Keerwan’s people have lived in the Valley for hundreds of years, trapped by a Forest filled with danger and the lethal mind-sucking molleng – creatures held in check only by the mysterious powers of the half-witted Giant.
But when the Giant speaks to Keerwan – something the stories said was impossible – she starts to question things in her world.
When she and the Giant are kidnapped and stranded far beyond the Valley, they are forced to rely on each other to get home. But there are more secrets to be learned in the wider Forest, secrets which will change their world – and themselves – forever.
Keerwan hid behind the bulbous trunk of the waterbush and watched the Giant.
He was sitting with his back to her on one of the large flat stones by the edge of the creek, fishing. Through the waterbush’s thick liquid-filled leaves she could see the baggy sleeves of the grey-green hooded cloak he always wore fall back slightly as he recast his handline, showing glimpses of dark muscled arms. He must have been there for a while too because there were two guppers, gutted and strung on a plaited-grass line by their gills, hanging across one of the twisted root-branches of her tree.
She hadn’t known the Giant caught fish like regular people, hadn’t even guessed he knew how to catch fish – or even ate fish – at all. Stories passed down through generations of children told how the Giant tracked the lumbering, dim-witted goru when they strayed too far from the herd, how he wrestled them to the ground with inhuman strength and tore them apart with his bare hands, eating them raw. Keerwan, like hundreds of children before her, had believed every word of those tales, and many more besides.
But now, crouched barely eight metres from the Giant, she wasn’t so sure. True, he was huge – he would easily be twice and more Keerwan’s height, and she was tall for twelve – but she doubted even he could outmuscle one of the ponderous, thickset goru.
There was a splash from the creek and a flurry of bright drops spun into the sky, sparkling in the early-morning light. The Giant hauled in his line, flicking it expertly round his wooden spindle, until he could reach out a big hand and drag in the gupper. It was larger than the other two but it looked small and frail as it flapped uselessly in the Giant’s dark hairy paw.
‘Do for lunch, reckon?’ The voice was a deep rough rumble, the words spoken slowly and carefully.
Keerwan froze, her heart hammering in her chest. How could the Giant have known she was there? The space beneath the curving root-branches of the waterbush was where she went to escape, and she always made sure she crept to it as quietly as she could. She’d been even quieter once she’d spotted the Giant on his rock, once her natural curiosity had won a brief, fierce battle with her instinct to run. He’s talking to himself, she reasoned as she tried desperately to slow her pounding heartbeat. He’s crazy, and everyone knows crazy people talk to themselves.
But she’d never actually heard the Giant say anything before. The stories told how you could hear his horrible roar echoing in the Forest if you dared get close enough, but he’d never made a sound when he came to the orchard every week to collect his tithe. Even when the children yelled every insult they could think of at him, he had stayed silent. Keerwan, like everyone else in the Valley, had assumed he couldn’t talk at all.
The Giant was crouching on the stone now, his cloak piled in folds round his feet, gutting the fish with practiced slices of his knife. When he finished he flipped the innards into the creek and rinsed both fish and knife in the swiftly flowing water. He rose and turned, and Keerwan saw his hand disappear inside his cloak, reappearing without the knife. Then he padded slowly across to the branch where his other two fish hung.
Keerwan clenched her fingers around the grass beneath her palms, forcing herself to stay still. She had never been so close to the Giant before in her life, and he was huge! Seeing him from a safe distance, measuring his height against the trees in the orchard, hadn’t prepared her for the sheer size of him. He was barely five metres away now, and he towered over her like one of the Forest trees. He stooped and unhooked his string of fish from the branch, threading the third one on and tying it securely with deft fingers. Keerwan held her breath, hoping he’d finished his fishing and would now go.
But he didn’t. Instead he stood for a moment, head bowed as if he were thinking. Then slowly, deliberately, he raised his free hand to his neck, fumbling there for a moment. And when he pulled his hand away the voluminous cloak came with it, gripped in his large fist.
Keerwan’s mouth opened to scream, but no sound came out. Her knuckles grew white where she held onto the grass, and her knees locked in place. She couldn’t have moved a muscle if she’d tried. But, terrified though she was, she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the Giant.
He was dressed in the same style of short-sleeved tunic and knee-length pants that most of the villagers wore in summer, which left his thickly muscled arms and lower legs bare. A wide belt circled his solid waist; his knife was in a sheath on his left hip, a leather water bottle on his right, and a pouch, slung across his massive chest on a strip of leather, hung behind the knife. His skin was a darkish mottled grey, as gnarled as the bark of a rockwood tree, and he was covered in a sparse pelt of dark-bright reddish hair. Although he was built like a man on a vast scale, his arms and legs looked a little too long for the rest of his body, and his feet and hands were huge and twisted.
His head was covered in a bushy thatch of the same red hair, cut raggedly at shoulder length. The wide square face was also sparsely furred, the mouth a gash above a flat chin, the lips thick and misshapen, the nose simply a turned-up snub. But the large wide-spaced eyes between the corrugated forehead and the pockmarked cheeks were a striking, brilliant blue.
And those eyes were staring straight past the fat leathery leaves of the waterbush into Keerwan’s own.
‘Name Keller,’ he rumbled, again forming the words carefully, and jerked a huge thumb at his broad chest to make sure she understood. ‘Won’t hurt,’ he added, his voice gentler this time, and one of those large blue eyes closed in a deliberate wink. Then he swung the cloak round his sloping shoulders once more and tugged the hood up over his brush of hair. He gave her one last glance from beneath its cowl before he stooped to pick up his handline and turned away.
About two metres upstream from the Giant’s rock was a line of flat-topped boulders which formed a stepping-stone bridge across the creek. It had been constructed over two hundred years ago, when the Valley was first settled. The Giant started across it, balancing easily on the stones.
Before he reached halfway Keerwan’s nerve broke. She scuttled free of the cage of root-branches, scrambled to her feet and bolted, head down and arms pushing, feet flying across the shorn kimweed of the paddocks.