Chapter 2: Magpies and Miscreants
1. Gordy's name for an exotic miracle.
2. Ashanti given name (Kwadwo) for one born on a Monday.
3. Elvish for one who bumbles into disaster with the luck of a gnacklefish.
Seventeen years passed. For their part, the villagers mostly left the Vances to their own devices. Not that there weren’t a good many of them who had laid out bets long ago on whether Gordy’s Folly—the endearing term for his fostering of the troll child—would end in ruin or not. However, much to Finnigin’s dismay, the years passed by quite uneventfully.
Kwado was a good son. He respected his parents, was polite to anyone who came by the house, and dutifully performed his chores around the farm without complaint. He was the child Gordy had always wanted, becoming a great lover of everything onion and learning many of the family’s secret pickling recipes, which had been passed down from generation to generation. In fact, if it wasn’t for the way he looked, Kwado might have become the toast of the village.
By his thirteenth year, Kwado stood taller than most others in Westfall, at six foot four inches, with arms that were slightly longer than a normal man’s, as were his fingers. He had a large hooked nose, and forest green skin that complemented his long, jet black hair, which he typically tied back when working the fields. He was fastidious at keeping his talons trimmed to neat nubs that almost looked like a human’s fingernails and regularly used a buffing stone to keep the hard round callouses from growing on his chest and shoulders, just as his pa had taught him.
It was a fine summer afternoon on the twelfth of Aprilis, and Kwado was out working the walla-walla field all alone, keeping the sun out of his eyes with a wide-brimmed straw hat. He was digging a row for a new crop to be sowed when a large white-bellied magpie came flapping down to perch on one of the wooden fence posts nearby.
Kwado stopped what he was doing, wiping the sweat off his brow, and tipped his hat cordially. “Well, hello there, Mr. Corvidae,” he said with a grin. “And what are we up to on this lovely afternoon?”
The magpie leaned back and opened its wings wide, displaying a fan of ivory and black like the keys of a baby grand piano. It gave two sharp caws and settled back down.
“Alright, alright,” Kwado said with a chuckle, reaching into the breast pocket of his overalls. “No need to get your feathers up. Nothing wrong with a little friendly conversation before you eat, you know?” He fished out a half-slice of crusty sesame bread and crumpled it in his palm.
The magpie leaned forward and blinked, tilting its head as it stared at his hand. Kwado rolled his eyes, spreading the crumbs over the ground, and the bird darted for them, delightfully pecking away the morsels. After it took a couple bites, the magpie looked up at him and cawed again.
“Well, that is news,” Kwado said, leaning happily on his shovel. “Where do you say they are?”
The magpie hungrily pecked a few more crumbs before responding with a half-hearted caw. Kwado grinned and pulled a bandana from his side pocket. He used it to wipe beads of sweat from his brow and turned to face the south, where a row of bushes stood on the other side of the fence, where the property bordered the Hollow Woods.
“You can come on out now,” he called.
A girl squeaked behind the bushes.
“It’s alright,” Kwado said. “I don’t bite.” He held a hand over his heart. “Scout’s honor.”
One of the bushes rustled, and a blond-haired girl in a sky-blue sun dress popped out from behind it, her cheeks red as apples. Kwado was surprised to see she looked to be about his age. Though she appeared properly embarrassed to be caught snooping, she did not let that stop her from throwing on a decent scowl. “You’re not a scout,” she said glumly. “My brother Cedric is, and he would have mentioned if you were part of the troop.”
Kwado smirked and tipped his hat. “You got me there, detective. Guess we’re both rogues, then—me a liar and you a sneak.”
The girl happily nodded at his admission of fibbing then let the rest of it sink in and crossed her arms over her chest. She glowered at him for a few seconds, trying her best to turn the tables on their encounter. Bethany was unaccustomed with being the one kept on her toes, least of all by a boy, green or otherwise. Whenever she threw on a cross face with the boys at school, they would quickly catch a case of the stutters and, even if she had been in the wrong, go out of their way to please her. Kwado, however, only leaned on his shovel and grinned.
“What’s your name?” she asked, growing uncomfortable in the silence.
“You don’t know?”
“’Course I do,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Everyone around Westfall knows about you, dummy. But it’s proper to begin a conversation with introductions.”
“Oh, well, I wouldn’t want to break decorum. My name is Kwado.”
Bethany stared at him in silence until he finally began to feel uneasy. Kwado did not have much practice speaking with girls, unless his mother’s friends counted, which they did not. After a minute of silence, she leaned her head forward and waved her hand for him to continue.
“And…?” he said, at a loss.
“Ugh, you’re supposed to ask me my name.”
“Right…I’m Kwado. And you are?”
“Bethany Pleasant, pleased to meet you.” She offered a very polite curtsy paired with a wide smile that left Kwado’s chest feeling warm and tingly. They shared a giggle, each shaking out their nerves.
“Where are your parents?” she asked.
“Pa went down to Hollyglen to pick up some more mustard seeds, and Ma is inside, probably baking a strawberry rhubarb pie, since it’s Friday.”
“You eat strawberries?” Bethany said.
“Yeah, a troll’s gotta have dessert after his brain stew and kidney omelettes, you know,” Kwado said.
Bethany opened her mouth to respond then narrowed her eyes at him shrewdly. “You’re pulling my leg, right?”
Kwado laughed. “’Course I am, but you did believe it for a second. Don’t deny it. I saw it in your eyes. That’s what you came here for anyhow, isn't it? To check out the big green monster?”
“Kinda, yeah,” Bethany said. “But you don’t need to be so cross about it.”
“No. People go their whole life trying to be unique, and here you are just made that way. I’d think you’d be a little more accommodating to a young lady’s curiosity.”
Kwado could not help smirking again. He found he could not remain angry with this odd young girl and her strange way of thinking. “Well…just so you know, I do love strawberries.”
“Really?” Bethany beamed. “Me too.”
“That’s why Ma makes the pies. She knows how much I love berries. Plus, I’m a vegetarian, so I’ve never actually tasted brain stew.”
“I didn’t think so, silly.” Bethany put her elbows on the wooden rail of the fence. “But…what’s a vegetarian?”
“It means I don’t eat meat, ‘cept that’s not entirely true because I do eat eggs and drink yak’s milk.”
Bethany stuck out her tongue in disgust. “No meat… like, ever?”
He shook his head.
“Yuck. I can’t imagine a life without meatballs and fried chicken. How do you live without them?”
“I dunno.” Kwado shrugged. “Pa’s always been pretty opposed to me eating meat. Says if I taste it, I might turn into one of them bad trolls everyone’s always worried I’ll become. It always seemed pretty dumb to me, but I don’t argue about it, ‘cause there’s plenty of good stuff to eat around the house anyhow.”
Bethany looked like she had just swallowed a crow. It took Kwado a moment to work out that she felt guilty about something he had said. Most likely she was one of the people who had wondered if he would one day up and turn into a crazed flesh-eating monster.
She stared unabashedly at him in a way that made him begin to feel uncomfortable. After all these years, Kwado had learned how to deal with the judgmental glare of strangers, the upturned noses or looks of pity for his parents. However, the way Bethany stared at him was a different thing altogether. This girl was not morbidly fascinated or disgusted that he was allowed to live in her village. She was not scared of him or in awe of the local monster. Her look was something else, a gleam of sunlight reflected in her pale blue eyes that hinted at an interest far deeper than any of these. While he found having a real conversation with someone other than his parents exhilarating, he also felt unnerved, more so once he realized they had been standing in silence staring at each other for a few minutes.
“So, um, Bethany…what were you doing snooping around in my bushes?”
Bethany’s eyebrows knit close together and she threw on a pout.
“I mean…why are you…er, this isn’t coming out right. Was there something you wanted to ask me?”
Bethany thought about it a moment then nodded slowly.
“Go ahead, shoot.”
“Where are your claws?” she said. “Trolls are supposed to have long claws they use to attack people.”
“Pa makes me keep them filed down,” Kwado said. “Otherwise I end up scratching myself pretty easy. Also, he says it’s a good way to make people feel at ease when they come by the farm.”
“That makes sense,” Bethany said. “Do you guys get a lot of visitors?”
“How come you don’t come to school with us?”
The brightness faded from Kwado’s eyes. “School is for normal boys and girls. Trolls aren’t allowed.”
Kwado shrugged. “That’s just the way it is.”
“Because it is.”
“Well, the way it is is dumb,” Bethany said.
Kwado quickly looked around in alarm. “You shouldn’t speak like that. Pa wouldn’t be happy to hear that kind of talk.”
“Just because someone doesn’t want to hear the truth doesn’t mean it has any less weight,” Bethany said.
Kwado shook his head. “Pa’s right in this. You don’t know how people act around me, the way they look when we go by, the whispers.... If I went to school, it would only cause problems. Best for me to stay here and work my onions in peace.”
Bethany snickered. “The only thing folk might be whispering about is that ridiculous hat.”
Kwado pulled his hat down to his chest and clutched it with a frown. “Hey.”
Bethany giggled and rolled her eyes. “I mean…the only person stopping you from doing ordinary things is yourself.”
“Easy for you to say,” Kwado said. “You’re pretty and easy to talk to. I bet everybody likes you. But just because you’re nice to me doesn’t mean any of your friends would be.”
Bethany snapped her fingers and pointed at him, leaning over the fence with her tiptoes on the bottom slat of wood. “And that’s where you’re wrong once again!” She fished in the folds of her dress and produced a small folded piece of parchment. She dangled it in the air until he took it from her.
Kwado unfolded the paper. It was a flyer he had seen before. His frown deepened. “The Summer Festival?” he asked, certain this was some cruel joke.
“That’s what I’m here for,” Bethany said. “A bunch of us at school want you to come down this weekend.”
Kwado read the flyer again and then studied her. Bethany looked quite pleased with herself, as if she had just performed a great act of kindness. “Go away,” he groaned. “I don’t need your charity.”
Bethany’s mirth dissolved in a flash. “Don’t be a twit,” she snapped, disarming him. “No one’s here for charity. We just think it’s high time you stop hiding out at your family’s farm and come join the rest of the world.”
“Absolutely,” Bethany said, her voice a little kinder.
Kwado took a step forward and pressed the flyer back into her hand. Her fingers closed around his and she smiled, looking deeply into his eyes. He paused, his resolve melting as he looked down at her. Could she be genuine?
“You get away from her, you filthy monster!”
Kwado looked down the country lane to see Old Man Finnigin approaching them and let out a low groan. Finnigin stopped by daily to deliver a few insults, usually after knocking back a few pints at the pub. It was a ritual Kwado could go the rest of his life without. Bethany hopped down from the fence as the old man approached.
“Why are you out here, girlie?” Finnigin snarled. “Come to get a look at the freak show?”
Bethany folded her arms over her chest and put on her best look of contempt. “Uncle Finnigin, are you drunk already? It’s only three o’clock.”
Kwado could not comprehend how this amazing girl could be related to such a despicable man. Try as he might, he could not see any resemblance between them.
“Bah, watch your mouth, girlie,” Finnigin said, making like he might backhand her. Bethany jumped back like a little pixie and giggled at him. “Get off with you before I tell yer daddy ye been down here making time with the troll.”
She stuck her tongue out at Finnigin and quickly darted back into the woods toward her house, stopping at the edge of the trees to look over her shoulder. “Think about what I said, Kwado! Hopefully I’ll see you at the festival tonight!”
Finnigin’s cheeks puffed up and his ears turned vermillion at the statement. He looked fit to burst, seething as Bethany pranced off into the woods, leaving a throbbing vein in the center of her uncle’s forehead. “Wipe that foolish grin off your face, you cur.”
Kwado had not even realized he was smiling from ear to ear at Bethany. He frowned and bowed to Finnigin. “Sorry, sir.”
“Don’t you sir me.” Finnigin scowled. “Trying to put on airs like you’re not some freak what don’t belong among honest folk. And don’t you even be thinking for a second about taking up my niece on that offer.”
“Why not?” Kwado asked, feeling a bit of fire in his face.
Finnigin bit his fist and leaned over the fence. Except where Bethany made the act look playful, he gripped the wooden slat as if he wanted to break it and ram the shards into Kwado's throat. His eyes were cold and hard. “Listen to me, troll. As if it’s not bad enough this village has to be sullied by your presence, the last thing these folk need is to have to look at your hideous face while trying to make their merriment. The Summer Festival is a time to rejoice for all hardworking Westfallers, not a place for freeloading monsters to ogle innocent girls and sully their reputations.”
“Well, when you put it like that, it sounds so fun I don’t know how I could resist,” Kwado said dryly.
“Always Mr. Funny Guy.” Finnigin sneered and plucked a dagger from his belt, tilting the blade so the sunlight reflected in Kwado’s eyes. “Go ahead and be funny, troll. I’m dying for the punchline. But know this, if you so much as step foot near the festival tonight, I’ll skin you like a rabbit.”