Gafgarn awoke to the carriage underneath him rocking to a halt. Above the stars twinkled beyond the thick boughs of trees arching over the dusty road. They must have been on the road for a significant amount of time, because even though the roof of the carriage was hardly a bed fit for an emperor, Gafgarn felt rested. He sat up on the front edge of the vehicle, causing it to tilt precariously forward, and stretched. Wither still sat on the driving bench, pipe glowing in the night, reigns in his hands.
“Good morning, old boy,” he said without looking, his gaze fixed on a spot in the forest, “I’m glad you’re awake. We’re near the place I’ve deduced Smidgen’s camp will be.” Gafgarn looked in the direction of Wither’s gaze, and could see in the shadows of the underbrush an opening into another pathway. It looked like a squeeze for the overburdened transport. Wither lightly snapped the reigns and Percy led them, quietly creaking, into the brush.
Gafgarn was relieved, as the dust from the road still clung in his nostrils, and the soil in the brush seemed content to remain underfoot. “So what do you know about their camp, Doc?”
Wither’s grand mustache bristled, “It’s on a knoll, quite simply fortified , most likely with timber collected from the surrounding forest, typically occupied by approximately a hundred scoundrels.”
“You want to infiltrate a camp with a hundred armed men to kill their leader? You said they were camped on a knoll. Even at night, how do you expect the two of us to get in and out unnoticed?”
“Typically a hundred. I’m certain you recall I’ve been hunting them? Those numbers have noticeably thinned, old boy.”
“Fine. But even if there’s less, they’ll see us coming if they’re smart…”
“Which they aren’t, mind you…”
“…so how are we going to sneak in?”
“Oh, we aren’t, old boy.”
“Good. For a moment I thought you might be crazy and stupid.”
“No, I know we can’t sneak in. Disguises wouldn’t work either, you’re much too big and I wouldn’t wear their desolate trappings as long as breath dwells in my lungs. No, old boy, we—rather, you—are going to walk right in and gain an audience with the fair Smidgin’.”
“You’re a fool.”
Wither chuckled, “fools are just men with more imagination. You have a wonderful gift for violence, but our quarry requires tact and ingenuity. I wish to take advantage of your unique physical hindrance, old boy.”
“Slipping off a chair will hardly help me kill a hundred men.”
“Ah yes, though it certainly aided you in besting a few. A curse it may be, but you can use it to your advantage. I’m more interested in the effort it would take to keep you in that chair, old boy.”
At this Gafgarn ceased fidgeting with the pommel of his mallet and delivered to Wither a stern, quizzical look, one eyebrow sky high and questioning eyes lit with the kind of light only a match of impatience may kindle. “Think,” Wither responded, his unflinching grin still resting beneath the championed mustache, “Smidgin is a proud, powerful man. He loves proving his strength, and that is how he has gained so many followers. Give him a challenge he cannot hope to win, old boy. I will take care of the rest.”
With a snap of the reigns, diligent Percy lead the cab into a slight depression in the underbrush next to the path. After it was parked, Wither moved quickly to the carriage door and opened it. Then, without hesitation, he stuck as much of his body in as he could, slithering in between his many stacked belongings. “Wither, what are you going to do?” Gafgarn asked in a grumble as he watched the thin man’s legs flip in the air. “Ah!” Wither exclaimed, pulling his body out of the carriage along with several bags and boxes that fell to the ground, their hidden contents tinkling. In his hands he held an extremely large crossbow decorated with a row of lenses along its top. Wither seemed to be unaffected by its tremendous size and weight.
“How are you carrying that? How did that even fit in there?”
“Now, old boy, I’m off!” Wither said excitedly as he hoisted a heavy-looking quiver of bolts and what looked like a carpet of leaves over his shoulder and bounced away toward the brush. He yelled back, “Don’t forget to ask about the girl, old boy!”
Gafgarn watched the wiry man bounce into the darkness. Left to himself, he noticed one of the bags that had fallen out of the carriage spilled oats into the bushes and dirt. Discovering it was a feed bag, he picked it up and gingerly strapped it onto Percy. The mare welcomed it calmly and immediately began mashing its contents in content. Gafgarn scratched it behind the ears and saw Wither had left his pipe on the carriage bench, some embers within gleaming their last. He thought momentarily of trying its contents, but decided against it. If Wither’s behavior could indicate much, whatever was in that pipe might not be in Gafgarn’s best interest.
The faintest hint of light began to change the sky from a pitch-black star-pocked void to a dark blue, with hints of red and orange spilling out from the east. A new day arrived, and Gafgarn grinned at the fact that it would be the last sunrise Smidgin would see. Anticipation thrumming in every sinew and muscle, wolf-head-cloak pulled over his shaven head, Gafgarn trudged eagerly down rest of the worn path.
Gafgarn made his way to the edge of the wood, enjoying the smell of the dustless underbrush as he went. The forest reminded him of home, a lonesome comfort. Then the trees and bushes thinned and Gafgarn saw before him the great knoll Wither described. It was tall and sloping, its tip far above the treeline, and ringed with large, flat-topped stones sticking up and outwards like crooked teeth. Between these earthen molars were erected wooden walls of logs and slats, circling the knoll as a grim, pointed barrier. At the highest points towers occupied by ragged-looking, haggard men armed with bows overlooked the surrounding area. The knoll rose and flattened beyond the wall, and it was littered with tents and hovels. This was the great camp of Smidgin. Gafgarn thought the encampment could be taken by fewer than a score of his own, though at least a hundred men had to be inside. More than he could take on his own, but still he continued.
Gafgarn walked towards the tall gate, snorting at the camp as he went. He noted a section of wall that dipped lower than the rest, that it faced the direction Wither had bounced off to. Two towers guarded the gate on either side. A man above him pulled a shafted arrow back and pointed it at him, a woman in the opposite tower doing the same. They both wore familiar red bandanas around their faces.
“Stop there,” the man demanded, “Drop yer things an’ go back the way ye came, an’ we won’t stick ye.” His speech was quick, each word crowding the next. It seemed his tongue threatened to fly out of his mouth, spinning and twirling, whenever he spoke.
“I’m here to see Smidgin,” Gafgarn declared.
“What fer?” the man responded.
“Cause I heard he’s bigger than me. My business is with him.”
Both nasty-looking arrows pointed their jagged points on him like the fangs of a snake. The guard responded once more, “‘ee is. Now ye know. Beat it.”
Gafgarn’s nostrils flared, the air billowing beneath them. He reached back and gingerly hefted his gigantic hammer. “I’m here to take charge, boys. How’d you like to be part of an empire?”
“My empire. I have one, to the east in the wilds. You aren’t so dense you haven’t heard of it?”
The woman on Gafgarn’s right relaxed her bow slightly, looked over to her comrade and asked, “Wait, Dorin…you don’t think he’s the one, right?”
The first answered without flinching, “What would ‘ee be doing ‘ere, Sully? He’d have an empire to run, right?”
“Right…yeah…what would you be doing here if you were he?”
“Recruiting,” Gafgarn said, “I heard about your little outfit, sounds like Smidgin is an amateur, I’m here to see if you’re ready to be part of something real.”
The one named Sully nearly dropped her bow, “You’re out of your mind, you know that?”
“Come on. You’d fight for a cause.”
“I fight fer meself, an’ that’s cause enough,” Dorin snapped, “Now drop yer things an’ turn ‘round. I nae be askin’ ya again, crazy bastard.”
Gafgarn stepped forward, his keen eyes focused on Dorin, who promptly let his shaft fly. At least he’s a man of his word, Gafgarn thought. The arrow bounced off of the mallet’s head with a sharp ping. Sully quickly loosed her own arrow, which shattered with a swift kick from a gleaming boot. Both guards stood dumbfounded as the giant continued, undeterred. Their eyes followed his boots, mouths salivating, minds wondering the price they might fetch.When he reached the gate, he lifted his great bear-paw of a fist and knocked, the contemptible wooden doors trembled, and the sound of people rousing rising from the other side.
A voice erupted from somewhere beyond, raspy and incredulous, “Did someone just knock on my door?”
No one answered the voice. Gafgarn knocked once more.
“Holy crap, is that for real!?” The voice was closer know. “You two, on the wall, who’s the idiot on the other side of the door and why aren’t they dead!?”
“Giant, said ee’s ‘ere to see ye, sir. Wants to take over, ‘ee does.”
“And he’s still frigging breathing!?” The voice was much closer now. Gafgarn thought it sounded like the man was constantly choking. His voice was grating, like rusty blades rubbing together. Another reason to silence it.
“Blocked our arrows in flight, sir, like dey was nothin’,” Dorin answered.
The sound of a large wooden beam being lifted away from its saddle against the doors was followed by their slowly swinging outward. Several unkempt men were pushing them open, blades in their free hands. A well-worn path led up the knoll to a haggard group of men and women with bows drawn. All wore red bandanas tied around their heads or arms, most with frayed edges and dirty stains. Except for one, who sat on a bench with distant interest. He was a young man, pale with red eyes, something Gafgarn had only heard of but never seen. Instead of a bandana, he wore a jester hat on his head, red, black, and silver stripes extending out along patched and resewn tendrils of cloth to shining bells that glinted in the rising sun.
In front of them stood a shirtless man covered in poorly healed scars from all manner of injury. A particularly nasty one arced across his long neck. Any part of his pale skin that was not decorated in this way was by crude tattoos: naked posing women—two with particularly round bosoms on a shin each—skulls in piles, various instruments of war, and several gruesome-looking monsters eating people alive. An eyepatch covered one eye, and the other, pale blue and icy, regarded Gafgarn with a combination of amusement and annoyance. Gafgarn noted that Smidgin was, surprisingly, slightly taller than him, but longer-limbed and lanky.
“Well, you’re a big one, aren’t you?” Smidgin rasped through a crooked grin, “Must not be too smart though, wakin’ me and my boys like this. On our day off no less. So, could you block all of them?” He motioned at the bowmen behind him.
“Maybe not. But I didn’t come here to fight off your troops. I’ll be leading them now, unless you can stop me yourself.”
“Your camp. It’s mine now. You want it back, you’ll have to win it back.”
Smidgin let out an irritating cackle, “Wow. You really are a special brew of dumb, aren’t you? Do you know why these men follow me? Because no one’s ever beaten me one on one. I might as well just let them finish you, that’s what I have them around for. It’ll save me the time.”
Gafgarn stepped forward, “Alright. I’ll challenge you…and your entire gang. You might not even have to lift a finger. I’ve come all this way to take you on, you really going to disappoint me?”
Smidgin grunted. “No. I’m always down for a row, punk. But you can’t beat me and my entire camp in a fight, I don’t care how big or fast you are. The last idiot I went toe-to-toe with got close, gave me this” he pointed at the scar on his neck, tilting his head back so it stood out even more, “and I beat the life out of him while I bled. Just missed the spot, I was too quick for him. You really expect to do any better?”
“Who do you think you are, man?”
Gafgarn walked up the worn road into the center of the camp, where tables, benches, tents, and crates of plunder were scattered about in disarray. All made way for him as he went, scowls and confused gazes following his every giant step. The pale face and red eyes followed him as well, a crooked grin creeping onto his face, bells jingling with the turn of his head. Smidgin followed just behind, forehead creased with waning patience. Then the wolf-cloaked behemoth of the east stopped and pointed his great maul at a large, ornate chair carved out of a solid oak log into a sprawling, winged dragon.
“I am Gafgarn, emperor and unifier of the Eastern Tribes, and I’m here to prove you’re nothing in comparison. I’m not interested in making you bleed, though. Make me sit in that, and you win” he said, “If you can’t, then I win, and your gang belongs to me.”
Smidgin keeled over, bellowing in a mad rasp, and his vagabonds followed suit. The jester hat simply sat and watched. During the laughing, no one noticed a man in a tower suddenly fall out of it and over the wall, a slender crossbow bolt lodged in his brain. “You’re kidding me, right? I’d rather just fight you, that sounds like more fun.”
“Afraid you can’t do it, then?”
Smidgin bristled, “Naw, naw man, of course I can. It’s just, that chair is mine, stole it from a hold up north, pretty awesome catch. I never let anyone else sit in it. It’s like my throne. You know what a throne is, right big man? Shouldn’t you be sitting on your own?”
Gafgarn regarded Smidgin with a look of indifference. Then he walked over to the chair and stood in front of it, placing his maul head first on the ground. He crossed his arms impatiently, and declared, “you get me in that chair, and my weapon’s yours. Take it east, my people will know it. You’ll own more than a hill after that.”
The Bandit King shook his head, “You really think I can’t get you in that chair?” When Gafgarn didn’t move or respond, Smidgin shrugged, “Alright, big man. Ready that arse of yours for one hell of a sit-down.” The crowd around them--now almost fifty strong, Gafgarn thought--began to shuffle and chatter with anticipation. Smidgin placed himself directly in front of Gafgarn, looked down into his eyes and winked. Gafgarn simply uncrossed his arms and huffed, preparing for the first move.
Smidgin smacked into Gafgarn with the force of his entire body, hands on the eastern man’s shoulders. Gafgarn braced his body, bringing his weight low and pushing back. The crowd buzzed and hollered, the clamor of excitement drawing attention away from the limp body of a woman falling off of another tower, bolt through her heart. The two giants dug their feet into the earth as they pushed against one another, their exertions already causing sweat to gleam in the early morning sun. Smidgin adjusted his position and grip, trying to find a way to budge his opponent, but Gafgarn countered every move, keeping his weight low. After several grueling minutes, shining silver boots had only been moved towards the throne a few inches, soil piling behind the heel yet no spot of dirt blemishing the footwear at all.
The crowd continued to roar and cheer, pulling in closer with each passing moment. One man on a tower moved to descend its ladder, but stopped when something briefly caught the sunlight in the corner of his eye. He looked at a neighboring tower, its occupant seemingly leaning against one of its posts limply. He watched as the body tipped forward and slumped on the platform, a bloody bolt still lodged in the post. When he opened his mouth to raise an alarm, a force shot him off of the ladder. He landed hard among jutting stones, the projectile lodged in his throat and the life quickly and quietly draining from him. With a gurgle he was spent, unseen behind the stones, the unknowing and raucous mob but several strides away.
Smidgin and Gafgarn were locked together, an immovable mass with four legs twisted and jumbled. Every few moments, Smidgin would roar and shove, gaining mere inches at a time, but he was edging Gafgarn closer to the throne. A silver-white heel almost touched the great seat now, and Gafgarn furrowed a sweaty brow over hard, focused eyes. Smidgin gritted his teeth, cursed, huffed, and grunted, putting every ounce of his strength into push after push. Gafgarn never made a sound.
“You’re getting pretty close, wolf-man,” Smidgin grunted, adjusting his grip around Gafgarn’s barrel chest. “How long do you think you can really keep this up?”
“Longer than you,” Gafgarn teased.
Smidgin practically growled in response, “Great thing about being me is that I still have a crew, and why have ‘em if you never use ‘em? Delegation, man. That’s what it’s all about.” Then he yelled over the din around him, “Let’s give this moron a throne! Hands on!”
With that, a group of five bandits closest to Smidgin dove into the wrestling match, pushing Gafgarn from his sides and bracing Smidgin’s back. The six men against one, Gafgarn’s wall noticeably slacked, and he found himself struggling to keep his weight forward. He felt his boot hit the throne, and braced against it with the other. Arms and shoulders straining with the effort, Gafgarn stood his ground once more. In the corner of his eye, he caught a body falling from a tower. He hoped no one else saw.
“More!” Smidgin yelled, and several more bandits rushed in to pull and push at Gafgarn from all angles. “Hold him! Rope!” Smidgin ordered, and then released himself from the struggle. He moved around the throne so he stood behind it and Gafgarn, and a woman from the crowd trotted over with rope looped around her shoulder. He quickly took the rope and wound it around Gafgarn’s torso, braced a foot against the back of the throne, and began pulling.
“You should have set down some rules, punk. I’m impressed with your strength, but you ain’t clever.”
With this and more than ten others now pushing and pulling at Gafgarn, he could feel his muscles, burning with his effort, tiring. His body fell further back each instant, enough so that he moved his hands to brace himself, pushing down on the throne’s armrests, his knees beginning to bend into a sitting position. Still, he fought against the tide.
“Let’s finish him, lads! Everyone on this fool!”
The entire mob joyfully entered the fray, piling onto one another and Gafgarn, pulling at the rope with Smidgin, finding every angle at which to push and pull. Gafgarn was almost sitting now, his body floating above the chair awkwardly, nearing the wood with excruciating slowness. The whole of the camp atop Gafgarn, his body began giving in, pain enveloping every muscle and sinew as still he fought. Then he felt it, a strange tingle in his boots, like the ground was subtly vibrating. Below him, between his buttocks and the chair, he could feel a force, an inexplicable lifting away from the earth. It was pleasant, like a cushion rising upwards against him, but the result was extraordinary, halting his descent immediately.
From where Smidgin stood, he could see Gafgarn had yet to sit, though he was so close that only the blade of a sword might fit between the giant and the seat. “Seriously? What, are you pushing yourself up with your own farts?” He grunted under his breath. Then over his exertions, he yelled at his cohort, “How useful are you if you can’t get one man to sit down!? Put your backs into it! Heave!”
The crowd piled and pushed as one, and finally Gafgarn could take no more and felt his arms and legs give out. His boots vibrated even more now, and the force pushed him away from the chair like a moving wall. Even with that, he felt himself falling, and knew that he would be in the seat in a moment. So he took a deep breath, and settled in when he finally touched.
“Hah!” Smidgin grinned with delight, still straining against the roped behind Gafgarn, “You lose, you fat-nosed lout! I knew you were nothing but--”
The throne and Gafgarn suddenly shot out in opposite directions. Gafgarn barreled through the crowd like a stone from a catapult, and he just barely grabbed the haft of his hammer as he flew. He spun through the air, launching bodies in all directions as he went. The great throne shaped from a solid log, easily heavier than several horses, plummeted into Smidgin and his surrounding group. Bones cracked, heads smashed, and bodies toppled as it flew, with Smidgin catching it in the gut, the air in his lungs lost, and flying back with it. He and the seat crashed through tents and crates, finally careening into the perimeter wall, dust and debris everywhere.
Gafgarn picked himself up from a pile of unconscious bandits. Looking around, the top of the knoll was a mess, with bodies and various objects scattered about. As he hefted his hammer and made his way to where the throne once sat, Gafgarn noticed among the groaning injured, lucky unconscious, and silent dead numerous crossbow bolts meant to kill or maim. Wither was busy during the pile up, it seemed. None who stood challenged Gafgarn, instead watching him in disbelief or tending to the wounded. Sully and Dorin, the guards from the front towers, followed him from a safe distance, their awe of the experience worn plainly on their faces.
When he reached the topmost point of the knoll where the log-hewn throne once sat, he found and empty space with a trail of destruction striking out in two separate directions: Gafgarn’s flightpath and that of the dragon-shaped seat. He followed the chair’s trail, and found at its end destroyed tents, scattered henchmen, and Smidgin’s scarred and tatooed remains pinned against the outer wall by a solid piece of wood. One of the dragon’s wings held the Bandit King aloft, the rest of its mass strewn about, splintered and fragmented. Several other bandits met similar fates, odd bits of the seat permeating their corpses. There was no sign of the albino or the jester hat.
A quiet thwuk! alerted Gafgarn to something behind him, and after he reeled around, he saw a bandit with a bolt in her head falling back. He followed the bolt’s trajectory to the canopy of the forest over the lower section of the camp’s wall and saw nothing at first. Then something moved in the lush greenery, what looked like a giant crossbow momentarily raised among the bows of a tree. Wither was saying hello. Gafgarn nodded towards him, then regarded the very dead Smidgin with distaste. Then he remembered something.
“I forgot to ask about the girl,” he grumbled.