In a castle flanked by fjords, so very far from everything that the winds rarely raised its banners, there lived a troll princess. Her mother was a troll queen, by virtue of a castle and a bad temper, but queen she was, and her ambitions did not end at the still shores.
The queen did her daughter the very great service of forgetting her, vanishing for months or years, and the princess grew solitary and strange in her absence. The princess was polite to her servants, who served only nominally (being trolls themselves). She took her turns with the many, many chores that even a magical and desolate castle required so as not to disintegrate into nothing but drafts and mice. She held fine feasts on days of trollish note. She had never once ordered anybody’s head cut off. She was, therefore, beloved, as princesses go. Trolls have little use for centralized government, only a great fondness for pomp and ceremony, and they lack the instinct to resent the solitary and strange.
The princess lived in a tower, which the queen had reason to believe was fashionable. Dagrun—in her tower she could think of herself by name, while in the world outside she was always the princess—kept her own council and laid her own plans in her curving chamber beneath the stars.
She sat one winter’s day with a rare map of troll country and the stranger lands beyond. Her thoughts were far afield, and her mother had no part in them. The queen’s returns usually came with a number of trumpets and speeches, but on this cold, quiet morning, she appeared like smoke in the doorway.
“You have ink on your nose,” she snapped, by way of greeting.
“Usually,” Dagrun agreed, as she had long ago learned it mattered very little what she said in her mother’s presence.
The queen—if she had ever had another name, it was forgotten now—pulled Dagrun by her elbow to the window. A ship sat in harbor, its decks bustling with the inscrutable tasks of sailors. If she was supposed to intuit anything from the sight of it, she failed.
“Your husband is aboard,” her mother told her when the silence stretched too long. “You’ll marry him on the Longest Night.” Without waiting for a response, she swept out of the room.
Dagrun weighed her feelings dispassionately, as befitted a princess whose passion had never made much mark upon the world. She had no interest in a husband, and less in pleasing a mother who could never be truly pleased. More importantly, she had plans for the Longest Night, only a week hence.
She was, however, at least somewhat beholden to the relations of trollish lands to the other realms. If she were only Dagrun, she would have gone on with her maps and left her mother to disappointment. But a princess, even a princess plotting her escape, had duties.
Dagrun stowed her notes in a chest that had once contained her dowry gold, long ago traded away to her own ends. The chest took her little maneuvers personally and sang a woeful note whenever it was opened. Entrusting it with something of value muffled the worst of its song.
She did not change her dress, but she did wipe the ink off her nose.
A stranger sat at the royal table, scowling at a feast that was admittedly not much to the castle’s credit. The servants had had no more warning than the princess, and Dagrun nodded to each maid in solidarity as she drifted by.
Her betrothed was soft and small, face flatter than a cat’s. She stationed herself beside him, tail lashing in tight, silent circles too controlled to disturb her skirts. Many heartbeats dragged by before he noticed her. When his eyes finally wandered in her direction, he snorted. “Even the serving maids are ugly, I see.”
Quite happy to be a servant as long as his foolishness allowed, she picked up a nearby flagon and stood with it beneath her chin. Not much of a disguise, but not much was needed. “Forgive me, sir, yours is an uncommon face in these parts.”
“I’d expect so!” He growled, and the rough sound niggled at her memory. “Tell me about this princess of yours.”
“She’s rather plain and a bit peculiar, but I know no harm of her, sir,” said Dagrun with perfect honesty.
“I’m to marry her.” That growl again. “If I don’t escape the witch, first.”
“Witch, sir?” Witchery was hardly a distinction in troll country.
“The queen of this place. My step-mother.” Oh, her mother had been busy. “I’d nearly broken that curse of hers, but that fool girl got nosy, and now I’m bound to marry a princess with a nose three ells long.”
Her nose was her best feature. Just like her mother to mention that and leave out the rest. “What sort of curse was it?” Even Dagrun didn’t think marrying her constituted a curse in and of itself.
“I’d become a bear as long as the sun was in the sky,” he explained.
“A great pity, sir.” It was. As a bear he’d have been some use. There was the growling explained, though.
He didn’t thank her for the sympathy, as he didn’t thank the chair for holding him off the floor. “None was to lay eyes on me in man’s form for a year and a day. And then I’d have been free.”
“But this girl did, sir?”
“Farmer’s daughter, very pretty thing, but empty headed. Peeked while I slept. Well, more fool she. I’d have married her if the curse were broken. Lost herself a prince.”
Out of questions and patience alike, Dagrun set the flagon at his place and walked away, letting her tail whisk as it wished. If he really was a prince, then her own last act as princess couldn’t be to sneak away. She’d need to make him responsible for the dissolution of this foolish plan. No trouble would fall, by her doing, on her castle or her shores.
She slipped out a side gate and down to the docks. The castle—unlike the princess, the castle had no secret name for its own use, and might have been the worse for it—stood at the edge of troll country. Further inland, nothing of the mortal realms penetrated, but a ship had carried the bear-prince, and a ship required the services of a wind.
A telltale ripple marred the mirror of the ocean, too far from shore for her to have much hope. Dagrun abandoned her stately stroll and tore down the pier. Hair, skirts, and tail whipped behind her with the wind’s efforts to push her back. An undignified leap landed her in the sea, royal trappings and all, but she surfaced with a single laurel leaf in her hand.
Dagrun fished herself out, needing three tries to climb up without losing the leaf. A very old man waited on the docks, arms crossed. He was white and spindly as a birch tree, and his beard must have weighed half again what he did himself. He looked very tired. “You again?”
“Hello, North Wind.” Of course. She’d hoped for the West Wind—a far gentler member of the family—whom she’d met only once, but blowing so far as troll country had almost done for him. She’d had to let him sleep in her tower for a week and never saw him again thereafter.
“And what would the princess have of me this time?” He glowered fiercely. She’d made an enemy of him long ago for daring to bind him and pepper him with questions about his travels. She had to admit to her own rudeness, but she’d been young, with so few ways to learn about the world beyond the castle.
Dagrun would rather offer hospitality, for she was a princess as well as a troll. Instead she met him with a cold serenity to match his own, for she was a troll as well as a princess. “You blew my bridegroom here.” Let him think she wanted the marriage. She wouldn’t put it past him to report to her mother. “What can you tell me of him?”
“Can’t hold me long, Princess.” The leaf in her hand struggled against her fingers. Soon he would have his breath back. “And while you might bribe me, I do believe your gold’s all gone to the elves. That is, if what I’ve heard when I whistle through their caverns is true.”
Now she had to hope he wasn’t reporting to the queen. Admittedly, a princess whose mother was a witch and a troll had her own ways. Gold was gold, and elves had a weakness for the stuff that overpowered their better judgment. Her dowry had purchased maps and traveling gear. Task complete, the gold would not wait demurely in any hands but hers.
Dagrun took a steadying breath, showing no nerves. “My husband, North Wind.”
“Heir to a mighty kingdom of mortals. Used to the company of the loveliest human girls.” Dagrun blinked owlishly at him and the North Wind sighed. “They look a bit like huldra.”
Two huldra sisters worked in the castle kitchens. Though the smallest, most delicate troll kin, their habits when it came to humans were, rumor had it, rather carnivorous. She probably couldn’t avert a Diplomatic Incident with their help.
She realized a moment into her musing that the North Wind seemed to be waiting for her to reply. “Anything else?”
He looked disappointed, and Dagrun realized he’d meant to wound her feelings. Too late to pretend, now, and the North Wind eyed her suspiciously. “Not worried about catching his eye, princess?”
Dagrun looked all the way down her nose at him. “My mother isn’t the only one with tricks. I caught a wind. I can catch a prince.”
She’d pushed him too far. A gale whipped up around her, tearing the leaf from her fingers, and he was gone, leaving her cold and dispirited. The North Wind now hated where he’d once only disliked, and she’d gained nothing.
• • • •
Dagrun gave the bear-prince a full day’s scheming, her trollish thoughts tumbling along at a stone’s pace. To disappear was already a risk on her part, but she doubted the loss of a princess would discomfit her own folk overmuch. Insulting a foreign land, though, would bring discord whether she offended the prince by marrying him or by refusing.
The prince himself didn’t strike her as significant. He wasn’t especially clever, but more than that, he appeared to be incapable of devoting a moment’s attention to anybody but himself. He could not be an ally and had not the substance to be an enemy. Her best hope was finding a way for him to make such a fool of himself that even her mother would give up this odd alliance, and then at least the disaster would land squarely on the queen.
Her tower wasn’t nearly the comfort it had been, with a prince cluttering up the castle. The silent sea and mossy walls outside were better companions. She’d plotted all that pens could plot, and now she paced.
A soft rustle underfoot pulled her from her reverie. Beneath her boot was a single, dry laurel leaf.
Dagrun had silent feet, even as trolls go. She slipped unobtrusively along the wooden planks of the docks. She glimpsed the North Wind, but only for a moment before he blew away again. In his place stood what Dagrun did indeed take for a huldra at first, but her back was all of a piece, not a hollow tree trunk, and she had no tail. Not her kin, then, but one of the human women they mimicked.
This one was about her own age, and she looked raw and hungry. Dagrun had neglected her princessly duties, between interrogating a wind and plotting against her betrothed. Here was a chance to make amends and offer hospitality. She gathered her skirts and strode toward the stranger.
When the human turned to her, a golden apple fell from her pocket and rolled up the slope of the docks to rest at Dagrun’s feet—an apple made from her own dowry gold, reforged by elfish cleverness but still determined to return. She hoped the elves had traded it fairly away, but best she keep above ground for a while. She didn’t think she’d like meeting angry elves who thought her a thief.
Distracted by the apple, Dagrun missed her chance to speak like a gracious hostess. The human drew herself up to an inconsiderable height despite wide eyes and pale cheeks. “Is this the Castle East of the Sun and West of the Moon?”
The Castle, having never heard itself named before, loomed above them with greater interest. Dagrun patted the nearest pitted stone block. “I’ve never heard it called that, but we’re off the roads of sun and moon alike.” The sky above troll country was mostly stars, light from the twin charioteers barely visible over the sea. “Good a name as any.”
The human swallowed. “Is there a prince held here?”
“Short, silly, talks about himself a lot?”
The girl’s face twitched in the rusty and unaccustomed direction of a smile, which Dagrun returned just as uncertainly. “You can keep the apple if you can get me to his room tonight,” the human said so quickly the words ran together.
Dagrun pocketed the apple, where it settled with ease, so pleased it was to be returned to her. The girl didn’t need to know that it would not have consented to return to her regardless. “There’s a wardrobe you can hide in until dark.” She’d be glad to rid herself of the prince, but letting him be assassinated would still be a Diplomatic Incident. Better to ask. “You’re the girl he was going to marry, aren’t you?”
A long moment went by before she nodded and added, quietly, “Frida.”
Were humans so free with their names? Perhaps Frida had even less reason to love her rank and her place than Dagrun did. She nodded politely, but did not offer her own name in return. Manners, not foolishness.
It ought to have been difficult to maneuver Frida safely and subtly within, but a trollish castle can be clever in its affections. They weren’t interrupted once, though a few maids found themselves inexplicably disoriented.
When the prince appeared at breakfast the next morning, Dagrun went to check on Frida. She found her looking dejected and even more tired and hungry than before, but her chin was high, and her eyes were sharp. She held out a golden comb as eager to leap into Dagrun’s hands as the apple had been. “Can I stay another night?”
She couldn’t help wrinkling her nose this time. “Why?”
Frida was silent. Dagrun shrugged, agreed, and fetched Frida breakfast, asking the castle to keep an eye on their guest when she went. The comb joined the apple, back in Dagrun’s dowry chest, which sighed with irksome delight at this near-total restoration of its treasures.
The second morning, Frida was curled in the corner of the wardrobe, so exhausted and miserable that Dagrun dragged her to the tower despite her protests, half carrying the fragile creature and pushing her straight into bed.
She slept all day. The faint smell of flesh and fire from the kitchens suggested another awkward dinner forthcoming before she stirred.
Frida stared around her in obvious fear when she woke, a scrap of weakness closely guarded, and then sat up straight. “I have more gold, if I can have another night.”
Dagrun folded her hands in her lap, admiring the unconquerable little monster in her bed. “What do you want him for?” The bear-prince simply could not be worth the gold and the trouble.
“He promised he’d marry me.”
“Yes, but why do you want him to?”
Frida’s hands twisted in Dagrun’s quilt. “I have four brothers and seven sisters, and that’s just the ones that lived. My father buried two wives before my mother. The land is more stone than soil, and every house of every neighbor is just the same. Better a stupid sot with a castle than a stupid sot with a leaky cottage.”
Looking at the four-poster bed that held her guest, Dagrun realized uncomfortably that, whatever her troubles, there were privations a princess would never know. Frida’s bargain was sensible enough. “But why marry at all?”
Frida frowned, her fine-boned huldra’s face creasing in ways that made it almost interesting. “What else would I do?”
Dagrun pulled out the apple and comb, kicked the chest shut before its wailing caught anyone’s attention, and set them within Frida’s reach. “You could live a lifetime on these.” Maybe not this gold in particular, which was already inching back toward its true mistress, but generally speaking. “Not in a castle, maybe, but a cottage of your own that wouldn’t leak.” Frida’s frown failed to smooth away, and Dagrun felt herself grow flustered to an unfamiliar degree. “Your gold is elf make, and magical. You convinced the North Wind to do you a good turn, even if it might only have worked because he wanted to spite me. You could walk any road you wanted.”
Looking up from the gold, Frida surveyed the chaos of Dagrun’s notes and instruments and puzzlings. Her bright eyes settled on an orrery on the windowsill. “So could you, princess.”
While Dagrun meant well to the helpful human who might spirit the prince away, she didn’t trust so far as to explain her plans just yet. “You were in his wardrobe for two days. What happened?”
Frida hmmed consciously. “Couldn’t wake him up.”
“He does like his wine. I’ll slip him a potion tonight.” She wasn’t the enchantress her mother was, but the gold creeping back to her hinted that the difference between a princess and a witch is no difference at all. “Does he have anything you gave him, or made him?”
“I was the farmer’s daughter he swept off her feet. Nothing to give.”
Dagrun’s modest magics worked best on sympathies already forged. “There must be something. Come help me look.”
Frida followed Dagrun to the prince’s chambers in incredulous silence. Dagrun hoped for a quick answer, but there wasn’t much to his possessions. The queen had whisked him away too quickly to bring his own luxuries.
Dagrun saw enough to justify Frida’s mercenary practicality, though. Her life with him would be easy but for having him in it. And if the prince was the one to turn down this marriage, Dagrun would be free to walk away from her life as a princess, leaving peace as a parting gift.
And all for the cost of Frida’s freedom.
“Silly ass, he kept this,” Frida said with a downright trollish snort that cut through Dagrun’s musing. She held up a perfectly ordinary shirt. When Dagrun cocked her head in question, Frida pointed to a cluster of tallow spots on the shoulder. “Might be wisest that I disappear this. He doesn’t need to be reminded I betrayed him.”
“It would be easy to clean,” suggested Dagrun, quite lost.
“No, sillier than that. Always is with him. When he first brought me home it was as a bear—”
“So he tempted you with much better company than he could really provide?” Dagrun covered her mouth demurely. She had the habit whenever she felt a smile coming on.
Frida laughed and looked surprised at herself. “Just so. When he came to pester me at night it was always in absolute darkness. Because of the curse, but he didn’t think to explain that to his peasant pet.”
“He didn’t tell you he was cursed.” Dagrun wished that felt like a question. Of course. A few words and none of them would be in this mess.
“Of course not,” Frida sighed. “When I visited home, my mother spared me a bit of candle to get a look at him while he slept.” Dagrun wondered what it was to have a mother that would spare you anything at all. “He shouted a lot when I woke him up, and he was gone the next morning.”
“And you followed him here on a spiteful wind’s back.” Perhaps the huldra was not a trollish imitation of a human girl, but a human girl a sort of troll with all her strength coiled under the solid skin of her back. “The shirt’s enough. I can bind you both through the tallow, but we’ll need some way to make it stick.”
Frida swallowed and produced a golden spindle from her pocket with an air of grim finality. Dagrun tucked it away, wincing at the longing in Frida’s lovely eyes, and thrust the golden apple into her hand before it could fall back to her side. Her magic would be stronger with a price paid. The apple was a gift granted freely in its turn.
She told the gold very firmly to stay put. “In case you decide you’d like a cottage. Or anything but a bear-prince.”
Frida looked up at her in silence. Dagrun swallowed around something very trollish indeed and utterly unprincesslike, something that tasted alarmingly of the passions she kept tamped down with sense. “You’re too good for him,” she heard herself say from the bottom of her voice, and her tail lashed like a chariot cat’s.
“They’ll be wanting you downstairs, princess.” Frida’s voice was steady, steadier than Dagrun’s, but her pale cheeks had gone dark around her freckles.
Frida seemed distressed, and Dagrun was a bit alarmed at her own outburst. She gathered up the rest of her questions and tucked them away for later. “You can wait in my room,” she said in tones of utmost practicality. Frida’s blush darkened further and, for reasons even more rare among trolls, Dagrun’s did the same. They were quiet all the way up the tower, the castle pressing close around them.
• • • •
The Shortest Day before the Longest Night, the day Dagrun had always intended to leave the castle, the day that was to be her wedding, another feast was laid in a decidedly desultory manner. The servants were dead weary of the charade.
Dagrun wore her best gown. It best concealed the tunic and trousers underneath.
At breakfast, the bear-prince announced he could only marry the woman who could clean the tallow from his shirt. The troll queen must have spotted the magic that coursed through the declaration, but Dagrun didn’t think her mother saw her hand in it. To know a witch’s workings, even a queen must know the witch.
With all the court assembled and all her mother’s will battering the geas she and Frida had laid, Dagrun tried and failed to clean the tallow spots away. She scrubbed and struggled with honest determination, trusting her own enchantment. The stains that locked cursed to curse-breaker defied her.
Pinning Frida into Dagrun’s oldest gown and convincing the two huldra sisters to play along had taken half the night. Coaching the prince claimed the rest. He only had one line, but when he pointed at the little human so precariously disguised, he bungled even that. “I’m sure even my maid could manage such a simple task!”
His maid. If the queen hadn’t been spitting fury she’d have noticed and they might have toiled in vain.
Frida hardly had to touch the wash bucket for the stains to vanish. The prince was apparently sincere in his delight. Frida was, in her flat, small, human way, very beautiful, and she would bear with his nonsense as no one else was bound to do.
Dagrun tore her gaze away from Frida and left the hall, determined to leap through the window that chaos opened.
She shed her finery as she went. The castle wasn’t in the uproar she’d hoped, as no one but her mother was actually upset by the proceedings, but gossip and giggling covered her escape almost as well as shouting would have. She paused only when a little lump of stone cracked off the wall and hurled itself into her path.
Dagrun pocketed the bit of the castle. Wouldn’t do to abandon an old friend. No use dwelling on what she would abandon.
She stopped at the top of the first hill to look back over the sea. The ship that had carried the prince to troll country was readying to sail. Frida would have her security, her full belly, her pretty gowns, and only the trouble of the bear-prince to pay.
Something golden glinted below. Not the cool, soft gold of Dagrun’s dowry, but a gold touched by an honest apple red. A color she’d only seen in a human girl’s braids. The troll who was no longer a princess watched the small figure climbing the hill in a silence she was unaccustomed to, the silence of the dumbfounded.
“Hello,” said Frida, pink-cheeked and still wearing Dagrun’s old dress. “I decided you were right.”
“Oh.” She swallowed. “About your cottage?”
“No. About doing anything I liked.” She held out the golden apple, pulling itself home to Dagrun again. “Do you need this back?”
“I don’t.” Dagrun was used to choosing her words. Being at a loss was new.
“Where are you going?”
“To see the sun’s chariot, and the moon’s, when her brother crosses her path. To the fossegrim’s forest and the frost giant cities in the glaciers. To the elves’ caverns, if they forgive me. To the realms of mist and fire and the land of the dead.” The journey, once she set foot on the road on this day of deepest magic, would manage itself. She had simply expected her footprints would be the only ones to stretch behind her in the snow. “Would you like to come?”
“Princess,” began Frida.
“Dagrun,” whispered the troll whose name was no longer her own concern alone.
“Dagrun. Yes.” Frida smiled up at her with no rust at all.
Spread the word!