|Print | Back|
A Giant's Rightful Due
Bay had found it rare, as she journeyed through her own ravaged kingdom and into its allied
neighbors, to come across a tavern willing to exchange room and board for war stories. So she
was determined to take advantage of this one. The maiden perched on the stool to her right hefted Bay's sword in both hands. "Not so
heavy as it looks." "Well, who wants to march all night with ten pounds of steel banging around their knees?"
said Bay. "And you can't forge them too heavy to swing time after time. Not that we used 'em the
whole battle," she added. "We marched in with pikes. Long as three of you end to end. You could
kill a giant with one of those things." A pockmarked fellow from down the bar leaned in. "Have you then?" "Killed a giant?" said Bay. "Oh yes. Seven at a time. Stacked 'em up like fish on a skewer.
I'll have another pull of what you're serving, if you don't mind." The open lead bottle at her hip twitched to get her attention. A voice from inside hissed,
"Take it easy or you'll be plastered on the floor!" She stoppered the mouth of the bottle with her palm and drained her mug. The barman
obligingly topped it off again. A cockeyed young man even drunker than she was leaned over her shoulder voraciously.
"Did you see Barrowgate?" Bay's vision narrowed like a closing flower until it contained nothing but her mug and the
hand that held it. She worked it toward her lips and drained it. The world cleared. "No," she lied. "I wasn't there." She handed over her mug to the barman. "Want to learn a
marching song, then? I sing, 'Mother, should I join the army?' and you all sing, 'No, son, no,' then
I do the verse and then you come in at the end, 'For you'll never come home from the army'--it's
easy, you'll catch on fast. Thank you kindly for the pour. Ready now?" The pockmarked fellow slipped out after the first verse, but there were plenty more to sing
by Amanda C. Davis
Artwork by Michael Wolmarans
Bay had found it rare, as she journeyed through her own ravaged kingdom and into its allied neighbors, to come across a tavern willing to exchange room and board for war stories. So she was determined to take advantage of this one.
The maiden perched on the stool to her right hefted Bay's sword in both hands. "Not so heavy as it looks."
"Well, who wants to march all night with ten pounds of steel banging around their knees?" said Bay. "And you can't forge them too heavy to swing time after time. Not that we used 'em the whole battle," she added. "We marched in with pikes. Long as three of you end to end. You could kill a giant with one of those things."
A pockmarked fellow from down the bar leaned in. "Have you then?"
"Killed a giant?" said Bay. "Oh yes. Seven at a time. Stacked 'em up like fish on a skewer. I'll have another pull of what you're serving, if you don't mind."
The open lead bottle at her hip twitched to get her attention. A voice from inside hissed, "Take it easy or you'll be plastered on the floor!"
She stoppered the mouth of the bottle with her palm and drained her mug. The barman obligingly topped it off again.
A cockeyed young man even drunker than she was leaned over her shoulder voraciously. "Did you see Barrowgate?"
Bay's vision narrowed like a closing flower until it contained nothing but her mug and the hand that held it. She worked it toward her lips and drained it. The world cleared.
"No," she lied. "I wasn't there." She handed over her mug to the barman. "Want to learn a marching song, then? I sing, 'Mother, should I join the army?' and you all sing, 'No, son, no,' then I do the verse and then you come in at the end, 'For you'll never come home from the army'--it's easy, you'll catch on fast. Thank you kindly for the pour. Ready now?"
The pockmarked fellow slipped out after the first verse, but there were plenty more to sing along.
A wonderfully sturdy woman led Bay to a room. "It's got a bed in it," said Bay, overwhelmed by kindness. "I've got to thank--want to thank--"
"You hush now," said the woman bracingly, maneuvering Bay inside. "We're honored to host a giant-slayer." She put a key to the room in Bay's hand. "If you need anything, just call."
"Want to do you a--a whatsit. A favor."
"Sleep first," said the woman, smiling, as she backed out.
The lock, Bay thought, was devilish finicky. Much trickier than usual locks.
The moment she finally wrangled the bolt shut, a cloud of ashy black smoke burst from the bottle at her side. It gathered itself into the shape of a red imp who wore, at the moment, a face of grudging admiration.
"Look at you. Simply shameful."
"I don't care what you think of me," said Bay, with a very uncharacteristic grin. She stumbled for the bedside table and groped for the candle, but Khloromain, the imp, swept across it and left a flame behind him.
"There," he said. "Don't touch it and at least you won't burn the place down."
"Look who's clever tonight."
"Four hundred years of forced sobriety keeps one at his sharpest." He eyed her stealthily. "Bet you wish you hadn't drunk all that."
"Yeah, wish I--ha ha! Nice try." She tried to pat him between the horns and missed. "Little bastard, sneaking a wish. You'll be the death of me."
"Provided you're not the death of yourself first."
It proved impossible to remove her trousers with her boots and sword still on, so she doffed it all, along with her jacket, into what she believed was a neatly folded pile. She crawled into bed unsteadily and curled on her side, clutching Khloromain's bottle. "Stay sharp," she murmured. "Might need you."
Khloromain settled into the bowl of the candlestick, crossing his arms. "Well, I'm certainly happy to wait for your call," he said. "Hundreds of years of imprisonment, what's another agonizing, unnecessary day? Or month? Or year? No, certainly take your time. Take all the time you need. It doesn't hurt me. I'm not sitting around two wishes away from freedom."
"Well done then," Bay said into the pillow.
She prided herself on her alertness, but the kindness and drink and feathered pillow proved simply too much to resist.
A pleasant dream gave way to a series of heavy knocks at the door.
Bay's eyes flew open. For a long moment, she could not imagine what forest or alley could possible look and feel like this. Then details began to take shape: soft bed. No shoes. Dry mouth. Just as she put it all together, a cry blew it all to pieces again: "Open in the name of the king!"
She lunged for her sword and missed, hitting the floor in a tangle of sheets and everything else that had been on or near the bed. Khloromain sprang up beside her, looking gleeful.
"Well, well!" he crowed. "What'll it be, then? Kill everyone in earshot, or be whisked to safety and leave them to break down the door into an empty room? Oh! Or we could supplant the king himself and make the whole situation moot. Or summon help--that's a wish that would last well past the danger. What's your favorite color for a dragon?"
"Shut up!" she hissed, trying to stuff her leg into the wrong part of her trousers. "Shut up! Let me think!"
"I can stopper the stream of time for as long as you need. Only say the word."
"I could deliver us safely to yesterday! Or tomorrow! Or the other side of the moon, just say the word!"
The knocks came again. "Do you hear me, soldier? It doesn't do to keep the lord of the realm waiting!"
Bay slowed. "Keep him waiting?" she said. "He's waiting."
"To strike your head off, obviously," said Khloromain, whipping around her head. "Come on!"
She waved him out of her face. "No, kings don't wait. They'd have broken in the door. He wants me alive, at least at first." She raised her voice toward the door. "A moment for decency, please!"
"No!" howled Khloromain, grabbing his head in his hands.
"Make it a short one," the man outside the door called back.
"It's a trick," said Khloromain, unconvincingly.
Bay finally heaved her trousers up. "Hush," she told him. "And hide. I might need your wishes yet."
Grumbling, Khloromain dissolved and trickled back into the bottle.
Bay shoved herself into her uniform and fastened Khloromain's bottle to her waist in record time. She unlocked the door and stood back, trying to look more calm and alert than she felt. It was the pockmarked fellow from last night; now, he wore official livery and an accomplished deadpan. He made a brief salute and said, "His Majesty, King Everald of Thane," and then marched inside. There followed an older man--the king, Bay presumed--and she spotted a crowd of interested patrons behind them, being kept at a distance by a second guard. The pockmarked man closed the door behind them.
"At your ease," the king said, at which Bay relaxed just enough to show she was listening. He was unimpressive as far as kings went: shabbier than she would have expected, and it was something to see one outside of his throne room or his fine regal armor. It also didn't escape her that he came here personally rather than sending someone to fetch her. He clasped his hands before him. "They tell me my people were very welcoming."
"They were," said Bay. "Your Majesty."
"I'm glad to hear it. We men of Thane like to consider ourselves generous. Some years it's more difficult, of course."
Bay said nothing, though she wondered if he wanted her to ask why.
The pockmarked fellow cleared his throat and flicked the side of his face discreetly. Bay, bewildered, pretended not to have noticed.
"I've heard something of your deeds," the king said. "I hope they were true. Specifically regarding the giants. Seven of them, I think it went, stacked on your pike at once?"
Oh, damn her for daring to make merry for one night. Bay winced. "That may have been an exaggeration, Your Majesty."
"Still," he said, raising his aged-golden brow. "You must have fought them, yes? I know for a fact our mutual enemy had their aid. Unless that uniform is false as well."
Her cheeks heated slightly. "It's not, Your Majesty."
"Then you could kill a giant."
"I could kill a lot of things." She felt Khloromain's bottle quiver at her side, almost definitely with gleeful mirth at her cheek. The pockmarked fellow on the right flicked his face again. She flashed him an irritated look.
The king raised his chin. "I'm glad to hear that," he said. "As it happens, we have a giant that needs killing, in case you were hoping to repay last night's hospitality."
Khloromain's bottle quivered again. Of course. Nothing delighted him like a threat to her personal safety. "A giant," she said slowly, trying to hold her memories of war tightly, so only the useful ones escaped. "I would want a pike, for that. And--sorry, Your Majesty. Is this a request?"
He caught her meaning. "Let's say for the moment it is."
"Then it's a request worth a lot more than a few beers on credit and a room for one night." Khloromain shook silently. She could practically him laughing. "Your Majesty."
"How . . . pragmatic of you," said the king of Thane. "What do you have in mind?"
"I want a house with land and forty years' pension," said Bay, without hesitation. "Up front is best."
The bottle that housed Khloromain abruptly stilled.
The king blew out his breath. "That's--that's precious steep."
"Your Majesty, so are giants."
The king all but recoiled, and she knew she'd pressed too far. "Shall I be honest?" he snapped. "I've wasted as much of my army as I care to, trying to win back what the giant took from my son and me. We lost enough in the war, and now this monstrous thing demands two beasts and a wagon of food every week! I can get you a house. Soon my kingdom will be nothing but empty houses. Tell me that's enough reward for saving my property and my people. Or tell me I've wasted my time."
"No, Your Majesty," she said, startled back to herself. She straightened. "That is, you haven't. I'll try against your giant."
He waved a hand, clearly past his patience. "We're sending his weekly ransom today, and you'll deliver it. One hour. Don't make me regret this."
The king stalked out, and the pockmarked guard trailed afterward. Bay caught a glimpse of the hallway full of listeners-in before the door slammed again behind them.
She sat slowly. "Seven at a time," she muttered to herself. "I'm never drinking again." She gave Khloromain's bottle a brisk shake. "They're gone."
Khloromain seeped out of his bottle, looking sullen. "Commissioned by a king. You do have a knack."
She stretched out her legs. "He looked like he might have killed me if I refused."
"I wouldn't mourn you," Khloromain grumbled. "He seems like the type who could think up three wishes. Though with my luck they'd throw me in the common burial pit along with you and it'd be centuries before someone found me. Again."
"See, you're not so bad off. Do you think he'll kill me if I fail?"
"I think the giant will kill you if you fail," said Khloromain, "and it'd serve you right."
"That's only fair," she sighed. She stood. "Shall we?"
"'We'," said Khloromain acidly.
"You're coming along, you know. Just get used to it."
He rolled his eyes. "Well, in that case, wash your face. You're making 'us' look like buffoons."
The motions of the pockmarked guard made sudden, terrible sense. Bay ran the heel of her hand along the side of her face and felt a smear of hardened candle wax, wick-ash, and pillow-down. She groaned. Still, as she was peeling feathery wax from her face, it occurred to her: she'd looked like a buffoon, acted like a churl--and still gotten the job.
How desperate was the king of Thane?
The giant's weekly ransom consisted of a cart piled with cabbages and hitched to a leathery old cow. The pockmarked fellow helped Bay into the driver's seat. "Have you seen the giant?" Bay asked. "With your own eyes, I mean."
"Too big to miss," he said. "And yet I swear it was as quick as any of us. We could hardly get near." He laid a pike across the pile of cabbage. "We've got His Majesty set up in a dressmaker's shop with six of the guard crammed into the attic. I'm about sick of it. Kill that giant and I'll buy you all you had last night again every day for a week."
"If I kill that giant," she said with a grin, "I might need it."
The cow did not seem to be a quick study in cart-pulling, and driving had never been one of Bay's skills, so after an embarrassing mile or so she pulled over and asked Khloromain to drive. A wishless request, but for once he didn't complain. He expanded to roughly man-sized so as not to frighten the cow, which made Bay wonder how he'd looked when he was human. Likely not bright red, she thought, and probably not crowned with horns. Almost certainly wearing the same sullen look.
"What's wrong with you?" said Bay, as she crawled onto the pile of cabbage. "You ought to be pleased. A giant, that'll be dangerous. Wish-dangerous." She hoisted the pike to get its measure.
"Not dangerous enough," he grumbled. "You wouldn't have made that deal unless you thought you could win without me."
She stabbed experimentally. "This thing's a mess. Look at that curve. Then why the silent treatment? You haven't spoken to me for an hour."
Khloromain said, in the manner of a dam bursting, "I've been nagging you for ages. What do you wish, what would you wish? Nothing! And then some minor sovereign pops the question, and you've got a ready answer for him! A house and a pension! That's not difficult to say! You could have answered me any time at all, and we could get this whole thing over with."
She tried the pike again. "This can't possibly be their best--"
It came to her in a flash. Just as the king had sent an expendable cow to feed his giant, and an expendable champion to face it, he had sent an expendable weapon. She swore and set down the pike.
To Khloromain, she said, "You never asked what I wanted. You asked what I would spend my wishes on."
"Semantics!" he groaned. She gave him a sharp look, and he amended: "That means they're the same thing, you lackwit."
"No, they aren't."
"Two wishes left, two things you want. Wish to slay the giant. Then wish for your pension. And we all live happily ever after."
"I'll wish when I'm ready. What do you know about giants?" said Bay.
Khloromain turned his attention back to the cow, which was becoming confused about the difference between a road and a ditch. "You might as well ask what I know about people," he said. "I could suggest a rough shape and size. Otherwise, each one is different."
"All right, then," said Bay. "I'll know how to wish after I've seen the enemy." She rummaged around and found a carrot in edible shape. "I had a dream once I was lying on a stack of food."
Khloromain, glancing over his shoulder, said, "You know, we could turn this cart south and make off with a cow and a month's worth of cabbage."
Bay thought of a house with land. "We can do better."
The road to the castle bore the scars of battle. They passed torn flags and crushed carts, arrows not worth retrieving, and a catapult smashed to kindling. (No bodies, armor, or weapons, Bay noted; anything worth the salvage was long gone.) More than once Khloromain had to discourage the cow from walking directly into the chasm of a gigantic boot print.
"Big," Bay observed, as they rattled past.
"Giant," Khloromain reminded her. "And you should pray there's only one."
She did, though she didn't let on to him.
Castle Thane stood atop a cliff, facing east, so the setting sun made a halo behind its tallest tower. As they approached, Bay hid the pike loosely under some cabbages. Khloromain slowed the cart as Bay clambered up beside him to retake the reins for the last leg of the journey. He shrank back to his usual size and drifted into his bottle.
She stopped the cart at the gate of the castle.
Parts of it were in ruins, looking like they'd taken boulders from all directions. What had been a double iron gate was a twisted pile of rubble. She slid off the cart with some difficulty. Not far to the right of the gate, a gatehouse had been smashed straight through to make a roughly cart-sized hole in the wall. Bay took hold of the cow's harness and tugged it, cabbages in tow, inside the castle walls.
Past the gate was a wide courtyard, with huts, sheds, and such ringing the walls. The castle itself, a megalith in milky-gray stone, rose across the courtyard. Bay went carefully, eyes sharp. Nothing rustled but a couple of feral chickens. Other than a certain look of having been put in a shambles, the yard bore no sign of a giant.
Of course, Bay thought, if you can't see your enemy, he's probably behind you.
She backed toward the cart and withdrew the pike carefully. A thousand scenarios flashed through her mind: betrayals, ambushes, bald-faced lies. Nothing Khloromain couldn't mop up, but, oh, she hated it to come to that. And she'd never hear the end of it. He still wasn't done bragging about her previous wish.
She made a slow pivot. Clear walls. Empty courtyard. Why, there was hardly anywhere for a giant to hide, except perhaps--
The moment she set eyes on the castle tower, a massive hand grabbed it around like a tree trunk, and the giant heaved himself into view.
"At last!" he bellowed. "Victuals!"
Bay fixed her feet and leveled the pike in his direction. The giant made an earth-shaking leap from the low roof of the castle and landed on both feet and a fist. He stood, impressively: five times Bay's height, wider than the cow was long, hands that could crush barrels, with a fiercely scarred face and a set of clothes near to tatters. He strolled toward the cart. Well out of her reach, he stopped and gave a long sniff. His brow furrowed.
"Cabbages again," he sneered. "And I asked for two oxen, not one." He gave a weary grunt. "I suppose they meant you to be my second beast."
Bay, braced with her feet spread and pike aimed up at his chest, held very still. He did not seem to be looking at her.
The giant reached unerringly to the cart of cabbages, but his fingers fumbled among them until he got hold of a few. He held cabbages in his hand the way Bay held crabapples. She watched, amazed, as he ate one in two bites. He had made absolutely no sign of concern for her or her weapon.
He sniffed again. "Go back and tell them you tiny women don't tempt me. Not for rutting, and especially not for eating. I asked for two oxen. I'll have beef, not bitter, bony man."
Bay moved slowly, circling the cart, still aiming the pike at him. He was big, but the pike was no toothpick. She'd seen careless bravado; this was different. She edged within striking distance.
"Why are you still here?" he said, sounding amused. "Are you bold, or stupid? Did they send a girl to die? Hurry off. I want my second ox, not your blood on my courtyard."
As quietly as she could, Bay feinted forward with the pike. He didn't flinch. She said, "Do I look like I've come to die, sir giant?"
He gave a hollow laugh. "I couldn't say."
That settled it. "No one told me," said Bay, "that you were blind."
"Huh!" said the giant. "I doubt they know. Their scents tell me more than their faces anyhow. You, for example, stink of sweat, dirt, and beer. I suppose they thought they could spare you."
At the word "blind", Khloromain had poked from his bottle with interest, and floated beside her, pantomiming enthusiastically. She batted him away.
"This is quite a home for a giant," she said, trying to mimic the sweetness of some barmaids. It failed even to her own ears.
"No more than my due," the giant rumbled.
She tried again. "It must be cramped though, for a gentleman of your size. I don't suppose you'd agree to find somewhere more suited."
"I don't suppose you'd ask nice."
"Will you please leave?" asked Bay.
The giant roared with laughter. "A ha ha! I'm glad they sent a little fool like you. A nice castle like this needs a jester."
She readied the pike again, though with every passing minute she was less happy about using it. "You're mistaken, sir giant," she said. "I'm not here for eating or rutting, I'm here to--"
The tied-on tip of her ramshackle second-rate pike wobbled and fell into the mud with a squelch.
Bay stared, disbelieving at the useless end of the stick in her hands. Khloromain nearly started a whirlwind frantically gesturing at himself.
"--cook and clean for you," Bay finished, in a rush. "A house this size needs attending, doesn't it? And a man of your station shouldn't be bothered."
"I'd rather have another ox," said the giant. He sniffed ruminatively. "I didn't think the king of Thane cared so much for my comfort."
A strong point. "Perhaps he means to have this place back again some day," she ventured. "I expect he wants me to limit your damage." Nearby, Khloromain quietly perished.
"Do you expect so?" said the giant.
"I do what I'm told," said Bay. "And what's needed. For instance, I'm sure I can do a better job butchering a cow than you have. If you'll just show me where you've been cooking it."
"I haven't," said the giant.
"Ugh," said Bay.
The giant roared with laughter. "You know, this idea is beginning to grow on me. I have messes that'll make your head spin. These little rooms weren't built for men like me. Not that I'm giving them up, mind."
"Yes, sir," said Bay politely.
"You have a mighty crisp 'Yes sir,' little fool."
Bay winced. "That's why they sent me, sir."
"You'll do. I think I'll call you 'Stinky.'"
Delightful. "And what do I call you, apart from 'sir giant'?"
The giant pretended to consider. "How do you like 'Your Majesty'?"
"Not much," said Bay.
"Ha! I'm going to like you, little Stinky. Call me Belphegor if you dare. Does the sun still shine?"
Bay gauged the sky. "Not for long."
"Then let me show you around the castle before darkness confines you to the fireside."
Khloromain, resigned, vanished back into his bottle. The cow bent to graze, still hitched to the cart of cabbages. The giant waved a hand, and Bay followed in his massive footsteps.
So little of the castle fit him. He slept in the throne room, lived on the terrace, napped in the courtyard, and ignored the rest. Half of the castle was impassable, closed off by rubble. "They fired weapons on me!" he said, indignantly, patting a boulder. "Weapons! For no more than claiming my proper due."
Bay caught a glint of steel behind a mountain of crumbled stone. "What was this room?"
"Ah!" said Belphegor. "That was the king's armory."
"Oh?" said Bay, doing her best to sound disinterested.
"Oh yes," said Belphegor. She thought she heard mischief in his voice. "It was full of great pointy sticks. I snapped them all for kindling. Doesn't do to have a thing like that around the home."
She blew out her breath. "Very wise, sir giant."
"I didn't survive a war by being otherwise," he said. "Not many do." He squatted by a door flush with the ground. On his haunches, he only loomed a story or so above her. "Tell you what I really need from you, Stinky," he said. "Get down in the cellar and find us some wine. Don't forget, I'm a big boy. One bottle won't do. I'll be on the terrace." He made a deft leap onto the terrace by using the second-floor parapet like a hobby-horse, and vanished behind the tower.
Down in the cellar, Khloromain popped into view again. "Make sure you find a good vintage."
"I'm looking for poison." She grabbed a smallish green bottle by the neck. "What's this?"
Khloromain audibly gasped. "That's a delicacy. Get your dirty hands off it." He whisked away the bottle possessively. "And don't be daft. Poison's the first thing he'll suspect."
"He doesn't suspect anything," said Bay, as Khloromain placed the green bottle reverently on a shelf she couldn't reach. "I'm 'here to cook and clean for him.' And stink up the place, apparently."
"Partially qualified, at least. If he's as sharp as he seems, he'll suspect everything." He drifted to a rack of dusty bottles. "My word, some of these are older than I am. That's really saying something."
She scoured the shelves. A wooden box turned out to contain fist-sized bags of salt. Bay stuffed one into each pocket. On the floor beneath was a richly-crusted bucket with an oilskin cover. Bay peeled off the lid and recoiled. "Ugh, that has to be poisonous."
"Yes, clever plan. Offer him something that smells even stronger than you do."
"All right, then, what do you suggest?"
Khloromain dived behind a keg. When he emerged he was hoisting an entire crate of wine. "I suggest a hundred-year-old red."
Bay sat on a crate and stretched out her bad leg in front of her. "We're not actually here to coddle him, you know."
"Excuse me," said Khloromain, hurt. "I'm saving your life, in case you haven't realized. That thing's going to feed you everything you serve him. Even I can't stand aside and let you poison yourself. Not with just two wishes to go."
She picked up a wine bottle and turned it over in her hands. Even the label looked expensive. "This is where you brag about how you could vanquish him in one wish."
"Ah," he said breezily. "I've decided it'll be much more satisfying when you call out begging for help from underneath his boot. Go ahead and try it yourself. I've sized you both up. You're going to need me."
She put the bottle back. "Wouldn't mind a hand with hauling this wine upstairs."
Khloromain, eyes glinting, said, "Anything you wish."
Bay carried them upstairs herself.
The giant could get himself onto the terrace in one leap, but Bay had to hunt through the maze of stairs and towers to get there. She finally found the massive stone terrace behind the tallest tower. Belphegor was reclining against the tower, face upturned to the last rays of the sun. He turned to her. "Slow enough, little thing. I've only been getting thirstier. Hate to have to resort to squeezing you into juice." He chuckled to himself, then spread his arm out toward the edge of the terrace. "How do you like my view?"
Bay craned over the crenellations to the sheer drop and rushing river below. "I wouldn't think the view concerned you."
"The fresh breeze does me good. And I can take a swim if I want." The drop was many times his height. He pushed an iron cauldron toward her with his foot. "Fill it up."
When it was full she put her shoulder to the cauldron and pushed it toward him. "Your wine, sir giant."
Belphegor sat eagerly. He rummaged a silver goblet from his breast pocket. Pinching it between thumb and fingers, he dunked it entirely into the vat of wine until it came out brimming. He pushed the dripping goblet at Bay. "Join me, Stinky."
"Oh," Bay demurred, "you don't want a housemaid drinking at your table."
"Oh I insist." He slopped the wine at her, grinning widely. "Go on."
Khloromain, hovering, mouthed I TOLD YOU SO.
"Of course," said Bay. She tipped back the goblet. "Not bad," she admitted. "For a hundred-year-old red."
Khloromain crossed his arms smugly.
Belphegor sat back, satisfied. "You're smarter than you seem, Stinky. Cheers." He drank neatly from the cauldron, as carefully as he would have from a tea saucer. "I knew they had some real quality down there. Kings. They'll starve their own people before they deprive themselves."
He might be a war-blinded castle-stealing monster, Bay thought, but he wasn't wrong.
Rather than butcher the cow in the dark, Bay loosed it to wander the courtyard and graze. She filled a water trough for it. Belphegor wasn't calling for help, so she paced the courtyard, trying to find ideas among the rubble. She tried to envision turning some of the debris into traps for the giant, but every scenario ended with her being squished into paste. She needed to think.
When the evening started to cool, Belphegor rumbled over to the edge of the terrace and called down to Bay, "Stinky! You heading home for the night?"
She rested the wheelbarrow that she was using to cart broken branches out of the middle of the courtyard. "I don't think I'd be welcomed back just yet."
Belphegor snorted. "Hmph. The north wing of the castle was built for a slave. Or a concubine. Something like that. Someone the king owned. I can't squeeze up those skinny stairs. You may as well try." He stood and stretched--he was half as tall as the tower--and gave himself a good scratch. "Little door over there."
The "little" door he indicated was huge, and had been thrown off its hinges to show a dark spiral staircase. "And where will you be sleeping?" asked Bay, raising her voice because his ears seemed so far away.
"In the throne room. Don't try to get in. It's barred and blockaded enough to keep out an army. Sleep tight, Stinky." He hopped down to the courtyard, stooped to crawl inside the great castle doors, and shut them firmly behind him.
Khloromain, from his favorite spot between her collar and epaulet, said, "I like him."
Bay shushed him. She nodded at the broken-open door to the staircase.
A close and dreary servant's passage led up to a long, carpeted hall, dark and chilly.
Khloromain lit himself with a red glow to see by. Rich furnishings lined the walls, accenting
enormous paintings; the paneling was masterfully carved and gilded accents winked back red from
"Something tells me this wasn't a slave's quarters," said Bay, peering into a lavish drawing room.
"Fit for a prince," Khloromain agreed. He made a face at a painting of a foxhunt. "Someone's taste in wine did not extend to their taste in decor. Pity. Ah, well, priorities."
Bay put a hand on the carved paneling. "My priority right now is a bed. Help me find one."
Khloromain poked in and out of doorways until he drew back, delighted. "How about a bath?"
Bay peeked inside. A clawed tub stood on a marble floor, surrounded by tall candelabra. She spotted a fireplace with a cauldron for heating water and a dumbwaiter for bringing it up. Shelves of bottles, linens, ointments, and soaps lined the walls. "Gods and ghouls," she breathed.
"It seems secure enough," said Khloromain, browsing the shelves. "Our enormous friend couldn't reach you here if he tried. Not without shrinking by half, anyway. Which some giants can do. Hmm. Well, I expect if he could, he wouldn't be sleeping in the throne room. Hard to tell with giants, they really run the gamut, in my experience."
"I'll risk it," said Bay. She snagged a candle from the wall and thrust it into Khloromain's aura until it lit. He grumped in mild offense. "Go find something to do with yourself."
"Hmph. Wash the uniform while you're at it." He vanished through the floorboards.
An hour later, when she was lying in a prince's bathtub up to her throat in hot water and lather, her mind still wouldn't let go.
How was she supposed to kill something that big with no weapons, let alone a veteran fighter with a canny mind who could smell everything for a hundred feet in excruciating detail? All while sorting out gargantuan messes and cooking enough to feed an army?
Well. The challenge made the reward worth giving.
"A house with land," she muttered, letting her eyes flutter shut. "A house with land."
One thing was clear. If she was going to get anywhere with this challenge, she would have to do something about the smell.
The sun was up, and Bay had a seventh iron kettle boiling over a campfire when Belphegor came storming into the courtyard. "What's this nonsense?"
Bay continued stirring the pot. "Dinner, sir giant."
"What the devil are you cooking for me? Pure onions?"
"Onion and cabbage soup. It needs to boil all day to be properly strong."
"It's properly strong all right!" Belphegor snarled. "You must have seven stinking pots of it!"
He was exactly right, which disturbed her. "One pot won't do for a man of such appetite."
Belphegor kicked over the nearest cauldron. Bay jumped as the simmering water sloshed near her boots. "You think me a fool? Even I can see so bald a trick. Pour out this mess into the sewage, Stinky, and don't dare try that again."
"You were supposed to eat that," chided Bay.
"I'll eat your bones, if you try to muddle me again with sharp smells," Belphegor snapped. "The insult! Don't think so low of me. My brain is as big as all of you."
"No insult!" said Bay hastily. "Only cooking, is all! I won't make that mistake again, sir giant. No more onions, if they offend you."
He put his huge fists on his hips. "And careful how you treat those cabbages, too." His tone softened. "Wasn't sure I'd see you this morning. Thought you might run."
"I don't run from work," said Bay.
"Then I'll tell you what I really need. Find enough eggs to suit me for breakfast and I'll let you have what doesn't fill me." He headed back to the ballroom. At the great double doors he turned to point a huge finger directly at Bay. "And don't think I didn't notice that disguise!" He ducked inside and slammed the door.
Bay looked down at herself, and the prince's riding clothes she'd pulled from a dusty wardrobe. If he thought a bath and a set of clean clothes counted as a disguise, she'd been in even worse shape than she thought.
The chickens were homeless but productive; Bay found almost five dozen eggs in ridiculous places around the courtyard, and over half of them were still fresh enough to eat. She ended up frying all of them together in one of the soup cauldrons over an open fire, along with a hunk of lard from the cellar. Predictably, Belphegor made her serve herself first. This time she had no complaint.
After breakfast, she set herself to rebuilding the chicken coop; then she found a sack of scratch feed that she used to lure the chickens back where they belonged, with mixed success. When all seven cauldrons were cooled, she scoured them, then went back to hauling debris out of the courtyard and dumping it outside the gate. The cow's trough needed to be filled. She tried milking it, but those days seemed long gone. There were patches of mold she feared would never be defeated. And every time she looked at the castle, she thought of bedrooms and ballrooms and kitchens left in disarray. No wonder kings were so greedy for servants, she thought; it would take dozens to run this place properly.
"Having fun, Stinky?" Belphegor called from the terrace, at one point.
"Happy to serve, sir giant!" she called back, false-cheerful, and gritted her teeth to rake away another mound of rotted straw.
Eventually, when she decided she'd earned a break, she sat down to think. A flash of red caught her eye. Khloromain was at an upper window, watching her with smug delight. She put down the rake and went to find him.
It took her some time to navigate the maze of the castle, but she found him in an unlocked study surrounded by books. "What have you been up to?"
Khloromain spread his arms. "Look at the library this fellow has! Not used much, if the dust indicates, but it's an admirable selection, whether he knows it or not. And not just books. Ledgers and letters. I'm going to know everything there is to know about this kingdom before the end of this."
Bay spotted a couple of candles lying loose and tucked them in her apron. "Fine. Just stay out of trouble."
"As long as you do your best to get into trouble," he rejoined cheerfully. "I notice the cabbage and onion soup didn't get you very far. So what's your next plan to fell the beast?"
Bay peeked out the window to where Belphegor was scratching his back against the tower like a bear on a tree. She'd been ready to face his brawn, but not his brains.
"Still working it out," she said. "But I like that word you used."
"'Beast'?" said Khloromain, diving directly into another tome.
"No," said Bay, still watching the giant. "'Fell'."
Bay stood near the edge of the terrace and cupped her hands around her mouth. "Sir giant! Belphegor!"
Belphegor, napping in the courtyard across a pile of hay the length of a house, sat up with a snort. "Eh?"
"I caught an intruder!"
He thundered to his feet. "They dare! Where?"
"He scaled the rear wall." She stepped onto an inflated wineskin; it gave a credibly human wheeze. The leathers she had dressed it in ground into the stone of the terrace, so rank with unwash that even she could smell it. "Hurry, I can't hold him!"
Belphegor vaulted onto the terrace and landed impressively feet-first. His hand stretched to the mock intruder. "Treasonous king," he growled, bending low, "what's mine is mine--"
Bay heaved the stuffed "man" out of his reach, to the edge of the terrace. "He's getting away!"
Belphegor lunged. As he did, the many ropes strung across the terrace caught his ankles. The giant went tumbling. His knees crashed into the crenellations, and he toppled over the side.
Bay threw the false man out of her way and grabbed up the repaired pike.
Belphegor's massive hands clung to the parapet. Bay dashed to him, heaved the pike up, and drove it into the meaty place between the bones of his hand. The giant bellowed. She jerked loose the blade, bringing a flood of blood and torn skin, and rushed to his other hand. She heaved the pike over her head.
Before she could land the blow, the giant's fingers flexed on the stone. His shoulders bunched. Belphegor propelled himself onto the terrace sneering and grabbed up Bay with his bloody hand. He leapt down to the courtyard and landed with a sound like thunder.
He lifted her close to his scarred face. "I suspect, Stinky," he hissed, "there was no intruder after all."
Bay struggled against his fingers. He only squeezed tighter.
"I wondered when you'd try me. What was your price?"
"A house with land," said Bay, breathless with the pressure.
Belphegor roared with laugher. "Not a bad price! But I'm worth more." He opened his hand and let Bay fall face-first to the courtyard. She scrabbled for Khloromain's bottle. Belphegor's looming shadow shifted over her, and she flinched, imagining the crushing boot. "Khl--"
The imp appeared eagerly.
Belphegor leaned so far down she could feel his breath. "Don't bore me, Stinky. Next time you try for me, do it right. Now, I feel like I deserve a drink. Bring me up a barrel or six. The good stuff."
He stood and stretched. Without another word he turned his back on Bay, strolled to the terrace, and heaved himself out of sight.
Bay rolled onto her back. Immediately, Khloromain flittered into her face, sparking excitedly. "What should we do? Burn him? Turn him inside out? I could enchant your sword--and don't forget my dragon offer."
Bay swatted him away and sat up. She frowned after Belphegor. "He could have crushed me."
Khloromain's countenance fell instantly. "Next time--"
"Next time I'll do it right." She got heavily to her feet. Half the prince's fine battle armor was dented, the other half sticky with mud and the giant's blood. She wondered if it had ever been worn before. "Do you want to help me carry--"
"No," snapped Khloromain, and disappeared in a puff of smoke.
In the cellar, Bay struggled out of the useless armor and kicked it into a corner. The cool quiet was welcome. Her muscles ached from being thrown to the ground and she was sure they'd be worse tomorrow. Her mind flitted toward a hot, soothing bath. No. Later. She had a job to finish.
She found a store of beer barrels in a corner of the cellar, small enough to roll, and a dumbwaiter that turned out to go all the way to the terrace. She pulled out three or four barrels, silent in thought. She'd have to scour the throne room for openings so she could get to him in his sleep. Find a weapon that would deliver more than a scratch. Mask herself from being smelled--and apparently, a bath and clean clothes only made things worse.
She rolled away a sixth barrel, and paused. A dead rat curled against the stone wall. Stiff and dusty as it was, nothing had dragged it off to eat, and it looked unharmed but for a smear of white at its mouth.
Bay looked closer. There was nothing under the rat, or even near, but she followed the wall until she found more smears of white, then a clump or two of powder, and finally a sack torn strategically at the base, with a skull painted on it and more white powder, shaped with rat tracks, spilling onto the ground.
Bay knelt and sniffed experimentally. No smell she could notice, but then again, she was no giant. Still, if she could dull him first . . . .
"'Next time you try for me, do it right'," she muttered. "All right, sir giant. I mean to."
She'd barely gotten all six barrels onto the terrace--the one in the back topped off with as much of the powdery white poison as she could fit--when Belphegor boomed out, "Let's open that brew, eh?"
"How will you take it, sir giant?" she asked. "In a bucket?"
"Bucket!" chortled Belphegor. "Bless you, little jester. Just pop the lid. I'll drink from the barrel like you drink from a glass."
When she did, he leaned over and took a long, appreciative sniff.
"Mm!" said Belphegor. "What a bouquet. You'll join me, of course."
"No thank you, sir giant."
"Don't be daft. That wasn't a question." He plucked a mug from his shirt pocket and flicked it at her. "Drink up."
She dipped the mug and made sure to drink loudly.
She wiped her mouth on her sleeve. "How is the king's drink always better?"
"You know the answer to that one, Stinky." He lifted the barrel and took a long drink. The size really did suit him. "The best for the best."
Bay, thinking of the king of Thane and further back to her own treasonous liege, said, "The best of us died in battle."
"More prize for the survivors, then."
Between the two of them, the barrel was empty in an hour, and the rest of the barrels passed similarly. Belphegor, it turned out, was given to storytelling. He had known giants of every type, it seemed, some of them slain gruesomely and some of them ascended to royalty. Bay listened, growing warmer and more relaxed, casting her eyes less and less often to the last poisoned barrel sitting innocuously behind all the others. Eventually Belphegor turned to song.
"Mother, should I join the army? No, son, no. . ."
"You've heard that one?" said Bay, grinning despite herself.
"Every night for a year, I think," said Belphegor. "Ought to know it by now. We kept to ourselves, see, around our own fire that would have crackled your bones, but I did like to hear them all around their own twitchy little matchstick flames talking and singing. I do miss that."
"Mmm," said Bay.
"They had a particular stink, those ones. Didn't realize that's what it was when you first turned up. What was it? Nurse? Follower? Not follower, I'm thinking."
Bay gave a hollow laugh. There was no point to hiding much from this fellow. "Soldier."
"That's uncommon. Most folks send their sons to be crushed, not their daughters."
"My village ran short of sons."
"Not the only village that could say that, Stinky."
"No. Anyway, they were promising me a lot."
"Don't they always." He took a drink. "What was their offer?"
Bay gazed at the sunset. "Revenge, first, I guess. That's what I wanted most at the start. It never did happen. Then good clothes and three squares a day; that stopped coming. They were all I really longed for by the end. We used to hope for glory and victory--didn't get either of those, it turned out. And a pension that was gone before I knew it."
"Mm," said Belphegor. "You know what they promised me?"
"Thought you giants were in it for free."
Belphegor boomed a laugh. "We're not all stupid as we look. That king of Thane promised me a castle. You think His Majesty ever meant to give me that? Course not. Castles don't go to the likes of me. Just as glory doesn't go to the likes of you."
Bay looked up from the depths of her mug. "You . . . fought for Thane?"
"Much good it did me." Belphegor sniffed. "It would have been the same with any of these kings, of course. All rotten at the core. You've got to claim your own due."
The sun set around them.
"Tell you what, Stinky," said Belphegor. "You cook us three meals a day and stop trying to murder me, and the rest of the castle is yours. Anywhere I can't fit, take what you want. It sounds to me like these kings owe something to both of us."
"You know," said Bay, "that's the fairest offer I've had in years."
Belphegor raised his barrel of beer. "To getting our due."
Bay tapped it with her mug. "At long last."
Belphegor drained his barrel. "Ahhh," he said, throwing back his head. "Am I right, little Stinky, that there's one more?"
"Ah," said Bay, looking at the poisoned barrel with new eyes. "I think you've had enough, sir giant."
She hopped down from her perch and went to the last barrel. With a good shove she had it on its side. One push and it rolled off the terrace to splash into the river and bob away.
Belphegor chuckled. "I suppose it's just as pleasant to sit on a king's terrace in the evening and listen to the sounds of night."
As Bay discovered, it very much was.
By the time Bay staggered up to the prince's bedchamber, Khloromain was already there, hovering over an open book with a fixed scowl.
She grinned at him. "There you are."
"Here I am," he muttered. "Have you killed the giant yet?"
"Not going to kill him." She struggled out of the prince's jacket without quite getting all the buttons undone. "We're going to live here."
"In a stolen castle," said Khloromain.
"It's our due."
Khloromain sighed. "I know it's been a prosperous week for you, as far as drinking goes, but you're not as foolish as that."
Bay scowled. "Not as foolish as what?"
He hovered closer, shaking his head. "How long do you think this can last, soldier? You think when you fail to come riding out victorious, the king will give it all up? He's still a king. And if by great chance this king threw up his hands and retired, how long do you think it would be before the next king heard of a castle ready for the taking? One giant can't hold it forever. Not even with your help."
She spun on him. "I see what you're doing. You're only angry that I'm living in comfort for a change, wearing finery and eating from the king's stores!"
"First of all, if you call that finery you're as blind as the giant. Second, why in the world would that anger me?"
"Because that's one less thing I have to wish for!"
Khloromain's face darkened.
"That's it, isn't it," Bay challenged. "The worse off I am, the happier you are, because you think I need you. Here's news, imp, I never needed you. You're for emergencies. Well, I'm doing just fine right now."
"The key words there," said Khloromain, "were 'right now.' Deep down, you know I'm right, and I can tell because every time you pass something you might need on the road, you stick it in your pocket!"
She threw her mug at him. He went translucent and it passed right through.
"I'll tell you what," said Khloromain, in an icy tone. "When you need me, call for me. Until then, I'll be in the royal study, making the best of your bad choices."
"Don't wait up," she sneered.
"I don't sleep!" He swept his irritated self into a small whirlwind and vanished through the floor.
Bay threw herself into the prince's bed--her bed--and didn't give that little wish-beggar another thought until morning.
If kings really lived like this, Bay thought, she couldn't fathom why they ever felt the need to go to war.
She had a thick, richly embroidered quilt under her and the sun warming her hair. There was a huge wheel of very hard cheese between her and Belphegor, which she occasionally dug at with her knife and he picked up to bite like a melon. She was fiddling with a glass-smooth, gold-inlaid lute, trying to make something identifiable as music.
"If I were you," said Belphegor, "I'd stick to marching."
"Never again, if I can help it." Bay plucked seven notes of a children's tune, and brightened. "See! That was almost a song."
"Bardcraft fit for a king," said Belphegor.
She had not seen Khloromain in three days, and for once, she didn't care--or rather, she wasn't afraid of what he was getting up to. The little bastard loved to bend his rules, but what could he do to her while she was safe behind stone walls, with an enormous ally?
"You want to roast some chickens tonight?" said Belphegor, scratching his chest. "I'll have four or five, depending on their size."
"Not til we figure out which ones are still laying."
"The cow, then."
"Let it fatten first." She played another bar of the children's tune and found herself in the wrong key entirely. "I did find a whole store of jam."
Belphegor snorted. "No good without fresh bread. Let's get His Majesty to ship us a few totes of flour next week. What do you say, Stinky?"
She twanged a sour note, and winced. "I say we ask for butter too."
Belphegor roared a laugh. He put his hands behind his head and Bay was struck by a powerful personal odor. "That's the spirit! Nothing in the world like getting your due."
Khloromain popped into existence two inches from Bay's face and it was all she could do to swallow a shout. He gestured dramatically for her to follow him. "Call of nature," Bay grumbled, and struggled to her feet. She followed Khloromain through the broken-off door into her wing of the castle and only just caught, as they started up the staircase, Belphegor calling, "Bring back another cheese."
Khloromain glowed faintly in the windowless stairwell. "What?" Bay snapped. "Don't tell me you're bored already."
He cast her a disdainful scowl. "Like you, soldier, for once I find myself surrounded by my heart's desire--although mine takes the form of information instead of food." Bay rolled her eyes. "I've been through every book and paper in this monarch's study. Follow me."
The path to the king's quarters was half-blocked and very dark; defensible, Bay thought, but also likely lonely. Khloromain swept around the perimeter of the room, lighting candles, before settling to hover over the broad, cluttered desk. Bay fidgeted, regretting that she had not brought along the lute.
"I know you're not much for literacy," he said, "so let me explain. Any well-run kingdom has a room packed to the ceiling with records. Who said what, who's where, what's whose. Anyone can say anything they want. But in records, you find the truth. Or at least, the most official lie."
Bay rubbed her temples. "Just tell me what you found."
"For starters, this is Belphegor's contract." He waved a scroll. "I'd unroll it for your perusal, but. Well." Bay sneered. "The big fellow was promised a castle after all. But not this castle. Meant to be a 'spoils of war' sort of thing. Of course, spoils of war are more plentiful when you actually win. I imagine he decided to take any castle he could get."
"I don't hear any lies so far," said Bay, crossing her arms.
"Yes, well, I'm getting there. Do you recall why His displaced Majesty hired you to try your hand at the giant?"
Bay shrugged. "No one else to spare."
"That's true," said Khloromain, "if you're down to a personal honor guard and a handful of peasants. But if--for example--you've got half an army on loan to another king, still making their way home, who are rested and ready to do your bidding, well--"
For the first time that day, Bay focused sharply on him. "What are you saying?"
Khloromain snatched up a ledger and held it open toward her. "Thane didn't lose all its army in the war. Hardly any at all. They never seemed to be exactly where they were needed. The men of Thane weren't even at Barrowgate, except a battalion of forty who lost their maps. They've been rebuilding another kingdom since then, under command of their noble prince, but according to this," he held up a letter with a broken wax seal, "they're on their way home. Sooner rather than later."
She put her fingers on her temples. "How am I supposed to trust what you say?"
"I'm incapable of lying," said Khloromain, "and you know it."
"Damn me," said Bay, through her teeth.
"Only if you insist on continuing to play kings and queens with a giant. Think. We can take him down first. No army, no battle. Everyone does exactly as they promised," he raised his eyebrows sardonically, "and all your wishes come true."
"Thank you for the warning," said Bay coldly, "but damn me twice if I side with a king against a comrade." She spun on her heel.
"Once is enough," Khloromain called after her, voice high with frustration, but she didn't turn back to let him know that he was absolutely right.
Back on the terrace, Belphegor was popping apples into his mouth like berries. Bay strolled back to the quilt, past the lute and the wheel of cheese, and stood for a moment listening to the rush of the river below. At last she said:
"Did you know, sir giant, the king has more soldiers on the way?"
Belphegor gave a grunt of assent. "Suppose that would be the battalion on the wind."
"Enough." He pushed the bushel toward her. "And I suppose that means you'll be leaving."
She took an apple and sat on an upturned barrel. "They may be enough to overthrow one defender," she said. "Maybe not two."
Belphegor gave a chuckle. "You really think you count as much as me?"
"A scout and a cavalryman still make two," she said, a grin slipping in. "You know how this works. Wounded or weak, it's always better to have a comrade than be alone."
Belphegor munched his apples. "Well then," he said, putting his hands on his knees, "we best fortify this castle, hadn't we, Stinky?"
"Got to protect our due."
"You know, Stinky," said Belphegor, heaving his massive self upright, "you're starting to sound like a giant."
The enemy came into sight the very next day.
Bay, perched above the front gate, saw troops moving from as far away as the town. She called out their locations to Belphegor, who stocked the high walls with weapons, barrels, boulders, anything that could do damage if it fell on someone from a distance. The front gate and the punched-in gatehouse were piled with wagons and more chunks of castle. After some debate, Belphegor lifted the cow over the parapet and let her go.
"Shame to lose her," Bay said, watching the cow amble away into the woods.
"Ah, she's too old and weary for war," said Belphegor. "Let them who may, live."
Bay's hand drifted to the worn pommel of her sword, then to the leaden bottle that dangled next to it. "And godspeed the rest."
She had never seen a battle assemble from such a vantage point. She stretched out on the wall above the front gate and watched battalions march down the street, find cover, build ranks, all like game pieces moved by a huge invisible child.
"Archers," Bay bellowed over her shoulder, as each group came into sight. Later: "I see horses. Pikesmen." And not long after that, what she suspected from the billowing dusty road and the steady wooden rumble: "Battering ram."
Belphegor had chosen to make his stand in the courtyard, surrounded by chunks of stone and tree trunks sharpened into javelins. "They're not so foolish, are they?"
"Can you crush it with a boulder if I direct you?"
"I can do it without you," said Belphegor, winking a scarred and sightless eye.
The dust cleared, then, and Bay's heart sank.
"There's more than one," she called back. "Two--three battering rams. They're fanning out. Distractions from each other. And--no." She groaned. "Trebuchets."
She'd no sooner said the word than the first flank of archers nocked their bows and let fly.
Arrows zipped around her. Bay, under a shield, felt one of them thud into the wood near her shoulder. "Take out the heavy artillery first," she bellowed. "We can bear a few arrows." Another clanged against the stone inches from her knee. She grimaced. "A few."
Belphegor lumbered up, hauling a boulder. The minute he showed the crown of his head over the parapet, another volley of arrows came raining down--but not before he had hurled the boulder into the centermost battering ram. The machine splintered backwards. Three or four men-at-arms went sprawling with it.
"You got it," Bay called. "That's one of three. They're loading the leftmost trebuchet--aiming for the tower--here it comes."
A chunk of castle flew into the tallest tower. Large pieces of it tumbled onto the balcony and below.
"Loading the other," Bay shouted. "They're bringing the tower down. Stand clear!"
The boulder whizzed over her head and struck exactly where the previous had. The rest of the tower fell in a cloud of dust and crumble of stone. Belphegor gave a short, heavy grunt.
"We need to break those machines," Bay roared.
Two of Belphegor's javelins flew over the gate, one after the other. One of them split a party of archers; none seemed to be hit, but they all lost their draws. The other sank into the soil beside a trebuchet.
"That's a miss. Bit to the right."
She ducked back under the shield as the archers sent in another hail of death.
"The battering rams are moving! Belphegor--"
His voice boomed out. "Stinky! Fall back to my position!"
Bay ducked across the wall of the gate until she could leap down the staircase and into the courtyard. He was crouched by the dying campfire, a javelin in one hand. She went to him, shield high. "They'll take out the wall if we don't stop them," she said, breathlessly. "But we can hold them there for a while. You throw everything you have at the breach, and I'll stop anyone who makes it to us. If that king wants to steal this castle back, we'll make him pay for it."
Above her, Belphegor began to chuckle.
"Steady!" she shouted. "Collect yourself, giant!"
"Ah," he said. "Won't be him paying for it, will it? Never is. Ha ha! Look at us."
One of his arms hung limp in a torn and dusty sleeve. She put a bracing hand on his calf. "Don't think like that. We can stop them. And if not us--well--I have magic. What's your favorite color for a dragon?"
"This castle did want for a proper jester," said Belphegor warmly. Without warning, he gripped her around the waist with one hand and lifted her clear off the ground.
She pried at his knuckles. "Drop me! We've got to shore up the gate."
With dizzying dexterity, he leapt to the terrace and crossed it in two fierce strides. The river rushed below, glinting in the early moonlight.
"You take care of yourself, Stinky. I hope you get that house in the end."
She realized his plan in the split second it took for him to drop her over the side of the castle and off the cliff.
The fall took much, much longer than she wanted. She hit the water like a stone. Immediately, the current snatched her up and sent her tumbling.
It was leagues downriver, drenched and shaking, that she rolled onto a muddy bank and lay there, panting, staring at the sky.
She heaved herself to her feet, and fell again. She looked upstream. Cutting through the dark forest was a brilliant orange flame, churning black smoke, centered atop a cliff, just about the size of a castle.
Toward dawn, Bay and Khloromain caught up with each other; she was limping back toward the village, still wet to the skin, and he was leading the cow with Bay's knapsack strapped to her back.
"You missed these."
She looked at them without really seeing. "He's dead by now, I expect."
"More than likely," Khloromain agreed. "He took the whole castle with him, though, at least everything not made of stone. I'm sure it gave him a laugh in the end. Here, you've got some dry clothes in there, and half the prince's socks to boot. Go on, change. Before I catch an ague just looking at you."
When she was dry and wrapped up, she crouched by Khloromain's fire. She closed her eyes and shook her head slowly. She had so many things churning in her mind that she had no idea how to begin saying them.
What she said was, "We don't need a cow."
"Then trade it for beans," said Khloromain.
The cow lowed gently. Bay tossed more wood on the fire.
"You know," said Khloromain, "they were never really going to give you any of that."
She looked up. "Any of what?"
"Revenge, glory. Even if they'd meant to, no one can truly promise it."
Bay gave a hollow laugh. "How is it that none of us figured that out until too late?"
"You're human. Which is to say, very gullible, and occasionally too noble for your own good." He coughed. "I, er, did take the opportunity to claim something from the archives on the way out."
Bay's suspicion overcame her melancholy. She rummaged in her pack for anything she hadn't put there and found a triple-folded parchment. "What is it?"
"A deed," said Khloromain. "For an unclaimed house in Thane with some land attached. Not much, you understand."
She eyed him up. "You told me you can't just take things."
"The giant is dead. The king's bargain is filled. As far as my magic and I are concerned, the reward is yours."
She threw the deed into the fire.
Khloromain reeled so hard he nearly caught on fire himself. "What the devil--"
"A house in Thane makes me a subject of that king," she said. "I'm damned if I pledge loyalty and pay taxes to that."
Khloromain looked from her to the fire and back again. "I'll never understand you, soldier."
"That's why I can't trust you with a real wish," said Bay, to the fire. "There's a lot more to it than any house on any land."
They both watched the fire flicker. "All right then," said Khloromain. "On we go. To find just the right house on just the right land, or whatever other nonsense you fancy. Maybe the next kingdom will be ruled by better men."
"Better men," said Bay, "or equally honorable giants."
|Copyright © 2022 Hatrack River Enterprises||Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com|