(This story was an entry for Clue #2 in the 2013 Treasure Hunt -- see the collection for related stories and images! Also, for other "Stories about Trolls", see the listing.)
The peeper frogs had gathered for one last end-of-the-season orgy, and the combined voices of hundreds of them making their peep-peep-peep cry had turned into a droning chorus which could be heard for a mile or more. And with the common, lovelorn peeper came a far less common predator.
"Glue! Stop gawping about and get to work!" snapped the troll with the black iron ring through the meat of his nose. "We've not got long before we have to turn back around and get back to the tunnel!"
Glue — the tallest of the quartet, with a prodigious growth of hair sprouting from both ear canals but none on his gleaming green head — continued to stand his ground, feet spread firmly in the marshy earth and his heavy-bladed spear in both hands. "I tell you — I've got a tickle at the back of me neck. We're not alone. There's point-ears nearby, I'll swear it."
A third troll laughed as he crawled on his hands and knees through the skunk cabbage, plucking up his quarry and dropping them into the gathering basket suspended from a thick thong around his neck. "Glue, if I had me a mushroom for every time you felt a tickle, I'd never have to work again and have my choice of wives!"
"I'll tickle you for sure if you don't pull your share," the last of the four muttered, a short, thick stump of a creature with a terrible snaggletooth. "These pinkletinks won't keep pinkling much longer — you're wasting an opportunity, the longer you stand around!"
Glue ignored his companion and continued to stand his ground, eyeing the damp, overgrown forest around them with suspicion. And in the moss-draped branches half a bow shot above the vigilant troll, Fawn covered her mouth with both hands to contain her laughter.
Almost immediately, she felt her father's amused but warning mindtouch, cautioning her to complete silence. Lynx had taken both his daughter and Briar with him on this long patrol. They had found the troll gatherers’ tracks shortly after the four had emerged from their tunnels, and had been stalking them silently since. It was the first time in Fawn's young life that she had ever seen the rare creatures — and she had never expected them to be so talkative among themselves, or that their speech would sound so strange and drawling. She found herself having to strain to decipher the words, more often than not.
The three trolls who were gathering peepers were working at their task vigilantly. Fawn knew from experience that the gentle, insect-eating frogs were not so easy to catch. They stayed close to the ground, rarely climbing very high in the thick marshy vegetation. When so many gathered so close together and voiced their calls, it was hard to single out any individual frog, and as tiny as they were, finding a single one among the lush greenery called for patience. But however blunt and stout these trolls looked, they were deft in their gathering, and methodical enough not to leave a single blade of grass unturned. Fawn kept waiting for the peeper-song to gradually decrease in volume as more and more of the little frogs disappeared into trollish gathering bags and gathering baskets. Fawn appreciated the little peepers — their peeping calls were often among the first signs of spring after an ice melt. She hoped the trolls wouldn't steal them all.
**Why are they taking all of the peepers?** Fawn asked, baffled by the strange behavior.
**Trolls have odd tastes,** came Lynx's response. **I'll wager they're going to eat them.**
**But there's not enough leg on a peeper to make it worth eating,** Briar protested, from his tree branch just beyond her reach.
Lynx didn't have to reply, as the trolls supplied the answer themselves.
"The Provisioner will be happy to see these! He'll get a healthy bonus in trade for a big batch of pinkletinks!" said Basket, his busy hands reminding Fawn of a ringtail.
"Big bonus for him, big bonus for us!" enthused Snaggletooth.
"Pity they'll cost so dear. I haven't munched me a candied pinkletink since I was a wee little mump," Iron Ring said.
"Sugared, then rolled in worm paste, then salted," Basket said, smacking his lips in appreciation.
"They're even better stuffed with mint leaves, then crisp-fried so that they crackle," Snaggletooth countered.
"Pickled," Glue said in a wistful tone. "In a brine, with slivers of turnip and some button mushrooms."
"Dried in order to keep their crunch, then soaked in wine and fried with button mushroom and served with salmon roe and a dusting of — hai!" Snaggletooth had glanced up just in time to see Tansy, Fawn's wolf, slink between the trunks of two broad nutcap trees. Glue whirled at the cry, spear held up warily, and the other trolls scrambled to their feet.
"What'd you see?" Iron Ring demanded, reaching after his own spear.
"Wolf. Big one. Maybe one of the point-ears’ pack."
There wasn't any question between the four trolls — clearly the peeper chorus had lost its charm. They secured their basket and bags, took up their weapons, and began to hike back up the slope toward their tunnel-hole, west of Elder Spring, their movements wary and suspicious. Fawn began to slither after them, but stopped at her father's mindtouch.
**Let them get up the ridge again before we follow,** he cautioned her. **And reinforce with Tansy that when you tell her to keep her distance, you mean it!**
**Aye,** Fawn replied. She was disappointed that their game for the night was in retreat — but as the trolls moved on their way, the night chorus of the frogs below grew loud again, as all of the tiny peepers realized that it was once again safe to sing their hearts off in their last hope of love for the season.