The Bridge

A few weeks ago, Rachel Marek at A Writer’s Discrepant Memoirs and Other Tales, posted a picture writing prompt that immediately sparked not just one but TWO story ideas. Unfortunately, I was bogged down with work and didn’t have the time or energy to run with either of them. So I’m doing it today instead. Story idea one is fantasy, while idea two is more realistic/crime-ish. I think I’ll post idea two at a later date.

Also, I realized this is my second post involving trolls. What can I say? I love Scandinavian mythology.

The Bridge

Photo from A Writer’s Discrepant Memoirs and Other Tales.

The closer Gisla crept to the old stone bridge, the clearer she heard the screams. Heard was perhaps not the most precise sensation. The howling cries echoed through her mind like memories desperate to be reviewed. Every voice set her hair on edge. They felt as familiar as her own and yet each time she approached, the bridge wailed out a new cacophony of voices. The number of souls snatched into death on Trollwaker Bridge promised that it would be an eternity before Gisla felt a repeated presence.

“Why do you do this to yourself?” Agmund whispered. He placed his gloved hand on her upper arm. The leather caught on the breaks in her chain mail armor.

“I’m building my endurance. Like running up the mountain, the more I expose myself to the voices the less they’ll wind me.”

“We don’t need to build our endurance. We need to finish our rotation. In a month, we’ll be sent back down the mountain to finish our service in the lap of relative luxury.”

“And what if they don’t call us back?” Gisla finally turned around. The iron arrows in her quiver clinked against each other. She’d never have enough to do significant damage.

“I’m focused on the task at hand, Gisla,” Agmund muttered as he pulled the wolf tighter around his shoulders. The frigid north wind whipped along the river, whisking up flecks of ice from the frozen surface. The bridge guards stood firm as cold stun their raw cheeks.

“That’s why we’re a good team. You look at the now, I’ll look toward the future and save your hide when the Flesh-Eater steps through the fog.”

“That won’t happen,” Agmund muttered.

They glanced at the fog that swirled around the bridge. The lamps spaced along the walk taunted the villagers. Light granted safe passage in otherwise dark channels. Light should show the villagers away from their humble trade post and further into the mountains. No one had walked safely across Trollwaker Bridge in generations and yet the lamps burned on, unlit by any natural hand. They were a mockery of their own existence.

“We should just tear it down,” Agmund said as they continued their marching formation. It helped to keep their joints from freezing.

“Then we’ll loose our only path to the Western Wilds.”

“Assuming they still exist. If the Flesh-Easter’s taken over our bridge, who’s to say it hasn’t taken over the villages out west?”

The guards stopped their unprofessional chatter as Runa the Eldest approached them. Gisla cringed at the crone’s bulging joints, her left hand crippled in a permanent claw form. She had layered shawls and animal pelts over her hunched back. The guards bowed in respect to the village’s eldest member as she turned her face up to them. Her skin was a network of cavernous wrinkles that Agmund imagined she’d earned for each loved one she’d seen perish.

Not that she saw much, being blind.

“How is our old bridge?” The woman’s voice rolled off her tongue like the fog over the frozen river. Gisla had to bend over to better hear her.

“Nothing to report this evening, Honorable Eldest. Would you like us to escort you back to your cottage?”

“I have had the strangest premonitions,” she said to herself as she shuffled passed the guards. They quickly out paced her and blocked her route to the bridge. Neither wanted to fish a granny out of ice water as the sun was setting, especially since she’d likely die as soon as she stumbled over the river bank.

“You know, I remember when the masons came to build the bridge,” Runa continued. This time she turned toward the guards who listened solely out of respect. Agmund rolled his eyes toward his partner. “They said it would provide us easier passage to the mountains in the west. They set up villages in the Wilds. We thought if we could go to them, we could tame them. No one thought that the Wilds might want to come to us.”

Runa might have been going deaf as well. The watchtower’s belt cut through the still air but she did not flinch from her stoicism. From the center of the village, the deep clang echoed down the streets. Villagers ran into their cottages, bolted their shuttered and tucked away safe in their beds that could never protect them. If the Flesh-Eater crossed the bridge, the village would be flattened in a few of its mighty strides.

“Stand back, granny!” Agmund shouted, loosing his respect as he flung out his hand to keep the woman behind him. He drew his shield off his back and ran forward. A divot reinforced with iron and gold marked the shield point set a meter from the start of the bridge. He slammed the shield into its place.

Guided by the wisdom of the bridge masons,  his shield made its presence known across the mouth of the bridge. Agmund had never had his shield presence tested before, at least not by a monster as formidable as the Flesh Eater. The skulls scattered and shattered on the evenly laid stone before him signified what happened to the shieldwarriors who failed to rebuff the Flesh Eater’s advances.

Agmund swallowed deeply as the bell tolled behind him. He checked his stance and redoubled his concentration. The Flesh Eater would not pass his post.

Gisla heard the screams louder than ever. She drew three arrows and nocked them across her bowstring. Even as an expert archer, she couldn’t be sure her weapon would slow the Flesh Eater. It would never stop him, but perhaps a few well-landed arrows would sting its eyes enough to send it back into the fog.

“Gisla, where is it? Can you see anything?”

“Shh! And no!” She scanned the bridge but saw nothing other than rolling fog and flickering lamps.

“The Flesh Eater approaches,” Runa bellowed behind them.

“Go home, granny!” Agmund shouted.

A ground-shaking boom signaled the monster was in deed on the bridge. Agmund felt Gisla at his back. She felt the strength of his shield.. Together, they could keep the Flesh Eater at bay. Together, they would survive and bring news to the encampment at the base of the mountain. More guards would be needed, by the sounds of the second boom. When they survived together, they would bring more–

“For Bodil! For Skalla! Arnsborg!” In a shrieking battle cry, Runa dedicated her sprint to the bridge in the name of those who had fallen before her. With all her layers of shawls and pelts, it was no surprise that she had hidden a few hefty swords. The sight of the wizened crone wielding them with expert dexterity and sprinting with the passion of the realm’s finest berserkers kept the guards gawking where they stood.

“One of us should… go after her?” Agmund muttered amid another boom. Gisla hesitated before lowering  her bow and running after the woman.

“Runa, come back. The Flesh Eater will end you,” Gisla beckoned through the fog. Voices shrieked at her, words warped by the horrible deaths they’d suffered. She could hear Runa’s muttering in the direction of the bridge wall. The old woman sounded too far away, the bridge was not that wide.

“Runa, please.”

“Show yourself Flesh Eater!” the woman hollered.

The boom fell far too close to Gisla. She looked up at the dark shadow around her. The form was not quite human, the height not quite mountain. It ambled toward the village.

“Agmund, it’s coming for you,” Gisla yelled to her partner. “Flesh Eater, I am here for you. Take me.”

The archer raised her weapon as the shadow turned and lowered itself. She tightened her stance as the lumpy, disfigured face of the troll cut through the fog. Long ropes of droll fell from its open mouth. A tendril whipped Gisla across her cheeks. She squinted through the acidic skin and bared her teeth at the troll. It did the same.

“I am Gisla the Iron Archer, daughter of Hrund the Valiant and Sigmar the Shieldmaiden. It is by my arrows that you shall be slain, Flesh Eater.”

“You wish to slay me, tiny one,” the troll laughed. The scent of blood and rotting flesh was ripe on its breath. “None who walks in the light and sees by the guide of the sun has might enough to slay me.”

The troll’s jaw snapped open. Gisla unleashed her arrows. They settled like tooth picks in between jagged teeth. She reached for more but knew she had little chance of reaching its eyes. The bridge groaned as the troll’s mouth descended.

“Gisla, brace yourself.” The archer held her arrows as the troll’s teeth pinged off Agmund’s shield presence. Seconds later, he barreled out of the fog and stood like a wall before her.

“I am Agmund the Shieldwarrior, son of–”

“Spare me sermon, slightly less tiny one,” the troll grunted. It gripped its ringing head and drew back into the fog. The howls of its victims amplified the blow from the shield.

“But she got to–”

“What are you doing? You need to protect the village!”

“I am. A shield is useless without its arrows, and the arrow is useless without its shield.”

“I imagine you thought that sounded better in your head,” Gisla grunted as she hefted the bow.

The troll’s daze was wearing off. Agmund knelt before Gisla and projected his shield around them. If they could not hold its position here, they had little chance to keep it away from the village. The only hope was for Gisla to land her arrows, and for Agmund’s shield to hold against the troll’s considerable heft.

“If you can, have it fall to the side,” Agmund said as Gisla drew her bowstring.

“And for Runa!”

Gisla felt the old woman’s tiny feet land on her shoulders before she could react to her final battle cry. The weight shoved the archer downward. The loosed arrows pierced the stones. Before Agmund could grab her, the old woman launched herself from her archer perch like an arrow of flesh and bone. She held the swords in her gnarled clutches as she careened toward the troll’s emerging face. It opened it jaws, a greedy glint in its dark eyes.

Runa’s swords pierced the troll’s palate. It snapped its jaws closed. The guards braced themselves for the sickening crunch of her bones between its teeth. Instead, the troll’s smile faded. It let out a deep groan and clawed at its eyes. With a final shriek that could have rivaled its victim’s, the troll tumbled forward.

Its body lay heavy over Agmund’s shield presence. He grunted as he willed the body to roll over. Gisla kept arrows at the ready and approached the body. She wouldn’t exclude the possibly the Flesh Eater feigned death.

A stream of dark, steam blood oozed along its jaws. She peered inside. Runa was gone, swallowed during the fall. Her swords had been pushed up by the troll’s tongue.

“It looks like they’ve pierced one of its eyes from the inside.” She gagged and drew away, covering her face with a gloved hand. “Yes, she ruptured its eyes. Smell that?”

“That’s worse that rotting elk carcass,” Agmund choked.

“It’s why we’re trained to aim for the eyes, not that the arrows ever pierce through much of the eyelids. They’ve got skin like rock, you know.”

As Gisla and Agmund returned to their post, the fog dissipated. In the twilight, a second bell rang clear. It had been hung for generations but this was the first night its song had played. The sweet twinkling notes summoned the villagers from hiding.

The Flesh Eater had fallen.

“Our guards have done it!” the village chief shouted as he ran to greet Gisla and Agmund. The stench of troll saliva and blood was still thick on them, a sign of their victorious battle. “They have slain the Flesh Eater!”

“No, it was Runa the Eldest,” Gisla admitted. “She made a warrior’s sacrifice and gave her life to rescue the village once and for all from the Flesh Eater’s gluttony.”

The archer turned to her shieldwarrior and said, “It was as the troll declared. None who walks in the light and sees by the guide of the sun had might enough to slay the Flesh Eater. It was Runa the Eldest, She Who Walks in Perpetual Dark, who landed the final blow.”


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