I came here to get away from humans.
I looked around at the cabin I had built from timber I had felled myself on this well-forested island. The thinning of the trees is probably what gave me away. I thought that by coming this far north, I’d never run into anyone except the occasional whaler, but I should have known they’d notice a couple hundred missing trees. It was only a matter of time before they sent spies ashore, and in my indolence I had let them escape to blab to the rest.
If I had managed to capture one, perhaps I might have convinced them just to tell everyone to stay away. But, eventually, some shithead would have decided he could make a name for his otherwise sorry self by “slaying the giant,” and when that failed a whole swarm would show up to try to “avenge” him. This is exactly why I left the old country.
Humans always seem to speed through life, so it’s hard for me to say how long it was after the whalers escaped that the embassy showed up. Never seen anything like it. They arrived in a sloop-of-war, not very safe in these waters, but they picked the right time of year. They blew some godawful horn as they entered the bay, so I had time to get down to the beach to greet them.
I stood there with my hands on my hips and a grim expression on my face, but I couldn’t bring myself to roar or make threatening gestures. There’s simply no accomplishment and less dignity in frightening humans. Besides, I was genuinely curious as to what they had to say.
It was a new one on me. Theodoric, King of Vestermark (never heard of either, but whatever) wished to make a treaty. With me. A Pact of Eternal Non-Aggression. I had never heard of any human keeping the peace for a dozen years, let alone “eternity,” but I let them keep talking.
To seal our pledge of friendship, the king was offering me the hand of his firstborn daughter in marriage. I was gobsmacked. What did they take me for, a dragon?
I guess my reaction was a bit unsettling, as they all started to run back to their boat. I had to sit down on the sand and wave them back. While they summoned their courage, I tried to imagine what I’d do with a human woman on the island. I supposed I’d have to build her a cabin her own size, and I was sure I would end up feeding her as well. What a nuisance.
When the embassy finally dared to return within earshot, I told them that it was the custom of “my people” never to marry without a formal courtship. Since I presumed they didn’t want me to call upon the princess at her home (the ambassadors were visibly distressed at the mere mention of such a proposal), I concluded that the marriage wouldn’t be necessary.
They regretted that this would be unsatisfactory, as their experience had shown countless times that agreements unsecured by the bonds of marriage were worthless. All human agreements, I thought to myself, but I held my tongue.
Could the courtship take place here?, piped up one ambassador. My head began to hurt, and then my stomach growled, causing the blood to drain from their faces. Fine, whatever. Anything to get these pests off my island. Better one human than a thousand.
They signaled our agreement with a group waving of arms, then tried not to run back to their boat. I remained seated as I watched them leave, then stood and waved as the sloop weighed anchor and blew their silly horn again. I half-hoped they wouldn’t make it home.
That was many moons ago. I mark the seasons by which fish are schooling in these waters, and the autumn sturgeon were almost gone when I next heard the horn heralding the sloop’s return.
Back at the beach, I could see that the launch carried fewer humans than the previous envoy. Aside from the oarsmen, there were only three: the ambassador who originally proposed this farce, and two women cloaked in furs. There were also a half-dozen chests in the boat. Gold? What was I going to do with human coin up here? Attract thieves, that’s what.
As the launch touched shore, I got down on one knee so that I could hear them better. The ambassador preceded the ladies, helping them both step onto the dry sand. Then he bowed deeply to me and said, “My sovereign lord, I am mortified to acknowledge that at our last parley I neglected to ask Your Immensity’s name.”
Never occurred to me to give it, either. No human has ever called me by my name. But, if this “courtship” was actually going to happen, I supposed I had better get used to it. In my most delicate voice I said, “My name is Gorj.”
The ambassador nodded and recovered his smile. “My giant Lord Gorj,” he said with professional fluency, “may I present Her Royal Highness, Princess Valeria of the House Adalring.” The slimmer of the two women stepped forward, threw back the hood of her sailing cloak to reveal a swirl of orange-red hair, and curtseyed.
“Delighted,” I said, hoping that was appropriate.
“It is I who am delighted,” she chirped, “and honored to make your enormous acquaintance.”
I must have smiled because the little ambassador got all smug and unctuous. “And this,” he said gesturing to the other woman, “is Lady Elisabetta, cousin to the King.” She also stepped forward and curtseyed, but she kept her hood in place.
“Just how many of your women do I have to marry?” I asked.
I couldn’t see much of Elisabetta’s face, but I could tell I had offended her. “I am chaperone to Her Royal Highness for this…courtship,” she said.
“That’s, uh,” I muttered, “that’s not how my people do this.”
“It’s how our people do it!” shrilled Elisabetta. The ambassador tried to intervene, but she wasn’t having it. “Despite your absurd size,” she continued, “yours is not the only country party to this treaty. I am here to vouchsafe the Princess’s honor.”
I hadn’t the faintest clue what she was on about, and I didn’t care. All I knew was that my knee hurt from kneeling on the sand. “Okay, fine,” I said, grabbing Valeria with my left hand and Elisabetta with my right, silencing their protests as I enclosed them in my fists.
I stood up and addressed the ambassador, gesturing towards the chests that the oarsmen were unloading, “You can keep the gold. Or split it up among yourselves. I won’t tell.”
“I beg your colossal pardon, Lord Gorj,” he flustered, “but that is the Princess’s luggage.”
Oy. “Of course,” I said. Elisabetta shrieked as I transferred her to my left hand, then collected the chests with my right.
“My Lord Gorj,” squeaked the ambassador.
“What?” I snapped.
The little functionary bowed obsequiously, but he remained undaunted. “How long do you estimate your courtship of the Princess will last?” he asked. “Shall we tarry here or shall we go and return at a time of your choosing?”
I hadn’t thought about it, of course. I looked at my left fist, where the human women still squirmed in my grasp. This had already gotten out of control. I tried not to shrug as I said, “Come back in three months.”
Elisabetta buzzed her indignation in my fist. The ambassador didn’t flinch. “Very well, my Lord,” he said, doffing his hat and sweeping the sand with it as he bowed low. “Until the Spring. On behalf of King Theodoric and all his subjects, I wish you and the Princess a decorous and joyful congress. May we return to happy tidings.”
“”Uh, thank you.” I nodded and turned to hike back to my cabin. The sloop’s horn sounded once again before I reached my door.
Entering my home, for the first time ever it appeared to be…cluttered? Untidy? Grimy, even? My right fist still clutching the tiny chests, I swept my right wrist and arm over the surface of my table before gently setting my left fist down and releasing the human women onto the tabletop. I spilled the chests out of my hand next to them before turning away to add a tree to the fire and pump the bellows.
I realized I probably should have washed my hands before going down to the beach, so I went to the basin to wash both my hands and my face. By the time I had returned to the table, the women had shed their cloaks. Valeria was looking for something in one of the chests, while Elisabetta stood looking up at me with her hands clasped in front of her.
“My Lord Gorj,” she said, “in the future the Princess and I will thank you not to handle us without warning or permission.”
“Sorry,” I said. “And, uh, you don’t have to call me ‘Lord’.”
“You are sovereign on this island, are you not?”
“Then you hold the rank of Lord. Protocol is here to remind us of our place.”
“In your case, on my kitchen table.”
Elisabetta accepted the tease with the slightest inclination of her head. I could see now that she was a bit taller than Valeria, and certainly curvier. Her hair was more under control, and it looked blonde.
“My Princess and I are quite fatigued from the long voyage,” she said. “Where may we make our toilet?”
The full weight of what I had let myself in for hit me like an iceberg colliding with my chest. I should have moved on as soon as I saw the whalers fleeing. Valeria was now standing attentively next to Elisabetta, a kind smile on her tiny face.
“Tomorrow I will build a cabin for you both,” I said, “along with a privy.”
“My Lord Gorj,” said Elisabetta, “do you expect us to haul our own water and firewood?”
Yeah, they weren’t going to make it through the winter in a cottage outside by themselves. I was going to have to build them something in here. With their permission, I carried the little ladies to my wash basin to do what they needed to do while I stepped outside to fashion temporary lodgings for them.
Once they were situated with a modicum of comfort and privacy, I served my guests from my larder: dried salmon and elderberry wine.
“So, Princess,” I began awkwardly, “was it a pleasant voyage?”
“You may call me Valeria,” she said. “May I call you Gorj?” Elisabetta set her cutlery down noisily.
“Sure,” I said, exhaling.
“All sea voyages are dreadful,” continued Valeria, “but we endured because of our desire to meet you.” She leaned her head to one side and smiled, her eyes twinkling.
“Is that so?”
“Indeed. After the embassy returned and described both your reach and your eloquence, I have thought of little else.”
I blinked. I had heard many a lie issue from human mouths, but I was disarmed by Valeria’s ardor. I reached for her, and both women stood up, Elisabetta in alarm and Valeria in eagerness. I curled my hand around Valeria and cradled her in my palm, then lifted her in front of my face.
I saw that her eyes were bright blue, and though they were wide I saw no fear. She rested the side of her head against the heel of my hand, and I could feel her delicate cheek and eyelashes.
This was weird.
Elisabetta shared my discomfort with this development. “Release the Princess at once!” she sputtered. I kept my eyes on Valeria.
“You can eat her,, you know,” Valeria said softly. I goggled. Elisabetta didn’t seem to have heard correctly.
“It’s true,” continued Valeria more clearly. “I overheard my father say she was expendable if it bought peace.”
I pursed my lips. “Interesting,” I said as I grabbed Elisabetta, my fingers constricting her about her hips and chest. I tried to gauge how much meat she had on her bones.
It wouldn’t have been the first time. Where I came from, it’s kind of a cultural expectation. I had long ago decided it wasn’t a necessary part of my life, but now it was back again, right here in my hand.
I glanced at Valeria, whose mouth had opened slightly in anticipation. “Go ahead!” she trilled.
“Val, you rotten brat!” shouted Elisabetta.
I wrinkled my nose. “I can’t eat her while she’s wearing all that. Who knows how many pins and whale-bones are in there.”
“Just rip her clothes off, then!” goaded Valeria. Elisabetta started struggling so suddenly and fiercely that I almost dropped her.
I returned Valeria to the tabletop, grabbed my wine cup and drained it, then stood Elisabetta on the table and contained her with my inverted cup. Fresh cries of outrage indicated I probably didn’t get all the wine.
I rested my forearms on the table and lowered my head to get a closer look at Valeria while she giggled at Elisabetta’s predicament.
“So you really wanted to come all this way to…get married?” I asked.
She clasped her hands behind her back and made a coquettish sweep with one foot. “I had to! You have no idea how stifling that court is.”
“But your family. Your friends.”
“None of them could ever hold me as you just did.” She caressed my pinky with her soft shoe.
I didn’t know what was happening. She was close enough to smell. “What is that,” I asked, “some sort of flower?”
She narrowed her eyes and smiled. “Honeysuckle.”
I said nothing for several moments. “You know,” I said finally, “I half-expected them to put a seamstress in a fancy dress and try to pass her off as a princess. I wouldn’t have known the difference.”
“Three months is more than enough time for me to improve your appreciation,” she said. “With your permission.”
Before I could say another word, she stepped forward and kissed me on the tip of my nose.
I slowly lifted my head and sat back in my chair, stretching out my arms before linking my fingers behind my head. I watched helplessly as Valeria kicked off her shoes, walked to the edge of the table, hiked up her dress, sat and dangled her bare legs over the edge before crossing them and clasping her top knee with her hands.
I still had no idea what I had gotten into. All I knew was that it was time for dessert.
As you can see, almost all the cuts/revisions came at the beginning of the story. Unusually, in this case I can pinpoint the precise single decision that led to the entire revision. It was this tweet by Aborigen that pointed out that Gorj’s narration/inner monologue helped describe his character, but more to me than to my readers. Once I took this preamble all the way to the end of the story (I always had a clearer idea of my destination than my starting point), I knew who Gorj was and I could revise the beginning, cutting it by two-thirds.
I’m still chuffed.