“On Ohab’s Land” by Henry Szabranski
Grass stubble crunches beneath Ohab’s feet as he approaches the giant. The long, dry summer has baked the hayfield a deep golden brown, and late-blooming poppies sprout from between the ridges of cracked mud, nodding like amiable premonitions of blood as Ohab passes by. The last wisps of early morning mist have burned away, and crows, unfazed by the giant’s presence, flap lazily between the barrel-trunked oaks that dot the field’s perimeter.
The giant has collapsed inside the ramshackle hay-shed near the center of the field. He rests against the stacked bales, the top of his misshapen head brushing the splintered roof. Ill-matched eyes track Ohab’s progress.
“Hey, giant.” Ohab fishes from his hip pocket the flask he now always carries with him. He holds it up like a protective talisman. “Fancy a sip?”
He expects a deep roar in response, but the voice that emerges from the giant’s lop-sided mouth is reedy and thin.
“I’ll crunch your bones!”
“Now why would you want to do that?” Ohab raises both arms. “There’s not much meat on ’em.”
“I’ll use them to pick my teeth!”
But instead of lurching forward, the giant’s head lolls and his arm falls to his side. He seems to have difficulty breathing, his chest wheezing.
Heart hammering, Ohab takes a sip of brandy courage from his flask. He shudders as the liquor burns the back of his throat. It’s a little early for the strong stuff. Actually not too early.
“If you don’t mind, I’ll just lie over here.” He pats a nearby bale that has rolled down from the stacks. Yes, that’s just what he will do. He sprawls opposite the giant, resting his aging bones, wincing as hard stalks jab into his back. The creature in the shed is at least six or seven times his height, its oddly proportioned limbs bulging with heavily veined muscles that seem to twitch and tremor of their own accord.
“What d’you want here, giant? Shouldn’t you be stomping around Ildaress instead? It’s harvest time and you’re scaring my farm hands away.”
The giant lifts himself onto a tree-trunk-sized elbow and squints towards him. Ohab shifts nervously. He is easily within its reach. He wonders again at what reckless urge prompted him to face the creature.
The giant seems to have read his thoughts. “The others run or hide. Why don’t you?”
“Dumber than the rest, I guess.” Some of the anger he felt when he first saw the giant approaching stirs in his breast again. “Besides, this is my field you’re trampling over. I’ve done you no harm. Why come all this way to trouble me?”
There is a long silence, interrupted only by the squabbling of the crows outside and the giant’s labored breathing. Ohab begins to wonder if the giant has fallen asleep, but then comes a rumble:
“I wanted to come home.”
“Better be on your way, then.” Ohab points with a trembling hand. “Ildaress is north of here. About fifty miles that-away.” He has no doubt the giant has come from that land where no human, having entered, has ever returned. The mysterious playground of the gods; reputed to crawl with all manner of wondrous and bizarre creatures.
“No. This is my home. I’ve come back.”
Ohab laughs. “I don’t think so. This here’s the little village of Nesstig: flower of the northern hinterlands. Now there may be some strange folk passing through these days, what with all the Drari migrants coming up from Morom—but I’m pretty sure Nesstig is home to absolutely no giants whatsoever. None. Our only claim to fame is our ornate little shrine to the seven god moons.”
The giant’s dismissive grunt puffs a cloud of hay towards the roof. “What do you know, little man.”
Ohab staggers to his feet. Acid flares in his stomach; the barn sways around him. His muscles and joints ache. He is not as young as once he was, and this morning his body is insistent on reminding him of it. “‘Scuse me, Sir Giant, but my family has scratched a living from this land for generations. If there’s one thing my dried-up old scarecrow of a da taught me, it’s the history of the place. There’s not much to it apart from the shrine, the harvest records, and the occasional scandal or two. And I’m certain there’s no mention of a giant having lived here. Ever.”
The giant turns his gaze away. “Check again.”
Ohab glares and sucks from his flask before realizing it is empty. His head, already aching, begins to pound. “Then what name should I look for in the records, Sir Giant?”
“Mikhov. Mikhov Droy.”
“And if it’s true, what you say…Mikhov…why have you come back? Why now?”
Mikhov waves a cart-sized hand, seems to struggle for words. He looks pained.
“I am defeated,” he says, through clenched teeth the size of gravestones.
“Little man, I’ve come here to die.”
Ohab staggers up the ridge separating the hayfield from his ramshackle farmhouse and the rest of the village. He ignores the shouted questions from the handful of villagers who have gathered near the top. He is more concerned about his aching knees and his empty flask.
“Be careful, Boss!”
“Boss, the giant is dangerous. He will kill us all!”
Someone grabs him by the arm. He curses and shoves them back; the grabber stumbles and falls.
Ohab stares down at the sprawled man and can’t help but laugh at the look of surprised outrage on their face. It is only one of his Drari farm hands, one of the half dozen or so hired to help gather hay and pluck apples from his orchard over the way: Amir or Samir or Hamed, or something like that. Not really a villager at all. The fallen hand’s friends cast dark looks towards Ohab as they rush to help their comrade off the ground. One of them mutters, “Ignore him, he’s drunk again.”
“What of it?” Ohab shouts. “It’s my land! Get off it if you don’t like it here.”
Only more mutterings in reply.
Despite the Drari working hard once hired (and cheaply), Ohab has little time for their sometimes surly manner. They have been moving north in greater numbers recently, seeking work, places to stay, retreating from some new famine or other they claim lays waste to their home city of Morom; always pleading poverty, hunger, some sad circumstance, ever since Ohab has known them. Young troublemakers more like, unable to find work in the slums where they overbreed. A number have set up an encampment near his farmhouse, at the foot of the ridge, gathering there to drink and argue in the night whilst their urchin children scrabble in the dirt outside like animals. It’s a disgrace. Some of the other villagers have muttered about meeting up and paying the Drari a visit to teach them some manners…but so far Ohab has persuaded them to hold off. They are foreigners after all and have their own ways, and no real crimes have been committed. Besides, there is no sense in taking any action until after the harvest is in.
He rattles his empty flask. His throat is parched. “I need a damned drink.”
Stumbling down the far side of the ridge, he heads not towards his dilapidated farmhouse, or the cluster of dirty Drari tents at the foot of the slope, or even the thatched village homes nestled by the river bank, but towards the ancient shrine at Nesstig’s green heart.
“You lot better start digging a hole,” he calls back over his shoulder. “A really big one.”
He can’t be sure, and he doesn’t really care, if anyone hears him.
Along the winding gravel path, past freshly clipped yew topiary and gleaming mausoleums that dwarf the homes of the living, Ohab gives the monuments and their ghosts a wide berth. In the glare of the noonday sun he feels utterly awful. His mouth is dry and bitter, his head pounding. He shouldn’t have taken that little nap against the trunk of the willow beside the Ness; it was only meant to be a moment’s rest. Instead he had dozed, eventually to wake from a feverish dream of a blazing doorway towards which he was slowly but relentlessly being dragged. No matter which way he turned, which direction he moved, the doorway was always before him; brighter, stronger, unavoidable.
Despite the late summer heat, he shivers.
Sylla stands waiting for him outside the shrine’s entrance arch, the central dome forming a seven-spired crown above her head. Probably she has heard some version of his antics on the ridge by now. He knows she disapproves of the way he treats the Drari, and so he braces himself for an onslaught of righteous indignation. But her greeting is soft.
“Been a while, Ohab.”
He grunts and avoids her twilight gaze, staggering past into the shrine’s great hall. A slanting sun ray pierces the oculus at the top of the dome, illuminating the cracks in the marble floor like a searchlight. Ohab ignores the alabaster deities frowning down at him from the walls and heads straight through to the rooms at the back, to the shrine’s administrative heart.
Sylla trails after him. “Why are you here, Ohab?”
I am defeated.
He opens the door to the records room. The small office is crowded with cabinets and bookshelves, the dusty air redolent of cedar and incense. A young, tall Drari straightens from examining a scroll and peers over half-moon spectacles towards him. Ohab has seen him before, too often, but he is still taken back by the youth’s scholarly manner. A Drari acting like an educated temple novice. What next?
“Out of the way, Hamed.”
The Drari puts down the scroll and scowls at him. “My name is Lenard. As you well know.”
“Yes, yes. Move aside. I need to poke through these here records.”
“Whatever for? Did Sylla approve this?”
Ohab ignores the uppity novice—only because he knows Sylla stands behind him in the doorway—and runs his hands along the drawer labels. He curses. The records are muddled in some arcane system. He turns to Sylla. “I need your help.”
He avoids her questioning gaze. His hand creeps to his shirt pocket, towards the metal flask there, then he remembers it is empty. Gods, he hates being here, in this place, the memories it brings.
“Is this something to do with the giant?” Sylla asks, her tone patient. “What did it say to you, Ohab? Why is it here?” Her voice lowers. “Nobody has dared approach it since you left.”
“Droy,” Ohab says, swaying slightly, indicating the shelves. “Sound familiar? Any record of a Mikhov Droy in these here papers?” He wants to know if there is any truth to the giant’s assertion it originated from the village.
Sylla purses her lips when she realizes Ohab will not be drawn. With a flourish of her robe, she selects a cabinet and pulls it open. “Mikhov, Mikhov, Mikhov.” She leans down and flicks through the files inside. “Droy, Mikhov…ah.” Her fingers pause. She pulls out a fold of parchment and peers at it. “A boy. An only child. Father is listed as a travelling smith.” She squints. “Mother may have worked a while over at the Grange Inn.” She scans the paper up and down, turning it over, checking in the drawer again. “No record of a death, though, or much anything after his schooling days. He must have left the village quite young. Parents died or moved on.” She looks up at him. “What has this to do with the giant, Ohab?”
Ohab grabs the parchment from Sylla’s fingers. Ignoring Lenard’s disapproving tut, he seeks sense in the aged paper, but the spidery writing blurs and slithers beneath his gaze. His aged eyes are useless in the dim light. “I know most everyone in the village, even the seasonal drifters. I don’t remember any Droys.”
Sylla gently takes back the parchment and holds it up for him to see. “This entry is almost two hundred years old, Ohab. That’s why.”
He shakes his head, tries to clear the fog. Why would the giant use the name of some long-dead and forgotten boy? Or had young Mikhov Droy from quiet little Nesstig really grown into the monstrous creature that now lies on his land? How? It makes no sense. The gods forbid any human to live beyond their eighty-sixth year. Were giants an exception?
He turns to leave, but Sylla’s cool fingers touch his arm.
“How are you keeping, Ohab?”
“I’m keeping fine. What’s it to you?”
“You look…drawn. Are you ill?” Her grasp on his arm is light, but unshakeable.
“I’m fine. Just old and worn.”
She moves closer. “You can talk to me.”
He pulls away. Averts his eyes from her look of open concern, her features, so familiar. No, I cannot. That was always our problem. So you said.
“Ohab. Don’t lose hope.” Her voice remains soft. Behind her, Lenard is suddenly intent on rearranging the files in the drawers, but the grimace on his face makes his opinion of Ohab clear. Ohab recognizes the look, the same one he remembers his son giving him all too often.
A fury builds in him. How dare they treat him like some injured animal? He pushes out of the room, his stomach churning. “Leave me alone!”
He stumbles against one of the statues. A perfect alabaster physique teeters dangerously on its pedestal.
But he is not listening.
When he can breathe properly again, and his eyes no longer sting, he turns back to look at the crumbling shrine.
Sylla and Lenard stand outside the entrance. They are leaning against each other. Lenard, his hand on Sylla’s arm, whispering in her ear.
Ohab turns so he can’t see. Soft laughter haunts him out of the graveyard.
The farmhouse is as dilapidated as his soul. It creaks as he enters. Cedar cladding, black with old pitch, hangs askew; brazen chickens wander the house, unable or unwilling to distinguish its dusty corridors from their rotting coop; rusting pails stand half full or carelessly upturned, once strategically placed to catch drips from the next downpour, but now kicked over and abandoned. Termites chew through the sagging walls.
Truth be told, Ohab no longer cares for the farmhouse or the business of the farm. All that remains of his inheritance is the one field he barely bothers to sow anymore and the overgrown orchard with its tangle of rotting fruit trees. The livestock, the press and the still, the river rights, all the rest, he has long since sold off, piecemeal, to pay debts or simply to avoid toiling upon the land. Oh yes, the land. He still—sometimes—takes pleasure in that. Standing atop the ridge, listening to the soughing of the wind, feeling it rush through his thinning hair. The light changing, beneath the clouds and the cycle of the days and years. Rain, heat, the smell and crumbling texture of the soil. His soil, that he once dug and tended, that his forebears long ploughed…but not enough now. Not enough. His bones ache. Sometimes he looks down at the Draris in their small encampment, when they come out in the evening and dance in circles, hands linked or clapping, the tunes and words and language unfamiliar, and he feels a strange mixture of annoyance and envy. How dare they enjoy themselves, in their self-confessed poverty, when he is so miserable?
It was different when he was younger. Before the years began to spill away like unsown seed before a winter gale. Before his prodigal wife and son became embittered strangers and fled south to the glittering cities of the Heptatheon, away from the endless day-long chores and the iron tyranny of the seasons, leaving him alone, abandoned, exposed. Even then, after their escape, there had remained a spark, a hope of a new start, some sort of redemption…but Sylla, the bookish but sympathetic spinster, had refused to become his autumn comfort. Instead she had pledged herself to the seven gods and now she spent more time with the Draris in their filthy encampment than she did with decent people like himself. How had it come to this?
He rubs his eyes with a trembling hand. Sometimes he is stupid, when he drinks. Unthinking. He knows that. But it doesn’t stop him from pulling a bottle of last year’s cider from out the kitchen store and uncorking it. He chugs the cloudy contents. After today’s late summer heat, he has a thirst raging. And he enjoys being drunk, the brief oblivion it brings. It’s as simple as that. Life is grim enough without having to face it sober all the time.
Sylla cannot see, her pinched-faced piety will not let her see, that the Drari are moving in. They worship their false dead god, ignoring or ignorant of the village’s ways. Nesstig was once comfortable, once quiet, but now these foreigners…these so-called refugees….Yes, they work hard—Ohab can see that—but they don’t go away once the harvest is in. More and more in the village he sees unfamiliar faces, and worse still, unfamiliar types of faces. It isn’t right. It isn’t the way it used to be, the way it’s supposed to be, before it all turned sour.
Was he really such a bad husband and father? Farmer? Friend? He thinks suddenly of the giant. A bastard son of Nesstig, a runaway no doubt; his mother a drunk, his father wandered on with the change of the seasons, on to the next village and its unspoiled maidens. Ohab knows none of this for certain, but it’s a common enough story. How then did the boy become a giant? Live past the four score and six years the gods allot each and every mortal in the Heptatheon? And strangest of all, how did he end up on Ohab’s land? No one and nothing emerges again once they pass through the mountain pass beyond Death Door and into Ildaress. Only stories and legends return from that forbidden place. The kind that draw the terminally ill and the incurably curious. The lost and the hopeless.
Flushed with sudden energy, Ohab downs the last of the cider. There’s still brandy in the cellar, more than enough to fill an empty flask.
Is the giant sprawled in his field truly Mikhov Droy? What lies behind Death Door, in the land of Ildaress?
Tonight he will go down to the hayfield again and find out. Yes, that’s just what he will do.
As far as he can tell, the giant hasn’t moved since that morning.
Outside the hay-shed, the evening mist is gathering, the sun lost over the western hills. The field crows have penetrated the shattered timbers and now they strut fearlessly across the creature’s hands and face, like swollen, misshapen blowflies.
“Little man. You’ve come back.”
“And so, apparently, have you.” Ohab brandishes his re-filled flask in his trembling hand, but he doesn’t drink from it. Not yet. He has already filled it up, emptied it again, and re-filled it, several times before plucking up the courage to leave the farmhouse.
He carefully sets down the lit oil lantern he has brought. Grotesque shadows spin across the barn’s splintered walls. “Our lovely little village of Nesstig apparently did once produce a boy by the name of Mikhov Droy.”
A pair of crows begin to scrap noisily over a morsel of flesh in the giant’s arm.
The giant slowly nods. “Yes, I told you. That was me.”
Ohab crinkles his brow. “You ran away?” He too has felt the urge to leave Nesstig. When he was younger, when first faced with the destiny his da laid out for him. And now that he is older, much older, when he sees only the growing darkness ahead.
“To greater things.”
“I can see that.” The temptation to twist open the flask and take a sip, just a small one, grows almost irresistible. But he resists. “So how did you turn into…this?”
“Hard work.” The giant lifts his hand and rubs his swollen face. Crows flap away. “Determination. Sacrifice. Murder and a measure of good fortune.”
“You ran away…to Ildaress?”
The giant nods. “Who would not want to become like a god? Or die trying?”
Ohab is not so sure about that. But despite himself, he is fascinated. “Does everyone who enters Ildaress…become like you?”
Mikhov laughs. “No. They mostly all die.” He leans forward. The walls of the shed groan and crack. It is the most Ohab has seen the giant move since he first sat down that morning. “The ground shakes beneath the march of the god’s champions. If you survive long enough to escape the horrors guarding the pass beyond Death Door, into Ildaress proper—and you’re resourceful, smart, and lucky—you can scavenge a fallen part, a left-over scrap of their power. Over time, your powers will grow. You meet other survivors. You become stronger together. Eventually, you betray them and take what is theirs. And all the time, as you grow stronger, you grow bigger.”
“The more power you have…the bigger you get?” Ohab laughs. “Is it really that simple?”
The giant scowls at Ohab. “Why do you think the gods orbit above us? Down here their own weight would crush them.”
Ohab sits silent, not knowing what to believe.
“Listen, little man. I almost made it.” A giant fist clenches. Ohab, hearing the gravestone-sized teeth grind, shuffles back in alarm. The veins in Mikhov’s arm seem to twist and surge of their own accord beneath the giant’s rough skin. “If the dragon hadn’t caught me, I would have made it through to the Third Gate. I would have become immense.”
Ohab has no idea of the forbidden land’s geography or the significance of the giant’s failure. “So you were defeated. So what? Why come back here?”
The giant glares at Ohab, and for a moment he fears Mikhov will stir into action at last, reach across and seize him. “I told you. To die in peace. To avoid being stripped apart.” The giant closes his lamp-like eyes and turns away from Ohab. “The dragon’s sting will kill me. I can feel it eating me inside. It’s only a matter of time.” An ominous rumble rises from deep within the giant’s body. “No more fighting. Tired of it now.”
It is a minute or two before the giant speaks again. His breath is noticeably more labored, his limbs trembling. “What’s your name, little man?”
“Ohab.” He salutes the giant with his flask.
Another long pause before Mikhov rumbles: “You seem…malcontent.”
Ohab chuckles. “The land needs tilling, the fruit crop needs picking, the Conveyor’s taxes need paying. Being a lone and lowly farm owner isn’t all glamor and harvest balls, y’know.” He looks longingly at his flask. “And I’m not getting any younger. Perhaps I should have run away.”
Mikhov’s cart-sized hand quivers. “Then run away.”
Ohab considers the idea. The pass over the jagged mountains separating Ildaress from the rest of the Heptatheon is only fifty miles away. Hundreds climb through it every year: the terminally ill, the young and the reckless, the grief-stricken and the insane, those with nothing else to lose eager to glimpse the unknown no matter the cost. The town of Death Door flourishes at the foot of the pass, grown fat on the worldly wealth discarded by those who never return through the One-Way Gate.
At a brisk pace, he could reach it in two or three days.
He shakes his head. “I don’t want to be a god. Or even a giant.”
Mikhov doesn’t appear to hear Ohab. “What happened to my mother?” he says, suddenly distracted. “Did I have no little brothers or sisters, born after I left?”
“No brothers or sisters, Mikhov; no family. Your mother is centuries dead.”
The giant groans. For a while, the only sound is the rasp of Mikhov’s breath and the squabbling of the crows. Then the giant suddenly shifts forward and peers intently at Ohab. “Ohab, I have a gift for you.”
“Oh?” Ohab shifts back. He doesn’t like the idea of being the target of a giant’s generosity.
Mikhov’s talon-like fingers spasm with sudden energy. Ohab watches in horror as they claw an opening in the giant’s chest. Thick black fluid oozes as Mikhov reaches inside himself, as if his breast is merely some capacious and convenient pocket, and draws out a glistening black lump almost as tall as a man. The object rolls from Mikhov’s hand onto the straw-matted floor and he lies back, gasping for breath, a flap of skin settling into the new hollow at the center of his ribcage.
Ohab eyes the pulsating black object with horror. “What is…that?”
“My heart, little man. What little I can salvage from the Dragon’s poison. Don’t you make the same mistake, my friend. Take care at the Third Gate. Avoid the Dragon.”
Despite his instinctive disgust, Ohab hauls himself to his feet and approaches the tangled boulder of black veins, each as wide as his arm, still throbbing with dark life.
“Eat it,” urges the giant, his voice a diminishing rasp. “Take a bite. You will become so strong, so powerful. The bounds of the Heptatheon will no longer be able to contain you.”
The very idea of touching it, of approaching any closer, fills Ohab with disgust. “I don’t want that,” he says, voice shaking. “I would never want that. Why would you think that?”
The giant lies ashen-colored against the tumbled bales and does not answer. A crow unfolds from his slack mouth and flaps up to the fractured rafters.
Ildaress. The fabled land. Birthplace of the gods. So many stories about it, but so little known. He’d always wondered about it, ever since he was a child. But as you grow up you have to put such things aside, concentrate on the day-to-day task of living. Don’t you?
He can try taking a bite out of the giant’s heart. A small one. It looks dense, like charcoal. Not so bad, now that he gives it a closer look.
Wet, popping, tearing sounds fill the barn.
The giant’s body is disintegrating. Ruptures appear in the skin and flesh begins to part from the weirdly proportioned bones. Ohab’s guts suddenly slither cold with fear, more than at any time when the giant was alive. He takes a step back.
From out of Mikhov’s slumped form, things are emerging. The discarded heart, too, starts to dissolve, torn apart from within.
Sharp-toothed, clawed, wriggling creatures force their way through the giant’s flesh. Snakelike, scorpion-like, grotesquely elongated, they slither to the surface and shiver open glistening, dragonfly wings. Some loop back in, burrowing deeper again into the still warm meat.
The dragon’s spawn. Ohab steps farther back, suddenly and utterly sober. The giant’s mortal enemy has injected more than just venom into its victim it seems.
More creatures plop onto the hay, glowing red eyes locked upon him.
A dragonlet emerges from the giant’s deflating heart. It’s as long as Ohab is tall, and scuttles towards him, hissing. Its jaws snap but Ohab stamps down hard on the shovel-shaped head: the thin body squirms and kicks across the floor, pinned by his weight. He struggles to keep his foot atop the head as the wyrm twists and writhes, the long tail whipping back and forth in a blur. He feels something crunch, the skull beneath his heel suddenly softening. He lifts his foot and as the dragonspawn curls into a tight, protective ball, and kicks it back towards its approaching companions.
A hissing sound fills the barn. Crows flap frantically against the roof, desperate to escape. Dragonlets half-hop, half-fly amongst the hay bales, colliding with each other, their wings an erratic blur.
With trembling fingers, Ohab unscrews the top of his flask and dashes its contents around the floor and onto the nearest bales. He kicks the oil lamp. Its glass shatters and the barn is plunged into near darkness. The twisting trail of pale blue fire is barely visible, and for a moment he fears the spilled brandy has not caught alight. But then amongst the close bales of tinder-dry hay, yellow flames begin to crackle and grow. The fire spreads quickly, leaping from bale to bale, running up and along the shed’s warped wooden walls.
A dragonlet thuds into Ohab’s chest. Its scorpion-like tail arches up and stabs him repeatedly in the back and neck –- but where there should have been a stinger, only a blunt nub protrudes from the tail. It pounds against his flesh like an angry fist. The dragonspawn is either malformed or too immature to have a sting. Ohab tears the spiked legs from his body and hurls the creature into the nearest burning bale, where it shrieks and thrashes wildly as it crisps.
The white smoke filling the barn suddenly boils black. Something inside the giant—who is well alight now, his remaining flesh melting like bloody wax—pops, then explodes. A fierce white light blooms, incandescent. The roar of the flames becomes one with the dragonlets’ screams.
Ohab staggers. He is choking, gasping. Smoke and tears obscure his vision. He trips over a discarded old rake, stumbles over a smoldering bale. The open field is close by, he knows it, but he is on the floor. The heat is beating him down. Every breath draws in more smoke and straw. All he can do is cough.
“Boss! Boss, are you there?”
Something—someone—takes grip of his arm.
He tries to pull away, but he has no strength. Like a child, he feels himself being lifted, his legs dangling uselessly. He is dragged out of the inferno. Out into the cool night air.
A line of villagers waits on the ridge overlooking the hayfield. They are watching the giant burn. They are watching Ohab.
He coughs and staggers, shoving his rescuer away. “Leave me alone!”
He glances back over his shoulder at the barn. A handful of dragonlets have escaped the collapsing pyre; skinny, twisting torches, crawling or flying north, mostly but not all fleeing in the direction of Ildaress. Over the ridge he can see that a stray spark or dragonlet has set his farmhouse alight. He can hear the feral chickens panicking, the roar as his store of brandy kegs ignites. It is hopeless: they and the house will not survive the night. Perhaps a few villagers would have helped to douse the fire earlier, but now they are too busy protecting their own thatched roofs.
“Boss, you saved us all.”
Ohab can’t tell who is speaking, or even whether the voice is only in his mind. Arms reach out of the darkness towards him, try to grab him, but he beats them off. “Leave me alone! All of you!”
He staggers along the ridge, still coughing, eyes streaming. He is exhausted, thirsty. He could drink the river dry. All around him the night is a-dance with orange light and a strange late summer madness. Nesstig has grown hostile. He is surrounded by foreigners who despise him, villagers who disdain him. His lifelong home is gone. Dread grows in him, like the poison that spread through Mikhov’s veins. Is Ildaress his only choice now? To pass through Death Door and become a giant, an ogre, a dragon? Or more likely just one of their victims? How had it come to this? Only days ago he had been haggling over next year’s prices for his orchard crop with the press owners and similarly for the hay bales with the ranchers…now is he ready to abandon it all, his family’s land for generations, its soil in his blood and his blood in its soil. He hadn’t touched the gift of Mikhov’s black heart, he’d been repulsed by it…yet part of him, a small part, a tiny part, had wanted to reach out, curious, eager…for change, for power. Size of someone like Mikhov, they can do a lot of damage. Can instill a lot of fear. If that’s what you want.
Somehow he has arrived at the shanty tents at the foot of the ridge. They appear unscathed by the flames spread from the barn. He has no idea how he got here. He always avoids the camp. The Draris he hires come to him for payment and instruction; he has never approached them. Lanterns sway from the tent ropes, a jolly display, and from inside more lights gleam. The dirty canvas walls quiver with shadows and the movement and noise of people. He stands staring, blinking, swaying. He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know why he is here.
The entrance flap is thrown aside and a familiar Drari face appears. Ohab flinches back.
It is Hamed. The one he pushed to the ground this morning. The one who saved him tonight, pulled him from the burning barn, propelled him up the ridge before Ohab pushed him away once again. How had the Drari reached the tent so quickly, before him? How long has he been wandering alone in the night, like some cursed ghost?
“Come in,” Hamed says, drawing the opening in the filthy canvas wider, his accent thick but understandable. “We shelter you tonight, Boss.”
“I don’t want your shelter,” Ohab snarls. Who knows what they will do to him in there? Murderers, thieves, the lot of them. With grudges against him and anyone who does not share their worship of a long-dead god.
“Not pity,” Hamed says. “Just decency.”
It becomes worse. Sylla emerges from inside the tent. She is there, too. With Lenard beside her, just as he was when Ohab left the shrine. His arm draped around her shoulder. All of them are in there, in it together.
“Ohab,” Sylla says, surprised. Lenard’s arm drops. “We were looking for you. Hamed told us about the fire, how you saved us all from the giant.”
“Come.” Hamed is insistent. “Come inside. Your home is burned. Let us help.”
Ohab has begun coughing. He can barely talk. “Don’t want your help. Don’t need it.”
“Don’t be silly, Ohab,” Sylla says. “You need somewhere. You need someone.”
Ohab is shaking. Tears blur his vision. It is the effect of the smoke, no doubt.
Hamed takes him by the arm, pulls him towards the shanty tent. “Please, Boss. We take care of you.”
And for once, Ohab does not resist. His legs weaken, feel like they are about to collapse. Something inside him, something hard and spiked, perhaps in his lungs, perhaps deeper, seems to soften. He can hear laughter, children’s voices, women and men murmuring. Is the whole village here? There is a cook-fire, the smell of meat and strong, foreign spices. Normally they would sicken him, but tonight, now he is closer and hungry, he is ravenous. Perhaps he will endure the company of the Drari. Just this one night. Any decision to flee Nesstig for Ildaress can wait until morning.
He steps inside the tent. It is warm and welcoming within, bright with candle-light and twined with dried flowers and rough silks and tapestries. Faces—many familiar, although he does not know their names, not yet—turn towards him. There is no hostility, only curiosity. Sylla’s hand cups his shoulder. She is crying. He realizes he is crying. Children break off from dancing and run towards him, laughing, shouting questions. They should be asleep. They should be silent. But it’s all right that they are here. Their liveliness is infectious.
Just one night. He can wait that long. Reconsider. Everything.
Yes, perhaps that’s just what he will do.
|Henry Szabranski’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Diabolical Plots, Constellary Tales, Kaleidotrope and Fantasy For Good: A Charitable Anthology, amongst other places. He lives in Buckinghamshire with his wife and two young sons. Visit his blog at www.henryszabranski.com or follow him on Twitter @henryszabranski.|