Our frenzied packing was interrupted by the arrival of the royal messenger.
“Good news!” he said. “There’s a cease fire. You don’t have to leave.”
We all stood around watching him, foolishly holding precious possessions in our arms, and looking at the wagons, mules and donkeys that were partially loaded.
“What happened?” I asked.
“A cease fire,” he repeated helpfully, spurring his horse. Then he stopped and wheeled around. “Oh,” he added, “it wouldn’t have done you any good to run. The giants are already northeast of here, and were moving around your village to cut off the impies to the south.” He nodded as though thoroughly satisfied with this speech, then spurred his horse again and was gone.
I had noted the Eselena Royal uniform, but many of the villagers had not. “Impies?” they asked. “Should he call them impies?”
“We always did in the Guard,” I tell them. The Eselena Royal Guard had a proud tradition. Proud, that is, other than having been conquered by the Ardenean Empire several centuries back. We had always thought ourselves more disciplined than the imperial troops. Man for man we were more than a match for them. Too bad they had about 100 men for each of ours! But independence was so long lost as to be a legend, and the Eselena Royal Guard had fought for the empire alongside those impies proudly and well.
I watched uncertainly as villagers began to unpack and return wagons, donkeys and mules to their usual places. It was only three days since we’d first realized a war had started. A young royal had ridden into the village, tired, dirty and wounded.
“Giants pouring across the border,” he’d gasped.
“Why?” was the question on everyone’s lips.
“Because they don’t like us!” he said.
I was called upon to tend his wounds. People assumed that someone retired from the royals (the army, they called it) would know how to tend wounds. I didn’t mind. It gave me a chance to question him.
“I’m to take a message to our headquarters, get reinforcements,” he told me.
“Is it true it was unprovoked?” I asked. It had been many years since the giants had attacked, and normally the wars were started by our people, not by them. Every so often someone on the imperial staff would decide the giants of Kachadhaz were a threat which should be dealt with proactively and off would go an army to attack. And back would come a bedraggled army much smaller than when it had left. But the giants never pursued them very far before they tired of the chase and went home.
“Well, no, not exactly,” he replied.
“How ‘not exactly’?” I asked. “One either provokes or one doesn’t, it would seem!”
“Well, you know about the invasion of Sinedan, don’t you?” he asked.
I didn’t. I had an idea that Sinedan was off to the east.
“We decided to take back Sinedan. Most of the reserves were sent in that direction for the invasion. I’m going to ask for reserves, but I know that they aren’t there. What we have left is 200 kilometers behind the front lines. But as for provocation, Kachadhaz reacted badly to the invasion. They sent forces into Arden to attack our flank. Some idiot of a general or another ordered an attack on the border by the impy border guards, reinforced, he assumed, by mobile reserve units, the ones 200 kilometers from here. You can guess what happened then!”
“And the giants are pursuing?” I asked. It was doctrine that the giants couldn’t keep their concentration long enough to take much territory.
“I don’t know how far, but they’re organized,” he replied. “They didn’t break under charge or heavy crossbow fire. They held their line and rained arrows on us. With their bows, if they do that, we’re nearly helpless. Our casualties were staggering. I barely escaped with my messages.”
I didn’t feel the need to interrogate him further, but I had gone immediately to the village headman and told him to warn people to be ready to move. In my day it had been doctrine that the giants wouldn’t pursue for long, that they hadn’t the patience to sustain a barrage of giant longbow fire, and that a determined cavalry charge would either spook them, or provoke them into a loose charge. Their firepower, combined with organization was too frightening to contemplate.
Just as ordering border guards to attack them was too stupid to contemplate.
But the young soldier’s eyes spoke truth.
Then had come the ragged bands of troops running ahead of the giants. That was two days later. The retreat was pretty much at the forced march pace. The fleeing troops didn’t say much, except to demand supplies and then continue to run. What could we do about it? We had no weapons. By the time the stragglers had all vanished to the north, we had few supplies left. Fortunately they had not found everything.
So we were happy not to run, but surprised at the cease-fire. Another doctrine had always been: “You can’t negotiate with Kachadhaz.” But apparently one could!
That night several horsemen rode into town. They rode in from the north, looking fresh and well kept. They obviously hadn’t been in the fighting. There were about 80 of them, looking fine in decorated uniforms. I wondered if they had ever seen combat!
Their captain called our headman out of his house. No respect to his rank, age or position. He demanded housing and food. “We’re here to protect you,” he said as though that were an intolerable imposition on his time. “It’s only right that you take proper care of us.”
So we offered them such shelter as we had. What else could we do? We offered them such food as we had left, and little enough there was of it.
They weren’t satisfied. They said they must be properly fed to defend us. They announced that we were likely treasonous traitors (their redundancy) and that they would have the food out of us. Then they organized a search of the village. When it was done, they had what was left of our food.
They returned to the village square where they were holding the headman. Faster than anyone could respond, they threw a noose around his neck and the rope over a tree branch and hoisted him slowly off the ground, not so his neck would be broken but so that he would strangle.
The captain announced: “That is what happens to traitors who try to hide needed supplies from the troops in time of war.”
Technically, he was correct. Concealing needed supplies was a crime and could be considered treason. Likely, I thought, he can get by with this. Who are we here in this village? Who in the imperial government will care about us? A little shading of the facts and we were all collaborators.
The captain announced that he was in charge and the village was under martial law. “Anyone else who tries to hinder us in our duties will meet the same fate.” The headman was not dead yet. He was going to die slowly.
It was not until evening that the screaming started. I don’t know in which house. But I realized what was happening and stepped out to look around. The troops were lounging around the village. Apparently they were not concerned about legality. You could hang traitors, but you couldn’t rape the women or kill just anyone. I could see the body of our headman still hanging in the tree. In the door of one house, I recognized our blacksmith fallen across his own threshold. He looked dead. The exits from the village were guarded.
To the northeast I could see a fire. It looked like a large one. The enemy camp? Very likely.
I huddled in my hut, feeling the shame. I, the sole warrior of the village, too old and slow to do anything about what was happening. Would they kill all the witnesses? Would we all die?
There was a scraping at my back window. I went and pulled aside the board that blocked it. Outside was the blacksmith’s wife.
“You must do something,” she whispered. Then she held her finger to her mouth. “They’re not letting us move around any more,” she continued.
“What can I do?” I asked. “I’m old. I couldn’t fight you, much less those soldiers out there.”
“You can go to the camp,” she replied.
“What camp?” Then it dawned on me. “You mean the giants’ camp?” I was stunned. One didn’t ask the giants of Kachadhaz for anything. If one asked, one didn’t get it. Or perhaps one got killed for one’s pains. It just wasn’t done.
“The giants’ camp,” she confirmed.
“They won’t help us. You’d better put your hope in the arrival of higher ranking officers or a unit that respects the law.”
“There won’t be any,” she said with conviction. “The captain told me we were at his mercy for several months. He seemed pretty happy with the situation.”
I thought about it. The giants were pursuing. The giants were negotiating. But still, I couldn’t go ask the giants for help!
“They raped my Mona; they killed my husband when he tried to protect her,” she said. “Anything would be better than this!”
I couldn’t argue with her on that. The giants weren’t known for casual killing or for raping human women. Actually, they’d rarely had the chance.
“What do the other people think?” I stalled.
“How am I supposed to find out?” she asked.
There was a bellow from the direction of her house. I could see her back yard from my hut. A soldier was in the yard looking around. She broke and ran toward him. He knocked her to the ground and then dragged her back toward the house by her collar. I knew what would happen.
“Can an old soldier still do anything?” I asked myself. Certainly I couldn’t fight, but could I sneak past the guards. Were the giants a better option for the village than what we had? I saw the headman hanging in the tree. I saw the body of the blacksmith, guilty only of protecting his daughter, lying dead on his own doorstep. I saw again the arrogant look in the eyes of the young captain. Somehow I knew that nothing could be worse than months of living in a village where he was the law.
I grabbed my knife and checked myself over for any obvious effort I could make at concealment. The years out of the royals had loosened some of my careful grooming. I was dusty and dirty enough to move around in the dark. Things were as good as they were going to get.
I climbed out the back window, and started sneaking toward the edge of town. Slowly I made my way from cover to cover. We didn’t have a wall, only a palisade of poles. I knew where I could slip out, provided there was no guard there. As I approached the wall, I heard an exclamation. One of the impies!
“Did you hear something?” I heard him say.
“No,” said another voice.
“I think I did,” he said.
I huddled even deeper into the cover I’d found, wishing myself smaller and invisible.
He nearly stepped on me. He was drunk. I could smell his breath even from my hiding place on the ground with him standing. Finally, he turned and left me. He and his companion walked back further into the village.
I made my move. Slowly, up to the fence, then quickly through the hole I knew was there, then out onto the plain.
It was painful to crawl. My old joints didn’t appreciate crawling close to the ground, but there was no cover. I had to get hundreds of meters away from the village before I would feel safe to stand and walk normally. At one point I thought I heard a crossbow bolt fired from the town, but I couldn’t be sure. I just kept on moving.
I went toward the supposed giant camp. Now it occurred to me that I didn’t really know it was a giant camp. I just assumed it was. But as I approached I soon knew for certain. I decided that there was no point in sneaking. I’d just walk up to the camp and let them spot me. I’d see what they did.
I wasn’t far from the camp when I heard a whistle. Further up the path a giant jumped up at the whistle and looked my way. It took him some time to spot me. Then he came toward me, looked me over carefully and said, “What have we here?”
I said, “I am Karano, from the village of Buyul. I have come to ask your aid.”
“Our aid?” he said doubtfully. But he didn’t laugh.
“Yes, we need help. The imperial troops have come and killed our headman and they are raping our women.” I paused and watched his face. His expression didn’t change.
“So?” he shrugged slightly. His face slowly changed into what I took to be a puzzled look.
“I have nowhere else to turn!” I told him.
“But that is imperial territory. We agreed not to take it. You want us to invade the empire again.” He said all this very slowly, almost as though he wasn’t sure what it meant. Though he obviously was sure.
He paused, shook his head, and stared at me some more.
“I think you need to see the commander,” he said. “Come!”
I followed him. The commander was just about the largest giant I had ever seen, with a fine suit of armor, a giant longbow nearby, a very expensive looking giant sword, and a barrel (from my perspective) of ale held in both hands. Casually sprawled on the ground near him was a human girl, in her late teens I guessed. Her only weapon was a dagger, but she looked more vigorous and efficient than decorative.
Several more giants were either sprawled around the area or standing watch around the camp. A couple of Ertzlu, dressed in Greenhaven style clothing which I still recognized, were sitting on a log, also near the commander giant. I knew this group of giants could take care of the force in our village easily, if they wanted to.
I repeated my tale.
“You’re asking me to invade some more, eh?” he asked.
He looked faintly amused.
The girl said something in a foreign language. We’d been speaking imperial standard. I didn’t even recognize the language. He gave a bark of laughter and then said something more in the same language. She made a gesture at him that, from the look on her face, I took to be obscene. Another bark of laughter.
He turned back to me. “Because this most beautiful of human females (obscene gesture from the girl) wishes me to save your helpless human females, and because I generally dislike all things imperial, I will save your village.”
He hollered an order. Giants dropped barrels of ale, grabbed weapons and went on alert. A few more curt gestures and commands and they all took off running in different directions. A more confused scene I would have trouble imagining! Some time during all this, the two Ertzlu disappeared.
The girl startled me by touching my shoulder. “Come along grandpa,” she said in faintly accented imperial standard. “Let’s go watch the fun, or at least as much of it as won’t be over before we can get there.”
She had thrown a leather shirt on, and grabbed a staff. I saw that besides her dagger, she had a small hand crossbow. She must be a priestess of some sort, but damned if I could remember more than a few of all those foreign gods.
We walked slowly, at my pace. I wondered that the giants, seeing as they had a priestess, were willing to go into battle without her.
By the time we got to the village it was all over. In the town square, the imperial troops were standing in a group in the square. Several of them were dead in the streets. The captain was being held immobile.
The young priestess ordered us all to go to bed and stay out of the streets.
The next morning, we were all called to the square. The giant was sitting on a large, improvised chair. Before him stood the captain of the imperial company. The priestess brought several witnesses from the town and led them through testimony about what the troops had done. At the end, she asked the captain if he had anything he wanted to say. He started in with a speech about this being imperial territory, him being the law, and the giants being invaders.
The giant held up his hand. “I’m a successful invader and you’re scum,” he said. He flicked his fingers at the captain and three giants grabbed him and started to beat him up and kick him through the street. While this performance was going on, the next imperial soldier was brought forward. As the blacksmith’s wife got up to accuse him of murder and rape he fell on his face and began to plead for mercy. A flick of the giant’s fingers and he joined his captain in the street. I imagined that the captain could no longer be alive, but the giants were still playing with his body.
I’m afraid it horrified me more than what the imperial troops had done at the time. Afterward, when I wasn’t watching, I started to feel a sense of justice in it. Most of the village had not even been disgusted when the giants were kicking the miscreants through the streets. They cheered! I understood how they felt, even through my revulsion.
All those who had personally participated in any of the atrocities of rape or murder were executed in the same manner. Some who had only played a peripheral role were beaten less severely. All were disarmed and sent from the village. The giant commander took over. To us, he was a friend.
It was two days later that a lieutenant in royal uniform with a small cavalry patrol approached the town. He signaled a parley. All he wanted to do, however, was read a royal decree.
Eselena declared itself independent of the Ardenean Empire, it said. Eselena had officially requested the protection of Kachadhaz from the depredations of imperial troops. The Kachadhaz government having granted this request, all royal Kachadhaz and allied forces were permitted to operate freely in our territory, and all officials of the Eselena government and its subordinate chartered entities should cooperate in every way with duly constituted Kachadhaz authority.
Then he and the giant shook hands. And he and the priestess. A while later he found me. “Grandpa,” he said, “you saved this village.”
“I suppose I did,” I replied.
“Everything will be OK now,” he said.
“You’re sure?” I asked. “What will these giants do with what they’ve taken?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “but it sure can’t be worse than what the imperials did to us.”
I thought I’d heard that somewhere before.