© 2017 by D. M Almond's Gnome Brigade. (because they have nothing better to do than cater to our readers)

Trollin'

Chapter 4: Troll Meets World

Wind broke through the hollow trees at Agamon’s back, sending his black robes fluttering in front of him like the wings of the crow that passed by overhead. He watched it with beady black eyes and curled his lip. Spies…everywhere I go, more spies.

It had been two years since his exile from the Order of Serapis, and still those hacks, wizards and sorceresses alike, deigned to have their vast network of familiars keep tabs on his every move. Well, not tonight. This pilgrimage was special, a secret that needed keeping a while longer. His hand slipped out of the wide sleeve of his robes like a white serpent licking the sky with clawed fingers. There was movement around the fingers, a shimmer of air sliding like steam from a boiling cauldron, and then something spit forth into the air. It appeared to be an arrow at first but quickly unfurled into leathery wings and a sharp hooked beak. The nighthawk silently raced after the crow, and Agamon turned away, confident that his phantasm would make short work of the Order’s spy.

“Please have a mercy,” Billy O’Finly pleaded. One of the bandits in Agamon’s employ had a firm grip on the pathetic man’s collar, bunching it in a knot to choke off his air.

“Aw, the little pup wants to have it easy, Fek,” the bandit named Oarl said. Fek cackled toothlessly at Billy’s squirming.

 

Agamon rolled his eyes. These men were a droll lot, predictable to the core. What started as a commission of five bandits had quickly grown in size, compounding their numbers with each bordello and halfway house they passed, until now they numbered closer to twenty. They were human, every last one, and had perhaps a handful of brain cells to go around. Their odor was so detestable that Agamon had to cast a warding spell over his nose just to travel with them.

However, it was not fair looks and rosy aromas that he needed from the simpletons. What Agamon needed above all else was unquestioning loyalty and enough brute strength to drive his caravan further north. The former was easy enough to contrive with mental suggestions spurned by alchemical concoctions, and he had found ages ago that plying the strongest among fools would ensure the rest followed.

Twenty able-bodied bandits under his charge moved through the Malakar Kingdom like a knife in the dark. Through every haunted wood and cursed marshland they travelled, undetected and unmatched. He snorted. It was no wonder the Order’s spies were out in full force. The fools must surely be clamoring over themselves to figure out what he was up to so they could report to King Necian.

Oarl heard his snort and grew stiff. With his hand still clutching Billy’s collar, he peered over his shoulder. “What’s that now, yer liege?”

Agamon winced. The very idea that he had to speak with such filth grated against his being. He choked down the bile in his throat and threw on a false smile, cold and mirthless. “I said, where was it you scrounged up this little toad of a man?”

“Was in the woods, yer liege,” Oarl said. “Found the bugger snooping around our camp.”

“No, I—” Billy’s words turned to a gurgle as the brute applied more pressure to his throat.

Agamon waved his hand in the air dismissively. “Let the toad speak.”

Oarl shook Billy like a ragdoll. “You heard the man, speak up when you’re told to!”

Billy’s eyes shook in his head and he gasped for air as Oarl loosened his grip. He clutched his throat and coughed, trying to find his voice again. “No…sir…I was n-not sneaking on your camp. J-just heading t-to Dugenfel for a hand of cards with the sh-sh-sheriff.”

“And you just happened to stray this far from the main road, if you can call that dirt trail such?” Agamon mused.

Oarl and every other bandit turned back toward Billy, like they were all one beast with one head. Agamon groaned to think this was the beginning of the army he would amass to reach the crystal throne far to the north, that coveted seat of power that would channel the energies of Xatalon, the lost god.

Billy still clutched his neck, clawing fingers trying to free a few more inches between his skin and the tightening collar in Oral’s hand. He cleared his throat with a wince. “It’s not like you think, good sirs,” he said. “Was on the road when I heard your companion here crying for help. I was only trying to assist a fellow man.”

Fek displayed a gummy grin to a round of jeers and laughter. Agamon frowned at him. “What?” Fek asked innocently. “No harm in a little late night hunting, is there?”

All heads swiveled to Agamon again. He wanted to wipe those dopey-eyed expressions clean with balefire, but like it or not, he needed these bottom feeders if he was to claim the power waiting for him. And he would need every last drop of it to eliminate that double-crossing fiend, King Necian. “None at all, Fek,” he said, each word like a razor scraping across his tongue.

The bandits cheered again, fists and wineskins raised to the air. If there was one thing they loved, it was Agamon’s approval of their debauchery. And who was he to stop Fek from luring a traveler from the road? They had certainly done worse in their travels thus far.

This is what I’m reduced to, he thought with bile rising in his throat again. The memory of satin pillows and concubines teased at the edge of his thoughts. All that they have robbed me of... They can steal away my valuables, my harem, my collection of magical relics, even my sanctum magnus, but not my power. No, never that. And it was not for lack of trying, either. The traitors had turned on him, seizing his manse and all that came with it, citing his explorations into the shadow arts, of all things. After all he had done for the king, all he had been tricked to do by that tyrant, and he was the one they were calling evil?

But when they came for the source of his power, when they came to strip his rites away and leave him an empty shell, no more of a man than the common rabble, it was then they had realized their error.

Agamon wished he could have seen their faces when they entered his sanctum and found him already gone. The fools. They thought themselves so very clever. His palms ached to clutch the armrests of the crystal throne. Once he had it…once he wielded Xatalon’s power…

“…yer liege?” Oarl said.

Agamon blinked, realizing it was the fifth time the bandit had called his name. “What?” he snapped.

Oarl flinched but quickly recovered. “The prisoner, yer liege... what should we do with him?”

Billy locked pleading eyes with him. Agamon felt sorry for the poor bastard and his ill luck at stumbling into one of the bandits’ traps. There was a time when he would have gone out of his way to rescue such a hostage, but those days were over. This was his path now.

“Where was it you said you were coming from again?” Agamon said.

“Westfall, sir,” Billy spit out all too quickly and eager to please.

“Never heard of it.”

“Oh, it’s just a wee place, sir,” Billy said, mistaking Agamon’s derision for interest. “We grow the best onions in the kingdom, you know.”

“Hmm…I do like a good onion from time to time,” Agamon mused. “Where is this village of yours, this Westfall?”

“Just north of here, sir,” Billy said obediently.

Agamon rubbed his lower lip thoughtfully, turning away from them.

“Yer liege?” Oarl asked.

Agamon waved a hand without bothering to look back. “Yes, yes, do as you must.”

Billy tried to cry out, but Oarl’s dagger buried itself to the hilt in his left eye. The men hooted and one laughed so hard at the look on Billy’s face when he had been struck that ale came out his nose. Oarl let the dead man drop, and Fek kicked the body while another relieved himself on it.

Something shifted in the brush to Agamon’s right, and he snapped his head in that direction. He studied the line of trees in front of him, his gaze penetrating the shadows. Nothing seemed out of place, just thick thorny brush between a pair of pines. Nothing remarkable.

He smirked and spoke loudly enough to be heard over the rabble-rousers. “Break camp, men. Tonight we make a wedge for the northern expanse. Come to think of it, this Westfall sounds like a fine place to resupply for our longer journey.”

The men cheered, understanding the implications only too well. As Agamon predicted, a man gasped behind the brush and fell backward.

Agamon pointed a crooked finger at the stunned man, who, unlike his companions, he could see clear as day through the shadows. “Ah, it seems we have another spy!”

Even as the spy found his feet and sped away into the forest, arrows were whizzing through the branches after him. One struck him hard enough in the shoulder to bowl him over. Agamon casually trailed after his overeager executioners, who crowded around the spot where the man had gone down. Agamon broke through their ranks to find Fek staring at a pool of blood in the dirt.

Agamon looked in either direction, searching the woods for the spy. He clutched Oarl’s arm with icy fingers that made the bandit shudder. “Spread your men out and get the intruder. He cannot warn that village!”


**********************

 

Kwado felt like he was trapped in a wool coffin, or one of those costumes the children wore on Saints Eve. His ma had tailored the suit two years before in anticipation of such an event. With each step up the lane, his pant legs rubbed together, chafing his thighs and making his knees itch uncomfortably, but he maintained his posture all the same. His mother walked beside him, her arm crooked in his own as if it was he who escorted her to the dance and not vice versa. However, the truth was he could not be more petrified, and the only thing keeping him steady was his mother’s comforting arm.

He could not take his eyes off the cottages and shops they passed. Each familiar façade seemed to have taken on a new likeness under cover of night, even in the rising light of the full moon. He had never seen the village after dark, and certainly never without his pa. Kwado felt guilty to think Pa would come home and find them gone, despite his ma’s reassurance to the contrary.

As they came around the bend on Clover Lane, past Nigel’s Bakery on the left and Jasper’s Common Goods on the right, the sound of laughter spilled down the hill. Kwado paused, yanking his mother back through the simple act of standing still. He stared anxiously up the sloped dirt road. A handful of villagers stood outside the Barn, the building Westfall used as a meeting hall. They were smoking pipes and chatting about their week. The smoky scent of clovers and sweet musk tickled his nose even from there. Beyond them, inside the Barn, came the muffled sounds of merriment and a band playing.

Magatha rubbed his arm. “Take a deep breath and keep moving, son.”

Kwado nodded and let her lead him up the hill. The closer they got, the straighter he tried to stand, holding his posture in exactly the way his mother had taught him.

A pair of men engaged in a vivacious debate as they approached. One of them got an eyeful of Kwado over his friend’s shoulder, and the toothpick he had been chewing on fell out of his mouth. Kwado squirmed when the man’s friend turned and put on a strikingly similar pose, except his mouth held no toothpick, only brandy that sputtered down his coarse red beard. Magatha was moving faster now, rushing toward the barn door, and Kwado found it hard to keep up with her.

A figure stepped out in their path. “Whoa, hold up now, Mrs. Magatha. Where do you think you’re going?” It was Jasper, the village grocer. He held up a hand to ward them off and nervously checked over his shoulder.

Slowly the rest of the villagers outside the Barn fell silent. Kwado could feel their eyes on him. One of the men, whom he did not recognize, quickly slipped inside the Barn. A momentary release of the sounds of revelry flooded the lane then was cut off again as the doors closed.

Kwado froze in place and averted his gaze, but his mother scowled and grumbled to herself about nothing ever being easy. She cleared her throat and threw on her best country smile. “Well, evening to you too, Jasper,” she said. “Me and the boy fancied a spell of dancing and good ole-fashioned neighborly fun to get us through the evening. Now, if you would be so kind?” She moved to walk around the grocer.

Jasper quickly blocked her path again, anxiously looking this way and that. He leaned forward and spoke earnestly. “Magatha, please be reasonable. Finnigin’s about, and you know he ain’t going to take kindly to the troll being here.”

“Is that a threat?” Magatha asked candidly.

“What? No!” Jasper blanched. “It’s just…you know you can’t be here.”

“This is the Westfall Summer Festival, isn’t it?” Magatha said.

“Of course it is,” Jasper groaned.

“Last I checked, me and my family have been living in Westfall all these long years. So it stands to reason we can go anywhere we damn well please.”

“Please, Mrs. Magatha,” Jasper said. “Be reasonable.”

“You keep saying that, yet you’re acting like a fool,” Magatha said.

The Barn doors opened again, a stream of fiddling and accordion music breaking into their conversation. Finnigin stepped crookedly out of the Barn, followed by the man who had run in moments before.

Kwado felt his stomach do a flop. “Maybe we should just go, Ma,” he said softly. The whole idea to come there in the first place suddenly seemed very stupid.

Magatha ignored him, stepping in front of her son and squaring off with Finnigin. “Evening, Finny,” she said.

Finnigin scowled. “Ain’t no one call me that no more, Maggie.” He nodded to Kwado. “What’s that thing doing out of its cage?”

“Accompanying an old woman to the Summer Festival is what,” Magatha said. She grabbed Kwado’s hand and tugged him after her, but Finnigin slapped his hand down, breaking their grip.

“Barn ain’t no place for no monsters,” he snarled and leaned in close to Kwado. His breath was sour, all onions and cheap whiskey. “Told you what’d happen if you wandered down here, troll. Guess you need the live demonstration, huh?” He lifted his hand so Kwado could see the knife he had pulled from his belt.

“Finny…,” Magatha said.

Finnigin turned to scowl at her. “Damnit, woman, I done told you nobody—”

His reprimand ended in a wheezing ulation as Magatha brought her knee up hard between Finnigin’s thighs. The knife fell to the dirt and Finnigin grasped his groin, dropping to his knees. At that level, he was only slightly shorter than Magatha, a good angle for the sharp backhand she delivered to his face. Jasper winced and a couple of the men laughed.

“Guess you forgot what happened when you messed with me in the third grade, eh, Finny?” Magatha said. “I’ll tell you what, you pull that knife in my presence again, and it’ll be more than my foot that ends up in your god-given parts. You understand me?”

Finnigin let out a wheezing sound and tried to nod, but it was more like a jerking spasm that sent him spilling sideways into his friend.

Magatha turned away and put her arm out for her son to escort her inside. Kwado could not wipe the shock from his face but dutifully accepted. A pair of villagers quickly moved out of her way just as the mayor and a blond-haired boy opened the Barn doors.

The mayor was breathing hard when he came outside. When his eyes landed on Magatha and her son entering the building, he smiled genuinely. “Oh my goodness, Maggie. They said you were outside. My dear woman, it’s been so long…too long indeed.” He offered her a short bow and the blond boy took her jacket.

The music faltered and there was a stir among the villagers at the new arrivals.

“Why, thank you, Mayor,” she said courteously.

“I hope you had no trouble getting here,” Mayor Barth said.

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Magatha replied.

The mayor cocked a brow and peered over her shoulder outside. His eyes widened when he saw Finnigin being dragged past the entrance by his friends, toward the back of the Barn. Mayor Barth burst out laughing. “I see nothing has changed. Still full of piss and vinegar.”

The band began to play again. It was Magatha’s turn to bow. “Only when occasion calls for it.”

“Kwado?” the boy beside Mayor Barth said.

One look at him told Kwado they were roughly the same age. The similarities ended there. Where Kwado was a pariah, this boy was the absolute image of perfection, the dream of every mother. He was all that a young man should be—neatly groomed blond hair, chiseled features with a hard jaw and perfect smile. He was tall for a human and built like an ox. Kwado instantly hated him. He wished he could be him.

“Yes?” Kwado said.

The boy held out his hand. “It’s so great to finally meet you. I’m Sebastian.”

Kwado shook the boy’s hand.

“We’re all so happy you were able to make it out tonight.”

In that moment Kwado realized two things. Firstly, this boy was just as nervous to meet him as he was to meet them. Secondly, he was actually happy to have Kwado there. “I’m not sure everyone shares your enthusiasm,” Kwado said, “but thank you all the same.”

Sebastian followed his gaze. Though the music had resumed, a good many eyes were still on them, and there was no shortage of distrust and revulsion among them. Sebastian’s smile never faltered as he scanned those faces. “Oh, don’t mind them. They’re just not used to folk who are different.”

“And you are?” Kwado said.

Sebastian shot him a disarming smile and directed his gaze to his ankle. He hiked up his pants, revealing a wooden peg where his lower leg should have been. Kwado bit back a gasp, not wanting to insult the boy. So that was why Sebastian was so kind to him. He was himself a misfit of the village.

“Kwado!” Bethany shouted, breaking free from a group of teenagers in the corner of the Barn. She ran past the couples dancing in the center circle.

Some of the other teens followed her, and soon Kwado was surrounded by them. He looked from face to face and alternated between smiling foolishly and looking for his mother.

“You came!” Bethany said. “I knew you would. See, Sebastian, you doubted me, but here he is!”

“I never doubted you for a moment,” Sebastian said with a laugh.

“Come on, you have to meet everyone else!” Bethany said.

Kwado turned to his ma as Bethany tried to pull him deeper into the swell of excited teenagers. Magatha stood beside the mayor, both of them beaming proudly at the younger generation of Westfallers. She nodded and waved for him to follow the kids. With her blessing, Kwado threw himself wholeheartedly into the whirlwind that was Bethany.

Within five minutes he had been introduced to at least a dozen other kids his age, each of them thrilled to meet him, a real live troll, and overflowing with questions.

“What’s it like being green?”

“As opposed to what?” Kwado asked.

“Do trolls really eat babies?”

“Absolutely. I love baby watermelon in the summer and baby squash in the fall,” he said.

“How come you never leave your farm?”

“Is it true they keep you locked up in a cage and won’t let you leave?”

Kwado frowned. “Only when I’ve been a bad boy.”

The group fell silent. He laughed and received several slaps to his arms.

“Okay, guys,” Bethany said, “that’s enough. Can’t you see we’re smothering him? Kwado, it’s your turn…do you have anything you want to ask us?”

He hesitated for a moment. “Why are you all being so nice to me? Pa always told me that people in the village hate me, and truthfully there’s never been an overabundance of kind looks from folk ‘round here.”

Bethany looked around, and he followed her gaze. “The truth is not everyone is thrilled with you being here.”

Kwado felt uneasy, but he found it interesting that most of the kids looked embarrassed by the admission.

Sebastian slapped his back. “Don’t let it bother you, Kwado. Folk ‘round here are just used to the world a different way. We’ve all heard the stories about how you’re going to come and eat us one day if we’re bad. But we’re not stupid. I’ve never set foot outside of Westfall, unless you count Dugenfel, so I couldn’t exactly call myself worldly in knowledge. But it doesn’t take an idiot to see that in all these years you’ve never done much but work your parents’ farm.”

Kwado’s heart swelled and he thought he might cry. He pinched his wrist to see if this were real, certain he was about to wake up in his bed and realize it had all been a dream. He had imagined moments like these all his life, secretly hoping that one day he might find acceptance in Westfall and be allowed to live like everyone else. But never in a million years had he imagined it could happen so readily and so quickly. He felt overwhelmed.

Bethany saw the emotions playing out on his face and tugged his sleeve. “Oh! They’re playing ‘Huckle’s Stanza’! Come on, Kwado, come dance with us!”

Before he could blurt out that he had two left feet and all the rhythm of a broken drum, the group of teens ushered him out onto the dance floor. “Like this!” Sebastian said. Kwado watched as everyone fell into lines to either side and behind him. Sebastian was on his left and Bethany to his right, and they moved their feet to the beat of the band’s drums. Left foot forward, left foot back, right foot forward, right foot kick and scream, then they spun to face the other direction. Kwado was a quick study, though not very elegant, and stiffly mirrored their movements.

Dancing felt wonderful. He felt as if his entire being were smiling and laughing along with the crowd of teens. Soon even the grumpiest villager joined in, until it felt like the whole of Westfall was around him, clapping their hands and tapping their feet in time.

It was the best moment of his life.

The Barn doors flung open, letting in a shrill wind, and the fiddler’s bow twisted sideways, catching on the bridge with a shrieking note that stung Kwado’s ears. When the echo of it died down, Kwado and all in attendance could hear the braying of dogs outside the Barn. It sounded like every hound in the village was at it. Someone shouted, and Kwado saw his father at the door, pale and sweating as he stumbled into the Barn, clutching his bleeding arm. A few steps inside, he collapsed to the floor.

A great commotion ran through the gathering as a wide circle formed around Gordy. Kwado pushed through the press of villagers to his pa’s side. He gasped when he saw the bloody shaft of an arrow sticking out the back of his pa’s shoulder and another through his right leg.

Magatha was already on the floor beside her husband. She shouted for a doctor and everyone fell silent, a collective of held breath. The only person Westfall had even remotely similar to a proper physician was Erma, the village vet. While she was more than capable of handling the odd stitch or head cold that sprang up from time to time, Gordy’s wounds looked grave.

The gathering parted so Erma could squeeze through, and Kwado moved out of the way as she knelt beside his father. She lifted Gordy’s hand, feeling around his wrist for a pulse. Kwado heard someone whisper that having blood spilt in the middle of the festival was a dark omen. He could feel more than one eye aimed in his direction at the proclamation.

Erma nodded and gently pulled Gordy’s other hand away from the arrow in his shoulder. As soon as he let go, a fount of blood spouted from the wound. Erma’s face turned a sickly shade of yellow, and one of the men nearby swooned at the sight, forcing several villagers to brace him before he fell and hurt his head. Erma quickly pressed Gordy’s hand back over the open wound.

“Keep pressure on that,” she said to Magatha. Her face was grave as she scanned the villagers surrounding them. “Someone fetch me some clean cloths and a sewing bag,” she shouted. “And grab some whiskey while you’re at it.”

Two younger boys hurried out of the Barn to procure the supplies.

“We have to run!” Gordy yelled, startling everyone around him. His eyes were filled with crazed vigor as he fought to sit upright. It took Erma and two others to hold him down on his side long enough for him to calm down. Seeing his father like this, the normally stoic man who had an answer for all things, shook Kwado to his core.

“Gordy, it’s Erma. You’ve been badly wounded,” Erma said, leaning close to his face and rubbing his left shoulder. “I need you to stay still so we can get you all patched up, okay?” She paused with a frown. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Gordy nodded feverishly. White spittle was forming in the corners of his mouth. Kwado felt like the room was getting smaller and smaller. Gordy suddenly arched his back and cried out. “They’re coming! We have to get the children!”

Magatha wiped his brow with her sleeve and caressed his cheek, whispering for him to stay quiet and rest.

“What’s he trying to say?” Mayor Barth asked.

Erma shook her head. “He’s in shock. He probably has no idea what he’s saying.”

“Oy!” Finnigin rushed into the Barn and pushed his way through the crowd to stand over the two men. He took one look at Gordy and sobered up, one of his eyes opening wider than the other. “Egad, man, who’s done this to you!”

Gordy turned his head in Finnigin’s direction and squinted. “Bandits,” he rasped.

A cry went through the villagers followed by dozens of questions Barth was unequipped to answer. He held up his arms and yelled for everyone to be quiet. The gathering obeyed, but now he had all eyes on him.

“Bandits! Mayor, sir, what can we do?” Nigel the baker asked.

“First off, someone get Gordy some water so he can speak!” Mayor Barth said.

A woman quickly stepped forward and handed Erma her flagon. Magatha turned her husband on his back with his head and shoulders propped up on her lap so Erma could bring the flagon to his cracked lips. “How about it, Gordy?” Erma said, trying to keep him talking. “Did you get in deep with some bad lot? You owe a bit more than you can give?”

“My husband would never—” Magatha started.

“Let him speak for himself,” Finnigin snapped.

Gordy shook his head feverishly. “Was lost…wandering…stupid, so stupid getting mad like that.” His eyes tightened on Finnigin and he scowled. “All your fault.”

“Please, Gordy,” Mayor Barth said, “stay focused. This is important. You said bandits. Where did you see them? Are they down by your farm?”

Gordy shook his head. “Was deep in the wood, almost to Dugenfel, I think…took a ways to get back here…running blind.” He paused, screwing his face up as he grasped for clarity. Suddenly he looked as if he might cry. “Billy! Oh no…they killed poor Billy O’Finly, cut him down.”

A murmur ran through the crowd, and Bethany clutched Kwado’s arm. He looked down, surprised to find her body pressed against him. Finnigin was muttering something under his breath and checked over his shoulder at the open doors. Kwado followed his gaze, worried the bandits might appear at any moment.

“My friends, please, you must remain calm,” Mayor Barth said. It was harder to get the panic and disorder down this time, but after a few more tries he managed it.

“But you heard him,” the schoolmaster said. “What can we hope to do against an entire band of nightblades?”

Mayor Barth stared at the open air, speechless.

“If it’s a fight they want, then that’s what we’ll give ‘em,” Finnigin declared.

“With what?” Jasper said. “We don’t have a decent weapon among us.”

“Someone should get the Dugenfel lawmen,” Farmer Jessup said.  A ripple of agreement spread through the Barn.

The kids returned with Erma’s supplies. She grabbed the bottle of whiskey and poured it over her hands then on Gordy’s leg and shoulder. As the liquor washed away the blood and dirt around the shafts, Kwado caught a momentary glimpse of the jagged wounds, deep enough to reveal the fatty tissue, before fresh blood pooled over the openings again. Gordy must have torn them open further and further as he ran back to the village to warn everyone. Kwado felt light-headed at seeing so much blood and had to steady himself on a hay bale nearby that had been used as a makeshift bench during the festival. Bethany hardly seemed to notice and remained clinging to him.

“We’ll never get there in time,” Mayor Barth said. “If Gordy’s right, then these nightblades will no doubt have the road locked down as they make their way here, and it’s far too dark outside for anyone to make it by foot through the woods in time.”

The Barn broke out in a panic. Mayor Barth’s pleas for order were drowned in a tide of confusion and fear. It was Gordy who broke the swell, his voice rising above the din. Everyone fell silent, all eyes aimed in his direction.

“What did you say, Gordy?” Mayor Barth asked.

“Send my boy,” Gordy repeated.

Kwado could hardly believe his ears. His father had never let him step so much as ten feet outside the village boundary by himself. “Pa?”

Gordy squinted as he tried to make out his son. “Kwado? You’re here? Ah, of course you are…” Kwado knelt down so his dad could see him better. Gordy reached up and touched his son’s arm. “Was a fool, boy…your pa is a durned fool.”

“Pa, please don’t say such things,” Kwado said.

Gordy looked back toward the mayor. “My boy can get word to Dugenfel.” His voice was firm and sure.

“Gordy, no…,” Magatha said, her eyes wide with dread.

Kwado’s father took her hand. “He can do it, dear… He can see in the dark as well as you or I see in the sun, and he’s a fast runner, swifter even then young Morgan Ricklett.”

“Bah, we can’t trust our fate to that monster,” Finnigin said. “Who knows what the troll might do if we take our eyes off of it? Probably up and join with the bandits. They’re just his type of people.”

“My son would never do that,” Magatha declared, shaking her fist at Finnigin, “and you’re a wretch for saying so.”

“Enough,” Mayor Barth said. “This is no time to be squabbling amongst ourselves.” He turned his attention to Kwado, silently noting that Bethany hovered close behind him. She shifted on her feet and took an awkward step to the side when the crowd of villagers followed the mayor’s gaze. “Kwado, lad, what say you? Can you make it to Dugenfel in time to warn of this attack?”

Kwado felt like crawling under a rock and hiding at that moment. Rows of desperate villagers watched him. He fought through the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach and nodded.

“Quickly, then,” Mayor Barth said. “Meet me at my home, and I will send a dispatch with you to let the local garrison know you are on a goodly mission. In the meantime, everyone gather in the church. We can lock ourselves behind her stone walls before the bandits arrive. They’ll have a hell of a time getting to us in god’s house.”

With that, the mayor ran for his home.

Kwado turned back to his parents. “Pa…I’m scared.”

Gordy placed a shaky hand on Kwado’s knee and looked him square in the eye. His voice was weak, a hoarse whisper. “Son, seventeen years ago I wondered why the gods saw fit to bless me and your ma with such a wondrous gift. Tonight I finally know what their design was, more than just a simple reward for our faithful service. This is your calling, my boy. No, don’t you be frightened. Get out there and go chase down your destiny.”

 

As strong as Gordy’s words might be, Kwado knew his father well enough to see how shaken he was. His mother covered her mouth with a trembling hand, earnestly trying to hold back her tears. “Ma, it’s okay, I’ll be fine. Don’t worry, I won’t let you down.”

 

Gordy nodded weakly and closed his eyes. Magatha sobbed and buried her face in her son’s chest.

“Is he…?” Kwado asked.

“He needs rest,” Erma said. “But it’s going to get worse before it gets better.” Without warning she yanked the arrow from his pa’s shoulder. Gordy cried out and fell silent once more, unconscious from the pain, while Erma fell to work cleaning and sewing the wound.

Kwado rose and rubbed his ma’s back as the villagers hurried out of the Barn for the safety of the church. Magatha finally gathered herself and pulled back to look her boy in the eye. She smoothed out the shoulders of his jacket and spoke evenly. “You be careful out there…and don’t let no people tell you who you are. No matter what happens, you be my little trooper, okay?”

“Ma, it’ll be fine. Really,” Kwado said. “You’ll see. I’ll be back with the sheriff before you know it.”

“You better,” Bethany said from behind them. Kwado was surprised to see she was still there. The look she shot him made him uncomfortable on a whole new level. “We’re just getting to know you, so don’t go getting caught by no nightblades.”  

All the onions and pickles in the world could not have satisfied Kwado as much as the gleam in her eyes at that moment.

He bowed low to her and turned back to his ma. She patted his shoulder lovingly. “Off with you now, boy. Best get the wind under your feet.”

Kwado nodded and made his way through the remaining crowd. A warm sensation worked through his chest as he moved past people, one he did not recognize at first. It slowly dawned upon him that most of the villagers were looking to him hopefully, and Kwado wondered if this feeling was what was called pride.

As the villagers filed out of the Barn and rushed to lock themselves behind the safety of the church walls, Kwado ran in the opposite direction, for the mayor’s house. When he came up the dirt path, the mayor was already coming down with a tiny scroll.

He pressed it into Kwado’s hand. “Get this to the Sheriff.”

“What does it say?” Kwado asked.

“Explains who you are and that you are to be trusted,” Mayor Barth said. “The Sheriff will have no love lost killing a troll that comes into his town, but after he reads this he’ll know what to do. Keep this safe, it is your only protection against that man’s wrath.”

Kwado looked down to the rolled parchment. It was sealed with the signet of the mayor’s office. “I will, sir.”

“You know, all those years ago when Gordy took you in, I knew there would come a day when you proved your worth, son.”

“Then let’s hope that day is here, sir.”

Kwado bowed and moved past the mayor to run down the country lane. He gazed fearfully at the Hollow Woods and the path ahead. There was a long way to run between here and salvation.