Troy Denning: The Giant Among Us

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Troy Denning The Giant Among Us
  • Название:
    The Giant Among Us
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    Фэнтези / на английском языке
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    Английский
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Troy Denning


The Giant Among Us

Prologue

Crosley and his five young charges peered between the slats of the storm shutters, watching in silence as a pair of slavering dire wolves trotted down the alley. The beaste were as large as ponies, with matted fur and long red tongues wagging between their fangs. They moved along opposite sides of the narrow street, pawing at loose foundation stones and sniffing at windowsills.

Behind the beasts came their hill-giant handler. He was as tall as a house, with a stooped posture and a huge, barrel-shaped chest. He carried a knobby tree bole over his shoulder and wore a filthy tunic of untanned fur. When he tried to follow his wolves into the narrow alley, his hunched shoulders became lodged between the fieldstone walls. He merely grunted, then casually smashed his club into one dwelling’s foundation. The structure crumbled, and the giant turned to smash the building on the other side of the lane.

“Hey, that’s my house!” protested Thorley, the eldest of Crosley’s charges. He was a freckled child of ten years, with red hair and flashing green eyes. The boy stretched his hand toward the storm shutter’s latch. “Stop, you ugly-”

Crosley clasped a liver-spotted hand over the boy’s mouth. “Be quiet, child!” he hissed, his old heart hammering with panic. “The giants are on a war march!”

“So they’re going to kill us?” gasped a little blond girl. “Their dogs are going to smell us out, and then they’re going to grind us up like pine grubs and put us in their porridge and eat us?”

This drew murmurs of alarm from the other children, and three of the youngest began to cry.

The old man released Thorley and took the little girl’s hand. She would be the key to keeping the other children calm, for her imagination was as contagious as a storyteller’s. She could make other children see dragons in pine boughs and diamonds in raindrops.

“No, Dena, they’re not going to do anything of the sort.” Crosley forced a reassuring smile to his crinkled lips, then said, “We’re not going to let them.”

“What d’you mean we’re not going to let them?” demanded Thorley. “How can a bunch of kids and a toothless old man stop a hill giant?”

“You’ll see,” Crosley answered. He took Thorley’s hand, then led the way into the pantry of his small hut The other children followed close behind. “We’re going to outsmart them-just like Tavis Burdun outsmarted the stone giant to save Queen Brianna.”

“How did he do that?” asked Thorley.

Crosley released the hands of Dena and Thorley. “You mean I haven’t told you that story?” he asked. He pulled a string of tiny black peppers off a hook in the window, then looked at the children and winked. “Well, I suppose it’s time I do.”

Outside, the rumble of collapsing buildings was growing louder. The children paid the noise no attention and kept their gazes fixed on the old man. Crosley would have liked to send Thorley to the window to watch the dire wolves, but he did not dare. The boy’s reports would no doubt be made with unnecessary frequency and urgency, alarming the other children. And if his charges were to survive, Crosley needed them calm and quiet.

The old man pulled his knife from its sheath, then began to slice the peppers and remove the seeds. “Do you know who Tavis Burdun is?”

The smallest boy shook his head, pouting.

“That’s okay, Birk,” the old man said. “Tavis Burdun is the best scout in the kingdom. He’s a firbolg-”

“What’s a firbolg?” Birk interrupted.

Crosley smiled patiently. Birk always asked questions.

“Firbolgs are one of the giant-kin races-sort of cousins to true giants,” the old man explained. His eyes were burning and watering, for the peppers he was slicing came from the Anauroch desert, and they were the hottest he had ever tasted. “Firbolgs are the most honest of the giant-kin. They can’t lie, and they always obey the law. They’re also the most handsome, because they look like us humans-though, of course, they’re much taller.”

“How tall?” demanded Birk.

“Most are about ten feet, but not Tavis Burdun,” explained Crosley, gathering the pepper seeds in the palm of his hand. “You see, Tavis’s mother died in childbirth, so a trapper brought him to an orphanage in Hartwick village-not far from the king’s castle. There wasn’t enough to feed a firbolg, so Tavis grew up to be a runt He’s only eight feet tall.”

Crosley paused as if waiting for Birk to ask more questions, but he was really listening to the hill giant’s approach. The crashing was so close now that he felt the floor tremble each time the giant’s club smashed into a house. It wouldn’t be long, the old man knew, before the dire wolves arrived and began sniffing around his little hut He sprinkled the pepper seeds over the floor, then went to his root cellar and opened the trapdoor.

“Come along, children.” He motioned his charges down the ladder. “We’ll finish this story where it’s quieter.”

Thorley frowned. “In the cellar?” he demanded. “You’re just trying to-”

“Yes, Thorley, I am,” Crosley interrupted. He pushed the child toward the cellar, then resumed his story before the boy could object. “When Tavis was old enough, he joined the Border Patrol. He worked very hard, and he became the best scout to ever lead a company into the mountains. But one day the lady who ran the orphanage where he grew up died, and he had to go back to care for the children who still lived there. That’s when he met the king’s daughter and fell in love with her.”

A window shutter clattered as something pressed against it, and Crosley heard sniffing on the other side. He climbed onto the ladder behind the last child, then pulled the trapdoor shut above him.

“And then what?” demanded Birk. “Tavis Burdun fell in love with the king’s daughter, and then what?”

Crosley descended the ladder. He had to feel his way carefully, for he had not lit a candle and the cellar was as black as soot. “And then the ogres kidnapped her,” he said, hardly daring to speak above a whisper. “Tavis found out about it and went to tell Brianna’s father. But the king was afraid of starting a war and ordered his men not to go after his daughter.”

“What a coward!” Thorley commented.

“But I’ll bet Tavis loved the princess too much to let the ogres have her,” surmised Dena. “He went after her anyway.”

“Yes, that’s right, with his good friends Basil and Avner, and also with the princess’s bodyguard, Morten,” Crosley said. “And do you know what Tavis found out on the way?”

“No,” said Birk. “You haven’t told us yet”

“Tavis found out that a long time ago, the king had asked the ogre shaman to help him win a war,” Crosley said. “In return, he promised to give the ogres his first daughter. That’s why he wouldn’t send anyone to rescue Brianna after she was kidnapped.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Dena. “What would an ogre want with a human princess?”

The muffled crash of splintering wood reverberated through the trapdoor, followed by the heavy thumps of two dire wolves landing inside the hut The animals’ toenails began to clatter on the wood floor as they searched the premises.

The children abruptly fell silent, and two of them started to weep. Crosley crouched on the cellar’s dirt floor and felt his way to the crying children, then pulled them close to smother their sobs against his breast.

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