The Ancient Modern

Ambrose and the River Troll /  Joshua Alan Sturgill

Once upon a time…

…there was a very lazy boy named Ambrose who did nothing all day but sit on the front step of his mother’s cottage and make fun of the people in his village—which was very rude of him.

Look at that old woman who knits all day, sitting alone and worrying about her grandchildren. She’s probably off to get more yarn for scarves and blankets. When I grow up, I won’t be all alone and poor like she is.

And there goes the girl who dyes the cloth. Everyone in her family has stained hands from dye and sweaty faces from leaning over boiling pots. When I grow up, I’ll wear fine clothes and not have to make them for myself.”

Every so often, Ambrose would also see the old monk who lived down by the forest, dressed all in black and hurrying by on some errand for his hermitage. The boy would laugh loudest at him.

What a useless life he leads,” the boy would say, “living out in the woods not doing anything for anybody else. When I grow up, I’ll be very important, and everyone will respect me.”

Ambrose talked and boasted like this to himself all day until his mother called him inside for supper.

You had better stop all that nonsense about our neighbors,” she warned him. “Laziness and rudeness will attract the attention of the River Troll, who preys on lazy children. If you’re not careful, the River Troll will hear you and catch you for its dinner.”

Ambrose’s village was deep in the mountains by a wide forest river. An old stone bridge crossed the river and was the only way in or out of the village. Sometimes the River Troll who lived under the bridge would sneak onto the road. Stories were told of travelers who were deceived by the Troll, lured away and never heard from again, so the villagers were always careful when crossing the bridge.

But Ambrose thought the story of the River Troll was all nonsense, and he continued his lazy habit of talking rudely to himself while awaiting his supper.

One day, his mother was out rather late buying vegetables. The afternoon grew very hot and humid, causing Ambrose to feel rather sleepy—when suddenly, he was startled by the appearance of a beautiful woman he had never seen before walking directly up to the cottage door where he sat. She looked at him very closely, as if studying his face.

I am the queen of the fairies,” she said. “I have wishes to grant, and I travel through the towns and villages until I find someone worthy to receive them. I have decided you are the most handsome and clever child in the village, and I am able to make you very wealthy—if you can finish three tasks to make the power of the wishes come true.”

Ambrose was surprised, but delighted all the same, and without much hesitation he said, “I amhandsome and clever, and I can do anything you ask. The people of my village don’t know how important I am. They’re just poor and stupid.”

The woman seemed satisfied with this reply. “The tasks I will give you, you will easily finish,” she said, “since you are so clever. But for the magic to work, you must be quick as well. All three tasks must be finished—three items must be gathered—all in one day. You must start early in the morning and meet me at my home in the forest before sunset.”

Ambrose stood up proudly. “What do I need to find?” he asked. “I will easily bring three things to you.”

Then listen carefully and do exactly as I tell you,” the beautiful woman explained. “Gather the three things all in one day, and they must be handled very carefully—they mustn’t be scratched or marred or damaged in any way. These are the three things: first, one of the knitting needles of the old woman who knits for her grandchildren who live far away. Next, a length of finished purple cloth from the family of dyers. Finally, the brass candlestick from the monk who lives at the edge of the village. His home is closest to mine, so when you have this last item, you must meet me by the River Bridge. Begin early tomorrow and be done by sunset.”

Of course,” boasted Ambrose, “I can do it all in half a day!”

I’m sure you can,” said the woman, smiling widely, and with a flash of light, she disappeared.

Well now,” said Ambrose to himself, “my mother needs to hurry home and make my supper so I can rest well and be up early.”

But Ambrose was not accustomed to getting up early, or to making plans for himself, or to going very far from his own front door. He woke with a start after the sun had been up a long while. Quickly dressing and taking a long drink from the well, he started off for the house of the old grandmother, which was close by his own.

Sweat began to stand out on Ambrose’s face as he hurried along. The sun was hot, and he was out of breath. Most of the villagers were indoors, and the few out on the roads did not pay him any attention. He reached the old woman’s cottage, looked around to be sure no one was nearby, and peered through an open window.

It seemed there were only two little rooms inside—a sitting and sleeping area up front and a little kitchen behind. Ambrose saw that he had arrived just as the woman had set her knitting down and gone back to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. As quick as he could, he went to the front door, found it open and dashed inside.

Ambrose’s village was a very peaceful and trusting place, or he would not have found his task so easy. As it was, the woman’s chair was near the door, with her needles kept in a basket of yarn. Ambrose grabbed one and ran back outside. He was short of breath, but full of glee. He’d finished the first task on the list!

Carefully, he put the needle deep inside his shirt so it wouldn’t be scratched, and hurried off toward the house of the dyers.

This next task proved to be more of a challenge. The girl Ambrose often saw running errands was the youngest daughter of the family, and she did much of the work selecting dyes and buying fabrics and selling to customers. She was busy discussing prices on cuts of cloth with a group of merchants. Ambrose didn’t see a way to get past them, so he walked around to the back of the house and looked over the garden wall.

Behind the dyers’ cottage next to the garden beds, several lines were strung and colorful pieces of freshly-dyed fabric were hanging to dry in the sun. But the wall was high, and the windows of the cottage were open to the backyard. Even as he watched, the girl came outside to pull a cloth from the line.

Ambrose began to worry. It was already afternoon, and a long way still to the monk’s humble hut and then a little way further to the river. He would have to risk getting caught.

As soon as the girl was back inside, and he heard voices discussing the price of the cloth, he scrambled over the wall. He got himself very dirty and scraped his hands and almost lost the needle. He rushed along the gardens to hide in the hanging fabric. “Purple cloth,” the fairy had said. There were many pieces of cloth and very many colors—but one large square of a rich, deep plum, newly dried.

Ambrose reached up to unfasten it where it was hooked to the line with three heavy clothespins. Just as he fumbled with the last pin, there were footsteps at the back door. He panicked and gave the cloth a great pull and heard a tiny rip as the cloth came free. He stuffed it in his shirt with the needle and ran for the wall. Up, up, over and down before anyone could catch him.

But they had seen him. The girl was calling out for her family as he ran down the street toward the edge of the village.

It doesn’t matter,” Ambrose thought, pausing in the shade of some trees, trying to catch his breath. “When I’m rich I’ll buy her a whole bolt of cloth to replace it.” Then he realized that he was not only out of breath from running. He was scared. He had never been scared before. And he suddenly understood, too, that he was stealing. It had been so easy to take the needle from the grandmother that it seemed fun and almost like a game. “Maybe she could be blamed for not being more careful of her own belongings,” he had laughed.

But this was different. Uncomfortable. And he remembered the torn edge of the cloth. “Oh no!” he muttered, and took it out to examine it. The beautiful fabric was smooth and evenly dyed linen, a bit springy and wonderfully textured. It was perfect—except for one small tear near the corner where it had caught on the pin.

Maybe she won’t notice,” said Ambrose to himself, already forgetting his concern about stealing and folding the cloth so the tear would be hidden inside. He resumed his way toward the hermitage. It was longer than he anticipated, downhill and winding, and though he vaguely knew the way, he wasn’t exactly sure he was on the right path.

Not until much later did he find the monk’s house. He was very tired, very hungry, very anxious. Shadows were getting long, and Ambrose knew the monk must soon be preparing for sunset prayers. Hiding behind a nearby tree trunk, he looked inside the house. The monk was quietly cleaning, opening books and lighting candles.

Ambrose decided he must act quickly. “I’ll buy him lots of candles when I’m rich,” he said to himself to justify what he was about to do. For one moment, the monk was busy in a far corner of the room and Ambrose took the chance. He burst through the door, startling the monk and knocking over a table and a chair. There were lots of wooden candlesticks and one large, heavy candlestick of brass on a shelf in front of the icons. He grabbed it, and ran back out the door.

Wait!” exclaimed the monk. Then he saw what direction Ambrose had gone, and he called out, “Don’t go that way! Don’t go down to the river!”

But Ambrose barely heard him. Out of the edge of the forest, down the road and down the slippery bank to the bridge Ambrose ran.

Just in time! The sun was low in the sky as he reached the place where the dirt road met the paving stones of the bridge. The beautiful woman appeared in front of him. “Quickly now,” she commanded. “Come inside. There is still time for the magic to work.” Without thinking, Ambrose followed, red-faced and panting—not across, but beside, and then… under the bridge. A large square door appeared in the masonry where the arch of the bridge met the muddy ground, and the woman pushed Ambrose inside ahead of her.

The room was large and dim, with only one window high up in the stone wall. A weak fire sputtered in the fireplace across from a small bed, a table piled high with unwashed dishes and bottles of magic potions and foul-smelling old clothes. Ambrose did not like the look of the place, but was too tired to do anything but stand in a corner and try not to faint.

He wasn’t very used to exercise of any kind, and the constant running and fear and thinking had worn him out completely. He handed the three stolen items to the woman and watched as she laid them on the table among the dishes and began to open bottles and chant and wave her hands over everything.

We are ready,” she said. “The magic has started, but it will take some time to finish. You are tired from being so clever and brave today. Why don’t you sleep for awhile, and I will wake you when the wish can be granted.” She indicated the bed by the fireplace. Too exhausted to ask questions, Ambrose lay down at once and fell asleep.

If only he had stayed awake! As soon as Ambrose closed his eyes, the woman began to chant even more quickly. Soon her appearance changed. Her beautiful face dissolved and the hideous, distorted face of the River Troll emerged.

Then, the three stolen things began to glow. The River Troll waved its hands over the needle, which became a heavy key. Then, it waved its hands over the purple cloth, which floated up into the air and settled around the bed where Ambrose lay. It became a cage around him, with close bars and a heavy door.

Then, it waved its hands over the candlestick, and it became a great, heavy lock to match the key. The Troll took the lock and key and— SNAP! —closed the cage with Ambrose trapped inside.

The snapping sound woke him, and in that instant he realized what had happened: a cage all around him and the terrible laugh of the River Troll ringing in his ears!

Now I’m off to get wood for the fire and a pot of water to boil you, and by morning, I’ll have a fine breakfast!” The River Troll continued to laugh as it walked outside and shut the door, leaving Ambrose alone in the dark room.

The Troll, of course, could have gathered water and wood while Ambrose was busy running around the village. But that wouldn’t have been good enough for the Troll. River Trolls love most especially greedy and lazy people, who taste delicious to them. Greedy, lazy children are their favorite meal.

And this Troll who lived near Ambrose’s village was magical, but not very strong, so it could only catch people through disguises and trickery. It first desired to increase Ambrose’s pride and greed as much as possible, and then get him to do bad deeds. That much was accomplished. All that was left was to leave him alone for a few hours in the dark to think about what he had done, so that regret and despair would be added to the greed.

A combination of grief and greed is the most appetizing to Trolls, because bad deeds and bad feelings are to them are what sugar and spices are for everyone else. It put the Troll in a happy mood to think about the deliciously bad meal it was about to enjoy.

Ambrose was, indeed, lost in despair. He had always been warned about the River Troll. He had always been told not to steal or be rude. But he listened to no one, and now he was caught in a trap, waiting helplessly to be the River Troll’s breakfast. He cried silently for a long time. But then something inside him changed. He was not anyone’s breakfast just yet. He was right under the road where travelers sometimes still journeyed even at night.

Help! Help!” he began to yell. “It’s Ambrose! I’m trapped under the bridge! Help me!” His voice echoed harshly off the stone walls and back at his ears. Maybe no one could hear him. The door of the cave was shut tight, and the only way out was the high, small window above him. He kept yelling for a long time, and just as he was about to give up hope a second time, all at once he heard a noise—a soft rushing noise like the wings of a bird.

Ambrose looked up at the window. A great black Raven had landed in the window with a soft thump and was looking down at him. Before he could think of what to say, the Raven flew down and settled on the top of the cage.

You must really be brave now and not merely foolish,” said the Raven, “because your life is in danger, and you may not escape.”

Who are you?” asked Ambrose, astounded.

I am the prayers of the monk,” the Raven answered. “As soon as you stole the candlestick and ran toward the river, the monk knew you had been deceived by the River Troll and I was sent to help you.”

I am very sorry,” said Ambrose, and he really was. “But how can I escape?”

Look carefully at this bar of the cage—look down to where it meets the floor of the cave.”

Ambrose looked down, and just where one of the bars was fixed to the stone floor, he saw a glint of something purple. It was a thread coming out from a place where the bar was twisted and hollow.

It’s the tear in the cloth!” said Ambrose excitedly.

When the Troll returns,” said the Raven, take hold of that thread and pull. The Troll’s magic will begin to unravel. Then while the Troll is busy with the fire, go to the table and take hold of the key. When you touch it, the magic will break completely.”

Ambrose nodded, and steadied himself, but he was still very frightened.

You must pretend to be asleep when the Troll returns, or it will suspect you. I hear its footsteps in the woods outside.”

The Raven flew up and out of the window just as the knob turned and the hinges squeaked. The Troll lumbered back inside with a bundle of firewood on its shoulder, carrying a huge iron pot of water. The Troll glanced at Ambrose, apparently asleep, with tear stains still on his face.

He’s cried himself to sleep. That will give him bad dreams and make him even more tasty,” smirked the Troll, and it turned away to arrange wood for the fire, humming an unpleasant song to itself.

Up jumped Ambrose. He took hold of the thread and pulled as hard as he could. It zagged back and forth along the bar of the cage, which disappeared like a blanket being unravelled. There was just enough room for Ambrose to squeeze through, and he dashed to the table. He found the key.

What should I do with it?” wondered Ambrose, but as he picked it up, the enchantment failed and it turned back into a needle with a sharp, shiny point.

Ambrose grasped the needle, and with his last bit of strength, raised it high over his head. He ran toward the Troll and plunged the needle as hard as he could into the Troll’s back. The River Troll gave a great bellowing yell and stumbled forward—with one final shove from Ambrose, the Troll fell headlong into the roaring fire.

All the Troll’s magic came undone in an instant. The cave walls shuddered and turned to mist; the fire went out with a POOF; and Ambrose found himself standing under the bridge with a knitting needle in his hand, a candlestick and a rather worn piece of purple cloth lying at his feet. The morning sun was just beginning to shine through the forest trees.

Ambrose wanted to get away from the bridge as quick as he could. He picked up the stolen things and scrambled back in the direction of the monk’s hut. He knocked when he reached it, and immediately the monk threw the door wide and exclaimed, “I was up all night for you! You escaped the River Troll, and you must be so tired and hungry!” The monk gave Ambrose a delicious breakfast of beans and bread and listened to the full story of the Troll’s deception.

After his meal, Ambrose thought about his misadventure with the Troll. “I used to think the old grandmother was foolish, and the girl who dyed the fabric, too. And I thought your prayers were useless. I was wrong about everybody, but now I don’t know what to do.”

The monk listened carefully and said, “I think it will be alright. The people in the village will forgive you, and your mother loves you very much. But you will have to return what you stole and make amends to everyone. Now that you have had something to eat, you must go back right away. They will still be looking for you.”

Ambrose went back to the village. The people rushed out of their houses to meet him. “We were so worried,” they said. “Your mother searched all night, and the monk said you had been captured by the River Troll.”

I escaped by the monk’s prayers,” Ambrose explained. “I’m fine. But I have to see the dyers and the grandmother who knits, and return what I stole from them.”

Ambrose returned what he had taken, and made amends for his thefts and apologized for his previous rudeness. To repay some of the grief he had caused, he helped the grandmother clean and repair her cottage. He also went to the cloth-dyer’s family and gave back the piece of cloth, now soiled and torn. They accepted his apology, and he offered to help with their trade. He became very good at weaving and dying cloth, and not many years later asked the girl with the stained hands to marry him. She accepted, and the whole village came to celebrate their wedding.

As for Ambrose’s mother, she was grateful to have him back unharmed, and very proud of him for escaping the River Troll. The town’s prosperity increased with more traffic able to cross the bridge in safety. And so, Ambrose and his family lived happily ever after.

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

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