Ru Emerson

Against the Giants


The morning of 14 Harvester dawned muggy and too warm in theremote 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’twed again, taking the village as his family instead.

So far, Upper Haven’s year had not been a good one. The youngbaron 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-fromfowl and eggs for his table to wood for the enormous firepits-had been a sternbut fair ruler. Without him, there had not been the usual drain on Upper Haven’slimited resources, but there had been no coin either.

The village’s chickens hadn’t increased properly, thanks tothe 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 thebaron, some said. Whatever the cause, the grain hadn’t sprouted until nearlymid-Wealsun, and some of it was still underground at summer’s longest day. Bythis 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 eyesfixed on the ruddy sky where the sun would soon rise, “and fires down where wepasture the goats and horses. It was too wet all spring, and it’s been too drysince.”

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, hermemory was astonishingly sharp. She nodded. “Like the year-was it almost fortyyears ago? — year 546, yes. A bad one, everything on-end. It was too wet allsummer, 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 bitof faded blue ribbon. “At least the rain put out the fires that year. And it’sour 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 uppervillage, 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 beready. We’ve no choice.”

“Yes. The crop is your business today, son. Remember that ifwe 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 notbeen well the entire year. A better b’lyka player we’ve never had.”

“True.” Gran flipped the braid over her shoulder and camedown 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 hisbrother 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 madeof it, when you were a small boy. Leave me Mibya and her sister. I’ll need themto start pots of soup for everyone. We’ll eat together once the crop is safelyinside.”

“Good.” He rubbed his hoary beard and nodded. “That will freeup 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 Lharisand 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 onthe northeast plain two days ago. You know Lharis. If there’s a herd anywherenear, 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 theeastern sky with visible misgivings. “I wish I liked the look of this morningbetter.”

“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 weatherhas 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-ourpeople or the highlanders-to hear you say ‘omen’! Keep everyone busy asyou can. The other women and I will bring midday food to you. Why”- she laughedsoftly-“we’ll make a picnic of it, and then a holiday tonight, especially ifyoung 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 theyoung men of the highlands to properly meet our girls.”

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

She clasped his hand. “I do nothing special. I’m simply awoman 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 himhuntsman 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 assuredhim. “Certain things occur, now and again-like a too- wet planting season.” Shereleased his hand. “Get everyone out there. We’ll bring black bread, apples, andale at midday.” Her gaze moved beyond him toward the sunrise, and she lookedbriefly 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 thisnight-not for long, at least. The ache in her bones told her that this would bethe kind of storm her long-dead husband had called a giant killer.

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