Chapter 7: The Old Hunter
Many things ran through Kwado’s mind as the life slowly ebbed from his body. A deep ache filled his heart like an endless void. The very thought of his ma and pa felt like his heart was splitting apart, followed by blinding visions of a smoking skull lying in the center of the church ruins. Bethany laughed at him as he tried to dance, Sebastian clapping his hands. Finnigin’s beady eyes glared hatefully at him. Kwado did not wonder why the world was so cruel and unjust. He did not feel afraid of the rope choking him. The only thing he felt was a wish to die, a wish to let go of all the raging pain suffocating his soul, and eventually one single question rang out in his mind.
Why is this taking so long?
Kwado was correct to be mystified by the lengthy process of being hung, which logic dictated should be a fairly quick way to end time on this mortal plan. Even as he wondered this, he heard the distinct sound of wheezing coming from his own throat.
Being raised by humans had many advantages for Kwado. He had learned all about personal hygiene from his ma, learned all the rudiments of farming onions from his pa, was able to live in a house with a bed to sleep in and a roof over his head. He learned to read and write as well as to think critically. He was loved by his parents. All of these things were blessings to a boy who might have grown up with a pack of flesh-eating trolls who prowled the countryside in search of victims.
However, such an upbringing also had one very large disadvantage, which was that farmers actually knew very little about trolls. Thus, Kwado was unaware, through no fault of his own, that trolls possessed an extraordinary muscular system.
A troll’s neck was perhaps one of the strongest muscles in his body, solid as the trunk of a grandpappy oak. Troll hunters liked to theorize this was due to generations of tearing apart enemies with their jaws, rending their enemies’ flesh by thrashing their heads back and forth. However, through the years, there was more than one troll matron who said it was from generations of male trolls with their heads stuck up their arses.
So while Kwado was prepared to die and getting quite bored waiting for it to happen, the muscles in his neck harbored no such inclination, effortlessly flexing to prevent the rope from completely closing off his windpipe.
Well, this is a right pickle, he thought. A gentle breeze grazed his thighs, stinging his open wounds. Hopefully those wolves will be along soon to put me out of my misery.
As if on cue, leather paws padded through the woods to the east. He tried to turn his head, catching it stiffly on the noose with a grunt. There was a flurry of movement below, a flash of grey fur. Kwado yelped despite his death wish and kicked his legs sharply to the left as the wolf leapt past. Its snapping jaws closed on air, but it was accompanied by two pack mates, roused from their slumber by the sweet aroma of fresh blood. The first wolf hit the ground on all fours and displayed a mouthful of razor sharp teeth.
“Good puppy,” Kwado said, or tried to, as his strangled throat made a sound more akin to, “Oood ughy.” The wolf’s lips curled back and it let out a low menacing growl. I changed my mind! Kwado thought, his insides turning upside down. I don’t want to die…not like this!
The wolf leapt higher this time, angling straight for his groin, and Kwado cried out, a wheezing squeaky sound. The wolf yelped and was pushed through the air before falling wetly to the ground with a crossbow bolt buried in the side of its neck.
“Go on, git,” Skelan shouted, emerging from the brush with a crossbow leveled at the wolves in one hand, and a torch in the other.
One of the wolves decided to hold its ground and bared its fangs at the hunter. Skelan let his torch fly, hitting the beast square in the flank in a burst of cinders and singed fur. The remaining wolf bolted from the area, not waiting for its companion, who dropped to the ground and rolled frantically from side to side, trying to rub the flames away.
“I said git!” Skelan growled and stomped his foot hard in the dirt. The wolf finally found the common sense to retreat, leaving behind the smell of burnt flesh.
Skelan studied the skewered wolf lying on the ground. It was panting heavily but was too mortally wounded to join its pack in retreat. Skelan carefully tied the crossbow to his belt and brandished a machete with a grimace. He tilted his face upward to the hanging troll. Kwado eyed the blade nervously and tried to pull his body away from the man.
“Knew you’d hold out from a hanging,” Skelan said. “Some fight left in the beast,” he grumbled to himself. “Gotta put it out of its misery.”
Kwado barely had any strength left. Oxygen depletion was beginning to take effect. However, that did not stop him from feebly flailing about, hoping to somehow get away from his executioner.
Skelan’s bushy eyebrows knit together, and a hint of a frown splayed beneath his thick mustache. He took a step forward and brought the machete down in one swift cut, severing the rope from the tree and unceremoniously spilling Kwado to the ground in a lump of green muscle and sweat. While the troll tried to squirm to a sitting position, Skelan knelt over the grey wolf. He petted the beast’s neck gently, running thick fingers through its fur in soothing circular motions. Kwado scrambled to his knees. He could not hear the old hunter's words as the man whispered something to the dying wolf. When he was done speaking, Skelan abruptly tugged the machete over the wolf’s throat, tearing it open.
Kwado flinched and fell on his arse. He stared up at through the boughs of a tree and whimpered. He clenched his eyes tight and prayed he was actually back in his bed and that this was all a dream. The hunter’s shadow fell over him.
Kwado opened his eyes to find Skelan leaning over him, much the same as he had done the wolf. “P-please d-do-n’t.”
The hunter frowned again. “Some things can’t be helped, troll.” He pressed the curved blade against Kwado’s exposed throat. Kwado closed his eyes and sobbed. “But I didn’t hide in the woods waiting all that time just to cut you open,” Skelan said. He twisted the blade, severing the noose around Kwado’s neck in two.
The rope fell to the dirt and sweet air filled Kwado’s lungs. The flood of oxygen made him dizzy.
Skelan shifted to kneel behind him. “Damn, you’re heavier than you look.”
“Thank you,” Kwado gasped.
“Wasn’t a compliment.”
“Thank you for saving my life,” Kwado explained. “You didn’t have to come back for me.”
“Yeah, I’m dumb like that,” Skelan said, carefully cutting away the bindings around Kwado’s wrists.
Kwado rubbed his sore wrists and winced hard, pulling his fingers away from the friction burns circling them. His skin was raw and the air felt like stabbing needles against the open wounds.
Skelan eyed the wounds with a nod. “We’ll need to get some ointment on those. But first we should be away from here…just in case one of them lawmen gets it in his head to come back and check on you.” He wiped his blade in the grass before returning it to its sheath. “Can you walk?”
Kwado looked up at him doe-eyed and nodded.
“Then get off your arse,” Skelan said.
Kwado moved to rise, but light-headedness hit him between the eyes, and if not for Skelan’s quick reflexes, he would have buckled over into the dirt face first. The hunter grunted, bracing Kwado’s considerable weight, and they stood there for a few minutes until the dizzy spell passed. Kwado was soon standing on his own two feet again.
“They took my boots,” he said, only just noticing they were missing.
“’Course they did,” Skelan grunted, leading the way deeper into the woods, back toward his mare down a hillside of birch trees and brush. “Dead trolls don’t need boots.”
Kwado shrugged. The hunter had a point.
“’Sides, who ever heard of a troll wearing boots in the first place?”
“My ma gave them to me for my seventeenth birthday,” Kwado said, feeling wounded.
Skelan’s bushy eyebrows arched just enough to make out his eyes underneath, grey and clear. He stopped marching for a moment and appraised the troll. “You been that big since you were seventeen?” he said, following it up with a whistle before turning back around to continue hiking. The mare neighed excitedly as they drew nearer.
“I am only seventeen,” Kwado said.
The hunter did not seem to notice or care, not that there was much difference. The mare cantered forward and brought her face down low, nuzzling the hunter’s outstretched hand.
“You didn’t even tie her up?” Kwado noted.
Skelan grabbed her reins and turned the mare southward, the opposite direction the lawmen had gone. “She’d never run off unless there was a need. And I don’t know how I’d live with myself if I got killed and she was tied to a log somewhere waiting for the wolves to find her.” He paused, purposefully eyeing the troll. “Or some other monster.”
Kwado frowned. “Hey, I’m a vegetarian.”
Skelan pulled away from him and shook his beard. “Blech, that sounds awful. Is it contagious?”
Kwado frowned. “What? No. I’m a vegetarian…as in I do not eat meat.”
“Really? None at all? Well, my first sentiment still holds true then.”
Kwado wondered who this strange man was. They walked in silence for some time, several hours under the heavy sun, deeper and deeper into the woods, each step taking them farther away from Westfall.
Skelan noted the tears that stained Kwado’s face and grunted. “C’mon, troll, you gotta stop snifflin’ and let it go.”
“My name is Kwado.”
Skelan raised an eyebrow. “Oh? A troll with an old elvish name huh?”
“Well, Kwado, I’m Skelan. I’d say it’s a pleasure to meet you, but I’ve never been much for horseshit. The fact is I wish we never met, because that would mean all your family and friends back in Westfall would not be dead right now and some crazed warlock would not be roaming the hills with a band of nightblades.”
“So you believe me?”
Skelan sighed. “Only an imbecile like Jilk would think a soft troll like yerself could be at the center of some nefarious plot to kill his men. ‘Sides, all I needed was one look at the way you reacted when we arrived at the church to see you was telling the truth.”
Kwado hung his head low.
“Oh, come on now, don’t start up again.”
Kwado apologized and wiped the tears from his eyes with soiled hands. They walked on in silence for a little while longer until Kwado cleared his throat. “Mr. Skelan, sir?”
Skelan rolled his eyes, evidenced only by the shuffling of his thick eyebrows. “Just call me Skelan, troll.”
“Whatever. Spit it out.”
“Could we stop and rest for a minute?” Kwado asked. “My legs ache and my back hurts something fierce…and I think I got a pine needle in between my toes a while back.”
Skelan muttered under his breath and pulled his mare to the side, leading them to a small clearing with a log lying at its center. It was a known resting point for hunters. Spots like this dotted the deep woods and mountainsides of Malakar, places where hunters or mercenaries would set up camp, always leaving a small amount of supplies for the next traveler. “We can break here for a little bit.”
Kwado sighed and practically fell where he stood, rubbing his aching legs. In no time at all Skelan had a fire going, which he used to heat up a small canister of liquid. While the hunter ground up some herbs in a wooden bowl, Kwado’s thoughts drifted back to his parents. He remembered finding his ma working the butter churn. She turned to smile when he entered the farmhouse, delighted to see her strapping boy. He took over the churn and she stepped back to admire him proudly, wiping her hands on her apron. The memory was like a punch in the gut.
“Quiet now,” Skelan warned. “You don’t want to broadcast our presence to every creature in the forest, do you?”
Kwado had not realized he was sobbing. He knew the hunter was right, but it was difficult to choke back the tears. His heart felt so empty and his sorrow seemed to have a mind of its own, rising up out of his gut in trembling gasps. The hunter sighed and poured the hot liquid from the canister over the ground herbs. The mixture immediately congealed, turning into a blue putty-like substance that smelled like moldy potatoes. Skelan nodded, satisfied with his concoction, and brought it over.
Kwado flared his nostrils and turned his face away. “Yuck. What is that stuff?”
“Behki root,” Skelan said. “Normally I’d add some lavender oil to cut the stench, but…” He paused, letting the insinuation hang.
Kwado knew what he meant to say. But why waste it on a troll.
The hunter shrugged. “Stinky or not, this’ll heal up those wounds on your thighs well enough.” He grabbed a branch off the ground and used a knife to peel away the outer layer of bark. Using the bare branch, he spread the concoction on Kwado’s skin. Kwado hissed as the putty foamed white around the cuts, a sign that it was stripping away the bacteria and dirt. He grasped a handful of dirt, tearing it out of the ground as easy as shreds of paper.
Skelan eyed the clump of soil in the troll’s right hand and shifted away from him a little. For the first time since they had met, Kwado noticed how tense the hunter was. Is he afraid of me? he thought, unable to comprehend how such a hardened man could be unnerved by someone as harmless as him.
The putty began to harden, leaving a cool tingling sensation over Kwado’s thighs and numbing the throbbing pain of the wounds.
Skelan grunted and left him alone. The hunter found some apples stored in his saddlebag and fed them to his horse as he patted her neck lovingly.
“She’s a beautiful mare,” Kwado said, forcing himself not to slip back into brooding silence.
“You hear that, Tash?” Skelan said close to the mare’s ear with a foolish grin. “The troll thinks you’re pretty. You ain't gonna fall in love with 'em and run off on me are you?” The mare bucked her head and snorted, pawing the ground with her front hoof.
“Wow,” Kwado said. “It’s like she understood you.”
“’Course she did,” Skelan said. “Tash understands everything we say and do.” The mare added to that by giving a whinny before chomping down on another apple.
Kwado decided to play along. “You know what she’s trying to say?”
“She said you’re not her type. Not enough hair on your chin,” Skelan shot the horse a wide grin.
She neighed and rocked her head. If Kwado did not know any better, he would swear the mare had just laughed at Skelan’s joke.
“Plus you’re too green for her,” Skelan added.
Kwado bowed his head and frowned. The horse whinnied and bumped the side of her head against Skelan. The hunter looked thoroughly abashed, cowed by the mare’s ire.
“Sorry, troll,” he grumbled.
“That’s a neat trick,” Kwado said. “How do you get her to do it?”
Skelan rubbed her mane tenderly. “She’s my wife. Witch trapped her in a horse’s body, but she’s still in there.”
Kwado did not know what to say. It seemed the hunter was a big bag of crazy that he was not equipped to handle.
“Uh, sure…. What am I going to do now?” Kwado asked, more to himself than anything.
Skelan shrugged. “You’ll have to move on…make a new life.”
“Can I come with you?” Kwado asked hopefully.
“Can’t take no trolls with us where we’re going,” Skelan said with an air of finality.
Kwado nodded. He had already expected as much. “I could head back to Westfall. Someone has to bury my kin, and I could look after the farm.”
“Doubt that’d be a good idea,” Skelan said. “After the Sheriff reports the fate of Westfall to the baron, he’s likely to dispatch soldiers to the village to look into it. Besides, that beady-eyed fella didn’t look none too happy to see you, and he didn’t do you no favors with the lawmen neither.”
Kwado frowned. Skelan’s logic was sound as a drum. Even if he could get back to the village and remain unnoticed by the baron’s men, Finnigin was sure to pay him a visit sooner or later. The only thing that had stopped that drunk from attacking him all these years was his pa and the mayor, and they were both gone now, like so much ash in the kiln.
But there had to be somewhere he could go. He thought for a few moments, rubbing his chin pensively. An idea came to him and he snapped his fingers. “Aunt Lobelia!”
“Who’s-that-now?” Skelan said, stringing together the question as one long word.
“She always did have a kind word for me,” Kwado said. “Aunt Lobelia comes around the farm at least once a year to visit and celebrate her and Ma’s birthday. They’re twins you know…were twins.” His excitement ebbed out. “How am I going to tell her about Ma and Pa?” he whispered.
“Hmm,” Skelan said, rubbing the kinks out of his mustache, “and where does this Aunt Lobelia live? One of the southern pass caves?”
“Cave?” Kwado laughed. “Why would she live in a—oh right, ‘cause that’s where trolls live.”
“Hey, no reason to get offended. It's an honest enough question. Don’t go blaming me that all your kin live in caves.”
“None of my kin live in caves,” Kwado said adamantly. “I was raised by humans in a farm house. And Aunt Lobelia lives…she lives in…” He paused, at a loss. “I don’t remember the name of the town. Peri-something. Or was it Pre-ka?”
“Preaknot?” Skelan said. Kwado’s eyes focused and he nodded his head emphatically. “Are you daft? That’s over twenty leagues from here.”
Kwado firmed up his jaw stubbornly. “I’ll walk as far as I have to.”
“Not without getting caught, you won’t. Look, troll, just because I came to your aid, crazy as I am, doesn’t mean any other human this side of the kingdom is going to do anything other than chase you with torches and pitchforks.” Kwado’s eye widened and he shrank back. Skelan shook his head. “Boy, you are one odd duck. The best thing you can do for yourself is travel west of here, to the Barrel Canyon. Find yourself a cave there among your own kind, where you fit in.”
“That’s where the other trolls live?” Kwado asked.
“Sure. Trolls, bugbears, hobgoblins—you name it, they’re there.”
“It would be interesting to see what other trolls are like. Still…I think I’ll take my chances getting to Peri-not to live with my Aunt Lobelia.”
The hunter sighed. “Take my advice on this one. You do not want to go to Preaknot. It’s too dangerous out here for a troll like you, especially headed in that direction.” Skelan pointed his thumb over his shoulder northeast. “In case you missed it back there, those guys hung you by the neck to die and stabbed you for good measure. What’s going to happen when some sympathetic sap like me isn’t around to cut you down? Or worse yet, when one of them knuckle-dragging hillbillies you come across actually knows the only way to off a troll for good is to either crush in his skull or set him on fire?”
Kwado cringed at the threat of fire. It had always troubled him. He had a healthy fear of the stuff, ingrained into the core of his being.
Skelan saw his anxiety and leaned forward, speaking earnestly. “Come on, troll, just head to Barrel Canyon and start a new life for yourself. Forget all about these lands and their misery.”
Kwado nodded begrudgingly. “Okay, I’ll do it. First thing in the morning I’ll head west.”