Gafgarn always hated dust. Not dirt really, or mud. That kind of dry, annoying dust that wafts up from underfoot when trudging down a lone highway. Like the lone highway we was currently trudging that night. The dust always got in his nose and eyes, as it did now, and he hated it. It smelled awful. He loved mud, it was cooling and comforting, especially in the heat of battle. Soil had a lovely earthy smell and was a great companion to bashing skulls in. Even sand was nice, hugging his feet while he strangled a dervish, or a soldier, or, well, anything, really. Gafgarn thought he could remember strangling a camel once, but he wasn’t sure. The dust was annoying; even in the cool night air he couldn’t stand it. And on either side of him lay a vast, thick forest of low, prickly trees, so walking on the side of the road was out of the question. Therefore, he begrudgingly trudged, like a grumpy bull elephant who wished he could forget.
Gafgarn was large, certainly larger than most. He was a mammoth of a man, typically a head taller than any other he’d ever kept company with. Or killed. He walked down the road silent but for his heavy footsteps and deep breathing. He breathed deeply to keep himself calm. His feet were heavy due to the large, impressive boots he wore. In fact, they stood out among his other belongings. A ragged and tattered wolf-fur cape hung from his shoulders, its gnarled hood covering his enormous head. It looked worn away from years of use, and old bloodstains had soaked permanently into some patches of fur. A long leather-bound haft jutted over his right shoulder from under the cape, seemingly attached to some form of weapon. He wore an even worse-looking brown leather jerkin over a black cotton long-sleeved shirt. The sleeves of the shirt were frayed at the wrist, and the elbows had small holes about them. His black pants fared no better, the right leg with a large torn hole over a scarred and gnarled knee. Rough knuckles rose from contemptible fingerless gloves. He was unremarkable aside from his size and his boots.
They were, by far, the most magnificent and useful boots he’d ever seen. More than most had seen, in fact. On his crude visage, they demanded the eye’s devotion. A silver-white metal protected the toes, heel, ankle, and bottom and top of the foot, with odd black and red designs inscribed into them like tendrils or vines. Only Gafgarn knew they were actually from an ancient language, a cipher of some sort. He didn’t know much about it, only what the effects of the inscriptions on the boots did. Even in the clouds of dust that rose from Gafgarn’s heavy steps the sublime boots appeared spotless and pristine. The insides had been laboriously padded. No toe was ever bruised from smashing, which was a favorite pastime of the giant. Nails bent under the soles, which was great, as sharp objects in his feet seemed to annoy Gafgarn more than dust did. All manner of weapons recoiled from striking the boots, and he had grown to love this fact and became quite adept at blocking attacks with his feet. Usually he just punched people. Or squished them.
Thinking of squishing people made Gafgarn hungry, so he was happy to see the light of a large inn just around a bend in the road. He could hear the ruckus of happy drinking, flirting, and fighting, and his spirits lifted. He stood in front of the inn for a moment, taking in the smell of meat pies, ale, and sweat and was taken back to his encampment with is men, drinking alongside them, pinching the wealthy buttocks of a passing wench, and occasionally brawling, usually over pinching the wealthy buttocks of a fellow man’s wife. Gafgarn never understood marriage. He pushed the happy memory aside, pulled his hood down slightly, and entered the tavern.
Everything stopped when Gafgarn stepped in. Every word cut off, every mouth halted mid-chew, every pull from a tankard frozen, and every eye on the giant. Then those eyes rested on his boots. They widened, and Gafgarn could see some mouths salivate. The large inn was full of dirty-looking men, all with red bandannas on. One skinny man in a blue suit with black pinstripes sat in a corner with piles of books, barely taking notice of the new occupant. His dark blue eyes moved quickly behind small spectacles, and his grand, bristly mustache twitched as he mouthed words in a hectic speed. Several waitresses nervously continued about their business. Gafgarn simply gazed back from under his hood and clomped to the bar, pushing aside a stool to stand in front of the barkeep. “C-can I help you?” the thin man said in a weak voice as he looked up. Gafgarn placed several copper coins on the table and muttered “Ale and food”in the low, grumbly voice one would expect to come from a pit of crocodiles in need of root canals. The barkeep didn’t bother counting the coins, but quickly filled a tankard for the giant, grabbing a meat pie, and bringing them over. Gafgarn ate the sizable pie in three gargantuan bites, and then slowly enjoyed his ale, standing the entire time. The bartender suggested he take a seat, but Gafgarn simply ignored the tiny man.
As the giant enjoyed his ale, gazing into it between gulps, a group of four ragtag men shuffled up behind him with knives and swords drawn. Hearing them unsheathe their weapons, Gafgarn turned around, taking a deep pull from his tankard. As one attempted to speak threateningly—a large, dirty man still resting a healthy head under the behemoth—Gafgarn raised an imposing palm up to stop the man mid-sentence. He took one last, long, deep pull of ale, finishing off the tankard. His head moved far back, making his hood fall as he looked down at the men. Gafgarn’s face was gruff and dark, with a bulbous nose, squared face, and large, expressive brow. He had a beard of stubble, with hair of equal length on his head. It looked as if he had shaved his entire head sometime in the week prior. Scars decorated his features, cutting down his chin, along a cheek, across thick lips and through an eyebrow. Bored dark brown eyes browsed the faces of the awestruck men standing before him. His head rested resolutely on a neck thicker than the typical man’s thigh. Veins popped along his muscles like the roots of a tree from solid stone. He rested the empty tankard on the counter and stood looking at the men.
The large, scraggily one with the empty threat continued, “Yer shoes, mate. Theys shiny an’ look loik they’d fetch a noice proice.”
“And?” Gafgarn responded indifferently in his deep, impartial voice. The man smelled of dust.
The men exchanged confused looks. Then, the smallest of the four stood on his toes and prodded Gafgarn’s chest with the tip of a dagger, “Oi, ye daft or summat? We’d loik tah fetch that proice, see? Hand ‘em over easy-loik an’ we’ll leave ye tah yer drinkin’.”
Gafgarn swiftly struck out, smashing the man’s face with a fist as large as his head. The dagger spun in the air in front of Gafgarn’s chest as the man hit the floor, unconscious with a broken nose. As the dagger stuck in the floor, the larger man reached to punch Gafgarn in the jaw. He was knocked out cold by a quick elbow to the chin. The third man swiped down at Gafgarn’s knee with his sword, but Gafgarn was again far quicker. He brought a boot up to deflect the weapon, simultaneously grabbing the back of the man’s head and thrusting it into his rising knee. The man slumped to the floor, holding his face and making odd chocking noises. Gafgarn looked to the fourth, who backpedaled on buckling knees. The man placed his fingers in his mouth, letting loose a piercing whistle. Everyone except for the suited academic stood up where they sat, readying clubs, maces, swords, and daggers.
“Ye really are daft, lummox,” the fourth man said, smiling. “This’s Smidgin’s posse, aye? Ye’re gonna haveta answer for that one, mate.”
“Is that really his name? Smidgin?” Gafgarn responded, raising a huge eyebrow.
The man laughed, “Aye, he runs this ‘ere highway, an’ he’d loik them boots. Now, we’ll be takin’ them off yer corpse.”
Gafgarn stood by the bar, unflinching as the group of men began walking slowly forward, brandishing their weapons and crooked smiles. In the corner of his eye he saw the well-dressed man stand up. The man grabbed the heavy book he was reading, closed it, and walked nonchalantly around his table to the nearest hoodlum, who, so focused on Gafgarn, hadn’t noticed the skinny man’s movement. He stood behind the hoodlum, feeling the covers of the heavy book for a moment and smiling innocently. Then, abruptly, his eyes and smile widened into something Gafgarn could only think of as astonishingly psychotic as he slammed the heavy book across the backside of the hoodlum’s head. The man fell unconscious to the floor as the well-dressed man then tossed the book with all his strength at the nearest bandit. The book slammed the target’s nose just as he turned towards the well-dressed man. Several other men twisted around in surprise.
There were ten men between Gafgarn and the well-dressed man now, and what happened next did so very quickly and very brutally. Three men lunged at Gafgarn, who lifted a stool with one hand and smashed it against two of the men, launching them. The third man tackled Gafgarn at the waist, pushing him back into the bar. He attempted to catch himself with his arm, but it slid off of the counter strangely, as if the surface had been covered in slippery soap. The giant toppled awkwardly to the floor just as the third man’s axeblade bit into the bar top. From the floor, Gafgarn kicked out at the man’s knee and smiled in satisfaction at the pop as the kneecap knocked out of place and the man squealed in pain. A fourth rushed over, swinging a club at Gafgarn’s face. He blocked it with one boot and used the other to break the man’s ankle. The man screamed as he hit the floor, but was cut short by an elbow to the back of the head. Gafgarn vaulted up onto his feet just as a fist hit him square in the eye. He recoiled, falling into a chair, which inexplicably slid out from under him. As he dropped onto the floor, he reached back to grab the chair by its backrest, swinging at his fifth attacker. The chair showered the area in splinters and pieces and the man fell to the floor unconscious.
At the same time, the well-dressed man raised his arms up, pointing loose fists at his group of bandits. With a squeeze of his fingers he launched bolts out from his sleeves, shooting two men in the head. As they slumped to the ground lifeless, three other men rushed with weapons brandished. Two more finger-twitches and bolts stuck into two more heads. The last man rushed the well-dressed man with a knife, stabbing down at his neck. The well-dressed man was quick. In one fluid movement he stepped forward and under the strike, reaching out and snapping the man’s wrist with one hand while slamming his other palm into the man’s stomach. As he did this, a blade shot out from his sleeve with a soft mechanic noise, cutting into the bandit. The well-dressed man smiled once more as he slowly stepped back, releasing the bandit. He watched the man slouch down in pain, and then stood silently watching as he gathered a black handkerchief from under his jacket and used it to clean his blade.
Gafgarn had stood up at this point, looking around at the bandits. The one with the popped kneecap was still squirming and whining. Gafgarn kneeled over him and asked, “Where is Smidgin?” The man just whimpered and held his knee. “Tell me where he is,” Gafgarn demanded.
“I can’t tell ya,” the injured man responded, “He’ll kill me. You messed up my knee!”
Gafgarn grunted, “These boots mess up a lot of things. Tell me where your boss is, or I’ll show you more they can do.” Gafgarn stood and tapped his toes on the floor. He was never a very patient man.
The man spoke between pained gasps, “No, please, don’t, no more. Further down tha road, there’s a small trail, real easy ta miss. Take that fer about a day, look fer a knoll out in the forest. We got a camp out there. He’s there. Ah, man, this really hurts.”
“Good boy,” Gafgarn smirked, serving a quick punch to knock the man unconscious. He turned to the well-dressed man, who had begun to walk over.
He talked in an eloquent, relaxed, and friendly voice that lubricated the ears like a silky aural molasses, though it flowed like a torrent, “Well, old boy, it seems these miscreants lacked the certain kind of wisdom sorely needed for survival. How they thought to best you, I’m quite uncertain, though the why is very clear.” The suit’s eyes gazed down at the boots. Gafgarn simply snorted, turned about, and ordered another drink.
The suit persisted unruffled, walking over to the bar and sitting on a stool next to the giant. “I do believe I have misplaced my manners, I am Doctor Withersmod Gollsteen III, but you, my good sir, may call me Wither. Or Gollsteen. I haven’t quite decided yet.” At this point, Gafgarn was standing with a tankard up to his lips again, facing Wither, looking bored. Wither continued, his smile present even through his eloquent, rapid speech, “And you, old boy, in who’s shadow do I have the pleasure of being bathed? Hmm?”
Gafgarn finished his pull and looked down at Wither, responding curiously, “I see small arrows in the men you killed, but no weapon.”
Wither chuckled, amused and pleased by the question, “Old boy, what an astute inquiry! I’m sorry to say I must correct you, those are bolts, not arrows. Typically used in crossbows, you see, one of my beloved inventions available only up north. Not utilized this far south very often, so it comes as no surprise your observation would prove inaccurate. You wouldn’t recognize it anyhow, being that my weapons are concealed.” At this, Wither pulled down a sleeve to show something Gafgarn had never seen before. There was a contraption like a small gauntlet of leather with metal bracings around the wrist and rectangular metal chambers on the top- and underside of the arm. Both chambers had a hole facing out towards the hand. The top chamber’s was large enough for the small bolts to fit through, and the bottom chamber’s was long and thin, cut for a blade to slide through. Two rings of metal were worn on the middle and ring finger with a wiry cable running from each into the chambers.
Wither continued, pointing at the chambers and speaking proudly and quickly, “I have two small crossbows housed in the upper chamber, and a spring-loaded blade in the lower, you see. The cables attached to these two rings have been precisely measured so that a mere flick of a finger may set them off. It’s quite simple really. Don’t you agree, old boy?”
Gafgarn had stood perfectly still during the explanation. He raised an eyebrow and took another pull of his tankard, then responded gruffly, “I prefer squishing my enemies.”
“Ah, yes, so I see,” Wither acknowledged, looking around the room behind him. He allowed enough silence for a groan or two to reach his ears, smiled at them, and continued, “I find your demeanor very interesting, old boy. Your impressive boots belie your humble-yet-gargantuan appearance, and you seem to forego the use of a stool. Why, I think I saw you slip clear off of the bar top. Sweaty palms, perhaps? And did that chair move of its own accord?”
Gafgarn could see where this conversation was heading, and it annoyed him. He grunted and looked down at the skinny man with a look that could burn a hole through stone.
“A sensitive subject, then,” the wiry man smiled, pulling at his mustache, “but I remain curious, nonetheless. Perhaps I can risk an educated guess? If one were to believe in magic—I choose cautious skepticism—one could say that your effect, or lack of effect, on furniture is mystical in nature. One could go further and presume that you are cursed. Uncomfortably.” At this Wither chuckled to himself, smiled manically, and continued, “Now, looking at your attire, only your footwear seems to stand out as previously foreign to your decorum. One could then leap to say, as I am, that your strange affliction is tied to your stunning shoes.”
Wither smiled vaingloriously at Gafgarn, brimming in the knowledge that he knew he was right. Gafgarn would have usually smashed someone with an attitude like Wither’s by now, but there was something about the man he liked. Maybe it was the pleasure the man had taken in killing the bandits, or the blue striped suit he wore. Maybe Gafgarn was curious as well; the stranger was an enigma, cruelly smart, seemingly psychotic, obviously narcissistic, but somehow he felt harmless at the same time. Gafgarn had never met anyone who could be all those things at once. He looked at Wither now with more interest than annoyance. This was rare for Gafgarn. Extremely rare.
Wither responded to the change in Gafgarn’s features, “It seems that now you have grown curious like me. No longer annoyed?”
To this Gafgarn responded straight-facedly as he leaned down into Wither’s face, “I am always annoyed.” He then stood straight up again and asked, an eyebrow cocked, raised to the heavens, “Why did you attack these fools?”
Wither brimmed, “Yes, indeed, surely you didn’t need my help, but, you see, I have been seeking this Smidgin’ fellow for quite some time, and disposing of his men has become somewhat of a pleasant pastime for me. The bandit king—some call him that, you see—stole something very important to me, and I want it back. So the inventor becomes the assassin, the hunter, and I grow close to my prey. And you, my nameless colossus, are going to help me.”
Gafgarn beheld a grin on Wither’s face that simply begged to be smacked off the face of the earth. It was the type of grin that gained the ire of angels and demons alike and blinded most mortals. It was as evil as it was gorgeous, and as full of ego as it was charity. Gafgarn leaned in once more, practically hunched over as he brought his darkened face threateningly close to Wither’s, and asked “Was that a command? I may be mistaken, but I swear I just heard you demand something of me.”
Wither barely moved at all, his smile remaining, shining and bright, “Oh, yes, a barbarian emperor typically doesn’t take orders, but instead gives them, isn’t that right old boy?”
Gafgarn stood, bristled, and clenched his fists, giving Wither a stern look of dismay.
“Before you commence the smashing, old boy, hear me out,” Wither suggested innocently, lighting an elegant mahagony pipe so large that it almost seemed comical, bending back on itself like a swan’s neck. “I would wager, correctly if I might add, that you used to lead legions. These men would find that incredulous, preposterous, but I know better, old boy. The seemingly simple wolf-hair cape upon your shoulders is traditionally worn by high-ranking warriors from the tribes in the East, which I know were united under one banner in the last fifteen years. Quite astonishing, really, as they were often more interested in scrapping with one another over paltry forests than banding together to hunt real game. You would agree, old boy, as you are the man who lead the campaign to unite your people. I know because I’ve heard the chatter in the kingdoms near your borders. You know they are quite afraid, don’t you, old boy? Some fear you might want to reclaim the lands that were stolen from your people generations ago. What do you think, Gafgarn the Indomitable? Or was it impregnable? Or obstinate?”
“Pertinacious,” Gafgarn growled.
Wither laughed and slapped his knee in amusement, “Ha! Old boy, I knew a leader of his people could know more words than I like smash. Those royals assume you to be some simpleminded, laughable, insensate brute, but I’ve always known better. I like you, old boy, though I suppose you'd be unfurnished these days. Haha!”
“How can a boy be old?” Gafgarn interrupted.
Wither continued as if Gafgarn had said nothing, “It is so unfortunate to find you wandering aimlessly, as I know you are. A lost emperor, a leader of nothing. How can you be a leader if you can’t even sit on your people’s throne?”
“Get on with it, seer.”
“Please, I’m an academic, an engineer, an inventor! A performer in the pantomime of physics, a dealer in deathly devices, I, old boy, am a doctor! Not some dusty, cobwebbed, sycophantic tree-climber. I, old boy, am a student of the world!” Wither had gotten red-faced, eyes bulging through the smoke of his pipe, and was standing on his toes with upraised fists. He slowly sat back down on his stool, eyes locked on Gafgarn’s, holding his pipe lovingly and puffing all the while. Then he smiled brightly, “Now, here is why I am so certain of your assistance, old boy. I will guarantee you your throne, as well as the ability to recline upon it once more, should you assist me in my endeavor, which, old boy, you of course will.”
“You are out of your league. And mind.”
“The latter, debatable. But let me ask you this, old boy…”
“Why do you keep saying that…” Gafgarn interrupted, annoyed.
“Have you had a scientist take a look at your forced orthopedic tenancy?”
“My what? I’ve never met a scientist before.”
“Then how do you know I can’t help you?”
Gafgarn grunted his version of a chuckle and leaned in again, half-smiling, “Doc,” he said sarcastically, “do you know why I have these?”
Wither looked up at the ceiling innocently and said, “Not the faintest idea, old boy, but I can risk another hypothesis; they certainly didn’t belong to you, and you didn’t come to own them on good terms.”
There was a moment of tense silence. Gafgarn picked over the odd man as he thought about the proposition. Wither was right about everything, but he also seemed unhinged and untrustworthy. He looked to be useful, Gafgarn would give him that. He was quick and deadly and smart, but not so much that Gafgarn couldn’t take him out should he back out on the deal. Most of all, Gafgarn knew he needed help. He was aimless, and worse he yearned to return to his people. They understood strength in a way that even the doctor could not. He predicted the doctor also knew nothing about relieving the curse, but he had nothing to lose anyway.
“Okay, doc. I’ll help.”
Wither jumped up excitedly, yelling “Hazaah, old boy! Together, this should be quite an easy task. We can ride out immediately and take them down under the cover of night!”
“But I can’t take on an army of bandits on my own.”
“Give yourself more credit, old boy! Besides, he doesn’t have an army, just a posse, didn’t you hear the squirming gentleman with the reversed kneecap?”
“You said he was a bandit king…”
“Oh, just a silly moniker these ruffians prefer. You know, sheep in the herd, old boy!”
“Are you sure?” Gafgarn felt annoyed again, which was usual.
“Indubitably, old boy, you haven’t a thing to worry about,” Wither slapped Gafgarn on the shoulder; or rather, he attempted to and ended up jovially smacking his hulking arm instead. Then he continued as he raced around his table collecting his books into several satchels, “We’ll take my carriage out to the knoll, we should reach it quickly enough, and I’ll give you all the details on the way. Come, old boy, our dear Smidgin awaits! We’ll make him but a smudge on the earth. Haha, Smidgin the Smudge, indeed!”
Gafgarn followed Wither out of the back of the tavern. He spotted the bartender huddling in a corner behind the bar, who tremulously thanked Gafgarn for his business. A horse and an old-looking carriage sat in the back tethered to a pole, the horse gingerly drinking from a trough. Wither rushed to jam his satchels into the carriage, which was piled high with large bags and boxes inside and on the roof. After shutting and latching the door, he raised himself onto the front seat and grabbed the reigns as he puffed his heavy pipe.
“Would you untie Percy for me, old boy? Then take a seat here and we’re off!”
Gafgarn untied the horse from the pole, petting it on the face as he did so. “Percy,” he said to the horse, in a gruff but somehow soft half-chuckle. Then he tromped over to the carriage’s driver bench and lifted himself up. The carriage tilted awkwardly to one side and then leaned forward as Gafgarn climbed over the bench to sit on the roof. Wither scooted outward to prevent himself from sliding off. He snapped the reigns and Percy, struggling at first, pulled the carriage through the small driveway back onto the main highway. Wither smiled manically into the night, the light from his pipe beaming on his excited face while puffs of smoke rose into the cool air. Gafgarn laid on his back into a pile of boxes and bags in an attempt to relax. He stared into the night sky, taking in the bright stars, secretly excited to squish someone with such a stupid name.