He was being swarmed. Humans of every size and shape racing to claw at his skin and rip clothes from his body. Dozens, at first. Then hundreds. Thousands.
Sometimes whips would cut his skin along with the fists. And all the while, chains kept digging deeper around his wrists and legs, pulling him into the sodden earth. It was all he could do to keep them away from his one good eye - and even that was in vain when a rowdier group boosted a man onto his face.
A dagger flashed like a strike of lightning, plunging down-
His eye flew open with a start - uninjured. He was alone in the dark, a darkness he had come to know well. The dream was gone, but there was still a sensation on his cheek.
Ross inhaled so sharply, he nearly choked. He jerked his head away and met resistance from new bindings on his body. He fought for lenience. They were going to ambush him again, he was sure of it.
"It's alright!" A voice like a bird made him stop and look more pointedly in front of him. A tiny woman stood there, hands outstretched. "It's alright, Ross. It's only me."
"Val," he rasped. His voice felt like sandpaper, a bitter taste coating his tongue.
Valeria nodded, smiling tentatively. When he found no one else, he let his head slump back to the ground. His lungs were still only giving him shallow breaths while the sedatives wore off. Valeria approached when he was still. She ran her hand along his forehead, and he realized there was a cold sweat coating his entire body.
She seemed little perturbed by this. Ross heard her set down what must have been a wash cloth with a wet slap, and the pressure of her hand left him for a moment. Humming very faintly under her breath, she stooped to pick up a blurry something from the ground beside her.
“Open your mouth,” she instructed him, her tone gentle.
Barely even thinking about it, he obeyed, and shortly after felt the cooling splash of water on his tongue, banishing the vile taste for a blissful few seconds. He sighed with the relief of it and waited for more, but Valeria moved away again. She set down the water jug and picked up the cloth once more. The tantalising sound of water reached his ears as she squeezed the rag in a soapy pail.
“I patched up a couple of nasty entry wounds on your arms,” she told him, dabbing the cloth over his cold skin. “But there's not much damage this time. Your cheek’s a little grazed though. I'd better get the grit out of that sooner rather than later.”
He willed himself to focus on her as she moved, working to distance his waking mind from the lingering threads of his nightmare. The torches had been refueled recently, casting strange patterns of colour and shadows over her face. But the shadows couldn't hide everything. There was a patch of redness along her right cheek that caught his eye. The right side of her face looked slightly swollen and patterned with a mottled bruise that ran from her jaw to her eye. A small bandage made a feeble effort to conceal the worst of it.
Valeria paused to give him a strange look before seeming to understand. "It doesn't hurt much unless I touch it," she said softly.
Ross flinched as the rag was pushed into the grid of scratches on his cheek. Valeria murmured to him as she kept at it, pulling out gravel and bits of hay with every stroke of the cloth.
"It was good what you did back there, saving that man," she said, looking to his watchful eye. The rag was set back into the bucket, but she stayed close. "I knew you were capable of mercy."
Ross blinked, and her hand was suddenly on his cheek again, tiny fingers smoothing over uninjured skin. Despite both their injuries, there was a strange contentment about her.
“Mercy…” he mused in a voice like shifting rocks. Despite the water, his throat was bone dry again. “...Hardly. He's going… die anyway.”
Valeria bit her lip and didn't speak for a while. Her hand worked gently back over the mess of blood and scraped skin, picking out a stone here and there. Ross took a deep breath, an attempt to wake himself up some from the sluggish blur fogging up his brain. He couldn't keep down a shiver at the chill of his clammy skin, fingers curling against the ground.
“You've been out for a long time,” Valeria said eventually. “They took Mellark into the woods at sunset. He could be dead already.” Ross watched as she pulled a ratty shawl closer around narrow shoulders. “Thought Rionny was going to kill you too last night, the way he was ranting and raving in here.”
Ross’ eyebrow furrowed in concentration. “Don't remember… anything after I… got back here,” he grunted, tapping one finger on the floor.
“No, I expect you wouldn't.” A hint of ice crept into her tone and was gone before Ross was even sure it'd been there. “The way that… poison works on you, it's terrible.”
Ross huffed a tired agreement and let his head slump back a bit. He felt hollow inside again like before - only this time the sensation was more painful, as though a white hot spear had pierced his stomach. As if awakening itself, the organ uttered a growl of displeasure, and Ross curled tighter on his side, pressing his hands to his middle.
Valeria looked up. “I'm-I’m afraid Amos has decided to punish you for your lack of cooperation yesterday.”
Ross squeezed his eye shut, a single memory flooding back.
“Mellark was a gift. Practically handed on a silver plate. If the ungrateful bastard won't eat what I bestow on him he gets nothing, understand?”
“I'm not allowed to bring anything but water for a couple of days,” she went on. “If they caught me, I don't know what-” she choked off. “Anyway. You've slept away a good portion of that time, so it won't feel so bad.” She tried a positive smile.
You're a fool, Vogel, Ross thought, clenching his jaw. “Starting to regret not doing as I was told,” he admitted, with a cough in place of a self-deprecating laugh.
Valeria took her hand from his skin finally and glanced at her palm, at the dried blood that stuck to it. “Why didn't you?” she almost whispered.
His shoulders twitched in a shrug. She dithered for a moment, then reached for the pail to clean off her hands, not looking at him now.
“You've eaten people before.” It was an accusation, not a question.
She took pause, focusing hard as she dried off her hands on the corner of her apron. “Why not him?”
"Didn't want to," Ross answered. "I may be a prisoner here, but I'm no one's puppet."
He took a few more deep, shaking breaths. His lungs hesitated like he was trying to stretch a weary leg. Soon after, a cough came that sent hay scattering no matter how well he buried it into his shoulder. When he looked up, Valeria was still standing, but she was looking at him with an odd mixture of curiosity and apprehension again. Ross found himself hoping it was the latter; he didn't much have the energy to deal with her curiosity right now.
“Would you… I mean, can I get you some more water?” she stammered.
He laughed, the sound weak, but still managing to make the ground faintly tremor beneath Valeria’s feet. “Like you need to ask.”
Her hesitant smile returned and she nodded, moving quickly to snatch up the empty jug and pail of bloodied water.
Ross felt like he had hardly closed his eyes for more than a minute before there was the sound of water sloshing, a little tap of wood being set on the ground. She was back, a pail of water by her feet and-
"What's that smell?" Ross mumbled, perking up.
Valeria looked down at the basket on her hip. She smiled as she set it well within his reach and gathered the rumpled cloth from on top. Glimpsing golden crusts and seeded loaves, Ross hurried to push himself up by one arm. It would hardly constitute a mouthful, but it was fresher than the raw carcasses he'd been receiving for weeks. There was a touch of fruit in the scent, and powdered sugar too.
He looked at her, mouth agape. "But… you said-"
"I know what my orders are. But I… I had to bring you something." Valeria motioned at him with a jerk of her chin, hands still full of that lump of cloth.
"Go on," she said.
Ross couldn't hesitate a second longer before bringing the basket to his lips. He swore nutty breads had never tasted so sweet.
Not a single crumb had fallen to the hay by the time he was done. Though the offering was pitifully small, he chewed thoroughly, willing his body to believe it was a far more substantial meal. Valeria politely averted her gaze when he probed desperately for the scraps at the bottom of the basket.
“I know it's not much.”
He raised his head when she spoke, the human meekly fidgeting with the heavy bundle in her arms. He turned the basket between his finger and thumb with a thoughtful expression overcoming hunger.
“It's the first cooked food I've had in weeks,” he replied, ducking his head a little to try and catch her eye. “I'm not about to complain.”
When she looked up, he saw surprise in her face. His brow furrowed. “What?”
She pressed her lips together, embarrassed. “I... didn't know you giants ate cooked food.”
"You think I enjoy the slop Rionny allows me?"
"Y-you never said anything…"
"Would it have made a difference?"
Valeria lowered her gaze. "No. I suppose it wouldn't."
Ross found himself still trying to catch her eye, possessed by the strange fear that she would leave him alone in the dark again.
"You gonna put that down?" he rumbled, now nodding at the bundle in her arms.
Valeria clutched it tightly to her chest, her little head snapping up. "I was going to give it to you, actually," she said. Her voice was strong, but he could tell she was putting in effort to make it that way.
When he leaned down with a gaze of curiosity she darted backwards a step, and he immediately softened his expression. A closer inspection of the fabric showed it to be a sewn-up patchwork chimera of miscellaneous components. A small smile crept onto his face.
“The food portions are one thing but… somehow I don't think a blanket your size will do much for me.”
“Oh, no.” Forgetting her trepidation, Valeria relaxed her arms, holding the mess out at length. “It's not a blanket. Take it and see.”
Ross arched an eyebrow but humoured her. His chained wrist felt heavy, and he moved with delicate precision to take the proffered thing. When he pinched the fabric and drew it towards him, it unfurled into a long, snaking shape.
He had no words, for he recognized immediately what it was meant to be. A hand-stitched eyepatch was sitting in the palm of his hand - big enough for even him.
"I thought you might like a replacement for your old one." Valeria filled in the silence when his speechlessness stretched on. "Not that there's anything wrong with your eye! It's… it's perfectly fine. But I thought you might miss having something to cover it."
"You made this?"
"Out of scraps I could find. Took me ages to get enough material to for you."
Ross lifted his gaze, well aware he was gaping at her like a moron. He couldn't help it. And then, the first spark of excitement that he had felt in months. Sitting up was a strain on his aching body, but he managed to sit up long enough to fit the thing around his head. His smile widened when he felt the strings meet in the back with room to spare. The smile turned to an amazed laugh as he pulled his hands to the front, smoothing the cloth down over his mottled eye. The scarred flesh responded kindly to the soft fabric.
The dungeon trembled as his weight sank back to the floor, now propped on one arm. Valeria was stood exactly where he'd left her, looking oddly proud as she took him in.
"You…" Ross trailed off.
Out of some sudden instinct he couldn't explain, he stretched out a hand for Valeria. By the time she had begun to back away nervously, she was already in his grasp. She screwed her eyes shut, no doubt expecting the worst; but Ross made a point to keep his fingers open this time, his hand a wall around her instead of a crushing prison. She seemed to struggle with that reality as she opened her eyes, chest heaving.
"You can't be entirely human," he whispered.
He searched her face, hard, but her eyes were so small he couldn't make out the reflection of his own awe staring back at him. Her tiny lips were parted in utter shock.
“What do you mean?” Her voice was as small as she was, soft with apprehension. His fingers twitched when she backed up against them, feeling the minute weight of her arms and back.
“No human would do this for me.” He swallowed, acutely aware of the pleasant new cover for his deformity. The raw vulnerability he'd grown so used to was only evident now that it had been banished. “Especially not now.”
For once, she did not avert her gaze in shame or shyness. "What do you make of me, then?" she called up.
Ross had to smile. "I haven't figured it out yet."
He felt her hitch when he flexed his hand a little around her. Creases in his hand changed with the movement, and tugged at trailing bits of her skirt. She hardly seemed to notice. Ross cocked his head, leaning closer without realising to get a better look at her.
"You're small, like the others. But in here…" He bent his thumb to brush along her collarbone. "You have some giant in you somewhere. I'm sure of it."
She went very still under his touch. Ross’ smile faltered as for a moment it seemed as though the woman had been frightened. But instead of the horrified reaction he expected, Valeria’s hand came up to meet his thumb at her chest.
“I suppose… coming from you,” she began, then glanced over her shoulder - as if, Ross thought, she was afraid someone might be listening. When the dungeon remained empty, she turned back to Ross with a half-smile. “Coming from a giant, I ought to take that as the highest compliment.”
Ross fought back a smirk, teeth hinted in the low light. "Obviously."
Valeria's smile remained as she glanced around the the hand that cushioned her. Ross found himself wishing she would outright voice the thoughts that had her looking at bits and pieces of him with such fascination.
"So, how do I look?"
The rumbling bass of his voice pulled her eyes back up.
"Dashing," Valeria declared with a giggle.
She nodded. "I didn't think it would fit so well."
He lifted his free hand up to press at the soft, slightly misshapen oval covering his eye. It almost entirely disguised the multitude of cuts and bruises on his brow and socket. “This must have taken you a long time,” he realised. He felt a pang, wondering at just what point she had undertaken this project.
She shrugged. “I have a great deal of free time when I'm not with you. I just hope it might dissuade the men from giving your eye such a hard time.”
“It's their favourite place to batter,” Ross said. “I'll feel safer with this thing.”
His smile grew as he traced the lines of raised stitching, holding together cotton, sheepskin, linen and even leather. He was quite content to continue exploring his new gift for the rest of the evening. Valeria's stare did not embarrass him.
But suddenly, she wasn't looking at him anymore. Or rather, not his face. She had turned to face the hand at her back, and now traced slender fingers over his palm. Her gentle touch strayed over a wicked callous, and a scar between his middle and ring finger. She moved like she was following a map with her hands. When she brushed the webbing between his forefinger and thumb, Ross sucked in a soft breath that resonated in the empty room like a ghost.
"What are you doing?" he blurted.
"I'm just… looking." Valeria turned over her shoulder. "I hope that's alright."
Perplexed, Ross merely frowned at her. "What is there to look at, exactly? I've no wounds on that hand."
She hummed, apparently enthralled with examining the criss-crossing pattern of tissue scars there. “No new ones anyway,” she remarked.
He sighed through his nose and began to move - Valeria gaining a death grip on his hand as though in fear of falling. But he kept his fingers in a loose but failsafe cage as he sat up.
She made room for him when he brought up his other hand to probe at the skin near where she had been looking. “Some of these have been part of me for years,” he rumbled.
“Sign of a warrior’s hands.”
He lowered his eyes to see she was looking at him again. Clicking his tongue, he glanced away. “Thought you might have been more apt to call them a monster’s hands.” His eyebrows furrowed as he looked at the scars with more thought. Many of them were the last marks ever made on earth by his countless victims.
Valeria made a soft noise, squirming around in his grip. “They're more human than I would've ever expected before I met you.”
He chuckled, ignoring the way it made his hollow stomach complain. "No claws," he said, wiggling his fingers slightly.
"Or fur," Valeria tacked on.
Ross wrinkled his nose. "Fur?"
She shook her head, seemingly ignoring the question. He heard her breathing quicken, and then shoot out again in a sharp sigh.
"I have seen monsters in my life," Valeria said. Ross had to lean closer to hear her properly. "True monsters. Men who live for themselves, living without remorse no matter what their selfishness costs… Taking anything from whoever they please and t-then just leaving..."
Valeria tapered off, her venomous whisper stopping short. She folded her hands tightly, and regarded him with a certain darkness Ross hadn't noticed before.
"You're different," she concluded in a mumble, and sought to tuck her long hair over one shoulder.
“I should hope I bear little similarity to those creatures who share your species,” Ross scoffed, looking ruffled at the very idea of being compared to a human. Then his indignation faded, making way for curiosity. “But alright. How do you say I'm different?”
Valeria faltered with her hands still tangled in her hair. “Well…” she began shakily. “Perhaps this is just more fable, but… from what I gather - your kind loathes us because it's in our nature to turn on each other, as well as on you.”
Ross’ eyebrow lifted, his agreement showing plain on his face. “Your kind fight like rats, brother with brother. You prey on the most helpless among you.” His stern expression finally lifted, and he smirked. “I'd bet humans kill more humans than giants do.”
Valeria bit her lip. “But do giants never quarrel among themselves?”
“Not the way humans do,” Ross said. “And not without good reason.”
Valeria shivered at this thought and curled up a little smaller in his hand. "Good reason or no, I wouldn't want to be around for that fight. The earth must tremble when two of you grapple."
He smirked again, softer. "It only feels that way to you."
"Maybe." She narrowed her eyes at him, almost challenging. Her mood seemed to lift. "I'm not little, you know."
Ross raised his eyebrow, glancing noticeably over how she could sit with room to spare in the dip of his palm. "It doesn't look that way to me."
“Your height skews your perspective of the world,” she declared. With a thoughtful frown, she settled a little in his hand. “I suppose anything looks tiny when you're eighty feet tall.”
Ross snorted a laugh. “Eighty. That's how tall they say I am?”
She paled a little. "Most of the men say so, yes."
"A friend of mine measured me out in your puny feet years back. I'm closer to one-hundred."
A hand flew to her mouth. "A hundred?" She squeaked, backing away into his fingers.
Ross adjusted his hand as she cringed backwards, eliminating any hazardous gaps that she might slip between. Then, he crowded her position with a finger and thumb, measuring from the crown of her head to where her boots peeked out from under her skirts.
"What does that make you… About four feet, then?" He declared thoughtfully.
“No!” she snapped, but she was smiling. “I'm well over five. Five and eight inches.”
“Inches don't count,” Ross dismissed her. “They're certainly too small to matter. You're getting into seelie sizes then.”
“You're smaller than any of the men.”
“Well- yes,” she relented. “But I'm hardly little. Rather tall, actually.”
Ross continued to consider her. One other human came to mind when he turned Valeria gently over in his palm. “You're not the littlest I've held,” he allowed.
"I should hope not," Valeria grumbled under her breath.
She adjusted again on his hand, sending butterflies to his stomach as her soft body settled along his love line, legs tucked carefully to the side. It was very different, holding her as opposed to the armoured men he had threatened in the past. One arm of hers still sought to wrap around one of his fingers, looking nervously down towards the floor.
Ross followed her gaze. "You want to be set down?" he guessed.
Valeria hugged his finger tighter, waving her other hand at him. "No, no. Not yet, at least. I don't mind the distraction. Besides... when I return upstairs, they'll be asking about you."
"I'm not working again until they bring me a decent portion." A faint note of panic had crept into his voice.
"I'll tell them you're still asleep for now," she assured him.
“Maybe I will go back to sleep soon,” he huffed. “One arrow of that vile stuff and I'm exhausted. It'd be their own fault if I never woke up.”
Feeling his agitation rise he stopped, and released a calming breath. He dropped his free hand to the floor again and cupped the other a little closer to his body while he shuffled up against the back wall.
“They told me they would only use it in emergencies,” Valeria said, her voice a little muffled by the proximity of his shirt. “But they lied. You hadn't even lifted a finger last night down here when they all…”
She shook her head, tightening her hold on his finger when he thumped back against the stone.
Ross groaned. "They'd have it coming if those metal monstrosities blew up in their faces. Every one of those armoured rats."
Valeria paused, studying him carefully. "...Will they?"
Ross gave a small start. "What?"
"Those machines hidden in the work yard… Are they going to…?"
"Hell if I know," Ross answered sharply. "I'm just told where to put the damn pieces, they don't show me the plans."
She ran her lips together, looking hesitant. "I've seen you tamper with some of the piping. The valves, too. Are you planning to rebel again?"
His eye narrowed, a hint of defensiveness alighting there as he studied her face. “I don't know what you're talking about. The guards would rain hell down on me if they saw me sabotaging their precious weapons.”
“Those idiots notice nothing,” Valeria said, her words laced with sudden venom. “But I do. I've seen you myself.”
His heartbeat was picking up the pace. “How long have you known?” he gritted out.
“Since the third time I was sent out with you,” she confessed. “That's when you started doing it, right?”
“I won't tell anyone! I'm not a blackmailer,” she said, smiling faintly.
Ross dragged his teeth over his lower lip, glancing away uncertainly. “How do I know you aren't just saying that so I'll put you down when you ask?”
He almost regretted his words when he saw the smallest flicker of fear cross her face.
“Well, I never spoke out against you the first time I caught you doing it, did I? Besides…” She leaned a little to the side, trying earnestly to catch his eye. “I don’t like those things any more than you do. I don't wish harm on any giant.”
Ross opened his mouth to counter, then slowly shut it again. It was difficult to question her kind intentions when he was wearing proof of her consideration upon his face. If she would bestow such a gift to him of all people, surely she couldn't hold any of the innocent of his kind in contempt.
"Ross… You trust me, don't you?"
He squared his jaw, and finally met her gaze. Those tiny storm-blue eyes implored him for truth. She deserved that much, he could admit. And the truth was… he didn't want to be her enemy. He couldn't pretend anymore.
Softening, Ross gave a weary nod. Valeria relaxed immediately, a broad smile his gift. She sat up, seeming about to speak, but a sudden change in the air had Ross snap his attention from her. He trained his gaze up the stairs.
“W-what is it?” she squeaked.
“How do you know?” Her brow furrowed in confusion, but Ross seemed certain. With haste that made his movements a little rough, he set her swiftly down by the fading white line, his hand sweeping behind her when she almost fell.
“You should be going,” Ross mumbled.
A booming voice echoed from behind the wooden door at the top of the stairs. Footsteps increased in volume and then the heavy door was thrown open, revealing a tall figure.
“Little sister?” The man’s steps began to sound on the stairs. “Where are you?”
“I’m here, George,” Valeria called, staring incredulously at Ross. Lifting her skirts, she hurried for the stairs. “Coming right now.”
Ross sank back against the wall, watching as Valeria turned over her shoulder once more as she raced for the door. When she reached the top, a few words were exchanged between her and her brother. Then, George took her by the arm and together they vanished into the light above.