Sometimes help comes from surprising quarters.
I straddle the roof of my cottage, or rather, the part of the roof that remains. From my perch, I peer through the giant-sized hole and into my bedroom. The quilt is downy white, and part of me wonders if there’s any harm in simply dropping through that giant-sized hole and landing in its softness.
If there’s any harm in delaying what I must do today.
Above, the sky is clear, a startling blue that’s the color of forget-me-knots. Still, the air is sticky against my cheeks, and I taste the promise of rain on my tongue. Beneath the heat—and the late-summer storm that’s certain to roar through our valley—I sense the chill of autumn.
Yes, there’s great harm in delaying what I must do today.
With a finger, I test the ragged edge closest to me. A telltale red stains the thatch as if some giant creature cut its lips while taking a bite out of my house.
How—and why—did I sleep through that?
I woke to the sunrise touching my eyelids, birdsong in my ears, and a gaping hole above my head. That I don’t know, can’t remember, makes my stomach clench with foreboding.
“I can guarantee a lot,” comes a voice from the path below. “But, I never claimed my materials were giant-proof.”
Master Rinaldi stands at my front gate, fingers curled around the latch as if he’s merely waiting for an invitation to lift it.
I don’t grant him one.
“A giant did this?” I ask.
“What else? Insidious beasts. They’re taking over the forests, the hinterlands. You should move to the village. This is no place for a woman on her own.” He waves a dismissive hand at my cottage, which up until this morning, was a fine place for a woman on her own.
“Giants eat thatch?” It’s a ridiculous question. I know they don’t. We both know that.
He raises a suggestive eyebrow. “Perhaps it was searching for the treat inside.”
I ignore this. “You wouldn’t happen to have more thatch, would you, Master Rinaldi?”
I gauge the hole in my roof. The laborers I hired earlier this summer would all be in the fields, working to bring in the harvest. I could, perhaps, tackle this job on my own.
When Master Rinaldi doesn’t answer, I turn my attention back to him. His gaze roves my legs, clad in breeches. There’s a calculating glint in his expression, one I’ve seen him wear in the marketplace.
Master Rinaldi knows weaknesses and how to drive a bargain. He is also blessed with a lovely wife and ten children, all strong and healthy. He is someone who has everything a man could want.
And yet, his eyes—and hands—roam.
If I wish more thatching for my roof, I suspect there’s an added cost, one that doesn’t involve the silver coins in my purse.
“So late in the season?” He shakes his head as if my plight is the saddest thing he’s seen in a month.
“I could try Master Carr,” I say, hedging my bets.
Master Rinaldi merely smirks.
The trouble is, Master Rinaldi’s supplies are the best—sweetest smelling, free of vermin, such as night loshes and murdocs. During the winter, too many families have slumbered beneath an infected roof only to never wake in the spring.
If I’m to make it through the winter, I may have to pay the price he’s asking.
The rumble starts so low and—to paraphrase Master Rinaldi—insidiously that I barely register it. The soft tremble travels the framework of my cottage until the shaking reaches my ribcage and bits of straw float to my bedroom below.
A shadow looms on the horizon—a giant-sized one, to match the hole in my roof.
Master Rinaldi falters. He steps away from my gate only to stop and double back. He doesn’t want to be here. But with me stranded on the roof, he has no wish to appear cowardly.
“Mistress Benton, I implore you. Pack what you can carry and leave with me now.”
The earth shudders with the giant’s approaching footfalls. I clutch the roof, the rough thatch cracking against my palms. Master Rinaldi stumbles, his gait haphazard, on a path that takes him away from me and toward the village.
“It’s coming back,” he says. “For you.”
Could I scamper down from the roof, grab a few precious belongings, and race for the village? Then what? Secure a room at the inn until my silver runs out? Throw myself on the mercy of the village elders? Of Master Rinaldi?
I shake my head, resolute in this.
“You’re mad,” he calls up to me. “A fool of a woman.”
Yes. Likely I am. But I’m a woman with a home of her own—a rare thing in these parts. If I leave, someone—a man—will claim this land. If I stay and die, then someone—a man—will claim this land.
No matter what I do, the outcome is the same.
So I choose to stay.
Without a glance over his shoulder, Master Rinaldi lurches down the path, his stride chaotic under the onslaught of the giant.
I hang onto the roof with all my might and wait.
* * *
As the giant grows closer, the steps grow lighter. It’s as if it knows the power in its footfalls and is now treading lightly.
And as the giant grows closer, I see that it—or rather—she is wearing a shift the color of forget-me-nots. Her feet are bare, her hands clenched in fists. Her hair, plaited into braids, is alternately gold, silver, and ebony.
She is awe-inspiring, and I can’t look away.
When the giant reaches my cottage, she kneels. This does not put us at eye level, although it comes close. Her eyes are the same color as her dress, and I think that may be why she wears it. I don’t know if vanity extends to giants, but I don’t see why it can’t.
She unclenches her right fist. In her palm rests the tangle that once was my roof. Interspersed in the straw and reeds is the inky black remains of a murdoc.
I press a hand against my chest and pull in a deep breath, just to reassure myself I still can.
“Is that why I didn’t hear you?” I ask.
The giant blinks her great blue eyes in what I take as yes.
“Has it been there all summer?”
Now a single tear rolls down her cheek. It lands on the packed earth of my walkway and splashes so high I can taste the salt of it on my lips.
How far gone was I? How close to death? My heart thumps with latent fear, and then my pulse sparks with anger. Convenient of Master Rinaldi to show up this morning of all mornings.
So convenient that, for a moment, I don’t have any words.
“How … insidious.” I say, at last.
A smile tugs the corner of her mouth. Oh, yes, she knows all about Master Rinaldi. The giant crumbles the tangle of straw in her fist, obliterating whatever remains of the murdoc. The wind steals the vestiges of straw and beast, lifts them high into the air, and carries them away.
Only then do I feel my breath return in full force. Only then does it occur to me to worry for someone other than myself.
“Are you hurt? Did the murdoc hurt you?”
Her smile has revealed something I missed previously. The blood. Scrapes and cuts, yes. She hurts.
“I have a balm, but it’s.” I point at the hole in my roof. I sigh. “It’s down there.”
She holds out a palm, and without hesitation, I step onto it.
I find the balm and a soft cloth, and I gesture for the giant to return me to the roof. From there, I lean forward, dab the healing balm—a recipe of my grandmother’s—against the wounds.
The giant laughs. In relief? Delight? It’s hard to tell. The force of it nearly knocks me to the ground.
Then she opens her other hand, and there is thatching, fresh from someone’s storehouse. I suspect Master Rinaldi’s.
Honestly? He owes me.
Together we make short work of repairing my roof. Near sunset, when the task is done, I pour us each a serving of mead, her portion in the largest bowl I own. She takes dainty sips but still manages to finish the drink almost immediately.
It is nearly dark now, I have a giant on my door stoop, and I’m not quite sure what happens next.
The giant pulls a piece of parchment from her pocket and unfurls it. The script is precise, but the letters so large I must back up to read the message.
My name is Martine.
I can speak, but my words are loud, and I don’t want to scare those around me.
If I’m showing you this note, it means I wish to be your friend.
“Martine,” I say. “That’s a pretty name.”
She smiles, her teeth so white and fierce that for a moment, I can’t collect my thoughts.
“I’m Benton,” I add, my heart pounding a strange beat. I’m not frightened. I’m not nervous. I want to name this thing I’m feeling, but suspect it’s nothing more than a spark of hope. I don’t want to extinguish it by staring at it too hard. “My mother wanted a boy and saw no reason to change the name when I wasn’t.”
Martine lifts an eyebrow, a wry gesture that makes me laugh.
“Do you have a place to stay?” I ask.
Where do giants stay? Does Martine have a family? Who are her people, and why is she alone?
She gives a slow shake of her head, and another tear trickles down her cheek. The heartbreak and sorrow that rolls off her might flood this valley.
“You can stay with me.”
Those blue forget-me-not eyes widen.
“I own the land from that corner of the forest, through the meadow, and all the way to the stream. Is that enough room?”
She claps her hands together, and the force of it reverberates across the land. Certainly, the villagers are trembling in their cellars at this very moment.
“Stay,” I say to Martine.
In time, I’ll learn of her heartache. Perhaps I can help her find her people, assuming she is lost, of course. Or perhaps she’s like me—a woman on her own.
“Stay, and be my friend.”
When Martine nods, that spark of hope kindles into flame.
And no matter how insidious Master Rinaldi is, I must admit that he is right in one respect.
This is no place for a woman on her own. But for two?
Insidious Beasts was written especially for the 2020 (Love) Story Project.
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