The troll lived under the same bridge for a thousand years, eating the forgotten, lost, despicable, and despairing people unfortunate enough to stumble over him. All trolls needed three things to survive: flesh, water and emotion. They didn’t all have to come from the same source, but without a steady supply of the three, the troll would perish. Some years were feasts while others were famine, but sooner or later, the neglected and hated always found their way into his stomach.
He was enduring what seemed like a long stretch of famine when he saw the girl ambling towards him. Matted black hair hung to her waist on one side of her head. The other side was mostly stubble. Her cheeks were encrusted with so much dirt and blood that he couldn’t tell what color her skin was. Not that it mattered. Skin color didn’t affect taste, but society’s perception of it often filled the some darker humans with more rage and despair. He wondered how she could see to keep moving forward with so much dirt, gore and swollen flesh covering her eyes.
A low growl drew his attention to the ground. The girl’s right hand was twined in the matted fur of a small dog. The troll could see the beast’s ribs pushing against its thin skin. It was missing clumps of fur in places where its flesh was covered in black and red sores. He thought it a miracle that dog hadn’t turned on the girl and eaten her, though he supposed there wasn’t much meat left on her bones anyway. Perhaps the dog hadn’t thought it worth the effort.
“Is someone there?” asked the girl.
The dog woofed.
The troll leapt out from under the bridge and roared. The dog responded with a growl and raised what was left of its fur. The girl did not flinch. She crouched down and patted the dog’s head. “Be calm, my baby. We do not want to scare a man who might help us.”
The troll sniffed the air but he could not sense any fear, despair or other negative emotions. The girl may have been forgotten and abandoned, but the only thing the troll felt from her was hope.
The girl stood up and brushed off her tattered clothes. The troll almost laughed because there was no way a simple brushing could remove all the dust from those rags.
“Kind sir, do you have any food to spare?”
The troll opened his mouth and stepped forward, prepared to eat the girl. The dog growled, but the girl did not flinch. He waved a meaty hand in front of her eyes. They did not register the movement.
The girl switched to a different language and repeated her question adding, “Please, sir, we are starving. Our city was bombed. Our parents are dead. We must eat so we can make it across the border to my aunt’s husband’s cousins house.”
Her voice was hoarse and tears dripped out of her ruined eyes. She switched to yet another language and repeated her question over the low growling of her dog that was certainly aware of the danger even if the girl wasn’t, and it was prepared to selflessly defend her.
The troll closed his mouth, deflating as he exhaled. In a thousand years, he had never spared a human who crossed his bridge. In a thousand years, he had never met a human who was not afraid of him. There was a first time for everything.
The languages of men had always felt delicate and awkward on his massive tongue, but he forced his clumsy mouth into the right shapes while pushing air out his throat. “Food I do have, young child.”
“Thank you, kind sir,” she said nearly collapsing with relief. “Could you spare some for me and my dog?”
“Of course, child. Follow me.” He held out a hand for the dog to sniff. It let out one last growl, sniffed, and licked the troll’s hand. Its tongue was dry, but tickled the troll’s calloused palm.
“The stream runs clean and clear. Drink your fill while I prepare some fish.” It was the longest sentence the troll had uttered in centuries. He watched the dog lead the girl down the steep bank, sniff the water, then plunge his head fully under. He shook so water flew off him and splashed the girl. He lapped up as much as his belly could hold while she slowly crouched down and scooped water into her mouth.
Soon, the dog had waded into the deepest part of the river, swimming and plopping like a puppy while the girl drank. The dog grabbed her rags by its teeth, pulled her deeper into the water, and licked the dirt and blood off her skin while she scrubbed his fur with her hands, all while she sightlessly gazed at the horizon.
The troll waded into the water too, grabbing fish with his bare hands until his arms were full. He deposited them on the riverbank, lit a fire, gutted the fish with his knife and roasted them. The smell drew the girl and her dog to the fire, where they dried off and ate.
The troll once again forced human speech out of his mouth. “Where you come from?”
“A fallen city,” said the girl. “A place crushed by bombs and hate.”
When the girl and her dog had eaten their fill, they slept. When they woke, they thanked the troll and were on their way, healthier than before, while the Troll grew thinner.
More children followed them. Some were alone while others came in groups. The troll fed and cleaned them all. He ate no one. Adults came too. He fed them just the same, growing thinner and weaker with each human he let live.
On the 77th day after helping the girl, he believed if he did not eat he would die. He was nothing but flesh and bones, half the size of what he once was. He was laying on the river bank, too weak to even stand when he heard wailing. He crawled to the top, seeing a woman holding a child on each hip while another trailed behind her. Blinded by tears, she begged for food. She was full of fear that her children would die, despairing at the sight of the starved stranger on the riverbank’s edge. “They said there was food here, but all I see is a man who starved to death following the same false hope.”
“There is food,” croaked the troll. He was desperate to eat and knew she would be a meal that would sustain him for a hundred years, but something had changed in the months he had been helping human refugees from the fallen city. “The water in the river runs clear and clean. Drink your fill while I cook you some fish.”
Somehow, he found the strength to stand, wade into the river and catch just enough fish to feed the desperate family. At first, they hesitated to wade in, but they were thirsty and wanted to live, so they could not resist the water. They drank, splashed and played like the blind girl had done with her dog on the first day. He cooked their fish, and while they ate, he fell into a deep sleep that he never expected to wake from.
Yet he did wake to a wet, slimy tongue licking his face. When he opened his heavy eyelids, he saw a robust dog with long, golden fur standing over him, and behind the dog stood a girl with dark skin and black hair trailing down to her knees on one side and to her shoulder on the other.
“You’re alive!” The girl beamed.
She was not alone. Behind her stood all the refugees he had helped. They were clean and well fed, not starved, dusty or bleeding.
“You saved us,” said the girl, offering him her hand. “We came back to thank you, and found you lying there, all skin and bones.”
“Let us pay our debt,” said the last woman he had helped.
The troll nodded. He was too weak to do anything else.
The group carried him into the river and scrubbed his sagging flesh. They clothed him in thick blue pants, a soft gray shirt and a green jacket. They fed him fish, rice and bread until his stomach could hold no more.
He slept again. When he woke, those humans were praying over him. Helping rise and move, they led him to the edge of the river. When he saw his reflection, it was not that of a troll, but a human man with skin as brown as the river bank, hair as black as night and eyes as blue as the water. He didn’t know when the transformation happened.
The humans welcomed him into the town they built down stream, and when they told stories about him, the word troll never came up – people only spoke of a kind, but unusably tall man with hygiene issues. The stories made him laugh every time. Sometimes, he wondered what the humans would think of him if they knew the truth, but when he looked in their eyes and saw love there, he knew it didn’t matter.