Chapter 8: Westward Bound
Skelan lingered longer than he meant to for another day, while Kwado got his bearings before packing up and mounting his mare. His potent medicine had worked wonders on Kwado’s wounds, a miracle he attributed partially to the troll’s natural healing abilities.
“Remember, head due west until you reach the Wynie River, then it’s a straight shot south to Barrel Canyon. You can’t miss it.”
“West until Wynie then south,” Kwado repeated with a nod. “Got it.”
“And stay off the roads,” Skelan reminded.
The hunter grinned and leaned down to pat Kwado’s shoulder. “Good speed, troll, good speed.” He turned Tash about and cantered out of the clearing, heading northeast.
Kwado watched the strange man for quite some time as he rode away. Skelan never looked back, not once, and soon disappeared into the woods.
Kwado looked down at the provisions the hunter had left him. They were meager to be sure, but they would do. He gathered them up in the thin roll of fabric Skelan had provided as makeshift blanket and tied it at both ends then looped the rope over his shoulder, wincing at a knot in his back. He would need to keep some of the weight off his back until it healed. He searched the clearing and found a tall sturdy branch, its bark all gone, leaving behind a smooth skeleton that would make the perfect walking stick. Kwado measured its weight in his hands and grunted. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do.
With one last look to the southeast, half expecting to see the hunter watching him from afar, he turned toward his path, the open road…to the east.
Badgers and bull-puckey if I’m going to put my fate in the hands of some old codger, he thought with a snort.
All his life he had been an outsider, shunned and left to the wayside. Did Skelan think he was the first man to ever suggest Kwado would be better off living some place like Barrel Canyon with the other trolls? Well, he did not want to live with the other trolls in their stinking caves, preying on innocents and living like primitives.
Skelan was nice enough, in his own way, and Kwado knew he could never repay the debt he owed the hunter for saving his life, but he would be damned if he was going to slink off into the wilds like some coward. Pa had taught him better than that. Kwado was certain his Aunt Lobelia would take him in, and even she didn’t, she had a right to know what had become of her sister and brother-in-law. He owed them that much at least.
The first couple hours of hiking went well, but soon he found his legs were still quite weak, and even with the walking stick his back began to ache. He treaded the uneven floor of the forest as carefully as possible and pushed thoughts of pain and weariness to the side. There was a lot of ground to cover, and he was not going to waste what was left of the day.
As was wont to happen lately, his thoughts eventually turned inward, back to that awful vision of the smoking skull in the charred remains of the chapel. Kwado closed his eyes tight and shook his head, forcing himself to think of other things.
But what? My whole life has been about family and working the onion fields. So what do I think on, now that all I have ever known has been stripped away? He could not say. There was no answer in the wall of bricks that made up his life’s experiences for how to handle such loss. He tried focusing on happier times, reminiscing about the great dinner they had shared last year for his birthday, or the time the three of them had built a snowman, but each happy recollection eventually led to teary eyes and a tight throat. He wondered how he could ever again recall a loving moment with his parents without feeling that stab of despair and guilt.
That was an odd thought. It gave him pause. Why should he be guilty? Because I'm still alive. He tried to focus on something else, the sound of the leaves rustling overhead, a flying squirrel making its way from one tree to the next, the way the grass tickled his toes each time he stepped down. He grinned. If his ma saw him walking about barefoot, she’d have given him a tongue-lashing. That pain throbbed in his chest.
“Damn it,” he groaned, noting that the sun would be going down in a few hours. I’ve got to stop…at least for a little while or I’ll never be able to make it all the way to Preaknot.
Aunt Lobelia was a soft-spoken old woman. She owned a small business repairing socks for people in her town. He wondered how he might be able to help her with that. He certainly had no real experience with a needle and thread, not with his fat fingers. Perhaps she would allow him to dig an onion garden outside her cottage. Did she own a cottage, or did she rent her place? Kwado liked to think she was the type of woman who had a cottage.
With thoughts of the future circling his mind, he travelled through the woods for another hour, shifting between thoughts of his recent loss and hopes for his future with his Aunt Lobelia. Though he was mired in despair, he remained alert, looking out for signs of wild animals and hunters.
Voices in the trees shook him out of his thoughts. Kwado snapped his head in their direction and quickly ducked behind a tree.
He scanned the area and quickly found the source. It was a group of badgers! And he had almost walked right into their midst. Though the three-foot-tall creatures were only sitting in a circle, playing cards and chatting about their own recent Summer Festival, he knew better than to reveal himself. Pa had always said, ‘You can never trust a badger. They’d sell the shirt off your back if they couldn’t pilfer it first, and they can. You ever see one, walk the other way.’
Kwado had come across one or two of the creatures when he and Pa would deliver their pickled onions to the traders in Dugenfel. Pa always made Kwado wear a heavy hooded robe that he could barely see out of, but he remembered catching a glimpse of the badgers hawking their goods at the bazaar. Pa was sure their merchandise was stolen and always made a point of giving the small creatures a wide berth.
It was different to see them out in the wild, enjoying a friendly game of cards. Up close, they did not seem so bad. The badgers wore cotton vests with corduroy shorts cut at the knee and thick sandals—their summer wear. Kwado’s eyes settled on the sheath of a small dagger at one’s waist, the brown leather a stark contrast to its furry black paws. His eye twitched at seeing the weapon and a pall of fear fell over him.
He decided to walk back the way he had come, hoping to skirt far around their gathering and avoid detection. Even if it added hours to his travel, it would be worth it.
Kwado turned, and his eyes bulged in their sockets and he sucked in a breath, freezing in his tracks. He was face to face—or more appropriately waist to face—with a badger. The diminutive creature was just arriving to meet his mates when he saw the troll and froze in place himself. Kwado gripped his walking stick with two shaky hands and looked like he had just swallowed a cat.
The badger lifted a cautious hand and pulled back his hood. A white stripe ran from the top of his head to his wet nose, mirrored on either side by white markings over his small brown eyes and rounded ears. The rest of him was black as a skunk, and Kwado realized the two creatures looked eerily similar. Wait, can badgers spray you with a stink?
“Oy,” the badger said in a low voice. “No need to get excited. We don’t want any problems, gent.”
There was a sound of rustling leaves behind him, and Kwado flicked his gaze over his shoulder to find the rest of the badgers roused from their game, peering through the trees to see who was speaking. One of them caught a glimpse of him and let out a scream, snatching a dagger from the front of its vest.
“Stay back,” Kwado said, disappointed at the command when it came through quivering lips like a whine. He vigorously shook the walking stick to make up for it.
The badger held up his paw to his mates, urging them to keep their distance. “No one’s movin’ anywhere, troll. See?”
“Now, what’s it you want—our food? Some drink perhaps? Surely we can work sometin’ out wit’ a stout fellow like yourself. There’s coin to spare for all, eh?”
Kwado furrowed his brow, a thick ridge of green. “I’m robbing you? You think I want your money?”
The badger took a deep gulp. “Please, troll, have a mercy. I’ve a wife and kid at home to support, and Jebidia there has a sick uncle he tends.”
Kwado shook his head. The badger was making no sense. He was clearly trying to confuse Kwado so they could get the jump on him. He looked sideways at the rest of the group. They were closer than before. He had to get out of there. “I-I don’t want any trouble. Just want to go on my way.”
The badger cocked its head to the side and squinted one eye at him, trying to understand the troll’s angle. A twig snapped just behind Kwado, and he glanced back to see one of the badgers rushing in with his dagger raised.
“Tobias, no!” the badger in front of him screamed.
That was it. Kwado swung his walking stick wide, catching his attacker in the mid-section hard enough to send him rolling sidelong. He stood still, staring at the dazed creature lying in the grass and moaning in shock. It felt like the world was pulsing with red light. He felt a rush of ecstasy knowing how powerful he was.
But the feeling turned sour when the rest of the badgers fell to their knees, begging for him to spare their lives. Kwado suddenly felt ashamed. He took a shaky step back and stared at the walking stick in disgust. He threw it away from himself as if it were a snake and turned away from the badgers, sprinting into the woods.
What have I done?
Kwado had never harmed another creature a day in his life. Even the idea of it grated against the core of who he was, who his pa had raised him to be. He ran hard through the woods, oblivious of how much noise he might be making. An albino deer bounded out of his path, its eyes glazed over in irrational fear. Kwado felt a heavy pang in his stomach at that look. He had been on the receiving end of similar looks all his life, but for the first time he felt he deserved it.
That only made him run all the harder, guilt nipping at his heels and devouring his guts. He had a fleeting glimpse of his ma finding out he had beat up a badger, a creature easily half his size. He groaned and fought back the tears, funneling the emotion into fuel to increase his pace. He felt as if he might be sick but swallowed it down, refusing to allow himself that measure of comfort, knowing that it would make his stomach feel better. No, he deserved the churning feeling wracking his gut. It was a fit punishment for his actions.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity running eastward, Kwado slowed to a crawling pace. His breathing was heavy and ragged, and the cuts on his thighs felt like they were on fire. He stopped to catch his breath, bending over with hands on his knees. There was movement behind him.
Did they follow me this whole way? He spun around.
There was no one there, just a night thrush pecking at a tree. Kwado sighed and wiped the sheen of sweat from his thick brow and hooked nose. He had put more than enough distance between himself and the badgers and was safely out of reach of their retribution. He took one more deep breath to steady himself, stood straight, and stepped forward to resume his trek eastward.
There was a snap, and he wondered what the wiry thing he had just broken against his ankle was. It was immediately followed by the unmistakable sound of clicking and pulleys spinning overhead. Kwado scarcely had time to say, “What the fffaahh—?” before a heavy stone weight fell out of a nearby tree and the ground lifted up. Leaves flew in a fluttering burst in every direction, revealing the wide net underneath him.
He tried to jump out of the way, but it was too late. The stone came down and the net lifted up, simple as that, carrying with it a bundle of troll. His face pressed against the thick rope that tightened around his body and dangled him twenty feet in the air. A pulley locked into place and there was another sharp click followed by the sound of a small fuse being lit. A tiny firework shot up into the sky, bursting with a red flare to alert his trappers they had caught another prize.
After all that commotion the forest fell silent. The thrush and all the other happy forest creatures had retreated, none of them foolish enough to hang about while the trappers were on the move. Kwado thought about trying to gnaw his way out of the netting, but even if he could manage it, the drop would either kill him or cripple him.
Skelan’s words of warning came back to him and he cursed the man for his foresight. Why couldn’t he have predicted I’d be coming into a lot of pies or something else useful? He knew it was not Skelan’s fault he was in this predicament, but it made him feel a little better to direct his ire toward the hunter. Long hours passed, the sun setting beyond the horizon, and Kwado eventually succumbed to sleep.
Sounds of movement below woke him from a dream where he was running from a badger with Finnigin’s face. He opened his eyes to find three men below. They were a burly lot, with thick unkempt beards, plaid flannel shirts, and bright red suspenders.
“I don’t know how we have such miserable luck,” one of the men complained.
“Cease your prattling this instant, uncouth knave, and lend assistance to your partner in freeing that spring,” the tallest man barked.
“Hold up, fellas,” the third man said. “Our game’s awake.”
It took Kwado a moment to realize the man meant him. He stared down at them with wide eyes, wondering what they were going to do with him now that they had him all trussed up. The tall strange-speaking man unslung a crossbow from over his shoulder, loaded it, and leveled it at Kwado.
“P-please…don’t,” Kwado said.
“Aw, the wittle monster is afwaid, Horris,” the first trapper said.
Horris did not take his eyes or weapon off Kwado. “Fiend, mine boys hither art going to bring thou down,” he said. “If thou so much as favors me with an ill-tempered glare, I shall seed a bolt right between thine eyes. Does thou understand me?”
Kwado meekly nodded, too afraid to speak. Horris motioned for the other two to unwind the rope.
“I don’t know,” the third man said. “Think we’d be better off to just kill the thing and get it over with.” His friend spit to the side in agreement.
Horris gunted. “Perchance you’ve touched on a moot of wisdom. ‘Twould have been better by far had we snared a bear or some equally furry beast.” He paused, obviously pondering whether he should just kill the troll. Kwado looked back at him with pleading eyes that seemed to fill the trapper with disgust. He shook his head, making up his mind. “There’s good enough chinks in slaving the beast out. Bringeth it down.”
The third man grunted and shouldered his companion out of the way, chopping down with a short sword. The rope freed and spun through the hidden pulleys so quickly that they began to smoke, and Kwado’s net came down fast, slamming him into the ground.
“Good lord, man,” Horris said. “The beast is of naught to us in pieces.”
“Bah, trolls heal fast enough.” The man waved off his concern. “Least this way it’s maimed enough for us to transport.”
Kwado was too dazed to hear the men. He tried to lift his head but the effort brought a swooning darkness over his being, and for the second time that week the world rushed up to meet him.
Horris licked his lips and stared at Kwado’s unconscious body with hungry eyes. “The quarry will pay good money for this whelp.”