All persons involved in sexual situations may be considered of legal consensual age. 18+
The beast’s lair was a full three days of travel from her city, but the journey was pleasant enough. They rode on open carts softened with hay-stuffed woolen pillows, and the late summer heat was mitigated by a soft breeze that swept up from the sea, sowing their hair and clothes with the scents of salt and the warmth of the olive groves that lined the hills below the road.
The road cut an uneven path along the high ridges of the rugged countryside and from this height Caliope could see a thin line of pale bluish green shining out in the hazy distance framed only by the pale sky and the heavy green of the rolling hills.
The girl sitting across from her started crying again and was rewarded with a weepy hug from a similarly swollen and red-eyed girl. She looked away, back to the rolling hills and shifted uncomfortably.
Calliope had joined the group two days ago, and they’d done nothing else but weep since she’d been there.
There were two carts rocking gently along the road, both could hold ten passengers, and very nearly did. A small guard accompanied them on foot, led by a stiff necked captain who rode ahead on horseback. They weren’t there to protect the cargo of women so much as prevent them from escaping.
She grimaced. She’d been trying to distract herself with the blue sky and scented breeze, but the grim soldiers and the incessant sobbing kept pulling her back to the present dilemma. Well perhaps not a dilemma, so much as a terrible and hopeless situation. She’d volunteered to be part of the tribute, to save her family the loss of her more promising sister, who, even at 19, already had numerous proposals. There were tributes every five years, sometimes gold, sometimes livestock, and every town gave their part. This year the creature had demanded young women.
She repressed a shudder. Most of these girls hadn’t volunteered, they were the youngest marriagable daughters in their households, all from prominent families with more than three daughters from different towns. The councils of each city had decided that this was the fairest way to choose the women. It would have been too much to bare to make the parents, mothers and fathers, choose among their own beloved children, and there would be a riot if they asked such a price of the poorer citizens, who already suffered enough.
She raked her gaze silently over them for the hundredth time in the last two days. Two or three sat more or less stoically, already resigned, as she was, to their fate. One near her prayed softly to Artemis to protect her. No one spoke much.
Another breeze swept over them carrying the Mediterranean on its wings, as if the south wind himself was lending them what little comfort he could. Her stomach began to cramp into a small knot and she gave in a little to her fear, praying along silently with the pleading whispers next to her. The young woman next to her was begging protection from the maiden goddess Artemis. Caliope prayed to Athena. Not for protection, but for wisdom and for courage. For strength.
None of them knew their fate. She assumed death, it made it easier to deal with. Though some might disagree, she felt it was truly the worst fate. If she expected death and got something else, well then she was ahead wasn’t she? She was not too proud to save her life though slavery or servitude.
She sighed out loud and turned away from the swollen eyes and watched a young shepherd guide his flock over the rocks of a nearby hill. He paused to watch them, squirming lamb under one arm. She lifted a hand, and he smiled, lifting his free hand in response. Suddenly she felt calmer, more centered. It would be okay, everyone would be okay.
For her family it would be as though she were married to a man who lived in a distant land. They would suffer no great loss. She thought of her sister’s tear streaked face as she left with the soldiers and touched the silver serpentine bracelet on her arm that she had been made to take with her. Her sister’s bracelet.
She fought the sorrow that welled up in her chest and wrapped her arms around herself, rubbing her bare skin.
In the distance the thin blue line had widened to an ever growing expanse. They were nearly there. They paused at one more town, the last one, and witnessed their final heartbreaking scene of a family forced to part with their child. The girl was lifted gently by guilty looking guards onto the second cart. She was beautiful, despite her reddened eyes, and she waved tearfully. Only her father waved back, her mother and sisters having already collapsed in grief and mourning into the dust. Calliope watched the man as the cart rolled forward, standing like a statue, frozen with cold misery, one hand raised, his family in a heap at his feet. She pushed her own family out of her mind again and took deep breaths. Whatever else, she had her honor left, and what little composure she was able to muster.
Not far from the village, maybe an hour’s march, the road tapered off, and they were unloaded and led through a prettyish woods which opened up into a rolling pasture land dotted with grey rock and framed beyond by the sea which crashed slowly and rhythmically against the low rocky cliffs. Under any other circumstance she would have been moved by the beauty and serenity of the place. Now she felt only dread.
One cliff rose up into a rocky spire before them and where the grey stone met emerald grass, a black opening rose up into view.
Caliope was seized with sudden fear and stopped short instinctively. She wasn’t the only one. The guards let them stare a moment before prodding them forward like skittish ewes. The cavern loomed overhead, as high at least as five tall men. She had heard that the creature was a giant. Some said he was a titan who escaped Zeus’s fury, others that he was a Cyclops. One even said he was a great serpent like the one Perseus slew.
As they entered the cave she inhaled. The air was surprisingly dry, and smelled only of the sea air, not death and rot as she had expected.
The guards paused them at the entrance, most of them glancing anxiously around, nervously fingering their hilts. From somewhere at the back of the great cavern a man appeared. He was average looking, at least, that is, there was nothing strange or monstrous about him, even if he was a bit rough and worn around the edges. His squared jaw was shadowed with the hint of a beard and his hair was longish and loose, the ends brushing his sturdy looking shoulders. He nodded with familiarity to the captain who eyed him suspiciously, but nodded back.
There was a guard near her standing close to the back. She leaned closer to him and whispered “Who is that?”
He leaned forward, his mouth near her ear. “The creature’s servant.”
The man walked past the captain and gave a quick appraisal, noting each girl quickly, pausing briefly at one or two. As his eyes moved she caught them and held them a moment. They were a piercing blue grey. She wondered if he saw the question in her own dark eyes. If he did, she couldn’t see an answer in his.
“This it?” he asked coolly.
The captain bristled.
“This is the tribute.” he responded with a tight voice, emphasizing the word tribute.”Very well. You may go.”
He motioned for the women to follow. “This way.”
The Captains jaw twitched and after a hesitant moment motioned his solders to move out. She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to see the guard behind her give her a sad and apologetic look. She gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile and followed the man who was already disappearing before her. No one else moved until she was halfway across the broad cavern floor. Slowly, a few at a time, they stumbled and shuffled forward. She didn’t turn around but she could hear them whimpering.
She straighten her shoulders and marched on into the dark unknown uneasily.
They passed through torch lit stone halls until they paused at one of the heavy doors that looked like it might be bolted directly into the stone. He opened it and stood aside. She entered first, tentatively. The room was empty, causing an involuntary sigh of relief. The room wasn’t large, but it was lined with pillowed benches, and there was a table with some food and water at the far end. It was at least more comfortable than a prison cell, or cage, and it sparked a dangerous hope in her heart. Then again, she reconsidered as the others filed past her, perhaps this was the only place to put them for the time being.
“Wait here.” Was all the servant said before he closed the door behind him. They all just looked at each other for a while, a few still clinging to others for comfort.
Calliope turned and tried the door. It was locked, as she suspected.
“What shall become of us.” whispered a young girl with wide terrified brown eyes. She looked like a doe cornered by a hunter, trembling with fear.
“It’s going to eat us!” squealed another.
“No,” Calliope responded, “I don’t think so. Why wouldn’t they just throw us in a cage or prison if that were the case.” No one answered. “Besides, I’m sure we’re all too skinny too make a good meal.” She tried to smile light-heartedly to ease the oppressive weight of their united fear.
“Maybe young girls taste better.” Another one whispered, making her neighbor whimper.
“What else can a giant want from us?” Said another, almost angrily. “We’re going to die!” This caused another round of tears and sobbing, which was frankly getting tiresome, and wasn’t helping her retain her composure.
“Why aren’t you afraid?” Asked the doe eyed girl.
“I am.” She admitted. The girl only nodded and curled up her knees to her chest on one of the benches.
No one touched the food.
After an eternity the servant returned.
“The master is here.”
They all stared at him, some in open horror. He let out an impatient sigh.
“Well don’t all jump up at once. Let’s go. Up, all of you.” One by one they rose and approached the door. Calliope had sat next to the door on the floor, and waited until they’d all filed out until rising and bringing up the rear. She thought of turning around and making a dash for it, but then thought of all those poor girls facing their fate alone while she hid like a coward. Besides she thought glancing behind her, who knows where those corridors led. Out of the pot and into the fire she mused.
They had returned to the great cavern and the group was stopped at the center, facing the entrance. It was only a moment before a shadow passed before the cave’s mouth, and was followed by a figure that filled the massive opening, blocking the last rays of the setting sun.
It, he, was monstrous. A giant at least, no…more than, twenty feet tall, wearing only a half toga as laborers do in the hot sun, his massive upper body exposed, revealing strange greyish colored skin stretched tightly over huge knotted muscles. He looked as though he could crush a man’s head between his thumb and forefinger. She couldn’t repress her shudder. Two of the girls became feint and fell into the arms of their neighbors, and several screamed.
He looked down at them with huge gleaming amber eyes. As the glare from the sun faded behind him she noticed two short horns that sprung from his hairless head like a saters. She glanced at his feet expecting hooves, but they were more or less normal looking, like a man’s, just much, much bigger, enough to support tree trunk legs. He seemed to look them over, and snorted derisively, causing a number of them to let out another round of terrified cries, that broke down into more uncontrollable weeping. He shook his massive head, and his strangely colored eyes darkened. She thought he looked… disappointed. She wondered what that meant. She decided it wasn’t good. When he opened his mouth to speak his voice rolled over them like distant thunder.
“Take them away Demitri” Demitri, the servant, nodded and began shepherding them all back into the hall. Calliope paused, not following, only staring up at the behemoth. Demitri didn’t seem to notice; perhaps he was too busy trying to revive one girl who’d fallen unconscious. She watched as he hefted her up into his arms and shooed the others ahead of him.
She looked back at the towering figure. He’d turned and was just standing, looking back outside. She swallowed hard and stepped forward. Their lives might depend on what she did next she thought, so she better not do anything stupid. She cleared her throat softly. He didn’t seem to hear.
“My lord” she called tentatively. She saw the corded muscles in his neck twitch indicating he’d heard her. He turned his head slowly and looked at her with mild curiosity.
“Yes?” His voice rumbled deeply in his chest reverberating through the cavern, shaking her to the bone. She took a breath. “I, I’m sorry.” She stuttered. “I’m sorry, that you’re disappointed.”
“Are you now?” He arched an eyebrow at her and turned. Looking directly at his face now she noticed how his elongated canines showed when he spoke, pressing lightly against his bottom lip. They terrified her.
What’s more she wasn’t sure how to respond to the question. She should have thought this through.
“I…I would hate for you to be angry…my lord.”
“I see. Is that all?” She paused.
“I suppose so. Yes.”
“Very well.” He turned back away.
“Yes.” He did not turn around.
“Have you decided what will happen to us?”
It was his turn to pause. “No.”
“I see.” She lowered her head and closed her eyes. “Is it very likely that we will die my lord?”
She didn’t see him turn and look back at her this time.
“No,” he said in a softer tone, “you will not die.”
Her heart jumped out of her chest and she was awash with relief when she raised her eyes back up to meet his frightening gaze. She wasn’t going to die! No one was.
“Thank you my lord.” She breathed, feeling her first honest smile in days playing across her lips. He softened visibly and moved closer crouching down in alarming proximity to her so that she was but a step or two away from reaching out and touching his bent knee. She didn’t pull away, but the urge to run was powerfully strong. I’m not going to die she reminded herself, and took another deep breathe.
“Is that why they’re all screaming and crying? They expect to die?”
“Well… partially. But you must forgive them,” she rushed on “they’re all very upset, and you’re, well, surprising, to see so…suddenly.” Damn she though, that hadn’t come out very well.
“I think you mean terrifying.” She opened her mouth to argue, and realized it was futile and ridiculous. All she could do was nod apologetically.
“And what about you? Why aren’t you screaming and trembling in fear?”
“I promised myself I wouldn’t. But if it’s any consolation,” she added, “I’m out of my mind with fear right now.” She tried to smile gamily, but she thought if felt more like a grimace. He gave her a little smirk and stood again.
“Fair enough. Well, if it will be any consolation to Them, you may tell them they aren’t in any immediate danger, and certainly not of death.”
She nodded. “It may help.”
He looked like he was about to leave again.
“One more thing my lord…”
He sighed. “What is it?”
“Is, is there anything that I might do?”
“To… serve you.” Or make you less displeased she thought.
“You want to serve me?”
“It was very gracious of you to spare our lives. It seems like the least I can do.” He looked at her a long while before he spoke.
“Demitri will be serving my evening meal soon. After that I think I will have a bath. You can help him and draw that bath. Good?”
“Yes my lord.” He looked at her again and turned striding back out into the pastures that surrounded the cavern before she could bother him again. “You fool.” she chided herself. “How are you going to pull this one off.” How did one draw a bath for giant? She didn’t know where to start. It just didn’t seem possible. It must be a test she thought. The only person who might know was Demitri, but if it was a test, he might not help her. He might not help her just because, he did seem like the miserable type. “Only one way to find out.” she muttered and went off down the smooth stone hall in search of Demitri. She found him in what looked like a kitchen of some sort. He looked up in surprise from a roasted lamb he was carving.
“What on earth are you doing in here? How did you get out?” he was striding towards her and reaching for her arm before she could stutter anything out.
“I needed your help. I never went back. Please.” He was pulling her out of the room and into the hall. “Please, stop, the master…he, he set me a task..”
He finally paused. “You spoke with him?”
“Yes.” He released her arm. “And?”
“And he told me to draw him a bath…is, is this possible?”
“Of course it’s possible.” He looked at her like she was addled.
“I mean is there such a bath for one of his…stature?”
“Look, there’s a room two doors down on the left, the bathing cistern is there, go and take a look if you don’t believe me, but I have work to do.”
“Can I help?”
“Yes, take this,” he pointed to a tray with a plate of olives, grapes, and fruit and a large jug of dark wine, “and deliver it to the room next to the bath…the first door down.”
“Where does it go.”
“Wherever makes sense.”
She nodded and picked up the tray and headed down the hall. “Drop it and I’ll whip the life right out of you…” he called after her. At the first door she paused, and balancing the tray partially on one knee, she pushed the door open. The interior was surprisingly pleasant. There were a few tapestries, some of them very handsome, some benches and numerous skins and pillows piled around a low table. The table seemed the logical place for the platter, so she set it carefully before taking a better look around. It was a little bit sparse, but it could reasonably be considered a normal room in most houses, excepting the grey stone walls. There was a single large decorative vase on a little table against the wall with images of warriors battling a three headed monster, and a large somewhat ornate chest against another wall. She thought to peek in, but thought better of it instantly, an image of Pandora standing over her god forsaken box flitting through her head. Instead she left the room, eschewing temptation, and went in search of this enormous bath. There was a bath in the next room, but she instantly thought it was a joke, or a trick being played on her.
Certainly the sunken stone bath was large enough to fit four or more normal people comfortably, but certainly not a giant such as the master of this place.
Her heart sank…and here she thought it might not be so hard. There was not much more she could do but prepare the bath and plead ignorance later. At least she could claim she was trying to be obedient, or some other such nonsense.
She noticed a spigot at one side of the squared bath, she knelt down and turned the little crank attached to it and water gulped out slowly, fresh water too by the smell, just like in some of the nicer bath houses. That would save her having to haul several dozen buckets of water at least. She filled the bath until it covered the built in bench, and headed back to the kitchen. The water was cool, but more tepid than frigid, which meant less boiled water was needed. Another point in her favor. She was calculating the time it would take to boil that water when she reached the kitchen and saw to her surprise and delight four kettles already set to boil on the oven.
“Tell me those are for me.”
Demitri looked up with a gruff expression and snorted. “Some one had to get it started.” He looked angry but she was sure she heard a laughing if sardonic note in his voice which gave her some ease.