Part One: Escape
I awoke coughing, choking on the thick cloud of dust that hung in the air. For a long, panicked moment I struggled to move, afraid that I had been trapped beneath the shifting stone. With a final desperate shove, I knocked a hole in the side of the pile and dragged myself out to lie gasping for breath atop the heap of rubble.
My limbs and ribs were bruised and sore, but miraculously I appeared to have escaped any kind of serious injury. A foot of rusty iron chain still trailed from the manacle surrounding my left ankle, but the remainder had been snapped off by the tons of falling stone.
I raised my eyes, squinting against the light that filtered through the suffocating clouds of powdered mortar and stone. Daylight. The first that I had seen in many years. A sickly little laugh escaped my lips, quickly becoming another fit of coughing and wheezing. I had to get out of here quickly and into the open air.
The uneven hill of rubble that rose up towards the sunlight was made up of the collapsed walls of my cell and the fallen floors from above. Evidence of more than one corpse poked out here and there between the chips of stone. The footing looked less than certain, and I probably had a better chance of starting a fatal avalanche of debris than I did of making it to the top, but I saw no other choice than to try.
I stretched my cramped arms and sought a handhold with which to begin my ascent. The stone was strangely warm, perhaps from the friction of the collapse, and I wondered at the cause of all this destruction. An earthquake? I had never heard of one striking hereabouts. Perhaps God had finally chosen to show me some mercy after all of these years.
I braced myself and then began the process of hauling my body towards the jagged crack in the wall above. I was weak and malnourished, but at least I weighed little more than skin and bones. Stones pulled loose many times and I fell backwards often, once twisting my knee badly. Each slide kicked up more of the choking dust and I soon found it impossible to breathe, but the larger fragments of stone had settled more firmly than I could have hoped, and with agonizing slowness, I made my way to the top.
I lunged through the narrow opening, the rough stone scraping a long shallow cut along my back, and landed amidst the grass of the courtyard, where I lay exhausted and out of breath.
The air was acrid with the scent of buildings burning, but it had never tasted so sweet.
It was a long time before I was able to drag myself to my knees and back into motion. Small patches of armored men ran about the courtyard, but they moved in conflicting directions with a clear lack of any leadership. If any of them had the mind to take me back into custody they could have done so easily, but no one paused to notice the portion of chain still about my ankle and at this point I was only one suffering wretch among many who were shambling about in the confusion.
Still, I didn’t see any point in waiting around until I drew someone’s attention, so I forced my feet to start walking. Leaving the castle grounds was easy. The curtain walls were in tatters, having fared no better than the keep itself. In places the stone itself had somehow been set afire.
As I paused to wonder what type of disaster might have caused such a thing, dark shapes flashed through the sky above me. They moved too fast to be any bird on the wing, but they made no sound until they reached the crumbled form of the keep, where they unleashed beams of colored fire with a hum so deep that it hurt my eardrums. Where the fire touched the structure’s walls, the stone ran and flowed like water and the remaining hulk fell flat. Had I not climbed forth from my cell so quickly, I too would now be dead.
Troops yelled and ran—the brave ones towards the destruction, the fearful ones away from it. I chose to follow the latter. Whatever nation had unleashed these terrible weapons, the Majerions had nothing to match them. Besides, I felt I owed my country little patriotism given the circumstances.
I scrambled over the smoking ruin of the outer wall and lost myself under the cover of the forest.
Part Two: Discovery
The night winds were cold beneath the forest’s canopy and I had nothing to hunt with except a crude javelin made from a fallen branch sharpened against the edge of a rock, but this did not trouble me as I was used to the chill of the dungeon and the few squirrels and possums that I caught for food gave my body more nutrition than the gruel to which it had become accustomed. I had even managed to slip my remaining bonds using a mixture of hot grease that I made from animal fat.
For a week I lived quite happily as a recluse and I began to imagine that this was how I would spend the rest of my days. I had grown unused to human company and this simple, but free, existence appealed to me.
But then the weather took a turn towards the cold and wet, and I found myself falling ill. I had survived countless bouts of sickness in the king’s dungeons over the years and thought nothing of this one at first, until after a couple of days I was forced to admit to myself that I was not getting better on my own. I was having difficulty holding down any food and I would have to take action to seek out help now before I grew any weaker if I were to have any chance to survive.
Using my javelin as a walking stick, I set out over the muddy ground. I found it funny that, despite the years and little changes from the cycle of life, the forest itself was still essentially the same. Trees may have fallen, and new ones grown up in their place, but the lay of the land was not greatly different. I had spent no small amount of time hiding out in the King’s Wood and my mostly forgotten youth; and even now, years later, I had little trouble finding my way after sundown.
As fever began to take a hold of me, I could only hope that human settlements would prove as lasting. Children growing old and dying, but the villages themselves never moving away. I shivered, splashing my way through frigid puddles, and made my way towards the lands that had once been called Goldenfield.
I have no conscious memory of my arrival in the village but, fortunately, Sharon—a local midwife and the closest thing that Goldenfield had to a doctor—had rushed me to her tent and plied me with herbs. It was a few days before her medicine took effect and my fever lessened enough for me to become coherent. She did not think that I would have lasted another day without aid. I was fortunate that my muscle memory had remembered the path to the village even when my mind had deserted me.
Sharon and the other villagers took me, somewhat correctly, to be a refugee from the castle. Apparently I was not the only one to flee in this direction, only the latest to arrive. Fortunately, the others had not stayed around but had only passed through briefly, uncomfortable with the notion of remaining this close to the site of the recent slaughter.
Predictably, our conversations centered around what I had seen happen and what news had reached Goldenfield since I had fallen ill.
Finally, when I was feeling better, she brought an old, broad-shouldered man to meet with me. We had not been introduced, but I could tell right away from his bearing that he was someone of importance here.
“Sharon tells me you were at the Massacre of Crown Keep,” he said without preamble or greeting. I considered his close-cropped white hair. A no-nonsense military type, for sure.
“Is that what they’re calling it now?” I asked in response.
“Aye,” he gave a slight frown. “That they are.”
“I’m afraid that my tale is likely to disappoint you,” I warned him. “I was within the castle when the attack began and I was knocked witless by the destruction of the keep. By the time I had come to, the fight was all but over. If you can call it a fight, our side never had a chance.”
“This much Sharon has told me.” The jolly old lady smiled as if embarrassed and stayed slumped in a chair in the corner. Usually, she was bubbly and talkative, but she seemed cowed by the man’s presence.
I looked directly at the man. His eyes were a very light blue, almost gray.
“Then I am unsure what more I have to offer you.”
The man’s frown deepened. Judging from the furrows in his face and brow, I began to suspect that this was his favorite expression.
“If we’re going to learn how to stand against this foe, we’ll need to gather as much knowledge as we possibly can,” he said sternly. “You may have seen something, even as you fled, that can be of help to us. Think hard, is there anything else that you can remember?”
He gestured towards Sharon sitting in the corner.
“I would think you owe us at least that for saving your life, wouldn’t you?”
Sharon hung her head, clearly uncomfortable with being brought into the argument.
“I apologize, sir,” I answered, careful to keep my voice polite—I’d never dealt well with authority figures. “I’m willing to share with you everything I know, I just doubt that you’ll learn anything from me that you don’t already know from the other refugees whom Sharon mentioned had passed this way earlier.”
The man sighed, and when he spoke again he sounded more tired than angry.
“Try me. Half of those wrecks were too stunned to speak and the other half were so terrified that they spouted nothing but gibberish. You’ve at least had some time to calm down and consider what you saw.”
“My tale will sound no less fanciful for it, I fear,” I warned him. “When the keep fell, I was nearly crushed beneath it but managed to dig my way out to freedom.
“What I saw was nothing that I’d ever imagined possible. Flying ships that spat fire so hot it melted stone, as if men had built dragons of their own.
“They were dark and flew neither colors nor coat of arms, so I have no idea to which nation they belonged, though I have trouble imagining either Turcan or Duebland developing such magic. Perhaps Sinesia?”
He cut me off.
“You saw nothing of the green men, then?”
I did not answer right away but considered his odd question. Norq mercenaries often wore green uniforms, as would their armies up north. Were they somehow involved?
I shook my head.
“I fear the only troops that I saw on foot were our own, running about in disarray.”
The man nodded and looked at Sharon. He seemed pleased by my response, almost as if I had sided with him in an argument against her.
“Most likely they’re naught but myth,” he told me. “But the rumors spread by those fleeing the massacre have grown in the telling, as you might imagine. Monsters riding dragons and cooking men in their armor.”
He regarded me for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision, and stuck out his hand for me to shake.
“I think having you here to tell your side of the story and calm things down a bit will be a boon to us. Even if it sounds like things are quite dire.
“My name is Brawnson, and I’m the village headman. Goodman, did Sharon say it was?”
“That’s what I tell people to call me,” I replied, giving his hand a firm shake.
He released my hand, gave Sharon his regards, and without another word made his exit.
“That went well!” she beamed. “He really liked you. I knew he would. He isn’t nearly that friendly with everyone.”
“I’m positively charmed,” I told her.
Unexpectedly, I found peace in Goldenfield.
My plan had been to head out on my own once I had the strength, but I kept finding reasons to linger because the villagers were so welcoming.
A number of families had deserted their farms following the massacre, deciding the safer course was to move in with relatives much more remote from the capital. The usual migrant workers quietly followed them out of town. Maybe they were the smart ones, but having been there firsthand, I imagined if whatever force had struck the castle decided to conquer Majeria, then all there lands would soon be under their sway, near or far.
Given the circumstances, the Goldenfielders were more than happy to find work for a new farmhand and since I seemed to have both Sharon and Brawnson’s blessings, then that was enough for them with few questions asked. Now I had always been a hunter, not a planter, and I knew a lot more about killing things than making them grow, but I was willing to put in a hard day’s work and out in the field that was all it took to win a man’s respect.
It didn’t hurt that my body was fitter now than it’d been since I was a boy. Years in the king’s dungeon had done wonders to trim off any of my extra fat, and between Sharon’s ministries and the country cooking of Goldenfield’s generous womenfolk, I was starting to regrow muscles I’d almost forgotten I had. In fact, I wasn’t sure what my age was these days, but for a man somewhere in his forties, I seemed to be in remarkably good shape. A testament to hard living.
Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that peace rarely lasts for long, and as always this proved to be the case.
I looked up from the wood that I was chopping, resting the axe on my shoulder and shielding my eyes from my sweat and the summer sun. Brawnson was approaching, flanked by a couple of the local deputies. All three of them were armed with long knives.
I must have been recognized!
I forced myself to act calm, pretending to wipe my forehead and turning my head to look behind me. There was no one else in that direction that I could see. I turned back towards Brawnson. There was still time to run, but no one had reached towards their weapons.
“What can I do for you, Headman?” I called out jovially. My voice quavered a little, but I hoped they’d take that as the result of my recent physical exertion.
Brawnson stopped, waved me forwards.
“Come with us,” he instructed. My heart skipped a beat, but then he added, “I’ve got something to show you, and it isn’t something that I want to talk about out here.”
My axe thunked into the chopping stump. I motioned towards the morning sun.
“Right now?” I asked, mostly just stalling for more time to think what this could be about. “I’ve still got almost a full day’s work ahead of me.”
Brawnson frowned back at me. Nothing new there.
“I’ve already had a word with Foreman Lowell.”
As village headman, Brawnson could do whatever he damn well pleased and it was a fact he knew that I was well aware of.
There was no more point in stalling; it was time to either trust him or run. I sighed. I did trust him, it would seem. Brawnson was simply not the deceptive type. If he’d wanted to arrest me, he would have just demanded that I surrender and had his men run me down. I was pretty sure of it. Of course, being pretty sure had gotten me arrested once before.
“Alright, let’s go.”
Brawnson nodded and his deputies quickly moved to place me between them.
“What do you make of that?” demanded Goldenfield’s headman.
In truth, I didn’t know what to make of it. As I handed Brawnson back his spyglass, a memory from our first conversation popped into my head.
“This is what you meant by the green men.”
“Aye, and it turns out they’re real after all.”
The men were not clad in green as I had imagined, but their skin itself was a deep, olive green in color. I would have assumed it was simply some dye, such as the southern islanders used to tattoo themselves, but these specimens appeared to be of a different race entirely. They were small and slight with stick-thin arms and almost no visible muscles, like sickly children. Their eyes were wide set, yellowish, and enormous. Both men were completely bald. They wore little in the way of clothing other than a short shift about their middle, but since they appeared to be sexless, I suppose that was all they found necessary. Green for a certainty, but perhaps not men at all.
“They don’t look like much,” muttered Harl, one of Brawnson’s deputies.
Brawnson waved for the man to quiet down but did not take his eye from the spyglass.
“Something’s spooked them,” he said, frowning. “One’s pointing this way. Damn it! Did they catch a glint of light off of my glass?”
The deputies and I froze into uncomfortable postures of anxious tension. The green men were too distant to make out clearly without the spyglass, and surely they would not be able to see us through the leaves of the hanging branches that concealed us. I found it quite hard to believe they could have caught a reflection of light off of the magnifier, as our location was cloaked in shadow.
“One’s drawn some kind of box from a pocket on his shift and they appear to be having a discussion,” continued Brawnson. “They’ve turned towards us.”
He lowered the spyglass. His frown had deepened and he shook his head.
“I don’t like the feel of this. Let’s get out of here.”
The words had barely left his lips when a patch of woods directly to my right erupted spontaneously into flames.
The pain from the heat was stunning, instant and immense, as if I had been dropped into a boiling kettle. One of the deputies, who had been leaning against a tree trunk, was seared badly and fell to the ground, his limbs flailing chaotically with his clothes and his flesh already aflame.
Brawnson shoved me harshly in the back, knocking me out of my stupor.
The deputy on the ground was already dead, his corpse a charred ruin.
I got my feet moving, heading on base instinct in the direction of the coolest air. It afforded me little relief, as there was a soft hum and the area where I had just been standing was now ablaze like a giant woodstove at my back. I could feel my skin cracking and blistering.
“This isn’t natural!” cried Harl from somewhere behind me, his voice tinged with magic.
“Of course not!” Brawnson rebuked him. The headman’s voice was raw from the strain of running, and grim as death, but amazingly no less under control for all of that. I took confidence from this and attempted to pull myself together. “It’s one of the green men’s magical weapons that we’ve heard tell of.”
It was true. I’d seen their flying ships cast beams of fire firsthand, but it had not for some reason occurred to me that the green men would be able to do it without their vessels.
Harl came abreast of me, sprinting for all that he was worth.
“They’re mad!” he screamed, obviously taking little comfort from Brawnson’s rational explanation. “They’ll burn down the entire forest!”
Despite his hysteria, the man had a valid point.
I had to dig deep to find the strength to keep pace with the others. For long moments my mind was blank with terror, and I thought of nothing but the need to place one foot in front of the other. As the minutes stretched on and I found myself still alive, I slowly became more aware of my surroundings.
“Isn’t the village back that way?” I shouted to Brawnson, as me and Harl had unconsciously deferred to his lead as we ran.
“Yes,” breathed the village headman heavily. “Which is exactly why I’m not leading them towards it. They probably missed most of us on purpose to see where we would run.”
That also made good sense.
“Then where are we going?” I persisted.
“Towards Fiddler’s River,” answered Harl for him.
“We’ll rest there,” explained Brawnson. “If they try to attack again, we’ll dive into the water.”
My lungs hurt too much for me to bother with the effort of a reply. I was not convinced that the little tributary would offer much protection. One blast from the green men’s fire throwers would likely leave us lying steamed pink upon the riverbed, but on the other hand it seemed as safe a place as any.
Part Three: Revelation
“What should we do?” asked Sharon.
She was part of the emergency village meeting that was taking place across one of the fallow fields on Brawnson’s farm. I’d expected to meet in his farmhouse, or at least his barn, but the headman had said he wanted to be out in the open where we’d be harder to catch off guard.
He’d paced for an hour along the bank of the Fiddler while I caught my breath. When Harl climbed the tallest tree he could find with the spyglass and reported that he could see no sign of the green men, Brawnson decided it would be best for us to slink back into the village.
He worried that the green men might have passed on towards it instead of pursuing us and feared that we would arrive too late to warn them, but though the sun was setting by the time we crept back into Goldenfield, we found the village undisturbed, though curious as to the reasons for our long absence.
Brawnson had wasted no time in assembling every man, woman, and child so that he could address them before the sky grew dark. Even now as he spoke, his eyes darted from one horizon to the other, as if expecting to see green men come charging into town at any moment.
The crowd had grown quiet, shuffling nervously from foot to foot as they waited, looking to Brawnson to answer Sharon’s question. The headman paused, as if savoring their anxious attention, before replying.
“Well,” he said heavily. “Seeing as we were fired on long before we were within earshot, I think that we can rule out talking things over as an option.”
That was probably the closest thing to humor I’d ever heard out of him, but if his goal had been to break the tension, he failed.
“In my view, that leaves us with two options,” he continued. “We can stay and fight or we can flee.”
This announcement resulted in a great deal of muttering, but no coherent response.
“I’m not certain I agree with that assessment,” I found myself replying. What was I doing getting involved? This wasn’t really my fight.
That brought a wave of surprised oohing from the assembled villagers. Brawnson turned to me with a frown, but since that was his typical expression, I was uncertain of the extent to which he was displeased by my dissent.
“Our enemy has flying machines which I saw with my own eyes when they struck at Castle Keep,” I explained, pointing towards the sky for emphasis. “Regardless of what country they’re from, if they’ve flown over this land, they know exactly where to find Goldenfield.
“Considering what we’ve seen of their weaponry, if we stay here and allow them to strike first, we’re all as good as dead.”
A number of worried farmers called out in agreement from the crowd around me. Sharon fixed me with a piercing glare, her grandmotherly face no longer seeming as kindly.
“So, you would say that we should run away from our homes to live as refugees elsewhere?” she protested. “Those of us who did not love this land as we do already took their leave when the rumors of the massacre started.”
A louder, angrier chorus of backers chimed in to support her. I threw up my hands in defense.
“Actually, I would propose a middle road,” I said. “We do not wish to run, but we cannot stay and fight, so we must compromise. We can run and fight!
“We will abandon the village and live off of the surrounding forest. It will allow us to escape the sight of their flying ships and if we can catch them by surprise then we have a chance, no matter what magic weapons they possess.”
Did I really believe that? The green men’s magic was fearsome. I had no idea if we could pull off a raid against them, even with the advantage of surprise, but they just looked so small and unimposing that they had to be vulnerable if we could wrap our hands around them.
My statement had created a good deal of confusion, but Brawnson had turned to regard me with renewed interest.
“You think we could hide an army of farmers in the King’s Forest?”
“Not all together, of course,” I answered, making plans in my head as I spoke. “We’d have to break into small groups, probably no more than five or six men each.”
“We’d want a meeting place to exchange information and orders, and we’d probably have Sharon tend to the wounded there as well, but we’d never have more than one of the groups staying there at a time. That would keep the enemy from ever catching more than a small portion of us with one attack.”
“An interesting idea,” granted Brawnson. “But what good would five of us be in a fight?”
“Are you serious?” I responded, pointing to one of the smaller boys from the village. “You saw the greenies in your own spyglass. Tobin could easily take one out in a fair fight. If we can somehow elude their weapons and just get close enough to hit them with a stick, I think we could do them some significant harm. They’d think that they were facing an army of giants!”
The residents, who had not yet seen the green men as we had, whispered back and forth asking their neighbors if what I said could possibly be true.
“I see no reason to put this to a vote,” he said bluntly. “I for one intended to fight anyways, and I think it will make sense to adopt some of Mr. Goodman’s ideas. If you’re not of a similar mind, you’d best get moving. We have no idea when the green men will attack, so you’re in danger the longer that you stay here. If you’d rather fight with us, then go and gather your belongings—we’ll be leaving town tonight.
“I’ll be sending my deputies to check in on you and oversee the collection of foodstuffs and the distribution of any weapons that we have available.”
I looked about me at the shocked faces, then turned to leave so that I could gather up those few items that I considered my own.
“Not you, Goodman,” barked Brawnson. “We still have some things to talk about. Sharon, I’d like for you to join us as well.”
The village headman waited until the others were good and out of earshot, then gave his throat a gravelly clearing. He looked at me uncertainly for a moment, long enough that I began to wonder if he was nervous, then finally his lips broke into a crooked smile.
“Aw hell, Goodman!” he muttered, shaking his head ruefully. “Just what in blazes were you serving time rotting in the king’s dungeons for anyways? Leading some sort of rebellion?”
It took a second for his words to set in, and by then I was tingling all over with shock. I looked to Sharon, but as she showed no sign of surprise, she must have been in on this deception from the beginning.
“You both knew the entire time?” I asked. I could feel my face reddening, embarrassed that I had thought myself so clever while the only one I had been fooling was myself.
“Never for sure,” he admitted. “But I take the safety of my village seriously. It was known that some of the king’s prisoners escaped with everyone else from the massacre.”
He paused to spit disdainfully upon the ground.
“I had spent a lot of time speaking with the other refugees, some of whom were still here while you were delirious with fever,” he recounted. “Not a one of them had ever met you or known of anyone who had, but it was mainly your secretive nature that gave you away.”
“None of that matters one whit now,” interrupted Sharon sharply. “I treated you back to health because you seemed a decent young man, and you’ve yet to do anything to change my mind.
“I’m willing to forgive whatever sins lie behind you if you can help see us through the present.”
“Well, amen to that,” added Brawnson.
I swallowed, trying to wet my suddenly dry throat. I shook my head to clear it, and then met both of their eyes in turn.
“I appreciate all that you’ve done for me, not just the two of you, but everyone in Goldenfield,” I told them sincerely. “The faith that you’ve shown in me so far is more than others would have given, and I’m pretty sure that it was more than I deserved.”
“But just so you understand, I’m no great vanquished warrior,” I explained apologetically. “I was a poacher, perhaps a damned good one. There were half a dozen of us, and we called the King’s Forest our own. We were barely more than boys but it took them years to track us down. We’d dine nightly on his majesty’s prize pheasant or boar.”
I smiled at the memory, living a life of daring and always keeping a step ahead of the king’s men.
“By the time that his men finally nabbed us, we’d caused him so much vexation that he decided to stuff us into his deepest, darkest cells and throw away the keys.”
I shook my head.
“I’ve no idea if any of the others are still alive.”
I blinked my eyes, suddenly coming back to the present. Still, it had felt good to finally come clean to my friends.
“So, I know a thing or two about living off the land and avoiding detections,” I told them. “But I’m no great general from the not-so-distant past.”
Sharon was nodding softly.
“That’s okay, son. I think I prefer it that way myself.”
Brawnson was less enthusiastic.
“Well, I guess you’ll have to do,” he snorted. “This damn fool plan of yours is as good as anything I’ve got up my own sleeve.”
Over the next few days a misty rain descended upon the forest, so that it often seemed to me that I was standing within the middle of a cloud. At times the haziness grew so thick that I could not see beyond the tree standing next to me.
“Are you sure they’re out there?” asked Guerin, the tough young farmhand who’d become the unofficial second-in-command of my little crew. The boy was a lot smarter than he looked, I just wished that he’d actually stop to use the brain concealed within that thick meathead of his more often. I figured that the odds were at about fifty-fifty he’d do something stupid the first time that we saw combat and end up getting himself killed.
“They’re there,” I assured him. “I can feel it.”
Which was really all I had to go on, since I could barely see my own hand in front of my face. But I had no doubt in my mind that the two greenies had not snuck away in the mist and remained somewhere along the path ahead of us. Some deep lying hunter’s instinct beyond sight or even hearing assured me of the fact.
“Are they the same ones that attacked you, Harl, and Brawnson?” he asked.
Realizing that my incredulous glare was being lost in the fog, I took the excuse to slap him in the back of his broad head.
“How the hell should I know?” I asked him. “This air’s thicker than your skull and even if it was clear as day, I wouldn’t be able to tell one greenie from another even if I was standing right next to them.”
“Oh yeah,” muttered Guerin, rubbing at the base of his neck in embarrassment.
“Besides, it doesn’t matter if they’re the same ones or different at this point,” I told him. “All that you need to worry about is making sure that you kill them before they kill you.”
The path that the green men were following sloped downwards up ahead, becoming almost a trench with steep, rocky sides. The stones were unevenly spaced and would be slippery in the rain.
Once I’d realized that the green men were headed this way, I’d sent a couple of my crew ahead to create a barrier in their way. The enemy would not be able to move forward unless their weapons could blast through the blockade, and my hope that the side of the ravine would be too difficult for them to climb given their smaller arms and legs.
A horn sounded, coming from somewhere very nearby.
“The signal!” shouted Guerin, immediately leaping into motion. “Charge!”
I cursed at the man for not waiting and following orders, but the other few members of my crew were already responding to his yells and surging past me. It was all that I could do to follow along and shove stragglers into line while calling out some additional instructions.
This wasn’t what I had intended at all. My goal had been to stealthily stroke the greenies while they were distracted and take them completely by surprise. In this mist, it should have been easy. Except that my men were now rushing forwards with all the subtlety of stampeding cattle, with Guerin announcing our coming by shouting at the top of his lungs. I knew that one shot from the greenie’s fire weapons would probably wipe out the lot of us, and with every step forward I waited for it to tear into us, the tension in me building until all of the hairs on my body felt as if they were standing on end.
I heard a loud “whumph!” and a flash of red lit the mists for a brief moment then subsided, but no blast of heat melted my skin from my bones and just as suddenly we were upon them.
As I had hoped, once within our grasp, the tiny green men proved no match for us despite our sorry assortment of weapons. Guerin dispatched one with the first swing of his club, smashing its head against the wall of the ravine, its fire caster falling harmlessly to the ground.
The other lost its nerve and tried to scramble over our makeshift barricade of wood and rock, only to be cut down swiftly by another farmer’s scythe. The overexcited crew continued to trample their bodies, and it was only by a miracle that I managed to keep them from killing each other in the mist when they failed to remember that there had only been two foes to awaiting them.
“Is anyone wounded?” I called out once I had established some semblance of order.
“I don’t know, I’m...” answered Guerin, sounding characteristically uncertain. He loomed towards me out of the fog. “I don’t think so.”
“What do you mean you don’t know, you moronic ox?” I snapped at him, already annoyed at the way he had nearly turned my ambush into a disaster. “Surely even you are smart enough that you have a basic idea when you’ve been injured.”
As he came closer, I could see that portions of his clothes were singed and parts of his skin stained black.
“One of them used its fire magic on me just as I reached it,” he explained. “My skin stings, but I think I’m alright.”
I shook my head in disbelief.
“You’re burned all over,” I told him. “You should be dead. We probably all should be. I’ve seen what their magic can do.”
He blinked at me silently, I couldn’t tell if he was taking me seriously or thought I was being overdramatic to make a point.
“God himself must have a purpose for you,” I told the boy, bending over to examine his burns more closely. “Either their fire magic is weakened by the rain, or some other factor I don’t understand. Perhaps the greenie’s aim was simply off in the mist, and he only grazed you.
“Regardless, we’d better get you to Sharon right away, just in case.”
It turned out that two of my other three men had collided earlier in the fog, and one had managed to get cut fairly badly by the other’s spear, so Guerin wasn’t the only one who needed to pay the midwife turned healer a visit.
Still, we had scored our first victory, and our casualties had been far less than I would have expected. The farmers could only get more disciplined from here, right? I sighed, wondering yet again why I had gotten myself into this.
When their scouts did not return, the green men quickly realized that they were facing some form of resistance and struck back hard. As more green men made their way into the King’s Forest from the direction of the fallen castle, the other groups of farmers managed to trap and kill another pair, but our own losses were even steeper.
In truth, Brawnson’s and Harl’s crew was the only one that I trusted worth a damn. And the greenies managed to wipe out more than one of the other crews in their entirety. That being the case, we had at least managed to leave no greenie who had seen our forces in action alive long enough to tell of it, and the enemy was forced to send in more and more men to close the net, trying to trap us so that they could at least make certain exactly what it was that they were dealing with.
Even if our deaths and defeat were beginning to seem inevitable, I felt a certain pride that we had at least managed to tie up so many of the greenie’s resources. The shadows their flying machines cast as they passed silently over the treetops had become a common sight in the forest. I used every poacher’s trick that I could think of, as well as a few ideas I’d stolen from the Goldenfielders, to avoid detection over the following weeks.
It had reached the point where there were too many of the green men’s troops running around for ambushing them to be easy. The frail little men still tended to travel in pairs for some reason, but they were never very far from another team of two more greenies.
Brawnson had learned in our later attacks that it wasn’t the rain that had spared Guerin from their fire magic, but the speed of his charge. Their weapons needed to fire at you from a certain distance before they were effective. I didn’t really have the smarts to understand Brawnson and Sharon’s theories about why, but the basic point was clear; if we could get in close enough to wrap our arms about the little buggers, they really didn’t have a chance.
The problem was, with so many greenies crawling all over the forest, it had become very difficult to outmaneuver them. In trying to sneak up on one group, we inevitably crossed the paths of another pair in good position to set us on fire.
What made matters worse was that we were slowly being pushed back towards the cave where Sharon was tending the wounded, since we could find no hole in their forces. I was racking my brain for some way to slow their advance, as it was certain that allowing them to trap us in the center of the King’s Wood would be the end of us, when suddenly a memory popped into my head from a time when I was much younger. A time of daring deeds, followed by the narrowest of escapes from the king’s guard.
There was certainly no guarantee of success. Indeed, the whole idea might very well be akin to suicide, but that was the way with every battle against the green men, and wouldn’t standing pat and waiting for the green men to surround us be an even surer road to defeat?
We had realized earlier that the enemy’s ability to detect us even when we were well hidden seemed to be somehow related to the heat of our bodies. Some of the villagers saw this as proof that the green men were followers of some fire god, as all of their magic seemed to derive from flame, but Brawnson talked this down as superstitious nonsense. Whatever the source of their powers, this theory seemed to hold true. Our first victory had occurred on a cool, misty night when the weather must have masked our presence. Brawnson had won his battle by disguising his movements along with deer and other woodland animals and then causing the animals to flee in one direction to confuse the enemy while they ran in the other.
My new plan took advantage of this knowledge, but allowed us to strike on a warm, clear day. There would be no way to post sentries to warn the rest of the crew if things were not going according to plan, as the green men would surely sense them and become aware of our ambush, so it was an all or nothing proposition.
As the pairs of green men were sectioning off the forest in an effort to cut off any retreat and hunt us down, I knew a team would pass along the bank of the Fiddler’s River eventually. We put our plan into action and waited as some greenies followed its curve through the woods. Seeing no sign of danger, they headed towards the now abandoned hulk of Goldenfield, their flying machines having laid it to waste earlier in case we were still using it as a base.
By the time this group reached the bend in the river where we were positioned, their guard must have begun to slip just a little, and they were taken completely by surprise when the very ground at their feet erupted into motion.
We had spent all morning digging out the riverbank and then covering ourselves in the buckets of cool mud that we had made by dunking the clay into the river water. We had buried ourselves so deeply that we were able to breathe only through the thin reeds in our mouths which poked out just above the surface of the ground. A few of the more claustrophobic members of my crew hid beneath the surface of the river itself, springing out behind the green men to surround them.
Our enemies were so stunned by our sudden appearance that for a moment they only gaped at us open mouthed and seemed to forget the weapons lying in their hands. I almost felt sorry for the little buggers, though I didn’t let pity move me. To them we must have seemed like giants born from the earth itself, elementals cast up by the very land on which they stood to defeat them.
Their shock was more than a little fortunate for the members of my crew, as we were almost as surprised as they were. Rather than the typical team of two greenies garbed in nominal clothing, we sprang from the ground to find ourselves facing a force the same size as our own. In addition, rather than being nearly naked, these greenies were wrapped in elaborate robes that covered every inch of their flesh and they carried sleek black knives as well as fire casters.
The one in their center was dressed as the other, but his robes were black in color instead of white and were decorated with some form of elaborate stitching. He screeched something, and though it was impossible for me to tell whether it was a word of their foreign tongue or simply a cry of bestial fury, the other green men immediately shook off their horror and attacked.
My axe connected with the midsection of the greenie that stood before me with enough force to slice the little man in two but its blade rebounded off his cloak without even wrinkling the material. I was only saved from the return slash of his knife by the fact that the pure vehemence of my blow had knocked him back a few steps.
The greenie lunged towards me quickly, leaving me no time to ponder this new impossibility. Reacting on instinct alone, I dropped my axe and pivoted to my right to avoid him. As he stabbed the air before me, I grabbed hold of him and hauled him off of his feet. He seemed practically weightless, even lighter than I expected. With one hand I tore the black knife from his grasp, and with the other tossed him bodily into the river.
“Don’t try to cut through their armor!” I called out to my crew. “Just use your strength against them!”
I could hear men crying out in pain, as my advice reached them too late, but the black robed adversary charged towards me, so I had no time to take measure of who was winning the conflict.
He was much faster than the first green man I fought, but I was quick myself, and managed to parry his thrust. I backed up quickly, trying to use my greater reach against him. When I thought it safe, I slashed unexpectedly at his left arm. The brisk slice was not even deep enough to cut him, but it exposed a thin line of green skin, proving an important point- the greenie’s knives were capable of cutting through their own armor.
He came at me again, but it was no contest. I used my greater size and strength to bat away his blade and split him open from hip to shoulder. He fell backwards into the mud and moved no more.
Only Guerin and another farmer named Walter were still on their feet, facing off against a trio of the green men. I quickly crossed the field and stabbed one of our opponents in the back, turning numbers in our favor. When the next turned to face me, Guerin took hold of it with both hands, and neatly snapped its spine with a savage twist of his arms.
Walt’s opponent drove the point of its knife through the farmer’s shoulder and out the other side, as easily as if he was made out of paper, but I hacked the creature’s head from its shoulders before it had had time to withdraw the blade.
Walter crumpled to the ground as well, but when I checked I found that he had merely fainted from the pain.
“Quickly!” I shouted to Guerin, indicating the blood flowing freely from Walt’s shoulder. “Bandage this wound. I’m going to check to see if anyone else is still alive.”
I found them all dead, except for a younger boy named Fenster who was unconscious and badly wounded. We gathered up the green men’s weapons and strange clothing and rolled the corpses into the divots that we had made when emerging from the ground and scooped mud back on top of them, burying friends and foes alike. I had no word to offer.
“We’d better make haste back to Sharon,” I said. “Someone will come to check this route when these folks don’t report back.”
A splash of water woke Walter to the point where he could stumble along under his own power as long as I gave him a shoulder to lean on. We made a crude sledge from some nearby branches for Fenster. The greenie’s knives cut through the trees almost as easily as the empty air, but the child drew his last breath before we were halfway to the cavern.
“Hmm,” grumbled Brawnson, frowning and chewing on a knuckle. “If the greenies are adapting to our tactics and starting to use larger groups armed with better weapons, I think our game is up. It won’t be long before they’re done with us.”
I handed him the black cloak from the green man that I had killed in the ambush by the river.
“This one was clearly some kind of officer, and the others may have been his bodyguards. The size of their force may not signal a general trend.”
Brawnson examined the fabric and grunted noncommittally. I knew from my own inspection that the material had a strange texture but otherwise seemed unextraordinary, until you tried to tear it or cut it apart. After a moment, he handed the dark garment to Sharon.
“Either way,” said the headman. “Your successful attack will back them off slightly, but if another officer follows the last, I’m not certain how much longer we can keep up this fight.”
“They’ll have shifted troops to investigate the area where the fight occurred,” I suggested. “There will be a gap now that we can exploit. If we move fast we can get behind them again so that they won’t be able to hem us in.”
“We’d have to abandon this cave,” muttered Brawnson, but he nodded.
“It will be difficult to move many of the wounded,” pointed out Sharon. “They will die if we leave them alone, but they would slow us heavily if we tried to move them, and I’m not even advising that we try.”
Brawnson and I were silent, sharing a look. We both knew what choice we’d make if it was necessary to keep the others alive.
“It seems like the next logical move,” said the headman.
“Well, then I won’t be coming with you,” said Sharon, her arms folded over her chest. “I’m staying with those too sick to move.”
“It’ll be your own funeral, woman,” began Brawnson, but he was interrupted when Guerin burst into the cave.
“Guerin, what are you doing here?” I demanded. “You’re supposed to be helping Harl with the rest of Brawnson’s crew until we’re done with this meeting.”
“They sent me as a runner, sir!” he answered, sputtering with excitement. “You needed to be informed of the news immediately.”
“What news, boy?” rumbled Brawnson. “Spit it out then!”
Guerin could not fight the smile that broke across his lips.
“The green men are retreating, sir! Their troops are pulling out of the forest!”
“Are you certain?” growled Brawnson, seeming unconvinced.
Guerin nodded enthusiastically.
“Morris and Liana’s crews confirm it, everyone agrees they’re pulling back.”
“This doesn’t make any sense,” I said, matching Brawnson’s frown. “They practically had us where they wanted us.”
Sharon sighed loudly.
“Are the two of you simply incapable of taking good news at face value?” she asked, shaking her head. “Maybe your victory convinced them that taking the King’s Forest wouldn’t be worth the effort. I find it hard to believe that it would be the first time in the history of warfare that a side capable of winning decided to stop the fight.”
Brawnson looked at me and rolled his eyes, it was obvious what he thought of that idea.
“We’d better get out there personally to figure out what’s really going on.”
My initial fear had been that the green men had pulled back their men so that their flying machines could raze the King’s Wood into ashes. I had my crew stick close to the Fiddler’s River as we tracked the greenies to make sure they were really headed out of the forest.
When the enemy left, and did not return, it seemed that Sharon’s optimism had not been misplaced. Brawnson and I had a hard time coming to terms with the end of the conflict. We had our crews patrol the edge of the forest non-stop, unsure how to spend our days now that we were not actively fighting for our lives. It had been many days since we had been able to range across the entire extent of the King’s Wood, and it left me feeling much less cramped and crowded by the other Goldenfielders.
It took several days for more news to reach us, but then there were lively debates raging between Brawnson and Sharon over whether it was safe for the survivors to return to their farmland and try to rebuild.
It was a messenger from Boldford to the southwest who found us first. Brawnson’s crew was so excited by the prospect of an intruder that the courier was lucky not to end up impaled. Once he had survived that initial encounter and been treated to a warmer form of our hospitality, he quickly confirmed that the green men had retreated—not only from the King’s Wood but from all of Majeria.
Prince Robbard had fortunately been absent from the capital at the time of the initial attack, and his men had seen the last of the green men get into their flying craft and take off last week, though the prince himself had been involved in little of the fighting. It was small towns like ours who had stood up and refused to give in to the invasion.
Who the green men were and why they had attacked remained a mystery, but whatever they had come for, they had found our spirit stronger than they expected and had decided that they did not have the stomach to break us. The prince considered himself forever in the debt of the people.
“It’d be interesting if he managed to remember that for a while,” Brawnson had commented dryly at that point.
Those of us who survived headed back to Goldenfield to clear away the burnt earth and begin scratching life into the soil again. I was one of them now, and I knew I always would be. This war had cost us some terrible losses, but at least I had gained a home.
Knives and clubs were traded once more for plows and hoes, and Goldenfield slowly turned golden once more, but we never forgot and we never stopped watching the skies.