As he crested the pass Hugh caught his first glimpse of the river. The road ahead ran down through a village, then over an old stone bridge and up the hills on the far side. He reined in his horse and turned in the saddle, looking back along the road for dust. The hard dense smudge at the horizon meant infantry. The fluffier, higher dust clouds meant horsemen -- presumably enemy scouting forces. But neither seemed any closer than yesterday. He'd live another day, at least.
He took a sandwich from his satchel and sniffed it. The smell was nauseating, but then it had smelt almost as foul when it was made, days ago. Baron Mortimer's cooks had been ordered to provide Hugh with trail rations, and had delighted in humiliating a royal messenger by giving him the most nauseating food they had. There were two kinds of sausage, both reeking of garlic and other things harder to identify, and a pouch of what he hoped were marinated onions. "Maybe they get a laugh out of it," he thought, "Got a laugh out of it."
He crammed in as much as he could and swallowed with minimal chewing, in a vain attempt to avoid the taste, then gave the rest to the horse. Hugh had avoided eating this morning in case his king's messenger uniform should draw the affections of a village girl, but the village was obviously deserted.
The bridge, on the other hand, was definitely occupied. A troll had found or built itself a wooden roof at the near end, so it could bar the way while keeping out of the sun and weather.
"Toll," it said, the word emerging from the gloom,
Hugh paused for a breather. "I can give you advice," he said, "worth more than two coppers."
The troll looked unimpressed, though not unimpressive. Most trolls Hugh'd seen had been grey, like granite, but this one seemed to take after some light coloured kind of rock, like quartz. It was nine feet tall and showed, when it smiled, teeth longer and sharper than he'd ever seen on a troll. "You give advice?" it asked, and recalculated on its fingers. "With advice, toll is three coppers."
"The White Folk have come," said Hugh, "a new kind, from over the sea. The Iron Plain is full of them, there must be thousands. And they'll be here in two days, maybe less." Hugh's horse balked as he walked up to the shelter, and he patted her neck and said, "Come on girl, just a troll."
The troll considered the news. "Need change?" it asked hopefully, spreading out a purseful of dubious coins onto a bench.
Hugh pushed the coins to one side and started drawing on the bench with his finger. "Look, this is us, right, and the river goes like this -- what are you doing?"
"You mess up money. I count money."
"Don't you understand? They're killing everyone, they don't care if you're human or dwarf or troll or what. If you wait until you see their scouts it'll be too late: you've got to start running now."
The troll patiently counted the money, then considered Hugh's tale. "Knights. Prince has knights."
"They killed the knights first. They broke them in a battle near the Wash, then chased them back to the castle and stormed it. I saw the Jade tower burning, I must have been one of the last out." "Prince," he thought, "How long since they had a prince in the Iron Plain? It sure doesn't keep up on changes in the world."
The troll shook his head, and stony hide scraped against itself in the folds of his neck. "Can't leave bridge."
"It'll get along fine without you. This bridge must have been here four hundred years --"
The troll was counting again. "Four hundred twenty-one," it said.
Just his luck, a troll with an interest in local history. "Well, I tried," he said, and tossed two coppers on the bench. The troll stared at him until he added a third. Then it stepped aside into an alcove and Hugh rode over the bridge.
At the far side he turned to look back. In the afternoon sun the scene looked quaint and rustic, the bridge perfectly reflected in the river. He fixed it in his mind, and looked at the troll in the hope that it might change its mind at the last moment. And realised there was something odd about it.
"I didn't know that could happen to trolls." he said,
"How did it..."
The troll shrugged. "Usual way," it said, "Long time ago."
"Why didn't you," he started, and added "kill me?" only in his own mind. "Aren't you hungry? I mean -- thirsty?"
"You smell bad," said the troll, "Garlic."
"Don't follow me," said Hugh, "Or I'll -- I'll --"
"Can't cross bridge," it said, "Running water."
"Oh," said Hugh, and thought about that a few minutes. "I guess you've had it then." The troll looked back along the road Hugh had taken, as though imagining the White Folk vaguard riding along it, and nodded.
From a safe distance, mused Hugh, it would be an interesting thing to see: an army of White Folk, struggling to hammer a stake through the heart of a troll. It would be an unpleasant learning experience -- but the White Folk were adaptable, and would figure it out.
He turned and rode up the hill. Every now and then looked back at the bridge with a troll sitting on it. And at the reflection of a bridge, without a troll.
Copyright © 2004 David Bofinger.
This page last updated 16th September 2008.