‘Stop, or forfeit!’
Martin Underlay stopped and frowned. The voice sounded intimidating but its source remained hidden. Was this some teenage trick? He took half a step towards the bridge and squealed as what appeared to be a small hairy rodent with waving arms rushed him. This apparently bimanual squirrel grabbed him round the left leg and drew back some sharp brown teeth intent on biting Martin’s shin.
‘Gerrof.’ Martin’s reaction, both instinctive and born of many years as his club’s centre back, was to kick out hard and launch the hairy attacker over the bridge. It landed with a grunt and followed it with a furious howl, before righting itself and hurtling back across the bridge, still determined, or so it appeared to perforate a soft fleshy part of Martin’s anatomy.
This time Martin was ready. It was much like receiving a hard but direct back pass, only with arms and hair. He brought back his leg and connected sweetly.
Whatever it was flew even further and landed in a gorse bush. This time its howls were of the affronted and pained kind, but, once again it stood, a little unsteadily, eyed Martin with a deep visceral malevolence and began to run.
Martin had to admire its resilience while marvelling at its stupidity. He watched as the creature’s little legs pumped, though by the time it reached the bridge, he could see it was flagging. He braced himself and rocked on the balls of his feet as his delusional opponent began to cross the rickety wooden structure. It reached the near side and stopped abruptly, holding up one hairy-backed and gnarled hand.
Martin kept his position, fearing a trick.
‘Do you know what I am?’ The yellow-eyed nobbly thing peered at Martin.
Whatever it was did a stretching thing that increased its height to about two foot six. ‘Well, that’s nice, I must say. How often do you come across mythical creatures?’
Martin stopped rocking. ‘I… never.’
‘Quite. We’re rare and should be treated with respect.’
‘You tried to eat me!’
‘You didn’t stop so you agreed to a forfeit.’
‘I did not.’
‘Yes, you did. I said ‘Stop or forfeit,’ and you kept coming so forfeit it was.’
‘No, hang on, just because you said it doesn’t create some sort of contractual nexus between us.’
‘Contra….? Are you a lawyer?’
‘Well, as it happens, yes.’
‘And you know about custom and practice, ancient rights that pertain to the use of certain lands?’
‘Yes , of course, but I’ve never heard of one that involves forfeiting a limb to a maniacal rodent.’
‘Well, you have now. This is my bridge, has been since before time immemorial…’
‘Well done. Anyway…’
‘But you can’t be…’ Martin did some mental arithmetic, ‘over 900 years old?’
‘No mammal can survive…’
‘For a lawyer, you don’t listen, do you? I’m mythical.’
Martin began to feel he would have been better going shopping with Sharon rather than trying this new walk. ‘There aren’t any mythical creatures.’
‘Ok, smart-arse, what am I?’
‘I… well… that is…’
Whatever it was held out its arms and titled its head while it waited. ‘You want a hint?’
‘Billy goat gruff.’
‘Bill…? You’re a troll?’
‘Tada! Top of the class. And what do trolls do?’
‘Guard bridges,’ Martin proffered tentatively.
‘Two points to the lawyer with the mule kick. And if you try and cross a bridge that’s guarded by a troll without paying the fee, what happens?’
Martin looked around quickly. This had to be one of those TV set ups and this fluff ball with fangs had to be animatronic or something. ‘This is a joke.’
‘I… because I’ve crossed countless bridges and not once have I met a troll working as some sort of carnivorous toll gatekeeper.’
The troll sighed. ‘Have you seen a dodo? A roc? No, they’re extinct. It’s not easy trying to maintain the old standards, at least not since the introduction of the motor car.’
‘Oh use that sharp legal brain. We’re just so much roadkill. No one looks hard a squished smear to see if it’s a badger or a troll. And then there are the guns and…’ it shuddered.
‘Extraordinary. You really are a troll?’
‘Cross my heart and hope to get a slice of your calf before you go.’ The troll dribbled a green gunk making Martin step back.
‘But you’re so… you know. Small.’
‘Sizist are we? I’m diminutive, of limited stature, altitudinally challenged but I am NOT SMALL. I am average for a North European troll.’
‘But the books have you as these fearsome giants.’
‘If you average farm labourer thought we were this size, how likely are they to pay up? And given we are naturally ferocious, if we took a piece out of their leg, how likely are they to admit they’d been bitten by something smaller than their pet cat? Myths suited them and us. Symbiotic, see.’
‘Is the only way to cross the bridge to forfeit a body part?’
‘No, you can pay. One gold coin.’
‘I… Er I don’t think anyone has gold coins. Well, not respectable lawyers.’
‘Respectable lawyers? Isn’t that an oxymoron? I’m currently accepting five different sorts of hard currency or cryptocurrency and all major cards.’
‘Of course I’m sodding kidding. Cross this bridge and I eat a part of you.’
Martin looked at the the defiant troll, its arms approximating a double teapot. ‘I’ll go back. Thanks, but I’m rather attached to me.’
‘You could fight me. You’ve kicked me twice.’
‘I don’t want to hurt you.’
‘Oh and you think depriving me of my one chance of a meal is being kind?’
‘Is this all you do?’ Martin couldn’t help but be interested.
‘I scavenge a bit. Some food banks are run by the serially myopic and with a hat and an old shirt I can get away with being Italian or Spanish. But the pickings are slim and two tins of tomato soup and a chorizo sausage are no substitute for a couple of fingers.’
‘I could bring you some meat. Not human and it would have to be dead but still…’
‘Really? I’m quite partial to game. A bit of lamb too.’
‘You know, these days with online trolls you should market yourself as a brand leader for the legions of contrarians and disputives out there.’
‘Nah. Just a couple of chops and I’ll be okay. But thanks.’
‘Does that mean I can cross the bridge?’
‘Sod off. I may be mythical, but I wasn’t born yesterday.’
This was written in response to the latest #writephoto prompt