Once upon a time there was a giant called Rab who lived in Glasgow and almost no one came to his door to kill him anymore. He had lived there since the time before legend, long before there even was a Glasgow, when giants and witches and kings and fairies and goblins fought, loved, and tricked their way across the land. It was a time when you had to live on your wits and you could only survive by being clever enough to escape from the traps and tricks that you‘ll have heard about in other fairy stories. It was a time of hotheads and feuds but luckily for him Rab was a more thoughtful person who managed to survive, more by avoiding than outwitting or fighting. So it was that he kept living in Glasgow right up to the present day.
This presented its own problems as time and the world moved on from those early, legendary days. Such as when Rab’s house was scheduled to be knocked down to build a shipyard or when the local bishop declared him a devil. Here he could not avoid the issues and had to prove his cleverness, to out-think these more modern challenges. In the instance of the bishop he helped John Knox to foment the Reformation in Scotland and so got rid of the problem. The modern world was not his definition of perfect but he was happy, living in a spacious ground floor tenement flat just off Crow Road, in the once again upcoming West End of the city. For instance, Rab could no longer go hunting over the hills or fishing in the Clyde and instead had a job in a timber yard where his fellow workers knew him as “Wee Rab” and his payslip said Robert Giant. He missed the space, but he liked the company.
Rab was sat at home one day when there was a knock on the door. He opened the door to see an older lady in a badly fitting tweed suit with steel grey hair that was fighting back vigorously against being wrapped into a bun.
“Hullo there, can I help you?“
The lady looked him up and down and then sagged against the doorjamb, a look of infinite tiredness washing across her face. “Are you the giant of Glasgow? I was expecting more and, with the way things have been going, I won’t be surprised if I’ve got the wrong place.“
Rab blinked. In his life he‘d had all sorts come to his door from monster hunting knights to raucous Glasgow Hen nights but he‘d never been spoken to in quite this way before. He almost dismissed the rudeness as due to hipster gentrification but he‘d been brought up well by his mother, the Giantess of Kintyre, and so he pushed past his annoyance. “I am Rab Giant, yes.“ After some confusing conversations with energy companies, Rab had taken to dropping the “the” and letting people assume Giant was his surname.
“Hmm, not the largest giant, are you?“
“Umm, well that‘s because humans are taller these days. I’m seven feet tall but with all that fruit they eat they’re catching me up. Back when it was only neeps and thin rabbits for their food I fair towered over people.“
A thin, tired smile came to the woman’s lips. “Well do I remember that. You can‘t get a decent rabbit stew anywhere these days, it‘s all lightly braised this and stroganoff of that on a bed of lightly chopped the other. Give me a trencher and a cup of mead any day.“
Rab looked more closely at the woman. Now he thought about it, there was something about her. He squinted against the watery brightness of a May morning and concentrated, using senses he‘d long forgotten. Slowly the real woman came into focus and glowing dimly around her frame was a faint greenish light. The mark of magic.
“Ah, that explains it. Sorry, took me a minute, it‘s been a long time since I‘ve seen a witch.“
The woman nodded, a look of sadness crossing her face. “I‘m sure it has. This world is the poorer for the lack of our kind in it. Anyway, are you going to let me in so I can kill you?“
Rab blinked again. “Umm, I beg your pardon?“
Anger flashed in her eyes. “Look, I’m dying for a sit down and a cup of tea. It’s the only thing keeping me together at the moment. Have you tried tea? Now that is something these new humans do very well. We could have a cup of tea, discuss the ground rules and then set to it. How does that sound?“
“Just to be clear, you want to come in to my house, have a cup of tea, and then kill me?“
“Yes.“ The lady looked at the incomprehension on Rab‘s face. She scowled. “Oh, good grief. You‘ve become too used to this new world and have forgotten how our arguments are settled. I threaten to kill you, you suggest a battle of wills, we set out the rules, and then we set to it. We both twist the rules as much as we can and one of us wins. The other usually dies. It‘s how it always worked back in the old days.“
Rab thought back to the hazy memories he had of his youth. Back then he lived in a cave and had to spend a lot of time stopping humans from stealing his sheep. He mostly did that by roaring at them as they wouldn‘t take a polite request to stop. Then, on the odd occasion, someone more powerful like another giant, a witch, or a goddess would turn up and throw down a challenge. At the time that seemed like a perfectly sensible way to resolve any problems but, with the benefit of hindsight from the twenty-first century, he had to admit that laws and ombudsmen worked more consistently and fairly. “Well yes, I suppose it did. But that‘s so long ago even I‘d begun to think it was all legends.“ Rab paused for a second to think. “OK, you can come in, on the promise that you‘ll not try anything until after you‘ve had your tea. I‘m more used to dealing with double glazing salesmen than deadly threats from witches these days, but I‘ll see what I can remember.“
“Good, my feet are killing me, I really do need that sit down.“ The lady picked up a large carpet bag and came through into the hall as Rab closed the door behind her.
Rab led the way down the hall to the large kitchen and pulled out a chair at the table for the lady. He set the kettle boiling and laid out the tea things. Much had changed over Rab‘s long life, much he wished had not, but tea was an invention he could really get behind. Especially once the idea of pairing it with cakes and biscuits came along. He popped open a plastic box and placed it on the table. “There‘s Hobnobs, Digestives, and some homemade fruit cake. It‘s a couple of days old but it should be fine.“
The witch gingerly removed a piece of cake, gave it a suspicious squint, and then tasted it. “Ooo, now that is nice. Didn‘t get this in my day.“
Rab plunked the teapot on a raffia mat in the centre of the table, took the milk from the fridge, and sat down opposite the witch. “It‘s been a very long time since anyone came to my door seeking my death. What‘s your story and how come it‘s taken this long?“
The witch sighed and ran a tired hand over her face. “Once upon a time, back in the time of legends, I was called Winifred and I was apprenticed as a servant girl to the Cailleach. I worked in her kitchens to start, but then was promoted to help with her washing in the Corryvrecken whirlpool. It was a good life, especially when she was at her most powerful and the storms slammed across the land, for then I was safe in her house and warm by the fire. On those cold winter nights she’d teach me her magic and I hoped to one day be more than just a serving girl. But one day I made a mistake. I’d left her clothes out on the rocks of the shore to dry after washing them in the whirlpool and fell asleep in the sun. I was getting older by then and even though I used magic to help I was always so tired. When I woke up a seagull had snapped up her warmest jumper and carried it off.
“Oh, she was furious. The wind howled and the rain battered against her house as she shouted at me. I thought she might strike me down there and then but eventually she calmed and an icy chill spread around me that no fire could warm. She stood up on her throne and cursed me to never sleep again until I had made up for my mistake by completing a task, and that task was to kill a giant.“
“Kill a giant? That‘s nothing to do with what happened, why would she say that?“
“It was just after Finn MacCool and Benandonner had been fighting. They‘d built a causeway across the sea between Ireland and Scotland to get at each other and it had changed the flow of water and weather which annoyed the Cailleach as she could not control her winter storms in the same way as before.“
“But why not say you had to kill them, why me?“
“Oh, the Cailleach was as indiscriminate and fickle as the winter storms she conjured. I did consider Finn at first but I saw his baby and he was huge, so I decided to leave Finn himself alone. I searched for a Scottish giant I could kill to end my curse but, oh, you are a wily lot. Every giant I met had some cunning ruse or riddle for me and as time went on and I got more and more tired it became all the harder to puzzle them out and I kept failing. Eventually I lost to a giant from the mountains called Donald and was trapped behind a waterfall. I couldn’t leave and I couldn’t sleep. All I could do was huddle in my cave, fed by nothing but the waterfall and watch every second of the last three thousand years pass. Days upon days of the trickle of water and never any rest.” Winifred paused and sipped at her tea, her red-rimmed eyes unfocussed, as her mind swam with memories. A small tear appeared in her eye which she blinked away as she looked up at the giant once more.
“Occasionally a shepherd or fisherman would stop outside my waterfall and I could listen to their words and try to glean what was happening outside. It was hard to follow, especially as their language changed, over and over, and eventually I stopped trying.
“Then, three months ago, I was released by someone from a clan called ‘Scottish Water‘ who was building a dam and I found myself in this new, changed world. After so long it was hard to remember my magic but I used it to teach me that I was in a place called Pitlochry and that the humans spoke something called English. Then I returned to my search for a giant to kill and the runes brought me to you.
“I’m a long way from my home or any family I once had. I need to find the glory of true sleep once more. Are you ready to fight, oh giant, so I may finally end my curse?“
Rab sat back and breathed out. “Ooft, that‘s some tale you‘ve got there and I do feel sorry for you, but let‘s not be hasty here.“
“Hasty? Hasty!“ the witch’s voice rose an octave and her cheeks flamed red. “I‘ve been under a waterfall for more than three thousand years, nothing about this is hasty.“
Rab held out his hands in a placatory manner. “Sorry, poor choice of words, but surely there must be a way to resolve this that doesn‘t lead to anyone‘s death. This is the twenty-first century, not back then when we didn‘t even have centuries, just kings and gods. Everything‘s different now.“
“Everything certainly is different. I’m shocked by how many people there are and how many buildings and machines and,“ here the witch faltered and rubbed her eyes, “and how few of us are left. I hunted high and low for Donald but could not find him anywhere. Do you know where his house used to be is now a shop? It‘s where I got these clothes from. Where he used to fish is now dammed for their electricity.“
“Aye, Donald left centuries ago. He went over to America and is now a stunt double on their comic book films. But he‘s one of the few I still know about. Most people either died due to ‘heroes‘ or weird curses like your one forcing them to kill each other. I survived by just keeping my head down and trying not to annoy anyone.“
“Is there no one left?“
“Oh, a few, but they‘ve spaced out a lot. Many went to the Americas or Australia along with the humans. There are a couple of old witches in Ireland still, think they run a pub, and the Cailleach is still there. She may once have been the all-powerful Goddess of Winter but she now runs the distillery on Jura and leaves the winter to its own devices.“ Rab paused as a thought came to him. “You could always go see her, see if she‘s forgiven you and will lift the curse.“
“What, the Cailleach? She never forgives anyone.“
“Not back then, maybe, but now she’s different. None of us kept the fire of the younger days more than the Cailleach, long after most of us had given up fighting and left that to the humans she was still calling up the winds and throwing storms around. She told me she felt duty bound to do it, that it felt like the humans expected her to. But even she got tired of it all and settled. We‘re all so much older now, seen so much and, quite frankly, it doesn‘t seem worth the effort.“
“You have visited the Cailleach? A giant and yet you live?“
“Of course. She has a business to run and killing guests is not good advertising. I took a holiday to visit the distilleries of Islay and popped over to Jura to see her. She rented me the cottage at the top of the island where you can see the whirlpool and we had a great night telling the old tales and remembering long lost friends and enemies.“ Rab sat up straighter, poured out another cup of tea and pushed the cake tin towards the witch. “Yes, that‘s what you should do and that is my challenge to you. You should go to visit the Cailleach and ask for her to lift your curse. If she does, then all is good. If she does not, then I offer my head to you at a time and place of your choosing and I won’t resist.“
The witch took another piece of fruit cake and chewed on it thoughtfully. “You‘re trying to trick me here, I‘m sure of it.“
“Why would I do that?“
“Because that’s what always happens. Every story from our time is of people being outwitted, it‘s how this works. I just can‘t see how you‘re doing it at present. Hmm, do you intend to run and hide if I leave to visit the Cailleach?“
Rab shook his head. “Absolutely not. In fact, if you want, I‘ll even come with you? I‘m due a holiday and it‘s a good time of year to go out that way.“
“Hmm, so you hope to gang up on me, goad the Cailleach into attacking me, is that it?“
“Oh good grief, no. I‘m trying to help you out here. I‘ll bet you don‘t even know where you get the ferry from. I want to make this as simple as I can for you, get that curse lifted and then we can all go our separate ways.“
“Hmm,“ the witch paused to think and took another bite. “This really is lovely cake by the way.“
Rab smiled. “Thanks, I do like making it.“
The witch finished off her cake. “No, I think I‘ll just have to fight you in the traditional way.“ She pushed her chair back and stood up, chanting ancient words under her breath that had not been heard in Glasgow for thousands of years. She closed her eyes and straightened up, holding out her arms and summoning all the power she knew to her. Shadows flowed out of the corners and swirled around her body, twisting impossibly around her torso and arms. The air crackled with power as the darkness writhed and danced. On the edge of hearing voices muttered in tongues that were ancient when the Picts fished in the Clyde. Winifred lifted her hands and swirled then in a complex pattern, drawing the shadows into a dark mass above her head. She opened her eyes, which now glowed with a sickly green tinge, and concentrated on the giant.
As this was happening Rab stumbled backwards out of his chair, the hair on the back of his neck rising and his beard doubling in volume as energies he’d long since forgotten about filled his kitchen with ominous static. Falling against the worktop he saw his smartphone (actually a small tablet, but the right size for a giant’s phone) and grabbed it. Rab tapped an app icon and the light in the centre of the ceiling blazed into life. Abruptly the shadows vanished and the room returned to mundane normality.
“What? How did you do that?“ The witch looked around her and up at the electric lightbulb in the ceiling in confusion.
“Oh, this, it‘s really quite nifty, working the lights from my phone. I thought the Internet of Things was a daft idea until one of the guys at the yard persuaded me to try it and now all the lights in the house are smart. Watch.“ Rab tapped several more icons on his phone and lights flashed on and off all across the flat.
“But, but, you‘re a giant? Where did you learn such magic?“
“Oh, right, the magic, see this is what I mean about things moving on. Calling on the powers of darkness doesn‘t work so well where there’s an electric light bulb. That‘s been known for over a hundred years. Why, no one is completely sure but it’s something to do with the brightness. Your powers could have swallowed a flaming torch and even an old 40-watt bulb, but not something with a decent bit of power behind it. It‘s not magic, it‘s human science.“
The witch subsided back into her chair, looking even more tired and rumpled. “I have been defeated again. Will I never lift this curse? Am I doomed to an eternity of this?“ A new tear formed on the corner of her eye and dripped on to her cheek.
“There, there, no need to get like that. Have some more cake and think about my offer again. Jura and Islay really are very nice this time of year.“
The witch looked up, teardrops rolling down her cheeks. “There‘s no need for you to continue your ruse, you have defeated me fair and square. The Cailleach would never talk to me.“
“Of course she would.“ Rab looked down at the device in his hands and an idea came to him. “In fact, I could prove that right now. I’ve got her number, I’ll text her.”
“You’re the strangest giant I ever did meet. None I’ve heard of were as kind as this, especially to someone who’s come to their home to kill them. At least, I think you’re being kind, not that I understand half the words you use.“
Rab stood and stretched to his full height. “That‘s probably because they all lived in low-ceilinged hovels and had constant back pain. Greatest thing I ever did was persuade Glasgow architects to build their tenement flats with such high ceilings.” Rab tapped out a message on his phone and hit send.
“There, I’ve pinged her the basics. I’m sure she’ll call back when she’s free. More tea?”
Winifred smiled a weary smile. “Thank you. I will take another cup. I’m not sure I believe you in all this but…” At this Winifred’s face suddenly slackened, her eyes drooped and she slumped forward, her head clonking on the table. Rab rushed forward and checked her. She was fast asleep.
Rab’s phone gave off a soft chime. He picked it up and read the message:
“I’d completely forgotten all about Winnie. Of course I’m not upset at her anymore and I lift her curse. Tell her to give me a call and we’ll set up a meeting.
Rab carefully lifted up Winifred and carried her through to his spare room, laying her on top of the bed. She snored quietly before curling up into a ball.
“You better not sleep for three thousand years now.” He went to put the kettle back on.