Chapter 5: Through the Woods
Under the light of day, the Hollow Woods were as idyllic and enchanting as any other forest Kwado was likely to find in the Malakar Kingdom, made up of thick groves of lanky starling trees and wide-trunked evergreens. Dense herds of albino deer called the place home along with a myriad of other creatures, ordinary and dangerous alike. Many a villager enjoyed an afternoon getting lost under the sweet melody of the starlings, with their whispering bronze leaves and heavy boughs of pink bark. Two-tailed squirrels would scurry by while visitors read in the shade, shared a romantic picnic, played hide-and-seek, or simply partook of a jug of port around an afternoon fire.
However, once the sun set and the silver moon hammered out in the misty sky, none were foolish enough to venture into the woods. Barely a hint of moonlight could make its way to the forest floor, blotted out by dark branches clawing at one another and choking out the evening sky. Many a tale was told of the spirits of the Hollow Woods, dryads that lulled men to their trees, where they would lay down and never be seen or heard from again. Bodens were said to lead roaming packs of grey wolves to any intruders that came near their nests. And then there was the queen of the damned, Llioly, keeper of forgotten secrets and caretaker of an ancient curse, forced to roam the woods for her witching magic on the first settlers of the continent.
Of course, just because the villagers swore it was so did not make it true, a fact Kwado had to keep reminding himself of as he made his way carefully through the infamous woods. Despite his pa’s declaration that his boy could see clearly in the night, which was true enough, Kwado could not help imagining Llioly watching him from the shadows that crept around the overgrown roots of the trees, constantly searching out of the corner of his eye for the forest’s dark mistress. He had never been in the woods at night, alone or otherwise, and kept rubbing his good luck charm, a smooth white stone he had found one day, to keep his nerves steady.
Just keep your feet pointed east, he thought, forcing himself to keep moving away from the village. Each step felt heavier, but he could not let fear overpower him. Dugenfel was a straight shot, more or less, east of Westfall.
A sudden scurrying movement through brush caught him unprepared and he let out a small yelp, jumping back with his arms up, ready to hit the rushing beast. A possum skittered by, disappearing into the undergrowth with a low growl.
“Grumble bumble, just another stupid animal.” It was the third time he had come across a harmless woodland creature, and every meeting had left him rattled. He was going to need to stay firm if he expected to make it to the sheriff in time to help Westfall.
As much as the forest was alive with the sounds of its nocturnal residents, their racket was all but lost under the thumping of his heart, which was like a pounding kettle drum in his head. He had no idea how much time had passed since he first entered the woods, nor how far he had gone, but when he heard men speaking nearby, he was surprised.
Had he reached the town that quickly? Maybe he was swifter than he realized. Perhaps after this horrible ordeal was over, he could convince his father and the mayor to allow him to courier their mail once a month, having proven how fast he could travel. He didn’t want to give up working the onion farm, though. He would have to make that clear from the beginning. But if he had an opportunity to see more of the world, even if it was just Dugenfel, and maybe even make some more friends—or any friends, at that—well, that would just be amazing.
The idea of friendship made his mind wander to Sebastian and Bethany. Kwado had never imagined villagers his own age would accept him so readily, not after all the warnings Pa had given of the wickedness in man and the cruel jibes delivered daily by Finnigin. But the two of them were friendly enough, and they genuinely seemed to like him.
A branch snapped and Kwado froze in place. He quickly scanned the trees for the source of the disturbance, lingering on movement just beyond a thick pine tree. Even with his night vision, it was hard to make out just what he was looking at.
It’s a man!
Kwado was suddenly aware that he was panting like a dog. He clamped his mouth shut, wondering if the stranger, who had his head bowed low, staring at something in the dirt, had heard his approach. Other than the stranger’s hair swaying in the breeze, the figure did not stir.
“Oy there,” Kwado said. He meant it to come out hard and confident, but his voice broke in the night air as a low whisper.
The stranger did not respond, did not even look up. As good as a troll’s night vision might be, a lifetime of toiling under the sun had dulled Kwado’s innate ability, and he could not penetrate the thick veil of shadows that clung to the man’s face and chest, could not even make out his eyes.
Branches rustled to his left, and Kwado almost jumped out of his skin when he saw another man arriving. Quick on his feet, Kwado slid to the side, behind the cover of trees. One look at the newcomer, and he felt like a fool. These were the bandits! How could he have been so stupid as to think he was already on the border of Dugenfel? The voices he had heard before had clearly come from these two. He must have wandered too near the road and was right on top of their group.
To Kwado’s great relief, the bandit was too far away to notice him. The newcomer retrieved something from his companion’s vest pocket and turned to walk back the way he had come. Kwado let out a low sigh but then looked back to the man’s companion, who remained behind, silently watching him.
Is he sleeping? Kwado wondered.
He stood for long moments, studying the bandit, before finally building up enough courage to creep forward. When the man made no move to attack or call out for his partner, Kwado grew bolder and found his pace quickening. As he drew closer, he finally understood why the man was not reacting. The bandit actually had his back to the troll, his head leaned back to stare up at the forest canopy.
Something about his whole demeanor was off. Kwado slowed his pace, extra careful to make no noise. He lifted a knotty branch from the ground, but sucked in his breath when the bandit suddenly shifted.
He did not let it out again until he realized it was only the man’s black cloak flapping in the breeze. Kwado nodded, firming up his resolve, and crept forward again, inch by inch. He could not help wondering if other trolls could be as silent as he was at that moment.
Mustering all the courage he had in him, he grasped the man’s shoulder and spun him around as fast as he could. An unfamiliar splintering sound of metal dragging across the bark of the tree stung his ears, but he ignored it and pulled the branch back to strike. The bandit faced him without protest, his face frozen in a mask of outrage and fear. Kwado was just about to bludgeon him when he spotted the tip of a blade sticking out of the bandit’s chest. He dropped the branch and staggered back, letting the dead man fall on the ground. The wind caught the slain bandit’s cloak, and Kwado saw the handle of a sabre protruding from his back.
“Sweet cheese of mercy!”
Suddenly everything became clear. The voices he had heard earlier were of the two men arguing. The one marching toward the village was going to meet his comrades to raid Westfall, leaving his murdered compatriot stuck to a tree by the blade run through his back. If that did not shock Kwado to his core, the sight of the man’s throat, which was split open like a melon, certainly did.
He did not know he was still walking backward away from the dead man until his foot caught in a divot, twisting his ankle and laying him out flat on his back.
Kwado scrambled to his feet and found dirt sticking to his left hand. He looked down to discover blood up and down his arm from where he had brushed the bandit’s clothing. He tried to wipe it on his shirt but only succeeded in smearing a wide swath of red over his tunic. The odor of it caught him and he thought he might be sick. The woods felt like they were spinning.
“You sorry sack, just don’t know when to stay dead do you?” From behind Kwado came the unmistakable sound of a steel blade being pulled from a scabbard. He slowly turned his head to find the second bandit grinning lecherously, a dagger in each hand, come back to finish his comrade off after hearing all the commotion. Kwado rushed to his feet and they locked eyes. The bandit blanched and took an uncertain step backward.
Years of being told he was a monster had educated Kwado well in the way he should handle this situation. He knew this momentary advantage was due to the bandit’s belief system of what a troll should be, and that he should fully capitalize on it. The best course of action here was to display his razor sharp teeth and rush the confused man before he could recover from his initial shock. The bandit looked sideways, clearly wondering how far he could make it before the monster overtook him.
“D-didn’t mean t-to interrupt your meal,” the bandit said, taking another step back.
Kwado wanted to scream that he was a vegetarian and no amount of blood could turn him into a savage beast. But he did not. He chose a different course of action. He turned and ran away.
Kwado moved through the woods as fast and hard as his legs would pump, never even checking over his shoulder to see if the bandit was chasing after him. Pure survival instinct had taken over, and he became a crazed creature of the night, desperately tearing his way through the woods like a lumbering bear, all the while screaming at the top of his lungs.
The bandit never thought twice about giving chase. Only a nutter would run after some half-mad troll in human clothes, and the sound of the creature’s howling was enough to give the man nightmares for weeks. He counted his blessings and fled in the opposite direction to meet up with his raiding party. When he caught up with his mates, they laughed at him, telling him he could sod off with another of his ghost stories.
All the way through the woods Kwado raced, never slowing once—not when he tripped on a root, not when he scaled right up the side of a rocky climb, and not when he jumped from one stone to the next across Pum Creek.
By the time he burst out of the woods on the outskirts of Dugenfel, he could scarcely blame the townsfolk for their reaction, which was to run off and call for help. Kwado ran up the main road, searching from one house to the next for some sign of the lawmen.
The local garrison worked out of a small stone building with barely enough room for a desk and two narrow jail cells, which was only odd because there were eight deputies under the sheriff’s commission. That night, each of them sat out in front of the jailhouse at a crude wooden table, some finishing their late supper while the others engaged in a game of bones. They were already fairly deep into the second round of bets and ready to toss the dice when Kwado rounded the corner, calling for help.
“Bugger off, kid,” Sheriff Jilk said, tossing a trio of dice against the base of the front steps. “We’re busy.” The dice skittered across the dirt with four sets of hungry eyes watching their every move.
“B-but sir,” Kwado said, trying hard to catch his breath, “I just ran all the way from Westfall. There’s bandits.”
“Well, tell the Westfallers to take care of it then,” Jilk replied gruffly.
“Sir…,” one of the deputies said, “I think you might wanna...”
Jilk caught his deputy’s tone and looked over his shoulder to find Beni, his most stalwart deputy, slack-jawed and white as a sheet. The turkey leg he held hovered in front of his face, and bits of it spilled out of his open mouth. Jilk furrowed his brow and turned fully around.
“God’s sake, man,” he said, jumping sharply back so that his spine hit the building. “It’s a troll!”
Kwado held up his hands. “Please, sir, you have to ride for Westfall. We’re being attacked by bandits.”
“Is it speaking?” Jilk asked his deputies.
“We hear it too,” one of the men said in astonishment.
They were slowly putting down their things and moving to draw the knightsticks from their belts. Kwado eyed them and whimpered, “Please…I’ve done nothing wrong…my people…”
“Why don’t we listen to what it has to say?” a grizzled hunter who was playing dice with them said from beneath the unkempt mass of grey that made up his beard.
The sheriff shot him a nod and a wink. “Aye, a good idea, Skelan.” He turned back to Kwado. “C’mon now, troll, no one here wants any trouble. Why don’t you just tell us what it is you want?”
Kwado took a deep gulp. He was trying to keep his eyes on the lawmen, but they were already surrounding him, moving too fast for him to think straight. He eyed their unsteady hands gripping knightsticks. “Mayor Barth sent me,” he blurted, remembering the mayor’s warning. “Billy O’Finly’s been murdered, attacked on the road by some nightblades. They’re heading to Westfall now, and we need your help.”
“Did you hear that?” Deputy Beni said. “The troll's hurt Billy.”
“That’s not what he said, you idjit,” Skelan barked.
“Mayor Barth, you say?” Sheriff Jilk narrowed his eyes. Kwado nodded fervently. “Well, if the mayor sent you here on his behalf, he’d have sent conscriptions, eh?”
“Conscriptions?” Kwado repeated dumbly. “Oh right, you mean the papers!”
The soldiers all jumped back.
“Hey there.” Jilk raised a hand. “No need to get riled up. Let’s just keep calm, troll.”
“Now then, hand over the conscriptions so we can corroborate your story.”
Kwado slowly reached into his back pocket to fish out the scroll Barth had given him, oblivious to the look Jilk shot to his deputies. Kwado’s thick green fingers brushed across fabric, probing all the way to the bottom of his pocket. “Wait…it’s…oh no." A memory of falling in the forest opened a pit in his stomach. "I must’ve dropped the note.”
He looked up just in time to see Sheriff Jilk give his men a sharp nod. “Now!”
Kwado tried to cry out, but a knightstick cracked across the back of his skull. Flares of brilliant light spit across his vision, and he tasted dirt as his face hit the ground. A boot caught him in the nose. He tried to block the blows that rained down on him, but one caught his wrist and another snapped across his elbow. Before long, Kwado found himself curled in a ball in the dirt, arms wrapped around his head.
The deputies and sheriff were relentless in their attack. “Filthy mongrel thinks it can come into our town!”
“Break the monster’s head open!”
“This is for Billy!”
By the time they were done, Kwado lay in a limp pile, sobbing and bleeding into the dirt. Every inch of his body felt like it was on fire. He could only dimly make out the lawmen’s boots as they paced around him.
“Ugh, the greenie’s gone and pissed hisself,” Beni said. The rest of the deputies broke out in peals of laughter.
“Thought trolls were supposed to be tough,” one of the men jeered.
“Dylan, go fetch us some rope from inside,” Sheriff Jilk commanded. Boots hurried away up the steps.
“Sheriff,” Skelan said, “it’s not my place to tell you boys your business, as I’m just a simple hunter…but don’t you think it’s at least worth looking into the troll’s claims?”
The sheriff snorted. “You think the monster is telling true?”
“There’s always some measure of truth in even the deepest of lies,” Skelan said solemnly. “And besides, what if the Westfallers are being raided? You wouldn’t want the baron to catch wind that you knew and did nothing, eh?”
Sheriff Jilk eyed him darkly. “Hmph, and I wonder where that wind would be blowing from.”
Skelan shrugged nonchalantly.
Boots raced back down the jailhouse steps. Jilk scowled. “Bah, put it away for now.”
A light of hope lit in Kwado’s chest. He numbly lifted his head to look up at the sheriff. The man gazed down at him and curled his lip in disgust. “P-please, sir…help m-my parents.”
The steel toe of a boot cracked across Kwado’s chin, and the world came up to meet him, a symphony in black.