Authors: Charles Vess
A Wonder Tale of the North
ANNA & ELENA BALBUSSO
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Many years ago, when magic was as real as the breeze against your face, Father Christmas lived with his twelve beautiful daughters and one handsome son in a low, rambling house by a great forest. When the wind howled down from out of the north, as it almost always did during nine months of each year, they were thankful for the high ridge of stone that stood protectively between their home and the great forest beyond.
The only sorrow in his children's lives was that they had no mother: no smiling face to sing them to sleep at night, no kind hand to wipe away their tears. In the short northern summer, when the wind sighed softly through the trees, or when they heard the murmur of water tumbling over rocks in the nearby stream, they would imagine it was their mother's voice.
When they asked Father Christmas where their mother might be, he grew sad, and would tell them that long ago, she'd been forced to leave them, yet he never told them why.
But I know. Would you like me to tell you?
Listen and I will.
Nikolasâfor that was Father Christmas's given nameâwas orphaned when he was three years old. After that tragedy he was raised by all the families who lived in his small village, which is the same village where you and your mothers and your fathers live today. As he grew older and taller and stronger, he became the best hunter the village had ever seen. He always returned from a long day spent in field or forest with a deer or a string of rabbits hung from his broad shoulders, and he shared that meat with any who were hungry.
When the snow was too deep or the wind too strong for hunting, he spent his days learning other skills from the village carpenter. Soon Nikolas could carve or build anything that could be made from wood, and his skill grew very great indeed.
Then, one midsummer's night, when sunset caught Nikolas deep in the wildwood in search of fresh game, he saw a vision that made everything he had ever seen before seem as nothing to him. It was a young woman, beautiful beyond compare, who rode on the broad back of a great snow bear through a cascade of soft moonlight.
Nikolas chased after that vision as any hunter would pursue his quarry. All night he ran past waterfalls and lakes, mountains and valleys. Always she remained far, far ahead, until, come the brightening dawn, she simply vanished. Desolate, he returned home, and fell exhausted into bed.
He awoke from that sleep still seized with a great longing to see the beautiful maiden once more. His dreams had been haunted by her beauty, and Nikolas felt he could not rest till he had done so.
In those days his hair was as black as the space between two stars, and his belt did not need as many notches as it does today. I have been told that young Nikolas possessed a fine, handsome figure and on his well-featured face was a bright smile that lit his eyes and creased his ruddy cheeks. Many were the comely young women in our village then who had cast themselves at him, but Nikolas would return nothing except kindness for their efforts. For none stirred his heart as the forest maiden had.
Night after night after night he returned to the forest, but found nothing in that wild tangle of undergrowth and immense trees but his own hunger to see the beautiful maiden once more.
Long months passed in that manner, until the ancient wise woman of his village saw that he had begun to waste away. He, who had once been the proudest and strongest of all the village's hunters, was now pale and thin. Taking pity on him, the wise woman invited Nikolas into her cottage, and there told him a tale older than even she.
“In the midst of the great forest there lives a race of trolls. Savage they are, as well as superb hunters. I fear that they like us humans not at all, for we have ever done whatever we could to rid ourselves of their kind.
“The Troll King and his Queen are the most terrifying of that great and awful race. It has been told to meâby one who knows the truth of these thingsâthat they have but one daughter, and she, through some alchemy known only to trollkind, is as beautiful as the flowers in spring. It was she whom you saw. It was she who has enchanted you so.
“Many have thought they loved this same maiden. Many have sought her. And many more have died trying to claim her for their own.
“But if you truly love the Troll King's daughter then you must not track and hunt her as if she were some common animal. You must woo her with gifts and with flowers. You must whisper soft words and gentle poetry in her ear. You must build for her a bower of sweet meadow grasses, and fill the trees about it with every manner of bird, so that their song will grace your hours spent there with her. Then she may listen to you. Then perhaps she may return your love.”
The very next morning when he again stood before the great woods, Nikolas pondered all that had been said to him by the wise woman.
Yet also he remembered the tales that he had heard around every fire over the long winter nights here in the North Country. Those stories were filled to overflowing with the savagery of trollkind. He knew that it was dangerous indeed to seek those creatures in the midst of their deep, deep forest. For those who did so seldom returned to tell their tale.
Still, Nikolas laid his spear and his bow and his quiver of arrows in the long grasses at his feet. And lastly he grasped his hunting blade and held it for long moments before placing it, too, beside the others.
Then, with only love in his heart and unafraid, he entered the great forest.
Now, the palace of the Troll King is set so deep in the deepest fold of that wood that it took more hours than that midsummer's day had to offer for Nikolas to reach it.
So when finally he beheld that terrible palace, many days and dark nights had passed and, above him, through the looming trees, the sky was touched with color, red and pink and gold, that trumpeted the fast approach of yet another night. Before him the palace of the Troll King looked for all the world like a great tumble of tall gray stones blanketed with a deep green carpet of moss, which in its turn was covered in a panoply of delicate flowers of every hue and color. And set upon the summit of those stones was a great oak tree that looked down over the forest below it.
Silently, so silently, as fading day became true night, Nikolas crept to the entrance of that strange palace of stone and of moss. But before he could step into the dark passageway that led within, a dozen troll maidens danced past him, tripping lightly over the now-moonlit path.
And Nikolas was well pleased, for at their head was the maiden he had sought for so long. But his heart quaked when he saw the fearsome troll guards who followed closely behind her, for the King and Queen's only daughter was always carefully guarded wherever she would go.
Even knowing the danger, Nikolas still stepped boldly forth and, in sight of all, fell to his knees.
The Troll King's daughter looked down at the strange human who knelt before her and saw that he had no spear in hand, or bow strung over his back, or hunting knife close by his side, as so many other hunters had hung about their bodies during their vain efforts to trap or possess her. This man simply looked up and spoke words of poetry from his heart that gently wrapped themselves around her own, ensnaring it more firmly than any hunting net ever could.
Then and there she fell finally and completely in love with her strange human suitor.
Before Nessa's guards (for that was the princess' true name) could impale her lover on their sharp, sharp pikes, the maid snatched him up, tucked him under her arm, and leaped away, disappearing into the vastness of that vast forest. Oh, the strides she made then, miles and miles with every single leap. If she had possessed the fabled seven-league boots she could not have gone as far or as quickly.
Soon, far, far away, beside a sweet-flowing stream, they finally stood alone and gazed into each other's eyes and then solemnly swore to be true to each other as long as they both should live.
But because a troll cannot endure the sun's light and will, as surely as night follows day, turn to stone under it, they could only spend every moment of each short summer night sleeping in the tall meadow grass in each other's arms. On many of those nights the Merry Dancers would glide and flicker in the sky above them, sending soft cascades of rainbow colors across their tangled bodies.