Chapter 17: Luta City
Freedom felt good on Kwado. He wore it with the open pride of an escaped convict, under the cover of night and relying on the shadows to cloak his swift trek through the woods. They had been travelling for days, and he still felt freshly anointed in the waters of the wild. Kwado could not wait to see his Aunt Lobelia and itched to begin his journey to Preaknot.
Hobb promised to accompany him on the open road and show him the way, but first Kwado had to help him. Hobb refused to head east until he recovered some of his family heirlooms from his estate. Kwado vowed to assist him in this task in any way he could, and they soon found themselves outside the city of Luta. It was late into the night when Hobb motioned for them to halt at the edge of the forest, where it bordered a wall surrounding the city.
“This is a good place to climb over,” he said, dismounting and leading the horse back into the trees before tying it to a heavy bough.
“Maybe we should leave him untied?” Kwado said, recalling Skelan’s philosophy on the matter. “What if a wolf finds him out here?”
Hobb snickered. “No wolf is dumb enough to come this close to Luta.” Kwado still looked uncertain. Hobb rolled his eyes. “We have to tie him up, Spike. What happens if he roams over to the gate? You want the city guards out searching for his missing rider? You think we need that kind of attention?”
Kwado conceded glumly.
Hobb shook his head and smirked. “We’ll be back soon enough. Don’t worry about it. Now, follow me.”
They skirted the edge of the forest while Hobb scanned the wall for sentries. Once he was satisfied the wall was clear, he chose a spot for them to climb over. Kwado easily found purchase in the space between the rough blocks of stone, carrying Hobb on his back. They came down on the other side in an alleyway and nearly scared a black cat to death. The frazzled feline took one look at Kwado, raised its hackles and fled down the alleyway into the shadows.
By the looks of the buildings, Kwado surmised this to be a poorer part of the city. The homes here were old and weathered, fallen into disrepair. Not a soul was about at this late hour—most were asleep or down in one of the seedy taverns, drowning their sorrows away.
Kwado followed Hobb’s lead as he deftly cut his way through the city’s back alleys, determined to get to his estate without being seen. Only once did they have to duck into a dark doorway as a pair of night watchmen cantered around the corner on horseback. Kwado’s stomach churned when one of the stags whinnied and flared its nostrils, catching his scent. Hobb balled up his fists, but the watchman scolded the beast and forced it march on. Once the watchmen were out of sight, Kwado and Hobb let out a collective sigh and resumed their trek through the city.
Kwado noticed the landscape change gradually as they climbed higher and higher to the upper levels of the city, which was built on a series of sloping hills. The higher they got, the larger the houses were, surrounded by rows of hedges or fancy stone walls, and some were ringed with colorful gardens. A heady aroma of gardenias carried on the night air, and Kwado wondered what it must be like to live in one of these grand estates. How many people could they fit inside those walls? What did they all do for a living? Did they have the same woes as the everyday man?
Hobb snorted when Kwado asked him. “Feeding off those below their station and telling ‘em they’re not worthy of it. That’s how they do it.”
“Is that what you used to do?” Kwado asked. “When you were a lahyur, I mean.”
Hobb shook his head vehemently. “Never.”
Kwado thought about it as he followed his friend around the side of a particularly large house, which to him seemed more of a palace. Making up his mind, he said, “Then there must be others like you who live here. I can’t imagine in the whole city, every last one of them is that cruel.”
“Think what you like,” Hobb said. “This is it, here. Wait a moment while I check things out.”
Hobb easily scaled the seven-foot stone wall, which was more decorative than practical. He dropped down the other side silent as a whisper and sprinted to hide behind a tree. After a few minutes scouting the area, he whistled for Kwado. The troll pulled himself over the wall and caught some movement in one of the windows. He came up beside Hobb, hunched over, trying to keep out of view.
“There’s someone inside,” he whispered, pointing to the lit windows on the third floor.
“Huh?” Hobb grunted. “Bastards probably sold my place off to one of the baron’s hoity-toity cousins.”
“Darn,” Kwado said.
Hobb turned to him and raised a brow.
“Wait,” Kwado said, “you’re not still thinking of going in there?”
Hobb answered by bounding across the lawn from one set of bushes to another and then creeping up against the back side of the building. Kwado took a couple deep breaths and chased after him, trying to follow the same pattern of movement.
“Are you crazy?” he said when he caught up.
Hobb was pressing his hands against a window frame over his head. “Keep your voice down,” he hissed, moving on to the next window and trying the same.
“Hobb, come on, let’s get out of here before we get caught,” Kwado said, picturing the havoc they had left back at the quarry. He fingered the dim scar around his neck. If they were caught and had to return to the Gulag… He didn’t even want to think about it.
The sound of a window pane sliding against wooden grooves snapped him back to the present. He blanched, spotting Hobb’s squirming legs already disappearing into the farthest window.
Kwado ran over and whispered his friend’s name.
Hobb popped his head back out between the curtains. “I’m not leaving without what’s my due,” he said adamantly. “Now stop gawking about and get in here ‘fore a guard comes round the building and catches you.” With that said, he disappeared again.
Kwado took a deep gulp and looked both ways down the side of the building. He decided waiting outside would be far worse than helping Hobb get in and out quickly.
One hearty pull brought him right up to the window frame, and he swung his bulky legs inside the room. It had been quite some time since he had been inside, not counting the stuffy confines of the mines. The thick warmth of the room and smells of clean cotton enveloped him. His eyes needed no time to adjust, and he took in the area with one sweeping glance. He was in some sort of guest room. An empty bed with lush sheets and posh pillows sat in one corner beside some fancy dressers and armoires pushed up against the walls. The walls were hard to make out at first. He had never seen wallpaper before and stood in awe at the fancy roses and vines working up and down the walls. The floor creaked in the hallway. The door was open and Hobb was nowhere to be seen.
Kwado moved to catch up to him. The mansion was enveloped in a thick wall of silence that was broken by the groaning floorboards protesting his weight.
Hobb shot him a dark scowl over his shoulder and pressed a finger to his lips before heading farther down the hall. He paused at the second doorway and pressed his ear to it just as Kwado caught up.
“Is anyone inside?” Kwado asked.
“Yeah, the lazy bum’s snoring away,” Hobb said. “Come on, let’s scope out the second floor.”
Kwado was deeply relieved to see the stairs were padded with thick blue carpet. It helped muffle the sound of his climb, though he was not nearly as silent or swift as Hobb, who moved with almost expert precision. He made a mental note to ask Hobb to give him some pointers when they got out of there.
On the second floor landing, they passed a painting of a stuffy-looking woman fanning herself. Her hair was curled and golden, starkly contrasting with the silver circlet adorning her head. Hobb stopped to check the drawers of a small table beneath the painting and then moved on. He popped his head into the first two rooms they passed at the top of the stairs, always listening at the door first to be sure no one was inside. Neither room seemed to please him as he just shook his head and moved onward.
“Have they changed it much?” Kwado asked.
Hobb grunted and pressed his ear to the third door then nodded to himself and turned the knob ever so slowly. It made no noise. Neither did the door as it swung inward. Kwado followed him inside.
The room was a study of some sort, or more aptly an overly lavish office. The floor was covered in the same rich blue carpet as the hallway, and there were a couple leather armchairs in one corner beside tall mahogany bookcases. A wide desk sat in the center of the room with a tall chair behind it and a portrait of an older gentleman hanging on the wall. The man in the painting had a stately white beard, and his mustache came to a point at either end. He held one hand to his chest while the other was folded behind his back, the absolute picture of nobility. His eyes held a kind glimmer that Kwado was certain was an indication that the man was judging him, silently berating him for breaking into his home.
Hobb closed the door behind them and quickly dashed behind the desk. He slid drawers open and rifled through them.
Kwado watched him curiously. “Are your things in there?” he asked.
Hobb stopped what he was doing and looked up at the ceiling, muttering. He pursed his lips and nodded. “Sure.” His eyes lit up when they landed on a silver locket on the desktop, and he snatched it up, burying it in one of his pockets. Another drawer opened with a jingle. Hobb licked his lips and pulled out a small leather pouch bulging with coin.
“Why does he have your money in his desk though?” Kwado asked.
“Wasn’t mine before, but it is now,” Hobb said, happily shoving the purse into his other pocket.
“Kwado, would you ruddy shut the hell up?” Hobb hissed. “Geez, can we drop the bloody act already?”
Kwado stood speechless for a few moments, watching Hobb continue to rifle through the desk drawers. He pocketed a gold letter opener, a pocket watch with ivory filigrees, and a small gold ring. Kwado narrowed his eyes. “This isn’t your home,” he said. “It never was, was it?”
Another jingling drawer slid open, and Hobb giggled delightedly. He smiled wickedly at Kwado and tossed him another coin purse. Out of reflex alone Kwado caught it, even as Hobb held up two more. “Jackpot.”
Kwado’s face tightened and he tossed the purse onto the leather chair. It bounced off the seat and hit the carpet. “You lied to me.”
“Come on, mate,” Hobb said. “We ain’t at the damned quarry no more. I'm not judging you no how, don't fret to be yourself. Drop the routine. Not like it was ever going to work in the first place. You think them sods never heard no sob story before?”
Kwado wanted to punch his friend’s smug face, wanted to slap the smile right off, but he never got the chance.
The hallway door burst open, as did the side door to the adjoining room. “They’re in here!” a guard shouted, rushing past Kwado for Hobb. “The thieves are in here!”
Kwado found himself eye to eye with the man in the painting. He gawked helplessly, ashamed to be caught like some common criminal, which only served to frighten the man, who dropped his lantern on its side and staggered back when he saw Kwado’s face.
“T-troll!” he stammered.
His house guard stopped short and swiveled around. He had not even realized Kwado was a monster.
Kwado held his hands in front of his chest. “I don’t want any trouble,” he said.
The guard opened his mouth to say something, but it came out a bloody gurgle when Hobb jammed the gold letter opener into the side of the man’s esophagus. The guard clawed for his neck and staggered sideways, dropping his sword on the floor and crumpling over the desk as he tried to pry the letter opener free.
“Who says the Hammer never taught us nothing, eh?” Hobb said, throwing Kwado a wicked smile. He swiped the sword from the carpet and slammed it straight through the man’s back. Kwado flinched and cried out when the blade tore through the guard’s chest and pinned him dead to the desk.
The white-bearded man seemed to recover from his initial shock and backed toward the side door. He was not quick enough, however, as Hobb slammed into him, bouncing the man off the wall. Hobb moved with the speed of a demon, circling the helpless owner of the estate. He jerked the man’s head back by the hair and pressed the tip of the letter opener against his exposed throat.
“Miss me much, Your Lordship?” he cackled.
“You disgusting thief,” the man said, trying to squirm out of Hobb’s grasp. “How did you escape the Gulag?”
“Thought you could just lock me up and wipe your hands clean, eh, you old dodger? Think you can just go around tossing blokes in prison ‘cause they don’t prescribe to your brand of society?”
“What did you expect?” the man said. “That I’d forgive you for breaking into my home and assaulting my maid?”
Hobb pressed his lips close to the man’s ear, and he stiffened. “She would have loved every second of it.”
Kwado could see the mixture of rage and horror in the older man’s eyes. Hobb snarled and pulled the letter opener back to strike.
“Hobb, don’t!” Kwado yelled, leaping forward and seizing his friend’s left forearm before he could plunge the blade into the older man’s throat.
Hobb gaped at him incredulously. “What are you doing? This is the punter what locked me away!”
“You leave him alone,” Kwado said, pulling Hobb’s hand farther away and grabbing the old man’s shirt. He pulled the man away from Hobb and shoved the thief against the wall harder than he meant to. Hobb crumpled to the floor, grasping the back of his head and groaning. Kwado stepped forward and held out a hand to help him up, but Hobb sneered and slapped his hand away.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you…”
The nobleman looked at them warily and eyed the doorway.
Hobb pulled himself up to his feet and flared his nostrils. “Lousy partner you turned out to be. Get out of my way and let me finish this.”
“No,” Kwado said resolutely. “I don’t care what this man did to you. I’m not going to stand by while you murder another person. Your hatred is consuming you.”
Hobb stared hard at him with daggers in his eyes and laughed callously. “You really are one dense sonuva bitch, aren’t you? Either you shove off or I’ll just go through you.”
Kwado spread his feet and firmed his stance, but his face was pleading. “Please, don’t do this.”
Hobb lunged forward, and Kwado stepped to the side, throwing out his leg and tripping the thief. The owner of the house jumped back as Hobb hit the floor face first. Kwado shifted to block Hobb’s access to the older man as Hobb tried to rise. The letter opener was stuck in his shoulder.
“You lousy bastard,” Hobb snarled.
The sound of hurried footsteps came from the hallway moments before a pair of guards rushed into the room. They stopped just inside the doorway, taking in the scene of carnage—their friend pinned to the table and a troll towering over their charge. The first man, with a thick mustache that looked like the bristles of a broom, drew his sword and charged at Kwado, screaming.
Kwado held up his arms in surrender and closed his eyes, knowing the only way he could stop these men would be to kill them. He was a fool. He should have seen the truth of Hobb sooner, should have never freed him from the Gulag. His pa would be so disappointed in him. He held up his hands and accepted his fate.
The white-bearded man quickly intervened, stepping around Kwado. “Not him,” he yelled with an upraised hand to ward off his guard. “Get the thief on the floor.”
The guard pulled up short, his thick mustache twitching this way and that. “But sir…the troll—”
“Saved my life,” the old man said. “Now get this fool out of here and see he never returns again.”
Hobb was back on his feet. He tried to bolt around the guard and out of the room, but a hard blow to the side of his head dropped him. The other guard pulled him up and let his partner lay into Hobb’s gut for good measure. Once Hobb stopped struggling, they each grabbed an arm and carried him out of the room with his heels dragging on the carpet.
Hobb glared hatefully at Kwado as he was dragged by. “I should have known better than to take up with a filthy troll. Nothing but animals. No better than monkeys, the lot of you!” He spit, hitting Kwado in the chin and neck.
“Yeah, yeah,” one of the guards said as they dragged Hobb into the hallway. “Save it for the constable.”
Kwado stared at the empty doorway, feeling rotten. What had just happened? Did he really just betray the only friend he’d ever known? What would happen to Hobb now? Did he make the right choice?
A hand hovered in front of his face, offering a white handkerchief. Kwado looked down to find the nobleman eyeing him queerly, holding out the handkerchief.
“Wipe yourself off, lad,” he said softly.
“S-sir?” It had been such a long while since anyone had been kind to Kwado that he found himself unsure how to handle it. The man nodded, and Kwado gingerly accepted the handkerchief, using it to wipe the spit from his skin. The man retrieved his lantern from the floor. Beads of melted wax clung to the carpet.
The man continued to stare at him. “You are that troll boy from Westfall, aren’t you?”
Kwado cocked his head back, unable to hide his bewilderment. “Yes, sir, I am.”
“I thought as much.” The old man shifted his attention to the dead guard skewered to his desk. He walked over to the man and set the lantern on the desk. He gripped the sword impaling his man with both hands. It took a few tugs before the blade came free. He whispered something to the man and pressed his hand over his eyes, closing the lids then gently laid him on his back. The nobleman turned around, shaking his head in furious disgust then tossed the sword onto the carpet.
He stood lost in his own thoughts for a while then finally gazed back up at Kwado. “Come with me, troll,” he said, leading him into the adjoining room, a parlor of sorts. He offered Kwado a seat on a wide sofa near the fireplace. The flames were low, but warm enough all the same. The man leaned an arm on his mantle and turned to him. “A Sheriff Jilk came by a few months back to deliver the ill- tidings of your village, and of yourself.”
The Sheriff’s name startled Kwado. His hands began to tremble and he looked sideways toward the hallway door.
“Fear not,” the nobleman said. “You saved my life this evening. No harm will come to you while you are a guest in my house. I must tell you, I was quite disheartened to hear what had become of your people, and what happened to you…it was a gross injustice.”
Kwado half-wondered if this was not some sort of trick. “That is very kind of you, sir, but I’m not sure I understand why you should care one way or the other.”
“Eh, why should I care?” The nobleman seemed to be amused by that. “Indeed. Let’s just say that I make it my business to care for everyone around this part of the kingdom. Anyhow, it’s not like the farmer who raised a troll was some big secret.”
“You mean…other people know about me?” Kwado said.
“Aye, rumors of Gordy’s Folly spread fairly quickly when first he took you in, and in the years since, I should say you’ve become something of common gossip. People around these parts loved hearing how you were getting on.”
Kwado chewed on his cheek, a painful thought lodged in his throat. “So…those lawmen…they knew who I was all along?”
The nobleman’s face grew grim. He met Kwado’s gaze evenly. “They suspected as much.”
“Then why? How could they do that to me?”
“You grow up hearing trolls are monsters—day in and day out, it’s the troll is an evil beast, the troll is waiting to suck your flesh, the troll wants to steal your babies for stew. Then one day you finally come across a troll, and what do you do? You kill the monster before it can kill you.”
“But I didn’t attack anyone,” Kwado said.
“No, I don’t believe you would have,” the man said. “Not after what I saw tonight. But your skin green and bumpy, your nose long and hooked, the whole of you so very different—I suspect those soldiers were well out of their depth.”
Kwado sat in silence for some time, his eyes resting on the embers of the fire. The dying flames warmed his skin, but his heart felt cold and hollow. “What will you do with me now, sir? Please don’t force me to go back to the Gulag.”
“Never,” the man said firmly. “Had I known you were there I would have sent someone to retrieve you anyhow.”
“You’ll stay here with me for the time being,” the man said, “a guest in my house.”
Kwado gawked. “Really?”
“Certainly, at least long enough to get you back on your feet, er…what is it they call you?”
“My name is Kwado Vance, sir.”
The man wriggled his nose and shook his head. “Kawa-gado?” The words stuck on his tongue like tape. “No, that will not do at all. If you are to live here, you must have a proper name. Hmm…Vance.” He thought about it for a moment then stuck a finger in the air. “I have it. We shall call you Vincent, a fitting name for one of such strength and honor.”
“Vincent?” Kwado said, feeling out the name.
The man nodded emphatically. “Vincent. Now that’s settled, let’s find you a room, shall we?” He headed for the door. “I’m sure we must have one free somewhere around this manse?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Kwado, who would from then on be named Vincent, bowed low in gratitude. “Sir?”
The man stopped.
“What is it I should call you? I mean, your name, sir, what is it?”
“You really don’t know where you are?” He shook his head in wonder. “I am Frankel Bottom, the baron of Solomon’s Province.”
Kwado gulped, realizing for the first time that he stood before the most powerful man in the entire northwestern part of the Malakar Kingdom.