Against the black velvet backdrop of a moonless night, the L’Rikes meteor shower burst into view, looking as though a supernatural giant had suddenly flung handfuls of glittering diamonds across the sky. At the peak of the spectacular pyrotechnic display, a relatively large, luminescent emerald flared to life and plummeted directly downward into the sweetwood forest just beyond the eastern border of the Great Wall.
“No, Tem, you and L’Voli may not watch your father this afternoon at the village square when he petitions the Council of Clerics,” First Mother said with rarely heard sternness. “This will not be a social event. The arguments may become heated. Some in the crowd may grow angry and upset. It won’t be a safe place for younger children—especially you, L’Voli.”
My twin brother argued peevishly: “Mother, that isn’t fair, everyone is going, and we are not really children any longer. We will both be teenagers after the tenth of next month…”
He made a momentary face with his lower lip slightly extended as he gathered himself for another round of pleading.
But First Mother shook her head, her eyes transforming to an intense, almost indigo shade, a dark, piercing look that quickly quelled any further arguments.
After a long silence, she whispered softly in my ear. “Tem, you need to take your brother into the study while Second Mother and I finish preparing the food, which may be needed during the petition reading tomorrow morning. Intrigue him with something exciting on the vid, or perhaps read a favorite book passage with him. But keep him occupied and quiet.”
She moved away, addressing my brother: “L’Voli, you go along now with your sister.”
Moving closer to the hot ovens, her unmasked face retained her concerned expression. I bowed my head, as was customary in deferring to the wishes of First Mother.
L’Voli was only allowed this impertinent breach of propriety because of his affliction. As an infant he’d suffered a series of seizure-like contortions, which resulted in a diagnosis of the dreaded disease L’Raba’s Dance; since then he’d been confined to a wheelchair. But all in the family admired L’Voli because he was not a whiner—he bore his painful condition bravely. Each and every member of the family, including First Mother, indulged him. Except this time.
I obediently pushed him off toward the study. But—no question—we were both greatly disappointed by First Mother’s decision.
Our father was the most respected senior orator and solicitor in our village. But attending the Petition for Permit was more than just an opportunity to watch our famous father in action. Everyone knew he’d win.
No, what we really wanted was to see the captured stranger, the subject of the proposed permit. They claimed he was a giant, an incredible six feet six in height, a good foot taller than any adult male in our village. And his height was not even the most startling aspect of his appearance. He was supposed to be paled-skinned and gray-eyed! Nothing like anyone had ever seen in our village.
Our four older siblings were all allowed by First Mother to visit the town square while Father petitioned. After they’d returned, the excited babbling among them bordered on the hysterical, as if they were talking about some kind of supernatural creature. The strained chatter intensified L’Voli’s and my curiosity to almost unbearable levels.
Like other village children, we’d seen pictures in our books of giants with long, white hair, who were pale of skin and gray of eye. Unnatural, wild, and scary monsters, to be sure. But having one here, in real life, inside the village walls? Was that even possible? How had he gotten inside—there were no gates inside the Great Wall! Where had he come from? What did he want, venturing here to our remote northern coastal village?
No ready answers to any of these questions occurred to any of us.
On reflection, I recalled some of the village storyteller’s spellbinding tales, usually told on holidays in the village square. The grand myths and legends of the long-ago Great War, fought mostly between the giant whiteskins of the north and the dwarfish brownskins of the south. The bands of northern invaders dressed in their hooded, dark capes had been ruthless raiders in the early years of the Great War, leaving the devastated wreckages of brownskin towns in their wake.
It was said that the ferocious white warriors were sometimes led by Amazons with superhuman capabilities, even the ability to fly and cloaks of invisibility. On the other hand, it was no storyteller’s exaggeration but a documented fact that even the smallest band of whiteskin giants raiding a brownskin town left no one behind alive—not a single man, woman, or child.
We, the minority blueskins, had watched on in declared neutrality at first, shuddering in our guarded rural coastal villages when the fighting grew close. But eventually the much greater numbers of the brownskin armies of the south prevailed, and, with late blueskin help, the combined forces finally overwhelmed the whiteskins in the last year of the long engagement. The few whiteskins surviving the Great War retreated to their homelands in the isolated northern archipelagos.
But not before a renowned Amazon general cursed the blueskins for siding with the brownskins.
Our old ballads ignored the curse and instead glorified the exploits of our heroic blueskin warriors during the last year of the Great War, especially L’Zid. He was said to have towered over five-foot-nine and wielded a twenty-five pound battleaxe in combat.
Could this captured giant stranger be one of those legendary whiteskins of yore, seeking revenge against us blueskins after all these years?
L’Voli certainly didn’t think so.
During that night’s family gathering, L’Voli claimed the floor and suggested this had all begun the night before, during the L’Rikes meteor shower.
He’d been wheeled up to the compound roof to await the event. Armed with his viewing goggles, he’d waited patiently until the shower appeared sometime in the early morning hours, when everyone else in the family had retreated to bed. While he watched, a fiery, greenish ball plunged to earth just beyond the eastern sector of the Great Wall, streaking down into the forest. L’Voli believed that the ball was actually a spacecraft that had crashed into the sweetwoods, and therefore that the stranger was an alien who had miraculously survived the crash.
Both our mothers, Father, and our four older siblings listened politely until L’Voli finished his enthusiastic revelation. While admiring L’Voli’s imagination, they still couldn’t help grinning behind hands cupped over their mouths, or chuckling, or shaking their heads. Father even laughed aloud somewhat dismissively—a rare rudeness on his part.
I didn’t crack a smile, not sure really what to believe. I knew that L’Voli often had an uncanny grasp of other people’s actions, but he sounded so mad..
Later we saw the evening vid report on how L’Saki and his three older brothers had easily lassoed, captured, and bound up the stranger like a common thief earlier in the morning, in their family compound near the eastern section of the wall. During first meal, the family had been alerted by a loud crashing sound in their back yard. They hurried outside and found the family’s chicken coop totally flattened, as if something had fallen onto it off the nearby wall.
To their surprise, they discovered the giant stranger standing in the middle of the destroyed hutch among a number of injured and dead chickens. L’Saki said the stranger was wearing a cloak and cowl, which wrapped the intruder in a shadow of almost total invisibility. Oddly, the thief was caught, not trying to escape with any chickens, but just standing there and quietly inspecting a clucking hen at his feet, almost as if he were waiting to be apprehended.
A stranger, yes, a gigantic person, carefully described by L’Saki and his brothers as having oddly pale-colored skin and grayish eyes…possibly an alien, as L’Voli had claimed. Or maybe one of the legendary whiteskins from ancient times? Or—who knew—some kind of demon, or perhaps something else entirely.
Any stranger appearing here within the Great Wall was more than just an unusual occurrence. We younger people in the village had no memory of seeing a stranger. All faces we passed each day were totally familiar, including the elaborately carved arabesque masks all women over the age of twelve were required to wear when outside. Strangers only appeared in books, or in the old vids before the Great Wall was built and permanently sealed off the village from the outside world.
In fact, the last recorded case of a stranger sighting was thirty-one years ago, just months before the wall was completed, a brownskin who had somehow slipped past the perimeter guards and illegally entered the village.
This caused quite a stir because the few brownskin immigrants accepted into blueskin coastal villages as common laborers had caused nothing but problems—a constant strain on society, our true religion clashing with their strange heathen beliefs, too many incidents of violent confrontations between them and our villagers, and, perhaps most importantly, the ugly brownskin males were sexually aggressive toward our blueskin women. There had been a number of savage rapes reported. In the southern coastal villages there’d been numerous Petitions for Permits, all successful, and no one expected this one to be any different.
At the time, thirty-one years ago, our unbearded father was in his first year reading the law while working as a scrivener in the village’s only solicitor’s office. Due to the coincidental illness of both of the solicitors at the time, Father was picked to construct and present the required petition. He represented the conservative majority in the community, petitioning on the steps of the temple to what was then a council of three clerical elders. Following much debate, he’d managed to secure approval of the petition, and, after the terms of the permit were executed successfully the following morning, Father became the most renowned orator in our village. Since then, he’d had a long and very successful career as a solicitor, even serving several terms as the secular advisor to the council—the highest honor for a non-cleric.
But that incident of a lone stranger breaching our security, along with the negative feelings it inflamed toward all brownskin people, stimulated the speedy completion of the Great Wall, with no gates to the dangerous outside world but one. The Sweetwood Tapper’s Guild had lobbied for a secret, small tunnel constructed through the wall into the forest; they used it for several weeks each fall after the first frost, to collect sap. Any others wanting to use the tunnel required written permission from the Council of Clerics—an extraordinary circumstance rarely granted.
As young children, L’Voli and I, along with an adventurous older sibling or two, had searched along the Great Wall for the secret tunnel to the outside world. But now the tunnel was only a memory, sealed after synthetic sweeteners replaced sweetwood syrup in the village five years ago.
So it was more than just disappointment that L’Voli and I felt about missing a chance to gain an early view of this mysterious stranger. It was the loss of a chance to experience the unknown.
After the evening meal, our older siblings, full of themselves, were still chattering with excitement about Father being absolutely brilliant in his oration. The petition had been approved unanimously by the Council, the permit to be issued in the morning. The petition would be read publicly, and then the permit executed right after sunrise tomorrow. Our mothers’ prepared food would indeed be needed at that early reading.
Our eldest brother, L’Rani, described the giant in vivid detail to L’Voli and me, wildly gesturing with his hands.
“He is huge, his skin the pale color of skimmed milk, his eyes the shade of a steely, stormy sky. He wears a cowl and black cloak over his badly hunched back—the cloak is made of some unknown material that seems to absorb light, making the giant really difficult to see from a distance, especially if he remains still and in the shadows. But, no question, he is a wild, fearsome creature. A truly ghastly monster!”
He grinned like the evil clown in a puppet show, watching for a reaction from either of us, obviously taking great delight from frightening the wits out of his youngest two siblings.
Our eldest sister, Tek, still wearing her filigreed black lace facemask, interrupted: “But fear not, young twins, they have the giant bound securely; both his hands and feet are tied to the ring hooks of the whipping post in the square. On one side of him, bent over in the stocks, is the village drunk, L’Resti; on the other side is the unmasked harlot Jol. In addition, the giant is well guarded by two of our stoutest villagers, both heavily armed with cudgel and longsword.”
“He understands what is going to happen to him?” I asked Tek, remembering the outcome of Father’s permit thirty-some years ago.
Our eldest sister stood for a moment, a more serious expression clouding her features. Then she admitted in a less formal voice: “I’m not really sure, Tem. The stranger acknowledges nothing anyone says to him. Possibly he doesn’t understand much, if anything. He doesn’t appear to be the least frightened or even visibly unsettled by being held captive. He’s not cowed by his circumstances, even though his head is indeed often bowed respectfully, his facial features remaining partially shadowed by the cowl. But he appears almost to be standing asleep at these times…or perhaps he’s just in some kind of meditative trance.” She shrugged dismissively. “It doesn’t really matter if he understands or not. That isn’t a mitigating condition of the petition.”
After a moment I nodded. This last bit of information was unsettling. I would have thought that the Council would do everything in their collective power to make the stranger understand his fate, and the reason for such.
The next morning, the entire family rose long before daybreak, trudging down to the tables set up at the back edge of the tightly enclosed square opposite the Temple. Reminded by First Mother that today my first responsibility was for my brother’s well-being, I found a protected viewing spot under a blue oak for L’Voli and his wheelchair. I locked his wheels in place with the chair’s back against the tree trunk, making sure he had ample water. Then I helped both my mothers lay out all their baked foodstuffs beside many others’ tasty-looking meat and chicken pies. The tantalizing yeasty aromas did not going unnoticed by the early-arriving spectators.
I managed only a few brief glimpses across the grassy park area to the dusty Penitent Square, where the hooded stranger was restrained with the two locals.
They were enough to be impressed by his gigantic stature, which would be obvious at any distance.
After the dawn light began spilling over the eastern sector of the Great Wall, the bulk of the noisy crowd began packing in as close as possible to the council’s table on the temple steps. I hurried back down to where I’d left my brother next to the oak. Even though we were about a hundred feet up the hill from the council, we had a good view of both the clerical proceedings and the bound stranger in the dusty penitent area to the far right.
Seated in the middle of the table of clerics, the distinguished, gray-bearded Chief Cleric finally raised a hand, commanding almost instant silence.
In a steady, easily heard baritone, he read aloud our father’s lengthy petition, which finally concluded that the stranger was guilty of the major criminal offense of being an infidel interloper.
After completing the reading, the Chief Cleric turned to the two subordinate clerics on his left and asked: “Do you agree with the petition’s conclusion, that the accused is an infidel interloper?”
He turned right and repeated the question and received the same response.
“I agree also,” the Chief Cleric said.
The unanimous verdict hung in the early morning air over the crowd. Even the youngest infant seemed to be awed by the ominous tone of the judicial proceedings, not issuing so much as a whimper. The complete stillness of the crowd prevailed, adding to the solemn sense of the trial.
“And should the Permit be issued?”
The clerics again agreed.
After acknowledging his agreement as well, the Chief Cleric instructed the four subordinate clerics to render their affirmation of the permit’s judgment by writing on the squares of paper in front of them. All four quickly scratched out and signed their judgments, as did the Chief Cleric. He gathered the scraps of paper, read them to himself, and looked up at the crowd.
“There can be only one judgment for the crime of being an infidel interloper, as the permit clearly states. The Council is unanimous in their authorization.”
He paused for effect, then pointed at the two armed villagers guarding the cloaked stranger. “Have the convicted face the council table as I read the judgment.”
One of the guards touched the stranger’s chin and gently turned his face in the direction of the Council of Clerics. “Listen respectfully,” he instructed the stranger, in a hoarse voice.
The air was palpable with tingling electricity, as if a thunderstorm were moving in from the nearby Western Sea over the tightly assembled villagers. Keyed up now by the menacing nature of the moment, I remained dutifully standing directly behind L’Voli’s wheelchair, listening intently. But, at the same time, I couldn’t help repeatedly glancing at the hooded stranger, wondering if he had any inkling of the conclusion of this proceeding.
After the giant was directed to face the council table, the Chief Cleric addressed the stranger in his most judgmental tone: “You have been found to be an infidel interloper. A Permit to Execute has been authorized. Therefore, it is this council’s unanimous decision that you be put to death forthwith this morning by beheading.”
At that point, most of the adults in the crowd, hearing the expected judgment, turned to look into the darkness along the Great Wall.
A broad-shouldered figure, garbed in ebony with a matching mask, moved into view from a hut in the shadows. He carried a double-bladed, wide axe in one hand and an oak chopping block tucked under his other arm. The spectators standing in his path hurriedly cleared the way, giving the dark-clad man access to the condemned stranger remained bound to the rings of the whipping post.
The figure stopped about twenty-five feet short of the prisoner.
The Chief Cleric asked loudly: “Executioner, are you prepared to do your duty?”
The executioner placed the chopping block down at his feet, gripped the handle of the double-bladed axe with both hands, and shouldered it. “I am, your Eminence.”
As the early morning sunlight reflected off the sharpened axe blades, both L’Voli and I flinched away ever so slightly.
The Chief Cleric ordered: “Guards, strip away the condemned’s cowl.”
Everyone’s attention shifted now from the executioner to the cloaked stranger.
One guard dropped the stranger’s hood—
A gasp issued from the crowd.
The stranger was indeed as pale-skinned as expected. But the long, blond dreadlocks fell around a white face that was unquestionably female.
The giant was a woman…and stood there, wearing no mask in public!
The Chief Cleric ordered: “Pull aside the cape.”
This time the crowd’s obvious amazement was not accompanied by sound. It was almost as if their collective voice had been silenced. There was no question now, with her cloak almost shed, that the stranger was indeed a woman. But she was like no woman seen before by any villager. She was a muscular, fearsome giant. A true Amazon.
Slowly, the Amazon pulled her hands and feet apart, easily snapping her bonds as if they were little more than loops of flimsy string. She shrugged her cloak completely off her shoulders onto the ground. Then she unfurled two great, leathery wings and began pumping life’s blood into them, fanning the cool morning air, stirring a swirl of blinding dust around her whipping post. As the wings became fully engorged and stretched out, they reached a tremendous wingspan—at least sixteen, or maybe eighteen, feet.
The giant snatched the cudgel away from the hand of her nearest awed guard…
…and with two lightning-quick swings, she bashed in the skulls of both her sentinels.
In no apparent haste now, she turned toward the two villagers still restrained in the stocks on either side of the whipping post. She easily ripped the lock off the man’s stock, and then the woman’s, freeing them both. Still bent over after their prolonged ordeal, they scurried away like two hunchbacked spiders.
Slowly, the fearsome stranger turned and faced the crowd, peering at them with a hawk-like gaze, like a great raptor looking out on a field of mesmerized mice. The Amazon’s eyes sparkled brilliantly in the early morning sunlight.
“Why did she wait all night, standing in place, bound up?” I whispered in a hoarse voice to my brother. “She could have burst those ropes anytime and then easily flown off beyond the wall to safety.”
“She didn’t want to escape, Tem,” L’Voli said. “She waited until the entire village had been assembled here this morning. Probably planned this all out before crashing down on that chicken coop yesterday—”
In the blink of an eye, the giant took one step, bent over, and withdrew a longsword from the scabbard of the nearest dead guard.
Then she took two more swift strides, and, with powerful force, ran the blade clean through the chest of the executioner, who’d remained frozen in place like a black statue, his great axe still shouldered uselessly. She easily removed the dripping blade.
The ebony-clad man crumpled to the ground like a lifeless rag doll.
Screaming, crying, shouting…moaning burst forth from every corner of the crowd. Someone nearby gave a high-pitched order: “Run, children, run, run to safety!”
Stirred to life now, the people nearest the stranger retreated as one, women gasping behind their facemasks, children crying out in fear, men yelling and clumsily trying to guide their families out of harm’s way. But they were kept in place by those clustered behind them in the tightly packed crowd.
In their haste to flee, several people shoved against the unprotected side of L’Voli’s wheelchair. With my back against the oak, I remained in place, holding on tightly to the handles of the chair. It was all I could do to keep my brother’s wheelchair from being knocked over. Each bump sent a ripple of pain across his twisted and reddened features, but he cried out only once after a heavy-set, wild-eyed man stumbled heavily and pushed into his ribs.
Badly frightened now, my heart thumped against my ribs like a mallet, and my blood rushed out of control. Panic flashed through the crowd, some people even abandoning their children and older relatives, others trampling over anyone knocked to the ground. It was complete mayhem, everyone trying to flee toward the back of the square at once, jamming up the three narrow exits. L’Voli and I survived primarily because those fleeing had to swerve around us to pass the blue oak tree.
We remained in the littered wake of the crowd’s frightened withdrawal, both of us remarkably in one piece, although I knew by the look on L’Voli’s face that my brother was in severe pain.
The fearful Amazon began to move through the unlucky crowd remnants—the very young and the very old—in our direction, swinging the double-bladed axe like a great scythe, leaving decapitated bodies behind in her bloody wake. As she moved slowly closer, I fumbled to unlock the chair’s brakes. “It’s time to go, L’Voli! We have to get out of here. Hang on!”
My twin brother reached back and caught my hand before I could completely release the brake. With surprising strength he pulled me down close enough to hear him over the frenzied hubbub. His gaze was glued on the marauding stranger, but he didn’t appear terribly frightened himself. Instead, his pain-twisted face was animated with what appeared to be admiration, as if he held special regard for this winged monster.
“No, Tem. Leave me here. We are all trapped here—no one’s really escaping, unless they could find that old tunnel through the wall and open it.” He paused and nodded toward the giant. “Except for her. She can fly away anytime she chooses.”
He grimaced again, glancing down at his badly twisted body. “I wish I could fly like her….”
At that moment First Mother’s words echoed in my head: You take good care of your brother, Tem; you do what’s best for him.
“It is time for my spirit to be released from my body and soar beyond the Great Wall, Tem.”
He peered at me quietly for a moment.
Then I clumsily released the brakes and kissed his cheek.
He whispered: “I love you, Tem.”
I gave him a strong push forward, and the wheelchair hurtled off down the grassy slope.
Unable to see any longer through my tears, I turned and fled.
Since surviving the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in 1979, Gene O’Neill has seen over 130 of his stories published, perhaps most notably in the Twilight Zone Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Pulpsmith, and Science Fiction Age. He is a Nebula finalist and a Stoker Award winner. Gene lives in the Napa Valley with his wife, Kay. His brother–in–law describes Gene as a “disgruntled ne’er–do well.”