By Bruce Van Patter (with help from Grace)

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In a town long ago, there lived a troll in a high tower. No one had ever seen the troll, but those who passed by the tower at night would wonder at the warm light in the high window. “It’s the glow of gold!” they would whisper to each other. “That troll must be very rich.” Each time someone would tell of the troll, the storyteller would increase the size of the imagined treasure until it was very large indeed.

And stories of great treasures fly to the ears of thieves like bees back to honey. Pablo and Pepe were two such thieves. One mention of the troll’s gold drew them to the tower late one night. They saw the glow from the window above. “Gold, Pepe,” said Pablo. “We’ll be rich!” said Pepe.

The great door to the tower was unlocked. The thieves thought this strange, but kept going, ready to flee at the first sign of the troll. Up the winding stairs they went, creeping past doors as they went. Finally, at the top, yellow light leaked from under the final doorway. They eased it open and slid in.

Pablo and Pepe stopped, surprised. Yellow light from a lantern revealed a room with gold coins – stacks and stacks of them neatly filling glass boxes. Overjoyed, the two thieves ran to the nearest box and tried to lift it. Crouching down, Pepe noticed how strange the coins were. They were unlike any he had seen. Each had strange letters; under the letters was a figure of a running wolf. Pepe and Pablo grabbed the bottom of the box. “Lift!” Pepe called.

They couldn’t. “It’s too heavy!” Pablo hissed. They ran from box to box without being able to lift any.

“There’s nothing to steal!” said Pablo.

“Not true,” said Pepe. He pointed to something leaning on a wall under the light of the lantern. It was a painting. A wild, odd painting. A sloppy, streaky mess of black marks, spotted here and there with bright colors. Pablo gazed at it, frowning.

“Take it,” growled Pepe.

“We’ll never sell this!” cried Pablo. “No one will want the scribbles of a lunatic!”

They heard a noise. From far below, a door groaned on its hinges. “Take it, and let’s go,” demanded Pepe. Quickly, they dropped the painting into their basket of stolen goods and went down the stairs. They were silent as shadows. The troll did not appear, and they were soon on their way down the street, hoping to make the next town by daybreak.

The next day, a large crowd gathered in the market square. Pepe and Pablo were at the center of the crowd, holding up items they had stolen. None sold for very much. A candlestick. A bowl. A woman’s hat. The crowd, disappointed, began to grumble. A few people on the edges wandered off.

“Try the painting,” Pepe whispered harshly to his partner.

Pablo frowned, but lifted up the painting. “And who will make us an offer on this most, um, unusual painting?”

The people stared. No one spoke.

“Ten gold coins?” asked Pablo. “Surely a work as fine as this is worth such a small price.”

A few of the women snickered. Pablo called out, quickly, “Five then! Five gold coins for this remarkable piece of art.”

A child pointed and said, “It’s ugly!” Nearby, a richly dressed man scoffed, “Piece of art? More like a piece of trash. I wouldn’t take it if you gave me the five coins.”

The crowd burst into laughter.

“Will no one make me an offer?” Pablo asked one final time.

The crowd began to turn away. Then someone spoke from the back.

“I’ll give you fifty gold coins for it.”

The crowd stopped, astonished. All heads turned to see the speaker. A large figure pressed through the people. His head, hunched between rounded shoulders, was covered with a broad, loose hat, so that none of his features could be clearly seen. His long coat brushed against the ground as he slowly strode forward. His knobby hands held out a leather bag.

“Fifty?” asked Pablo, as if not believing his ears. Pepe pushed past him to meet the mysterious buyer. “A fair price,” Pepe said, attempting to smooth his rough voice. “You have the coins with you, I expect.”

The buyer didn’t speak. He just opened the bag and poured the coins into Pepe’s outstretched hands. They spilled over and tumbled to the ground, where Pablo scurried to scoop them up. The crowd, meanwhile, had pressed in to watch. All eyes moved from the buyer to the art and back again, astonishment growing with each shift.

Without a word, the large man took his painting, turned, and strode off. Behind him the crowd began to buzz. Fifty coins! Who was that? I never would have known that painting was so valuable!

The wealthy man in the crowd approached the thieves. His tone was buttery. “My good men, might you have another painting like that one? I may have been too hasty in my judgment.”

Another person rushed forward. “No, sell the next painting to me! I’ll pay you twice what he wants.”

Pablo laughed for his good fortune. He turned to his partner, saying “Did you hear that, they want another!” Then he stopped. Pepe craned to see the retreating figure of the large man, now nearly out of sight. “What is it?” asked Pablo. “Curious about our mysterious buyer? Just a rich fool, I'd say.”

“He was no fool,” snarled back Pepe. “He was smarter than us. Much smarter.”

“How…?” began Pablo. Pepe stopped him by holding up one of the gold coins still cupped in his other hand.

On it was the image of a running wolf.

Pablo was confused. “Then that was…” he began.

“The troll,” finished Pepe.

“But that doesn’t make sense! He bought back the painting he knew we stole?”

As the crowd pressed in, demanding another painting, Pepe smiled for the first time. “No thief can steal what is freely given. He meant for us to take it.”

And so the two thieves, unable to give the crowd another painting like the one the troll had made, were chased out of town. The troll, however, thereafter had the one thing he truly wanted -- not money, no! He had his artwork loved and collected throughout the land.

© 2005 Bruce Van Patter
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