The road bounded the woods. Or perhaps the woods bounded the road. No one stopped to check. Two carts rattled along, laden with tin and tents. There was no room to ride, so the people walked instead. Children danced between wary parents, tearing at each other’s patchwork clothes. The adults talked little, eyes fixed on the horizon. These were people with little and little left to fear. Limping amongst them, one had not even that.
“I think it’s going to rain,” declared Gundrea.
“It is raining master,” said Yllen.
“I mean I think it’s going to rain more,” He sidestepped, elbowing a woman. “What do you think?”
She ignored him.
Gundrea shrugged and tried the man on his other side “How about you?”
Edward glanced up at the sky, his face wreathed in shadow. The rain went in his eye.
Yllen’s feet hurt. Five days they’d walked. The guards at Briggsholme hadn’t left them much choice. She wanted to range ahead, to see the sights before they were trampled underfoot but something kept her back. Well, actually it was the people. The quiet gossip, the occasional stories, even the way two people would pause and exchange a look. Sometimes laughter would break out, only to be hushed. And then there was Edward. The Titanslayer, the hero with a thousand tax returns. He walked with the group unseeing, brooding on whatever it was heroes brooded. He looked like a pale, underfed man who’d bought a helmet, then run out of money. It was probably a trick, like how Gundrea pretended to be senile.
“You know, this reminds me of a road I saw once,” Gundrea said, staring dreamily into space.
Pretended, Yllen reassured herself.
“We were all walking down it yeah and then… are those horses?”
Horses came down the road. They grew bigger with the approach, going from blobs on sticks to trotting beasts. Behind them marched a column of men. Well, ambled. The average Pascolo army excelled at charging backwards, stabbing anyone blocking their retreat. The carts stopped dead. The adults congregated, engaging in an urgent debate. Gundrea gravitated that way and Yllen sidled after him.
“The women could make it into the woods with the children,”
“They’ll think we’re spies!”
“We should stand our ground, let them try and pass,”
“Are you mad? They’ll see we’re unarmed.”
“Maybe if we move out of the way,” supplied Gundrea.
“Stay out of this outsider. You’re probably on their side,” barked a heavyset man, mustache quivering.
Gundrea waved his arm in the direction of the army “Could you tell them that?”
“Will you sell us to them?” asked a woman quietly.
He waved a bowl cheerfully “What’s a life worth these days?”
Everyone turned then to look at Edward.
“I’ll deal with him.” Gundrea added.
A horseman made the decision for them. He cantered ahead, stopping within shouting distance
“Clear the road! Let our lord’s men pass!”
Looks were exchanged. Gundrea elbowed mustache. He reluctantly stepped forward.
“Alright! You don’t have to yell!”
They drove the carts off the side of the road, tin rattling on roots and rocks. The men formed a half-circle around them, behind them the women. The children were herded to the wood’s edge. Edward remained behind, stick planted in the dirt. He looked furious. Yllen started forward but Gundrea grabbed her.
“See to the kids, lass.”
His hand was a steel claw, steering her away. She relented, pushing toward the back. The children were silent now. Yllen moved between them, reading faces. Most were blank, but some, some looked angry.
The troops were close now. Their step was discordant and their uniforms jumbled but there were a lot of them. They were led by five horsemen, all in fine armour. The one who’d shouted made to ride right over Edward, bellowing again.
“Clear the road, you damn traveller!”
At the last second the horse shied away. The creature’s eyes rolled madly, and it backed up whinnying. Gundrea slipped behind Edward to whisper in his ear. The army ground to a halt. There was a chorus of shouts as the people at the back demanded to know why, followed by a series of complaints by the people at the front about getting walked on and they’d better not have to come back there. Eventually things settled, silence undercut by the unsettling whisper. “Just one man.”
The rider brought his horse under control. He looked barely twenty, some noble’s younger son with fire and a chip the size of a tree.
“We have a hundred men!” he exclaimed, in case anyone hadn’t noticed
“I recognise you, Titanslayer. Move or die!”
Edward did neither.
“Hero or not, you can’t beat us all!”
It was not a speech to inspire confidence. Regardless Edward just stood there, the sweeper whispering in his ear. Rain dripped from the trees. The men stirred restlessly.
Edward exploded. A hundred weapons raised anxiously. He pointed his stick “It’s a nice day. It would be a shame to ruin it with bloodshed. The road is yours.”
He stalked off the opposite side of the road. Gundrea scrambled after him. Everyone ran through what had just happened in their heads. A cheer went up. They had vanquished the terrible Titanslayer. The officers roused their grumbling troops and the army marched on.
Yllen alone noticed the boy with the stone. His hand stretched back to hurl it into the passing ranks. She yanked his arm and gave him a dig. The stone dropped, his fury turning on her. He promptly pulled her hair.
They moved on. They had little these people and what was precious danced about them playing children’s games. They talked low, careful to avoid the ears of the hero who walked amongst them.
“He beat a hundred men without even breaking a sweat!”
“But that’s not what-” Yllen frowned. Then it hit her “How big was that titan he slew?”
Gundrea winked “Ten miles tall they say.”