Seven champions have fallen trying to slay a giant, now the king sends a modest Sage.
|Frank and the Giant
by David J. Bouchard
Deep in the heart of a primeval forest, high on the fertile slopes of the Golden Mountain, and high above the vast plains and seas far beyond it all sat Brighthaven, the Golden City. Perched high at the pinnacle of a squat, broadly sloping mountain and blessed with enormous supplies natural resources, men and women of every race flocked to that beacon of civilization and industry. Sometimes, whether they liked it or not.
On the borders of the sloping farmlands, down where the ancient forest forever encroached upon civilized domains, the Veilmist lurked. Few knew what it was, fewer still understood what it did, but everyone knew its purpose. The Veilmist served as the border between that fair world and another, a world of wonders altogether alien, where power and knowledge and greed rampaged unchecked. Known as the Cloven Lands, it was from that world that they came, brought to Brighthaven's borders by the inscrutable power of the Veilmist.
Misfits always in their homeland, it seemed, but in Brighthaven they all seemed to find a place, for good or ill. They came periodically, without warning, and were welcomed by the people of Brighthaven, for they knew the tales of the powers that ruled beyond the Veilmist, and feared them. So some out of kindness and others out of fear, all offered hospitality to those from that strange otherworld, the Cloven Lands, a place known to its natives as Cleveland Ohio.
Frank the Sage was one such man, living for over a year in the vast mountaintop city, he'd made a good name and living for himself as a wiseman, a historian, and a lorekeeper. In all, not all that different from his old life as an intern at the Cleveland Public Library – although the pay was better, as it was a thing that existed, enough to live on too. He held some esteem as well, as it was a job that granted him access to a vast array of knowledge, and being the bookworm that he was, he'd quickly absorbed most of it. Most, because the magic was harder to learn without an instructor than he'd expected.
Not a naturally gifted Arcanist, Frank leaned heavily on his impressive 5.0 GPA, rock-solid research skills, and impressive understanding of language where innate ability fell short. As such he was slowly becoming competent with basic magical abilities. Once he'd reached the point where he could begin to invent his own arcane rituals, his career began to grow, and he acquired a position in the library in one of Brighthaven's several wizard colleges, the Sanctum Ordus, or Sanctuary of Order. It had the best and largest library in the kingdom, and his unique knowledge of his own creation, a spell to copy the written word from one page to another, had brought him a good wage and reputation.
So it was that one day Frank stood at a table, a heavy tome sprawled out before him. A broadsheet lay on the table, weighted down on the corners with four rune-engraved stones of his own design, and beside that a stack of blank pages. Frank chanted the ritual's words from memory at this point, and struggled not to yawn as copy after copy of the broadsheet printed themselves in his neat script before wafting dry and crisp into a separate pile.
It took about an hour to finish the stack, after which he sighed and sat down wearily, reaching for a nearby glass of water. He'd been working all day, and while commissions for his unique spell were his bread and butter, it was tedious and thirsty work. He glanced at the clock on the wall, the pendulum ticking back and forth, and decided that he was done for the day. It was nice being able to set your own hours.
"Ah, Frank, good to see you're done," came a voice from behind the young man, who jumped a little at the unexpected baritone. "Ah, sorry lad, I didn't mean to sneak up on you!"
"Of course Professor, it's fine," yawned Frank, standing and turning to meet his visitor. Master Stoneborough was the Sanctuary's head librarian, a good-humored fellow who took his job very seriously.
"Finished with your commission I see, good. I have a new job lined up for you, and an important one at that," he smiled, nodding, clapping a large hand on Frank's shoulder. "Come, we'll get some coffee in you and head up to the palace."
"The palace?" Frank asked in disbelief.
"Oh yes. This task comes from the King himself!"
Brighthaven was a kingdom in name, but functioned more like a republic in practice. The king was elected and served until retirement or death. The parliament had three houses; the House of Lords, the House of Guilds, and the House of the People. It was an unusual system, as it folded guilds and unions right on into the government and gave the population an enormous say in government affairs; the House of the People controlled the purse, and thus the budget, and was ordered in such a way as to allow broad representation of men and women who'd never held higher office. Volunteers could be nominated from among the common folk, and were elected by lottery. All in all, it was a fairly efficient system, and it had to be; the only way to manage the vast wealth of the kingdom was to ensure everything was fair. Worker uprisings would grind everything to a halt, and the military was loyal to the people, having volunteered to join from among them.
The palace lay in the City District, and while it was where the King lived, it was also where most of the work of governing happened as well. The chambers of all three Houses met beneath its domes and arches, and in its center the King held court. Free of such burdens as were managed by the bureaucracy, he could sign edicts, meet with officials, and interact with the people themselves. So it was that Frank the Sage and Master Stoneborough passed into those hallowed halls of marble and filigree to meet the king.
Having never been to the City District, let alone the palace, he was impressed. It was fancier than Washington DC, a city he'd visited on a field trip in High School. It made him think of Rome at its apex, a romantic notion, and a concept who's irony was not lost on the young scholar. He did think some of the art was fair, though most he considered tacky or garish; it seemed artists from the 'Cloven Lands' tended to be considered masters of their craft, regardless of their actual skill.
Meeting the king was a surprisingly brusque affair; he was a slight man in the twilight of his life, but his eyes had a spark that he couldn't look away from once he met them. King Warren the Wise had ruled for forty-four years, and though some said he was Clevelandish, nobody knew for sure. The second he opened his mouth, though, Frank knew.
"Ah, the clever young man who's reinvented the printing press. Good," he said with a slight smile, wrinkled, shaven face then turning somber. An aide at the throne's side held out a scroll to Frank, which he took.
"A giant plagues the low east farm country," the King Warren said seriously. "Seven brave men and women – and too many of their comrades and friends – have perished attempting to deal with it. The big bastard eats our peoples' livestock and tramples their fields, destroying their livelihoods. The local garrison has been unable to repel it, and neither mercenary nor champion has slain it. As I've heard you tend to think outside the box, I want you to see what you can do."
Frank swallowed hard. The King was, like the President back in the USA of his birth, the commander in chief. Unlike the President, he had the powers of conscription, knighting, bestowing commissions, and other far-reaching military powers. His eyes swept over the scroll twice, soaking in the information – fragmented reports mostly, and a list of seven names.
"Sir Marcus, Champion of the Realm. Sir Antoine, Knight of the Realm. Sir Kirk – wait, really? Captain of the... oh god I can't even say it. Harold the Bright, Wizard of the Realm. Christine the Chaotic, Sorceress. Huh. Aerywin, Sylvas Huntress. Six-fingered Jack, pardoned bandit chief... Wow."
"A grim litany," the king replied. "Try not to add your name to it, eh? We've got a horse ready, and an escort to the low east country. Good luck."
"Thanks, uh, your Majesty," Frank replied numbly. He didn't remember Master Stonebourough guiding him out of the antechamber.
Frank hunched over a small book, ignoring the bright day and pleasant weather, learning everything known by the Sanctuary regarding Giants. It was less than he'd have liked. Fortunately, Frank knew a few things too – like anatomy, neurology, physics, and the square-cube law. Things he didn't discuss, since knowing things was basically his job, and because most of it would go over the heads of even learned Masters in Brighthaven.
He was in the company of four soldiers, clad in padding and chain coats, with the white, gold, and blue coats of arms of Brighthaven adorning their uniforms, badges on their shoulders denoting rank. They were similar to American rank insignia, no surprise there to Frank.
"You've been brooding over that book for a week," their leader, a Clevelandish sergeant named Jenny Hampton, said as she rode from behind to beside him. "Anything useful in it?"
"Hmm? Oh, yeah, some. Mostly I'm trying not to get horse-sick, or think about my impending doom," he replied sourly. "Goddammit."
"Yeah, it's a shitty deal alright. You're from Ohio, yeah?" she asked, not really needing to.
"Yeah. Been here for like a year. Funny, I didn't miss it much until I got sent on this suicide mission."
"Yeah, I was stationed there – Marines, fresh out of boot – so when I got here the army seemed a pretty easy fit. The King's generals are mostly from back home too, so they like to promote those of us from there with any military training. I kinda wish I had some combat experience, now."
"Well don't bother getting it when we arrive. I'd rather not have your deaths on my conscious when I get to the hereafter."
It took a week to make the winding trek to the low country, near the eastern fringes of the great, ancient forest that circled the mountain. The forest provided lumber, firewood, herbs and medicines, even food, but it grew back almost as fast – sometimes faster – as it was cleared. Somehow, as if it were one vast living thing, magical and with deliberate effort, it crept ever forward. It was a delicate balance that it somehow maintained, no matter how hard it was pushed.
They reached the village, at mid-morning, late enough that the sun had burned away the fog so common that close to the forest. It was like a wall, east past the village's farms, and had an oppressive weight to it that Frank could feel even without looking at it. It made him think of his arrival here, and shuddered to think of what magic possessed the thick woods.
The windows and doors of the town were closed and shuttered, and not a soul was seen on the street. Not many beasts were in evidence. The fowl were closeted up in their pens, while the sheep, goats, and cattle were bunched up in tight clusters here and there in their pastures, herds clustered for protection.
"Well, this is fucking cheery," griped Frank.
"No shit," replied one of the soldiers in a frightened whisper.
"Come on then," said Sergeant Hampton. "Let's see who's in charge around here and get our man here his shot at glory."
"No offense, uh, Frank," said another guard, "but better you than me."
"Stow that shit Private, and show some backbone! It's a giant, not the Third Reich. Now move out!" The soldier stood straighter, looking properly chastised.
*God bless the USMC*, thought Frank.
The mayor was a short, rotund man, owner of the town's Inn and several large farms. He even claimed his grandfather was from Cleveland and married and Sylvas – he had the slightly pointed ears for the last part, at least. He babbled a bit about the giant, and Frank listened closely.
He was clearly terrified of both the giant and for his position. He didn't have any new information on the Giant save that it always came out of the forest, slowly and quietly, without warning, at about mid-day, every day. His description of it fell into the range given by other reports, between fifteen and twenty feet tall, with a beard and patchwork clothes.
"Good, thank you mayor. Especially that last bit, I wouldn't want to confuse him with some *other* giant." The mayor looked abashed as the snark settled on his shoulders.
"Sarge, let's have an early lunch and keep a lookout on the forest, eh?"
"Sounds good to me Frank," she replied, smiling. They'd gotten on well over the trip.
It was early for lunch, but the inn – which did double duty as the town's tavern – was packed with nervous townsfolk and farmers. The locals made room for the group, but they didn't look hopeful at their arrival. Frank guessed that they'd run out after the fourth or fifth slaughtered hero. Sandwiches, an idea imported from the Cloven Lands, were easily enough available, and Coffee was the drink of the day – no alcohol on the clock. Frank tried to ask a few questions of the locals, but none was very talkative.
As midday approached, Frank and Jessica sat in anxious silence, waiting. She'd made a 'hurry up and wait' joke at some point, but a smile was the best Frank could muster. His mind was racing in circles. Giants were huge, muscular, slow, and not very bright. Frank understood why, of course; physics.
Their legs were more like an elephant's, with a stubby foot and enormous, thick bones and heavy muscles to support their weight. They had broad shoulders and hunched, their overly long arms practically touching the ground. They had large heads but because of the nerve impulse lag-time involved in a body plan that size, relied more on reflex than thought. They thought slowly, spoke slowly, and comprehended little, like a mentally challenged human but with none of the special help to make them competent at much. They had to eat a lot, and preferred cooked meat and fat since it was energy dense. They had over-sized lungs and an enormous eight-chambered heart to help pump all that blood around.
Frank glanced at his pack. Several books sat within it, and he left them alone. He had three plans, depending on how things played out. When the door burst open he reached down and grabbed the sword-belt and attached, sheathed blade he'd asked for as they'd set out. Sure enough it was one of the soldiers, a wide-eyed, wild look on his face.
"Looks like I'm up," he said grimly. Sargent Hampton placed a hand firmly on his shoulder and nodded. He nodded back, and they rushed outside. "Sarge, have your men guard the locals please," he said as they stepped out, his words dying as he saw it.
The ground didn't shake like he expected; the enormous giant moved with slow, deliberate steps, almost as if sneaking. *Energy efficient movement*, the analytical core of Frank's mind dryly told him. *Stooped posture and heavy fists, possibly a knuckle-walker at times, or useful in the thick forest*. Even at a distance it looked enormous, looming over farmhouses. Frank broke out in a jog, the soldiers at his back, heading straight for it.
As the giant slowly moved toward the village and its close-kept herd animals, Frank closed as quick as he dared. He wasn't a sprinter, but he was in decent shape; more importantly he didn't want to startle the giant. As he drew nearer, he came around the corner of a building slowly, and stood in a field in full view of the enormous humanoid.
"Ugh, little man comes to fight me," the giant slowly said, stopping his movement and squinting at Frank. *Slightly poor eyesight; good enough to see me but probably fuzzy*, his brain said to him.
"No," he said loudly enough for the giant to hear, his voice rather softer than the enormous man's. "I want to talk."
"Ha!" the giant laughed. "Brave little man. You want to stop me from getting food!"
"Well, yes. These animals don't belong to you. You're scaring these people and hurting their livelihoods."
"Good! Puny men should be like more puny Sylvas and fear me! I'm bigger and stronger than them!" the giant shouted, showing some rather gnarled and horrid looking teeth.
"I can't let you keep doing this," he replied, chin up. *I can't believe I'm not dead yet*, his brain said. *Or crapping my pants*. He didn't feel afraid, strangely, just... calm.
"You can't stop me puny little human!" laughed the giant. *So much for diplomacy. No wonder 'Sir Kirk' got his ass kicked*.
"Plan B then," he replied, raising one hand and muttering under his breath as he began to speak the words of a spell he knew rather well.
"Ha, magic don't scare me! I eat last wizard that came," he snarled. The giant took three surprisingly quick steps into the town, vast strides covering enormous distance. He grabbed the farmhouse he'd approached, and *hurled* it across the pasture and right at Frank. Eyes wide, he ran towards it; his estimation of the giant's aim and strength in those sudden seconds was spot on, and an explosion of timber and plaster thundered behind him as he finished his spell.
"My eyes!" the giant shouted as an enormous blast of light appeared right in front of his eyes. Startled, he staggered back a step, his hands rubbing his eyes while Frank sprinted right at him. Blinking the giant looked around, trying to find his attacker.
"Come here tiny man!" he shouted as Frank unsheathed not a sword, but a machete. It was an inelegant weapon, clumsier than a gun, but it was good for chopping, and chop Frank did.
The first hack at the giant's hamstring earned him a bellow, followed by a staggered, limping stomp. He switched legs, evading the giant's half-blind attempts to squish him like a bug. Huge sweeps of the giant's fists did him little good at that range, and Frank kept moving, hacking like a maniac at the second hamstring. That blow hit ankle instead, a shock from striking bone making Frank's teeth chatter.
"Crush you!" the giant screamed in pained fury.
"Fire!" the shout came from Sargent Hampton. *Wait, fuck, she's not part of the plan*, Franks's brain said in surprise. Four arrows struck the giant from four light crossbows, and one of those hit his face. He was most definitely not happy about that. He was also, suddenly, very distracted. Frank bolted back to the first leg, lined up his swing, and hacked with both hands at the giant's tendon.
The air was filled with a thunderous scream of fury and pain, followed by a strange tearing, popping sound. Finally the remnants of the tendon snapped, and the giant toppled back and to one side. Frank ran like a maniac back toward the soldiers, machete still in hand. The giant hit the ground with a crash and the cracking of a tree falling in dense woods as his hip bone shattered on impact.
"Thanks Sarge," he panted, skidding to a stop before he crashed into the barn where the soldiers had taken up position. "But, I thought you were staying out of it?"
"Our job was to guard you," she replied flatly, reloading as fast as she could.
"Yeah, on the way here." She just smiled, eyes never leaving the bellowing giant, who was trying to roll over and crawl; he'd rolled over at least. "Ugh... I suppose I should put it out of its misery."
"I guess so, but not with that. Good plan, by the way."
"Here. You're going alone and it'll be dangerous, so take this," she told him, handing him one of her men's halberds.
"Swords, pole-axes, crossbows – the king really doesn't fuck around, does he?"
Frank had never wielded a polearm before, but it wasn't too hard to hold. He approached the giant silently, picked his target, and rammed the spearpoint of the weapon home. It was a clean hit, straight to the jugular, and he backed off fast, pulling the tip free. The axe-head caught and ripped the wound open wide, causing blood to gush from the wound. "Oops, er, wait no..." Frank stammered, retreating and feeling a little sick. The giant had a *lot* of blood.
"You okay Frank?"
"I think I'm going to hurl now," he replied, turning away.
"I ain't stoppin' ya."
The trip back was different, of course, filled with adrenaline that slowly wore down into a sense of satisfaction. He'd managed to pull off what skilled knights and powerful wizards couldn't, and he hadn't gotten murdered by either the giant he'd gone to stop, or the townsfolk who were now down one farmhouse. They were quite boisterously happy to be rid of the monster, and threw a raging party for Frank – once he and the soldiers had picked the dead giant over for loot, of course. Frank would get the second largest share – after the King, of course.
Fortunately the trip back was long, and the party hangover a distant memory when they arrived at Brighthaven proper. News had raced ahead of them, moving at the speed of rumor – at least twice the speed of light – and Frank even got some applause as he rode up the main street toward the City District and the Palace.
"Welcome back, Frank, Giantslayer!" Intoned the King, walking briskly down the palace steps, flanked by a dozen guards of course.
"Your majesty," he said as humbly as he could manage, bowing, though his grin gave away his pride.
"I look forward to hearing the tale from your own lips, my boy. Your Masters at the Sanctuary has already been sent for, but since I'm the king I can spoil his fun and let you know that the Masters are giving you a promotion, from Sage to Journeyman. Congratulations lad!"
"Thank you sire!" Frank said in a bit of shock. Sage was a good job, better than Scribe and much better than Acolyte, but Journeymen were the ones who got to do independent research full time. "Journeyman, nice."
"Yes, lad, but don't let it go to your head. A higher station means greater labors, after all."
"Of course, your majesty." That sobered Frank up. Journeymen often had to travel – a lot – as part of their duties, and Frank hated riding. The old king patted Frank on the shoulder, nudging him. He looked up and saw the Masters of the Sanctum approaching solemnly, a smile on Stonebourough's face though. "I think it may just be nice to get out more."