. The he-troll, quick now, caught Rodi’s leg and swung him against the tree. She heard him die. Then she heard Larr’s neck break and she saw the she-wolf toss him into the river as well. Then she lost all caution and charged the he-troll.
Her jaws found his arm and she tasted troll blood. She thrashed her head and soon it billowed out between her teeth and she knew she had found a wide vessel. Then her hind leg was caught in a rock-like grip. Strong troll hands broke the bone into ferocious pain and she had no choice but to let go of the troll’s arm to find and sever the fingers that held her leg. Frantic now her jaws lunged but found only air and then she felt her body swing up and into air and then with speed down for the rock below and then there was nothing.
I have married the earth I think, but it seems to me too warm. So I open my eyes and look directly into sun. I close them again. I hear a river and then I remember it is Little River I hear and then I open my eyes again. I see Hulgur by the water and the manchild by my side. She is fending with the birch branch and it is to keep flies away from my arm. And then I see my arm and then the pain comes back. Hulgur returns with a piece of the manchild’s clothing dripping with water and she presses it on my wound and it hurts very much but I remember the wolves and I am surprised I am not married to the earth.
“She saved your life,” says Hulgur.
I do not understand and Hulgur sees that.
“The manchild,” she says.
“She killed the wolf?” I say.
“No, I killed the wolf. She saved your blood.”
“With her rope and a stick,” she says.
I look at my wound then my arm then at Hulgur’s rope that is tied round it just below my shoulder and twisted taut with a stick and I see that Hulgur is right, it must have kept my blood from escaping. I look at the manchild, who is looking at me, still fending the flies away from my wound and I don’t know what to think.
Hulgur lifts the wet clothing from my wound and it is all red and black from dried blood. I think I can see the white of bone.
The manchild stops fending and tears more of her clothing into a long strip. She takes the wet clothing from Hulgur and goes to wash it again in the river. I notice Hulgur has removed the leash. Of course she has, it is tied round my arm. The manchild comes back and puts the cold cloth on my wound and it screams again with pain and then she ties it in place with her strip of blue.
“We must let her go,” says Hulgur. “Oden cannot want this manchild. We must take her back.”
I look at Hulgur and then at the manchild and I think that perhaps she is right, but Hulgur and I chose the fetching stones and that must mean more. It is hard to see clearly what is the right thing to do and my arm hurts me and demands its own thinking.
“We must bring her to the mountain,” I say.
“Kurr,” she says. “She saved your life. You must let her go.”
I cannot think on that when my arm hurts so much and my father argues with my heart. Then I hear myself say what my father would have said, “First we must please Oden.”
“Oden will not be pleased with this manchild,” she says. “This manchild has saved the life of a troll. Oden will not want this manchild.”
I cannot answer this, so I say nothing.
“We must please Oden true,” she says.
“We must bring her to the mountain,” I say, and then Hulgur turns away, for she no longer wants to look at me.
Britt was amazed at how quickly he recuperated. By the evening the wound had already begun to close and it seemed uninfected. She could never have imagined that her girl-scout first-aid knowledge would come in handy for trolls too. But it had, and she felt proud of a job well done.
The he-troll and she-troll were mostly quiet, and the few times the he-troll spoke the she-troll did not answer but turned or walked away. They reminded her of Mom and Dad having a discussion.
Then the he-troll stood up and steadied himself against a tree with his good arm. The she-troll said something but the he-troll shook his head and grumbled. He then let go of the tree and set out for the river.
The she-troll picked her up and put her on her shoulders and followed.
We chose the fetching stones and that means more than what the manchild did for me. Hirka spoke in front of a mountain full of witnesses. He told me and Hulgur to catch a manchild. He told us we chose the fetching stones and so it was our task to please Oden. That must mean more than what this manchild has done for me. They have stolen our grasses and lakes and forests and driven us into the mountain with their blast pokes. Surely that means more.
I am weak and cannot run. But I cannot stop either and I cannot eat. I am thirsty but cannot drink. I can only think, but I cannot think on this well while I walk. But I must keep walking so I think only in small bits and I try to fit them together but I cannot make the bits fit well and they stay many little bits that do not fit together.
After following Big River toward the mountains for many, many paces I finally find a ford across him—which should please me but it does not although I barely wet my soles. Surely it should please Hulgur who likes to swim less than I, but it does not. She carries the manchild on her shoulders and does not speak to me. But neither does she disobey me. She is a good shefolk.
Then I see our mountain, nearly blue with distance, and then not so blue and then closer still and then we arrive and as we approach the gaping in the mountain I see Father and Fura and other trolls come out to meet us and I see Fura take the manchild from Hulgur and walk away with her for the feeding caves and I see Hulgur look at me and I can tell she is very sad and then she turns away from me to seek her own, wishing perhaps in her heart that the wolf had killed me.
Father notices my wound and asks about it. I ask for water and food.
It is brought and I sit down and tell them about the wolves, and as I tell this everybody is very quiet and looks at me with eyes that go nowhere but my face and my father says once I am finished, you met and bested wolves and still brought the manchild here alive, that is a sign of Oden’s great pleasure with you and with our offering, and so I find that I cannot tell him that without the manchild I would now be married to the earth and I have no idea what Oden is really thinking about this.
Others want to ask me many questions but Father says leave Kurr alone, can you not see he is tired, and I can tell he is proud of me, and I find my bed and fall down on it and I sleep and the sleep is all black and very deep, for my arm no longer hurts.
Britt felt as if she had come to know the she-troll. To know her and trust her. Together they had saved the he-troll’s life. She knew that she would never hurt her or allow anyone to boil her. Boil her, what a thought. But she was still uneasy. She had expected them to turn around and drop her off near the farm, that is what she had expected, for saving the he-troll’s life, but they had not. They had crossed the river with the dead wolves in it, then a second, larger one, then without stopping all night and all day, they had now arrived at a mountain with a large cave mouth and with many, many trolls coming out to look at them.
At first it was like a fairy tale and all she could think was: Wait until Elsa hears about this. Boy, wait till I get to tell. Then her stomach, quiet until now, with so many trolls up ahead told her to not be so sure she would ever see Elsa again, and she held on very hard to the she-troll, who had stopped beside the he-troll.
A very old troll with tired eyes and a very wrinkled and ugly face, and a younger troll, not quite as big as the he-troll, but probably older, stepped out from the many that had gathered to watch them arrive, and came to meet them. The younger troll walked up to the she-troll and said something. The she-troll lifted Britt off her shoulders and handed her across. The troll caught her not very kindly and slung her across a strong shoulder and turned around.
She looked up with difficulty but could still see the she-troll standing very still looking after her, and by the way her hands hung by her sides and her eyes glistened, she told her as plainly as if she had spoken that she had not meant for this to happen but that there was nothing she could do, and then Britt realized that no matter what, even after what she had done to save the he-troll’s life, they would boil her.
She tried to kick herself free but the heavy arm on her back grew twice as heavy and she could hardly breathe. The troll was walking fast and into the dark of the cave and down a musty corridor lit only here and there by a torch and to a hole in the rock with bars where he put her down, kicked her in, and locked her up.
Someone touches my shoulder and shakes it and I wake up to see Father standing by my bed with a torch in his hand. It is first sliver, he says.
I have slept a day and a night and a day and now it is first sliver and I think of Hulgur and of the manchild screaming turning pink then red in the cauldron and I feel I cannot rise but want to fall back into the blackness I just came from where there is no Hulgur and there is no manchild.
Hulgur and I are to be honored before the boiling, says Father, and I need to wake up all the way right now and come with him to the great hall. He touches me again, not too hard, but hard enough to mean right now.
I come awake all the way and set out beside Father down our family walkway. “Is it true,” he wants to know, “what Hulgur says—that you thought like a tree?”
“Yes,” I say. “Yes, that is true.”
Then he asks, “Is it also true what Hulgur says, that the manchild saved your life by strangling your blood?”
“Yes,” I answer my father. “Yes, that is also true.”
“You should have returned her and brought another,” says Father.
“I thought on that,” I say. “I thought hard on that but my arm hurt very deep and it was hard to think without sitting and we did not have enough days to catch another manchild before the first sliver.”
Father doesn’t answer me, but makes that movement with his shoulders that says “so be it.”
“Must we,” I begin, but now we are at the great hall, and there is time for no more than that of my question.
We enter together, to the eyes of every troll of every clan. I see Hulgur has already come and she is waiting for me.
I walk up to her and stand beside her as Father sits down in his high chair and speaks. She does not look at me and now I am certain she wishes that the wolf had killed me. I am certain she does, for now I wish so too.
“My son Kurr, and Hulgur, daughter of Fina and Rot son of Bark, chose the fetching stones and they have brought back a manchild.”
I hear a rustle of approval among the clans.
“They were attacked by wolves which they fought and killed.”
More whispers and nodes.
“Yet, even though Kurr was hurt, they brought us back the manchild alive.”
Approval rustled the clans anew.
“Oden is true pleased. Oden guided their way back with the child. He has returned to us and is with us again and now we shall repay him.”
I look quickly to my right to look at Hulgur. Her face is very still and her eyes strong on the floor. No glances for me and I know what Hulgur is thinking and I wish I could marry the earth.
“In honor of their feat, Barr has spoken and said that they, not he, shall light the cauldron fire.”
I hear and see many astonished trolls, and I too am astonished, for this has never been done.
“Kurr. Hulgur. Bring the fire of the torch and light the cauldron kindling.”
He points at the torch that Hirka now holds out for us to take and we walk over to grasp it as one.
Holding it high between us we approach the cauldron, filled now with water and many seasonings that I can smell as we come near. We bend our knees and bring the torch to the kindling, which catches fire right away and starts the heating.
We rise again and I look at the water and at the many seasonings that float on the surface, and in it I picture the manchild that saved my life and the water stirring then boiling around her thonged and screaming, and what I see is wrong. This is not Oden’s wish, and suddenly I know what Oden wants me to do.
“Hulgur,” I whisper as we stand to make sure the wood is catching from the kindling. “You are right. We must not boil the manchild. I will save her.”
Then she finally looks at me. “How?”
“I will take her from Fura before he places her in the cauldron and I will toss her to you. You will run back with her. I will keep them from following.”
She is silent for three full breaths, while the wood catches just fine. “You will die,” she says.
Then she touches my cheek the way she did when I had thought like a tree, and I wish there was another way for she is such a fine shefolk, but there is no other way that I can see, at least not without thinking on it, and there is no time for that.
The fire is now pleased and I hear sizzling from the bottom of the cauldron as water flees toward the surface for safety.
We walk back and as one hand the torch back to Hirka. He says something that I cannot hear. Hulgur then walks back to her clan and I stay beside Father. Mother is with her clan and she looks very proud to have a son that can think like a tree and that killed wolves and that brought back a manchild alive.
Young shefolk bring honey morsels and nettle wine and the hall fills with voices while the water heats and then Fura leaves to bring the manchild.
Britt could not tell day or night. She could only tell that she was very cold, very thirsty and very hungry. She might have fallen asleep, she wasn’t sure, but if so it was not for long. It was now clear to her that the she-troll had abandoned her and that she would be boiled. There was no hope of escape or rescue. She had been stolen by trolls and trolls did not exist. Only Mrs. Falk knew about them and Britt knew no one would believe her. Maybe Mom would believe it if she really listened to Mrs. Falk, but even so. What could Mom do?
At the thought of Mom, and of Elsa, and of her bed in the light room at the top of the farmhouse, her eyes grew warm with tears that she could not see but only feel. They ran down her cheeks and found the floor with a splash so tiny that she should not have heard it but she did hear it for there were no other noises, and then she was very afraid to die.
She thought of how much it must hurt to die of boiling and she wished and wished and wished ever harder that she would wake up but the dream refused to end, for this was no dream. She knew that, but she could not face the pain she knew was coming, so she kept wishing.
Then there was a flicker of light on the walls outside, growing brighter, and then she heard the thud, thud of heavy feet and she knew that they were coming for her.
She could not tell whether this was the same troll but it seemed like it. He took a large key from a spike in the rock and opened the iron bars. She tried to rush out between his legs but only with half a heart and anyway he expected that for he quickly closed his legs and caught her smartly and heaved her up on his shoulder.
They moved through the long dark corridor which grew lighter and lighter and then they stepped into a large hall with many torches and what must have been hundreds of trolls. The troll that carried her lifted her off his shoulder and held her while another troll spun a long leather thong around her to tie her arms to her sides and he spun it so many times that she could not move at all nor hardly breathe, and it hurt her, and then she saw the large cauldron and saw the steam rising from water about to boil, and she knew it was for her. She knew that she would soon be dead, and still the dream refused to end.
Her he-troll, she could tell by the arm bandage made from her dress, came towards them and said something to the troll who had brought her, who said something angrily back. They rumbled words angrier still, but another troll, much older and sitting on a chair not far from the cauldron, it was the troll who had met them as they arrived to the mountain, spoke too and the troll that had brought her from her cell lifted her up and handed her over to her he-troll. Not willingly.
She knew the end was very near now and she tried to brace herself for the terrible heat that the steaming water would be. She had scalded herself on hot water once, just her hand, and could remember first the blisters and the pain, then the piece of skin that fell off and how much it hurt. And to be in that water, all of you, until you are dead, she could not even think the thought through, that much pain could not exist.
And it was the troll that she had saved that would do it, that would put her into that big pot with the water almost boiling now. That would kill her. It was very, very unfair and that made her cry again for she had liked him and she had trusted the she-troll and now they would kill her anyway.
Her he-troll grasped her firmly and started walking. Not for the cauldron, however, and not really walking. No, he was running, he stormed for the big doors and then she saw, stepping out from a group of trolls, her she-troll, who first yanked the heavy doors open and then turned and stretched her arms out as if to catch her, which was exactly what she did as the he-troll tossed Britt in her direction. The she-troll then tossed her up onto her shoulder and turned and ran faster than Britt thought running possible through the large doors and out into the night and then she heard the heavy doors slam shut behind them and the clattery turning of a heavy key.
The night was cool and the air rushing against her face made it cooler. Some of the tears that fell from the she-troll’s eyes found her arms and made the evening cooler still.
At first my father does not hear.
So I tell him again, “I want to give her to the cauldron.”
This he heard. He looks at me, not angrily, but with anger not distant. “You have been honored enough,” he says.
“I nearly died,” I say. “I want to thank Oden for saving my life.”
“You lighted the fire,” he says. “That is honor enough.”
“Yes, with Hulgur. But I must also thank him alone,” I say, and I don’t know where I find words to argue with my father. “There is no other way I can thank him.”
He sits very still for many moments and then he is angry with me, but even so he says, “Then do so.”
We wait for the water still and now it almost boils. Fura returns now with the manchild and holds her for Romo to tie with the leather thong. Fura picks her up again. It is his place as the last catcher of a manchild before me to make the offering. By rights I should offer the next.
I walk over to Fura and say, “Hand her to me.”
“It is my offering,” he says.
“I know. But I must thank Oden for saving my life. You shall do the next offering,” I say.
“That is not done,” he says.
“Father has ordered it,” I say and Fura, looking over at Father, is growing dark.
“He gives her to the cauldron, as thanks to Oden for saving his life,” says my father. “I so order.”
Fura nearly answers in anger but instead looks at my father then at me and then hands her over to me. His eyes say they will not forgive me for stealing his honor.
I take the manchild from Fura and make as if to carry her to the cauldron but instead I look for Hulgur who knows to open the doors and will run and who now steps out from her clan and pulls the heavy hall doors open. I rush then as fast as I can and toss the manchild to her and she catches her and shows me with her eyes that she wishes too that there was another way but there isn’t, and then she turns and runs out of the mountain as I seize both doors, slam them shut and turn the lock. I pull the key from its place and toss it as far as I can into the dark hallway to my left. I toss it so far I cannot hear it find rock.
The hall is completely quiet. I can hear the water hiss with heat even from where I stand by the doors. Boiling now. Then movements begin. Fura is the first to return from disbelief, which is no less than what I would have expected. He will kill me for this if he can.
Then he is upon me and only a few paces behind him is Rook and Berda and others and I know they will kill me to get by me and out through the doors after Hulgur who can run fast but they can run faster without a manchild to carry to catch her and to bring the manchild back but I am strong again, filled with doing right and I am fearless now with love for Hulgur and for the manchild who saved my life and I will fight to the death now that I know that I please Oden true.
I will fight until I marry the earth to give Hulgur room to run and no one will run through these doors while I am still alive.
I look to my left and I see many trolls crowd into the hallway with torches looking for the key, for these doors are the only way out and no one opens them without the key, and then I see Fura approach and he has a knife in his hand and now he lunges to stab me with it but I seize his arm before it reaches my heart when Fura quickly shifts the knife to his left hand and cuts my arm deeply with it though I feel nothing as I seize his wrist to take his knife from him and he pulls and pulls to free himself from my grip but I am stronger and Fura roars with the pain as I break his wrist and he lets go of the knife and I take it and I cut at him and he leaps back screaming—I think I caught his arm—and Rook and Berda too jump back for they see I have gone crazy and I have a knife now and I will kill anyone who tries to get by me. I hear someone cry from the hallway that he has found the key and I hear someone else, I think it is Father, call out for spears and I see many of them run for the armor caves to fetch them.
I try to imagine how far it is that Hulgur must run for them not to catch her when they get past me, and I know that is how long I must stay alive and then I think that each breath of mine is four running steps of hers and I count my breaths one, two, three and I know I must count at least a hundred of my breaths to give her four hundred paces, which I think will be enough, for she knows where she is running to and they don’t, and I count nine and ten and eleven and they are watching me with anxious eyes and no one dares approach, not after what happened to Fura who is still screaming with his broken wrist and bleeding arm and with me with his knife in my hand and nineteen and twenty and they have not come back yet with the spears but they who found the key are now back, for I can see it in someone’s hand, twenty-four and twenty-five, and Fura is still screaming more with rage than pain now I think and I know he wishes more than anyone to kill me, and I see Hulgur in her graceful run with her beautiful tail rushing through the night with the manchild and I think on how she can never come back here for they would kill her if she did and how she too knows that is so, and how she knew right before I knew right, and how she knew what would please Oden true before I knew, and who with every breath of mine is gaining four more steps of hers, and who knows with every one of those steps that she is leaving her mountain for good. And thirty-seven and thirty-eight and I think on how she would have wanted to marry me I think although most consider me odd had I asked her and I wonder at what she will do for the rest of her life for she is young at six hundred seasons with thousands of seasons to go but nowhere to call home. Will Oden look after her? I think he will, for she is pleasing Oden true as she runs to save the manchild.
I am grateful that they are slow in retrieving the spears as I reach fifty and fifty-one but now they arrive many of them with many spears each, they must have emptied out the armor caves there are so many spears, and I see Father call them to him and he tells them what to do but Fura does not agree—he wants to do the killing, he screams—and I reach sixty-one and sixty-two and still Fura is telling Father that he must be the one to kill me, and I don’t hear what Father says but here they come as I reach sixty-four and sixty-five, and Fura has two spears under his left arm which is bleeding from where I cut him with his own knife and one in his right hand, which is his unbroken hand and I expect him to throw first and he does and I duck and it almost finds my ear but hits the door behind me where it stays shivering while another spear is thrown this one to my left and it too buries itself in the door, and sixty-six and sixty-seven, and a third is thrown too high and hits mountain above the door and falls and lands by my feet and quickly I pick it up while another finds my shoulder where it stays although I cannot feel a thing, sixty-eight, sixty-nine but I drop Fura’s knife as my arm goes limp but I have the spear and an unhurt throwing arm and I aim the spear at Fura for it is he who has hit my shoulder and who wants to kill me more than anyone which he is welcome to do but not before I count one hundred and I see them all back away for they know I am good at finding my target with a spear and no one, including Fura, wants to be that target and I gain more breaths seventy-one and seventy-two while someone hands Fura another spear and he hurls it true at me and although I jump I cannot get out of the way for he also is good at finding his target which was my leg and the pain startles me and I drop my spear and my leg and my shoulder have spears sticking out of them now and then I will the pain away for I know I am doing right and another spear hits me in my other shoulder and I cannot stand up much longer while I reach eighty-one, eighty-two, then Fura is upon me and with his good hand drives a knife into my eye and I can see out of it no more and others, braver now that Fura has reached me, seize my legs and I feel other knives enter and carve, ninety-two, ninety-three, and Fura pulls back his knife to take my other eye, ninety-five, ninety-six, and so he does and now I cannot see at all, and I no longer know whether I am on my knees or whether I’m on my back and then Fura finds my heart with his knife and again, and now I feel first nothing, then light and then lighter still, ninety-seven, ninety-eight, and as I reach one hundred I slip out of the bleeding troll who was me and I can see again for I look at him on the ground below and I look at Fura and the band of trolls who are now climbing off of him for their work is done and no one, I am pleased to notice, has yet unlocked the doors, one hundred-four, one hundred-five, and I know Hulgur is safe now running like the wind with the manchild on her shoulders, and finally Oden answers me after all these years.