Henrike wore her sealskin robe, secured at the throat by a tripod pin of bronze, a coming-of-age gift from her grandmother many years earlier. Henrike wanted to be certain that she would reunite with Baug, in death, and that, together, they would greet their ancestors under the watchful eyes of Odin and Frigg.
But Hen, as she had been fondly called, was less certain about anything than she had ever been in her life. She could no longer make out the boundary between sea and sky, could no more read her husband’s face than she had the parchment upon which they scratched their signs to seal their marriage so long ago, could barely recall the plump flesh of her only child upon which she had planted kiss after kiss after kiss.
There was no certainty for Hen as she bent her head against the hot barbs of frozen rain and gained her way, step by step, toward Baug’s hollow, the burial pit he had prepared for the two of them in the side of troll hill. There was only hope. Hope that death would come like sleep. Hope that Baug’s spirit, hovering alone somewhere above the sea, would find land and seek her out.
When Hen reached the hollow, she stumbled and fell into it, crushing her ribs against the ridges of ice that had formed, without knowing she had broken her ankle, for the pain of it was shouted out by the pain in other parts.
Hen was barely conscious at the bottom of the pit, but she was somewhat aware of the pin at her throat and the stabbing, icy rain against her forehead. And then she was aware of nothing at all.
“You should have told me we have company, before I drank all the fish wine.”
The troll queen, as tall as a standing sheep and as wide as two, shook her rooty finger at her smaller, yellower nephew, and then banged her head against the table for emphasis.
“We don’t,” said the nephew, Grigg, with more gusto than sense. “Not really.”
The troll queen raised her head and cradled it in her large, square hands. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means there’s someone here, someone who doesn’t live here, but she’s kind of, sort of… dead.”
“Well, dead company’s better than no company at all.” The troll queen pushed her chair back as she stood, groaning from the effort of straightening her back. Grigg ran to pull her chair clear away. “I want to see this company with my own eyes.”
The queen and her nephew, being small cave-trolls, rolled and tumbled their way along the cave’s tentacle passageways. He led the way; she grunted and groaned after him. Before too long, they stopped. Grigg dropped to all fours and crawled through a hole that was small, even by small cave-troll reckoning. The queen did the same, threatening, “There’d better be treasure, or something better, at the end of this.”
They found themselves standing, not tall, but standing in a chamber that the troll queen had never seen before.
“How did you find this?” she asked.
Grigg said nothing. With his mossy thighs exposed as he raised his winter tunic to avoid splashing it in the icy water at the center of the chamber, he led her to a hollowed-out place adjacent to a glittering cave wall.
“What the…?” cried the queen. For lying in the hollow place, looking every bit as regal as the troll goddess herself, was a woman, a human woman, the likes of which had never been seen inside troll hill.
“You see?” said Grigg.
“Of course I see. I’m not blind like your mother.” The troll queen instantly regretted her tone, for her sister’s inner sight was legendary.
“Who is she?”
The troll queen thought for a moment, scratching the scaly palms of her hands in a gesture that revealed, to her nephew’s nervous eye, that she was wary.
“Fetch your mother,” said the troll queen at last, not eager to admit that her sister’s powers were greater than her own in a case like this. She turned and watched Grigg crawl back through the hole and disappear from sight.
The sound of Grigg’s voice, singing a merry troll tune, echoed back to the troll queen’s ears and only magnified her sense of defeat. It was, in truth, her sister who led the remnant of what had once been a great troll kingdom, though the crown belonged to her by order of birth.
The troll queen was studying the face of the strange, still woman, when Grigg returned, guiding his sightless mother through the hole that led to the chamber.
“Greetings, Aghi,” said the troll queen.
“Greetings to you, dear ruler,” replied a small being whose wisps of silvery hair bounced gaily, like tiny dancers around her head.
The queen couldn’t help but silently note that her nephew was always at ease when his mother was about. Indeed, their entire band of cave trolls were, it seemed to the queen, when she was being honest with herself.
“Can you tell us who this woman is, where she came from, what she’s doing here?” asked the queen.
Grigg led his mother closer to the still form of the human woman. Aghi stretched out her arms and spread her fingers, which she then placed on the woman’s chest. She opened her blind eyes, wide.
“What do you see?” asked the troll queen.
“She’s alive, though she’s very old, for a human. And she’s wounded.” Aghi began to walk around the woman while holding the palms of her hands a finger’s width above the woman’s body. “I can bring her back. Her ancestors haven’t a firm grip on her yet.”
Aghi sniffed the woman’s plaited hair and then placed her own soft, lumpy cheek against the woman’s furrowed one.
“Who?” The troll queen’s eyes bulged. Her impatience was deeply etched into her heart-shaped face. “Who is she?”
Hen sat on a low stool made entirely of carved stone and ate whatever the creatures before her offered. She knew they were trolls, for they had told her so as soon as she had awakened. Her first inclination had been to believe that she had died and gone to the afterlife, but the flow of blood in her limbs, better than she had felt in years, and her renewed joy in the simple pleasure of tasting fruit and flesh, were sure signs that she was bound to earth.
“Tell us about yourself, my dear,” said the troll queen. “We haven’t had one of your kind here in… well, I don’t think we’ve ever had your kind here. We’re not too fond of humans.”
Hen thought that the three trolls around the table were staring at her as though she were the most offensive thing they had ever seen.
Aghi added, “I would like to know how you passed through the cave wall. I have a suspicion, but you should tell us about yourself first.”
“Me, too,” added the troll queen. “I don’t want this to ever happen again.” Aghi elbowed her in the navel, and the troll queen growled under her breath.
“I don’t understand,” said Hen. “No one can pass through a wall.”
“My son and I have been studying that wall—”
“The first I’ve heard about it,” interrupted the queen, grunting with displeasure.
“It’s full of magic,” blurted Grigg, and then his mother hushed him.
“I know nothing of magic,” said Hen. “I’m a fisher’s wife. My husband was lost at sea in a winter storm. My daughter lives far away with her new family.” She looked around the table and saw that the trolls were attentive. “I felt very old and afraid. I didn’t want to face another winter alone. I believed it was time to go and meet my grandmothers.”
“But you came here,” said the troll queen. “You couldn’t have accidently stumbled into our cave. Our grandmothers took measures to make sure of that.” Then she made a show of brushing her hands together as if to sweep away all thoughts of human invasion.
“I knew about troll hill, but I didn’t believe the stories. I never saw a troll with my own eyes.”
Then Hen explained how Baug had refused to leave their cottage to join their daughter and her husband as they could have, further up the fjord. And Baug had prepared the hollow to take them to the afterlife when their time came. When Baug failed to return from the sea, Hen had entered the hollow alone, knowing that she would die from the cold and then meet him again somewhere between earth and stars.
When Hen was done, the three trolls stared at her as if a tree had sprouted from her head.
“Baug?” said the troll queen.
“Baug,” Aghi echoed.
“My dear Baug,” whispered Hen, her eyes filling with tears.
“Uncle Baug?” Grigg sprang from his seat, pattered to Hen’s side, and stood before her. “I’ve never met him, but I’ve heard the stories. He left us, you know. Married a human… oh.” The dawning significance of the woman’s presence showed in his eyes.
Hen gaped at him.
The troll queen moved forward to take her nephew’s place, nudging him with her knobby elbow. “Have you come to steal my crown?”
“I don’t understand,” said Hen. “How do you know Baug?”
“He was my brother,” replied the troll queen, gruffly. “And my uncle,” added Grigg. Aghi nodded, silently.
Hen was treated to a round of fish wine, a spare cask of which had been found, and was soon soothed by its gentle burn on the way down, if not by its acrid aroma. Aghi added to her calm by patting her hand as the troll queen told their version of Baug, who was more mysterious at this moment to Hen than he had ever seemed since she had first set eyes on him, when she was a girl of fifteen.
“He was odd from the start,” said the troll queen. “And I remember, though he was older than me. He was overly large, had a straight nose, quite ugly really. And he liked to wander far outside the cave, as if it were the old days when trolls could get away with such freedom in human realms. Our Pa put a stop to that, or so we thought.”
Aghi continued to pat Hen’s hand. “Baug was a great troll and a good brother.”
The queen huffed. “But I’m sure you remember that Pa told Baug to make a choice between cave and sky, between family and the world of men.”
“He should have become king of the trolls,” said Grigg, “but he didn’t.”
While the troll queen told the story of Baug, Hen felt that she had found a way to hold onto her husband for a little while longer. She began to understand that she had not known him as completely as she had believed. There was more to discover. She remembered how Baug had appeared in her village one day, as suddenly as a spring flower, and had fallen for her quickly.
“He was courtly,” said Hen, interrupting the queen.
“As befitting a troll prince,” said Aghi. “The human notion that trolls are beasts is a case of the cod calling the eel fishy.”
“Huh?” The troll queen lolled her tongue at her sister. “What are you talking about now? I never understand you.”
“Uncle Baug must have loved you a lot, to leave his home and family,” said Grigg.
“Not to mention,” added Aghi, “that his power waned outside of the cave. Within, he was as clever a conjurer of troll magic as anyone in troll lore; without, he was bound by the ways and means of humankind.”
The troll queen took a great gulp of the wine. Hen could smell her fish breath from across the table. “I’ve got it!” shouted the queen.
“What have you got?” Aghi’s unseeing, all-seeing eyes shone brightly.
“I’ve been listening to you and thinking about the cave wall and the hollow. And it popped into my head as if Baug had put it there himself. It’s the only explanation.”
“What popped into your head?” Hen asked, as eager to hear news from Baug as if she were once more that fifteen-year old girl with the strange, new admirer.
The troll queen took some air through her wide nostrils and then climbed onto a rock, as if announcing some grand news to a crowd. “Baug conjured a way into the cave for his wife. He must have done so before he left us for good, even before he married.”
“Yes,” agreed Aghi, her misty eyes brimming with tears. “He meant to return some day.”
All three trolls moved closer to Hen, studying her silky white hair, her sky blue eyes, and her impossibly short, human arms, as she spoke. “So, Baug’s hollow wasn’t our grave,” concluded Hen. “It was the passage home, to his first family. He knew I was lonely, but I don’t think he knew how to tell me.”
“Baug always was a troll of few words,” said Aghi, patting the top of Grigg’s head.
Hen said nothing, but she bobbed her head up and down in the universal sign of understanding.
“That explains why you can pass through the wall,” said the nephew.
“What do you know about that?” snorted the queen.
“More than you know.”
“He does,” added Aghi.
“Explain it to me,” said Hen.
Grigg cleared his throat and then explained how love binds, even love between human and troll. “So, you have Baug’s right to rule in this land.”
“And you have the right to go home,” said Aghi, “though I hope you will not.”
“As queen of this realm, I should have something to say about it.” The troll queen jumped down from the rock and pounded the table, for emphasis.
Hen got up and threw her arms around the queen. “You are queen of the hill, and there is no other.”
Hen clambered up and out of the hollow with a lightness and grace due, no doubt, to goblets of fish wine, heaps of troll food, and the companionship of the dozens of trolls she had met in the depths of the cave, while, outside, winter’s teeth had scraped and scoured troll hill.
She found her cottage yard dotted with spring’s first blooms, yellow poppies bursting from the frigid earth, the flag that other blooms would follow. Hen entered the cottage, pushing hard against the well-sealed door, one of Baug’s many gifts to his then young wife. “Heavy door, warm hearth,” was what he had said. She removed her tripod pin and then the sealskin robe.
The air in the cottage was stale. Hen opened the shutters, allowing the chill air to flow freely from one side to the other.
The words were hers, but the meaning was muddied. Winter was over, or nearly. There was always a last blast to come. Her life with Baug was over. He would never return home from fishing, never bring in wood for the fire that Hen fed, all winter long. He would never return to answer the many questions she wanted to ask him.
Perhaps she had known all along that he held a secret, and now, at last, the mystery was laid to rest. She hoped that her daughter would visit in summer, and that she would take well the news that troll blood ran through her veins and would run through the veins of her children, too.
Hen felt strong. Soon she would take the wooden bucket to the stream to fetch water. She had enough dry wood out back to start a new fire in the hearth. And she had a new family, one that would welcome her when the summer light went out again.
Then Hen would return to over-winter inside the hill. And when she did, even the sour-faced troll queen would be glad of her company.
“Baug’s Hollow” was published in the November 2015 issue of Bewildering Stories and was nominated for a 2015 Mariner Award. It remains available on their website in Issue 644.