This might get rough.
I KILL GIANTS
"I hear that you have need of someone like me."
I look up, startled, to find a man standing next to the table. How did he just appear there, unnoticed even by my subconscious? And such a man, too - a strapping man, if ever I've used that word before, strapping and handsome and all the things I'll never be. I tilt my head back, and back, until I meet his eyes.
"Are you Sir Bronsen?"
"Then I have need of you." I raise one hand and indicate the wooden stool across from me. "Please, sir, I beg you to sit down." Keller worked fast. I'd only told the barman half an hour ago of my dilemma. He had assured me of his connections and indicated for me to sit, sit, wait a little while. Now, he is here sooner than I'd planned (hoped, says the tiny voice in my head, for I still haven't figured quite what words were best). Now, I must speak my piece.
"Good manners for a peasant," my companion says, but without malice. He says it almost as a question, arching a dark brow. His hair is dark, nearing black, the little of it I can see under his army cap.
"My parents had higher hopes when I was born. They misplaced such things in me."
It's been a hard go of it for everyone since the giants came, which this soldier seems to understand. "So tell me, sir. Why should I listen to what you want to say? Why should I not haul you in for obstruction of justice?"
"Because." I am speaking with so little air, how can I breathe? "I have information."
"And you hope for what? Money?" He scoffed at me. "We don't pay informants."
"Just that you'll leave her be." I give him a pointed look. "Leave us be."
Sir Bronsen stares at me in apparent shock. "She's been on the run for a week, and she's already got people willing to stick their necks out? You've seen the reward, have you not?"
"And you won't take it."
"I will not."
"Make your case." He appears amused. There are no other guards here that I've seen; the tavern is empty of the king's army here, except for him. He'd received my conditions and honored them. Unless, of course, the rest are all waiting outside. Highly likely.
So far, though, this was going as well as I could've hoped.
"Let's say, hypothetically, that I know something." I drum my fingers on the pockmarked, sticky table. This tavern is a town away from my home and nobody knows me by name. The ale is cheap, but the ambiance leaves something to be desired. "The location of someone you're looking for."
He says nothing, but indicates that I should continue.
"She doesn't want to be found."
Now Sir Bronsen glances skyward, exasperated. "We're far beyond that, Sir...?"
"Sir is fine." I swallow. I haven't ever been a Sir. "She is well, but she mustn't be found. She mustn't."
"The giants are advancing. They've already taken two territories," Sir Bronsen says. His trembling fingers become fists upon his thighs. "Everything fell when she broke the ceasefire. That stupid girl." He sizes me up once more, considering. "Surely you know that."
"Yes, she told me."
"She told you?" He looks appalled. "That she abandoned her kingdom, that she killed a giant prince?"
"Yes." My voice is hoarse. "But there are things that no one should endure."
We fall silent. This man, a captain, has seen what the giants are capable of. The broken bodies littered in their wake, the pits full of bones sucked clean of marrow. She'd been as much a sacrifice as a bride.
"If you're found concealing her," he says, "you will be executed. You do realize this."
"She said you were friends, once." I clear my throat. "That you would respect her wishes. Were you --"
"I wanted," he says. "Nothing more. She was far beyond my station." His gaze is troubled, full of doubt. "I swore to protect her, always. But then she went and..."
"She was offered like so much cattle, a pretty gift to be torn apart. She wed a beast, because her father... Her father." I can't finish because I'm trembling with rage. Her father.
"And then she killed her husband," my companion says. His voice is heavy.
I snort. "Such a husband."
"It's not up to us to agree with her actions. She must pay for that. The war will not stop until she is brought to justice."
He gets to his feet, surprising me. "I will be here for another three days," he tells me. "Searching for her. She can leave messages for me at any sheriff's station."
I stand as well, barely coming up to his shoulder. "You'll be waiting for no word. Hypothetically, she was very clear about that."
Securing his sword and dusting off his tunic, the captain says, "Make sure to tell her that the war will not end, and will never end, without her." He sighs. "Her being alive is, unfortunately, not required." He meets my eyes once more, and I see a well of indecision. "You will not be followed. I'll grant her that much."
I am far too aware as he walks out the door, his strides long and fast. Everything feels too loud. If she's found, I could die. My son could die. But she's our princess, and she sacrificed everything for us. When she showed up at my window in the smallest hours of the morning not a week ago, I knew her face. Everyone does.
Somehow I return home. One moment I'm walking the long way back to Aregard, taking side paths and doubling back, watching for anyone trailing me. I don't trust Sir Bronsen, and I certainly don't trust his men. Then, hours later but passing in a blink, I'm home. Light spills from the windows of my hut, warmth pouring over me and enrobing me in comfort. My body hurts from traveling, and my muscles seize from long disuse. Tending sheep is much less taxing than walking miles.
She's waiting for me, our fallen princess. My son sleeps before the fire, having slumped over on some pillows while waiting for my arrival. Princess Thalia is tense, abandoned sewing next to her as she clutches the skirt of her threadbare dress.
In an effort to end the war, her father, the king himself, had made a deal with the giants. Ending the war in exchange for her hand, along with a quarter of the kingdom's gold. Thalia used to be considered among the fairest in our realm, and a prize to anyone who'd wed her. None of us understood the giants' condition, why they would even want a human woman, but that mattered not. Perhaps they wanted to be shown as having mercy.
They showed no mercy when she killed their prince.
She's only said that it happened, though she has not said why. Her breaking of the marriage restarted the war; her actions mean my son could be taken from me to fight the battles we will not win.
When she fell into my yard after having run for days and days, gasping and crying, her body a patchwork of scars and burns, what else could I do?