The little giants, with their lipless mouths and glassy, spherical eyes, can look intimidating, but few regular-sized people are nicer or more obliging than they are.
The coach runners among them wear colourful veils that cover their faces. Dashes of pink and teal are common; so are smiley faces drawn with a thick brush. How they see through the thick material is a mystery, but my guess is that, like their soundless language, their eyes also work differently from ours, which makes the effort they put into making dapper yellow-and-black uniforms and fancy veils – purely for the sake of us jittery humans – even more impressive.
One might wonder how giants would run a coach service. The answer is straightforward: they pull carriages and run really fast.
Why not just use horses? Because horses can’t carry a cabin of twelve people over steep hills, deep water, poisonous swarms, or fend off the now not-so-occasional dragon with massive javelins. On the Imperial Highway, a carriage drawn by a pair of little giants – one pulling and one pushing – outruns everything on land.
That is, if you can afford to pay fifty thousand crowns for a one-way trip.
The exorbitant price comes with a suite of luxuries. The carriages are marvels of engineering, with a cushioned chassis and soft-rimmed wheels. Even the smallest ones have four-room cabins, baths included, plus a water tank and a stove. Their walls are made from shaped steel, and their crystalline windows from pieces of quartz, unbreakable yet see-through; the little giants are very, very good with rocks.
This is because, long ago, they had lived in the Endless Ranges, before the dragons drove them out.
To be inside one of these, my butt on the same leather seat a prince from the vassal states would have sat on as people-shapes blur past the window, listening to the neighing of our nervous horses in the next room – passengers now because they couldn’t keep up – it’s exciting, to say the least.
Out front Haylis is braving the wind and talking with Oon’Shang, the polite ten-foot-tall not-so-little giant with a veil of bright orange. She uses this chain of silent bells to communicate with her. With four soft-tipped mallets, two in each hand, Haylis hits them in complex sequences that would put a musician to shame, except that, even as they visibly vibrate, the bells make no sound.
Oon’Shei, little brother of Oon’Shang, pushes our carriage from the rear. Perennially on his back is a bunch of six-feet javelins, and a sickle-like blade that could easily lop off the head of an elephant.
When the enclave of little giants had realised that the one hiring them is the slayer of Elisaad, these two siblings had volunteered. They are both warriors; a rare sight nowadays, since most of them have become stonemasons or engineers that build machines for human kings. The pay’s better and much easier.
Being warriors, they’re not particularly good at drawing carriages.
I’ll be honest – horses would do better.
As yet another massive bump sends everything airborne, Arkai, who is sitting on the roof as lookout, expresses his displeasure with polite language.
‘...so be more careful!’ he shouts, ostensibly at Oon’Shei, who wouldn’t understand nor hear a word he’s saying.
‘Do you see anything?’ Kathanhiel asks from her leather-bound chair in the cabin.
‘No, nor do I want to.’
Arkai’s squad of Ink Scouts had gone on ahead while we bargained for the coach, but a mere day later they’re now behind us, for the little giants run without rest or sleep. Haylis says this is perfectly normal; two weeks of straight running is apparently a popular exercise routine for them, right up there with digging a tunnel though a mountain.
Think about that; these folks, with their inexhaustible stamina and immeasurable skill, had been made exile by the dragons.
What can we little people do?
When I ask her this Kathanhiel replies dismissively. ‘You only see their strengths. The little giants are a very isolated people who value solitude and self-progression above all else. Even for a system as simple as running a coach service they require human investment, because working together is simply not a part of their life.’
‘But they’re so strong, and smart too.’
‘They are, but so are the dragons.’ She taps the scabbard of Kaishen, which hangs at her waist. ‘This sword was made by one known as Ush’Ra the Godsmith, a legend among their people. The art of its making has been lost because its creator refused to share it with others. That’s how it is with them.’
‘Really? But I-I’ve heard that, um…’
‘That it came from a bolt of lightning?’ she smiles. ‘Or is it my pulling it from a rock in the middle of a lake? That one’s my favourite. When I was young I imagined myself as the hero in it. Little did I know...’
‘Are there more swords like Kaishen? Maybe if-if I could get one I can be of some use to you.’
Her expression changes to one that is eerily familiar…during our first meeting in the King’s garden, she had a moment just like this.
Sad? Can I say she looks sad? After five and a half weeks in her company that monosyllabic word seems laughably inadequate.
Sorrow? That’s better, but still a way off. She doesn’t seem particularly troubled, not with that faraway my-mind-is-somewhere-else look.
Melancholy? Sure but…what does that word mean exactly?
‘One such sword is one too many,’ she says quietly, and not to me, ‘and I don’t need you to fight. There’s nothing I can’t take care of with Kaishen at my side.’
‘Y-yes my lady.’
She blinks. ‘I like this about you Kastor. You always ask the right questions.’
‘I just…want to be of more use to you than the esquire who cooks and cleans.’
‘You’ll do much more than that, this I know for certain.’ She stands and moves to the window. ‘Would you mind go checking on the horses? That last bump must’ve startled them.’
Rough of her to counsel me so well then immediately undermine it by giving out a menial task. As I open the door to the next cabin I glance back; Kathanhiel has unstrapped her sword and is holding it up against the rain-pelted window. She looks like she needs to be alone.
The rain just doesn’t stop. Throughout the day the sound of steel getting bombarded by millions of pebbles lurks at the back of everything, ruining every moment.
The horses, shut in and constantly rocked about, are displeased at the accommodation. I try my best to calm them down, but the stablemaster didn’t say anything about handling horses inside the carriages they’re supposed to be pulling.
Killisan is the quietest of the three, chewing and savouring a coil of rope like a mouthful of caviar. Bobby completely ignores me and goes on swishing his tail about like a princess. Haylis’s horse headbutts me in the gut. Twice.
My dear four-legged friends, give me some advice.
What should say after putting that expression on her face with, what, two sentences?
Something’s bothering her – that much is obvious. Should I…ask her about it? Like, ‘what’s wrong my lady? What’s troubling you?’
No no no, don’t be stupid. You, the useless esquire, putting your nose into her problems? If she’s hungry she’ll call on you to make dinner, to which you will promptly reply ‘yes my lady’ and nothing else because only rubbish comes out of your mouth.
‘You ask a lot of questions.’
In the name of –
Arkai’s standing in the corner. Not even the horses noticed him.
‘S-s-s-sorry master Arkai, I do it because I don’t really know anything.’
‘That much is clear,’ he says, ‘but as the lady says, mind your own business. The job of an esquire is to serve without question. I suggest you take that literally.’
‘I will sir.’
‘Will you really?’
‘I…I...I worry about her, that’s all,’ quit it idiot, what’re you saying?! ‘She’s going after the Apex all by herself and I get that she’s strong but…but these are dragons we’re going up against, and I’m not even sure what I’m doing here, let alone…what would you do to help her, master Arkai?’
Five seconds of silence, then it stretches to ten.
He’s gone. I’d taken my eyes of him during that little speech and by the time I look back there’s only the pile of damp hay. He’s probably back on the roof now, drenched to the skin yet stubbornly keeping watch. It’s cold up there; I wouldn’t last five minutes.
Arkai’s been up there all day.
Three days go by without incident. Every morning a raven from the Ink Scouts would tap its beak on the cabin window, and Arkai would let it in, feeding it strips of jerky from yet another pouch on his belt whilst reading to the rest of us the message bound on its right foot.
The Ford in riot, unsafe, it says.
As for the vast plains of the north: on fire.
‘…razed, few casualties.’ Arkai finishes with a frown. ‘The people are given time to flee from their homes…but how? The dragons hit within minutes of being sighted. Unless...they’re being lenient? Why, and for what purpose?’
‘This but reaffirms my belief that the Rutherford Dragon differs vastly from its predecessor,’ Kathanhiel says as she paces from one end of the cabin to the other. ‘By allowing its victims to flee it has sown terror far further than his reach.’
‘This is news to me.’ Arkai raises an eyebrow. ‘After Elisaad it’s hard to imagine any act of sophistication, let alone one that doesn’t involve indiscriminate slaughter.’
Kathanhiel struggles for a moment, as if her tongue is refusing to uncurl. ‘The Elisaad we faced had been…weakened, considerably. It had not the mind for other things.’
‘It’s difficult to explain...’
I speak up for no reason. I don’t even get myself sometimes.
‘How can he be so different? I mean it’s not as if...not as if they’ve a different head now. If they only have one consciousness then shouldn’t Rutherford be basically the same as...’
Arkai stares at me like he wants to slit my throat. It’s not been three moons and already I’m back to being the inquisitive moron. One could argue that a moron could not be inquisitive, but I beg to differ.
Kathanhiel, on the other hand, seems relieved. ‘The physiology of the Apex changes drastically the way it thinks. Ask yourself, would you still think and behave the same way if you’re thrust into a different body?’
Images of me in the body of a Lion of the March come rushing in – I’ve some experience fantasizing about this, see – and it’s all too apparent that the handsome and sculpted me wouldn’t be the same person; more innate confidence, for starters, which will lead to –
Old news, this string of thoughts. Let’s not pull on it again.
‘Y-yes my lady. Uh, no, I wouldn’t be the same. I get what you mean. Please don’t mind me and get back to what you were saying.’
She gives me a smile. ‘With The Ford closed to us, perhaps we can take the long way around and find a ferry at one of the smaller ports. Arkai?’
He shakes his head. ‘Nowhere else has ships able enough to withstand the floodwater, not to mention everyone with a dinghy would be using it to flee downriver.’
‘Still, it is our best and safest option to –’
‘Safe only while you continue to draw the brood’s attention. I’ve thought on this,’ Arkai says, ‘and your plan to distract the brood grows fraught at every turn. How long will you last? A week, sure, two, even three or four. But two, three months? You’ll be forced to act as bait for however long it’ll take for a ferry to crawl against the flood. What’ll happen to your body under the toll of the sword?’
Haylis looks up from her spot on the softest chair. ‘Don’t be so rude mister. No wonder she doesn’t like you.’
A jab as blunt as that would stutter the steadiest of men, but there’s absolutely no reaction from him. Nor does he wait for Kathanhiel’s answer.
‘Now that we’ve lost access to the ferries, there’s no longer any merit to your original plan. I suggest we make utmost haste on the straightest road.’
‘You mean to run the highway – together.’ Kathanhiel stops mid-stride. ‘We’ll be the biggest target there is, inside the most conspicuous thing on the road. The dragons won’t be outrun, not by anything.’
‘You speak as though you didn’t make the exact same plan for yourself.’
‘That’s a different matter.’
‘Is that so? What then do you suggest?’
‘We’ll...go to a different port, and find an ironclad that can hold all of us.’
Arkai laughs humourlessly. ‘An ironclad, north of the Ford? One that can move against the floodwater? Who will pilot it? Would there even be enough crew at the docks?’
‘You could send down one of yours from Iborus –’
‘Send down – by the Maker, Kathanhiel, the fortress is surrounded by five hundred dragons!’
‘The situation might have changed.’
‘Why would it?’
‘With each passing day they’re more likely to be drawn to me instead of the fortress.’
‘So what? After you get their attention, what will you do? Kill all of them?’
‘Yes,’ she says plainly.
‘That is the most arrogant thing I’ve ever heard.’
For a moment the fire in Arkai’s eyes waver as a shadow of regret flashes through them like a fleeing sparrow, but only for a moment.
Kathanhiel’s face turns a dull red. ‘I’ll not have you insult my abilities.’
‘And I’ll not have you die like an idiot!’