Kaia stopped. Dirt from the road wisped up around her giant boots, a strand of blonde hair tickling her face. Pale hand shooting out like a branch, she socked her brother in the chest.
Exhausted from the long journey, limping and covered in dirt, Rasmus grunted, “What
The bridge stretched across a shallow river. A solid composition, well-kept for something so far out in the wilderness, the golden wood and red trim made for a secure and undaunting obstacle.
“Trolls,” she said, expression severe.
Rasmus held back a snort. He debated, questioning his own eyes and the pretty pale blue water, the calm of the forest across the bed. The underside of the quaint bridge was dark, but dark enough to conceal the living place of another creature? Not his first conclusion.
“I thought they live in caves,” he said finally.
“They can come from any shadow.”
“Okay. But he’d be stuck there until night. What’s the point?”
“That’s the thing. They don’t mind light…” she said, her voice heavy with a terrifying amount of sincerity. “It’s said trolls can travel to and from the Wyrd through the dark.”
“Still looks a little small.”
He knew better than to question her outright, but he didn’t have the energy to amuse her. Off in the distance he heard the sound of a horse’s whinny. While they had left the plains below, trekking upward into the mountains that few explorers had ever charted past, he thought he could see travelers on horseback down past the winding trail in the grassy prairie. The Hunters were on their tail, Rasmus’s leg was screaming in pain. He had very little patience.
“I think we’re just being paranoid,” he said.
“We are out in the wilderness with no people around, chasing a demon and rumors of random human mutation. We can take a second to think.”
“We’re not in the middle of a war-torn area or anything. The villagers who built this must be safe or they wouldn’t live here.”
“Tell that to the freaks back at the last town.”
He squinted, trying to peer into the shadows beneath the curve of the underside of the bridge.
“Maybe they’re out here because they are
bad people,” Kaia said, “and they’re avoiding the guild and the authorities who they know won’t come out here because it’s so dangerous! Maybe the troll is protecting them. Anything is possible with morons who’d live out here!”
“We’ve crossed plenty of bridges and I’ve never seen—”
She thrust out a hand. “Look at the markings, naysayer. On the sides,” she said pointing. “Plus, it’s a nice bridge, so what troll wouldn’t
want to live here?”
“With this much wilderness, I’d think he’d prefer something big enough to start a family,” Rasmus said with tired humor.
“Those gray runes drawn all along it, I believe, are troll bait. People probably built it to lure them to it so as to get them to stop harassing their sheep.”
A pained look crossed Rasmus’s brow. “We could always just walk around.”
She smirked. “What happened to the mighty power of the ogre slayer?”
“He lost his strength when he lost to the man-eating bush.” He scowled in memory. “Dagger-eating bush.”
“Sounds like a big set of excuses to me,” she said.
He surveyed the river one last time then huffed a sigh. “Stay here then.”
Sucking in his chest, he hobbled forward. She held back, dipping down for the partial cover of a tiny bush. Clutching her neck, lips tight, Kaia stayed stiff in her spot as her brother tromped along the slope and slipped through the mud. Peering into the water, he gauged its depth.
The crystal ripples reflected back an older man than he’d known before. His eyes were lined with black, his light hair now brown with grime. With gaunt cheeks and a scowl, Rasmus’s heart startled as he saw his father looking back at him.
Rasmus nearly jumped out of his boots, flinging himself towards the crashing beast. A large, fat creature lumbered up the hill on extra-long arms.
Kaia threw herself to the ground. Rasmus’s hand went for where his dagger used to be, snatching at air.
“What you doing?!” the beast screeched. The large stick in his fist hindered his step. “You must pay!”
Rasmus braced on his back foot, white-faced.
“I… didn’t know you were open.”
Its face stretched long, nose and mouth touching its chest. With green skin and leathery folds, a bulldog’s brow and fangs in massive jowls, the troll was an ugly thing, but fearsome. Hunched over, clambering, its bent head matched Rasmus’s in height. “Ten gold!”
Kaia popped up from the bush. “Ten gold
Both males gaped.
“Who has that kind of money?!” she demanded.
“People pay,” the troll said, his human speech wavering into a thick, gurgling accent.
“No one has that!”
The troll flurried. “You pay or you die!”
Rasmus ducked, air fluttering his hair as a clumsy swing went overhead. “Kaia, stay down.”
“Stupid little humans. Thinking they can get nothin’ for free.”
“Is it your
bridge?” Kaia demanded. “Do you pay taxes on it?”
The club clunked Rasmus right in the skull.
Kaia screamed an abrupt chirp. Black spots spluttered across a sudden, flat pain in Rasmus’s head. He rose from the dirt on his elbows, stunned.
“Don’t talk to me like I stupid,” the troll spat. “Ten gold or you die!”
“Rasmus!” his sister screeched. “Rasmus, come back! Get up and run!”
He waved her away, pulling himself from the ground. “We got two silver.”
The club whisked towards the sky. Rasmus hobbled to get up, bracing. A rock shot through the air. It missed by a yard. Kaia stood paralyzed, arm extended. The troll whirled on her.
“Wait!” Kaia said. “Look! We don’t have much. Either take it or we leave! That’s fair, right?”
“You liar!” the troll spat.
He spun another casual swing, but Rasmus easily stepped back out of the way.
“Kaia, shut up!”
“Yeah, shut up, smaller human!”
“He wants us to fight. You just looking for an excuse to die? Right? Or eat us?”
The troll’s jaw set. Rasmus stumbled back. The large fangs shone with spit.
“Rasmus,” Kaia demanded, “For hell’s sake, run!”
“I beat you then I take your money!” it shouted.
“Kaia, idiot,” Rasmus called as he neared her. “Draw your dagger!”
Kaia’s feet wouldn’t respond, the delay enough to see the fierce yellow of the troll’s eyes. She yanked her pack from her shoulder, and took to running, digging through it frantically. Rasmus, ahead now, hesitated, wondering to go back to her or allow her to catch up.
She started throwing glass jars.
“What are you doing?” Rasmus said. “Just run!”
The swing came in a hair’s width away from her back. Rasmus nearly tumbled backwards as he stopped. The troll gained speed. Kaia pulled out the dagger with a smile. She chucked the whole sack smack into the creature’s face. He clubbed her.
Her body crumbled into itself. Rasmus leapt over a bush, bending to snatch tiny pebbles from the ground. The troll raised his club again.
“You pay now?”
She unsheathed the dagger. The stick whisked down. Rasmus head-butted him. The blade slice into the troll’s foot, a screech blurting from the creature. Yanking its leg into the air, dagger still attached, the troll danced, a rich purplish blood glittering.
Rasmus lunged forward, reaching for the handle. Kaia scrambled onto her feet. The troll collapsed like a lame dog, legs outstretched before him, blinking through his black eyes in shock. The siblings hesitated in shock as huge pearls looked to shape at the bottom of the creature’s eyes. He began to cry. Milky, thick tears streamed down his dark green skin.
Kaia dove for another rock, skirting, dirt slipping out from under her, her brother finally clutched the dagger. The troll cried as the dagger slid out with ease, blood spurting like a fountain.
Rasmus’s lips tightened. He raised the dagger again, fist white around the handle, muscle braced for maximum impact.
He turned to the wide-eyed gape of his sister, her hands flared out, shocked at him. He released a breath, his body collapsing as the adrenaline rushed out. “What?”
“Don’t kill him!”
Rasmus visibly wavered. He thrust out a hand: Are you kidding me?
With tiny footsteps down the slope, Kaia made it to the troll’s side. Her brother hitched a breath as she went to put a hand on the troll’s shoulder to comfort him. Her fingers hovered, the girl intent on her fingertips, getting distracted by the skin itself, before she snapped back to her original intention: “Here’s some copper.”
The troll peered up at her through its watery eyes before holding out a long hand. She placed the coins in his palm and smiled.
“Keep the Wyrd out, guardian,” she whispered.
Rasmus didn’t know why she would hide her words, but her voice dipped so low and her lips came so close to its ear.
“Get our shit,” Kaia told her brother, gesturing towards the sparkling glass jars along the path.
“What the hell, Kaia?” he blurted, unsure what to do with himself. “Who died and made you courageous? Get away from him.”
She ignored him with a pointed turn, grabbing up the items nearest to her. Rasmus stayed put, weapon hand slack, eyeing the troll down. The creature counted his coins with one finger like a small child at the tail end of a tantrum.
“Can you answer two questions for me?” Rasmus said, cautiously.
The troll flicked his eyes upward, mouth contorted into a pout.
“Has anyone else passed by here recently?”
“Just one. This week.”
Sliding the coin into its left hand, it gently touched the blood on its foot.
The hair on Rasmus’s neck pricked. “What did he look like? White hair? Tall? Pallid?”
“No! Dirty. Brown hair. A villager.”
Rasmus dangled the dagger to his side. He looked to his sister, walking up with an armful of items.
“Did you kill him?” she asked the troll.
“No! He paid.”
Her step wavered, eyes narrowed. “How much?”
The troll stopped rocking and eyed her. Rasmus waved the question away. “Is there a town nearby?”
The creature nodded. Rasmus gave him another once over, seeing how small he appeared. Innocent. A pang of guilt wrenched his stomach before he finally handed the dagger over to his sister.
“You probably need that more than I do,” she said.
Rasmus pressed it into her grip, saying to the creature. “There are a group of Vampire Hunters coming this way. I’d avoid them if you can.”
Taking his sister by the shoulder, Rasmus lead her around the troll. It let them go, sitting with its head bowed, twitching its feet back and forth.
Kaia glanced back. The troll rolled up onto his feet and swaggered back towards the bridge sullenly. Its beady eyes flashed up as it approached the shadows, and she kept her head tilted forward. When it felt safe enough, it disappeared. One step into the dark, and it was gone. Trickles of gray filled the water around where it left. She smirked, a curious satisfaction filling her.
“What?” Rasmus asked as they hurried across the bridge. “You feel bad for him?”
“Nah. From what I’ve read, trolls always end up in tears. The bark is worse than their bite.”
He rubbed his head in disagreement.