The Small Man and the Largeby Alexandr
Entire Fiction (2002)
Roger turned silently in the middle of the small clearing, his last arrow at the ready in his bow, and surveyed the dense forest around him with a practiced eye. The wispy fingers of the wind caused leaves to rustle and branches to bend so as to taunt him, goad him to waste the arrow. Every movement drew his attention, and the failing sunlight did its part to trick his eyes, but he would not fire his dart until he knew that it would claim his hidden prize.
He had to catch it! It was the first sizable creature he'd seen in weeks, and he needed it; no man can survive solely on rabbits and berries for too long. He was hungry and weak, and didn't think that he would live long enough to find another animal big enough for a good meal if this one, whatever it was, escaped him.
A snap of a twig to the left, the stirring of brush, and two light footfalls. Roger spun to look. Through the thick wall of trees, he sighted the creature waddling away as quickly as its two short legs would carry it. It glanced back. Roger let the arrow fly. The animal dived to the ground. As fast as lightning, the arrow soared over the thing and was lost noisily in the thicket.
Swearing, Roger pulled his belt knife and plunged into the trees to try where his arrow had failed. He cursed his large body-though he was thinner than usual for lack of proper food, he was still bigger than most men-which made it difficult to pass through the dense wood, and his already torn clothing caught and ripped on tree limbs, slowing his pace. His bad leg, the result of an old injury, also worked against him. Still, though, he advanced. The creature stared at him as it climbed to its feet, its eyes wide with dread and panic. Then, as Roger was almost upon it, it dashed up a tall tree.
Roger groaned angrily, pounding his fist against the tree. "Come down here! Damn you, I'm hungry! Come down!" His gruff voice sounded weaker than usual, even to him. He needed the food badly. He hit the tree twice more, then leaned on it with a sigh.
A long moment of silence, then: "There's plenty of food out here, you know. I don't see why you need to eat me."
Roger jumped away from the tree with a start. Above his head, the source of the squeaky voice sat on a branch: a half-size man with stubby limbs and a head that was too big for its round body. His hair was unkempt, his clothing torn, and his skin green.
"If you want," the thing continued in a high falsetto-like tone that should have been funny, "I can help you find something to eat."
Roger's body was so tense that it shook. It was talking! The thing can talk! That changed everything. You can't eat something that can talk to you!
With a deep breath, Roger composed himself. During his years of service in the Imperial Military, he had learned how to deal with shock. Having one's hunted prey begin to speak was certainly unusual, but he had seen frightening things in his time. This was mundane in comparison. He decided that he should try to respond.
But when Roger glanced back up at the branch he found the creature gone. He was both disappointed and angered by that; he had wanted to investigate further, and the half-man had offered to help him find food.
With a sigh and a growling stomach, Roger tucked his knife back into its leather sheath at his belt and made his way back to the small clearing. Once there, he saw the pink-orange clouds that denoted the western sky at sunset and, having found his bearings, turned back into the woods on his way south.
After twenty minutes it was pitch dark, and Roger decided that he should have stayed to camp in the clearing for the night. The forest closed in on him, so thick from top to bottom that he could see neither his own feet through the underbrush nor the stars through the canopy. It did not scare him, for he had traveled through the forest by many a night, but it did make the going difficult. He stumbled on blindly and thought about whether it would be good or bad to find an animal to hunt at that hour.
He had been moving for some time when he saw the flickering light in the distance through the thick forest. A fire, he guessed, and began to move toward it. He knew not who or what he would find there, but it did not take him long to decide that he would rather take his chances by a fire than die tired and cold and hungry in the woods that night. The closer he got, the faster he moved. His leg ached and his stomach burned with hunger. He did not bother to investigate before bursting into the small clearing in which the fire burned.
There were two small, roughly made wooden spits, each suspending a poultry bird of some kind over the fire. The birds were almost finished cooking; with their flesh nicely browned, they were the best sight Roger had ever laid eyes on.
Turning the small spits was the green half-man. He looked across the clearing at Roger. "Chickenlips," he said, gesturing at the birds. "They're good. Come on, there's more here than I can eat myself."
Roger knew that he should be more careful, but he was too hungry to care. The half-man had not given him cause to worry, anyway. He crossed the clearing in only four steps and sat across the fire from the other creature. "Thanks," was all he could think to say.
The half-man waved a hand. "It's nothing. Like I said, there's plenty of food out here, but maybe I'm better at catching it than you. I'm used to it, I guess. But when you were chasing me, I thought, 'There's a guy who looks like he could use a good meal.' And now, I see how right I was."
Roger had to chuckle. "I see. Do I look bad?" He looked at his body, and saw for the first time how his dirty clothing hung from him as if they had never fit at all. His pants were nothing but tattered shreds from the knees down, and his shirt had its share of rips and holes. His arms were thin. They were still muscular, but the bulky muscles he had once been proud to possess had become lean and sinewy. He supposed his chest had probably changed as well, but he had not removed his shirt in weeks.
The half-man stood and waddled to a small pack leaning on a rock. He pulled out a small black object, opened it, and brought it to Roger. "Here, look at your face and tell me you don't look hungry."
Roger took the mirror, but barely recognized the man he saw in it. His dark brown hair, grown shaggy and to his shoulders, was black with dirt. His black beard had grown in thick-not to mention uneven-but even it could not mask how thin his face had become. His once rock-hard soldier's face had become gaunt and bony. His eyes were darker and deeper in his face, and his high cheekbones stood out with the dark skin pulled tightly around them.
When the half-man laughed out loud, Roger realized that he had a look of shock on his face. "Okay, so I need a haircut," he said dryly.
"I'd say you could use a bath and a shave, too," said the green creature. He brought a small fork and a butter knife from his pack, then removed the spits from the fire and placed them on a flat rock beside where he was seated. He began sawing the chickenlips from the spits with the butter knife.
"Here," said Roger. He pulled his belt knife and held it out handle-first. "Use this. It's sharper."
The half-man threw down the butter knife and took the larger blade. "Thank-you, sir." Then he extended his hand to Roger with a wide smile. "I am Hans, once-and-future Captain of the First South Figaro Infantry Regiment."
Roger bellowed, a laugh that echoed through the forest. "You? A soldier? A Captain?"
Hans' smile quavered. "Once, yes. Right now, I'm . . . temporarily disabled."
Roger laughed again. "I see." He took Hans' hand. The half-man's hand was less than half the size of Roger's, but his handshake was strong and firm. "I'm Roger, once-and-hopefully-never-again vanguard officer in the Imperial Military."
Hans chuckled. "Ah, a soldier of the Empire, eh? I guess that makes us enemies!" Roger's eyes narrowed, and Hans shook his head quickly. "No, no, I'm just joking. I guess we're both 'off duty' right now. Hah. And as such, I think we can enjoy a meal together." Hans went back to cutting the meat from the spits. The knife was a bit large for his hands, but he held it competently nevertheless. "So, a vanguard officer, eh?" He chortled again. "That's certainly not the most secure job one can find in the army."
"Well, someone has to do it," Roger said. "It's important. I was a member of the vanguard in seven major battles during the war. Three against Figaro, four against Doma." He laughed loudly again. "It was actually easier when we was against Doma. Leadin' the charge against a bunch of ninja guys with swords, I don't care how good they are, is better than going in against those auto-bow-arrow things."
Hans smiled. "Seven major battles at the forefront, and you are still here to tell about it. That's impressive."
Roger nodded. "Yeah, I survived 'em. But I had some close calls, don't you think I didn't! Yes, I was left for dead three times. Three!
"My first battle, up at Widgar's Ridge in Figaro, I took three auto-arrow . . . whatever them things are called, I took three arrows from one. Lucky for me, only one of 'em got through my hard leather, and that one didn't hit anything in me to kill me. I got hit in the head and fell, and everyone thought me dead and passed me over! But I came to in time to see the end of the battle, I did!
"The second time was in a smaller conflict I was in, not one of them seven major ones. Up in Doma, we were pushin' through to take the bridge across to the Castle. They was trying to build a holdfast by the bridge, and we came on them. The sly buggers decided to use these explosives they had, for clearing rocks where the keep was to be built, and I was right there when one of the things went off. Had bad burns all over my left arm and body, I did. I still got the scars, too. I was down and my fellas thought there was no way I coulda' survived it, but after the battle they found me alive and picked me up. I was in bad shape, but I wouldn't let 'em send me back home! I was out of action and sweeping out barracks for a year and a half, but I didn't get sent home!"
Hans put down the knife and handed Roger a piece of the chickenlips meat, then took a bite of his own chunk. "It seems that you were the kind of warrior that every army looks for."
"You're damn right!" Roger announced, bits of meat flying from his mouth.
Hans smiled. "And the third time?"
Roger's pride seemed to wane. After a pause, and another two bites of meat, he spoke. "In my last battle, we were tryin' to force our way toward South Figaro. We had divided the army; one part marched down around the mountains, and the other part, the part I was in, went through the mountain caves. We thought they were expecting the whole army to go around, and they'd send their whole force to meet it, but when we got to the cave we met a whole host on the way from the Desert Castle to the city. We was surprised, but we had to fight them, so we organized as fast as we could. They came on us and we was forced back towards the foothills. Our commander decided that we had to try n' run back around them, or try n' lure them away from gettin' through the caves to help defend against our other army. Either way, we had to break through them. So they formed a vanguard and everyone else in groups to drive through, and sent the vanguard through first. I was in that, of course. We ran toward them and I made it through the arrows, but after a while I took down a mounted guy, and his chocobo fell on me. I was out cold, an' when the battle ended, and we won somehow, they were going over the field lookin' for hurt guys and all they saw of me was a foot or something stickin' out from under a big bird.
"After a while, I came to and crawled out, and I was hurt and everyone was gone. I had a broken leg an' I had to splint it myself with the shaft of a spear. I still got a limp from that."
Hans was on his third piece of meat already. "You have had an exciting career, sir. Your journey back to your comrades after that must have been long and hard."
"Actually," said Roger as he chewed, "that was when I left the army."
"Left the army?" Hans raised an eyebrow. "I was not aware that you could just leave the army in the Empire."
"Well, as to that . . ." Roger coughed deliberately before finishing the sentence. "You can't. But I did anyways. I didn't follow the army. I went to South Figaro. The Empire was occupying it, so I snuck around so no one would recognize me. I got on a ship with some smugglers and sailed to a little port up near those mountains east of Albrook, where they always find them weird rocks. And seein' as I didn't have no money to get a chocobo or anything, I started walking to Maranda."
"I see." Hans had finished eating and was leaning back against a large stone. You're from Maranda, then?"
Roger nodded. He had not finished eating; he took a bite out of his eighth chunk of meat. "Yeah. I got me a girlfriend there, too. We had a kid, and we was going to get married before I got called away to serve in the war. That was, what? Seven years ago, now? Somethin' like that." He reached for another piece of meat. When he looked up, he saw Hans' large yellow eyes fixed on his, full of pity and sadness. "What?"
Hans sighed. "I suppose you plan to return to your life as you left it? Marry that girl and raise your kid, and have others, and lead a happy life together?"
Roger nodded with a smile. "You know, I never really wanted that when I was a kid. I always wanted to go off and be a warrior. But now that I've been in the war, there's nothing I want more than a peaceful life with a family and everything other men have."
"Seven years is a long time, Roger."
Roger looked up at Hans. "It's not really that long, in the grand scheme of things."
Hans shook his head. "It's long enough. Do you really think that things will be the same when you return home?"
Roger blinked. "What do you mean?"
"Things change," Hans replied with a shrug. "People change."
"Well yeah, I've changed," Roger said, "but like I said, I am ready to go back and start again."
"What about everyone else? Your woman? Will she be waiting for you still? Has she not changed?"
That stunned Roger. He had never considered that. "We were going to get married . . . and she'd wait. She's that kinda' person, you know, who is loyal and everything."
"You mean, she was that kind of person."
Roger felt uncomfortable under Hans' gaze; the half-man was staring a hole in his soul.
Hans turned his face away. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be saying things like that. I'm sure you'll find that she'll be happy to take you back."
Roger regained his confidence from those words, and pushed the doubt out of his mind. "Yeah. So, tell me about yourself! How did someone like . . . well, pardon me, but . . . someone like you, ya' know . . . how did you get to being a soldier, a Captain? And why are you out here now?"
Hans rose with a sigh and made his way to his pack. He pulled a bottle from a pocket in the bag and returned to his spot. He plopped back down on the ground, opened the bottle, took a long drink, and offered it to Roger. "My story is . . . unusual."
Roger lowered the bottle from his own mouth. "Unusual? How so?"
Hans leaned back against his rock. "I was not always . . . like this." He gestured at his large, green face and at his stubby legs. "Once upon a time, I was a man like any other. Six feet tall, chestnut hair that reached to my shoulders, fair skin. Women loved me. And I loved one of them in return." He took another drink from the bottle. "I was skilled with a sword, more so than all but a few of the other men I trained with in my youth and at the military academies I attended. It was not natural talent, really; I had to work harder than everyone else.
"When the war broke out against the Empire, I, like most young men-indeed, like yourself-jumped at the chance to go and fight like a hero in a story. I left my lady love, who I had planned to marry, and rushed to battle. I made a name for myself and eventually they made me a field commander, and after a few months at that, a Captain in rank.
"One day, we sailed for the Empire, to take the war to its shores. I, and about twenty thousand others in a fleet of ships. We landed in secret and established ourselves there, and with the element of surprise working in our favour, we took a lot of territory almost unopposed. When we laid siege to the city of Maranda, though, we found them prepared to defend it. The siege was long, but eventually the fighting went against them. Or so we thought. I led a company into the city itself when we finally broke through the walls, and there were legions of Imperial soldiers there to meet us, thousands more than we had expected to find. They squashed us. I, along with a few others, had to run for scape. Those few others were tracked down and killed or captured, as far as I know. Only I escaped."
There was a pause. Roger took a drink, said, "Well, what did you do then?"
"Well," replied Hans, "like you, I didn't return to my army. It appeared to me that we were being overrun. The Empire's soldiers outnumbered ours by about four to one. Many of my comrades were running as I had, so I took off." He chuckled. "I found out later that they regrouped and continued the siege, and eventually took the city. I'll never know how they did it." He took another drink. "I now wish that I had stayed, of course. But, that's the way life is.
"Anyway, I was alone in enemy territory. I dared not run back to the region we had conquered, for I felt sure that the Empire would soon retake it. So, I wandered blindly for a while, hiding from the Imperial forces. After about two weeks, I stumbled upon a small abbey, the home of a few old monks who did not care for the wars of the outside world. I claimed sanctuary there, and they took me in."
Roger shot Hans an incredulous look. "You lived in a monastery? By the gods, man, how did you survive? They don't allow drink, or gambling, or women! How could ya' stand it?"
Hans laughed quietly. "That's what I thought too, at first, but it was not bad. I soon learned that going without drink is not difficult when you're concentrating on other things, and I've never gambled much. I found companionship among the monks, and other than that, a woman offers little that a man cannot find in his own right hand." Roger laughed more loudly than ever at that. Hans just smiled. "At first, they assigned me simple tasks, such as cleaning and cooking and whatnot. But the longer I stayed, the more fascinated I became with the monks' studies. I learned much about history from them, and about ancient languages and peoples and customs. But most interesting was their mystic arts."
Roger guffawed at that. "You mean magic? Peh. I'm sorry, but I've never really gone in for that kinda' thing."
Hans shrugged. "Most people don't believe in magic, but it exists as surely as you or I."
Roger snickered again, after he had taken a drink from the bottle. "Then show me what they taught you."
"I'm afraid I can't," sighed Hans.
"Oh, really?" Roger laughed. "That's too bad."
"You see," Hans explained, "eventually I longed for the life I had left behind, specifically the love who said that she'd wait for me. So, I suppose you were right: I couldn't handle life without a woman." He sighed heavily. Roger could see that these memories were becoming difficult for Hans to dwell on. "I told the monks that I wanted to leave. But by that time, I had been there for almost four years, and they had taught me much about magic, secrets that they believed to be unsafe for anyone in the outside world to know. They decided that they could let me leave, but they took measures to ensure that I could not use any of the magic they had taught me." He paused, then: "As a side-effect of the spell they cast on me, I was turned into an imp."
Roger lowered the bottle from his mouth. It was almost empty. "That's terrible!" His speech was beginning to slur. He feared that he was becoming drunk. "They ruined you!"
Hans shook his head. "No, that's not what ruined me. I stowed away on a trade ship and made my way to South Figaro, where I searched for my lady. I don't know what I was thinking; who would welcome an imp into her home, let alone into her life and her bed? But search for her I did, and I found her. In the arms of another man, a merchant. They were married, wealthy, and had four children." He was almost in tears. "I did not speak to her. I didn't even let her see me, or know that I had ever been there. I simply went back to the docks, sneaked aboard the trade ship, and returned here. I believe she thinks I was killed in the siege against Maranda.
"I returned to the abbey, but the monks would not have me back. They said that if I could not resist the lure of the outside once, I would not be able to resist it when it called again. So, I ran into the forest, and here I have lived alone for nearly two years."
Hans took the bottle and drew the last bit of drink from it. "And that's my story."
Roger couldn't have thought of anything to say, were he not a bit tipsy. "Wow. You must be completely crushed. So, you're just going to stay here forever?"
Hans laughed aloud for the first time. Roger thought the high-pitched squeak should have been funny, but it wasn't.
"No," said Hans. "No, I will not stay here forever! Only a broken fool would! Yes, it was a hard blow I took, and I am at a bit of a disadvantage, but I will rise above it. Though I may not look the part, I am a real man, and a real man does not let unfortunate circumstances dictate how he will live his life!" Hans stood up. "I am a man, and someday I will look like one again."
Sitting on the ground, Roger could almost look the standing imp in the eye, and yet he felt dwarfed. "Do you have a plan?"
"Well, the Imp spell can only be reversed by having a Mage cast the spell on me again, or by a rare fruit, the Green Cherry." Hans chuckled. "Since you are no Mage, sir . . . you don't happen to have any Green Cherries, do you?"
"No," Roger replied with a snicker of his own. "If I had Green Cherries to eat, I wouldn't have been chasing after a little green man."
Hans laughed at that. "Hmm. Green Cherries grow only in the north, around Narshe. Some stores import them here, but no one will sell to a, imp!" He turned and stared off to the north. Roger looked too, and saw only trees. "My plan, Roger, is to sneak onto a ship, just as before, and make my way to Narshe. There, I can get a Green Cherry, become a full man again, and build a new life for myself. It is a simple enough plan. I don't know why I haven't done it yet."
Roger's eyes were heavy suddenly. Yes, he had consumed too much drink. "Well, you can do it tomorrow," he said stupidly.
Hans laughed gleefully. "Yes! I shall! Tomorrow, we shall both set out. In different directions, of course; you to Maranda, me to Albrook. You shall have your life, and I shall win mine back!" Hans glanced down and saw that Roger was barely awake. "But I see that, perhaps, it is time for sleep now. You seem tired. And drunk. Well, just sleep there anywhere. Tomorrow will be a long day for both of us, for we . . ."
Roger was fast asleep before Hans finished.
Roger had never been so anxious and excited and nervous all at once. Days had passed since he had exchanged parting words with the imp, and once the hangover had passed some doubt lingered in his mind with regard to his arrival home. Hans had found his love with another man. What if the same happened to Roger?
But the doubt was gone, now. Roger had entered Maranda and, after noticing some strange looks from people, had found a place where he could take a cheap bath and some clean clothes for the few gold pieces he had in his pockets. His hair was clean and cut, his beard trimmed. His clothes were plain grey wool, but far better than what he'd had. He had no money left, but that didn't matter.
He had asked around the city for information about his wife-to-be, Maria. The information he'd received had led him to one of a row of small houses in the poorer part of town. She doesn't deserve this, he thought. Soon, I will give her a real home.
He stood before the door for a time and thought. At length, he decided that waiting would achieve nothing. He straightened his collar and knocked on the door.
A big man answered the door. He had the look of a man who had served years as manual labourer; a stout build, rough features, lines on his sunburned face making him appear older than he probably was. "Yes?" he said.
"Is Maria here?"
The man's eyes narrowed. "Who wants to know?"
Roger took a deep breath. "My name is Roger Gaynor. I am Maria's boyfriend. We are to be married."
The big man pulled the door opened and stepped out, filling the doorway. "Is that so? Well, my name is Barry Cullmore. I am Maria's husband. We have been married."
Roger shook his head. "No. I think there's been a mistake. Perhaps I am at the wrong house. May I speak with Maria?"
"Barry? Who is it?" Her voice came from inside the house, as if in response to Roger's request. Moments later, she appeared in the doorway. Maria, just as he remembered her. Older, perhaps a bit heavier, but it was her.
"It's me, Maria. Roger!"
There was an awkward silence. Roger could see that she knew him. Why did it take so long for her to respond?
"Roger is dead. Go away."
Roger laughed, shook his head. "No, I am not dead! I'm here, and I want to marry you!"
Maria swallowed a sob. "He's dead!" A child of about four years shuffled up to the door and grabbed Maria's leg as she spoke. "Go away! If you don't, my husband will take you away."
Roger moved to hug her, but Barry pushed him back. He tried again, and was shoved with more force. His third try ended with Barry's fist in his face.
Roger groaned on the ground, the wind knocked out of him and his nose obviously broken. He rose to speak, but found the door closed. He knocked, but there was no answer. He knocked again, and again, and again.
Then, he walked away.
He walked out of Maranda through the massive gate, and along the road until he could no longer see the city. Then he left the path and wandered into the forest. He moved for an hour or so, before stopping o rest on a rock. He coughed, pulled out his belt knife, plunged it into his chest, and fell to the ground.
My life is over, he thought, so I might as well die.
Somewhere in a cold cavern deep beneath a mountain, an imp stumbled upon a cache of Green Cherries. He moved to grab one, but before he could reach them a huge beast, all white fur and black eyes, leapt out of the darkness and slapped him away from the fruits. The imp hurried to hide, and waited behind a rock until the creature was asleep. Then he sneaked out and made for the cherries again, but the beast jerked to life and chased the imp out of the cavern.
So, the imp looked somewhere else. He found a shrub bearing green fruits on the mountain. He picked one, held it in his hands, and ate it. It did nothing, for it was not a Green Cherry.
So, the imp looked elsewhere. Eventually, he came to a warehouse behind a shop in a city. In a small crate at the back, he found them. He picked one up, held it in his hands, and then dropped it in his haste as he jumped out the window to escape the angry shop owner.
So, the imp looked elsewhere. One day, he was cornered in a shed by a woman who was knowledgeable in the fields of healing and lore. She knew him for an imp, knew that imps were really men, and knew the spell to cast. She cast it, and met a man with whom she shared the rest of her life.
Who was the bigger man?