Strangers In The Valley
By Alex Gurevich
I liked the king because he always made sure I ate undisturbed. He told me whom I could eat, but was kind enough to let me choose which of the criminals, condemned by his judges, I wanted to eat first.
I also liked him because he gave me shiny stones, bits of metal, and trinkets from far away, even from beyond the ocean.
I went down into the valley when the king asked me to. He was honest; he told me the strangers who had come into our land might try to interrupt my meals. But he also said that it was all right to kill them if they did.
When I first climbed down from my mountain perch, I was surprised to find a great many strangers in the valley. Most were men, all wearing the same brown-and-red leather tunics and strange coats and hats made of steel. In the evening, I saw them polish their metal clothes to make them shine, but during the day they would get covered with dust and become dull again.
Those men were soldiers and my king didn’t like them, so he told me I could eat as many of them as I wanted. He told me I could only eat the strangers for a little while. Then, once they went away, I would be able to return to my quiet home by the mountain prison.
When I reached the crowd of soldiers walking slowly up the valley, I smelled a woman. She had an aroma of sweat mixed with flowers and spices I had not known before. The woman wasn’t visible; her scent was coming from a large, ornate wagon pulled by two mules with dust-covered hides.
Next to the wagon was a man riding a large black stallion, larger than any horse I had ever seen. The metal plates of his coat shone yellow-gold, brighter than the other soldiers’ steel, and his golden hat was the tallest and crested with bird feathers. I decided that he had to be the stranger king.
But he was not my king. So, when he brandished his shiny stick, steel with colorful stones at the grip, and shouted harshly for me to go away, I didn’t pay heed.
I cut the mules loose, opened the door, and prepared to eat the nice-smelling woman, letting her companions flee. The king must have liked her a lot, because he seemed very upset.
His words sounded different from the ones I was used to, but I understood when he ordered his soldiers to attack me. They started poking me with their steel sticks, interrupting my meal.
Usually, I prefer not to kill those I don’t eat, because I think people don’t like to be killed. But when I am angry, I sometimes feel like killing. And my king did say that it was alright.
I killed the strangers who bothered me and made a wall around me out of their bodies, then I added to it some overturned wagons. I hoped now they would leave me to my meal.
The stranger king ordered another wave of soldiers forward. I killed all those as well and stacked the wall of corpses higher.
For a few moments, I could enjoy my food in peace. Her skin was delightfully pale and smooth, her fingers long and crunchy, her blood hot, and her meat as juicy and delicate as I had hoped. Her screams were high-pitched and melodic.
Just as I was relaxing into the pleasure of my meal, the king ordered his soldiers to throw hundreds of small wooden sticks with sharp metal tips at me. I would probably have ignored them, but I was worried that one of them would hit the woman and she would stop twitching and screaming too soon.
This thought made me angry again, so I killed all the stick-throwing soldiers.
After that, they let me finish.
As dark fell, I washed in the cold frothy water of the river and settled to sleep on a comfortable flat rock. Thousands of soldiers gathered in a semi-circle around me, brandishing their metal sticks, but I was tired and replete and didn’t care what they were doing.
I barely had a chance to close my eyes before being rudely awoken. They were poking me with their sticks again! I liked having my sleep interrupted even less than I liked having my meals interrupted. So, I killed all those who were bothering me again.
I remembered my king telling me that if I killed enough of them the rest would leave me alone. He was right. I was able to sleep through the rest of the night.
Many days passed as the strangers wound their way up the valley. They no longer tried to stop me from eating. Most of them shied away from me and even tried to hide, which made no sense. I chose my food not by sight, but by smell.
Usually, I would eat the men because there were so many tasty morsels to choose from, but sometimes I felt like a woman and would select one of those they had brought along. But I was careful to follow my king’s orders: I never ate anyone from our land who was brought into the strangers’ camp by force.
Some days I would eat one; some days I was not hungry; some days I would eat two or three.
One morning I woke to find the strangers gone. I had watched them make camp for the night by a narrow gorge, where the river cut its way deep into the stone and disappeared under rockslides. At the bottom of the gorge, the river reemerged as a waterfall.
The soldiers must have scrambled up the waterfall in the dark, while I was sleeping, and filled the gorge opening above with heavy rocks.
After having to toss all those rocks aside, I was so hungry that I ate four men.
The strangers’ king drove his soldiers on and on, ever closer to my king’s city. He never looked happy, nor did the other soldiers. Some of them argued with their commanders, who then argued with the king. On those days, the camp stayed in place as they resolved their arguments. I liked that because I could get my food without having to go anywhere.
Some soldiers left the camp in the night and fled back down the valley. The king sent others to bring the runaways back, all tied in ropes. He offered me those returned soldiers to eat.
But he was not my king, so I didn’t care whom he wanted me to eat. I chose myself.
One night everything changed.
I woke in the dark, feeling cold. I knew what cold was – I could sense when the air or water was cold, and I liked the feeling. But I had never felt cold inside. I didn’t like that at all.
I started to get up, thinking that the cold had seeped into me from the rock I was sleeping on. But it was difficult to move. It had never been difficult to move before.
A man stood a few paces from me, his face hooded. A reddish glow came from behind me, revealing the man’s black cloak. It was lacy with an intricate, shiny pattern. The lacework must have been of metal – the kind of metal I like, silver and gold.
I decided to take off his cloak before eating him, so that it wouldn’t rip or get dirty. I wanted to keep it.
His odor was rare, frigid, musty, like no one I had ever tasted. His thin, long-nailed fingers curled and twitched as his arms and hands wove intricate patterns in the air. His lips shaped words I couldn’t understand.
I could feel the cold and the binding pressure streaming from him into me.
Just as I gathered my strength to spring up, something heavy crashed into me. Thinking of eating the hooded man, I hadn’t paid attention to the two other unpleasant smells close to me.
One of those smells came from the biggest man I had ever seen. He stood taller than a normal sized man on horseback — maybe even as tall as two men. He had a big hammer in his hand. That was what had hit me.
I have seen ice shatter from blows. Maybe they thought if they made me cold enough and then hit me with the hammer I would shatter. Instead, the hammer shattered. I was rattled, though, and my vision went hazy.
I made myself get up. I didn’t like that the big man had hit me with a hammer, so I killed him first.
As I turned back to eat the hooded man, I suddenly felt heat close to my skin.
I had not yet looked at the woman who was the source of the heat. I had noticed her smell, though. It was hot and acrid— not at all good to eat. I turned and looked. She wasn’t wearing any clothes, and the red glow I had noticed earlier, came from her skin.
I was not planning to eat her. But maybe she wanted to eat me. While I was killing the big man, she stretched her neck until it became longer than her body. She opened her mouth and reached for me. Her fangs glowed, brighter than her skin, brighter than campfires, maybe even brighter than the midday sun. Before I could move, her mouth snapped.
My skin had never been pierced before, but those teeth sunk right in, searing my flesh. It was very uncomfortable. I understood now why people screamed so loudly while I ate them.
Shaking off the hooded man’s cold tethers, I wrenched myself around and tore off the woman’s head. Her blood scorched and pitted the stone beneath me. Slowly her teeth released.
The man started to wave his hands more urgently and speak more loudly. Usually, I like eating a good piece of a person while he is still alive, but since he was making me feel unwell, I decided to kill him right away.
My movements were still strained and sluggish, and his new web of cold held me back and made it difficult for me to get a grip on his body. I danced around the man, edging closer, scalding myself whenever I stepped into the woman’s caustic blood. The injury from her teeth was still hampering me.
At last, I managed to reach one of the man’s hands and shatter his fingers. He screamed hoarsely but kept his lips and his other hand afterwards. I found it was a little easier to move. When I ate his other hand and tore off his tongue, it became much easier.
I couldn’t eat all of him, though. His large bones were too hard and I had to spit them out.
The whole camp of strangers was awake, watching me. I didn’t care about them. Even though I hadn’t finished my meal, I wasn’t hungry. I could still feel the grip of cold that the man had bound me with, and the sharp pain of the woman’s teeth; and my vision was still blurry from the hammer blow. I felt better than I had during the fight, but worse than I had ever felt before. I didn’t want anything to do with these strangers anymore.
I returned home, deciding to watch the strangers from above instead of eating them. In the following days, they started to advance more quickly up the valley. My king’s people, who lived in the valley, didn’t like that and fled into the city, taking their goats with them.
When the strangers reached our city, many of our soldiers went to meet them. They wore their own clothes of steel and waved sharp shiny sticks, trying to slice or poke the strangers. But the strangers were many and most of our men were killed; the rest retreated behind the city walls. I thought my king must not like so many of his people getting killed.
The strangers camped outside the walls for a few more days. They were busy putting together various contraptions of wood and metal.
I was getting hungrier and hungrier, and my wound hurt. I could not ask my king for somebody to eat, because to get into the city, I would have to deal with the strangers.
I remembered the king’s order not to eat any of our villagers, so I went back down into the valley to see if any of the strangers had wandered away from their camp. I found a few big wooden boxes loaded with grain and potatoes, pulled on wheels by horses. They were accompanied by a few soldiers.
I sniffed very carefully to make sure none of them smelled of unusual cold or heat before I approached.
I was so hungry that I ate six of the men right there. One of the others jabbed his stick right into the place where it already hurt. It felt even worse than when the woman with the glowing teeth had bitten me. I killed that man too, and two others.
The rest I kept alive and took back with me. I was not planning to return to the valley for a long time.
I left the grain and potatoes behind. The strangers had probably planned to eat those, but that was none of my concern.
One day, I saw the enemy king’s contraptions throw balls of fire into the city. Soon smoke was rising from everywhere within the walls.
My king must not have liked it, because he rode out with the rest of his soldiers and tried to chase the strangers and their machines away. But the strangers closed in on our soldiers and started killing them. My king was ringed by his guards, the soldiers who always stayed close to him; they were taller than most men. I thought they were stronger, too, because they killed many strangers surrounding them.
But the strangers kept coming. Some didn’t bother to fight with my king, and instead rushed into the burning city and killed more people.
I didn’t like it because they were killing so many and eating no one. I also didn’t like that they were trying to kill my king. He was a kind and honest king, and he gave me people to eat. The stranger king had sent the giant man, the fiery woman, and the cold man after me; and they were not good to eat at all. If he took over the city, I knew he wouldn’t let me eat anyone.
I descended to the city very fast, so fast that I didn’t have to think of how much I was weakened by hunger and hurt.
The men who fought for my king raised their sticks in the air and shouted. I thought they were happy that I was coming. I was glad that they liked me, but I couldn’t be happy, because the strangers kept poking me with their sticks, and some of them tore right into my wound, which hurt a lot. I ate a couple of the enemy soldiers, which gave me some strength but didn’t dull the pain.
I moved closer to my king, so he would tell me what to do and who to eat. He pointed and shouted the order, but at first I could not understand.
The enemy’s king was now very close, towering on his large horse over his own cluster of guards. My king was pointing at the other king, I could see that clearly—but I was confused.
How could a king be eaten? What if he didn’t want to be eaten?
But the cold and the pain inflicted upon me by the enemy’s king had not gone away, and I decided that I cared little about what he wanted. I also didn’t want to disappoint my king.
It was hard, even harder than before, with all the big strangers trying to stop me from moving towards their king. I killed many of them, but I didn’t have the strength to kill them all properly. Some I left on the ground, writhing and gushing blood, even though I didn’t like doing that to people I was not eating.
I was still not sure how I could possibly eat a king. But the stranger king must have thought it possible, because the color of his skin and his odor changed. He now looked and smelled like any other man I was about to eat.
As I got closer, I started to sense the tremor in his bones and hear his breath become fast and shallow. Suddenly, he pulled the reins of his mount hard and turned about, spurring the animal away from me. The guards around him froze for a heartbeat, and then turned their horses too.
Shouts rose behind me. Our people were glad. I turned to my king to see if he wanted me to pursue, but he waved for me to halt. I was relieved: He didn’t really want me to eat the other king, only chase him away.
The rest of the strangers fled too, trampling some of the wounded as they sped down the valley.
Those who were in the city killing our people couldn’t flee, because my king and his soldiers cut off their retreat. So they laid down their sharp sticks and allowed our people to tie them with ropes.
In the following days, the stranger king and his soldiers retreated so far that I could no longer hear or smell them, nor could I sense the stampede of their horses. Our people were busy putting out fires and collecting dead bodies. My king told me that I could eat as many of the captives as I wanted, which was very nice.
There were too many for me to eat, though. He ordered his men to plant smooth sticks into the ground in front of the city. Each stranger was forced to sit on one of the sticks until it went deep in his body. I noticed that the points of the sticks were rounded up and polished, instead of being sharp. I thought maybe it was because my king was kind to the enemies and didn’t want to hurt them too much. But they squirmed on those sticks so hard and screamed so loud for days that I thought they hurt anyway.
My people seemed happy that this hurt the strangers because they gathered around them and laughed and threw things at them.
I knew that sometimes people could heal, but my pain, like the pain of those men on the sticks, wasn’t going away. The strangers in the valley brought me the cold and the searing fangs. But they also brought me knowledge. I know now that a king can be eaten.
About the Author:
Alex Gurevich grew up in the former Soviet Union with family roots from Russia and Ukraine. In 1989 he immigrated to the United States where he earned a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Chicago. Alex went on to become a Wall Street trader before eventually founding his own hedge fund HonTe Investments. He is an author of fantasy and science fiction stories as well as two investment books: The Next Perfect Trade and The Wall Street Journal bestseller, The Trades of March 2020.
Alex Gurevich can be found on Twitter as a verified account