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Authors: Michelle Houts

Winterfrost (8 page)

BOOK: Winterfrost
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“Come inside,” the nisse said, pointing toward the tiny door.

“What? I can’t . . .”

“Indeed, you can,” he assured her. “Just reach for the door.”

Reach for the door? Her hand alone was bigger than the door!

“BET-TINA! BET-TINA!”

Should she trust this small stranger more than a longtime neighbor?

“Now!”

Bettina, still lying on her stomach in the snow, glanced over her shoulder and saw Mr. Pedersen appear in the distance. When she looked back at the tree, the old nisse had disappeared and the tiny door was firmly closed.

She had only a moment to decide what to do next.

With her eyes closed tightly, Bettina thrust her hand into the space beneath the root. She felt the tiny latch and pushed down. The door opened, and with a sudden rush of air, she felt herself being pulled inside.

Bettina stood eye to eye with three little people inside a cozy kitchen in a tidy house.

“Forgive me, Bettina,” the old nisse man spoke, “for our rather rushed introduction. My name is Gammel. Welcome to our home.”

Gammel extended his hand and Bettina shook it, amazed to see that
her
hand looked small in
his
!

“I did not have sufficient time to warn you,” Gammel continued. “I know you must be a bit surprised.”

Surprised, indeed. Bettina wasn’t sure what she thought would happen when she reached for the small door beneath the crooked oak, but she never expected to find herself standing inside such a beautiful, brightly lit kitchen with a handful of . . . yes, she was quite certain they were . . . nisse.

Bettina may have been speechless, but her hosts were not.

“Hello, my dear. I’m Pernilla,” said the nisse woman, her smile so broad and her eyes so kind, Bettina couldn’t help but smile in return. “Gammel is my father.”

Pernilla was neatly dressed in a crisp white blouse and a long green skirt that swished as she took a step toward Bettina and clasped her hand. On her head perched a tall cap just like the little nisse man wore, only Pernilla’s was green. Long blond braids with just a hint of gray hung down either side of her face.

“Welcome,” the third nisse chimed in — another man. His beard was also gray but not nearly as long as Gammel’s. “They call me Hagen,” he said, his voice deep but friendly.

Bettina glanced around. Where was the nisse she had chased through the woods? The frantic little man with dark curls and a droopy hat? He had seemed younger than Hagen — though age was a difficult trait to judge among nisse, she decided. Just how old was Gammel, the grayest of the nisse?

Even though she had a million questions swirling around in her head, Bettina couldn’t for the life of her form one in her mouth.

“Come, everyone,” said Pernilla. “Let’s have cider.”

Immediately, two nisse toddlers, one boy and one girl, appeared from behind Pernilla. They took Bettina by the hand and led her to a finely crafted oak table.
Twins
, she thought,
just as the book had said.
They each sucked on a pacifier, one pink and one green. The children remained at her side, gazing at her, pacifiers bobbing as they sucked.

“Meet Tika and Erik,” Pernilla said as she busied herself at the stove, which was a grand piece of workmanship made of iron and painted green with an intricate heart-and-scroll design. “Please, dear,” Pernilla said. “Sit.”

Bettina sat at the beautifully carved table, her mind slowly registering what it was, exactly, that she was sitting on: an overturned walnut shell! She’d been too stunned to realize it earlier, but now it hit her like a fat acorn dropped from high above. If she was able to sit, feet dangling, on the top of a walnut shell, if she was able to look eye to eye with the old nisse she’d met outside, then something unbelievable — something
magical
— must have happened to her on her way in.

Gazing around the room in awe, Bettina noticed other familiar items being used quite imaginatively. In the corner near the fireplace, neat piles of dried leaves sat in an old bird’s nest, ready to be used as kindling. Twigs were stacked for firewood. Fireflies perched in small glass globes filled the room with soft yellow light.

Gammel and Hagen joined Bettina. Pernilla carried four cups of steaming cider over to the table. Taking a seat, she whispered something to the nisse children, who detached themselves from Bettina’s side and tottered to a rug made of thick green moss to play.

“Please, drink,” Pernilla urged.

Staring into the caramel-colored cider in her cup, Bettina realized that the cup itself was a hazelnut shell. She drank, and the warm sweet-tart liquid on the back of her throat felt as good as it tasted.

She observed Tika and Erik as they took two large round acorns from a woven-grass basket and began to spin them on their pointy ends, like tops. Surely the acorns had been gathered from the ground beneath the big gnarled oak tree that Bettina had visited so many times. These were the same acorns that she had been able to carry by the handfuls, but here in the nisse realm, they were as big as softballs! Tika and Erik giggled as their spinning acorns slowed and then toppled sideways. Pia would love these young nisse and their toys! But Pia was nowhere to be seen.

Bettina didn’t wish to be rude, but she hadn’t come to socialize.

“You said Pia wasn’t here,” she began.

Gammel nodded in agreement. “I did.”

“But you said she should be. Why?”

Pernilla sighed. Hagen cleared his throat and took a long drink from his nutshell cup.

Finally, Gammel spoke.

“Well, Klakke brought her to us earlier today. Do you know him?”

“Klakke?” Bettina had never heard the name before, but she suspected she’d seen this nisse man. “Is that who I followed here?”

“Yes, indeed. Klakke has been with your family for twelve years,” Gammel explained.

“With my family? He lives with us?”

“In your barn. He cares for your family and your animals.”

“Twelve years,” Bettina repeated. “Why, he’s been there since . . .”

“Since you were born,” Gammel said, finishing her sentence. “He’s done well for your family, that Klakke. We’re quite proud of him.”

“Oh,” said Bettina. She had to ask. “And my family? Have we done well by Klakke?”

Gammel smiled. “Of course you have.”

“But —” Bettina protested, remembering that just days before they hadn’t remembered to be kind to their nisse. Their Klakke.

As if he knew exactly what she was going to say, Gammel held up a stubby finger to stop her.

“Klakke is young. He didn’t take the time to learn the facts about your mormor’s fall. If he had, he wouldn’t have been so unhappy about the rice pudding.”

“You mean the
lack
of rice pudding.” Bettina sighed, wondering how Gammel knew about Mormor’s broken hip.

Gammel nodded.

“Is that why he took Pia?” Bettina asked, as another sip of warm cider slid down her throat.

“No,” Gammel answered slowly. “No, Klakke took your sister because he was curious. A bit foolish, too, I might add. But he did the right thing in the end. He brought her to me.”

“But she’s not here?” Bettina heard herself ask, confused.

“No, I’m sorry to say she is gone again. And this time, I’m afraid, it wasn’t Klakke who took her away.”

By now Bettina was having a hard time following the conversation.
Pia was here; Pia wasn’t here?
Things weren’t getting any better.

“Someone else took Pia? Who? Do you know?”

Gammel nodded.

“Yes, I believe I do. But don’t you worry, dear girl. Old Gammel knows how to take care of this.”

Bettina was about to ask Gammel whom he suspected took Pia when Hagen stood.

“Please excuse me,” he said, finishing the last sip of cider from his cup, “but I must leave. There’s much work to do outdoors now that night has set in.”

Hagen removed his red cap and bowed his head to Bettina.

“It’s an honor to have met you, Miss Larsen.”

Then Hagen kissed Pernilla and was gone.

“I’m too old to go out and work.” Gammel winked. “I do my best work by the fire these days.”

“How old
are
you?” Bettina blurted, and immediately regretted how rude she sounded.

Gammel didn’t bat an eye at the question of his age.

“Three hundred ninety-two.”

Bettina’s eyes grew round.
“Years?”

Gammel’s gray mustache turned upward with his grin.

“Years, indeed.”

Was this possible? She tried to remember if the book had said anything about the life span of nisse, but she drew a blank. Bettina turned to Pernilla, who nodded.

“Oh” was all she said. Could they hear the doubt in her voice?

“It is hard for you to believe,” Gammel said knowingly. “It is old in nisse time, but it is ancient to the human way of thinking.”

Tika and Erik, tired of spinning acorns, toddled over to the table. Bettina noticed the tiny pacifiers had nearly disappeared, dissolved like sugar. Were they
candy
pacifiers? Human babies would lose their teeth if they sucked on candy all day — and just think how long a nisse has to keep his teeth! But every nisse she’d met so far had a beautiful smile.

Pernilla had been following Bettina’s gaze.

“We make them ourselves.” Pernilla blushed. “From sugar beet syrup. We use the discarded beets left behind by the farmers in the fall.”

Amazing!
thought Bettina. The nisse world was so full of surprises, she was sure she wouldn’t know about all of them even if she stayed a hundred years! But she had no intention of staying at all.

Bettina turned back to Gammel and the business of finding her sister.

“Hagen said it’s dark now. I have to leave.”

“Well, you’re correct on one of two accounts.” Gammel nodded. “It is dark outside now. Our day is just beginning, while yours is near its end. But there’s no reason for you to leave. You must be exhausted.”

“No,” Bettina objected without thinking. “There are barn chores to be done at my home. And my sister — can you tell me where I can find her?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know exactly. But I’ll be working on finding out while you sleep.”

Sleep? How could she possibly be tired? But the more she thought about it, the more she realized that she
was
tired. Her body ached from a day spent in the cold, damp forest, and her mind struggled to keep up with each event that was taking place.

Pernilla and Gammel shared a knowing smile and a nod. But it was Gammel who spoke.

“Besides,” he told her, “your barn work is done for the night. I have sent Klakke to care for the animals for you.”

Bettina heard Gammel, but his voice seemed to be coming from far away, and keeping her eyes open was becoming more and more of a challenge.

“But what about Pia?” Bettina asked, her words nearly swallowed by an enormous yawn.

Once more Gammel nodded.

“Hagen is making the necessary inquiries as we speak. We will work together to bring her home. I promise.”

If Bettina had heard and fully understood these last words, she would have found them quite comforting. But she hadn’t. Before Gammel finished talking, her head was on the table. She was fast asleep.

Bettina woke the next morning in a cupboard. At least, that was the best way she could describe it.

Sitting up, she took in her strange surroundings. She was in a bed, and a rather comfortable one at that. She stretched as she tried to wake her mind and body simultaneously. She felt rested and calm for the first time since —

The previous day’s events, including Pia’s disappearance, rushed back to her, and if it hadn’t been for this strange little closet she found herself in, she might have doubted whether any of it had actually happened. She closed her eyes and willed away the panic that threatened the peaceful feeling she’d had when she awoke. Gammel had promised to reunite her with Pia. That was what she thought she’d heard as she’d drifted off to sleep, and Gammel didn’t seem like the type to make promises he couldn’t keep.

Bettina turned her attention to her surroundings.

The little room was no bigger than the bed itself, which took up every square inch of the floor. There was a wooden ceiling and four wooden walls. Three of the walls were bare honey-colored oak, but the fourth wall appeared to be made of two doors with wooden handles. She was still wearing the same clothing she’d had on the day before, but someone had removed her boots and replaced them with the warmest, fluffiest white socks she’d ever seen.

BOOK: Winterfrost
8.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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