As part of Neil Gaiman’s masterclass on writing he suggested that you take a well known fairy tale and then put a twist on it. So here we go. My meagre attempt, but I’m going to keep trying and writing. Stops me from arguing with the real Trolls online.
The Troll’s Bridge
Thrun’s teeth ached with a long burning desire for any taste or texture other than river fish. The chilled mountain river provided it was true, the pounding ice melt slowed into a deep inclined pool under the broken hunchback form of the bridge above and it was the darting fish just under the thin ice that let him survive. His rummy eyes lazily trailed the flashing shapes below the surface and he took a deep breath of crisp mountain air into his barrel chest let out a long steamy sigh, long and deep like the bellows of a farrier.
His weathered forehead furrowed like old leather, trying to remember last time he’d eaten anything other than what he caught or foraged nearby. It must have been seasons back, back when the Thatcher’s daughter had still brought him eggs and a freshly baked loaf. He snorted, she was probably married and raising children by now, too busy for long treks to stave off guilt. Too long, too old, he vaguely remembered memories of taste, bright white teeth and auburn flowing hair.
His eyes followed a larger fish lazily swimming off further downstream, completely ignoring the wriggling bait. For a spiteful moment, he almost flung a rock to kill the creature, seething jealousy and resentment that it could leave this compressed canyon with such thoughtless ease.
With a force of will he lifted his massive crooked form from the rickety fishing stool, the thick trunks seemed to sigh in relief, his joints cracked and popped, echoing like the branches that exploded during the last harsh winter. The clanking rattle of metal chains accompanied his stiff movements as he shuffle-stepped to the fire pit.
He’d cooked the fat greasy catfish from yesterday and drying fish bones swung and bobbed in the breeze above him dangling from his bridge shelter like beaded curtains of bones.
He wasn’t entirely sure of his age anymore, with no mirror and no contact for many moons meant all he knew for sure was that greys had appeared in his matted hair and his thick taloned fingers once lean and supple were now gnarled and arthritic.
Some mornings it took him many flailing attempts to rise from his torn pile of rags that he called a bed. Occasionally he dreamed of silk sheets and roaring fires at banquets. But those seemed such distant memories he wondered if they were just that, dreams. Did that much food even really exist in the world?. Perhaps it had. But not here, not under the bridge…
He was about to add another branch the thickness of a man’s leg to the fire when he heard it. A sound unheard for at least 2 seasons, a “Trip, trap, trip, trap!” someone, or something was crossing the bridge. Followed by the stab of pain that always followed in the side of his skull. .
His shaggy head snapped upward, a grimace of pain and irritation, the burning impulse bound within his prison forcing him to speak, what came out was a raspy croak of his voice pushed out of his unwilling throat before vomiting from his barrel chest, “Who’s that tripping over my bridge?” boomed out, amplified by the narrow gorge..
The noise stopped, he raised himself up until his misty vision could look through the rickety planks. A child, no, a kid stood there, frozen, mid-step. Tiny horns poked from juvenile tufts.
“Uh, I’m sorry, I’m just one of the Gruff’s, trying to get to better food sir.”
Thrun’s vision blurred, the scent of flaxseed and tension wafted down above and all he could feel, all he could taste was fresh goat meat. His mouth filled with saliva, the chains hummed, his hands clenched.
“gobble you up” he mumbled in starving hunger. His voice booming through the narrow canyon. “Control”, he intoned to himself ruthlessly pressed into his fists until the skin broke and knuckles cracked, resisting the geas, resisting the chain.
“Please sir, I’m just a young little thing there’s my older brother coming later,” said the nasally prepubescent voice.
“Your… Brother?” Thrun’s brow creased up reflecting his total and complete confusion.
“Yes, sir, he’s much bigger than me, eat him!”
Thrun paused, his milky eyes wide, he wasn’t sure if he felt more shocked by the Gruff’s statement or the ease with which he had offered a brother over his own life. Thrun had a few false starts, responses ranging from screaming frothing rage, to choking sobs touched his lips but never quite passed. Finally, his great shoulders slumped in tired resignation. Face turning slack with tired passivity. He was the dark shape under the bridge, the kid was just a kid looking for better food. He’d say anything, even something that vile to escape.
“Get outta here” he muttered, his voice exhausted.
“Sir?” squealed the falsetto voice.
“Be off with you!” Thrun barked.
Immediately the skittering trip-traps flew across the bridge in a panicked flutter and continued up the path into the hills. As the clattering footfalls faded, leaving just the calming sounds of the river. He ran a hand down over his jowled features, heart thundering in his ears and started to calm. The aching need and command for violence ebbing into the rocks around him.
He took long deep breaths, so deep, so cold that the frigid needles in his chest stabbed as deep as his memories. Family, brothers, the love, the support, the camaraderie, all long gone now, like the taste of ancient meals. It was like a forgotten flavour, an ashy residue. He stabbed at the crumbling fire he’d been building and jabbed at it, vicious, angry movements letting a wild cloud of sparks fly up. He let the heat soak into his body and blamed the cold wet lines on his face on the smoke.
It was a long time later when the sun was still high but well towards the east, Thrun dozed fitfully, the mist of the river and the narrow gorge keeping the seething rays at bay. At first, he thought he was dreaming of the approaching sound of hooves on the path. His ears twitched in sleepy confusion, was this an echo? a memory? After listening a while longer he felt his mouth turn to sandpaper at the heavier, larger form start across the bridge.
Trip, trap, trip, trap, trip, trap…
“Stop.” The chains bursting words forth from dry lips each word a labour, “Who’s that tripping,” Thrun found he had to swallow back acid and bile “…. Over my bridge?” his voice booming and amplified through the gorge.
“Oh, I’m a Billy Goat Gruff..” a deeper more confident tone, the sound of a young adult who thinks they know all the world can offer. The arrogant voice of youth.
“I’m going up to the hillside to make myself fat on fields there.”
The flat dismissive tone, set Thrun to dislike this fawn already, he felt his face sour, he felt the pressure to perform his enforced duty swell like some unwholesome flower in his chest, “Oh… and What if I decide you’re too tasty to let past?”, he growled. His own anger surprising him.
“Well, the sun is awwwwfully bright up here!” Goaded, the Gruff, a hint of amusement in the tone, “, and I heard you trolls aren’t too fond of that”
A long silence extended between the two.
“Soooo… “, supplied the Gruff.
“Be off with you!!” Thrun snarled, slamming his fist into the base of the bridge pillar making it sway and groan. “Before, I decide to crush your body with rocks and leave your brother alone on the mountain.”
The sound of a few clattering hooves and then… Another, almost hesitant pause.
“…Why mention my brother?”, the tone was different, something else was there, but Thrun was too consumed with controlling himself to notice. Confusion? or perhaps suspicion permeating the Gruffs’ voice.
“Brothers are important,” Thrun grumbled, “t’s not right to leave a young’un on this mountain alone.”
Another long pause and Thrun heard the scraping of a hoof on wood, for a moment the buzzing decrees subsided. A few more taps and traps and then a long-horned silhouette stretched out to look down through the curtains of fish bones. The yellow horizontal slits of an iris penetrated the darkness and slowly followed the links of chain from the bridge”s base up to Thrun’s clawed and webbed foot.
Thrun saw the realisation, the shock as the eyes dilated and alarm as the Gruff finally perceived his massive form in its totality, Not a mossy slick bank but a mass that rivalled the bridge, rippling turf was hair, rocky outcrops sun scars, tawny branches his muscle. The Gruffs nostrils widened in terror, ears flattening as it skittered back from the edge, letting out a snort of challenge and submission, all arrogance swept away.
Thrun scrutinised the Gruff carefully, this was no kid. He was muscled and ‘big’ for his kind, scars crisscrossed his flanks from bouts over the years, horns were sharpened by mountain stones to needles. This was a Gruff to be sure, and a fighter no doubt. Black and lean with the speed of youth, Thrun wondered idly if he did make a move who would win out, his strength and experience vs youthful vigour. He was in his winter and this fighter was most definitely in his spring. Thrun idly shifted his bulk, while closing his massive hand over a smoothed river pebble the size of a watermelon.
A few hesitant trip-taps of the hoof, a few furtive circles and the 2nd Gruff seemed to come to a decision. Facing Thrun directly, eyes clear and direct.
“The Eldest Billy Goat Gruff is coming this evening.”
Thrun’s visage must have betrayed his inner thoughts because the Gruff hurriedly added.
“He’s the biggest of us, the meanest, the strongest….” The gruff, sighed
“Look my younger brother IS small and needs me and you … ” Another pause and shifting of hooves.
“Look, for your concern, I’ll offer you fair warning,” they locked eyes “the Elder is not like us, not like me and everything I hope the little one will ever be. The Elder has ice for a heart, fire for ego, and he has no fear nor need for it.”
“For your consideration,” the Gruff hesitated again, “I would stay here, stay silent, stay hidden and let him walk by unknowing.”
Thrun studied the Gruff, head cocked as another long silence descended.
“I’m obliged to challenge,” Thrun said almost mildly amused, clanking the links of his chain and causing tiny flickers of light.
“It’s what you might call a compulsion. Not a calling.”
The Gruff eyed the chain then the bridge and then finally his eyes roved over the barren mountain top. His hoof pawing repeatedly at a single stone like a man might drum a finger.
“I’m sorry,” he finally said with a surprising amount of resignation, “I’ve got to be there for my brother” there was a note of bitterness in the last words.
He gave one long last look at Thrun before saying, “Good luck to you and for what it matters thanks for letting him past; I can see you had to force that hand.”
“Be off with you,” Thrun muttered waving a dismissive gesture. “Don’t need no thanks from a Gruff.”
Another short pause drifted between the two before the Gruff inclined his head directing the horns towards the swirling river, eyes unfocused as his muzzle bobbed up and down slightly as he nodded, before swivelling in place abruptly and flying up the mountain path with barely a sound. Leaving Thrun to settle back against the ancient stonework and mull over what had happened.
By the time the 3rd Gruff arrived the valley was dark as coal and mists were settling down on the mountain. The crack of each hoof echoed in the valley as the weight of each landed precisely and heavily exactly where the owner wanted it to be placed. The sound not only roused Thrun from his dozing but also spoke volumes to him. Over the decades he’d heard many feet, hooves and even claws on his mountain path. Each footfall had its own story to tell, nervous, determined, exuberant. But these were the first he’d heard that pronounced a single note of deadly resolve.
The Gruff didn’t trip-trap across the bridge so much as shatter the wood with each step.
Crack, Snap, Trip, Trap.
“Who’s that tripping over my bridge?” Said Thrun, the words for the first time in a long time, clear, unencumbered sounding heavy with their finality.
“It is I! The big Billy Goat Gruff,” said an ugly hoarse voice from above.
The movement came before thought, reaction before comprehension, Thrun’s form shifted like a great fluid mass pulling him up over the gorge edge like a wave landing him squarely on the far side of the bridge. The moaning, creak of straining foundations echoed down the canyon as he reared up to his full height. Dust sifted from stone supports and the metallic clatter of his chains grated on the ear. As silence slowly returned to the canyon the only sound remaining was the gushing creek and the rattling of a thousand fish bones scrabbling at each other.
The elder Gruff stood like some kind of iron fashioned golem, steam bursting from flaring nostrils flat slit eyes missing nothing. At the size of a horse, the Gruff lived up to his lineage, scars covered his flanks and face, his horns sheathed in dark stains and almost gleaming in the moonlight.
Both stood facing each other like bookends on the bridge, from a distance one could confuse them for oddly ornate statues adorning the ends of a worn-out bridge. The only thing that revealed the truth was the shimmer of heat and vapour that rose from the two forms. The way the sounds of the valley, the mountain and hills seemed to hush in preparation for a storm.
They said nothing, nothing needed to be said, Thrun’s eyes drilled into the Elder as firmly as the Elder’s hammered into him. With that penetrating drawn-out moment between them, Thrun felt that he could almost taste the Elder’s bloodshot rage and discipline. He wondered fleetingly if the Elder also could taste some of his weary, distended will and unending hunger in his.
For the first time in forever he let the words out without resistance, letting all his starved body and hopes out, the world had been holding its breath and now Thrun released it all in a foghorn blast of manacled words.
“Now I ‘m coming to gobble you up”
If those words were intelligible Thrun had no clue, but as icicles fell from bridge beams the two impossible forces moved like blurs, a primal force; a wave and a wall, a hammer on an anvil. Inevitable and final. The echoing crash of impact when it came made avalanches fall from peaks, fish to jump from streams and children cry out in fear from their bed’s miles away in the village. The two shadows on the bridge had become one.
As the snowflakes drifted back to the ground and the distant sound of landslides receded. Thrun felt his lips turn up in the most unnatural of shapes for him. A smile.
The Elder held his body in perfect locked posture, a martial form, lance-like horns finding their targets with ease. Too much ease, Thrun imagined in his mind’s eye, the Elder’s huge eyes wide with surprise, wondering why the huge hands were not clamped on his flanks with their claws like steak knives, why the teeth and not snapped down on his muzzle like a vice.
The Elder drew back and Thrun felt his body slowly lower onto his creaking knees, he heard the bloodied horns whip back and forth in confusion, the air whistling, creek babbling, the throaty blasts of steam from the Elder’s nostrils in unsteady confused blasts. Thrun’s arms slowly lowered from their outstretched posture, he had spread them wide open like a man might supplicate to the sun or a troll the moon. But now they sagged as if they were weighed down by far too much.
With ragged holes for eyes and the slowly dulling sense of pain, Thrun realized that he felt more of the world around him than he had dared to for years, the river sounded like a torrent, he hills like a humming dirge and in those fleeting final thoughts he finally for decades felt his rusted chains lose their grip on him.
Thrun heard the hoof pawing, felt the earth trembling, the charge approaching and as he smelt the hot flare of rage from the Elder’s mouth, at the feeling of insult, of being used as a simple tool.
Blissful sleep began to take Thrun then, away from the hunger, away from the pain that slowly bled out, a sigh erupted from his body and for a fleeting moment, Thrun smelt freshly baked bread, felt a strong hands lift him away from all the fears and regrets cradling him in a warm loving embrace as the mountains welcomed their long lost infant home.