As they continued to walk, Hugh discovered that the buyer was the nephew of Leocrates, though Hugh’s previous interactions with his uncle did not seem to matter to the buyer. He refused to give his name, and when they finally arrived at his home late that night, he had Hugh lead the horse to his stable and brush it down before going to sleep.
Theoson was fitted with a pair of shackles around his ankles, which forced him to shuffle rather than walk, and they completely disabled his ability to run. Hugh was locked in the stable, though if he had wanted, he could have easily broken down the door, or even the wall itself.
The next morning, they were put to work. Theoson began tutoring the buyer’s children. He had three young sons, aged five, seven and nine. Hugh was assigned to cleaning the stable, and when he finished that, he was made to scrub the outside of the man’s stone home. It was especially filthy in the back, where a cooking fire was often lit.
Hugh didn’t much mind, but Theoson bristled at teaching the children. The buyer stood over him with a thin wooden switch, and when Theoson said something that didn’t please him, like if he deviated from an historical account of the retelling of a war and inserted his own social commentary, he was struck, usually on the back.
This went on for several days, and Hugh lost track of time. It was like he was back in Antigonia, doing chores all day long. He didn’t mind it, though he could tell Theoson was not enjoying himself. It was the first time Hugh had ever seen Theoson seem even remotely displeased. And yet… no matter how many times Theoson was whipped, he still never hesitated to subvert the socially accepted narrative of his lessons. He back and arms became raw, then bloody, and the buyer was never able to leave his side, forced to oversee each lesson in its entirety for fear that Theoson would instill his values in the buyer’s children.
After several days, a rider on horseback approached and was welcomed by the buyer. He slept in the buyer’s house for the night, and the next morning, a second horse was seen to approach, this one bearing the dwarf son of Walker, Zeke. He went straight for Hugh and greeted him warmly.
“I hope they’re treating you alright,” Zeke said to Hugh.
“I’m fine,” he replied. “Theoson has taken quite a thrashing, but he seems in high spirits.”
“What happened on the return voyage home?”
“The ship was destroyed in a storm,” said Hugh. “It capsized. We held firm to a barrel of wine and then swam to shore. We spent the winter in Antigonia, then we were making our way back to Polity when… well, this happened.”
“Don’t worry,” said Zeke. “I have come with the promise of more gold than the Otros could ever offer. You’ll be coming home with me to Polity before long.”
The buyer walked up to them. “Shall we begin the negotiations?”
Zeke nodded and dismounted.
“Who sends a little man to rescue a giant?” asked the buyer.
Zeke smiled. “They sent me, because I keep the negotiations short.”
The buyer shook his head. “I hope your bargaining skills are better than your humor.”
“Only a little,” he replied.
The rider who arrived the day before walked over to them, and they all stood around, waiting for someone to say something. Finally, the buyer said, “So, who would like to make the first offer?”
The Otros rider just looked down at Zeke, who stared right back at him. Neither made any move to speak first. The buyer grew impatient, and demanded that Zeke make his initial offer.
“You put me in a tough spot,” said Zeke. “I don’t even know what this barbaric horse fucker has to offer. Furs? Bows? Maybe a horse he’s grown tired of screwing?”
The Otros rider just stood, unflinching.
“Very well,” said Zeke. “I can offer the cyclops’ weight in gold.”
“Interesting,” said the buyer. “And since it doesn’t look like you came with that much gold… how do you propose I get paid?”
“Upon agreeing, I will return with the gold, and then we will bring Hugh back,” said Zeke. “Obviously, it wouldn’t look very good if I had ridden up with a large contingent of troops to protect such a haul. It might have soured our negotiation, or frightened off our quiet friend, here. And I certainly couldn’t bring it all by myself, especially since I have no idea what he weighs.”
The buyer looked to the Otros. “And your offer?”
The Otros rider bent down and scooped up a handful of soil. He stood back up and let the dirt slowly trickle through his hands. “You can have this, forever.”
“A handful of dirt?” asked the buyer.
“All of the Glibian lands will remain in Austerian control, even after we conquer the whole of the Kolish empire. You can secure your birthright now and forever. You will have our protection, and your ancestors will inherit this place, from now until the end of time.”
“I’m not in a position to make treaties,” said the buyer.
“You’re not in a position to be the man who ensures the survival of your people?” asked the Otros.
“That almost sounds like a threat,” said the buyer. “Besides, we already have an agreement.”
“Had,” said the Otros.
The buyer raised one eyebrow. “Had?”
“There was an agreement, until the Austerians took to the field of battle against us at Polity. Don’t think we didn’t notice. The Karn does not look kindly upon those who break an agreement, but he is willing to forgive you this one time, but only this one time. If the Austerians give up the cyclops to us and remain uninvolved from this point forward, they will remain unconquered.”
“There’s no reason to believe you would ever attack us,” said the buyer. “Such an attack would be suicide.”
“Quite the contrary,” said the Otros. “It would be no difficulty at all to pillage your countryside, killing all of the peasants and slaves. We wouldn’t even need to engage you at your walls, we would merely starve you over the course of years. All of your farmlands lay out in front of your city, with nothing but mountains to your back. And after the last of you were done feasting upon the bodies of those who succumbed first to hunger, we would slaughter those who remained. We would burn your towns to the ground, and we would wipe all trace of you from history.”
The buyer’s hand slowly went down to his sword.
“Kill me if you wish,” said the Otros. “It won’t do you any good. It may make you feel powerful today, but your fate would still be the same, only then you would have no chance of escaping destruction.”
“I like Austeria’s chances,” said the buyer. He looked to Zeke. “Throw in the weight of Theoson in silver.”
“I’m not authorized to bargain for him,” said Zeke.
“Well you’re taking him. I sure don’t want him around, and I only got him for the cyclops.”
“Fine, done,” said Zeke, sticking out his hand.
“Okay, time to get you two weighed,” said the buyer. The Otros rider bowed, remounted his horse, and galloped off.
Zeke noted their weights, Theoson at 54 and a half kilos, and Hugh a whopping 503 kilos. He weighed much more than he looked, even given his enormous size.
“Does Polity even have that much gold?” asked the buyer, smirking.
Zeke struggled to keep a straight face, and said, “Barely.”
Zeke got on his horse and rode off. In a week’s time, he returned with several dozen cavalrymen and four carts carrying the gold.
“How does it feel to be the richer than the King of Kole?” asked Zeke as he approached.
“I’m a bit uneasy,” said the buyer. “How much for the carts and horses? I need a way of getting the gold into the city.”
“I figured you would need them,” said Zeke, “So I took the liberty of subtracting their value from the silver.”
“I appreciate that,” the buyer said, lifting a blanket to look at the bars underneath. “This puts me in a very dangerous position, of course.”
“You have a lot to lose, that’s for sure,” said Zeke, “Though you can afford to pay for protection.”
With that, Hugh and Theoson followed Zeke and the cavalrymen away.
“Am I really worth that much?” asked Hugh.
“The war has been going badly,” said Zeke. “They’ve only been camped outside of town for a month, and already… well. I’d rather not say, I’d rather you wait to see for yourself.”
“What?” asked Hugh.
“They have some kind of new weapon. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s tearing our walls to shreds. And what’s worse, they poisoned the Lys River upstream. There’s only a limited amount of fresh water now, coming in from nearby streams. An emergency aqueduct is being constructed, but I don’t think it will be finished in time. Many in Polity have already fled for the city of Kole, or even farther north. I’m not even entirely sure the city will be standing when we get back.”
“So why bother buying me?” asked Hugh.
“You’re our only hope,” said Zeke. “Walker is convinced of it, Herbert is convinced of it, and honestly, so am I. Your arrival may be just the thing we need to rally the troops for an offensive assault. We need a convincing victory at this point, something to turn the tide of the war. If things continue on as they are, it will be over in a few weeks. Besides, if we lose, all that gold would have gone to the Otros. In a way, we’re cutting into their spoils by moving so much of our wealth to a secure location. If the Otros got their hands on that wealth, the kingdom itself wouldn’t stand a chance. Now, if they sack the city, there’s a much more limited gain to be had. There are already orders to throw all steel, iron, and bronze weapons and tools into the sea if the walls are breached. We won’t even mount a defense at that point. Even the farmers have been ordered to burn their storehouses and fields, to deprive the Otros of food sources.”
“It’s that bad?” asked Hugh.
“It’s worse than I can explain. When you see the state of the city… you wouldn’t recognize it, Hugh. Most of the buildings have been burned to the ground. The new docks are gone. The wall is crumbling at several points, and the soldiers spend most of their time keeping down internal revolts from starving citizens. Things are desperate.”
Hugh shook his head. “I don’t see what I can–”
An arrow struck Hugh in the arm. The air was filled with the whizzing sound of missiles, and cavalrymen fell in every direction. Someone yelled that they were under attack, and the troops quickly turned to engage the enemy, who approached from the rear left flank. Zeke’s horse was hit several times with arrows, and it began to bolt. Hugh chased after him and grabbed Zeke from off the horse and set him down on the ground, then motioned for Theoson to step behind him as well.
Within only the span of a few minutes, the Otros riders had killed every cavalryman and encircled Hugh, Theoson, and Zeke. One of the riders sauntered up to them. It was Toloy, Jengo’s son.
“It’s unfortunate that we had to meet again under these circumstances,” he said to Hugh.
“You can still let us go,” Hugh said.
“I’m afraid that is not an option,” said Toloy. “My orders are to return you alone to my father, alive, but I’m prepared to let you bring whoever is cowering behind you as well.”
Theoson strutted out from behind Hugh and shook his fist. “I never cower.”
“Just the same,” said Toloy. “I’d be happy to have you all as my guests. I can assure you, you will receive the utmost courtesy, just as you showed me hospitality in your city.”
Hugh stood there, not knowing what to do. He turned back to Zeke, who just stared blankly back at him. They looked at each other for quite some time, not knowing what to say, until finally Zeke nodded and said, “What choice do we have?”
“Fine, lead the way,” said Hugh.
To be continued…