Sid wrote the directions on a large, triangular shard of broken pottery. With the old man wrapped in fragrant herbs now in the wheelbarrow, and some more herbs stuffed in his mouth for good measure, Hugh and his friends left Sid’s home.
“What do the directions say?” asked the giant.
Hugh looked down at the crudely drawn map with symbols that Sid had explained. “We head toward the mountain, until we reach the foot of it, then we basically walk around it, then the beach is just a day’s walk from there, away from the mountain.”
The road took them most of the way, and they turned off only about a mile from the mountain’s base. Once there, they encountered thick patches of trees. It began to get very dark due to heavy clouds, and the trio considered whether to continue on or stop. Their decision was easy once the blinding snow arrived.
They curled up under the boughs of an evergreen. Even wrapped in their cloaks, they experienced a cold they were unfamiliar with. It was so cold, it was the first time they had all sat together unspeaking. They just shivered silently, watching each breath exit their body.
The giant spotted an icicle hanging near her. She snapped it off and brought it to her mouth.
“I wouldn’t do that,” said a voice above them.
The three of them all looked up to see movement overhead. Slowly and methodically, a crow hopped from branch to branch down to them.
“They call this the Foul Taiga for a reason, you know,” said the crow.
“We didn’t know it was called that,” said the dwarf.
“What’s wrong with the ice?” asked the giant.
“Taste it and find out,” said the crow.
“I’m not going to taste it if it’s going to kill me,” said the giant.
“Just a taste won’t kill you,” said the crow.
The giant touched her tongue to the icicle and immediately pulled back, grimacing.
“Blah! It tastes like… a burned omelet made from rotten eggs.”
The crow chirped a few times, shaking its head. “There’s sulfur in it. If there was more light, you’d see it’s yellow.”
“Ha, you ate yellow snow!” said the dwarf.
The giant threw the icicle at her brother.
The crow dropped down to the floor to walk among them. “My name is Mem, may I ask what your names are?”
“My name is Hugh, and these are my friends, the world’s shortest giant and the world’s tallest dwarf.”
“And what are their names?” asked the crow.
“We don’t have names,” said the dwarf.
“So… wait, aren’t you guys the same height?” asked the crow.
“Well, she’s the giant because…” began the dwarf.
“I had my growth spurt first, so I was taller than him,” the giant said, beaming.
“I see… so your parents didn’t name you?”
“We don’t have parents,” said the giant.
“Everyone has parents,” the crow replied.
“Hugh is better than a mother or a father,” said the dwarf. “All our parents did was give us life and then leave us for dead. Hugh took us in when we were helpless, but our supposed parents left us adrift in a sealed jar.”
The crow cocked its head. “Your parents put you in a jar?”
“That’s how I found them,” said Hugh. “I was fishing on the shore of my island when I heard muffled cries. When I found the source, it was a large jar, sealed with wax, with two newborn babies inside. I’m surprised they were able to breathe.”
“Curious,” said the crow as it strutted around the ground toward the wheelbarrow. “And this… who was this?”
“That is the body of an old man who came to our island and died,” said Hugh.
“I see…” said the crow. “You haven’t the faintest idea who it is?”
“He never told us his name,” said Hugh. “He went on and on about an Eagle, though.”
“He would,” said the crow. “I don’t mean to alarm you, but I have been following you for some time, since you left your island, in fact.”
“Why would that alarm us?” asked the giant.
“I don’t imagine most people like being spied on,” said the crow. “But truth be told, I wasn’t so much spying on you as I was spying on the Cruel King.”
“Who?” asked the dwarf.
“That is the body of the Cruel King, or as he became known later in his life, the Crazy King, though such a thing was only whispered out of his earshot.” The crow turned to face them. “You don’t know of this King?” asked the crow.
“Nope, never heard of him,” said the dwarf.
“We don’t really get off our island,” said the giant. “There isn’t much need, usually.”
The crow hopped up on the edge of the wheelbarrow. “May I ask why you didn’t bury or burn his body near your home?”
“Is that what he would have wanted?” asked Hugh.
“I can’t say what he would have wanted,” replied the crow. “It’s hard to guess what he was thinking near the end. I’m not sure anyone knows his dying wishes, save perhaps you. Did he tell you?”
“No,” said the giant. “We figured, though, that since he was going to a mansion under the sea that we should bring his body to the shore and let it sink beneath the waves.”
The crow looked over at the giant. “Is that what you’re doing? Taking him to the shore for a sea burial?”
“Yeah,” said the giant. “That was the plan.”
“And he suggested this?” asked the crow.
“Not really,” said the dwarf. “We got the idea, from what he said about the Eagle and the mansion and stuff.”
“This was a very dangerous man,” said the crow. “He caused immense suffering among his people.”
“He had sort of mentioned something about that to me,” said Hugh.
“And you let him stay on your island?” asked the crow.
“He was a blind old man,” said Hugh. “What could he do?”
The crow nodded. “True enough. By the time you met him, he may as well have been harmless. How could you know?”
“Well, tell us, then,” said the dwarf.
“Alright,” said the crow.
Like all people, the Cruel King had been born as an adorable little baby, the son of the king’s brother. His childhood was unremarkable, though as he grew up, he did not turn his attention to girls, but to torture. By the time he was a teenager, he had gone from pulling the legs off of spiders to mutilating peasants with the help of the royal retinue. Through his ruthlessness, he killed his uncle, got rid of the rightful heirs, and claimed the crown as his own.
His reign was matched in atrociousness only by its longevity. He sat on the throne for over seventy years, during which time he bled the kingdom dry of its riches so that he could build monuments to himself. He went through over thirty wives, killing all of them before they could bear him a child. He was a horrible person, by all accounts.
Faced with the inevitability of death in his old age, he reached out desperately to the priests for comfort, and they gladly gave it to him. He told them of old myth he had heard, about an Eagle at the edge of the world who kept palaces under the ocean for those who praised him. More than simply giving him comfort, and encouraged by the priests who sought to keep him occupied, these stories gave the Cruel King a new purpose.
He systematically went through his kingdom with his army and forced one and all to praise the Eagle. Those who would not adopt this new view had their eyes gouged out, for as he said, “They were already blind, I am only making it apparent for all others to see.” He did this for years, converting many, and blinding many more.
Strangely, one night the Cruel King woke up a member of his personal guard from a deep sleep and demanded that he blind the king. The guard thought it was some sort of test, and refused. The king woke another, and another, and all refused the royal request. Finally, with his entire guard watching on in the firelight, the king blinded himself, goring out his own eyes with a spoon.
From that day forward, very little of what the king said made sense. It got so bad that the priests eventually hid him away from everyone, finally claiming that the Great Eagle had carried him off to rule from the tip of the Great Eagle’s beak at the edge of the world forever.
“We birds were suspicious of this,” said the crow, “Because there is no Great Eagle. So, we set out to find what really happened. It appears that the priests set the king adrift on a boat, which is how he ended up on your island.”
“How do you know there’s no Eagle?” asked the giant.
“We made it up,” said the crow. “We just wanted the king to stop hurting so many of us. The king used to put out poisoned birdseed so that he could watch us eat on the royal grounds and then fly away, only to drop dead from the sky. So, the birds got together and came up with this idea where we convince the king he shouldn’t do that. Hence, the Great Eagle was born, and he stopped killing birds for pleasure.”
They all sat in silence for a bit.
“I realize this may make your journey a fool’s errand,” said the crow. “But in a way, it still serves a purpose.”
“How do you figure?” asked the dwarf.
“Well, it wouldn’t be good for the kingdom if it was discovered that the priests had essentially run the king out of town. Things are going well there in his absence, and it’s been more peaceful since his departure than it has been since he took the throne,” said the crow. “If word got out that the priests had done away with the king unfairly, it might undo all that they worked for up to this point. It would be best for all involved if his body was never found.”
“So, you want us to get rid of the body?” asked Hugh.
“I think sinking it in the ocean would be fine,” said the crow. “Though it wouldn’t be any better than burying or burning him right here in the morning. As long as no one finds him, you will be doing the kingdom a great service.”
“I still think we should take him to the sea,” said the dwarf.
“I’ve always wanted to see the ocean,” said the giant.
“Very well,” said the crow. “When morning comes, I’ll help guide you to the shore.”
The next morning, as the snow was melting, an acrid smell hung in the air. They continued on, with Mem on Hugh’s shoulder, guiding them, no longer following Sid’s directions (which Mem said were too long). As night began to fall, they saw the beach ahead.
“I’ll fly back and inform the others,” said the crow. “I’ll meet you back here tomorrow.” He flew off.
They approached the lake, took the old man’s body from the wheelbarrow, and with the dwarf holding the shoulders and the giant holding the legs, heaved him into the water. The old man’s body did not sink, but instead bobbed on the surface.
“Wait! Stop!” a voice screamed in the distance.
From the top of a nearby hill, a man came running at them. It was almost comical, as he ran at full speed from such a great distance, everyone silently staring at his gradual approach. As he neared, heaving for breath, he bent over and put his hands on his knees for a bit before pushing through them and wading into the water. He dragged the body out and up onto the shore.
The man stood with his hands clasped on top of his head, struggling to take in air. “We have to go. Come on, it’s not safe here.”
They loaded up the old man’s soaking wet body into the wheelbarrow and followed the man back up the hill, in the direction of a tower, what looked like an old lighthouse. The man kept looking back behind them nervously. Once inside, he closed the door and laid two heavy planks into metal fittings on either side of it to bar it shut.
“Do you have any clue what I just did for you?” asked the man.
Hugh began, “We were led here by a crow–”
“A crow?” asked the man. “You just followed a crow and you ended up here?”
“Well… yeah,” replied Hugh.
“This is a dangerous place to be, an even more dangerous place now that it’s almost night. Tell me…” the man got up and lip some more lanterns in the room, “Did the crow tell you to throw the body into that lake?”
“It’s a lake?” asked the dwarf.
“Not just any lake,” said the man. “It’s the Great Dead Lake. It’s the saltiest lake in the world. It’s so salty, not only can life not live in it, the dead won’t even stay dead in it.”
“How does that make any sense?” asked the giant.
“I don’t know what sort of sense it makes,” said the man. “But maybe you should explain it to the lake, that way I don’t have to deal with this every night.”
“Deal with what?” asked the dwarf.
“I’ll show you,” the man said, walking over to some stairs that spiraled around the interior of the tower. At the top of them was a complete, three hundred and sixty degree, all window, panoramic view of the area. “There,” he said, pointing at the lake.
They peered out and saw dozens of shapes shuffling out of the water in the moonlight.
“Zombies. It’s a local legend that if you throw a body into the lake, it will come back to life. What ends up actually happening is that some bereaved individual brings their dead relative or lover, throws them into the water, and then waits… until they get attacked, die, and become one of them.”
“You’d think you might put a sign up for something,” said Hugh.
The man blinked a few times. “You know…” he began, “That is probably what I should have done.”
“What have you done?” asked dwarf.
“Well, I live here now, and I shoot flaming arrows at zombies all night… that’s pretty much it, really.”
“You stopped us, didn’t you?” asked the giant.
“Well, yeah…” said the man, “But to be honest, it was only because I thought the cyclops would require a lot of arrows to take down.”
“I’m Hugh, by the way.”
“I’m Bret, but people call me Ginx,” said the man.
To be continued…