Deep in a desert not far from here there once rose a vast mountain. Snow glittered from its peak, even under the blistering summer sun, and lush trees grew around the base even though it had been many years since this region last saw rain.
But the most remarkable thing was the stone itself.
Veins of gold as thin as the strands of a spider’s web ran through the granite like capillaries spreading through its deep grey skin. Each morning, when the sun stretched its rays across the horizon, the mountain would rise from the sands in a blaze of light.
It was a wonder born of pure magic.
But many seasoned travellers passing through the region knew nothing of it. Only the locals had heard of its wonders. And they dared not speak of it for there was magic within, and they knew the mountain only revealed itself on its own terms.
Better to leave it in peace.
This was always their answer when a curious youngster would dare ask about it.
But then, children being who they are, the mountain became a haunt for the local urchins. They would climb the sacred stone and pull flowers from its gardens. They would splash in the river that ran down the slope, and throw fruit into the mysterious hole that swallowed its current without a trace. Some would even brave the guardian who always stood at attention beside a gaping maw in the mountainside.
He was terrifying to behold.
The height of five men standing end to end, he towered above the treetops and stood stone still. His coarse skin was mottled with blue, like flesh scarred from frostbite. At his wrists were cuffs of solid gold, and his ankles were bound with golden chains which disappeared somewhere within the cave he guarded.
Only when the giggling children drew near did he spring to life.
He would swing his massive arms at the fleeing brats and roar so loud that even the mountain groaned in response.
Despite his efforts to scare them, the children would come and tease the giant. They’d duck passed him into the cavernous halls of the mountain, playing hide and seek, and run back out as quickly as they got in.
For he was large, but he moved very slowly.
One such girl, brash and bold and full of spirit, was no stranger to the giant.
An orphan girl, known only as Las, for she had no home and no family to name her, spent her days teasing the giant just out of reach of his grasping hands. She laughed as she taunted him. She threw pebbles at his face until he pulled against his chains in rage.
And, perhaps worst of all, she led the other children to him and taught them to do the same.
Years passed, and Las was a young woman, though still as wild and reckless as she was in youth. The boys of the village had fallen in love with her free and careless nature. One boy gifted her a long skirt as red as a ruby, and another gave her golden slippers, hand-stitched to fit her little feet.
She’d laugh and kiss them in return, and they were always happy to share a wild and joyful night with this spirited girl.
‘What are you doing? He’s going to hurt you!’
‘Don’t be such a coward. Come on, now. I’ll let you hold my hand.’
The young man drew back from her outstretched hand, embarrassed by the offer. She smiled in the darkness so that he could just see her teeth.
‘Look at his ankles,’ she nodded her head at the giant standing as still as a statue in the moonlight. ‘He’s as bound as your father is to that crazy mother of yours.’
He laughed. ‘Fine, but if I die you get to explain it to my mother.’
‘A fate worse than death,’ she grinned again, took his hand and led him towards the giant. When they reached the line of trees directly in front of him, she reached into a pocket in her long red skirt and pulled out a stone which glittered faintly in the ghostly light.
‘What’s that?’ he whispered.
‘A little piece of paradise,’ she whispered back.
He looked closer and saw the fine veins glittering in the rock. He felt the blood drain from his cheeks, and quickly grabbed her wrist.
‘Where did you get that?’
‘From the mountain. Where else?’
‘I mean, how?’
She sighed as if dealing with an annoying child. ‘It’s no big deal, it’s just a rock.’
‘But it’s cursed!’
‘Oh, it is not. Don’t be such a baby.’ She pulled out her sling, carefully positioned the stone and flung it straight at the giant. The rock bounced from his forehead, leaving a black mark in its wake.
They watched him, stunned.
First his eyes widened. Then the putrid blue skin around his temples began to ripple. But when he stretched open his mouth, so wide that she could see every rotting yellow tooth, no roar came. No angry cursing. No words at all. Just a strange whispering noise. A sudden breeze picked it up and carried the sound towards her.
When it hit her, it filled her ears.
It grew louder and louder, roaring like a hurricane as she clutched at her ears and dropped to her knees, screaming for help. Her companion backed away, horror spreading over his face. A cloud of smoke engulfed her and pulled her towards the cave like an undercurrent dragging a helpless swimmer.
She flew backwards straight into the mouth of the cave in a great rush of smoke.
Her companion was left behind looking at the spot where she had been. The giant was still once more, the night was quiet, and Las was gone. He backed away until he was obscured by the trees, and then ran off as fast as he could.
When she woke she was someplace cold. And dark. So dark that she couldn’t even see her own hands when she waved them before her eyes. Every breath she took seemed to echo. No, not echo. It was a strange sound, as though it didn’t so much bounce off the walls as run through them.
She crawled forward on her hands and knees.
The ground was smooth beneath her palms and seemed to curve upwards where it met the wall. She crawled back the other way where she met the same end. Every direction she took curved upwards.
It was a small space. The size of a child’s bedroom. Or a tomb.
‘Help!’ she shouted.
The sound rang through the room with a metallic clang.
‘Help!’ she tried again, but her voice rushed back at her through the walls and floor, buzzing. Slowly, she stood up to her full height and reached up. Her fingertips just brushed the ceiling.
She dropped back down to the floor. Her wrists hurt. There was something pinching them. Something made of metal. They encircled her wrists, loose enough not to cut off the circulation, but tightly enough that she couldn’t pull them off.
And heavy enough that she would always feel them.
She wrapped her arms around her knees, trying not to shake as the cold seeped into her body. The hopelessness was crushing. She couldn’t cry. She couldn’t breathe. Then, with a quake so violent that it sent her sliding across the floor, the entire room moved.
It spun, throwing her from one wall to another, until she felt herself drawn upwards like a stringed puppet. In a rush of smoke she was ejected from the room and thrown on the rocky floor of a cavern. She looked around, blinking in the faint light coming from some luminescent minerals.
Sitting on the ground before her was a giant.
But it wasn’t the same one as before.
No, this one was different, and he looked at her not with anger, but pity.
‘Once per day,’ his deep voice boomed through the grotto, ‘you will be permitted to leave the lamp. You will have until the last grain of sand falls in the hourglass. And then you will have to return.’
‘What?’ her voice sounded thin and fragile in the vast space. ‘What lamp?’
The giant nodded his head to a point behind her. She looked back at a small brass lamp which lay on the floor. Then she looked down and saw the heavy cuffs of gold around her wrists. Her beloved red skirt had been turned into pair of loose red pants, and her golden slippers now had pointed toes which curled back painfully.
‘What have you done to me?’ she cried.
‘I have done nothing. But what was done by another of my kind, can only be undone by him alone. He has invoked a magic that goes beyond time and space. I cannot help you, little one. But-’ he looked aside towards an hourglass on a stone shelf, ‘alas, time is fleeting.’
He stood up to attention.
Smoke began to form around her, swirling thicker and pulling at her with the force of a gale. It hauled her backwards, dragging her across the floor as she tried to cling on to something, anything. Finding nothing, she clawed at the ground desperately.
But it was no use.
As she was sucked back inside the little bronze lamp, her cry echoed through the cavern, down the stone halls and out to the entrance of the cave where a giant smiled to himself.
Many seek the magic of a jinn. But almost always, it’s for greed or lust – never to do anything good on this Earth. Never to help the poor or feed the hungry. Never to heal the sick or bring comfort to the dying.
Never to help others.
As the years passed and the people of the town forgot that Las ever existed, the mountain lived on; hidden from some, and exposed to others. No one knows why or how. It was the whim of the mountain.
Well, she was given the gift of magic, and the curse of seeing into the true heart of her master. She was forced to turn petty thieves into kings, brutal murderers into celebrated conquerors, and corrupt officials into saints. And all the while, she saw the ugliness of their souls and could do nothing but obey their caprices.
With the death of each master (it being a condition that a jinn cannot provide immortality to anyone), her lamp would vanish and reappear in the grotto, waiting for the next finder.
Each day in the grotto, for one turn of the hourglass, she would be free to leave her lamp.
And always, the benevolent giant was there waiting for her.
He would be seated in exactly the same spot as when they first met.
And when their time was up he would have to stand once more, and she would be transported back inside her lamp. But the kind giant kept talking to her through the brass, telling her stories and describing the wonders beneath the mountain. Precious gems which hang from trees like fruits. Piles of gold coins glittering like the sea. Marble statues of animals so lifelike they move when no-one is watching. And as he patrolled the halls, he even carried the lamp with him so that she’d never be lonely.
But over time she spoke less and less until he feared she’d given up all hope.
When her little bronze lamp appeared one day following the death of a particularly vicious master, he took it gently in the palm of his hand. When the hourglass turned and she appeared, he placed her on a rocky ledge next to a small fissure in the stone wall.
Through the gap she could see the trees and the dunes of the desert.
For the first time since she had become a jinn, she smelled the fresh breeze and felt the sun caress her cheek. For a moment she was breathless, in awe of the simple beauty. And as the smoke came to envelop her once more, she kissed the giant’s disfigured palm before she left.
After that, they spoke often to one another.
He told her how he too was trapped by a higher magic, doomed to forever guard the mountain. He must always stand, and always pace, and can only stop for one turn of the hourglass per day, which is why he always sat down when the time came.
‘I have learned that rest is the best thing of all. Oh, how I wish for a bench, but I will happily take the ground when it’s offered.’
‘And how long have you been trapped this way?’ she asked.
He waved in dismissal. ‘I do not remember, but it was long before this place was a desert. The Earth was younger then.’
‘Who would do this to you?’
‘That’s also irrelevant. I’m here. That’s all that matters.’
‘And your…friend?’ she asked carefully.
His brow furrowed into a hundred creases. ‘He’s no friend, but he’s just like me, under the same spell, in the same circumstances. Perhaps that makes us friends, after all. We know our fate, but we do not like to be tormented for it.’
She felt shame wash over her.
They were just like her. Trapped. Enslaved. Forgotten. She felt the keen ache of everything she had lost like the fresh cut of a knife.
For days she couldn’t speak. Every time she tried to answer the giant’s calls she felt a painful lump in her throat. Hot tears ran from her eyes and dropped to the brass floor of her lamp until she sat in a puddle.
Her little heart beat slower and slower.
Her breath grew weaker.
And the giant, feeling that her silence was somehow his fault, left her in the grotto and wandered down the halls until he reached his friend. There was one point halfway down the entrance cave where they could meet and talk.
‘Please,’ he begged. ‘Just one. If not for her, then for me.’
‘Let the little brat rot!’ he spat. ‘She got what she deserved.’
‘Can one ever deserve slavery?’
‘Do we? And yet here we are, thousands of years and still here, like corpses who know no rest. And then, to add insult to injury, we’re mocked, scorned and abused.’
‘Then we truly are monsters,’ he replied with a sigh, ‘if we can justify doing the same to another.’
Just as the benevolent giant began to walk back the way he had come, his friend called out. ‘Wait!’ And with a few reluctant steps out of the cave, he picked a small camomile flower growing sweetly in the grass and passed it to his friend.
‘Take it, then.’
Something toppled into her lamp. She started. It was a stone the size of her fist, which would have been unremarkable, only it began to glow with a warm golden light. Shortly after, the lid of the lamp creaked open and in fell a flower the same size as her.
It landed upright, as if growing from the brass floor. The cheerful yellow centre with its crown of silvery petals was as beautiful as a bright, warm smile, and the sweet smell of apple made her think of a summer meadow.
‘Throw up the rock,’ the giant’s voice instructed. She threw it up, but as it hit the ceiling it didn’t fall back down. It lodged in the brass, spilling sunlight upon her and her flower.
She cried out with joy.
Her heart soared in her chest and she thanked the giant over and over, telling him how much she loved him and thanking him for how much he’d given her. Day and night she watched the flower. She sang to it and kissed its petals. And when eventually it began to wither, she cried bitterly as though she was losing a friend. But the giant brought her another, and then another, so that she would always have a friend.
The giant at the mouth of the cave listened keenly day after day after day, until one fine morning he whispered to the wind and…
Well, I can’t say for sure what happened to the jinn and the giants, or the mountain for that matter, but this lamp is now empty for a reason. Other than a couple of long dead flowers which have dried out at the bottom.
Go on, take it.
No plume of smoke will rise. No magical being will appear.
But sometimes the ordinary is far more interesting than the extraordinary, don’t you think?