Slight and Shadow (Fate's Forsaken: Book Two) (5 page)

BOOK: Slight and Shadow (Fate's Forsaken: Book Two)
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The giants were camped closer to the trees than he realized. So close, in fact, that he was surprised they hadn’t heard their companion’s body strike the ground. There were a half dozen of them — their hulking forms cast shadows out from their fire, stretching across the ground like blackened rays from the sun.

Kael was within throwing distance when he heard them speak:

“I’m sick of quail,” one of the giants grumbled. “Sorry excuse for a mouthful, they are. I can hardly pick the meat off their wee little bones!”

“Try the rabbit,” another one replied thickly, as if he already had a mouthful of hare rolling between his jaws. “You can always get a few bites off of them.”

The first snorted in disgust. “Rabbits — there’s hardly an ounce of fat on them! And you’d think, with those meaty little legs, that there’d be something worth chewing on. But oh, no.” The fire hissed as he flung a clean-picked quail carcass among the embers. “I’ll be glad to see the castle walls again, I can tell you that.” His head swung to the left. “When are we setting out, Dred? I want a plate piled high with sausages and eggs for breakfast.”

“We’ll leave as soon as Grout comes back,” a shadow replied — a shadow, Kael noticed, that sat taller than the rest.

“I haven’t heard him squawk for a while,” another voice chimed in. “The clodder probably got himself lost.”

The others guffawed heartily at this for a moment. Then Dred cut back in. “Somebody ought to go look for him. His Lordship won’t like it if we come back a man short.”

The giant who’d been grumbling about the quail snorted. “Then it ought to be you — you’re the one who tossed his weapon out in the empty, after all.”

“You forget,” Dred said slowly, a dangerous edge in his voice, “that I am Lord Gilderick’s general — even while on patrol. So if I want to rip your head off and fling it out after that pike, all I have to do is say the lions got you. And not a man here will out me. Right, blisters?”

The shadowy heads stopped their gnawing for a moment and bobbed vigorously in agreement.

“See there?” Dred said smugly. “Now, I think
you
ought to be the one to check up on Grout. Think of it this way: the sooner you find him, the sooner you’ll have your sausages.”

The others laughed as the giant got to his feet. He snatched his pike off the ground and made a few idle threats to those laughing loudest. Then he turned — and nearly ran straight into Kael.

He aimed between the two crossed sickles on the giant’s breastplate and heard a satisfying
thunk
as the knife struck true. Then Kael threw himself into the middle of the giants’ ring.

It took him less than ten seconds to stir up chaos. He flung two more blades in opposite directions, yelling wildly as he went. Even the giants who weren’t struck cried out in surprise and toppled over themselves just trying to get away. Then with a loud whoop, Kael bounded over the fire and dashed for the road — hoping that the giants would follow.

He allowed himself a triumphant grin when he heard them rumbling behind him. They roared at the tops of their lungs and flung their pikes at his heels, trying to pin him to the earth. But Kael was far too quick.

He wove a pattern any rabbit would have been proud of, cutting back and forth at such sharp angles that the pikes flew off course. When he chanced a look behind him, he saw that his patched-together plan had worked: the pirates’ cart had burst from camp and was moving for the highway at full-tilt. A few moments later, and a cloud of pale dust billowed up as the wheels struck the road.

Yes, if he could lead the giants another quarter mile away, the pirates would be safe —

“Got you!”

Kael had been so focused on his run that he hadn’t heard the great, loping steps of the giant behind him. He’d broken away from the pack and thrust the butt of his pike between Kael’s shoulders — sending him straight to the ground.

Little rocks tore at his chin and the pads of his hands as he went sliding. Before he even rolled to a stop, his knees were beneath him. He was nearly to his feet when a boot heel slammed between his shoulders, crushing him back to the earth.

The thundering steps halted beside him. Kael grimaced as torchlight crossed his face. “What is it, Dred?” the giant who wielded the torch asked.

“Hmm.” The boot dug uncomfortably against Kael’s spine as Dred inspected him. “Looks like a mountain rat. Well,” the pike’s butt nudged through his reddish-brown hair, “half a mountain rat.”

“Whatever it is, I want to be the one to kill it!”

Kael recognized the voice immediately and could hardly believe it when the giant he’d struck in the chest lumbered forward. He pulled Kael’s throwing knife out from his breastplate with a grunt, then held it aloft. “Look at the size of this thorn! That’s going to leave an ugly little scar, that is.”

A second giant snatched it out of his hand and held it to the torch. “That’s no thorn — it’s a wee knife!”

Kael could see why the giants had mistaken it for a thorn: clutched between their thick fingers, he could hardly see the tip of the blade.

“It doesn’t matter what it is,” the first giant stormed. “That little rat meant to kill me, and so I mean to kill him —!”

“Stop your fussing,” the torch-wielding giant growled. He switched the light to his other hand, and Kael saw the hilt of a knife sticking out from his shoulder. “I got bloodied, too. And poor Dingy — he took one straight in the rump.” He gestured to the giant at his side — whose tight lips and sweat-beaded brow indeed reminded Kael of someone who’d taken an unfortunate wound. “Didn’t you, Dingy?”

He nodded stiffly. “Somebody’s going to have to help me pull it out. I’m afraid to reach back there.”

“Oh, rumps and shoulders — I took one in the chest! So of any of you, I ought to — oof!”

His sentence got cut short by what sounded like the blunt end of a pike to the gut. “Shut it, you idiots,” Dred growled. His boot left Kael’s back and went under his stomach — flipping him over like a maid fluffing the pillows. “What are you doing in my plains, mountain rat?”

When Kael’s eyes adjusted to the light, he got his first, horrifying look at General Dred.

He was a giant among giants, towering head and shoulders above the rest. His arms were crossed over his breastplate, twisted together like the knotted, bulging roots of an ancient tree. The shoulders that topped his barrel chest could’ve served for a bench in any respectable tavern. And all over, Dred’s skin seemed to be struggling to contain him: stretching and straining over his muscles, thinned to the point that his veins popped out. But that wasn’t the worst part.

Not even the shadows could hide the horrible scar that marred his features. It started at his upper lip — a crevice that ran along his cheekbone and stopped just short of his left eye. The depth of the scar warped his mouth, giving him the look of a man who had something rather unpleasant growing under his nose.

“You tried to kill us,” Dred said, when Kael didn’t reply. His eyes roved down to Kael’s wallet of knives. “Did you kill Grout? Answer me, rat!”

Kael flinched as Dred kicked a large clump of dust into his face.

“Of course he killed him!” the giant with the chest wound piped in. He leaned forward and spat in the dirt near Kael’s head. “He’s a little monster.”

“Someone ought to check in those trees over there,” Dred mused. His eyes lighted on Dingy — who quickly shook his head.

“My rump’s too sore, General.”

“That’s not my problem, now is it?”

“But there could be more of them! What if I wind up like Grout?” Dingy pleaded. When that didn’t work, he changed tactics. “We don’t have time to walk all the way back there. We’ve got precious few hours before dawn, after all. And if we show up late, His Lordship’ll flay our hides.”

He glanced at the others for support, and they quickly nodded. Grout’s fate came second to a flogging.

“He’s going to flay us anyways,” Dred snapped at them. “We’re going to turn up one man short —”

“Not if we bring
him
,” Dingy said, thrusting a finger at Kael. “His Lordship always needs fresh beasts. And with the Duke’s shipment running late —”

“Shut it.” Dred fingered the scar at his lip, thinking. And Kael held his breath.

He could see the road from the gap between Dred’s legs, and the cart hadn’t quite made it over the horizon. A cloud of dust still hovered very clearly where the wheels had rolled by. If the giants turned back towards camp, they would see it.

Please don’t turn
, Kael thought furiously, trying to force his will through the iron plates of Dred’s helmet.
Forget about Grout — head for the castle.

After a long moment of thought, Dred took his hand away. He seemed about to speak when a strange noise cut over the top of him. It came from further up the road, away from the cart’s path.

And Kael recognized the familiar, ear-grating sound immediately.

Chapter Five

A Fool’s Help

 

 

 

 

 

 

“What in all clods was that?” Dingy hissed. He spun around, and Kael saw that he did, indeed, have a knife stuck in his right buttocks. He yelped when Dred reached forward and yanked it free.

“I’m not sure,” Dred muttered, inspecting the bloody knife. He stiffened when a second note trembled through the air, more annoying and ghastly than the last. His knuckles whitened around his pike as he took a few halting steps forward. “Let’s move out — quietly, now. And don’t forget the rat.”

One of the giants jerked Kael to his feet. “What’s this?” His hand closed around the wallet of throwing knives and Kael heard the leather snap as he ripped it free. “No more pokey thorns for you,” he said, waving the wallet in Kael’s face. “Now get trotting.”

Kael
did
have to trot to keep up with the giants’ long strides. They moved quickly down the road — and every time a note danced through the air, they seemed to move faster. It wasn’t long before the moon slipped beneath the clouds and hid the land beyond in darkness.

When the giants stopped to light more torches, Kael noticed that they held their pikes much tighter than before — and their heads never stopped swiveling.

“It’s Scalybones,” one of the giants hissed, when a particularly screechy noise came out of the scrubs to their left. “Oh, he’s getting closer!”

“He’s going to make shirts out of our scalps.” Dingy had removed his helmet and was running a hand worriedly through his stark white hair. “Mum used to say — ow!”

Dred smacked him smartly across the head. “Scalybones is a myth — nothing more. And I’ll prove it.”

Without warning, he stomped over to the scrub bushes. Kael hardly had a moment to be worried before Dred jabbed the butt of his pike into the middle of them. There was a
thud
and a sharp yelp.

“Ha!” Dred reached into the middle of the bushes and flung the wraith out among them — lanky limbs and all. The giants swore and jumped backwards; several held their weapons protectively over their chests. But Kael was far more furious than scared.

Jonathan the Fiddler looked up at him sheepishly. An angry red patch was swelling rapidly over his eye.

“There’s your Scalybones,” Dred said triumphantly. “It’s naught but a spindly little forest man.”

“Ah, not
just
a spindly forest fellow,” Jonathan sprang to his feet and drew his bow across his fiddle in a less-atrocious note, “a bard of the realm, at your service.” He bent rather clownishly, swinging his arm out beside him in the courtliest of gestures.

Kael silently begged him not to overdo it.

“A bard, eh?” Dingy said, rubbing his sore rump thoughtfully. “We could use one of them. Lord Gilderick’s hall needs music.”

Dred made a frustrated sound and flicked one massive hand towards the road. “Then we’ll let His Lordship decide what to do with him — if he doesn’t mince us on sight, that is. Move out, blisters! We’ve got a long road and a short while before sunrise.”

They forced Jonathan and Kael to the front of the line and set a fast pace for Gilderick’s castle. Though they had to move at nearly a half gallop to keep the pikes off their backs, the giants were far from sympathetic: they lowered their weapons and made it clear that they would stop for nothing.

“We’ll carry you in by your ribs, if we have to,” one of them called, drawing a round of jeers from the others.

It wasn’t long before the hard-packed road began to make Kael’s legs ache. He could feel his boots rubbing large, twin blisters into his biggest toes. But he hardly noticed his discomfort.

He was still too angry with Jonathan.

What in Kingdom’s name had he been thinking? It didn’t matter what sort of evil awaited them in Gilderick’s realm: giant warriors, witches, a vat of two-headed snakes — with enough time to think, Kael knew he could escape any cage they threw him in. But now that he had Jonathan tagging along, escape would be much more difficult.

He waited until the giants’ chatter billowed up again before he shot the fiddler what he hoped was a dangerous look.

Jonathan licked his lips. “Now, now — I know you’re upset —”

“Blasted right, I am,” Kael snapped back. “You should’ve gone with the cart. I won’t be able to save you if they take you into the castle. You
do
understand that, don’t you?” he added, when Jonathan opened his mouth to retort. “This isn’t going to be like sacking the Duke — there’s no dancing in Gilderick’s realm. And there’s very likely no escaping, either.”

Jonathan was quiet for such a long moment that Kael’s anger cooled and he began to regret what he’d said. The giants had been about to turn around for camp, after all. And Jonathan’s ruse had given the pirates the chance to escape. They might
all
be in irons, had he not led the giants away.

Kael was just about to apologize when Jonathan spoke: “
You’re not stupid, Jonathan
,” he muttered, a small smile pulling at his lips, “
but you
are
a fool
! That’s what Garron always used to say to me. He said I was one of those blokes who could never get his boxes stacked in the right order — and that I shouldn’t be surprised when the whole lot came tumbling down on me. Maybe I should’ve gone with the cart,” he touched the skin around his swollen eye gingerly, “but I couldn’t leave you on your own. So come blisters or bruises or ole Gildepants, himself — you’re stuck with me, mate.”

“You
are
a fool,” Kael said back. But he couldn’t keep his face serious for long under Jonathan’s silly grin. He broke into a smile — and punched Jonathan in the arm when he laughed. After a moment, their smiles turned serious once again. “I’m going to get us out of this. Somehow, I’ll figure out a way to get us back to the seas.”

“I know you will, mate,” Jonathan said cheerily. And as his typical winking eye was already swollen shut, he just tilted his head to one side. “Though preferably in a way that doesn’t involve a pair of coffins.”

Kael promised that he would try.

 

*******

 

Lord Gilderick’s castle rose up like a boil upon the earth. Its red, rounded walls were swollen thick against invaders, its jutting towers stood high out of reach, and the front gate was sealed tightly shut. The way its massive beams and bolts crossed over each other made it look like a set of clenched teeth.

To the right of the gate was a large, squat tower — and judging by the mismatched color of its bricks, it was much older than the rest. The tower was connected to the castle by a covered passageway. Huge white clouds of smoke streamed lazily from its top.

If Kael blurred his eyes, he thought the whole thing looked a bit like a red skull smoking a pipe.

When they were a quarter of a mile from the grinning front gates, the road suddenly forked into three. The giants ordered them to a halt, and then began bickering amongst themselves about what to do with their captives. All the while, the sun crept closer to dawn.

“We’ll take the bard to the castle,” Dred finally said. His ruined lip twisted into a sneer. “If His Lordship doesn’t like him, I’m sure he can think of something … inventive, to do with him.”

With a round of unsettling laughter, the others agreed.

“And what about the rat?” The giant with the chest wound narrowed his gray eyes at Kael. “We’ve already got a soul for Grout — we don’t need him. Leave him in my charge for a moment, Dred. I promise I’ll leave not a speck behind.”

Kael met the giant’s hard look with one of his own. For a moment, he was actually hoping that Dred
would
leave them alone. Morris had taught him well, and even a giant would have gaps in his armor.

But unfortunately, that wasn’t what Dred chose. “No, we can’t waste a slave — not even one as scrawny as
that
,” he added, jutting his chin at Kael. “Take him to the fields, Dingy —”

“Why me?” he moaned.

“Because I order it.” Dred coupled this with a sneer. Then he grabbed Jonathan around his belt and hoisted him to the top of his massive shoulders. As the giants sprinted away, Jonathan hung limply on his belly, bouncing up and down like a half-filled sack of potatoes.

Kael had hardly taken three steps before he found himself plucked from the road and draped uncomfortably across Dingy’s shoulder. His armor bit into Kael’s stomach, pinching him in places where he didn’t think he’d had any skin to spare. He propped himself up awkwardly on his elbows, trying to keep the armor from biting him.

Half of his concentration was bent on not being jostled to death, and with the other half, he tried to get a good look at Gilderick’s fields.

The
Atlas
claimed that the plains had the richest soil in the Kingdom. He’d found several drawings hidden in its pages: of green pasturelands, fields bursting bright with color, and orchards heavy with fruit. There had been giants in the drawings, too. He remembered the smiles on their painted faces as they worked the fields, sometimes hoisting monstrous vegetables from the ground, or wandering with their scythes propped across their thick shoulders.

But the fields he looked at now were nothing like the pictures in the
Atlas
: they were empty.

Large chunks of the earth had been scraped away, marring the land with a patchwork of dark, damp scars. The patches stood out like scorch marks in the dry grass, as if the whole land smoldered in ruin. Though he looked as far as his eyes could reach, Kael saw nothing green in sight: just dismal shades of black and brown.

The stars were still out, but several hulking shadows were already making their way across the fields to work. Kael recognized the thick limbs and plodding steps of the giants, and he knew that these must be Lord Gilderick’s slaves.

He’d spent the winter reading the logbook they’d stolen from Duke Reginald. And from what he could gather, Gilderick had divided the giants into two groups: those who were willing to shed blood to join his army, and those who weren’t. The giants who’d refused to join him had become his slaves.

Kael watched the slaves from around Dingy’s massive head. Some of them hoisted tools across their shoulders, but even those with nothing at all still seemed to carry a burden: they were hunched over, their backs were like the curve of a bow and their heads were tethered to the earth — held down by some unrelenting string.

The giants who worked the fields had refused to bow to Gilderick, and so he’d bent them under his whips.

Anger swelled in Kael’s chest when he thought of what a proud race the giants had been. He was determined see pride straighten their shoulders once more. He would see them bent back — and Gilderick would pay dearly for what he’d done to the plains.

Kael was so caught up in his thoughts that it took him a moment to realize that Dingy had come to a stop. The road had finally ended in what looked like a small, dusty courtyard. Four identical barns hemmed its edges, forming an almost perfect wall. Something that looked like a small cottage was perched atop the roof of each barn. Their doors had been marked crudely with dripping white paint:
N
,
S
,
E
, and
W
.

Dingy was stopped at the barn marked
N
. His shoulder dropped suddenly, dumping Kael onto the ground.

“That had better not be for us.”

A narrow flight of stairs led up the side of the barn and to the cottage perched at its top. The man who’d spoken stood on a small porch outside of the cottage, leaning against the rails.

He had a pinched face and a wad of something trapped behind his lower lip. His scarlet tunic was emblazoned with the gold, crossed sickles of the Endless Plains. Kael couldn’t help but notice the wicked-looking black whip strapped to his side.

“You’ll take what you’re given and smile about it, spellmonger,” Dingy growled back.

Spell
monger? Kael had to bite his lip to keep from swearing aloud.

Why hadn’t he thought of this before? Of
course
Gilderick used his mages for slavemasters — how else could he have hoped to keep the giants under control? So even if Kael hadn’t been captured, his plan would’ve still fallen apart. The pirates wouldn’t have been able to fight against the mages. He would’ve led them all straight to their deaths.

Kael wasn’t used to being fortunate. He supposed that he should be grateful, but he was still too furious with himself to feel relieved.

“We won’t get even an hour’s work out of that rat,” the mage complained, his lip tightening around whatever it was that he held against his gums. “I’m tired of getting all the cast-offs. Stodder thinks his
pens
are so much more important than everything else — and he sticks me with all the sicklings!”

Dingy smirked. “Well, if you’re so upset about it, why don’t you ask His Lordship for a better stock? I’ll take you up to the castle, myself.”

The mage’s face, if possible, pinched even tighter. He leaned forward and spat in answer. A trail of brownish liquid landed near Dingy’s boots.

BOOK: Slight and Shadow (Fate's Forsaken: Book Two)
12.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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