By Kaylyn Gangestad
The trails winding through the Scottish countryside were deserted as Sven Reiniger carefully followed his map, having been marked by a nearby local, to a small village that overlooked Loch Broom. To call it a village was an overstatement for it was made up of only a few sparse cottages seated upon the craggy rock. Seclusion and privacy were the creed of the few families brave enough to call those barren hills their home and Sven Reiniger was impressed by their fortitude.
Great rocky hills spread out across the horizon as if they were the only desolate pieces of land in the world and the dull hum of Loch Broom carried over the colorless fields. It was a place of grays and blues, a place the sun could never seem to pierce through the dense clouds. Although Sven was accustomed to the sun, he appreciated the gray stillness of Scotland. He adjusted his satchel and strode up the uneven patches of trail, listening to the distant call of seagulls.
It didn’t take long for him to find the home he was looking for. It stood a fair distance from the road, shielded by two great Perth trees and an impressive tangle of ivy and rock. He walked up the crumbling stone steps and knocked gently on the door covered in dying ivy.
He was greeted by a middle aged woman and her husband. They moved hesitantly and glanced at him with caution from behind the door. There was fear in their tired eyes.
“Mr. and Mrs. Boyd, I presume? I am Sven Reiniger.” Sven kindly tipped his hat. “I have come to see your daughter.”
“Mr. Reiniger!” the woman greeted warmly. Her accent was heavy and cheerful. She took his chilled hands in hers and smiled for what must have been the first smile in a long while. It hung on her face like a broken hinge. “Please come in, come in.”
The couple ushered Sven inside and led him to a small den where he was seated at a rickety slab of a table and immediately served a cup of tea. A warm fire was burning and helped ease the cold that had sunk into Sven’s bones. The house, through no fault of its own, was a dark one. Hardly any natural light could slip through the small, narrow windows set high in the walls, but the house was clean and cared for. There was love in that tiny cottage.
Sven sipped his tea and pulled a notepad from his satchel as the Boyds made themselves comfortable across from him. The couple held each other’s hands tightly, almost fearfully, as if one might disappear or float away.
“Would you like some sugar, Mr. Reiniger?” the wife asked.
“No, thank you,” Sven politely declined. “I like my tea strong and bitter.”
“We hope you didn’t have too much difficulty finding this place,” Mr. Boyd said apologetically. “It’s kind of a pain to find by visitors. All hidden in the rocks and such.”
“Not at all,” replied Sven. He showed them the mark on his map. “I am not a man afraid to ask for directions.”
The Boyds smiled, but the smiles were heavy and wrong. Sven licked the tip of his pencil and put it to the notepad.
“You rang me a couple of days ago about your daughter. What happened?”
The Boyds looked at each other, clearly weary to discuss the details. The wife gazed into Sven’s blue eyes, like she was determining whether or not he could be trusted with such sensitive information. Sven stared politely back with the air of a person ready to believe anything he was told. She sighed and slowly nodded her head.
“We called you because we heard you are an expert when it comes to dealing with strange happenings. Our daughter, Gracie, disappeared about a month ago. She was gone for about two days before a neighbor found her wandering mindlessly by herself. She’s been acting weird ever since,” Mrs. Boyd said in a whisper. “It’s like she isn’t there anymore. She doesn’t talk or smile or anything. She barely eats. She just lays in her bed unable to do a thing. She’s so out of it that she can’t even tell us what happened while she was missing.”
Sven scribbled some notes down.
“I don’t think she can even hear what’s going on,” Mr. Boyd added. “She’s like a shell, all empty. We sent for the doctor, but he said everything was fine physically. He couldn’t explain the listlessness, stupid bugger. Something is wrong with our poor Gracie.”
“May I see her?” Sven asked as gently as he could.
Without any words, the couple led Sven to a small room in the back of the cottage. The halls were lit by shapeless candles that flickered as they walked past. They slowly opened a door which revealed a young girl’s bedroom. There were pictures on the wall drawn by small, carefree hands. Stuffed animals and dolls lined the shelves. Toys littered the floor. What should have been a cheerful place emitted a feeling of foreign stillness.
The daughter lay motionless on her bed, covered by a thick quilt. Sven went to her while her parents lingered in the threshold. The girl’s pale eyes were open and stared vacantly at the ceiling. Her emotionless expression was unsettling and undeniably unnatural. It was no wonder her parents were concerned.
Sven checked her pulse and shined a light in her eyes. He gingerly inspected her arms, her legs, and her neck. He pulled out a stethoscope and listened to her heart and monitored her shallow breathing. Her skin was pale and clammy. She made no attempt to show she knew what was going on. She was, in every aspect, unresponsive, but nonetheless alive. Sven turned to her parents.
“I believe I know what happened,” he said in a low, serious voice. “In order to heal her though, I need to know if she’d been playing anywhere strange as of late.”
The Boyds looked at one another.
“Some place strange?” the father repeated. “What do you mean?”
“Maybe a cave or somewhere secluded. A dark place,” Sven clarified. “Had she been playing somewhere where no passing eyes would have seen her?”
“She was found outside a cave,” Mrs. Boyd said with worry in her voice. “It’s not far from here. She used to go gathering flowers there. It’s in this pretty little field. The most beautiful autumn flowers bloom there this time of year. That’s where she was found.”
Sven packed his things back into his satchel.
“You must take me there at once,” he urged.
The wind had picked up and dark ominous clouds were forming over the Loch. Night would soon fall. Breath streamed from Sven’s lips as he followed Mr. Boyd over the rocky terrain leading to the cave. His coat was not as weather-friendly as the native Scot’s and he clutched the fabric close to his chest.
It took ten minutes to reach the cave. Beautiful wild flowers bloomed at its base, thriving in the salty air. It would have been breathtaking had it not been for their perilous mission. Mr. Boyd led Sven near the entrance which was just tall enough for Sven to walk through if he crouched. Sven gazed into the cave unsure how far it crept into the earth.
“I don’t know what you think is in there,” Mr. Boyd said nervously to Sven, who was meticulously inspecting his satchel, “but if you think it will help my Gracie, God speed to you.”
The worried father handed Sven a lantern that threw an orange glow against the wet gleam of the cave walls. It was incredibly dark inside and Mr. Boyd shook as a cold wind whistled from its depths.
“You’d better be careful in there, Mr. Reiniger,” warned Mr. Boyd. “I don’t want a good man’s corpse on my hands.”
“I will,” replied Sven. “No need to wait for me, Mr. Boyd. I will be back within the hour. Prepare a hot meal for Gracie for I’m sure she’ll be starving when I get back.”
Mr. Boyd, with a look of puzzlement on his rough, bearded face nodded and began down the path towards his cottage. Sven watched as he disappeared over the hill before descending into the darkness of the cave.
It was surprisingly cold in the cave. Sven hugged the lantern close when he could for warmth. The entrance had a sharp decline, which sent rock and rubble tumbling down wherever he placed a foot on its soil. Using the lantern as his guide, Sven carefully tested every damp rock before giving it his full weight. It was slow progress, but he reached the bottom where the earth leveled out without falling. The inner part of the cave was a wide expanse of open area. Sven strolled through the darkness shining the lantern wherever its light could reach.
“Gracie?” he called out.
His voice echoed off the walls and trailed into hidden crevices he couldn’t see. A low, eerie hiss rumbled from the depths, returning his call. He froze and listened, trying to pinpoint the origin of the dangerous sound. Instead of another hiss, a small clinking of chains rattled in the darkness. Sven raised his lantern and squinted into the blackness as the sound drew near. From the shadows crept a tiny figure, frightened and pale. Its skin glowed in the dark like the moon.
“Gracie?” Sven asked the figure.
“How do you know my name?” the little girl asked.
Sven let out a sigh of relief and smiled.
“Your parents sent me to find you,” he replied. “I came here to get you and bring you back home.”
The small luminescent figure came out of the darkness. Gracie’s wide eyes met with Sven’s. It was the same girl lying in bed back at the Boyds’. She seemed overjoyed.
“Really? You came to get me?” she asked in disbelief. “I thought I was going to live here forever. I was so scared. I thought mama and papa forgot about me.”
“They haven’t forgotten you,” assured Sven.
He extended his hand out to the trembling girl, but Gracie recoiled into the darkness. Sven frowned, confused.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said.
“No, it’s not that. I can’t go with you,” Gracie whimpered. “I’m stuck here. That’s why I haven’t left.”
She moved her leg into the light cast by the lantern. A thin silver chain shackled around her fragile ankle sparkled in the lantern’s glow. Sven’s jaw tightened. A problem, one he had not entirely anticipated.
“How did this happen?” Sven asked.
Gracie’s head fell.
“He tricked me,” she whimpered. “I was picking flowers. He said he was a little boy who had gotten lost. He called to me. He wanted me to help him. When I came down, he trapped me.”
“Who trapped you?”
Gracie pointed into the darkness of the cave, shaken and destitute. Tears ran down her cheeks.
“You’re not going to leave me, are you?” she cried.
“Of course not,” Sven said, moving closer. He knelt down and lovingly grasped her glowing hands. “I’m going to get you out. I promise. Now show me where this chain leads.”
Gracie squeezed his hands.
“He’s scary,” she whispered.
“I’m not afraid,” Sven replied.
The two walked in silence through the winding cave following the silver chain that kept little Gracie bound to its shadows. Her hand quivered in his as she led him without the need of the lantern through narrow halls and cramped spaces. After following what felt like a very long and complicated path into the cave, Gracie stopped. The same low hiss that had greeted Sven earlier rumbled right in front of him. It came from a massive thing.
He raised his lantern.
Two large, yellow eyes glared at him from the corner of the chamber. Sharp grinning teeth twisted into a snarling grimace twinkled like swords and thick, swollen limbs could be glimpsed through the flickering of the lantern. Sven took a step back.
It was a troll.
The massive creature lurched forward causing a swift wind to rip through Sven and Gracie. Sven stood his ground, the lantern trained on the beast. Its hairy limbs uncoiled from the darkness. The sound its thick flesh made as it slid over the ground was sickening.
“What have you brought me, child Gracie? Perhaps a meal for this old troll?” it said.
The troll’s voice was deep and rumbled like a summer storm. Gracie shuddered behind Sven, unable to utter a single word. Sven stood between her and the putrid monster.
“Hello, Sir Troll,” Sven said to the beast. The creature breathed heavily from the shadows, its enormous eyes focused on the young man. They glistened with hunger and lust. “I have come in search of this child in order to bring her home.”
The troll laughed a low, devilish laugh which made the cave shudder and moan. He crept slowly through the darkness, circling around Sven and Gracie just out of the reach of the lantern’s light. He was but a shadow, a flash of flesh and teeth in the dark.
“To bring her home, you say. Foolish man. She is home. This cave is now her home. She has no need to return with you,” it chuckled.
“Unfortunately, she doesn’t belong here,” Sven continued. “I will bring her back with me. I will not leave until you free her.”
At this, the troll roared with laughter. Rocks and dust fell from the walls.
“What is your name, man?” it asked Sven.
“Sven Reiniger,” Sven replied honestly.
The mighty troll stared at him, its face masked by shadow.
“Well, Sven Reiniger, you shall not take this girl. She is mine now. She will forever dwell with me in this cave as long as the earth shall exist.”
Gracie began to whimper. Sven squeezed her hand reassuringly.
“Then I propose a trade,” Sven suggested. “I will give you something of equal value for this girl’s soul. What do you say to that, Sir Troll?”
The beast was silent and rocked back and forth on his huge legs. It smelled of rot and bile. It licked its teeth and moved closer into the light. Gracie jumped and hid behind Sven. The troll’s face was grotesque.
“And what would you give me in return?” it asked. “Your soul, perhaps?”
“Oh no, nothing so dull,” Sven replied. He reached into his satchel and retrieved a little glass bottle stuck with a red cork. He held it out to the beast as if it were a rare prize. “I will give you this in return for this child’s soul.”
The troll eyed it suspiciously.
“What is it?” it asked suspiciously.
“A solution to all lonely creatures,” Sven said to the troll. “It is a talking bottle. Merely lift it to your ears, remove the cork and it will tell you all the things you wish to know. It is a very rare item indeed, one that has helped me greatly throughout the years. It has told me many things, things that have saved me from many a misfortune. With it, I have never been alone, and I have never been harmed.”
A hairy hand reached for the bottle. Sven pulled away, grinning mischievously.
“Uh, uh. The talking bottle in exchange for the girl,” Sven said. “Free the girl, and I will give you this bottle. If the chain is not lifted from her soul, I will not give you the prize.”
The troll hissed.
“I could just kill you and take both!” it roared.
“The bottle told me you would say that, and in return told me how I could kill you if you refused to give me the girl,” Sven warned.
The troll froze, its hairy face wet with fear and sweat. It mumbled and shifted in the darkness, retreating to a corner and fading into the shadows once more.
“What kind of bottle is that? What kind of magical thing have you got?” it cried.
“One I’m sure you would love to have,” Sven said. “This girl cannot tell you secrets and reveal the weaknesses of others. With this talking bottle, you could do just that.”
The troll thought and as he thought, he thought himself cleverer than Sven.
“I will take the bottle and ask it how I can kill this Sven Reiniger, and eat him before he can take the child Gracie away with him. His own magic, talking bottle will be his doom. I will be able to trick even more children into coming down into my cave,” it thought.
Sven waited expectantly, Gracie shaking behind him.
“Very well, Sven Reiniger. I accept your offer. The girl for the talking bottle it is.”
With one frighteningly strong swing of his arm, the troll broke the chain around Gracie’s ankle. It rippled and melted away into the cave floor. Gracie rubbed her free ankle and glanced happily at Sven who softly patted her head.
“Here is your new talking bottle,” Sven said, turning to the troll. “Take it, remove the cork and ask it whatever you desire to know.”
He handed the glittering bottle to the writhing troll who eagerly plucked it from Sven’s palm.
“You fool!” the troll cried in triumph. “I will now ask the bottle how to kill you! You cannot outsmart me!”
Gracie screamed, but Sven touched her lightly on the shoulder as a sign that everything would be okay. He slowly backed away, shining the lantern on the troll as he moved.
“You must listen very closely,” he advised the troll as he and Gracie backtracked the way they had come. “Ask it your question, and hold it up to your ear. Listen as carefully as you can. It will tell you how to kill me.”
The troll laughed as he pulled the cork from the bottle and asked it his question.
“How do I kill Sven Reiniger?” it bellowed.
There was silence.
Sven pulled Gracie close and the two of them crawled through the narrow corridor that led to the troll’s chamber. The troll sat, listening intently to the bottle pressed against its ear, unaware that its captives were escaping.
“Hold it very, very close to your ear, Sir Troll,” Sven again advised from the narrow corridor, still pushing Gracie along. “It will tell you how to rip me apart and eat me, I’m sure.”
The troll continued to sit, listening for anything to come from the bottle. Sven and Gracie hurried back through the narrow halls and cramped spaces, the troll oblivious to its blunder. It wasn’t until Sven and Gracie were safely out of the troll’s reach and more than half way to the cave’s entrance that loud, horrendous shrieks echoed through the cave.
“Dirty Sven Reiniger! You tricked me! This is no magical talking bottle. It is a plain bottle. Curse you, dirty Sven! Curse you!”
The cries and threats of the troll followed Sven and Gracie all the way to the entrance, where it sounded like nothing more than the wind howling through the tunnels. Gracie, still glowing, hugged Sven and kissed him on the cheek.
“You saved me!” she cried, tears running down her face. “Thank you, Sven!”
“I promised you, didn’t I?” he replied cheerfully with a wink. “Lucky for us that trolls are such wickedly dumb creatures, eh?”
“So it was just a bottle?” Gracie asked. “It wasn’t magic at all?”
“Not one bit,” Sven chuckled.
The two made their way back to the Boyd house under the cover of night. The lantern bobbed on the trail as they went. Sven breathed warmth into his hands as they marched along the rocky path. Gracie did not notice the cold in the slightest. In no time at all, they arrived at the little cottage Gracie had not seen for more than a month. With her hand still nestled in his, Sven knocked on the door. Both Boyds answered, their faces filled with shock.
“Dear God, Mr. Reiniger! You’re filthy. Please come in,” Mrs. Boyd said.
Sven stepped inside, cold but content. He handed the lantern to Mr. Boyd.
“Thank you for the use of your lantern,” he said. “It came in handy.”
Soup and potatoes were boiling on the stove. Gracie looked around like a sparrow who had just realized it was spring. She was ecstatic to see her parents, but neither one looked in her direction. She orbited around them, desperate for attention. She said things to them, tugged at their clothes, anything to get their attention. Neither noticed her.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” asked Mr. Boyd.
“I certainly did,” replied Sven.
It was then that little Gracie realized her parents couldn’t see her.
“Why can’t they see me?” she asked Sven, who was warming himself by the fire.
Smiling, Sven led her to her bedroom where her body lay hollow and cold on the bed. Gracie looked at herself with baffled interest.
She touched her cheek, the cheek of her listless counterpart, and frowned.
“That’s me,” she said. “But I’m me.”
“You’re the important part,” Sven corrected.
Very gently, he lifted her and placed her on her body. Gracie’s shimmering soul sank into her limp body until nothing was left but Gracie’s inert frame. Suddenly, like a gust of wind, Gracie coughed and breathed like it was the first time she’d done so since she was born. Her parents, amazed, rushed over. Crying and laughing they picked her up, and hugged her. Through her coughs and tears, Gracie hugged them back.
“Oh, thank you, Mr. Reiniger,” the parents sobbed. “Thank you so much for saving our little girl! We don’t know how you did it, but from the bottom of our hearts, thank you!”
Sven just nodded, happy to see the family united.
They all had rich soup and potatoes for dinner that evening, and though they insisted that Sven stay the night, he politely declined, saying he had other places to be. Before he left, he told the Boyds to burn lumber in the cave and seal it, with strict instructions to never let anyone go down into its depths as long as it stood. The family agreed and did just that the following day.
All that could be heard from the cave as it was sealed was the low rumbling howl of the wind through its winding halls.
Kaylyn Gangestad is a college graduate running around the world with her husband, trying to figure out when they’ll settle down. Coffee runs through her veins. She is an avid lover of corgis and imagination.