© 2017 by D. M Almond's Gnome Brigade. (because they have nothing better to do than cater to our readers)

Trollin'

Chapter 28: A Wizard's Tower

When day broke, Kwado was more than happy to get up and get moving, eager to be on the road. The entire pack was soon up and about, but their usual morning routine was altered. Instead of packing up their meager belongings, the trolls were lingering, murmuring with one another, all hoots and grumbles, with knowing glances thrown his way.

He tried to speak with Gam, but Pak blocked his path with a grim shake of his head. A few yards away, Gam and Ragga were huddled together, speaking privately. Ragga turned and stared at Kwado, her eyes cutting through him to the bone. He gave an involuntary shiver.

“Morning, Little Goat!” Pak said, blocking his view of their exchange.

Gam abruptly finished with her and strode toward them. Pak quickly stepped aside to let him pass. “Little Goat,” Gam said, his voice no longer light and jovial. “Go with Ragga now, she will lead Little Goat to tower.”

Kwado nodded and moved to follow the trolless, but Gam suddenly seized him, digging his fingers into Kwado’s shoulder blade and turning him easily about, his snarling face inches away. Red eyes that seemed to glow stared into Kwado’s own. The troll leader studied his expression for a long time without speaking, then sniffed his skin. Kwado did his best not to tremble, though he felt as though he was holding back a fit of convulsions. Gam’s breath smelled like rotting meat.

“Little Goat will do nothing stupid,” Gam said. It was not a question. It was a threat. “To wizard tower and back, no delay, no foolishness. Scout perimeter and that is all, no going inside. Understand?”

Kwado tried to nod, but it was more of a stuttering flinch.

Gam smiled wide, displaying his thick fangs. “Guzzy guzzy. Little Goat will no fail Gam.” He motioned for Kwado to follow Ragga.

As they marched out of camp, Kwado could feel Gam’s eyes on him, boring holes in his back. Ragga took the lead, staying a few yards ahead motioning for him to keep up. Even when they were far from the camp, and Kwado was certain they were not being followed, he still had a strange sensation that Gam was tracking his movements.

Does he know? he wondered. Could he have seen it in my face? Fear suddenly seized his heart. Oh no, what if I talked in my sleep?

While he was lost in worry, Ragga was making her way quickly through the woods, easily outpacing him, until he was forced to sprint to catch up with her.

“Wait up, Ragga,” he said, breathing hard as he came up to her side.

She grunted and kept hobbling without pause.

Kwado ignored her ire, checking over his shoulder one last time as he spoke. “You know he sent us out here to die, right?”

Ragga spun without warning. Hunched over in her lopsided manner, she had to cock her head to the side to look up at him. She pressed the tip of her talon against the center of his chest and let out a series of grunts and grumbles, tapping the digit sharply into his skin. She was angry, very angry. Though she did not speak common tongue, Kwado understood her well enough.

Gam leads, you listen, no questioning. It was more advice than warning, but she was clearly irritated to have to deliver it.

Kwado backed away and held up his hands in surrender. “Okay, right. I get it. No more complaints. Lead the way.”

One last grunt, and she flicked his chest then went back to marching through the woods. Kwado wondered how a trolless who did not speak or show any signs of higher intelligence could know where she was going in these foreign forests. Had she come through here once before? Did she simply possess an uncanny natural knack for direction?

Who cares? Right now you need to focus on how you are going to get by her.

Ragga might be dumb, but she, like most of the other trolls, was strong as an ox. If he was going to warn the wizard about Gam’s imminent attack, he was going to need to get past her. He noticed a heavy knotted branch lying in the grass. Keeping his eyes trained on her, he carefully stooped to retrieve it, scattering the dried brush as he lifted it from the ground.

Ragga peered over her shoulder at him. Her eyes quickly landed on the branch and narrowed to thin slits, moving to his face as she slowly turned around and stretched out her talons.

Kwado laughed nervously, scratching the back of his neck with the end of the branch. “Just like to have a weapon in case the wizard sics his demons on us.”

Her eyes studied his own for a moment, silently judging him, and then she slowly turned back to her path. He noticed her shoulders were much tighter than they had been before. Stupid Ragga, he thought, following her. Look how fast she’s ready to turn on me. Doesn’t even trust her own kin.

They hiked for a short while longer before Ragga pulled up short. She quickly motioned for him to be still. Kwado crouched down and came up behind her as quietly as he could manage, kneeling behind a bush and peering around an old tree to the small clearing ahead. The glade was laid out in an unnatural triangular formation. Kwado recalled a debate between his pa and Aunt Lobelia over something similar, something to do with wizards and triangles being sacrosanct or something.

At the center of the glade stood a stone tower that he found to be entirely disappointing. It was a bit rundown, with patches of wild grass and moss growing between its rows of stone blocks, which matched a nearby well. Both the well and tower had wooden tiled roofs. While the tower had to be a good five stories tall, the top of it towering over the forest, Kwado could not help being dumbfounded by how small around the structure was. That tower can’t be more than ten feet in diameter inside. Could someone actually live inside that thing? If not for the hooded man working at the top of a ladder leaning against the tower, Kwado would have been sure they were in the wrong place and that this was some abandoned watchtower.

“What’s he doing?” Kwado whispered.

Ragga hissed and batted his chest with the back of her hand.

The man was hammering at the base of a window sill with a wooden mallet, though whether to take it off or secure it, Kwado could not tell. The man climbed down and pulled the ladder away from the tower. The ladder was tall enough to reach the third floor, and he had to step far back from the tower to swing it around and down so he could carry it under one shoulder. He skirted the structure for the main entrance, a curved stone door that matched the stonework around it perfectly.

Kwado snorted. “There’s no way he’s fitting that inside.”

Ragga shot him a murderous look and grunted. Would you be quiet already?

He watched in awe as the hooded man pulled an amulet on a long chain from around his neck and pointed it at the carving of a stone rose above the door frame. “Fal’ot Borish Cumkauit.”

The stone rose glowed a hazy pink, and there was a sound of fingers lightly brushing the strings of a harp, but the notes came from the very air, giving an illusion that they were right beside Kwado’s ear. He gave a start and looked sharply to the side, missing the stone door swing outward with a grinding noise. The hooded man let the amulet drop back inside his robe and pushed the top of the ladder inside, still holding it perpendicular to his body. The rungs kept disappearing as he walked straight in, until he and the rest of the ladder were gone.

If Kwado had not seen it with his own eyes, he never would have believed it possible. He could not fathom how the man could fit the ladder inside such a tight space.

The tower door closed of its own accord, and the stone rose became dull once more, the pinkish glow fading into obscurity. The brush on his left rustled, and Kwado turned to find Ragga entering the glade, warily scanning the area around the tower. He followed her, sticking close to the odd building.

It seemed solid enough. Kwado rapped his knuckles against the stone. It was hard and rough to the touch, definitely real. So how had that man fit the ladder inside? Magic, Kwado mouthed, answering himself in awe.

Ragga inspected the well, peering down it and shaking the rope that descended into its bowels. There was an echo of splashing water deep down below. Close beside the well was a set of tables with a half-tent built over them to keep the area dry. Cut logs were stacked in a pile in the back of the ten, and supplies were scattered on the tables.

Stone grated against stone at the front of the tower, demanding their attention. Without hesitation, Ragga shuffled back into the cover of the trees lining the glade perimeter, motioning for Kwado to follow. As they rounded the thick trunks of twin trees, he heard the distinct sound of whistling coming from the far side of the glade. It was the same hooded man, this time with an axe in hand. Ragga grunted for them to head back to camp. She had gotten the information requested, but Kwado was too curious to move just yet.

The man pulled a long branch in the grass. He brought it to the area with the half-tent and began hacking it into even sections.

Cutting firewood…fixing window frames…pretty menial tasks. This guy’s no wizard, Kwado thought. He must be an apprentice.

Ragga grunted again and left him standing there, tired of his nonsense. It was time for them to get back to camp. Like Gam had said, make it short and quick, scout the outside and return. She had done that, now she was going back. Kwado found it so strange how he could understand her meaning in a simple grunt.

Guilt seized his heart as he spun on the spot and swung his branch hard against the back of her head. Ragga never knew what hit her and she crumpled to a pile on the forest floor. He quickly looked back to the clearing, nervous the apprentice might have heard them, but the sound of chopping wood had masked his attack.

He inspected Ragga to be sure she was out, turning her on her side with the tip of his foot then leaning in close to listen to the sound of her breathing. Guilt twisted his gutt for hitting the trolless, but it had to be done. Hopefully she would stay out long enough for him to warn the wizard and return. Then he could march Ragga back to the camp unawares and tell her the wizard had attacked them. The wizard could hide long enough for Gam to come through, and no one would be harmed. Then Kwado could escape the group the next chance he got, and none would be the wiser. Everyone would be safe.

He quickly walked into the clearing. The apprentice was too busy chopping firewood into wedges to notice his approach.

“Ahem, excuse me, sir,” Kwado said.

The man shook violently. “Oh my, I didn’t eeffin hear yew,” he said with his back to Kwado. He set the log in his hand down and turned about. “Yew know, yew really shouldn’t sneak up on people like—” The words stuck in his throat with a sucking sound, his eyes bulging like a catfish. “Tr-tr-troll?” he whimpered.

Kwado held out a hand for the man to shake. “Good day, sir. I’ve just come ‘round to see the wizard, and I…I…” He paused, watching the hooded man slowly lift his axe, gripping it and swinging it about, ready to strike. He looked like someone who had seen a spider and was trying to move with great care so they might swat it with a shoe.

“Yew stay away from me, monster,” the man said.

“Please, sir, I don’t want any trouble,” Kwado said. He tried to speak quickly, to explain the situation before the apprentice got the wrong idea, but he never got the chance. The only thing he did have time for was a leap backward as the apprentice took a wide swipe at him with the axe. “Stop!” Kwado yelled, dodging another swing. “I don’t want to fight with you! I just—”

The third swing nearly took his head off, and he flipped backwards over the side of the wooden table, trying to get out of reach. As the apprentice moved around the table, Kwado kicked it from on his back, flipping it over and taking the hooded man down with it.

He hopped to his feet and readied to defend himself, but the apprentice was no longer moving. “Oh no,” he groaned. Did I kill another man? He moved around the upended table to eye the prostrate apprentice. He was deeply relieved to see the man’s chest steadily rise and fall. He was just knocked out cold from where his forehead had hit the table.

Now how will I be able to warn the wizard though? he thought. Doubt he’ll be interested in listening to what I have to say when his apprentice will surely say I beat him? As he looked from the unconscious man to the tower, an idea formed.

Acting quickly, before the apprentice could awaken, he pulled the man out from under the flipped table and removed his robes. He blushed when he saw the apprentice wore nothing underneath but cotton boxers. “Sorry about this,” he said, shimmying into the robe. Where they had been loose and flowing on the small man, they were tight and stiff around the shoulders for Kwado, stretched to the point that they might tear if he sneezed. He pulled the amulet from around the man’s neck and put it on as well then dragged him over to the well. He pulled out the rope that carried the wooden bucket to the water below and used his teeth to cut it apart. The bucket splashed below, and he quickly bound the man’s hands to the post of the well cover.

The task complete, he glanced back up at the tower windows. They were all still empty, no wizards or demons watching him. He quickly made his way to the front of the tower and searched for the stone rose he had seen earlier. Once he stood before it, he lifted the amulet as he had seen the apprentice do.

What was it he said? Kwado took a deep breath and spoke clearly, not only repeating the man’s words, but trying to mimic his voice and inflection as well. “Fal’ot Borish Cumkauit?”

The rose did nothing. He looked down at the amulet with a frown and shook it, worried he might have broken it when he knocked out the apprentice. Can magic crystals break? he wondered, realizing he knew nothing about wizardry. At best his only experience in this realm had been with anti-magic. Wait, that’s it!

Kwado quickly pulled the phalatite from around his neck and let it drop to the ground. If opening the door involved magic, the crystal that had liberated him from the Gulag would certainly negate it. He squared his shoulders and faced the rose again. “Fal’ot Borish Cumkauit?”

This time the carving lit up with a pink light, and the entrance began to move. Kwado snatched up his phalatite and tucked it into a pocket of the robe triumphantly. As he did so, the grass rustled behind him. Kwado turned to find Ragga at the edge of the clearing, watching him with her jaw hanging slackly. Wide-eyed, she shook her head and motioned for him to come away from the building.

“I am sorry, Ragga,” Kwado said softly and stepped into the wizard’s tower.