What's a llort, you ask? Child, come closer, and tuck your feet in. It's cold tonight.

A llort, my best-beloved, is a great grey thing with wide shoulders, crooked teeth, and very little brain. They are peaceable, and they generally move very slowly.

They live on sunlight, lichens, algae, and moss, and that is why so many like to live under bridges. It's a good place to hang their greens to dry.

Now, the biggest danger to llorts is goats and youngest children. Why? Oh, no reason in particular...except they're often mistaken for trolls.

It only takes one breathless report of a lumpen grey shoulder, crooked yellow teeth, and small gleaming eyes to fill a whole town with whispers.

And sooner or later, along comes a goat who loves to make mischief, or a youngest child sent out to find their fortune, and a small mistake turns into slaughter.

For a llort, once it chooses its bridge, does not like to stray far away, even to bask on a riverside, even when a small horned creature coaxes it up high to be butted and smashed.

So. Under a bridge lived a llort. He was a young one, barely a boulder, and was often mistaken for one bracing the rickety end of his bridge where a flood had torn a chunk free.

It was a fine bridge, and he was happy enough, until one night with a round wide moon and a cold breeze...

...and a fox-woman, clutching a bundle to her chest, ducked under the bridge to hide.

She shivered, her teeth chattered, and her hair streamed black as night-time blood. The llort, startled from sleep, opened one small gleaming eye but said nothing.

The fox-woman hunched in the chuckling stream, and the llort's sensitive ears--for there isn't a bridge without a road, a road is a string, and every string vibrates--

--filled with approaching thunder. He still said nothing, for llorts do not make hasty decisions.

The fox-woman closed her eyes and hunched in the deepest water-shadow.

They came, padded feet with clicking nail, creak of armor and stamp of not-quite-hoof, and poured through the shuttered village, where mortals slept uneasily. It took a long while.

The sound of their passage was not cart-wheel or canter, and ice followed. Spectral torchlight dappled the llort's creek, and the weight of their passage ground against his broad stony back.

They were so heavy, and the cortege observing such a furious pace, that the bridge bounced and jarred and cut cruelly into the llort's shoulders.

Perhaps it was the smell of stone-blood that alerted the fox-woman, for she raised her head, and found herself nose to bulbous nose...

..., almost lip-to-wizened-lip, with what must have been indistinguishable from a troll.

The llort grimaced. He knew he was not pretty, and he knew even fox-spirits feared trolls. Perhaps that was why llorts mimicked their appearance so often.

"Ho!" the cavalcade cried overhead, a long trailing yell passed from throat to throat. "Ho, the Child-King is missing! The King of the Foxes is gone!"

The fox-woman's eyes darted madly. Terror kept her in place, but a small sound threatened to escape her bitten-closed lips.

So the llort did the only thing he could.

To allow such a thing, he had to shift his weight, and that made the weak spaces break, their splinters piercing even his tough hide.

For he was, after all, a very young llort.

The sudden cries of the spirits thundering above covered the fox-woman's fright, and just as the young llort reached the end of his strength the stragglers ceased.

The hunt for the Child King, beloved of his only surviving kin--his uncle and regent, of course--wound away into an icy night, down through that valley, the one we don't pass through in winter.

Why? Oh, child, that is another story, and your little eyelids are drooping. Here, tuck the covers a little tighter. Yes.

Well, the fox-woman stood and trembled for a long time, listening to the hunt recede. In her arms, the bundle stirred. A tiny nose twitched, but it was silent, sleeping unconcerned.

The llort shifted his bridge, easing the broken parts together, balancing them just so. His thick yellow sulfurous blood rose to seal the wounds.

It would be a long time before the llort could bear such a weight again. He crouched at the creek's edge, upon two smooth rocks, and did not look at the fox-woman.

"They will return," he said, finally, a sound like his own chuckling stream. Chunks of ice had begun to form, float-spinning past.

The fox-woman peered afresh at this strange creature. "I thought your kind were all dead."

The llort shrugged. "You'll freeze like a swan-demon if you stand there. Legs first."

The fox-woman's feet were numb, but she managed to reach the edge, and the llort offered his hand.

It was a rough, knobbed, misshapen appendage, to be sure. But the fox-woman took it, and did not freeze when the stream froze solid with a crack.

"Thank you." She visibly remembered her manners. "I am--"

"Raziel," the llort said, placidly. "The Fox-King's daughter. That's your brother."

For all who pass over a bridge know something, and those secrets fall between boards, seep into stone, sing in the metal.

Llorts listen, and learn.

"I owe you my life," the fox-woman said. "I can give you my bracelet."

"I can't eat it." The llort ruminated for a moment.

It would be very rude, you see, for him to let the fox-woman go without some token toll.

It was, after all, HIS bridge.

"I'll ask you this, before you away," he said, "and that will be all you owe."

"Then ask," Raziel said. "I have far to go tonight."

Now, the llort knew the king of the foxes had been a peaceable sort, even if mischievous and a little prickle-tempered.

The Regent...well, my duckums, he looked like his late brother, but he was a different beast indeed.

Is your pillow fluffed enough? There's your nightlight.

The llort could have asked where Raziel was going. He could have asked what was in her bundle, or how far she thought she could flee before the foxes found her.

But the llort did not, for though he was young, he was not the sort to ask questions he already knew the answers to.

Instead, the llort let his hand drop back to his side, and he asked what he did not know. "Why risk your life? What are you saving him from?"

The fox-princess was startled, but only for a moment. In the moonlight, her face blurred between woman and vixen, and her wet skirts billowed with tail-thrash.

"I don't want him to be cruel," she said, softly. "I don't want people to be afraid of him."

The llort gestured that her toll was paid, and the fox-woman vanished upstream, gliding on ice with sodden skirts, her brother asleep in her arms.

Now, much is told of Raziel's Flight, my love, and much is made of the Regent's fate, and those are fine stories, but I told you this one tonight.

Not many know of the llort she met. For he went back to tending his bridge, and bestowed a blessing on the carpenter's son who came to repair the broken end of it.

The llort very easily could have tugged at the road to make it cry "Here she is!" He could have held her fast with stone like hands, and reaped a rich reward.

Nature adapts, my love. There is a reason we cannot tell llorts and trolls apart.

They are the same, my precious little one. They are twins.

But we must see what they do to know what they are.

What? What was that?

Oh, my darling, you are so wise. I did say he was happy until he met the fox-woman, didn't I.

It is late, your eyes are drooping, and tomorrow is a busy day.

You'll have to wait until I tuck you in again.

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