April 15, 2024

The Three-Piece Giant

by Gabrielle Steele

“The top badger was terrible at playing its own game.”

Alana stood one step shy of the quaint stone bridge, gripping her sword as she stared at the furry red leg that stuck out from beneath the frayed edge of the giant’s shirt. The battered clothing suffered an abundance of arrow holes, and its original owner had clearly met a rather gruesome end. A shiny black nose was poking through one hole mid-torso.

“I say, giant, can you hear me all the way up there?”

“We– I can hear you just fine.”

The voice coming from the shadows of a heavy hood was far too high-pitched for a giant. How had the villagers fallen for it? It was bad enough they only had one bridge leading to the spring paddocks. But it wasn’t Alana’s job to point out such foolishness. Her job was simply to remove the so-called giant. Honestly, a real giant would have been easier to deal with. They didn’t have magic. The large red and gold puck badgers of the fae forest did. They were weak when docile but dangerously feral if offended. The safest action was to play along.

“Mighty giant,” Alana said. “This bridge is surely too small for you, and the villagers think it best you find somewhere more suitable.”

“We’re quite happy here, thank you.”

Alana fought the urge to roll her eyes. The top badger was terrible at playing its own game. “The villagers need to reach their paddocks. If you like it here, you can fish just as easily from over there.” She pointed at a rock jutting out from the riverbank like a small pier.

The top badger whispered something down to the middle badger, whose muffled whispers seemed aimed at the bottom badger. With as much grace as possessed by a newborn foal, the pillar of badgers turned towards the rock. Two snouts appeared – one from between shirt buttons, the other above the waistband. Stern whispers passed up and down the column, then the extra snouts disappeared, and the badgers shuffled back to face Alana.

“It looks awfully cold,” the top badger said.

“What if the villagers offer you a blanket?”

“That would be kind,” the giant’s chest said.

“Shut up, Rusty,” the top badger hissed; then he looked at Alana with narrowed eyes. “That shan’t do. We like this bridge. It’s pretty, and the fish don’t notice us so much.”

“Someone as skilled at fishing as you could surely escape the notice of a few fish. Now though, this might interest you. I hear the fish around here can’t resist creeping close to listen in on a good song.”

If there was one thing Alana knew well about puck badgers, besides their extreme dislike of being laughed at, it was that they loved the sound of their own voices, especially in song form. The sound had been deemed so terrible, there were tales of it shocking birds so badly they fell dead from their perches. Listening to an overtired child screeching for hours would seem a joy in comparison.

The giant turned to confer with itself; then it wobbled about, its clothes sagging and bulging as if a huge deathfly larvae were about to burst out. Just the thought made Alana’s hand shift towards her sword. The undulating stopped, and when the giant turned back, a different badger had taken the top position — it had much rounder, friendlier eyes, as well as a large golden hoop hanging from its left ear.

“What songs do the fish like?” the badger said, who sounded like Rusty, previously the middle badger.

“Tales of the open ocean, my friend. They long to swim in it, but alas, the salt shrivels them until they’re nothing but sea slugs.”

“Those poor mites,” Rusty said, looking sidelong at the river. “I’ve the perfect song to soothe their souls.”

As he closed his eyes and opened his mouth, Alana did two things. First, she shoved wax plugs into her ears which, being one of a problem-solver’s most important tools, she kept tethered around her neck. Second, she tossed a piece of stale bread upstream of the bridge, in a place where some scree blocked the swift current. Not a crumb escaped the gluttonous fish, whose dark shadows now filled the calmer channel.

Rusty closed his mouth, and Alana plucked her earplugs free before he opened his eyes. He whispered to the middle badger, who whispered to the bottom badger, and the giant staggered to the bridge’s low wall. It would have been easy to push them in and earn her coin, but Alana wasn’t interested in murdering such harmless creatures — harmless to those with the sense not to insult them, that is.

Leaning forwards, Rusty peered over the wall. “Well, I’ll be a–” But Alana never got to hear what, for Rusty’s foot slipped, and the giant’s head went tumbling into the river. The giant’s chest and legs screamed in horror, and each jumped separately to stand on the wall.

“Brother!” the shirt and trousers shouted together.

The pieces of clothing went flying, and both badgers dived in after their brother. In truth, Rusty would have been better off had they not. He’d already caught hold of a thick root and was busy pulling himself to the bank when his brothers slammed into him. He lost his grip, and the current caught all three of them. They thrashed about, making it painfully clear they didn’t know how to swim.

With a tremendous sigh, Alana unbuckled her sword and leaned it against the bridge wall with her pack. She pulled off her boots and socks, shirked her tunic and trousers, then dove into the frigid water wearing nothing but her smalls and the cloth that bound her breasts. Her chest froze, but she forced herself to breathe through the chill. Cold shock was the danger of rivers, one that had almost cost Alana her life as a child and that now had the badgers flailing as if they felt suffocated. All they did was waste their energy.

A fair swimmer, Alana caught up with the three silly creatures easily enough, but she had no way of hauling them all out together. She looked about and tried to form a plan, but the moment she was within reach, the fools caught hold of her. Two grabbed her arms, while Rusty wrapped his little arms around her neck, his vicious claws sinking into her flesh. Unable to move her arms, the weight of the badgers dragged Alana under.

It didn’t pay to be kind. She should have let them drown, given it was their own stupid fault. Yet, she couldn’t bring herself to push them away to save herself. With all her might, she kicked her legs, driving them back to the surface.

Alana sucked in a chest full of air. “Kick your legs, you little weasels.”

Rusty’s claws bit deeper. Full of anger, the badgers would surely find the stubbornness to survive. Alana only hoped they would forgive her once they were safely ashore.

Together, the four of them kicked, churning the water like the flesh-eating fish of Murir. Alana steered them towards the left bank, where a thick root stuck out into the river, and beyond it… By the gods. It wasn’t the river that near deafened Alana. It was a waterfall.

“Make a chain if you want to live, weasels,” Alana shouted over the roar.

In a surprising display of intelligence, the badger holding her left arm shuffled down to her hand, followed by Rusty, who pulled himself around the other badger’s back. When the third badger didn’t move, Alana ducked him beneath the water for a few seconds, then bared her teeth at him. He soon moved across, settling between Rusty and the other badger instead of taking the end position. Coward.

“Grab the root, Rusty,” Alana yelled.

Hearing his name seemed to spur Rusty into action. They all kicked and stretched as they sailed towards the root with terrific speed. Rusty grabbed hold, sinking his claws in, but the speed of the river wrenched his paw away.

Alana searched the bank for anything else they could grab. There was a thin root just before the fall — their last hope. She flipped onto her back and started kicking against the current, hoping to slow them. The badgers did likewise, but their little legs were slowing. Even Alana felt drained, frigid as the river was. She kept kicking, pushing herself even as her chest burned for more air.

Alana wanted to shout at Rusty to grab the root, but she hadn’t the breath. He stretched his arm out anyway; then Alana did what she needed to. One by one, she prised the claws from about her hand, then pushed that badger towards the bank. Exhausted, she gave herself up to the river. Rusty stared at her with wide eyes, his paw wrapped about the root. Then the world tipped, and Alana took a deep breath before she struck the water far below.

Lost in darkness, Alana couldn’t tell up from down, or if she were conscious at all. Numbness had claimed her body. Her head struck something; then she faded into true darkness, the metallic taste of blood sharp in her mouth as she went.

* * *

“Is she dead?”

“Can we eat her?”

“Rats, the pair of you. She saved our lives, and you’re thinking about eating her?”

“I only asked.”

Alana groaned as her eyes slowly opened. Blinding light made her head pound, so she closed them again.

“Did you see that, Peapod?” Rusty said. “You can’t eat something that’s still alive.”

“What do we do with her then?”

“She looks badly hurt,” Rusty said. “I don’t think human legs are supposed to bend that way, and her head’s bleeding an awful lot. Say, Walnut, go fetch Old Willow. He’s not far downstream.”

“Right-o, brother.”

The world went blissfully quiet again, save for the hushed whispers of Rusty and Peapod. It sounded as though they’d moved away, or perhaps it was Alana who was far away. She couldn’t feel her body beneath her neck, and her head hurt so much she wished she’d drowned beneath the falls. A wave of nausea overcame her, and she vomited. With no way to turn her head, she began to choke.

“By the great lord’s fine stripes,” Rusty said.

“What do we do, brother?” Peapod said.

“I don’t–”

“Stand aside, stand aside,” said a deep, commanding voice. “Dear me, I’ve never seen one this injured before. My bag, little one.”

Over her choking, Alana heard the rustle of a jute bag being dragged over stone. Someone turned her head, bringing another wave of dizziness upon her. Her stomach emptied, clearing what had choked her.

“This is beyond my skill, my friends,” Old Willow said. “I fear to give her my pain tonic, for she has no control of her functions. You must call for the White Stag.”

One badger let out a little squeal of fright as another scurried away. Alana couldn’t blame them. The White Stag was infamous. They were both a stag of snowy pelt and a woman with unnaturally white skin, as if no blood ran through their veins. Indeed, that was probably true, because their favourite meal was the blood of men, particularly those who had recently dipped their wicks, be it in man or woman. Being a fair maiden upon a noble stag, it was easy for them to seduce any man. So Alana had heard.

The world seemed to get further away. Alana could guess her injuries. A broken neck and a cracked skull. There was no coming back from that. Old Willow would have been better to kill her himself than call for the White Stag, who was notoriously jealous of beautiful women. Perhaps Alana’s injuries were enough to protect her from a long, agonising life as a snowflake passing through flames and reforming in perpetuity.

Two badgers squeaked, and even Old Willow drew in a sharp breath. Swift hoofbeats sent bolts of agony through Alana’s head, but they quickly faded. Given how wet the ground was beneath her head, she must have finally bled out. It was a good life, but she shouldn’t have saved those damn badgers.

“Saving them is the only reason I’m healing you, human,” a melodic voice said.

As if by magic, which it probably was, feeling spread through Alana’s body. There was no pain, not even the ache in the tooth she’d been planning to have pulled. She opened her eyes and marvelled at the beauty of the stars above. Except they weren’t stars, for the sky hadn’t yet darkened. Laughter like the chiming of a tiny bell made Alana sit up and scoot away. Such a fair voice could only bring trouble.

“Humans are adorable when they’re afraid, don’t you think, Old Willow?” the White Stag said through the woman’s mouth.

Old Willow nodded quickly in reply, eyes averted. Alana couldn’t tear hers away. Both of the White Stag’s forms were beautiful. They glowed with a faint white light, and twinkling sparks of life floated through the air around them. Snowy felt coated the stag’s antlers, and the woman’s hair, even her eyebrows, were the same soft white. Her pupils, though… They were blood red.

Rusty sidled up to Alana and nudged her with an elbow. “You must thank them,” he whispered. Then he let out a whimper and scuttled away as the White Stag’s gaze moved to him.

“Thank you indeed,” Alana said, knowing one must always be polite and honest where fae creatures were concerned.

The woman grinned, and the stag snorted, tossing its antlers up and down. “It makes a pleasant change to find an educated human. There is a condition to your healing, however.”

Alana swallowed the stubborn lump in her throat. “And that condition is?”

“I rule the Araethan Forest here, so I have sensed you creeping within the border. You have always been respectful, which is why I have yet allowed you to live. I am sure you will soon find your healing to be a curse, however. You will live among us, solving our problems now, not those of humans. Stray from this task, and I shall undo your healing in an instant.”

Alana got up and lowered herself onto one knee, suddenly ashamed of her near-nakedness. “Your curse is a blessing, oh graceful one. To walk among magic folk and learn of your ways shall be a delight.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere with us,” they said. “Go with the brothers you have saved. They owe you a life debt, and it will take much work to pay that out.”

The woman climbed onto the stag, and they galloped away, lifting a hand in farewell.

“Well, I’ll be,” Walnut said.

“You’re lucky to have met her and lived,” Rusty said. He took hold of Alana’s hand. “Come now, lass. We’ll find you a place to stay. If we ask the trees nice like, they may give us wood for a cabin.” He tried to pull her along, but Alana tugged her hand free and turned to bow to the tall man-like creature who stood nearby.

“My thanks to you, Old Willow.”

“Off with you, lass,” he said, picking up his bag. “The White Stag will think you’ve rejected their gift if you linger.” He strode towards a willow tree downstream.

Rusty tugged on Alana’s hand. “Come now.”

Peapod took her other hand, and as they led her into the forest, Walnut danced ahead, singing a tale of the White Stag. If only Alana’s hands were free, she would have plugged her ears.


* * *

About the Author

Gabrielle Steele lives in Essex, UK with her husband and two mischievous younglings. She writes epic fantasy and speculative shorts, pitting poor souls against dragons, gods, and the occasional squirrel. You can view her ramblings on Twitter @eldris and find more about her writing on https://thellian.com


1 thought on “The Three-Piece Giant

  1. Fantastic story. Mesmerised by the story telling technique. We also have ‘fantasyc’ ideas but unable to decorate into such beautifully embroidering story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *