They emerged again on the third afternoon, when the scouts told them the giant had gone. Climbing the stairs, Aleshia peered into the frothy murk of low clouds. Giant’s clouds. They would dissipate in a few hours, a day at the most.
Gillayne cleared the shelter’s doorway ahead of her. She dropped to her knees on bare earth and a ragged cry tore from her throat. Aleshia stepped around her (Gillayne’s narrow back, all hard wedges of shoulder blade and curled knuckles of spine, hitching with her liquid sobs) and saw what had elicited such an agonized wail.
The giant had walked right through town.
In his horrible, huge footprints lay the ruins of buildings—homes, barns, the children’s school, all of it destroyed, flattened. Beams and timbers scattered and splintered, kindling for winter’s fires, perhaps, but nothing more. Bricks and stones had been torn asunder and strewn about.
Aleshia’s father cuffed the back of her head. “You’re blocking the way, girl!” Startled, she took three stumbling steps and turned toward him. He glared at her, his thick lips curled in his usual disapproving sneer. Times like this, Aleshia was glad her mother was dead, so the woman who had brought her into this harsh life couldn’t see what her husband had become. “There’s no doubt cleaning to be done at home,” he said. “I’ll be around later.”
This could only mean that he would go to Knott’s tavern before coming home, drunk and even angrier. It still stood; somehow, giants never seemed to destroy Knott’s. Simply strolling past it made Aleshia uneasy. She always felt that the people inside were eyeing her with malicious intent. It was even worse when her own father was among them, except that at least then she could count on being alone at home for a while. Those moments were the only times she felt truly comfortable there.
Always, though, he returned. Banging doors, upending furniture, shouting, threatening, and worse. Aleshia accepted her lot. What else was a girl to do? He beat her only rarely, and had never seriously injured her. She knew other girls in town who could not say the same.
She also knew some who were not beaten at all. Or so they claimed. She never altogether believed them.
The path home took her past one of the giant’s footprints. Aleshia heard moans and cries as she neared it, and she hiked up her tattered skirts and ran to the side.
The sight made tears flood her eyes. The giant’s massive foot had collapsed one of the shelters. The earth was caved in, and most of the people hunkering inside were dead or injured. One man raised a scrawny arm toward Aleshia, beseeching her, but his legs were crushed, bone showing, blood soaking the dirt around him. There was nothing she could do by herself, so she turned away from his plaintive cries, seeking help.
Yignay, one of the village elders, walked toward her with his usual awkward gait; a childhood disease had left his spine twisted and his legs weak. She beckoned furiously, but he could not increase his pace. Finally, he came to a halt at the pit’s edge.
“Do something!” Aleshia pleaded.
“Do what? We’re all better off, anyhow. Fewer mouths there are to feed, fewer of us’ll starve this winter.”
“Yignay, you can’t just—”
“I can’t what? Ignore them? Watch me.” He spat into the dirt and hurried away, as if those weren’t his own townsfolk, his neighbors, suffering in that pit.
Aleshia looked down again. The people below called to her, begging. But she was just a barefoot girl, with no influence in the village and not enough strength to haul the injured from the pit. The stairs had collapsed, so ladders would have to be lowered. If she couldn’t even get Yignay to help, she didn’t know what she could do.
And her father expected her to have the house cleaned up when he got home. If this was like the other times, it would be a mess. Furniture might be broken, and even if not, things would have tumbled from shelves and fallen from hooks. She tasted smoke on the air; people had run for the shelters so fast that they hadn’t put out their fires, and now houses were burning. Hers was stone, small and sturdy and unlikely to burn. Still, she needed to be home before someone broke in, to steal whatever had not been lost to the giant’s carelessness.
Aleshia ran again, this time not toward the pit but away from it. She told each person she encountered about the carnage, trying to send someone back who could offer aid to the wounded. In the time before she was born, her father had told her, people had cared about the troubles of others. That had changed, he said, as growing cities in the east had demanded ever more of the crops and livestock produced by the villagers. Feeding the cities had left the countryside hungry, and the hungrier they became, the less compassion they showed. Aleshia had been born hungry and had known no other life. She thought that people ought to be better than they were. In truth, however, little in her experience bore that out.
Several minutes later she had climbed the rocky slope to her house, gone inside, and barred the door. Beads of sweat ran down her cheeks, and her eyes stung from the smoke outside. The house yet stood, but it would need some work, as her father had guessed, and one window had cracked from the giant’s passing. Father would replace that, or not, as he chose. If she caught him in a good mood, tomorrow or next week, she might suggest it.
Until then, she would hope to keep away from him, to escape his notice as much as she could. This was Aleshia’s fate. Not a happy one, but she labored under no illusion that life was meant to be happy. She was hungry but not starving, and as healthy as anyone could expect. She had walls to keep out the cold and a roof to block the rain. She had a father to protect her against threats from other folk, though she sometimes wondered if those threats could prove more hurtful than his own attacks.
Happiness? That was for dreams, nothing more. Even then, she knew it was illusion. When she was happy in a dream, she wept upon waking, because she knew that it was imaginary and fleeting. It would never last. Was this really all there was in life, all she had to look forward to? Growing old amid hunger and heartache, living in fear of tomorrow and the day after that? Somewhere, she had to believe, things were better. Not here, not for her . . . but perhaps there was a way to find such a place, if it existed.
Those were foolish thoughts, however, that had nothing to do with her life or her future. She was locked in place, and she would stay there until she died, until a giant strolled through town and crushed her under his heel. And that, she thought, might be more merciful than more years of labor for her father and then for some other man, a husband. Knowing the road ahead, Aleshia sat on the stone floor, amid broken crockery and shattered glass, buried her face in her skirts, and cried.
And when she was finished crying, she got to work.