The troll stooped down low enough to fit under the arch of the humpback bridge. One giant hand reached up to grasp at the bricks above its head, anchoring the troll, the dark grey skin blending well with the faded red. It was not difficult to believe that this was where it belonged, hidden amongst the overgrown plants and forgotten junk of yesteryear that had been dumped and abandoned off the road.
His face was rough, with deep grooves and scars, and it might have been carved out of stone. When he spoke, his voice was gravel grinding underfoot. His slow movements were far from a sign of limited intelligence; instead, caution was evident in his every motion. He hid in the shade beneath the bridge, his hand and his long nose sticking out into the sunlight.
‘It has been a long time since I was last approached by humans,’ he said. He did not add that it was a bad idea to approach him, but the implication was there within the grumbling sound of his voice.
Mia swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat at the sight of the great hulking beast. It had seemed like an innocent joke at first, to walk under the so-called Troll Bride in the dilapidated part of town. A dare that had only been dangerous in the imagination. She wanted to say something, but she had no idea what the correct thing to say to a troll whose territory one had just invaded was.
Radek said, ‘It’s a good joke.’ Mia knew that he meant a good prank. She was not so convinced.
The troll swung its head around to face Radek, two beady eyes squinting at him. If Mia had not been in shock, then she might have thought the troll was being deliberately dramatic in an attempt to scare them. Hardly necessary, when the mere presence of the troll was enough to make Mia question whether that nice old lady who they met on the way might have slipped something into those cookies …
‘I make no attempt to jest,’ the troll replied. A long silence followed. It weighed down on Mia’s shoulders like the weight of the old brick bridge.
‘And neither do we,’ she said quickly, one arm sweeping around to smack Radek in the middle of his chest to stop him from saying whatever he had been about to say – probably something along the lines of well, you can’t be real. Mia did not want to have to save Radek from a troll he had insulted by insisting it wasn’t real.
She pushed as hard as she dared to push on Radek’s chest, and he looked at her in bewilderment, far less subtly than she would have liked. She jerked her head backwards, up the hill from where they had come.
Move. Back. Now. Flee.
Radek was at least smart enough to recognise what that jerk meant. He took another look at the troll, then nodded.
‘Little humans should watch where they put their feet and leave my home alone,’ the troll grumbled.
‘Well, what a coincidence!’ Mia exclaimed, taking a half-step back. ‘Because leaving your home alone is exactly what these two little humans were just about to do!’
‘Yes,’ agreed Radek, nodding his head vigorously. Perhaps the stare of the troll had started to get to him, too. ‘We’re just going to go and put our feet somewhere else, far away from your home, where they’re wanted.’
‘Yes, yes we are!’
The troll’s frown told Mia that he did not believe their flustered excuses – she couldn’t blame it, she wouldn’t have believed herself either – but when he poked his head out further from under the bridge and saw the wide open space around him, the troll seemed to become discouraged. He sunk back into the darkness, until only his eyes – two beady yellow dots in the undergrowth – could be seen.
‘Little humans who return make good soup for hungry trolls,’ he warned.
Soup for hungry trolls was not something that Mia intended to become in her life. She looked at Radek, who was looking back at her, and said, ‘No more dares.’
They spun around at the same time and broke into a run.
‘No more dares,’ Radek agreed.