Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 53
Stories
Not on the Gallows
by Harry Turtledove
The Fairy Godfather
by Tim McDaniel
Carry On, Torus
by Gregor Hartmann
Turncrowe
by Michael Meyerhofer
It Becomes You
by Laura-Marie Steele
Why Death is Silent
by William Fischer
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
The Toll
by Chuck Wendig

The Toll
    by Chuck Wendig

Esbern and Tinturn sat crammed beneath the tiny stone bridge like wads of garbage shoved in the too-small mouth of a trash can. Esbern, clearly the larger of the two, sheltered the smaller and younger Tinturn beneath his tree branch arms, beneath his bent and broken nose, beneath his nest of gently twitching chin whiskers. Esbern also craned his bone spur arm around Tinturn's back, his soft-palmed hand held tight against his side: his old wound was throbbing again. And now, it was leaking--greasy bile like snot flecked with soot. He groaned.

"It's almost night," Tinturn said, his voice a throaty warble, like a little bird with gravel in its gullet. "We can go out soon."

"Don't want to go out," Esbern growled.

"Are you hurting again?"

"No," Esbern lied.

"You're leaking. I can smell it." It did smell. Like hot tar with a hint of vinegar: thus was the blood of the troll.

"It's not that. I haven't washed."

"We never wash." The creek dried up decades before. It was now just a ragged scar with dusty stones.

"Then that's why I smell."

Tinturn sensed the tension in his elder. He waited a few moments, then tried again: "If we go out, you can tell me a story."

"Don't like stories."

"Sure you do.

"I'm tired. Leave me alone."

"You can tell me the story again of how it all happened. How it all went away."

Esbern tightened. Just then, as if timed by the provenance of fate and nature and all the other unknowable forces, a cold wind swept down low over the dry creek bed. It whistled through Esbern's chin bristles and the thatch-fur sticking out of Tinturn's ears like greasy broom straw.

Fact was, Esbern was always a bit morose. Moreso lately. Even still, the chance to tell a miserable story, a story of shame and regret--well, that spoke to him deep in the withered walnut heart that sat in the echo chamber of his wide, hooked ribs.

"Oh. That story," Esbern said.

"Yes. That one."

Esbern tilted his head out from under the tiny bridge. The sky was purple and gray: no sun to be seen, only the slow glow of the moon.

"I suppose that story deserves a retelling. It's been a while."

"Over a year."

"Yes. Over a year. Come on then. Let us walk and talk."

"We were the guardians," Esbern said, hobbling along on mighty bow legs, hand still pressed firmly to the oozing wound. "The gatekeepers. The ones in-between. Between all the best domains, between all the opposing territories, there always sat a bridge. And under each and every bridge sat a troll like you or like me." Esbern paused and cast a squinty eye toward the runty Tinturn. "Well, like me, anyway."

Tinturn smiled a tangle of teeth that looked like a dead shrub. "You're funny."

"Hnnh." Esbern ignored him. "Us trolls, we kept the people separate. They needed to be separate, you see? Everybody's got to know their place. You can't have this beetle coming to that garden because he'll eat all the roses: that garden has its proper beetles already. You see? Everything can't be everywhere. It'd be chaos."

"It'd be downright silly," Tinturn added.

"It'd be downright stupid. As you can see."

They stepped up out of the ravine, and looked out over the blasted wasteland. Dark, diseased grasses moved in the wind like worms. In the distance, a tree riddled with winterblight drooped, its bark cast bare and black from a circling lightning strike. Beyond that were the towers and spires: ruined obelisks gone to rot, left for centuries.

Esbern paused. Sighed, closed his eyes.

"It's all my fault," he said, finally.

"It's not. You couldn't have known."

"Don't," Esbern cautioned. "Don't. Just let me have this."

In a small voice, Tinturn said, "Sorry."

Esbern leaned against a cracked and blasted boulder.

"It was a moment of weakness. Well. Two moments, if one wishes to be accurate about it. The night was a beautiful one. A million winking stars, some falling. A big-faced moon. The bridge was cool, the moss was warm. I felt good. Good for what I was, good for the task I was charged to perform. But therein is how the door opened. That is how the weakness crept in. That sickly, foul compassion. I felt good and--mystery of mysteries--I hoped others could feel the same. Damnation."

When Esbern was ready to walk again, Tinturn helped him up.

"It was just a wee thing," Esbern continued, stepping over the bleached bones of some elk or stag. "Pink and fumbling and ruddy-cheeked. He smelled of goat, which made sense what with the goat standing there next to him. They came trapping and tromping across my bridge and I went up there and I thought, my, my, that goat looks delicious. And I told him that, too. I said to the boy, 'Human boy, you've disturbed my sleep and you're not to cross this bridge and the stream is too high for you, and I've half a mind to eat that goat and maybe you, too.' That, after all, is the toll. I have my burden, which is to eat. They had their burdens, which was to be eaten."

"What did he say? Did he run?"

"Don't be daft. You remember this story. I've told it to you a thousand times. One time every year."

"But I forget it already."

"You always do, don't you? You're mule-kicked is what you are, Tinturn."

Tinturn shrank, offering a wan mile. "The last of our breed."

"The last." Esbern spat: a black loogey smacking against the hard ground. "What a horrible thought, that. The boy, the human boy, he looked up at me and his eyes were so large, big as that moon and bright as those stars and he said, 'But this goat is all I have, my parents were killed by others of our kind and they burned our fields and now I have nothing. I only look for a place to pasture my goat and lay my head.'

"I said to him, 'Aye, boy, but to cross this bridge there's a toll to pay, and that toll is to fall between my gnashing teeth and into my belly.'

"And the boy's lip quivered. Even as the goat tried to pull away--wisely!--and turn back around, this pink-cheeked grub stepped one step closer and said, 'Then eat me if you must because I wish to see my parents again.'"

Esbern paused. Felt his side throbbing, bleeding. The muscles in his neck--braided cords like rotten rope--pulled taut. All parts of him ached.

"I should've eaten him," he said, his voice a hoarse whisper, pregnant with regret.

"I don't know if I coulda done it," Tinturn said.

"That's because you're a weak-kneed little hamster. I'm the troll here. The real deal. I had a burden. A debt. A debt I failed to pay."

"So you let him go."

"Yes, for the moon's sake! I let him go! Off he went, tottering past. And when he'd crossed to the other side, I swear to this night he puffed his chest out and straightened up his back and walked off with a swagger, he did. Little crufty bastard."

"Bastard!" Tinturn agreed, pounding one bony hand into the other.

"And I thought, well, to the sun with it, who cares? Some little blighter goes stumbling off, what's it to me? What's it to the world? He's nothing. Like swallowing a fly: naught but an irritation. Ahh. But then. Then. Then came the little girl."

"There's a little girl?"

Esbern took one needled finger and flicked Tinturn right in his batwing ear.

"There's always a little girl! Always! This story is forever the same. The girl comes. She too has a goat. She too has the fatty cheeks and the sad eyes and another sad story--oh, boo-hoo, whimper bumble blubber, my parents died when blah blah attacked the village and snot blub blob simper. And I thought, it's a beautiful night, and the girl smells like goat, and suddenly I wasn't all that hungry for goat."

"But you're always hungry for goat."

"I am now! Now that I can't have any!"

"Oh. Yes, that makes sense."

"And I let her go. And she goes bobbling off. And then I think, well, who cares? Except, I should've cared. You let one fly into your belly, nothing happens. But you swallow a second fly and what happens?"

"They have a little fly party?"

Esbern pressed his face to Tinturn's: crooked knotty nose to crooked knotty nose. "No, you brain-diseased ass. They breed. They breed."

"Oh."

"Yes. Oh. Come. Let us walk some more."

In the shadows of ruined towers, they walked across broken blacktop. Feet protected from the jagged asphalt and foul puddles by the inches of meaty callus forming at the bottom of each foot.

"I failed to look at the long view," Esbern said, almost whimsically. "I didn't look far enough down the way. It never once occurred to me to ask: Why is it that we have these rules in place? Why are the humans kept separate, kept to their spaces, sequestered away as if by some grand ecological or even mystical design?"

"I don't know what eco--ego--ecomagogical means."

Esbern continued on, once more ignoring his smaller companion. "The boy and his goat found a place. The girl and her goat found a place. The same place. Together. They grew up together. They, like the two flies in one's belly, bore a litter of maggots. Their goats did the same, birthing a bunch of… grotesque baby goats, bleating and mewling. And from there, like a slime mold they grew unbidden. They found others like them. The children bred. The children of children. Generations upon generations."

"But that isn't the whole story." Tinturn gently gestured with his head toward Esbern's wounded side. By now, the leathery flesh of his whole hip and thigh was slick with congealing troll's blood.

"No," Esbern said, voice grim. "It does not. Before that all happened, the boy came back. This time he was no boy, but a man. He wore the goat's skull as his helmet, and he had made a knife--or some manner of stabby implement--from one of the goat's horns. He strode upon the bridge as if he owned it, and he told me that his people demanded I be killed, that our time in this place was done, that the myths and legends and monsters were to be no more the shepherds of man."

"And what did you say?"

"I told him where he could stick his goat-horn, that's what I said! And I thought, well, isn't this cute? Wasn't the first time a human had thought to try to end the gatekeeping of us trolls. And then I thought, my, how fortuitous? I let this little fool go and now here he was, bigger, fatter, more food for me. What a prize! What an excellent choice I had made!"

Tinturn paused, scratched his scabby noggin. "But it wasn't an excellent choice, I thought, I thought that's what you said."

"It's sarcasm, you festering wit."

"Sarcasm. Got it! I feel like I should be taking notes for once."

"The point being, it was not an excellent choice. Fatter though he was, he was also stronger: imbued as a hero--" And on this word, Esbern made a face like he'd just eaten a handful of his own waste. "--by his people. And with that, he came at me. Roughed me up good. Got in his licks. As you can well see."

"And what happened to him?"

"I broke both of his legs. Twisted them sideways. Snapped like a bent sapling. But I did not stop to eat him for I was wounded. I hobbled away, howling, keening, waiting for the others to find me. But they didn't. They were too busy, you see?" He swept his arms out across an invisible tableau. "They fornicated and frolicked and spread their ill heritage. They dug in the earth and stole its blood. They plucked every last fruit from the trees. They scoured the land for its beasts, slaughtering those beasts. They took everything. They ruined everything. For that is the way of humans. They claim ownership over all, molesting it and destroying it in their clumsy grip."

Tinturn gasped. "I hope none of them molest me."

"They're all dead," Esbern said. "Along with most of everything else."

"Oh."

"I wish to go home now, Tinturn. I'm tired."

Back home, crammed under the bridge, Esbern lay his head down on a jagged stone ringed with eel bones. Tinturn stroked his bristly hair.

"Morning will be here soon," Tinturn said.

Esbern said nothing.

Tinturn felt wetness spreading around his knees. With it came a stronger smell of vinegar and bubbling pitch. "It's okay, you just lay here."

He held Esbern like he himself had been held.

Esbern said nothing, and did not move an inch.

It was like this for a while. Weeks, months, maybe.

And then came the trap trap trapping across the bridge above. Tinturn peered out and saw a small dirty-cheeked boy standing there holding the leash of a sallow, sickly goat.

"Hi," the boy said.

Tinturn smiled.

He was hungry.


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