Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




The Legend of XI Cygnus

In the fall sky, not long after sundown, you may see Cygnus the swan, which the Greeks called Ornis. In its right wing is the small yellow star that the Arabs (the only people to have named it as far as I know) call Gienah. Its legend is ancient, having reached us at the speed of light.

A small world circling that star was ruled by a giant. To be sure, he was not such a giant as we have here, a giant with eyes and arms and legs all like a man’s, only larger. But he was a giant indeed among his own kind, both huge and strong, and so we will call him that. Like most giants, he was inclined to be tolerant and rather lazy; but like other giants, too, he could be roused to anger, and his size and strength were so great that when thus roused he was terrible indeed. The legend concerns him, his life, and his death.

There was, upon the world ruled by this giant, a race of Dwarves, numerous, malevolent, and proud, much given to cruel jests and small thefts, the bane of the Centaurs, the Sylphs, the Demons, and all the other peoples of that world, detested and feared. And so it was that when the giant had at last unified it under his rule, he punished these Dwarves severely, to the applause of all those whom they had so long vexed and despoiled. Their fortresses, castles, citadels, and other strong places he pulled down, so that they might no longer mock their neighbors from their ramparts. Into the many mouths of their mines (which were rich and extensive, and very deep) he directed the waters of a hundred rivers and streams.

Nor was that all. He burned their towns and villages, gave over their flocks and their herds to the bears and the wolves, returned their fields to the herbs and the thronging wildflowers from which they had been taken, and set free the bondsmen who had worked them. Lastly, he caused all of the Dwarves to be counted; and finding them too many, with his own hand he slew every tenth.

This done, he declared their chastisement at an end; but in order that they might never return to their evil ways, he made them his slaves; to sweep and scrub his palace; hoe and manure his flower beds; catch, cook, and serve his food; and answer his door; and very busy he kept them, that they might have no time for evildoing.

That they hated him goes without saying. Whispering one to another while they labored, by nod and wink and gesture and secret word, they brewed the First Plot. Thus it was that one cold winter night, while the giant slept, a hundred of their largest, strongest, and most courageous entered his bedchamber with scythes, cleavers, pruning hooks, pickaxes, and such-like implements. Five stood at each foot to cut the tendon there, and five more at each hand. Forty took their places upon his belly, ready at the signal agreed-upon to plunge their weapons into his vitals. On either side of his neck there waited twenty more, the chiefs and bullies of the whole hundred, to cut the giant’s throat. On them was the greatest reliance placed.

When each was well positioned, the strongest and slyest of them all gave the signal. His trumpeter put lip to horn and blew a mighty blast; and at the sound, all hundred struck as one. Then were broadaxe and hatchet laid to tendon, and sickle, shears, and saw to artery! Scarlet blood spurted to the ceiling of that high chamber, till every Dwarf was dyed with it, and the sheet, and coverlet, and pillow, too, until the tallest stood knee deep in the hot reeking rush of it, and those small creatures that dwell in the blood of those who live upon that world of the star called by Arabs Gienah clambered out of it, rosy or pale, and clung to the skirts, and beards, and faces of the Dwarves, murmuring and muttering with soft tongues in an unknown speech, and in that fashion saying many things that no one could know.

Then the giant waked, and rose roaring. Those Dwarves who were yet in his bedchamber when he slammed shut its great door, he slew. And when day came, he most carefully examined all the rest, blinding any upon whom he discovered the least trace of his blood. And lastly, he declared an end to the stipend he had previously granted to each Dwarf for bread and meat. Thenceforward, they were made to beg those who had been their victims in times past for peelings and state crusts, and were made to work harder than ever, toiling for the giant from the first light of the star that the Arabs call Gienah until the last stall in the market closed.

That they hated him goes without saying. Year followed year, and in all those years there came not a night in which they did not dream of murder. To their children and their grandchildren they whispered of revenge about the fire, and they painted their doorposts and lintels with certain uncouth signs, red or black, whose signification they themselves well understood.

At last the giant grew old. His step was no longer so quick as it had been, nor his voice so loud, nor his eyes so keen. He fell ill, and when word of it went abroad, Shee and Sidhe, Fairy and Sprite, Kobold, Nisse, and Centaur, Goblin and Demon trooped to his palace, bringing with them gifts they hoped might bring him pleasure: Hams smoked with rare woods, so great in size that no champion of the Trolls could lift one to his shoulder; tuns brimming with wine, ale, and strong beer; salt whales, their tails in their mouths, with pickled melons for eyes; perfumes in crystal and incense in thuribles hollowed from diamonds, and with these many meadows of blossoms: yellow, red, incarnadine, mauve, and celestine. And weapons of hammered steel, chased with gold. The old giant received them in the Great Court and blessed them, smiled upon them, spoke with them for a time, and sent them away. Sadly they returned to their own homes and countries, there to pray for him, and sacrifice, and sing.

But the Dwarves, seeing how many, and how vast and rich, were the gifts that had been brought him, and seeing too that he himself was no longer the great and terrible foe of whom their fathers had spoken, then contrived the Second Plot.

And when the last Nixie had departed, leaving behind her gift of silver foam, and the giant dozed in his chair, they heaped about it all the wood that they could gather—that which had been meant to feed the palace fires, and furniture, and precious painted carvings, too, the work of the great xyloglyphists of old, whereby might be seen many a figure quaint yet imbued with a curious grace, and even the sticks and stumps of their own huts, with all their thatching and daubed doorposts. And to all this mass, which at last rose higher than the giant’s waist, they put fire in a score of places.

So terrified were they of the giant, that the first had fled before the last torch was applied. Yet some few stayed behind to watch—a dozen (or so the legend reports) through the crevice of a certain door, half a hundred peering between the petals and leaves of the hills of blossoms, each thinking himself or herself alone.

Up climbed the smoke, and the flames after it. Burned through, some accidental prop in the mountainous pile of heaped wood broke, and half the whole shifted with a grinding roar, so that a column of sparks vied for a time with all the watching stars.

At last the giant stirred, and blinked, and closed his great, slow eyes again. Perhaps he heard the twittering of the Dwarves’ distress through the crackling of the flames. Perhaps not. However that may have been, it is certain that he shouted so loudly that the very walls of his palace shook, rose and kicked the fire apart, and with a half-burned brand for a club hunted and slew all he found that night, battering the trees till showers of Dwarves dropped like ripe fruit, and stamping, stamping, stamping, until scarcely one of the fallen Dwarves still drew breath.

When the kindly light of that star which the Arabs called Gienah returned, however, he took to his bed, and summoned physicians from among the Centaurs, who are famous healers. These buttered his many burns with ointments, peered into his eyes, examined his great tongue as so many merchants might a carpet, and stamped upon his chest in order that each might know for himself, through all his feet, the beating of that mighty heart.

And when all that had been done, they shook their heads, and spoke brave words of comfort and encouragement, and went away.

For eight days and eight nights, those Dwarves who yet lived waited outside the giant’s bedchamber door with food and drink, and spoke among themselves of poisons (though none dared to fetch them), and turned back such Peris, Ouphes, and Titans as would have brought the giant comfort if they could. On the ninth day, however, a great Worm, white and blind and thicker through the body than any Dwarf, wriggled from beneath the door of the giant’s bedchamber.

They entered, first a few pushed forward by the rest, and afterward the whole of them, or rather all that remained alive. This they called the Third Plot. They climbed his sheets, explored the great foul cavern of his open mouth, danced clogs and reels where the Centaurs had stamped, and pierced and slashed his blind eyes again and again with hedge bills and pokers. Then they carved those rude signs that they had aforetime scrawled upon their own doorposts and lintels into the dead giant’s forehead, and nose, and cheeks, slicing away the putrescent flesh with their knives until each sign stood out boldly in sullen, weeping crimson. And when the last had been cut deep, they emptied their bowels and bladders wherever they stood, each boasting of what he had done, and where he had done it, and telling the rest how in years to come Dwarf children yet unborn would learn, when they were come to the age of understanding, what he, their ancestor had once done, and glory in it.

Thus they were speaking when the thundrous voice came. So mighty it was that it filled every hall and chamber of the palace; and its first word dashed the pictures from the walls so that their crash and smash added to the roar, though they were lost in it.

Its second word broke all the crockery in the palace and set the shards to sliding like screes of stones, so that they burst open cabinets and cupboards and descended to the floors in avalanches.

Its third word toppled all the statues along the broad avenue that led up to the Great Gate; its fourth stopped the fountain and snapped off both arms of the marble nymph who blessed the waters; and its fifth cracked the basin itself.

Its sixth, seventh and eighth words maddened every cat in the place, struck dead seventeen bat-winged black rooks of the flock that swept the sky about the Grand Campanile, and set all the bells to ringing.

Its ninth soured every cask in the cellars, while its tenth word stove them in. Its eleventh stopped the clocks and started the hounds to howling.

Its twelfth and last (which was an especially big word) knocked the Dwarves off their feet and sent every one of them rolling and somersaulting amongst all their foulnesses while they held their ears and screeched.

And what that voice said was, “What vermin are these who dare defile the body of a Giant?”

Oh, my friends! Let us of this star, who are ourselves but Dwarves, heed well the warning.

© 1992 by Gene Wolfe.
First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,
from the author’s collection, Innocents Aboard.
Reprinted by permission of the author
and the author’s agent, the Virginia Kidd Agency, Inc.

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Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe—who is perhaps best known for his multi-volume epic, The Book of the New Sun—is the author of more than 200 short stories and thirty novels, is a two-time winner of the Nebula Award, a four-time winner of the World Fantasy Award, and was once praised as “the greatest writer in the English Language alive today” by author Michael Swanwick. His most recent novels are An Evil Guest, The Sorcerer’s House, and Home Fires.