Gerda stamped and Gerda roared. Gerda gnashed and slammed the door. Well, not really. It was kind of tricky for her to slam the door when she did not really have one. It was just branches leaning up against the cave’s entrance. So what she actually did was knock it down. For, you see, Gerda was Not Happy. Not Happy At All. She had been woken up by some ghastly small children who clearly had bad manners for they had not even left Gerda an apologetic present, like all good children should do. And if there was one thing which Gerda hated more than to be woken up, it was to be woken up by bad-mannered children. And bad-mannered children were hunted down by Gerda and gobbled up. It made Gerda feel all warm inside knowing that she was doing the world a favour by removing such nasty little brats. For such children would only grow up to make the world a far worse place than it already was. Gerda was pleased that the adults in the villages around her forest, at least, were well-mannered. She had made sure of that. She knew her brethren in other forests worked hard to keep other humans good. But sometimes, just sometimes, they needed reminding of what happens to people who are bad.
Gerda roared and gnashed her teeth. She stamped her feet. She made the ground tremble beneath her. Someone had woken her up. Before she wanted to be awake. Gerda’s roars drove the birds from the trees and the hares back into their holes. The trees shook and rustled with the noise of animals fleeing. It was never wise to be around when Gerda was angry. And Gerda was very angry. Gerda stomped and bellowed. She clenched her fists and knocked down trees. Little ones, ones which she could quite easily uproot. Gerda made a mess of her forest. Because Gerda was Not Happy.
Somewhere, in another part of the forest, two small boys cowered. They had not left the forest when Gerda had begun to rage. They had frozen with terror. They had not heard her before. But they knew about her. They had been told about Gerda the Troll since they were very young. Everyone in the village knew about Gerda. Everyone knew that you had to be careful in the forest, especially in the winter and during the day. And you never went into the forest at night. Ever. For that was when Gerda woke up and went hunting. She hunted small children who wandered the woods at witching hour. She ate children who left their beds at night. Her cave was strewn with the bones of bad children who played outside after bedtime.
The forest and hills shook and trembled. The only sound was Gerda. She snarled and growled and gnashed and stamped. The children shook like leaves. They clung tightly to each other and tried not to whimper. Gerda had sharp ears and could hear everything. If they made a noise, Gerda would know where they were, and would catch them and drag them back to her lair and eat them for breakfast. Gerda liked fresh children. She would eat them whole before she could cook them.
“I WANT FOOD!” Gerda hollered. “I’M HUNGRY! WHO WOKE ME UP?!” The shout echoed through the valley. Gerda the Troll was angry, awake and hungry.
The children cowered closer together, terrified. They would be the food. They had woken Gerda. How they wished they had heeded their mothers’ warnings. They had thought that it was fine. It was daytime and winter was over, almost. Spring was on its way. Gerda should have finished her winter’s sleep. But they were wrong. Gerda had still been asleep. They had disturbed her with their playing. Somehow the noise of their game had made its way into Gerda’s lair. No one knew where Gerda lived. No one had ever looked. It was too dangerous. For Gerda reigned supreme in the forest. And no one went looking for her. That was the height of rudeness. Gerda would not have liked that. An invasion of her privacy. Gerda was very possessive of her privacy. She did not like people. Except to eat, of course, and then she preferred the tender young ones to tough adults. Adults tended to be a bit too stringy and usually got stuck between her teeth. And too fast. It was easier to catch children. Usually, it was youths who woke her. Young people thinking that they knew better, disbelieving their parents’ tales, believing that trolls only existed between the covers of a book. In fiction. Tales to frighten children into being good. Which, of course, they were. But they were also true stories. Gerda did exist. She lived and breathed in the forest near the village. And she hated badly behaved humans. So while they were stories to make people behave well, they were not entirely fictional.
The children trembled. Gerda’s shout echoed around the forest. No one had seen Gerda and lived before. No one could remember the last time that Gerda had allowed herself to be heard, let alone seen. Except by those whom she then ate. And even then the last time someone thought they knew better than to believe the stories had been many years ago. Poor Gerda had not tasted tender young human flesh for decades. Not that she minded all that much. She really preferred the food they left by way of apology, just in case they upset her. Most of all, Gerda liked the sweet things. The cakes and biscuits. She always went to sleep dreaming of the cakes and biscuits at the beginning of winter, licking her lips and eager for the spring, when she would begin receiving such tasty delicacies again. Especially those which seemed only to be left in the early part of the year, when she first began to stir. Nice buns, filled with cream and something sticky, something nutty. She liked those buns very much indeed. Her favourites. She just wished that they were left more often, throughout the whole year, and not just at the beginning. Perhaps they left the best then because it was the time when they were most likely to annoy her by waking her up too early, she mused.
The boys slowly began to gather their scattered wits again. Like all the villagers, they knew the woods rather well. Not, perhaps, as well as they might do if they had the liberty to explore it at will, without having to worry about a temperamental troll, but well enough to know that Gerda was still quite far away from them. They could see the edge of the woods from where they cowered. Bright sunlight streamed in through the breaks in the trees. But were they closer to the forest’s edge than Gerda was to them? They were not sure. Could they run fast enough if she was closest? Maybe. Their fear might give them extra speed. It might. They knew not. It was not something which was known of in the village. Gerda was only ever disturbed about once in a blue moon. Usually, they were all exceedingly careful about waking her and bringing her cake. It was taught to them from birth.
The boys dithered. They could not decide if they were close enough and speedy enough to reach the light and the safety of the village before Gerda caught either one or both of them. They stayed too long.
The villagers had gathered by the edge of the village. They had heard Gerda’s roar; they could feel the ground trembling and the fear of all. They knew that Lars and Olaf were missing. Young children clutched at their mothers’ skirts; older ones gathered in groups. Adults and children held their breath.
There was a sudden, happy, gleeful kind of gurgle, and two high-pitched screams blended into one. Almost, they harmonised. Gerda’s gurgle deepened and lengthened into a blood-curdling sort of chuckle.
The recipe for Gerda’s favourite cream buns (Swedish semlor) will follow in time for Shrove Tuesday, when they are traditionally eaten.