Jack, Schuyler’s Giant Killer

 by Malcolm ‘foozzzball’ Cross

 (8000 words)

 

 

“The sky is iron.” Gaylord gravely set down his stick, staring at the rising sun with light-fearing eyes. “The heart of the world, the chains that bind the heavens, and the sky itself. All iron.”

Schuyler could not see what his friend saw, but Schuyler’s eyes had slits for pupils, slits that could thin and slice up the world very finely, so that not too much light slipped in to offend him. He turned his eyes to the heavens, just as little Gaylord did, and squinted.

“It is iron?” Schuyler asked, at last.

Gaylord hobbled forward, among the black beach-rocks at the water’s edge, his long, broad, arm bent as though he were crippled to keep the stick in his spindle-fingered hand and hold his body up with it. “See, there? Where the sun heats it? It glows red. And far behind us, cool and black.” He ducked his long head, lifting his other arm to shield himself from the sunlight, tucking the end of his nose beneath the joint — into the folds of skin that were his wing. “It is iron.”

Schuyler soon lost interest in the sky and its colours, limping along the rocks after Gaylord, picking his way carefully upon his leg. If Schuyler stepped badly, his leg bent. Of course, all legs bend… well, most legs worth having bend, but when Schuyler stepped badly, his leg bent at the thigh, not the knee.

He paid attention to the spaces between the black rocks, where a bit of water still pooled. There was little that was alive in those foetid puddles today, but after the night tide sometimes one might find small creatures of the water there, still flapping and writhing, glinting like metal in the day’s new light.

Schuyler saw such a creature, fat and juicy, just an inch or so long, its skin taut with meat. Thus, he carefully bent over and speared it upon his claw. The creature flapped wetly, its long body whipping one way and then the other, as though swimming.

Silly creature. It could hardly swim with Schuyler’s long claw through it, piercing its middle from left to right. He smiled indulgently at it, then ate it — chewing upon its living flesh with delight, even if that flesh was cold and bland.

Gaylord looked back at the cracking of bone, and grimaced, long muzzle wrinkling. “What is that you eat? What is it?”

“What was it,” Schuyler corrected primly. “And it was delicious,” he lied, bringing his claw to his mouth and sucking it clean, before retracting that claw into his slender finger.

Gaylord leapt at Schuyler, as though to knock him down, but little Gaylord’s body was far too light. He beat enviously at Schuyler’s chest, clawed at Schuyler’s fur, dragged his long thin fingers across Schuyler’s face. “Give me a share! It isn’t fair! I cannot see, it’s far too bright, by rights I should have had a share!”

For an instant, a single, breathtaking instant, Gaylord’s warm flesh — his finger — touched Schuyler’s naked lip. Schuyler thought of the sounds of cracking bone, and gushing blood, and the taste of good meat, and the warmth of Gaylord’s fingers at his lip.

Gingerly, Gaylord drew back, watering eyes locked upon Schuyler’s wistful gaze. “I should have had a share,” he whimpered. “That was all. I meant not a thing by it, only that I should have had a share.”

Schuyler continued to gaze at Gaylord. “But you did not have a share. That cannot be put right. Now, my beautiful fur was ruffled.” Schuyler looked down at his own chest, and lightly licked his own fingers. “But that can be put right,” he mused, and groomed himself.

“Then I will say nothing more about it.” Gaylord miserably turned away, his stubby tail flicking. He hunched his shoulders, flicked his arms, and refolded the delicate skin of his wings in tight bundles. “I meant nothing by it.” He began to hobble once more, stick clutched tight, head low, watering eyes affixed to the rocks of the shore, the spaces between, as though by walking in front he might be the first to spot some untender and wretched blot of living meat.

“Put right that which can be put right,” Schuyler mused, “and fret not a whit about the rest, hmm?” He put thoughts of his friend’s warmth aside, and concentrated instead on the delightful flicking of his new tail.

Schuyler’s new tail was sable and grey, and long, and beautiful. His previous tail… was not. It was silly to say so, of course, but Schuyler was convinced that his new tail was his tail. After all, it matched his beautiful fur! And its flicking matched the pace of his beautiful stride. Yes, Schuyler was convinced that his new tail was, in fact, his first tail. His tail.

Pridefully staring at his new, old, tail and madly in love with it, Schuyler did not see what was obviously before him. Unfortunate. Doubly unfortunate that Gaylord’s poor eyes did not see well in the light of day, and that he was so very intent on the rock beneath his feet. If they had not been so lax in their attentions, they would have noticed before the ravens and crows had taken the last of the best morsels — the eyes.

As it was, the fighting birds cawed and screeched.

Schuyler cupped his ears forward alertly. Though he did not understand the language of screech and caw, he understood the sound of fighting. “Hallo. What’s this?” He looked up from his tail.

“What’s what?” Gaylord enquired miserably, looking up from his toil.

“The stream. It has moved. It now flows south of where it was. And you see? It has carved away the earth in the night.”

Gaylord squinted blurrily ahead. All he could see was a vague pale patch amidst the flapping birds. “And?”

“And it has washed out– no! They have the eyes!”

Gaylord’s mouth began to water instantly, his thinly pointed tongue snaking from his lips. “Eyes? There are eyes?

The stream-valley cut through the earth called Schuyler eagerly with the babble of water and mud, and the crying of birds, and the squelch of the bleached white eye caught in one bird’s talons. The first eye had been speared upon a sharp and savage beak, torn to pieces as the birds squabbled in the mud, but the second eye was held safely in the foot of a more stalwart defender. There was still a chance. Schuyler ran.

The defender-bird jabbed at its compatriots and competitors with its beak, spitting up a dark and agonizing cry from the midst of its belly — Caw! Ca-Caw-Yeeeech! This did not save it from the buffeting of wings, the jealous peck of beak, nor the assault of yet more ardent cries — Scha-guaaa! Craw-Schgwaaa!

Schuyler leapt across the rocks to the washed out silt, his first step, and from the silt to the mud, his second step, and from the mud to the mud as his leg wrenched beneath him, and bent at the thigh. His third, apparently final step.

He held out his hands, and landed gracefully — Schuyler did all things gracefully — and screamed at the joy of excruciating pain as the broken bone splintered and cracked inside him once again. The mud had splashed into his mouth, and his nose, and his eyes, and his fur, and into the new wound torn in his flesh by his broken bone, but he cared nothing for these unfortunate happenings.

The true and stalwart bird-defender of the eye swept its wide wings at the air, carving the atmosphere open and splashing it away like blood from a wound, sending the bird — and the remaining eye — wheeling up into the coming morning, trailed by its comrade-combatants.

Gaylord hobbled to a halt beside Schuyler, wheezing for breath, shaking even with the aid of his stick. “Why have you stopped?”

The intent to answer was there, Schuyler was certain of it, but when he opened his mouth only screams spilled out. He began to laugh in the midst of his screams, turning them to high braying yowls, but this did not quiet Gaylord’s concern. It did, however, frighten away what few birds remained.

“What is wrong? Your leg? Has it faltered once more?”

Schuyler gestured up at the heavens helplessly, gasped out, “A bird has taken the eye. Fly after it.”

“The eye? You said eyes!” Gaylord looked up worriedly, flexing out his wing as though to give chase.

“The birds ate an eye.” With a whimper, and a crackle of shattered bone, Schuyler pulled his leg straight. He yowled but a little, a short snap of sound beside the stream. “And have flown away with the other.”

“An eye eaten, and an eye flown. That is two eyes.” Gaylord looked muzzily up at the pale blur in the dark mud. “There were only two eyes?”

“Yes.” Schuyler did not bother concealing his bliss.

“Fresh eyes?” Disbelievingly, Gaylord pointed a stick-thin finger at the pale thing in the mud. “Then that must be…?”

Yes.” Schuyler grit his teeth, and pulled and twisted at his knee, forcing the shattered stumps of bone within his leg together, making them lock together once more no matter how temporarily. With a shuddering breath, hissing at the bliss of pain, he nodded. “It is mansflesh.”

His little friend waded into the water with not a care in the world, arms held high as he sank to his stubby knee’s-depth in the stream, the folds of his wings swinging about his head. “Mansflesh!” He yelped in excitement.

It was a nude body, pale of skin, with four slender fingers on one hand and three upon the other. The blood that trickled from the stumps was a little on the dark and foetid side, but still liquid none the less. Clean of brow, skin rather slack with no bloat, as of yet, still fresh. A man, about twenty, and — as Gaylord was discovering — still in possession of a tongue.

With slender fingers about the mansflesh jaw, Gaylord tenderly drew it down, down, until the bone cracked and he could reach inside, drawing out that lovely pink tongue. “There is a tongue! Oh Schuyler. A tongue.”

Schuyler squelched through the mud, stepping carefully, to keep splintered bone locked in splintered bone, joining his friend beside their new treasure. “A tongue,” he agreed.

Gaylord drew the tongue from the man’s broken lips and held it up between forefinger and thumb eagerly. “A tongue,” Gaylord repeated, until he felt the bright beautiful heat of Schuyler beside him. He trembled and folded in on himself, tilting his head mournfully at Schuyler. “Your tongue, I think. You spotted the mansflesh,” he said, slowly and carefully.

Schuyler smiled brightly, exposing each and every one of his sharp teeth. “My tongue,” he said, with a solemn nod.

It was with a mournful glance that Gaylord looked aside, away from the tongue held up between his fingers. “Your tongue.”

“Yes,” Schuyler agreed. “My tongue. Which I give to you. Now let us see–”

Gaylord whipped round, wrenched the mansflesh jaw aside until it broke, and ferociously dove his muzzle down into the distended mouth with not a word. Merely champed his teeth within the depths, digging deep for the tongue’s root, bloodily and loudly gnawing away.

“–about cutting it out,” Schuyler finished, watching with a slight blink.

Schuyler resumed his smile a moment, then relaxed. A warm and pleasant moment, watching his friend steal the man’s last kiss. He joined Gaylord, and began to feel at the man’s thighs, comparing his broken leg to the mansflesh’s untouched one. He measured it with his spread fingers upon the knee, flipping his hand and counting once, then twice… but the moment of warmth drained. Schuyler lifted his ears into sharp-tipped arches, frozen to stillness.

Had it been a step? A large and distant step, feet shaking the earth? No. For all that it was faint, the slight sound had been near rather than far. Again, the wet sound. A soft slap, the drowning squelch so like mud slipping through mud, or flesh slipping through flesh, or in this case, ice-pale fingers on loose soil, clutching, tearing, scrabbling, mashing the heavy grains into mud betwixt wet fingers.

There. High, far from the stream, where the earth had fallen and been swept away. An arm. That pale arm. Pulling furrows into the soft, wet earth with a flailing grab, beating it flat with a panicked and terrified fist. The loamy earth crumbled and trickled away in clods, rolling away in a skittering fall.

A gentle step, not to alert Gaylord tearing at the man’s lips. Not to be heard by the owner of that mudstreaked arm, trapped beneath the soil. Gentle, dislodging only a little loose earth as he climbed up to stand beside that flailing arm.

He watched it for long moments, as it grappled helplessly at the earth. Heard a distant and muffled sound, a frantic wailing. At last, Schuyler poked the arm with the tip of his finger.

The arm stilled for but an instant, then flailed, a whirling desperate grab for whatever could be found, and as dirty pale mansflesh clutched Schuyler’s furred wrist, the muffled screaming grew louder. Then louder still.

Schuyler had not meant to claw the arm, though if anyone asked him he would’ve claimed that was his intent. He had simply been frightened by the desperate clutching, had acted by reflex.

The arm shuddered, pulled away, the muffled moans still loud, the clawing scrabble to dig at the earth all the worse now. All the worse as that pale flesh, scored with four shallow gouges, leaked warm red blood into the loose earth.

Warm and savoury, salt-fresh blood. Perfectly red, not the wretched stuff of a long dead body. And those scratches were all that marred the flesh. All five fingers perfectly in place.

Gaylord stood nearby, silently wiping at his mouth. He lapped the fermented blood from his own face, licked neat his fingertips and scratched furiously at the fur of his chin to dislodge the sticky mess before it clotted. A breath, and his gentle voice. “Live mansflesh?”

Schuyler poked the arm again, claw out. The puncture welled red blood. “Live mansflesh,” he answered, mystified.

“Shall we kill it and dig it out?”

The mansflesh hand gripped desperately at Schuyler’s when he grasped it. A slow, gentle pull. Bit by bit the elbow came free of the sucking mud, the shoulder. Gaylord’s eager scrabbling at the earth found the rest of that shoulder, part of a neck — the scream was loud indeed until the loose earth collapsed in on the little hole. Then the scream was muffled, though perhaps without the mud it would have been louder still. At last they found a face, flinching away from Schuyler’s rough hands and the rasp of Gaylord’s hands and wings, brushing away the dirt.

Blue eyes, so very white in the midst of all the mud, blinked fearfully up at the twain.

“Oh, he has eyes, Schuyler. Eyes.” Gaylord gibbered at the thought of it, clutching his thin stomach. “Not just a tongue today, but eyes and mansflesh. I have been hungry so long…”

“Keep away! Keep away!” The buried mansflesh yelped, flailing his free arm about in a desperate blow.

Gaylord obligingly hopped back, then leaned forward to stare hungrily at the mansflesh. “Such fortune smiles on us. Such fortune.”

Schuyler smiled, but kept his teeth to himself. That would only alarm the buried mansflesh. He stalked about the little pit the man was trapped in. “And what is your name, mansflesh?”

A panicked look fell upon him. Not the panic of seeing two fine fellows such as Schuyler and Gaylord stalking about you after your flesh had been poked and prodded and left bleeding, no. The panic of realization. “I… I don’t…”

Gaylord stared up at Schuyler disbelievingly, gesturing down. “You can’t ask it its name, it’s fresh! We have not eaten in days and twice fortune has smiled on us this morning! This is no time to play games, not with your leg as it is! Simply kill him and-”

Schuyler pressed his hand over Gaylord’s muzzle, clamping his mouth shut to silence him.

Ahhhh, it was a pleasure, seeing the panic of realization vanish, only to be replaced by the panic of seeing such fine gentlemen as Schuyler and Gaylord. It made Schuyler smile, with teeth, which had a delicious effect on the mansflesh’s face.

“Can you not remember your name, mansflesh?” Schuyler asked tenderly, reaching down to brush away muddy dirt from the mansflesh’s neck. From his collar.

Collar.

The mansflesh was not nude, as Schuyler and Gaylord and the dead mansflesh were. He had cloth around his neck, and below that, cloth about his shoulders. A shirt. Schuyler twitched the tip of his tail ever so slowly.

“I… I had a name. I don’t remember it, now.”

“No one remembers their names,” Gaylord murmured. “God once knew our names, but they were thrown to the mud and lost.”

“Jack,” murmured Schuyler, tugging at the mansflesh’s collar, twisting it around to see the back. He rubbed the dirt away with his thumb, and the mansflesh choked for breath whilst Gaylord leaned low to inspect the collar’s inner side.

“Jack,” little Gaylord chirruped. “Did he write it there so he would not forget?”

Schuyler stared down into the mansflesh’s blue eyes. “Is your name Jack, mansflesh?”

“I don’t know,” the mansflesh wailed, water trickling from his eyes and cleaning his face. “Perhaps that is my name. I don’t remember!”

“What do you remember, mansflesh Jack?”

“G-grass…”

“That will not grow today yet, not for many hours.” A quick look at the sky confirmed it. Much of the sky’s far edge was still black, while the fresh-risen sun had only barely started to burn the sky orange from red. “Anything else?”

“N-n… No.” Poor Jack tilted his head back against the mud, squashing his fine hair into the soil. “Who are you? What are you?”

Schuyler surveyed himself for but a moment. He was mudsplattered. Not at his finest, but still, he offered a short bow. “I am Schuyler, the merry. This is Gaylord,” he said, gesturing to his little friend.

“Fsssk,” Gaylord hissed, backing away, looking up at Schuyler with mournful eyes. “You should not have found the mansflesh a name. Fortune befell us, but now there is another unfortunate in the world. We shall be punished.”

“Gaylord is not so merry as I am,” Schuyler said, “but he tries.”

 

After a ducking in the stream, it turned out that Mansflesh Jack had blonde hair, alongside his blue eyes. He was tall, though not so tall as Schuyler, and strong, though not so strong as Schuyler, and beautiful. Though not nearly so beautiful as Schuyler was. And his clothes were fine indeed, with buttons!

Schuyler sat licking the mud from his fur and spitting it away across the fresh grass. The slender muddy grey shoots would not carpet the ground properly until noon, when the sun was high in the heavens and the sky a crisp yellow colour. It amused him to spit mud upon the new grass, so that it might have still further to grow.

“What happened to his leg?” Jack asked.

Gaylord looked up from busily gnawing at the scars in the hidden places upon his wings. “What happened to who’s leg?”

Jack pointed briefly at Schuyler, who proudly lifted his chin, glad to be pointed at. “There is blood from the wound, and bone, and…”

And that was all. Schuyler flexed down, lifting his thigh to lick at where the bone had punched out through his flesh, cleaning it of sweet blood.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” Jack asked.

“Of course,” Merry Schuyler replied, picking at a bone-shard that was still lodged in his fine skin.

Jack did not answer, simply staring with those wide blue eyes.

The shard stuck fast in his flesh had not quite punched its way through. Just a jagged tip, and shattered flakes below it like barbs… it slid from between his fingers repeatedly, so Schuyler bent down, clutched the slender little length of bone in his teeth, and pulled.

Tears streamed from his eyes and his blood was wet upon the grass, and at last with a snap of broken flesh and bone the barb-like flakes came free, and out came the shard, fully thrice as wide as the tip had been, the end splintered like wood.

Schuyler smiled at Jack, the bloodied shard of bone held jauntily between his lips, wet gore dripping from around his mouth. A reassuring smile, Schuyler thought.

Jack did not think this.

“What,” the little man gasped, “What…”

“It is only a piece of my bone,” Schuyler explained, holding up the shard, scraping his tongue at all the rough places it had snarled into his flesh, cleaning it of his own copper-salt-iron blood. “Broken and smashed. I shall need a new bone for my leg. Do you have one spare? So long?” Schuyler enquired, holding his hands apart.

Jack shook his head slowly. He mouthed the word ‘no’, but could not summon the breath to speak, as if old and with useless lungs.

“What happened?” Jack asked after a time, his wide, haunted eyes affixed to the spike of bone Schuyler held, the blood upon Schuyler’s leg, the meekly growing grass, the pleasantly bloody skies. “What happened?” He asked again, as though there was an answer.

Gaylord looked up from his grooming, licking blood from his lips. “God no longer remembers our names,” he said, as though that were obvious. “The only names that are left are for the titans, beating at earth and sky and iron heart of the world –”

“Now now, Gaylord. That is not what Jack meant,” Schuyler said with no small pride.

“It is not?”

“Nay, it is not. I believe he was curious as to the state of my leg.” Schuyler looked kindly upon young Jack. “As you can see I and my companion are the worse for wear.”

Jack’s lips worked without making sound, and he sat up the straighter. “What, what happened to me?” He whispered, but Schuyler took no notice.

“Our most recent misfortune,” Schuyler explained, “was when I was trodden upon.”

Gaylord lifted his arm, flexing out the wing, and glared from behind it, lapping at the blood where he had been chewing away the scars. “I could do nothing, Toppentoes is large, and I am not.” he cast his watering eyes towards Jack.

“What happened to me?” Jack asked again, insistent. “Why can’t I remember?”

Schuyler flicked his tail consideringly. Though perhaps Schuyler had misjudged Jack’s interests, he was sure he could bring the fellow around to his point of view. “You have been mislaid by the same misfortune as we, good Jack. Toppentoes. Clearly he struck you upon the head, and this is why you do not remember.”

Gaylord turned his gaze on Schuyler, narrowed those eyes, and said nothing to gainsay his merry friend.

Jack reached up, touching his perfect, smooth skin to his skull, feeling it warily. “I don’t hurt. I don’t feel pain,” he murmured.

“Oh, you will,” Schuyler brightly advised, smiling at poor Jack, who looked up with frightened eyes. “Worry not, Jack, you are alive, and all the delights of agony await you. But you are wise. You knew to bury yourself when injured so greatly.”

“Bury..?”

“Bury yourself. That is what is done, is it not, when injuries are very grave indeed? Why, on the very cusp of death it is advised by all the wisest persons that one be buried. Is this not so where you are from?” Schuyler perked up, grinning from ear to ear. “Is that not where you place your sick and dying? In the ground?”

This did not reassure Jack. His face twisted, the idea tasted wrong, but it seemed to fit whatever slim facts he had. He nodded ever so slightly.

“You slept beneath the mud and rose as good as new.” Schuyler swept across the grass, sat beside Mansflesh Jack, and stroked his skull lovingly. “I shall have to bury myself, for my leg, when this matter with Toppentoes is resolved.”

Jack flinched away from Schuyler’s warm touch. Sullen, mouth a piteous line in his face, and yet he had no truth nor memory with which to contest Schuyler’s words. “Toppentoes?”

“The giant,” Schuyler hissed.

Something distant and warm came to him. In a dark palace of wood and timber and brick. A small palace, but he was very sure it was a palace. The stories all placed their princes in palaces, and was not Schuyler the most beautiful, most perfect? Most princely? Thus it was a palace. Stories.

Something about stories joined the confused half tangle of long ago things, memories. Feet upon roads. Booted feet. Many booted feet. Marching. Mud and a confused tangling sky of shattering smoke and pain that was not bliss. A roaring in the ears.

Schuyler shuddered and looked up to find Jack’s eyes upon him. It made him angry. Who was Jack to stare at Schuyler? To judge Schuyler for never wearing boots, for hurling such things far away, for avoiding clothes, for refusing to step upon roads with rhythm?

The boy flinched away.

The boy. Not Jack. Jack was too large to be the boy, and Schuyler was certainly not the boy, and Gaylord was of the right size but would never be mistaken for the boy. And somewhere in the far reaches of Schuyler’s dreams, the boy flinched away, and there was an alien feeling.

Guilt.

Guilt at memories Schuyler did not remember owning.

Jack continued to stare, and Schuyler lashed his tail, mouth clamped shut, hiding his feelings and thoughts behind an intent stare.

“A giant,” Jack murmured distrustfully.

“Yes,” Schuyler said. “And you will slay him.”

“I? I’m no, no warrior…” Jack backed away at last, hand upon the grass, breaking the feeble stalks as he did.

“You are well suited to slay Toppentoes,” Schuyler purred reassuringly. “Is that not so, Gaylord? Is Jack not best suited to this?”

Gaylord peeked up from behind his wing, breath rasping from his lips. “Why do you speak such lies? Why do you pile misfortune on misfortune–”

“Yes!” Schuyler lifted his hands, smiling broadly, teeth all on show, each slender spike meshing with the next. “Yes, dear friend. Under usual circumstances, it would be I to slay the giant Toppentoes, rather than young Jack, but as my leg has been trodden on…” He smiled at Jack indulgently. His eyes dropped to Jack’s thigh, where — as was proper — Jack’s leg did not bend. Unlike Schuyler’s leg.

Jack looked from Schuyler to Gaylord, uncertain. Afraid.

Gaylord said naught, glaring from behind his wing at the two of them.

“Is that not so, Gaylord?” Schuyler hissed. “Is Jack not best suited to slay the giant?”

Gaylord hesitated, ducking his nose behind wing and elbow, stubby tail flicking upon the ground.

Schuyler smiled all the broader, leaning close, mouth alarmingly wide, tooth and gum and sticky fragment of gore trapped between his teeth all fully on display, and grimacing thus, he hissed, “Is that not so, Gaylord?”

A moment. A moment in which Gaylord ducked his head behind his wing, and shuddered, looking away from the youth. At last he murmured, “That is so.” He could not bear to look upon Jack, and simply murmured, “That is so, my merry friend. That is so.”

Thus it was done.

Thus Jack turned his fearful eyes from Gaylord to Schuyler, and down to his own dirty toes. “If you say so,” he said at last, voice lost.

 

Jack was a questioning fellow. Why this, why that, why not the other thing. He did not understand why the sky was a bright yellow above, tinged bloody at the horizons. Gaylord explained in his usual fashion — that iron underlaid the firmament of creation — but this did not satisfy Jack.

More problematic was Jack’s hesitance as to Toppentoes.

“If this Toppentoes is tall as you say he is, I do not see how I can hope to defeat him,” said Jack, prancing about in his clothes, in his unscarred mansflesh, bearing a branch of driftwood as a cudgel under Gaylord’s careful tuition.

Gaylord shaded his eyes beneath his outstretched wing, leaning upon his recovered stick, and stared up at the youth making his hearty swipes and blows at thin air. Gaylord’s little ears flattened, and he turned his wretched gaze on Schuyler, sitting nearby.

Schuyler merely smiled in turn, as one should smile at one’s friends, very amiably displaying his teeth to Gaylord, and gestured with his hand as though it were a mouth spouting nonsense to coddle children with.

“We will all be punished,” Gaylord moaned, clutching his wing about his head. “Misfortune upon misfortune.”

“What was that?” Jack asked, taking a last swing. He recovered, branch dancing unevenly in his hands as he found its weight, and set the end upon the ground by his foot, where the grass now grew thickly — a rough and tangled mat.

Gaylord clenched his wing about his head once, a second time, until at last he unfurled it like a lady’s fine parasol, veins and old scars casting sharp shadows through the thin skin. He squinted up at Jack, lips working as though trying to lick away a bad taste, and then he said, “You are virtuous and innocent. I am neither. Toppentoes is neither. The virtuous prevail.”

“But you say he is thrice the height of a man.” Jack gestured above his head, as though taking his own measure. “This branch would be a twig to such a beast.”

“The virtuous prevail,” Gaylord spoke, again and again, as though this answered Jack’s troubles. At last he clasped his head within his wing, and said, “You must practice the hewing blow, young Jack. Practice the hewing blow.”

Schuyler paused in his grooming to spit mud from his fur upon the grass. Another long lick at the back of his shoulder, cleaning away the filth and bringing it to his tongue, where the taste festered, until again he spat.

Jack practiced the hewing blow, arms raised high, striking down. Limb and shoulder and back driving the branch down into the earth with a heavy clomp of turf, sending fragments of grass pinwheeling away. Jack drew up his branch, his make-believe cudgel, and examined the muddy end, battered and loose.

It was a fine piece of driftwood. Hardly splintered at all. Large and heavy. But still it worried him, and Jack stepped across the grass to Schuyler in slow laborious steps. “You are cleaning yourself again,” he said, when close.

“Yes.” Schuyler obligingly spat mud for the youth’s education.

“You were clean before.”

Schuyler rolled his eyes at this keen insight, as though wisdom might be found within the corner of his eye, or in some slim part of the skull he might just be able to peek into if he could turn his eyes far enough. “And now I am cleaning myself again.”

“What is that behind you?” Jack asked, leaning to the side, peering past Schuyler’s back.

He leaned to one side, just as Jack did, thus blocking his sight, and smiled subtly. “What is what behind me?”

Frowning, Jack swayed from side to side, trying to see past Schuyler, but Schuyler bent and twisted with the youth, blocking his sight at every turn. At last, Jack stepped forward, and pointed to the dark and bloody gore upon the grass. “That. What is that?”

Schuyler twisted about to look, eyes widening as he did so. “Oh! That is meat. Fresh meat. Would you like some?”

“It. It smells.” Jack shielded his nose with his fine, unscarred, warm, living arm. Unscarred beyond the already healing scabs, from Schuyler’s earlier investigations, of course.

“It has been long since the meat was alive,” Schuyler agreed.

“Do you have a blade, or cleaver, then?” Jack looked away from the meat, as though food did not please him. He held up his driftwood branch, showed Schuyler the end — somewhat splintered.

“You wish to trim your weapon? Bring it back to true?”

“Yes.” Jack nodded hesitantly.

Spreading his hands and smiling, Schuyler shrugged. “Well, I have nothing but my skin and what is within it.” Helpfully, he extended his claws, each one a small sickle-blade. Helpfully, he showed his teeth, each one white and sharp. “Do you see a cleaver or blade, good Jack?”

Jack hesitated, thumbing at the end of his branch. Clearly, he did not think much of the weapon. He pointed at a collection of slender white lengths behind Schuyler’s back. White lengths Schuyler had hoped were hidden within his shadow. “What are those? They seem sharp.”

“These?” Schuyler looked back dumbly, picking up a loose bit of driftwood from the grass’s tangles. “Ah, but a small fleck, a nothing.”

“Those,” Jack repeated, bending close and pointing directly past Schuyler’s nose.

The scent of warm living mansflesh was overpowering. Thrumming with life. If not for the other mansflesh, if not for having eaten his fill of the dead mansflesh, Schuyler would have been tempted by that warmth.

Perhaps, Schuyler thought, he should not have eaten his fill of the dead mansflesh.

The white lengths of bone were sharp. Schuyler had snapped the longbone of the mansflesh arm down the middle, then torn one shard apart, so all in all, there were three pieces. He held one up for Jack’s inspection, then chewed upon the end demonstratively with a gentle cracking between his sharp teeth. “Do you not chew bones with your meat?” asked Schuyler, innocently.

Jack leaned close, inspecting the chewed end of bone. “It seems sharp.”

If anything, it was sharper than before. Schuyler knew his work well, and was skilled with his teeth.

“Ahh, but it is food, not a weapon!” Schuyler set the length of bone down with the others, and drew them into the shadow behind his back. “Your branch is far mightier, with skill and strength it will crack Toppentoes’ bones like twigs. You shall see.”

The weight of his weapon did not seem to convince Jack. He hefted it in his hand, wobbled it back and forth. At least the driftwood was solid, did not flex.

Schuyler smiled. “Why don’t you ask Gaylord to take you down to the ocean shore? There you might find a stone, and though his hands are no longer suited to fine work, he can help you bind a stone to the end of the branch.” His smile deepened, and Schuyler turned his face partly away, looking up at Jack with wide, trustworthy eyes. “Clever, clever Gaylord. He can help, and with a stone, you might crack open Toppentoes’ skull. Just think of what sweet prizes shall fall out!”

Gradually, Jack began to nod, making short swings as though convincing himself of how much better a weapon the branch would be with a stone bound to its end. “Yes, alright.”

Schuyler watched and waited until Jack had disappeared down the stream-valley with Gaylord. Then he flung away the meat, gathered his sharp spikes of bone, and returned to his work.

 

By the late evening, Jack had more questions. His questions did not worry Schuyler — “You are cleaning yourself? How did you get so muddy again?” “What is that you are holding behind your back?” “Why do you march up and down while counting your steps?”

What worried Schuyler was that the grass had begun to die. The dying leaves, bereft of light, had begun to wither and turn to ash, blowing away across the open ground. But still, the matted grass took time to decay and die, and in the half light the shadows cast by the grass and its blades made everything indistinct.

Gaylord had guessed part of Schuyler’s plan, and lifted his eyes to the darkening sky, head bowed sullenly. “The wind has changed,” said he.

Schuyler licked his thumbtip and held it up, found that it was so, and led Gaylord and young Jack to sit in another place on the rise by the stream-valley.

“Again?” Jack protested, tiredly using his cudgel as a walking stick.

“Again.”

Jack slumped down when Schuyler ceased limping and began to sit. He watched Schuyler settle, eyes narrowed a little distrustfully. Hugging his cudgel to himself, he said, “You have finished cleaning yourself, at last.”

“My work is done,” Schuyler replied.

There was nothing to say to that, and so Jack said nothing. Simply sat and wrinkled his nose at the scent of dead mansflesh, now spread across the ground.

Little Gaylord picked at his scars.

Dusty fragments of ashen grass blew away and into the sky. Blew into Schuyler’s face and made him blink, as he watched the horizon intently.

The ground trembled, and Schuyler smiled.

Gaylord looked about, alarmed, though Jack had seen nothing, was simply hunched, tired after many hours of learning to swing his branch, learning the hewing blow.

“Gaylord?”

“I felt the earth–”

Schuyler caught Gaylord’s ear between two claws, and dragged his friend close, poor Gaylord moaning and chirruping until he heard what Schuyler had to say. Had to whisper, in fact, for Jack could not know.

Gaylord trembled, as the earth had trembled, and much for the same reason. Fear of Toppentoes. “We had gained so much. Such fortune. And now this.”

“Just do as I say,” Schuyler hissed, slinking close to the ground, dragging his broken leg behind him.

Gaylord hopped up to Jack, shook his shoulder with hand and wing. “Come, come, you must stand as I stand. Run as I run. And be ready.”

“W-what?”

“The giant comes.”

Jack caught up his cudgel, standing on weary feet, face paling. “The giant?”

Poor Jack. Sweet and ignorant Jack, who knew of nothing but the giant and his quest and cudgel. Jack ran, and Gaylord bounded on foot and wing like an animal, gasping for breath.

The sky, bloody red, cooling at the approach of night, held secrets. Such secrets the sky knew, for the dark is the best place for secrets. Schuyler clung to the ground by the grass and its blades, among dark shadows of earth and sky.

First, rising up from the horizon, was a small head. Round, mansflesh. Toppentoes wore his mansflesh well. A fat and pudgy face, lit by the dying sun, and his next step drew him nearer, higher upon the horizon, and there were his narrow shoulders. Collarbones high and proud, broad. Another step, and his arms, his chest, ballooning out from beneath his shoulders.

At this Jack gasped, jaw slack in horror. Gaylord tugged at him, squealing until young Jack stumbled after.

Jack had seen and no doubt loved Schuyler and his beauty, and found Gaylord pleasing to look upon as well, but Toppentoes was not like Schuyler nor Gaylord. No. His tiny head and shoulders sat upon the mountain of flesh that was his barrel chest, thick and heavy, like bodies of oxen gathered in a sack of their own flesh and sewn together, a terrible bulging ribcage upon which dwelt a man’s head and shoulders. His arms were monstrous, twisted braids of gleaming wet muscle, tensing like a shipman’s rope to lift the broad and heavy fists at their ends, a twisted collection of knuckles and bones that cracked audibly with each flex, for Toppentoes was no artist. He simply bound flesh to flesh, cared not for where it bent.

Schuyler, especially, knew that Toppentoes cared not for where flesh was meant to bend.

Toppentoes strode on, beady eyes fixed on the bright pale thing in the evening light. Jack. One leg rose and fell, belted limbs bound to belted limbs until he rose on patchwork thighs of many limbs, and another leg rose, and fell, and another, another, bunched in twain as though thirty legs stretched out and broken might still do the job of two.

“T-Toppentoes,” Jack gasped, voice light and high in the falling night air.

The giant’s top was mansflesh. The giant’s toes were mansflesh. The giant was mansflesh, top and toes.

“I smell blood!” Toppentoes howled. “Living blood and bone! Give it to me or I will eat you, Gaylord!”

“Have him,” Gaylord wept, “have him!” Gaylord shoved Jack hard, his muscular shoulders beating at the youth’s back.

Jack fell forward on tired knees, cudgel held limp, struggling to stay upright as he watched Gaylord take to the air, wings clasping at the sky until at last Gaylord could climb up and away. Jack turned, face wide and slack in horror, and lifted the thing of driftwood and stone, as though it could do anything.

Toppentoes bore down on Jack, earth shuddering beneath the marching of many, many feet.

Marching feet. Beating upon the roads in unison. Off to war. No. Concentrate. The time for reverie was not now, Schuyler reminded himself.

“I will have your flesh, I will have your legs!” Toppentoes cried, lifting up his fists, flexing the limbs crudely stitched to his ham hock palms.

Jack, bless him, turned and ran. Small shod feet, just the two, beating at the earth and kicking away the ashen grass, leaving deep footprints in the loose soil.

Thirty feet followed, ankles bending and mashing beneath Toppentoes’ great weight, each thundering stride landing upon too few feet to carry the weight, driving heels and broken toes deep into the muddy earth as Toppentoes ran, clutching at the air, furious little piggy face madly champing at the air, the scent of mansflesh driving him to drunken abandon.

Living mansflesh was rare. Tasted like no other thing, was good to bind and stitch into the body, felt luxurious, brought nightmares and dreams. No wonder Toppentoes ran after it. No wonder he forgot to muse upon the difference between the hearty stench of dead mansflesh and the subtler odour of the living.

Toppentoes’ feet, bound into a great left leg, smashed the earth but inches in front of Schuyler’s still nose. Heel pierced earth, drove down, another heel, a foot scrabbled at the muddy earth, another came down on top of that, another stepped upon one of the feet from before, the weight drove down, down, and blood began to pump up as the mud squashed away beneath Toppentoes’ feet. The shards of bone, resting upon the bits of wood Schuyler had dug into the ground, did not squash away. They remained quite fixed beneath, and through, those many feet.

Flesh opened, blood streamed, and foot was skewered to foot as Toppentoes ran on a half step more, bones cracking as he twisted his many belted limbs up, up, as though he could land upon his foot safely.

The grass was washed away by the wind of Toppentoes’ falling body. There, beneath his many right feet, dead mansflesh fingerbones placed carefully in the earth jabbed the soft flesh. There, beneath his knee, shattered bits of skull sliced the skin.

Toppentoes screamed as he tripped and fell, and then stopped.

Jack still ran, ran and ran, even as Gaylord came down in a silence of whispering air beside Toppentoes.

Schuyler stood, clasping his leg with both hands, and began to march. A small, distant part of him remembered marching, and Schuyler — in principle — disliked it. But this was to a greater end, and the small distant part of him which knew how to march also knew how to count distance in strides.

“One, Two…You see, Gaylord, that is how far he travelled as he tripped.”

“Yes,” Gaylord replied. “I see.”

“Then Three, and Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, and Nine. Nine, less two, is seven. Seven strides high, is Toppentoes.” Each shuddering stride brought Schuyler great pain and joy as the bones in his thigh twisted and locked together. He gently scraped his toes in the earth there, at nine, beside Toppentoes’ skull.

The giant gurgled, enmeshed in the earth. But for all that sound, he was dead, as one would be with one’s skull and throat pierced thrice over.

With the grass blown away, there were only the blades. The ribs and thighbones that Schuyler had chewed sharp and stuck deep within the earth, but Toppentoes had fallen heavily, and thus dug himself a deep pit with which to find Schuyler’s work. Schuyler’s fine, prideful work.

Schuyler smiled. “And that is done.”

“It is done,” Gaylord gravely agreed.

“Well done, Jack! Well done!” Schuyler lifted his hands and applauded the speck in the distance, running for all it was worth. “A fine and mighty slayer of giants, would you not say, Gaylord?”

Gaylord obligingly lifted his hands, thumping the leather of his wings together obediently. “Well done, Jack,” he agreed.

Schuyler bent to the earth, and drew out a sharp edge of bone. He tested its sharpness against his tongue, and was glad to find the flavour of blood. “Now then. Let us find in one of Toppentoes’ many legs a replacement for that which of mine he broke,” Schuyler said, patting his thigh, where it bent.

“But what of Jack?” Gaylord asked miserably, pointing after him.

“Oh, my dear friend, we shall find him while he sleeps.”

 

When the sun rose once more to heat the sky, it found Schuyler laying upon the grass chewing upon a needle of bone. Small and sharp, it was good for picking his teeth clean, now that it was no longer required. After all, Schuyler had made every stitch he wished to make, strong knots of blonde hair holding the ragged cuts along his newly strong thigh together.

Gaylord sunned himself, spread-eagled. The wide and large distance between the spindly fingers of his left hand, above the wing, was now spanned with pale, perfect skin. The knots and stitches would heal well, and then there would be a new set of scars for him to groom away with gentle nips and chews.

“Is the day not beautiful?” Schuyler asked.

Gaylord opened his watering eyes and looked upon the iron sky he so loved at night. “I was asleep. But perhaps.” He shut his eyes contently.

“If you had listened to me, you would be able to see the day for what it is.”

Gaylord harrumphed. “I like my eyes as they are.”

Crouched on the far side of the stream-valley, as though no one could see him, was a small creature clad in a new hide of brown ox-skin. Blood seeping from every crack, he clutched his new skin to himself, having bound the ox-skin to himself with twists of cloth torn from what had once been very fine clothes indeed. He did not yet know how to sew, or make fine needles from shattered bone, but in time he would learn.

The little blue-eyed creature of ox-skin and blood stared enviously at Schuyler and Gaylord, clutching at a silly little cudgel of driftwood.

Schuyler flicked his tail contently. He would worry about tomorrow’s enemies tomorrow. It had been a favour, really. For ugly ox-skin, few would trouble Jack. Perhaps, in time, Schuyler would be thanked.

Though Gaylord would not thank him for being roused from sleep.

“Did you dream of anything?” Schuyler asked Gaylord.

Gaylord spread his wings upon the grass and drew in a deep sighing breath.

“Grass,” he said at last.

“Well, we all remember grass.”

“Grass that doesn’t turn to ash. Green grass, Schuyler. Green as nothing else. Pure, clean grass.” Little Gaylord sighed, half rolling over, stroking his slender fingers at the new mansflesh webbing of his wing. “Grass beneath a blue sky.”

Schuyler stared up at the yellow sky, sickly and dying, and ceased the pleasant flicking of his tail.

“What a strange dream,” he said.