Chapter 6: Best Laid Plans
The chill dew of dawn clung to the landscape, seeping into Kwado’s bones as he awoke to the overpowering stench of horse sweat. His mouth was open wide, drooling over the muscular backside of a horse. He spit out bits of dirt and horse hair from between his teeth. The mare’s tail whipped to the side and he got an eyeful of five pies hitting the road, causing him to recoil and flop off the side of the briskly trotting horse. Try as he might to stop his fall, his hands were bound behind his back, and with no way to protect his body, he slammed hard onto the dirt road.
“He’s trying to get away!” Deputy Beni called with a sharp whistle.
The sheriff and all his men, including the hunter, Skelan, pulled their horses to a stop farther up the road. The deputy reared back his horse, waving around a sword, and came back at a full gallop. Kwado had a head full of sand, barely able to form a thought, let alone scream in terror.
“Giddy up,” Skelan hollered, spurring his own mount. Fast as lightning, he blocked the incoming deputy, parking his mare right in the man’s path. The deputy was forced to rear back the horse, its front hooves kicking the air, to avoid a collision.
The hunter made a show of leaning over in his saddle and inspecting the troll lying in the dirt. His shadow loomed over Kwado. “Hmm, don’t look like he’s doing much running after all,” Skelan said. “Reckon he must’ve up and fell off that horse, huh?”
The deputy glowered at him. “Guess so.”
“Right then, let’s get him settled back up so we can be on our way.” Skelan slipped off his saddle and grabbed Kwado under the arms while one of the other arriving deputies grabbed his legs. Together they propped him back over the back of Beni’s horse.
The hunter was just getting back on his mount when Sheriff Jilk came clopping down the lane toward them. “What’s got you slowpokes caught up?”
“Nothing nefarious here,” Skelan said. “The troll just slipped off your deputy’s horse, is all.”
Jilk pulled up between Skelan and Kwado’s mounts. “Stay on your horse, monster,” he snarled, slamming the heel of his boot into Kwado’s shoulder. “Another mishap like that, and I’ll just let the boys drag you along by the ankle.” One of the deputies laughed.
Kwado bit his lip to keep from yelping at the stinging pain, afraid it would only anger the lawman further. Besides, the aching in his shoulder was nothing in comparison to the rest of his body, which felt like one giant throbbing bruise.
“I wasn’t aware you were in such a rush to get to Westfall,” Skelan said. It had taken the sheriff and his men several hours to get on the road, time they spent finishing their meals before gathering up supplies, which amounted to several rounds of bones while they drunkenly searched the jailhouse basement for their province-issued leather armor.
“Don’t know why I let you talk me into riding all the way out here in the first place,” Jilk grumbled, rubbing the crook of his nose.
“No harm in checking,” Skelan said.
“Oy, and here’s the sun a-rising and me and the boys with not a wink of sleep among us. I hope for your sake this hasn’t been a complete waste of time, though I’m certain it has.”
“Sheriff, no one would be happier than I to learn that this was indeed a waste of our time, for that would mean the goodly folk of Westfall are still safe and sound in their beds.”
“Aye, and then we could get on with gutting this monster,” one of the deputies added.
“Sheriff!” Deputy Dylan called from the front of the line, waving his arms frantically. “Fire!”
Skelan kicked his horse into a full gallop, and they raced down the road, grinding to a halt where the deputy sat astride his horse, directing their attention down to the valley.
The countryside dipped low ahead, forming the valley where Westfall resided. For most visitors, of which there were precious few, this was often a point in their journey where they stopped to take in the beautiful landscape. From this vantage, the small village and its sprawling farms could be seen in miniature detail at the bottom of the rolling hillside, surrounded by an ocean of trees on three sides with a green mountain to its back.
Today that serene vision of country life was marred by a billowing funnel of black smoke, rising from the very heart of the village.
Sheriff Jilk pulled hard on his horse’s reins and barked for his men to move. They fiercely rode down the hill, breaking from the path and cutting across a glen outside the Edwins’ farm. The sheriff sent his horse bounding over a fence and drew his sword, pointing the tip toward the center of the village as he shouted for his men to fall into formation.
Deputy Beni followed suit, and for an instant Kwado was certain he would fall off the horse again. Through some miracle he managed to stay put, his forehead bouncing off the horse’s rump as they landed on the other side of the fence.
They hit the lane beyond the Edwins’ farm at a full gallop, screaming for the bandits’ heads. Then they came around the corner, to the center of the village, and the men lost all their bluster, pulling back hard on their reins and coming to a standstill.
“By the gods,” one of the men hissed.
Westfall Chapel, which had stood for nigh on two-hundred years, through countless generations of onion farmers, acting as the pinnacle of Westfall Sunday gatherings, was all but gone. In its place leaned half walls of stone and smoking cinders. Only charred husks remained of the columns from the interior building.
“Those walls were made of solid Velatian stone,” Jilk muttered, referring to the outer section of the church. “There’s no way they could’ve caught fire.”
The deputies agreed, and murmurs of dark magic and sorcery rippled through them.
“And even if they could,” Skelan said, “it’s not possible that they would’ve burned down so far already. Even with you fools dragging your knuckles, we should have had plenty of time to get here whilst the Westfallers held out in the church.”
“Watch your mouth, poacher,” Sheriff Jilk snarled.
“Hmm, idle threats, is it?” Skelan said. “Going to accuse me of poaching now? Why don’t you do us all a favor and shut your trap for a while? It’s clear this was exactly the fate the troll warned of.”
Kwado was far too much in shock to hear their squabbling, which to him was only background noise. A junebug rattled in the tree behind them, its clamor filling his head with an aching that felt fit to burst. It was a vibrating crescendo of chaos that fit perfectly with the unshakeable sight of smoking skulls and charred bones covering the church floor. The whole of the village had been gathered inside the church when it was burned to the ground, and there they lay before him, clutching one another in a terror few could ever imagine possible.
“Sheriff, sir,” Deputy Dylan said, “please lower your voice.”
Both Jilk and the hunter clamped their mouths shut and eyed him, shocked he should be so brazen. The deputy kept his head tilted to the left, listening intently to something.
“What is it?” Jilk asked.
“There’s someone still here,” Dylan said.
The men all fell silent and listened. It came from the village cemetery, the sound of metal cutting through dirt.
“They’re robbing graves?” Deputy Beni said in disgust.
Skelan grimaced and shook his head, leading the way as they cantered the horses over to the cemetery, where a bent old man was digging holes to bury the bones of a woman and child, his wife and daughter.
“Finnigin…,” Kwado mumbled with a broken heart.
“Ho there,” Sheriff Jilk called.
Finnigin slammed the blade of his shovel into the earth and turned to offer them a sneer. “So you worthless sacks finally decided to come down here? Fantastic. You’re just in time to do fak all.”
The sheriff looked taken aback, but Skelan leaned sideways in his saddle and placed a hand to Jilk’s chest. “He’s mourning the dead,” he reminded the outraged lawman in a whisper.
“Damn straight I’m mourning the dead,” Finnigin said. “Wouldn’t be if you came when we sent for you.”
“So you did send a man to Dugenfel?” Skelan asked.
“Lot of good it did us,” Finnigin said, spitting to the side. “Must’ve been hard taking your royal highness away from his nightly game of dice, seeing how quickly you responded.”
The truth of it weighed heavily on the sheriff and his men, who averted their eyes.
“Was this the man you sent?” Skelan asked.
Finnigin took a long look at Kwado, bound and beaten on the back of the horse, tears staining his green face. Kwado looked back at him with pleading eyes, his heart swimming with sorrow. Finnigin sneered. “Does that look like a man to you? Bah, what a bunch of twits. Go back to Dugenfel and leave me in peace, and take your monster with you.”
Jilk jerked his head, signaling to his men to fall out, and pulled his horse around. Skelan lingered still. “Good sir, we will help you bury your dead.”
Finnigin did not bother looking up. “I said piss off.”
The hunter wavered for a moment, then bowed his head and tipped his hat before turning his own horse and following the lawmen. He pulled up beside Jilk and studied his face. It was a mask of pent-up rage. The hunter knew the cause was not Finnigin’s open show of contempt but the sheriff’s inner guilt.
“Only one way that church burned so quickly,” Jilk growled.
“A wizard making company with bandits?” Skelan said. “This can’t be good.”
“Aye, ‘tis dark tidings to be sure,” the sheriff said. “To have monsters roaming our countryside unchecked.”
“Will you seek an audience with the baron?” Skelan asked.
Jilk nodded. “But first me and the boys have a hanging to do.”
“The troll?” Skelan said.
“But he came to you seeking help for these people…and he knew that man’s name. By what law…”
Sheriff Jilk rounded his horse, roughly shoving the stallion into Skelan’s mount. There was venom in his eyes. “Don’t need a reason to hang a monster other than it’s there. Ain’t no law against it now, nor ever. If you’re too daft to see the troll was part of a ruse to get us here so they could ambush my men, that’s your problem. If you wanna come along for the fun, fall in. Otherwise, fak off.”
The hunter pulled his horse silently off the road and watched the lawmen file past.
Finnigin watched the lawmen gallop back up the sloping road toward Dugenfel and spit in their direction. “Lousy good-for-nothings,” he grumbled.
A group of villagers ran toward him from deeper in the cemetery. “Look, see?” Sebastian shouted, pointing at the horsemen at the top of the hill. “I told you it was the sheriff and his men!”
“Wait!” Magatha hollered desperately.
It was no use. The riders were too far away to hear her calls. As she reached Finnigin, the last of them slipped over the ridge and disappeared.
“Why didn’t they stay?” Mayor Barth asked Finnigin. His face was stained with soot, and a thick scab covered the wound under his eye.
“Told ‘em to piss off,” Finnigin said.
“What gives you the right?” Sebastian shook his fist in the older man’s face. “We could have used their help tending the wounded.”
“Last night’s when we needed their help,” Finnigin said. “Where were they then?”
“What if those fiends come back?” Sebastian asked. “The sheriff could have helped defend us against them.”
Finnigin shrugged. “Go away and let me bury me kin in peace. Your face is annoying me.”
“Damn you, Finnigin,” Mayor Barth said, pulling Sebastian back before he could attack the old man.
“My boy?” Magatha asked, turning away from the hill. Her eyes were puffy and red from crying all night. Her husband had been lost to the fire, along with more than half the village. Even Kwado’s new friend Bethany was gone, the poor sweet lass. It all felt like too much to bear. The bottom of Magatha’s dress was scorched and her feet were raw from hiding in the thorn bushes until the bandits left. “Kwado…was he with them? Why didn’t he stay?”
“The troll’s gone,” Finnigin said.
The mayor and Sebastian froze in place. Magatha’s lower lip quivered. “What did you do?”
“What I should’ve done years ago,” Finnigin said. “You’ve been bleating like a goat over that dead husband of yours, but it’s the two of you who brought this curse down on us when you took in that monster. Well, look where that got us, ya hag!”
“What did you do?” Magatha shouted. She flew forward and slapped Finnigin soundly across the face then beat his chest with her fists. “What did you do? What did you do!”
Finnigin fell backward into the ditch beside his slain family members, and Mayor Barth pulled her away.
“I have to go after him,” Magatha sobbed in a near state of hysteria.
“It’s too late,” Finnigin said. “By now they’ll already have hung the beast.”
“You’re a despicable, rotten old man,” Sebastian said.
Mayor Barth stared up the road to Dugenfel. He thought it was weird that the woods could look so tranquil when such evils had been born here last night. “We’ve no way to catch up to them, Maggie,” he said.
“But…my boy…” She looked desperate, her eyes hollow and lost.
It broke Barth’s heart. He felt a profound sense of guilt for letting the boy go off alone into the night. The whole thing turned out to be for naught. They scarcely had time to get inside the church before the bandits and that godawful warlock arrived. The sounds of screaming women and horrified children plagued his thoughts. He slapped the side of his head and shook it, denying those phantoms. When he opened his eyes again, they were trained on the road.
“I’ll go with you,” he said to Magatha. “Maybe if we can get to him in time…”
Kwado’s world was shattered. All he ever knew or believed in had been stripped away, leaving him in an endless void of confusion and bitter sorrow.
He was so numb to what was going on around him that he could scarcely find the strength to beg for his life. He did not even realize the mortal danger he was in until he was roughly wrenched off the horse and dropped to the ground. The impact jarred him to his senses, and calloused hands forced him to a sitting position in the dirt. When one of the deputies pulled out a length of rope and began tying it in a noose, all he could do was sob, repeating his mother’s name over and over again.
“Would you shut that thing up?” Sheriff Jilk grumbled, closing his eyes and rubbing his temples.
“Gladly sir,” Deputy Beni said, dismounting and striding over to club Kwado in the side of the head with a knight stick. It was a loud crack of wood hitting bone, followed by Kwado’s face hitting the dirt. The sobs lodged in the back of his throat and he distantly wondered why the back of his head was wet.
“Wait, please,” he whimpered. “My ma…she needs your help.”
“Fak sake,” Jilk groaned. “Rope the beast up for crying out loud.”
The men worked together to yank Kwado onto his feet and shoved him toward the tree. One deputy had already slung the rope over an upper bough, high enough that they would be able to pull the tall troll off his feet. When they looped the noose over his head, tugging it roughly against his skin, Kwado scarcely tried to fight his fate.
The deputy pulled back on the rope hard, cutting off his air. Kwado choked through a windpipe suddenly the size of a straw. Primal instinct took over and he began to thrash about wildly, trying to break free and escape from this mad nightmare.
That’s it, it must be a nightmare. This isn’t real…it can’t be…, he thought. He moaned out loud, “Ma!”
It took three of the lawmen to pull him off the ground until his feet finally dangled in the air, the rope tight enough to pop a man’s head off. They tied the end to a neighboring tree’s trunk and wiped the sweat from their brows then stood back to admire their handiwork. It took some time before Kwado stopped shuddering and hung limp.
“Damned thing’s still alive,” one of the deputies said, noting the barely present rise and fall of Kwado’s chest.
“Give it a good stroke with Velma,” another grunted, referring to the Sheriff’s sword. “That’ll finish the beast off.”
One deputy shot them a toothy grin, a flash of brown and yellow teeth. “I’ve a better idea for the maggot.” He drew his blade, a wavy snake-like dagger that looked more polished than anything else in the man’s possession. He ran two quick kisses of steel across Kwado’s thighs, all the short man could reach, and snickered as lines of blood flowed from the fresh wounds.
“Ah, good thinking,” the deputy beside him said. “That’ll draw the wolves out from their slumber, eh?”
“Nothing to get ‘em stirring in the daylight like freshly spilled blood,” the grimy man said, whistling through his nose as he laughed.
“That’s fine work.” Jilk stopped to spit on one of the wounds. “Good riddance.”
With that he walked past the hanging monster and climbed onto his horse. Each of his men did the same, spitting before mounting. Then together they rode off for the city to deliver the troubling news of Westfall’s plight to the baron.
Kwado’s limp body swayed in the wind.