by Karen Leigh Baxter
Sir Stafford kept his mount to a slow walk as he approached the bridge over the Kevel River. He lacked two months until his twentieth birthday. His knighthood was so freshly minted the gilt had yet to begin wearing off his spurs.
Steeped from birth in chivalric virtues, Sir Stafford had long since settled upon his first quest. He had heard for years of this particular bridge. As was common, this bridge was held against those who would cross it. As was less common, this one was not held by some knight who challenged only worthy peers to jousts. It was held by a troll, who exacted a fee from all who would pass, regardless of station.
Sir Stafford had never seen a troll before. Rumor made them out to be formidable foes, of hideous mien, tall as houses, tough as trees, wielding vast clubs capable of shattering shields at a single blow. He figured it would be simple enough to recognize one.
Not that it mattered to him. If anything, or anyone, was extorting money from common folk, it was his knightly duty to remove the oppressor.
The bridge was of unmortared stone, a single low span arching across the water, wide enough for a wagon to pass between its low side walls, if little wider. It had stood so long its construction had passed from history into legend. There were few other good crossings over the Kevel River, none of them within a day’s ride of the bridge. Marshy banks along much of the river’s length prevented fording even where it ran shallow.
Sure enough, when Sir Stafford reached a point he could see beneath the bridge, there was the troll. It was every bit as ugly as purported, though it was hard to tell if it was as large, since it was lounging in a hammock beneath the span. One of its huge paws held a pole, whence a slack line dangled into the water. From a bent nail driven between stones dangled a large drinking skin.
Lounging or not, the troll was alert enough to notice Sir Stafford’s approach. Before the knight could issue his challenge, the troll called out: “You want a fish?”
This was not how Sir Stafford had imagined the encounter would begin. Taken aback, he hesitated before replying: “No. I wish to cross the bridge.”
“Oh, that’s fine. Long as you don’t want to fish off it. Fish are all mine.” The troll shrugged up to a sitting position in the hammock. “Got to pay the toll, of course.”
“You imagine a knight of the realm would pay a toll to the likes of you? I’ve come to rid this place of your vile imposition! I challenge you to single combat!”
“Oh. One of those. Well, have it your way. Give me a minute.” The troll lazily took down the drinking skin, drew a long swallow, returned it to the hook. Then he reached up with one great arm, clutched a handhold in the stone, and heaved himself onto the span. His other hand still held the fishing pole. He stretched to his full height—which was indeed as legend held it, half again that of a grown man—and yawned.
Then did nothing.
After a bit, the troll said: “Whenever you’re ready. Got fishing to do if you aren’t going to fight.”
“Are you not going to arm yourself?” queried Sir Stafford.
“Naw. I’m good.”
“I would not have it said I rode down an unarmed opponent.”
The troll made a great show of looking about, then snorted. “Who’s to know?”
Sir Stafford shifted his shield and couched his lance. “Very well then, as you would. Have at thee!” With this, the knight set spurs to his horse and charged the bridge.
As the knight reached the edge of the bridge, the troll flicked his pole. The line whipped out, sending the hook into the horse’s hindquarters. Startled by the sting, the horse bucked. Sir Stafford was a fair horseman, but, anticipating the shock of his lance striking home, or at least a heavy blow to his shield, he already had his weight forward. The sudden lift from behind overset him. Even so, he nearly remained in his saddle, but in his efforts to do so, he slid to one side rather than falling directly forward.
Sir Stafford felt a brief chill run up his spine upon finding himself airborne, a more general and substantial one as he plunged into the water beneath the bridge. Fortunately, the fall was not great. Also fortunately, the water was not deep. He got his feet under him and stood with the river gently lapping his pauldrons. His lance drifted downstream, already yards away, beyond recovery. Looking up, he saw his horse on the sward before the bridge, pacing in riderless puzzlement, and saw the troll peering over the low rail.
“You okay?” the troll asked.
“Varlet! Such a foul tactic might only come from an opponent of your ilk! Cannot you triumph in fair combat?”
“Guess that means you’re okay,” the troll said. “Though you could have plunked down up here. Now you’ve gone and scared all the fish away. And what are you grousing about? You’re the one who said ‘single combat.’ Why’d you try to bring your buddy along?”
Sir Stafford stopped in the middle of wading up the bank. He stared at the troll in utter disbelief. “A knight’s mount is an essential part of his equipage. It is not a ‘buddy’!”
“I pity the horse, then. Anyway, it don’t matter to me. I see two of you. So make up your mind. I can fight you, or I can fight the horse. I figure it ought to be you, since the horse wasn’t the one looking to pick a fight.”
Sir Stafford trudged up to the bridge once more, water squishing in his boots, chafing in the padding beneath his mail. Absent his lance, he decided being mounted would confer no advantage, only hinder his mobility. He drew his sword. “Then you shall have your single combat after all. I do not fear to face you on foot.” Had his visor been open, his expression might have given this statement the lie. He peered uncertainly at his towering opponent, still standing casually at the center of the span.
“Your single combat, you mean. I didn’t call you out.”
Sir Stafford chose to ignore that. He advanced a few cautious steps, guard at the ready. It was not possible to work his way inside the troll’s reach gradually, however. So he raised his sword over his head and charged.
This time, when the troll flicked his pole, the knight was ready. Anticipating an attempt to entangle his leg and trip him, Sir Stafford slashed his sword downward in a plane crossing his entire body, the tip barely clearing the ground as it passed before his feet.
The blade encountered nothing. The troll had not completed the motion, had not cast the line.
What the troll did instead was take a step forward, abruptly closing the remaining distance to the oncoming knight. Then he lashed out with a massive fist at the right side of the knight’s helmet, now unprotected by the sword. Sir Stafford saw the blow coming, tried to twist, to bring his shield in line, but was far too late.
No training mace ever rang his bell as that fist did. All but insensate, he sagged first to his knees, then to a sitting position. Somewhere above him, he heard a voice thundering about bruised knuckles.
Then there was silence for a couple minutes. Eventually, Sir Stafford’s head cleared to where his eyes could focus once more. The first thing they registered was a pair of tremendous kneecaps. He craned his neck back, looked up at his looming opponent.
“We done now?” the troll inquired.
Sir Stafford was still rather dazed. “Why did you not strike and finish me?”
“Huh? What’s the point in that? That’s not what I’m about. I’m just here to collect the toll. And fish.” The troll looked forlornly at the water the knight had inconsiderately disturbed. He reached down, hooked the knight under the shoulder, heaved him upright, steadied him until he stopped wobbling.
Sir Stafford began: “I am—excuse me.” He dropped his sword and shield, yanked off his helmet, leaned on the rail, and vomited over the side of the bridge. He remained in that position some minutes. Behind him, he heard the troll moving about, but could spare him no attention.
When it seemed safe to do so, Sir Stafford stood and turned, to find the troll had ducked beneath the bridge long enough to retrieve his drinking skin and a crude wicker basket. “Here.” The troll handed the knight the skin. It proved to contain a strong dark ale. Not what Sir Stafford wished to partake of at that point, but adequate for washing the taste from his mouth.
He handed the skin back, then started over. “I am defeated. I yield.” Helmet off, his youth and despondency were both evident.
The troll shrugged. “Ah, don’t take it too hard. It’s not like you lost a tourney. Or a limb. Just have to pay the toll.”
“My purse is in my saddle bag.” He gestured in the direction of his grazing mount.
“That’s fine. You can go get it. Or get on your horse and ride back the way you came, for all of me. You’ll still be on that side of the bridge, and wouldn’t owe me.”
Sir Stafford started to shake his head in bewilderment, but cut the motion short when the world began to spin. The troll didn’t even care if he profited nothing from his triumph? It hurt too much to think through at the moment. Instead, Sir Stafford collected his arms, staggered back to dig out his coin, and returned, leading his mount. Humiliating as it might be to pay the toll, turning back, acknowledging he had been unable to win his way across the bridge, was unthinkable.
The troll shrugged. “Eh. Tuppence. Seeing as there are two of you.”
The chagrined knight handed the troll his minuscule fee. It did not seem worth the bother to argue further whether his horse should be counted.
“Thank you. And here’s your fish.” The troll reached into his basket and proffered a fine three-foot-long trout.
“I did not want a fish,” the knight fumed.
“Hey, compliments of the service. You pay the toll, you get a free fish.”
“What should I do with a fish?”
“Most people eat them. If you don’t feel like fixing it yourself, there’s a good inn a couple miles up the road which will do the job for you a right treat. Innkeeper’s constantly sending one of his boys down here to pay the toll. Busy days, sometimes he sends the boy with a basket and has him cross back and forth a few times. Though that’s only if he’s getting custom from the other direction. Anyone coming up this way already has a fish when he gets to the inn.” The troll grinned broadly, as though this were the height of humor. “About once a week, the innkeeper sends a cask of ale along with the boy.”
“Which you take in lieu of the toll, I suppose?” He tried to glower, but it hurt to furrow his brow, so he gave it up.
His words, however, elicited surprise from the troll, who said: “No, of course not. I pay for it. Shoot, what else do I have to do with the toll I collect? Got everything else I need right here.”
Sir Stafford blinked in amazement. It was too much to digest at that moment. Perhaps after some rest. He gingerly remounted, the troll providing a steadying hand. He accepted the fish, puzzled over where to put it, decided it would fit into the rest which normally supported his lost lance. Then he rode across to the far side of the bridge and on up the road.
The following day, one of the innkeeper’s boys arrived at the bridge, pushing the barrow used whenever he was transporting an ale cask. The troll climbed up to meet him, said: “Bit early, isn’t it? Still working on the one from four days ago.”
The boy assumed a pose resembling military attention—placing his eyes level with the troll’s navel—and recited carefully: “By the authority vested in His Majesty’s peerage, all tolls on this route are to be remitted for the following week. Services rendered to His Majesty’s subjects on this route shall continue as per usual.” The boy stopped, resumed his normal slouch, added: “Think I got all that right.” He looked up at the troll, hoping everything was still okay.
The troll guffawed. “Now there’s a man who don’t like losing.” Shaking his head, he turned back toward his lair. “Hang on. I’ll go fetch you a fish.”