Trolls do not like water. Possibly, water is what we like the least of all possible things not to like.
There are times we have to wade across a river or two, especially in the spring when snow runoff boosts the self-confidence of these wet nuisances and they do their best to splash if not drown you.
You have never seen a sorrier sight than a wet troll, especially one rising out of a lake (which he obviously fell into) or from a too-deep a river to cross. For one, dry, our fur almost doubles our volume (or the apparent volume—lots of air); by comparison, a thoroughly wet troll looks like a large, inelegant stick figure dipped in bristly mud. Not a pretty (nor flattering) sight.
Should a spring river be too deep to cross—and by too deep we normally mean up to our ankles or knees at worst—we can wait for as long as it takes (days, even weeks if we’re not in a hurry) for the water level at the ford to recede to the point of a dry, or dryish, crossing. It is only if we absolutely have to reach the other side that we will voluntarily (if indeed you can call such a necessary crossing voluntary) set a foot in water, whatever the depth.
Water, then, pretty much tops our hate list.
This winter’s afternoon I was keeping an eye on my charge, that little human boy Ulf who for the most part gave me little or no trouble. I had parked my resting body near a warm fire deep in the mountain—roving in spirit only to fulfil my promise and duty.
Ulf lived just outside a small town called Hudiksvall about halfway down the country from where I lived, and hearing voices inside his house, and recognizing his, I decided that all was well and that I could return to my mountain. That’s when the front door opened and my young charge stepped out, hockey skates donned (blades covered with rubber walkers), and stepped down onto the snow-covered front yard. He crossed over to the attached barn, stepped in and within a breath or two stepped out again, hockey stick and puck in hands. He put the puck in his jacket pocket and set out for the small stream at the bottom of a long western-facing, now snow-covered field. Solo hockey time. He’d done this before. Innocuous. The only real danger is that you might lose the puck in the snow, if you’re not careful. Ulf is not so very careful and sometimes spends more time looking for snow-lost pucks than playing his one-on-self game.
So, no big worries here; still, I trailed along just to make sure he would be fine. I’d return home once he had had his hockey-fill and had returned home as well.
About as uninterested as you can get, I watched his dribbling and passing to himself and his scoring countless goals against non-existent opposition. He was winning by great numbers.
Then, as usual, he lost the puck in the snow and spent what felt like an hour looking for it. He did find it though, kudos for persistence.
New faceoff on center ice.
And then it happened. The ice mid-stream, worn thinner by the stream below, gave way, opened up, swallowed. The body, at first, simply vanished into the dark water.
My immediate and greatest fear was that the current would grab him and wash him farther down under the ice, with no possible way for him to either breathe or clamber back up to safety.
Then he bopped up again, and I could breathe again—if spirits indeed breathe. Head and shoulders above water now, and arms and hands on the ice. I can see he’s testing for a stand-upon-able bottom with his feet but there is none to be found. He flails around a little with his arms looking for purchase but there is none of that to be found either. He cannot heave himself out of the water.
He is too far away from the house to be heard, and he knows this and does not even cry for help. But he knows, I can tell with my whole being, he knows that he cannot stay in the water much longer. Every second more water is absorbed by his clothes and every such second, he grows heavier and colder. I have seen this once before, in much colder weather mind you, but the man lasted about ten minutes before the greedy water and the ice-cold weather conspired to kill. And kill they did. He sank not to be seen again until spring—a much whiter and more fish-eaten version of what I saw go down.
I had no obligations toward that man, and I was in no position to act anyway, but here was my human boy, my young Ulf, and I certainly had obligations here. Still, though, in no position to act. Sprits don’t lift water-logged boys out of holes in ice. No hands, no purchase, not possible.
Like most civilized races, we have deities that we honor and worship. The only difference being that ours actually exist. Our pantheon consists of dead wise trolls that have chosen not to move on to better lands (or into a new troll body) but to stay spirit and enjoy deity-life for a while. These old beings are quite magical and are what any human would call wizards, and very, very good ones at that. And expensive.
By that I mean, if you ask one of these spirit-only trolls to do you a favor—and they can grant just about any favor that is not of the end-of-the-earth variety—they will drive a very hard bargain indeed. The vain ones might ask for a million prayers along with elaborate sacrifices—and by a million, well, let’s say they are excellent accountants and they keep track. One old wizard, who was contemplating a return to troll life asked for a son or daughter to be made available to him. That meant driving the actual son or daughter out of that little body and back into bardo, perhaps not to return again, a much larger sacrifice than you might think.
If the favor asked of the wizard is not urgent, bickering sessions might last a season or two. If the favor is urgent, however, the supplicant usually agrees to any price asked.
Ulf was tiring, I could tell.
I called on the wizards and one answered immediately.
“Please,” I said. “Please save this boy.”
“And why should I do such a thing?” the old rascal said.
“He is my charge,” I said. “I’ve made a promise.”
“You’re in a pickle then,” he said.
“Can you?” I asked.
“Of course,” he answered. “Of course, I can do that.”
“How much?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think I want to get my feet wet,” he said.
“You have no feet,” I pointed out. Urgently.
“Oh, but you do,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I will shift your body from mountain to here, and place it beneath the boy so you can push him up and out of the water.”
Before I could check my knee-jerk answer, it had flown the coop, “Never in your life,” it said.
“I thought not,” he said. “Pity on the boy, though.”
“How much?” I asked again.
“Not much. I only want to see a thoroughly wet and cold troll. That’ll be my payment.”
This time I did get hold of that reflex answer before it swung from my lips. “That’s the cost?”
“A thoroughly cold and wet troll, yes, that’s the price. A sight for sore eyes, that would be.”
Ulf was tiring. He had stopped trying to find purchase with his hands. There was a sense of surrender about him. A conceding that his time, even at this you age, had come.
“You really are a rascal,” I said. “But I guess, as prices go, that would have to be a bargain. I accept.”
“Very well,” he said. And the next thing I knew I was back in my body, standing on the soggy floor of the stream, looking up at the young boy’s feet, no longer moving about at all. I tested the floor to make sure it would not give way; it would not. Then I found a good hold on each foot (avoiding the sharp blades) and pushed. He was heavier than I had expected, or perhaps I should have expected, what with water-logged clothes now. But we are nothing if not a strong race, and with two more heaves I had him out of the water and onto the ice, where I soon followed—the old rascal helped—to roll him to the safety of shore. I was out of his spectrum at this point (in case there were others around) and I think he was too cold and concerned and ready to die to realize what was going on. After a while, though, he stirred, clambered to his feet, then fell down, then clambered to his feet again, then set out for the house, leaving stick and puck and rubber walkers behind.
Cold but safe.
Me, I was suddenly back—physically that is—to just outside our mountain cave, thoroughly wet and incredibly cold. The freezing air soon had me look like an icicle tree and I could hear laughter, both from some of the trolls and from the old wizards who had gathered to watch this spectacle and thought this was the greatest entertainment of a season. I could think of nothing but getting back inside and close to a fire.
“What happened?” was the question aimed at me from many directions. I refused to answer.
“Enjoyed a swim?” someone asked.
“Enjoy a fist?” I answered.
“Look at Minta,” said a child. “Look, look. She’s an ice tree.”
Other children scrambled to see, but none got too close to me. Even an icicle tree, no matter how startling, can frown and look menacing to a child.
There was the fire and I threw myself down beside it. I began to melt.
Then I addressed my wizard, who, all things considered, had helped me save my boy for virtually free. “Thank you,” I said. “From the bottom of my heart. Thank you.”
“Welcome,” he said. Snickering a little, but not hurtfully. Yes, he had enjoyed the ice-troll spectacle to be sure, but he had enjoyed saving the boy even more, that was clear to me. Not such a rascal, after all.