On the first day, a disturbance was heard from Gårdstad. So great was the commotion, it reached all the way to the Edgren farm, far off the rocky path that led out of the village to less-remote settlements.

"Did you hear that?" Salma asked, pausing as she spread grain for the chickens.

"Hear what?" her father grunted as he searched in the shed for his wood axe. The farm gate had been unable to fulfill its duties for some time and needed fixing. "Hear what?" he asked again.

"Listen!" Salma said, perhaps a little too sharply. Her tone gave the old man cause to cease his rummaging, and it came again on the breeze. A faint roar. Celebratory, but with a hint of malice that worried Salma. "What do you think it is?"

"No good," her father said. "Aye, trouble, probably." He spat on the ground. The people of Gårdstad were not inclined to trust in hope. So completely removed from settled areas as it was, the inhabitants had fostered a deep sense of suspicion. Left with no neighbors or passing travellers to blame for their woes, they turned on themselves, and the village was rife with gossip, rumours and much shaking of heads. They knew so little of the world at large - its customs, peoples and events - that the rare visitor was convinced they were a backwards, small-minded people. One might be astonished that they had managed to exist in this harsh region for so long without civilizing education and spiritual leaders, but their characteristic suspicion ensured one thing above all: survival.

Salma's father reached under an ancient shelf and pulled out his wood axe.

"Come with me."

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"They've caught a varl!" the children screamed excitedly, running around with inexhaustible energy. "A giant! He's huge!"

Salma looked over to her father, whose normally stony face was shaken. She had heard of varl, of course, but they were creatures of myth. Fairy stories. She still remembered her mother warning that the varl would get her if she didn't get home before dark. He'd eat her with his foul bread, leaving only her little fingers. "Why does he leave the fingers?" she'd ask, her heart racing. "He ties children's finger bones together," her mother said ominously, "and hangs them from his monstrous horns. The last sound many a little girl heard was the rattling of dead children's bones!" Salma had squealed with terror, and on more than one occasion had to be calmed by her parents after hearing strange noises outside the house at night.

But those were just tales told by adults to scare children into behaving. Salma had been out after dark hundreds of times after her mother had passed, and she was yet to see a Varl.

"Where is the man they caught?" her father asked one of the crowd as they hurried past.

"No man," the woman said, not stopping. "It's a varl. He's chained up in the village square."

Salma and her father followed the crowd.

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A cacophony of yells, cheers and hooting surrounded Salma as she jostled her way through the throng of people. It seemed as if the entire village had come to this tiny patch of ground in the centre of the village to watch.

"Kill it!" one person bellowed. "It'll get loose and murder us all!"

"Hang its skull from the hall!" shouted another to a loud chorus of agreement.

Salma couldn't see a thing. Frustrated, she broke away, ignoring her father's cries, and pushed toward the village well at the edge of the square. She climbed the old stones, pulled herself on top of the wooden shelter, and there he sat.

Surrounded by the vicious crowd, the varl sat tied to a gigantic wooden post. Several thick ropes were bound around his wrists and looped around the post, giving him some freedom to move, but not enough to break free. Signs of a struggle were visible, but the post was once the foundation of the old great hall, and not even a giant could uproot it. He was a curious sight, with his coarse, unwashed beard, his ugly face, and his massive curved horns. He was silent, and stared upward toward the sky, ignoring the baying crowd. Defiance came easily to him.

Salma was astonished to see this fairy tale come to life, and yet... yet, it was somehow disappointing. She had imagined the varl as truly terrifying to behold, and while this one was certainly intimidating, he didn't look very much like the pictures in the story book she'd seen as a child. His tongue was not forked, he didn't breathe fire, and most of all, he didn't have the finger bones of unfortunate children cascading from his horns.

Seized by a sudden notion, she leaped down from the well and grabbed the communal jug that lay there. She filled it with water and darted among the crowd until she reached the prisoner. He was much more frightening up close, but Salma gingerly placed the jug within reaching distance and quickly backed away. The varl didn't look at her, nor did he look at the jug of water. He simply stared upwards.

"Salma!" her father shouted, grabbing her roughly by the shoulders and steering her out of the square. "Why did you do that?!"

"I don't know," she said, trembling. "I wanted to see if they drank water like us."

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On the second day, Salma's thoughts were consumed with the figure chained to the post. She absently did her chores, the hundreds of little things that required daily attention to keep the farm running, while her mind raced with questions. She asked her father if they would be visiting the village today, and was met with a brusque refusal. There was, after all, nothing they needed.

But she wanted to see the varl again, and there was no telling if she would ever get another chance to. Judging by the village people's reaction to him, he might have been executed by tomorrow. She resolved to visit the village in the dead of night, after her father was asleep, after the crowds had gone home.

When her father's snoring had intensified to the point where it seemed to shake the house, Salma slipped out of bed, fastened her hooded cloak around her shoulders and softly made her way to the kitchen. Her father seemed undisturbed by the movement, and she knew she was safe - unless he awoke in the night to find her gone. She steeled her resolve, and snatched a heel of bread and some cheese for the journey. She expected to be away for some time.

She closed the door as quietly as she could manage, allowed her eyes to adjust to the moonlight, and set off down the path that led to the gate. It was not too difficult to see, but she made sure to take extra care with her footing. There had been no shortage of stories about foolhardy folks who charged ahead in the darkness only to break an ankle or worse.

Salma reached the gate and noted with some amusement that it had finally been fixed. Had it been capable of keeping her in, she might have cursed her luck, but it was only for livestock. As she closed the gate behind her, she noticed her father had left his wood axe on the ground. It was unlike him - he normally put his tools back in the shed after finishing work, only to lose them in the mess. After a moment's hesitation, she picked it up and put it in her bag. It wouldn't be sensible to go see a varl without something with which to defend yourself, she thought.

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The water was gone. The jug lay empty on the ground beside the sleeping varl. Salma quivered with excitement when she saw the water soaking his beard. She had given water to a mythical beast, and he had drank it. She felt like a child again.

"Girl," he said in a deep, rough whisper. Salma almost screamed. His eyes were open, staring at her through heavy lids. "Girl," he said again. "Why have you come to see me? You didn't get a good enough look yesterday?"

"I... I..." Stop being so childish, she scolded herself. She took a deep breath. "I wasn't here yesterday," she said.

"Yes, you were. You gave me water while the others spat and cursed me. Why?"

"I wanted to see if you'd drink it."

"You don't think I drink water?" He seemed almost amused, but not quite.

"I... don't know," she said. "I've never met a Varl before."

"Do you know of any creature that doesn't drink water?"

Salma's retort caught in her throat, and suddenly she felt very foolish.

"Girl," he said. "You are human, I am Varl. I do not love humans. Often, here in the wildlands far from my country, they treat us as simple beasts, though we have been their saviors many times. They cause us much grief, but I do not hate them, for many of those who carry out wicked deeds are not wicked themselves. They are merely ignorant." He stopped and considered her with his old eyes. "You are not ignorant," he said at last. "And you are not wicked. You have dignity, and pride, as I do. You see the way your kinsfolk treat me. Tell me: would you think highly of those who refuse to see your pride? Who have no respect for your dignity?"

"I don't understand," she said.

"No," he sighed. "But perhaps one day you will, and my words will echo in your ears whenever you see my skull adorning your little hall."

Salma mind roiled with confusion. This was no monster who ate children. By the way he spoke, he sounded old, older than the village elders, and far wiser. "Would you like some cheese?" she said. "It's not much for a giant like you, but I'd wager you haven't eaten in a while."

The varl said nothing as she came close and pulled the food she'd packed out of her bag. She pressed the bread and cheese into his hand. It looked like little more than a bite in that huge palm. He had to awkwardly tilt his head to bring the food to his mouth, and Salma saw why the water had soaked his beard. He looked at her with what seemed like gratitude, but his face hardened when he saw the moonlight glinting off the wood axe in her bag.

"A means to defend yourself against the Varl?" he asked. "Afraid I might want to eat you instead of bread and cheese?"

Salma took hold of the axe and gripped the handle tightly. Pride, she thought. Pride and dignity.

After the ropes had been cut, the varl stood up slowly. He stared at Salma for a moment, turned, and with surprising speed, ran off into the night.

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On the third day, the sun stopped in the sky, and Salma knew it was no coincidence. The people of Gårdstad are suspicious for a reason.