Tenebral had been on the road for nearly two weeks and he was still nearly a week from Aacer Tue, at least according to his map. All this for two books, he reflected bitterly. The abbey there was doing a little light housecleaning and the bookkeeper wanted to preserve a valuable ledger and their rulebook. So he had sent a call to the Great Library in Kinsbourne. The director then sent Tenebral walking four hundred miles for a rulebook. He lifted his satchel higher on his shoulder and sighed heavily. He hadn't been allowed to hire a riding buffalo--it was too expensive, even though it would cut the trip in half. Not for the first time, he reflected on that grim little fact: it cost less to employ him than a buffalo. He wondered if they might have just sent the buffalo.
Collections development had seemed so glamorous in school. Adventuring to the far corners of the continent, gathering copies of illuminated manuscripts from secluded scriptoria guarded by wise monks, recovering rare tomes from ancient ruins, maybe even collecting a valuable spellbook from a mage, high in mage tower. He had not realized that the reality of "adventuring" translated to sleeping in ditches for weeks at a time, drinking cheap tea and eating old biscuits. Ugh, the tea. He should have known better than to pay just four bronze for the bag; boiled dirt would have made a more sumptuous brew. All this suffering, for some mad abbot.
Tenebral paused. An abbot was a sort of head monk, right? He was probably a wizened little old teacher type of fellow. He probably appeared doddery and old, but he was secretly a powerful warrior. Maybe the ledger held secret combat techniques! Tenebral began to picture it in his mind. A huge book, certainly bound in leather. Gold leaf, yes, with a red silk bookmark. Full page illuminations with carefully-written instructions for hand-to-hand combat! He found himself nodding enthusiastically as he pictured the florid poetry that would surely accompany each form. Maybe the abbot was really sending this manual away to hide it from a traitorous pupil, who would use its teachings to take his place. Excitedly, Tenebral began to describe it out loud, spinning and slashing the air with his walking stick. Yes! The ledger contained an unstoppable technique that, once mastered, could be used to defeat the abbot! The traitor almost had it learned, but for the ledger being heroically whisked away by a librarian for safekeeping at the Library. Tenebral envisioned the fight to break the ledger out, ducking and dodging, swinging and fighting, until finally he swung his sword into a killing blow. Being made of wood and also a walking stick, it cracked in half and left a throbbing red mark against his palms. Back in reality, Tenebral dropped the partially-carved staff to take stock of the situation.
The road in front of him was walled off, blocked by a pile of uprooted trees. On his left, heading north, was a narrow strip of dirt, lumpy where it had been cleared by something immensely strong uprooting trees. The dirt had been swept and stomped down somewhat, although whether this was part of a conscious effort to make the new road look more road-like or a simple byproduct of something uprooting and dragging trees was not clear. Hanging from the pile of trees was a sign which read "Detour!". The exclamation mark was a nice flourish, Tenebral felt. Made the sign seem urgent. He peered down the dirt road detour. It was wide and clear, and the vegetation was well-trimmed. He stepped on it experimentally and found that it was spongy along the edges and packed in the middle. Actually, it was quite comfortable. He strolled along the road quietly for a while, pondering what he was detouring around. He had heard the road had been having some trouble lately. Perhaps ahead it had flooded and he was being directed around.
And then, without much warning, there was a bridge. Tenebral wondered why he may have needed the warning. It was a high arch, its underside forming a near-perfect half circle. Each step was carefully cut from a single piece of wood and flanked by magnificently sculpted handrails, painted with vibrant cinnabar. And there, flowing in gurgling rapids below, was nothing. The bridge was not really a bridge in the traditional sense, unless one might say that it connected one bank of dirt to another bank of dirt, each separated from the other by a river of suspiciously identical dirt.
Cautiously, Tenebral set one toe onto the lowest step. It creaked gently and he jerked it back. Tick, tick, tick. Nothing happened. Slowly, he raised his foot again. "Stop right there!" A basso voice interrupted his elaborate pantomime routine. A huge troll hustled through the underbrush and began to climb onto the bridge. Leaning his gut on the railing, he flailed his legs and wheezily tried to slide over. With a final burst of speed, he thoroughly failed to get over and simply leaned nonchalantly on the side of the bridge.
Panting, he held up a dirt-stained hand. "You can't cross the bridge until you pay the toll."
More nonplussed than intimidated, Tenebral leaned sideways, to look at the perfectly ordinary dirt that did something other than flow under the bridge. "Fine, then. I'll go around."
"You can't go around, there's a river."
"No, there isn't."
“Sure there is. It’s over there.” The troll gestured back the way he’d come. Through the broken underbrush, Tenebral could see newly upturned earth lining a shallow ditch aimed (in haphazard fashion) towards a crescent sweep beneath the bridge. A shovel was stuck in a mound of broken sod, and a wheelbarrow had been turned on its side to form a makeshift table, where a delicious-smelling tea cooled. Beyond that, what appeared to be a rough dike separated the ditch from a small lake.
"You're digging a river to go under this bridge? Why didn't you just build the bridge over an existing river?" The troll opened his mouth, then closed it. This had apparently never occurred to him. He opened his mouth again, then placed a finger against pursed lips, thinking. He leaned heavily on the bridge, writing little proofs and figures on his palm with an outstretched finger. Finally, he broke into a huge, tusky smile so horrifying Tenebral considered calling for the police.
"There wasn't a river here before, now there is. Now that there's a river, there's a demand from YOU to cross it, which I can supply with this bridge. QED, I built a bridge. Problem solved."
"But you created the problem."
"And aren't you glad I solved it?"
“Well, I can’t very well go back on the path, it’s been barricaded.”
“Couldn’t be helped, I needed someplace to put all those trees I knocked down to build that barricade.” The troll sounded so sure of himself that Tenebral began to worry that maybe this was sound logic.
“Alright then, what’s to stop me going around the barricade?” At this, the troll began pretending to inspect his nailbeds, which might have been a jarring display of impatience had he not been in possession of nails that lived up to their name; his manicurist was presumably also a carpenter.
Tenebral crossed his arms over his chest. “Well?”
“The old path is flooded, too. The river burst its banks and swamped the whole road. You can go that way, but really I’m doing you a service!” The troll’s eyes lit up, as if he suddenly realized that it was the truth.
Tenebral frowned. “What’s the toll, then?”
“Seventy brass coins. No slugs or tokens.”
“Seventy? Do I look like I even have seven brass coins?” Tenebral seized his jacket and held it out dramatically; it did an excellent impression of a window. The he held out his satchel, empty except for the tin of tea, a wedge of sweating cheese and his last biscuit.
“Well, that’s the toll. Pay to troll his toll, and you can pass.”
Tenebral frowned. “Do you know about the tea trade?”
“Betrayed? Sure! I’ve betrayed lots of people.”
“What? No. Wrong letter. Tea trade. That you drink. Fellows made a crazy fortune at it across the Ocean. Raised a whole fleet of ships, practically their own army, too. Just by trading tea.”
The troll’s eyebrow had knit itself into a sweater, now.
“Oh, lots of things! Other tea. Land. Safe passage. But I’m sorry, I haven’t got the seventy brass. I guess I’ll just risk it in the swamp.” Tenebral turned around and began to walk away.
“Wait! They had land? Land they could build bridges on?” Tenebral swivelled back.
“Alright, tell you what. I’ll make you a deal. You give me all the tea you have on you, and I’ll let you take safe passage.”
Tenebral shook his head. “This tea? I’ll have you know I was going to give this to the Abbot at Aacer Tue.”
“He’ll have to do without, because you won’t cross this bridge unless you give me all your tea.” Tenebral stamped his foot. “That’s not a fair trade! No, at least give me a cup of your tea. Then it’ll be a fair trade, and at least I can make my excuses to the abbot.”
The troll nodded slowly.