Chapter 13
Bear Attack

Gypsy Woods, Byrn; Anno Regis 1285

"There are men who are more than men. They do great deeds and inspire legends. Then there are men who are nothing but beasts in the guise of men. They are the inspiration for nightmares." --Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Sven Leifson's detachment spent five days in the herder village of Falko before moving on to sweep Byrn's southern border. Although the Gypsy village in the forest was not technically a part of Byrn, the King had ordered its destruction nevertheless. But before that could happen, Sven had to wipe out the Dragon Guard's presence along the border and devoted a week to leveling the three watchposts skirting the forest. Once they were out of the way, he was free to launch his incursion into the Gypsy Woods.
Sven was in a foul mood because his broken leg kept him out of action. His poor temperament was only made worse as the five hundred-man detachment wandered aimlessly in the woods for days without the slightest clue as to where to find their quarry. On the fourth day, his limited patience was all but worn out when scouts finally discovered the location of the Gypsy village.
On any other day, Sven would destroy the village outright, but the pain in his leg made his temper worse. If he had to watch the destruction from the sidelines, so would the rest of his men. He had an idea to make a proper spectacle, but he needed to borrow a couple of the King's special operatives. The day they reached the village, he got word that the King had accepted his request. Tomorrow would be quite the show.

* * *

The Roma were an insular people. They kept to themselves and limited their contact with outsiders as much as possible. The tribe living in the Gypsy Woods was especially disinclined to mix with either the Byrnans to the north or the Nemerites to the south. Only a select few would venture out to make a living off the gadje and bring back goods they could not make themselves.
The curios they brought back were always good for the amusement of the other villagers. Every now and then, they brought something especially interesting. One of them in particular was known for his ability to entertain his fellow Roma.
Nicabar always went above and beyond the usual knickknacks. He perhaps spent a little too much time around the gadje, but he was always able to placate the elders with his returns. Three months ago he treated the village to the spectacle of bear-baiting. How he got his hands on a live bear remained a popular topic of gossip. Today he would top that performance.
As he approached the village, a crowd gathered and the usual greetings were exchanged. The villagers kept their distance so as not to share in Nicabar's marimé from his contact with the gadje, but once he was cleansed and his wuzho status restored, they would not need to be so distant. He knew it was nothing personal and his mood was as genial as ever.
"You're going to love what I have for you this time, my friends," he said. "You'll forget all about that bear after this."
"Whatever could it be, Nicabar?" a Rom asked.
"Not since the days of legend has the eyes of Rom or gadjo witnessed such a creature. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you... the Giant!"
There was a collective gasp from man and woman alike when out of the forest lumbered a truly astonishing sight. Clothed in furs and leather, it was the shape of a man but the look of a beast. Nearly a fathom and a half from head to toe, it easily dwarfed even the tallest Rom.
If its size was not intimidating enough, its face made it even more frightful. It looked more like a gargoyle than a man to begin with, but that was just for starters. The whole right side was covered in burn scars. The dividing line between the burnt and unburnt sides was a long scar that ran from forehead to chin, an old, deep cut that claimed the Giant's right eye.
Nicabar raised his hands to calm to restive crowd. "Don't worry, friends. He looks fearsome, but he's quite harmless. Now let me give you a demonstration of the Giant's great strength. Look at the club he carries."
The villagers' attention was drawn to the large club the Giant dragged along the ground. It looked like a tree trunk pared down at the end to make a suitable handle. The heavy club bristled with twisted iron spikes. Truly it was an appropriately fearsome weapon for such a frightening creature.
Nicabar made a hand gesture and the Giant dropped his club. The Romany showman motioned for his fellows to come forward.
"Any Rom who thinks himself strong, come forward and try to lift the club. If you can raise it even a hairsbreadth off the ground, I'll give you ten gold coins."
A few of the bolder and burlier men took Nicabar's challenge. Not one of them came even remotely close to lifting the Giant's club. Nicabar smiled broadly.
"Don't be discouraged, my friends," he said. "This says nothing of your own strength. This club is over ten stones in weight. Balanced as it is, no normal man can lift it. Now, watch what the Giant can do."
Nicabar made another hand gesture that prompted the Giant to pick up its club. It lifted the club so effortlessly that it astounded everyone in the crowd. The Giant went on to demonstrate a variety of swings, the momentum so great that even the Giant itself seemed to be taken slightly off balance trying to control it.
Amid the applause of the impressed audience, Nicabar continued, "Imagine what this weapon could do to a man. Bones would shatter like glass. A terrible sight to be sure." He paused as a devious grin crossed his lips. "Allow me to show you."
Nicabar pointed at one of the men who had tried to lift the club. Without hesitating, the Giant brought its club down on the hapless Rom, crushing him like an insect. It took a moment for the stunned crowd to react. A woman screamed. Panic and outrage took over.
"What have you done!?" a man cried.
Nicabar's grin did not fade. "I'm giving you the show of your lives, my friends. Enjoy it while it lasts."
The villagers scattered like mice, screaming in terror as the Giant tore into the crowd. He batted them around like they were nothing, killing three or four with each stroke. The Roma's first instinct was to flee, but the entire village was encircled by gadje soldiers with weapons drawn. They were trapped.
The Giant attacked not only the people, but also the horses and other livestock, the wagons and tents, and even the few permanent structures that had been raised. Nothing was safe from its rampage. Some men plucked up the courage to challenge the Giant, but every last one of them died without landing a single blow. Others tried to rush the cordon and were hacked apart. Death awaited them at all corners.
Within an hour, the work was all but finished. The Giant was not a systematic creature and there was bound to be a few pockets of survivors left. They would soon be taken care of, but for all intents and purposes, the Roma of Gypsy Woods ceased to exist and the gadje soldiers got to enjoy the show of their lives.

* * *

Sven Leifson limped through the ruins of the Gypsy village. His men had already killed off the few Gypsies that the giant Ursus had missed. While they were busy picking through the wreckage for plunder, he approached Algernon, who was still disguised as the Gypsy Nicabar.
"You did well," Sven said.
"Thank you, sir," Algernon said with a bow. "I'm glad you gave me such an interesting assignment. Ursus seemed to enjoy himself as well."
"That's all well and good, but I have some questions for you first."
"You've been back to Gladius, haven't you?"
The spy nodded. "Yes, sir. Why do you ask?"
Sven drew Algernon closer to him. "What news do you have of my son?"
"Lieutenant Svenson is on a special mission hunting down some dangerous criminals," Algernon replied. "You would be proud, sir."
"Don't try to flatter me," Sven warned. "What's really going on?"
The spy paused a moment to make a diplomatic choice of words. "He's had some... setbacks, but true to form, he's... tweaked some of the facts to save face."
"Who knows the truth?"
"Besides a handful of eyewitnesses, only the King and myself. The Captain's wife has been trying to pull strings, but her contacts are not as helpful as my own." Algernon bowed slightly. "Now if you'll excuse me, sir, I have other duties to attend to."
Sven nodded and the spy went on his way. The axeman was glad to know what his son Harald was up to, even if the news was not entirely good. He did not like the maneuvering by Terentius' wife, but things were not yet out of hand. As long as his son's disinformation held up, there was no great threat to their plans. All they needed was the illusion that Harald had dutifully defended the kingdom during the campaign if not the reality. Soon that bumbling incompetent Terentius would be out of the way, leaving his son as the prime candidate to replace him.
With Harald in control of the Gladian Guard, the only remaining obstacle was Cadmus Martial. It was a pity the Savage failed to kill him when he turned traitor. It would have made things so much easier, but Sven would find a way. The command of the Marauders would be his and together with his son, he might even succeed in overthrowing the King himself.
He was careful to temper his ambition, though. As attractive as the crown was, he could stand to be second in the kingdom if it meant surviving to enjoy the fruits of his efforts. He was familiar with many of the grand schemes throughout the ranks of both the Marauders and the Guard. There was only one difference between him and all the others: He would succeed. He was sure of it.