Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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Six Thegn Quean

Episode Two

by David Ulnar-Slew




DEDICATION

This one is for my Mom. I remember her reading to me, then buying me books, lots of them. That is where it all started. It was possibly the best thing my Mom ever did for me.

Thanks Mom!



The Morning After

Snigin crawled out of the woods at daybreak on his belly, groaning. He looked like he was defeated. Grenda was making morning tea at the fire.

"Well boy, how are you?"

"Dear gods, they are inhumane." His voice seemed strained as if his throat was dry from dehydration. "They did not leave me alone ''till moments ago, then they just took off in a lurch."

The woman let a chuckle out before gaining her composure. "They would be off to get themselves breakfast. They probably spotted a rabbit."

"Without weapons?"

"They wouldn't need them. Besides, I venture to guess they had them nearby."

He raised himself up on an elbow. "So, they will bring the game back here, then. Maybe they will share the food with a spent man."

This produced a full guffaw from Grenda. The noise caught the attention of Naomi who was just coming with her cup to get some of the tea.

Grenda turned toward her and gestured her thumb back at Snigin. "This fool thinks the twins are bringing their breakfast back here and that they might share it." Naomi grinned as well.

Snigin's faced showed confusion. "So what do they do then? Aww… That is not right! You can get ill that way. Oh dear, I was kissing them. Ahhh, I am going to have worms."

Cammi joined the group. "You are more likely to get fleas, I reckon." This amused all the women.

"Fleas! Oh, gods."

Naomi shook her finger at Cammi. "She is jesting. The oils and greases the twins use constantly on their skin repel almost all vermin. They have properties in the plants which help them see their rage on the spirit plain, yet seem to kill anything small that comes in contact with it. You would be more likely to get parasites from one of your men than them. Nothing I have ever seen can absorb as much berserker unguent as those two girls. Other berserkers, all men, use it only right before battle. Those two girls use it like perfume on their necks and delicates. When they battle, they very nearly bathe in it."

"But…" The thief's face went limp with panic.

"Oh yes. I would guess you have it all over you in small amounts. It also works quite well in keeping a man's sword sharp. Another reason many men fear a charging group of nude male berserkers. It is quite unsettling to be on the wrong end of a stampede of screaming, naked, armed men who are frothing at the mouth and fully erect."

"I find the company of you ladies more and more disturbing the longer I keep it. Being around you is like when you pass by a horrible horse and cart accident. You do not want to look at the carnage but you just cannot help yourself." He tried to shake the last of the fatigue from his head as he rose to his feet and grabbed a mug to get his share of the tea being made.

The twins came darting back into the camp and began to hang on him. The others smiled and snickered. Snigin stood very still, not knowing how to react.

Naomi settled his dilemma by letting him know what was going on. "It seems they like you. Perhaps you are their new pet." This brought a new round of snickers and a few whistles from his men nearby.

He glared around at his men. The men could be intimidating but they were still no match for him, or they would be in charge and he following. They quieted quickly with one look at his face. The twins fawned and mooned over him like lost loves. This was only made disturbing by the fact that they had yet to clean the blood of their breakfast fully off their cheeks. Snigin produced a look of acceptance, took his tea and let the twins walk him off in search of whatever the day would bring. If the gods were kind, there would be time for a nap in there somewhere.

The men were told to meet in the center of the camp at midday so Snigin could speak to them. Some had a slight idea that something was amiss, but none could anticipate the full danger of what was soon coming. A decision would have to be made. Staying in the forest as a thieves band was not an option they could afford. They could go their separate ways and probably be all right, but Snigin was thinking that following the Thegn women to the village in the south was a good idea. They may have to move again and flee the coming horde, but 'till then the idea of village life was quickly becoming rather tempting.

They all gathered around Snigin and encircled him. The women stood with him in the center. The men around them were muttering; they were nervous. Tension of the unknown weighted the air in the camp. The men knew something was going on and it was big. A general impatience was evident by the foot-shuffling and masked, whispered murmurs coming from all around. Snigin waved his hands above his head, but the murmurs kept going 'till Lilith screamed a loud yelp.

Snigin said, "Gentlemen, we have come upon some good fortune and some ill fortune. The good fortune is that our sisters here have come across us in time for us to have advance notice of the bad fortune. A bandit crew is absorbing all the others. We believe it is led by Northmen seeking revenge and plunder. They are forming a horde, not an army. An army has a home and a base. This thing will just travel continuously, devouring all it comes across. That would include us. I will be dissolving our band so that does not happen to us. I will be going with these women warriors to the village they call home. I will defend it with them and possibly lose it with them, but I will not be absorbed into a horde. You may all do what you feel is right, but I hope you will join me."

Enid, a skinny wretch known more for his skill opening locked doors than his bravery with sword, spoke first. "So you want us to die for them? What is in it for us?"

Snigin shook his head. "Nothing other than having a home and others to share it with. Trust me, the world is about to change; the signs are there. Tumblers have fallen into place and Fate's doors have opened for the wind of change to blow into this kingdom, maybe even all the known lands. Take my advice or leave it. A time is coming when all people in these parts may have to fight. Prepared or not, the change will come to you if you do nothing."

Naomi threw her arms up. "Listen, all of you. We will give you a home in the village, but that may be short-lived. A time is coming when people will be divided. The worst of times is coming for those who have no people. That could be you. Come with us or don't, but if you do not come, then don't stay here. The horde will wash over you, absorb you or kill you. Those will be your only options. The hordes of the north from our histories are violent, brutal things built with harsh ancient traditions. They become entities in themselves, they feed off of everything to survive, and their only purpose is to survive and grow. It will not stop 'till there is nothing left to absorb, or something forcibly stops it. The second option never happened in the histories. They always got too big to support themselves and broke to infighting. This was only after decades and the ravishing of kingdoms and continents. There has never been one in my lifetime or the lifetime of my last two fore-mothers. No one living has seen one. Make your choice; we leave tomorrow."

The women and Snigin turned toward their section of the camp and walked away. The larger group broke up to discuss what they had just been told and to decide their fate.

#

The women were making a lunch of cheese, fruit, and bread. Snigin was playing a fiddle and sitting on a stump while the twins looked up at him, delighted. A large, cloaked figure hovered at the tree line just outside their camp circle. He was hiding behind a tree very poorly.

Cammi's large fingers tapped Grenda's leg. "Oi, that one in the cloak keeps looking over here and looks shifty. He is also a big one. Big as a Thegn and a half, plus some. What do you think he is about?"

The smaller woman shrugged noncommittally. "Dunno. Maybe he wants to join. Maybe he wants a fight. Hey, Snigin! What is that one about?" She hooked her thumb over her shoulder at the hulking form.

Snigin jumped up and strolled past the women at the fire. He went up to the big figure and began talking, but at this distance no one could hear what was being said. It seemed that eventually Snigin was amused as he threw his head back jovially and turned with a smirk. He practically skipped back to the group.

"That, my dear ladies, is a companion I would have surely mentioned had you not given me such dire topics to consider. Frankly, I have grown so used to him I forget he is unique. He usually remains back in the woods when we raid, as a failsafe. That, my gentle-ladies, is Raz. He is, to my knowledge, limited as it may be, the only Ogre in this or any other land." There was a sharp intake of breath and looks of unbelief. "That would be until he smelled her." He leveled a thin finger at Cammi. "Now I believe we have an answer from at least one of my jolly band. He will go nowhere else other than where that lass goes 'till she tells him to be lost or someone stabs him or brains him sufficiently to stop his heart. By the by, those last two have been tried by many, very unsuccessfully on many occasions over a number of years."

Cammi of course sputtered, "Wha...." This being the natural reaction to being told you smell like an ogress and a mythological hulk had a crush on you.

Naomi took it a bit better. "Well, if he is in, tell him to come and sit and eat. Cammi, be pleasant and smile. The heart can be a fragile thing, easily crushed by love."

Grenda looked at Katlyn. "I'll be damned, an Ogre. Ain't that the luck? Wonder what he looks like under that cloak?"

This seemed to amuse Snigin all the more. "Come, Raz. It seems the ladies want a peek. Come eat with your new friends!"

The hulking figure came from behind the tree. Cammi's estimates were off. He was as tall as a Thegn and a half but he looked almost two Thegns wide. That was pretty substantial, as they grew them pretty big up in the North.

He pulled open the cloak and they saw what an Ogre was. Most were speechless. So Cammi eloquently spoke for them all when she whispered, "Bugger me to Hell!"

Sexy Beast

He wouldn't have been that bad looking, if he wasn't purple and wide. This may explain a few things about Cammi; everyone always thought she seemed kind of puce. The longer you looked at Raz, the less gruesome he seemed. After the initial shock of seeing a giant purple man, he actually was kind of attractive. This was helped along a lot by the fact that he didn't so much have muscles as he was muscle. The gals had seen plenty of men among the well muscled Thegns with six stacked bumps, three by three, on their tummies. They even knew one with eight. Raz had ten. This would not have seemed possible on a regular-sized man but it fit on this behemoth. His arms were the size of most men's waists and were venous even when at rest. One woman other than perhaps Cammi, but possibly even her, could have ridden comfortably on each shoulder. Trees needed at least fifty years of growth to resemble his legs. No one standing there but Snigin had their mouth closed. The twins were frantically making hand signals at each other and Grenda. Snigin grew curious as he had only learned two or three hand-speak signals through careful study of the women's conversation.

"What are they saying?"

Grenda actually blushed. "They want to know if everything is that big, and if they can see."

Snigin laughed. The giant man was close enough to hear and his eyes went immediately to the ground. Meanwhile he grew an even more intense purple hue. Cammi blushed deeply as well and now with him so close for contrast, she did seem to be slightly purplish. She also seemed to be sweating visibly. She leaned over to Naomi and whispered.

"Now that that cloak has dropped I can smell him too. It is like he is carrying a giant sack of fresh-baked man-musk muffins."

"What is a man-musk muffin?" Naomi's forehead scrunched up in confusion.

"I have no idea. I just said the first thing that came into my head and that was man-musk and baked goods."

Grenda heard it as well and leaned in. "Well, man muffin seems apropos for a description to me. I would plant my flag quickly girl, before the twins see if there is enough for both of them to have a bite."

The big man walked slowly over to a big log near the fire and sat. It creaked loudly as its mass compacted under his weight. Cammi took Grenda's advice and grabbed a mug full of tea and approached him.

"Are you really an ogre?"

His large head remained looking at the ground. When he finally spoke it was with the voice of an angel, a voice which if he was singing rather than speaking could have possibly made her cry. "Yes I am. Though it is not surprising that you have never seen another. We live farther to the north than even the Thegns. We have the one city but it is the grandest city anywhere. It is built around fire from inside the earth, which brings heat to hundreds of miles surrounding our capital. We have learned how to use this in so many ways that we have no need to come down to the realms below. Most of the Ogrim feel the races that live below are beneath us. This is a combination of how enlightened we are now, and feelings about our ancient histories which say the races who live in the South are crude, vile insulting creatures who were always malevolent to the Ogrim.

Cammi's jaw hung open. "You speak so well."

"Oh yes. I just figured since you were part Ogrim at least, I could drop the act. Sorry. Raz not know answers, pretty lady. Duh!"

She waved her hands frantically. "No. No. No. I just had no idea. All the books down here say Ogres are dense creatures in both body and mind. I just thought..."

"I think you will find any people who move to a desolate place and stumble on a technology like our thermics, then live in peace for a few hundred years, would have to progress quite well in that time. I am not surprised that the last Ogrim seen down here talked like barbarians. For the love of the gods, most of the Thegns still don't talk much better than that now."

Cammi nodded and smirked. "I am sorry to have judged. Um... one thing though: what is technology or thermics?

"Technology is like magic except it always works and is dependable. Thermics is what we call the technology we have created. We also have a human who came from a land across the sea to the West, who brought some studies with him. He is very old and has somehow lived for a very long time. He has taught us of a science called eugenics. We have used it to make all of our people better over many generations."

She shook her head as if to clear it. "I am sorry. That is a lot to absorb. So then I am half... Ogrim?"

"Yes. I would assume without even asking that your Thegn father brought you home one day and raised you?"

"How did you know?"

"If an Ogrim male had a lower race female, even a Thegn, it would be unlikely she would survive the physical trauma of having children. I can only then assume that your Thegn father encountered an Ogrim female exile and they had you and then parted company."

"So do you know who my mother was?"

"No, but it would be a simple task to track her down. Not many Ogrim have left our land over the years."

"So why are you here?"

"I had a tendency to be a bit more rambunctious than the rest of our people. I was asked if I wanted to take a little trip and get it out of my system. That was twenty years ago."

"Rambunctious?"

"I like to fight and drink, and my libido is astronomical. Unfortunately for the last, well like I said-lower kingdom women and Ogrim-not such a good match. I am horny, not homicidal."

Cammi was more purplish now than was imaginable. It had to be more than just embarrassment making this happen. It must be because he was here near her, and that smell coming from him. Was she the only one who could smell that? "So you will be coming with us then?"

"Oh, absolutely. I like Snigin and have no place else to go. Also there is bound to be fighting and that will be nice and... that smell you are putting out is going to make me have kind of an insane fit very soon. Is there any way I could convince you to go somewhere private? I know that is forward but..."

She jumped to her feet and grabbed his giant hand and pulled him up with one motion. "Dear gods, it took you long enough to ask." She pulled him towards the tree line. The others smirked and went about their business.

It was shortly after that that Enid, followed by the rest of the men, came to the edge of their section of the camp. They all looked quite serious; so it was difficult to read their intentions. A few of the women touched weapons discreetly waiting for some sign of where this was going. Enid came forward and smiled at Snigin and waved to the ladies.

"Well, boss, it seems like most of us have no place better to go than to hang with you. Also, we have been living in the woods for quite some time, and a village might be nice. And last but not least, we have seen the gals fight and, well... if there is going to be fighting we best stick with them." Lots of nods and smiles were exchanged, then everyone went about packing and sleeping and eating in preparation for leaving the next day.

As everyone got ready for bed, they could swear that they heard the sound of trees being toppled, along with grunting and groaning.

I Fought the Man...

The band of thieves got under way relatively quickly in the morning. Logistics was the enemy of any group as it got larger and larger. In the end there were just over twenty-five of them. The women's wagon was in the center, and Raz walked alongside. The thieves were divided about half in front of them and half in back with assorted wagons and mounts. The whole caravan had six wagons and seven mounts. This was most definitely big enough to now attract attention from multiple different kinds of trouble. Bandits had no problem robbing anyone, even other bandits. They no longer really looked like bandits now because of the way they were traveling. They could easily be taken for merchants or homesteaders. The twins still brought up the rear on their ponies, preferring to be on rear guard, as they did not trust their backs to others.

They had put ten or twelve miles between them and the section of forest that the group had used as a home base. Naomi heard one of the twins chirping a high pitched whistle. Making any form of a civil communicative noise was an option of last resort for them. That meant trouble was coming. She shouted a halt and everyone heard her. Therein was the reason for their wagon being in the middle. It gave her the position to control and communicate with the entire group quickly.

The wagons pulled into the one side, then the other pattern she had told them to use when she briefed them prior to leaving, and the mounted riders turned their mounts. The others disembarked from the wagons and everyone got weapons ready. If it was just someone needing to pass, they were out of the way and the newcomers would then be in front of them and in easy view. If it was a problem, they were ready and their possessions were off to the side and usable as cover while the threat was centered between them. The twins dismounted and tied off their ponies and went into the wagon to strip down and unguent up. That didn't bode well for what was coming. They saw or felt something which made them skip any hesitancy in making preparations. They would come tearing out of the wagon if the fighting started. The rest of them just now saw riders in the distance. It looked military, armed with banners and such. Military was not good in this current climate. Chances were the twins' instincts would prove to be right; that was unfortunate, but likely. They would just have to sit still and wait to see how this would go.

#

The men were soldiers. They were obviously Kings-guard, but they looked very polished and a bit too refined to be from the local garrison. They were platoon strength. There were thirty of them, not including the three officers at the front. The one in the middle was overwhelmingly the most posh. He had a feather on his helmet which was ridiculously large and royal blue. It may as well have been a bull's-eye for a longbow arrow or crossbow bolt. Not a field officer then, or at least not one who had actually been to the field much. The two behind him were obviously his subordinates, one wearing medals and a red cord hanging on his large yellow epaulets. He shared these trimmings with his senior. The other to the left was dressed mostly like the other men; he just had two black stripes on either side of his helm. The other junior officer had similar stripes but they were golden paint and glistened in the sunlight. The senior officer rode forward with his juniors and Naomi swore she actually heard a "Harumph" as he pulled up on his reins to stop his mount in front of them.

"I am Captain Winnicutt Mann, his Majesty's Special Envoy to the Southern Kingdoms. We are on a mission to communicate with the Southern Kingdoms to request diplomatic aid and negotiate trade goods for troops from the South. As we are on official business, we will be confiscating anything we find necessary in your goods and possessions in the name of the King, for the good of our mission. My lieutenants, Mister Drake," he gestured with his head towards the fop, "and Mister Miller, will accompany my men as they go through your possessions and take what is necessary."

Naomi grinned overwhelmingly with such intensity it made the corners of her mouth hurt. "Ah, no. Over your dead body."

"Madam, I assure you it will happen, as I have an entire platoon behind me that says so. And you should know the saying goes 'Over my dead body,' not the other way."

"No, Captain Mann, I think we both said it right. It is your body we are speaking about." The more common lieutenant was looking around a bit and seemed to recognize the other women as his eyes passed over each. He was darting his eyes around, still looking for something more.

Grenda leaned close to Naomi and whispered in her ear. "Young Tim Miller left for the Officers Academy about six months after we took up at the crossroads. He is the local miller's oldest boy. We know him. More importantly, he knows us."

It was then that the captain unsheathed his sword and looked at the shiny junior officer, who parroted this by unsheathing his saber. "Well, men, let's get this over with then. Try not to kill too many; the kingdom needs farmers, you know. Charge!" He and the fop officer kicked their mounts and went forward. Lieutenant Miller raised his hand in a hold gesture and made his horse trot backwards. Not a man in the platoon moved.

The two officers were on the group in moments. The captain was taken high in a flash and his mount hamstrung and sliced. Both he and the horse never made the ground with any chance of life left in them. The prissy underling was grabbed by a giant hand from behind a wagon. This surprised even the stationary guards and Lieutenant Miller, as there were audible gasps. The fop's head squished like a jelly pastry in the giant hand. His horse slowed when deprived of the weight of a rider, and trotted by the group. One of the thieves grabbed the reins and stopped him gently.

Grenda walked out past where the twins were picking trinkets off of the captain's uniform, and Raz was trying to clean his hand off on his cloak. "Tim Miller, do you intend to charge us now?"

"Cook, I intend to do no such thing. We have supplies for now and have no need to be acting like brigands ourselves. I also remember you and your ladies quite well. I was concerned when the dark-skinned young ladies didn't seem to be with you, even though I was positive they would not have parted company with you under any circumstances. I must admit, though, I was a little taken back by the giant in the cloak."

"Ogre," Grenda corrected.

"Ogrim," Cammi corrected again. Raz just waved his big hand at her as if it wasn't worth it to make the correct distinction in this case.

The young officer scowled. "I called the man a giant referring to his size, not saying he wasn't human. He is large, but there are no mythical creatures parading around the kingdom, woman." Raz pulled off his cloak and stood in all his purple glory. "Well, that is something you don't see every day." The platoon started forward. "Men, I suggest we refrain from letting our paranoia get the better of us. I for one have no wish to die because I was unable to tolerate someone's skin being a different color," he hesitated, "even if that color is purple."

Grenda pirouetted and began to walk away from the platoon. "You always were a smart boy when we met in town. Why don't you and your men make camp here off the road with us? There is safety in numbers. We have some things to tell you before you head south, and there is plenty to eat. Your captain's horse looks plump."

"His horse?"

"Times are tough, sometimes tougher than even horse meat."

"I would never eat horse meat nor feed it to my men."

"You would think that, but you did eat stew at The Angry Man, so you would be wrong. Oh well. More for us." She kept walking while the lieutenant turned to speak with his men. It was a short time later he rode up to the group slowly and nodded at Grenda.

"My men are made up of conscripts from the South by the border mountains, so we would have every advantage on our journey. The captain and his aide-de-camp were more political figures than actual officers, but once out on the road, Mann thought he was a conquering hero. Unfortunately, there was nothing to conquer, and we were still in our own kingdom. My men may not have a mission without the diplomat with us. We are not too keen on returning very quickly without those two, and no other losses. It does not look terribly good. Also, most of my men have no problem with horse meat. Must be a Southern village thing."

"Keep telling yourself that, boy."

"Needless to say we will camp with you and eat. You can tell us what you were referring to earlier, about news from the South."

"Aye. Get settled in, then. Help the others. I'll let you know when chow is ready."

"Are you really going to cook the horse? Did I really eat horse at The Angry Man?"

"Would it help if I said neigh to either question, boy? You wouldn't believe me anyway, and just keep nagging me."

Soldiering On

Lieutenant Tim Miller woke feeling hopeless. He was in command of arguably the only royal troops south of the Crossroads and possibly the whole south of the kingdom. It was only a platoon. There was a horde coming from the south after the winter, and he really could not go back to the capital. He needed to figure out what his next move was. His men were eating, sleeping, drinking, whatever suited them. The women and thieves band were generous with their supplies when they were not being threatened for them. It made him momentarily consider what would have happened if the captain had just ridden up and said "Could we please have some supplies; we are on a mission for the good of the kingdom?"

Snigin came over to the log the lieutenant was occupying, followed by the twins. They looked desirable when they were not trying to kill you. This was ironic because that meant they were more desirable dressed because they had a tendency to be nude and greased up when the killing started. The chief bandit sat next to him with a sigh and the girls sat on the ground by his feet using their hands to chat at an incomprehensible speed for anyone not raised in the North and instructed in hand-speak.

Miller turned his head toward Snigin. "Has anyone ever told you you look a bit like..."

"Yes. That is quite enough. Not a comparison that is needed in my line of work. I thank you to not mention it further."

"Aye, I can see where it would be a queer resemblance to be stuck with. You and your boys going to their village to help them prepare for the bandits?"

Snigin nodded, "Me and the boys are going to our village to prepare for the bandit horde. We will make our home there. You fight a little harder for home."

The young officer ran his hand through his gold hair. "Perhaps it is my duty to bring the nearest soldiers there to garrison for the winter and help defend against forces who wish to abuse his majesty's subjects."

"That could most certainly be one interpretation of the duty of a commander of the Kings-guard."

"I am a lieutenant, not a commander."

"There is no ranking officer south of the median line of the kingdom right now, I assure you. The royal charter says there will be a commander in the South and one in the North at all times, for the good of the people. That was written in by Randolf the Holy, in the Year of the Rose. That would make you as ranking officer, automatically field-promoted to commander, unless a senior officer presents himself forthwith."

"You are pretty learned for a bandit. Odd."

"Sometimes when we steal, we steal books. I like history. It helps to know the past's mistakes so we are not doomed to repeat them."

Miller beamed at him. "Perhaps I will follow the incredibly well learned bandit and the killer barmaids to this village that is garnering so much coincidental support. It seems the gods are rolling dice, and I think I would like to see what turns up."

"What indeed, Commander, what indeed!" Snigin brushed the log's dust from his backside and started to trot away. Lilith and Eve ran to catch up and playfully attacked him.

The platoon's sergeant-major, a grizzled old veteran named Poke, approached the young commander. "I heard what he said sir. He is right, you know. With a bit of interpretation it is all on the up and up. Regardless, we follow you; we think you know what is what. My old instincts tell me something is coming. There will be fighting and dying. We don't mind the first one, but mean to do our best to avoid the second. We are with you whatever you decide."

"Poke, tell your second he is acting sergeant-major please..."

"Sir, I don't wanna..."

"Hush. I am not making you a knob! There is a traditional rank which has not been occupied since the last grand war. A senior enlisted man can serve as a warrant officer and fulfill a billet normally filled by King's commission. You are my second, Warrant Officer Poke. I can't command alone."

"Yes, sir." The old veteran smiled. "My great grandfather was a warrant officer in that war you spoke of. My honor, sir."

"Good. Now go tell the new sergeant-major the news. Ask the woman Naomi to join me for tea, and then paint your helm appropriate to your rank."

"Commander." The old man saluted with the zeal of a new recruit.

Miller stood and returned his new officer's salute with equal zeal. "Warrant Officer."

This situation was becoming more interesting by the moment. Killer barmaids, ogres, swarthy mysterious bandits, barbarian hordes-something surely monumental or horrible was coming to this kingdom. It would be good to know as much as possible when the time came to fight, flee or parley. He had been in his thoughts quite some time when he saw Naomi approaching with two mugs of tea.

"I am sorry. I meant to make tea for you."

The woman shook her head slightly but smirked none the less. "Men always mean to make tea. Women always make tea when they mean to make it."

"I don't understand."

"You never will. You aren't a woman." She handed him the cup. It smelled flowery and calming.

"Thank you. I would like to speak with you about my plans."

She finished her sip and raised her free palm toward him. "You will accompany us to the village. That makes sense. You also intend to serve as de facto commander of the Kings-guard in the South for the time being. You have also field-promoted some of your men."

"Incredible. How... spies, magic?"

"Your man introduced himself as Warrant Officer Poke and I bumped into Snigin on my way over. You are so handsome and so brave, yet still you could do with a little bit of womanly sense."

The commander laughed so hard he spilled some of his tea on his lap and jumped up. They both laughed for several moments before gaining their composure.

"Tell me, Naomi, do you not find it odd that circumstances have led to you finding your old allies, then acquiring the company of two different armed troops, so you are returning home over fifty strong, one of them an ogre?"

"It does seem that the gods are up to something, eh? What's worse, we were sent on this trip by a priest. Reichart is beside himself with the developments. He is almost ready to become a cleric himself. He is so capricious because of how quickly things are moving. This has been a long month on the road; I will be glad to be home."

"When you get home do you have a plan, ma'am?"

"You are the commander. I would think you could formulate a strategy. Can you not?"

"A plan for a platoon, a thieves band, a pack of Thegn Quean, and a bunch of villagers to stop a horde of barbarian bandits. That may be more than my experience is up to."

"You know what a Thegn Quean is?"

"Aye. They teach it at the officer's academy. I would venture to guess it is a bit wrong. You fight after your maidenhood has faded and refuse husbands to keep making war. It is a thing respected and despised by your people at the same time. I would imagine your little group has quite the reputation in the North."

"No, we are virtually unknown. No one has ever faced us and lived, 'till we all ended up down here. Down here we are barmaids, cooks, and traders. It must have made us soft." She showed him her teeth in an odd mock smile and winked. "We will come up with a plan, have no doubt. You will come in handy with your academy tactics. The horde will come, we may fight, we may run, we may die, but we will not be swept into the horde or leave them so much as a crumb to fuel their cause."

"Very well, then I am with you. Are we on the move tomorrow?"

"Yes. Sleep, eat, be ready to ride. We need to reach the village again without stopping. Our time is shorter and I do not want word to spread about all the new citizens too liberally. It would be best to get everyone home safely and very quickly. I will see you tomorrow."

Follow the Leader

The wagons and horses were hard to ignore, especially now that it looked vaguely like a military caravan. It only looked that way to the unschooled. Most of the people living in the small towns and hamlets on the remainder of their journey were in fact terribly unschooled. They too felt that something was coming, and had not seen any sign of authority for quite some time. A few were bound to do what some always do, and started following the caravan, thinking to become camp followers. Others seemed to have some innate sense something was happening, and joined because of that. They rode for a day and a half and acquired twelve people. Three farmers, whose stores were stolen, followed because they had nothing else to stay for; they and their families made up ten. They added an apprentice blacksmith who happened to be wandering, looking for a town to set up in, as he had just finished apprenticing. Lastly was Lola, who claimed she was a fortune teller, but most of them knew a camp whore when they saw one. Honestly, she was an excellent fortune teller according to the women, and she was a mediocre whore according to the troops. She was a good cook though, so nobody was in a rush to send her away. It was this motley collection which crested the final rise of the hillock where you could finally see the village of Mulish.

#

They began making their way down the hill and got closer to the village. There was a new wall around the entire village, made of mud bricks, which was two feet tall. Reichart even shook his head when he saw it. They had tried at least to do something, the gods bless them. Twenty of the village men came out into the road holding whatever sharp things they had to brandish. It was not terribly intimidating. Naomi slapped Reichart on the shoulder and rode past him.

"Come on, man. Remember, they know no one here but us. Let's tell them what is happening before they piss their britches."

Reichart brought his horse up next to her and pulled even. "What do we tell them? What is the story that goes with this?" He gestured toward the long line of people following them.

"We simply tell them the truth, and they should be glad of it, because it is better than they could have ever wished for."

They reached the group of men in the road, and as they got closer they saw the priest standing amidst the men. Father Relchior had seemed old when the elders were children. How he even walked under his own power was a mystery. His eyes were rheumy and he hobbled like he was made of twigs. The most fragile man in the village, yet no one ever questioned him for a moment.

"Well, hello, children! I see we were successful. Found our friends and a few more did we, Naomi? And I take it your fighting spirit is returned as well?"

"How did you..."

"Oh the gods told me what needed to happen. There is much afoot, young lady, much more afoot than you can imagine. The gods are writing epic tales in the story of man right now, and this is just the beginning. Please get your friends into the village and get comfortable. You have traveled quite a bit, and we have so much to do."

Reichart turned to Naomi and frowned, "Stranger and stranger. I think I preferred it when I just thought bandits were coming to steal our crops."

"I think perhaps me, too." She turned her horse around to tell the others to come forward while Reichart rode into the village to find his family.

Some of their new friends were going to be a little more welcome than others by the average villager. She hoped for the best, but there were bound to be difficulties.

Cammi found Raz at the forest edge. He was not inclined to spend much time in the village. Country folks had simple lives and did not respond well to change and the unknown. They were already scared and confused, preparing to be attacked. Now they had to deal with the fact that they were the first stop on a genocidal horde's path across the kingdom. They had little reserves left in their limited world view for a purple giant who could barely fit in any of the village buildings. It was all right, though; he was the practical sort. He just set up camp a few miles away under cover of the nearest forest canopy. Cammi didn't think it was fair. Raz tried to explain to her that in reality, life was unfair, and it was best to deal with facts as opposed to rallying against the injustice of the inevitable. It seemed out of place that someone so physically imposing and different from the expectation was so versed on philosophy and academics. People projected what they wanted him to be and accepted no other aspects of him. Most people he encountered did not even speak two words to him, nor allow him to speak before either running from him or turning him away.

He was leaning on an old-growth tree looking at a book that was too small by far for his massive hands. He did not even stir as she approached. This was most likely half because he observed everything around him with masterful peripheral attention, and a bit of a case of the biggest monster in the forest fearing no evil.

"Are you happy out here like this?"

He scrunched his nose and licked his lips pausing thoughtfully before answering. "I suppose I am. The people in the village are uncomfortable with me, so I can't be comfortable around them. It creates a tension of sorts, even if they act politely. Also, the buildings and furniture are not built with me in mind. You see, even if they pretend to accept me, their world is not made for me to fit in. So yes, I prefer to be in the world that the gods shaped because I fit better in it. At least 'till I can go home, that is."

"That is tragic." Tears filled her eyes and threatened to multiply soon.

"Why cry? Do I look like I am suffering?"

She shook her head. "No, but I feel bad for you."

"So you choose to suffer in my stead? It doesn't bother me; why let it bother you?"

He got up and put the book into one of the crude pockets sewn on his large trousers. He took her hands in one of his big palms delicately. He looked down into her eyes serenely. She did not understand what others found disturbing or fearful. His eyes showed his brilliance and his smile generated a comforting warmth in her. He was no monster, but if not for the prejudices of ignorant people, he would be a god on earth. She would change this. Someday she would change the way people saw his people, her people. She hugged him and became lost in this thought momentarily. As she laid her head on his bicep, she saw something move in the forest.

"Raz, there is something in there."

"Wha..." That was when it came.

Something Hides From Us

He turned so very quickly for a man his size. She was behind him, but only because of his enormity; otherwise she would not have been blocked. The intruder came running and everything parted around him. She could actually see some of him around Raz. What on the gods' earth was that big and loud?

Raz went forward scooping a tree limb of decent size as he ran and growled one word, "Eoten." As he neared the creature she understood why everything was so loud. Raz was growling, and the creature was growling twice. It came from two heads, left and right. If your average Thegn was a man and a half, Raz was a Thegn and a half. This fellow was not quite two times the size of Raz. He was red as blood. When the two finally collided there was an audible crack of two massive objects hitting, similar to rocks smashing together. The red giant flailed at him with massive fists as Raz swung his club in full rotations trying to hit both heads. She had to help him, but how? It must be what smaller folk feel when they imagine getting between two bulls in the pasture. There was just enormity and swinging limbs. They had even cleared most of the smaller foliage for a twenty foot area with their fighting. Anything smaller than an old-growth tree was just being mowed down and a few of the less solid old ones had some chunks missing. There was no sense calling for help. It would be over before she could get any, and if it put Raz down, then it would take her and at least three of the others to have a chance. That was only if two of the three were the twins.

The Eoten's right head spoke. "These are my woods. You leave now, Ogrim. Go home North. Kill you."

Raz did not respond with words but he landed a massive blow to the left head which seemed to knock it senseless.

The right head screamed in pain. The giant's right fist came up under Raz's chin and impacted like the sound of thunder. He flew off his feet and landed at least ten feet away. Cammi scooped up the nearest sizable stone and threw with all her might. It hit the limp left side and made the Eoten stumble backwards a few steps.

"Come then, let us finish this creature!" Cammi started forward to take a protective position over Raz. "I think I just may be able to fight the half of you that remains. Should we find out?" She removed her favorite pair of cestus from her hip pouch. No longer needing to be discreet she had taken to carrying them again. They weighed as much as a long sword together. She slipped them on and clanked them together in challenge. "Let us play, big fellow!"

The red giant's right face sniffed the air. "Arrg ogress! You filthy things are ruining my forest! LEAVE." With that he seemed to concentrate and the left head started to come around. He spoke to himself. "Run, stupid." The left replied weakly, "Pox you." But they turned and ran back the way they had come. She watched them go. Then she grabbed Raz's collar and dragged him as far as she could in the direction of the village while hooting for aid. Grenda and the twins came running with five soldiers, one of whom was the old warrant officer.

They stopped at the two big figures and all eyes were on an unconscious Ogrim. The old veteran spoke first before anyone else could get words out. "Dear spirits, what did that to him?"

"I will tell you while you help me tend to him. I have no idea how bad he is hurt."

Grenda bent near him and felt his neck for a life-beat. "He is just knocked out." She pulled a vial from her pouch. "I suggest everyone stand back." She put a dab of the fluid in the vial under his nose and shuffled back herself. Raz came to and jumped up ready to fight. He glanced around and not seeing his fight, calmed himself.

"Eoten?"

Cammi shook her head. "Ran into the forest."

Several voices exclaimed over each other. "Eoten?"

Raz said, "Aye, an Eoten living in the near forest. Probably alone and very careful. The village probably thought a wolf got livestock occasionally, and there can't be much good hunting in there. They can be pretty sneaky when they don't want to be seen, for big fellas. Also there is the fail safe that they will just kill and eat anyone who sees them."

The old officer looked gobsmacked. "They are real too? Good gods."

Raz looked at him. "Most of the stories of other races are exaggerated but not false. The other races do not truck with the south kingdom and would never imagine coming to your middle land or the northern lands. They stay on the lower continent with their makers and masters. Only the Ogrim were ever up here then we fled north. Then we fled north again when we tired of you people."

"Are there southern Ogrim then?" This from Cammi enthusiastically thinking she had found more distant kin.

"Certainly not. Any left became something other. Some became that thing we just saw. I just wish I knew why it was in there. How did it come so far north and why? What made it flee the far south? Things become more complicated by the minute."

Grenda waved her hand at him. "What is there to do? We have to prepare the village for the horde, and hardly have time to consider all the other weirdness."

"We have to consider it. I am not comfortable in the village anyway, so I will go south and scout. We need more information. The more we know the better off we will be." No sooner than Raz had finished Cammi clung to his arm.

"You are not going alone. I am coming with you."

Others had finally come to the alarm as they had been in various stages of preparation in the village, and some nearer the gate than others. Snigin and the twins were close enough to hear the last bit.

"A trip. Ah yes, so much better than sitting still. Shall we go with them, lovelies?" The twins both grinned with extra wide beaming smiles.

Grenda said, "It couldn't hurt to know a bit more about what is being pushed ahead of the horde if they are headed north. Also if they are headed deeper south we may have extra time to prepare the village. I will get Naomi to sanction it for the girls; you men do what you will. Cammi, your muscles will be missed in preparing, but the twins are no good 'till the killing starts anyway. Maybe walking army that you all are, you will thin the horde for us!" She laughed at her own joke and turned to go back to the camp.

Cammi looked up at Raz. "What about the Eoten?"

The warrant officer replied first, "Does it bleed?"

Raz nodded, "Aye."

The older man steeled his jaw. "Then it will stay in there or we will chop it off at the knees and cut its throat."

Raz looked down at Cammi. "I think they can handle it."

The soldiers nearby hooted, emboldened by their leader's bravado. Back in the forest, two sets of yellow eyes watched the scene unfold, and the thing spoke to itself. "The Ogrim and his mate leave and go south. We should follow."

"You were hit in the head too hard, idiot. We have no business with them if they leave our forest alone."

"What if they find out? What if they find it?"

"Bah. I need to think, and to think I need to eat. Come on."


Coming soon ... Episode 3


Copyright 2015, David Ulnar-Slew

Bio: David Ulnar-Slew was born in Innsmouth, MA, to Dutch immigrant parents of the famous Diepeen family, grew up in Newburyport, MA, and moved to an undisclosed location in the woods of VT in 2010. For ten years he taught Dark Magic to cannibal dwarves in the American Southwest. His first book, "Possible Flash Damage" is what he calls, "the beginning of Humankind's indoctrination into the ways the Elder Gods want us to think."

The truth:

David Ulnar-Slew is the nom-de-plume of Ed Sullivan. He is the former flash fiction editor at Aphelion: The Webzine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the Editor-in-Chief at Cheapjack Pulp. He needs a pseudonym because his given name is not terribly good for him in terms of search engine placement.

He would also be pleased if you were to visit:

http://www.cheapjackpulp.com

E-mail: David Ulnar-Slew

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