The river winded like a dark shimmering ribbon through the twilight, shadowy forest on one bank, meadow on the other, and a nearly finished stone bridge, with a gap in the middle like a broken grin, spanning the two.
On a rock on the meadow side, right where his boat was moored, sat Raim, stubbled chin resting on his hand. His eyes were closed. He was listening to the sound of the gently lapping waves. They seemed to whisper to him things were not so bad. He frowned. That was a lie.
Abruptly, he opened his eyes, turned his head to look at the bridge under construction, looming in the dusk like so much impending doom. Which was exactly what it was.
What was he to do? He had been pondering that these past few months so often a throbbing headache was more or less constant. He had gotten no nearer an answer. He was a ferryman; he would be nothing once the bridge was finished. Which would be soon. Oh, he supposed he could go get a job as a farm hand somewhere, he was young still. But he didn’t want to. He wanted to stay here, by the river.
He sighed, fingered the silver coins in his pocket. The last amount of decent money he might ever make. They were cold to the touch. He tossed one into the river, like he did regularly to secure safe passage. A splash, circles of dark ripples. It wouldn’t help him now.
“What am I to do?” he whispered.
He drew in breath. The air was cool, scents of dew and wildflowers on it. In the dark river, he saw nothing but fireflies reflected. A loon cried out.
“Come swim with us,” whispered a voice like trickling water. Tinkling laughter followed, and a shiver ran down Raim’s spine. The glowing figures of two river fae emerged, like he knew they would, just below the surface, long hair flowing like rays of moonlight about them.
He hadn’t really expected any useful advice: asking him to come swimming was all they ever said. And he wanted to, oh, how he wanted to, but he had never done so, heeding the warning of the old ferryman. You’ll be lost if you do, truly lost. And when your corpse is rotting on the bottom of the river, what does it matter that you swam with the pretty ones for a minute?
He could watch the fae, though, that was safe, silvery shapes dancing in the waves, for hours on end, and he would feel the world was peaceful, and beautiful, and…so much more than it was in the drab light of day.
But not tonight. Raim shook his head as he got to his feet and turned. Tonight he needed to forget what he was about to lose. Tonight he would go to the inn, and the weight of the coins in his pocket meant there was plenty forgetfulness to go around.
He began walking in direction of the village. Two steps, then he froze, glimpsing someone in the shadows by his cottage. A huge brute of a man, he thought at first, but as he blinked, and the man approached, Raim saw it was just his mind and the twilight playing tricks on him: what appeared was just a frail looking vagrant, slightly hunched and clad in rags.
“Sorry, I’ll do no more crossings until tomorrow,” Raim said. And then he added, because the vagrant looked like he could really use it, “But I’ll buy you a drink at the inn and a meal if you like.”
A smile curved the vagrant’s thin lips. “Not looking to eat. Not looking to drink. Just looking for a man who is up for a game of dice.” His voice was low and deep and vaguely rumbling, as though carrying the echo of a distant rolling boulder. It left Raim feeling slightly unsettled, but before he could give it any further thought, the vagrant opened a small leather bag he held in his hand. There was gold inside of it, Raim realised incredulously: that warm hue could be nothing else.
“It’s all yours if you win,” said the vagrant. “And if I win, you’ll have to do me one favor. That’s all.”
Raim felt suddenly short of breath. With that amount of gold he wouldn’t need to leave his home and the river, regardless of the bridge. It would keep him fed and clothed for years. He nodded hurriedly. “Yes, yes. Let’s play.”
* * *
Raim invited the vagrant inside his cottage, and again he offered him something to eat or drink. Again, the vagrant refused. Raim shrugged and bend to rekindle the fire of the stone set hearth while the vagrant seated himself on a stool by the wooden table in the centre of the room.
The flames flared and the gloom dispersed, and Raim sat down opposite the vagrant. He glanced at the bulging leather bag casually dropped on the table. How strange it was that such a poor looking fellow should be in possession of that much gold. Raim shook his head faintly. Perhaps not, when he thought about it: most likely it was simply stolen. And if it were to be his, he would rather not know. So he bit his lip and kept silent as he watched the vagrant reach into a pocket in his tattered cloak and produce a set of dice.
For a moment the vagrant just held the dice, black nails seeming like claws about to close on them—a trick of the flickering fire light, perhaps, the same effect that made it seem as though, for just a moment, the vagrant’s smiling mouth was filled with pointy teeth. He rolled the dice. Raim’s eyebrows went up: all of them turned out to be sixes.
“Nice roll.” Raim whistled and gathered up the dice. But when he rolled them, only one eye on each glared back at him. And so it was each time.
After a while, Raim began sweating. “Something’s wrong,” he muttered through clenched teeth, unclasping his woollen cloak and draping it absentmindedly across the empty stool next to him.
The vagrant rolled again. “I win,” he said before the dice were even still.
Raim glared at the vagrant, opened his mouth to accuse him of cheating somehow, but before he could form the words the vagrant’s shadow on the wall grew larger, huge. And then, so did the vagrant, and he had tusks all of a sudden, gleaming in the firelight, and his hand next to the dice—-which had all turned out to be sixes—-became massive, hairy, clawed…
This was a troll. Raim had never seen one, but this was a troll, losing its magical disguise, this was how all the old tale-spinners described them. Raim felt as though his blood drained away.
“And so, you owe me a favor,” the troll said and smiled a wicked smile exposing jagged teeth.
Raim just sat very still and gave a slight nod, his mouth suddenly too dry to speak.
The troll shifted its weight uneasily, its smile fading to an embarrassed grimace. “The thing is…” it began, scratching at one of the warts between the horns on its forehead. “The Other King has assigned me to live under the bridge, once it’s finished. But the thing is…”
It looked down at the table. “I know it’s a terrible thing for a troll to say, but I don’t really want to live under a bridge. I like the free life, roaming, eating whatever I want—living under a bridge all you get to eat is fish, fish, fish…most bridges don’t have sheep crossing them all the time, that’s just stories. And humans are just more trouble than they’re worth.”
The troll looked up. “But every bridge needs a troll under it. That’s the way of things.” Its eyes gleamed red, reflecting the fire. “And for this bridge, that troll is going to be you. You’ve already got a touch of Other in you. My magic will do the rest.”
“Wait a minute…” Raim felt a prickling chill, as though cold fingers reached slowly through him.
“Don’t worry. Fish are very healthy for humans, I’ve heard. You just stay put under the bridge, and everything will be fine.”
For a single heartbeat he actually considered the troll’s suggestion; at least he could stay by the river, then. But what would they think of him, the river fae? Would they dance for an ugly, troll looking thing?
His jaw tightened. He knew the answer to that. Who did this troll think it was? He wasn’t about to let it trick him into giving up himself! “I’m not going to do that. You might turn me into a troll, but I’m not going to stay under the bridge. I’ll go straight to the Other King and tell him what you’ve done, how you’ve neglected your duties.”
The troll snarled. “We had a deal. You lost the game. You have to do this for me.”
Raim crossed his arms, felt his cheeks heat. “Did I truly lose the game? It wasn’t very likely, you rolling all sixes and all… I bet you cheated.”
“So what? Our deal didn’t say anything about it having to be a fair game. The term was simply: you lose, you have to do me a favor.”
Raim threw up a hand. “But there wasn’t any term saying you got to choose the favor.”
The troll began growling lowly, the red colour of its eyes intensifying. Raim became suddenly very aware of the tusks and the claws and the pointy, jagged teeth, which could easily tear flesh from bone. He gulped.
“Hear me out,” he quickly went on. “My favor to you is a better solution, for both of us. Destroy the bridge. You can do that, right?”
He held his breath.
The troll narrowed its eyes. “You think you’re clever, eh?” A short pause. Then it threw back its head and gave a rumbling laugh. “Who would have thought—I think you are!” It shot to its feet, and Raim flinched, lifted a hand defensively. But the troll just strode out, leaving the door wide open.
A cold gust of wind blew in, and the fire of the hearth crackled, sparks and embers flying up. Raim stared out into the moonless night. He could hear the heavy footfalls of the troll, fading. He could hear his own heart beat.
Then came a crash and deafening, clattering booms, a din as though the bridge was indeed tumbling down.
Then there was silence, smooth, like the darkness, like the river on a quiet day.
Was it over? Was it done? Was the bridge gone?
Raim donned his woollen cloak, lit a lantern, and holding it high he went outside. There were no stars: the sky was overcast, and the small circle of light from his lantern wasn’t enough for him to discern what had happened. He would have to come closer.
His heart was racing as he made his way along the riverbank. Shouldn’t the bridge be around here? He stopped for a few heartbeats, then continued, slowly, suddenly afraid he might slip in the dark, or encounter the troll again, or…
His breath caught in his throat: for a moment he thought that dark, hulking shape in front of him was just that—the troll, or something worse, and he almost laughed out loud when he realised it was just a pile of shattered stone.
The bridge was gone.
He closed his eyes for a moment, breathed out slowly. The breeze was a gentle caress, and the lapping of the waves a comforting sound. It seemed everything would be all right, after all.
So he stood for a while, until he began to feel the chill of the night and decided to turn back. But he didn’t: Something glinted in the water, something silvery, not just the warm glow of his lantern reflected.
“Are you coming swimming with us?” whispered a tinkling voice, and then: tinkling laughter.
◊ ◊ ◊
Astrid S. Nielsen
Astrid S. Nielsen is a chartered surveyor, born in 1982, and residing in Aalborg, Denmark, with her husband and a tank full of fish. Her fiction has appeared in Abyss & Apex and Silver Blade Magazine, among others. Visit her at www.astridnielsen.wordpress.com