He told anyone who would listen that he used to be a giant. He was neither tall nor short, thin nor fat. Bearded, yes, but most men were this far from the Mountain. I plied him with drinks on the third night of listening to his tales – for I’d secrets of my own, and never offered up stories myself – and his tolerance for the power of Ninkasi was not as great as my own, for as his mouth filled so too did more stories spill forth. He said his name was Jack, who had killed a giant by making her his wife, and other things he said as well. Perhaps some were even true.
He called himself Boral as he told me about a troll he tricked into being stone and the time he led twenty women in a dance that destroyed the last Witch-Queen of the Southern Marshes. He told me about the wizards of Kildesh, who spoke math as others did words, the not-men of far Ishael who lived across a desert more dangerous to cross than any ocean. It was then I realized that he took me for a man – it is one of my gifts that others see what they wish to when they speak with me, though I never know the form the seeming takes. Men often see men, women a women.
I liked to think he would not have shared the darker edges of the tales with a woman, but I could not be certain. His tales grew taller as the night advanced. Others came and went from our table, and I paid for their drinks and our own with small coin, though a great deal of them. The dead take little with them and leave much behind for others to use.
The fire burning in the fireplace had eyes when it thought no one was watching.
“You must have had many other names, to know so many tales,” I said.
And Boral was almost, almost suspicious then but I had bought so many drinks and fed his ego even more. He offered other names in the hours before dawn that are not as quiet nor as lonely as many suppose. And finally, he told me that he used to be a prince. He said it as though it was the one story he did not expect me to believe, not even after he told me his first name, oldest and truest.
“You killed Grendel,” I said.
“Yes.” And he said it without pride, which might have saved him were I kind in even the small ways humans can be kind.
“You should not have done so,” I said, and the fire vanished from the fireplace at the words.
He drew back. “Mother?”
“You killed your brother.”
“Half, surely,” he said unsteadily.
“You squandered the gift I gave you.”
“Whatever else is done with gifts?” he asked, and he was almost something more in that moment.
He reached for his blade then.
I smiled, for the first time since we had begun speaking, and Beowulf’s hand fell from his blade.
“I am the monster you birthed me to be,” be said, and there was a pleading in his voice.
“Even so,” I said again. And he was brave, and did not run though the innkeeper never slept a night through for the rest of his life.