There are only two ways to escape from the Redwood Valley with a stolen artifact. One can either board a boat and leave by sea, or one can take the Klindrel Road and cross the mountains. The rest of Higomu's secret society was watching the harbor, but Higomu was the only one watching the road.
He hoped the thief had chosen the road.
Higomu's story was simple. He was a linen merchant carrying samples to the Klindrel. Being alone--and fearing banditry--he was waiting at the Farbridge Inn for a caravan to form.
The story gave him an excuse to speak with any traveler passing through town. And it gave him an excuse to sit around playing thirty-five with the innkeepers and their daughter. Higomu made certain to sit where he could watch the bridge.
For three days, the town saw only local traffic. The only other traveler at the inn was a giant waiting for someone to hire him as a caravan guard. On the fourth day, Higomu began to worry.
"You seem pensive this evening," observed Mimi, the innkeepers' daughter.
"I have been waiting longer than I expected," Higomu said. He felt certain he had reached Farbridge ahead of the thief, but four days ahead? Higomu suspected the thief had chosen to leave by sea. But in that case, the message giving him this assignment should have been closely followed by a message that the thief had been caught.
"I, too, have been waiting longer than expected," said Mimi.
"What? Oh. Yes." It was Higomu's turn to play.
He took a tile from his hand and placed it face down atop the stack in the center of the table.
"Twenty-nine," he declared.
"Twenty-nine," Mimi echoed, with a great deal of skepticism. "Higomu, do you realize this is the third time you have claimed to play tile twenty-nine?"
"In truth?" he asked.
It was so, but she hadn't called his bluff earlier, so she could not know if he had played the tile then or if he had kept it to play now.
"In truth," she said.
She studied his face, but it would do her no good. The psychology of the game was not her strength. She was sharp at logic, however, and Higomu could see her chasing down the possibilities:
If she accepted his twenty-nine, she would have to play her thirty-four. Then he would play his thirty-five and she would lose. So her only hope of winning was to call his bluff this time. But he knew that, of course. Which meant--
A wagon was approaching the Farbridge.
"Excuse me," he said.
Mimi glanced out the window. "Of course," she said.
As he rose to leave, she said, "I'm calling your twenty-nine."
Higomu nodded in acknowledgment. He had won the game with his first bluff. It was too late for her to affect the outcome now. Higomu left the inn.
The merchant at the bridge had four Klindrel guards--black-bearded giants twice as tall as Higomu. The wagon was Klindrel-sized, drawn by oxen instead of the manageable draft sheep that were favored in the Redwood Valley. The merchant himself seemed small by comparison, though he and Higomu were nearly the same size.
"Good day," said Higomu, interrupting the merchant's conversation with the tolltaker. "May the wisdom of the Goddess be upon you."
The merchant gave him one nervous glance, then pretended to ignore him. The giants placed their hands on the hilts of their swords.
Higomu smiled, reached into his leather satchel, and withdrew a handkerchief. See? He was just a little merchant carrying samples of linen. His satchel held no weapons.
In truth, his blade was snug against his belly, concealed by the excess cloth of his chiton blousing over his belt. But Higomu doubted these people would give him cause to draw his deathblade.
Although the giants' faces remained suspicious, their shoulders relaxed.
"I was wondering," Higomu called, "if I might prevail upon you--"
The merchant urged his oxen forward, and the wheels started rolling. The giants kept pace. Taking their cue from their employer, three of the giants ignored Higomu, but one continued to glance back suspiciously as the wagon rumbled across the bridge that spanned the Redwood River.
Higomu allowed his shoulders to slump. For the benefit of any townspeople who might be watching, he let his disappointed gaze linger a moment on the departing wagon. Then he approached the tolltaker.
"It seems he has no time to speak with me," Higomu observed.
The tolltaker cast a suspicious glance at the wagon. "Trust me, you do not wish to travel with him."
"But he seems well guarded."
"His motives are well guarded, too," said the tolltaker. "In a hurry to cross the bridge? With evening coming on? Either he deeply enjoys setting up camp in the dark, or he has something on that wagon that he fears to have sitting in town overnight."
"Ah," said Higomu. "Now I see what you mean."
He watched the wagon finish crossing. It turned upstream to follow the Klindrel Road.
"Thank you for your concern," Higomu said. He offered the man the handkerchief. "Please enjoy this sample of Long Creek linen."
* * *
Mimi had conceded the game and set up the tiles for a rematch, but the giant who was waiting to become a caravan guard had returned from his afternoon walk. He kept Mimi busy fetching him food and drink. Higomu played one game against her mother and one against her father. Then he excused himself and went to his room early.
Once the town was asleep, he climbed out the window and crossed the Farbridge.
Fog clung to the river, but Higomu had no trouble finding the merchant's campsite. The smell of the campfire remained long after the flames had been doused.
Higomu wondered how many guards would be assigned to each watch. It was wisest to expect all four.
He had left his sandals in his room, so his barefoot approach was silent. His chiton was whiter than he would have liked, but it still blended into the fog. His biggest concern was that he might bump into a giant while searching for the wagon.
Higomu was startled by a noisy huff.
City boy, he chided himself. You forgot about the oxen.
As he drew nearer, he could hear the beasts grunting and chewing noisily. They were loud enough to cover any noise he might make.
But where to find the wagon?
The merchant is nervous. He does not wish to encounter anyone. The wagon must be taken off the road, even though it's dark. The wagon is hidden. Then the oxen are unhitched. The oxen are probably led forward and picketed some distance away.
If that were all true, Higomu deduced, then the wagon would be hidden behind the screen of osiers he had just passed. If so, then the guards would be there, too. And perhaps even the merchant himself.
Higomu crept into the forest and made his way back toward the osiers ... very slowly.
After a time, he heard a soft snuffling--the troubled sleep of a dishonest merchant.
Higomu had hoped to search the wagon, find the Shatterstone Horn, and escape back to civilization before anyone knew the artifact was missing. But now he knew where the merchant must be sleeping. He knew where the artifact must be hidden. And he realized that he either had to kill five people in the dark or creep underneath the wagon and wait for dawn.
* * *
It was devotion to the Goddess of Knowledge that had led Higomu to his career of ensuring dangerous artifacts did not fall into the wrong hands. Now, waiting for dawn while lying in damp moss as dew accumulated on his thin linen chiton, Higomu considered that he might have instead shown his devotion by becoming a theologian.
Gradually, light crept into the forest and illuminated the boots of the giants standing guard at each corner of the wagon. These Klindrel were disciplined men. They had not spoken a word all night, and only occasionally had they shuffled their feet.
Finally, the sleeping merchant awoke and conferred with the leader of the guards. Their voices were quiet, respecting the stillness of the morning, but not tense. Plainly, the merchant was relieved to have survived the night undiscovered.
The merchant went to do what all men must do upon waking. Two of the guards were sent to fetch the oxen. Higomu recognized this as his best chance.
Though the wagon was giant-sized, its seat was easily accessible by a ladder built for Higomu-sized people. He climbed up.
The seat was warm, for that was where the merchant had slept. As Higomu had suspected, the seat was hinged--it was the lid of a storage box. Higomu raised the lid, reached inside, and withdrew a cedarwood case with silver-painted carvings. The symbols for motion and earth were featured in the design.
The two remaining guards had not yet noticed Higomu. He had the Shatterstone Horn's container, but did he have the horn? Higomu released the hasp and opened the beautiful cedarwood case.
It was empty.
"Hey!" shouted the merchant. "Stop him!"
The two guards looked to Higomu in surprise.
Higomu dropped the case, leapt from the wagon, and charged at the merchant.
The man's eyes widened in alarm and he tried to step away.
The merchant was no fighter. Higomu caught him in the middle and drove him to the ground. Before the merchant could recover his wits, Higomu had his deathblade against the man's throat.
"Where is it?" Higomu asked. "Where's the Shatterstone Horn?"
"It's not in the case?" the man asked.
"The case is empty," Higomu said.
"Then I don't have it."
Higomu searched for truth in the man's frightened eyes.
"I was hired to transport the case," the man said.
"An empty case?"
"That's none of my business," said the merchant.
The merchant was a better bluffer than Mimi. Higomu would get no more information under these circumstances.
By this time, the other two guards had returned and all four had drawn their swords. However, with his blade against the merchant's throat, Higomu still held the advantage.
"Tell your men to back off," Higomu said.
The merchant gave the order in the Klindrel tongue. The guards' leader gave a reply that sounded very much like the Klindrel word for "kill".
The giants charged. So much for that advantage.
Higomu sheathed his blade and stepped away from the frightened merchant. The four giants had good angles of attack. They would not get in each other's way. Their strengths were teamwork, training, and discipline. That meant their weakness was the unexpected.
Higomu leapt sideways to a tree, wedged his toes in a fissure in the bark, and launched himself upward to an overhanging branch. He swung his body toward the nearest giant, released the branch, tucked into a reverse somersault, and snap-kicked the giant in the jaw.
The giant went down.
Higomu landed in a mass of dewy bracken and sprinted away through the forest.
It took the Klindrel a moment to react, which gave Higomu a good head start. He could probably win a race back to town, but it would be easier if he could convince them to give up the chase.
Higomu reached inside his chiton, untied a slipknot, and withdrew his climbing cord. Behind him, the giants thrashed through the undergrowth, but he was far enough ahead to be out of their sight.
He lashed one end of the cord to a young fir, then ran around a tree on the opposite side of the trail and dived into a clump of ferns. The lead giant came pounding along the same path. As the giant drew near, Higomu yanked the cord taut.
The giant tripped on the cord and fell flat. His sword bounced loose from his outstretched hand.
Higomu seized the sword, bounded onto the giant's back, and drove the sword straight down through the loose cloth of the giant's tunic, burying the blade to the hilt in the mossy forest floor.
The giant tried to rise and discovered his clothing was pinned to the earth. As he roared in frustration, Higomu sprinted away.
When Higomu neared the road, he slowed to reassess the situation. He heard their angry voices, but they were no longer in pursuit.
Good. Higomu's people sometimes disparaged the intelligence of the Klindrel, but these men had proven themselves wise enough to take the hint. They would not force him to kill them. Higomu thanked the Goddess of Knowledge for her mercy.
* * *
By the time he reached the Farbridge, Higomu had reasoned out why the blade-to-employer's-throat trick had failed:
The merchant was not the employer. He had not hired the Klindrel guards. They had hired him.
The merchant had been truthful when he'd said the contents of the box were none of his business. He was not the thief. Nor was he the courier. The merchant was a decoy, and Higomu had just exposed himself.
If the Klindrel had employed the merchant that implied that this was a Klindrel plot. Perhaps the Klindrel had not performed the theft, but they must be the ones who hoped to benefit.
The hypothesis had logic. The giants were constantly at war with each other. The Shatterstone Horn could be a formidable weapon. It was logical they should wish to possess it. Once they had time to examine it, perhaps they would even discover how to make more. That was the outcome that Higomu was sworn to prevent, whatever the cost.
And so he had left the inn at night to chase a decoy. The subtlety of the plan surprised him. Higomu appreciated how difficult it was to manage a clandestine operation in another people's territory. He, at least, could visit the Klindrel as a linen merchant. But the Klindrel had so few merchants of their own that any giant playing that role would be the object of scrutiny. The only Klindrel who could move about the Redwood Valley unremarked were the caravan guards.
Such as the inn's other lodger.
Higomu finished crossing the bridge with his gaze fixed on the inn. Mimi emerged from the stable leading the giant's horse. No caravan was forming, but it seemed the giant was now ready to ride.
Higomu approached the toll booth.
"I ... bid you good morning," said the tolltaker, not sure what to say to a man who was returning to town without having officially left.
"Likewise," Higomu said, paying the toll both ways.
The giant appeared in the doorway of the inn, carrying a bundle about the size of the cedarwood case. Higomu understood, now.
The giant had gone to meet the wagon while Higomu and Mimi were playing thirty-five. His compatriots had given him the artifact and then proceeded to the bridge that Higomu had watched so carefully. They had drawn Higomu away, and now it was time for the giant to make his escape.
On horseback, he would be uncatchable. Higomu's people were trying to breed sheep-sized horses so that they could ride as giants did, but Higomu did not know how to ride a horse of any size. Or rather--he was certain he could ride one, but he had no idea how he would convince it to go where he wanted. This was his people's last chance to keep the Shatterstone Horn in the Redwood Valley.
"Whatever happens," he told the tolltaker, "don't let the giant cross."
"He paid before breakfast," the tolltaker said, and Higomu knew there was no sense talking to him.
Mimi spotted Higomu now. She waved and called, "Out for an early walk this morning?"
The woman was oblivious.
But the giant was not. He untied his bundle and dropped the canvas in the street, revealing the Shatterstone Horn.
The artifact was a brass cylinder with a curious twist in the middle. The giant cradled it in his arm so that one wide mouth of the cylinder opened up toward his chin and the other end pointed forward--toward Higomu.
Without dramatic preamble or explanation, the giant strode to his horse and drew from his saddlebag a round, stone ball as big as Higomu's head. He dropped the massive thing into the top opening of the horn.
The stone clanked into the bend of the cylinder. The artifact emitted the dull crack of splitting stone. Then a dozen sharp projectiles were flying toward Higomu, screaming as they hurtled through the air.
But Higomu had been well briefed on the Shatterstone Horn. He was already diving for cover behind the toll booth.
Stone struck oak and splinters flew. Granite fragments spiraled through the air and splashed into the river beyond.
The tolltaker gave a small sigh and collapsed onto the cobbles, bleeding from a stump of an arm. The rest of the shredded limb lay on the ground behind him.
Higomu noted the holes in the tollbooth, right above his head. The tollbooth's boards would screen him from view, but they were not stout enough to protect him from the weapon. He dashed for the corner of the nearest house.
A second stone clanked into the tube. The stone shattered. Fragments whistled through the air, but Higomu was behind the building when they struck. They embedded themselves in the daub-and-wattle wall.
"Little man," the giant called. "Show yourself, little man."
His accent was strong, but the words were clear enough. Even so, Higomu chose not to comply.
"Show yourself and step aside," the Klindrel said. "Step aside and I will not harm you."
Higomu looked back at the perforated toll booth and the spurting wound of the tolltaker. Under the circumstances, he was not inclined to believe this giant.
"Little man," the giant called, "show yourself or I will shred the girl."
Mimi. She must still be standing with the horse.
"Come here," the giant said. He was not speaking to Higomu now. "Walk in front of me."
Higomu peeked around the corner. The giant was arranging his reins so that he could hold them and the artifact in the same hand, while controlling his third stone in his other hand.
His third stone? Higomu suspected it was his last. That was why he was negotiating. He had one body-shredding shot left, and he wished to use that threat wisely.
"I see you," the giant told him. "But my aim does not leave her back."
To Mimi, the giant added, "Keep walking. We cross the bridge now."
With a sigh, Higomu stood up and leaned against the corner of the building. "Very well," he said. "You win."
The pair approached the bridge. Mimi averted her gaze as she stepped around the tolltaker's orphaned limb. The horse snorted.
The giant remained calm. As promised, he kept the artifact aimed at the innkeepers' daughter.
The Klindrel moved with a warrior's grace, but the weapon was unfamiliar to him and the situation was too awkward--reins and weapon in the same hand, stone ball at the ready in the other, eyes on the woman in front while trying to remain aware of a man he wanted to leave behind. Higomu waited until the instant of greatest weakness. Then he charged.
To the giant's credit, there was no hesitation. The stone ball clanked into position even as the giant pivoted fluidly to aim the weapon at Higomu's midsection. But Higomu had heard the weapon used twice, and now he knew the timing between the clank, the crack, and the expulsion of rock.
Higomu dived to the cobbles, and the screaming stone fragments struck only the hem of his chiton.
He rolled to his feet.
The giant dropped the artifact and drew his sword. His horse skittered nervously onto the bridge.
The giant offered no moment of awkward indecision. He was wholly committed to killing Higomu, offering no advantage.
Higomu did have an asset, however. He reached inside his clothing and withdrew a handkerchief. Although the giant noted the gesture, he could not see the object, for Higomu kept it concealed within his hand.
The giant lunged. Higomu jumped back. The giant advanced. Higomu retreated.
With footwork and thrusts, the giant drove Higomu toward the pockmarked wall of the building that had sheltered him. Higomu allowed himself to be driven.
He held no weapon. He had no means of counterattack. He wished to appear completely at the giant's mercy.
When he was a half-step away from the wall, Higomu leapt backward, pushed off the wall, and flung his handkerchief at the Klindrel's face.
The giant had anticipated one last desperate trick. He raised his guard and turned his head. Distracted by the fluttering white handkerchief, he straightened his front knee just a little too much.
Higomu came down hard on the giant's knee with a thrust-kick that popped ligaments.
The giant collapsed in agony.
In an instant, Higomu was on the giant's back, twisting his arm, compelling submission.
"Mimi," Higomu called, "bring the horse."
The young woman had shown enough presence of mind to seize the horse's reins when the giant dropped them, yet she was so dazed that it took her a moment before she realized she had been addressed.
"Good," said Higomu, when Mimi had brought the horse to his side.
He extracted a knife from its sheath on the giant's belt and slid it across the cobbles toward Mimi. "Now cut off a rein and use it to bind his hands."
By the time Mimi had sliced through the thick leather, they had been joined by other citizens, all quite willing to hold the crippled giant down, bind his limbs, and glower menacingly to dissuade him from thinking he could escape. This Klindrel would have a lot to answer for.
Higomu left the giant in their hands. He walked across the cobbles and picked up the Shatterstone Horn. A short distance away, the tolltaker's wife was securing a tourniquet on the unconscious man's arm. A healer was hastening to the scene.
Tomorrow, when Higomu's nerves weren't jangling, he would evaluate the incident and consider what he should have done to keep the tolltaker from being maimed. But right now, he needed to pack up the artifact and get out of town. He was a covert operative for the Order of the Lock. It was not his job to answer questions.
He went into his room at the inn, put on his sandals, and wrapped the Shatterstone Horn so that it looked like a bundle of linen. He was working on a way to carry the bundle on his back when Mimi stepped into his room.
"Thank you for saving my life, Higomu."
I did nothing of the sort, and when you calm down enough, you'll realize that I nearly got you killed.
"You're welcome," he said.
"That was a brilliant bluff," she said. "I thought you were going to let him take me across the bridge."
This whole week has been a bluff. "Well, I couldn't let that happen."
"But one question: How did you know he was bluffing? How did you know he would not kill me as he promised?"
I needed the artifact. If he had wasted his last stone on you, that would have just made my job easier. When the logic is cold, I must be cold. But you don't understand, and for that, I thank the Goddess.
"Well, Mimi," he said, meeting her eyes for the last time, "you won't know the answer until you learn to read faces."
©September 2016 Jason A. Holt
Jason A. Holt is a game writer and author of fantasy adventure novels. Higomu is also featured in his novel The Artificer of Dupho.