The Toll

To @RealBrigang’s Prompt
There was only one road through the Black Forest, and the Forest, standing between a cliff an a desolation, was the only route between Rondval and Alathaca, the two biggest cities in the West.

Of course, someone had gotten the clever idea to set up a toll booth across the road in the middle of the Forest.

And of course Lute and the Riders needed to get to Alathaca.

“All right. You know the drill.”

“Let you do the talking. If we have something to provide, step forward and wait to be acknowledged.” Mariam’s tone was bored irritated. Lute didn’t mind. She would do what was needed.

“That. Everyone else?”

“Got it.” Tom and Robin chorused. Torvan, of course, said nothing.

The toll booth was a stone house, arching over the road into the forest on both sides, leaving a narrow tunnel just wide enough for a wagon; the tunnel, in turn, was blocked with three heavy gates. There was no rushing this toll bar.

Lute rode to the gate and pulled the bell-cord. Travelers from Alathaca had told them this was how it worked: You rang the bell, you paid your toll, you went through and didn’t look back.

But nobody had told them what the toll was. Nobody was willing to answer that simple question.

“How many in your party?” The voice was bored-sounding and disembodied.

“Five sentient beings and five horses. What is the toll?”

“All will pass through the tunnel.”

“What is the toll?”

“All will pass through the tunnel.”


The voice laughed. “Or all will stay.”

They really had to get to Alathaca.

“We’ll go through.”

“Yes, you will.” The body laughed again. “And I will take my fee.”

The gate opened and Lute rode in, followed quickly by the Riders. They really had to get to Alathaca. Preferably before the constable of Rondval noticed they were gone

“So what’s the fee?” The gate ahead of them hadn’t opened yet and the gate behind them was swinging closed. There wasn’t enough room to turn their horses, barely enough room to move.

“Ten years.”

“Ten, what?” For a moment, Lute thought they’d ridden into a constable’s trap. And then everything began vanishing from around them.

“Ten years. There are five of you. You will serve two years each”

“Serve!” There was no way out. Lute looked around him, but even the nothingness vanished.

“Have no fear. You will return to the same time as you left. But you will serve.”

Mocking laughter chased the into unconsciousness.

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