“Boy, come here.”
It was always the same. Whenever the boy would walk the granite of foothills of the mountains with his grandfather, at some point the old man would call for the boy and point to the peaks.
“There’s a story writ large in the stones of these here mountains. Did I ever tell it to you?” He had, of course, many times, but this was the start of the story and as traditional as if he’s said: “Once Upon A Time” before some story of a princess or a talking animal or some such and similar.
The boy didn’t like those other stories because he’d never met or heard of a real-life prince or princess, so he couldn’t be sure they were true- whereas the mountain was clearly there and so he had proof of the veracity of his grandfather’s story.
The boy would nod and say “Yes, but I want to hear it again.”
Then his grandfather would fill his pipe as he looked down his hooked nose at the boy with an arch expression “you do, do you?”. A moment later the old man’s features would break into a grin under is walrusey mustache and the tale would begin in earnest. And this is how it went:
“These here mountains weren’t always mountains boy.” Said his grandfather. (The boy was never sure if his grandfather actually knew his name, or if that was just what he called all his grandsons when he talked to them)
“Yep. When my grandad’s grandad was a boy, just about your age-“ (it was always just about your age, no matter how old the boy was) “they were just what you’d call Bens or big hills.”
None of the other boys at school knew what Bens were, for the boy’s family had come to the new country from a country that was sensible enough to have a word for the terrain that was not so big as a mountain, but deserving of more respect than a mere hill. This caused fights between the boys until the teacher was called in and confirmed the what the grandfather said about Bens.
“What happened?” asked the boy, knowing full well what the story was, and trying to play his part well.
“Well, it all came down to a fight between two sets of Giants.”
The boy loved to hear about the giants. Huge mole-like creatures made of the very stone that made up their mountain home. A hundred feet if they were an inch, and fearsome claws, though… according to his grandfather, the giants only every used them to dig through the earth.
“Back in those days, the Giants were more active and one giant decided to move west to see why all us people were moving out west here. Being a newcomer in those days, he should have been respectful to the Giants he met here, just as our people were often what you’d call less than polite to the people who lived here before (and vice versa).”
“What did he do?” asked the boy.
“Why, he did the one thing you must never do if you want to get along with strangers when you move into their land.”
“He fell in love and stole the heart of the prettiest Giantess in the land. You should have seen her. Wide as she was tall, with delicate claws that could carve a fjord if she’s lived near enough to the sea to do so. The swish eastern giant came in and swept the poor girl off her feet. He ran south of her family home and made the mesas and buttes that grace the badlands to the southwest.”
“Why’d he do that?” Asked the boy.
“I imagine it was like you gathering flowers for a girl at one of the nearby farms,” said the Grandfather, “Well, this went around for awhile, making the area kind of unsafe for us small folk. It was what you’d call a geographically active area.
“I don’t know… a giant mole person with claws that can Fords-“
“Fjords. Like fee-rod” said the grandfather.
“Claws that can cut feee-ords doesn’t sound beautiful to me.”
“Ahh, well… that’s because you’re not a giant see. I mean, it wouldn’t help her to be a better giant if she could only breathe underwater right?”
“So what made her beautiful to other giants was mostly how good she was at being a giant. They had a word for it that expressed it better. One that means, that which is what is ought to be and almost ideally so.”
“They had one word for that?”
“Yep. Though, I seem to remember it was a long word. Anyway, for the giants, beauty wasn’t strictly a visual thing.”
“Course not. Where do the giants live?”
“Under the mountains.”
“How much light you suppose they got under a hunnert tons of rock?”
“Not a lot.”
“Hmph, not a lot indeed! Course not a lot. It’s partly why the giants only come out at night.”
“I’ve heard stories about them eating up travelers and stuff.”
“Stories. A lot of stories leave a lot out boy.”
“Like how being used to darkness and meeting up on a bright sunny day with a young ‘adventurer’ who tries to trick you is bound to make anyone angry. Mostly the giants are peaceful. Well, except when they get to fighting. Now giants mate for life, and that means quite a bit more to someone who is going to live for a few thousand years. So when the time came that the giantess was going to choose a mate, she got to choose the contest.”
“Why sure boy, in most species the female chooses the contest. For peacocks it’s bright plumage, for some spiders, it’s a dance, for eagles it’s a rock-dropping contest.”
“What was it for giants?”
“Yep. They had to make mountains out of molehills.”
The boy thought about it for awhile. “So, the handsomest giant would be the one who is best at being a giant right?”
“Stands to reason.”
“And the giants job is to make the mountains.”
“Always has been.”
“Okay, I get it.”
“Good,” Said the grandfather with mock sternness, though the twinkle in his eye gave him away.
“So, who competed in the contest?” asked the boys.
“Well, standard giant rules said that she would be the judge and that her father and all of the eligible giants in the area (that means old enough and not married already) would duke it out to see who was the best.”
“Why would her father compete?”
“Mostly, I think it was to prove to himself that he could still do it, but partly to make the young bucks nervous. See, he wanted to make sure anyone that married into his mountain range would know how to properly craft a mountain that you could be proud of. None of those old eroded things like the mountains to the east. But something as hard and proud and craggy as himself, you see.”
“So, they had to beat his mountain with one of their own?”
“Nope. They had to beat the giantess herself!” said the grandfather, with a gleam in his eyes.
“But, wait- why was her father competing, if she was too?”
“Well it’s a great deal more complicated than what I’m gonna say, I would imagine, but basically… if he made the best one, he got to veto everyone else as not being good enough, if she won can choose whoever she likes- though traditionally a giantess wouldn’t respect a giant as a mate if she could out-smith him, and if someone did beat her, she would be likely to choose him as the best.”
Well, that seems- wait! That’s not fair!!” said the boy.
“Whoever said life is fair?” asked the grandfather, “But what do you mean?”
The boy held his grandfather’s hands to cross a stream and used the time to put his thoughts together.
“Okay, so she is judging.”
“No one else?”
“Well, everyone would debate and talk about it for years before she made up her mind, but ultimately she was the only one who could judge.”
“And there’s no criteria?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the old giant criticized the mountains to the east as being ‘the wrong kind of mountains’”
“Sure, people get set in their ways as they age and the Giant had been there since the first beginnings.”
“The whole contest is rigged! I mean, why can’t she just choose who she likes and make up reasons why theirs is best?”
“Ahh, well that’s mighty slippery thinking. What did you say you wanted to be when you grow up, Boy?”
“Ahh well, that’s fine then. I thought for a second, my daughter was raising a politician.” The grandfather laughed to himself, but the boy didn’t get the joke.
“Anyway, if she can just choose who she wants to, why even say there’s a contest?”
“Giants are very traditional creatures mostly. After all, they live so long that some of the oldest ones were around when the dang things got started. Additionally, they’re very close to their families and generally won’t break with tradition, not to mention they’re right prideful about their aesthetic tastes.”
“Oh.” Said the boy.
“You want more background? Or can I get on to the part of the story that’s actually the story?” more theater. The grandfather loved telling the history of the giants and adding as much garnish as possible to it. Both of them knew this of course, but you had to keep up the pace, or the story would take all day.
“Story please.” Said the boy, remembering his manners.
“Well, the day came and they sent one of the younger giants out to find some moles. Moles being just like the giants, only small and squishy and covered in fur instead of lichens and moss.” Having found the object of their morning walk, the old man stooped and picked something orange from the soil, brushed it off and put it in the brown cloth bag he carried slung over his shoulder, “What is the name of the mountain under whose shadow we live?”
“The Old Man.” Said the boy without thinking. It was something everyone in the area knew. The origin of the name was scree field below a huge cavern near the peak gave the impression of a bearded old man screaming in anguish.
“Good and what are the mountains nearest to the old man.”
“Why, there’s Peregrine Peak, Lodestone, and The demon’s chair.” Said the boy again, just as quickly.
“Do you know why they are called by those names?”
The boy was puzzled. He didn’t know.
“The first two are so-named because of the design each of the giants gave in order to showcase his skill. The first formed that shape, not unlike a Peregrine falcon perched. He wanted to impress her with majesty and he made his peak tall. But in his hubris, he didn’t build it so stable. In fact, to this day, the area is dangerous to any who would go there because of the frequent rock slides.
The second giant fashioned his out of Iron and gems and other metals. He wished to show her the wealth he could bring. The work was good, but lacked elegance. It was large and squat and though miners still find it profitable to go there, no one has ever called it beautiful.
What was the third? The third giant, going last thought that a combination of the two approaches would be best. Though he lacked the material for precious stones and made up for the difference with brimstone. It smokes and cracks to this day, but here and there are large chunks of fool’s gold for any who seeks wealth in the region.
“Well, which did she choose?” Asked the boy.
“None of those three of course. There were still three more mountains to judge from. The Old Man is the most like the other mountains in this area. After all, her father made it and he’d been at his craft for quite awhile. But aside from being bigger and harder, being made mostly of the granite the priests favor for their temples, still, she reserved her judgment.”
“Well what did the new giant build?” he asked.
“You’re standing on it. Or, rather what’s left of it.” Said the grandfather.
“Well, that Giant from the east did something no one had aver thought of before. He raised the ground to a height you wouldn’t believe and then he pounded the top flat. This mystified the giantess who seemed dejected at this strange excuse from a mountain. She didn’t want to believe that he was so terrible. When they talked, they had seemed to have so many things in common and they had a love that grew from those shared experiences and joys. How could he do this to her? Heartbroken, she turned to him and asked, ‘Why would you do this? Why, when everything else was on the line, would you make me this large mesa? This is not a mountain. It has no crags, no features, you have spent your magics making something that is large and that couldn’t possibly be chosen. Why?’”
“Why did he do it, grandpa?” The boy picked some berries and looked for sign of game so they would know where to hunt when the snows came.
“Well, I could tell you myself, or I could let you hear his reply.” Said the old man. The boy had never heard this story before, indeed not. Usually, they would point to the mountains and say how the Old Man was made by the giantess’s father in an attempt to see where she was going as she ran with her love. The boy stopped picking the berries and looked at his grandfather who was examining another orange funnel-shaped mushroom apparently absorbed in his task.
“Tell me grandpa!” said the boy.
His grandfather looked up as if waking from a dream. “Huh? Oh. Right. The giant looked at her and said, ‘I could have made the mountain tall, but then it might be unstable; I could have made the mountain full of wealth but then it would be squat and only useful; I could have compromised between the two and gotten nothing at all, or even built along designs well-established in your beautiful ranges. But, if it was unstable, it would not be skillful. If it were ugly and would not be beautiful. If it were a compromise, it would not show the elegance in design you would appreciate. If I copied the work of your father and your family it would be necessary to have me as a partner. Can you not see? All of your other suitors and your father built what they judged to be the best for them. Instead, I have built you a platform to build upon so that we can make the best work for us. If we build alone, why should we marry? It would be a purposeless marriage of little worth if it were based on pride, wealth, compromise or tradition. I want to build a future on each other.”
“So, then she chose him, right?”
“Well, no one knows what she might have done. After all, she was the best Mountainsmith of the lands, so her choosing anyone would mean there was something subjective going on.”
“Well, what happened then?” asked the Boy.
“She chose alright, but partly because her lover’s speech so angered the other suitors and the giantess’s father that they grew fierce and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and threw him out of their lands. In fact, to this day, there’s a lake where he landed dazed and in the flatlands to the west. Furious at the arrogance of the males around her, she stomped her foot and unmade the mountain right then and there, crushing the forests and mixing the soil into the rich loam each we use on our farms, and dales and hills. Then she took out west to flatlands and ran until they found the great wide ocean on the other side of the Djinn’s desert. There, to this day, they wander up and down the coast, making mountains and it is said that ground still shakes with their passage as they move by.”
“They make mountains?”
“A whole wall of them running from the far North to the far South of the continent. Twisty makes of passages, impossible to pass safely in the winter if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
“Huh.” Said the boy. “Then the Giants lived happily ever after?”
“Well, if you mean the two lovers, the best I could tell you is that they live happily enough for now. Just because they escaped immediate danger doesn’t mean anything. Remember giants are prideful and long-lived. If you ever find yourself in the mountains, you’d best be sure not to give offense.”
The boy nodded. Then realizing they had both gotten what they came for from their forage and it was getting toward nightfall they decided to go home.
After they recrossed the stream the boy said, “Did the Old Giant ever regret chasing his daughter’s lover away and her after him?”
The grandfather tousled the boy’s hair, “Not until after he met his grandsons,” he said.