The sound the berserker made in his throat made Finny snap her head up.
The eyes of the half-man, half-giant had changed to an angry, veined glare, and the skin of his face had tightened, pulling the lips back into an ugly sneer.
Definitely more than 'a little bit' scared now, Finny scrambled backwards away from the monster.
Then it was gone, the berserker's face relaxed back into the calm, curious expression of before. He was 'Joe' again.
He wasn't looking at her. Instead, he looked off to the side.
"I'm sorry. I wasn't mad at you... Sorry if I, you know, scared you... It's a..." Joe shrugged. "It's just something we do."
Finny crawled forward again. She was still shocked at the sudden frightening change she had witnessed, but that was gone now, and her natural instinct found her feeling sorry for the half-giant.
Joe looked at her, fully aware of how his 'change' affected people. He spoke calmly.
"Listen, kid." Joe made sure he had her attention before continuing. "I will never hurt you. Never... I promise."
Being four, however,
the only way Finny knew how to express the sort of thing she was feeling was to either pat him on the head like when the farmyard dog Ui had done something right; or hug him like when
her momma gave her a cookie. Neither, however, seemed appropriate, so she just nodded.
"Okay." They shared the moment for a second or two before more immediate concerns came to the fore. "I'm hungry," Finny said.
Joe tilted his head to the side, a smile softening his craggy features even more.
"You know what, carrot top, so am I." He leaned forward again. "But not for little girls."
Finny joined him with a grin.
The enormous berserker climbed to his feet.
"Come on then, if it's not you, let's see what is gonna be dinner... I quite fancy fish."
He jumped down to the grassy bank of the river and then turned back with his arms raised. Finny allowed herself to be lifted down.
She followed Joe the few yards to where the cooking fire had been set up and where, suspended on a tripod above the flames, a small cauldron of water was starting to steam and bubble.
She watched Joe pick up a net and then followed him down to the bank where she stood close to him as he untangled the fine mesh with as much delicacy as his too-big fingers would allow.
Joe tilted his head and sniffed the air before turning to look at her with a wrinkle of distaste.
"Phew, kid. I think before I pull anything edible out of that water, we better get you cleaned up a bit."
Finny blushed again with embarrassment. She no longer smelled herself, but she knew she was dirty.
Several times she had had to 'go' while tied to a bed, or a post, or just with her hands tied together.
She had tried to not soil her underpants and had cried the very first time it had happened.
But the men and woman who had held her didn't seem to care one way or the other, so Finny had stopped caring too and just 'went' when she had to.
The half-giant took, or more precisely, swallowed Finny's hand into his own and led her down to one side of the ford that crossed the stream.
He sank to his knees with her in front of him then, holding the four-year-old's arm in one great fist, Joe's other hand disappeared behind his back to reappear a second later with a knife.
The long thin blade glinted, and Finny's eyes became saucers.
Was it a trick? Was he going to gut her and eat her after all? Her eyes followed the knife blade as the grown-up lifted it, the sharp end pointing down at her, ready to stab.
Then he let go of her arm, and Finny just had time to think of running... But Joe had already grabbed the top of her dress.
Finny tried to pull away, but there was never any chance she was going to succeed. When the neck of her dress was pulled clear her body.
A warm odour of unwashed skin, acrid shit and stale piss wafted up into Finny's nose. Maybe he wouldn't kill her if she smelled this bad. She closed her eyes.
With a quick and practised ease, Joe inserted the point of the blade into the gap between flesh and dress and, as if Finny were a fish and her tattered garment its skin,
Joe sliced downwards from neck to hem in a single movement of the razor-sharp filleting knife.
Finny's eyes opened again as the little dress fell away from her body to land around her feet. Her hands automatically went to cover herself.
She had managed to dispose of her underpants very soon after soiling them for the second time. All they were doing, she had reasoned, was holding the mess against her skin and making it sore.
She knew that was where he was looking. The tops of her legs and her bum were caked in poo and were red, and itchy. But when he lifted his head, Joe didn't look mad at her or disgusted.
He was smiling, but it was gentle, not mocking.
"Right then, time to see if there's a kid under all that muck, eh?"
Joe scooped Finny up in one hand, making her hold on tightly to the huge finger and thumb as she sat precariously in the palm of his hand.
They went out into the shallow water until Joe found a sandy stretch and gently lowered her down.
Finny stepped down out of Joe's hand into the slow-moving icy water that came up to her knees. She gasped and hugged her arms around herself.
"It's cooooold!" She wailed.
Joe stood up, put his hands on his hips and looked down at her.
"Well, I'm sorry, your ladyship, but the hot water fairy is off today, so you'll just have to make do."
Shivering, Finny looked up.
"But, there's no soap."
"Use the sand."
Finny looked down to where her toes disappeared into the fine white sand of the stream bed.
Very slowly, she started to reach down but baulked when her fingers touched the cold water, pulling them back like they were scalded.
Finny suddenly felt a giant finger push the top of her head, making her lose her balance and fall, bum first, into the stream.
She squealed and tried to get to her feet, but Joe just pushed her over again.
"Look, just get on with it," he said. "The sooner you're done, the sooner you get to sit by the fire."
Which was the point Finny, sitting up to her belly button in cold mountain water, started to cry. She sat still and shivering for several moments before large hands lifted her to her feet.
It's hard to cry with chattering teeth, so Finny's efforts were reduced to the occasional coughing sob while the half-giant, silently resigned,
set about washing two weeks of grime and other mess off her.
the sobs reduced to long mucus-filled sniffs and then nothing at all as Finny stood in shivering silence and watched the giant hands gently washed away not only the accumulated dirt but also
the accumulated fear and despair she had bottled up. When he had finished, Joe scooped her up again and carried her out of the stream towards the camp.
There, he sat her down in front of the fire.
Finny waited. She was hardly going anywhere butt naked, starving hungry and soaking wet. Joe came back with a horse blanket and a linen flour sack.
Finny stood. Joe set about to gently pat her dry with the blanket. Finny watched him.
Just like when he had washed her, the big half-giant's movements were hesitant, his hands barely exerting any pressure, as if he were terrified of breaking her.
When he had finished, he wrapped her in the blanket and moved the log she had been sitting on closer to the small cooking fire.
Finny sat. Slowly, warmth crept back into her hands and feet, and her teeth stopped chattering.
Meanwhile, Joe had returned to the river and was now midstream, expertly flinging out and then hauling in the fishing net. Finny was left alone with her thoughts.
Her bath had lifted her spirits. The berserker, whoever he was and whatever he had planned for her, seemed, while maybe not exactly nicer than the others but maybe less evil.
At least she was clean and was going to be fed... the latter always being a big plus in any four-year-old's book.