Hello again. I'm back in the saddle after a dry spell of oh lord, eight or nine months.

Feedback is always spectacular! And now:

The March Stepper
Chapter One

Once upon a time there was a girl who loved stories more than she loved life.

It didn't matter much to her what the stories were about, as long as they were comic or startling or sad. A saint's biography would send her swooning into the sackclothed arms of the Church and she would be a good Christian girl until she got distracted and slipped back into casual paganism. A tragic king's history would have her moping around the cottage dressed all in black and eying her father's sword meaningfully until he gave her a taste of his belt across her rear for not doing her chores and sent her out back to milk the cows.

For there was never much time for stories in Dyfed's most fertile freehold, and even with seven brothers and two uncles toiling all day in the rolling fields the sun never seemed to set on a farm without leaving a dozen tasks undone. That was agriculture, of course, but she was too young to have realized it. It seemed to her that if the farm was being run properly they would have finished ages and ages ago.

She was pondering this one clammy morning as she herded the kine to pasture. Three dozen sets of delicate hooves tapped their way across the bridge, which was a slender span of flagstones anchored on either side of a cavernous gorge, a good three rods long. The river below churned briskly along fast enough that if you were to drop a branch off the upstream side it would come out of the other end no more than a heartbeat later, or three heartbeats if it had been a dry summer and the river was poorly. She had spent weeks testing this. Sometimes by the time she got home the sun was halfway up the sky and the sheep had a look in their eye that said that they were just about hungry enough to make a run at the cows. That was good for another beating from her frustrated father, who was beginning to suspect that the beatings were not doing either of them a lick of good, mostly because he sometimes suspected that she was thinking about something else during them.

The best branches were nice thick boughs from the yew trees that grew in the churchyards, with or without foliage- she'd tried both. The best place to drop them was just about two thirds of the way across the bridge, where the current was strongest. The best days to drop branches were windless, cloudy, and cool. Today would have been perfect except that just about two thirds of the way across the bridge there appeared to be fingers clamped over the edge. She gave them a cautious prod with the bough.

The fingers tensed. Then they pulled. And the Troll came up.

Well, everyone knew that there was a troll under the bridge- a Troll, even. Some of the more superstitious farmers were known to kick a sheep off the side just before they crossed to distract it. She had always known that it was there. But knowing something was there was quite different from seeing it in the knotty, blue-green flesh.

It was fantastically ugly, with long skinny arms that hung down to its knees and oily hair worming down its back. Its eyes were black as coal, big as eggs and so wet it looked as if it was about to cry. Its nose was blunt and outthrust as an old hatchet, bulbous like a tuber, and overhung a broad mouth with fleshy lips and snaggle teeth.

It was seven feet tall. She had to crane her neck a bit to get a good look at it.

"Hullo," said the Troll.

Now, the girl was not very polite in her day to day life, but her mother had taught her the essentials of genteel conversation before she had died and so she knew quite well what to do when someone said 'hullo'. But her training in etiquette hadn't prepared her for trolls and so she threw four thousand years of human development in the field of social graces to the winds and said exactly what she was thinking.

"I should think," she said, "that the sheep would be frightened of you."

For the flock was still milling woolily about on the flat cobbles, more impatient than terrified. The Troll considered this for a moment.

"Nah," he (he?) said finally. "Sheep know I'm not interested in them. Didn't your mum tell you that trolls only ever eat things wot have names?"

"My mother is dead," said the girl. "I'm afraid she died in childbirth and never had a chance to tell my papa what she was going to call me. Didn't your mum ever tell you that real people can only get their names from their mothers?"

(The first part was true, but the second part- about her mother dying in childbirth- was a white lie. She had died only a few years ago and in any case it's quite hard to pass on the essentials of genteel conversation in the womb. If children were born knowing what it means to be an adult they would be a good deal less interesting than they are already.)

"Nah," said the Troll. "I never had a mum."

And just like that, they had something in common. The Troll grinned.

"So you got no name? Shame. Can't eat you if you don't have a name."

"Why?" asked the girl. "Not that I have any reason to be worried, you understand. I'm just curious."

"'s the rules," said the Troll, and sat down on the bridge. The process took quite a bit of time and seemed to involve more joints than a biped should be able to have. He unfolded a fistful of gnarled fingers and began ticking off the points one by one on them.

"The first rule is you got to live under a bridge," he said. "That one's important, 'cos- well, it's important, all right? The second rule is you can't eat anything that doesn't have a name. The third rule is you die if you ever meet a wild hart."

"What if you never meet a wild hart?" asked the girl. By this point she was sitting on the bridge herself with her legs splayed out across the cobbles, her arms braced behind her, and the expression of rapt attention that never failed to make the village priest uncomfortable.

"Oh, that's easy," said the Troll. "You live forever. But it's bloody hard to avoid the wild hart in England."

The girl thought about this for a moment. "So you've lived for-"

"Three hundred an' fifty years, give or take," said the Troll. "The best bit was the Roman invasion, see, 'cos they built me bridge. Used to be soldiers trip-trapping over me bridge two, three centuries at a time. And of course there's nothing like a Roman- nice and juicy with a bit of meat on 'em. Why, I could go for a Roman right now. It's bloody unfair, you not having a name and all. I'm hungry."

"If you can't eat things that don't have names," asked the girl, to change the subject, "then what happens to the sheep people kick over the side?"

"Most of 'em drown in the river, poor buggers," said the Troll, a trifle sadly. "'cos I don't have room for 'em under the bridge, see, an' I can't give 'em away. Not to trolls, at least, on account of trolls don't trade in livestock."

"What do trolls trade in?" wondered the girl.

"Oh, that's another easy one," said the Troll, pleased. "Trolls trade in stories.

And that was when the girl fell in love.