I took my axe in my hand and off I went, off to the crossroads where the empty, silent cages hung.
The entrance to his dwelling place was through a rough hole in the hedgerow just big enough for a man to pass. I beat the thorns off with my gloved hands but they tore at my face until the blood came dripping.
Once inside that dark place I was aware of the Forest again, how it had seemed from the outside. It was as if the very air was concentrated around you, as if all the guilty secrets anyone had ever told were all about you, whispering. No birds sang and no insects chirped in the leaves at my feet or the branches about me. The whispers were all there was.
I waited. Then he spoke to me, it was a dread sound.
“Who is it that is coming?” The voice was sudden and all around me. Dark and booming out, old and wretched. Foul and wicked.
“Who is it that is here?” The voice asked. but it was not a question. It was eager, filled with monstrous anticipation.
“Show your face then!” I shouted out, but the beast remained hidden.
“Death,” he said. “Death, I smell it on you. You reek of it.”
I turned around as I heard the bushes part to on my right side. I saw him, the pitiful thing. Five times the height of a grown man, maybe more, but still he was pitiful.
“An axe, no fire.” He said as he saw me properly now and I saw him. “No axe can fell me. No might of man can kill me.”
“I wish only to defend myself” I said, and my voice shook with fear, with anger.
“But you cannot defend your father.” The laughter sounded out, cruel and treacherous.
“Never you mind about him,” I answered it. “Explain yourself!” I shouted.
“Do you want to know the story? Shall I tell it to you?” The troll leaned towards me, he bent his back and I saw myself reflected in the sallow, lugubrious eyes.
In truth, I really had meant to kill the beast. I had brought my sharpest axe, the old handle forged from Forest-wood itself. When my father died I went into a kind of madness and every night I would dream of the troll’s head rolling on the Forest floor and my hand having felled it.
“Show me then.” I said to him because try as I might I could not find the strength to strike the killing blow.
He laughed his poisonous laugh again and opened his eyes as wide as they could possibly go until I thought they would burst, then the shadow of shape in his eyes receded, and I saw my father again, as a boy.
I knew it was him because my heart told me, I thought it must be him. He stood at the edge of the forest and in his right hand was a stick.
“That is the place.” He said and he pointed with the stick towards the Forest. I knew it too, even though its branches were no longer burning.
I flinched, the troll must have blinked, the image dazzled before my eyes but it returned again.
“Do you see the men waiting in their baskets? The villains. I hear them come to leave me their offerings. Stinking and foul are the men they bring me. Sinners, murdering mutinous sons of whores! See them swinging in the breeze half dead with the rags falling off their rotting bodies, not fit to be pecked by crows. I can smell them you see, I hear them and I smell them on the wind and I snuff them out. I come out from my kingdom and I barrel down on them in the darkness. They are too weak and wretched to scream out. What do you think I do with them? These unwanted? The men rejected. Do you believe I put them into my mouth and crunch on their bones? Ripping the flesh? Plucking the eyes? Drinking the blood? Your kinsfolk believe. Your kinsfolk.” Here he laughed and it was ominous. He never waited for my answer.
“Here, see your father now, surrounded by my men, my soldiers. For that is what these trees are to me. My servants, my slaves, my minions of my empire.”
I could indeed see my father. He watched on like a stone as the troll grabbed his playmates and drowned them with fire. His eyes and his mouth and his nose, a streaming torrent of flame.
“My fire is not your fire.” The troll was saying as I saw this. “My fire is older. Yours burns, mine obliterates.”
I tried to turn my head away from the vision and the monster’s voice but I was fixed in place, held down by some evil magic.
The image showed my father and the troll, now alone. The troll in the vision resumed speaking, his whole body still smoldering, he scattered the ashes of the dead he had consumed onto the wind.
“You. You I’ll keep, forever.” He said to my father.
My father stammered, I could see the fear again and the rage in him.
“Kill me then!” he screamed, he fell down onto the ground and buried his face in the grass.
“Never. Not one so clever as you boy.” The troll said. “No,” and he began to burn again, but with an eerie light, green and mystical as the forest. I saw how my father’s body burned too with this light, transferred from the great beast. The air all around was humming. It was humming in my ears, I could almost feel the sorcerous wind on my face.
Just then the light changed again, it soared above my father’s body, and the troll seeing the change, motioned to one of the trees on the edge of the circle. The tree split open with the creak of a trapdoor and I watched in horror as the body of my father was sucked inside. The door snapped shut.
There was silence. Nothing moved in the forest. Only the smoldering troll at its heart appeared alive at all.
“What did you do to my father?” I cried, at last able to speak.
“Your father?” The troll snickered at me. “Your father? Hah!”
Something moved in the image, another of the trees was glowing bright, but it’s light was eerie and cold, and it fluctuated in its brightness.
“Here is your father.” The troll said finally.
The glowing tree tore open as the last one had done, and a shadow emerged from within. It was a wraith-like wisp with shackles on its arms, the face obscured by mists of darkness like a shawl all around it.
The figure struggled forward, I saw how it looked up at the troll and when approval was given, it approached my father’s tree. The tree door opened again, the wraith slipped inside. The door closed. The troll cackled. Slowly, softly, so low that it was more like the threat of an earthquake coming.
“Here is your father.” The voice of the troll now repeated to me.
The door to the tree opened, my father emerged and he was so like himself that I wept. I saw him stumble away as the troll’s laugh grew louder and louder until it was all around. I saw him push his way from the center of the Forest back out into the world.
The troll moved away from me again so that I could no longer see the vision in his eyes. He spoke.
“Sinners, murderous, mutinous, sons of whores. You pollute my empire just as I pollute yours. Aha.” His cackle sent shivers through me.
“What did you do to my father?” I asked again, weak and weeping on the forest floor, where my father had once lain.
“The trees ate him up. Then you burned him alive, all of you. Along with the others, your kinsfolk.”
“No!” I cried out. “I saw my father weep as the forest burned! He was as good a man as any!”
“So was the sailor they hung up in that basket to die.” The troll said. “They gave, and I took away. They gave and I took away!” He shouted out, so that the trees rustled, shedding leaves to the ground.
When the noise had faded away I asked him, defeated, “Then what am I?”
“Nothing.” The troll said, then he vanished.