Chapter 21: Poolside Attractions
Despite that first evening, Kwado kept his promise to Baron Frankel. Four days passed with the baron’s unexpected guests making themselves at home in his estate and around the city. And all throughout that time, Kwado had managed to steer clear of them, which proved a difficult task as they seemed to be everywhere he went. He was forced to become vigilant in his efforts. The only time he spent with either of them was during dinner, with the baron always in attendance. Todrick made use of these opportunities to throw whatever insults he could Kwado’s way, but the troll calmly held his tongue, respecting the baron far too much to insult his guest.
On the fifth afternoon, he retrieved a book from Baron Frankel’s library, the latest he was to read to the older man, and headed to the gardens to preview it. He liked to do that, reading through upcoming chapters so that he was better able to deliver the story or recite a line of poem with proper rhythm.
Of all the places on the baron’s grounds, Kwado enjoyed sitting and reading among the flowers in the gardens the most. The grass outside was crowned in a thin layer of silver, dawn’s lingering frost waiting for the deep afternoon to melt it away. The smell of freshly dug earth and the cooler air of the coming winter always reminded him of a simpler time, when he and Pa flipped and dressed the onion fields at the end of the growing season. People would be amazed to find how much of their crops got their start during the winter months.
He left the main house through a side entrance, the better to avoid unexpected encounters. There was a little used path there that ran along the length of the estate. It was a peaceful stroll that Kwado quite relished.
Unfamiliar sounds came from ahead. An old stone wall on his left skirted the main house, all but swallowed by overgrown vines with iridescent pink flowers. The noise, he determined, was coming from the other side of the wall. It only occurred to Kwado at that moment that he had never bothered exploring what might be back there. Before he knew what he was doing, he followed the curve of the wall, abandoning his path to the gardens.
This wall is much longer than it looks, he thought as the main building fell away, replaced by a grove of apple trees to his right. Farther ahead, Kwado spotted a wide archway breaking up the wall. He slowed his pace and came to the lip of it, leaning quietly around it to get a view inside.
A handful of soldiers clad in chainmail sat about drinking while they watched a pair of men fighting in an empty pool. The pool looked as if it had at one time been truly magnificent to behold. It was at least four feet deep, lined with smooth black stones and surrounded by stepped tiers housing stone benches. Large ceramic pots sat on either side of each stepped tier, likely once filled with exotic floral arrangements suitable for such grand nobility as used to reside in the estate. Now those urns lay empty, their rounded bases splintered open and their peeled white paint smothered by moss, much like the statues at the four corners of the large walled-in area. A deep crack ran through the center of the pool at a rough angle.
Kwado wondered why the baron did not have the pool kept up, since he was so meticulous about every other aspect of his estate and surrounding city, constantly working to realign their meager resources to keep things up to snuff. Kwado made a mental note to inquire about it, but for now, there was something far more interesting playing out in the pool.
He instantly recognized the soldiers. They were Todrick’s Ninth Garrison, hardened men and women who had accompanied him from Barstow, his personal military unit traveling to strike the enemy in his heartland. As usual, they were getting drunk early in the afternoon. Kwado hoped they fought as well as they drank, otherwise the battle in the north was going to be short-lived. Margerite sat by the pool, kicking her legs as if they were splashing in water, though the pool was dry as a bone. She looked thoroughly bored.
Steel clashed and the men cheered, swilling their drink from oiled waterskins. Todrick was in the pool, sparring with two others, both of them clad head to toe in platemail armor. Todrick, on the other hand, was naked from the waist up, his golden skin shiny and slick with sweat. His platinum hair was pulled back behind his head with a black length of cord, and he wore studded gauntlets around his wrists. The blade he fought with was different than the one he usually had at his belt. This one was two-handed, and he wielded it as effortlessly as if it were another appendage.
One of his men rushed in with his shoulder, thinking to tackle him with brute force and take away the advantage such a long weapon bestowed. Todrick deftly stepped out of the way, circling the soldier as if he was toying with a crippled mouse. His flat of his blade slapped the back of the man’s thighs. The metal connected with a loud gong of steel cracking against steel. With that move, Kwado could see the effortless strength Todrick expelled. The soldier fell hard to his knees, spilling his own sword and using his shield to stop his fall. Instead of finishing him off, Todrick fell to the ground and rolled across the pool like a spinning log. Kwado was puzzled why he would waste such an opportunity with the odd maneuver, but then the second soldier’s halberd chopped down where he had been. The halberd was a long spear-like weapon with an axe head near the top, and when the blade hit the stone floor of the pool, the man’s arms shook violently.
“He is very skilled, is he not?” Margerite said from just beside Kwado.
His heart jumped ten feet out of his chest, but he bit back a yelp. Kwado looked back and forth a few times between where Margerite had been and where she now stood. He had been so engrossed in the sparring match, he had not even noticed her approach.
“What?” he said.
“My brother,” she said, gesturing to the pool. “He is quite the skilled fighter, wouldn’t you agree?"
“He moves like a demon,” Kwado agreed.
Margerite giggled. “He would like to hear that…only…” Her voice trailed off as turned her head purposefully away from him.
“Not from a troll?”
Margerite shrugged. “Todrick has his own view of the world, and since a large chunk of it will be his to rule one day, who can blame him?”
“Heaven help us,” Kwado said, forgetting his place.
One of the men cried out. Kwado turned to find the distressed soldier pressed against the ground. The heel of Todrick’s boot pinned his shoulder blade and he pulled the soldier’s arm back at an unnatural angle. Todrick’s grip was relentless, his victory accentuated by the tip of his blade resting against the nape of the man’s neck. “I yield! Yield!” the soldier screamed, but Todrick only laughed harder and pulled back further. The muscles in his arm flexed, chiseled as if from marble, a statue of some Adonis made real. Kwado suddenly realized he hated this man. He remembered Sebastian from Westfall, but where he had been kind and giving, Todrick was narcissistic and cruel.
He found himself enviously fixated on Todrick’s body though. How different would Kwado’s world be if it were he who had a solid square chin, a sturdy nose, and arms of the proper length? What would await him if his own hair was platinum and shiny, and his skin the same fair complexion, instead of sickly green? Oh, how his world would be different.
The first soldier, who had fallen, rushed in from behind his gloating leader, slamming his rounded shield into the unaware man’s back. The blow knocked Todrick off his companion hard enough to make even Kwado flinch. Todrick was clearly taken by surprise, but that did little to slow him down. He fell forward, in complete control of his body, rolling in continuous somersaults like some human ball to the other end of the pool and shifting so that his sword was held out at length to keep his attacker back. The soldier almost ran right into the blade, stopping at the last moment and parrying it to the side with his shield.
“You like watching them fight, don’t you?” Margerite said.
Kwado realized he was gaping at the men. He followed her gaze down to his hand, and found it balled up in a fist. Kwado relaxed his grip and shook his fingers loose as scarlet bloomed around his cheeks.
“Where did he learn such things?” Kwado asked.
Margerite yawned. “What spoiled little duke doesn’t grow up with a sword in his hand and a personal battlemaster in his employ?”
“Still, he must have practiced long to become so skilled. And you cannot deny he is quite adept,” Kwado said.
“My brother and a good many of his men are skilled in civilized battle tactics,” Margerite said, then turned a wicked eye on him. “But none of them are as strong as a troll.” The way she said troll made it sound like she was referring to some rare delicacy.
His face flushed harder. “I’m really not that strong. I just look big.”
“Someone’s being modest,” Margerite teased. Kwado nearly jumped back when she suddenly seized his bulging bicep. She squealed delightfully when she gave it a squeeze and it didn’t budge. “It’s like a coconut!”
Kwado’s face was hot and he fumbled for the right words, but all that came out was, “What is a ko-ko-nut?”
“Troll!” Todrick bellowed from the pool.
Kwado found the knight pointing at him with the tip of his blade. One of his soldiers was lying on his back panting, while the other stood beside him, gazing darkly in the same direction. In fact, as Kwado looked around, he found every eye in the pool was on him.
“Unhand my sister, you cur!” Todrick snapped.
Kwado took a step back and shook his head, only to find Margerite still clutching his arm and smiling spitefully back at her brother. He tried to pull away from her, but she looked up at him with doe eyes. “I think it’s time I took my leave,” he said in a low voice.
“Aw, don’t rush away just because Todrick is being a bully,” she said.
“What are you two whispering about?” Todrick growled something to his men and stomped out of the pool toward Kwado.
“No, really, I don’t want any trouble,” Kwado said. Margerite shot him a toothy grin that he could not gauge and held firm.
“Did you not hear me, troll?” Todrick snarled, suddenly standing before him and throwing a hand into his chest. “I said unhand my sister!”
Kwado did not move an inch.
All conversation in the pool yard died out. A flicker of uncertainty crossed Todrick’s eyes as he followed Kwado’s gaze down to his hand on the troll’s chest. Kwado stood slightly taller than the knight and squared his shoulders.
“I am sorry, Todrick. But, as you can see, I have no control over where Margerite chooses to touch me.”
Todrick’s face turned a shade of red that did not look healthy.
This did not trouble Kwado, but when the he saw look of discomfort on Margerite’s face, he backpedaled. “Err, that is, she will grab what she likes. No, that’s not right. I just meant Margerite is her own woman.”
Several of the soldiers laughed, as did as Margerite, who seemed to delight in his squirming.
This time Todrick shoved Kwado with all of his strength. “You will not speak of my sister with such familiarity, troll!”
Kwado was forced back a step. Todrick’s hand swept to his side, to the hilt of his sword. Kwado shook Margerite away easily and balled his hand up into a fist.
Todrick’s gaze fell to Kwado’s fist. The crook of his mouth twitched into a smirk that worked slowly up Kwado’s torso until the knight was staring into his eyes. There was bloodlust there, behind the glassy black orbs of his mocking eyes that Kwado was all too familiar with. He had seen that look every day for seventeen years as * came by his farm. He had seen it again the day a rope was tied around his neck and tossed over the bough of an oak tree.
Todrick had prepared all his life for battle, and now, with his journey to the north so close at hand, he longed to wet his blade in the blood of monsters. Kwado saw all of this in his eyes.
Todrick’s voice came out low and grating. “Do you wish to strike me, troll?”
Kwado ground his teeth together and forced himself to take a deep breath. He slowly shook his head.
“Come, troll,” Todrick said. “Join me in a sparring match.”
“I do not know how to use a blade,” Kwado said, “and I have no wish to fight you.”
“Would you look at this?” Todrick called over his shoulder to his men. “Three hundred pounds of muscle, and the monster is scared to spar with me? Guess this campaign is going to be even easier than we thought, aye, fellas?”
The amused men roared and raised their wineskins to their knight regent.
Kwado took that as his cue to slip away. He turned to head back toward the house, but the tip of a blade interrupted his flight, pressed against his throat fast as a serpent. He stopped short and held his breath.
“Where are you going, troll?” Todrick snarled. “I don’t remember dismissing you. Did I?”
Kwado closed his eyes to steady himself again, calming the red-hot throbbing behind his eyes. His muscles flexed of their own accord as adrenaline coursed through his body. Visions of tearing Todrick’s limbs off and chewing the flesh from his face assaulted him.
He opened his eyes and spoke evenly. “I do not need your permission to walk around the estate. Baron Frankel gave me leave to do as I please.”
Todrick’s lips grew thin at his response. Margerite folded her arms over her chest and appraised Kwado with something between admiration and pity. The blade pressed harder, pricking the skin in the center of Kwado’s throat like a needle. The light of the sun glinted off it into his eyes. That heat behind his eyes was growing stronger.
“Is that so?” Todrick said. “Well, I wonder what my dear old uncle might say if I removed that ugly head from your shoulders. What do you think, troll? Would he disown me? Would the Baron of Solomon, blood of my blood, side with a monster over the heir to his lands and title?”
“The only monster I see here has platinum hair and an ego large enough to fill the pool.” Kwado’s wig was tickling the nape of his neck, and it made him want to roar.
“You think you’re a funny little mouse, don’t you?” Todrick said, pressing his blade even harder. A thin line of blood ran down Kwado’s neck into the collar of his shirt. “I wonder how we will laugh, watching you fall to the dirt headless. Is it true, troll? Does your kind regrow body parts like the starfish? Is that where you got this pretty scar from? Did someone cut that fat head off once already? Perhaps that’s why you are so hideous.”
Kwado could not respond. It took every piece of his self-control to keep from falling on Todrick with rending fangs and crushing fists. He wanted to do it too, wanted to release the roaring, slavering beast that ached to come out and wreak havoc upon the puny human in front of him.
“Hello, Master Todrick,” Pousin said.
Neither of them had seen the butler come around the corner, carrying a wide silver tray with both hands. Pousin made a show of ignoring the situation unfolding before him and bowed his head to Todrick.
“An afternoon tea for you, milord,” Pousin said as he stepped past Kwado. The butler took three more steps then tripped, spilling his tray directly onto Todrick.
The knight squealed and jumped back as an avalanche of sandwiches decorated his chest and thighs.
“Oh my!” Pousin declared, jumping forward with a handkerchief already in hand. He dabbed at Todrick’s bare chest, sweeping away bits and pieces of chicken. “I am dreadfully sorry, Your Lordship. Please forgive my clumsiness. I am such a fool.”
Todrick was too busy cursing and trying to fend off the butler’s hands to realize he had dropped his blade on the ground. Kwado eyed it hungrily, a ravenous vision of running the blade through Todrick’s vulnerable stomach overpowering his rational mind.
“Oh, Kwado,” Pousin said off-handedly, “the Baron bid you come see him straight away. He has a very important task for you to handle.”
Kwado blinked, and the world reoriented itself. He held his powdered wig and bowed to the butler before quickly slipping away, leaving behind the pool area, which was filled with Todrick’s curses and Pousin’s apologies.
When he arrived at the house, he found the baron was not even in, and made a mental note to thank Pousin for his clever ruse, though he was beside himself to understand why the butler would help him when he had always loudly deemed Kwado a despicable nuisance.
By the time he made his way to his room and inspected the cut Todrick had made on his neck, it had stopped bleeding and was already well on its way to healing. Kwado stared at himself in the mirror, trying to imagine what Margerite saw in him that made her smile so.
He shook his head and fell back on his bed, repeating his promise to the baron over and over until he fell asleep. It was easier this time, knowing now that he lived among demons.