Chapter 25: Falling Down
Hours passed by in a blur, lost beneath an endless abyss of branches and bramble rushing toward him in his unyielding flight through the forest beyond the town limits. Some miles back, around the same time that he turned away from the view of Baron Frankel in his second-story window, he had ceased to be Kwado, devolving into some baser version of himself, one that would finally give Finnigin reason to say, “Here be monsters.”
He was a monster now, just as they had always wanted him to be, grunting under sheets of rain, long fingers clawing through the mud and up overgrown hillocks, sharp teeth gnashing together in rage and despair. If any hapless wanderer came upon him in the northern woods that night, the thunder roiling overhead and darkness broken by flashes of lightning, they would probably have died of fright.
It was unclear why, whether due to the thunderstorm subsiding or the strength ebbing out of Kwado’s legs, but finally he slowed to a crawl. Jumping down into a shallow ravine, where a winding creek ran through the forest, he fell to his knees and stared down at his hands.
He had killed a man. How could he have done such a heinous thing? His temples throbbed with pent-up rage. He wanted to scream until his skin peeled back and the world burst apart. He needed to rage and tear apart the earth around him in order to devour that sorrow. But he did not. Instead he punched the wet earth a few times and howled, the sound of it echoing through the woods.
Kwado clamped his mouth shut at once. Quiet, you ignoramus, he thought. Why not just broadcast your position to the baron’s men with big glowing letters? He tilted his head sideways, listening intently to the dying wind. Branches swayed under the gusts of wind, creaking into one another like the clacking of bones. Leaves emptied puddles of water onto the forest floor. No sounds of soldiers or dogs were to be found.
They couldn’t have followed me all this way, he thought with a snort.
Of course they could, you idiot. You killed their general. Those soldiers are going to hunt you to the ends of the earth to put you down.
Kwado’s stomach felt like it was flipped upside down, and he bit his lip. Either way he must have bought himself some time. There was no way the soldiers could have kept up with the way he had raced through the woods, and he had not heard the sounds of hounds for hours.
A mishmash of lacerations lined his arms, shoulders, cheeks and bare feet—wounds from the sharp branches he whipped past on his trek toward nothing. The moon peeked from behind the rolling blanket of clouds for only a moment, revealing a glimmer on his forearm. Kwado curiously fingered it. Pain seized him, radiating from the glass, but his skin felt odd. He immediately pulled back, the pointy edge of the glass shard stuck in his arm pricking his fingertip. He sucked on the bleeding digit and cursed, turning his arm and inspecting it closer. At least a dozen more shards of glass stuck out of his green skin, souvenirs from his jump through the second-story window.
He tried to pull the glass free, but it only made him cry out. I have to do something to keep quiet, just in case I’m wrong about the soldiers’ distance, he thought.
He searched his person for something to muffle his mouth with, but his clothes were torn to shreds. He had been half naked when Todrick stumbled upon them as it was, and his pants were in tatters from the knees down, the fine fabric better suited to a royal gala than a mad dash through a forest. Even his stockings were nothing more than loose pieces of fabric clinging to his ankles, his feet covered in thick mud and pain. The phalatite hanging around his neck was his only remaining possession.
I’m not biting down on that, he thought.
A thick branch the size of his fist caught his eye. Kwado seized it and placed it in his mouth, adjusting it until he could bite down. Pulling the glass out hurt fiercely, but now his cries were muffled and he made fast work of the job, eager to get it over. Sometime in the middle of prying glass shards from his skin, the rain started up again, more of a steady drizzle now than the intense thunderstorm that had passed. The rainwater stung his wounds, which bled out in watery rivulets, mingling with the puddles and mud. Finally, he spit out the branch, a mangled mess of splintered wood.
How could she do that to me? He wondered, angry at Margerite for her betrayal.
You should have listened to Baron Frankel in the first place. He warned you to stay away from her, specifically told you she was trouble. But did you listen?
Still on his knees, Kwado bowed his head in shame, cowed by his own reasoning. All he had to do was stay in his room for one more day and none of this would be happening. Why did he have to leave the party? Why did he go into Margerite’s room? Why? What he had at the baron’s estate was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That made two such blessings he had been given in his life. Two chances to live like a normal human, and he had royally blown both of them, first by failing his parents in their hour of need, and now through his own foolishness. Why did he have to be so stupid? Why did he have to be born a troll?
Once again he punched the muddy bank of the creek. Over and over, he drove his knuckles down onto the soil, until his fist slipped forward on the slick substance, pulling his body down flat. He lay there sobbing, the side of his face half-buried in the mud, and finally gave up. Kwado curled into a ball on his side and whispered his ma’s name until exhaustion overwhelmed him and he passed out.
The first thing Kwado saw upon waking was a crooked face, green and wet as a swamp, gazing down at him with yellow eyes and leering rows of teeth that protruded from a crooked overbite. To say he screamed like a girl would be a disservice to frightened women everywhere, because the high note that Kwado managed to hit would have been enough to make banshees cover their ears, if they had hands or eardrums.
Quick as a field mouse, he scrambled backward with his butt dragging in the mud, trying to get away from the ghastly creature. His back slammed against the shallow wall of dirt that marked the drop down to the creek bed that the hag stood in. He had never seen another troll out in the wild and worked hard not to look at her breasts, which were uncovered and drooped like rotting gourds, as she watched him with the detached curiosity of a mountain lion.
“What do you want with me?” he said, a bit too loudly.
The troll blinked in astonishment and leaned back as if he had struck her. She quickly recovered and hobbled out of the water to hunch over his spot on the ground. Long talons reached for him and Kwado tensed, clutching a rock that he might use to protect himself. But when her hand stayed where it was, outstretched with the palm up, he frowned.
“You want to help me up?” he said uncertainly.
The trolless responded by grunting and shaking her hand expectantly. Kwado reached out slowly. She snatched hold of his hand and wrenched him from the ground as if he weighed no more than a babe. Upright, he stood a head or two taller than she, but that was mostly due to her hunched posture, which seemed the byproduct of a large bulbous growth on her back that he had previously been unable to see. He did his best to mask his revulsion upon spotting the hump, feigning a cough and quickly covering his mouth to block out her odor, like that of a rotting fish.
It seemed to work, as she the trolless turned and hobbled a few steps back into the creek water. She stopped, craning her too long neck back to gaze at him over her hump. She waved insistently.
“You want me to follow you?” he asked.
She grunted and continued her trek, crossing the creek and moving swiftly up the other side of the shallow ravine, back into the woods. He was surprised by the speed with which she moved, given the hunchback and hobbling nature of her gait, and had to run to catch up with her. The trolless led him through the woods for a short time, periodically stopping to check that he was keeping up, always with a grunt or snort.
They came to a tight copse dotted with boulders that looked like the jagged teeth of the forest itself. The ground here felt smooth, with river stones interspersed throughout the thick grass. Kwado wondered how long ago the river level had risen so high. They skirted a steep hill, coming to a place where a thick rocky overhang jutted from its midsection, a natural awning to the cave underneath.
“Bloody hell,” Kwado groaned to himself. After all this, he was to become a cave troll after all.
The trolless stopped short and spun about, hissing at him, her eyes narrow and angry. He held up his hands in apology, wondering how she could understand him if she did not speak the common tongue.
A shape stirred inside the cave, numerous shapes actually. Kwado gasped when several trolls came out into the open air. They were of varying shapes and sizes, all with two legs and arms, but some gangly to the point of looking branch-like and others covered with spiny protrusions around their neck and shoulders. He subconsciously rubbed the skin around the back of his neck, where he had recently sanded down a calloused bump, knowing now what happened when the growths were left unchecked.
The trolless stepped to the side, grunting to her pack and gesturing to Kwado. Dozens of yellow eyes were on him, some with distrust, others curiosity. Two of the ganglier trolls, one male and one female, circled him, sniffing with long hooked noses. Kwado turned as the male stalked behind him, none too keen to put his back to the savage. He held his hands out and it was as if a dog were learning his scent for the first time. While the troll sniffed at his fingers, he had a mad fear that one of them might bite him at any moment.
The female poked him hard in the side, her talon jabbing right between his ribs.
“Hey!” Kwado said, spinning about to glare at her. “Knock it off, that hurt.”
A gasp ran through them, and as a group they moved back, one of them even whimpering and bowing low as he dragged his knuckles across the ground and bolted back toward the entrance of the cave.
“Oh no,” Kwado said quickly. “I didn’t mean to frighten you. Please don’t be afraid. I’m just ticklish, is all.”
The running troll slowed down and crouched low with his knees up to his ears and his bottom on the ground, loosely covered with a strip of cloth tied around his waist.
“What is noise outside Gam’s sleeping hole?” a deep scratchy voice demanded from inside the cave, followed by the emergence of a very, very large troll. The gathering around Kwado grew excited, jumping up and down and hooting, running around him and falling in the dirt on their knees, pointing at the newcomer.
The troll, who Kwado assumed must be Gam, stopped just outside his cave and locked eyes on him. One of the trolls moved closer to Gam’s face and trilled a line of hoots, pointing back at the trolless when he was done.
Ah, the snitch, Kwado thought. Every group inevitably had one in their midst.
“Ragga?” Gam said, questioning the trolless who had brought Kwado there.
The trolless responded to the obvious accusation calmly, bowing to Gam and murmuring a series of grunts. Gam patiently listened to her, his eyes twin beads of red, then shoved the snitch back and directed his attention back to Kwado.
“Go away,” Gam barked then turned back toward his cave.
The trolls hooted and jumped in Kwado’s face, waving their arms to shoo him away. He felt a sudden rush of panic sweep over him. Even if it meant living with a bunch of real trolls, he did not want to be alone.
Ragga blocked Gam’s path and grunted, gesturing to Kwado with a series of nods as she spoke.
Gam turned back to him. “Asleep by creek?” he said, making it sound like an accusation.
Kwado nodded sheepishly.
“Go back to your pack, lost goat,” Gam said.
“I don’t have any,” Kwado said. “Any pack, that is.”
Gam lifted his thick curled eyebrows. “It speaks human words? Why Ragga not say so?”
The trolless grunted. So her name was Ragga. Gam made a braying noise, but it was deep and guttural, making the hairs on Kwado’s ears stand up. “No pack?” he said, studying Kwado carefully from head to toe. “But little goat had one…fancy garments…full belly…ah, wounds. You fight hunters, yes?”
Kwado looked down at the tattered remnants of his trousers. He guessed they would look rather grand to a group of trolls that had maybe ten yards of soiled cloth between two dozen of them. “I did have a pack,” he said, picturing his ma and pa. “But they are all gone now.”
Gam bowed his head in reverence. “Murdered by humans? Gam understands. Too many lost this way.” Gam stepped forward and laid a heavy hand on Kwado’s shoulder. He was disarmed both by the sheer strength that grip belied and the troll’s very odd but sincere attempt to comfort his sorrow. Gam gave one final pat and turned around, pacing toward the cave. “Now we fight, yes?”
Kwado nodded then digested the question. “Wait...did you say fight?” he squeaked.
Gam pressed his hands against the stone of the cave entrance and stretched, his muscles rippling and bulging. The rest of the trolls grew excited, forming a circle around the pair while hooting and hollering. Kwado looked around wildly for some way to escape, but they had him firmly locked in.
Gam turned and held out his arms, stretching and opening his jaw wide. After he was done, he leveled his gaze at Kwado, as calm as could be. “We fight now.”
Kwado tried to say no, tried to explain that trolls should not be fighting amongst themselves, that they had enough troubles in this human dominated world and should stick together, but the most he managed was a sucking sound of shock. Gam rushed him with the ferocity of a bugbear, bowling a stunned Kwado over. He was suddenly pinned down by Gam’s knee in his chest as a fist, solid as an oak tree, smashed into the side of his face.