A Bridge to Love
Lee Colgin © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Adjusting his scarf to block out the chill, Tobias trotted along the path to Red Elk River. There, he would cross the bridge and hang a left onto the trail that led to the Fern Pack’s territory. His satchel was filled to bursting with gifts because it was the night before Christmas Eve.
A roundtrip to visit his sister’s family, one he’d made many times, took from sun up to sundown, especially during winter when days were short and nights long. Toby enjoyed his role as messenger between the wolf packs. He preferred spending his time outdoors. The exercise sent blood pumping through his veins. If he dawdled enough, the stars would keep him company as the path guided him home.
Snow threatened. Toby scented it on the cool breeze. He hoped the weather would hold out until he’d returned safely to his little cottage, but then he’d love to see his village blanketed in white for Christmas.
Toby heard the river before it came into view. The rippling waves of the Red Elk never froze over. The water simply moved too quickly to be captured by a force as fickle as frost. No matter how cold the winter, the wolf shifters could catch fish there. As a youngster, Toby spent lots of cheerful summer afternoons splashing along the moss-covered banks with his many siblings and countless cousins. The memory brought a smile to his lips.
His grin remained as he stepped on the footbridge’s wooden planks that spanned the narrowest section of the river. He ambled across, gazing at the rushing water and protruding rocks below.
“Ho! Who’s there?” came a booming voice from beneath his feet.
Toby startled and hopped back.
The rumbling baritone continued, “Who dares to cross Arlo’s bridge without first paying tribute?”
With unexpected grace, a large troll, his skin as grey as granite, climbed from under the rafters to block Toby’s way. He stood a head taller than Toby, with coppery-orange hair cropped close to his head. Eyebrows that could be mistaken for caterpillars drew tight together, and broad shoulders flexed beneath layers of dingy wool. His cheeks were flushed and puffy. But what Toby found most startling were his robin’s-egg-blue eyes, watery and glazed over as though he’d been crying.
“Hello, Arlo. My name is Tobias.” Toby offered his hand. “My friends call me Toby.”
Arlo sniffed and stared at Toby’s hand as if he had extra fingers that had been dipped in slime. After some awkward consideration, he reached out and swallowed the smaller hand in his giant one with a gentle grasp. Arlo’s warm hand felt so good, Toby didn’t want to let go.
“Well then, what should I call you?” Arlo grunted.
“I meant we should become friends.” Toby gave Arlo’s fingers a squeeze. “So call me Toby.”
Puffing out his chest, Arlo dropped Toby’s hand and roared, “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re playing! You only want to be friends to avoid paying tribute. I won’t have it, Tobias. I guard this bridge, and if you’d like to use it, you must earn it fair and square.” He crossed his arms and glowered.
Toby scanned the landscape. A lush canopy of trees on either side, chipmunks scurrying to their burrows, clouds overhead. Which of these threatened the footbridge of Red Elk? And since when did this bridge have a pouting resident troll?
“Guard it from what?” asked Toby, curious.
Arlo shrugged like that wasn’t important. “What will you give me to cross?”
“Well I suppose I must give you my apologies as I’ve brought nothing extra on my journey. And I would like to be friends. You look as if you need one.” He studied Arlo’s expression and saw a longing there that hinted at melancholy. “Are you quite all right, Arlo?”
Their gazes locked; Arlo’s teary blue eyes glared with scrutiny, even as Toby offered a smile. The troll glanced away and exhaled, breath wispy in the wintry breeze.
“Looks like you have plenty.” Arlo gestured to the bulging sack over Toby’s shoulder. “What’s in the bag?”
“These are gifts from my family and friends of River Pack to my other family and friends of Fern Pack. They are mostly for the children. I’m sorry, but none were meant for you.”
Arlo huffed and turned up his nose. “I will take your apologies this time, but next we meet you’d better have a tribute.” The troll stepped aside to let Toby pass.
Reluctant to leave Arlo alone and unhappy, Toby asked once more. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“You can come with me if you like.”
Arlo’s pupils widened. His mouth hung open.
Toby moved one step closer, within an arm’s length, his gaze lingering on Arlo’s face. Handsome features, though not typical: rounded cheeks framed an angular jaw, a sharp nose sat over his plump finely shaped cupid’s bow of a mouth, and upon close inspection, a smattering of charcoal freckles fell across his silver-grey cheekbones. Toby rather liked Arlo’s looks, except for the puffy eyes. Why had Arlo been crying?
“Go on,” said Arlo, the rough timber gone from his voice. The words now came in a gentle rumble. “I have things to do.”
Toby gave a little nod. “If you’re sure.”
Toby crossed the bridge. When he got to the other side, he glanced over his shoulder to find Arlo still watching. With a friendly wave Arlo didn’t return, Toby continued on his journey. He wondered what he should bring back for Arlo on his way home.
Arlo shook off the embarrassment at having been caught wallowing under his bridge. He ought to be happy. He’d finally earned a bridge of his own to guard exactly how he saw fit—and a fine one at that—but he couldn’t bring himself to stop his blasted sniffling. He missed the company of his family and found little comfort in his duty when there was no one to share it with.
This was the way of trolls. They were solitary creatures who sought their own space and protected it with their lives while amassing a hoard of tributes. But Arlo had always been different. He’d hung on his mother as a young boy, which led to teasing from his older, independent brothers. Then he’d doted on younger cousins.
When the time came for him to leave his childhood bridge, he didn’t want to go. Being alone was hard enough, but as Christmas loomed, so did the cloud of despair that hung over his head.
Arlo bumbled below the thick wooden planks. He’d dug out a one-room hollow behind the main joist and into the land along the steep side of the riverbank. Dried pine needles made for a soft floor and kept the damp at bay. He took the kettle off the woodstove and poured a cup of tea. Gazing at his tributes—not many, as he’d only begun his collection a few weeks ago, but a dull tin coin he’d grown quite fond of glimmered even in the low light—he wondered, not for the first time, if it was all worth it.
No one else crossed his bridge all day, but as evening set in, he heard the tell-tale footfall of a traveler.
Arlo sprung from his den and leapt onto the bridge, prepared to be fearsome. “Ho there! Who dares cross my bridge?”
Tobias grinned merrily and walked right up to him as if he weren’t afraid at all. “Hello Arlo. It is I, Toby, and I beg your permission to pass.” Tobias gave a lovely bow, his ebony hair falling over his eyes. He shook it back in place as he rose.
Arlo puffed out his chest, but before he could demand his due, Tobias held out a plate piled high with colorful shapes.
“I present your tribute,” declared Tobias, thrusting the gift forward. “My sister and I made these sugar cookies ourselves, and my nieces and their cousins decorated them for you. See? This one is supposed to be your bridge.” Tobias’s smile widened to show two rows of straight white teeth. His cheeks were pink from the cold, and his green eyes glittered with delight.
Arlo wasn’t sure which sight he enjoyed more, the mountain of multi-colored sugary bliss or the jovial expression on Tobias’s lovely face. Struck by surprise, words failed him, and he only managed to grunt.
Tobias’s face fell. “You don’t like them? Oh well, I’d thought…never mind. What would you—”
“I love them,” Arlo blurted, grabbing the proffered dish. “Especially the one that looks like my bridge.”
Relief crossed Tobias’s features. “Oh good, I mean, it looks more like a brown blob over a blue blob, but little Sophie is only six, so you could hardly expect an actual likeness. Do you really like them?”
Faced with the string of excited babble, Arlo could only nod. He might have felt the corner of his lip curl, but he forced it back down. That was no way for a troll to behave.
“Oh!” Tobias rummaged through his pack. “I almost forgot.” He pulled out a bit of paper. “This is for you too.”
Arlo took the thick square of paper with a pretty green tree on the front and several lines of sloppy scrawl on the back.
“Don’t read it now!” Tobias put his hand over the card, flipping it over. “Read it after I go.”
On the outside, Arlo shrugged, but on the inside he danced with glee. As far as tributes went, this was the best he’d ever received. A plate of cookies and a tiny painting. He wished he had someone to tell.
Tobias glanced up through his lashes, and Arlo got the impression the man was waiting for something.
Arlo cleared his throat to make sure his voice would rumble with authority. “Right then. You may pass.”
Tobias’s shoulders sank. He didn’t budge.
“Off you go,” said Arlo, not that he wanted Tobias to leave, only he didn’t know what came next. “Shoo.”
Kicking a pebble off the bridge into the water, Tobias watched it splash and disappear. “I’m nearly home, and there is a little bit of time before dark…”
His words trailed off. Arlo couldn’t guess what he hinted at. “And?”
“Well, we could sit and have a cookie together before I go.” Tobias blinked. “If you wanted to, that is.”
Arlo liked that idea; the butterflies in his stomach fluttered. He’d dined alone ever since taking over Elk River Bridge and relished the thought of eating with a friend. But he was getting ahead of himself. Tobias wasn’t his friend, just a passing traveler, still…no reason they couldn’t share refreshments. Tobias had probably walked a long way, after all, and a rest would do him good.
“All right,” Arlo grunted. “Tea?”
A wide smile lit Tobias’s face. “Please.”
“I’ll be a moment; have a seat.” Arlo tottered below to fetch their cups as Tobias settled along the wooden planks, lanky legs dangling over the side, feet swinging in the air. Arlo could see them, twin brown leather boots restless in the breeze, while he poured their drinks. He chuckled. Tobias had a lot of energy for someone who’d been on the move all day.
Placing the cups on the decking, Arlo swung a leg over the joist and hauled himself up onto the bridge. Tobias’s steady green gaze never wavered.
“You’re very agile for someone of your size.” Tobias took the offered tea with a murmur of thanks.
“Am I?” Arlo shrugged and clambered down next to him. He didn’t feel agile next to the lithe and lean Tobias. “You must be agile also. You’re a wolf shifter, aren’t you?”
“I am. How’d you know?”
“You mentioned Fern Pack and River Pack earlier. Humans and Fairies and Goblins don’t go around talking about their packs, but wolves do.” Arlo shrugged and offered him a cookie. “So I figured.”
Tobias took a star shaped cookie covered in yellow frosting. “Do you meet many goblins?”
“Sure.” Arlo tossed an entire cookie in his mouth and chomped. A few crumbs escaped. “Don’t you?”
“I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure.” Tobias grinned then ate his cookie with more care.
“It isn’t a pleasure really.” Arlo scrunched his wide nose. “They stink of rotten plums and try to trick their way out of paying tribute. Muck-spouts, the lot of them, best to avoid the buggers if you can.”
“I shall keep that in mind.”
Arlo gave a nod and chose a second cookie. This one an evergreen tree with extra sprinkles. “These are delicious.”
“My great-grandmother’s recipe. She added cinnamon.”
“Smart lady.” Arlo held out the plate. “Want another?”
Tobias pushed it back gently, smiling as their hands touched. “The rest are for you.”
Setting the plate in his lap, Arlo took a swig of tea and wondered what else he should say. He’d liked Tobias’s fingers on his. He could feel the subtle heat of the smaller body seated next to him. He watched a puff of breath from Tobias’s lips float away on the wind. Tobias turned and caught him staring. Arlo glanced down at the cookies.
“What will you do for Christmas?” asked Tobias.
“I will guard my bridge,” said Arlo with no hesitation. What else would he do?
“I live only a short distance over that hill.” Tobias pointed. “Around the bend, through the meadow, and across the little creek. You could come celebrate with my family if you like.”
Arlo shook his head. “Oh no, I could never do that. Mustn’t leave my bridge unattended.”
“But you will be alone on Christmas.” Tobias gazed up at him through his long black lashes.
Their eyes met. “I am always alone.”
The sound of the river rushed beneath them as the setting sun stole away the day’s warmth. Chilled air rose gooseflesh on Arlo’s forearms.
Tobias opened his mouth to say something when a fluffy, white snowflake landed right on his nose. Whatever words he would have spoken fluttered away on a giggle.
Arlo reached forward and swept away the snowflake before the heat between them could melt it. “You’d better get going.”
“I should,” said Tobias, but he stayed right where he sat.
The two of them watched the snow fall, side by side on Arlo’s bridge, feet hovering over the Red Elk River on Christmas Eve’s eve. An owl hooted somewhere in the distance.
Tobias stretched his legs before climbing up to his feet. He reached down to help Arlo up. Arlo clasped his wrist and was startled by Tobias’s strength as the wolf shifter hauled him to his feet.
Tobias released Arlo’s wrist. “Thank you for the tea.”
“’Course.” Arlo gathered his things, arms full of cookies and cups.
“Merry Christmas, Arlo.”
Arlo didn’t know what to say, so he nodded.
Tobias crossed the bridge and took off for home at a trot. Just before he disappeared from view, he turned around for one last look and caught Arlo staring once more. At least he wouldn’t see Arlo’s cheeks blush from so far away. Arlo raised a hand to wave goodbye and nearly dropped the teacups.
“Merry Christmas, Tobias.”