Along the Road to Giants

“Along the Road to Giants”

by Emily McCosh

I hear the whispers before the cries for help. My lynx ears perk up at the soft sounds drifting through the undergrowth. Gentle reassurances mix with calls for aid, the voice deep and thundering. It pushes up old memories I had hoped to forget—I know that voice, too well. Unable to quell my curiosity, I stretch my skin. My fur falls away and bones crack to form a human body. Next, I weave a glamour so that my brother will not recognize my face, and slink through the greenery.

A man is crouched low, bending over another human form I can’t identify. His curly head of red hair is so familiar I want to turn away. I can’t imagine what Eli is doing here.

“What happened?” I ask.

Eli starts, turning his wary green eyes on me. To him I must look wild. Even with the ability to weave a spell that allows my clothes to reappear with my human skin, the cloth is dingy and hangs off my thin shoulders. My trousers only fit courtesy of a strip of fabric used as a belt. My long raven hair is matted and debris-filled as my dusty lynx coat. What this man, in his fine, warm clothes must think. Despite my glamour, I can’t help but feel a tinge of apprehension, of shame.

“Who are you?” His voice is deeper when low. Now that he’s moved, I can see his companion lying in the weeds. It’s a woman, unfamiliar, and her bright blue eyes flitter between me and Eli, trusting him to protect her from the madwoman. Her breathing is harsh, pained.

“S…” I almost use Sophia, my real name. I’ve never changed it with my face. It’s common enough, but I don’t want the hint of recognition. “Sara.”

“Sara,” he tries the name on his tongue. It’s common among the giant population, and his expression darkens briefly, “Do you know of a village nearby? My companion has broken her leg.”

I edge closer and Eli shifts his weight, using himself to shield her.

“About a mile in that direction.” I point through the trees toward the village I just passed. “I can lead you.”

His eyes narrow, but he nods and gives his thanks. He gathers the woman into his arms with a gentleness I didn’t know he possesses, turning and glancing into the forest. I follow the gaze and spot three quonooks. Deprived of my lynx senses, I hadn’t noticed the large animals gleaming in the sunlight. They’re gangly but surefooted animals, used like horses but more reliable and mild-mannered if you can handle them correctly. Long necks reach up to munch on low-hanging tree branches, and their coats shimmer cloudy purples and blues, speckled with white. Their noses are soft as velvet, eyes large and faces long. These three are of very fine breeding, expensive. Then again, Eli wouldn’t have to worry over the cost. There are many perks to being a prince, after all.

The saddle of one is loose and sideways. Despite their many fine traits, they can be temperamental if not handled properly. They won’t tolerate an inexperienced rider for very long without becoming jittery and foul tempered. The girl must have been thrown and broken her leg.

Eli is peering at me. He can’t lead the quonooks with the girl in his arms, and I look like a thief.

I smile, craning my neck to meet his eyes. “Don’t worry, I won’t steal your animals. I have better ways to travel.”

Dubious, Eli nods, studying me as I take the reins of the three beasts. Two are saddled for riding, the third burdened with their supplies. They give a gurgling mewl at my touch, sniffing in friendship. Luckily my glamour covers the aroma of wildcat I would have possessed.

“Come,” I say, turning towards the village. Eli follows with his woman, and even without my lynx ears I can hear their soft voices over the footsteps. Doubt washes over me. I am so close to the Vydon border, close to being away from my family forever. What am I doing helping my big brother, even if he doesn’t know it’s me?

What’s the harm? I tell myself. He’s never going to know. I’ll lead him to the village, and I’ll leave. How could he ever know?

“I’m looking for my mother and sister. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about the Eastern Palace giants, would you?”

I pause with a spoonful of gruel halfway to my mouth. Sometimes I tire of eating as an animal and I need a hot, human-cooked meal. I stopped in the tavern after showing the prince to the village, but he’d joined me later, saying the doctor put his companion to sleep so he could set her leg. When he’d asked to join me, I’d foolishly allowed it.

“Come again?” I ask, unsure I heard him correctly.

He’s lounging in the opposite chair with his mouth full of bread, but his eyes avoid mine. “My mother and sister are with the giants, at their Eastern Palace. You wouldn’t know anything about humans up in that area, would you?”

I had been in the hands of the giants, but our mother? No. I’m not sure I believe him.

“No one survives the giants unless they’re an honored guest.”

“You’re wrong,” he says, an edge of sharpness creeping into his tone. “My mother is queen, they wouldn’t dare.”

I shrug.

He continues, “And anyhow, my sister is a fine warrior and very clever. I am sure she has found a way to survive.”

He’s never called me a fine warrior in his life. Clever, yes. But I doubt he ever meant that as a compliment.

I don’t want him looking for me, he’ll only come face to face with disappointment. “Say what you like. I agree about your mother. The giants aren’t that brave. But your sister’s just a princess—that would be a bet they’d be willing to take. If she’s been there longer than a month, she’s gone.”

“You seem to know an awful lot.” Eli’s voice is acid, his jaw working in frustration over my words. I’ve been missing three months. Taken by giants, while my brother watched and roared with anger, but did nothing to stop them. Where was he when I was at their mercy, praying my family would come rescue me?

“You don’t know my sister,” he growls.

I want to laugh at the irony, but only hide my face in my mug of wine. I don’t need to earn his ire.

When his face is no longer darkened with rage, I ask, “Who is your companion? She’s quite beautiful.”

Eli’s face softens. “Lulia. We have been courting these last few months. When I told her I needed to leave in search of my family, she insisted on accompanying me.”

That makes sense. Eli had told me all about her before any of this happened. She’s a peasant from a neighboring kingdom, but he’d been so in love. I’d been only days away from meeting her before the giants took me. Before I’d learned my heritage.

Eli is still talking, “The doctor said she’s going to have to stay here until her leg is a bit more healed. I’m going to have to go on without her and pick her up on the way home.”

There is so much regret in his eyes, I tell him, “I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

He grins again, blindingly. Something about it makes my chest ache. “Yes, I know.”

How long would it have taken them to get this far? The girl must have been riding all this time before her quonook had enough. “She’s not a good rider then?”

Eli chuckles, “She doesn’t have the touch.”

I scrape at the last bits of my food, glancing at the other men hunched over their bowls. They seem to have recognized the unguarded Palini prince, he’s an easy face to identify. If they even notice I’m sitting with him, I’m a woman, and a wisp of one at that. I can be easily disposed. My brother is a bear compared to me, broad shouldered and arms like tree branches. He takes after our father. The drunkards don’t seem to care. Wine breeds fools and some aren’t above robbing and leaving a prince for dead, even from a king as kind as our father. Eli doesn’t seem to notice their gazes.

“The giant’s palace is to the east,” he says. “Which direction are you heading?”

I suppose there’s no harm in telling him, “Southeast.”

Going south means you hit the giant’s forested palace, then the dry Mookoo Desert farther past that, but southeast lets you slip between the vast sands and entering the kingdom of Aerphyn, to a land so widespread and endless you cannot be found. Few live out there, in a world of tree-tall grasslands and wet forests. It will be my paradise.

“That’s a shame.” Eli pulls me from my thoughts. “I could use the company.”

I glance up at him. My brother has always been overly friendly, foolishly trusting, but I wonder why he’s inviting me along. Maybe he thinks I’m a lonely damsel in need of escorting. If that’s the truth, he has quite the surprise ahead of him.

“Why?”

“You seem to know your way around the area, and traveling alone is always dangerous. If we were going the same way…” He shrugs.

It makes sense. People rarely travel alone, except, of course, myself. Eli is just being himself. My curiosity gets the better of me. I want to know about our mother—the words are out before I can stop them, “I’ll be heading east until Le City. I can accompany you ‘till then.”

He seems pleased. “Happy to have you.”

My smile feels tight. I shouldn’t have offered. I’m going to ruin everything. I leer at the five men across the tavern giving my brother greedy looks.

“You should return to your lady, my prince,” I murmur, and Eli looks momentarily shocked. “There are men in here that don’t care for your pedigree, just your gold.”

He looks around as if for the first time. Under his gaze, the group of five turn their eyes to their food, but Eli understands.

“Again, thank you,” he says, “I’ll be leaving at dawn.”

He pushes his empty bowl away and leaves the tavern. Seconds later, the five men rise and stroll out after him. I sigh. Eli is more than capable of taking care of himself. This curiosity really is going to kill me.

I slink to my feet and follow them out.

Night has brought a terrible cold. Without my thick lynx coat, I shiver under my thin clothing. My toes are frozen within my worn shoes. What I wouldn’t give for a pair of thick socks and a coat.

Two of the men are drunker than the others, barely able to keep their footing. The streets are mostly deserted. I can see Eli about as far ahead of the men as they are of me. I sneak along behind, waiting to see if they will actually attack. When one pulls a heavy knife from a sheath strapped to his thigh, I pull my own from thin air, from the voids between reality. It’s convenient to know magic when you’re often devoid of pockets. The blades are small and lightweight. Almost delicate. I pull another glamour over my body, feeling the drain a double spell puts on my magic, knowing their eyes will now be unable to find me. With deadly accuracy, I fling the blade into the shed beside their path. The buckets on the wall fly. The group starts, stumbling over each other. Eli turns to look. He keeps going, but now I know he’s aware of their presence.

When the group persists, I pull more of my knives from the void. One for each of them. With a few deft flicks of my wrist, I pin their pant legs to the ground. They panic at the invisible attacker, drunk and stupid, unable to find me, and I have to hide my laughter inside my fist. Eli ducks inside one of the buildings, and I run, leaving the drunkards to stumble into one another and cry of ghosts.

It feels good to help my brother, even if he doesn’t know it’s me.

I spend the night in lynx form, snuggled up warmly in the forest. Before the sun rises I pad back to the village, peeking into the window of the inn where Eli and Lulia are staying. My breath fogs the window where the frost hasn’t blurred the view. I catch an icy image of Lulia with two women assigned to look after her. Eli paces the room, packing away anything he used. The girl sits up in her bed and he takes a seat beside her, cupping her face in his hands and leaning in for a kiss.

I drop from the window, slipping away to find a back alley to change my skin. Eli finds me perched near the quonook stables, peeling the sheath away from a piece of hay. Even with rings under his eyes, his face is bright as it always is when he begins an adventure. He waves and hands me the quonook meant for Lulia. It has a lovely yellow stripe between its eyes and wriggles its lips against my finger.

I’m sure my face betrays my curiosity, because Eli grins like the sun and says, “Well, you might as well ride him if we’re traveling together. There’s no sense in you walking.”

He mounts his ride and trots off without a second glance. It’s a few seconds before I recover, and a few more before my own creature catches up to his. It’s been months since I’ve ridden, but it isn’t a skill easily lost. I can’t help the grin that spreads across my face as I chase after Eli.

For a moment, it seems nothing has changed.

With the quonooks to carry us through the forests, we’ll reach Le City by early morning of the ninth day.

Every night, I resolved to leave my brother’s presence and be done with the deception. If my mother truly has been captured, he is more than capable of rescuing her. Every morning, when I wake and he’s lying on the other side of the fire, sleeping with his arm over his face, snoring and happy, I cannot bring myself to follow through. I have four days left to decide what to do with myself. It is the fifth day of riding, and the sun is beginning to set, forming a jagged outline against the treetops. Night falls quickly here—we’ll need to bed down soon.

There’s something comforting in knowing my brother has hardly changed. He’s still loud, confident, talkative, joyful, and just the slightest bit braggadocios and abrasive. With only a small bit of nudging on my part, he began relating many of his great adventures and close calls. I already know most of them, but I’m a stranger to his eyes, so I listen, and I don’t mind hearing them all over again. He doesn’t make me talk, and it passes the time.

It rubs my injured heart raw when he boasts of adventures where I was with him, and never once mentions my name.

“We should stop for the night,” he yawns, stretching in the saddle.

I slip from my quonook’s soft back and wobble as my legs protest holding my weight. Eli chuckles and takes my reins, unbuckling the saddles and harnesses to let the creatures free for the night. Quonooks never leave the sight of the herd leader, and the leader is bonded from birth to its owner. Eli’s quonook will always return to him, and the other two with it.

I leave Eli to deal with the beasts and begin scavenging up firewood for the night. In order to dampen suspicion, I haven’t been sneaking away every night to change into my warm lynx skin, and my clothes are still thin. I could weave more, but Eli knows I have nothing with me. He’ll realize what I am. And although he doesn’t know it’s his sister under this skin, I cannot bear the disgust. So I snuggle up to the fire during the cold nights, and use my magic just enough to heat myself during the day. It isn’t comfortable, but it isn’t forever.

Eli always shares his food with enthusiasm, so I never go hungry. I sit, staring into the flames, while my brother hums to himself. After supper, for the first time, he rises and pulls his battle axe from one of his packs. I know every curve and notch of that axe, Eli’s been using it since he was a teenager, and I watch with rising discomfort as he practices the deadly weapon with an expertise that would crush the egos of most men.

I get to my feet. “I hope you’re not going to challenge the giants with that thing.”

Eli blinks at me, utterly lost.

“It isn’t that you’re not skilled, but, strange as it sounds, giants require a certain level of… finesse.”

Eli grins at that, swinging the axe half-heartedly. “You sound like my sister. She used to tell me I was an oaf.”

The comment leaves me floundering for words. He hasn’t mentioned my name since the tavern, but he’s right. I called him an oaf many a time, although teasingly.

In my silence, Eli starts talking again, “I don’t know what you mean exactly by finesse, but I’m not going to negotiate with those creatures.”

When my brother reaches the giant’s palace, he will find no little sister to rescue. I don’t know why I’m even bothering.

“You can’t just go barging in and kill everything in sight,” I tell him, searching through the undergrowth for what I need. “Giants have a rich culture of dueling for anything they want. And they have rules for that sort of thing. That’s what I mean by finesse.”

Maybe it’s because I’m starting to believe my mother is in the same position I was only months ago. Maybe it’s because Eli never has been a very good liar. He has no reason to anyhow. Maybe it’s because he’s just like me. That’s why I can’t give up on him. Maybe it’s because I see in his eyes the same harsh, broken determination I saw in my own when I was locked in a giant’s cell, knowing my family was never coming to rescue me.

I hand him two sticks, each the length of his forearm. “You do it by their rules. So you need to learn how to hold a knife.”

As the days pass, Eli improves his knife-fighting with my training.

He already knew the basics, but isn’t the kind of person to gravitate towards a lighter weapon. He’d rather run full on into a door to attempt to break it than see if he could pick the lock. Most times, it’s served him just fine, but not this time. This time, he needs my help, and I can’t deny the satisfaction in watching him improve.

Today, we made camp early in order to practice. Eli can’t wipe the goofy grin off his face, even when we’re doing serious work. At first he had been suspicious of my skills with my tiny, delicate frame, but those thoughts were quickly put to rest.

“You need to practice your footwork,” I tell him. “Giants are huge, but they’re fast, and you need to be able to keep your balance.”

I lunge, ducking under his arm and jabbing him sharply in the ribs. He yelps and stumbles, too slow.

“Fair point,” he says, rubbing his side.

I crack a smile. “Watch me. My legs and arms are going to do things in unison. I can only come at you if my feet move…”

“What is it?” he asks, frowning and cocking his head.

I point over his shoulder. “Goblins.”

“What?” he says sharply, turning on his heel.

In the dim forest twilight, flickers of green fire can be seen in the distance. They’re far away, but goblins are nasty, and I don’t want to take a chance.

“Take the quonooks and find high ground,” I tell Eli. Goblins don’t like to leave the shelter of the woods, even for a few seconds.

Eli whistles quietly, calling his creatures to him, “Where are you going?”

“To take a look.” I slip off into the forest.

“What if they see you?” he hisses.

I glance back at him. Concern wrinkles his face, not because I’m a little woman, but true worry, and I can’t bear to look. “No one’s going to see me.”

I disappear into the undergrowth, pulling my skin and rearranging my bones until my lynx body is slipping between the trees. I am immediately more comfortable, and warmer, my lynx nose picking up the rotting-meat-and-dirt scent of the goblins. I find only a small group, roasting meat over the green-flamed fire. The certain wood makes the flames the lime green color, and it’s quite beautiful, but humans don’t burn it; it can be toxic. The small, disfigured creatures seem to be minding their own business, snarling at one another in their own language. They aren’t hunting, there’s no need to disturb them, and I creep away from the group.

A shrill mewl echoes across the dark forest, stopping me mid-stride. Quonooks make a certain noise when they’re frightened, and worry for Eli immediately floods my chest. The goblins have all jumped to their feet, more interested in the animal cry than their already-cooked kill. The last thing my brother needs is a pack of hungry goblins, even a pack as small as this.

I emerge from the shrubbery, hissing and pawing. The pack freezes, a mixture of fear and curiosity, shuffling their feet. Another fearful cry echoes, first from the quonook, then from a goblin. Eli must be holding his own.

The goblin smell is all around, I can hear them behind the trees—there are more of them than I thought. One steps from the pack and I bare my teeth, forcing it back. Branches crackle behind me and I turn sideways, letting it know I’m aware of it. I back away, slowly, to run back to my brother and make sure he’s alright…

My own cry slips out across the woods, catlike and sharp, my legs buckling. When I move, I can feel the arrow-shaft burning in my shoulder. The goblin pack charges, but I slip away, still faster than any of them, pain lancing down my side with every step. I know I won’t get very far, stumbling up an outcropping of bare rock, out of the trees. The creatures behind me are nowhere to be seen. I collapse against the cold stones, panting and trying to silence the whines of pain. I need to get the arrow out, maybe then I can begin the healing process. I might not have enough magic left. It’s hard to summon it up cold and hurt, but I need to get the weapon out, and there’s no way in my lynx body.

My body doesn’t want to, but I force it to shift back into the form of a woman. Slowly, my animal cries turn into human screams as the muscles move around the wound. I wish I had the strength left to form a blanket, now that I’m out in the cold wind in my thin clothes, but I can’t weave a thing. I can hardly keep up my glamour.

“Sara?” Eli’s voice makes me scream for a whole new reason, panic choking the air from my lungs. He stands above me on the rocky ledge, the quonooks watching curiously behind him. His jaw is slack and eyes are wide—he must have seen the transformation.

“You’re a…” he has to think for a minute, “a m-morpher.”

There’s nothing I can possibly say. I doubt anything I could come up with would put him at ease, and I can’t run, the pain is too much. I wait—either he’ll get as far away from me as he can, or he may very well kill me. The legends of my species can be cruel. For a split moment, I wonder what he would do if I shed my glamour and become Sophia again. I’m far too cowardly to find out.

Eli jumps from the ledge, down to my level, and I push away, only succeeding in trapping myself in a corner. He won’t kill me, will he? I try to convince myself that my big brother is not that kind of man. But I just don’t know anymore.

Eli frowns, and it’s the wrong expression. He looks…concerned. Worried. Thoughtful. And that isn’t right. Shouldn’t he be disgusted? Angry?

“Hey,” he says, and holds out his empty hands—a reassurance. “Hey, it’s okay. I’m not gonna hurt you.”

I blink at him, feeling stupid. What does he mean?

He crouches close to me, reaching out. I flinch, but he only rests his hand on my wrist, frowning at my reaction.

“Sara?” he asks, more timid than confident—it sounds wrong in him, “Let me help you, okay?”

I want to tell him to go, to leave me alone. What does he care for a morpher when he wouldn’t even save his own little sister?

“Please?” he asks.

For a moment, despair fills his eyes such as I’ve never seen before. And oh, my will-power just crumbles. How could I possibly tell him to leave?

So I nod, very, very slowly. Relief washes over his face, so strong I have to look away. I can’t imagine why he would care for my life at all.

Eli doesn’t question me. He builds a warm fire in the wind-sheltered crook of the rock and pulls bandages and medicine from his packs. Once the arrow is removed, he sits, silent and gloomy, as I let him clean and apply herbs and bandages to my shoulder. The longer the silence, the more melancholy he grows. He drapes his thick, fine coat across my shoulders and sits by the fire, closer to me than usual, fiddling with the food warming in a pot over the flames. I pull the soft fabric closer, trying to work up some way of thanking him. It’s harder than it should be.

Long after the food has warmed and is handed to me in a bowl, Eli says, “My little sister is a morpher.”

I forget to breathe. Why would he admit something so shameful? His head is down, shoulders slumped. He says the words in a childlike murmur, but the tone is not of disgust. It is regretful. Sad. Lonely.

When I don’t speak, he continues, “When I was a child, I never really knew what a morpher was. I heard the stories like everybody else, so… I believed them”

He picks at his food, never once meeting my eyes, “My sister, Sophia, she didn’t know she was a morpher, but her magic started to appear, and my parents told both of us all about it. They just wanted her to have a happy childhood, to not have to worry about it, but I don’t think she saw it like that. She was really upset…furious.

“And I was just so surprised; I didn’t really know what to do. I knew she wasn’t a monster. That was obvious. Sophia didn’t see it. I think… I think she took it as I was angry with her. This whole thing happened right in the middle of a skirmish with the giants, and she…”

Eli shrugs helplessly, his food forgotten. Before I can stop myself, I ask, “Why wait so long to come find her?”

Eli shakes his head, “We started looking right away. We didn’t know which palace she was taken to. We had to travel to all of them. My father went to the Northern Palace, but he couldn’t go on because the kingdom was on the edges of war with Veydron. He was needed at home. I went to the Southern and Western Palaces. My mother went to the Eastern, but she was taken hostage. Now I need to get both my mother and my sister back.”

My jaw drops… our mother… my mother came to find me. Eli isn’t lying. That’s why she’s with the giants. My chest twists on itself. They all were looking for me, and I never knew.

My nails dig into my palms. I’m glad Eli isn’t looking at me. If he was, I’m not sure I would be able to keep back the tears.

Eli is quiet for a very long time, the flames creating shadows across his sad face.

Finally, he whispers, “It’s my fault.”

“What?” I ask, startled.

“It’s my fault. That my sister was taken—it’s my fault.” He closes his eyes, “I should have said something to her. I should have reassured her. I never thought… she would take it the way she did. I never thought… she would think we would ever not love her because of something so silly. And when the giants came, and one of them grabbed her… I couldn’t save her. I tried, but I’ve never been so scared in my life. I froze, and I didn’t do enough. I ran after them, screaming until I lost my voice, but I couldn’t do enough.”

Eli weeps, burying his face in his hands and shaking. I feel my own eyes burn, my throat tightening. I want to crawl into his lap like I did when I was a little girl and hide. But I am not his sister. Not in this skin.

So I reach out and rub his shoulder, and speak the truth for the first time since I met him on the outskirts of that village, “I’m sure she’d forgive you—if she knew.”

Eli shakes his head. I turn away, cursing my own cowardice. My brother sobs and murmurs, “She’ll never forgive me,” and I feel my own heart break.

The next day, Eli is quiet. I long to hear him speak again, to be cheerful and carefree, but he rides with his head hung low, eyes never quite meeting mine. I wish I were as brave as he was to tell me everything. If I were that brave, maybe I could tell him who I am.

With all of Eli’s help, I gained enough strength overnight to begin healing my wound with magic. Now, I can ride comfortably. By the time we reach Le City, I’ll be healed.

The only time he speaks is to ask after how I feel, and the day passes in a quiet that physically hurts. The next morning, Eli is more talkative, but it’s forced. He isn’t the same as he was before, and my guilt grows along with his.

On the ninth day, we do indeed reach Le City. It’s small, no more than a trading town with wooden houses and thatched roofs, but pleasant and shadowed by the giants’ Southern Palace a few miles away on the mountain. As we reach the outskirts, I realize I’m to be leaving. This is as far south as I can go. If I’m going to escape into those vast plains, I need to leave my brother now. The realization makes tears prickle my eyes.

Apparently, Eli has the same thought, because he glances at me and says, “You’re leaving now, aren’t you?”

No, I want to say, No, I’m not. But instead I nod, and Eli dismounts.

I slide to the ground, my shoulder hardly twinging anymore, handing over the quonook reins.

“I hope you find your mother and sister.” I say, and it isn’t a complete lie. “Thank you for helping me.”

He smiles, “If you ever pass through again, come see me. I think you’ll like Sophia. You’re a lot like her.”

I try to smile, but it doesn’t quite come out. Eli takes my little hand in his, kissing my fingers and smiling with a bow. I want to wrap my arms around his wide chest, to tell him I love him, but to him I’m just an unfamiliar woman, a stranger.

“Thank you,” he says, “for listening to my ridiculousness.”

I nod, because I know I can’t possibly speak.

“Goodbye Sara.” He steps back, taking hold of his quonooks, “I hope you find your home.”

“Bye Eli.”

There’s something in his eyes just then, only for a moment. Some sort of spark, a realization, almost of profound joy, then heartbreak. Then…nothing. He is back to his usual self. With a final smile, he turns away. There’s nothing else to do. I force my feet to follow the path away from Le City, and as soon as my brother’s shape is nothing more than a dark outline against the sun, I break into my lynx form and run.

I don’t get far. My body seems to be in direct opposition to my mind, and my legs slow to a standstill. I pant and try to calm my spinning thoughts. Why can’t I leave? There’s nothing to stop me. Maybe it’s that look in my brother’s eyes just before he turned away. Maybe I’m still determined.

I look back at the giant’s palace, a dark silhouette in the now-evening light. If I can admit it to myself, I know exactly why. Eli, with his confession, has unknowingly defeated my motivation for leaving. My family came for me. They love me. My mother came to rescue me even with the threat of giants looming over her. My brother misses me—he wept before a stranger because he misses me. I just can’t walk away. Not right now. Not like this.

Hissing and pawing at the dirt in frustration, I turn back the way I came, breaking into a dead run back to the place I never wanted to see again. By the time the sun is rising again the next morning, I am under the shadows of the palace’s great arches.

#

The giants don’t pay me any mind—a wildcat isn’t nearly the strangest thing they see on a daily basis. The palace is a looming shape in the morning light. The spires reach up like fingers, the swooping architecture resembling the mountains behind it, shimmering a pale white. The stadium is a circle of black stone arches that is already beginning to fill with the sounds of a crowd massing. Eli will be in there already, preparing to fight a giant for our mother’s freedom.

I’m sleepy and my bones ache from running all day and night, but I slink into the stadium, trying to find an opening where no one will notice me. Eli stands cross-armed in the round, dirt-floored arena, his face pulled downwards into hard, tense lines. By now he will have found out I’m not here. I pity the creature that delivered that news.

Pride twists in my chest to see he’s accepted a pair of long-knives to wield in the fight.

I stretch my skin to fit the form of Sara. No one notices me until I’m slipping off the edges of the stadium to join my brother in the dirt. He blinks rapidly, taken aback by my presence, his jaw slightly loose. Then he sobers, offering me a tight smile in thanks, turning back to the stands, his eyes on the giant-lord in its separate box away from the rest of the crowd.

I turn, and there is my mother, seated beside the burgundy-tinted skin of her giant captor. Her dark hair is down and uncombed, but her simple dress seems warm and well made. She hasn’t thinned since last we were together. That’s relieving. They treated her with more respect and kindness than they did me, at least. Her face matches her eldest son’s, hard and sad. Perhaps she only now found out I am not here. Guilt swallows me up. She’s only in this situation because of me.

Her eyes roam over me curiously, but there’s no sign of recognition. Of course not—somehow that still hurts.

The giant-lord sneers at my presence, but doesn’t object.

“You were right,” Eli says as I reach his side. “My sister isn’t here.”

“Did they say why?”

If possible, the lines in Eli’s face harden further, “She escaped, months ago.”

“She’s alive. That’s good.”

“She’s alive, but she didn’t come home.” The same guilt I’d seen nights ago appears in my brother’s face. I open my mouth to say something, anything, but no words escape.

A horn sounds and two doors in the arena walls open, two soldiers stepping from their depths. The giant-lord is matching us, a warrior for a warrior.

Up close, the giants live up to their name. They stretch almost twice my brother’s height, limbs like tree trunks, reddish skin thick and leathery. Their eyes are black and too small for their faces, their mouths twisted in disdain. These creatures have always tolerated humans, and sometimes even liked them, but it didn’t take much on my father’s part to revive a deep-seeded hatred. Simple misunderstandings can sometimes do that. They took me and my mother for fun. This is entertainment. The thought puts an angry burn behind my eyes—my hands itch for the fighting to begin.

The giant-lord rises and gives a thickly-accented bellow, “You fight for your mother’s freedom, princeling. Use your last breaths well.”

Eli sneers, and I see the battle-lust in him as well. We back away from one another, drawing our opponents to separate ends of the ring. As much as I wish to protect my brother, I’ve gotten myself into a deadly battle. I need to focus.

The knives the creature draws are long and wicked, but I’ve seen this show before, I’ve fought this battle before. I know how to win. Magic isn’t allowed, but I can win.

I pull my knives from the places between reality, digging my toes into the dirt and charging the creature head on. It roars in surprise and stumbles back as I duck through its legs, surefooted and light as a cat, slicing the inside of its thigh before it can even comprehend my closeness. With a bellow, it swings the knife a finger’s width from my face. The sharp whoosh of the blade fills my ears, but it misses its mark. I skip back and grin while it eyes me, daring a glance at my brother. Bright red stains his arm, but the giant’s back has been slashed savagely. My brother is fighting well.

My giant lunges once more, the two of us exchanging blows and cuts, unable to gain the advantage. The crowd screams every time blood shows. The wound in Eli’s arm is more serious than I thought—it’s bleeding too much. He’s going to lose consciousness. Whispering under my breath, I send some magic my brother’s way, not to heal the skin, but at least to clot the blood. It slows and eventually stops, but the drain to my magic is too much. I haven’t slept in almost forty-eight hours, and the unexpected release of energy makes me wobble and almost lose my footing.

The giant takes advantage of my sudden weakness, lunging and pinning me to the ground. I yank to the side at the last minute, as its sharp blade bites into the dirt. My arms are pinned and the beast’s foul breath turns my stomach. I throw my hips to the side with all the strength I have. It doesn’t knock him away, not nearly, but throws him off balance enough to jam my arm upward, digging the blade into the thick muscle of his thigh. The monster’s blade slices through my cheek, hot and wet, and I turn my small dagger into his shoulder, wriggling out from under him and crunching the hilt of the knife against its temple with both hands. Its eyes roll back into its head and it crumples forward, breathing shallow.

I spit blood from my mouth, turning to the aid of my brother. Eli’s opponent, enraged at my actions, turns from my brother and thunders toward me. I leap away, ducking in the last minute before the creature’s fist would have flattened my skull. Eli throws one of his knives—it finds its mark in the beast’s shoulder, but still, a thick hand knocks me sideways, blackening my vision. Eli roars like a giant and buries his other knife in the beast’s back. I kick out with the last of my strength, knocking its legs out from under it.

The giant collapses, alive, but in no shape to fight.

Eli pulls me to my feet, looking both angry and smug at the same time.

“Are you alright?”

I nod mutely, unsteady on my feet. The crowd around us is deafening and even from here I can see the fury written on the giant-lord’s face. But he honors his bargain. Our mother goes free, disappearing into the interior of the stadium as she comes down to greet her son. Eli runs to her, gathering up her tiny frame in his bearish arms. I want to follow him but turn away instead, leaving the stadium the way the two giants came. There’s nothing for me back there. There’s no way to tell him.

I stay in my human form, wandering through the cold air out into the fields behind the stadium. Every bone, every muscle aches. Sleep is the only thing I need right now. Sleep in a dark little pocket of the forest looming ahead, away from everyone.

“Sara… Sara!” Eli’s voice carries across the open space.

I stop where I am but don’t turn around, too tired to care. An odd heaviness tries to drag me to the ground. I rock from foot to foot to keep awake.

“Hey Sara!” Eli calls, still far away. He doesn’t see that I’ve stopped. “Sophia!”

That wakes me up, my eyes widening and my body pulling tight as a bowstring. I look down at my hands, but they are the same one’s I’ve worn since I met Eli in the forest. I haven’t lost my glamour for a moment.

How can he know?

I turn as my brother slows to a standstill before me, catching his breath. In the distance behind him, I can see the shadow of our mother standing with the quonooks.

“I’m right, aren’t I?” Eli gasps, resting his hands on his knees for a moment, “It’s you, isn’t it?”

All I can do is stare dumbly, and at my silence, he straightens, expression timid. His eyes hold mine and won’t let go. There’s no use fighting. He may be scared, but he isn’t uncertain.

My voice scratches, “How did you know?”

He shakes his head and shrugs at the same time. “I didn’t… until you were saying goodbye and… well, I noticed for the first time… you never changed your eyes… then you came back… And sometimes you forget. I know you better than anyone.”

He smiles shyly, the earlier guilt making its way back into his expression. I squeeze my eyes shut as if somehow that will make it more real. I can’t believe I’d forgotten to change them.

“Sophia…” Eli’s voice changes, now somber and hurt—I don’t look at him. “Listen, I… I know you probably don’t want to come home. I understand… But, we want you back. We miss you. I’m not going to force you. If you want, I won’t even tell mother you were here, but…when you’re ready to come home… we’re going to be there.”

My throat tightens and my eyes burn—I fight with all my strength against the urge to sob. When I open my eyes, his gaze is so full of raw honesty I can’t meet it.

“I want to see you,” he says. “Before you leave, I want to see my sister.”

His earnest words are difficult to hear. This is my last chance to deny it, to turn away without giving him any proof, but, for the first time, I shed my glamour. It melts away in tufts of skin and hair, fading to air before reaching the ground. My brother’s breath comes out in a sharp huff.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers.

I can’t bear it, I tell him, “I forgive you.” I forgive them all.

I’m not looking, so I don’t see it coming, but he throws himself at me, wrapping his huge arms around me in an inescapable hug, lifting me clear of the ground. All the air leaves my lungs, but I grab him around the neck, holding tight.

“Will you come home?” my brother’s voice is very small, frightened he might break the bond he just created.

I look at our mother over his shoulder, unaware of my presence. Eli is giving me the excuse I’ve been wanting. He’s allowing me to leave. He won’t stop me.

He won’t fight, won’t follow. He’ll let me do whatever I need to do.

I have one last chance to run away, to disappear to a place where I can finally be alone. Gratitude crashes over me, but for a whole different reason.

“Yes,” I mumble. “I want to come home.”

Eli laughs, the sound saturated with relief, hugging all the harder. When he finally lowers me, I sag and wobble. He grasps me around the waist and loops the other arm under my legs, scooping me up and grinning brighter than the sun. It’s good to see that smile once again. He carries me along, back to where our mother stands. She’s waiting for one of her children, but she’s about to find two. I cling to my brother’s shoulders.

It’s time for us to go home.

________________

Emily McCosh resides in California with her family and monster dogs, where she is a graphic design student by day and dedicated daydreamer (read: story writer) at all times. Her fiction is published at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, Flash Fiction Online, Galaxy’s Edge, and elsewhere. Find her online at oceansinthesky.com and on FB and Twitter @wordweaveremily.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>