As Lord Jedric held the scroll aloft in his right paw, the gold threads in the royal parchment glinted in the late afternoon sun. Most of the crowd assembled in the town square held their breath; those who rolled their eyes had the grace to do so silently. The parchment might well be royal, but the distant king had little connection to this backwater village beyond sending blank scrolls for Jedric to scribble new proclamations on every fortnight or so.
“And so, I proclaim the new Knight Protector of Cornsmouth!” Jedric bellowed magisterially. “Appointed by me, Lord Jedric the First, through the power of His Majesty Harold the Seventh.” With a now-practiced flourish, he unfurled the paper. “Alfred Smithson! Sir Alfred Smithson! Step forward, Sir Alfred!”
Gasps ran through the crowd. “Alfie?” Wolli said in an incredulous tone, turning to stare at the mouse standing next to him. “Our next great hope is Alfie?”
“Silence!” Jedric growled, the boar stomping his foot against the old wooden platform he stood upon as if to stamp out the titters.
Truth be told, the newly-titled Sir Alfred Smithson was no less incredulous than his detractor. He was in excellent shape for a mouse in his thirties, and at five and a half feet stood tall for his kind. He’d had training with actual weapons masters, something that not all of the past Knight Protectors (God rest their souls) could have claimed. In that light, the town could do–and had done–worse.
But he preferred conversation, ideally over coffee or beer, to fighting. He was well known in the town as a critic of the distant and disconnected king’s puffed-up local agent, and he’d made it clear he found this whole “knight protector” business utterly outrageous, sending poor saps off to near certain death. He’d never have expected the damn boar to anoint him official monster hunter.
Even so, refusing the “honor” would be an act of treason, and thus absolutely certain death. Ears back, the mouse stepped forward.
“So when are you heading out?”
“How many men are you taking?”
“What weapons will you have?”
It was later the same evening in the older of the town’s two taverns. Alfie sat at his usual corner table, but tonight–naturally–he wasn’t being left to his own devices. “In reverse order, I don’t know, I don’t know, and I don’t know,” the mouse said, to laughter and what he hoped was good-natured snorting.
“It’s as tall as two men.”
“I heard four!”
“I heard as big as a house!”
In the space of thirty seconds it was established that the monster was brown or black or possibly white, walked on either two or four or six legs, and had either fur or scales or feathers.
“All we know is that it eats livestock,” Alfie sighed into his beer. He’d had this argument before, though, and knew it was a losing one. Not a one of the three previous Knight Protectors had returned. While the first two both set out alone–no doubt with thoughts of single-handedly defeating the beast to kingdom-wide glory running through their heads–the third had set out with three comrades in arms, all four well-armed, if not well-trained.
Whatever it was ate a lot of livestock. It mostly kept well past the edge of town in open range, but as the ranchers started keeping their herds closer to home the attacks had moved closer, too. It didn’t leave carcasses; it was as if the cattle and sheep were carried off whole, leaving only strange disturbances in the dirt, depressions and trenches and ripped turf. Most worrisome, last month they’d lost two ranch hands. Meat and milk cost twice what it had just six months ago, and even that was subject to rationing now, thanks to a decree from Lord Jedric.
“They say the monster’ll try and trick you,” a young fox who worked at the tavern some nights piped up. “Jedric says it’s like a siren!” That led to another burst of conversation.
Finally, Alfie stood up and raised his hands over his head. “Listen,” he said loudly. “We all know this is a fool’s errand.” That brought everyone up short, with more than a few gasps and mutterings.
Then someone beaned the mouse in the head with a turnip.
“Ow!” Alfie squeaked, looking down at the vegetable, then whirled on Wolli with narrowed eyes. The fat rabbit somehow always had a turnip at the ready.
Sure enough, he stood there with his hands on his hips. “You blooming fool, don’t let Lord Jedric hear you say that.”
“There’s hardly anything worse he could do to me at this point, is there? And you all know it’s true.”
“That’s not what I said, is it?” Wolli said, crossing his arms. A few people laughed nervously. “Nobody likes Jedric but we’re not likely to be rid of him any time soon. So if it’s a fool’s errand, what’s our newly appointed fool to do about it?”
Alfie thought a moment. “Explore,” he said. “I’m not going to charge in like the rest of them. It’s been a year and nobody can even describe this creature, and it’s about time that changes.”
“Really,” Wolli said skeptically. “Who’s going with you?”
“No one, unless you’re volunteering.”
The rabbit’s ears folded back.
Before Wolli came up with the excuse he was clearly flailing for, Alfie waved his hand dismissively. “That’s what I thought. On the second trip I’ll go out to hunt, but on this first trip I need to get answers.”
“Maybe the monster’ll invite you in for a nice cup of coffee,” the rabbit spat.
The eastern mountains stood close enough, just under a half-day’s journey from Cornsmouth on easy terrain–a nice dirt road took you three-quarters of the way, until it met a larger highway running north and south along the base of the foothills. The pleasantness of the journey kept Alfie’s mind off his destination, although his heavy pack–enough for a week’s travel–reminded him whenever he had to walk uphill.
When he reached the highway junction, he stopped for lunch, staring at the mountains. They’d never looked ominous before, carpeted with forest, mostly gently rounded, rarely more than a few thousand feet high other than a few snowy peaks many days farther away than he’d be going. Now, they looked positively forbidding.
Maybe this bright idea to do a solo reconnaissance trip had been terribly foolish. He’d brought no weapons beyond his knife. What if he met a bandit? What if the beast spotted him before he spotted it?
What if he just followed this highway right here south to Summerton and started a new, monster- and Jedric-free life? That sounded pretty appealing.
Sighing, he finished up, shouldered his pack, and headed up the much less well-traveled path into the mountains.
The day had begun warm, but the wind grew cold as clouds moved in. He hoped it wouldn’t rain. Then he hoped that this time tomorrow he’d still be alive to worry about the rain. He suspected his chances weren’t very good.
After at least an hour, all uphill, he reached the peak’s crest. Dropping his pack, he withdrew a spyglass from it and begun to look about. The road continued, but when he turned northward he could see–a torn-up field? Yes. With depressions and trenches.
Signs, he knew, of the monster.
Most villagers had visited ravaged fields at least once. Their best guess had been that the beast leapt into the air and landed on cattle with its whole fearsome weight. But this far away, the little pits and pockmarks in the grass looked–mystifying. They were depressions in larger depressions. Almost–rough outlines of–pawprints.
He put down the spyglass and stared blankly, then sighed, shaking his head, and shouldered the pack once more.
It took another half-hour to reach the field. The sun had just begun its descent, but the meadow lay in the shadow of higher mountains on three sides, nicely protected. Especially right there: a nearly sheer cliff face rose from the valley floor about a half-mile away, several crevasses visible.
By the time he reached the largest crevasse–a cul-de-sac canyon–he was in twilight. He was cold. The rock floor of the narrow canyong sloped downward, making the walls rise overhead. Swallowing, he padded along with as little noise as possible, frequently glancing up. It took about five minutes to reach a dead end.
No–wait. To his right, one shadow revealed itself to be a gargantuan cave. It had to be at least a hundred feet high, a good thirty feet wide… and he could see a flickering light somewhere inside.
“Good lord, Alfie, you’ve found it,” he whispered. Taking a deep breath, he lifted his bullseye-style lantern–leaving it unlit for now–and walked in, staying close to one wall. Distant noises sounded from somewhere ahead of him: soft clinks and thumps, sibilant whispers and murmurs that were–he hoped–from air whistling through the rafters.
The what? Caves didn’t have rafters. Why had he thought that?
With a shock, he realized he stood next to a wooden beam: four feet across, running up out of sight. He lit the latern and shone the beam all around. The floor had been scraped in parts, swept clean in others. The walls were clearly carved. A mine? Maybe, but the scale was–
“Who’s there?” a voice boomed out from somewhere far overhead.
All of Alfie’s fur stood on end, all at once. He nearly dropped the lantern.
He heard approaching footsteps. Heavy. Very heavy. And quick. Whatever it was, he had no time to run. This was not the way this plan was supposed to go. But he’d been spoken to. This couldn’t be the monster’s lair. It had to be a mine, or a secret fortress, or–or something. Bandits? Maybe he could talk his way out of it. But for now he’d try asserting authority.
He turned his lantern ahead. “I’m Alfred Smithson, the…” he began in his most commanding tone, then felt his voice dry up.
His light shone on a foot. Black-furred, sleek, at the end of a red-furred leg. A vixen? He jerked the light and his gaze up, travelling up the length of her leg to her knee. Up. Up. Up to her hips. Up. Up. Torso. Then, finally, to her face.
This was the monster’s lair. The depressions were footprints. And the monster wasn’t as big as a house: she could crush a house under a paw.
The vixen’s hand moved in front of her face to block the little beam of his light when it hit her eyes. She turned and pressed something behind her, and a lantern–on her scale–burst to life with a roar.
Alfred swallowed again, backing away slowly.
“Don’t tell me, let me guess,” the vixen said. Her voice had both the boom and softness of distant thunder. “You’re the new Knight Protector of Cornsmouth.”
His ears folded back. “Y… yes?”
The vixen sighed heavily. “All right, let’s get this over with,” she said, starting to walk toward him.
Alfred backed away more quickly, still gaping. “Get what over with?”
“You’re going to charge at me with your sword, then I’m going to step on you.”
“Wait, what? No!”
She rolled her eyes. “Fine. This time I’m sure it’ll be different.” She motioned him forward with a hand.
“I don’t even have a sword!”
“Really?” She stopped a few yards away and looked at him suspiciously. “You don’t have one of those axes, do you?”
“No! Just a dagger!”
She shrugged. “Okay.” She took another step forward and raised her right paw high in the air.
“Wait!” he shrieked.
She paused, then brought the paw down toward him. Alfred had just enough time to turn and start to scream before he felt it come down, knocking his pack away. He saw it skidding across the cavern floor out of the corner of his eye as her foot forced him flat on his back, the vixen’s soft paw pad pressing against his back. And arms. And legs. Two toes rested to either side of his head.
Her voice came from high above. “You people keep coming here to kill me. What am I supposed to do?”
Alfie twisted his head from side to side, but all he could see was the side of those gargantuan toes. “I don’t want to kill you!” He knew she would likely realize he meant I have no possible way of killing you, but hoped against hope that was good enough. Even so, he tried to steel himself for the squish he expected. He hoped it wouldn’t hurt for long.
She shifted her foot fractionally, rolling him onto his back. His view became an impossibly long, sleek leg–still framed by toes–topped by the curve of her hips and, even higher up, bust. Her denim shorts would be frowned on at the village, although she looked no less feminine for it. Her top sported only a halter. It made sense given how much cloth even those abbreviated garments required on that scale, but he was seeing much more of this fox then he ever saw of the women back home. Despite the scowl she aimed at him, despite the look of annoyance in those giant green eyes far above, she was very pretty.
He felt his ears start to color. Under normal circumstances he’d look away, but there was nothing he could see that wasn’t vixen, and the warm, soft weight of her footpad on top of most of his body was very… very…
The vixen spoke again, snapping his thoughts away from that disquieting path. “You’re the first one who’s actually said anything other than declaring he was the Knight Protector here to end my evil reign, whatever in the world that means. So, all right. I’m not stepping down. Yet. If you’re not here to try and kill me, what are you here for?”
“I–I just wanted to see if I could find the monster. To see what it was.”
“So instead of charging in like an idiot, you figured you’d look around so you could come up with a better plan of attack.” The pressure on him increased in an extremely foreboding fashion.
“No! No! That’s when I thought there was a monster. You’re–you’re very clearly not a monster.”
She narrowed her eyes.
“I just want to talk. Please let me.”
After a few achingly long seconds passed, she sighed, and lifted her toes off him, leaning over to pick him up. As simple as the action was, watching it from that vantage point made him shudder in a way that wasn’t entirely terror. Fortunately, he was again saved from thinking too long on that as her fingers wrapped around him completely, as if he were a child’s doll. A small doll.
As she stepped deeper into the cave, Alfie squirmed to get a better view. She held him at about her hip level, so by tilting his head up he could see a huge door ahead. The giantess unlatched it, swung it open, and stepped through.
Beyond it lay… a home.
The mouse’s eyes widened farther than he’d thought was physically possible.
A simple home, a single irregularly-shaped room hewn from the giant cavern, yet better appointed than his own little hut. Throw rugs covered much of the floor, a rough-hewn but cushioned couch occupied the central area facing a fireplace, a mattress rested against one wall, and a vast dining table and two equally vast chairs took up the area between the couch and the kitchen.
Another giantess sat in one of the chairs.
The wolf woman stood up as the vixen entered. She looked, if anything, taller and broader, stronger–but just as gorgeous, and just as underdressed. “So was it another one of those ‘knights,’ or whatever they call themselves?”
“It was,” the vixen replied, closing the door. She extended the hand with Alfie on in it, opening her fingers to leave him sprawled on her palm.
The wolf stared down incredulously. “You brought it in with you?”
Alfie cleared his throat.
“He says he wants to talk. It’s a first.”
The wolf leaned over and, without saying a word to the mouse, started poking at him with a clawtip about the size of his head, pushing him this way and that. “No sword.”
“What would a sword even do to you?” Alfie burst out, without really thinking about it.
She narrowed her eyes. “One of you lot drove one right into my center pawpad. I was limping for a week! Bled a lot when I pulled it out, too.”
Alfie flinched at the description, even though he knew she’d likely been stabbed while stepping on some poor sap who’d hoped holding his sword over his head would save him. “I’m sorry.”
She grunted. “Come on, then.” She motioned the vixen–and, by proxy, Alfie–to the sitting area, stopping a moment to tend the fireplace. The room wasn’t full of smoke; he wondered how they’d put in a chimney.
The vixen giantess walked to the couch and sat down, leaning forward and setting Alfie down on a nearby table as the wolf took a seat as well. She set his pack down next to him; apparently she’d picked it up in her other hand when she’d grabbed him. “You said your name was Alfred?”
“Y… yes.” He swallowed. “Friends say Alfie.”
“We’re not friends, Alfred. I’m Liann,” the vixen said. “This is my wife, Muari.”
He stared up at the two canine giantesses. From enough of a distance to be able to take them all in–albeit still not in one glance–they both looked athletic, with similar shoulder-length haircuts. “Wife? You’re… you’re married?”
“Four years now,” Muari said, sliding closer on the couch to Liann and giving the vixen a kiss on the cheek. Both of their tails wagged.
Alfie ran a hand through his hair. He wasn’t sure his view of the world could stand much more up-ending in one afternoon.
“So,” Liann said, “start by explaining why you little guys keep coming here to kill us.”
“And why you’re so stupid about it,” Muari added. “Every so often one of you just comes up and takes whacks at our feet until we either scare you off or kick you into a wall.”
“If they’re going to keep at it, I’m fine with them being stupid,” Liann said dryly. “Alfred: talk.”
He cleared his throat, looking down at the table. “Well. Cornsmouth is a village a half-days’ journey west of here–”
“A half-day for you, or for us?” Muari asked.
“Um, for me.”
“So about a half-hour,” Liann said, looking at her wife. The wolf nodded.
“Right,” he said, clearing his throat again. “We have a lot of livestock. A lot of sheep, a lot of cattle. Starting about a year ago, some of the herds… uh… the heads started going missing. The ranchers talked about horrible crashing noises and terrified screams and found these huge, huge marks in the ground…”
“Footprints?” Muari sounded amused.
“We didn’t know they were footprints. It–honestly, I don’t think it even occurred to anyone. We thought those were signs of struggles, of something big leaping into the air and coming down, of–of–of I have no idea, but definitely not of fifty foot high women!”
“I’m eighty-five feet high, and Liann’s seventy-six.”
“Seventy-seven!” the vixen corrected indignantly.
He tried not to flinch again. “Uh. Thank you for the correction, ma’am. Anyway, the point is that instead of finding a a big, ravenous monster a few times my size–which is what the talk of the town has been–the truth seems to be… well, something else entirely.” He sighed, running a hand through his hair. “Am I really the first one to try and talk with you?”
“You really are,” Muari said. “It’s honestly been baffling. We’ve met littles before, back when we used to live east of here, and… they weren’t anything like this.”
Alfie sniffed the air, an unexpected scent at his nose, but didn’t have time to place it before Liann picked up the narrative. “You’re not the first one we’ve tried to talk to, but it never went well. The first one who showed up just yelled ‘Silence, demon!’ whenever I spoke to him. Muari tried, too.”
“He was a lion?”
“Yes. He kept commanding us to return to Hell!”
“That would be Ced. Very religious fellow. He’s kind of a fanatic, really. Uh… was, I suppose.”
“Was,” Liann confirmed. “I’m sorry about stepping on a few of your friends.”
“I’m not,” Muari said. “Your friends were stupid.”
“Muari…” Liann gave her the look again.
“You’re not, either,” the wolf said challengingly.
Alfie looked between both of them. Liann looked between Muari and Alfie, then sighed. “She’s right, I’m not,” she said, sounding apologetic about not being sorry.
“I, uh…” He swallowed nervously. “I understand. I think Jedric was picking the hotheads.” He sniffed the air again. Wait, was that–
“The coffee must be ready,” Muari said, rising to her feet. “Would you like some? I don’t have a cup your size, but I’ll let you drink from mine if you’re careful.”
For some reason that made his ears blush. “I have a cup in my pack I can use, if you’ll let me dip it in.”
By the time he’d undone his pack and gotten out his mug–one he’d thought of as oversized–Muari had set down two tub-sized ceramic cups. He approached the closest one, then looked up questioningly at the two giantesses.
“Go on,” the vixen said with a grin.
He had a disquieting sense of liking that grin. Or maybe liking them giving him things. Or–or giving him permission. Assuming he made it out of here alive–which he was starting to be cautiously optimistic about–he saw a long appointment with whiskey in his near future.
As he dipped his tin mug into her huge ceramic cup, though, he thought about Wolli’s last dismissive words to him, and he found himself grinning widely.
“Wait, you’re saying this is all about taking a few cattle?” Liann said.
They’d had a civil and pleasant conversation so far, if one that had shaken Alfie’s understanding of The Way Things Worked to its core. If they were telling the truth–and he had no reason to assume they weren’t–Muari and Liann were from a village of giants “a day’s journey away,” which had to be hundreds of miles: not only were their strides far longer than a normal person’s, terrain that would be tough for the hardiest of travelers Alfie’s his size was easy for them. The village was fairly close to “little country,” but their relationship with said littles was–apparently–cordial, if distant. Giants didn’t go about flattening little villages and littles didn’t go about, well, telling other littles they were now knights and sending them off to be flattened.
Finally, though, Alfie had gently steered the conversation back to the real reason for his quest, and the vixen now stared at him as if he’d suddenly lost his tiny little mind. The wolf, though, looked back from the kitchen with a slightly uncomfortable expression. She was cooking… something. More vegetables than meat, from the scent. And it smelled delicious.
“It’s–it’s not a few, Miss Liann. Not to us. One of those cows is hundreds of meals, but it’s probably not even one to either of you.”
“But they told us we could take them!” the vixen protested.
Alfie blinked. “Who did?”
He scratched the back of his head. “Please don’t take any offense, but I’m pretty sure they’d have mentioned that to us.”
“I told you they weren’t the same cattle,” Muari sighed. “The ranchers we know are east of here, and Alfred’s ranchers are west.”
Liann looked away, ears flat. “Those cattle taste better,” she muttered.
Muari sighed again. “You really do have the best cattle,” she said to Alfie as she walked back in from the kitchen. “But you know, I did talk to two of your little ranchers. They looked frightened but they waved back when I said hello, and they didn’t say anything like ‘please don’t take my cattle.’” Her ears flattened, too. “I’d really hoped that meant they were the same ranchers.”
“I imagine they were too terrified to say anything.”
“We’re not that terrifying,” Liann protested.
“You might well be the two most beautiful women I’ve ever seen,” Alfie said. “But that doesn’t mean you’re not incredibly intimidating to someone who could fit in your hand.” Then he frowned. “Ah… Miss Muari, you really talked to two ranchers? And you–ah–I don’t know how to ask this delicately, but you left them–I mean, you didn’t–ah–”
“Step on them?” The wolf grinned.
“Or gathered them up accidentally with the cattle, and, ah… did something that made them disappear.”
“That’s the most tactful way I’ve ever heard someone ask if we eat people,” Liann said.
Alfie’s ears colored.
“And he’s blushing over it,” the vixen said, laughing. “That’s too cute.” She looked back at the wolf. “You didn’t, right?”
“No.” She crossed her arms. “You know I don’t eat people. Mostly.”
Alfie’s ears skewed at that, although they didn’t lose their blush.
“Oh, I don’t, either,” Liann said, tone reassuring.
“Ah. G… good.” The mouse cleared his throat, then rubbed his chin. “Then what in the devil happened to them? We all figured the monster had taken them along with the cattle. That was right before Yorth and his group were sent out after you, when Jedric gave his ‘now it’s war’ speech.”
Muari snorted. “That was the group of four little wolves, wasn’t it? They were dangerous. That’s when I got my paw injury, and Liann got her toe injury. She’ll probably always have a scar from that axe.”
Liann shook her head. “Before you showed up, Alfie, we were starting to wonder if you people were really much smarter than the cows.”
His ears colored again at her use of Alfie, and it took him a moment to get back on track. “Well. We were told very firmly the monster would try to trick us, and we shouldn’t listen under any circumstances.”
“You’re not worried we’re trying to trick you now, are you?” Muari said wryly. “I was about to say that dinner’s ready and that we can share with you, and I was hoping we were past the part where you’d worry you’d be part of the meal.”
“No, no. I’m not. And that’s very gracious.”
“You’re hardly going to take much.” The wolf woman gently scooped Alfie up in a hand. When she set him back down on his feet, he stood on the table, and Liann was setting down two plates full of rice–or something like rice but much larger–and pan-fried vegetables and beef. The meals didn’t look very big for either giantess, but together the plates would have easily fed his whole village. And they smelled delicious.
“How… how do you get that much food?” he gasped.
“Some of the vegetables are from plants we brought with us from our village, so that’s why they’re our size,” Liann said. “Some of it’s from wild trees around here.”
“And we have chickens out back that we also brought with us,” Muari added. “Don’t go back there or they’ll eat you.”
He swallowed. “Ah, thank you for the warning.” He bit his lip, and looked up at Liann. “So I can take a little from your plate? That’s all right?”
“It is,” she said with a smile. The vixen kept smiling as she watched him take a piece of a vegetable, her expression much like that of someone watching her little pet. It made him self-conscious, but it didn’t bother him. Truthfully, he kind of liked it. And that bothered him.
“Ah.” He cleared his throat. “This is very good, Miss Muari.”
He kept nibbling. When he looked up at the two giantesses watching them eat, it became more than a little distracting, so he lost himself in thought. “You know, if I’d taken Lord Jedric’s advice, I’d have… well, come here with a weapon and ignored any attempt on your part to speak with me, and… you know.”
Liann snorted. “Is this Lord Jedric trying to get his knights flattened?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t… uh…” He set the vegetable piece back down, suddenly feeling a gnawing in his stomach.
“What is it?”
“Well, Yorth had challenged Jedric’s handling of this whole monster business. Ced complained about Jedric’s lack of humility and prudence. That was always big with Ced. And Dustin had lately been speaking about petitioning the king to remove Jedric.”
“And you?” Muari’s voice dropped to a low, foreboding growl.
Even though Alfie knew her impending anger wasn’t directed at him, his reply stuck in his throat for a moment. “I’m… let’s say I’m known for not taking Lord Jedric’s authority seriously. He’s accused me of undermining it multiple times.”
Liann dropped her fork, looking aghast. “He’s using us to take out his enemies!”