The Troll and the Maiden
by Rachel Eliason
"Really!" Jennifer said, rolling her eyes.
"I'm telling you!" Rob persisted.
Jennifer peered through the deepening dusk at the ragged heap across the street. "It's just some old bum," she said.
"Troll," he replied.
"Sometimes I really wonder about you," she said. She really liked Rob Oleson. They had met at a local Asatru meeting and she had been immediately drawn to his blend of passion for the old ways and balanced perspective on life. It was so rare in the Norse pagan scene. It forever seemed like the men were either playing around or so serious they had no life.
Yeah, right, a cynical part of her mind spoke up. She was drawn to his passion, not his six foot frame, bright blond hair or ruggedly handsome features. If only he'd let his hair grow out like the other guys in the group he'd be the best looking Viking among them. Maybe with time, she thought with a sigh.
Not that it will likely matter to me, she moaned to herself. At five four with long dark hair, dark eyes and a slender build, Jennifer was as far from a Nordic princess as you could get. And wasn't that what all men, Norse pagans or not, wanted? If only she were big, blonde, and busty like her friend Raven.
"I'm telling you, I've been watching that one for awhile now, and I am sure of it. He's a troll," Rob persisted.
Okay, I take that back, Jennifer thought. He only seemed balanced. Jennifer believed in the Norse tradition as a valid spiritual path, but that didn't mean she took fairy tale creatures seriously. Assuming that he did, that is. Rob had an odd sense of humor and you couldn't always tell when he was joking and when he was serious. Still, he seemed dead serious about this.
"That's daft," she told him playfully, hoping to lure him into admitting the joke.
"Well even if trolls do in fact exist, which is a bit of a stretch, why would one be hanging around downtown Des Moines?"
Rob merely shrugged. "I am not sure. I have been trying to figure that out myself. No one knows exactly when trolls started migrating to America. There aren't many here, and they are mostly up by Decorah."
Jennifer blinked. They're mostly up by Decorah? Wow, she thought.
Rob continued. "Of course I have often wondered: did they settle up there because there were familiar humans around, or have they simply not been spotted elsewhere, because only those of Norwegian ancestry know what trolls are, or look like? Maybe that explains a lot of other things, like bigfoot."
Well, if he wants to play this like it was serious, two can play at that game, she thought. "Okay, Mister Norwegian ancestry, why does a troll come to Des Moines, Iowa?"
"My guess is that they have migrated into cities because of the buildings," he replied, looking up at the principal building as he spoke. "You see, Norway is a mountainous country and the mountains are where they live. I imagine a place as flat as Iowa wouldn't be right for them. These big concrete buildings are as close as you are going to find around here."
"So he's missing his homeland?"
Rob nodded thoughtfully, "Yeah, it's the only thing I can think of anyway."
"But how would a troll survive in a city?"
"Oh, they can survive anywhere. Besides, that's how I discovered him. He was dumpster diving behind my apartment. I saw him one night out my back window."
Jennifer had been to Rob's apartment once before. It was in Sherman Hills, an old brick building. So old in fact that there were horse stalls down in the basement, now used for storage. "So, a lot of bums dumpster dive. No big deal."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. They dive for old food, half eaten hamburgers and the like."
Jennifer wrinkled her nose, not liking where this conversation is going.
Rob closed in for what he probably thought was the clincher. "But this guy," he said, "I swear I saw him eat a tin can. Only a troll could do that."
"Ate a tin can? Come on, that's not even believable --"
"Unless he's a troll," Rob pointed out. "There's one way to tell for sure, you know."
The glint in his eye made her wary. "Okay, I'll bite, how do you tell?"
"Trolls like to have their heads scratched..." His eyes danced merrily as hers narrowed. "By pretty young maidens..."
"No way, not a chance."
"They give them gold..."
"No amount of gold will get this pretty young maiden anywhere near that lice infested scalp over there."
"Oh, come on. You want to prove he's not a troll? Then scratch away. If he doesn't produce some gold, then he's just some bum."
"If he's some bum, I'll have to have myself deloused -- with no gold to pay for it!" She shook her head and walked away. If he wanted to tell fantastic tales about some old bum that was fine with her. If she thought he would ever catch her repeating them at the next meeting like some of the more gullible guys he had another thing coming.
Still she was more than a little pleased to be in the "young maiden" category. She had begun to fear being in the "just one of the guys" category. Being a tomboy from the beginning, she had fallen into this category more than once before when she wanted something else entirely.
A week later she was having lunch with her friends from the women's circle, Raven Cleary and Judith Peorce. They were downtown at an outdoor café that had just opened on Court Avenue.
As they waited for their food Jennifer caught a whiff of something foul. Judith apparently caught it too, as she wrinkled her nose. A largish figure lumbered by. Jennifer instantly recognized the tattered tan overcoat and the heavy dark mane of almost dread-lock consistency hair. It was Rob's troll.
She tried to study him as he passed, but he moved at a surprising pace. He was slouched over, and she thought maybe his knees were bent as well. Still he towered over the businessmen who passed him without noticing. Standing upright, the guy must be huge, seven feet or more, she thought. She caught the barest glimpse of his face as he ambled by. It was dark enough to be of indeterminate race and with a grayish cast that almost made it look like stone. Some troll indeed, she thought, no wonder Rob thought up that tale.
"Ugh! Take a bath!" Judith gasped at the retreating back, though not loud enough to be heard.
"Be nice," Raven commanded, "the poor guy's homeless. Where's he going to bathe? How is he going to stay clean even if he does?"
"Always the social worker," Judith laughed.
Raven was in fact a social worker. She did outreach work with the homeless for Broadlawns, the county hospital.
"Do you know him?" Jennifer asked.
"Confidentiality!" Raven said warningly. "You know I can't tell you anything."
"I don't want to know anything, it's just that, well," Jennifer was suddenly awkward, "Rob's got this theory about him..."
"Ooh! Rob! Any action on that front?" Judith asked.
Jennifer shrugged noncommittally, "I'm not sure really. We have plans to eat out together next week. I'll never know until I get there if it's just me and him or if a whole bunch of the guys are going to show. Even if it's just him and me I'll spend the whole night wondering if it's a date or just friends hanging out."
She shook her head and pointed back at the guy. "Rob tried to feed me this story about that guy being a troll."
"A troll?" Judith laughed.
"A troll, like out of Norwegian folktales,." Jennifer replied, embarrassed. "I think he was just having fun with me though."
"You think?" Judith laughed.
Seemingly content that they weren't trying to find out personal information Raven jumped in. "No that's silly. Poor kid has had a hard life, but he's human enough."
"Kid?" Judith echoed.
"Yeah, kid. He may be big but he's only like nineteen. Had a hard nineteen years though. Abandoned, abused, spent most of his life jumping from foster home to foster home. Won't let us help him and can you blame him? The system screwed that kid so bad that he can't trust anyone."
As predicted Jennifer spent the first half of her date with Rob wondering if it was a date or not. No one else showed and they ate at a little Chinese place downtown that was cozy enough for a date. Of course Rob was so casual and matter of fact that she had all but decided he saw her as one of his friends and nothing more. Damn.
Afterwards they went to Java Joe's for a cappuccino. There they ran into Lorne from the Asatru group. He grabbed his cup and joined them at their table. Rob gave him a sidelong look of irritation. Lorne was apparently neither invited nor welcome this evening. Jennifer felt a flash of joy and heat at the look. That moment she wished desperately to give Lorne a big hug and then tell him to get lost. She could do neither.
"Hey, you guys are not going to believe this," Lorne started in, oblivious to any looks he was getting. "Friend of mine was at this gay bar down on the south side. Coming out of the bar at closing time he took the back roads home, through the South Side bottoms. Just down by the river he saw bigfoot. Swears up and down it was bigfoot, over seven feet tall and..." he waved his hands dramatically.
"He was wearing a tan overcoat?" Rob finished.
Lorne deflated. "You heard this story?"
Rob shook his head. "No, I know the guy. He's not bigfoot, he's a troll. Seen him out behind my apartment a number of times."
"A troll?" Lorne snorted, "and I thought Gerry was nuts."
"He's not a troll." Jennifer said. "Sorry Rob, but Raven knows him."
"Did someone say my name?" Raven smiled as she came up. "I saw you guys come in. I wasn't going to butt in, but since someone already has..."
Lorne went a bit red. "Didn't know it was anything private, sorry," he muttered.
"And I am sorry to blow the fantasy. Rob," Raven said, sitting down. "But Jennifer told me about your troll and I know him. He's just some poor homeless kid. Been in a ton of foster homes, but no one could help him. I wish I could, but he won't trust anyone anymore."
Rob just rolled his eyes. "Lot you know about trolls," he teased.
"And what's that supposed to mean?" she shot back.
"Of course he's been in a ton of foster homes. He was a troll child. That's how they multiply. They steal human children and replace them with their own, like that bird..."
"A bird that steals children?" Lorne asked aghast.
"No," Rob replied, "the bird who lays its eggs in other birds nest, then the other bird raises the baby as its own. The -- what do you call it -- the cuckoo! Only trolls are awful to raise. They're always in trouble, running wild, breaking things, being mean for no reason. No wonder his parents abandoned him. They just couldn't handle him, neither could the system. Trolls are just too much."
"Trolls aren't the only thing that's too much. And speaking of cuckoos..." Jennifer muttered under her breath.
"Enough, Rob," Raven said. "That's an awful thing to say about a poor guy. Besides, all those myths are just allegorical. They are an attempt by superstitious people to explain mental illness in children. Trolls, like most monsters, were probably just mentally ill, developmentally disabled, or suffering from medical conditions. It's hard to look at some of the birth defects I have seen or some of the strange behaviors and without attaching some sort of subhuman classification on these people. But it's not right, and trolls aren't real."
"I used to think that way too," Rob said, "but you're wrong, they're real. My granddad used to tell all these old folk tales about trolls and hulda and the like. I never believed him either. Not until I was in high school. Then I spent a summer on his farm up by Decorah and I met the Hulda for myself."
"What are the Hulda?" Jennifer asked. She could see that Raven was getting worked up over the whole troll issue and didn't want to have a huge fight between her best friend and (hopefully) boyfriend on their first date.
Luckily Rob was fairly easily diverted. "They're a sort of fairy folk. They take over abandoned houses. In the old country they would stay high up in the mountains and use the cottages that cattle herders built to stay in during the summer. As soon as the cattle herders led their cattle away for the winter, the Hulda would move in.
"Now in this country they have to make do. We don't move our cattle around like our ancestors did. So they will take up in almost any abandoned farm.
"Granddad had an old cabin on the back half of his property. He let it go on account of the Hulda needing a place to stay anyway. Grandma insisted he was just looking for an excuse to be lazy. I thought he was teasing with that story so I used to sneak up there. One night I saw one." He blushed, which was unusual for Rob. "She was taking a bath by the moonlight, the little Hulda girl."
"Oh, you peeping tom." Lorne laughed.
"Rob," Raven laughed, "whatever else you are, you sure are one hell of a story teller. Fairy spirits in Decorah, Iowa, trolls in Des Moines, what will it be next?"
He shrugged it off with a laugh, but the look in his eyes made Jennifer wonder. You could never quite tell when he was joking, but she was beginning to suspect that this was no joke to him.
After an hour of chit chat, while Jennifer tried desperately to shoo the two interlopers away by sheer telepathy (which she apparently wasn't very good at) she struck upon a simpler plan. She excused herself, saying she was tired and had to go home. Since Rob and she had met at his place and walked downtown, he had to walk her home as well. Just four blocks from his apartment in Sherman Hills was the Chat Noir, a trendy little coffee shop. It was pricier than Java Joe's, but a little privacy would be worth it.
As they walked through the cool night towards his place she quietly slipped her hand into his. He did not object. Still doubts assailed her. Had she read his reaction right? He had wanted her alone, hadn't he? That could only mean romantic intentions, right?
"Tell me more about this Hulda girl," she asked.
He blushed. "It wasn't like..."
"I wasn't peeping. I didn't mean to, anyway. I didn't believe anything would be up there."
"She must have been very beautiful."
"Yes, she was." He gave her a sidelong glance. "She was short, with long beautiful dark hair, dark eyes, and a slender build."
Her heart skipped a beat at his descriptions. Okay, so she wasn't a Nordic princess, but apparently that was not what he wanted at any rate, and the description was close enough.
Then he went on, a little bit more light hearted, "They do have tails, though. Long furry ones, actually. Still, she was quite beautiful. In fact I sort of fell in love with her..." He broke off and shrugged. "Nothing really, just a school boy crush. She never, I mean I never talked to her or anything like that."
"Short, long dark hair..." Jennifer repeated slyly, running her fingers through her hair.
Rob stopped and turned towards her. "The first time I saw you," he stammered slightly as he spoke, "I thought for an instant, I thought you were her. Well, except for the tail of course." He said it lightly enough, joking.
Having waited so long for an opening, Jennifer wasn't going to blow this one by playing hard to get. "Are you sure?" she asked innocently.
He stared at her blankly.
"Are you sure," she repeated, "that I don't have a tail?"
A smile spread slowly across his face. "No, I don't know for sure, why?"
"Want to find out?"
"See! See! There he is again." Rob stood naked in front of his window looking down. "Come and see."
Jennifer rolled over and looked at his bare back in the dim light. She was still warm with the memory of him. She stared at the broad back, wanting to pull him back down onto the bed. Instead she climbed up and hugged him from behind, looking over his shoulder.
"What are you babbling about now?" she laughed in his ear.
"Down there, look."
Down below under the one lone streetlight he crouched. He was just beyond the last car in the alleyway, his back to the dumpster. Under the dim light his skin was remarkably rock gray. His long bony frame stuck out at odd angles, giving him a truly bizarre appearance. No wonder Rob thought this man a troll.
Then she noticed what he was doing. He had been dumpster diving for food obviously. But the collection of garbage he had in front of him would make the most hardened dumpster diver pause. He had a chicken leg bone in his hand. The meat was gone except for the tiniest morsel of gristle at the top. He gnawed that off and then sniffed the bone. His mouth opened and Jennifer saw a flash of sharp white teeth. The chicken bone snapped in half. He held the remaining bit while chewing contentedly. Jennifer would have almost sworn she could hear the crunching from there.
"Okay, so maybe he is a troll," she said, shuddering. "Now come to bed. That is a disgusting sight." The troll/man had finished off the bone and was picking his way through equally inedible stuff.
"Damn!" Jennifer muttered, "and double damn!" She was admittedly not the best cusser in the world. Her repertoire was limited by a rather uneventful childhood. Friends like Rob, Lorne and surprisingly Raven were rapidly catching her up to speed. A few months ago she would have probably said, "darn it".
She let the car coast as she continued cussing at herself. Cussing at herself for not having a cell phone. Cussing at herself for having a beater car. She couldn't afford better, but right now she was going to pay for that fact.
The car came to a rest by the curb. This was the worst possible place for a breakdown, right on Sixth Avenue, late on a Saturday night. You didn't get further into 'the hood' in Des Moines, Iowa. Her friends who had been to LA or anywhere for that matter, always laughed when Jennifer talked about 'the hood' in Des Moines.
This might be nothing compared to Chicago, LA, or New York, but Jennifer was a five foot four white girl. Even a few blocks of gangland was too much. To break down right in the middle of it was frightening.
She could make it to Rob's apartment from here with no problem. In three weeks of dating him she was already getting used to the long hikes he loved to take. They were getting plenty of exercise when they got back as well.
She left her car and headed down the street. Just six blocks ahead was a Quick Trip. She could call him from there.
To make a bad situation worse a group of six or seven Hispanic males rounded the corner in front of her. Even a dumb hick like Jennifer had little problem connecting the matching bandanas and tattoos with gang members. They called out to her in Spanish.
She had taken Spanish in high school, but remembered almost none of it. They didn't expect her to understand anyway, she was pretty sure. She caught gringa and señorita; judging from the tone, nothing else they said would have appeared in high school Spanish either.
She crossed the street and aimed for the Quick Trip. Fear rose to near panic as they crossed behind her and paced after her. Nobody was rushing her and she wasn't being crowded, yet, but she feared the worst.
"Hey, Señorita," one called. When she didn't answer he went on, "Come on, I just want to say hi." Several of the others chuckled at her obvious discomfort.
Jennifer felt an unaccountable and illogical rush of relief when she spied him, crouching down against an abandoned store front, his tan overcoat pulled up covering his face. It was Rob's troll. She had never spoken with him, or even met his eyes. She had no idea how he would react to her. And yet the mere fact that there was someone present that she knew, however distantly, somehow made her feel better.
Unbidden Rob's words came back to her. "They like having their heads scratched, by pretty young maidens... they give you gold."
She had this insane vision of scratching the troll's head and him giving her bright gold coins which she could throw to distract the men. If she hadn't been so scared it would have been funny.
The men were getting closer. She didn't dare look back, but she could hear their cowboy boots on the concrete and feel their presence closing in on her. She fought down panic.
One came abreast, though several feet to her side. They had her mostly ringed in against the store front. Quick Trip was still three blocks away. Should she run for it? Should she scream? Would that attract attention from somebody down that way?
She was just passing the troll/man and again the image assailed her. What did she have to lose? Only half aware of what she was doing she stopped next to him. He appeared asleep. Some distant rational part of her mind was saying, Do it, if nothing else he's seven feet tall. That alone might startle the men long enough to run for it.
With painful slowness she watched her hand reach out and touch his exposed head. She shivered at the thought of the encrusted dirty mats of hair but she did it. She scratched his head, hesitantly at first then harder, like she was scratching a dog's belly.
The troll/man shivered. He let out a low moan of contentment. Then he suddenly sprang to his full seven feet height. Jennifer fell back a step as he towered over her. Behind her the men stepped back as well. Now, run for it, she thought but she remained frozen in place by his gangly size and sharp granite like face.
He placed a hand gingerly on his head and gave a distinct bow. "My, oh my, has that spot itched. Young child I am grateful, truly. How on earth did you know it itched so terribly?"
Jennifer stared at him nervously, suddenly embarrassed. How could she explain? "I, uh that is my boyfriend, he... uh he told me this story. He thinks you are a troll and he says that trolls like to have their heads scratched, and..." she broke off thoroughly embarrassed now. How could she have been so stupid?
"A troll!" he cackled, his face breaking into a smile, showing bright sharp teeth. His eyes danced merrily. The men took another step back. "A troll indeed," he roared in laughter. "And did your friend perchance tell you what a troll will do to have his head scratched so? Did he?"
"He said that they give gold," she replied, blushing bright red.
"Gold! Gold!" the troll/man laughed. "Gold did he say? Well, you must tell your friend that trolls have fallen on hard times. No gold have I."
"Well, I'll tell him that," she replied, trying desperately to get away from the whole situation. "I was on my way to see him actually. Only my car broke down, so I need to call him." She edged slowly towards the Quick Trip as she spoke.
"Gold I do not have," the troll/man continued, "but this at least I can help you with." With a flourish he produced two shiny quarters and tossed them in the air. Jennifer caught them deftly to her own surprise. "For the call child, and again I thank you for the scratch."
Jennifer found herself staring at the bright clean coins in her hand and saying, "Sure anytime." She turned and started down the last three blocks between her and safety.
One of the guys made to follow her, but the man lurched in front of him. "A troll!" he cried, "A troll, did you hear?" All of the men were backing slowly away as the seven foot form lurched towards them, all smiles and teeth. "She called me a troll, that little Hulda girl there."
Jennifer froze. Think about it later, she told herself, forcing her feet to move again. She held the two quarters clutched to her chest. Two quarters for the call to Rob, who could take her away and maybe, just maybe explain it all.
© 2011 Rachel Eliason
Bio: Rachel Eliason has been having her way with words for most of her life. She wrote her first story at eight. She did not develop the discipline to write seriously until 2001. Since then she has written many science fiction, fantasy and literary pieces. Her first collection of short stories can be found at: CreateSpace:"Tales The Wind Told Me".
E-mail: Rachel Eliason
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