A tale of fatherhood, motherhood, what you’d give, and what you’d become.
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.
Nikolas—for that was Father Christmas’s given name—was 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 me—by one who knows the truth of these things—that 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. Buthis 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.
During the day, as his bride slept safely under the ground, Nikolas built for himself a small birch-bark hut topped by bowers of spruce and carpeted with moss, and slept there through each long summer day. His only thought was to bide there, waiting for the fall of night so that he and his bride could be together once more.
And in that way they lived by themselves and were happy for many, many years.
Every night that Nikolas and his bride spent together in their meadow was made sweet with the fragrance of pine and cedar and of spruce, and Nessa filled their table with all manner of food, gathered from the forest as only a troll knows how to find. And secretly, because she loved him very much, with each meal she plied Nikolas’ drink with a certain potion made with ancient troll magic and a wisp of moonlight. So, each new day, he awoke taller and stronger and broader than any human who ever lived here in the North.
In time, a son was born to them. The boy was as smiling and as pleasant as both his parents. To protect the child, his proud father began to enlarge the small hut, and had soon fashioned another room from the boughs of the trees that surrounded them and carpeted it with thick, green moss. Nikolas’ only sadness then was that no matter how much wood he cut and split and carved, or how cleverly he bent and shaped that wood, his home could never shelter his troll wife from the sun’s awful purpose.
Nessa chose to name their son Jump at the Sun, but Nikolas liked to call him Jordy. Nurtured by his parents’ love, the boy grew quickly, and soon a jumble of curling black hair fell down across his small shoulders, and his tiny arms hardened with muscle.
Jordy loved both his parents and his life in the greenwood with them. But sometimes, when they slept, he sat by himself in the grass by the stream, blowing sharp sounds from between long blades of grass caught up in his hands, and he grew lonely.
Then came a day when his father slept longer than was his wont. Restless, the boy followed a beautiful bird that called to him with a sweet, sweet song far into the forest. When at last he stumbled to a stop in a small meadow thick with wildflowers, Jordy looked about him and knew that he was lost. Of the bird that had led him hither there was no sign; neither did its brightening notes linger gracefully in the air.
Later, when Nikolas awoke, he could not find his son. He spent all the hours of that long summer’s day frantically searching for the boy, but without success. Come the night, though, when his wife arose, she immediately suspected what had come to pass.
Nessa smiled grimly then to her husband and spoke: “You must stay here, for where I go now is forbidden to any that are human.” No matter how difficult the thought of doing nothing was to him, Nikolas, being a wise man, could only accept the truth in his wife’s words.
Soon, in a vast cavern, so far underground that the light from our sun had never been known there, Nessa found, as she had expected she would, her son, sleeping peacefully in the lap of her own mother, the Queen. A dozen armored trolls, huge creatures with their bows drawn and at the ready, guarded their Queen and the small boy in her lap.
“Hmmmm. Daughter, did you think you would hide from me forever? I will not even speak of this husband of yours, for he is a human and therefore of no consequence to me. But your child here will be a Prince of our kingdom and should be raised at its court where he rightfully belongs.”
“Hmmmm. So you say.”
Nessa had not come there to wage war on her own kind, though, but to plead for the return of her son, Jordy. In that darkness we will never know how long she begged and pleaded and cried, but in the fullness of time her tears began to fill that vast cavern. And standing there in that great and overwhelming pool her mother, the Queen of Trolls, gave in to her daughter’s wishes at last.
“Hmmmm. Very well then.” And extending her thick, hairy arms across the pool made from all the tears that Nessa had shed, the queen mother of Trolls gave Jordy back to Nessa. “But know this, daughter: as long as you live, the child may stay with you and his father. But when you have passed, the boy will then come to live with me. For what does a man know of raising a child?”
Now, the princess knew that trolls live for a very long time indeed, and so was well satisfied with her bargain. She took Jordy then and ran back through the darkness of stone and earth to the surface of our world, and there continued to stride on her great legs straight back through the limitless forest back to her home in the forest glade.
But night began to fade to light then, and just as she had reached the pleasant meadow that Nikolas and she had shared for so long, the sun began to rise.
As its light spilled over the forest beyond and the glade around her, she handed the boy to Nikolas and, unable to find shelter, Nessa was transformed then into an immense mountain of stone. And children, I tell you now, there she lies to this very day, a craggy mountain ridge that circles, protectively, around the home of Nikolas and their son.
Ha! I see your looks of disbelief. You’ve but to look out the window there and you will see that mountain for yourself. Yes, that very one, with the three fine spruce trees topping it.
Even so, let me continue . . .
Weeping at his loss, Nikolas cradled the boy in his arms. Later, when his tears had at last ceased to flow and his eyes had cleared, he saw that around Jordy’s neck was a soft leather bag. In it he found twelve tiny pebbles, worn smooth by time, each cut by delicate marks of red and green and blue. Unknown to Nikolas, these stones were infused with the strongest of all troll magic.
But when Jordy finally woke and found his mother gone, he became desolate and began to cry and wail, never ceasing through night and day, day after day. And try as he might, Nikolas could find no means to comfort his son. So in his misery he laid the boy in his cradle, thick with sweet grasses, and, sitting by its side, picked up a fallen branch and began to carve upon it.
Day and night he carved. For nine months and a day. Without food or sleep. And as the wood shavings piled around him on the floor, figures began to appear out of the rough wood logs that he held in his hand. Crude at the first, each gained refinement with every new figure that he completed. Till at the last there were twelve small wooden figures with flowing gowns and smiling faces, gathered round about the still-wailing infant. Looking then at his wooden sisters, Jordy’s sorrow eased and for the first time since his mother’s death he grew silent and a slow smile of happiness spread across his small face.
Looking down at his son, now happily clutching the wooden figures, Nikolas reached into the leather pouch that still hung round the boy’s neck and pulled from it the twelve pebbles that were within it, one each for Jordy’s sisters, made from wood. And he hung them then, one by one, around the shoulders of the carved figures.
The silence that settled then over Nikolas’ home was pleasant indeed. And with its coming both he and his son fell into an exhausted, dreamless sleep. Hours or days or weeks later, they were awakened by the sound of merry laughter and the tread of light feet all around them both. When he looked up, Nikolas saw that the twelve carved figures were now twelve young maidens made of flesh and blood.
Bewildered, he asked, “How can this be?”
The tallest of his daughters gave him a warm smile, “ Why, Father, you wrought us from the oak and the ash and the thorn, and after, our mother’s magic brought us to life.”
“But you are so many. Where will you stay? My house is small and very humble.”
His daughters laughed then as one and gestured around them.
The house had become so infused with cunning troll magic that it had shaped itself anew while Nikolas and his son slept. Where once there had been but two rooms, now there were bedrooms for all who lived there under its roof. There were also warm hallways and sewing rooms and a lovely work space for Nikolas himself. And, best of all, there was a long kitchen table in the middle of a cozy kitchen, big enough for them all to sit and eat.
In time, they discovered that their home grew or shrank according to their every need, adding or subtracting rooms and hallways, doors and storage closets, windows and beds as their usefulness came and went. In that manner there was never more to clean up or put away than was ever absolutely necessary.
Delighted with his new home and his twelve beautiful daughters who looked back at him with such love, and also, then, with his happy, laughing son, Nikolas threw off the grief that had settled over him for so long.
And that very hour he chose names for his daughters, one for each month of the year, and they were:
June: Apple (and her cheeks just as red as her namesake)
and the oldest,
They lived together with great happiness for nine years, and his twelve daughters laid claim to what room was left in his heart after his love for his true son, Jordy, and glad was he of them all.
But a troll’s memory is long, and their bargains are never forgotten. And although a day may pass here where we humans live, it is but the blink of an eye to trollkind. So with the quick passing of those years, the queen mother of all trolls began to consider the bargain she had made with her daughter, and what she might do about it.
Hush now, children. Hush. Listen carefully, or you will never know how young Nikolas became your beloved Father Christmas, will you?
Now, then where was I? Oh yes . . .
That very next night, in the absolute dark of a very dark evening, a booming crash thundered through Nikolas’ quiet household, followed quickly by many more. The stout oak front door shook loose from its hinges and fell to the floor with a great, heavy crash. With a whistling blast of icy wind, a huge, misshapen head, covered in long greasy hair, thrust its way through the opening. And the face that looked then at Nikolas was split with a huge, toothy, satisfied grin.
The Troll Queen had come to visit her grandson.
As she spoke, all the shutters flew from the windows in the room. “Hmmm, so you are Nikolas? What did my Nessa see in you, I wonder?” With no little effort, the Queen shifted her great body further into his front parlor. Her knees banged against the ceiling, and her broad, broad shoulders thrust against either wall, threatening to burst them apart. “Your wife and I had a bargain. I kept my part of it, and now I’ve come this night for what is rightfully mine.”
Before Nikolas could answer, fear began to wrap itself around his stout heart. “Queen, I say to you now, nothing of mine will ever be yours.”
“Hmmm. But it was agreed between my daughter and me. Nessa gave me her word that, on her death, the boy Jordy would come to live among his true family.”
Pulling himself up straight and tall, flushed with all of his considerable strength, Nikolas spoke. “You must pass through me first then, monster!”
“Hmmm, indeed. Let me get a better look at you, then.” But, just as it was with his bride, the magic of that house, though very great indeed, could not accommodate the Queen’s massive body. Craning her neck to look more closely at young Nikolas, her shoulders splintered two great beams that held the cottage’s ceiling aloft, showering thatch down upon them both. “Yes, you have grown since I last saw you. Hmmm. But come, you must know that living here, by yourselves in these great woods, the boy would be lonely—would he not? I promise you that your Jordy will be a Prince in the Kingdom of Trolls and that his life in my court will be filled with laughter.”
Before Nikolas could reply, twelve young girls peeked from behind an inner door, and laughed and stared wide-eyed at the giant troll crouching in their well-kept parlor. Morningstar, the youngest, held little Jordy in her arms. When the Queen shifted her head to consider these unexpected intruders, she shattered two chairs and a table and all the fine china plates that the table had held. “Now who might these children be, then? Hmmm.”
Nikolas, his arms spread wide, gathered his daughters to his side. “As you say, a growing boy needs a sister to take care of him. My son has twelve.”
The Queen snorted in surprise, sending the delicate lace curtains laid across each window flying across the room. “Hmmm. Well, then we have much to discuss, do we not? But I fear that your poor home will be the worse for it if I stay here a moment longer. Hmmm, bring your son and his devoted sisters outside, where there is room enough for me to breathe, and we will talk more of this bargain.”
Outside, the night was very dark indeed, and snow fell thick and fast. Hard against the great rock that protected the cottage was the Queen’s enormous sleigh, already filled with snow. Not even brushing it aside, she settled onto the plush seat of her curious carriage (for it had no visible means to propel it), with her back braced against the great hard rock. The Troll Queen looked down then at her grandson as he played in Nikolas’ broad lap and smiled at her twelve granddaughters before she asked, “Now then, where did these charming young ladies come from?”
After he had named them all, Nikolas smiled proudly at his daughters and said only, “They were a gift from my wife to her son and myself, and they have filled our life here with joy and laughter since she left us.”
But when the Queen noticed that each of Nikolas’ daughters wore a certain stone strung round her neck, she began to understand more than she had been told. For every troll born knows the power of those particular stones, and the Queen knew more than most.
So, slyly, she wrinkled her nose and asked that he return to his cottage. “I smell a wedge of fine cheese that waits in your kitchen, do I not? And Nikolas, the cold of this night makes my empty belly groan so for something to fill it.” Wishing to appease the huge troll Queen, Nikolas gave Jordy into the care of his oldest daughter, Hollyberry, and went to do as he had been bidden. With a heart filled only with gladness and cheer, he would not have thought that others could—or even would—take advantage of him for it.
But when Nikolas returned, balancing a platter piled high with cheese and bread, he saw the sleigh that had brought the Queen of Trolls with it, rising slowly into the snowy night. The Queen mother of trolls called back down to him, “Stupid man, a trusting heart is a weakness that can always be taken advantage of.” With one great arm, the Queen cradled the screaming boy and in the other she clutched twelve leather strings from which dangled twelve curious stones. And strewn across the snowy ground at Nikolas’ feet were his daughters, turned now to wood once more.
As the sleigh hovered above him, just out of reach, the Queen laughed down at Nikolas, “Hmmm, my grandson is too precious for wooden companions such as those.”
Suddenly, Jordy, tucked under her arm, lunged forward, and he bit deeply into one of the huge troll’s thick, hairy fingers. The Queen screamed then, such a scream that sent the snow swirling far to either side of her sleigh. And with that scream, one precious stone tumbled loose from her grip, and fell down and down, end over end, to land on the breast of one single wooden carving beneath her. Morningstar blinked once and sat up. Her father caught her safely up in his strong arms, and they both turned their faces back up to the sky.
But already the Troll Queen and her sleigh had disappeared into the swirling, snow-filled sky.
Devastated by their loss, Nikolas and his daughter looked at one another for a moment and then, without words, for no words were needed, busied themselves with preparations for a long journey through swirling snow and dark forest to rescue what had been taken from them.
Morningstar lovingly gathered her eleven wooden sisters out of the snow where they had fallen and gently packed them between straw and moss in a cloth satchel that she swung from her shoulder.
Nikolas quickly fashioned rough wooden skis for them both, so that no matter the depth of the snow and ice under their feet they would be able to glide over it. But even so, the midwinter’s night through which they traveled was long and dark indeed. The snow fell and fell and fell, until it became so deep that the grass that carpeted the forest floor beneath it seemed but a distant memory.
To light their way in that utter darkness, Morningstar, true to the name she had been given by her father, illuminated the dense forest of towering trees so that they were able to begin before first light and continue on even as darkness again swiftly followed. For it was midwinter in the Northland, and as you children well know, the days then are done almost before they begin.
At last another long night gradually gave way to a bleaker morning. The blizzard finally ceased and now, around them, they saw only black, snow-etched bowls of towering pine and spruce and cedar that marched endlessly away in every direction.
Nowhere was there a landmark that was familiar to Nikolas. All was covered deep and deep with winter snow. No outcrop of stone or lightning-burned tree to mark their path. There was nothing to show him the path that they need take, for his Nessa had carried him many long leagues from the Kingdom of Trolls, and the land where humans lived was further even still.
I can tell you now, that endless forest weighed at their hearts and wore away at whatever hope remained in their hearts. But then, far and far away, so far that it seemed but a pleasant dream they both shared, Nikolas and his daughter Morningstar saw a faint pink light the sky before them, and both then breathed a little easier and their strength was restored.
Deep then within that dim forest they began to hear the howling of many wolves, followed by the bellow of a great elk or a stag, and Nikolas turned to his daughter and said, “Though our need is great, the stag’s need is greater still.”
Morningstar, out of the goodness of her pure heart, smiled at her father and said, “Then let us do what we must.”
Carefully they crept through those trees and the fighting bellow of that great stag came ever closer and closer, and with it also came the savage cries of a multitude of wolves. Then, just before them, they beheld the elk, for elk it was, its hot breath steaming into the frosty air, surrounded by wolves beyond counting.
Without hesitation Nikolas charged among them and swung his great double-sided axe with both his hands. The snarling wolves bounded away then from their prey. But only for a moment, for their hunger gave them fell purpose. They turned as one and leaped upon Nikolas’ great form, tearing at his clothes and at his flesh. The great elk lunged amongst them then and impaled one, two, three, and a fourth beast with its long antlers. Soon, blood began to stain the snow at their feet and at the stag’s hooves.
But clever Morningstar, knowing that sometimes even great strength guided by a valiant heart cannot overcome all that there is to overcome, walked softly among them and stood in the midst of those heaving bodies that churned the bloody snow, and she smiled.
Far above her, through the dense boughs of the great trees, she saw the first star of evening glow softly in the darkening sky. And she raised her arms in supplication toward it.
Her namesake must have smiled down upon the small figure below it, for the great star seemed to lend her strength and purpose with its light. For then Morningstar’s soft glow became a brilliant, searing light that etched the forest around them and the trampled snow and the great stag and the valiant man who still struggled in the midst of a swirling mass of fur and claw and teeth. That harsh white light shone forth from her brow and served to drive those beasts away, sending them howling back into the depths of that cruel forest.
The elk spoke to them then: “Friends, I thank you for your service to me. I fear I would have been the worse for it if you had not come to my aid.”
Morningstar spoke for both her father and herself. “Sir, what would we be if we did not help those in need? It would not be fitting if we were like unto those simple beasts that even now fled, with only hunger in our thoughts and blood on our hands.”
With great dignity, then, the great elk bowed its head toward them both and gave his thanks. Then it spoke once again. “What has brought you so far from any of your kind? What seek you here, so deep in my forest?”
Nikolas looked kindly at the elk and began to explain their urgent task.
As it listened to the tale, the elk lowered its great antlers into the snow by their side and cleansed the blood from off them. Then, raising its head once more, it looked at them both, and large and sorrowful were its eyes. “My heart is saddened that Princess Nessa no longer walks amongst us. Unlike so many of her kin, she was always wont to show kindness to all who came to her. In her memory and in gratitude for the kindness you have done me, I would do what I can for you.
“But alas, I do not know where those of trollkind live. But perhaps her friend the Snow Owl would know of this place that you seek?”
And Nikolas answered his new friend, “Then I must ask that creature my question. In what land does it live? And by what path can I arrive there?”
“It is far and far from here, but I will take you, if there you must go.”
“I must.” Then Nikolas looked at his daughter’s hopeful face and spoke again. “If the Snow Owl knows the answer to this riddle, then we will seek it out, no matter the length of our journey.”
The elk stood then before those two, its head and twisting antlers towering above even Nikolas’ great height. “Come, my back is strong enough for both. Sit upon me and I will take you to the land that the Snow Owl calls home.”
For a day and a night and then another day the great elk ran tirelessly across the deep snow-filled forest, bounding effortlessly over ice-covered streams, until the trees around them grew so close together that they choked out the sky. It was then that they knew they had reached the land that they sought. And it was as they began to pass through the dark of that dense wood that the elk at last opened its heart to Nikolas and his daughter and told them its sad tale.
Once the great elk had been a Prince in a land of humans, but that was long ago, so long that his kingdom had surely been swept away by time. An enchantment had transformed him into the beast that they now rode upon. “So long has it been, that I’ve forgotten even my true name or whose curse rendered me into this very form.” Hearing the beast’s tale, both their hearts were greatly troubled.
Soon thereafter, they came upon a small open glade untouched by winter, filled with the fragrance of fresh wildflowers and sweet grasses. In the center of that glade rose a great tree with pure white bark, hoary with age but still living and still thriving. Upon every limb of that tree perched a hundred snow-white owls, and each looked at their three uninvited guests and blinked but once by way of greeting.
As one, they raised their voices and filled the small glade with their calls, making the very ground under the elk’s hooves shudder.
And before them, the tree awoke and trembled and each of those owls became a feather on the wing and the body and the tail of a single, enormous white owl that silently looked down upon the small figures below it. The eyes of Nikolas and Morningstar then grew wide with amazement and with wonder, but the elk merely smiled a greeting to the great owl.
The Owl King too was saddened when it was told of Nessa’s passing, of the abduction of Nikolas’ son, and of the fate of his eleven daughters. Then, because of the deep and abiding friendship between The Troll King’s daughter and the great Owl, it too promised to do what it could to help Nikolas and his daughter Morningstar.
Soon, seated astride the back of the Snow Owl, Morningstar looked down upon the stag that had brought them so far and a single tear fell from her eye. “You will always have a place in my heart, prince without a name.”
The great stag bellowed then into the frosty air. “Go now. I will follow as I may, for I am your companion now and forever.”
And so the King of All Owls flew with its two riders on its back, along secret paths through the high snow-filled clouds, over razor-sharp mountains that thrust up out of the earth, and over twisting black rivers and forests so thick that none could have found their way through unharmed. Finally, they arrived at the cave entrance that leads—for anyone so foolish as to enter it—down, down, down to the Kingdom of the Trolls.
Eager to be about their purpose, Nikolas and Morningstar climbed from the owl’s back and entered that cave, but all they found there was emptiness—cold, lifeless, and dark. But when Nikolas set his ear to the floor of the enormous cavern, he heard deep below, through a vastness of stone and rock, a faint melody that a troll might play upon a fiddle, and he knew that somewhere far beneath their feet lay the palace of the King and Queen of Trolls, where his son was held captive. Knowing that they must find a way through the rock of that mountain if ever they were to find Jordy, his heart despaired.
Then, when hope was at its bleakest, Nikolas felt a faint warm breeze stir in the dank cold of that immense, dark cavern. He took Morningstar’s hand and followed that breath of air to an opening in the rock that lined the chamber. There they saw an arch of great, empty darkness rearing over their heads, and the air within it was blacker even than the dense shadows that kept it company on either side.
They stepped then into that emptiness and descended by a thousand times a thousand steps, every one of them carved from the solid rock of the mountain. Down and down and down they went, past underground streams that illuminated the darkness with their faint luminescence and under thundering waterfalls and through limitless caverns, each vaster than the one before it, until they stood hard against yet another arched stone doorway.
And there they peered carefully through it and saw before them the court of the King and Queen of the Trolls, lit by as many reeking torches as were needed to light that vast space. Each torch was mounted on the side of a single column of stone that soared up to the vaulted ceiling far and far above. In the midst of that immense room were two thrones set atop a series of circular steps that towered above all else, save those columns. Indeed, everything in that court was roughly fashioned from a single piece of the stone of the mountain itself, and no part was separate from the other.
Upon those two high thrones sat the King and the Queen of Trolls. Below them there danced a multitude of creatures who named them their Lord and Lady. In the Queen’s own broad lap played young Jordy, and around him there were gathered eleven hideous troll maidens waiting on the boy’s every whim and bidding, because through some arcane troll magic, Nikolas’ son took those eleven creatures for his true sisters and laughed and smiled with them.
In great anger, Nikolas started across that space, but wise Morningstar calmly placed her hand on his arm and said to him soothingly, “Father, it will be better for both of us if you take this now.”
He looked then at his daughter and saw that she held, cupped in both of her hands, the rune stone that set aside her wooden image and cloaked it with human flesh. “Please, Father. I fear what they will do with us out here in this savage kingdom. Place my wooden self alongside my sisters. Secret my stone around your neck and carry us all with you then, wherever you go from here.”
Nikolas saw the wisdom in his daughter’s words and did as Morningstar had asked. Then, slipping the delicately woven bag under his clothes and fixing the rune stone upon the chain that he wore about his neck, he strode boldly out into the great cavern, into the midst of his enemies.
Even with his great strength, Nikolas was quickly subdued by the multitude of trollkind that filled that cavern. And he was brought to the bottom of those rough stone steps that led up unto the two thrones upon which the King and Queen of Trolls so calmly sat.
The Queen laughed at the stricken man held below her, “Hmmm, we have an expected visitor.”
Nikolas used his great strength then and shook off the arms of his captors and cried out, “Troll, I have come for my son!”
Still she smiled. And then the Queen of all Trollkind gestured at her lap and replied, “Do you not see your son before you? He is happy and well content, is he not? Hmmm.”
And Jordy did seem to be happy. But when Nikolas looked closer, he saw that hung about his son’s small neck were the eleven rune stones that belonged to the boy’s true sisters and hope sprang of a sudden in his heart. Seeing where Nikolas looked, The Queen reached down and took the stones from around the boy’s neck and swallowed them, one by one by one. Great then was her pleased laughter when she looked upon the despair on the face of her enemy.
She had Nikolas bound then in heavy chains by three huge troll creatures.
All the while, Jordy laughed and played childish games with his eleven hideous troll companions. His only thoughts were for his imagined sisters who smiled beside him, and offered him plates that overflowed with sweet things and drinks that were most pleasing to a young boy. Nikolas cried out then to his son, thinking to warn the boy of the danger that was in that food. But Jordy’s ears were closed to his father’s cries.
And so the boy took of all of those things and ate and drank his fill, until liquid spilled down his cheeks and cake fell across his leather jerkin.
Nikolas remembered then the tales that the wise woman of his village had told him of the trolls and despaired. For humans cannot eat troll food nor drink of their drink, no matter the hunger that gnaws at their bellies or the thirst that parches their throats, or they will never hunger again for what is grown in the lands were they were born.
When the Queen of Trolls at last grew tired of taunting her guest, she ordered him taken from her. “Carry him away and let him languish in a place of utter darkness for so long as he shall yet live.” But before Nikolas could be led away she reached out with her long, hairy arm and snatched, from the golden chain hung round his neck, the single rune stone that Nikolas’ daughter Morningstar had given him.
Holding that stone between thumb and forefinger, a sly smile crossed her wrinkled lips, and she spoke once again. “Hmmm. But it is not seemly to take a gift without one being returned in kind. Take you this knife so that you may eat with it of the emptiness in the chamber in which you will live out the days left to you.” And so saying, she handed Nikolas a small, blunt blade fashioned from stone, and with it, her wild, wicked laughter echoed throughout the halls of her court.
Nikolas was thrown then into an endless, empty cavern where there was only darkness, and the cold greeted him and left him there, still bound in his chains. And the three enormous troll creatures who had brought him there rolled a great boulder across its entrance, the better to seal him within.
Then, in that overwhelming darkness, he began to ply his small knife upon the locks of his chains and was, in time, free of them. Little good that did him, though, still bound as he was by the stone walls of that vast chamber.
Casting about in that place of utter darkness, he soon discovered a curious thing. From the ceiling far, far above him, a huge shaggy root fell to the floor of that cavern and curled there at his feet. Standing in that utter darkness he imagined the great oak tree that towered above the vast mountain of rock that held within it the Kingdom of Trolls, and the cavern in which he had been cast, and further he saw how its limbs spread upwards, flourishing toward the light of the sun and from that imagining, his heart grew joyful once more.
Children, we will never know how long he remained there in that confinement, but there was time enough for him to take his parting gift from the Troll Queen and carve with it upon that great root a wooden tapestry of life and love and warmth. Jordy was in it as he truly was, a bright young boy nestled safely in the arms of his father. As were his twelve daughters as they danced together in their forest glade. Nessa joined them then, laughing, singing, and holding her family at last within her strong and loving arms. In that chamber of eternal darkness, on that great root, he carved all the bright memories of his time on earth. And there too he carved all of his hopes and dreams for the future that lay ahead. Those hopes were what nourished his mind and his heart and his body through the long, long years he spent there in that darkness.
When enough time had passed for Nikolas to carve all of the surface of that great root into an intricate wooden tapestry of his own design, he began to chip at the hundreds of great stalactites that were there too in that vast chamber, and when their surfaces had been filled with his marks, then he began to ply his art upon the very walls of the great cavern itself.
On those walls he fashioned all the stories he had ever heard concerning the creatures of trollkind. And as he did so, Nikolas began to see into the mind of the great Troll Queen. There was great loneliness and despair in the story that he carved upon those walls. Great was the Queen’s loss when her only daughter, Nessa, had fallen in love with a human, one of the hated race that had hunted and harried trollkind from the beginning of their time together in the vast forest that covered the surface of their world. Yet a smile grew then on his lips as he carved her delight at news of the birth of her grandson. And he understood then much that had come to trouble his heart.
When he had finished sculpting every surface that was there in that vast cavern, and his knife had been worn even unto his fingertips, then Nikolas lay down upon the hard stone floor of the chamber and slept. And he slept long and well, until such time as there was a sound of rock scraping against rock, and a finger of dim light rippled across the floor of that great cavern and stopped even as it fell over his sleeping body. Then Nikolas opened his eyes and for the first time saw what his skill had wrought, and he was well pleased.
But his pleasure was brought to an end by the harsh words of the three guardian trolls who had been set to watch over him, as they too saw what he had done. They bellowed then across the chamber at him, “What have you done?” And, fearing it, they rolled the great stone once more across the entrance to that chamber and left Nikolas once more in darkness.
Returning to the great hall, his captors could not resist whispering to their friends of what they had seen within that cavern, who then spoke to others and those to still more besides, until their words fell through the dank air close to the Troll Queen’s ear. She was filled then with anger, but with curiosity too. And so she made her way to the place of confinement where Nikolas had languished for so long. Along with the Queen Mother of Trolls came all her court, and they, knowing the darkness that waited for them in that chamber, bore torches or candles or lanterns and every manner of illumination, so that the great chamber was filled with glorious light.
Standing in their midst, Nikolas saw that they all gazed in wonder at what he had done there. Chief amongst them was their Queen, and with her the King, and close beside them stood Jordy, now a young man grown to his full height.
Glad was Nikolas’ heart to see his son.
But when Jordy looked upon his father he did not recognize the white-haired man with the long, long beard who stood before him. And close beside the fine-looking young man were his constant companions, the eleven troll maidens, and they began to laugh and make sport of Nikolas. But Jordy paid them no heed, for his eyes studied the great carved root that rose into the darkness above him.
Indeed, so great was Nikolas’ art, that all there that looked upon it fell silent and could not turn away. And the stories that they saw carved there, on root and stalactite column and high, high wall, opened wide their hearts to a certain wonder and delight. Why, I have been told that there were tears even upon the face of their cruel Queen, and that her heart softened towards Nikolas.
Softened, yes, but still Nikolas was not forgiven.
When Jordy turned away from the carvings at last, many were the pleasant memories that began to dance and play across his thoughts. In his heart there was a great longing for his sisters and the place that they had called home. And when he looked once more upon the white-haired figure that stood before him, the young man knew him. He embraced Nikolas then, and called him Father before all there in that vast court of trolls.
Turning then, Jordy bent his knee before the Troll Queen. And knowing in his heart of hearts that something must always be put back in place when something else is taken away, he pledged then a certain fell promise that darkened his heart even as its outcome filled him with hope. For if freedom were to be given his father, it most certainly would have to be met with his own promise to remain there amongst the trolls forever. “Grandmother, I will pledge my very life to the service of your court for as long as I may live, if this day you do but grant my father his freedom.”
The Queen’s great craggy face smiled kindly at Jordy as she silently considered his words, and when she spoke, there was a new warmth to her own. “Hmmm. Seeing what I see here before me, I now know that this human whom you name your father is not like so many others of his kind. So I have chosen to forgive him and all that is his.”
And saying so, she plucked from a certain purse she carried on her leather belt the twelve rune stones that Nikolas had thought gone forever, and presented them to the stout human figure that stood before her.
She turned back then to her grandson and spoke once more. “Hmmm. And further, I cannot find it within my heart on this day of days to keep apart those who love one another. So I give freedom to you too. From midwinter’s night until the length of midsummer’s day is over, you may live with your father and your family in the home wherein you were born.
“But the other half of the year you will bide here with us, for our kingdom has need of you. I have need of you. Hmmm, yes?”
Hope and sadness held sway in Jordy’s heart then as he watched his father walk freely out of that chamber of stone.
And Nikolas too pondered his son’s promise as he climbed the thousand times a thousand steps to the surface of our world once more.
And there he carefully took from his silken satchel the twelve carved figures of his twelve daughters, hung around each of their necks one of twelve rune stones.
Soon the air about him was filled with much laughter and with many tears too as his daughters Morningstar, Alder, Fern, Joy, Mayberry, Apple, Rosemary, Lily, Rowan, Butternut, Mistletoe, and Hollyberry were all reunited and learned then everything that had come to pass within the great dark cavern below their feet.
There too were the great elk and the Owl King who had waited so patiently, perched in the oak tree that towered above them all.
Nikolas watched then as his twelve daughters climbed upon the massive back of the great Owl King and flew away back toward their home. Then he called to the elk and climbed upon its back and bid it go out into the vastness of our western world.
He visited then the village wherein he was born and the ancient wise woman whose advice first sent him into the depths of the forest in search of Nessa, and he gave to her his profuse thanks for her kindness and her advice.
Still Nikolas was not content, and so he continued on and ventured far and far out into the world and saw there many things. Chief among them were greed and malice and war—always, endless war. But here and there he saw too great kindness ministered from one human unto another, and he was then made glad deep in his heart. And because of that he resolved to do what he could with his strength and his skills to encourage the same kindness in all whom he met.
Then, turning from the world, he returned to his low rambling home that was so far from the world’s tumult. Fresh snow began to fall as he and the great elk made their way slowly through the deep forest, and when they stepped from the darkness of that wood the snow had blanketed the small glade that surrounded his home, weighing deeply upon its roof.
From each chimney there rose smoke and from every window there shone the light of a single candle and all brought with them the promise of the great good warmth that waited for him within.
Broad then was the smile on Nikolas’ face when he entered his home and was greeted there by all twelve of his beautiful daughters. And there too was his son, Jordy, for it was midwinter’s eve and the young man had the freedom that his grandmother had given him.
Much later, Nikolas quietly opened his front door again and stood under the still steadily falling snow. He looked above him then at the enormous rock that curved protectively round about his home and the great wood beyond and he smiled. “Well, my Nessa,” he said, “our family is all safe in our home again at last. Are you not well pleased?”
Around him the still air of the glade began to ring with the strong, clear voices of all that were still within, raised in song and filled with cheer and great good gladness.
And Nikolas wiped a single tear away from his ruddy cheek and stepped back inside to join them.
Now then, children, there is gladness in my heart also, for not one of you here were put to sleep by the telling of my story. And see, during its telling we have had a visitor. Look! There are gifts now, under our tree. Gifts for all who are here and more besides. Perhaps even enough for all the children of the world in which we live. Does that not make your hearts glad?
And so, here ends the telling of my tale.
And to all of you who have heard it, a Merry Christmas and peace to you one and all.
“Father Christmas: A Wonder Tale of the North” copyright © 2014 by Charles Vess
Illustration copyright © 2014 by Anna & Elena Balbusso