Characters in this chapter: Kristoff, Bulda and Sven. (Other characters will be introduced in the next)
This valley has seen years of magic. It is here where the cursed, the blessed and the unusual come to find refuge. These stones have seen powers unimaginable. They have provided advice and have healed the wounded. The grass in this valley seems to grow just a little taller. The moss, just a little thicker. The sky glows just a little brighter.
In the centre of the valley is a circular space, surrounded by towering stacks of lifeless rocks and hidden paths that lead into and out of the valley. One path is freckled with steam vents that constantly cough up bursts of warmth with a faint extra scent of rotten eggs. It is through here that a young boy frequently takes whenever he visits the valley. Any other traveller would get eternally lost without the right map, but this boy has the wilderness and its secrets held to memory. At the edge of the path is the forest; dark, secretive and dangerous, but the boy knows it well. He weaves betweens the trees on a sled pulled by a reindeer. When he reaches the path, he hides the sled in the bushes, for the sled cannot handle the terrain, and walks towards the valley, the reindeer walking beside him.
The unfortunate side effect of his frequent visits however, is that the sulphuric smell from the pathway clings to his clothes and skin. The smell is barely noticeable to a first time traveller but this, along with his natural body odour, dirt and reindeer, has defined his pungent scent. The valley, in contrast, smells of fresh rain and pinecones, whether due to the natural mists that hide the sulphuric smells or through some supernatural means, no one can tell. To a passer by, if there ever is one, the valley is completely empty. Stones covered in moss, are spread throughout the area. They seem a little too smooth and too round to be real but a passer by would not give it a second thought. The boy knows better. As he approaches the centre, the rocks hum awake. They spring to life and roll towards him, nearly crashing into him, and unravel revealing...
With pinched noses.
The boy, Kristoff, watches them with a confused expression.
A female troll immediately grabs his arm. His clothes are off and washed, leaving the young naked boy stuck in a hot spring trying to hide his modesty in the waters.
"Bulda, I can wash myself," he protests.
"Oh, can you?"
The trolls are his family and they have been for the past four years. While they have generations of magic within their rough stony skin and have witnessed humans with dangerous or beautiful powers, they have taken this young ordinary blond boy (and his reindeer) and made him one of their own. They know he washes well, but still he comes home always smelling a little worse than last time. Today is the day they decide that enough is enough.
Bulda's hands are gentle but still overly exfoliating and very quickly Kristoff's skin is rubbed raw. With the water's heat, his embarrassment and his skin scrubbed to thin-before-bleeding, he is as red as a summer cherry topped with a swirl of blond hair. The poor boy is at least thankful that no one but his family around him.
The other trolls roll about, quickly sewing any torn seams and wringing the clothes dry. Kristoff's reindeer friend, Sven, sits at the edge of the spring, enjoying the warmth without the wet. Reindeer don't need to be washed as often as growing men do, according to Bulda, so Sven is simply given a quick massaging brush with some bristly grass to bring out the coat's shine. Kristoff eyes Sven with as much fire as a glare could give.
"It's just whenever I visit you guys, the vents make me stink up or something. It's not my fault the path smells like leftover breakfast."
"If you don't wash yourself, how do you expect a girl to like you?" Bulda tips a bucket of water over his head.
"I'm telling you, I do wash myself! I'm not a little kid anymore!" Kristoff sputters as his hair falls over his eyes. "And I don't want a girl to like me."
At this fragile state in life, Kristoff is shooting up like a beanstalk discovering light but his future broadness and thickness is only just beginning to show. His chin and upper lip are revealing some awkward signs of adulthood. His nose is growing, his chin is extending and his round cheeks, to Bulda's disappointment, are losing their childish chubbiness.
As Kristoff sits limply in the warm water, Bulda lifts his arm and scrubs madly at the new sprouts of hair in his armpits. Even in the acknowledgement that Kristoff is not growing gracefully, the troll's mother pride swells within her chest when she realizes that she needs a few extra trolls to stand on to reach over his head. Even better news: his strength is increasing; he is already able to lift one of the newborn trolls at least an inch off the ground.
She guesses that his visits are becoming more frequent now due to his growing anti-social attitude towards fellow Man and that his transition from boy to teen is giving him much more trouble than he will ever admit. She promises to herself that she will always provide an extra ear when needed, though Kristoff rarely asks. She usually throws her advice at him anyway.
Bulda's hands drop heavily onto Kristoff's head and scrub away. His blond locks disappear beneath bubbles and his back immediately slouches from the weight of his mother's arms.
She pauses. "Have you not seen any girls around in town? Are you not interested in girls?"
Her voice hints at something.
"I'll be okay with whatever you like, dear! Including reindeer." Her hands massage his scalp with just a little more force.
"What? No! Sven's my best friend!" Even Sven perks up his ears, his face mirroring Kristoff's disgusted expression.
"So you've seen any girls around town?"
"We're changing the topic."
In truth, Kristoff had noticed a pretty brunette patting Sven's nose earlier this week. The story is not worth mentioning to Bulda, but its brief spark in Kristoff's interest in another human is still noteworthy.
From what he remembers of their short meeting, she was simply dressed but was clearly someone from a higher class. Kristoff is not one to pay any attention to rank – as long as a customer can pay for ice, it is good enough for him and to be frank, he has never considered that his own status as an Ice Harvester could be detrimental. He is aware of the differences between tailors and dukes, but none of this is any of his concern.
On that day, as she picked a few autumn flowers and tickled Sven's chin, Kristoff's eyes could not help but slip towards her direction during a bargaining session with her father. By the end of it, he definitely got less money than he should have for that mass of ice.
After loading the sold ice from his sled into the father's icehouse, he carefully approached her, well aware of his inexperience with people in general, hoping for some opening.
He caught her eye for an instant and gave a small friendly wave.
She raised an eyebrow, immediately judging him and she backed away slowly, moving to disappear behind the cart.
This is not the first time anyone has avoided him. While he is still unsure of how the opposite sex functioned or even how he should communicate to them, at the time, he was pretty certain that the immediate unspoken criticism and brush-off was insulting regardless of whatever gender she was.
Kristoff has a history of rejection throughout his life, whether from adults who do not think a kid Ice Harvester was worth paying any attention to or from children who once thought Kristoff was a liar because of his troll stories.
"It's true!" The then-nine year old claimed with a fast voice. "Sven and I visit them all the time. I mean, they're kind of like my family, I think. Bulda is the one who took me in. She's this big lady and she's like a rock and everyone looks like rocks except they sort of wake up when they talk to you and they're really heavy. Look this bruise here is from one of them rolling into me. But I'll take you to see them, if you come with Sven and me next time. They're really nice."
"... Kristoff, you're weird."
"Trolls don't exist."
"Don't they live under bridges and eat goats?"
In future years, until he meets a certain princess, he will grow more and more recluse, not due to a lack of confidence around others but simply because humans will matter less and less to him. His contact with humans is usually business and nothing more, although one could say that some of his mannerisms were borrowed from other Ice Harvesters subconsciously. The other Ice Harvesters he accompanies are acquaintances only when they are out on the frozen lakes, but when they retreat to pub houses at the end of the day, to share stories and reminisce about their wives, Kristoff wanders outside, to meet with Sven, fiddle with a lute or stare at the night sky. Still, an observant mother notices the influences, such as the way he sits – not tall like a gentleman with a proper posture but with certain heaviness, as if sitting is a declaration of his presence, like how other Ice Harvesters sit.
Another wave of water washes over Kristoff's present pre-teen self and wakes him from his little memory visit. Bulda continues to lecture, this time, her voice dropping to soft and serious tones. "If you do find someone, all they would want from you is for you to care. Everything else falls second place."
"What about my smell?"
"That's for all of us, dear." She hops from her troll-ladder to inspect the clothes, now hanging on a makeshift clothesline. "You're outgrowing your clothes so quickly, Kristoff. When you came home, your pants were above your ankles."
Behind Kristoff, the ladder unrolls revealing several Teen Girl Trolls. They all move to the edge of the spring to gawk at him.
"Ohhh baby-Kristoff's growing up." One giggles.
He suddenly feels an urge to drown himself and end his life right there and then. Instead, with his remaining dignity, he reaches for a mossy towel and pulls himself out of the springs.
"And he's getting taller too!" They tease and laugh. "His feet still have that funny shape though. You think he'll outgrow it?"
"You guys know I'm right here, right?"
He shuffles over to the clothesline and brings a sleeve up to his nose. The smell of sulphur is gone replaced by a forest scent, though there is still faint odour of him. He always washes his clothes thoroughly when he is on his own, but somehow the trolls always manage to do something a little extra to make the smell genuinely pleasant and not simply passable. Only in a few weeks, his sweat will overpower everything once again. A new patch is at his elbow, sewed on by another troll, but his pants are hopeless and still too short.
As he dresses, Bulda holds out his hat, smoothing it out in her hands. "I want you to purchase some new clothes for winter."
"Something thick and warm."
"Don't come back sneezing and shivering like last time!"
She places the hat on his head and pats his cheek. "Come home again soon, dear."
"Ok, ma." She embraces him tightly around his waist. He hugs her back without any hesitation, appreciating that even with all her inappropriate pushiness or unnecessary criticisms, she cares for him, as do the other trolls.
Sven nudges Kristoff's elbow. Fully clothed, the young teenager stands, just a little taller than at his last visit. Kristoff pats his friend's nose and climbs onto his back. With approaching winter, business will definitely dip a little (though harvesting will be at all time high), but he hopes that he could at least be able to treat Sven and himself to a rented warm stable.
He waves a goodbye and the trolls wave back.
The trolls' home gradually disappears behind him. As Sven walks in the direction of his concealed sled a voice calls back to Kristoff: "Come home next time with a girl..! Or a boy...! Or a reindeer!"
Kristoff's heavy groan echoes.
The trolls in this strange valley find fungi to be fashionable and a sign of adulthood. They decorate their bodies with glowing stones. Little secrets trapped in bottles hang as necklaces. They find beauty in healthy moss and lichen. To Bulda, Kristoff might be an ordinary kind of boy with unmanly blond hair, plain brown eyes and the inability to grow mushrooms on his back, but when he hugs her and the other trolls and gives a smile as wide as the stretch of aurora borealis in the sky, she can't help but feel her own heart ignite and think that he is truly extraordinary.
Spoiler alert: He doesn't come home with a girl next time (until years later).