Once upon a time there lived a girl who was neither a princess nor a noble farmer's daughter. Rather, her father did the taxes for their small village, and her mother taught the village children and passed judgments on their parents. They lived fairly comfortably in their yellow house, which was a little too large to be cozy, with creaky stairs and pictures that refused to stay on the walls. The girl was their only child, but if they were asked if she was their pride and joy, there would have been some hesitation while the father contemplated his paperweights and the mother thought wistfully of the shawl upstairs. But they loved her dearly and did not complain very often that she was not terribly beautiful. When her sixteenth birthday came and went without a prince or a frog falling in love with her, they stayed silent. When her seventeenth birthday passed and she had not stumbled upon a magic treasure trove or befriended a fairy, they started sending her worried glances and kept having conversations that awkwardly broke off whenever she entered the room. By her eighteenth birthday, after she had failed to anger a witch or fall into an enchanted sleep, they had become seriously concerned.
Meanwhile the girl, oblivious to the disappointment she was causing her parents, lived her life as a normal girl should. She laughed with her friends, fumbled around with the blacksmith's son behind the stable, and was suitably embarrassed by her mother and father. The fact that they expected something magical to happen to her never even crossed her mind.
Which is why she was so surprised when something did.
It all started the day her parents sat her down and gave her an ultimatum. They loved her dearly, they said, but they couldn't take the pain anymore. If she didn't have an extraordinary experience soon, like all normal people, she could no longer claim to be their daughter.
The girl blinked up at them, too stunned to speak. They continued. It wasn't that they were being hypocritical, they said. Her father had once helped a dwarf build a fence and had been rewarded with a set of paperweights, and her mother had been briefly loved by a Duke who had presented her with an Elven-made shawl before he rode off forever on his perfect white horse. Both events, of course, occurred before their eighteenth birthdays. Their daughter, then, was disastrously behind.
The girl still said nothing, but merely swallowed past the tickle in her throat, stood up, and exited the yellow house. Her parents were saddened but relieved by her reaction. Feeling like they had done their duty, they felt a weight lift off of them. Her father settled down to his numbers and her mother to her judgments.
It was during dinner a week later when the girl came home, striding into the kitchen and interrupting a debate on the merits of caning. Her parents stared at her and she at them. She was very pale as she placed a twig between them on the table and silently went upstairs.
The mother and the father did not speak as they stared at the thin brown stick. Surely this was not her extraordinary experience? If it was, why were her eyes so red, and why was her face so cold?
There was no verbal agreement that they would not touch the unassuming twig, but it was understood all the same. The father went to his study and held his paperweights, willing them to glow, while the mother danced in her room with quivering lips, her shawl twirling around her. The girl remained in her room, the door tightly closed.
The girl didn't speak for three days.
She would come downstairs in the morning, eat her breakfast, do her chores, and drift silently back up to her room, remaining there until her mother, creases lining her brow, would call her to dinner.
The mother had taken to wearing the shawl under her clothes now, just to keep it close. She watched her daughter at dinner and at breakfast and felt the silk slipping against her skin.
The twig was still there, but it was larger. No one mentioned the slight increase in size, how it now touched the plates on two sides of the table.
The silence began to swallow the yellow house.
On the third day of silence they were eating dinner, the only sounds the clink of silverware on china, the crunch of jaws working, and the hollow knock on the door.
The parents looked up; the girl froze, mouth stopped around a piece of bread. The mother sent a look towards the father, who slowly began to rise out of his chair.
The knock came again.
The father made his way across the room to the door, treading even slower than his tired bones demanded. The girl swallowed the bread. The mother licked her lips, mouth suddenly dry. Just as the father reached for the handle, the door swung inward to reveal a troll standing in the doorway, bundle in one hand, cane in another.
The mother let a small sound escape her lips, more an exhalation of air than anything else. She hadn't seen a troll for years, since back when a Duke loved her. The father stared, trying to figure out what this creature was, his mind tripping over the difference between a gnome and a dwarf.
It was old, that was for certain, but how old was impossible to tell under the layers of dirt and matted hair. The only way to identify its sex was the stained grey dress it wore. A slightly pungent smell emanated from it in subtle wafts that floated across the room.
"Let her in," the girl said, her voice low and raw with disuse. The troll's head turned to regard her, and the troll began to make her way across the floor. She came to a halt in front of the girl, who was shaking only slightly and not very noticeably.
"My son," it croaked.
The girl shook her head. "No."
"I will not."
Her parents exchanged excited glances over her head. A troll prince: not the most orthodox son-in-law, but a son-in-law all the same, and while they didn't know for sure that he was a prince, no one would go to all this trouble for merely a peasant, would they? They watched and waited.
"He wants you."
"He'll have you."
"He already did."
"He wants you."
The mother frowned. This didn't seem to be going quite like it should.
"He forgives you."
"Good for him."
"Come back to the bridge."
"I'll not live under a bridge."
It was the father's turn to frown now. There should be jewels, slippers, proclamations of love, not old trolls and bitter words.
A third voice entered the conversation.
"She'll marry him."
They all turned to look at the mother, whose lips were slightly parted. She cleared her throat.
"She'll marry him."
The girl's eyes closed. The troll smiled.
"She will," the father agreed firmly. Eighteen was high time to be married. Besides, trolls never wanted to marry humans unless they were humans themselves, under spells or something of that nature. Everyone knew that. It would all turn out well.
"I'll take her now," the troll rasped, and circled one bony hand around the girl's wrist. The girl's other hand shot out and grabbed the twig.
"No," hissed the ancient troll.
"I won't go without it."
"I won't have that near him."
"Then he won't have me near him."
The troll gnashed her teeth and pulled her hair, but the determination in the girl's face was clear and remained firm. Finally, the troll gave a great groan and began to leave, dragging the girl behind her with a strength that defied belied the troll's size. The girl let herself be pulled away, clutching the twig.
The door slammed behind them. A few pictures fell off the walls.
The mother coughed. The father sniffed.
"My taxes," he mumbled, and exited into the study.
Silk slipped against her skin, and the mother shivered.
A week later, dinner was roast beef and peas, and the father melancholically chewed the over cooked meat while the mother verbally wondered why children could not wait to attend school until they were at least old enough to appreciate a good lesson plan when they saw one. He was so caught up in his chewing and she in her wondering that they did not notice their daughter until she walked past them.
The father started choking on the dry beef and the mother stopped mid-sentence, her mouth hanging open. The girl turned and regarded them.
She was wearing a heavy velvet dress, purple in color, ripped in odd places and stained with mud across the hem. A gold circlet sat askew on her damp brow. There was a bruise on her right cheek and scratches on her hands. A piece of twine was twisted tightly around the ring finger on her left hand, cutting deep into the swollen flesh. She still held the twig, now twice the size it had been before, stained here and there with red.
She watched them coolly, turned, and went silently up the stairs. The father finally swallowed, tears streaming out of his eyes as he breathed deeply. The mother watched her daughter retreat.
Everyone in the village clamored the next day over the news: the missing Queen and her son had appeared suddenly in the palace, both sporting near-fatal wounds. The King, apparently, almost had a heart attack when he saw his wife reappear in his bedchamber, bleeding all over his newest concubine. The Prince refused to speak to anyone except the court physician. He wore, they said, a piece of twine around his left finger.
The mother and father heard the news and said nothing. That night, the mother went home and twirled in her shawl a final time before she threw it into the fireplace and sobbed until dawn. The father took his paperweights into the garden, buried them, dug them up again, and after much hesitation buried them once more just past the gate.
The girl remained in her room and did not speak to her parents. The next month, she married the blacksmith's son and they moved to a cozy blue house in a different village, where the pictures stayed on the walls and they did their own taxes.