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.