Sten had always known he was an ugly man. He’d learned to accept the fact, and it honestly had little impact on his daily life. He rarely thought of it at all.
Then he met Alistair the Bold.
It was a brisk morning, and Sten was gathering mushrooms alongside the stream near his cottage. Soon, his path led him under a small stone bridge. At the thunderous sound of a horse approaching the bridge, Sten poked his head out the side to see who it was. He immediately recognized the man by his flowing blond hair and shining golden armor. It was Alistair the Bold, a hero of some renown.
“Gods!” Alistair said as he pulled the horse to a stop, a look of pure horror on his face. “Ask your three riddles, monster. I need to be on my way.”
“What?” Sten asked, confused.
“I know a bridge troll when I see one,” Alistair said, eyeing him up and down. He then gestured toward a wyvern’s head tied to the back of his horse. “I am on my way to collect the sizeable bounty for this trophy. I intend to have done with it before it spoils.”
“A bridge troll?” Sten muttered.
“Ask your riddles quickly lest I be tempted to slay you instead.”
Is he serious? Sten thought. He was a kind man, but he could not deny that this pompous fool had angered him. A plan took shape in his mind. His father, also an ugly man, had been a lover of riddles. Sten remembered many of them.
“Don’t attack, sir,” Sten said. “That act would surely trigger the curse.”
Alistair sneered. “What curse?”
“Should you hurt me, or should you refuse to answer my riddles, you will be transformed into a troll yourself.” Sten shook his head sadly. “Of course, should you accept my challenge and fail to answer correctly, your horse and that valuable trophy upon it would belong to me — a toll to preserve your humanity.”
Alistair hesitated only a moment. “Bah! Such a foul creature could never pose a threat to one such as I. Simple beings, trolls are. I accept your challenge. Now ask your riddles quickly. I can scarcely stand the sight of you.”
Sten forced himself to smile. “What runs around a city but never moves?”
Alistair considered it. “Hmm . . .”
After a few moments, his eyes lit up. “A wall! You will have to do better than that, beast.”
“Very good. Let’s continue,” Sten said. “A leathery snake, with a stinging bite, I’ll stay coiled up, unless I must fight. What am I?”
“A whip,” Alistair answered immediately. “By the gods, you’re daft. A great warrior like me is intimately familiar with all weapons. Give me the last one, monster. I’ve business to be about.”
Sten nodded. The last riddle had been a favorite of his father’s, and its answer was a concept he doubted Alistair the Bold was familiar with.
“If you think you possess it, you probably don’t. If you do possess it, you probably won’t know. Of what do I speak?”
Alistair thought for a moment. Then another. Slowly, his perfect face twisted into a frown. “Is this some sort of trick?”
“No. It is simply a riddle.”
They stood staring at each other for a long while. The water trickled by softly, and birds chirped merrily in a nearby tree. The brisk air had warmed a little. Sten scratched the side of his prominent nose. Finally, Alistair cleared his throat and spoke.
“I know not.”
Sten smiled, a real and triumphant smile this time. “Humility. The answer is humility.”
Alistair muttered the word under his breath, a slightly confused look upon his face as if tasting something for the first time.
“Rotten luck, hero.” Sten said. “I’ll be taking your horse and that trophy upon it now.”
Alistair the Bold’s eyes narrowed. “Perhaps there is no curse. Perhaps I will slay you after all.” His arm inched toward the sword at his hip.
“Wait!” Sten said, his mind racing. “You must reconsider. For your own good. Do you think I was born the creature before you?”
Alistair grimaced. “A disgusting thought. One I would rather not dwell on.”
“I was not. I was once a man almost as handsome as yourself.”
Alistair brushed back a lock of his long blond hair. “I doubt it.”
“It’s true. I was stumped by a bridge troll’s riddle just as you were, but I was foolish enough to harm the creature instead of paying the toll. Now look at me.”
Alistair’s golden-armored shoulders slumped. “A fate worse than death,” he said softly. “Very well, monster. You win. Have your prize. It is enough that I shall continue my life as the great hero that I am while you will only ever be a bridge troll.” With that, he climbed down from atop his horse, held his head high, and walked across the bridge and on his way with all the dignity he could muster.
Sten watched him go, whistling to himself and already thinking about how he might spend the bounty money from the wyvern head that was now his. With a chuckle, he went back to gathering mushrooms.
Paul Miller lives near Dallas, Texas with three amazing children and writes whenever he can find the time.