Olaf and Lars
Olaf and Lars tread on, four paws and two feet tromping through the snow.
Olaf was Lars’ ice bear, and Lars was Olaf’s person. It worked out well that way.
Sometimes Olaf provided the food (salmon, which Lars cooked), and sometimes Lars provided the food (bread, which Lars bought whenever he had a few coins). They were a team.
The falling flakes of snow were fluffy and wispy. They slid off Olaf’s fur, but stuck to Lars’ wool sweater.
“The sun is going down,” Lars said, and Olaf looked up. Lars laughed. Olaf’s black eyes and nose reminded him of the joke every child knew. Drop three stones in the snow. What is that? An ice bear in a snowstorm.
They must be in the Dovrefell mountain range by now. Good. That meant they were more than halfway through their trip.
They were on their way to see the King, who paid good money for the privilege of watching animals perform. Usually people said “watching animals do tricks,” but nothing Olaf did was a trick. He was intelligent and skilled. When he danced around a sword or walked a tightrope it was as much a performance as that given by any human acrobat.
But he would perform only for Lars. Sure, the King might be in the room as well —- a thousand people might be there as well -— but anything Olaf did, he did for Lars alone.
Lars smiled, reached out, and stroked the bear’s thick, white fur.
They were a team.
The king would no doubt lavish coins on them. His Majesty might even invite them to stay and join the court. It would have to be the both of them, though. Lars would no more sell Olaf than he would sell his brother.
Olaf snorted. Lars looked around. Yes, that was smoke rising just over the hill.
“Well done, friend,” Lars said. They were going to see the King, but meanwhile they wouldn’t mind spending the night with a roof over their heads.
The smoke rose from the grey stone chimney of a one-story log home. Its steeply pitched roof was blanketed in snow. The door and window frames were painted red, and light poured from the curtainless windows.
Lars knocked on the heavy, oaken door. It opened just a crack.
“Yes?” asked a man’s voice. Lars could see one eye, part of the man’s nose, and some reddish beard.
“My apologies for disturbing you,” said Lars. “But I wonder if you have a room to spare for the night for myself and my bear.”
The door closed, but Lars could hear muttered conversation, one voice higher than the other.
The door opened again. “No,” said the man. “I’m afraid not.”
“We can pay,” said Lars. He only had a few coins, but he was willing to part with one for someplace warm and dry. Olaf didn’t mind burrowing into the snow for the night, but the cold gave Lars a crick in his back.
The door closed again, and this time the conversation was louder. Lars distinctly heard a woman’s voice yell, “Idiot.”
The door opened wide this time. The man said, “You can’t stay the night, but you might as well come in for a little while. I won’t turn a stranger away on Christmas Eve.”
The man was burly, with a full red beard and waves of red curls spilling down to his shoulders. He wore the simple, drab, homespun clothes of a farmer or woodcutter. His wife was tall and thin, her long, blonde hair wound in braids on either side of her head.
The couple’s home was neither large nor small. There was just the one great room typical of rustic housing. Dark, wooden beams ran across the ceiling and the floor was whitewashed. In the middle of the room sat a long table and six chairs. A box bed was built into the wall. Red and blue rosemaling all around depicted not only the usual budding flowers and entwined tendrils, but also angels.
Lars had been walking with Olaf for so long that he had lost track of the days, but, yes, it must be nearly Christmas. Lit candles shone throughout the room, sitting in bright blue ceramic or polished bronze holders.
The table was laid for a feast. On top of the crisp, white, linen tablecloth were platters, bowls, and cups filled to overflowing. There was aquavit, mulled wine, and beer. Lutefisk, red cabbage, and mashed turnips. Cloudberries in whipped cream. Three kinds of roasts. A finely-woven basket of birch roots was piled high with flatbrød. And . . . Lars breathed in deeply.
Ahh, that was a smell from his childhood. Risgrøt. His mother had always made the rice porridge fresh on Christmas Eve morning, filling his childhood home with the scents of cinnamon and vanilla.
Each of the six place settings had its own bowl of risgrøt. Lars’ stomach rumbled. Lucky guests. He wouldn’t mind a bowl. Olaf could probably polish off the other five.
The wife frowned at Lars and crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Well, Halvor, now what?”
The red-headed man — Halvor, obviously — said, “Helge, we can’t turn him away.”
“What about that!” Helge said, pointing to Olaf.
“Is there anything left over?” Halvor asked. “Maybe some cheese? A bit of fish?”
“You know there isn’t,” Helge said. “It’s all for . . . for Christmas.”
Halvor turned to Lars. “The reason we can’t put you up for the night or give you anything to eat is that every Christmas Eve a family of trolls descends on us. They eat everything, drink everything, and then sleep it off in our bed and all around the house. We were just about to leave for my sister’s for the night. They barely have room for us. I’m sorry.”
“This magnificent banquet is for a bunch of trolls?” Lars asked.
Halvor nodded sadly. “Every Christmas Eve.”
“Why do you host a family of trolls?”
Helge took off her apron and hung it on a smooth, wooden peg. “It’s not by choice,” she said scornfully. “They picked us. Heaven alone knows why. Maybe I accidentally poured wash water on one when he was invisible. Maybe Halvor chopped down one of their favorite trees. Who knows! All I know is that a dozen of them are about to show up. They’ll eat and carry on and leave the place a mess.”
“A dozen?” asked Lars. “The table is only set for six.”
“We only have six place settings. It doesn’t stop them. They sit on the table. And in the sink. And on each other.”
Halvor shook his head. “For years now they’ve shown up and demanded a feast. At least we don’t have to stay and watch.”
“And if they aren’t happy with what we’ve left,” said Helge, “they say they’ll tear the house down.”
“Trolls, eh? Well, they won’t bother me,” said Lars. “I’ll sleep in the cupboard, and my bear can sleep under the stove.”
Four pedestals lifted the cast-iron stove high above the wooden floor. The stove rose taller than a man and ended in a black pipe going through the ceiling. Designs embossed in the iron showed a crown atop sheathes of wheat, and cannons and horses as well, which meant it dated from the days of the old kings. But old as it was, the woman kept its black iron surface shining slick like beaver fur in the light of the roaring kitchen fireplace.
“Try it out,” Lars said to Olaf, and the bear ambled over and squeezed in under the stove. “How’s it feel?”
“What are you saying to it?” asked Helge.
Wasn’t it obvious? Lars was always amazed that other people couldn’t understand what he was saying to Olaf, nor what the bear said to him. Ever since he had met Olaf, on a fjord in the northernmost lands years ago, they had never had any trouble communicating.
“Olaf told me it was a tight fit, but nice and warm.”
“If you want it, the house is yours for the night,” said Halvor, and he and his wife hurried out the door.
Darkness came quickly, and the front door burst open. Lars peeped out the cupboard door to see the trolls.
As Helge had said, there were twelve of them. Some were large as a man, and some were small as a goat. Some had long tails with spikes and some had short tails with thorns. Some had long noses like sausages and some had little noses like pigs. Their ears were pointy and their bodies were hairy. They screeched or growled or grunted. All had fiery red eyes like burning coals.
With loud chomping they tore at the joints of meat and guzzled the wine. They scooped up half-crocks of butter with whole pieces of flatbrød. Crumbs and juices flew everywhere. And — oh, worst of all — they plowed through the risgrøt, spilling most of it all over the table. Lars had to close his eyes. Such waste!
They wailed out songs about wine and songs about food.
They toasted Halvor and his wife.
They started shouting out a Christmas song, but changed the words so that it was about the joys of eating and drinking.
Lars craned his neck to look over at Olaf, who was cozy and slumbering under the stove. He was amazed that the bear could sleep through the din, but then, they had walked an awfully long way.
Lars heard a scraping sound, and saw that one of the chairs had tumbled backwards.
One of the smaller trolls came wobbling towards Olaf. He put a piece of sausage on a sharp fork and poked the bear in the nose.
“Pussy, will you have some sausage?” The troll’s voice was raspy and high-pitched. “Pussy, pussy-cat.” He poked harder.
Olaf shot out from under the stove, roaring. His claws and teeth slashed at the troll, who spun around, long, tangled hair and matted tail flying out behind him. He smashed through a window and ran into the night screaming.
Fool, thought Lars. He could forgive the troll for not knowing Olaf was an ice bear — after all, who ever saw an ice bear this far south? But surely everyone knew not to poke a sleeping cat.
The remaining trolls froze in the middle of their carousing. Olaf growled. The trolls dropped their oranges spiked with cloves. Olaf roared, opening his mouth as widely as possible and showing that he could swallow the smallest troll in a single bite. The trolls dropped their beer tankards and scattered out through the door and windows.
The room was quiet.
Olaf gave a snort of righteous indignation, rubbed his nose with a forepaw, and then returned with dignity to his rest under the stove.
Lars climbed out of the cupboard, closed and bolted the front door, and walked around, checking that all the windows were as secure as possible. Halvor was going to have to replace some glass, but it had stopped snowing outside, and the fireplace was still giving plenty of heat.
Lars examined the leftovers on the table and found a little the trolls had not touched. He carefully took half and gave it to Olaf. After all, they were a team.
On Christmas morning, Lars told Halvor and Helge all about the night. They grimaced to find three windows broken, but there was only half the usual mess of food and drink scattered about. Best of all, their bed had not been ruined by trolls. It was the first time in years Helge hadn’t had to burn the sheets, blankets, and pillows.
And they all laughed at how the trolls had taken Olaf for a cat.
One year later, on Christmas Eve morning, with the sun shining brightly, Olaf and Lars passed back through the Dovrefell range.
“Are you sure?” Lars asked the ice bear. Olaf was sure. “The very same house? Halvor and Helge?”
Olaf snorted more emphatically.
Lars strained his eyes at the thin column of chimney smoke rising far off. “Well, all fireplace smoke smells the same to me, but if you say so. These birch trees all look the same as well, but you may be right. It could be their house.”
Lars said, “Yes, of course you’re right.” He laughed. “I certainly ought to trust your nose by now, old friend.”
Olaf said that that wasn’t what had made him growl. He smelled something else. Something unpleasant: Troll.
“Perfect,” said Lars. “You can scare them off again. Where are they?”
Olaf led the way through a small stand of trees to a hill. Lars slowly climbed to the top, peeked over, and saw Halvor hard at work gathering firewood. Lars almost called out to him when from over another hill a troll popped its frightful head up.
“Halvor! Halvor!” called the troll.
“Yes,” sighed Halvor. “Here I am. What do you want? Helge and I are busy preparing tonight’s feast.”
“Have you got your big cat with you still?”
Lars bit his lips to stifle a laugh. The trolls thought Olaf lived there still.
Halvor put down the armful of wood and said, “Indeed we do.” He cleared his throat and used the same tone Lars’ grandfather always used when making a pronouncement about Fishing or This Year’s Harvest. “She is at home now, resting under our stove. And she’s got seven kittens, each bigger and fiercer than the last.”
The troll’s red face turned pale. “Perhaps,” it said slowly, “my family will spend Christmas Eve elsewhere from here on.” He popped down out of sight behind the hill, and Lars heard crashing as the troll ran off through the forest.
Lars signaled for Olaf to climb up, and the two of them sat on the top of their hill.
“Well done, Halvor!” called Lars.
Halvor looked up, and, after a moment of surprise, smiled broadly. “Hello again, you two.”
“I guess you won’t be needing us to keep away the trolls.”
Halvor shook his head. “No, but I could use a hand with this firewood.”
Lars and Olaf slid down the hill. Lars began picking up logs, and Olaf grasped a large branch in his mouth.
Halvor asked, “How did it go with the King?”
“Quite well. But not even a king can afford to fill the belly of an ice bear for more than a year.”
“Well you are welcome to join us for dinner. After all, we owe our freedom to you.”
“Will there be risgrøt?” asked Lars.
“Of course.” Halvor looked at Olaf, “And plenty more besides. In fact, enough to feed a dozen trolls. Hmmm. I know. I’ll invite my sister’s family this year. So Olaf’s appetite may have competition.” Halvor laughed. “My sister’s little son Magnus — he eats like a troll.”
“Olaf and Lars” © Kevin Lauderdale. This story is a reprint
Kevin Lauderdale has written essays and articles for the Los Angeles Times, The Dictionary of American Biography, and McSweeneys.net His short fiction has appeared in Nature and several of Pocket Books’ Star Trek anthologies. He hosts the Old Time Radio podcast, “Presenting the Transcription Feature,” and co-hosts “Mighty Movie’s Temple of Bad,” the podcast about movies that are so bad, they’re practically a religious experience, both on The Chronic Rift Network. He is a member of SFWA and HWA.
“Team” digital painting by Fran Eisemann. stock from Pixabay, creative commons, and NASA.
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