Read Against the Giants Online

Authors: Ru Emerson - (ebook by Flandrel,Undead)

Tags: #Greyhawk

Against the Giants

 
GREYHAWK
AGAINST
THE GIANTS
 
Greyhawk - 01
Ru Emerson
(A Flandrel & Undead Scan v1.0)

 

 

 

 

The morning of 14 Harvester dawned muggy and too warm in the
remote Keoland hill village of Upper Haven. The newly risen sun cast a ruddy
pall over a crossroad just beyond the last huts as Yerik, the sturdily built,
gray-bearded village headman, emerged from the hut that he shared with his
mother. They had shared the small dwelling ever since his father and young wife
had died of fever twelve years earlier. His beloved Aleas had been heavy with
their first child, and the grief over their loss had hit him so that he hadn’t
wed again, taking the village as his family instead.

So far, Upper Haven’s year had not been a good one. The young
baron had died of fever the preceding winter, leaving no heir. Since his death,
there had been none of the usual hunting parties through the area. Baron
Hilgenbran, who had paid in silver for all supplies needed at his lodge—from
fowl and eggs for his table to wood for the enormous firepits—had been a stern
but fair ruler. Without him, there had not been the usual drain on Upper Haven’s
limited resources, but there had been no coin either.

The village’s chickens hadn’t increased properly, thanks to
the icy winter that had hung on well through Readying, and spring had been
unusually cold and wet, lasting well into planting season—in mourning for the
baron, some said. Whatever the cause, the grain hadn’t sprouted until nearly
mid-Wealsun, and some of it was still underground at summer’s longest day. By
this late date, the wheat and oats should have been threshed and stored in
watertight clay jugs down in the communal root cellars where they would keep the
winter.

Now, with the grain barely ripe, even the youngest farmer of
Upper Haven could look at that ruddy eastern sky and predict heavy rain by
nightfall.

“There’ll be lightning,” Yerik predicted gloomily, his eyes
fixed on the ruddy sky where the sun would soon rise, “and fires down where we
pasture the goats and horses. It was too wet all spring, and it’s been too dry
since.”

His mother stepped on to the small porch just behind him,
deftly working her long white hair into a thick plait. Gran seemingly had no
other name—at least none that the villagers could remember. Old as she was, her
memory was astonishingly sharp. She nodded. “Like the year—was it almost forty
years ago?—year 546, yes. A bad one, everything on-end. It was too wet all
summer, too dry in fall, and a poor harvest because of it. What grain there was
rotted when rain fell before we could reap.” She fastened the plait with a bit
of faded blue ribbon. “At least the rain put out the fires that year. And it’s
our good fortune that you were clever enough to call on High Haven to come in
and stay last night, should the grain be ready today.”

She glanced toward the low stable, usually empty this time of
year since the herds grazed out all year except snow season. At the moment, the
stable threshing floor was packed with High Haveners—twenty men from the upper
village, who would exchange labor now for flour and fodder come winter. Fifteen
young women who had come down from the mountain with them had taken over the
common house for the night.

Yerik sighed heavily. “The grain will
have
to be
ready. We’ve no choice.”

“Yes. The crop is your business today, son. Remember that if
we go hungry this winter, those who like placing blame will blame you. Worse
still, we’ll lose Bregya, and she is a fine tanner.”

The headman nodded. “We’d also lose her father. Digos has not
been well the entire year. A better b’lyka player we’ve never had.”

“True.” Gran flipped the braid over her shoulder and came
down the step to stand beside him. “Organize everyone able to help in some way.
The herders are a sturdy lot. They’ll give you good time, and old Haesk and his
brother can help keep watch over the babes. Get little Adisa to help Bregya tend
her small ones. Take blankets so they can sit under the trees and weave us
wreaths from the stems for good fortune. Make a game of it for the youngest. The
children are useful at finding all the loose wheat-heads, if you plan it right.”

Yerik nodded and smiled.

Gran patted his arm. “Yes. I see you remember the game I made
of it, when you were a small boy. Leave me Mibya and her sister. I’ll need them
to start pots of soup for everyone. We’ll eat together once the crop is safely
inside.”

“Good.” He rubbed his hoary beard and nodded. “That will free
up more of the women to help. The rain may hold off until middle night. It has
that look. Still, we’ll get the crop in as quickly as we can. Remember Lharis
and his son are out hunting. They should return with meat.”

“Should,” she agreed with a smile. “We won’t count on it,
though.”

“No, but old Mikati swears he saw an entire herd of deer on
the northeast plain two days ago. You know Lharis. If there’s a herd anywhere
near, he’ll bring in at least one.”

“I will count deer only when I can touch them,” Gran replied.
“I’d welcome meat, but if not, we’ll manage. We always do.” She gazed at the
eastern sky with visible misgivings. “I wish I liked the look of this morning
better.”

“You”—he eyed her sidelong—“
recall
a day like this?”
he asked tentatively, emphasizing the word that also meant accessing the oral
village history passed down to her, mother to daughter, wisewoman to apprentice,
for all the years Upper Haven had been a village.

She shrugged. “No. I’m merely worried. We know the weather
has been erratic all year, and it will play us foul if it can. Go, shoo.”

Yerik nodded absently. His eyes were fixed on the horizon,
and she doubted he’d heard her. “Do you see an omen?” he whispered.

“None of that!” she hissed. “They’ll not take it well—our
people
or
the highlanders—to hear you say ‘omen’! Keep everyone busy as
you can. The other women and I will bring midday food to you. Why”—she laughed
softly—“we’ll make a picnic of it, and then a holiday tonight, especially if
young Lhors and his father bring us game. Offer your reapers a proper
harvestfest, dancing and music and a feast, good barley and beet soup with
honeyed flat bread Filling stuff, even if there isn’t venison. A chance for the
young men of the highlands to properly meet our girls.”

“And the other way about.” Yerik smiled. His young wife had
come from High Haven at just such a small harvestfest. He patted his mother’s
cheek. “What will we do,” he murmured, “when you finally leave this world for a
better?”

She clasped his hand. “I do nothing special. I’m simply a
woman with long years and a good memory. The village does as much for me as I do
for the village—just as we keep an old warrior like Lharis happy by making him
huntsman for all of us and letting him teach his skills to our boys. I can still
cook, and I can see patterns that repeat over time.”

“You make it sound so… so ordinary,” he protested.

“It is ordinary, thank all the gods at once,” she assured
him. “Certain things occur, now and again—like a too-wet planting season.” She
released his hand. “Get everyone out there. We’ll bring black bread, apples, and
ale at midday.” Her gaze moved beyond him toward the sunrise, and she looked
briefly troubled. Before her son could question her though, she shook off the
mood and shooed him away.

Yerik straightened his tunic, settled the thick belt around
his middle, then strode off into the midst of the village, rapping on one door
and then another before he vanished into the stable to waken their visitors.

Gran watched him go, nodding approvingly. The harvest would
be in and safely dry before the storm hit. Nothing else mattered, except keeping
the morale of both villages high.

She drew a thread from the ragged hem of a sleeve and wound
it around her finger so that she would remember to have the common room readied
after the soup was simmering. There’d be no dancing in the open square
this
night—not for long, at least. The ache in her bones told her that this would be
the kind of storm her long-dead husband had called a giant killer.

An interesting name, she thought. Why it was called that,
however… She didn’t know for sure. Probably because it described a true
fury of a storm, a storm that hit just short of midnight and pulverized the
senses with forks of lightning and sent thunder to set the dogs howling and make
the elders glad their ears no longer worked so well.

After a full day under that hot, muggy sky, most of the
harvesters would be exhausted, only the young still willing to dance. With luck,
the worst of the storm wouldn’t hit until the children were sound asleep.

She’d best remember to tell Yerik to make sure a few of the
villagers had enough energy to patrol the fields. Lightning-fires could
devastate what few grazing lands they had.

She shoved the braid over her shoulders. Storm weather was
making her feel broody and old, but there was work to do. She glanced toward the
sunrise one last time before setting to her tasks. The sun had cleared the
distant peaks and now seemed merely a little too bright. West, the mountains
were still a dark mass, smothered in black towering cloud.

 

* * *

 

Out in the fields, the harvest went on as the sun rose to
midday and fell toward the ever-thickening cloud in the west. Women and men,
bent nearly in half, worked their way efficiently backward down the ranks of dry
plants, grabbing a fat handful of stems and scything them right at the dirt
before dropping them in place and moving on to the next handful. Behind them,
others came to free a single stalk and use it as a binding cord around the rest.
Boys and young women followed, gathering up the bundles and carrying them to the
two handcarts, while children picked up whatever had fallen and tossed it into
baskets.

Yerik allowed a decent break for midday meal, knowing people
would be able to work harder and longer for food and a short nap. The weather
still held off, but the late afternoon air was pale gold and utterly still, as
if some god had distilled it.

The sun was still a full hand above the clouds when the last
basket was picked up and the carts were hauled back under the stable’s low roof
for the night. Abandoning the carts and baskets, villagers and their guests went
to remove the layers of dust and chaff-coated sweat before gathering in the
village square where two black pots bubbled, spreading the soothing odor of a
familiar soup.

Night came early, with a rising wind and heavy black clouds
that blotted out the western mountains and even the near foothills. Thunder
grumbled in the distance, and occasionally the western sky was briefly pale with
lightning. But the air was cool and fresh for the first time in long hours, and
the rain held off.

After everyone had eaten well, Dikos broke out his
three-stringed b’lyka, while Mikati unpacked the four flat drums from their hide
case, settling them on his broad lap. People cheered and clapped as the two
consulted before finally breaking into the familiar jigging tune they always
played first. For some moments they played to an empty square while some of the
older women clapped time. Then Emyas tugged her newly pledged Arkos to his feet,
and got him dancing. Others joined them. A half dozen of the girls got up and
formed a circle, dancing, giggling at the boys and at each other. Gran and the
other cooks settled back, pleasantly tired, to watch and occasionally gossip
about the dancers or those who sat close together, chuckling as they wagered on
which would be the next pair to pledge.

Song followed song as evening deepened into night.

All at once, the air turned much cooler. Lightning forked
across the southwestern hill country and thunder rumbled, louder and closer to
the flash of light. The two players set aside their instruments as a gust of
wind blew across the ground, sending a swirl of dust and cook-fire smoke high.
At that moment, a dark, bulky man in leathers came into the open light, followed
closely by a youth of perhaps seventeen years. The older man carried a strung
bow in one hand and a drawn sword in the other—unusual in a peaceful village.
His face, normally expressionless, was set and grim. Yerik wove between the
suddenly stilled dancers, the old woman right on his heels.

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