One morning, near dawn, Erica wandered out to the sitting room to find Roman and half the company crowded over a table. As she shuffled closer, she got a glimpse of what they were poring over: a supply list and rough designs, prices tallied below. There was a buzz of activity different than the usual gatherings. It was enough that she couldn't pass it by, not knowing.
"Roman," she mumbled. "What is all this?"
Roman looked up, brightened, and quietly excused himself to speak with her aside.
"Thought you would never wake up," he chuckled.
Erica did not smile. "What are they all doing here? What's happening?"
Roman took a breath. "King Amos is willing to forgive our past crimes in exchange for our expertise."
Her eyes widened. She had feared it would come to this. "You're not a soldier, Roman. You have no place making a deal like that!"
"It's already done," he said. "Besides, we have experience taking down giants when we must… what difference will it make to take down a few more on the battlefield?"
Erica folded her arms. "It's been over a month since the giants' siege. They haven't attacked since." Roman gave her a blank look, not seeming to understand her point. She rolled her eyes. "Obviously, they aren't eager to fight us!"
"Phillip is a coward," Roman argued. "But you'd be foolish to think he isn't gathering an army. And after the Cyclops’ escape party…" he paused, face turning grey. "We're running out of time to replenish. Amos needs all the help he can get."
Erica, too, went sick in the stomach at the thought of Ross roaming freely again. The wreckage his comrades had left had been nothing short of brutal. There was a tally of over ten missing men and women even after the body count. Erica knew their end had to have been more cruel than that of those slain in the battle field.
“Why are you so enthusiastic to help him?” she asked. “You’ve managed to keep yourself hidden thus far, why bother with the deal?”
Roman’s eyes shifted briefly to the others around the table. “As it stands, Amos is on the side of right,” he explained. “Phillip might as well have torn that treaty to shreds when he set his beasts on the castle. If we continue mucking about, causing trouble on our own raids… we give the giants leave to wage war.”
“There’s no avoiding a war now, Roman,” Erica hissed. “Not if what you say is true.”
“Least we won’t have started it.”
“But I don’t understand why you’d put yourself in danger for Amos. Amos.”
Roman let out a terse sigh. “Quite frankly, Erica, he didn’t give us a lot of choice. He could have any number of guards watching this island right now. If we try to leave…”
“Alright, I get it.” She rubbed a hand down her face, then folded her arms tight over her chest again. “So what does he want of your expertise then, hm? Does he expect us all to fight?”
"No," Roman said. "We're not soldiers, as you said. We'll be helping prepare alternative sabotage. Trappings, steel chains, harpoons…"
Erica shivered. "Harpoons?"
Roman nodded. "We've been working on a new metal in the smithing shop. Twice as strong as steel, half the weight… hopefully it will pierce right through those thick bracers."
She groped for a seat, and when she found none she took a seat on the window sill. The cold creeping in was an instant chill to her barely clothed form, but she stayed where she was.
"Do we know when it's going to happen?" She asked quietly. "The battle."
Roman shook his head, seeming to understand her worry. "Soon, I fear. I heard the last message Phillip sent was rather damning. And now smoke is curling from over the Aarlith forest night and day."
A thrill of apprehension shot through her. And then, inexplicably, concern going beyond the fear of Roman’s involvement. Once the fighting started up, nobody would be safe. Not humans, not giants…
She choked back her fear, pressing hands to her temples and shooting Roman a pleading glance. “What of me?” she ventured. “I can't help. can't be seen with you.”
“I don't think Amos is interested in your crimes anymore,” Roman snorted. “Perhaps he might even favour your opinion. You have every bit the experience that we do. And now that that fool Rionny is dead-”
“Missing,” Erica corrected him. “Rotten coward is probably hiding out somewhere.”
“Either way, Amos can't be swayed by him now. Whether he likes it or not, he needs our help.”
She was shaking her head now, drawing her legs up onto the sill. “I can't, Roman. I don't want any part of this war.”
Roman's face softened as he took her in, and only moments later Erica found herself wrapped up in his familiar arms. "If you change your mind, you could be a great help," his voice came in her ear.
She shook her head again, fingers clutching near his neck, grateful for the body heat. He sighed.
"Wash up, put on a coat," he said, pressing a kiss to her temple. "We'll see how you feel as time wears on."
She mutely allowed him to help her down from the sill and turn her towards the washroom. Then, as she was shutting the door on his retreating form, she paused.
“What if I don't change my mind?” she challenged.
He stopped mid-step, coming back to meet her through the crack. “What?”
She swallowed, eyes fixing on his. “I'm scared for this, Roman. Really. It's… it's not right.”
“There's nothing we can do to stop it,” he breathed in return, bringing up a finger and thumb to pinch her cheek softly. “And if you're not fighting on our side, whose are you really on?”
She had no answer to that. Her lips parted as he broke away, ancient floorboards creaking under his boots.
Cursing inwardly, she gripped the door jamb in frustration. “Roman, please. I…”
He didn't turn around. “Just think on it, Erica,” he called as he disappeared down the curved corridor.
As she dragged a soapy rag over her body, Erica found her thoughts wandering to those giants she had known. She had come toe to toe with Ross Vogel, the one-eyed killer of legend. Her encounters with his ruthless bloodlust for humans endured, primarily in the form of nightmares. She shivered, recalling his hateful glare from nine stories up.
Erica groped for a towel, hurrying to dry herself off before the water had a chance to freeze into droplets on her skin.
Phillip had been a villain in his own right. Despite the occasional kindness experienced under his care, she could not rid herself of the memory of his groping fingers under her skirt. The lust in his eyes. He whored himself for the sake of curiosity.
She sniffed, shuffling on bare feet across the rug to rifle through her wardrobe. She pulled on tan trousers and a long sleeved green tunic. She groped for a belt hanging in the bag, determined to keep these pants snug on her hips regardless of the weight she had dropped. Her hand brushed silk instead, and her racing thoughts quieted.
After glancing around her, she gently pulled the garment out into the open. The giant-made nightgown glittered in the pale light of winter. Thinking of its creator, she smiled. There had been pleasant times in Aarlith, despite the many sufferings. Aaron Stryke and his wife had seen to that, never asking for payment in return.
They didn't want this war, she remembered. She clenched her jaw, bunching up the slippery fabric of the dress in one hand. The giants are just as scared as we are. She also remembered her own fear, thrown out into the rainy night by a man she trusted, to be left at the mercy of whatever awaited. He'd hurt her. And if the war happened, no doubt he would suffer for it.
But the hurt she had felt never boiled into rage. The thought of Sari and little Cameron - even Aaron, she thought to herself - getting caught up in the crossfire of the treaty feud caused a dull sensation of horror to rise in her chest. They didn't deserve it. If she agreed to help Roman, she'd be part of the cause of their misery. Not even the possibility of facing the Cyclops down one last time was enough to stir a hunger for battle.
“I've caused enough damage in my lifetime,” she murmured aloud. She stretched up on tiptoes and swiftly placed the dress back in the wardrobe, slamming the doors shut. Spying her socks and boots lying by the hearth, she padded over and slipped them on over her trousers.
There was a crash from down the hallway and voices rose in a crescendo. It sounded as though arguments were getting out of hand again - it seemed to be all Roman’s people were doing these days, Erica realised in annoyance. Reluctant to join in the disharmony but loathe to have Roman worrying about her, she snatched up her sword and left the washroom.
Less than a week later, deep in Aarlith, Valeria was just stirring awake. The encroaching ice and snow outside were entirely unknown to her, tucked under a giant's hand. With a faint mewl, she arched her back, rolling under the heavy weight. She smiled, ducking low under his hand. If she burrowed deep enough, she could pretend the day had not broken yet.
The hand's owner breathed deeply at present, far more lost to the world than she was. This was not entirely uncommon. Since taking his transitional duties for King Phillip, Ross scarcely had to leave the house, He would sleep late in the day, leaving late afternoon for the span of a few hours, just taking inventory for the local artisans. Hardly a chore for a warrior, but if he was unhappy he never let on.
She stared at his sleeping form, half hidden to her as he buried his face in the pillow. There was something fascinating about the peaceful look on his face. With his bad eye tucked out of sight, he looked like an entirely different person. Distantly under the covers, his stomach groaned. Valeria shook her head, knowing he would sleep right through breakfast and lunch too, if he had the chance. She worked herself free of his hand and crept closer to the pillow.
"Ross," she called lightly. "Ross, you must get up."
No response. Still she paused, holding her arms out at her waist to keep her balance on the huge soft dunes of quilt. Though she waited, his serene expression didn't falter.
Precariously, she turned on the spot to squint critically out through the window. Though a thick frost still lingered near the bottom of the pane, the glaring winter sun beamed through, bathing the bed and the stone floor in yellow light.
“Ross…” she sing-songed, cupping a hand over her eyes. “I thought we agreed you would get up earlier today.”
A quiet noise was the only reply. She turned to see that he was simply shifting his position on the pillow. The hand she had been sleeping under curled closer to his body and he released a deep sigh before going still once more.
She staggered up towards the pillow before his face and gripped hold of the edge. With a grunt of effort she tried to pull herself up, but the thick down hiding beneath allowed her little purchase. A sigh of frustration left her as she hunkered down and leaped up onto the thing, limbs scrabbling to keep her from sliding back down.
“Wake up.” She raised her voice this time, crawling closer to his face. Where she used to feel fear at the sight of him looming so close, she was now utterly accustomed to him. Close enough to touch him, she cleared her throat, affecting an authoritative tone. “I mean it. Come on.”
"What's the hurry?"
Her shoulders slumped in relief when she finally got a rumbling reply. His good eye flickered, peeking out at her through a slit.
"People generally eat a meal around this time of day," she remarked wryly. "At least, I'd like to."
Ross was not in agreement, and turned onto his stomach; her cry of surprise was muffled as she slipped onto her arse amongst the tightened folds of the pillow.
"I just need a few more minutes," he mumbled.
"No," she persisted, crawling closer. His ear was of nearest proximity, and she gave the lobe a tug. "Come on. I can't fix tea by myself."
Ross growled in his throat. She thought for sure she had made a mistake in disturbing him when his hand soared up to corner her against his neck. But his touch was gentle as ever. He stroked her back with fingers that were as strikingly warm as the rest of him. They wrapped around her waist as he went to push himself up in bed. He squinted at the window, massaging the bridge of his nose with his other hand. She tried not to stare at his mottled socket. It was always at its most tender when he first woke up.
"You're hungry?" he asked blearily.
“Aren't you?” She adjusted her hands on his fingers, trying to draw herself into a more comfortable position - easier said than done, especially when Ross was fidgeting on the bed for a more comfortable spot himself. He huffed out a sigh, looking back down at the warm, rumpled mess of sheets.
“I'm tired,” he grumbled. “What time is it?”
She didn't bother to conceal her amusement, cocking her head at him with a smile. “I wouldn't be surprised if it was nearly noon. You sleep a lot for someone who has so little work to do.”
“I've earned it,” he argued, then trailed off into a yawn. He curled his fingers more securely around the human as he arched his back in a gratuitous stretch. “Maybe I'll just lie back for a few more-”
He sighed again, casting a shadow over her as he doubled over and jerked himself out of bed. “Alright, alright. Tea it is.”
The kitchen was freezing despite the vivid sunshine outside the window. Ross cursed at the chilling feeling of icy stone under his feet and cupped Valeria ever closer to his chest.
“Fire went out,” he griped, moving over to the cindery hearth to regard it with annoyance.
He lit a match against the side of the fireplace, settling a small bit of kindling ablaze. After adding two logs to the grill, the flames began to strengthen. He stayed crouched there until he could feel a toasty glow, then moved to prepare some porridge for them both.
Valeria was still getting used to the strange accumulation of spices and fruits that characterized giant dishes. Ross insisted he was a novice when it came to cooking, but she could hardly tell. She tipped back the thimble full of porridge to her mouth, sipping delicately at the milk brimming on the surface.
"I had a dream last night that I could fly," Valeria remarked between bites. She wiped her mouth on her sleeve.
She nodded, taking another swallow. "You were in it too, only you weren't… you. You were smaller. Almost human sized."
Ross snorted. "Sounds more like a nightmare."
"No, it was… nice."
He hummed, still pottering about the room while his own enormous serving cooled on the table. “Nice for you, maybe.”
She scoffed, setting the thimble down heavily to one side and reaching for her tea when his shadow fell over her. “You didn't seem to mind,” she commented. Her legs crossed tight as the tabletop juddered slightly, Ross leaning over to sprinkle a generous handful of brambles into his bowl.
“Oh yeah?” he grunted.
“Would it really be so bad?” she teased him, catching his eye with a smile.
He kept one berry in his palm, using his thumb to pick it apart some. Valeria’s smile grew at the concentrated scowl that crossed his face. “I guess not if you were with me,” he allowed. He opened his mouth as if to say more, then thought better of it. Instead his finger and thumb crowded into Valeria’s space as he dropped a few misshapen pieces of fruit into the thimble.
“I could show you how it's done,” she agreed, pulling the thimble back towards her with marked interest.
“What happened in your dream then?” he challenged her as he dropped into his chair. The table quaked again and he leaned forward to steady his arms on either side of his bowl.
Valeria stammered as he unintentionally loomed. Friendly, handsome, kind as he had proved to be… he was still immense compared to her, and she couldn't shake the shiver that ran up her spine.
"You know, I don't remember," she exclaimed, looking sheepish. "It's all blurry now, just bits and pieces."
Ross eased back, turning his attention to his food. "So long as it was pleasant."
They hardly had a moment between them to relax before there was a gentle knock at the door. Ross bristled, his hand immediately inching towards Valeria.
"It's me!" A muffled voice proclaimed.
"Alasdair," Ross muttered. He visibly slumped in the relief that his secret was not about to be discovered for a second time. He let him in, offering him a seat at the table and a bowl of porridge.
The other giant eyed her as he circled around to take his seat. He had dutifully kept her presence a secret, but Valeria got the distinct impression he was still undressing her with his eyes every time he came around.
"Human." Alasdair nodded at her.
She scowled, relocating near the arm Ross had resting on the table. "I told you before, my name is Valeria."
"I don't care what your-" A glare from Ross promptly silenced him. Alasdair sighed. "Valeria it is."
Valeria looked satisfied, though still wary as she sipped the last dregs of milk and oats from the thimble. It filled her vision so she couldn’t see the giant opposite her when she lifted it to her face, but she had no doubt he was still staring at her.
“How are things going out there?” It was the question Ross always demanded.
Alasdair huffed out a sigh. “Honestly? The damned kingdom is recovering from our attack more quickly than we could’ve hoped.”
“I thought you and Rhey saw the castle still in ruins,” Ross frowned.
“Oh, it is.” He pulled his bowl in close to his chest and picked up his spoon. “Still no sign of Amos either, other than his letters. But a couple of days ago Phillip sent us out further.” He glanced up, regarding Ross grimly. “Looks like Pacifia finally decided to step in.”
Valeria gave a start. “I thought Winifred would stay out of something like this,” she piped up. “Her kingdom never gets involved with our disputes.”
Alasdair shook his head. The serious look on his face didn't suit him. "Seems the entire world knows we've reached a turning point."
Ross leaned forward. "The armour improvements I discussed with Aaron… have they been implemented?"
"We're working on it round the clock. But we're running out of time," Alasdair went on, paling. "We've seen their numbers. Over the border, in the fields by Greendale… a sea of them."
When Ross was quiet, he leaned forward eagerly. "There's room for another knight in our ranks, Ross."
"Phillip still puts his faith in you! A whole team of men could be yours to lead, if you wanted it."
Ross shook his head wearily. "I'm not in shape for any fighting right now."
Alasdair's blue eyes flickered down, and Valeria felt her inside squirm as they narrowed at her. "This is about her, isn't it? You won't fight because she's here."
Ross' hand was immediately around her, a protective wall. His palm hit her feet, cupping her closer to the arm she was leaned against.
"She needs me. And besides… those wicked contraptions the humans constructed - what's left of them - don't do shit. I made sure of it. This battle has no need of me."
“Whether that's true or not, we want you,” Alasdair pressed on, turning his steely gaze onto Ross. “Me and the boys. We want you with us when we take on the humans. Leading us.”
“Look, I just said-”
“I know. But you haven't been around to see what's been going on these past few weeks.”
Ross’ hand didn't relax around Valeria. “You've been telling me,” he argued. “Everything.”
“But you haven't seen it,” Alasdair insisted. He dug his spoon into his bowl with needless aggression. “They're recovering so fast. Fixing their machines quicker than our knights can break them. Fahlingdale have their own supply too, possibly a greater one than Greendale. We still haven't dug up their supply of the Kiss.”
Ross was very still, staring back at Alasdair as if he were having difficulty processing what was being said. Then, he scowled. “Phillip’s men can deal with that problem on their own. I'm done with human weaponry.”
“You're just going to abandon us then?” Alasdair demanded after a swallow of porridge. “You're picking a human over your comrades?”
Glancing up at the underside of Ross' chin, Val caught him rolling his eye in impatience.
"How many times are we going to have this argument?"
"At least admit that's what you're doing, Ross. You're too busy with your little pet to even consider-
"Don't call her that," Ross snapped. Valeria nearly spilled her thimble of porridge when his fingers twitched and his voice rumbled above her.
"What exactly would you call it, then?"
“Because it's definitely not normal,” he went on, stirring the contents of his bowl. “Not when it's gone on for this long. You should have done her in as soon as you got the chance. Why didn't you-”
“Don't say that. She's sitting right here for fuck’s sake,” Ross growled. “She's not some animal. Stop acting like she is.”
Alasdair barked a laugh, eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “She's just a human, Ross. You can't get attached, or you'll be slave to their whims forever. You've heard the stories.”
Valeria squirmed under Ross’ hand but was ignored.
“She's not like other humans,” Ross insisted. “She's different.”
“Oh yeah?” Alasdair regarded the little woman scathingly. “And how's that then?”
“Shh. Shut up.” He sat straight, turning towards the front door. The six scrawny chickens in the patch of grass out front were squawking madly like they always did when someone came into the garden.
“Someone coming?” Alasdair cocked his head.
Ross fixed him with an urgent look. "You didn't bring anyone, did you?"
Suddenly, Alasdair looked fearful. He looked to the back door as a shadow filled the frosted glass.
"Oh shit," he murmured.
"Ross?" Valeria set her thimble aside, pulling herself up. "Is everything al-"
She was promptly hushed by the man in question, and scooped up into the palm of the hand that laid before her. She was still gasping from the sudden change in altitude when there was a resounding knock, and Ross decided it was no longer suitable for her to be out in the open.
"Ross! Open the door. I need to speak with you."
She recognized the booming voice with an unpleasant twist in her stomach. That one. The one who had stolen her right out of the dungeon.
"Just let him in," Alasdair whispered, brandishing a hand at the door.
But Ross was nearly as panicked as Valeria. "He'll see her," he breathed.
She could see his mind racing as he looked over himself, at Alasdair, and then the rest of the kitchen. His eyes lit up as he spotted the pots and pans hanging over the stove. Valeria was jostled something terrible as he crossed the room in a hurry, and gently dropped her into a small saucepan hung facing the wall.
"Don't make a sound!" he whispered. Then, his face disappeared, and the back door creaked open moments later.
All she could see was the dark wall before her, a tiny chink of light around the very rim of the pan. She couldn't see the tall giant who strode into the hallway when Ross moved to the door.
“Morgan,” Ross greeted him.