The Hopeful Wanderer – The Toll

Old boards creaked beneath my boots as I meandered across a rotting footbridge. In the entrenchment it crossed lay the mere memory of running water in the layer of mud at the bottom. Leaf loam littered the ground beneath wide-spaced trees. I had my gaze upward, regarding the rustling branches above, when a hand grasped my ankle and yanked.

Pain shot through my hip as I slammed into the damp wood. My full length slithered over the edge, beneath the handrail that I couldn’t reach, despite my outstretched hands. Flung forward, the muddy creek bottom rose up to meet me. I landed with a squelch, muck packing into my nose and mouth and eyes as I flew backward.

I vanished beneath the dark overhang.

At my first attempt to sit up, I smacked my head against the spongy underside of the bridge. Feeling around revealed brittle twigs, damp leaves, goopy ground. A bumpy hand holding my ankle.

I sucked in a sharp breath.

At the same time, a voice full of gravel said, “You must pay the price to cross.”

My eyes adjusting to the darkness revealed the outline of a hulking figure. Hair sticking out everywhere. Knobby ears. Stooped posture. Lengthy arms.

My voice shook. “With what?”

A creaking, as of stretching skin. Rancid meat smell wafted over me. “One skill. The ability to forage.”

My jaw clenched. I carried little food with me, surviving on edible plants. So if I gave up this skill now, I could starve.

The grip on my ankle tightened. “That, or I eat you.”

When later I scrambled from beneath the bridge, I found every plant looked the same. While the bridge troll safely chowed down on berries, I would have to pick up a foraging guidebook to relearn all over again.

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