Chapter 27: Killing Time
The forest was still, the air thick and stagnant from the heat of the midday sun baking the forest floor like a sweltering bread box. As much as Kwado abhorred the foppish powdered wig Baron Frankel had made him wear, he would have given anything to have it for this long hike, anything to sop up some of the sweat that rolled down his forehead in rivulets.
“Aren’t trolls supposed to be nocturnal?” he grumbled to Pak, who marched beside him, his own head stooped under the blazing rays of the sun.
Pak eyed him shrewdly.
Kwado realized his mistake and quickly backtracked. “I mean…my old pack always slept in the daytime.”
The wary troll nodded and released Kwado from his scrutinizing gaze. Kwado let the air out of his lungs. He needed to remember to be more careful about his choice of words. If any of these trolls caught on that he was raised by humans, or if they sensed even the remotest hint of weakness, his life would be miserable.
“Gam is wise one,” Pak said. “Gam say, humans know troll hate sun, hunt troll kin during daylight, when vulnerable.”
“So you travel during the day, when they would least expect it,” Kwado said, regarding Gam, who marched at the front of their entourage. “That is wise. Even if the human settlements you pass suspect there are trolls about, they would never go after them during the night. So you sleep when they sleep and are already on the road by the time they come to where you’ve been staying. Impressive.”
“Pak said, Gam is wise.” Pak nodded, wondering why the young troll repeated everything he had just explained.
The longer Kwado traveled with Gam, the more he understood that Gam was no ordinary troll. Not that Kwado had much experience with his own kind to begin with, but it was clear the rest of the pack was very different from their leader. Gam had roused the pack from their home in Barrel Canyon, convincing the hapless creatures of the need to travel to the north and join Agamon’s ranks. Kwado learned that the warlock was fast becoming something of a legend among Malakar’s less fortunate denizens, a symbol of solidarity among their kind, someone brave enough to stand up to the king. Along their journey, Gam’s pack had absorbed two other clans into their ranks, leaving their previous leaders behind with proper burials after Gam finished with them. When Kwado heard how many innocent creatures the ominous troll had murdered on his way to the northlands, he could not help rubbing the scar around his neck, thinking how lucky he had been to walk away from his first encounter with just a beating.
However, as wise as Gam may have proven to be thus far, or how immensely strong he was, and even though he had taken Kwado in as one of his own clan, Kwado could not stomach the idea that they were heading to confront a wizard. Not only that, but Kwado also held deep reservations over killing a complete stranger...or anyone, for that matter. He had made that mistake once already, with Todrick, and would have to live with the weight of it on his conscience for the rest of his days. He now knew what kind of despicable monster lurked deep inside him. But what Gam proposed was very different. This was pre-meditated. They were actually on their way to the wizard’s tower with the intent to end his life.
When he first heard the news, Kwado’s instincts screamed for him to escape the pack. It was time to set back out on his own for his Aunt Lobelia’s cottage. If he could just make it to Preaknot, he might be able to settle down and live out his days in peace. He even devised a plan to make it happen, offering to take watch the next evening so that he could slip away in the night while everyone was fast asleep. Gam heartily accepted his offer, eager to give the young troll a chance to prove himself.
Except when the time came, Kwado could not do it. Not because he feared being alone or abandoning these new friends who had taken him into their fold. He could not do it because of a flashing realization that came to him as he gazed out at their resting bodies, huddled close together to keep warm in the cool autumn night.
He had offered to watch out for hunters or beasts that might stumble upon this group sleeping out in the open, vulnerable to any that came by. Abandoning that commitment meant putting their lives in jeopardy, a non-issue for someone who believed that trolls deserved it for being…well, trolls. But for Kwado, who had been raised to show compassion for all things, the idea of leaving them to such a fate was unconscionable. Even more so because it drove home another crucial fact.
Whether he stayed or fled, Gam and his pack were still going to murder this wizard fellow. How could Kwado leave, knowing someone was going to die?
That evening Kwado realized what he must do. Before he could search out his Aunt Lobelia, he had to warn the wizard. He spent days puzzling over exactly how such a thing could be accomplished, spending his nights watching the woods for danger and afternoons trying to pry information from the other members of the pack.
So far he had gathered very little information. The man they intended to murder was a wizard named Sabin. It was rumored that he had cheated the warlock once, long ago, and Gam thought if he were to bring the wizard’s heart to the north, it would surely secure their pack’s place amongst Agamon’s highest ranks. The wizard lived in a tower that was said to be guarded by demons, but trolls did not fear demons. Gam vowed that the wizard could send a whole legion of them after him and he would still be victorious. Nothing was going to stop him from joining Agamon.
That was it. Not nearly enough information for Kwado to formulate even a halfway decent plan to escape and warn the wizard. Only Gam knew the tower’s whereabouts, and he was not sharing it with anybody.
Kwado was beginning to give up hope when Gam approached him late one afternoon. He pulled Kwado ahead of the pack to walk with him and chat.
“Come, Little Goat,” Gam said.
“I-Is everything alright?” Kwado asked.
“Gam sees Little Goat thinking...always thinking,” Gam said. “Mind working like mule in field. Gam knows what Little Goat is wondering.”
“You do?” Kwado said, his heart skipping a beat.
Gam nodded, hugging him closer. His grip felt strong enough to snap a log in half. “Little Goat wants to be helpful, wonders how to make Gam see him.”
Kwado’s shoulders loosened up. “Nothing would please me more,” he lied.
“Picking up night watch, going out of way to become close with rest of pack, talking to them to ease their burdens,” Gam said. “Gam sees all.”
“I’m glad to help wherever I can.”
“Gam likes this. Now there is new task for Little Goat.” Kwado paused, but Gam swept him along, more accustomed to speaking on the move. “Gam notice how soft Little Goat walk in forest.”
Kwado grumbled. The trolls had teased him relentlessly over how sensitive his feet were, thinking he was a baby when he complained over getting thistles stuck in his soles and scrapes along his shins. They had no way of knowing he had grown up wearing boots on the farm and thus had never developed the leathery soles they all possessed, and so assumed he was born with weak feet.
Gam laughed at his discomfort. “Soft feet is good in this task,” he said encouragingly. “Little Goat can move unheard. Not stompy like other troll-kin.”
“You want me to teach the others to walk like me?” Kwado asked, trying to understand where Gam was going with this.
“Ha! No no no no.” Gam shook his head. “Little Goat will be scout.”
“It means troll who goes ahead and sees for pack,” Gam said.
“I know what scout means,” Kwado said, perhaps a little too sharply since the muscles in Gam’s jaw tightened. Kwado quickly bowed his head in subservience, choosing his next words carefully. “However, Gam paints a beautiful picture with his excellent words.” That appeased the troll leader. “What is it you would have me scout out?” he said, trying not to seem too eager.
“Little Goat will scout wizard’s tower,” Gam said shrewdly. “Will be eyes and ears for troll-kin, telling what is waiting for us.”
Kwado looked hard at Gam. He could see the brute’s cunning thoughts as clear as day. This troll was going to send him, the new member of their pack, who was expendable in every way, off to what he considered to be a lion’s den. Gam was going to use Kwado as a guinea pig to test out the wizard’s defenses. It was a win-win situation for Gam. If Kwado died, they were only out a soft-footed troll with a weak belly. If he survived, Gam would gain vital information on the wizard’s defenses.
“You want me to snoop around the wizard’s tower alone?” Kwado said.
“Ragga will follow Little Goat,” Gam said. “Ragga know where tower is, will lead Little Goat to outskirts.”
Of course, he thought. Ragga…the other expendable member of the pack. Gam added that the trolless would only lead him so far, not accompany him to the actual tower.
Kwado thought about it for a moment then nodded. “I’ll do it.”
Gam roared and clapped his back, knocking Kwado forward into the mud on his belly. All the trolls joined in laughing at their fallen pack mate and jubilant leader, but Kwado did not care. Either fate or lady luck had dealt him a flush. Tomorrow he was going to have a chance to warn the wizard.
That evening Gam relieved Kwado from watch duty, insisting it was important that he get a full night’s rest before setting out on such an important task. This might have been wonderful if Kwado had managed to get even a wink of shut-eye. Instead he spent most of the evening restless, his mind playing out the many potential scenarios that could unfold come morning, each worse than the last. He imagined Ragga attacking him as he tried to warn the wizard, imagined stepping onto a trap and triggering a burst of flames that enveloped him, imagined the wizard’s demons ripping him limb from limb before he could explain why he had come. He agonized over the many ways things could go wrong, and somewhere in between worry and frustration, he finally fell asleep.
In his dream, he snuck into the wizard’s home through a ground-floor window, except instead of a tower, the wizard lived in the old farmhouse Kwado grew up in. When he realized where he was, he began to call out for his ma and pa, wondering if they had come home from church yet. He climbed the stairs to the second floor, which was odd because the farmhouse only had one level, and heard someone muttering to themselves down the hall.
Kwado suddenly felt very cold. This isn’t my home, he thought. How could it be?
At the end of the long unlit hallway, narrow and frigid, he caught a glimpse of Sheriff Jilk walking from one room into another, a noose swinging in his hand. Kwado quickly stepped back out of sight as the dead-eyed lawman disappeared into the shadows. Something heavy fell at the base of the stairs behind Kwado, and he knew he needed to get away from them and enter the hall. He crept down it as cautiously as he might, but each footstep against the weathered floorboards was like the groaning hiss of a rusty hinge, and he was certain Jilk could hear him. The thing at the base of the steps was climbing, wet thuds marking its progress. A muffled argument in the room the Sheriff had gone into abruptly ended with a woman’s shrill scream. Kwado’s hands trembled, cold and clammy.
His stalker on the steps suddenly fell into a charge, running up toward him. Kwado abandoned stealth and dashed down the hallway, spotting an open doorway on his right and slipping through it. He pressed the door shut behind him just as something large and growling ran by.
A tall fireplace sat at the other end of an oddly narrow room with a crooked ceiling. In front of the fireplace, sitting in a high-backed armchair, was a man in a pointy hat. He was reading a book the size of a large map with one hand while smoking a pipe, his socks sagging at the end of his feet, which were propped up on an ottoman. As he flipped the page, he curled his toes happily by the heat of the fire.
Kwado pulled a long dagger out of his vest and moved forward, hunched over, suddenly the silent assassin. His feet slid across the carpet like a soft breeze. As he got closer, he kept reminding himself not to look at the book. Pa always said words have power. Words have power, don’t believe what they say.
He raised the dagger high as he reached the side of the armchair. Firelight glowed on the old wizard’s face. Kwado gasped, realizing the man was staring straight at him.
“Ah, there you are,” the wizard said. “You’re late, you know. I was planning on killing you well before suppertime.”
Kwado turned to flee and ran straight into the open maw of a slavering demon.
He awoke with a start, swinging his fists wildly into the open air. Every troll in camp was fast asleep, a mound of green arms amid a sea of snores. Even Pak had nodded off. So much for having a night sentry, Kwado thought. He felt thankful no one saw him flailing about like some scared rabbit. It took a while to settle his nerves and convince his brain that it had all just been some terrible nightmare.
Regardless, he did not sleep one more wink for the rest of the evening.