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Excerpt for Tara and the Giant Queen by , available in its entirety at Smashwords












Text Copyright ©2016 to 2018 Gita V. Reddy

All Rights Reserved

Front Cover Painting Shakuntala Bhosle

Smashwords Edition


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This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only.

This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy.

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E book ASIN: B01MXJ7F9Q , ISBN: 9780463050415

Print Edition ISBN: 978-1540575166

First Published in 2014 as Cheetaka, Queen of Giant.







Dedicated to

Late Sri Sudarshan Kumar Khanna

in remembrance of his Humor and Humanity



Table of Contents

Meet the Characters

Map

Chapter 1: A Storm

Chapter 2: Strange New World

Chapter 3: Encounter With a Lion

Chapter 4: After the Encounter

Chapter 5: In Giant Land

Chapter 6: Cheetaka's Story

Chapter 7: Trouble

Chapter 8:Aaloma's Travels

Chapter 9: Narrow Escape

Chapter 10: The Kidnapper

Chapter 11: Tara's Magic

Chapter 12: The Way to the Human World

Chapter 13: Druaka, Troublemaker

Chapter 14: Cheetaka's Magic

Chapter 15: Black Magician

Chapter 16: Kidnapped

Chapter 17: Spy at Work

Chapter 18: The Chase

Chapter 19: On Their Own

Chapter 20: Help

Chapter 21: The Young Soldier

Chapter 22: In Black Forest

Chapter 23: How the Other Group Fared

Chapter 24: Trimo's Camp

Chapter 25: Secret Hideaway

Chapter 26: Black Magician Arrives

Chapter 27: The Battle

Chapter 28: Mamahak's Villainy

Chapter 29:An End

Chapter 30-Journey to Human World

Chapter 31: Trimo and Mamahak Again

Chapter 32: The Tunnel

Chapter 33: Home

Epilogue

Meet the Characters

HUMAN BEINGS

Tara: Nine-year old girl who finds herself in Giant Land, after surviving a terrible storm


GIANTS

From the Land of the Purple Mountains

Cheetaka: Queen of the Purple Mountains Land

Montek: Queen Cheetaka’s seven year-old son

Aaloma: The oldest and wisest giant in Giant Land

Mana: The young giantess entrusted with looking after Tara and Montek

Dom and Sev: Cheetaka’s soldiers, sent to take them to a safe house.

Bheve: Soldier who helps Montek after his escape from the kidnappers

Taansh: Queen Cheetaka’s second-in-command on their mission to Black Forest

Labmar: Leader of the second group to Black Forest

Avir: Soldier in second group

Shirab: Soldier in second group


From the Land of the Yellow Mountains

Druaka: King of the Yellow Mountains Land

Trimo: Druaka’s son

Mamahak: Evil magician helping Druaka and Trimo

Muafa: Potion-crazed guard sent to create trouble in Cheetaka’s kingdom

Jorro: Trimo’s spy, sent to kidnap Tara

Ugad: Magician, sent to kidnap Tara


From the Land of the Red Mountains

Palaano: Scholar and Aaloma’s friend

Nilkan: Soldier, accompanying the king to Black Forest


Map


Chapter 1: A Storm

The ship lurched and the movement flung Tara against the door. She woke up, at first confused about what she was doing in the closet-sized cabin. When she heard her mother shouting her name, she remembered running away to sulk. And falling asleep among a clutter of odds and ends.

Tara unlocked the door. It flew into her face. The ship was caught in a storm! People were running out of cabins, spilling into the passage. Tara pushed through them, calling for her mother.

A sailor grasped her arm. “Quick, come with me! The lifeboats are over there!”

Tara wriggled free. She had to find her parents. They would know what to do.

Just then lightning struck the upper deck. More screams filled the air. Tara was swept along with the crowd. There were shouts that the ship was sinking. Tara lost her footing and slipped. Before she could scramble up, someone fell over her. The man managed to get to his feet. He was one of the crew. He lifted Tara and pushed his way towards the lifeboats.

“Get in!” he shouted, pulling out a lifeboat for two. “You too!” he yelled, calling out to a woman.

The woman refused to leave without her child. Tara didn't want to go either. The man wouldn't listen. He thrust her into the lifeboat and fastened the straps. “You must go! The ship is doomed!”

The lifeboat hit the dark angry waters with a thud. A wave hurled it up. Another overturned it. Tara spluttered and coughed. There was salt water in her mouth and nose. Luckily the boat righted. A moment later it was riding another wave. The waves were like malicious bullies with a small child’s ball; they kept it moving among themselves.

Tara gripped the sides with icy fingers. The ocean raged, the wind howled. She was drenched to the bone. After hours of being tossed, spun, dunked, she slumped forward, unconscious. When she opened her eyes, she was on a beach, the frenzy of wind and ocean gone.

Tara undid the straps with stiff fingers and got out of the lifeboat. She brushed away the gravel from her face. There was some in her mouth too. A green slimy something was stuck to her leg and dress.

Tara shaded her eyes against the bright sun. She didn't see anyone on the beach. But there had to be others. She started walking. Her legs felt rubbery and her head swam. In the distance were trees. She was weak and tired but didn't rest. If she could reach the line of trees, she would find people to help her.

What she found was a forest. If only she could get some water! Her eyes fell on a big leaf fallen on the ground. There was water in its hollow. It must be rainwater from the night's storm, she guessed, and gulped it down. She found some more leaves, all as big as bowls, holding water. They were enough to quench her thirst.

She lay down and shut her eyes. Leaves rustled in the sea breeze. And then a screech shattered the calm.

Tara jumped to her feet. The screech came again, from above. She looked up and was stunned. The tree was the biggest she had ever seen. Leaves the size of palm fronds, it was so tall it seemed to grow into the sky! The other trees were also gigantic with trunks so wide she couldn't see the whole of them.

A bright creature was hovering over a flower. It was the size of a pigeon but it didn't look like a bird. It looked like a …butterfly. It was a butterfly!

Tara went around, admiring the beauty of the forest. A creeper swayed towards her. She touched it. The next moment it trapped her in a tight coil. Only the arm she had raised remained free. She started struggling. And then the vine lifted her off her feet.

Tara screamed as the vine continued to pull her up, up, and up! A branch grazed her free arm. She grabbed it and wrapped her legs around it. The creeper tugged at her but she clung to the tree with all her strength. All of a sudden she was free. She clambered up the branch. The vine was still around her but had come loose.

A bird flew by with a length of vine hanging out of its mouth. The bird had saved her life. If it hadn't snipped off the vine, Tara wouldn't have been able to break free. And if she hadn't grabbed the branch, she would have hurtled down!

She gripped the branch and looked around. Her branch was a mere twig! The real branches were so wide she wouldn't be able to get her arms around them. The gnarled tree had grooves and its bark was rough. If she found footholds, she might manage to climb down. But when she saw how high up she was, she dismissed the thought. A false step would be like falling off a skyscraper.

With nothing to do and tired from her ordeal, Tara wedged herself into a small hollow - so that she didn't roll off - and dozed.

Loud voices woke her up. She heard laughter too. She peeked through the leaves and saw a group of men and women, all very large. One leaped up and swung from a branch. The tree shook and Tara came tumbling down! And landed on the head of a woman!

She didn't know what had cushioned her fall until the woman plucked her out of her hair and held her. The hand was as big as her school desk. She looked up at the woman and those surrounding her. They were giants.

They started passing her around. Some peered into her face. Others held her at arm's length. One giant put her on his finger and wiggled it. Tara screamed. The first giantess rescued her. She placed Tara into a makeshift basket made by twisting a leaf and tucked it into her amulet.

The rhythmic motion of the giantess's arm put Tara to sleep. She dreamt she was on the ship with her parents. They were celebrating her birthday. As she started to blow out the candles on her birthday cake, a giant appeared. He dipped a finger in the ocean and moved it in a circle. Her parents vanished and she was in a lifeboat that was spinning like crazy.

Tara jerked awake and saw a high ceiling. She wasn't in a lifeboat either. The giants had brought her to a house. She was on a giant bed.

And today was her birthday. She was nine.

“I want to spend my birthday on the Maldives and the day before the birthday on a ship,” she had told her parents a month ago. She had chosen Maldives because it was thousands of miles from home. The wish of the ship was so that they would go by sea and have a long family vacation.

Her parents were always busy with their global business empire. Their staff organized her birthday parties. They even ordered the presents. She had wanted a normal birthday. Like her friend Nina who spent the day camping or sailing with her parents.

Her birthday wish had separated her from her parents. Perhaps it had killed them.


Chapter 2: Strange New World

Tara was given a slice of fruit as big as her arm. Ravenous, she ate, not caring that juice dribbled down her chin and smeared her arms and her clothes. Her clothes were washed and dried. After a bath in a basin big enough to drown in, she was taken to a hall. A giantess sat on a throne with rows of giants facing her. She was her giantess, the one who had carried her in the leaf basket. Now she placed her on her lap.

The noise was deafening. The giants had loud voices and with so many of them talking, they sounded like rumbling thunder. Tara muffled her ears with the queen's robe. The noise changed to words! She started listening.

The giantess was Queen Cheetaka and the discussion was about her. Cheetaka and an old giant were sure she was a human being. The others were saying human beings didn't exist. “Human tales are made up for the amusement of children. Human beings are imaginary creatures.”

The old giant said, “We behold a human specimen, we aren't imagining one. What more proof do you need?”

A giant came into the hall with her lifeboat. “It was on the beach. The creature came in this tiny scrap.”

The lifeboat gave rise to more questions. “How can such a flimsy thing sail?” “How did the toy boat survive the storm?” “Did the wind bring the creature?”

And finally, “If the creature came through the storm, it isn't a human being. All stories describe humans as weak and puny.”

Tara had enough of being called a creature. “I came in the lifeboat!” she cried. When no one heard her, she tapped on the queen's arm and shouted at the top of her voice, “I came in the lifeboat!”

Cheetaka silenced the court and asked Tara to speak. Tara told her who she was. She described the storm and the sailor putting her to sea in the lifeboat. She couldn't say how the boat landed on the beach but told them about the creeper and her fall from the tree.

Amazed, the giants questioned Tara and examined the lifeboat. “How do we send the child home?” asked the old giant.

Someone suggested putting her back in the ocean. “No! Not the lifeboat! I can't go in the lifeboat!” Tara cried.

Cheetaka scooped her up. “You're safe. I will not send you in the lifeboat.” She kept telling her that in a soft voice until Tara calmed down.

“I'm sorry but I'm terrified of the ocean,” Tara said.

“You are a brave child.”

“Please, I'm not brave. I'm scared of the waves and the ocean.”

“You are brave because you held on to the lifeboat. You are brave because you grabbed the branch when the creeper was pulling you up. To be brave means to have presence of mind during danger.”

“Are you going to send me in the boat? Because I'm brave?”

“Drifting on the ocean will get you into trouble, not take you home. I want to keep you here until I know how to send you back.”

The meeting over, Cheetaka walked to her palace. Tara was on her shoulder, holding on to her robe, looking around. She was surprised that many giants were swinging from branch to branch instead of walking.

Cheetaka took her to a room. It was as big as the auditorium in Tara's school. She placed her on a bed. “Tara, you must follow some rules for your safety,” she said. “The most important one: Never walk on the floor. Always keep to tables and beds.”

Tara understood. Walking on the floor was risky. If a giant accidentally stepped on her, she would be crushed.

“Second rule: Don't jump down from a bed or table. And the third rule …”

A giant landed on the bed like a cannon ball. “She’s mine!” he said loudly, grabbing Tara. He threw her up into the air and laughed. Tara fell back on the soft bed. Shocked but unhurt, she stared at the new menace.

He made another swipe but Cheetaka clamped down her hand on his wrist. “Tara, this is Montek, my son. He’s seven. Don’t be afraid of him. He’s a good boy though he is naughty at times”

Tara realized she was looking at a boy- giant. He had Cheetaka’s features but not her coloring. Cheetaka was brown-skinned, with black hair and brown eyes. Montek had golden hair and blue eyes. He was fair.

Montek tried to free his hand from Cheetaka’s grasp and pleaded with her to give Tara to him as a pet. Cheetaka scolded him. “You can’t have her for a pet. Your games are rough; you’ll hurt her.”

“I won’t. I’ll feed her and take her out for walks. She's so beautiful. See how white her skin is! I like her black curly hair and blue eyes. She’ll be my best pet, best after Ruff.”

“Ruff will chase her and eat her up. He killed your hamster and chased away your rabbit.”

“May I just hold her? I promise I’ll be gentle.”

Montek picked up Tara and tried to tickle her under her chin. She stamped her foot and shouted, “Put me down at once!” He thrust her into the pocket on the front of his robe and raced out of the room.

Cheetaka ordered Montek to stop but he ran faster. Two giants blocked his way and one giantess tried to throw her arms around him. He gave them all the slip. He veered off corners, jumped over chairs, and squeezed through gaps too narrow for his pursuers.

Tara flopped about in his pocket. She even came close to popping out. If she fell, the giants would trample her and not even know. She would be crushed like a tiresome insect. She seized the pocket in a tight grip and bobbed like a body on springs.

Breathing hard, Montek stopped and sat down. Tara lay in a heap in his pocket, with Montek’s heart pounding like a drum in her ears. He took her out and placed her on his palm. “I’ll put you in a cage so that Ruff doesn’t eat you.”

Tara lunged at him. “You can’t put me in a cage! I’m not an animal!”

“What? What did you say?” Montek asked, bringing her close to his ear.

“I’m not an animal. You can’t put me in a cage and make me your pet. I’m a human being and I’m older than you. Take me back to your mother!”

“Human being like a fairy?”

“No. Human being like..human being. I’m the same as you but much, much smaller.”

“You said you’re bigger than me.”

“No, you’re bigger but I’m older. I’m nine, you’re seven.”

“I want to play with you.”

“We’ll be friends,” said Tara, “but you can’t keep me in a cage.”

“If I don’t keep you in a cage, Ruff may hurt you. He’s very big.”

“You can tie him up when we play, can’t you?”

“If I do, will you be my friend?”

“Yes,” said Tara, relieved to get him to agree.

Montek wanted to know everything about her. She told him about the storm, her parents, and about the giant creeper. Montek drank in every word. He could not imagine how Tara had survived so much danger. In turn, he took her to his secret place.

“This cave is my hiding place. I come here when I want to be by myself. The front is a pile of rocks and the entrance is at the back. It’s too small for an adult. Only one other giant knows about it.”

“Who?”

“Yaj, the cook’s boy. He’s my friend. He stocks the cave with cakes and cookies. Here, have some.” Montek cut a slice from the biggest cake Tara had ever seen. She took some crumbs because they were the right size for her to hold. Yet, sitting beside Montek, she felt like a squirrel nibbling on a titbit. Montek wiped his mouth after his third slice.

“Let’s go back,” he said and picked Tara up.

“Don’t put me in your pocket. I want to see the sights.”

“Should I put you on my shoulder?”

“Yes, but promise you will not run.”

Tara looked around. The houses were as tall as twenty-story buildings of her world, though they made up a single floor in Giant Land.

“Are those mountains? Why are they purple?” she asked.

“Because this is the Land of the Purple Mountains.”

“Are there other lands?”

“Of course there are! The Land of Red Mountains, Yellow Mountains, White Mountains and Blue Mountains. Didn’t you read about them in school?”

“Do you read about America, Asia, and Africa? My world is different from yours, Montek.”

When they returned, Cheetaka scolded Montek for running away with Tara. But she was also happy he and Tara had become friends.

“Keep her away from Ruff,” she warned him.

But Ruff didn't chase Tara or bark at her. He looked at her for a long moment and ignored her after that. Montek was puzzled. “He usually chases small animals.”

Tara laughed. “He’s smart,” she said. “He knows I’m not an animal, I’m a human being.”

Tara spent the rest of the day with Montek. After dinner, he took her to Cheetaka's room. A new bed stood on her bedside table. It was the same size as Tara's bed at home. Though it was comfortable, Tara tossed and turned for a long time. She kept thinking about her parents. They would be so worried. If she never saw them again, it would be her fault. When she slept, she had a nightmare about them drowning.

Cheetaka woke her up. “Did you have a bad dream?”

“My parents. It's my fault. I shouldn't have made that birthday wish!”

“You didn’t make the storm so how is it your fault? You mustn't lose hope. There's no reason to think your parents didn't survive. You must believe they are alive and one day you will all be reunited. Now sleep.”


Chapter 3: Encounter With a Lion

“We must turn back, Montek. Forests are dangerous,” Tara said.

“This isn’t a forest,” Montek said, going deeper even though the trees grew so close that it was almost dark.

“What is this if not a forest?” Tara asked because the tangle of wild creepers and huge trees looked like a forest.

“These are woods. They are not dangerous. I was in a forest once. I saw huge baboons and monkeys swinging high up in the trees. A wild boar rushed at us. I even saw a snake. It was as thick as a branch.”

Suddenly a loud roar shook the very earth. It came from beyond the trees in front of them. Tara clutched Montek’s hair and Montek stood rooted, too shocked to move.

Tara pulled his hair hard, to make him run or hide. She yelled in his ear, “Hide! Climb a tree!”

The roar came again. Montek continued to play statue. Not knowing what else to do, Tara jabbed him with her hairpin and shouted, “Climb the tree in front of you!”

Montek stumbled forward. Tara was scared he would fall. She was small and could crawl into any tiny hole and hide but the animal would kill Montek if it found him sprawled on the ground.

“Hurry,” she urged. “Hurry!”

Montek clambered up the tree but midway to the first ring of branches lost his footing and slipped. The roar came again, and it sounded louder and much closer.

“Montek! Climb!” Tara screamed.

Montek raced up the tree. In his haste, he brushed against the leaves and lower branches. Frightened she would lose her perch, Tara dropped flat on Montek’s head. Montek stopped on a wide branch and leaned back. Tremors, like vibrations from a running motor, pulsed through Tara. Montek was trembling!

The animal came into view. It was a lion, twice as big as the elephants in Tara’s world. It let out another angry roar and the shiver that went up Tara’s spine had nothing to do with Montek.

“Oh no! Not a lion! What shall I do?” Montek panted and roughly pushed his fingers through his hair. He did this whenever he was upset or excited. Usually, he was careful with Tara on his head but now, in his terror, he forgot about her. Tara didn’t have a chance. She went flying through the air and landed beside the roaring lion.

Tara didn’t wait to see what the lion would do. Keeping as close to the ground as possible, she crawled away and hid under a creeper. Sweat broke out on her face. Her heart raced, she went from hot to cold in a second.

The lion walked on three paws. He swayed and stopped in front of Tara. With his left paw raised, he dropped down and rolled onto his side. He stretched his left paw. “Oh, the poor creature!” Tara murmured.

A big thorn poked out of the bleeding footpad. The lion roared again, tossing his head. He was hurting. Tara loved animals. Most of her pets were rescues. One dog came with a torn ear and healed under her care. But this was a lion, a giant lion. A touch of his tail, a nudge of his paw would crush her.

A dangerous, foolish plan came to Tara. The creeper shielding her was no ordinary plant. Montek had told her about it. Its thin vines were used for weaving ropes. They were so strong that one needed a knife to cut through them.

Tara looked at the lion. His eyes were shut. He seemed to be in great pain. Tara took one end of the vine. Shielding herself with a leaf, she crept to the lion’s paw, close to the thorn, and with shaking hands, tied the vine to its jagged edge. The paw twitched. Tara dashed back to her hiding place and pulled the creeper. She gripped the vine with both hands and heaved. Her third attempt jerked out the thorn! Amazed and thrilled, Tara peeped out to view her handiwork. Her heart jumped as huge golden-yellow eyes stared back at her.

The lion lumbered up. A wound gaped in his side. He took a step in her direction. Tara scrambled deeper into the tall grass. A boulder blocked her path. She darted behind it and watched through the grass. An arrow sliced the air above her and struck the lion. It dropped to the ground!

Tara heard voices. The killers were coming towards her. She burrowed deeper into the undergrowth. A rabbit popped out of its hole, startling her. It was as big as a sheepdog. They stared at each other. The rabbit was the first to move. “Lucky it showed itself,” Tara thought, “I would have fallen into the rabbit hole.”

The hunters stopped beside the fallen beast. She could only see their feet from her hiding place, and hear them talking to one another. Another sound came. It was the welcome sound of the queen’s guards signaling.

All guards carried a small, silver horn, designed to send coded signals. The musical signals consisted of trills and bars, and the clear notes carried far. Whenever a guard heard a signal, he replied to it if it was meant for him. If it wasn't, he repeated it. This way messages spread to the farthest guard in no time.

The hunters also heard the signal. The ground thundered as they took to their heels. Tara came out of her hiding place. With the queen’s guards coming, they were safe.

“Tara!” It was Montek peering through the leaves. “Hide! Hide quickly,” he hissed and disappeared.

Tara rushed back to her hiding place. She didn’t understand why they were hiding from the queen’s guards. She hoped Montek had a good reason because the giant-ants in the grass were investigating her presence.

The guards arrived. Tara muffled her ears, to listen better. “The lion is drugged,” said one guard. “He was shot with a medicine dart. He also has a wound on his side. We have to move him for treatment.”

“Look at the footprints. At least three giants did this. And they went north,” the other guard said.

The first guard sent a signal. A series of long and short notes answered him. “The animal doctor and four guards will be here in ten minutes. Let’s go!” he said.

As soon as the guards left, a loud rustling from Montek’s tree told Tara he was climbing down. Tara emerged from her rough and scratchy spot. Montek was in such a hurry he took a tumble and scraped his elbow and knee. He picked himself up immediately, thrust Tara into his pocket, and ran.

“Wait,” cried Tara, “I want to see the lion!”

But her words were lost in Montek’s pocket.



Chapter 4: After the Encounter

Tara huddled with her knees close to her chest and grabbed a bit of Montek’s robe. This was the safest position when Montek was running. He stopped only at the palace entrance.

“What was all that running about? Why did you hide from your own guards?” Tara demanded.

“Shh. Wait!” whispered Montek, sounding scared. He quickly made his way to his room. After putting Tara down on the table, he dropped into a chair.

“Why did you run?” Tara asked again.

“Because of the guards! They would have told my mother I was in the woods.”

“That's a forest. Are you crazy to go walking alone in a forest where you have lions moving about? Lions! What could be wilder than a lion?”

“Those are woods. I told you I once went to a real forest. Mother took me with her. She told me the forest starts on the other side of the river and spreads over the mountain. Animals have enough food and water on the mountain and don’t cross the river.”

“Montek, we saw a lion in your woods today,” Tara pointed out.

“I don’t know how it got there. Those are just woods! Yaj and I often go there to watch birds and look for nests. We see rabbits sometimes but no other animal.”

“If those are just woods, why did your mother forbid you to go?”

“She doesn’t want me to go anywhere on my own. She says I’m too young.”

Tara believed him. Her parents were also like that. “Where did the lion come from?” she wondered aloud.

“Those giants had something to do with it. They were following the lion. They shot him with a dart and made him unconscious. They also ran away from the guards.”

“Who were they? Did you have a good look at them?”

“I couldn't see them that well. But they were from the Land of the Yellow Mountains.”

“How did you know? Were they yellow?”

“Are we purple? Of course they were not yellow!”

“Were they wearing yellow clothes?” Tara asked again.

“I could hear them. They mentioned returning to Timbra. Timbra is in the Yellow Mountains Kingdom.”

“Why were they after the lion? Are there no lions in their kingdom?” Tara asked.

Montek didn't answer. Instead, he gazed at her with a peculiar look on his face.

“What's wrong? Do I have a smudge somewhere?” Tara asked.

Montek shook his head. “You are tiny but you are very brave. When I heard that loud roar, I was terrified. I couldn’t think or move. You made me climb the tree.”

Tara didn't answer. “You look weird. Are you going to cry?” Montek asked, peering into her face.

“I don't know whether I'm brave. Maybe the storm and losing my parents and my world did this to me. I used to be scared of even a tiny mouse. One afternoon, I went into the kitchen for fresh cookies. My parents were away and the help was busy on the terrace, airing linen. A mouse scurried across the kitchen floor. I jumped up on a chair. Though the mouse didn't reappear, I stood on the chair for an hour. But today I pulled out a thorn from a giant lion’s paw.”

“Whatever happened to you is good, isn’t it? It made you brave,” Montek asked, struggling to understand.

“No! How can losing my parents be a good thing? How would you like it if it happened to you?” Tara asked, and for the first time since the storm, burst into tears.

Montek wasn’t brave about facing tears either. He rushed to bring his mother. Cheetaka held Tara against her massive shoulder and patted her with a gentle finger. She gave her warm milk laced with honey and tucked her up.

Tara slept through the night. When she woke up, Montek was sitting beside her. “Mother said I mustn't trouble you. She said I should first ask if you want to play. Do you want to play?”

“I do. Shall we go to the forest again?” Tara teased.

Montek didn't smile. “You mustn't mention the forest.”


***

After breakfast, Montek and Tara went to the garden. Tara watched as Montek played with a ball.

“Did the guards catch the giants who shot the lion?” she asked after some time.

“They escaped. The guards are still looking.”

“You must tell your mother about what you overheard.”

Montek was shocked. “How can I? I'll have to tell her about going alone to the woods!”

“Montek, it's not about you. You told me your mother protects all living things. She has banned hunting. Those giants were breaking the law. They drove the lion from the forest into the woods. They wounded it, and drugged it.”

Montek stuck out his lip. “I told you I'll get into trouble if Mother comes to know!”

“Tell her you've learned your lesson. Apologize. This is important, Montek. You have a duty to the kingdom and to the queen.”

Montek stopped bouncing the ball. With his mouth open and his eyes bulging, he looked like a hooked fish.

“What's wrong?” Tara asked.

“You. You talk like my mother. She's always telling me about duty to the kingdom. To the queen. You even looked like her! Were you training to become a queen in your world?”

“Whatever. Are we going to your mother now?”


***

Cheetaka looked grave as she listened. Montek mumbled, “Sorry Mother. I won't go there again.”

“I know you won't. And Tara, you put your life at risk to help the lion. That was brave.”

Mother, Tara made me come and tell you everything. She said it was my duty.”

“Your new friend is brave and honest, Montek.”

Uncomfortable with the praise, Tara asked, “How is the lion? Is he recovering?”

“You can see him if you want. We'll keep him until his wound heals and then release him into the forest.”

Cheetaka sent for a guard who took Montek and Tara to the lion's enclosure. Though he was resting, he still looked fearsome. “I can't believe you went near it,” Montek said.

“I can't either,” Tara replied.




Chapter 5: In Giant Land

At first, Tara and Montek often squabbled. Montek said Tara was bossy and Tara said it was Montek who was stubborn. He always wanted to have his own way. But within days they were fast friends. They devised games they could play together and talked about their worlds.

Montek went to a regular school. Cheetaka thought it would show him 'where he stood'. As he stood close to the bottom of his class, she engaged a tutor.

“You'll like Tish Sir,” Montek told Tara.

“I like his name. It's funny.”

You do? I call him that because he keeps saying tish. His name is Drahnav.”

“Why does he say tish? What does it mean?”

Montek started laughing. “It doesn't mean anything. That's why it's funny!”

Drahnav wanted to know everything about the 'alien's world'. He asked Tara about inventions and discoveries. It didn't matter she was only nine. She was of an alien species and must satisfy his curiosity, which was of giant proportions.

Montek often imitated him. “Are you real?” “How many of you are out there?” “Please tell me about your civilization.”

Tara made up silly replies which set them off laughing.

When Montek was at school, Mana kept Tara engaged. She was a shy young giantess. She showed Tara how to select leaves from the garden and twist them into baskets of different shapes, and use them as flower holders. She pulled out Montek's picture books. Tara tried telling her she was too old for them but Mana seemed to think she wasn’t because she was little. The books were about mountains, waterfalls, and volcanoes. Tara saw pictures of beasts attacking lions. Some looked like the pre-historic animals in her books at home.

She got used to living among the giants. She wore earplugs and a scarf so that their booming voices didn't give her a headache.

The giants wore long tunics with pleated robes or short coats and baggy trousers. Tara liked wearing a tunic and robe but kept tripping over the hemline. After she described her usual clothes, the dressmaker made a heap of frocks, shirts, skirts, and pants for her. She called them Doll's Clothes and told Tara she had started a new fashion!

The giants had low foreheads and long earlobes. Their arms were long. In all other respects, they looked like human beings. Some were white, some brown- skinned; others were chocolate-hued or black. Their hair was black, golden, red, or brown and their eyes were different colored, like those of human beings.

Cheetaka was beautiful. Her skin was light brown and her hair was long and black. She had large almond-shaped eyes the color of warm chocolate with gold flecks in them.

Cheetaka didn't wear gold and diamonds, or a crown. Her ornaments were similar to what other giantesses used. A long silver necklace studded with polished stone, carved silver bracelets, silver hoops, and a heavy silver brooch on her robe. She gifted Tara a necklace too.

The giants were pleasant and kind. Tara wasn't afraid of them at all. They made her laugh when they swung her up high. She often asked Montek to take her to one of the upstairs windows which faced the garden. From there, she watched the giants at work. Only it did not look like work.

They laughed and joked and backslapped each other. One giant often did a slow jig as he sprayed the plants and another, in the middle of his work, stretched himself down under a tree.

“Why doesn’t anyone make them work?” Tara asked.

Montek looked puzzled. “How does one do that? By holding the hand?”

“I don’t mean that! Look at that giant under the tree. He’s not working.”

“He's the Garden Artist. He designed the garden. He thinks best when he lies down.”

“Some are wasting time singing and even dancing.”

“How is that a waste of time?” Montek asked.

Tara discovered all giants were like that. They combined work with play and derived fun out of it. They were never serious. If a gardener saw her at a window, he stopped to wave or turn cartwheels. They were keen on hobbies. The first time she saw a giant with knitting needles, she was amazed. Men did not knit in her world. In Giant Land, it was not uncommon for giants to embroider or knit. Everyone did whatever made them happy.

The strangest thing about the giants was the way they moved. If there were trees around, they swung from branch to branch like apes. Perhaps it was their longer arms that made it possible. Tara never tired of watching them take flying leaps or somersault.

Montek kept telling Tara about a giant called Aaloma. He was Cheetaka's advisor. He had also served Montek's grandfather and great-grandfather. “You will love him. He is very old. I think he is the oldest giant alive. He is away now. You will meet him as soon as he returns.”

Tara could picture him. Old and wrinkled, bent with age, Aaloma would walk with shuffling steps. She hoped he had a few teeth left. Once, at a birthday party, she was seated beside her friend’s great-grandmother who had no teeth. Tara couldn’t follow her at all. If Aaloma had no teeth, his wisdom would come out as gusts of wind and she wouldn’t understand anything.

One afternoon, when Montek was with his tutor, Aaloma arrived. Montek ran into his arms. Drahnav hurriedly rose to pull out a chair but tripped and fell. Aaloma helped him up.

Montek led Aaloma to his study table. “Aaloma, meet my friend, Tara.”

“I'm pleased to meet you, Tara. I hope you are happy in our land,” Aaloma said, squatting down. He also pitched his voice low. Very few giants did. Drahnav was so loud the earplugs Tara used were of little help.

“I am, sir,” Tara answered.

Aaloma was old. His skin had fine wrinkles and his hair, including his long flowing beard, was white. But he was tall and erect. His silver-grey eyes were bright. He was strong too; he had helped Drahnav up with one hand.

And he had all his teeth.


Chapter 6: Cheetaka’s Story

Tara woke up in the middle of the night to whispers. “The danger increases,” a voice hissed outside her window.

“We must be more careful. How many have crossed over?”

“Enough to give us information.”

After that Tara could only hear snatches. They mentioned Cheetaka and something about guards and an escape. When the voices stopped, Tara climbed out of bed and walked to the edge of the table. “Montek!” she called.

Montek was asleep in his bed. After the first week, Tara's bed had been moved to a table in his room. He slept only a few giant-steps but Tara couldn't reach him. Jumping down from a fifteen feet high table was unthinkable.

In the morning, Tara told Montek about the nocturnal whispers. At first, he didn't believe her. He thought she was pulling a prank. But when she insisted it was true, he looked serious. “What should we do?” he asked.

“Tell your mother, of course.”

Cheetaka wasn't in the palace so they went to Aaloma. After listening to Tara, he asked, “You heard them clearly?”

“I have trouble following loud booming voices. Those giants were whispering so it was easy for me to understand.”

“Who were they?” Montek asked.

“You don't have to worry, Montek.”

“Aaloma, you must tell us. Is it something to do with the lion in the forest?” Tara asked.

“You are astute, child. The incident of the lion was the first. A week later, a leopard was found in a house. Five days ago a tiger was sighted in a street.”

“Why are wild animals coming into the city?” Montek asked.

“They aren't. They are being drugged and left to wander.”

“We saw that in the forest! But why, Aaloma?”

“It's a plot against the good queen. Someone is behind all this. He is the one spreading the rumor that animals are spilling out of the forest because their number has increased. Our giants are worried. They fear animals will enter their houses and maul their children. They have started to question whether the queen is right about not allowing hunting.”

“That's not true!” Montek cried, looking upset.

“Our guards will soon put a stop to it,” Aaloma said. “And now, is that why you came looking for me? I thought you wanted a story.”

“A story? Now?” Montek asked, all worry forgotten. He usually went to Aaloma for a story after dinner. Aaloma had his own rooms in the palace. His stories were about his travels. He had scaled mountains, dived into oceans, and even seen a volcano erupt. He had also read a number of books.

“Aaloma, I want you to tell Tara about the inscription in the palace. She keeps asking me.”

“What did he tell you?” Aaloma asked Tara, his eyes twinkling.

“Only the words – With Strength Comes Responsibility.”

“What do you know about the queen?”

“I know she is kind. And that everyone in the palace loves and respects her.”

“Cheetaka was not born a princess. Her parents died young. An aunt brought her up. Cheetaka had a thirst for knowledge. For skill. If there was a lesson about a herb, she read all about it and even looked for it. When giants her age were happy if they did nine somersaults, she was doing nine. She trained for archery, for swimming, and also other disciplines.

“An annual contest, The Great Contest, is open to giants who are between eighteen and twenty-five years of age. Giants come from all kingdoms to take part. Even kings send their sons and daughters. The contest is a test of mental and physical strength. All contestants are treated equally. There is no distinction between male and female giants either.

“Cheetaka was my student. I wanted her to take part in all the events because she had a talent for every sport. She had also mastered all branches of academics. She agreed and devised a system of her own. It helped her simultaneously prepare for all the events. For six years she practiced. Nothing could stop her. She injured herself, she did not get enough sleep, but she continued to strive to attain the impossible.

“Because she trained in isolation, no one knew who she was. Her first win, in the very first event, came as a surprise. By her third win, the crowd knew they were watching a phenomenal giantess. Giants of all kingdoms chanted her name and cheered her. At the young age of twenty, she became a legend by winning thirty-two out of thirty-five events in the Great Contest.”

Aaloma paused to ask Montek, “Do you want to tell Tara what happened next?”

“Yes!” Montek said, and a happy smile shone on his face. “The Prince of the Purple Mountains Kingdom, who had blue eyes and golden hair, was in the royal pavilion with his parents. Three years ago, he had won five events in the contest. He was very strong, wasn’t he, Aaloma?”

“He was strong and intelligent, good and kind, and handsome,” Aaloma replied, ruffling Montek’s hair.

“After the king gave away the prizes to my mother, the prince said, ‘Cheetaka, you are the queen of giants because you have won all our hearts. Will you stoop to marry me, an ordinary prince?’ “

“He proposed from the dais!”

“Actually, he proposed six months ago but Mother wanted to wait until the contest.”

“What did your mother do? Did she accept?”

Aaloma took over. “They were married a month later. Cheetaka and her prince were happy. Their joy knew no bounds when they were blessed with a son. They named him Montek. When Montek was two months old, the prince and his parents went to the Land of the Red Mountains, on a state visit. An earthquake, followed by volcanic eruptions, destroyed the city and killed hundreds of giants. Among them were the king, queen, and prince.

“Cheetaka lost her family but she put aside her grief. She took an oath that those living under her rule would be as dear to her as the family she had lost. She had the words 'With Strength Comes Responsibility' inscribed in the palace and on her throne. A ruler is always the strongest giant in a kingdom. The words were meant to remind her not to misuse that strength but to use it to protect the weak.

“I have seen many rulers but none as great as Cheetaka, Queen of the Land of the Purple Mountains.”


Chapter 7: Trouble

The Land of the Purple Mountains was the biggest kingdom in Giant Land. It was shaped like a pear. The Land of the Blue Mountains lay to its north. The Land of the Red Mountains was to its west and south. The Land of the Yellow Mountains was also to its south but shared only a small stretch of the border. The eastern border was made up of the Great Waterfalls. Giants believed that the waterfalls marked the end of the world.

King Druaka of the Land of Yellow Mountains liked to stir up trouble. Years ago he had tried to stop Cheetaka from becoming queen. In a meeting of kings he had said, “For six centuries our land has been safe from war and strife. If a foolish young woman is left to take care of the biggest kingdom, we can expect turmoil. She is not even of royal descent! How will she rule? The kingdom must come under the Council of Kings or be split between neighboring kings.”

The other kings were stunned. They were attending a meeting to mourn the passing of the royal family members in the earthquake. It was a solemn occasion. If they said anything, Druaka would create a scene. He was short-tempered and unreasonable.

When Aaloma walked to the center of the hall, they were relieved. He was wise and would know what to do. But Aaloma agreed with Druaka! He said, “A young inexperienced giantess, one who has a baby to look after and who is grieving for her family can find the task difficult.”

Gasps of shock and outrage met his words. Only Druaka smiled.

“But, “Aaloma paused, staring at Druaka, “Cheetaka is no ordinary giant. She has proved that she is stronger in mind and body than anyone else. The giants of the Purple Mountains Land will be safe under her rule. She has taken an oath that they will be as dear to her as her family. I have never seen anyone like her.”

His words gave the other kings an opening. They started praising Cheetaka and agreeing with Aaloma. Not finding any support, Druaka left in a huff.


***

Once again, it looked like Druaka was creating trouble. In addition to rumors about wild animals, giants were hearing tales about their queen. That she was ill and dying. Or that her ministers were plotting to kill her.

“We have to put a stop to all this, Aaloma,” Cheetaka said, worry creasing her forehead. “A young mother came to me with her baby. She wanted to leave him in the palace, safe from wild animals. But she didn’t want to part with her child either. Her condition was pathetic. It doesn’t help we have guards everywhere. They can’t fight the rumors. What we need is to nab the culprits and make them confess.”

“That's why you must let me visit the other kingdoms. I have friends who are in the habit of keeping their ears open.”

Cheetaka knew Aaloma was right. But she was worried. Druaka was a treacherous giant. And he hated Aaloma. “Will you take some guards with you? They will be disguised as attendants.”

“You will have me travel like an old and feeble giant?” Aaloma asked but when he saw the worry in Cheetaka's eyes, he agreed.

“Aaloma, you must also try to find out if there is a way into the Human World. Tara is becoming homesick. She also worries about her parents. It has been three months, after all.”

“What if her parents are dead?” Aaloma asked.

“Even then. Her place is in her world. She's a child now, happy to pass her time with Montek. Her needs will change.”

“When I was a child, I read plenty of stories about little people. Some were about dwarfs but most were about human beings; small, weak creatures but intelligent. They knew how to wriggle out of difficult situations. They tamed dragons. Made vehicles. I loved them. They were my heroes. My friends liked super-strong giants but I admired clever humans.”

Cheetaka nodded. “I did too. The stories were based on logic.”

“As a young giant, I was interested in history, philosophy, and mythology. Ancient texts spoke about human beings as real. They mentioned giants visiting their world. Human beings seldom came to our world because they weren't strong enough to travel this far. They were also afraid of giants. But there was one human being, a magician, who was friends with a giant, also a magician. He used his magic to visit.”

Cheetaka was surprised. Magic was illegal in Giant Land. “When was this?” she asked.

“Eight centuries ago. Magic was a reputed science then. It became a feared thing after Natasaksh and other evil magicians misused it. Six centuries ago magic was banned. Books on magic, magic potions, magic sticks, and all other magic tools were destroyed.”

“Did magic continue in the human world?” Cheetaka asked.

“Nobody knows. Earthquakes and a volcano almost destroyed Giant Land. The way to the human world disappeared. Everyone believed that the human world had also disappeared. With the passage of time, giants stopped believing human beings had ever existed. They became folklore. Now we have Tara. We know their world exists.”

“Try your best, Aaloma. If anyone can find a way to help Tara, it is you.”





Chapter 8: Aaloma’s Travels

Aaloma first went north to the Land of the Blue Mountains. He spent two days with the king. Everything looked peaceful but Aaloma sensed some unrest. The king confirmed it. “Something is wrong. My giants have become quarrelsome. They don’t seem to trust one another.”

He narrated two incidents. In one town, bows and arrows kept in the school equipment room were vandalized. Everyone blamed one boy-giant. They claimed a visitor to the school had witnessed the mischief. The boy insisted he was innocent. The resulting quarrel, in which some parents also joined in, left five injured.

In another town, a shop was burgled. Everyone was shocked and upset because there had never been a burglary before. The next day, the shopkeeper received an unsigned letter accusing one giant of the crime. The shopkeeper called in the guards who arrested the giant. The giant said he was innocent. A day later it was proved he hadn't been in town. He was released. Strangely, the stolen goods reappeared in the shop.

The giant called the shopkeeper a liar. It was a frame-up, he said, there never had been a burglary. The shopkeeper said the giant had replaced the articles, out of fear. With the other giants taking sides, the quarrel grew and divided the town.

Giants were losing their free, open manner. They were suspicious. They were also frightened; it was rumored that a killer lurked in dark corners, stabbing unwary giants. The king suspected Druaka. He said, “The number of giants visiting from the Yellow Mountains Kingdom has increased. Our guards haven't been able to find out why.”

Every kingdom Aaloma visited was witnessing a spurt of petty quarrels and violence which was unlike anything in the past.


***

Aaloma had unexpected luck in his search for a way to the human world. His friend Palaano had bought some books from a used books store. Among them was a journal. “I was stunned when I read it. I thought it was a hoax,” he told Aaloma.

Aaloma slowly turned the brittle pages. “What do you think now?”

“It's genuine.”

Aaloma stared. Palaano was a respected scholar. He also collected old books and artefacts. Aaloma had never questioned his word but now he did. “How is that possible? The journal describes a journey to the human world!”

“I’ll show you the other books that came with the journal. There is no doubt that a giant attempted the journey. His name was Wayron. He discovered the worlds are connected by a passage through a mountain range. He went as far as he could before it became too narrow for him. He heard waterfalls ahead. He was a zoologist among other things. His study of fishes along the route made him conclude that the human world lay on the other side of the waterfall.”

Palaano brought out the other books. They were about preparation for the expedition. Everything was listed: the names of the giants in the team, the provisions, the stops, and studies of flora and fauna. “It is a miracle Wayron’s books survived. He died broken-hearted because no one believed him,” he said.

“Wayron’s expedition was three centuries ago. Let us hope the passage hasn’t been destroyed by earthquakes.”

“I wish the books help Tara return home. If I could travel, I would make the journey to see her. Alas! I no longer walk, leave alone somersault or leap! But you, dear friend, continue to travel. You say you are bound for the Yellow Mountains Land next. Is it wise?”

“I must. The kings agree that Druaka is up to something.”

“He and his son, Trimo. Trimo is worse than his father. Druaka is harsh but his son is brutal. Many scholars have left the kingdom. Those who have tried to speak to Druaka have been punished. Druaka believes his son is high spirited and destined for great things.”

“I've heard something else,” Aaloma prompted.

“About a magician? I've heard that too. A magician by the name Mamahak lives in the palace and teaches Trimo magic. They are inseparable.”

“How is that? Has Druaka made magic legal?”

“He may propose it soon. He told someone if Queen Cheetaka could ban hunting in her kingdom, he had every right to make magic legal. A king was empowered to frame laws for his people.”

“Of course kings can frame laws for their people. But they can’t break an ancient law. The ancient law bans magic. Druaka knows this. He will raise the issue of making magic legal only to create trouble. Giants everywhere feel strongly about magic.”

“Why is Druaka set against your queen?” Palaano asked.

“It’s the old conflict between Good and Evil. Good ignores Evil or tried to make it change its ways. But Evil always hates Good because Good gives it no peace of mind.”

“Is that the only reason?”

“That’s the real reason but Druaka has found other reasons. He is still incensed that an ordinary young woman defeated his son in the Great Contest. It angers him that a queen who is not of royal descent is respected by all the other kings.”

“You must be careful. Druaka knows you stand behind the queen. He might harm you.”

Aaloma drew himself to his majestic height. “I stand in front of Queen Cheetaka. If a blow should fall, I would want to take it,” he said.


***

On his arrival, Aaloma sent word to King Druaka. His messenger returned with an invitation for the evening. “The king will see you on the terrace,” he said.

Druaka was seated under an orange and gold canopy. He waved Aaloma into a chair. Aaloma ignored the discourtesy. He knew it was meant to provoke him.

“Aaloma, Wisest among Giants, will you tell me how to turn my mountains into gold?” Druaka asked, pointing a pudgy finger at the mountain range that blazed like molten gold in the light of the setting sun.

“I don't know how that can be done, King.”

Aaloma sneered. “Find out from your precious queen! She acts as if she knows everything.”

A scream tore through the peaceful evening. Shouts followed. Someone cursed loudly. The scream turned into a wail. Druaka stood up. “You will want to see this,” he said.

The scene below was shocking. On a platform stood a frail and unkempt giant. He was in chains. His robes were dirty and torn to ribbons, exposing the welts on his back, arms, and legs. The wailing came from a grey-haired giantess. A small group of scared giants was huddled around her. Behind them stood three archers.

Druaka pointed to the row of seats in front of the platform. “You know Prince Trimo. The one to his right is Mamahak. The others are Trimo's particular friends. Trimo has a loyal following.”

Two beefy giants walked up to the prisoner. The giantess screamed as they used their whips. Trimo shouted approval and his cronies cheered. The giantess broke from the group and rushed towards Trimo, begging him to pardon her husband but was pushed away by guards.

Druaka clapped his hands and the whipping stopped. The hapless prisoner stumbled to the ground. “Prince Trimo, what is the offense?” he asked.

“Foolishness. He wanted to move to the Land of the Purple Mountains. The foolish giant believed life would be good under Cheetaka. The whipping will cure him and others of such folly.”

Trimo signaled for the whipping to continue. Druaka stopped him. “Wait, dear Trimo! You haven't greeted our honorable guest, Aaloma. He is pleased with the entertainment you are providing us.”

Shocked faces swiveled up. Even the prisoner lifted his eyes; he looked bewildered.

Druaka dropped his voice so that only Aaloma could hear him. “You are trapped. If you try to stop Trimo, the archers will shoot you dead. I'll punish them for your 'accidental death' and escape all blame.”

“And if I remain silent?”

“Word will spread that you are a fraud. Giants will believe whatever rumors we spread about you, and about Cheetaka. Rumors are powerful. If truth is a sharp blade, rumors are poisonous fumes.”


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