Siofra is a child who no one wants to know about - no one but a giant it would seem. So when the giant is killed by villagers who don't believe in the old ways, Siofra vows to show them the hard way.


2. Chapter Two

Under the stars, the watchman trudged through the forest. Every so often he would catch a flicker of movement from the corner of his eye. No matter how fast he turned, he couldn’t catch the shadows. As his feet crunched through the thick carpet of leaves and twigs, the very roots started to twist out of his way, ensuring safe passage. He paused, looking down at the mewling bundle in his arms. With a coo, the child reached out and whacked him on the nose. With a small grin on his face, he carried on. Ailil would be waiting. No doubt the creatures of the forest had sent word ahead of him.

He saw the glow of orange light shooting through the silvery midnight long before he saw the house. Carefully, he opened the gate, muttering the words that ensured he wouldn’t be pounced on by the dark nymphs who lay in wait. He could see the outline of their wings pressed against the wood, their bodies too ensconced to make any further impression. Over the silence of the forest, he could hear the breathy chattering and the shrill of tiny teeth connecting and de-connecting.

The door ahead opened as the watchman made his way down the path. Framed against the rich light, was a man even broader and taller than the child’s father had been. He was beyond the height of normal men, with hair as fierce as flames shot with streaks of the silver from the moon. His vivid beard matched his hair and covered most of his lower face. This man towering above the watchman was a Cimmerian, one of the warrior giants who had travelled across the seas. This one was the only one for miles; his family having dispersed all over the isle.

“Ailil, I have another,” the watchman bowed before the great man, and held out the baby. Alil took a step forward and took the soft mess of clothes and baby. In his arms, the girl looked impossibly small, like a toy that could fall and break any minute. Yet as the giant cradled her in arms as broad as tree trunks, his dark eyes glowed. One finger traced the black swirling pattern down her arm.

“I will look after her as I have done with the others. You did well to save her. Expect my thanks.” He turned and vanished back into the house. The watchman stared as the door closed, his heart hammering as it always did after interacting with Ailil. Then he returned the same way as the father who had severed all connections to his daughter that night. He would never know she lived, nor would the girl know any different.

Inside the cottage, the giant placed the child down in a cradle of clean blankets and newly stuffed pillows. He lifted it up in two arms and placed it at a safe distance from the huge fire that roared in the fireplace. Taking a vat from one of the many shelves lining the wooden interior, he poured a small amount into a bowl. White liquid tinged with emerald uncoiled, and he placed it on a stand above the fire. Carefully, he watched as the liquid started to turn entirely green, then he took it off. With the corner of a rag, he squeezed up the liquid to feed to the baby. Her gummy mouth greedily guzzled up as much as she could. Ailil smiled as the pale face became suffused with a rosy glow.

“Drink up child, the Burtree Witches do not bestow their gift upon anyone. It will make you strong.  Watchman did the right thing bringing you to me. I’ve helped your brothers and sisters before. Now it’s your turn. Help the forest set itself to rights. Since Cahal left, the forest has been growing sick.”

The baby burped then collapsed onto its side, its breathing become regular and deep.

“Let me name you child, so you stay safe from the creatures of the night. Siofra. Changeling. You are loved.”

A tiny rose-bud smile curved over Siofra’s lips.

In the morning, Siofra awoke her guardian with cries that rebounded around the arches of the cottage. Shaking the sleep away, Ailil repeated the ritual with the milk, watching as her skin took on a glow that had not been there the night before.

“I’ll show you around, little one,” he murmured, picking the child up and slotting her onto his shoulder. Cooing, Siofra banged her chubby fists on the giant’s shoulders. He chuckled. “You’re a fighter, but no match for me. I will teach you to be strong when the time is right.” As he spoke, he wrapped the child in a thick fur robe, which covered every part of the exposed skin.

He left the cottage, opening up the front door to let in the brilliance of the day. White rays shot through the house, lighting everything with a washed-out gold. Ailil took a deep breath, letting the winter chill shoot like ice down through his windpipe and into his lungs. On the slight breeze, he could smell the trees shaking away the remnants of the night. On the breeze, he could hear the forest waking up; the night time terrors having skulked back into their holes.

Leaving the house with huge strides, he moved past the gate and entered the heart of the woodland.  Level with Ailil’s head, tree sprites danced along the branches. Dressed in leaves stitched with flowers, twigs and other products of the forest, they chattered to each other in sharp voices. Siofra reached out, trying to grab them. Some of them were bold enough to leap on to her bold head and shoulders, making her giggle. They tittered along with her, before flying off to observe from another branch.

“They like you. Just because you have been gifted, it does not mean that they respond well. One of my children was nipped constantly, until she learnt how to use the trees against them.” Ailil chuckled, a sonorous noise that bubbled from inside. In a crescendo of tiny wings beating, the tree sprites vanished back.

They walked through the forest for a while, passing through trees that twisted themselves open gateways. Birds flew overhead, small creatures such as rabbits and squirrels raced alongside the giant, quickly tiring and falling behind. Butterflies worked with the bees to perform aerial displays for the child as she burbled and screamed in delight. Sunlight filtered down from the trees above, hitting gorgeously bold flowers, who unfurled to soak in the light.

“We have someone to see Siofra. Someone who will know what the forest has planned for you.” The baby’s eyes opened wide and she fell silent.

The light around them faded, as if someone had instructed the sun to dim. Woodland creatures that had kept them company disappeared, the air growing still and thick in their absence. Trees that had been vivid with colour now bled into dulcet tones; roots twisting thicker underfoot. No flowers grew here, and the only animals that watched lurked in the trees. Only their yellowing eyes were visible as they watched the giant and his child thunder past.

Ailil came to a slow halt before the most gnarled and decayed tree of the forest. It stretched into the heavens, just a trunk scored with age and weather. The leaves of this tree exploded somewhere far beyond where anyone could see. Down here, there was just jutting branches, some splintered and torn softly.

“Old Mother, here is the child.”

Absolute, obliterating silence fell over the trees. Even the wind did not dare to make its presence felt. A creak sounded, like bones cracking, then the whole tree began to tremble. A pair of disproportionate branches grew from the trunk and plucked the baby up. It held the dangling yet soundless bundle before it. A section of the trunk creaked open, and the baby’s eyes were held by the obsidian globes of Old Mother.

“This child will grow with us, become part of the forest and bring us prosperity” The voice was breathy, quiet but commanding, making the air tremble. Ailil’s shoulders slumped and he grinned. “Yet should the child be reunited with her own kind, not only we, but her whole generation faces a bleakness I cannot see. Whether this is written, or whether it is a foretelling of something we avoid, is unbeknownst to me. Protect her giant. She will do well here, with us.”

Taking his que, the giant took the baby back into his arms, stiffly bowing to the great tree.

As he walked back to the protection of his home, he pondered the tree’s words. The earth had given her the role of protecting the woodland and everything in it. He was sure the child would grow to worship and respect everything here that had a heartbeat and a conscience. With that blessing had come a curse, and one of the most dangerous ones he had stumbled across in a long time. He could help with the gift, but he could only pray that the Old Mother was wrong. Despite her nine hundred years on the earth, she had never been wrong. Never.

Looking down on the child now fast asleep in his arms, he failed to see how something so fair, so small could bring this fear of devastation, and yet exude hope at the same time.

It wouldn’t happen.

Not on his watch. 

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