Most people think that the Bridge Trolls build their own bridges.
While trolls, of course, concur hotly with that idea, if someone asked the oldest and the wisest of the mountain gnomes, they would only shake their heads and smile. That is because they knew perfectly well whom the First Troll entrusted to take care of the mountains, who were the first masons and the first architects in the World, and who carried out their duties with full hearts and great diligence for thousands of years after he retired.
“The First Troll is snoring again,” the gnomes of old used to say every time the Blue Mountains rumbled and trembled, bringing down masses of dirt and stones. “He’s snoring and we’re restoring,” they’d say, and they would roll up their sleeves.
It was a big job for such little folk — all the streams and meadows had to be cleaned of the rubble, all their gnomish roads and caves repaired. And yes, it was up to them to build bridges when a new gorge appeared where solid rock had stood just a moment ago.
But even the oldest of the gnomes could not tell when and why the gnomish tribes decided to abandon their post. One giant hall after the other, they built their own world deep underneath the Blue Mountains, and no one would see them on the surface anymore. For centuries, the roads and bridges remained forsaken, crumbling away one little stone after another...
And then the new times came, and the first people settled in the North. They built their first forts and first villages, first farms and first mills, and the first merchant embarked on his journey through the Blue Mountains for the very-very first time.
It was a big surprise for that brave man to find the wild and uninhabited Blue Mountains crisscrossed with hundreds of paved roads and passages. But an even bigger surprise awaited him on a tall bridge in the very heart of the Mountains — an ugly troll with a club in his hand and a crooked grin on his face!
When he finally came out of his bedroom, no one could look at him without shedding a tear — the Old Troll was all skin and bone. He had lost so much weight that he looked thinner than his staff, which waited for him faithfully by the headboard of his bed.
The Bridge Troll, fresh and frisky as usual, jumped off the dining bench and rushed to hold his uncle by the elbow. He wasn’t the tallest troll in the family, and with his head barely reaching the Old Troll’s shoulder, it wasn't an easy task.
“How are you feeling, Uncle? Do you need a pillow?”
The winter was almost over. The snow outside of the Bridge Shack shined brighter than the sun itself and the light pouring in through the windows was positively blinding. The Old Troll took a couple of steps and sat heavily on the bench.
“I’ll be alright.”
“I’m so glad you’re getting better,” boomed the Mountain Troll from the other side of the table. “We’ve been so worried!”
He was way too big for the little kitchen, so he had to sit on the floor with his legs crossed, watching his every move, desperately trying not to break anything.
“Are you hungry?” asked the Bridge Troll. “I was going to heat up some fruit soup for lunch, so you’re just in time!”
He opened a small door in the back and rushed downstairs, into the cold darkness of the cellar. He returned momentarily with a wooden bucket full of sweet pink ice. Tiny stems of crab apples stuck out of it. While he pecked on the frozen soup with a kitchen knife, trying to cut out a piece that would fit into the pot, the Old Troll gathered the strength to speak.
“I’m sorry,” the words passed through his throat with great difficulty, and not only because of his long sickness. “I’ve been imposing on you greatly.”
Ice crumbles showered the room as the Bridge Troll threw his hands up in a sign of protest.
“What are you talking about, Uncle!”
“I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”
“Stop it! If you want to repay us, please eat and drink and gain some weight, for the Mountains’ sake! You’ll need a lot of strength if you want to make it back to the Dark Forest...”
He cut himself off in the middle of the sentence, but it was too late — the awkward silence that filled the room was nearly palpable.
“There is nothing for me to go back to,” said the Old Troll quietly.
“I didn’t mean… You can stay as long as you wish!”
“I’m going to go outside...” mumbled the Mountain Troll, who was easily made uncomfortable.
His little cousin snapped at him with a “Sit!” and the ten-foot-tall giant sat back with a sigh. The Old Troll gave them both a miserable look.
“I know I’ve been a huge burden.”
“Please, Uncle!” The eyes on the round face of the Bridge Troll filled up with tears. “Don’t say that!”
Covered head to toe with ice sprinkles, he rushed across the room to give the Old Troll a hug. The Mountain Troll used that moment to escape outside.
They joined him shortly, taking places at a large granite table in front of the house. The table was big and formidable enough to accommodate even the largest of mountain trolls. A hot copper pot was placed in the middle and once the lid was off, all three found themselves submerged in clouds of sweet steam that smelled of apples and highland herbs. The next fifteen minutes were filled with enthusiastic munching and slurping. The fruit soup was so hot and spicy, that by the time the pot was empty, it was the trolls who were steaming.
“I would still like to be of some use,” said the Old Troll, puffing and tugging on the neck of his tunic. “Can I at least help you with some chores?”
“Thank you so much, but there aren’t too many,” replied his nephew. “I mean, there’s still snow all over the place. I’d rather see you rest and get better.”
“There must be something I would be good for. How about I take a watch at your bridge?”
His nephews exchanged glances.
“I think you should rest...” started the Bridge Troll again, but the Old Troll had already made up his mind.
“Nonsense. I can put a chair on the watch spot. I’ll be resting just fine.”
All three looked up.
The Troll’s Bridge loomed high above their heads, connecting two sides of a wide ravine. Right under its western edge, on a little platform halfway down, nestled the Bridge Shack. Three flights of stone steps lead from the Shack up onto the bridge and another three flights lead down, to the river at the bottom. As it’s always been in wintertime, the river was buried under ten feet snow, but not fully frozen. It looked dead and motionless, but if he strained his ears, the Old Troll could hear the crystal whisper of water still babbling somewhere deep underneath the icy crust.
“I’ll be fine,” he said again, “just give me some blankets and help me get the chair up there.”
It didn’t take long before his eyes started to hurt from the sparkling of the snow and he had to shut them. He didn’t really expect anyone to travel through the mountains at this time; he simply wanted to spend some time alone, brooding on his grief, away from the chatter of his very kind, but overly attentive nephew. So when he heard people’s voices and a squeaking of wagon wheels, his mind simply rejected it as impossible.
“Move, you wretched devils! Pull ‘em Gordy, come on!”
The Old Troll opened his eyes.
The watch spot was aptly hidden behind a crevice in the mountain, just above the edge of the gorge. It opened a broad view on the bridge and the road to the watcher, while hiding him from the eye of a traveler. He saw a tall merchant’s wagon approaching the far side of the bridge, pulled by two squat and furry mountain horses. A boy in his early teens walked by the left one, tugging at her bridle every time she tried to stop.
“Come on!” shouted the merchant from his high seat.
His thick clothes were colored black and orange, and from a distance he looked like a giant ruffled-up bullfinch. Though he cracked his whip left and right, shouting and cursing, the wagon still moved at a snail’s pace, plowing heavily through the snow.
“I can't believe this,” muttered the the Old Troll.
He looked down, hoping to see one of his nephews near the house, but neither of them was around.
“...our little mountain horses,” the boy was saying, “I wish we had a couple of steeds from the royal stables, did you see how big they are?”
The travelers were still far away, but the air stood perfectly still and the sound carried easily across the chasm.
“I won’t hear more of your ideas! The only business you’d get in those stables is cleaning them, like all those small-town boys who came to the big city before you.”
Whatever the matter was, it was obviously not their first time discussing it. The driver’s voice sounded weary and irritated.
“You don’t know how good you have it, my boy. How lucky you are to have a father who has already built your future for you. All you need to do is to take over when I retire, and you’ll live the life of a wealthy, respectable man.”
“There’s more to life than wealth,” said the boy stubbornly. “Do you think Ulrik the Lightning thought about wealth when he went to the Ice Giants? He was only fourteen!”
“Oh, not this again!” wailed the merchant, but the boy went on.
“He knew that the Ice Giants were the most dangerous, vicious creatures in the World, but he went to them anyway. He delivered the message from the King and stopped the war before it started!”
“That’s just a story!” said his father. “In real life we don’t deliver messages to giants, we deliver goods and collect the margin.”
The horses stepped onto the bridge.
The Old Troll could stay hidden and let the travelers pass by, but since he volunteered to take the watch so confidently, it would be too embarrassing to evade his trollish duty. He stood up as straight as his crooked back allowed him and walked out, right onto the middle of the bridge.
He expected any reaction — screams, pleas, or even threats — than the one that followed.
“Huh!” exclaimed the driver. “It’s good that you’re here, my dear! Would you care to explain why there is so much snow on the road? I’m sorry, but this is unacceptable!”
The Old Troll, who had already opened his mouth, forgot what he was about to say. The wagon, in the meanwhile, kept moving closer and closer.
“Hmm… Alright,” he gathered his thoughts and recited the sacred words, the words that Bridge Trolls have been saying for centuries: “You have entered the troll’s bridge, stranger. You must pay the toll or pay with your life!”
The driver pulled the reins. Now that he was close enough, he seemed to realize he had mistaken the Old Troll for someone else. His eyes narrowed suspiciously. The boy’s eyes, on the other hand, opened so wide that the Old Troll could see his own reflection in them. It looked as if the boy was about to say something, but the man didn’t give him a chance.
“Who are you?” he inquired. “What’s going on?”
The Old Troll had neither the strength nor the patience for long conversations.
“Are you deaf?” he asked. “You have entered the troll’s bridge, that’s what’s going on. Hand over the fare, merchant or...”
“Or what?” the man stood up and put his hands on his hips. “What are you going to do, you old mushroom?”
The Old Troll smirked.
“To begin with,” he said, pointing his staff at the merchant's angry face, “I’ll turn your hair into mealworms. Then, I guess, we’ll play it by ear.”
The driver flinched and grabbed onto his head with both hands. “You wouldn’t!”
Wheat and flour, grain and rot,
started the Old Troll in his most malevolent voice,
Beetles crawling in a pot...
“No!” yelled the boy, stepping forward. “Mister Old Troll, wait!”
“Huh?” the Old Troll lost his focus just for a moment, but it was enough for the merchant to come to his senses. He dove inside the wagon and popped right out with a large, steel-studded club in his hands.
The man moved surprisingly fast for his full constitution. If the bridge had been cleaner, the whole encounter could have ended badly. Luckily, as he charged, the merchant’s legs slipped, he fell down, and the blow that was meant for the Old Troll’s head landed on his right boot instead.
“Arrgh!” he roared, “My foot!”
“Neeeigh!” neighed the frightened horses as they lurched aside, dragging the wagon with them.
“Awww-mm…” cried the driver as the wagon shaft hit him on the head and knocked him face-down into the snow, “...mmmopppawwa...”
“What’s going on here?” asked the Bridge Troll, who seemed to appear out of thin air. “Uncle! Did you start this?”
“Me?!” yelped the Old Troll, jumping on one leg, but he lost his balance and fell over, right onto the merchant, who still struggled to get on his feet.
Conveniently, there was no shortage of ice that time of year, plenty enough for the Old Troll’s toes and the bump on the merchant's head.
“How do you know my name, boy?” asked the Old Troll grimly, when they all took their places at the granite table.
The boy opened his mouth, but the Bridge Troll stopped him with a raised hand.
“Please,” he said, “questions later. I think we all started off on the wrong foot. Uncle, let me introduce you to Honorable Otto Svensson, a guild merchant from Starlund.”
Honorable Otto proudly puffed up his broad chest and became absolutely spherical.
“And his son, Gordon.”
Gordon opened his mouth again, but caught an angry look from his father and said nothing.
“I apologize for the confusion,” the Bridge Troll continued. “I should not have left my uncle alone at the bridge, especially knowing his…. hmm… notable temper.”
The Old Troll couldn’t hold himself back anymore.
“Am I going mad?” he croaked, brandishing a piece of ice in his hand. “What’s going on? Instead of stripping this puffball of every penning he’s got, you... apologize?!”
“Hey, wait a minute!” chimed in the merchant indignantly. “Puffball?”
“What? He called me ‘old mushroom’!”
“All right!” the Bridge Troll slammed his paws on the table. “Everyone be quiet! Can I please finish the introduction?”
He waited until both parties settled down.
“Mister Otto, please let me introduce my uncle, the Old Troll from the Dark Forest.”
“It is nice to make your acquaintance,”
snapped Otto, looking away.
“Are we done?” said the Old Troll impatiently. “Now can someone explain to me what’s going on?”
His nephew took a long breath.
“We have an arrangement with the Merchant Guild,” he said. “I keep the road in good condition and the guild pays me every year. The members of the Guild have a free pass on my bridge.”
“You have an arrangement,” said the Old Troll slowly, “with merchants.”
The Bridge Troll couldn’t bear his uncle’s heavy gaze and cast his eyes down.
“I meant to tell you, Uncle, but there was never a good time. You must understand that none of us are getting younger... a deal with the guild is much more convenient than trying to get a fare out of every single merchant, can’t you see?”
The Old Troll shook his head.
“Uff-da, I never thought I’d live to see this. If your father was still with us, he would be devastated.”
“I’m going to check on the grog,” mumbled the Mountain Troll, who had just joined them at the table, but was already eager to leave.
“You have to understand, Uncle,” replied the Bridge Troll emotionally, “the times are changing. Not all of us can live the way our fathers did.”
At these words, young Gordy finally broke his silence.
“That’s what I’ve been telling you, Dad.”
The merchant’s cheeks reddened.
“Young man, you should have some respect and keep quiet while the grown-ups are talking. Nobody needs to hear what you have to say.”
“But they do need to hear,” said the boy with a challenge in his voice, “and I wish you would too, Dad, for once.”
“Shush!” Honorable Otto’s face went from red to a dark shade of purple.
He turned to the trolls.
“You’ll have to forgive my son’s manners. He got it in his head that he wants to go to the Capital and become a royal messenger. Silly.”
He squeezed out an awkward giggle, trying to illustrate how silly it was, but Gordy held his ground.
“Why silly? What if I’m good at it?”
“I’m through with your nonsense!” exploded the merchant, unable to control his temper anymore. “How can you know you’re good at something if you’ve never done it in your life?!”
It was a good argument. The Old Troll expected Gordy to give up, but to his utter surprise, the boy turned away from his father and looked directly at him with a wide smile on his face.
“Mister Old Troll,” he said, pulling a small package out his jacket, “I’d like you to accept this urgent message from Skoggeville, if you please.”
In complete silence, the Old Troll took it.
“How...” started Honorable Otto, when he regained his ability to speak. “What is this?”
“A letter,” said Gordy. “My friend Olsen asked me to deliver it when I saw him back in Molenheim, and he got it from that boy Peter, who lives in a small forest village.”
While the boy, beaming with triumph, was telling the story to his father, the Old Troll examined the package. It turned out to be a clumsily made envelope, cross-packed with cheap thread. He tore it open and pulled out the letter.
“Well?” asked his nephew, intrigued. “What does it say?”
“How in the Forest would I know?” grumbled the Old Troll, still baffled and confused. “It’s written in stupid human letters — it might as well be written in Gnomish runes!”
“Gnomish runes?” piped up the Mountain Troll, emerging from the house with a steaming pot full of rock grog. “Can I see?”
“I can read it for you,” said Gordy, who enjoyed being the center of attention, and grabbed the piece of paper before anyone had a chance to speak.
Dear Old Troll,
I hope this letter finds you well, because there is no one else who can help us.
Since we saw you last, things have gotten really bad. The Red Jaeger and his hunters are coming to the village every day to borrow dogs and men for their raids into the forest. They keep telling our parents how dangerous the forest creatures are and how the village should unite and fight them all together. Many of our friends at FaN-C believe them. We don’t have meetings anymore.
The other day, Alfred saw a cage brought to the Landlord’s manor. It was covered with cloth but he heard the voice coming from it, shouting and cursing. We snuck in that night in and sure enough, it was Alina. They captured her when she was going to the gnomes to ask about Olle. We still cannot believe what happened, and we hope that you will forgive us one day...
Gordy squinted and moved the paper closer to his face.
“There are some smears in here, the ink is all blurry.”
“Go on,” said the Old Troll in coarse voice. “Keep reading.”
...Alina said that the situation in the forest is also quite bad. The Witch is in command now. She blames you for everything. The magic folk are scared of the hunters and she tells them that the only way to stop the raids is to attack the village. More and more of them agree with her every day. Alina’s sisters are asleep until next Spring and the only one who could try to stop the Witch is you. She said you must have gone to your nephews who live in the Blue Mountains. We will try to send this letter with our friends in Molenheim. We hope it finds you, and if it does, please come and help us before something terrible happens.
Mary and Peter
Gordy put down the paper. They all sat at the table for some time, sipping their drinks. It seemed that Gordy had many questions on his mind, but one glance at the Old Troll’s solemn face was enough to make him concentrate on his cup of spiced apple juice.
When the grog pot was almost empty, the Bridge Troll stood up and cleared his throat.
“You’ve been a great help to us, young Gordon,” he said with a bit of pomp. “We appreciate it greatly.”
He fumbled with a purse on his belt and produced a shiny silver penning. At the sight of money, the merchant’s boggled face gained a sensible expression. He gave a nudge to his son, prompting him to take the coin and express his gratitude. After a series of thanks and goodbyes, the host showed his guests back onto the bridge, where their horses had patiently awaited them all this time.
The Old Troll didn’t join them. He sat still, staring blankly at the table in front of him, unable to gather his thoughts.
“What are you going to do?” asked his nephew, when the guests had departed.
The Old Troll shook his head bitterly.
“My beloved Forest is bustling with hunters. My fellow magic folk hate me and the only friend I’ve ever had is gone. What am I going to do, you ask? Nothing. My time in the Forest is over. No more cheese for me.”
The younger troll lifted the massive grog pot and poured the leftovers into his cup.
“Maybe it’s not my place to say this,” he said, savoring the spices, “but there’s more to life than cheese.”
The Old Troll gave him a long look, but said nothing. It was so quiet, that even after the travelers were back on the road, the trolls could still hear their voices.
“Do you see what happened?” sounded Gordy’s exalted voice. “I’m just like Ulrik! I traveled through the mountains, I delivered the letter, and stopped the war!”
“Sure,” replied the merchant, “that’s good, letters and all, but I hope you’re smart enough not to blow through your first earnings buying sweets. We should think long-term investment...”
A gust of a wind took away the boy’s response, but it didn’t sound like he was very enthusiastic about making investments.
The Old Troll suddenly realized how tired he was. He wanted to return to his bed, but just as he was getting up, the light faded in his eyes. His head spun and it appeared to him that he was back in the Forest and his little nisse was sitting on the Summer Table right in front of him, in his brown jacket, hiding a sad smile in his beard.
“Did he?” asked Olle. “Did the boy stop the war?”
The Old Troll’s eyes filled up with tears.
“I’m just an old and tired troll who can barely drag his feet,” he said. “What can I do?”
“Everything,” was the answer the nisse gave him. “Everything that needs to be done. There is a part of the First Troll in you, never forget that.”
The next thing he saw was his nephews’ worried faces.
“Uncle? Are you alright?”
The giant held him up as carefully as someone would hold a butterfly.
“I’m fine,” mumbled the Old Troll, getting back on the bench.
The Bridge Troll wiped his forehead with a sleeve.
“Oh, it’s my fault. Your first day out of bed and so much excitement... Let me help you back in.”
“No need, just let me sit here for a moment.”
“I’ll fetch some water,” said the giant, and squeezed himself into the shack.
The Mountain Troll’s back was so large, it seemed impossible for its owner to get through the door, but somehow he managed every time.
“Oh, I know what can cheer you up!” said the Bridge Troll, switching to his usual positive tone. “Do you know what my dear cousin has been up to? Listen to this. He decided that he wanted to build his own bridge and he’s been taking masonry lessons.”
“He... what? Where?”
‘“From the gnomes.”
“Oh, yes! Every Wednesday he goes to a gnomish town, the one that’s in the White Peak Hall, about ten miles from here. He can get inside the hall, but he’s way too big for the classroom, so he just sits outside, peeking through the window and making notes. I saw him there once; it was the funniest thing ever! And last week, when I was cleaning the pantry storage, I found a stack of masonry books, all in Gnomish.”
The Old Troll grunted.
“I can’t imagine… How can he read them? They must be the size of his toenail!”
“I don’t know and I’m afraid to ask. You know how sensitive he gets. But wait, that’s not all. He made friends with some of the young gnomes, the students. They call him Little Ville.”
The Old Troll smiled and shook his head.
“A troll with a name… Speaking about the times changing!”
“Yes, the Mountains are a different place now. I would think you have lots of changes in your Forest, too.”
“In my Forest...” said the Old Troll, and his smile faded.
“Even if I wanted to go,” he said thoughtfully, “how would I get there? I’m not in any shape to brave my way through the mountains again.”
“What about the road?”
The Old Troll’s faced soured.
“The road, as I have recently learned,” he said, “is crawling with merchants even at this time of year. I doubt many of them will be happy at the sight of an ugly old troll gallivanting in the open daylight like it’s nobody’s business.”
His nephew scratched his head.
“Well, what if you could travel in disguise? Or… wait! Otto will be going back to Molenheim in two weeks. What if I asked him to hide you in his wagon? This could be a good idea!”
“What idea?” asked the Mountain Troll, showing up with a jar of water.
“Nevermind,” said the Old Troll. “Little Ville,” he muttered, shaking his head, and then he laughed for the first time that winter.
Just as the people in the Northern Lands had lost all hope and made their peace with the thought that winter would last forever, spring finally came. The winter fought to the last soldier, pushing back with freezing nights and high winds, dealing desperate blows with storms and blizzards, but one day it gave up.
The snow under the Troll’s Bridge receded and the river carried its waters boldly and proudly, babbling and swirling at the foot of the giant pier that split the icy stream in two. It was about that time when the strangest thing happened to little Rulle, the 10-year-old son of a dairyman from Norville.
The court at the coaching inn on the Molenheim Route was crowded with horses, carts, and wagons. It was quite an easy place to get lost, so Rulle’s father told him to stay put and mind the cart while he went to fetch water for the horses. Shortly after, a tall merchant wagon pulled in. Just as its driver was getting off his high seat, a long, bony hand with creepy black nails stretched out from the wagon’s window and snatched a bit of cheese from Rulle’s dairy cart!
When his father got back, Rulle tried to tell him about the ugliest face that peered from the darkness of the wagon, the shaggy grey hair and mouth full of crooked teeth. But the dairyman did not believe the story. He said that a young man should not take food without permission, let alone lie to his parents. At those words, Rulle could have sworn he heard giggles coming from the merchant’s wagon, muffled by vigorous chewing and slurping.