Want to start at the beginning? Read Chapter 1.
They arrived at the farm just as the sky in the east was turning gray. With his last bit of strength, Simeon set his wife under the sprawling branches of the oak next to their home. In the light, Simeon did a quick examination of her. She had a fever, and her face was paler than usual, making the fist-sized, spider-looking birthmark on the side of her neck more prominent than usual. More than anything, he wanted to rest, but he didn’t have that luxury. The giant knew where he lived and would probably come looking for them. Simeon needed to get his family to safety.
Irina turned her head looked around like she didn’t know where she was. Then her brown eyes focused on their house and grew wide in recognition.
“Cyril,” she said, trying to sit. “Where’s Cyril?”
“I’ll get him.” Simeon pushed his wife back to a lying position. “You need some water first.”
She lay back down but stretched her arms toward their home and repeated the name of their son.
Simeon entered the hut. It was still warm inside. Cyril was sleeping on the bed, his tiny chest moving up and down with regular breaths. Relief washed through Simeon—Cyril was safe. Simeon put his hand on the child’s head and said a silent prayer of gratitude that his son was all right. Now he just needed to get them to Sredets.
Leaving his son sleeping on the bed, Simeon grabbed a bucket and hurried to the well. He pulled up a pail of cold water and took it to his wife. He raised her head with one hand and pressed the bucket to her lips. She swallowed and coughed. He tried again. This time, she was able to keep the water down. He repeated until the color returned to her face and her eyes could focus. He lowered her head to the ground. As he stood to get the cart, she reached out for him.
“Don’t leave me,” she said.
“I won’t be far,” he said, stroking her hair. “I’m going to prepare the donkey so I can take you and Cyril to safety.”
She pleaded with him not to go, but he hushed her and went to retrieve the donkey. They needed to get on the road as fast as possible. The animal brayed as Simeon led him to the gate, seemingly annoyed that he had to work so early, but Simeon ignored the noise and hooked the animal to the cart. When everything was ready, Simeon went to retrieve Cyril and gather some food for the baby and his wife.
He grabbed the half-eaten loaf of bread and a bunch of grapes and put them in a sack. Then he turned to pick up the baby.
The bed was empty.
At first, he thought his son had rolled onto the floor, but the child was nowhere in the hut. Then he heard his son crying loudly from somewhere outside. Thinking that Irina must have retrieved the baby while he was getting the cart ready, Simeon hurried outside.
“Let’s go,” he said. “We don’t—”
Simeon came to a sudden stop. The giant stood between him and his wife. He held Cyril by the legs in one hand. In the other, he held a sword. The baby was crying, his face bright red. Tears ran from his eyes to his forehead and onto the dew-covered grass. Irina was crawling through the grass toward the devil, screaming hoarsely at the giant to put down her son.
Morning light spilled over the horizon, illuminating the giant. He took Simeon’s breath away. He was at least eight feet tall. He wore an iron breastplate and round shoulder armor. The arm that held Simeon’s son was adorned with a gold bracelet with an eight-pointed star on it. A red tunic overlaid with leather pteruges went down to his knees. Brown boots that came up to the calves were strapped high on his legs. He wore a one-piece helmet with a slight point at the top and a nose guard. He had dark eyes and a long, full beard. A shield four feet in diameter lay on the ground next to him.
Simeon instinctively drew his sword. He had been in many fierce battles—some where he had been outnumbered and out-armed—but looking at his son being held by the giant, he had never been more terrified than he was at that moment.
“Put him down!” Simeon yelled, hoping he sounded braver than he felt.
The giant said something in a language Simeon didn’t understand. It wasn’t Latin or Greek or any of the other tongues he had come across. It sounded like a series of clicks and guttural noises—some sort of savage language. The giant raised Cyril high in the air.
Simeon’s heart skipped a beat, thinking the devil was going to drop the baby on his head. He repeated his command, and when the giant didn’t respond, he repeated the command in Greek and again in Latin, moving forward with his sword pointing at the giant’s heart. The devil responded with the same clicks and noises, then held his sword up to the child. The tip of the sword scratched Cyril’s cheek, sending a trickle of blood down his side and a howl from his mouth.
Simeon stopped. “If it’s a fight you want, come and get me. But leave my son alone.”
The giant laughed, then tossed Cyril high in the air.
Simeon’s world slowed down. He could see the look of surprise on his son’s face as he spun head over heels, his arms and legs flailing in the air. Then he saw what the giant had planned. He bolted toward the devil, screaming at the top of his lungs. He felt as though he were up to his knees in water, and no matter how much he told his legs to move, it wasn’t going to be enough.
With utter helplessness, he watched as his son was impaled on the giant’s sword. Cyril’s arms and legs stiffened in shock. Blood came out of his mouth, and a brief wail escaped his lips before he died.
A roar shot from Simeon’s throat. He had seen hundreds of acts of savagery on the battlefield, but nothing like this. His veins filled with adrenaline, and he swung his sword at the giant as hard as he could. The giant easily dodged the blow. Then, with one sweep of his arm, the devil hit Simeon full in the face. Simeon felt his nose break as he was knocked on his back. He jumped to his feet just as the giant slid Cyril’s body off his sword and picked up his shield from the ground. He made another run at the devil, ready to strike him dead, but just as he swung his sword, the giant vanished.
The weight of the sword spun Simeon around. At his feet was the bloodied body of his son. Irina reached the body and held it to her breast. A howling Simeon would never forget escaped his wife’s lips, animalistic in its anguish and intensity.
Out of the corner of his eye, Simeon caught movement. He turned just as the giant’s shield slammed into his side. Simeon tumbled to the ground. Looking up, he saw the giant standing above him, his sword raised, ready to plunge it into Simeon’s chest. Simeon started to roll to the side even though he knew he couldn’t move fast enough to dodge the fatal blow.
An arrow flew through the air and bounced off the giant’s armor. He turned toward the source, giving Simeon just enough time to roll to safety.
Scrambling to his feet, he saw the giant’s back to him. Kamen and two other soldiers burst through the trees thirty yards away, their swords drawn. Another soldier stepped from between two trees and let a second arrow fly. The giant raised his shield, and the arrow broke upon contact.
Sensing his chance to strike, Simeon attacked the giant from behind. But as he raised his sword, the giant disappeared again. Simeon stopped in his tracks in surprise. An arrow intended for the giant whistled inches past his head.
“Spread out five paces!” Kamen yelled.
The two men with him started to put distance between each other. They turned their heads and their bodies, looking in every direction as if they expected an attack to come from everywhere. Simeon didn’t understand what Kamen was doing. It was the opposite of what soldiers were trained to do.
“Simeon, keep your sword at the ready!” Kamen yelled. “He could be anywhere!”
Before Simeon could reply, there was a cry from the tree line. He spun around and saw the archer with the tip of a sword through his chest. In the shadow of the trees, Simeon could just make out the large figure of the giant. How had he appeared over there? Using his sword as leverage, the giant marched the gasping archer into the clearing. He withdrew the sword, and with one swing decapitated the archer.
His shock gone, Simeon snapped back into battle mode. He ran as fast as he could toward his enemy.
“Stop, Simeon!” Kamen yelled. “Stay near us.”
Simeon ignored him and quickly closed the distance. Just as he reached the giant, the devil smiled broadly and disappeared.
If there hadn’t been a headless, bloody body at his feet, Simeon would have sworn he was going mad. In that moment, he understood how the giant could defeat twenty soldiers. It wasn’t his skill with the sword or his brute strength, but some dark art that allowed him to appear and disappear at will. They weren’t fighting just a giant—they were fighting a sorcerer or a god.
“Come here!” Kamen called to Simeon.
Simeon hurried over to the others.
“Spread out, but not so far that you can’t help the man next to you if he’s attacked,” Kamen said as he glanced over his shoulder. “Keep your eyes open.”
Simeon took up a position fifteen feet from Kamen, sword at the ready. He found his head turning to the right every other second to check his blind spot. If he was the giant, that’s the side he’d attack.
The giant appeared behind the soldier on the far end of the line.
Kamen called, and the soldier jumped to his left just as the giant thrust with his sword. The sword hit the soldier on his arm. The blade didn’t pierce his armor, but Simeon could see from the way the soldier’s weapon fell from his hands that his shoulder or arm had been broken.
In an instant, Simeon and the others were attacking the giant. Seemingly satisfied that the soldier near him was no threat, the giant started toward his enemies. Simeon took a circular route, hoping to attack the giant’s left side. So long as he didn’t disappear again, they might have a chance at defeating him.
There was the clash of metal as Kamen engaged the giant with his sword. With the enemy distracted, Simeon reached the giant. He raised his sword but just as he was about to strike, the giant swung his shield back and hit Simeon on the side of the head. Simeon crumpled to the ground. The last thing he saw before everything went black was Kamen swinging his sword at the giant yet again.
Simeon awoke with the sun high in the sky, shining directly on his face. Over the top of the long grass, he could see the thatched roof of his home and the branches of the oak tree. A breeze blew through the grass and brought with it the smell of flowers and earth. A crow alighted on the lower branch of the tree, looked down at Simeon, and cawed.
Simeon sat up and held his head in his hands. It hurt like hell, and there was a big lump where he’d been hit. He tried to stand but was overwhelmed by nausea. He waited for the feeling to pass before he picked up the sword in the grass next to him and shoved it in the earth, then grabbed the hilt and pulled himself to his feet. He swayed uneasily and leaned on his sword for support.
As he got his balance, he looked around. The grass near him was flattened and bloodied, but from where he stood, the only body he could see was that of the archer—a fact that surprised him somewhat, considering the giant’s skill, strength, and magic. There were no signs of anyone else. His gaze followed the trail of smashed grass and blood to the edge of the forest.
He turned his attention to the farm. The donkey stood in the shade of the tree.
His throat was parched, and his tongue felt twice its normal size. It sounded like his voice barely carried at all. He called her name a second time, and again was met by silence.
He started toward the house and spotted Cyril’s body in the tall grass. He walked to his son on unsteady legs. Flies crawled and buzzed around the dead child’s face. Simeon winced as he bent down and brushed them away. He cradled his son’s body in one arm and straightened. Tears fell from his cheeks and splashed on the tiny, cold form. He staggered back to his home. Inside, he found some cloth and wrapped it around his son’s stiff body. He fell to the bed exhausted, holding Cyril close.
He remembered the priests speaking of another life—one that was free of suffering, sorrow, and pain, but there was little comfort in those words. What he wanted was to bring his son back to life, but he knew that was impossible. Once you died, you never came back. For the first time since he was a young boy, he felt utterly helpless and alone. He lay holding his son tightly in his arms and sobbed.
When the tears wouldn’t fall anymore, Simeon’s thoughts turned to the giant. He could see the attacker’s sneering face as he tossed his son in the air. He had seen similar faces in battle over the years on soldiers who grew to enjoy killing. For those men, inflicting death wasn’t a matter of self-defense or fighting for the empire—it was pleasure. They enjoyed watching people die. They enjoyed killing them. They were fearsome and effective fighters, but Simeon knew that when it came down to it, his orders meant nothing to these men. Eventually, before they could spin out of control, he would assign them to the front lines—a task they never refused—and hope they’d die in battle.
As his mind went from these soldiers to the giant, the sorrow inside gave way to intense anger. The giant wasn’t simply an obstacle to freeing his wife—he needed to die. In his mind, Simeon pictured himself taking a sword and cutting off the giant’s head with one swing. No, that death was too clean and quick. The giant wouldn’t feel anything. He needed to feel pain. Instead of beheading him, Simeon would disable the giant by breaking his legs, then would stand above him and thrust his sword through his torso again and again, over and over until his body was nothing more than a mess of shredded flesh. Just the thought of doing that was enough to push most of the sorrow from his mind and replace it with anger.
Then he thought of a third way to kill the giant. He’d cut off the giant’s hands and feet one at a time and cauterize the wounds so he wouldn’t bleed out. Then he’d take the body and hang him in a tree by the arms. The scent would be enough to attract wolves, and Simeon would hang the giant just low enough that the wolves would feast on his calves. When they were devoured, he’d lower the giant just enough that they would dine on his thighs, followed by his torso. It would take three or four days for the giant to die, and Simeon would find a place where he could watch and relish every moment of the anguish.
He sat up, rage filling his breast, and placed his son’s body in the middle of the bed. He could do nothing for his son, but there was still a chance that he could save his wife and take vengeance on the monster who had slain his only child. He gathered some cheese and wine and moved to the table, where he sat in front of the stale, half-eaten loaf of bread. He broke off chunks of bread, dipped them in the wine, and ate. Strength returned with every bite. When he had eaten his fill, he changed into thick clothing and put on his breastplate and helmet.
Back outside, he found his sword, knelt next to it, and said a prayer like he did before every battle. He prayed that he could track the giant, find his wife, and that vengeance would be his. As he prayed, he replayed the various ways he wanted to kill the giant. By the time he said amen, his heart was again filled with rage. He pulled his sword from the ground and swung it through the air. It felt good. Gripping it tightly in his hand, he took one last look at his home, then started off toward the cave.