Cornelius looked up from the book he was reading, frowning at the silver bell above his door as its soft ringing filled his little three-room cabin. Someone had stepped onto his land. They’d be at the bridge in minutes. It was snowing miserably out, with wind and growing dark to match. Who would venture out on a bad day to see him when he rarely got visitors on the good days?
Leaving the book open on the table, he tugged on his heavy, fur-lined boots then pulled down his white and blue cloak from where it hung near the fireplace.
Outside, he lingered just in front of the door, savoring the circle of warmth and clear grass, the low, steady pulse of magic that kept his small space free of winter. It wasn’t much, just his cabin, his apple trees, and the little greenroom where he grew a few other things year round. His ability to provide fresh fruit and vegetables all year long was one of the few reasons the villagers were polite. Mostly polite. When they knew he could hear them.
He rubbed restlessly at his horn nubs, then made a face and left the safety of his circle to venture out into the cold, toward the bridge. Normally he could see smoke from the village chimneys, hear activity in the scrubby bits of forest that separated his corner of the world from the rest of them. The sad excuse for a forest petered out only a few paces before the land ended in a sharp, deadly drop to the swift-moving river below. The only way across was a bridge some distance south.
Cornelius’s house was located across another bridge that led to a small island in the middle of the canyon. The bridge was roughly as wide as three large adults, but had no railings or other obvious protections to keep people from falling or being struck by the hard winds that could sweep through from time to time. All that kept passage safe was magic, a spell put in place a long time ago by his mother. Before she’d decided being a mother was not the life for her and had vanished who knew where. At least she’d left her research.
The villagers liked to call it Troll Bridge—with him the obvious troll. And they wondered why he seldom had anything to do with them and made them pay dearly for his fruits and vegetables.
He rubbed at his horns again. They were hard, heavy, cream-colored bone that, if permitted, would grow out to eventually form large, curling, ram-like horns. He had let them grow for years when he was younger, eager and proud to look like a father he’d never known. But they’d caused headaches, strained his neck, and combined with all the looks and whispers…
Easier to saw most of it off, keep them ground down to little two-inch nubs at either end of his forehead. Everyone still had to deal with the fact he wasn’t entirely human, but he was spared the pain.
He walked a few steps onto the bridge, folded his arms across his chest, and waited in the heavily falling snow for the intruder to appear. “Who dares to trip trap over my bridge?”
The only reply was a startled squeak as a small figure barely half his height stumbled and fell to his knees. He knew that boy, even covered in a dowdy cloak and half the fallen snow. Billie Gruff, one of the goat boys. The older one, Mattie, was about seventeen or so. Billie was much younger and had appeared as quite a surprise in the village seven years ago.
The oldest brother, Robbie, had left three years ago to take work in the city, pay off the debts accrued by their worthless father after he’d finally drunk himself to death and left his sons to clean up all his messes.
Billie and Mattie talked about Robbie endlessly, the letters he sent back, promises of gifts and more when he returned. As if a young man alone in the city, his obligations miles upon miles away, was going to return to an old, sleepy village and a life of tending goats. No, Robbie had made a lot of promises, asked Cornelius to keep an eye on his brothers, and left. Cornelius was very well acquainted with how people who left back.
Ignoring the familiar heavy knot in his stomach that appeared whenever he thought of Robbie, how he thought Robbie might be different, Cornelius bent and pulled Billie to his feet. “What in the name of the Mother Goddess are you doing out here all alone in bad weather? You could have missed the bridge! No, don’t answer. Wait until we’re inside. You are a mile of trouble, Billie Gruff. I should leave you to freeze. Maybe it would put sense in that fool head.”
He dragged Billie into the house, got him out of his wet clothes and at the table with hot cider and soup. Cornelius shoved his pale hair from his face, then planted his hands on his hips. “Billie Gruff, you tell me right now what you were doing out in this weather getting your fool self killed.”
To his astonishment, Billie dropped his spoon and burst into tears. “Apples. I w-w-want-wanted apples. S-s-stupid Myron pushed me down into the snow and stole mine and kicked me, and I just wanted apples for when Robbie comes home tomorrow.”
“Oh, Billie,” Cornelius said on a sigh. He dropped his hands and walked over to Billie, pulling him into a loose hug. “Even if your brother was coming home tomorrow, he’d only want to see you—there’s no reason to go risking your neck for apples. How awful would it be to come home and hear you’d fallen in the river getting him apples? What have I told you over and over about thinking carefully before acting?”
Billie stared up at him with tear-soaked green eyes that explained so very well how he got out of all the trouble he got himself into. Gruff men had a very wicked way with their damned green eyes. “He promised he was coming home tomorrow! And I wanted to make an apple pie—it’s his favorite.”
“You can’t even light a stove, Billie. If you wanted a pie, you could have asked someone to make it for you.”
Pouting fiercely enough to break every heart in an unsuspecting village, Billie replied, “I was gonna ask you, but Mattie said I shouldn’t bug you ’cause I already do too much.”
“Mattie’s as much a fool as you,” Cornelius said, tugging lightly at Billie’s hair. Pulling away, he retrieved the dropped spoon from the table and held it out. “Eat your soup, drink your cider, and when the weather clears up, you and the apple pie I made yesterday will go straight home. Straight home.”
Billie nodded earnestly. “Straight home, Cornelius.”
“I don’t believe you.” Cornelius ruffled his hair and went around the table to his own seat.
He had only just resumed reading when the bell began ringing again. “Who could that be?” Sighing, he once more pulled on his boots and cloak. “You stay here, I mean it. I will hex you with warts if you budge from that chair, Billie.”
It was the best he was going to get. Pulling up the hood of his cloak, and casting a last admonishing look, Cornelius headed back outside and across the yard to the bridge. He wasn’t remotely surprised, in the end, to see who came into view. “I might have known another goat would come trip-trapping over my bridge.”
Mattie lifted his eyes to the sky. “I’m sorry, Cornelius. I told him to stay at home, that Robbie wouldn’t care if there wasn’t a damn pie. That boy…”
“Learned a lot of his bad habits from you,” Cornelius said.
Mattie made a face. “I guess I can’t argue that. I am sorry he’s bothering you.”
“You two never bother me,” Cornelius said gruffly. “At least you call me Troll to my face.”
Breaking into a grin, Mattie moved in closer and bumped their shoulders together. It was completely infuriating that Mattie was ten years younger than him but already two inches taller. Robbie had towered, and Cornelius had no doubt Billie was headed the same way. “Troll Lord, we know better than to disrespect the Lord of the Forest.”
“Shut up.” Cornelius conceded the barest smile then led the way up to the house. Stepping inside, he looked at Billie and said, “Little goat, a bigger goat has come after you. Determined to eat me out of house and home, aren’t you?”
“Goats do like to eat,” Mattie said with a grin, shucking his winter gear and hanging it on the hooks by the fireplace to dry. He helped himself to the soup hanging over the fire, the jug of cider still on the table. Cornelius closed his book and put it away on the bookshelf on the wall opposite the door, where he also had cabinets, a work table, and various implements related to his magical studies. Next to the worktable was the door that led the greenroom. Opposite the fireplace were the doors that led to his bedroom and a storeroom. And high above was the loft area where he had a spare bed for the odd stray goat or two that always came wandering over eventually.
Though not usually in a snow storm. Pouring himself some cider, Cornelius sat down and gave them a stern look. “I hope you both appreciate how easily you could have died, wandering out this way in a blinding storm.”
“Your magic wouldn’t let us fall,” Billie said in a tone of voice that said he was disappointed in Cornelius for forgetting this fact.
Cornelius glared. “My magic isn’t infallible, and it doesn’t protect the whole stretch. You could have wandered far enough off course to tip right over.”
“But we didn’t.”
“Be quiet and eat your soup,” Cornelius replied, shooting a quelling look at Mattie, who had not been quite quick enough to hide a grin. “Even if your brother was coming back tomorrow, he’s probably been slowed down by the weather and will be a few days late.”
“Nuh-uh,” Billie said, scowling and thumping his little fist on the table. “He promised he would be back tomorrow! Robbie always keeps his promises.”
“Then I’m sure he will.” Cornelius drank his cider, but it only made the knot in his stomach worse. What was he going to do when Robbie didn’t come back? Three years and he still sent his brothers letters…
Cornelius’s mother had started off writing him letters, promises she would return soon, later that she would come and fetch him and they could live together in the city. But gradually those promises had faded off, and he’d stopped asking her when she was coming. Eventually she’d stopped writing altogether. Last he’d heard from the townspeople who occasionally went to the city, she’d been doing well for herself working in a tavern.
At least his father had been courteous enough to leave while Cornelius was a baby.
Robbie had sent him a few letters at the beginning. Six in total, which Cornelius had tucked into the back of his favorite book. He’d never replied to any of them; what was the point? Eventually Robbie would give up the farce and fade away, one more person happy to leave their little village behind.
More than once Cornelius had thought of leaving, too, but he liked his home even with the gossipy villagers. He was tied to the land, connected to it as only he could be.
“There’s plenty of soup,” he said when he saw Mattie eyeing the stove where the soup softly bubbled. “I made it with greedy goats in mind.”
“You’re the best, Troll Lord.” Mattie grinned and refilled his bowl.
Cornelius shrugged, smiled faintly. Mattie and Billie were the only ones who could make him smile. Even if he had wanted to leave the village, he never could have left them. Robbie had proven a disappointment, but Mattie and Billie were still dear. If they someday left… well, he would face that when he had to and not a moment sooner. “I’m pretty sure a good Troll Lord would eat the goats, not feed them. But you look too stringy to be good eating.”
Billie, as always, found this comment worthy of a giggle fit that nearly sent him tumbling out of a chair.
Before Cornelius could say anything more, however, the bell above the door began to ring. Cornelius cast it an exasperated look. “Who in the world could that be? If it’s Myron or one of his ilk, I’m going to turn them into frogs.”
That sent Billie into a fresh giggle fit; Mattie just grinned over the edge of the bowl he was practically licking.
Heaving to his feet, drawing on his winter gear yet again, Cornelius admonished them to stay where they were and once more trekked out into the snow.
The snow had lightened ever so slightly, but dark had settled firmly into place. “Who goes there, trip-trapping over my bridge?”
“An old, scraggly goat hoping he won’t be thrown into the river,” rumbled a deep, familiar voice.
Cornelius’s breath hitched. “It can’t…” He trailed off as Robbie came into view. Dark-haired, green-eyed, big and beautiful… and home. “You—you came back.”
The playful smile on Robbie’s face faded, leaving only worry, sadness. “I’m sorry, Cornelius. I know… I didn’t want to leave my brothers, and I didn’t want to leave you. But I did come back, and I am home to stay.” He lifted a hand, fingertips just barely touching Cornelius’s cheek, leather gloves cold. “I missed you every single day. I tried to write, but you didn’t reply. I thought maybe you preferred to be left alone. But I… is it too soon to ask for a second chance? I never wanted to leave you, I swear it.”
“You…” Cornelius reached out, fisted a hand in the heavy fabric of Robbie’s coat, then leaned his forehead against Robbie’s chest. “You came back.”
Making a soft, indecipherable noise, Robbie wrapped his heavy arms around Cornelius and hugged him tight. “How could I not come back to my Troll Lord? I have it on good authority it’s bad form to anger a wood sprite, especially one you’re in love with.”
Cornelius’s breath seized again, eyes blurring. He drew back just enough to look up—and up—and say, “Stupid goat.”
“Well, no one ever accused wood sprites of having good taste,” Robbie replied, then slowly, gently, cupped his face and bent to take Cornelius’s mouth. The heavy, aching knot in Cornelius’s stomach slowly unwound and fell away as Robbie kissed him. Despite the years that had passed, the memory of a few shy, stolen kisses and a single night in a grassy field had not faded.
Drawing back, smile bright and warm, Robbie traced the lines of his face. “Do you know how badly I’ve needed to do that these past years? There were so many days I just wanted to quit and come home; if I hadn’t been bound by that work contract I might have. It’s good to be home, Cornelius. I swear I’ll never leave again.”
“You’d better not. I’ll hex you to have sores in awkward places the rest of your life.” Cornelius jabbed his stomach then reluctantly drew back. “Come on, my house is already full of goats, may as well join them.”
Robbie laughed and slung an arm across his shoulder as they left the bridge. “Every letter they sent me, they spent mostly talking about you. Troll Lord this, Troll Lord that, oh, yeah, we love you Big Brother, oh! Cornelius did this too! I might have been jealous if I wasn’t hungry for every word about you I could get.”
“I should have written,” Cornelius said.
“Nah, I know why you were mad. How could you not be? But debts are paid, I have money aplenty saved up, and there are presents.” He stopped and kissed Cornelius again, quick but hot. “When I reached my house and saw it was dark, I had a suspicion they’d wandered this way.”
“In search of apples,” Cornelius said wryly.
Robbie laughed. “Always the apples.” It was how Cornelius and Robbie had first met, when he’d caught a boy his own age in the apple tree, stealing as many apples as he could fit in his pockets. It hadn’t taken long for the goat boys and the wood sprite, the village strays, to become friends.
The front door of Cornelius’s house opened, and Billie and Mattie came spilling out, cheering and shouting as they ran to them, launching themselves at Robbie so hard they all tumbled to the ground.
Cornelius let them roughhouse a couple of minutes, then planted his hands on his hips and said, “Inside where it’s warm, goats.” Grinning, green eyes bright and happy, the brothers followed him into the house.