Manuel flickered the flashlight beam among the trees. The stump had moved from its customary spot. That’s where Manuel let the light beam rest.
He stamped his cold feet, and they crunched in the snow. “Don’t worry,” he said softly. “It’s just me. No one else will come out of the house this time. Did you need something?”
The stump unfolded itself. At first it was a stump, and then it was the nut brown hulder bundled into itself like a barrel. It unfolded arms, legs, and untucked a broad head on a short neck. The wild bright eyes, like an owl’s, blinked in the light, and it put up its stubby hands to block it.
Manuel lowered the flashlight at the ground. “Do you speak Spanish?” Manuel asked. He really didn’t know what a nahuale looked like, and abuela saw Mexican spirits, so he thought it should cover his bets.
The little creature scratched its flossy cloud of hair. “Spanish?” it repeated, its broad lips and flat teeth forming carefully around the word. “Spanish?”
“What I speak,” said Manuel. “I mean, right now, we’re speaking English, but I speak Spanish.”
“English,” said the hulder. “I speak what I speak, and they understand me. You understand me. Maybe I speak Spanish?”
Manuel tried a different tactic. “I’m Manuel. I’ve brought you some puerquitos. They’re like cookies.” He held out a hand with the bread. The troll inched forward cautiously, and reached up its hand. It brushed Manuel’s as it took the treat, and Manuel was surprised that its skin was soft and downy.
Crumbs fell from the hulder’s mouth as he smacked the gingerbread noisily. “Fank oo,” he said. “I like this.”
“My grandma, she makes bread in town,” said Manuel. “That’s where I get all of it.”
“You live here now?” the hulder said. “It was a long time since anyone lived here. We used to live here.”
“More like you?”
The hulder nodded. He made more noise in appreciation of the gingerbread. “We can’t live inside when you do. I wanted to stay, so I moved out here. Everyone else, they left.”
“Where did they go?” asked Manuel.
The hulder licked the remaining crumbs from his fingers, picked the spare morsels out of his downy skin. “Here and there. Plenty of places for us Gardens of Believers. More remote timber. Plenty of places for Invisibles. Most of us in the woods.”
“I see.” said Manuel. “Do you have a name?”
“Wort. Full name is Woodwort, but I am short Wort.”
“Wart. Sword in the Stone Wart?”
The hulder cocked his head. “No.”
Manuel fished a bottle of orange juice from his backpack. “Here.” He unscrewed the lid.
The orange juice didn’t go down as well as the gingerbread. Wort made a face, his agile tongue trying to brush away a bad taste from one side of his broad mouth to another.
“No, thank you,” Wort finally pronounced.