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Ronia, The Robber's Daughter, Page 2

Astrid Lindgren

  The stars were mirrored in the lake; everything else was deepest darkness. But she was used to darkness; it did not frighten her. How dark it was in Matt’s Fort on winter nights, when the fire had gone out—darker than any wood. No, she was not afraid of darkness.

  Just as she was ready to go, she remembered the leather bag she had brought her food in. The bag was still up on the boulder where she had sat to eat, so she climbed up in the darkness to get it. She had the idea that here on the high boulder she was closer to the stars, and she stretched up her hands to see if she could pick some to take home with her in the leather bag. But it was no use, so she took her bag and began to climb down.

  Then she saw something that frightened her. Everywhere, among the trees, eyes were gleaming. There was a ring of eyes all around the stone, watching her, and she had not noticed anything. Never before had she seen eyes that shone in the darkness, and she did not like them.

  “What do you want?” she cried, but got no answer. Instead the eyes came closer. Slowly, a little bit at a time, they drew nearer and nearer, and she could hear a murmur of voices, strange, gray old voices muttering and droning all together.

  “Gray dwarfs all! Human here, human here in gray dwarfs’ wood! Gray dwarfs all, bite and strike, gray dwarfs all, bite and strike!”

  And suddenly they were right below the stone, extraordinary gray creatures which wished her ill. She could not see them, but she knew they were there, and it made her shudder. Now she knew how dangerous they were, the gray dwarfs Matt had told her to look out for. But it was too late now.

  For now they were beginning to beat on the stone with sticks and clubs or whatever else they had with them. There was such a bonging and donging and horrible hammering in the great silence that Ronia screamed, afraid for her life.

  When she screamed, the dwarfs stopped banging. The new sound she heard was even worse. They had begun to climb up the boulder, pressing in from all sides in the darkness. She could hear the scrape of their feet and their muttering voices: “Gray dwarfs all, bite and strike!”

  Then Ronia screamed still louder in her despair and swung wildly about her with the leather bag. They would soon be on top of her, and they would bite her to death, she knew. Her first day in the forest would be her last.

  But at that very moment she heard a yell; only Matt could roar so terribly. Yes, there he came, her Matt, with all his robbers, their torches flaring among the trees, and Matt’s bellow echoing through the forest: “Be off, gray dwarfs! Go before I slaughter you!”

  And then Ronia heard the thudding of small bodies throwing themselves off the boulder, and in the light of the torches she could see them too—little gray dwarfs fleeing in the darkness and vanishing.

  She sat on the leather bag and slid down the steep boulder. Matt was there in an instant, catching her in his arms, and she wept into his beard as he carried her home to Matt’s Fort.

  “Now you know what gray dwarfs are,” said Matt when they were sitting in front of the fire, warming Ronia’s cold feet.

  “Yes, now I know what gray dwarfs are,” said Ronia.

  “But what you don’t know is how to deal with them,” Matt said. “If you’re frightened, they can feel it a long way off. That’s when they get dangerous.”

  “Yes,” said Lovis, “that’s true of all sorts of things. So the safest thing is not to be frightened in Matt’s Forest.”

  “I’ll remember that,” Ronia said.

  Matt sighed and hugged her tightly. “But you do remember what I told you to watch out for?”

  Yes, she remembered that. And in the days that followed, Ronia watched out for what was dangerous and practiced not being frightened. She was to be careful not to fall into the river, Matt had said, so she hopped, skipped, and jumped warily over the slippery stones along the riverbank, where the river rushed most fiercely. She was to stay by the waterfalls. To reach them, she had to climb down Matt’s Mountain, which fell in a sheer drop to the river. That way she could also practice not being frightened. The first time it was difficult; she was so frightened that she had to shut her eyes. But bit by bit she became more daring, and soon she knew where the crevices were, where she could place her feet, and where she had to cling with her toes in order to hang on and not pitch backward into the rushing water.

  What luck, she thought, to find a place where she could both watch out that she didn’t fall in and practice not being frightened!

  So her days passed. Ronia watched out and practiced more than Matt and Lovis knew, and in the end she was like a healthy little animal, strong and agile and afraid of nothing. Not of gray dwarfs, not of wild harpies, not of getting lost in the forest, and not of falling into the river. So far she had not begun to watch out for Hell’s Gap, but she planned to start soon.

  Besides that, she had explored Matt’s Fort right up to the parapets. She found her way into all the deserted rooms, where no one ever set foot, and she did not lose her way in underground passages, dark pits, and cellar vaults. The secret passages of the fortress and the secret paths of the forest—she knew them all now. But it was the forest she loved best, and there she ran free as long as the day lasted.

  When evening came and darkness fell and the fire was burning on the hearth in the stone hall, she would come home tired after all her watching out and practicing. That was when Matt and his robbers came back, too, from their expeditions, and Ronia sat in front of the fire with them and sang their robbers’ songs. But of their robbers’ life she knew nothing. She saw them come riding home in the evening with goods on their horses’ backs, all kinds of goods in sacks and leather bags and chests and boxes. But no one had told her where it all came from, and she wondered about it no more than she wondered where the rain came from. Things were just there—she had noticed that before.

  Sometimes she heard them talking about Borka robbers, and then she remembered that she was supposed to watch out for them too. But she had not seen any yet.

  “If Borka were not such a scoundrel, I’d almost feel sorry for him,” Matt said one evening. “The soldiers hunt him in Borka’s Wood—he isn’t left in peace for a moment these days. And they will soon smoke him out of his robbers’ den—yes, yes, he’s a dirty devil, so it doesn’t matter, but all the same…”

  “The Borka robbers are all dirty devils, the lot of them,” said Noddle-Pete, and everyone agreed with him.

  Wasn’t it lucky that Matt’s robbers were so much better, Ronia thought. She looked at them as they sat at the long table slurping up their soup. They were bearded and unwashed and noisy and wild, but no one was going to call them dirty devils in her hearing. Noddle-Pete and Shaggy, Pelle and Fooloks, Jutto and Jep, Knuckles and Knott, Tapper and Torm, Bumper and Little-Snip—they were all her friends and would go through hell and high water for her sake, as she well knew.

  “Glad I am to be in Matt’s Fort,” said Matt. “We’re as safe here as the fox in its lair and the eagle in its nest. If any soldiers are foolish enough to come here looking for trouble, they’ll be sorry!”

  “We’ll send them straight to hell,” Noddle-Pete said happily. All the robbers agreed and laughed at the very thought of the fools who might try to get into Matt’s Fort. There it stood on top of the cliff, inaccessible from every side. Only on the south side a narrow little bridle path zigzagged down the mountain and disappeared into the forest below. But on three sides Matt’s Fort had its sheer drop— what fool would attempt to climb there? the robbers jeered. For they had no idea where Ronia went to practice not being frightened.

  “And if they come up the bridle path, they’ll be stopped dead at the Wolf’s Neck,” said Matt. “We can hold them there by rolling rocks at them. And other things too, for that matter!”

  “Other things too, for that matter,” Noddle-Pete echoed, sniggering as he thought of the way they could stop the soldiers at the Wolf’s Neck. “I’ve caught many a wolf there in my day,” he added, “but I’m too old now and won’t be catching anything but my own fleas,
oh, ho, ho, yes!”

  Ronia knew it was sad for Noddle-Pete to be so old, but she did not understand why soldiers and fools would come and make trouble at the Wolf’s Neck. In any case, she was sleepy and could not be bothered thinking about it. Instead she crept onto her bed and lay awake there until she had heard Lovis sing the Wolf’s Song, as she did every evening when it was time for the robbers to leave the fire and go to their bedrooms. Only Ronia, Matt, and Lovis slept in the stone hall. Ronia liked lying in her bed and watching the fire flare up and die through the gap between the curtains while Lovis sang. As long as Ronia could remember, she had heard her mother singing the Wolfs Song at night. That meant it was time to sleep, but she thought happily before she closed her eyes, Tomorrow I’ll be getting up again!

  And up she sprang, as soon as a new day dawned. Whatever the weather, she would be out in the forest, and Lovis gave her bread in the leather bag to take along.

  “You’re a storm-night child,” said Lovis, “and a witch-night child, too, and it’s well-known that they can easily turn into little savages. But just you take care that the harpies don’t catch you!”

  More than once Ronia had seen wild harpies soaring over the woods, and she had crept hurriedly away to hide. The harpies were the most dangerous of all the dangerous things in Matt’s Forest— you had to watch out for them if you wanted to go on living, Matt had told her. And it was mostly because of them that he had kept Ronia at home in the fort for so long. Beautiful, mad, and ferocious, the harpies were. With stony eyes they searched the forest for something to tear with their sharp claws until it bled.

  But no wild harpies could scare Ronia away from her paths and places where she lived her lonely forest life. Yes, she was lonely, but she missed no one in particular. Whom could she miss? Her days were full of life and pleasure, but they passed so quickly. The summer was over; it was autumn now.

  The wild harpies always grew madder still when autumn came. One day they chased Ronia through the forest until she felt that things were getting really dangerous. Of course she could run like a fox, and of course she knew every hiding place in the forest, but the harpies pursued her stubbornly, and she heard their strident cries, “Ho, ho, pretty little human, blood will run now, ho, ho!”

  She dove into the pool and swam underwater to the other side, then crawled out and hid under a thick fir tree. And she could hear the harpies searching and screaming in their rage.

  “Where is the little human, where is she, where is she? Come out and we’ll tear you and we’ll scratch you! Blood will run, ho, ho!”

  Ronia stayed in her hiding place until she saw the harpies disappearing over the treetops. She did not very much want to stay in the wood any longer just now. But there were many hours before nightfall and the Wolf’s Song, so it crossed her mind that now was the time to do what she had planned for so long. She would get up on the roof and look for Hell’s Gap.

  She had heard many times the story of how Matt’s Fort had split in two on the night she was born. Matt never tired of telling it.

  “Death and destruction, what a crack! You should have heard it—well, of course you did, poor little newborn babe that you were. Bang! We had two forts instead of one, with a chasm in between. And never forget what I told you—watch out for Hell’s Gap!”

  And that was exactly what she was going to do. It was the best thing she could do while the harpies went mad out there in the forest.

  She had often been on the roof but had never gone near the perilous chasm that opened so sharply without any protective parapet. Now she crawled forward on her stomach and peered into the depths—oof, it was worse than she had thought!

  She picked up one of the loose stones lying along the edge and dropped it, and she shivered when she heard the stone landing far, far below. The sound was so muffled and so faraway—yes, this really was a hole to watch out for! But the gap that separated the two halves of the fort was not particularly wide. One good jump would get you across it! But surely no one would be that crazy. No, but perhaps it would be a good way to watch out and practice in her usual fashion. Once again she looked down into the chasm— oof, how deep! Then she looked around for the best place to make her leap. And then she saw something that almost made her fall into Hell’s Gap with surprise.

  A little way off on the other side of the chasm, someone was sitting, someone about her own size, dangling his legs over Hell’s Gap.

  Ronia knew that she was not the only child in the world. She was simply the only child in Matt’s Fort and Matt’s Forest. But Lovis had said that there were plenty of children in other places, and of two kinds: those who would turn into Matts when they were big, and those who would turn into Lovises. Ronia herself would turn into a Lovis, but she knew in her heart that the one who was sitting dangling his legs over Hell’s Gap would turn into a Matt.

  He had not spotted her yet. Ronia watched him sitting there and laughed to herself because he was there.


  Then he caught sight of her, and he laughed, too.

  “I know who you are,” he said. “You’re that robber’s daughter who runs in the woods. I saw you there once.”

  “Who are you?” asked Ronia. “And how in the world did you get here?”

  “I am Birk Borkason, and I live here. We moved in last night.”

  Ronia stared at him. “Who’s we?”

  “Borka and Undis and me and our twelve robbers.”

  It was a little time before she could take in the incredible words, but at last she said, “Do you mean that the whole of the north fort is full of dirty devils?”

  He laughed. “No, there are only decent Borka robbers here. But over there where you live it’s stuffed full of dirty devils—that’s what they always say.”

  So that was what they always said! She began to boil. But there was worse to come.

  “In any case,” said Birk, “this isn’t the north fort any more. Since last night it’s called Borka’s Keep—you just remember that!”

  Ronia gasped with rage. Borka’s Keep! That really was enough to choke you! What rogues they were, those Borka robbers! And that rascal grinning over there was one of them!

  “Death and destruction,” she said. “You wait until Matt hears about this, then you’ll see all the Borka robbers scattered with one blow!”

  “That’s what you think,” said Birk.

  But Ronia was thinking of Matt, and she shivered. She had seen him beside himself with rage and knew what it was like. Now Matt’s Fort was going to split in two all over again, she realized, and the thought made her groan.

  “What’s the matter with you?” Birk asked. “Don’t you feel well?”

  Ronia did not answer. She had heard enough now, enough of rascally talk and impudence. Something would have to be done. Matt’s robbers would be home soon, and then, death and destruction, every dirty little devil of a Borka robber would be out of Matt’s Fort faster than he came in!

  She got up to go. But then she saw what Birk was going to do. He was getting ready to fly across Hell’s Gap! He was standing on the other side, directly opposite her, and now he was beginning to run.

  She screamed, “If you come here, I’ll give you such a punch your nose will fall off!”

  “Ha, ha,” said Birk, and leaped. He was over the chasm. “Follow that if you can!” he said with a grin.

  He shouldn’t have said that; it was more than she could stand. All right, he and his dirty boots had planted themselves on Matt’s Fort, but no Borka robber was going to go around performing leaps that one of Matt’s robbers couldn’t imitate!

  And she did. She herself did not know how it happened, but suddenly she was flying across Hell’s Gap and had landed on the other side.

  “You’re not so bad,” said Birk, and a second later he had jumped after her.

  But Ronia had not waited for him. With another leap she flew back across the chasm. He could stand there staring at her as long as he liked!

  “You were goi
ng to punch me—why didn’t you?” Birk said. “I’m coming!”

  “So I see,” said Ronia. And he came. But she did not wait for him this time, either. Once again she jumped, and she intended to go on jumping until she had no breath left in her body, if necessary, in order to get away from him.

  Then neither of them spoke any more. They simply jumped. Frantically and furiously, they jumped to and fro across Hell’s Gap. Nothing was heard but their panting breath. Only the crows sitting on the parapets cawed from time to time. Otherwise, everything was deadly silent. It was as if the whole of Matt’s Fort were sitting there on its peak, holding its breath, waiting for something truly terrible to happen at any minute.

  Yes, soon we’ll both finish up in Hell’s Gap, Ronia thought. But then at least there will be an end to this everlasting leaping!

  There came Birk, flying across the chasm again, straight toward her, and she got ready to jump back. She no longer had any idea how many times she had jumped—it felt as if she had never done anything but jump back and forth across ravines to escape from Borka riffraff.

  Then she saw Birk slip on a loose stone lying on the edge, just where he had landed, and she heard him yell before he vanished into the depths.

  After that she heard only the crows. She shut her eyes and wished that this day had never happened. That Birk had not existed. And that they had never jumped.

  Finally she wriggled forward on her stomach and looked down into the chasm. And there she saw Birk. He was standing on something right beneath her—a stone or a beam or whatever it was that was sticking out from the shattered walls. There was just enough room for his feet, but no more. There he stood, with the depths of Hell’s Gap beneath him, his hands fumbling wildly for a hold, anything that could keep him from tumbling into the abyss. But he knew, and Ronia knew too, that without help he could not get out. He would have to stand there until he could stand no more— they both knew it—and then there would no longer be a Birk Borkason.