by Brian C. Mahon
“Of course we weren’t sure it would work!” Aldermain huffed, shaking a gnarled fist at a crowd of eight children. “We were scared out of our minds! We lived under the yoke for so long, we forgot how dangerous us humans could be.” He eased back into the rocking chair and tapped the fist that couldn’t open on his knee. “It was the eight. The eight of them, ruling the separated kingdoms. I was there. I…”
And the memories billowed out from the fog, dragging the mind of Aldermain the Aged far from the classroom of kids, and back to his prime, a man of thirty-three, a strong man, a respected, well-fed, well-dressed, and comfortable man. He was Ruje Aldermane of the Court of Solus. Ruje. What else they had called him? Ruje the Rejector?
There were eight of them, the great ones, tall and magnificent, who instilled fear on sight: the giant kings of the giant kingdoms. Gargantuans who came from far beyond the eastern mountain wall, beyond the roaring river Manthus, beyond the whispered legends that warned all peoples of the terrors of the world. Eight arrived, eighty feet high, and took the eight human kingdoms of lower Embry for themselves by blood and force and fear.
Ruje remembered. He remembered the days before he was twisted and bent and simply went by Aldermain. The towns and villages and cities of all Embrians paid homage to their masters, who either offered protection, terror, appeasement, or pain. One hundred and sixty-three years they spent beneath the giants.
A parchment from the court of Erembar Beraxus came one day for Ruje to deliver to Tall King Solus. An embedded code in language only a human would understand, a letter thanking Solus for his kind generosity in allowing the humans of his kingdom to walk the capital’s streets past daylight, allowing farmers payment for their produce, allowing persons to commune amongst themselves, perhaps even gathering in open places to exchange writings, philosophies, ideas, and, lastly, hopes.
Ruje understood. A giant, however, could never understand the meaning of the word “hope”, no matter how kind they were. Hope did not belong to a giant, because a giant did not need to hope, never knew to hope.
Ruje took the parchment and began to plan: a coordination amongst persons, a swapping of arrangements, a sharing of technologies and plans, of dates, of hopes.
Ruje the Schemer.
When the day came, Ruje pushed the doors open to the Grand Hall of Solus as the sun rose, then slid his thumbs along the inside of his silken sash. It was Exode 18th, forty-eight years ago. Sunlight lazily shimmered through the stained glass of the hall and lit his ivory-colored slippers with unassuming dappling colors.
The Grand Hall of Solus was the last hall to be touched by the sun’s westward arc. Signals fires preceded the breaking of the night and told Ruje Aldermane what he needed; the Concordance of the Minors was in motion. Seven of the eight had fallen.
Erembar Beraxus, cruelest of the giants, never held court without his black mace, forty-foot high and four-hundred stone heavy. Erembar always gripped the weapon in one hand and a chosen city-dweller in the other, their life tied to his court’s proceedings. When Renlé, captain of the Meat Threshers, reported an uprising in the city center, Beraxus charged forward with his dark mace in hand, led by his unfaltering captain – and was shot through the ribs, abdomen, and arm by three ballistae of Ruje’s design. The ants, with knives and scythes, took the rest of him apart, piece by piece.
Remula the Petty, ruler of northeastern Embry, took her cohort of male companions to the mountain hot springs, as recommended by the High Handmaiden. Where one man was sure to drown, all died instead, with Remula, in a poisoned spring. The Handmaidens present cast aside their emptied jars and joined their martyred fellows and stilled queen for the pleasure of a final hot bath.
Merachus Merchant King, who prided money over blood, died aboard his pleasure barge, set ablaze with burning pitch and blazing barrels of oil flung from catapults hidden by the shore dunes of north Embry. Ruje imagined what sort of sweet rolls and desserts and drinks went aflame – a waste.
Dembrus Beraxus, cousin to Erembar, keener of mind and smoldering ember to Erembar’s inferno, was a diviner who understood the stars’ potent. The balcony of his thousand-foot watch tower, a wonder of the human world, gave way in the middle of his observations – a victim of a sudden, catastrophic, but not unforeseen, structural failure.
Ush of the East, the strangest of the eight to arrive, the one cloaked in the white fur of a beast that appeared to have once been more awful and dangerous than any of the conquerors. South Embrians mentioned only two things of Ush: his silence and the strict order he imposed. Ruje recommended drawing the spear-wielding Gargantuan from his wooden castle with the threat of uprising. Thus, Ush found his end, from a three ballistae volley targeting the back of his skull.
Neimus Neres, brother to Solus, forbade celebrations in his fief of central Embry. His rejection of cheer was a darkness over his otherwise fair rule. Rumors abounded that Neimus was born sullen, and joy brought him pain, a longing for what he could never feel. Otherwise a fair ruler, Neimus found his end, poisoned, by the very wine he drank to numb his legendary endless sadness. (Ruje would wonder, as he stepped through the kaleidoscope of light, if that plan had not been a mercy after all.)
Second to last, in southwest Embry, Rembrax Rejoicer, the warrior, a giant of vigor matched only by Erembar, with a lust for life Remula rivaled, and a joyous spirit Neimus would never have. None of his underfoot ever sent tales of cruelty or caprice, only that Rembrax failed to consider that they existed. A giant, no matter how indifferent, was still a giant. And a giant, amid his own self-love, his ebullience under a starry sky, filling his lungs with the lively gusts of a cool breeze, can find death under a volley of trebuchets.
Signal fires from seven lines of sight meant but one thing to Ruje Aldermane.
He pushed open the doors to Solus’s throne room. His silken, padded footsteps were meager, muffled sounds met with a gracious, deep throaty chuckled greeting, “Ah! Dear Ruje! Good morning! You are up early for a little one!”
Ruje Aldermane of the Court smiled in return and bowed, making sure his robes did not graze the marble floor. “I am, my Lord Highness. I am. I greet you as the day is warm and ready for your blessing.”
Solus had smiled warmly. It was a smile of trusting joy, free of presumption. The giant replied, “Oh, I hope it is a little hotter than it was yesterday. My kind does not grow younger. As hardy as we might seem, ho ho, we do get uncomfortable, and I personally do not”, he winked, “enjoy the cold.”
Ruje reciprocated the smile and drew closer to his liege, his slippered feet gliding across the tile. “My Lord Highness, I think there may be some terrible news to deliver. I-“ a pain twitched in Ruje’s chest, and he faltered.
“Terrible news? Ah! I can see it written on your face!”
Solus started to rise, causing Ruje to raise his hands to say, “Sire, please, please. It is preferable you stay seated. It is unnecessary for you to exert yourself.”
“I trust your counsel, Ruje, but what is the matter? Please tell that Kamela is doing well. I will have you leave immediately if you need to see to your wife!” Solus pulled on his twenty foot snowy beard.
“No, sire, it is not Kamela.” Ruje’s left big toe clipped the tile and caused him to stumble as he approached. His arms felt strange, an enervating coursing of the nerves, and dampness drew on his forehead. “No sir, it is not my wife or my children. They are well. They are doing well, and I expect shall do well.”
Solus’s great robed arms outstretched in a gesture of pleasant surprise. “That is well! So what is the matter, my friend?”
“First sire, let us have a little more light. The sun has not reached its midday strength yet, and these halls, I do not enjoy how dim they can be.” Ruje reached into a pocket and pulled a match, lit a small orb at the base of an oil lamp many men high, and drew on a pulley to raise the orb up to the oil basin to spur the lamp ablaze. Bowing before crossing the great Solus’s throne, he did the same to the other side. Two lamps lit.
“I do not think it so dim in here myself, but my eyes do work a little better in the dark than yours do, I think,” rumbled Solus with a deep chortle. “We have light, we have some pretext, now, what is the issue you came to tell me about?”
Ruje approached the base of the throne and placed his thumbs into the silken waistband. “I have received word, my liege, that the seven brethren are dead. There are uprisings in the other seven kingdoms. The humans of Embry have risen to reclaim sovereign control of their lands.”
He remembered the contortions on Solus’s face – from shock, the twisting of the lips to horror, a flash of the brow in anger, the eyebrows reaching up in sorrow. The giant’s shoulders fell, and he slumped in his oaken throne. “I would ask why, Ruje, but I understand. I am not blind, though I acted that way. I knew what my kind were doing. How they behaved.”
Ruje straightened up and took a step toward the throne.
“I think I-er, no, I did truly believe that if I ruled differently, if I offered the humans of West Embry all the freedoms they could enjoy while offering the order they petitioned for, I could show them what it meant to rule justly. I thought West Embry could be an example. I wanted my brothers and sister to see it was possible for us to equally prosper.”
Ruje unclasped his yellow cloak of office and laid it at Solus’s feet.
Ruje the Rejector.
“I’m sorry, sire. You are a fair ruler. Truly, without hesitation, I can say to any person and to any people, you are the finest and best and kindest of all your kind.”
Tall King Solus, the Sacrosanct, stopped staring at the ceiling in grief. A new sadness, a deeper sadness, drew sudden lines in his face, as his lower lip fell, but no words left him.
Ruje continued, “We deliberated a long time, sire. I wanted to see you free, to let you return east. The others were afraid and would not agree. I could not resist their reasoning. It is a fear, with us sometimes. Fear often makes a sliver of a chance in a man’s mind become a guarantee. They were afraid you would return from the east with more than just seven. I could not denounce their fears, sire.”
The Sacrosanct, wisest of the eight, gentlest of the giants, buried his face in his hands, and moaned between fingers the size of men, “Was I not fair, Ruje? Was I not kind to you all? I made it a point, a point! To bless every wedding, celebrate every child born in our city! We have been so well together!” His moans flowed to a viscous weeping, “Was I truly so mean and repugnant to your people?”
The Rejector raised his chin, reddened eyes raised to the hidden face, “No sire, you were never mean, and in truth, in my truth, better than the rest and better than many men I’ve known. Not one West Embrian thinks themselves unlucky. However, sire, as good as you are to myself and mine, we are just dogs to a master. You are a kind master, a good master, but still a master. No matter how much a dog loves their master,” Ruje pointed to either side of the ceiling, tears trailing down his cheeks as shuffles came from overhead, “even the most loyal dog is still just a dog.”
Ruje the Executioner.
Ruje Aldermane’s hands flicked down to his sides, and he ran behind the throne to pull a knife with his right hand and sever the linchpin. A pair of tethered stone columns came colliding downward from the shadows of the hall’s great arched ceiling. A crunch made the Executioner’s whole body stiffen, and the final giant fell, slumped in his throne.
The Aldermane of the High Court held to his final, disagreeable design.
A churn of chirping voices pulled Aldermain the Aged from his thoughts, and he looked at his clenched right hand. He mumbled, less to the children and more to himself, “How dangerous we could be.” Aldermain smacked his lips and smacked the left armrest of his seat and hollered, “Alright kids, now do as your Master of Studies tells you! The king will be making a decree today at noon that we can’t be late for!”