Sam wrinkled her nose in distaste. “All the time. Humans gave up the practice centuries ago—”
“Some might dispute that,” Mallory grumbled.
“Fair point,” Sam agreed. “What I mean is, giants do it the way Vikings used to. Clans go to war against one another. They take prisoners of war and declare them personal property. Sometimes, the thralls can earn their freedom, sometimes not. Depends on the master.”
“Then maybe we can free these guys,” I suggested. “Get them on our side.”
Mallory snorted. “Unbeatable guardians of the mead—unless you offer them their freedom, in which case they’re pushovers!”
“I’m just saying—”
“Won’t be that easy, Beantown. Let’s stop dreaming and start fighting.”
She led the way over the hill, which struck me as only slightly less reckless than jumping out of a moving train.
SO MUCH for strategy.
We popped over the ridge and found ourselves at the edge of a wheat field several acres across. The wheat grew taller than us, which would have made it perfect for sneaking through, except that the guys working the field were taller still—nine giants, all swinging scythes. The setup reminded me of a video game level I’d played with T.J. once, but I had no wish to try it with my actual body.
Each thrall had an iron collar around his neck. Otherwise they wore nothing but loincloths and a whole lot of muscles. Their bronze skin, shaggy hair, and beards all dripped with perspiration. Despite their size and strength, they seemed to be having a hard time cutting the wheat. The stalks just bent against their scythe blades with a whisking sound like laughter, then sprang back up again. Because of this, the thralls looked almost as miserable as they smelled…and they smelled like Halfborn Gunderson’s sandals.
Beyond the field loomed the wishbone-shaped waterfall. In the cliff face that jutted from the middle was a set of massive iron doors.
Before you could say Darn it, Mallory, the nearest thrall—who had a mop of red hair even more impressive than Miss Keen’s—sniffed the air, stood up straight, and turned to face us. “Ho, ho!”
The other eight stopped working and turned toward us as well, adding, “Ho, ho! Ho, ho! Ho, ho!” like a flock of strange birds.
“What have we here?” asked the redheaded thrall.
“What indeed?” asked another with an impressively tattooed face.
“What indeed?” asked a third, maybe just in case we hadn’t heard the tattooed guy.
“Kill them?” Red polled his buddies.
“Yes, probably kill them,” Tattoo agreed.
“Hold on!” I yelled before they could take a vote, which I had a feeling would be unanimous. “We’re here for a very important reason—”
“—which does not entail our deaths,” Sam added.
“Good point, Sam!” I nodded vigorously, and the thralls all nodded along, apparently impressed by my earnestness. “Tell them why we’re here, Mack!”
Mallory gave me her standard I’ll-kill-you-later-with-both-knives look. “Well, Beantown, we’re here to—to help these fine gentlemen!”
The nearest thrall, Red, frowned at his scythe. Its curved iron blade was almost as corroded as Jack had been when I first pulled him out of the Charles River.
“Don’t know how you could help,” Red said. “Unless you could harvest the field for us? Master only gives us these dull blades.”
The others muttered in agreement.
“And the wheat stalks are as hard as flint!” said Tattoo.
“Harder!” said another thrall. “And the wheat keeps growing back as soon as we cut it! We can only take a break when all the wheat is cut, but…we can’t ever finish!”
Red nodded. “It’s almost like…” His face darkened with effort. “Like Master doesn’t want us to ever take a break.”
The others nodded, pondering this theory.
“Ah, yes, your master!” Mallory said. “Who is your master again?”
“Baugi!” said Red. “Great thane of the stone giants! He’s off in the north getting ready for Doomsday.” He said this as if Baugi had just gone to the store to get some milk.
“He is a hard master,” Mallory noted.
“Yes!” Tattoo agreed.
“No,” Red said.
The others chimed in. “No. No, not at all! Kind and good!”
They glanced suspiciously from side to side, as if their master might be hiding in the wheat.
Sam cleared her throat. “Does Baugi give you any other duties?”
“Oh, yes!” said a thrall in the back. “We guard the doors! So no one can take Suttung’s mead or free Suttung’s prisoner!”
“The prisoner?” I asked. “Suttung?”
Nine thrall heads nodded solemnly. They would have made an excellent kindergarten class if the teacher could have found large enough coloring books and crayons.
“Suttung is the master’s brother,” said Red. “He owns the mead and the prisoner in the cave.”
Another thrall shrieked. “You are not supposed to say what is in the cave!”
“Right!” Red turned even redder. “Suttung owns the mead and the prisoner who—who may or may not be in the cave.”
The other thralls nodded, apparently satisfied Red had thrown us off the scent.
“If anyone tries to get past us,” said Tattoo, “we get to take a break from cutting wheat, just long enough to kill the trespassers.”
“So,” Red said, “if you are not here to cut the wheat, then do we get to kill you? That would be helpful! We could use a good killing break!”
“Killing break?” asked a guy in the back.
“Killing break!” said another.
The rest took up the call.
Nine giants shouting killing break tended to make me a little jumpy. I thought about pulling out Jack and having him cut the wheat for the thralls, but that would still leave us facing nine big dudes who were under orders to kill trespassers. Jack might be able to slay nine giants before they slew us, but I still didn’t like the idea of chopping down thralls when I could be chopping down their masters.
“What if we freed you?” I asked. “Just for the sake of argument. Would you turn on your master? Would you run away to your homeland?”
The thralls got dreamy looks in their eyes.
“We might do those things,” Tattoo agreed.
“And would you help us?” Sam asked. “Or even just leave us alone?”
“Oh, no!” Red said. “No, first we would kill you. We love killing humans.”
The other eight nodded enthusiastically.
Mallory glared at me like I told you so. “Also for the sake of argument, noble thralls, what if we fought you? Could we kill you?”
Red laughed. “That is very funny! No, we are under strong magic spells. Baugi is a great sorcerer! We cannot be killed by anyone except each other.”
“And we like each other!” said another thrall.
“Yes!” said a third.
The giants started to bring it in for a group hug, then seemed to remember they were holding scythes.
“Well, then!” Mallory’s eyes gleamed like she had a wonderful idea I was going to hate. “I know exactly how we can help you!”
She fished around in her jacket pocket and brought out the whetstone. “Ta-da!”
The thralls looked less than impressed.
“It is a rock,” Red said.
“Oh, no, my friend,” Mallory said. “This whetstone can magically sharpen any blade and make your work much easier. May I show you?”
She held out her empty hand. After a few minutes of deep thought, Red flinched. “Oh, you want my scythe?”
“To sharpen it,” Sam explained.
“So…I can work faster?”
“Huh.” Red handed over his weapon.
The scythe was huge, so it took all three of us to do the job. I held the handle. Sam kept the top of the blade flat against the ground whil
e Mallory scraped the whetstone along the edges. Sparks flew. Rust vanished. In a couple of passes, both sides of the scythe blade glinted like new in the sunlight.
“Next scythe, please!” Mallory said.
Soon, all nine thralls had shiny sharpened weapons.
“Now,” Mallory said, “try them out on your field!”
The thralls went to work, cutting through the wheat like it was wrapping paper. In a matter of minutes, they had reaped the entire field.
“Amazing!” said Red.
“Hooray!” said Tattoo.
The other thralls cheered and hooted.
“We can finally have water!” said one.
“I can eat lunch!” said another.
“I have needed to pee for five hundred years!” said a third.
“We can kill these trespassers now!” said a fourth.
I hated that guy.