“The Three Billy Goats and Plum” by Alexandra T. Singer
Plum knew she was in for something the morning she woke up to the bell. It rang off the walls of the gorge and all up the keep. It rang up through the window and rattled the bird feeder. It rang through the very tips of Plum’s horns, and, for a moment, old instinct swept through her and her waking thoughts were quite bloody indeed.
Ah, grandfather, thought Plum, who was on most days a quite reasonable troll. Stop me from throwing them off the bridge.
There was nothing wrong with the bell. Everyone rang the bell. There was a sign about it and everything, written in the simple script most everyone from both the mountains and the main continent could read: ‘To Call Down The North Celestial Bridge, Ring Bell.’ Plum had nothing against this system; it was written up as part of the great treaty with her ancestors centuries ago.
It generally worked. Merchants with their caravans rang once. Government officials returning from an inspection of the mountain territories rang twice. Travelers rang three times because they were preoccupied with their journey. Officers in the Imperial Army didn’t ring, because they ran a messenger ahead. Imperial messengers were usually fresh off of their exams and new to the North. They rang the bell one and a half times – the half because the noise scared them. They tended to grab the clapper in surprise.
Still, all of these types knew better than to beat on the bell like it was some disobedient ox. The ox was really feeling it that morning, clanging away. Any harder and it might have come off its post. It was an old bell. Third dynasty. One would have thought it would count for something, but what did some young mountain troll know about bell ringing? Her family had only manned the bridge for some-thousand years.
Foreigners! thought Plum unfavorably as she threw on a robe and made her way out to the gate.
“Once is enough, please!” called Plum, leaning over the battlements. Her eyes weren’t the greatest in the bright morning light, but the glasses she kept hooked over her right horn did well enough to compensate. What she saw wasn’t the brash, young messenger she got now and again, but rather a middle-aged man with a straight back and a bright sash wound so tightly around his waist she thought his head might pop – he was red enough for it, having spent the last minute banging at that poor old bell. “Trolls don’t have the best eyes, but our hearing’s just fine, thank you!”
The middle-aged man froze, and that was when Plum knew she’d really come across a new one. He looked as though he’d barely expected a troll. He definitely did not expect a woman. Plum adjusted her robes and stood a bit taller on principle.
“I wish to speak with the bridgekeeper,” said the man, who was a messenger – Plum could make out his satchel just under his arm. His voice sounded the way the rest of him looked: wheezing out of a body bound tight as a southern lady’s toes. “It is a matter of utmost importance. The great bridge must come down, immediately.”
“I am the keeper, and I’ll see what I can do,” said Plum. “State your name and your business, and we can talk about the toll.”
“My name is hardly your concern,” said the man, “but my business certainly is. The Master Yang Dee, the Third Black Ram, wants the bridge to be down upon his arrival. I have been told to issue the necessary incentive to facilitate this action.”
“Master Yang Dee of the what now?” Plum frowned. There was no sense to the names mountain-folk gave themselves. “Does he have a passport?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Does he have a letter from the office of transport?”
“I assure you he needs no such thing!”
“And I’ll assure you he does,” said Plum, waving a hand before the messenger could launch into a description of the great qualities of his master, who was undoubtedly taller than a tree and fiercer than the rams who clashed horns at the foot of the mountain on which he was born. “This bridge is the one reliable crossing in the whole province. We’re an official border. I can’t let anyone through without the right documentation. That is my duty.”
“Duty? You’re a troll!”
“I’m the official bridgekeeper, and you’re a racist,” said Plum. “Your documentation, please.”
Unrepentant, the messenger reached for the sword at his waist. Plum wondered what he could have done with it. “My master laughs at this idea of documentation!”
“I find that hard to believe, seeing as he’s not here,” said Plum, “and if he’s so against Imperial protocol, he might consider making the climb through the gorge. I’ll warn you: the river’s pretty wild along this stretch.”
“Yang Dee rides harder than any roaring rapids,” said the messenger, “but he will submit to no such indignity.”
“If it is such an issue,” said Plum, “he can take it up with the emperor himself. There’s a courier service not far north from here. Put in a declaration and it will reach the capital in four days.”
“He will speak to the emperor in person,” said the messenger.
“Well, then,” said Plum, “you might as well invade.”
The messenger blinked. “That’s the general idea.”
Plum considered this statement.
“Well,” she said. “What’re your weight requirements? I have rules about those things.”
The messenger must not have known, because he turned a deep red and stormed away.
Plum was not surprised when later that day she saw the red flags appear from over the hills. The flags were carried by men on horseback – the embroidered image of a bounding, black sheep lashed as they rode. They carried weapons and wore uniforms, and now that Plum really thought about it, there had been quite a few more travelers crossing the bridge that month. Plum wished she had paid more attention to the travelers’ warnings. She’d assumed they’d been dealing with a bout of surprisingly belligerent sheep.
These belligerent sheep had swords, and bows, and quite a bit of armor. The smug messenger rode behind them.
The fiercest of the horses carried a man wearing a leather jerkin. The man had messy dark hair, which poked out from under a helmet covered in the horns of the self-same animal for which his particular political movement was named.
“Bridgekeeper!” he called, reining his horse close to the edge of the gorge. He didn’t bother with the bell. “Why have you not lowered the bridge?”
“Didn’t your messenger tell you?” asked Plum, looking up from her noon-day lunch of larval dumplings and mossy tea. She fixed her glasses and peered down at him, down across the battlements. “No passport, no passage. It’s a very simple rule.”
“Do you know who I am?” demanded the man in a voice that carried easily up the walls of the gorge.
“Master Yang Dee of the Three Ram Army,” said Plum, tapping her own pair of horns in solidarity with his odd choice in head gear. “Your messenger mentioned, but rules are rules. You can’t just go bullying across any bridge in the province outfitted like that. You must be about three sacks of rice with all that equipment.”
She heard a creak of a bow. The arrow pinged off the wall two blocks from the top of the battlement.
Yang Dee’s archer lowered his bow with great satisfaction.
Yang Dee, who was a bit round in that way that sons spoiled by their mothers tended to be, sat a little higher on his mount.
“Bridgekeeper,” he said, mild as his archer’s aimed their arrows at Plum’s head. “You are a great credit to your post, but my men are hardly afraid of a single troll – and a woman besides! – so lower this bridge and I may be inclined to show you mercy.”
“You can shoot me if you’d like,” she said, folding up her stool. From the further creaking of the bows below, she knew they would very much like to. “But you won’t get through that way. This bridge was built under the treaty the first emperor made with all the Earth Clans in the kingdom. It’s made of more gears and switches that even those siege machines I’ve heard they have up north. Now, I believe you can get a man across. I believe that maybe that man could have some technical know-how, but he won’t know the engine and he won’t know the shifts. A troll built them, and a troll’s raised with them, and only a troll can lower this bridge. Or, at least, only they can lower it in the time it would take for my contacts inland to notice I haven’t asked for my weekly pay. I’m the only troll you will find topside in this province, so perhaps you ought to try that bridge in the Yew Valley, further along.”
The Yew Valley was heavily populated farmland. There would be no end to the fuss if a mounted military unit tried to strut its way through that passage.
Yang Dee must have known this. He gestured with two fingers. The archers lowered their creaky bows.
“Perhaps,” said Yang Dee, with great care, “we might resolve this peacefully. I hear your kind place much value on certain shining effects, and I promise you that with our exploits, the Three Ram have much to give.”
That caught Plum’s attention. “You mean a bribe.”
“A fee,” said Yang Dee, visibly irritated to have it spelled out, “for services rendered. It is no different from that which you take from the emperor.”
“I’m paid in food and upkeep, same as any official,” said Plum, a little huffily. This fellow assumed an awful lot.
“So then, food and upkeep as you wish,” said Yang Dee, spreading one arm out in great generosity. As he wore two capes and about three straps on top of that, it was an impressive motion indeed. “And much more, once our glorious armies–”
“–our glorious armies,” stressed Yang, “cross the river and reclaim the land beyond.”
This was a line that had often worked on his own men, and, though they were far below, Plum could see the other riders exchange glances and enthusiastic nods, pleased that their leader had put this odd creature in its place.
“A noble pursuit,” said Plum. “If I’m honest, I think I might have heard of you, Yang Dee. You’re the talk of all the caravans. Many a traveler has looked back over their shoulder with you on their minds.”
Those caravans talked about barbarian raiding parties, and the travelers were often glancing back in the midst of a good run, but Plum felt pointing that out might be considered unprofessional.
“And that talk is true,” called Yang Dee, puffing up beneath his cape. He did have quite a pleasant smile, thought Plum, when he didn’t ruin it by flashing his teeth. “I imagine then you have heard we are a force to be reckoned with, and surely the noble Earth Clan is one who respects strength.”
“I can’t say one way or the other what I’ve heard, but what I see is another story,” said Plum, counting the horses and the dents in their shields. “How will you pay my food and upkeep for the next year, Yang Dee, with seventeen horses and some arrows?”
“My brothers and I have amassed wealth beyond your comprehension.”
Which explained why the messengers could wear silk. “Brothers? And where are you in this particular succession?”
Yang Dee stuck his chin out. “Such things are not your concern.”
“Youngest, then.” There was never any mistaking the outrage of a third son. “I think if we are to discuss finances, I might be better off waiting for your elders.”
The men nodded with considerably less enthusiasm. Yang Dee turned an interesting color. “You dare,” he rumbled, and threw down his pack. The men took this as a signal to stab down their flags. “You are fortunate that I am renowned for my patience and grace. By all means, take it up with my brother. I can wait, but I’ll have you know: he’s wider than a boulder, and more ruthless than the rams that clash horns mid-way up the mountain we were born!”
“What’s his weight requirement?” asked Plum.
Yang Lao was not really as broad as a boulder, and she couldn’t say anything about his ruthlessness upon first glance, but he did come two hours past noon. He arrived riding atop a mechanical carriage, the type that had to be pulled by four panting cyclists. Plum watched his approach from the distance. He wore a metal tunic and a helmet with horns that were longer than Yang Dee’s, curving forward with great purpose.
His carriage rolled to a stop beside the bell. His men planted his flags, red with black rams, at either side of the machine. There were considerably more men than before, and they crowded together, mixing with the modest riders Yang Dee had led in earlier that day. Plum counted thirty-four carriages
Yang Lao looked up and said “Bridgekeeper, are you there?”
“I am,” said Plum, who had just returned from her afternoon stress tests. “Here to lob more arrows at me? I’ll tell you what I told your brother, before: you can’t cross this bridge.”
“No arrows, Madam,” Yang Lao said, “and I apologize for my brother’s rudeness. He is young, and impulsive, and quite irritable when woken early in the morning.”
Here, Plum heard a sharp murmur from the corner of the crowd that made up Yang Dee’s modest force, but, if his brother wished to voice his objections, the sharp look the elder Ram shot across the heads of the men was enough to keep him silent. Yang Lao looked back up across the gorge and beamed.
There might have been something to his rumored ruthlessness.
“I assume he’s told you the issue with the documentation,” said Plum, cautiously.
“He did at that,” said Yang Lao, “and I am sorry to say I hold no passport, either. We’re no great friends of the low country.”
“Yes, the guns your men are pointing sort of gave me that impression,” said Plum. They must have made assumptions about how far a troll could see because a few of them guiltily lowered their weapons.
“For my protection, strictly,” said Yang Lao, without blinking. “We’re not barbarians, you know. We’re administrators. We’ve spent the better part of the year reorganizing the northern lands, and now we have come to do the same to our dear brothers in the south.”
“I’m sure you administer very well with your guns and arrows.”
“I suppose we deserve that.” Yang Lao bowed again. “But we are willing to be civil. Let me show you how civil we are.”
He whistled. Fourteen men emerged behind the mechanical carriages. They carried seven chests, each more brightly adorned than the last. They gleamed in the afternoon light, and Plum had to hold up a hand to get a clear look at them as they were laid in front of the bell, one after the other.
“My brother mentioned finances might be an issue for you,” said Yang Lao. He kicked open the lid of the nearest chest so that Plum could see the coins inside. “I wish to assure you that, when you give us passage, we will allow no such concern. Food and upkeep, you said? Well, here is the upkeep.”
Another carriage came forward. This one was pulled by eight panting cyclists, and it was piled to the top with gray sacks. Yang Lao pulled a sword from his waist to slash the top of one so Plum could see the clean grain.
“Here is food,” said Yang Lao. “We will give you both to your two hearts’ content. This alone should last you a good year. Let us pass, and we will see you cared for long after that. See? We are men of wealth, not blood!”
“That is well and good,” said Plum, eying the chests and the sacks both, “but I don’t suppose you grew that grain yourself, and I don’t suppose the coin’s from your clever investments.”
“They’re from investments of a sort,” said Yang Lao. His men laughed. It was a very clever thing to say.
“Meaning you shot the original owners.” The points of the guns reappeared. Plum tapped a horn in consideration. “Yang Lao, you offer me the world, and I admit I am impressed. There are not many on your side of the bridge who have much respect for the Earth Clan, and I will grant you this bounty would keep me well at hand for all that nasty business you have with the emperor down south.”
“The Three Ram Army keeps their promises,” said Yang Lao, his hands on his hips. His smile was as wide and bright as any of those chests. Behind him, she could make out the vague, leathery shape of Yang Dee, pacing in irritation. “Won’t you lower the bridge?”
“But when you say you will take care of me long after, does that mean you will pay my expenses, or that you will throw me into the gorge?”
Yang Lao’s smile was somehow less radiant after she said that.
“As I told your brother, you won’t find another bridgekeeper on either side of the divide,” continued Plum. “But I’m sure such trivial things as trolls and their bridge requirements aren’t much in the face of your bright and shining revolution. I have my job security to think about, if not my emperor. You’ve said nothing about my continued station. This is not an era where a young woman such as myself is allowed much station in life. I’ll keep the job I’ve got, thank you very much. I’ll keep my bridge. No, Yang Lao, I can’t let you pass.”
Yang Lao’s smile grew very frigid indeed.
“I see,” he said. “Will you not be convinced?”
“Not by that mound of stones you’ve piled at my doorstep,” said Plum. It looked heavy. She hoped he hadn’t made his men carry it all up and down the mountain country.
Yang Lao was gracious in his defeat. He crossed his arm, and bowed again. He turned and hopped back into his metal carriage. His men stabbed their flags down next to the flags of Yang Dee.
“You know, then,” he said over his shoulder, a soft voice that carried easily over the heads of his very quiet men, “that you must now speak with the eldest of us.”
“I expected as much.”
“And have you heard,” murmured Yang Lao, “that my brother Yang Ren is as tall as the mountain, and as terrible as the rams that rule the highest mountain?”
A shiver ran through the men: swords rattled, bows creaked, and the red banners flapped in the afternoon winds which came up through the gorge, cool and swift. They howled up the walls of the keep. They howled through the gears beneath the bridge.
Plum had heard it her whole life. As a rule, trolls weren’t a superstitious people, but it didn’t hurt to pay attention to some omens. She said: “What’s his weight requirement?”
Yang Lao’s lips twitched, just slightly.
“I did warn you,” he said. “But since you are so stubborn, please allow my soldiers some target practice on your battlement. I think it will be an educational experience for all of us.”
Plum went back inside her room and bolted the door. The rattle of gunfire against the walls sounded nothing like the wind.
Yang Lao must have wanted Plum to watch Yang Ren’s arrival, because the sound of gunfire faded by late afternoon. Plum finished her worm noodle soup, checked the great gears housed between the cables, and ventured back out onto the battlements – now strewn with abandoned pellets and gunpowder. There’d be a lot of cleanup, and, after all that fuss, she supposed it was worth it to have a look at her oncoming storm.
The eldest of the Three Ram Army was not as tall as a mountain. His terribleness had yet to be seen. In fact, if one went on looks alone, he was a bit of a letdown. He was thinner than Yang Dee. He was shorter than Yang Lao. He wore neither leather nor metal armor. He wore a red silk tunic, belted with a black sash, which trailed in the wind. His hair was carefully combed. His face was clean and pretty. He didn’t even bother with the horned helmet.
He didn’t have to. He came riding a siege engine with four more tearing up the earth behind him. Oh, but they were vicious pieces of equipment. Plum couldn’t help but watch them gnash their way down the dirt road, leaving huge scars where they passed. Their treads rumbled like the beating of hooves. Their iron spikes thrust ahead of them like the lowered horns of a ram about to charge.
Through all the smoke and the grinding, Yang Ren sat with no expression. The wind teased his hair as serenely as if he were arriving on some royal river boat.
Oh, thought Plum as the dread machines drew near. Her two hearts gave an unwitting clench in her chest. It had nothing to do with points of articulation, or their worm-like wheels. So that’s what they’ve all been so afraid of.
Her second thought was, All that smoke! Those can’t be too energy efficient! But her hearts hadn’t quite recovered by the time the engines ground to a halt. The banner men planted their flags. Yang Ren rose from his iron throne. His long sleeves flowed with the movement. It couldn’t have been easy, standing on the machine’s sloping back, but he showed no sign of unbalancing himself.
He met Plum’s eyes across the gorge. He didn’t smile.
“Bridgekeeper,” he said, in a cool and clear voice. He didn’t belt like Yang Dee. He didn’t mince like Yang Lao. There was no need for such affectations. His machines weren’t especially economical, but he was. Plum felt her ears twitch back – an old Earth Clan reaction. “Do you know me?”
“I know you,” said Plum. “Yang Ren of the Three Ram Army. Your brothers have said a lot about you. With all that, I thought I might be seeing you sooner rather than later.”
Yang Ren didn’t nod. He didn’t turn to his men. He tilted his head to the side. It was a small, thoughtful gesture. Plum shouldn’t have noticed it high up as she was, but she couldn’t help it: every move he made was projected upwards, so firmly, so plainly. He wanted her to see this. He wanted her to have to fix her spectacles. She was glad not to fumble them when she did.
“My brothers talk a lot, it’s true,” he said, “but their messengers have told me very little about you. ‘The bridgekeeper is a troll!’ said Yang Dee’s first messenger. I thought he was exaggerating. ‘The troll drives one hard bargain,’ said Yang Lao’s messenger, and I thought he was just being a sore loser. There was more besides that, but would you believe, for all that you have driven them both to the point of complete childishness, that not a single one has told me your name?”
“Oh.” The skin across Plum’s shoulder and neck began to prickle. Her voice sounded dry and strained in her ears as she managed, through the battling of various vestigial threat displays, to say: “It’s Plum.”
“Lady Plum,” said Yang Ren. He considered this. He considered in a different way than his brothers, too. Yang Lao had considered things in the way a master gambler considers his next move. Yang Dee had considered the way a master at swordsmanship determines which open point to attack next. Yang Ren’s silent consideration had no such frills and no markers. He simply looked up at Plum, and said: “I’m sorry for my brothers’ disrespect. It’s clear to me they didn’t know what they were dealing with. It’s clear you knew exactly what you were dealing with. You didn’t take Yang Dee’s threats to heart. You didn’t take Yang Lao’s bargains. That’s why you’ve chosen to deal with me. I respect that. You can’t be intimidated, and you can’t be bought. I wonder if the Emperor knows what a valuable servant he has in you. You’ve shown more courage than the northern generals. They thought I’d be satisfied with a few small valleys. They thought if they rattled their swords at me I’d leave them be.”
“And what has happened to those northern generals?”
“I cut off their heads and sent them back to their families for proper burial,” said Yang Ren, simply. “I can’t pretend my patience is infinite.”
There was always the possibility, it occurred to Plum just then, that he wore no helmet because he hadn’t found the right set of horns, and she cursed her species’ lack of more extreme gender dimorphism. The lady sheep wouldn’t have had anything to worry about.
“I appreciate your honesty,” she heard herself say, against the beating of the blood in her ears and the stirring of the stones in her gut, “but you know your army, and I know my bridge. You can’t cross it. You could cut my head off, but it wouldn’t change that fact.”
Yang Ren didn’t look terribly surprised. “I hadn’t thought of doing that,” he admitted, with more of his painful, plain consideration. “I was going to ask to marry you, though. I think that’s an offer more appropriate for our situation, don’t you?”
Curse her species for having gender dimorphism! There was the age-old frustration of every lady sheep on the damn mountain! The arrows hadn’t gotten to her, but that did, her first heart squelched like a freshly squeezed orange.
“You’ll have to repeat that,” she croaked, and, oh, if the old regional accent didn’t come out there! “I don’t think I heard.”
“It’s very simple,” explained Yang Ren, because everything was simple when he willed it to be so. “Once all this conquering is done, I must assure my continued rule. I plan to marry a daughter from every major family in the kingdom. It will be a good way to show I don’t hold it against them that I was required to kill their sons. It will also be proof that I have a claim to every corner of this country, and the Earth clan should be no exception. I’m a generous husband. I don’t care that you’re a troll. I won’t even require a dowry. I won’t pressure you for an heir. I think we might even like each other. My only desire from you as my bride would be that you keep this bridge as well as you have kept it for your Emperor, and that you lower it to welcome me. The rest we can negotiate as you see fit.”
If his men had anything to say, they kept it to themselves. You didn’t shift and mutter when Yang Ren said his piece.
“Oh,” said Plum. “Yes. How could I have misheard.”
“Unless, of course, you’re already married?”
“No,” said Plum. Most troll men could be depressingly traditional in their proposals, which in olden times involved throwing rocks, and dragging each other off by the hair, and piling your treasure up in big towering heaps. Plum had a good bridge and a good career, thank you. She could wait for more.
“Or that you’re waiting on a better offer?”
But ‘more’ hadn’t come, had it? An ogre had said he had a castle with a swamp around it. She’d knocked him across the face with a pan – but did that really count? She hadn’t taken that relationship too seriously. Not that she wouldn’t marry an ogre if his heart were in the right place–
“No,” said Plum.
–and who said the bridge had to go to family? She could train a successor she liked. Blood wasn’t that important, whatever most humans thought. Humans were always so picky about these things. They could debate the advantages of monarchy vs. meritocracy all they wanted, but did they always have to do it with swords?
No. Sometimes they did it with siege engines.
“So?” asked Yang Ren. He didn’t need to press because he didn’t have to – one’s opinions were awfully clear when one rode a big black death machine and sent generals’ heads home to their families to prove a political point.
Still, Plum wondered if that point was a good one – if it was worth marriage to one stubborn troll. If was worth that many swords.
She’d always respected the direct approach.
“One moment,” said Plum. She took her glasses off. She slipped them over her horn – anything to get her away from that patient, expectant stare. “Back that thing up, and cover your ears. It’s not going to be quiet, but I suppose if you’re riding one of those machines, you’re used to loud noises. And ring the bell, will you? I’ve got to keep some rules in place.”
As dusk stained the skies over the gorge, the bell rang, and the Northern Celestial Bridge came down. It took some doing. The truth was there were three bridges, in three pieces, for the varying size requirements of the average international traveler: One was a foot bridge, one was wide enough for few horses, and the last… well, some Emperor from a few centuries ago got impatient about sending their horses through two by two. Plum didn’t ask Yang Ren which he needed. With an army that size it would have to be the widest.
The pieces groaned. The bridge lowered. It was made of iron from the mountains and stone from the gorge. By human standards it was quite a boring in design, jagged and unpainted. Trolls worked by hand, and they weren’t big on contracting artisans. The closest thing to decorations were the maintenance notes clawed into the keystones and scraped into the iron support beams by generations upon generations of Plum’s family. Her grandfather’s notes lay near the center. She’d crawled out to consult those not four days ago.
On the far side of the gorge, Yang Dee paced and scowled. Displeased to have been shown up by his brothers again, he just wanted to cross the bridge and be done with it.
Yang Lao fanned himself and watched the bridge come down with visible distaste. He had opinions on architecture, that much was clear.
Yang Ren waited. He didn’t watch the bridge at all, his eyes were on the battlement, and Plum could occasionally feel them follow her as she checked attachments and cable tensions.
He’d make a very precise emperor.
“All right,” called Plum, as the last piece locked into place. The North Celestial Bridge sprawled across the divide, wide and tall. “That’s the last of it. Just one more question, if I might?”
“Permission to–” began Yang Dee.
“No,” said Yang Ren. He looked up at Plum. “Ask.”
“What’s your weight requirement?”
Yang Ren, for the first time, truly smiled.
“I think I can come to appreciate your humor, Lady Plum,” he said. “Let’s discuss such things face to face.”
And, with no trumpets, and no cheers – only that silence that comes from the awareness that history is in the making – the Three Ram Army began its advance.
As armies went, it was hardly the vast force of the poems. It didn’t need to be that force. It had speed, it had technology and, most importantly, it had three very devoted generals. One would have given the Emperor a bit of a sweat, two might have been a manageable risk, but three…
And how ready they looked! Yang Dee, red with impatience, led his cavalry in a frustrated clip. His forces brought up the rear. He knew why. He was angry to be shown up, and ready to take it out on the next village. Their hooves rattled the rails, the bridge shivered beneath them.
Yang Lao, accustomed to being the middle in all things, waved gracefully from his carriage. He had, at last, gotten his way, and if he was bothered by his own personal defeat in this regard, he didn’t show it. His carriages shook the slats as their spiked wheels scratched the old metal. The bridge swayed under their passage.
Then Yang Ren – and how glorious he looked! Plum could admit it now. The smile from before was nothing but a spirit. He now wore no expression, neither satisfaction nor irritation touching his lips or his eyes. He was a man who got what he wanted, or at least took it, and Plum supposed that must have taken a lot of joy out of his life – nothing was ever a surprise to him. He led his machines with grim expectation. Their treads vibrated the screws in the metal slats and in the rails. The bridge rumbled beneath their weight, and the weight of the metal carriages, and the weight of the horses. The screws leapt, the slats screeched, and the rails–
The rails gave a rumbling cry…
Plum wasn’t terribly surprised when the whole thing folded up as they reached the middle. She wasn’t surprised when it sagged and shifted.
Yang Ren blinked. He looked up and, probably for the first time in his life, looked rather alarmed.
The screws gave. The slats folded. The rails bent. The bridge collapsed, and with it went five siege engines, thirty-four steel carriages, and only about three of the horses – they’d been last, after all. Down went the Three Ram Army. Down went their red flags. Down went their chests of captured gold. Down, into the gorge, where the river came up to meet them. No doubt they would turn up somewhere in the Yew Valley, after all. Whether they turned up alive, well, that was the river’s call.
And, scrabbling across his half of the broken bridge, Yang Dee’s first messenger forced his panicked horse back to solid ground.
“Cowards!” he cried. The twelve remaining men looked between themselves in confusion. They’d been an army not a moment ago, now they were just twelve shaken men and twelve rearing horses. The messenger didn’t shout at any one of them in particular. “Fools! We have been betrayed! Wretched troll! Rally, rally for we have been betrayed! Do not fear, do not, for our glorious masters will exact revenge!”
His glorious masters were at the bottom of the gorge, but Plum supposed he’d have to realize that one on his own.
“Hold now, you can’t blame me,” she said, instead. She smoothed her mane back past her horns. She perched her glasses back across the ridge over her nose. “I did ask for your weight requirements.”
Plum threw out her maintenance report that night. When the next messenger arrived, three days later, he rang the bell exactly one and a half times. Word of the Three Ram Army’s defeat had reached the capital. There must have been something to their threats, because the emperor was ready to give Plum whatever she wanted for their speedy defeat: land, estate, marriage to any of his sons…
Plum handed the messenger a design proposal and a list of supplies. Reconstruction would begin, she wrote, as soon as these items were received. A good troll wanted a good bridge. Who could really be bothered with all the rest?
About the Author
Alexandra T. Singer graduated from SUNY Purchase with a B.A. in Creative Writing. She is the author of the ongoing independent comic, Sfeer Theory. Her stories have been featured in the online zine Imaginary Beasts as well as Chamberton Publishing’s Spotlight anthology.