This is a fantasy short story that originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of A Fly in Amber e-zine.
THE SIZE OF THINGS
by Clare L. Deming
Krinak squinted in the glare of the desert sun and tried to ignore the repeated jabs of the spear points against his rubbery skin. He was not sure what had upset the horde, but they were herding him toward a village – a cluster of low mounds that dotted the outskirts of the rocky gorges where he preferred to stay in this heat.
“Yip yip brak yark.” The lemkins chatted in their barking tongue. Krinak did not understand much of their speech, but he knew that they were upset.
Krinak shambled across the hard-packed sand, swinging a leg as large as three of the lemkins with each step. The rock giant knew that the lemkins posed little threat to him. Perhaps if they all mobbed him at once, they could force their pathetic knives and spears through his thick skin.
“What is wrong?” he asked, using the desert words. He had never seen them so animated. “What do you want from me?”
Several of the creatures around him jumped straight into the air, brandishing their spears over their heads. Krinak didn’t know if they had understood him or not. He peered across the sand in the blinding sunlight and saw knobby structures rising from the plain. Lemkins scurried among mounds and burrows and leaped about on scrawny legs.
The giant’s nocturnal eyes had adjusted enough that it no longer hurt for him to look around if he kept his eyes squinted half-shut. Krinak wound through tufts of crygrass and low mounds of sand, the lemkin burrows emerging from the ground all around him. More of the leathery creatures swarmed about as he was herded forward. Taller mounds protruded from the earth in the center of the village.
Surely some of the lemkins would understand him. “What is it? What’s wrong?” he asked, trying the desert words again.
Krinak circled around one of the largest mounds, and what he saw there answered his question.
At the center of the village, the burrows and mounds ended, and a clearing stretched over a dozen yards of sand. On the far side of the clearing, a linear depression ran through the village, empty of the waters that had once filled it. A few lemkins crouched above the dry streambed, shoveling handfuls of sand into their mouths, then coughing and choking.
Krinak let the lemkins herd him into the clearing. The streams that flowed from the rocky gorges and cliffs where he made his home often dried up when they wandered into the desert, but this was different. This lemkin village was not far from his home, and he knew that this stream had been large enough to sustain the village. Krinak had not seen other streams drying up in the region. Why had this one?
“What happened to your water?” he asked. He moved toward the streambed.
The lemkins prodded him with spears when he tried to push his way through them. Their voices chirped in their barking tongue, agitated and maybe panicked.
“All right!” he shouted. Krinak stopped and swatted a dozen spears from his side, trying not to hurt their wielders inadvertently with his huge limbs. The lemkins cowered and fell back, but only for a moment. Normally, such a movement from him would have sent the entire horde scurrying for cover. Lemkins were not the smartest creatures, but they usually had a healthy respect for their own safety. Their bravery worried the giant.
The lemkins began to prod him with the spears again, driving him toward one of the largest mounds. He turned his attention from the streambed and saw a contraption of wood and stone before the largest burrow. A pile of flattened rocks stood on a low mound of sand. Two beams of wood rose from the pile, with a third beam crossing them along the top.
Krinak neared the contraption and as he grew closer, he thought that the rocks below the makeshift gallows looked none too steady. He wasn’t sure what the lemkins intended, but he cooperated as they approached their puny gallows. The horde halted and grew silent. Krinak was about to speak when the crowd of lemkins parted to allow one of their number to approach him.
A leathery and tanned creature, an elderly lemkin shambled between lines of his brethren, leaning upon a stick. The creature stopped when he was just beyond the reach of Krinak’s long arms. Krinak watched, puzzled, as the beast looked him over through bulbous eyes.
“He’s the one.” He spoke in the desert words. The lemkin nodded and raised his voice. “He’s the one,” he repeated.
Yips of excitement erupted from the crowd and several lemkins tossed their spears over their heads. As soon as the elder raised his voice again, their commotion ceased.
“This is the one I saw. He is the one who has brought this plague upon us. The sands say that he must die!”
Krinak expected the horde to rush over him, poking with their flimsy spears, but despite their frenzy, they kept their distance from the giant.
“I brought you no plague. I keep to myself in the hills beyond the wall,” said Krinak.
“You! It was you. The spirits of the sands showed me. You moved the rocks, you changed the waters. Now we thirst.” The elder gestured with one arm, and lemkins surged toward Krinak.
Krinak offered little resistance and let the lemkins herd him. They pushed him toward the mound of sand where the gallows sat. He could see several tiny bones scattered about its base, some protruding from the slabs of stone.
When he reached the base of the gallows, Krinak halted, curious that the lemkins thought that they could hang him. They were truly the stupidest creatures he had ever known.
The elder lemkin shouted a handful of words in the lemkin tongue, and another member of the tribe scampered onto the gallows, trailing a flimsy piece of rope wound into a contorted noose. Krinak doubted that they were often successful in hanging each other. Rather, they probably died of thirst or exposure.
“Look, I don’t know why you’re doing this. It won’t help bring your water back.”
The elder glared at Krinak. “The sands told me. They know. They showed you to me.”
“Even if I did do it, killing me won’t bring the water back.” Krinak still didn’t understand the lemkins’ motivation.
The elder leaned into another lemkin and lifted his stick over his head. He raised his voice in a shrill howl that hurt Krinak’s ears.
The lemkin with the noose stepped onto the gallows and wound the rope over the horizontal beam. He took the opposite end and crept toward the giant. Krinak stood quietly, not wanting to give the creatures real reason to fear him. He bore them no ill will, despite their misguided anger. Let them try to hang him.
The lemkin peered up at the giant and fingered the rope noose nervously. Despite the distance between the rope and the giant’s neck, none of the lemkins appeared to notice the flaw in their plan. Krinak leaned forward and brought his head closer to the lemkin. The creature looked startled at first, then leaped forward and tossed the noose over Krinak’s head, scampering away as soon as his job was done.
The elder gestured to two marginally larger lemkins standing to the side of the gallows. They came forward and gripped the length of rope that dangled from the gallows and tugged on it. Krinak felt the pull upon his neck and walked forward in response to the tension. No sense in making the little creatures exhaust themselves.
He reached the mound of sand and stones, and placed a wide foot gingerly upon it. The sand pressed between his toes and flattened beneath his immense weight. His second step landed upon the flattened stones. The rocks ground together but did not slip. Krinak could see that the vertical beams of the gallows extended beneath the mound of rock and were anchored in the ground. It was likely the most advanced feat of engineering that the lemkins had ever accomplished. Another step brought him to the gallows, his head reaching as high as the top beam, even as he stood with knees bent to help keep his balance.
Lemkins cheered, a cacophony of barking and yipping sounds, piercing the desert sky with shrill bolts of sound. The two lemkin hulks continued to pull on the rope, bringing in all of the slack as they neared a curved post that sat at the side of the largest burrow. They strained with the effort, although Krinak felt only enough tension on his neck to feel mildly uncomfortable. He let the lemkins have enough of the rope so that they would feel satisfied with their work, but resisted enough so that he could still breathe easily.
The elder waved his hands and the crowd grew louder. The lemkins on the rope had tied it off on the post and approached the pile of stones, along with four additional lemkins. The elder kept his arms raised over his head and chanted in a voice too soft for Krinak to hear above the madness of the tribe. His arms dropped and the readied lemkins surged toward the gallows. They pushed and pushed against the pile of stones. Krinak felt the ground shift beneath him, but did not struggle in the noose. The creatures groaned in a high pitched whine and more joined the struggle.
Not the most efficient way to hang someone, he thought.
Nevertheless, the method would have worked had he been a lemkin. The slabs of rock slid from beneath his feet, tumbling down the sides of the sand mound. Krinak lifted his feet from the stones as they slid away, placing them down upon the sand beneath. He sneezed as the dust rose around him and rubbed at his eyes. He was not made for life in the desert, preferring the smooth contours of the highlands. Where a lemkin would be left hanging and gasping, Krinak stood squarely upon the ground, his size saving him from the constricting noose. Even if he had fallen, Krinak doubted that the rope or the gallows itself would have been able to hold his bulk.
The lemkins continued to cheer and cry in their simplistic tongue, as the dust rose and spread across the crowd. In a few moments, the air would be clear enough for the creatures to realize their mistake. It was lucky for them that Krinak was patient.
Krinak waited, his arms at his sides, trying to resist the urge to fling the noose from his neck and scatter the gallows across the village. He knew when the cheers of victory intensified into anger that the lemkins had seen that their enemy still lived.
Krinak saw the elder lemkin emerge from the dust, brandishing his stick at the giant as he said, “You! You dare to defy the spirits of the sand? How can this be?”
Krinak nodded his head, but said nothing. He wanted to gauge the mood of the remainder of the lemkins before deciding how to proceed.
“How can you live? How are you not dead?” the elder asked.
His questions were obliterated by the yammering voices of his tribe as the lemkins screamed their own questions, both at the elder, and at Krinak. Even a cluster of immature lemkins to Krinak’s left chirped their own opinions, the larger ones having a clearly different opinion than one tiniest lemkin that kept lifting a miniscule hand above her head.
The elder looked about him, realizing that his tribe was no longer listening to him, and had turned to their own discussions about the dilemma.
Krinak watched the tiny lemkin at his left. She had abandoned her dispute with the other younglings and stared at Krinak, still holding her hand stretched straight up over her head. The elder’s gaze set upon the tiniest lemkin and his eyes widened. He turned to Krinak and moved his gaze from the giant’s head to his toes, scanning the entire size of him. He turned back to the tiniest one and grasped her outstretched arm. She jumped at his touch, but then looked pleased to have finally been noticed.
By this time, the gathered lemkins had run out of arguments and the noise had dwindled. The elder took the opportunity to raise his stick over his head, grabbing the attention of his tribe.
The tiniest one spoke in the lemkin speech, her voice also tiny. The elder then spoke to the crowd, changing into the desert words. “He is too big. He is a giant. He is not a lemkin. Giants are too big for the gallows.”
Mutters sprinkled over the crowd and some of the lemkins scratched their leathery heads. Others stared at Krinak, as if seeing his monstrous size for the first time.
“I am too big,” said the giant. “I am too big to hang on the gallows.”
“Yes,” answered the elder. “We need another way to kill the giant.”
The lemkins that understood broke into another round of cheers. If they could still have their vengeance, what did the method matter? Yet this must stop, thought Krinak.
Krinak raised his voice. “No.”
The lemkin voices were silent and they all stared at him. The tiniest one cowered at his feet, her miniscule frame shaking.
“I am too big for the gallows. I am also too big to dry up your water.”
The lemkins looked puzzled, not able to make the connection as Krinak had.
“Where does your water come from?”
After a hesitation, the elder answered. “The rocks where you live!”
Krinak shook his head. “Your water flows from a ravine, between the cliffs. I know the place. It reaches the plains through a narrow opening. A small opening.”
“Yes. You moved the rocks, moved the opening. The spirits showed me.”
Krinak didn’t know what had dried up the stream, but he knew that rockslides were common in the region where he lived. The lemkins must have assumed that a natural event had been the work of a malevolent giant.
“I am too big to fit through the opening. I cannot reach your water. And I am not big enough to move the opening. I did not do this thing to you.”
The elder was silent as he tried to think. At his side, the tiniest lemkin chirped. He bent to listen to her, and she gestured with wide movements of her spindly arms.
“Daughter says that she is little, while the rest of us are big. You are big, while all of us are little. She does not think you could fit between the cliffs to our water. She knows the size of things.”
Krinak lifted his arms and removed the noose from his neck. He backed down from the gallows, taking care to move slowly and to not crush any lemkins too stupid to move away.
The elder shrugged. “We have no water, but you did not take it from us. You can go.” The lemkin turned away from Krinak and slouched as he limped toward the dry streambed. Several lemkins on the outskirts of the crowd dashed to the stream, as if hoping that a few trickles of water awaited them if they could reach it first. They buried their faces into the sand in pathetic desperation. Some of them collapsed before they made it to the streambed, finally overcome by dehydration.
Krinak stood at the base of the gallows, watching the pitiful creatures. He did not do this to them, but even if the cause had been natural, he might as well bear the guilt of it if he left them in this state.
The giant spoke in a booming voice. “Wait. I am too big to have taken your water, but perhaps being big, I can help restore your water.”
The elder turned a suspicious gaze upon the rock giant. “You are big. You would help us who are little?”
“I don’t know if I can. I may be too little. But let’s at least find out. Take me to your water.”
It took no more than an hour to reach the highlands. They had followed the dry streambed, Krinak, the elder, the daughter, and a cluster of others that were still strong enough to make the journey. Cliffs of sandy-colored stone rose from the desert floor, casting stubby shadows at their bases. The streambed led toward a crevice, but no water trickled by their feet, even this close to the water’s source.
A few of the lemkins jabbered among themselves as they drew near to the cliff. They knew something was wrong with the shape of the crevice. Krinak squinted, but couldn’t make his eyes focus well enough to tell what had happened. His legs carried him closer, and Krinak could soon see that the cliffside had undergone a drastic change.
The sandstone cliffs had collapsed along the left side of the crevice, spewing every size of rock, from boulders to grains of sand, across the streambed. A trickle of water seeped from beneath the rockslide, flowing along the base of the cliffs, but away from its old course and the lemkin village. All of the lemkins except for the elder had swarmed to the water.
“You could not have done this thing,” said the elder. “Even though you are big, you are not that big.” The lemkin stared at the massive amount of stone that had diverted the stream.
Krinak nodded. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to move the gigantic boulders, as he had hoped. “We shall see if I am big enough,” he said.
The rock giant strode toward the wall of stone and set his wide fingers along it. Krinak closed his eyes and felt the rock, the layers of sediment that had formed the sandstone in past ages, traces of minerals and the bones of creatures that had died and been trapped beneath layers of sand at the bottom of an ancient sea. He explored deeper, toward the edge of the rockslide. The rock beneath was looser than he had thought, and more sandy in places than he had dared to hope. A fissure in the rocks had weakened after cycles of wind, rain, and time had taken their toll upon it, collapsing across the stream. Krinak took his hands from the stone and opened his eyes to the blurry brightness of daylight.
The lemkins stood clustered around him, staring as he awoke from his communion. Krinak knew that he could only sense the nature of the rock, that he had no special ability to change it, save his strength. The lemkins had no idea what he could do, he realized.
“It can be moved,” said Krinak. “It will take time. There is much stone.”
The rock giant moved to the edge of the rockfall and began to lift medium-sized boulders – those large enough to crush a half-dozen lemkins. He placed each one to the side, then returned to the pile of rubble. The sun moved across the sky and had made it halfway to the far horizon before Krinak stopped to assess his work. No more water flowed than had done so before.
Krinak knew that the lemkins remaining at the village must not have much time left. He bent to one of the larger boulders and tried to push it from the stream’s path. It rolled a short distance, but not far enough. Krinak gathered his legs beneath himself and prepared to push again when he heard an odd sound. Grinding and crunching, and the chirping lemkin speech.
The giant turned and saw that all of the lemkins, even the tiniest one stood among the smaller pieces of rock, scooping away sand and pebbles with their minute palms. Each one could only move a fraction of the accumulated stone, but with the group that had followed him to this place, they were making as much of a dent in the rockslide as Krinak was by himself. Krinak continued to push the largest boulders, leaving the small stuff for the lemkins to clear.
As the sun reached the limits of the sky and began to disappear behind the highlands, Krinak watched the lemkins scrape sand from the mouth of the gorge. He had moved all of the boulders, and only a small mound of sand and pebbles remained to block the stream from its former path.
The lemkin pack dug with renewed frenzy as they realized how close they were to their goal. The elder backed out of the group and shambled toward Krinak.
“We will soon have water. We thank you, big giant,” said the elder.
Krinak grunted, tired from the work.
At that moment, water rushed through the cluster of lemkins, leaping into its former course, freed from its prison of stone. Lemkins clambered to their feet and scampered alongside the flowing water, rushing back to their village. The elder pulled his lips back to show rows of flat teeth, some sort of smile, Krinak supposed.
“I am big, it is true,” said Krinak. “But when many small lemkins are together, you are also big.”
The elder’s smile faded and he scratched his head. About a half second later, the smile returned, wider than before.