Who can withstand the cudgel and sword?
Only the men of the Gingerbread Guard.
The hilltop town of Adarak had a tradition of baking gingerbread men and setting them along the windowsills on the longest night of winter, facing outward, to keep the town safe from enemies—whether mortal or mystical.
Many believed that this tradition arose in homage of the ginger-colored cloaks that the town guards wore, all the better to hide their movements through the forests and mountain surrounding the town. But every grandmother in town made sure to tell her grandchildren the true story of the tradition, and why the town guard—every one of them trained as mages—was affectionately called the “Gingerbread Guard.”
A few generations past, when Adarak was just beginning to prosper through travel, trade, and the beauty of the view from their highest tower to all the lands surrounding it, a roving warlord saw fit to capture the town.
Because the town sat atop a hill, they saw the warlord and his marauders coming. But not until it was too late to call for and receive help before doom reached them. Nevertheless, they held to hope, and sent out messages upon the wings of doves.
Unbeknownst to the townsfolk, the warlord had sent ahead a spy, who posed as a traveler with warnings about the warlord, and knowledge of how he might be appeased. The spy spun a story that he fed into the ears of the fearful mayor. He claimed to be a prisoner, taken from youth by the warlord. One day he unknowingly entered his own town. His memories triggered by seeing loved ones from his boyhood, the traveler planned to turn against the warlord. But before he could enact his plan, his town was destroyed for trying to fight a fight they would never have won.
So he had bided his time to take his revenge. He could not let the warlord take the hilltop town. Adarak would make the warlord far too powerful. So the traveler told the mayor and the town council, who were eager for any way to avoid the terrifying fate that marched toward them, that the warlord had one weakness. He warned them that it would sound ridiculous. He expected that they would scoff at best, or at worst, run him out of town. He hesitated. He hemmed. He hawed.
At last, the mayor, his face drenched in cold sweat, his fists clenched in mock threat, commanded the traveler—the spy—to reveal the warlord’s weakness.
The warlord, it seemed, loved gingerbread.
If the townsfolk plied him with enough gingerbread, the spy revealed, they might keep him happy and distracted until aid arrived from their duke and his enforcers.
So much did the warlord love gingerbread.
As the warlord and his marauders approached the town, they smelled the overwhelming scent of gingerbread wafting down from the hill. That was how he knew that his spy’s trickery had worked. That was how he knew that the townsfolk believed they would be spared, and so they would let him in without resistance.
But while the mayor was entranced by ever word that the warlord’s spy spoke, some among the town council were suspicious. One of them, Aelia by name, tried to warn the mayor of her suspicions in private. But he would not listen. She saw fear flash across his eyes as he declared that he would put his faith and his trust in the traveler.
Aelia entreated some of her fellow council members, but they too were so steeped in fear that they would not—or could not—listen and heed her. She understood. But she did not know what to do to protect her town.
“I’ve asked and received permission to build scarecrows along the crown of the hill,” Aelia told her husband one night, “to serve as an illusion of greater protection than we now possess.”
Aelia’s husband was a mage. Evander would say he was a “minor mage,” or a “trades mage.”
She peered at him and asked, “My love, could you devise some way, some magic, to divert the warlord, or to hide the town, conceal it from his view, or to fortify the town with a magical shield?”
Evander shook his head as he skewered a potato. “All of those things are intangible. I cannot make something out of nothing.”
As the warlord marched ever closer, the townsfolk began building the scarecrows, figures out of mud and stone, to stand along the perimeter of the town, and make it appear that help had arrived after all. They hoped the warlord would then divert his attention elsewhere.
One night, the traveler who was a spy snuck away, likely to warn the warlord that the sentries around the town weren’t real.
Aelia had her own spies. They watched the traveler-spy go, and they warned her. But by the time she gathered the constable to go after the spy, he had already vanished beyond the sight of the town’s watchers.
Even without the spy’s warning, the warlord may not have diverted his march toward the town upon seeing the scarecrows. If he continued to advance, the false sentries would not work for long. The hope was that the warlord and his marauders would hesitate long enough for real help to arrive.
That night, Aelia asked her husband again, if he might help in some way.
“Can you cast a spell upon the mud and stone sentries? You would not be working with nothing. Could you cast some illusion that would appear to make the sentries move? Even speak?”
The mage released a heavy sigh. “I’m not certain if I can accomplish such a feat, but for you, love, and for the town, I will try my best.”
In the short time remaining before the marauders arrived at their town, during which many fled who had the means to flee, the mage practiced his craft on the scarecrow sentries that the townsfolk had built and stood up along the crown of the hill.
Evander made a few of the sentries move, clumsily and haphazardly. But as he sent threads of mystical energy into and through the scarecrows, he struggled to hold the threads and his hands steady. Something felt cold and dead about the mud sentries. He could do no better than to make a few of them shuffle about.
So, the scarecrows did not bother the warlord, who had been warned about them from the spy. The marauders came marching straight into town, demanding that the mayor come out to meet warlord. But the mayor was so paralyzed by fear that he could not speak.
It was Aelia who came forth.
“I speak for the mayor,” she said. “May I ask what business you have in our fine town?”
The warlord, his long fair hair, gleaming with grease, glanced from side to side, before settling his gaze on her, and declaring, “It is my town now.”
The mayor did not remain hidden for long. As the spy emerged from the ranks of the marauders, he pointed out the mayor among the council members who had come to face the warlord. Aelia, though glad that the marauders had not yet begun their burning and pillaging, watched as they spread out through the town center. She watched as shutters were closed, and curtains drawn. The townsfolk knew they could not hide. But in desperation, they tried.
The warlord declared that he would make an example of the poor mayor.
“For his dishonesty and his deception,” the warlord said, “I sentence your mayor to death.”
He called forth one of his marauders, and set a massive axe in his hand. He told the rest of his marauders to spread the word, and he demanded that the whole town witness the execution, or else there would be more than one death, many, many more.
So the townsfolk began to gather, goaded by the marauders. The town square soon grew crowded. Babies wept and young children complained. They knew not of the precarious danger in which they and their grown folk stood. Older children did their best to comfort the very young and the very old alike.
The warlord nodded to a few of his marauders and they scattered throughout the town.
When they returned, they bore platters upon platters of gingerbread men. The townsfolk shuffled nervously out of the way as the platters were brought forth. The warlord ordered his marauders to pass the gingerbread men out to the townsfolk. He thanked the townsfolk for their hospitality, and bid them to enjoy the fruits—or in this case, the confections—of their labor.
Aelia frowned. He was just throwing the gingerbread men in their faces, to show them how foolish they had been to believe the spy’s silly story.
Instead of wrapping her hands around each other, Aelia longed to wrap them around the handle of a cudgel. But she brought her blood down from a boil to a simmer. She leaned toward her husband and spoke in a low voice.
“We must stay safe, for the sake of our future child,” she said, as she held her hand before her belly. None but Evander yet knew of the nascent life in his wife’s womb.
The mage nodded, but even as listened to his wife’s words, he was sending out threads of mystical energy. And he began to feel a stirring in his own blood.
“You’re right, my love,” he replied. “It is time for you to be gentle. It is time for me to be fierce.”
All he had wanted to do was animate one of the gingerbread men. They were much smaller than the scarecrow sentries of mud and stone. Evander was confident that he could grab hold of the one that was in the hands of the executioner. He hoped to distract the man, distract many of the marauders, as he made the gingerbread men shuffle about.
He was surprised when he was able to easily grasp the gingerbread man. The sentries of mud and stone had been cold and painful to hold. But the gingerbread man was warm and comfortable.
Evander felt a flame alight within himself.
The fires in which you were baked, he thought as he gazed at the gingerbread man that he was holding in threads of enchantment. He felt the heat from the oven in which the gingerbread man was baked. The heat burned and churned in the center of his gut and it climbed up his throat.
The mage coughed.
And as he did, the gingerbread man in the executioner’s hand coughed.
And as the gingerbread man coughed, a spout of flame escaped his mouth and spewed toward the executioner’s face.
The executioner dropped the gingerbread man.
And he dropped his axe.
The mayor, whom the warlord had seated beside himself in the center of the town square, fainted away and slipped from his chair.
“What sorcery is this?” the warlord asked as he peered down at the gingerbread man.
As he asked the question, the mage suppressed a gasp of surprise. For by instinct, he had cast out more and more threads, thousands of them, and they wove toward the thousands of gingerbread men that were held in the hands of terrified townsfolk or that lay on plates and platters.
Almost imperceptibly, he moved his fingers, and at once, all of the gingerbread men came alive.
The ones lying on the platters rose to attention. The ones held in hands squirmed and slipped out and dropped to the ground.
The mage drew in a breath and huffed it out through his nose.
And thousands of little gingerbread men spewed fire from their mouths.
Evander drew in breath again, and again huffed it out.
And again the gingerbread men breathed fire.
Hair was set ablaze. Cloaks caught flame. Flesh was seared.
The townsfolk recoiled.
But the fire did not burn them, and it did not burn those merchants and visitors and passersby who meant the town no harm, but had gotten trapped there when the marauders arrived.
It only burned the marauders.
The gingerbread men began to march. They began to swarm.
The marauders devised what to do.
The gingerbread ranks began to form.
Swords were swept downward, as gingerbread men vaulted up and climbed arms, shoulders, and heads.
Hammers slammed against the ground, as gingerbread men formed a fiery phalanx that advanced upon the warlord.
Seeing the townsfolk flee, a number of marauders turned their weapons toward the people. But the gingerbread men interrupted the flight of arrows with their own bodies. The gingerbread men roared fire at the marauders to conceal the flight of the townsfolk. They cracked and crumbled before the weapons of the marauders. But they kept advancing. There were so many of them.
So many gingerbread men. After all, that’s what the spy had asked the townsfolk to do, and so they had done it.
They had unwittingly baked the army that was defending them in their hour of need.
It would have been a silly sight indeed, thousands of tiny gingerbread men, with their simple smiling faces, converging on the murdering marauders, converging on a warlord.
It would have been a silly sight, if the warlord’s sword was not rusted with blood.
Most of the townsfolk ran to safety and helped others to hide. But those whose hearts were set alight with hope and fury, took up arms against the marauders.
And the gingerbread men kept advancing. But as fierce as they were, they were only made of flour and milk, and sugar and spice.
Their little flames were easily extinguished under the boots of the marauders.
The gingerbread men had great numbers, but the marauders adapted to fighting them and began to decimate their ranks.
The mage felt the power of all the gingerbread men in the town. He felt the fires in which they were baked coursing through his own body, conveyed by streams and waves and pulses of magic. Aelia swept him away to safety, where the warlord would not see him and know whose sorcery was animating the valiant gingerbread men.
“They are angry,” she said. “Once they destroy all the gingerbread men…”
She stopped, unable to speak her thoughts aloud, and seeing that her husband needed to focus.
Evander heard his wife’s words and understood their meaning. He had an idea. He drew the gingerbread men together, marching hundreds of them toward each other. He forged them into one giant gingerbread man. But the giant kept falling apart even as it formed.
He felt the threads of mystical energy pulling him, drawing him, straining to lift him.
Evander understood then what he must do.
“My very spirit must bind the giant together,” he told Aelia. “I will have to project my spirit from my body. Do you understand?”
Aelia nodded. “Your body will lie vulnerable.”
“You must take me somewhere safe, and you must keep me safe.”
As the gingerbread men and the bravest and fiercest of the townsfolk clashed with the marauders, the spy who had tricked the townsfolk crept through the streets. He had tried to escape the town, but the warlord had ordered three of his marauders to hunt the spy down. What should have been the easy conquest of a desirable hilltop town had turned into a battle, a battle whose details must never leave that hilltop. For if news spread that the feared and fearsome warlord had been defeated by some enchanted confections, then the people of the duchy would lose their fear. And in the absence of fear would rise their disdain and their fury.
The spy had tried to tell the warlord who he suspected was responsible for the gingerbread army. The spy had met Aelia, answered her probing questions, suffered her suspicious gaze, and learned of her husband, the town’s only mage. He was a common mage, no more or less impressive than a clocksmith. But he had to be the caster of the enchantments that animated those scarecrows and now the gingerbread men.
If the spy wanted to survive the warlord’s wrath, he would have to bring the mage to the warlord. So he made his way to the councilwoman’s home.
The spy found the mage lying in repose. He ventured closer. He would bring the mage to the warlord, so the warlord could kill him and see the gingerbread army collapse.
He took a step closer and stopped, holding his breath, for the edge of a cold knife was pressed against his neck.
“Lay but a finger on him, and it will be the last thing you do in this life,” the wielder of the knife said.
Recognizing the voice as Councilwoman Aelia, the spy thought her words a bluff. He moved to turn. But he was struck in the side by something hard and blunt. He staggered to the right and turned around to face her. She was wielding a cudgel.
She swung again, and struck him in the shoulder before he could get his bearings. He drew his sword and took a step back. He tripped upon something. He stumbled and as he did, Aelia bore down on his sword hand. He heard a crack, and a shard of pain pierced his hand and shuddered up his arm.
Dazed, he stumbled, and tripped again, this time falling to the floor. He saw what he had stumbled on.
A writhing pile of gingerbread men.
Outside, there were shouts of fear, but not from the townsfolk. A giant gingerbread man stomped through the town, bending down, and spewing flame upon the marauders.
When they shot arrows at him, they either bounced off with no effect or chipped off miniscule flakes of gingerbread. When they hacked at the giant’s legs and his feet, more tiny gingerbread men would surge forth and seal the cracks. When they tried to set the giant himself aflame, he laughed and the sugar in his dough crackled. He blew out their flames with flames of his own.
They could not stop him.
The whole town was redolent with the scent of gingerbread.
When the duke’s forces arrived to secure the town, they were welcomed by rows of gingerbread men lined up at every window, even before they were welcomed by the council and the mayor.
They were surprised to find that the warlord and most of his marauders were locked up in the town’s constabulary.
At the celebration that followed the removal of the marauders from the town, many gingerbread men—still and silent—were raised and praised. None were eaten.
Absent was the mage, for he still slumbered. When the fire within him had extinguished, he found himself trapped in the gingerbread. He was too exhausted to extract himself. He would need to rest his powers before he could use them to return to his native body.
But he did shed enough gingerbread so he could shrink back down to the size of a typical man.
Week upon week the mage’s spirit abided within the gingerbread form. He assured Aelia that all would be restored. He would awaken and the gingerbread man would fall sleep. In moments of doubt, they sat quietly, Aelia eating her dinner, and Evander watching her through his icing eyes.
But they spent far more moments in hope and good cheer, with a fair bit of teasing.
“My husband lies in eternal slumber,” Aelia would say, placing a dramatic hand upon her belly. “Who then will help me to raise the child I carry?”
The gingerbread man’s sweet sugar lips would spread into a grin. “I will love this child,” he would say. “I will not abandon you in sleep. Break with your husband for me.”
“Must I marry a gingerbread man?”
“Marry him! Marry him! Quick as you can!”
“And could I love a gingerbread heart?”
“I hope that you could, and that never we part.”
They would laugh at their clumsy rhymes. And as her gingerbread man rose and strode toward the door, Aelia would gaze at him fondly.
Trapped as he was in his gingerbread cage, her love and her husband, the uncommon mage, Evander stood guard in the town every night, giving comfort to some, and to some a right fright.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel