Of all the things to think about while entering a giant’s home uninvited, the size of the floorboards would seem the most unlikely, but there you are. Arienne wiggled through a gap made possible by a person-sized chunk missing from the board nearest the door. The door itself ended a good distance above the floor height.
With everything scaled so, one using their imagination to picture such things might assume that each floorboard was the size of a city street but that wasn’t the case at all. In Arienne’s younger years she had always envisioned giants’ homes that way. But it wasn’t like the giants kept forests of giant trees. No, indeed, they swept away forests in great fistfulls when they had a mood to build. These floorboards were hefty planks to be sure, each probably a cow’s belly or two wide and thick, but from the giant’s perspective it would be like walking on a floor made of pencils. They were glued together and planed smooth, to a giant’s eye. For Arienne, pits and crevices threatened to turn unwary ankles.
Arienne shook her head free of these thoughts. She had a sister to find and a giant to destroy. She knew he was home. She could hear him humming in some far distant room. As for Darava, there was neither sound nor sign of her.
“Dara,” Arienne called in a hoarse whisper.
There was likely no need to keep her voice down but it seemed prudent, just in case giants were somehow imbued with excellent hearing. For growing up in the shadow of giants, Arienne admittedly knew little of them. It had been Darava who had devoured every book she could find on the subject of their towering neighbors. Darava who had proposed the ridiculous notion that peaceful relations could be reached.
“Dara, can you hear me?” she called, daring a bit more volume.
A muffled sound seemed to come through an open door to the left. Arienne eyed the distance and weighed the wisdom of heading straight for the door. She was a fast runner, everyone thought so. Even for her, though, it would take roughly two minutes at a run. The other option was to wind the slower but more cautious path of shadows under furniture and along the wall. The latter could take much longer but she wouldn’t risk being caught in the open. Hating to do so, she opted for the shadows.
She was glad a few minutes later that she had. The floor shook with increasing tremors as the giant slid a chair back somewhere out of sight and strode into the room still humming. Arienne clung to the foot of a table that rested against the wall.
The giant approached a chair constructed of what appeared to be ancient trees twisted around each other into ropes, which were then woven together in loops and knots and bound with the same clear glue as the flooring. The whole thing groaned and shuddered as the giant eased his weight onto it with a satisfied sigh. He chuckled and the sound rattled through Arienne like thunder.
“No,” he said, “I do not think so.”
Arienne’s blood froze in her veins. He couldn’t know that she was there. Impossible. Unless he’d heard her call for her sister. The likelihood of that, though, was… well, it was unknown.
“That depends,” he said.
Arienne frowned. The giant was in conversation with someone she couldn’t hear, and that could only mean one thing.
She stepped out from behind the table leg. She couldn’t see anyone but the giant, but by the look on his face she could tell he was listening intently. He nodded and gazed down toward a breast pocket.
“If it comes to that,” he said to his pocket.
There was, if squinting just the right way, a shadow to his pocket that could be the shape of a girl about Darava’s size. The giant chuckled and leaned back, the knotted tree chair protesting at the shift in weight.
“Oh Dara, what have you gotten yourself into?” Arienne murmured.
“There now,” the giant said, as if consoling the Darava-shaped lump in his pocket. “It is as it must be. We are at peace with our decision.”
After a pause, the giant smiled indulgently.
“Just so, just so,” he said. “I’ll need rest. Just a short nap before the next giving. Do you wish to return to your rooms?”
With a great, thunderous creaking, the giant rose from his chair. Five floor-quaking steps brought him into the room where Arienne had thought she’d heard something. Arienne couldn’t hope to keep her footing. She scuffed her knee the second time the floor fell away beneath her with the vibrations of his passing. After that, a combination of flailing arms and springing knees protected her from further injury.
A minute after disappearing through the door, he returned, crossing to the other door and clunking up unseen stairs. Overhead, his footfalls ended at what Arienne presumed was a bed. She listened as he shifted his weight onto it and slowly, through the minutes that followed, the house went quiet.
Arienne hesitated, eyeing her satchel. Her dual purposes in being here tore her in opposite directions. Not far from where she stood, she was sure she’d find foolish Darava. She could free her and they could flee together. That wouldn’t ensure her sister’s long-term safety though. Dara, with her notions of negotiating with the giants, would come right back at the first opportunity. No, it was clear that there was only one way to proceed, though now that meant scaling twelve giant-sized stairs to do it.
No longer worried about being seen, Arienne ran the straightest path to the far doorway. By the time she located and reached the staircase she was already well winded. Time was not her friend, though, and failing would not do. She flung herself at climbing without taking a rest. There were plenty enough pocks and scratches between the glued timber boards to give her ample options for hand and footholds.
By the top step Arienne’s lungs burned and her shoulders ached as they never had before. She could hear the deep, steady breaths of the giant and nearly wept when she rounded through the open doorway. The Cathedral in Gidarna could have fit underneath his mattress with comfort.
She nearly gave up then and there, but a glance at her satchel had her feet moving before she could begin to think about how weary she was. She climbed. And climbed. Nearly sobbing from the pain by the time she crept onto the mattress, Arienne wasted no time on self-pity. She pushed to her feet and stole gingerly along the giant’s body.
His finger twitched as she passed by and she froze, watching his rising and falling chest in pure terror. His breathing didn’t alter. It took doing to convince her limbs to move again, but she managed eventually. Past his shoulder she crept. Finally, she reached his open mouth.
She removed the bottle from her satchel and uncorked it carefully. She tipped it over at the corner of his lip and jumped back as his tongue swept the dark liquid inside. She cowered on his pillow while his breathing stopped as he swallowed. He took another breath, then a deeper one, and another joined together into the rhythm of slumber.
Arienne inched away, down from the pillow, across to the nearest bed post, and with trembling limbs down the great distance to the floor. She took a slower pace across the bedroom floor, catching her breath for the first time in what was likely hours. The stairs were far simpler to descend, and in no time, she stood in the entry to the room where she knew she’d find her sister.
The room consisted of shelves, a table and a chair, and Arienne wanted to weep afresh once she took it all in. The shelves were filled with enormous books and the chair appeared to be empty. That left the table as the most likely place to find Darava. Arienne’s shoulders sang in protest of the climbing to come. Her entire body joined in the chorus.
“Dara!” she shouted. “Dara, can you hear me? It’s Arienne. I’ve come to take you home!”
While she waited, she eyed the table legs. This would be twice the climb that the bed had been. The thought of it made her limbs tremble with weakness. Then she heard it. Movement on the table. Running feet. Darava’s head appeared.
“Arienne,” she called. “What are you doing here?”
To Arienne’s surprise, another head leaned over beside Darava’s. It was the boy who had disappeared months before. One of Dara’s friends. What was his name? Myron? Yes, that was it. Dara had been fond of him. Everyone thought he’d been killed by the giants. He was constantly chasing after them with the same silly hopes for peaceful coexistence as Dara.
Arienne sighed. He’d probably be just as reluctant to leave as she knew Dara would be.
“Wait there!” Darava called.
Both heads disappeared. Arienne listened to sounds that were difficult to distinguish. A few minutes later, a door opened from behind one of the table legs and Dara came running to greet her sister.
Arienne gaped at the door. Following her gaze, Darava smiled.
“Tree Weaver built it for us,” she said fondly. “Come inside. I’ll show you around.”
Arienne resisted the tug on her wrist.
“Dara, I’m here to take you home,” she said. “No argument. Mother and Father think you’re dead. I refused to believe it so I came up here to rescue you myself.”
Darava gave her a look of deep pity.
“I know everything you’re about to say,” she said, “but you don’t know what I’m about to say. Please come inside, listen, then I’ll go with you to let everyone know I’m well. But first,” she said to interrupt Arienne’s objection, “you must hear me out.”
“I’ve heard your arguments for peace,” Arienne insisted.
Darava shook her head.
“Like I said, you don’t know what I’m about to tell you. And seeing will help you to understand. We can come and go as we please,” she added, pointing to the door. “You’re free to leave at any time.”
Arienne heaved a sigh of resignation. Darava smiled brightly.
“Come!” she ordered cheerfully, leading the way to the table leg.
When they rounded the open door, Arienne saw that the inside of the table leg was hollowed out for a spiral staircase. She lost count of the steps on their way up, but did appreciate the thin slits cut along the way to allow light and fresh air inside.
When they finally reached the top, Arienne had to stand in place for a while to take it all in. The tabletop was an oasis of lawns and gardens, with a pane glass dome at its center. Darava and Myron waited for Arienne to recover from her shock before drawing her over to the picnic she had obviously interrupted. They offered her a variety of refreshments, which she declined.
“Thank you for taking the chance to listen,” Darava said. “Tree Weaver has given us so much, and we can’t wait to share what we’ve learned here.”
“What do you mean, share?” Arienne asked.
“When we come home,” Myron explained. “Everything will be different.”
Arienne looked to Darava for an explanation.
“They’ve been diminishing themselves,” Darava said. “All of them.”
“The giants,” Myron added, correctly guessing the question on Arienne’s lips. “They’ve been around since the beginning of this world. They helped shape a good portion of it. And at the time they took form, most of the creatures were as big as they were.”
“The other creatures from that time left or died,” Darava said. “The giants didn’t notice at first, but one day they realized they were significantly larger than everyone else. And here they’re the stewards of this world that they no longer fit in.”
Darava smiled as if what she’d just said explained everything, and Arienne ought to be laughing with her.
“They decided to reduce themselves as they make new parts of the world for us,” Myron said.
He, at least, seemed aware that Arienne was not leaping around singing, “ahah! Now I understand why you’re happily living as a giant’s captives.”
“They’re world shapers,” he said slowly, emphasizing each word. “And for the last several centuries, they’ve been looking for ways to give this world to us. They recognized that the time of giants passed, and they needed to find a way to remain here to watch over us, but that wouldn’t work at their current size.”
“So they’ve been diminishing themselves,” Darava said again. “Each time they bring something new into the world, they draw the material from their own bodies. It’s a slow process, but the giants we know today aren’t nearly the size they used to be.”
That was a chilling thought. Arienne tried to imagine a giant even bigger than the ones she’d seen but couldn’t. The destruction even one giant caused as they gathered food and supplies was enough to capsize small villages. It was the reason why Bishmasfa and Gidarna had grown into such large cities. The giants tended to leave the cities alone, for the most part.
“And I know what you’re going to say,” Darava added in that tone that set Arienne’s teeth on edge. “And you’re right. Not all of the giants are doing this. A lot of them left for another world already and more are preparing to follow them. Only a handful plan to stay behind to continue caring for our world.”
“Is that what they call it?” Arienne scoffed. “East Valley and Old Woodstop don’t exist anymore thanks to your giants. That’s just in the last couple of weeks since you’ve been missing.”
“We haven’t been missing,” Darava countered, but Arienne wasn’t about to entertain her excuses.
“Yes,” she said firmly. “You have. Oh, we got your letter. And when you didn’t return within a week, as you had promised, a memorial service was held. You’re both assumed dead.”
Myron seemed shocked but Darava only looked maddeningly pitying.
“When we share with them…”
“You don’t get it,” Arienne interrupted. “No one is going to listen to this mythology, no matter how fascinating you find it. They’ve worked out a way to finish off the giants for good, and that’s the new plan. Hog Head the Hoarder is already dead.”
“No, you don’t get it!” Darava shouted, rising to her feet.
Arienne was stunned. Her Dara was many things, but commanding had never been one of them. She was a gentle heart. A sympathetic smile. She spoke with a melodic and pleasing voice and minded her manners. This bold adventure of Dara’s only made sense in that it was an ill-advised attempt at making peace where none could be found. The woman standing over her now, by contrast, was the kind of woman who might take an adventure for adventure’s sake. She was strong. Fierce. And furious.
“I don’t know how many times I’m going to have to say it before it sinks in, Arie, but these giants, the ones who volunteered to stay behind and sacrifice themselves, did so for us! The ungrateful, small-minded tiny people they could so easily crush underfoot. We burn them out of their homes. We’re jealous of any nourishment they take. And all the while, they are giving their bodies, bit by bit, to make a world that will protect us. Literally, their bodies!”
She pointed toward the ceiling.
“That giant up there, Tree Weaver the Builder, is preparing to give again, though he’s still weak from the last time. There are chotka in the south expanding their hunting grounds northward. Tree Weaver is going to grow a forested mountain range to stop their progress. He doesn’t know what it will do to him, but he says he has to try. Don’t you understand, Arie? He and the others could have left us to fend for ourselves. They still could. But they’ve chosen us over their own wellbeing. They see the possibilities of the world and know what would happen to us if no one was here to help. They’ll keep diminishing until one day, far into the future, they’ll be the same size as us. Smaller even. They’ll give until there is nothing left to give. And the world they have planned for us… Arie, we’re the most fortunate creatures ever to have walked this world. They plan to teach us what they know.”
Arienne and Myron both stared at Darava as if seeing her for the first time. She was magnificent. Certain and bold. She was no longer a dreaming girl who lived on tales and wishful clouds.
A cold knot had begun to form in Arienne’s stomach as Dara’s words sank in. If what her sister said was true…
Above, the enormous bed creaked. Arienne stood frozen as feet shuffled against the floor boards overhead. She watched Dara’s eyes widen with understanding as the giant’s footsteps faltered. Something breakable smashed loudly, causing them all to flinch. Finally, a thunderous crash shook the house, tossing Darava from her feet and Myron into a nearby shrub. Arienne instinctively clutched at her satchel, where the empty bottle still stank of poison. Dara’s gaze followed the path of Arienne’s hand. Their eyes met.
“I was just one,” Arienne admitted tonelessly. Her words came from a hollow place where once she’d had a heart and values that gave sense to the world. “There were hundreds of us dispatched,” she said. “Dara, it’s done.”
“Oh Arie,” Darava whispered. “You fool. This is far from done.”
She rose then. Not sweet, passive Darava, but the new one. The woman who could conquer worlds with the force of her will. She flicked her wrist and suddenly the bottle in Arielle’s satchel felt heavy again, though the odor had changed.
“You will make this right now,” Darava commanded.
Arielle’s entire body protested at the prospect of facing those stairs again. On the other hand, she felt her nerves shrinking from the woman standing before her.
“Did you not think that he’d begun our lessons?” Darava scoffed. “You’re fast, Arie, go now. There’s still time.”
They heard a rumbling groan vibrate through the ceiling. He wasn’t dead! Hog Head the Hoarder had been killed by the poison nearly instantly. Arielle’s insides twisted with remorse.
“I’m so sorry,” she gasped.
She felt weak with the combination of realization and exhaustion. She wondered if she even possessed the strength to climb her way up again if she wanted. Or to face the giant she had tried to kill and offer the antidote once there. Did she have the courage to endure the consequences once he had recovered? Her sister’s gaze saw everything and drilled more deeply still into the crevices where people tuck their trembling truths.
“You have the power to right history’s greatest wrong. What will you do?”
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