A powerful monster had moved into the ruins of the old village. Everyone knew it. First, the birds fled. Then, weaker monsters began to be spotted on the outskirts of the new village, displaced by the arrival of something bigger and stronger. Mostly they just stole things, food, tools, whatever was left laying around before the watch could scare them away with torches and farming tools. Once the last of them had been driven off, things settled into a brief, uneasy peace. Whatever had settled in the old ruins seemed mostly content to stay there. And so, Mallory reasoned as she bundled up against the cold, late autumn air, she would have to seek it out. She paused by the threshold on the way out.
“Mother,” she called, “I'm going out. Might be home late.”
“Out? Where is out, child?”
Her mother, a short woman with silver beginning to creep into her fine black hair rounded the corner from the kitchen, concern apparent in her features.
Mallory forced a smile she did not feel, trying to set her mother's heart at ease.
“Don't worry, there's just something I want to check out near Harvey's house.”
It wasn't technically a lie. Harvey's house was nearer to the forest, and the old village, than most.
Mallory's mother hummed under her breath, eyeing her daughter as she thought.
“Well alright, Harvey's a nice enough boy, just don't do anything I wouldn't do.”
Mallory almost snorted at the implication.
“Mother! It's not like that!”
Mallory's protestations were waved aside by her smiling mother.
“No need to deny it, you're a grown woman now. And I've always told you you can tell me anything, right?”
Mallory's heart sunk, guilt for what she wasn't telling her mother twisting inside her. Instead she grinned sheepishly.
“Heh, yeah. Thanks mum.” She hesitated, then closed the distance between them and hugged her. “I love you mum.”
Her mother laughed and gave her a hearty squeeze.
“Oh, you've grown so much! Here, take some crabapples with you in case you get hungry.”
Mallory strode down the dirt road past Harvey's house without stopping. Up to the edge of the woods, then inside. It was darker here, the ruins of the old village having been reclaimed by the forest. There was an eerie stillness as she walked past ramshackle buildings, overgrown with shrubs and mosses, saplings sprouting up through ruined, rotting planks. There was no birdsong here, no rustling of badgers or foxes, even the wind seemed to falter, afraid to penetrate the arboreal mausoleum. Once it had been a center of human activity, blacksmiths forging, carpenters carving, weavers spinning, children playing. The people who once lived there, the ancestors of Mallory's village, had picked up and started over after a strange sickness spread through the town. The elders had been mere children at the time, and didn't care to talk about it.
Mallory glanced around, seeking any sign of movement. The monster had to be here, somewhere. Mustering her courage, she called out.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
Her words felt small, stifled, as though the oppressive silence resented their intrusion. At first, only further silence greeted her words. Then...
Then there arose a rumbling, as of a deep, gravelly voice clearing itself. There was a rasping of disturbed leaves, as of something very large moving through the underbrush, and then the voice spoke.
“You are very brave, or foolish, to approach me all on your own child. I am curious which.”
Though the voice spoke softly, it had a deep resonance, such as one might expect from a mouth larger than that of a human. Despite that, something about it struck Mallory as feminine. She searched about, seeing no sign of the speaker, then replied with a quaver that she hoped didn't give away how anxious she felt.
“Possibly a bit of both, ma'am. And I'm not a child.”
The voice was closer this time. Mallory took a step back in alarm, but fought the urge to flee. Glancing this way and back, there was still no visible sign of the creature.
“No,” she said, this time managing to steel her voice. “My name is Mallory. What is yours?”
The susurrus of leaves suddenly stopped.
“My name? I...” The voice sounded at a loss for a moment, and sounded pained when it spoke again.
“My name is no longer my own. Why have you come here, Mallory? You who do not bring dogs, or fire, or steel. Surely you did not come to chase me away with words.”
Mallory took a deep breath.
“I have questions. Questions only a monster can answer. May I see who I am speaking to?”
There was a pause.
“As you wish. Step into the building to your right, and be seated. I'll join you there.”
Mallory looked to her right. The building looked to be a dilapidated pub. The parchment that once covered the windows was in tatters, the door was missing from its hinges, and it was dark inside. A voice in the back of her mind noted that she'd be at a disadvantage if the monster attacked her in there, but she brushed that voice aside. She crossed the threshold and looked around. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Leaves littered the floor, and the place had clearly been exposed to the elements. The stairs to the rooms above were rotten through, but the hearth looked as though it had been used recently, and the furniture was still serviceable. Mallory sat at a table, and waited. Soon, there came footsteps, heavier than Mallory would have expected for how stealthily the creature had been moving while they spoke. A tall, powerfully muscled form filled the doorway, head and shoulders taller than the tallest man Mallory knew and nearly blotting out the light as it squeezed inside. Mallory could not make out its face, only that it had a stooped, bent over posture, and long, thick hair. It spoke first.
“Wait there, I'll bring a lamp over.”
Mallory nodded, then belatedly said “Okay,” out loud.
The creature nodded, grunting, and lumbered over to the bar, rummaging around, then coming to join Mallory at the table. From this close, even in the dark lighting, she could see that the creature had a surprisingly humanlike face, if larger than a human's face should be, and attached to a long and thickly muscled neck. There was a clinking sound as the monster placed a clay oil lamp on the table, with a bit of cloth stuffed down the neck. The flint and steel fire starting kit looked comically small in her massive, powerful hands, which ended in long talons. After a few strikes, the cloth caught blaze, and Mallory could finally get a good look at the creature's face. She wasn't exactly ugly, nor by any definition pretty. Possibly a little handsome, in a rugged way. Her jaw was strong, and when her lips parted a little as she sat down Mallory could see that her teeth were quite large and sharp. Her ears were long and pointed, and there were green scales that started at the creature's wide, flat nose and went up her scalp until her hair started, which was yellow-white and went all the way down her back. In the light of the lamp, the creature's eyes narrowed to slits, and she huffed.
“Hmm, you haven't run screaming yet. That's a promising start. Alright, ask your questions Mallory.”
Mallory did not speak right away. She raised her hands, slowly, and with the creature watching her movements, tugged off her wool gloves, and pushed up the sleeve over her right forearm. There, around the outer edge of her wrist where her hand joined to her arm, was a smattering of silver scales, and jutting from her right side of her forearm, a piscine fin.
The monster narrowed her eyes, seizing Mallory's wrist and holding it up to her nose. She sniffed deeply, nostrils flaring, as if suspecting some kind of trickery, then released it and sat back with a stunned expression.
“Well then. That explains some things.”
“Maybe you could explain for me then. What's happening to me?”
The monster looked Mallory over.
“I think you know what's happening, or you wouldn't have come to me for answers.”
Mallory nodded, swallowing.
“A monster. Yes.”
Mallory sank forward in her chair, her vision swimming as she struggled to keep her composure despite her whole world falling out from under her.
“H-How do I make it stop? How do I go back to the way I was?”
The monster looked at her sadly.
“You don't. I'm... Sorry.”
Mallory's eyes watered. Opening and closing her mouth a couple times, she eventually choked out a sob.
The monster shuffled around the table and placed a hand on her back consolingly. So in need of comfort was Mallory that she didn't even think to be scared, and leaned into the touch as she broke into tears.
“Go on, let it all out.” The monster's voice, inhuman as it was, was soothing. Mallory cried and cried.
She'd lost track of time. By the time Mallory stopped crying, it was already darkening outside. She looked at the monster sheepishly.
“I'm... Sorry for that, I... I still have questions, but I have to get home. My, my mother will want to know where I've been if I come home too late. Please, can I come back tomorrow?”
The monster looked at her with kindness.
“Yes. When I changed, I had no one. I'd spare you that, if I can. Just one thing, don't tell any humans about what is happening to you. In this state, you are vulnerable. Different enough to mark you for what you are, but without the power to defend yourself. If you tell anyone, even someone you think you can trust, someone who you know would never harm you... Well, even if they don't hurt you, they might tell someone who will. I want you to live, Mallory. Not all monsters survive this time to grow into their full power.”
The earnestness with which the monster spoke took Mallory off-guard. Every part of it prompted more questions to surface in her mind, but there wasn't time to ask them all before she had to leave.
“Alright. Okay. Um, just one last question before I have to go. If not a name, then what should I call you?”
The monster chortled.
“Call me what you like. If it helps you to give me a name, then do so.”
Mallory smiled softly.
“Then I will. I'll sleep on it, and tell you what I come up with on the morrow. Thank you.”
The monster smiled and waved her off.
“Go on then.”
It wasn't as late as Mallory had feared when she got back. The early sunset brought by the turning of the seasons was still throwing her off. Her mother asked her about her day over dinner, and to which she offered vague replies, then begged to be excused for her listlessness by reason of being very weary, which itself was not untrue. Her mother seemed worried, and not for the first time since her changes had begun she felt a pang of guilt for lying to her, but her mother didn't press matters and after washing the dishes Mallory went upstairs to her room and flopped her bed with a sigh. The day had taken more out of her than she anticipated. She pulled up her sleeve again and looked at the fin growing from her wrist. Flexing a muscle experimentally caused it to twitch.
“Guess I'd better get used to it,” she muttered distastefully.
She went about her bedtime routine, and at length finally sank into the warm comfort of her bed. As she drifted to sleep, a memory danced through her mind.
“When I changed, I had no one.”
“Who did you used to be?”
In the morning Mallory's chores didn't stop just because she was changing. She and her mother lived alone, and keeping the household running took a lot of work. Chickens had to be fed, and their eggs collected. The goats had to be fed, and milked, which took longer now partly because she had to take her gloves off to do it and she was still scared that her mother might catch a glimpse of her scales, and partly because the goats shied away if her scales so much as brushed against them, and had to be coaxed back into calm stillness. The straw in the pens to soak up dung and urine had to be shoveled up and replaced, the livestock inspected for sores or illness, and then came the order of breakfast and cleaning up the kitchen when it was done. Through it all, Mallory tried not to think about how her mother would get by without her.
As soon as she could, she excused herself, but her mother waved her down before she could slip out.
“Are you visiting Harvey again? I made some biscuits while you were out last night, why not bring him some to share?”
Mallory hesitated, then smiled.
“Thank you mother, I'm sure he'll love them.”
Her mother clasped her hand as she passed her a cloth wrapped bundle.
“Good. I'm glad to see you finally opening up to other people. I'm not going to be around forever, you know.”
For a moment, her mother looked a bit sadder, and smaller. It was over in a moment, returning to her usual cheerful animation so quickly that Mallory could almost think she imagined it.
The smaller woman smiled.
“Oh don't mind me, just getting a little silly I suppose. You run along, have fun dear.”
Mallory nodded slowly, uncertainly, then tried it again with a bit more assuredness.
“Alright. I'll just, uh. Get going I guess. Thanks for the biscuits. I love you mum.”
“I love you too. Take care.”
Mallory thought about about dropping off the biscuits at Harvey's house, but didn't want him to invite her in and keep her longer, or worse, notice her head the wrong way down the road after declining an invitation. She kept walking, into the forest, and then the ruins of the old village. It seemed different somehow, the oppressive aura from before lifted, though perhaps that was just in Mallory's mind. The pub where she'd met the monster before was lit from inside, and Mallory approached curiously. The monster was inside, tending to the hearth, which had two rabbits roasting over the coals. The smell of cooking meat and garlic and thyme greeted Mallory's nostrils, and the monster looked up as she approached. She looked back and forth between the coneys and Mallory, and offered a sheepish smile.
“Been a while since I entertained company, but I figured I should do it right.”
Mallory was a bit stunned, and wasn't sure why. It felt strange to see such a powerful and dangerous creature look so contrite. She eventually shook herself out of it and smiled reassuringly.
“It works out. I brought biscuits.”
The monster's ears perked, its nostrils flaring searchingly.
“I haven't had biscuits in years. Thank you, really.”
The monster took the rabbits off the spit, and scooped up some roasted wild carrots and deposited them on wooden plates she must have salvaged from the pub. To her credit, they were washed clean. She added a small log to the hearth, which lit the room further, and brought both the plates over to a table, beckoning Mallory over with a tilting of her head.
“You can ask questions while we eat, I don't mind.”
Mallory smiled kindly. “I appreciate that. First though, there is the matter of what I should call you.”
She seated herself at the table, and deposited the bundle of biscuits to one side. The creature watched her warily.
“Right, that. Thought of a name then, have you?”
“I have. How would you feel if I called you Linda?”
The monster snorted in amusement.
“I suppose as long as I'm playing at being a human I may as well answer to a human name. Very well, for your sake, Linda I will be.”
Mallory smiled, and Linda tore into the rabbit in front of her, picking it off the plate with her hands and biting all the way through the bones as she took a mouth sized chunk out of it. The sound it made was a bit unsettling to be honest.
Mallory reached for the eating knife she had hanging from her belt and cut into her own rabbit. It was a tad dry, undoubtedly because any cooking oil or wine left in this place would have long since spoiled, but it was well seasoned. Looking up for something to wash it down, there was a clay pitcher filled with cold water, and two wooden cups next to it. She filled one and took a sip, and looked over at Linda.
“So, questions. How long do I have?”
Linda looked up from her rabbit, already half eaten with no cartilage or bones left over. She chewed what was in her mouth, then swallowed.
“Before you no longer pass for human, or until you come into your power?”
Mallory sat back.
“Er, both, I suppose.”
Linda growled, in thought rather than anger, though it was still a little alarming to hear.
“The changes come in patches at first. If the first ones are all in places easy to hide under clothing, you might still pass for human up into next year. If not, you could have as little as a week or two. It mostly boils down to luck. As for your power, impossible to say. It varies from monster to monster.”
Mallory frowned in thought.
“You've mentioned that before, 'coming into my power'. What does that mean?”
Linda licked some rabbit fat that had dribbled down her wrist.
“All monsters have a power. It's what makes us dangerous, allows us to survive. I can't tell you what your power will be, only time will tell.”
Mallory impaled a roasted carrot on her knife.
“...What's your power?”
Linda paused, then looked up slowly.
“I can breathe fire,” she said deliberately.
Mallory bit into her carrot, and chewed thoughtfully.
“If you can breathe fire, why bother with flint and steel, like you did yesterday?”
“Can't just breathe a little fire, only a lot. And I have to be mad, and it hurts my throat for days afterwards. It's not a parlor trick.”
Mallory nodded, and swallowed.
“Thank you for telling me. That was perhaps a personal question, and not one I had business knowing the answer to.”
“It's not unreasonable to want to know, and I wouldn't have answered if I minded.”
The creature took another bite out of her rabbit, and Mallory followed suit. She was already far behind on her meal and had a ways to catch up. They ate in silence for a few minutes, before Mallory's curiosity made itself known again.
“What should I tell my mother,” she blurted out.
Linda paused, chewed thoughtfully, then swallowed before answering.
“Nothing. A lie. The truth. Those are your only options, none of them good.”
“I suppose not.”
Linda hesitated, then wiped her hand on a cloth napkin before reaching across the table to squeeze Mallory's hand comfortingly.
“It's not gonna be easy. None of this is. But you don't have to do it alone. I'll support you as best I can, for what little that's worth.”
Mallory put down her knife, and clasped both her hands around Linda's hand, and knelt her forehead to it.
“Thank you. Gods, just being able to talk about it with someone is... Well, it's something.”
“Yeah. Yeah, we'll get you through this.”
The meal progressed, after which Mallory unwrapped the biscuits much to Linda's delight. Again Mallory was struck by the contrast between Linda's monstrous visage and the childlike glee she got out of something as simple as her mother's biscuits. It made a certain kind of sense though. Scavenging in the wild couldn't often turn up all the things needed for baked goods, and going into town was out of the question. Over the course of their meal, Mallory learned that Linda was just under thirty years old, and had been a monster for the last five years. Five years of living alone in dark places shunned by humans, because trying to approach humans always ended in someone getting hurt, usually the humans, which only fueled their fear and mistrust. Mallory was torn between feeling sorry for her, and a sense of dread that this was her future. Linda did her best to cheer her up, and actually did a fairly decent job of it considering the bleakness of the situation. Eventually nightfall came, and this time it was Linda who took her hand and entreated her to come back tomorrow. There was a loneliness about her, a stark contrast to the aloof defensiveness she'd shown on the day they met. Mallory agreed without a moment's hesitation.
Once she got home, things progressed much the same as any night. Mallory's mother inquired if Harvey liked the biscuits, and Mallory barely hesitated at all before assuring her that yes he had. It was beginning to unnerve her how easily lying was coming to her with practice. She went upstairs to her room after dinner and undressed. The scales on her wrist were spreading up her arm, and now there was a new patch of scales on her inner left thigh. The fin sprouting from her wrist looked bigger too, though thankfully it still folded flat against her skin when held down. She inhaled sharply, and held her breath before letting it out again shakily. Sure enough, it was progressing. She was turning into a monster. The scariest part of all? Although she still worried for her mother, and for everything Mallory stood to lose... There was a growing part of her that was excited by the changes.
The next morning at breakfast, Mallory broached something to her mother.
“Hey mum, can we trade chores? You take over the goats for a while, and I'll do the spinning?”
Spinning raw wool into yarn was one way many families in the village made some money on the side, almost every household contained some manner of spindle for the task.
Mallory's mother raised her eyebrows.
“Well, I certainly wouldn't mind, but I thought you hated spinning?”
Mallory forced herself to smile. She did hate it. It was repetitive, boring, and she vastly preferred working with the animals. But, with the scales spreading it was just too risky to keep milking the goats out in the open. At least spinning she could do indoors.
“Just feel like a change of pace, that's all.”
Her mother looked at her searchingly, then shrugged.
“Alright, if it pleases you. Just don't get impatient or try to rush it. If the yarn's too uneven we'll never sell it.”
“I won't. Thanks mum.”
Her mother chuckled.
“No need to thank me child. My fingers could use a break anyway.”
Into the forest again. The route was beginning to feel shorter now that she was familiar with it. To Mallory's surprise, Linda was waiting for her out in the open this time, reclining next to a well in the center of what used to be the main plaza. In the light filtering through the trees above, with her long shaggy mane of hair, and her thick, scaled tail slowly wagging, and motes of dust visible through the rays of sunlight above, she almost looked more like a nature spirit than a monster. Linda got up and smiled as Mallory approached, dusting herself off. In this light, it was apparent that rather than clothes, she was garbed in a bed sheet tied on with rope. Probably wasn't anything else in the whole ruin that fit her massive frame.
“You're here! I-”
Linda halted mid-shamble a short distance from Mallory, bowing her head respectfully.
“I'm glad you came back.”
Mallory smiled, then laughed.
“Of course I came back, I said I would didn't I?”
Linda smiled weakly, and in what for her was a small voice said “People say lots of things.”
Before Mallory could comment on it, Linda continued.
“At any rate, it's nice to have someone to talk to. Besides myself, I mean. Um... How are you?”
Mallory smiled softly, and slid off her glove, and peeling back her sleeve.
“The scales are spreading.”
Linda leaned closer, nostrils flaring as she snuffled at the exposed limb.
“I told you they would. For what it's worth, I think they're pretty. Like pearls, white and rainbow-y at the same time.”
Mallory blinked, and looked at them. Now that she looked at them in the open air, they did have a faintly iridescent quality about them.
“I... Suppose you are correct.”
She waggled her fingers, and her fin flexed, seeming to flash for a moment as it caught the sunlight just right.
“So strange to think this is a part of me now, not something stuck to me.”
Linda grunted and nodded.
“You get used to it. It's the real you, the 'you' you've always been underneath it all. A few years from now, you'll wonder how you ever thought of yourself as human.”
Mallory spoke softly, contemplatively.
“That sounds frightening, or... Do I only think it should sound frightening?”
“Oh you'll get used to THAT feeling. Your body isn't the only thing that's going through some changes. Your mind is too. A lot of thoughts are gonna feel disconnected as you start to realize they belong to the old you, not the real you.”
Mallory scratched at the boundary where her skin met scales, only for Linda to bat her hand aside.
“Hey, no, bad. Just let it come off naturally, don't pick at it.”
That snapped Mallory out of it.
“It's natural to be a little turned around right now. It'll get better, I promise.”
Mallory shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts.
“Right... Ugh, feels like my head's floating in syrup. I'm not usually like this.”
“I know,” Linda replied. “I know, I've been there.”
Mallory looked up at her.
“How did you get through this all by yourself?”
Linda took a deep breath, and sighed.
“I almost didn't. My mother found out, and she set every man in town out to kill me.”
Mallory snapped her head back to look at the taller woman in shock.
“Your own mother!?”
Linda sighed, wearily.
“In her mind, I was not her daughter anymore. I was the thing that took her daughter from her.”
She reached up and scratched at the base of her neck idly, the long claws not seeming to do much damage to her thick skin even though her scales didn't seem to extend down her front.
“Heh, she wasn't entirely wrong either.”
Mallory blinked back sympathetic tears.
“That's awful. I'm sorry.”
Linda grunted dismissively.
“That was another lifetime, a different me. I'll never be afraid again, I am what people are afraid OF. A monster. Wicked and cruel.”
Linda couldn't help smiling, laughter bubbling up from within.
“Well you don't seem very wicked and cruel to me.”
Linda smirked, and stuck out a forked tongue at Mallory teasingly.
“Bold one aren't you. You know even other monsters are scared of me?”
Linda smiled more.
“Hard not to. You know for the first week after you moved in we were practically overrun with goblins and imps who couldn't get away from you fast enough.”
Linda made a face.
“Ugh, goblins. That explains the mess in the stables when I got here. Wretched little buggers.”
“Why, what did they do?”
“Trust me, you don't want to know.”
Mallory hummed softly, and they both fell silent for a bit. Finally, the younger woman looked up at the sky, wondering how long she had before it got dark.
“I like spending time with you. You don't sugarcoat what's happening, but at the same time, you do make it feel less like the end of the world. And I don't have to hide or lie. Part of me just wants to stay here, with you.”
The larger monster looked at her longingly.
“You could stay. You don't have to go back.”
Mallory smiled wistfully and shook her head.
“I have to go back, I can't just disappear on my mother, she'd lose her mind with worry.”
Linda reached out, and brushed Mallory's fin with a fingertip. It was more sensitive than Mallory realized, and she shivered. Linda smiled sadly.
“Sooner or later you won't have a choice. The longer you stay, the more likely you are to be discovered. But...”
“I don't blame you for wanting to draw this out as long as you can. You'll never be able to go back once you've left. My advice?”
Linda drew the younger woman in close, resting her massive paws on the Mallory's shoulders.
“If there's anything you want to say to her, maybe something you've been meaning to say for a while, and never got around to? Or maybe something that felt so implicit, there was never a need to speak it out loud? Now's the time to say it. Don't wait.”
There was an intensity in the beast woman's eyes as she spoke, as though she could see right through to the core of Mallory's being. A shiver passed through her that was only partly due to the cold end of Autumn air.
“I... Okay. You're right.”
Linda smiled weakly at her.
“Um... You can let go of my shoulders now.”
The larger woman reared up startled, letting go of Mallory as though she were suddenly scalding to the touch.
“Right! I knew that! I mean... Uh, sorry. I, I really should have asked first.”
Mallory giggled and looked up. She could get used to seeing this wolfish looking woman being sheepish.
“It's alright. I kind of like it when you touch me.”
As soon as the words left her mouth she scrunched her eyes shut as humiliation and her brain caught up to her mouth.
“That. That sounded different, in my head.”
She peeked one eye open and glanced up. Linda was studiously avoiding eye contact, and biting her knuckle.
“I think I made that awkward.”
Linda looked down with a weak smile.
“I think we made that awkward, but I'm not upset if you're not. You're not, are you?”
Mallory shook her head.
The taller woman gave a sigh of relief.
After a moment of silence she changed the subject.
“You hungry? I didn't get us any rabbits today, but there's a pear tree behind that house with the porch in front.”
“Pears sound delicious right now.”
Mallory's mother was feeding another log to the fireplace when her daughter came home. Mallory felt a pang in her chest, knowing there would come a time when she'd have to give this up, for good. In the meantime though... She waited until her mother was done, then wrapped her up in a tight hug. Her mother laughed, and patted her hair.
“Well, good to see you too!”
Mallory took a deep breath, trying to prevent herself from crying.
“I love you mum. I want you to know that. I'll always appreciate everything you've done for me.”
Her mother leaned back and gave her a curious look.
“That's... Nice of you to say, but you say it like you're going away somewhere.”
Mallory closed her eyes in case they gave her away, and shook her head.
“No, just... Felt like saying it, in case I hadn't recently. That's all.”
Her mother looked askance at her.
“If this is about getting married, it's not like you'll never see me again.”
Mallory had never felt more blindsided.
Her mother smirked at her.
“All this time you've been spending with Harvey lately, the things you've been saying and the way you've been acting. I'm not a fool, child. I was young too once after all.”
Mallory stared, dumbfounded, and only realized that her mouth was hanging open when her mother reached up and shut it for her.
“Come, lets have dinner before it gets cold.”
Mallory remained staring at the space her mother had occupied when she spoke.
She shook her head and belatedly followed to the kitchen.
“And how do I talk my way out of this, I wonder?”
Mallory knew immediately the next morning that something was very wrong. Something was wrong with her eyes, like each was seeing something completely different from the other. It was disorienting, and confusing. After some experimentation, she worked out that her right was seeing normally, the darkness of her pre-dawn room casting everything in a dark blue light, but her left eye...
She closed her right eye and looked through only her left. Everything was clearer, brighter, more distinct, the gloom proving no obstacle to her sight. Even colors seemed more vivid.
She opened both eyes again and immediately was hit by a wave of nausea. Either was fine, but both at once sending conflicting signals was just a bit much.
Mallory staggered out of bed and lurched towards her dresser, fumbling for the tin lid she'd polished for use as a mirror. Taking a deep breath, she opened her left eye to check her reflection.
It was. Bad. The whites of her eye had turned a wet black, and her once blue-green iris was now a shimmering band of silver. There was a small cluster of scales like the ones on her wrist and thigh as well, on the skin around her eye. She scrunched that eye shut and checked the other one. That one looked normal at least.
This was going to be a lot harder to hide. She'd hoped for a few more months before it got this bad, but it seemed her luck was against her.
“I can... I can still fix this, I'll just. I dunno, cover it with a bandage and say I had an accident? Oooooh no!”
She hissed sharply.
“Dammit. Dammit, dammit, dammit!”
She clenched a fist in frustration, and felt an impulse to knock something over, but she resisted. She didn't want to wake her mother before she had a chance to cover up somehow. She forced herself to unclench her fist.
“Bandages. Gotta get bandages.”
Her mother gasped in fright when she saw her. At first Mallory's guts clenched with fear, worried that she'd accidentally left some scales exposed, but as her mother closed the distance it became apparent that she was just concerned.
“What happened to your eye child? Are you okay? Does it hurt?”
Mallory forced a smile.
“It's fine, I just got a cinder from the fire in it, it'll be fine in a few days. Just hurts to look through it right now.”
Her mother approached, beckoning.
“Come, come, let me look at it.”
Mallory panicked and backpedaled.
“No, NO!” She shouted louder than she meant to, and her mother froze in place.
Mallory's heart was racing, but she tried to play it off.
“I mean, I just got these to stay on, that's all.”
Her mother looked at her, alarm naked in her eyes.
“A-alright, if you say so. I, I'm just going to step outside. Check on the animals and that. You let me know if blood or pus turns up in your bandages though, yes?”
Mallory forced herself to calm down.
“I will if that happens mother, honest. I'm sure it'll be fine though.”
Her mother nodded slowly, uncertainly.
Mallory called out as her mother was reaching the door.
“Oh, and uh, I'm gonna be headed over to Harvey's place again today, after chores.”
Her mother peered over at her.
“Are you sure you shouldn't stay home and rest? I'm sure Harvey will understand. I could go over and let him know you aren't well.”
Mallory's eyes widened.
“What? No! That's... That's really not necessary. I'll be fine, mum. Don't worry about it.”
Her mother peered at her a moment longer, then shrugged. “Alright,” she muttered as she stepped out of the house.
Mallory sagged in relief once her mother was out of sight, and retreated to work on the rest of her chores so she could head out.
Mallory hurried down the road into the forest. The wind was stronger that day, howling and forceful, and she had to effectively hold the bandages to her face to keep them from being blown loose. Inside the forest however, the deeper she went the less the wind could pursue her.
She sighed in relief and lowered her hand. The bandages sagged down her face, and she tore them off. She wanted to fling them aside, but...
She took a deep breath, folded them, and tucked them into her clothes. She'd need them if she wanted to return home that night. She looked up. It still hurt her eyes, or maybe it was her head, to look through both simultaneously. She closed one, then after a moment's thought, opened it again and closed the other one instead.
As she thought, her monster eye could see much better in the murky woods. The only part where it faltered was if she looked straight up. The sunlight visible through the branches above stung a little, but as soon as she lowered her gaze to the gloom around her she could see everything with crystalline clarity.
She sauntered over to the well she spotted Linda next to yesterday, and sat down wearily.
“Gods above what has my life become?”
She pulled her mitten off and looked at her hand again. The scales had climbed up her to her fingers, and she was beginning to develop webbing between them.
Linda suddenly sat down next to her. Mallory had been so pre-occupied she didn't notice her approach. The beast woman's gaze was fixed on some point in the distance.
“'Sup,” she said by way of breaking the silence.
Mallory looked up at the taller woman.
“Remember the other day, when you said that the changes came in patches, and that depending on where they showed up I might have more or less time?”
“Mm, yeah. Why do you-” she looked at Mallory and halted mid-sentence. The beast woman raised one of her hands to caress the side of Mallory's face with the scales and monstrous eye.
“Oh. Did anyone see?”
Mallory shook her head, and cleared her throat softly before replying.
“No. I put some bandages over it and pretended I hurt my eye.”
“That was smart thinking.”
The taller woman's thumb was brushing back and forth over Mallory's cheekbone, and Mallory nuzzled into it. She heard the larger woman breathe in deeply, and her tail thumped against the stone bricks of the well behind them. Mallory raised her gaze until she meet Linda's eyes. It was Linda who spoke next.
Mallory coughed in surprise, though she managed to keep her mouth closed.
“Please, don't tease me.”
Linda wrapped an arm as well as her tail around the smaller woman.
“I wasn't teasing, I meant it. You're a beautiful woman, and you're gonna be just as beautiful after you've finished changing, I can tell.”
Mallory smiled softly, and leaned into the larger woman.
“You really think so, huh?”
“I know so.”
The two of them shared a fond smile for a moment before Linda's face fell a little.
“You should stay here tonight. If you go back into the village looking like that, you'll be putting yourself in danger.”
Mallory heaved a deep sigh.
“You might be right, but...”
Linda frowned and leaned close.
“Please don't go back. I'm asking you not to, for my sake. If something were to happen to you, I...”
Mallory shook her head.
“I have to. I didn't bring enough of my things with me to start a new life, and my mother... She deserves to hear the truth one last time, before I disappear forever.”
Linda made a noise like a sad dog.
“Alright. But if you must tell her the truth, tell her in the morning, after you've gathered your things. You may have to leave in a hurry once she knows.”
Mallory grit her teeth.
“I hope it doesn't come to that, but I'll heed your advice.”
Linda patted the smaller woman's head and crooned softly.
“I'm sorry. I really thought you'd have more time than this, just... Well, sometimes life doesn't work out the way we thought it would, you know?”
Mallory took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Yeah. No need to tell me twice.”
Linda nudged her with an elbow.
“Hey, think you can stand up a sec? There's something I'd like to show you.”
Mallory looked at her curiously and stood, bracing herself against the wall for leverage as she did so. Linda reached out with one hand, and Mallory took it. They walked together, Linda in the lead as they trod down a cobblestone path warped by tree roots and partly obscured by soil and decomposing leaves. They passed several decrepit houses, and eventually turned off the path to walk up to an especially large one. More of a manor, really. It was in better state than the other homes, partly because it was made of stone instead of wood. It even had glass windows, though these were mostly cracked and dirty.
“From what I can tell, this house belonged to the Baron's family. That's, not what I wanted to show you though. I claimed this place when I arrived a few weeks ago. I prowl around the whole village, but this is where I keep my most precious things. Come on in.”
Linda opened the door and held it for Mallory, and Mallory stepped inside. It was dark, but with her newly enhanced vision it was still quite easy to see. Not as dank in here as it looked from outside. A stack of wood near the large fireplace and fresh ashes were the likely contributing factors to the difference. The room was spacious but for long tables that took up most of the room, and at one point had been well decorated, though now most of the tapestries and paintings had been reduced by time and lack of care to worthless, moth-eaten ruin.
Linda pointed at a large door at one end of the hall.
“We're headed that way, I've set up a nest in what used to be the servant's quarters.”
“You've got yourself a bloody tiny castle and you picked the servant's quarters?”
Linda chuffed and mumbled something.
Mallory mimed that she couldn't hear her, and Linda repeated herself in a louder voice.
“I couldn't fit up the stairs to the solar, alright? I'm- Well they weren't exactly designed for someone of my... Generous proportions.”
Mallory squeezed her lips shut in an effort not to laugh.
Linda pointed at her sternly.
“Don't you do it. If you laugh, I will turn right back around and won't even show you the neat thing I brought you here for, so help me Mallory.”
Mallory shook her head.
“I won't,” she said in a slightly higher pitch then she usually spoke. She cleared her throat and tried again.
“I won't. Honest,” she managed in a normal voice this time.
Linda narrowed her eyes, but nodded affirmatively.
“That's right you won't.”
The beast woman led the way again, tail thrashing somewhat agitatedly. Mallory followed behind in what she hoped was respectful silence. After exiting the great hall through some heavy double doors that parted for Linda as easily as the goat pens opened for Mallory back home, the corridor on the other side diverged. Taking the right hand path brought them in short order to what had to be the servant's quarters. The bed frames that once lined the walls had been tossed in a pile in one corner like so many children's blocks, but the bedding had been stripped and dumped in a separate pile. Linda's 'nest', most-like. It smelled like... Well, mostly it smelled like Linda, which wasn't a bad smell really. Certainly better than reeking of mildew, which is what she'd half expected given the general state of the village. Linda must have washed them herself.
Linda leaned over the nest and reached down, fingers burrowing in-between the bedding and the adjacent wall, fumbling around for something and fishing up a leather satchel. It was a large one as such bags went, but in her massive claws it looked almost like a coin purse by comparison. She reached in, and after rummaging around, withdrew a sheathed dagger, and handed it to Mallory.
“Where in blazes did you get this,” Mallory asked softly, hesitating before accepting it. “You know it's against the law for common folk to bear arms.”
Linda smirked at her.
“Take it out of its sheath.”
Mallory wrinkled her nose, fixing Linda with a curious look, but did as she suggested, lifting the blade partway from its sheath.
“It's got words on the blade.”
“'Iron is forged',” Linda supplied helpfully.
Mallory looked from up from the dagger.
“You can read?”
Linda grinned cockily.
“Yeah. It's my family's motto.”
Mallory dropped the dagger on the floor in surprise. Linda jumped up and scolded her.
“Hey careful with that, that's a family heirloom!”
Mallory raised her arms.
“I, b- wha- You're an armiger?”
Linda made a face and gestured at her body.
“Well not anymore, but at one point? Yeah. My father was Ser Grier Wyman.”
Mallory was already reeling, so that last sentence hit her like a double shot of something brewed in a washtub.
“Ser Grier the famous monster hunter!?”
Linda smiled, and made a gesture with her hands, head, and shoulders together that seemed to indicate a feeling to the effect of 'yeah, pretty much.'
Mallory took a deep breath and blew out slowly, then gingerly picked up the dagger from where it had fallen. She tucked it neatly back in its sheath, then handed it to Linda.
“I can certainly see what you mean about life not working out the way we thought it would.”
She leaned back, sitting on the edge of one of the overturned bed frames, and chuckled.
“You ever wonder how any of this is even real?”
Linda stashed the dagger back in her satchel, then lumbered over to sit on the floor next to Mallory.
“More days than not.”
They stayed like that for a moment, then Mallory sat down on the floor too and leaned her head against Linda's arm.
“Thanks for keeping me sane.”
“Don't mention it.”
Mallory stopped outside her own home to give the bandages one more last minute adjustment. Without the benefit of anything reflective she just had to hope she did an alright job with it. She opened the door and stepped inside. Immediately, some sixth sense told her that something was wrong. Her mother was there, sitting in her chair with a terse expression and knitting. Mallory slinked inside.
Her mother put her knitting down.
“I spoke with Harvey today.”
Mallory's heart sank. Her mother picked up her knitting again and continued.
“Went to his house in fact. I made an ointment for your eye and wanted to bring it over. Only you weren't there. Imagine my surprise to learn that not only were you not there, you hadn't been there even once in the last week.”
“Mum, I can explain.”
“Can you? Or are you just going to feed me more lies? You know I thought I raised you better than this Mallory Haven Brooks.”
Mallory felt sick as her mother glared at her accusingly. She probably deserved it, but this wasn't the way she wanted to spend what might be her last night at home.
“Look, I'm sorry. There's something I've been wanting to tell you but... I couldn't. And it's not because I don't trust you, but... It's something that affects a lot of people, not just you and me.”
Her mother huffed archly.
“And why should I believe you now?”
Mallory knelt in front of her mother.
“Because I can prove it. And I will prove it. Tomorrow morning, I'll show you and... And all of this will make sense.” She reached out for her mother's hand.
“Please don't be mad. I mean you have every right to be I just...”
Her mother peered at her.
“You've told me everything your whole life Mallory. Even admitting when you'd done something wrong. What can be so terrible that you'd change so much in so short a time?”
Mallory couldn't help laughing awkwardly.
“You've hit the nail on the head and you don't even know it.”
Her mother tilted her head in confusion, and Mallory patted her hand.
“Tomorrow mum. Everything will make sense. On my life.”
Her mother sighed.
“Alright. I'm gonna trust you one more time. But if this is a trick or another lie, I shan't trust you again anytime soon. Fair?”
Mallory smiled, tears welling in her eyes.
Mallory had spent much of the remaining night organizing and planning her departure, selecting the things from her room she wanted to take with her, and pitting that against how much she could reasonably carry. It was... Hard, realizing how much she was going to have to leave behind. Carrying limits aside, with the exception of her clothes she didn't have all that much that belonged to her alone, and her mother was going to struggle enough with her absence without being robbed. She did her best, and climbed into her bed for what would likely be the very last time, and allowed herself to weep quietly until sleep claimed her.
The next morning she lingered in bed, then got up slowly. She wanted time to stop, she didn't want to go, she didn't want to face her mother and tell her she had to go. She wanted everything to go back to the way it was, she wanted to be human!
She spent so long deliberating and trying to psych herself up that she was caught off-guard by a knock at her door and damn near yelped.
“Mallory,” her mother's voice issued through the door, “Are you going to come help with chores?”
Mallory took a deep breath, then let it out.
“Actually, mum... Could you come in a second?”
Mallory's mother opened the door gently, and stepped inside. As soon as she looked up she gasped in shock.
There was Mallory, sitting on her bed. No bandages on her face, no gloves on her hands, still in her bed clothes with scales plain to see on her hands and face, and one eye slightly larger than the other with black sclera.
The older woman trembled and backed away.
“Mum? Wait no!”
Mallory reached out as her mother slammed the door shut between them. The younger woman scrambled off of her bed and went after her only to realize her mother was still on the other side holding it shut when it refused to open.
Mallory gasped for air, her nerves so shot she was struggling to breathe.
“Mum, mum please it's me, it's still me I promise! Please, I- This is what I was afraid to tell you! I know it's scary, it's scaring me too please mum! Please, open the door.”
Mallory sobbed, breathless, sagging against a wall lest she collapse. At first, nothing happened. Then there was a faint creak, as the the door opened just a crack.
Mallory nodded eagerly, tears leaving tracks down her face.
“Yeah. It's me.”
The door opened further, and Mallory's mother looked at her through the open doorway, hesitantly, looking ready to slam it shut again at the slightest scare.
Her mother looked her up and down in horror
“...What's happened to you child?”
Mallory tried to smile even though her heart was breaking.
“It started with just a few scales, but... They keep spreading, and then the other day my eye? Just... Woke up and it was like that.”
Her mother looked like she ready to start crying too.
“There must... There has to be something we can do to change you back.”
Mallory shook her head sadly.
“There's nothing for me to go back to. This is me. This is what I really am. A monster.”
Mallory's mother took a step closer, then hesitated, her love as a mother warring with her fear.
“Don't say such things child!”
Mallory stood suddenly, and her mother flinched. The younger woman sighed.
“Why not? It's true. You're the one who brought me into this world and even you're afraid of me. How do you think the rest of the village would react if they saw me like this? The baron would have my head if the mob didn't get to me first.”
Mallory clenched her hands into fists lowered her gaze to the floor.
“I need to get dressed. I'll leave, and you won't have to cower anymore.”
Mallory walked slowly forward, and for each step forward her mother retreated, until she was no longer in Mallory's room. Mallory looked up at her mother's face.
“...I love you mum.”
She closed the door softly in her mother's face, and turned back to her room. She needed to finish getting ready. There'd be time later for tears.
With the bandages back in place, her clothes and mittens on, and as many of her things as she could carry in a bundle, Mallory climbed down the rough ladder that connected her room to the rest of the house, accompanied by a muffled clanking as her bundle hit the floor. To her surprise, her mother peeked out from the kitchen, then came out slowly holding a burlap bag with something in it tightly in both hands.
Mallory watched her warily.
“This is goodbye, mother.”
Her mother sobbed, and belatedly Mallory realized that she'd been crying too.
“Where will you go?”
Mallory hesitated. She could be putting not only herself, but Linda in danger too. But, then again, everyone already knew there was a monster in the woods. One more wouldn't make that much difference.
“The old village. I know someone there, someone like me. I'll be alright.”
Her mother furrowed her brow contemplatively.
“So that's where you've been going these past days.”
Mallory nodded, stiffly.
Her mother looked at her, then at the sack in her hands, then back, holding it out for Mallory.
“Take this with you.”
Mallory tilted her head, quizzically and accepted it. There was a clinking as of several coins. Mallory looked up in confusion. Even if it was all copper the weight alone indicated that it was more money than they typically spent in an entire month.
“It's your dowry,” her mother explained. “I've been saving it ever since you were a girl. A penny here, a penny there. I thought one day you'd be ready to marry, find a good man, start your own life, without me.”
The older woman breathed a heavy sigh and looked up at her daughter.
“This isn't how I imagined us parting, but... I felt like I should try to do right by you.”
Mallory looked at her a moment, then closed the distance between them and wrapped her up in a hug, sobbing into her mother's hair as she held her tight. Her mother froze stiffly at first, then slowly reached up and patted her back.
“I'm sorry mum. I'm so sorry.”
Her mother's voice choked as she responded.
“I'm sorry too. It doesn't feel like enough but I can't think of anything else I can do for you.”
Mallory sniffled, trying to stop her nose from running as freely as her eyes.
“You care. That helps.”
Her mother shushed her softly.
“Of course I care! You're my only child. You've been my world ever since the day you were born.
Mallory let go of her mother and stood back, trying to compose herself.
“Thank you. You should, you should keep the money though. Not like I'll be able to spend it where I'm going, and this place is gonna be a lot harder to keep up all by yourself.”
She handed the bag back, and her mother took it reluctantly.
“I'd like to refute it, but it's true...”
She reached into the bag and withdrew a single coin.
“If you won't take it all, at least take this? As a token if nothing else. Something to hold onto and remember that your mother loves you,” she said, her voice breaking. “V-very much.”
Mallory reached out and took the coin solemnly, clasping her mother's hand and squeezing softly.
“I'll treasure it, I promise.”
Linda was waiting for her very nearly at the edge of the forest, just far back enough to not be seen by humans. “In case you needed help carrying stuff,” she'd explained. True to her offer, she'd carried the large bundle Mallory brought with her all the way back to the manor.
“I'll help you check out houses if you want, but I thought maybe you might like the solar here in the manor. I haven't been up there to check it out, but it's probably your best bet. Bedding will probably be badly in need of a wash, but if you bring it down I'll take care of it for you. You can borrow some of mine while you wait.”
Mallory smiled, despite her sorrows.
“Thank you. You've been so good to me through all of this.”
Linda smiled, and set Mallory's things down on one of the tables in the great hall.
“Hey, it's a rough time for you right now. And, to be honest, I've thoroughly enjoyed your company. I've spoken more in the last three days than in the entire year previous, even counting talking to myself. Almost feel like a person again, ya know?”
Mallory reached over and placed a hand on Linda's arm, and smiled.
“Well you're not alone anymore.”
There was a thud as Linda's tail thumped against a chair, causing the beast woman to chuckle sheepishly and... Blush?
“I'll take good care of you, I promise. Anyway, go check out the solar and tell me what you think. I'll get some sheets and even some pillows from my nest.”
The larger woman bustled off to her nest, and Mallory looked at the stairs leading up to the 'solar'. Apparently that was what nobles called their bedroom. She climbed up the stairs and found herself in a spacious room, with a bed big enough for two, windows on two walls with real glass panes, and a fireplace! Mallory had never imagined living in such luxury in all her years living with her mother. True, the drapes were a mess, and there was a smell coming from the bed that would hopefully be cleared up by replacing whatever the mattress was stuffed with, but still, it was luxury. Focusing on the positives was better than facing the hurt she was feeling.
Downstairs, Linda was buzzing with restless energy as she picked the warmest, least stained pillows, blankets, and sheets for her guest. Part of her felt guilty for being so excited when Mallory was so sad, but the prospect of having a friend again, someone she could talk to, someone who wasn't afraid of her... After so many years of being alone, it was as if the gods had answered her prayers, not that she'd had much to offer the gods in the past five years beyond curses. She'd make this work though, she had to. She gathered up all the materials in one armful and brought them into the great hall. She put them down on one of the tables and called up the stairs.
“How's it look up there?”
Mallory's voice as she called back down was muffled, but Linda's hearing was more than sharp enough to compensate.
“It's good, real good actually. I just gotta bring the bedding down, it's kinda gross. I think I'm gonna have to completely replace the mattress stuffing.”
“Hrmm,” Linda muttered to herself in thought. She hadn't thought about that, not having much need for a mattress herself. Straw was cheapest, but there was no way she could buy it, and while stealing it was doable, it'd raise tensions between her and the villagers, and this location was too good to be driven out of. Maybe she could gather rags and use those to stuff it? The amount of laundry in her future was getting ridiculous.
“I'll see what I can do about the mattress, go ahead and bring what you've got down and I'll wash it for you. I've brought some clean linens to tide you over.”
After a few minutes, Mallory rolled a ball of all the sodden bedding down the stairs, then stood.
“Thank you! I feel kinda bad making you do so much work.”
Linda shrugged, and offered an easy smile.
“Heh, I'm a big girl. I can bench lift a wagon and pick up hot coals with my bare hands, a little laundry won't break me. Might not get it done tonight though, I gotta go hunt our dinner.”
Mallory quirked her mouth to one side in thought.
“Are you sure? I'm used to helping run a farm, why don't you let me handle the laundry while you get dinner? You might be strong, but there's only so many hours in a day. And anyway, I'd feel better with something to do besides mope.”
Linda mulled it over, then nodded, slowly.
“Well, can't argue with that. You know that corridor that leads to my room? Well if you turn left instead of right it'll take you to the kitchens. There's a door you won't be able to miss that leads outside to where I've been stacking wood, and there's a wooden tub there I've been using for laundry. I've got a stockpile of soapwort, but you'll probably need lye for the first wash, there's some in a bucket you can use.”
Mallory nodded, slightly dazedly as she committed the instructions to memory
“Right... You sure do have one heck of a set-up here.”
Linda grinned at her.
“I know, right? I dunno what in blazes prompted people to just pike off and leave all this stuff here, but they left in a hurry! Suits me fine though, beats the shit out of roughing it.”
Mallory nodded again.
“I imagine so...”
She hesitated a moment, then walked over to Linda and wrapped her arms around the larger woman as best she could. Mallory might have been taller than her mother, but against the beast woman's bulk the top of her head was barely large enough to brush underneath Linda's bosom, and her arms weren't long enough to reach around her waist, but she made a valiant effort nonetheless.
“Thank you, again. You've really saved me.”
Linda patted the smaller woman's head.
“You're saving me, too, so I guess that makes us even.”
She lowered her arms slightly to try and gently caress Mallory back, mindful of her strength.
“I really should go hunt. You're gonna need your strength.”
Mallory nodded, breathing in and stepping back with a shaky smile.
“Yeah, all that crying's taken a lot out of me. Good luck.”
Out in the forest, away from her little mock barony, Linda was tracking wild boar. For just two humans it would have been overkill, but Linda knew she'd end up eating most of it. Her increased bulk demanded more food than a human gullet, and it was no coincidence that so many monsters had a reputation for voracious appetites. The biggest pain would be dragging it all the way back. Contrary to the past few days, she was used to eating her prey where she killed it, raw. She'd been trying to act civilized for Mallory's sake, up to and including wearing 'clothes', if sheets from her nest could be considered clothing. No need to make the transition any more jarring than it already was. She'd left the sheet she was wearing earlier draped over a tree branch so that she could put it back on when she got back. It would have only gotten in the way on a hunt.
Linda lowered herself to all fours, sniffing the air testingly. She was close now. She hadn't found any tracks, but the smell of nearly fresh dung nearby was unmistakable to her keen sense of smell. She stifled a predatory growl in her throat, not wanting to give her position away.
Washing the bedding, including the stiff canvas mattress cover, was hard, time consuming work, but Mallory was glad for it. Gave her less time to feel sad, or lonely in Linda's absence. The task continued past the setting of the sun, and Mallory begrudgingly had to admit that her newfound dark vision was immeasurably useful. Having to scrunch one eye shut to avoid a splitting headache was cumbersome, but presumably that'd cease to be an issue once her transformation spread to her other eye.
After many hours, the linens and canvas were as clean as they were going to get. How to get them dry was another matter. At home, Mallory would have laid them out to dry over some bushes, but it was getting late, and there was no sun and barely any wind to help things along. After some thought, she decided to heave the wet laundry down to the plaza. It had slightly more sun during the day, as the stones paving the area had been more resistant to the encroaching growth than the rest of the village. The bountiful rubble was as good a place as any to drape the sodden fabrics. That was where she was when Linda came back, carrying the carcass of an inexpertly gutted boar over her shoulders. Mallory saw her from further away this time. Apart from her improved sense of sight, she was getting used to Linda's movements. She spread the sheet in her hand out over a crumbling wall and hurried over with a smile on her face, only to gasp when she got closer.
Linda's face was covered in blood.
“Linda! What happened, are you alright?”
Linda smiled warmly, her impish grin familiar even beneath a coating of slick dark red.
“I'm fine! It's not my blood. I was gonna wash up before coming into the manor, honest.”
Mallory heaved a sigh of relief and touched a hand to her heart.
“Whew, you gave me a fright. I wasn't expecting you to come back with a full hog! Maybe some rabbits, or a goose or something.”
Linda chuckled, setting the carcass down while she talked and flexing her shoulder a little as if to work out some stiffness.
“Well, big monster, big appetite. If you get bigger, which may or may not happen depending on what kind of monster you're turning into, you may find out for yourself.”
The beast woman took a moment to look around, taking in the draped sheets.
“Finished the laundry, huh? Good job, you must have really went at it. I'll show you the drying ground another day, I should have mentioned it before leaving. This'll do alright for now though. Come on, let's get home. There's ham for dinner and bacon for breakfast.”
Mallory's stomach grumbled at the mention of food, and she smiled sheepishly. Meat had not hitherto been a regular part of her diet, but it was something she could definitely get used to.
It had taken some work to finish up the butchering of the animal. Linda had done well enough scooping out the offal and such before it could poison the meat, but most of the cuts looked like they'd been made by teeth or claws, and the skin hadn't been removed. A quick going over with a sharp knife, and things were much neater, and they had a hide that could be cured for later use. Originally Mallory had planned to pack some of the excess meat in salt, but Linda assured her that most of the beast would be eaten tonight, with just enough left over for breakfast. Mallory took her at her word, and between the two of them set about cooking their bounty. They had no wine, no cooking oil, and not many herbs or vegetables, but they made do. Linda assured her she'd eat it even if it was raw, and the smaller woman wasn't quite sure if she was joking or not, but eventually they had most of the animal nicely roasted on a spit, with mushrooms and wild garlic to go with it. Bacon was made separately and placed in the pantry to keep it from spoiling before the morrow. It'd keep longer cooked even if it meant eating it cold in the morning.
Mallory ate until she was stuffed, the bountiful nourishment replenishing her reserves. At first Linda ate slowly, but once she saw that Mallory had gotten her fill she tore into what was left voraciously, eating even the cartilage and chewing the bones when there was naught else left. Mallory watched her with a bemused smile.
“Get enough did you,” she said teasingly.
Linda beamed contentedly.
“Best meal I've had in years. Thank you.”
“You put in most of the work. You really didn't use a spear? Just... Went at it, claw to tusk?”
Linda nodded proudly.
“Eeyup. I am, without question, the most dangerous beast in the whole forest,” she declared, utterly lacking in humility.
When the men back in the village had made similar boasts, Mallory had always sniffed in disdain at their vulgarity, but for some reason, coming from Linda it was a little endearing.
“Alright mighty hunter, my stomach agrees with you.”
She wiped her hands on a clean rag, then wiped her face too. She realized with some surprise that she had briefly forgotten about her troubles, and strangely, was struck by a feeling of guilt for feeling good when she ought to be feeling sad. The feeling passed as suddenly as it had arisen, leaving Mallory unsettled, not feeling especially good or bad.
Linda looked up from licking her fingers in time to catch the expression on Mallory's face.
“You alright Mal?”
Mallory shook her head to clear her thoughts.
“I don't... I think so? I shouldn't be, but...”
Linda wiped her paws on a proper rag and scooted closer, sniffing the air softly as if by scent she could get a better idea of what was troubling the smaller woman.
“Tell me if this sounds familiar. You feel like you should feel bad, and you do, but also don't? Guilt, shame, sadness, anger, but kinda distanced from yourself? Like it's happening to someone you do care about but who isn't you?”
Mallory looked up at her with awe, and dawning comprehension.
The beast woman smiled softly at her.
“That's part of the change. You're losing your humanity, the 'human' part of you. Like shedding old scales to make way for new ones.”
Mallory's expression was one of befuddlement.
“Isn't that bad?”
Linda reached out, and with a crooked finger raised Mallory's chin.
“For a human? Yes, terribly so. For a monster?”
The beast woman paused, then with a soft, reassuring expression shook her head.
“No, not at all. This is what you need to be in order to thrive in your new life.”
She reached out, and traced the scales on Mallory's face. They'd spread from around her eye to her cheekbone. Mallory leaned into her touch without even thinking about it, shutting her eyes. She really did like it when the larger monster touched her. It made her feel safe, and not so alone. She scooted a little closer, until she was cuddled up against her torso. Her body was warm, warmer than a human's. The front of her body was thick muscle and tough, leathery skin cushioned with just enough fat to make it more comfortable to lean on, a distinct contrast to the large, sharp-edged, jutting scales that covered her back, so different from Mallory's own, smooth, pebbly scales. There was also a smell, not a bad smell like a human's body odor. Rather, it smelled more like an animal's fur, especially where she had hair, like her head, her neck, her upper back, her forearms. Presumably other places, covered by the sheets she generally wore around Mallory.
The smaller woman snuggled tight, and only realized that she was basically sitting in Linda's lap now when the larger woman scooped up her legs in one arm to hold her. A deep, resonant, rumbly noise emitted from somewhere deep in Linda's chest. After a second, the explanation occurred to Mallory.
“Are you purring?”
The noise ceased suddenly and Linda made a face like a child caught with their hand in a jar of jam.
“Sorry. I can stop.”
Mallory shook her head.
“No, it's nice.”
Linda gave her slightly perplexed, but also hopeful look.
Mallory smiled, and laid a hand on Linda's chest to prop herself up, mindful to avoid her breasts.
“Yeah. I'm sure.”
There was a pause, then the purring resumed, and Mallory laid her head against the beast woman's bosom. There, she could actually feel the vibrations. It was pleasant, really. They stayed like that a while, Mallory tucked in against the large woman's torso, Linda supporting her legs with one arm and, eventually, petting the smaller woman's hair with her other hand. It was really, really nice.
“Psst, hey, wake up.”
Linda tried to wake the smaller woman gently.
“You fell asleep, I can't carry you up to your room. Mallory.”
The smaller woman twitched in her sleep, but did not awaken. Linda looked around guiltily. She didn't want to wake the sleeping woman, goodness knows she'd earned some respite, but they couldn't spend the whole night on one of the hard benches in the great hall. She chewed her lip a little, then did something selfish.
Rising slowly, Mallory still cradled in her arms, Linda padded softly towards her nest. Sliding into the heap of linens and pulling a handful over her and Mallory, she settled in to sleep, with Mallory still tucked up to her chest.
“Just to keep her warm,” she thought silently.
It didn't take long before she too drifted into slumber.
The first thing Mallory noticed when she woke up was not, for a change of pace, some new manifestation of her mutating physiology. It was in fact, that she was warm. Very warm. Toasty even, in a way that her bedroom never was in the early morning even in summer. She shifted, and and the second thing she noticed was that there was a very large body wrapped around her. It was Linda. Blinking the sleep from her eyes, Mallory tried to work out what had happened. The last thing she remembered was...
Getting REALLY cuddly with the big lug. For some reason she just melted any time Linda touched her. And right now she was touching a LOT of her. She was keenly aware of the smell of Linda all around her, her arm wrapped around the smaller woman, and a part of her brain she didn't care to talk to at the moment was especially aware of Linda's bosom smushed up against her back. Was it getting warmer?
Mallory reached out and tugged one of the sheets draped over them aside so she could get some fresh air. Outside the nest it was crisp and quite cold. Linda's bulk made for one hell of a furnace apparently. A few breaths of the chilly morning air helped clear her mind a little. Obviously, she must have fallen asleep, and she guessed Linda had decided to take her back to the nest rather than wake her and send her to her room. Just as well really, as she still didn't have a mattress for her bed. Mallory lingered for a while in the nest; It really was quite warm, and Linda's reassuring presence was quite pleasant. Eventually her restless energy built up, for she was accustomed to being an early riser, and when nature called that was the final straw to goad her into movement.
She slipped out of Linda's arms quietly, not wanting to wake her. The beast woman seemed to be sleeping soundly, and although she did reach around in her sleep for Mallory moments after she'd slid out, when her questing limbs failed to locate her she tucked herself into a ball, muttering nonsense. It was kinda cute, Mallory thought.
After tending to her biological needs, while she was washing her hands and face she noticed that the the scales on her right hand now covered all but the tips of her index and middle finger, and that the pinky and ring finger had now sprouted needle-like spiny claws.
She winced. Lovely.
This in addition to having another fin, this one on her left calf jutting out to the side.
“Look, I've already left my life behind, can we just get the rest of this over already? Why even mess about at this point? Just... Get on with it!”
Venting out loud didn't really change anything, and it certainly didn't yield an immediate acceleration of her transformation, but it did make her feel slightly better. She took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.
She returned to the manor, and after rummaging around found some leather, a pair of (badly rusted) iron shears, and some other miscellaneous tools that'd serve her need. She took them to the kitchen. She'd need to boil some water for this.
Linda, for her part, didn't wake up until nearly noon. Normally she slept through most of the day, but she'd adjusted her schedule to around the time Mallory had usually arrived after doing all her chores and walking out to the woods.
The first thing SHE noticed was Mallory's absence. A pang of fear, probably irrational, that something had happened or Mallory had run away was quickly allayed by the sound of activity in the kitchen. She got up slowly, stretched, and issued an impressive yawn before strolling to the kitchen, still wearing the same bed sheet from yesterday.
Mallory was there, sitting on a stool, and looked up when she heard Linda's approach and smiled.
“Good morning sleeping beauty.”
Linda huffed in bemusement.
“I make no apologies for being a night owl. You'll find out when your changes are further along.”
Mallory hmmed, eyebrows shifting in acknowledgement.
“Honestly I think I get why, I'm already seeing better in the dark with my changed eye. Hurts my head worse than large sums though if I look through both.”
Linda nodded and padded towards the pantry. Bacon time.
“I noticed the squinting, wasn't gonna say nothin'.”
Mallory gestured at the project in front of her.
“I'm hoping this'll help in the meantime.”
Linda shuffled over, bringing the bacon with her.
Stretched out on the table with a selection of tools was a lump of stitched leather at the center of several thin straps.
Mallory nodded, and took a strip of bacon from the plate.
“Yeah, assuming it dries alright. Needed to soften it for the stitching.”
Linda made an impressed noise in her her throat.
“You're pretty handy.”
Mallory shrugged it off.
“Not especially. My mother was the crafty one, anything we could make ourselves instead of buying helped us make ends meet. She did her best to teach me too, I guess some of it took.”
Linda smirked and prodded the smaller woman with a fingertip.
“You should learn to brag a little, it's good for the self esteem. You made this!” she said, gesturing at the eyepatch.
“That's impressive! I bet you could make all kinds of other stuff too.”
Mallory smiled and laughed a little.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Linda made a 'so-so' gesture with one hand accompanied by an easy smile.
“Well, that's not a 'damn right', but never mind we'll get there.”
Mallory outright giggled.
“You are so weird.”
Linda made a show of sighing happily before saying “I know, isn't it great?”
Mallory tilted her head as if she had to think about before replying.
“Yeah, it kinda is,” she admitted.
Linda reached over with the hand that she wasn't using to eat and toussled Mallory's hair, earning a smile from the smaller woman.
Mallory reached for another strip of bacon.
“Too bad we don't have any eggs, I should have asked my mum if I could take a chicken or two with me.”
“Well, your hands were pretty full. And I'm not sure I'd be able to keep them fed anyway. Used to steal them, but after being chased out of a few towns, I'm hoping I can settle down here and antagonizing the neighbors isn't gonna help.”
Mallory gave her a look that made Linda feel compelled to add, “I can keep an eye open for any eggs I can find out in the wild though?”
Mallory shook her head and sighed.
“I'm not sure what jumps out at me more, that you used to be a thief or that someone who could take down a wild boar bare handed could get chased off by farmers.”
Linda narrowed her eyes.
“Two things. One, it wasn't always farmers, sometimes knights were involved, and sometimes it's better to run rather than slaughter a bunch of people just because they're scared. Two, when I changed, I didn't have my own private little village, or a friend to help me. I was alone, with nothing but the clothes I was wearing and a satchel full of whatever I could grab from home before armed guards showed up, and I was still more human than monster. I did what I had to do to survive.”
Mallory was silent a moment, then looked down contritely.
“I'm sorry. That was... Maybe I should have thought before I spoke.”
Linda took a deep, visibly lowering her hackles.
“Well, I should remember that you're new to all this, too. I didn't become the person I am today overnight, and neither will you. In the weeks ahead, you're gonna find yourself doing a lot of things you'd have considered unthinkable before. I should at least try to be as patient with you as I hope you will be with yourself.”
Mallory offered a wry smile.
“Thanks. Honestly you've gone so far out of the way for me already, and for nothing in return. I hope I don't seem ungrateful.”
Linda smiled at her, then reached out and gave the smaller woman a one armed hug.
“Your company is not nothing.”
Mallory leaned into the hug, hunching her shoulders forward to fit more of herself against the beast woman's side. It was strange. She'd barely known this woman a week, and she couldn't pinpoint when exactly she'd started to feel so drawn to her. A very small part of her, which she recognized as the human part of her, knew that such an imposing and fierce looking creature should be terrifying, but whenever she was in her presence she just felt... Warm. Even happy. Like spiced cider in front of a roaring fire, a kind of contentness against which all of her sorrows felt less sharp.
“I like you,” she said.
Linda glanced down at her, an expression of pleasant surprise etched on her chiseled features.
That human side of Mallory, which seemed increasingly bereft of valuable input these days, briefly considered backpedaling, or playing it off awkwardly. Mallory ignored it.
“Yeah. I really do.”
That purring noise Linda had demonstrated the night before started up, and she gave Mallory a gentle squeeze.
“I like you too.”
After cleaning up from breakfast, Linda went to patrol the premises, make sure there wasn't anything in her territory that didn't belong there, and possibly scare up something to eat later as well. Mallory went to pick a couple of pears, then retrieve her laundry. By the time she got back, and arranged the solar as best she could despite still not having anything to stuff the mattress with, her eye patch was dry. She tried it on, sliding the patch over her human eye so that the convex side was facing outward. It worked. No more squinting, and Mallory could see just fine.
Since she had a moment, she went back to properly treat and preserve the boar hide, only to realize to her chagrin that there didn't appear to be any alum on the premises. Nobles didn't make leather, they bought it. Maybe there was some to be found elsewhere in the village? Linda would probably know.
Temporarily thwarted, she settled for scraping the skin as best she could with a knife to try and prevent any fleshy bits from attracting more flies. It was not a good solution, but it was that or throw it out, which would be a shame. After that, she found that she really didn't have all that much to do.
So, she tried exploring the rest of the manor. It wasn't an especially large estate, but for Mallory it was easily the largest building she'd ever entered in her life. At the opposite end of the great hall from the doors that led to the kitchen and Linda's nest was a second pair of large doors. The doors were heavy, and the hinges were in bad shape, but they weren't immovable. The other side was split into corridors, like the other side.
She took the left side first and found herself in room with a stone tile floor and an enormous wooden bath tub. On one wall was a small window of frosted glass, and set into the opposite wall was a dark, stone basin, presumably for washing hands and grooming, or even seeing one's reflection. There was also a fireplace built into the end of the room with two large copper kettles, quite corroded but not unusable, suspended over it, ostensibly for heating bathwater. Mallory made a mental note to come back to this one. Scratch the solar, THIS was luxury. Still, she wanted to see what was down the other end of the corridor before she committed to a bath.
At the other end of the corridor she found, to her surprise, a small library. It probably was quite cozy when it was new, but decades without human intervention had taken its toll. There were stains on the stone floor that suggested some rugs had festered there for some time before being taken out, presumably by Linda. Many of the books and scrolls showed signs of water damage, and judging by the amount of empty spaces on the shelves there was a strong chance Linda had thrown out some of the moldier ones as well. Other than that, the shelves themselves looked fairly sturdy, and the chairs well made. There was even a writing desk, which showed signs of having been cleaned lately. There was a book laid out on top of it, which Mallory looked at curiously, but without knowing how to read, and no pictures when she flipped through the pages, it was impossible for her to guess the nature of the work. Shrugging, she went back to the bath room instead.
There was a heavy wooden lid over the tub, presumably to keep detritus and insects out of it. It took some effort to budge it open a crack, and Mallory immediately regretted it.
The smell was heinous. There must have been some water trapped in the bottom still when the people left and it had rotted over the decades. Peeking down inside, it looked like there was a green ring of grime that started a few inches above the bottom, and the bottom itself was coated with thick slime. Even with soap and a scouring brush, Mallory highly doubted this tub would ever be usable again for the damage to the planks. Damn. She sighed in resignation, and pushed the lid back in place to cover up that smell.
“Well, now what?”
Linda still wasn't back yet. Mallory was alone with her thoughts. She went back to the library and sat on one of the chairs there. She wondered how her mother was getting along without her, if she was struggling on her own or if the other villagers were pitching in. If everyone knew what she had become, or if her mother told them she ran away, or was dead. Part of her, that same human part that had getting quieter as time went on, wanted to check on her, to see that she was alright, but even in her head the idea seemed absurd. Stalking around the village would only cause trouble, for everyone.
Mallory sighed and stood up. Maybe she'd feel better waiting in the nest.
Padding back across the great hall to Linda's room, Mallory slipped under the covers. It wasn't as warm without Linda there, but the smell of her on the sheets was oddly comforting.
After skulking through the empty village, Linda returned to the manor. No other monsters had moved back in, which was good, and a family of rats she found in one of the houses made for a good snack to keep her hunger satiated. The bacon for breakfast had been delicious, but not very filling for her, and since her transformation she'd lost a lot of squeamishness about what she ate. In her arms, she carried a bunch of miscellaneous tools wrapped in a piece of canvas. Many were rusted, and she didn't know what half of them were for, much less how to use them, but Mallory might.
In truth, as glad as she was for Mallory's company, this business with the eye patch had her thinking that Mallory might also have some valuable skills to contribute as well, skills that Linda, as the daughter of a well-off knight, had never learned. Which was why she'd grabbed a bunch of tools from various parts of the village and bundled them up to take home. As she crossed the tiny courtyard and stepped inside the main doors to the great hall, she looked around.
“Mal? You in here?”
She put the tools down on one of the tables, and a moment later she heard Mallory's voice call out, “I'll be right there.”
Shortly after the smaller woman came out from the direction of Linda's room, rubbing her eyes.
Linda looked at her. Mallory's short hair was mussed, and she looked like she'd been crying. Understandable given circumstances, but just in case Linda reached out and brushed her hair back into place with her fingers.
“Hey yourself. You okay?”
“Yeah, just... Well, thinking about things, you know?”
Linda thought back to her early transition.
“Yeah, I do know. Come here.”
Linda opened her arms and Mallory stepped inside, accepting a hug from the tender beast woman.
Linda smiled. Breathing in, she could smell traces of herself on Mallory, mixed with the smaller woman's own scent. It was... Surprisingly thrilling.
Mallory looked up.
“Say, completely off topic, where do you usually bathe? I found a tub her in the manor but it's... Nasty.”
The beast woman shrugged.
“Usually, I just go down to the river and wash off in that.”
Mallory shivered just thinking about it.
“Isn't that cold?”
“Hehe, yeah, but it doesn't bother me as much as it did before I changed. Probably won't be a big deal for you either once you're further along. If you're feeling like a bath, I could maybe go down to the public baths and see if they've got any usable tubs left?”
“I'd appreciate that.”
Suddenly noticing the canvas bundle on the table, she nodded towards it.
Linda beamed proudly.
“Stuff I found out in the village, thought you might have a use for some of them. I can get rid of anything you don't need, too.”
Mallory smiled up at her. “Thank you! Did you happen to find any alum?”
Linda's eyes darted between Mallory and the bundle.
Mallory's face fell slightly.
“It's a white powder used for tawing. Doesn't make real leather, but it'll preserve hide well enough as long as it doesn't get wet. I don't actually know how to make real leather, but it seemed wasteful to just throw the skin from yesterday's boar away.”
Linda's expression twisted in thought.
“Uh, to be honest I wasn't even looking for powders. Sorry. I don't even know if some of this stuff is usable, but I figured you might know.”
Mallory offered a weak grin and shrugged.
“Well, regardless, thank you.”
They spent some time together after that, Mallory picking through the tools excitedly as Linda listened with interest to the explanations of their respective usages. Some were junk, and were set aside for Linda to take outside when she went hunting. Some were in good condition, but were used in trades that Mallory either didn't know well enough to use, or lacked other resources needed for their use. Those were set aside. Some of them though, Mallory did know how to use, and would come in handy in creating a life here. An awl, a light hammer, a hand spindle and distaff, and a few other things. Mallory rewarded the beast woman with a hug and thanked her profusely, earning a blush from the larger woman. Eventually, Linda did have to leave in order to retrieve dinner. Mallory wished her luck, and set about organizing her new tools and planning what she would use each of them for.
Linda's hunt was a success. She killed two geese, and brought them home. She was tempted to eat one of them on the spot, but she wanted the feathers and it was easier to leave them on the bird, so she didn't. Mallory took the task of plucking them, as her smaller hands were better suited to the task. Linda had sage, thyme, and wild garlic in the pantry, and Mallory combined that with pears to create an improvised stuffing of sorts. Sadly, while they had a few herbs Linda had foraged, they had no spices and no way of getting them. Still, even if it was improvised, it was a grand spread by a commoner's perspective, who were used to working with less. Roasting the birds took time. Linda took the task of turning the spit slowly and evenly, and Mallory sat across from her while they talked to pass the time.
Mallory smiled softly.
“I know I've said it before, but you really have a nice set up here. Kinda wish my mom could see it.”
Linda stopped turning the spit a moment, starting up again when a fat splatter of grease hit the flames below.
Mallory grinned sheepishly.
“Yeah, I know, I'm not suggesting we make it happen. Just a pleasant thought, you know? When she was imagining my future with one of the men from the village I bet she never imagined I'd be living in a miniature castle.”
The smaller woman uttered a small laugh, then a slightly longer giggle.
“Guess that makes you my prince charming.”
Linda barked a short laugh.
“Me? A prince? With this ugly mug?”
Mallory frowned at her.
“I don't think you're ugly. And anyway, weren't you the one telling me to brag a little? You have very handsome features, with or without the scales.”
Linda offered an abashed smile.
“Handsome, huh? That's a new one. Honestly, even before I changed I think my parents knew I was never gonna find a husband.”
Mallory tilted head.
“Did they actually say that?”
Linda shrugged noncommittally.
“Well, not out loud at least. They weren't cruel.”
Mallory didn't really know what to say to that. She scooted her chair closer and leaned her head on the arm the beast woman wasn't using to turn the spit.
Linda grinned down at her.
“Cuddly one aren't ya?”
Mallory beamed up at her.
“Is that okay?”
The taller woman leaned down.
“Yeah. It's really okay.”
The beast woman then planted a chaste kiss on the top of Mallory's head, and the smaller woman felt a wave of warmth run down through her body. She took a deep breath, smiling goofily.
“Mmm, this is nice.”
Linda smiled down at her, her tail curling around the smaller woman's form.
“I think so too.”
Dinner was outstanding. Linda ended up eating an entire goose by herself, as well as what Mallory couldn't finish of the other one, including the bones. Mallory was getting used to it, and it certainly made cleaning up after the meal easier. She wondered if she'd be as voracious once her transformation was complete. As they were washing up, Linda broached a topic.
“I've been thinking about stuffing for your mattress. I can't get any hay or wool without stealing it, and it could be a long while before I can get enough feathers for a whole mattress.”
Mallory bowed her head.
“Actually... Would it be alright if I stayed with you in the nest?”
The taller woman looked down at her, slightly surprised, but pleasantly so.
“I don't mind at all, it's nice having you next to me. Are you sure you don't mind though? I thought you might want some space to yourself.”
Mallory smiled weakly and shrugged.
“To be honest, being alone right now... It, it's not great. I feel better when I'm with you.”
Linda thought about that.
“Fair enough. I'm sorry I have to leave you here sometimes. I'd offer to take you with me, but until you come into your power, it'd be dangerous.”
Mallory looked at the ground morosely.
Linda thought. She didn't like seeing Mallory upset.
“Say, I got an idea. I was planning on bathing tomorrow, why don't you come with me to the river?”
Mallory's eyes widened in alarm.
“In the middle of Blót month? It must be freezing!”
Linda laughed and nodded.
“Very nearly. Doesn't bother me all that much anymore, but we could bring a kettle and a bucket so you can wash up even if you can't bring yourself to jump in. I'll still look for a real tub for you after, if I can find one in decent shape. Come on, it'll be fun!”
Mallory rolled her eyes. Freezing her arse off did not sound fun, but on the other hand, it beat being left alone with her thoughts again.
“...Alright, you talked me into it. Just lets do it before sunset tomorrow? It's getting cold enough as it is out there.”
Linda laughed, a pleasant, musical sound.
“Alright that's fair. I'm looking forward to it.”
The next morning, as before, Mallory awoke first. This time she was expecting to wake up in the nest, and instead of confusion she felt only contentment. It curbed her restlessness to be snuggled up against the beast woman's bulk, feeling the warmth of her body seeping through her. She laid there a while, just basking. At some point in the night Linda had wrapped an arm around her waist, and Mallory idly ran her fingers through the white, fluffy hair on the beast woman's forearm.
It was somewhere between hair and fur really, the individual strands almost transparent and only getting their pale, yellowish color from overlapping with such density. Where there wasn't fur, there were scales, smaller and flatter than the ones on Linda's back, that covered even the back of her fingers. From the grasping side of Linda's fingers and palm and going all the way up to her armpit was the same tough, leathery skin as on her chest and belly.
She tried interlacing her fingers with Linda's but the size difference was too insurmountable, and she settled for grasping the beast woman's thumb. Shortly afterwards Linda, without waking up, leaned her head down and snuffled at Mallory's hair lazily. Mallory couldn't help giggling, but fortunately Linda was a heavy sleeper and slept through the noise just fine.
It felt strange to not hop out of bed to get a head start on chores. Strange, but nice. At her old home, everything was a rush to get EVERYTHING done while there was still light to see by. Here, for two monsters, the gloom and darkness was no obstacle, and they could afford to take their time. The most pressing need on any given day was getting food, and while they might not have much in the way of crops, Linda seemed more than capable of hunting enough for both of them to eat their fill. Mallory had never eaten so much meat in her life.
Mallory blinked as a bit of her own hair got in her face, and noticed something odd. She blinked again. Her sight blurred as something slide horizontally across the surface of her eye. Like an extra eyelid in addition to the ones she already had, but one that she could somewhat see through. More changes. Her curiosity piqued.
She crawled out of the nest. Linda tried to hold onto her for a bit, but let go when Mallory persisted, not waking up once. Mallory got some water from a clay jug in the kitchen and brought it across the great hall to the bathroom. Pouring it into the basin, she looked at her reflection.
There wasn't too much visible difference to her face. The scales had spread, but no sign of her new eyelid was apparent from the outside. It was all strange, but perhaps not all that strange compared to, say, anything else that had happened so far. She checked her hand next, and noted to her confusion that the budding new claws from yesterday weren't there anymore. She flexed her fingers experimentally, and jumped when inch long claw-like spines jutted from each of the digits on her right hand. She tried flexing again and the bony needles slid back inside her fingers with a sensation that, while not actually painful, was viscerally disturbing.
“Oh that's gross, that's so gross, eugh!”
She waggled her fingers. Well, at least she wouldn't have to worry about accidentally pricking herself.
She continued inspecting herself. There was a patch of scales starting over her throat now, large and horizontal like the belly of a snake. The sides of her throat also had some deep indentations, like claw marks that had gouged some flesh out and then healed over. The scales on her thigh had spread quite a bit, and her elbow on the left arm was boasting a handful of scales as well. She also found that the fin on her forearm, which now was nearly the length of her entire forearm, could be folded in at will so that it was nearly flat against her skin, or flared outwards. The fin on her calf didn't seem to behave the same way, but it was a relatively new addition and might change after it had time to grow.
Mallory sighed and splashed some water on her face.
“Oh, hell with this, I'm getting some food.”
She plodded back to the kitchen and checked the pantry. There wasn't much of substance in there, mostly herbs and seasonings and a handful vegetables. She selected a handful of skinny wild carrots, and brought them back to the kitchen to wash and roast them. Tragically, they didn't have any butter, but Mallory had saved the fat from yesterday's geese, and there was a significant stockpile of salt left by the previous owners. It'd do alright.
Linda was coaxed out of sleep early by the smell of cooking food. It wasn't especially early by a human's standards, but it was early enough to leave Linda groggy as she selected a new sheet to wrap around herself and plod over to the kitchen. She yawned widely as she came around the corner.
“Something in here smells good.”
Mallory looked with a smile, sitting at a table with a plate and knife.
“You flatter me. It's just carrots, but they turned out alright. Help yourself to what's in the pan.”
Linda rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and yawned again, then padded over to investigate. There wasn't much there by her standards, but it smelled tasty enough.
Linda scraped the carrots onto a plate and went to join Mallory at the table.
“Are you always up this early?”
Mallory shrugged. “Actually, this is my sleeping in. I used to get up before dawn for chores.”
Linda made a face.
“Gods forbid. I don't know how you do it.”
The beast woman dug into her carrots, just grabbing them off the plate instead of using a knife. After a moment, her mind caught up to her eyes.
“Hang on, what happened to your fin?”
Mallory grinned, and without putting down her knife extended her arm fin long enough to show off before flattening it again.
“Still there. Neat trick huh?”
Linda smiled warmly at her.
“Yeah. Yeah it is. I gotta say, you're adjusting pretty well.”
Mallory grinned at her, a carrot on her knife almost to her mouth.
“Well, I've had a little help.”
Linda took a deep breath and sighed happily.
“I really can't tell you how good it is to hear that. I was hoping I could make things easier for you than it was for me.”
Mallory smiled, and reached over and patted Linda's thigh.
“Well you're doing a real good job,” she said without any sarcasm.
It was a bit of a trek to the river, but Linda was kind enough to carry most of the things they were bringing along. The same bucket Mallory would be washing up with was as convenient a place as any to carry soapwort, kindling, et cetera. The beast woman was even carrying a fresh change of underclothes for Mallory to change into after washing up.
The trees began to thin as they neared the river. It wasn't an especially large one, closer to a stream even, but the channel of fresh water that ran through the woods and all the way out to the new village was known for miles around simply as 'the river' by the common folk. Presumably it had a name on maps owned by nobles, but that was a different matter.
Linda put their things down on a large, reasonably flat stone, and the two women scrounged up enough fallen branches to start a fire. The resin in the pine would hopefully make up for the dampness of the ground. There were a few false starts getting the fire going, but eventually it was done and a ring of river stones around the fire would help to keep it under control. Mallory filled the kettle they brought with them from the river and set it over the fire. Linda, on the other hand, didn't seem inclined to wait.
The beast woman threw her sheet over the rock and waded right into the running waters and dunked her head.
It occurred to Mallory that this was her first time seeing the beast woman completely naked.
”Don't stare, don't stare!”
She glanced over coyly in time to see the taller woman stretch in a way that sent ripples through the scales over the corded muscles of her back.
At some point Mallory realized her mouth was hanging open and she looked away. Thankfully Linda hadn't seemed to notice. She poked the kettle with a stick as if that'd help it boil faster.
Linda for her part, seemed perfectly happy just to play in the water like a young girl in summer, despite the cold.
It took several minutes for the water to get hot enough. Once it was ready, Mallory poured the hot water over the soapwort in the bucket. Agitating the mixture of water, flowers, and roots with a stick soon produced a lather that would serve as soap and shampoo.
Linda climbed out of the water to come get her share of the sudsy water, her usually floofy hair matted down by the weight of the water in it. The beast woman pulled it back so it wasn't in her eyes, and scooped her hand into the mixture even though it had to be scalding hot, with no sign of discomfort, and started it applying it to her hair.
Mallory, for her part, was quietly dying. A woman she had grown very fond of in the last few days was naked right in front of her and covering herself in soap. She didn't know if she should stare at the ground, or look, if she was allowed to look or if that'd be creepy, and why was Mallory like this when she'd never been like this at the public baths in her home village.
“You okay over there?”
Mallory looked up guiltily in response to Linda's voice. The beast woman's eyes were closed to keep the suds out of them.
“You're being unusually quiet,” she said with a smirk.
Mallory invested Herculean effort into looking at Linda's face and nothing else.
“'M fine,” she mumbled.
The larger woman laughed throatily.
“Alright. I'm gonna head back to the water, have a good scrub and then wash all this off.”
Mallory nodded, then belatedly added “Yes,” out loud.
Linda gave another laugh and then lumbered towards the river. Mallory watched her go.
”Oh gods, oh gods, oh gods I'm gay, I'm gay for a monster help.”
Eventually Mallory snapped out of that recursive loop long enough to refill the kettle with water, then undress herself in order to start washing up.
After Mallory had finished washing, she decided to bite the bullet and go rinse off in the stream. Just, really quick, in and out.
Linda was lounging in the water against a large boulder, and nodded at her, but politely averted her gaze from Mallory's body.
“Glad you decided to join me. The water's not so bad really.”
Mallory smiled weakly and waded in. The water was stingingly cold against her human skin, but didn't seem to bother her scales. Still, she didn't want to linger in it. Taking a deep breath, she dunked her head.
Gods above it was FRIGID. How had she allowed Linda to trick her into this!
At the same time, she didn't yank her head out immediately. The water flowing downstream against her was oddly soothing, despite the chill. She shook her head, running her fingers through her hair to dislodge the soap. Her eyes were scrunched shut at first, having taken off the eye patch, but when she opened her monster eye, she found that the water didn't bother it at all as long as the membrane she'd discovered she had this morning covered it. It made everything even blurrier than the water already was, but it was better than total blindness, and it could pick out movement even if details were foggy. Speaking of movement, what was that over there?
She half swam, half crawled along the bottom. There again, something slithering around the riverbed. Driven by an impetus Mallory felt but didn't understand, she got closer and closer. Then, when she was almost on top of it, it tried to dart away and she struck.
Lashing out with claws extended, she snatched the creature, whatever it was. Her claws sank into its flesh, and there was a feeling like something being squeezed out through her fingertips.
Blood began to seep into the water out of the punctures she'd made and the creature went completely still.
She only had a moment to contemplate this. Shortly after there was a thrashing in the water nearby and powerful hands scooped her out of the water.
“Mallory! Are you okay?”
Mallory blinked in surprise. The membrane over her eye slid back and she was greeted by Linda's concerned face very close to hers.
Linda breathed a sigh of relief.
“You were down there for a while. I know the water's shallow here but...”
The larger woman pulled her head back.
She raised the hand she wasn't using to hold Mallory and prodded at the smaller woman's neck. Mallory gasped loudly. Whatever the larger woman had touched was SENSITIVE! She instinctively clasped a hand over her neck, with limited success due to the Linda's hand still being in the way.
“What did you do!?”
The larger woman chewed on her lip in thought before answering.
“Mallory... I think you have gills.”
Mallory's eyes nearly bugged out of her head. Feeling around her neck, she found that the recesses on the sides of her throat she'd noticed earlier had opened up, now extruding away from her neck. Whatever was inside was far too sensitive to prod at.
“Huh. That's different,” the smaller woman said, rubbing her throat.
Linda's gaze moved further down, and for a moment Mallory blushed until until the beast woman spoke up with tone of polite interrogation.
“...Why do you have an eel?”
Mallory looked down to where Linda's gaze was. Sure enough, now that she could get a good look at it the thing in her hand was an eel that did not appear to be struggling.
“I, uh, caught it I guess?”
At this point Linda realized she was still holding Mallory. Clearing her throat, she set the woman down before continuing.
“Bare handed? Good instincts! Even I struggle with fish, they're slippery. Er, usually slippery.”
She frowned in confusion.
“What did you do to it? It doesn't look dead but it's not trying to get away either.”
Mallory looked down. Her claws were still piercing the unfortunate animal, and she retracted them. Linda tilted her head in fascination.
“...Okay. Gills, AND venom.”
She clapped Mallory's shoulder encouragingly.
“Alright, you are making progress!”
Mallory smiled unsteadily.
“I didn't even realize what I was doing.”
Linda nodded and patted her head.
“Yeah, that's normal. Overthinking things is a human trait.”
“So... Can we get out of the water now? I am FREEZING.”
Mallory gutted and skinned the eel, then washed her hands again. They toweled off, and as they sat in front of the fire to warm up and dry off Linda wrapped Mallory in an embrace to share her body heat, which was greatly appreciated even if it warmed Mallory's cheeks even more than the rest of her. Afterwards Mallory helped Linda brush her fur. It really did grow out of the skin of the entire back of her neck and part of her upper back, which made it hard for Linda to reach alone. Once they were both thoroughly dried, Mallory changed into a fresh set of undergarments and the same tunic she'd been wearing over her previous ones. Linda seemed reticent to put her sheet back on, but she did. Mallory wasn't sure if she was relieved or disappointed by the beast woman's decision. After extinguishing the fire, they made their way back home. Somewhere along the way Mallory's gill slits closed up again, presumably so they wouldn't dry out on land. Once they got to the manor Mallory immediately set about salting and cooking her eel, while Linda headed out to catch her own supper.
Linda came home with a copper bath. It was small, and would need some serious elbow grease to get all the verdigris off it, but Mallory would be able to have her hot baths after all. After her initial giddiness, Mallory noted that Linda hadn't brought anything for herself to eat.
“No luck hunting?”
Linda chuckled sheepishly.
“No no, I got my dinner don't worry. Just ate while I was out, that's all.”
Mallory thought a moment.
“Do we have any vinegar? I didn't see any in the kitchen.”
Linda barked in laughter.
“Oh ho ho, we got vinegar. We got LOTS of vinegar. C'mere, follow me.”
Mallory followed curiously as Linda trod in the direction of the stairs to the solar. Once she was nearly there, she swerved to one side and moved aside some crates and barrels. Underneath the stairs was a large trapdoor with an iron ring handle. Linda tugged it open, biceps bulging as the groaning wood and iron gave way to a second staircase, this one leading downwards. Once the door was propped open against the wall, Linda went ahead, ducking her head to avoid hitting it. Mallory followed flabbergasted. It was pitch dark down there, and if Mallory were still human she was sure she'd have been quite blind. Even her monster eye needed to adjust. It was a small room, colder than the rest of the manor, lined with stones set into mortar. There was a recess into one wall, with several large barrels stacked sideways atop each other. Linda gestured at them.
“At some point, these used to be wine. Or beer. I do NOT recommend drinking them, or even cooking with them, but they should be good enough for cleaning.”
Only the bottom barrels had spigots in them already, but even that was far more than she needed just for a tub.
Mallory nodded faintly.
“This place is just full of surprises.”
“Can't tell you how disappointed I was when I tried to drink some. Been so long since I had even one cup of wine, but fugh, totally rotten.”
“I could make ale if we had any grains. Didn't see any in the kitchen though.”
Linda made a face.
“Yeeeeah, vermin got into those long before I got here.”
They both looked down. For all that they were living in luxury, it still wasn't civilization, and they couldn't just run down to the market for the things they needed, or harvest crops they didn't have. Eventually Linda broke the silence by clearing her throat.
“Anyway, let's go back upstairs.”
Linda went to close the door behind them on the way out, but Mallory asked her to leave it open. She didn't think she'd be able to open it on her own and it'd be nice to get a head start on the tub while Linda was sleeping. Linda shrugged in agreement.
They still had some time before either of them felt sleepy, so Linda threw a few logs on the fireplace in the great hall and got a merry blaze going, then retrieved a book from the library that Mallory recognized as the one that had been left out on the writing desk. The beast woman carefully turned a table near to the fire on it's side so she could lean back against it while sitting on the floor, then looked at Mallory and patted her lap with a welcoming smile. Mallory didn't hesitate to scramble into the larger woman's lap.
Linda held the book up for Mallory to see.
“Thought I'd read for you. I started this one before I met you, but I can start over. It's really good.”
“What's it about?”
Linda grinned eagerly, tail thumping against the table in excitement.
“It's an epic poem about a warrior from the north. I haven't gotten very far yet, so I can't tell you much beyond that, except that her name is Estrith.”
Mallory smiled, more at Linda's enthusiasm than anything else.
“Alright, go on then.”
Linda beamed excitedly and opened the book. The story was in an old dialect, somewhat hard to follow but not unintelligible, with a sort of chanting, guttural quality to give it a flow rather than relying on rhymes. It suited Linda's voice very well Mallory thought, as she leaned her head against the taller woman's chest. It started with the story of Estrith, sailing south across the sea with several ships, and the perils they faced on the way. Mallory tried to listen attentively, but after half an hour her head started to droop. Linda smiled and closed the book.
“As good a place as any to stop, eh? What'd you think?”
Mallory smiled spleepily up at her.
“It's nice. Honestly I'm not bored, just... Very cozy.”
Linda nuzzled the smaller woman's head.
“Let's go ahead and put out this fire so we can go to bed, sound good?”
Mallory nodded, already yawning.
True to her word, Mallory slipped out of bed the next morning and got to work scrubbing all the green tarnish off her new bathtub. The cellar was cold as ice, so she filled a bucket from the kegs and brought it up to the great hall to work, even getting the fireplace going again. The verdigris covered a significant portion of the tub, but with some effort she began to scrub it off a little at a time. She was still working at it when Linda finally roused from her nest. Mallory heard her footsteps before she saw her. The beast woman yawned as she rounded a corner.
“I'm gonna go get us something to eat. You can come along if you want.”
Mallory looked up in surprise.
Linda shrugged and offered an easy grin.
“You might not have come into your full power yet, but I reckon your venom should be enough to keep you safe if something happens. Besides, I figured we'd go back to the river. You'll probably be better at catching fish than me if we find any, I usually spook the buggers.”
“Sounds good. I uh, I guess I can finish cleaning this later.”
Mallory stood and wiped her hands on a rag and did her best to go and wash the smell of rotten wine from her fingertips. They left the manor together, heading west to the same river they visited yesterday, then walking upstream, deeper into the forest. To Mallory's delight, they found a patch of spearmint growing wild on one of the banks. Wrong season for harvesting, and the cold was killing them, but they'd revive come spring and would be easy to stockpile when they did.
Eventually, they found a good spot for fish, an eddy off to one side of the river. Linda spoke softly as they approached.
“I hope you don't mind, but I'm gonna leave the fishing to you. Every time I've tried they end up bolting like a horse in a thunderstorm. I'll prowl around the bank, see if I can't find anything edible growing or lurking there.”
Mallory nodded quietly and rolled up her sleeves.
After wading out into the pool water, then waiting a while 'till they got used to her presence, she darted her hand out. Sadly, her aim was off and the fish got away. There were a few more failed attempts before Mallory began to get frustrated. She'd done so well yesterday! And she wanted to help so Linda wasn't having to do all the hunting. She tried to think of what was different, and it occurred to her that when she caught the eel her head was underwater too. She made a face at the thought of dunking her head under that icy water again, especially without a fire this time, but she also wanted to prove herself. Sighing, she waded back ashore. Linda was watching from not too far away, but immediately averted her gaze when Mallory stripped down. Blushing?
Mallory thought about explaining, but she didn't want to call out and scare the fish. She waded back out, then when she was in up to her knees, knelt on all fours, then sank the rest of the way into the water.
Tiw's teeth it was frigging cold! Mallory shivered and instinctively tried to take a deep breath, but instead sucked down water that exited through her gills. Somewhat uncanny, but not as bad as retracting her claws at least. She prowled around the riverbed. If she moved slowly enough, the fish didn't shy away so much. Patiently she crept closer, corralling some of the more lethargic fish between herself and the shallows. An especially large one stuck out, as big as a dog, and Mallory set her eye on it. When it tried to slip past her, she struck. Arm darting like a trident, her claws pierced the fish's scales easily and injected it with paralyzing venom. The fish instantly went rigid. Success!
Mallory rose from the water with a happy smile on her face despite how cold she was. She tried to lift her catch for Linda to see, but it was so heavy that her arm sagged under the weight when she tried to raise it over the waterline.
“Linda! I got a big one!”
The beast woman looked over with proud grin.
“Outstanding! Look at that brute! Bring it on over!”
The beast woman beckoned from the shoreline and Mallory waded over, dragging the fish behind her through the water. Once she dragged it up the bank enough that it wouldn't slide she walked straight up to Linda and hugged her in excitement.
“I did it!”
Linda's proud grin faded slightly as she realized how much Mallory was shivering.
“Yes you did, and I'm proud of you, but you're shaking like a leaf in a gale! Come here.”
Linda took off her sheet and wrapped Mallory in it, trying to dry her off. A protest died in Mallory's throat because now that the excitement was wearing off, she really felt how cold she was. Linda looked at her in concern.
“Next time if you're gonna swim we'll bring tools to start a fire, okay?”
Mallory nodded and hugged Linda through the sheet. It was comforting, but it was also warm and right now she needed warmth more than food. Linda looked at the smaller woman with concern.
“Just wanted to show you I could help hunt,” Mallory said softly.
“You did,” Linda assured her, “But let's just be more careful next time, yeah? I'd offer to carry you back but I can't hold you and the fish. If I dry you off as best you can, think you can change back into your clothes and walk back with me?”
Mallory nodded stiffly, too chilly to even get shy about it.
After Mallory was as dry as she was gonna get and changed back into her own clothes, they both walked back to the manor, with Linda carrying the fish. As soon as the got inside, before even skinning and boning the fish, Linda immediately wrapping Mallory in the warmest materials from her nest and got a fire going. Mallory wanted to take care of the fish, but Linda insisted gently yet firmly that she stay by the fire until her teeth no longer chattered.
After skinning and gutting the fish, Linda cooked it in the oven in the kitchen with garlic and salt. By the time it was done, Mallory was feeling warm enough again to meet Linda's satisfaction. The fish turned out pretty good, though Mallory had to fish one or two small bones out of her mouth that Linda had missed. Linda, for her part, just crunched through and ate them.
“Oh, what I wouldn't give for a roll of butter,” Mallory said with a sigh.
Linda laughed softly.
“I uh, I'd get you some, but...”
Mallory nodded with a wan smile.
“But you'd have to steal it. I know. How come monsters don't have villages? We used to be humans, right?”
Linda made a face and a 'sort of,' gesture.
“Not all monsters. Monsters of the same kind or that share enough similarities can have monster babies, but they tend to not be as smart or civilized as transformed monsters. And, part of it also is that... Ah, how best to explain...”
The beast woman chewed her lip in thought, then continued.
“Well, for one thing, the natural philosophers that study us don't call us 'monsters'. They call us 'ettins'. That means 'eaters'. We eat, and while we can eat plants in moderation, what we mostly crave is meat. If we can't hunt enough animals, we'll eat other things. Carrion. Humans. Even other monsters. Remember when I told you even other monsters are afraid of me? That's because I'm strong enough to eat them, and there's no reason for them to think that I won't.”
Mallory looked at her with alarm.
“You haven't eaten humans, have you?”
Linda stopped eating, not answering right way and looking fixedly at her plate.
“...Yes. I have. I don't hunt them for prey like some monsters, but if I find one that's already dead, or if I have to kill one in self defense, I'll eat the body rather than let it go to waste.”
Mallory wanted to be horrified. She wanted to be appalled. She was not.
Linda smiled weakly.
“It's one of those changes. You don't necessarily run out and start killing folks, but over time, the taboo just... Seems less important, less real, and then one day you're hungry and you realize you don't even remember why you've been fighting it.”
Mallory took a deep breath.
“Would you eat me?”
Linda looked up in shock.
“I would never hurt you! I promise I'll protect you with my life!”
Mallory tilted her head contemplatively.
“If I was already dead though? If something killed me and you found my body?”
“If I failed you, and you died... I don't think I could ever forgive myself.”
Mallory pressed the point home.
“That's not what I asked.”
Linda took a deep breath. She looked away, then she looked at Mallory.
“Yes. If I was hungry and there was nothing else to eat, I would.”
Mallory contemplated this.
Linda let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.
Mallory nodded and repeated herself.
“Okay. I think I get it.”
Linda smiled weakly at her.
“I was worried you'd be upset with my answer.”
Mallory laughed softly.
“I think I would have been when I was human. But I'm not human anymore, am I? Even if parts of me still look like one.”
Linda smiled at her with such tenderness that anyone who walked in on them would have been shocked to learn the conversation that led to it. Mallory chuckled.
“So that means if you die I get to eat you right?”
“Heh, yeah, fair's fair right? But I ain't planning on dying on you anytime soon, so you'll just have to settle for fish today.”
Mallory hummed happily.
“I wouldn't have it any other way.”
It was a big fish, and both ate to their satisfaction. After all that, it wasn't even dark yet. Now that she could feel her fingers again, Mallory returned to scrubbing her new bathtub, which was beginning to show an impressive gleam in places.
Linda, for her part, wanted to check on her territory again, and invited Mallory along but the smaller woman had had enough adventure for one day and wanted to finish cleaning her tub in any case, so she waved her off with a smile.
“You go on, I'll be alright.”
Linda returned her smile and stepped out.
Eventually, Mallory had the tub gleaming like the sun in the light of the fireplace. Gorgeous. Humming a song happily, she brought it into the bath room, and made a mental note to ask Linda to haul out the rotting wooden tub since it was too heavy for her to move by herself. One her way out of the bath room, Mallory fiddled with her eye patch. It had been fitting poorly since fishing that morning, rubbing uncomfortably against her skin. She went to the great hall to take a look at it.
She blinked a few times when it came off, then widened her eyes in surprise. She could see! From both eyes! Rushing back to the bathroom to check her reflection in the basin, her suspicions were confirmed. The scales had spread across her face, and her eyes now matched. There was also a new patch of scales forming on her left cheek near her lips. Mallory considered her reflection. Eyes and scales aside, the structure of her face remained mostly human, not unlike Linda's. For all that she looked wholly alien, she still looked like herself, and that was some consolation. Mallory made faces at the water, watching how the scales shifted with movement. It was a little fascinating. She finished with a happy smile. Why had she ever been frightened of this?
After that, she went outside, standing in what had once been the courtyard. Many of the plants had been trampled by Linda's coming and going, and all of them were blackened and dead, but if they were cleared away or composted it could be turned into a serviceable garden in time for spring. The main barrier was seeds. They would need them, and they hadn't got them. Would it be worth stealing just enough to start growing rye and barley, for ale and stew? It was strange, Mallory had never considered stealing before. Her mother had-
Her mother. Mallory was struck with shock. She'd barely thought of the woman that raised her at all since she left. Part of her wanted to feel guilty, to feel sad, but she just couldn't find it in her. She was happy here.
She stepped back inside the manor and went up to the solar. She fished around in her belongings until she found the coin her mother had given her from her dowry. It was actual silver, though it had been shaved down to half its original size at some point in the past. Mallory suspected it was the only silver coin among the lot, and her mother had given it to her. She squeezed the coin in the palm of her hand.
“Thank you,” she said out loud.
That at least, she could still feel. Gratitude.
Out in the village, Linda stalked in the shadows, from building to building, surprisingly stealthy for something so big. If there were any intruders in her domain, she'd deal with them. As she prowled though, she also kept her eyes peeled and her nose primed for anything of use she could bring back to the manor. Herbs, or wild vegetables perhaps. Deeply unsatisfying as a meal, but since she'd started cooking her food again instead of eating it raw, it made a nice seasoning.
She'd forgotten before Mallory came along, how good cooked food was. When she was roughing it in the wilds she hadn't had the time or the resources. Better to gobble her prey or the carcasses she found right where she found it and move on. Not that she'd stopped doing that really, but variety was quite pleasant. Sometimes it felt a little too good to be true though.
This village, abandoned so fast that people even left what had to have been family treasures and priceless artifacts. The books in the library alone must have been worth a fortune when they were in better condition, and Linda knew from her father's time at court that nobles didn't know the meaning of traveling light. They'd have tried to take everything even with disaster looming.
Still, silly to look a gift horse in the mouth. Linda was living more comfortably here than at any point since she'd been driven out of her home, and she hadn't even needed to hurt anybody to get it. Well, except for the lesser monsters that had been squatting here when she arrived. Several of the goblins had ended up in her gullet before the rest took the hint. And if she hadn't come here, she never would have met Mallory.
Linda took a deep breath and sighed happily at the thought of Mallory. She'd grown so fond of her in so short a time. Perhaps a little too fond. It had been fun teasing the smaller woman when they'd gone to the river to bathe, but Linda found herself wanting more than that. As a mentor guiding a less experienced, isolated woman through a difficult time in her life, it seemed inappropriate to feel what she was feeling. On the other hand, they were nearly the same age, and as ettins it was unlikely that they would ever NOT be isolated. And since when did monsters worry about what was appropriate? It made Linda's head hurt. Being around Mallory really had drawn out some traces of humanity she hadn't realized she still had, for better and for worse. She wanted to do this right though, whatever that was. It was unlikely she'd ever get a second chance for this kind of companionship.
Linda came home with an armful of turnips and parsnips she'd found growing in an abandoned and otherwise overrun garden. There really wasn't much growing this time of year as winter's frosty touch creeped into the the waning autumn nights. She didn't see Mallory, but she trusted that she was in the manor somewhere.
“I'm home,” she called out.
“Be right down,” called a muffled voice from the solar.
Linda deposited her bounty in the pantry then went back to meet Mallory in the great hall. She blinked when the smaller woman came bounding down. There was something different...
“Your eye patch!”
Mallory fixed her with a grin, eyes wide open.
“I don't need it anymore! My eyes match again!”
Linda reach down and hugged her, mindful of her strength before sweeping Mallory's hair aside to get a good look. Two large eyes like pools of midnight with silver irises looked back at her.
“Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.”
Mallory blushed under Linda's adoring gaze and her compliment.
“I'm really glad you think so,” she said in a soft, shy voice.
Linda felt a surge of warmth as she looked down at the smaller woman.
“Say, uh, I brought you a present.”
When Mallory saw the pile of vegetables in the pantry her eyes lit up.
“Where did you find these?”
Linda grinned, happy to see Mallory smiling.
“Somebody's old plot. I left some behind, they'll keep longer still in the soil.”
Mallory practically skipped over and took Linda's hand.
“Even better! I had an idea, what if we turned the courtyard into a garden? Then instead of foraging all over the place it'd be right outside our front door!”
Linda scratched the back of her head with her free hand.
“Uh, I don't know that much about gardening.”
Mallory smiled and shook her head.
“I do though! I'm certain I can do it, I just wanted your permission before I ripped up the courtyard.”
Linda gave a perplexed shrug.
“S-sure, I mean you don't need to ask my permission. This is your home too now.”
“Seemed polite. Do you think you can show me where you found these?”
Linda nodded, still slightly dazed.
“Yeah, no problem. Lemme take you there.”
Mallory collected seeds from the plot carefully, wrapping them in cloth and stuffing them into her clothes to take home. Before heading home though, they went hunting. The fish had been a fine breakfast, but split two ways wasn't enough to keep either of them sated without something else before retiring for the night. Both of them could see so clearly in the dark that they had no trouble catching not one, but two rabbits. More of a snack than a meal for Linda, but combined with the fish it'd get her through the night. Mallory had caught one of them on her own, her potent venom being more than enough to make the creature drop to the ground with a mere scratch.
At home, the pelts were salted and set to cure. Linda was looking forward to adding more fur to the nest, though she worried about what they would do when they ran out of salt. The rabbits themselves were roasted with garlic and onions and even some rosemary that Linda had added to the pantry on one of her earlier foraging trips. A delicious way to end the night.
After dinner, Linda read to Mallory some more, about how Estrith arrived with her people on the southern shore to join the colony they had sent ahead, only for the people of the colony to beg Estrith to take them back to their homeland, for a fearsome dragon had been killing their people and their livestock, and setting fire to their homes.
Once Mallory began to nod off, tired from her busy day, Linda tucked the book closed and carried Mallory to the nest again to settle down for the night.
Mallory roused from slumber with a yawn. It felt like she was sleeping in later, her long ingrained habit of waking up before the sun finally yielding to her new lifestyle. She smacked her lips a couple of times. Her mouth didn't feel right, like a room where all the furniture had been changed around. She felt her teeth with her tongue and almost cut it. Her eyes widened.
Slipping out of Linda's grasp and heading for the bath room (Why did it have to be all the way across the great hall?) Mallory bared her teeth and peered into the water. Sure enough, in place of her old teeth were entirely new ones. These ones were triangular, saw edged, both smaller and flatter than Linda's teeth, but it looked like she had even more of them than the larger woman. She wasn't sure why she felt subtly proud of that.
Mallory scooped up a handful of water and swished it in her mouth before spitting it out to one side. It didn't hurt thankfully, but it felt bizarre. Probably she'd get used to it, but in the meantime she couldn't resist prodding at them with her tongue. The flat parts at least, she didn't fancy her tongue's chances against the edges. She hooked her cheek back with one finger and turned her head to one side. The back ones had changed too, slightly, but seemed better suited for chewing at least. Since she was up, Mallory went ahead and checked the rest of her body. It felt like her scales, which had now sprouted over multiple parts of her body, were spreading faster than before. Much faster than Linda had predicted. She'd have to ask the larger woman about that at some point. As she went to leave the chamber, she paused with her hand on the door handle, frowning.
Was it lower than she remembered? No, rather, had she gotten taller? She opened the door and walked down the corridor the the library. Checking herself against the bookshelves, it was even more apparent. She wasn't a lot taller, and still nowhere near Linda's height, but she was definitely taller by a few inches. She grinned, feeling oddly elated. She couldn't wait to show Linda! But she would, not wanting to deprive the beast woman of her beauty sleep. To her surprise though, when she crawled back into the nest Linda raised her arm to let her back in and opened one eye.
“Hey,” the taller woman said, her already husky voice even huskier in her sleepiness.
“Morning,” Mallory said softly yet eagerly. “My teeth came in.”
She smiled wide so Linda could see. The larger woman leaned up on her elbow, slowly grinning.
“Well hey there, look at those choppers! Oh, you are changing so fast!”
Mallory relaxed her mouth, still smiling though.
“I was gonna ask actually, I thought it would take longer based on what you told me when we met.”
“I thought it would. Mine certainly did. Maybe...”
Linda touched her hand to her chin in thought.
“Well I know from my father's research that the transformation requires food to fuel it. When I got turned out of my home, I spent a lot of days hungry. I didn't have many resources, and I didn't get good at hunting without a bow until after I had changed enough. Maybe because I've been feeding you even after you left your village it sped it up a bit?”
Mallory digested the idea.
“I guess that makes sense. So if I'd fasted, I might have stayed human longer?”
Linda was quiet.
“I hadn't thought of that. Maybe...”
Her face fell, and Mallory looked at her with worry.
Linda glanced up at Mallory as if she was afraid of something.
“If I hadn't kept plying you with food, you might have had more time with your mother.”
Mallory couldn't help it. She laughed.
“It's not funny Mal!”
“Yes it is! You didn't know. We STILL don't know, not really. And anyway, I'm a HORRIBLE liar, my mum was getting suspicious even before I showed her my scales. You're so scared I'm gonna hate you as if it isn't obvious that I...”
Mallory trailed off, and Linda looked at her curiously.
“That you what?”
Mallory smiled and snuggled closer to the larger woman.
“That I adore you.”
There, Linda was DEFINITELY blushing, and if her face didn't give it away her tail thudding against the wall did.
“You're cute,” Mallory teased.
“S-shut up, you're the cute one.”
Mallory leaned in until she and Linda were nose to nose.
“Why don't you make me shut up?”
Linda didn't mean to kiss her. She meant to ask if that was really okay, if she was reading the situation correctly, if Mallory was sure about this, but when she licked her lip before asking her tongue touched Mallory's lips and the next thing either of the two women knew they were kissing, passionately.
It was nearing noon and the two women were still in bed, laying side by side and facing each other with expressions of dazed contentment. They were taking a breather after the recent flurry of activity. Linda was boasting a few thin scratches of red around her lips, which stung slightly when sweat from her skin touched them but not in an altogether unpleasant way.
Linda smiled faintly, leaning forward until her forehead was pressed to Mallory's, feeling a little exhausted to start making out again.
“Kinda wouldn't mind staying in bed all day with you, but I am starving, aren't you?”
Mallory made a face.
“GODS yes I wasn't gonna say it. We've gotta start stockpiling some meat instead of just eating everything the same day we catch it.”
“Good call. I'm so used to not having an option, but you're right. We'll need to catch something big though.”
Mallory nodded and leaned up, reaching outside the pile for her outer garments so she could get dressed.
In fact, they did one better than deer. Between the two of them they managed to take down a bull elk. Mallory handled gutting it, since her knife work was more exact than Linda's claws, but as she was scooping out organs Linda reached over and snagged the liver, eating it raw on the spot. The beast woman shrugged at Mallory's expression.
“I'm hungry. Just to to tide me over 'till we get back.”
Mallory gave this some thought as she kept working. She WAS pretty hungry. She'd been hungry before they even left the manor, and now she was up to her elbows in gore and the rich smell of hot blood. Her own claws couldn't slice worth a damn, but with the aid of her knife she eventually cut out the elk's steaming heart.
She ate it before it could cool.
Back at the village, they entered a flurry of activity. The old butcher's house had a shed suitable for their needs, skinning the carcass and hanging it to let the blood drain. This late in the year, being out of the sun would be enough to keep the meat from spoiling while it tenderized. Linda ended up eating most of the organs raw. Kidneys, brain, lungs, there wasn't much she wouldn't eat. She even ate the animal's tongue. As satisfying as the heart had been, much more so than Mallory was prepared to admit, she wasn't ready to go quite that far. Part of her, that irritating human voice, had some thoughts about the fact that she'd kissed that mouth, but Mallory dismissed the voice imperiously. She'd had just about enough of that voice. Afterwards, though Linda was fairly sated, Mallory was still a bit peckish.
“I'm gonna go see if I can't catch some fish.”
“Want me to come with?”
“If you like, but I think I can manage on my own this time.”
Linda eyed her dubiously.
“Alright, but be absolutely sure you get a fire going before you get in the water.”
“Alright, alright, honestly I'll be fine.”
True to her word, Mallory did get a decent fire going before she even waded into the water. Not that she thought she'd need it this time, if her theory proved true. Standing still, she tried again as she had the day before to snatch a fish out of the water WITHOUT submerging her head. This time, it worked! Mallory grinned. Looked like having the use of both her eyes made the difference. She caught several fish before heading back, none of them as impressively large as the haul from the previous day, but big enough to be worth it while also being small enough to carry back on her own.
It was a bit of work to skin, fillet, and debone them all. She cooked one and ate it immediately. After she was done, she brought the remaining fish to the butcher's house again. Separate from the shed was a squat smokehouse. Cleaning the hooks of all the rust took longer than she would have liked, and necessitated a trip back to the manor for vinegar, but eventually the fish were hung and she got a low fire going using enough of the wood chips stockpiled on the premises that would burn for a couple hours without needing tending to.
Finally, after all that, Mallory decided to reward herself with a bath in her new tub. She sat on a stool while water boiled. Even with two kettles, they had to be refilled and start over a few times as they gradually filled the tub. The water would cool in between fillings, only to be warmed again with the introduction of hot, fresh water. Mixing some of the hot water with soapwort in a bucket, she dipped a washcloth in the bucket and used it to scrub her body and hair before crawling into the tub to rinse off. It was a little cramped, especially in light of her recent growth spurt, but the heat was BLISS. She lounged in it drowsily until the water started to cool, only then stepping out and toweling off.
Once she was dry enough to change back into her clothes, Mallory went off in search of Linda, and found her in the library studying a book the smaller woman didn't recognize. She walked up to her and kissed the larger woman on the cheek.
Linda smiled and looked up at her from her seat. She set the book down and reached over to take Mallory's hand, then gestured at an illustration of some kind of plant on the page in front of her with her other hand.
“Just a book about herbs, their uses and how to spot them. Trying to add to our pantry.”
Mallory twisted her head in puzzlement.
“You can learn that from books?”
Linda nodded with a smile and gave Mallory's hand a gentle squeeze.
“Very good for filling in the gaps in your knowledge, books. It's funny, I used to hate my tutor's lessons, now I'm glad for them.”
Mallory hummed thoughtfully and leaned her head against Linda's, breathing in the smell of the beast woman's fluffy mane.
“Hey. Thanks again for finding that tub. Best bath ever.”
Linda grinned and tousled Mallory's still damp hair.
“Only the best for you darling.”
Mallory giggled happily and slid into Linda's lap.
“Think I could pester your for another favor?”
Linda looked at her curiously, an expression of good humour writ on her face.
“What sort of a favor?”
Mallory shrugged in her lap.
“Nothing much, I was just hoping I could talk you into trimming my hair. I've got some shears lying around somewhere.”
Linda blinked in surprise.
“Well, I don't mind, but are you sure? It's already pretty short.”
Mallory nodded, idly swaying one of her legs sticking out of the larger woman's lap.
“I've always liked to keep it very short, and now that I'm spending more time in the water it'll be good to not have it in my eyes.”
Linda favored the smaller woman with a fond small.
“Alright, if it gives you pleasure.”
Mallory leaned up and planted a kiss on Linda's cheek, and the beast woman responded impulsively by licking Mallory's face, earning a giggle from the smaller woman.
“Did you just lick me!?”
Despite trying to sound indignant, Mallory couldn't halt her laughter. Linda shrugged.
“Felt right. If it bothers you I won't do it again.”
“I didn't say that.”
The two looked at each other fondly, Mallory reaching out and caressed the larger woman's face.
“Anyway, lemme go find those shears. Get this hair cut before it dries.”
Despite Linda's inexperience with hair cutting, having not cut her own hair once since she turned, with Mallory's instructions the finished results weren't too terribly shabby. A little irregular, but charmingly so, at least in Linda's opinion. If Linda's hair was the color of a polar bear, then Mallory's hair was the color of a raven, sleek and glossy black, which looked quite striking combined with the younger woman's darkened sclera. While cutting, she noticed that one of Mallory's ears had taken on a serrated fin-like shape, and was pleased as anything when Mallory reacted to this revelation with excited glee. Linda had spent so much of her early transformation hating everything about what she was becoming, and was glad Mallory was taking things so much in stride.
Linda gave the younger woman's hair a playful tousle when she was all finished.
Mallory looked up at her with a grin.
“I could cut yours too if you like. Only if you want to.”
“Nah, I like it shaggy. Look at this!”
The beast woman shook her head and shoulders in a way that made her scales clatter and her hair fluff up.
Mallory matched the larger woman's laughter.
“It does suit you. Alright, just thought I should offer in the interest of fairness. What do you want to do for supper? The elk will be more tender if we wait a few days before eating it, and while we've got smoked fish, if we wanna get serious about stockpiling food we'd do better to not eat them right away.”
Linda stroked her chin in thought.
“Hmm. Honestly a beaver would hit the spot, but if we left for the river now we wouldn't get back 'till real late. How do you feel about rats?”
Linda looked at Mallory.
Mallory looked at Linda.
“...Not rats then.”
Mallory shook her head. No. Not rats.
Linda chewed her lip in thought.
“Well, why don't we just go see what we can dig up?”
They had good luck on their hunt, eventually catching three rabbits before heading back to the manor. Linda ate two by herself and Mallory had the third with vegetables. They set the furs aside to cure. As anxious as Linda was about their supply of salt, she had a weakness for rabbit fur in particular. Afterwards, they retired to the nest.
As Linda read about the dragon attacking the settlement, and being repelled by Estrith's brave warriors, Mallory played with the larger woman's hair. Next the smaller woman nuzzled closer until her nose was up against Linda's neck, causing the beast woman to stumble over one or two lines.
“Mal,” she said in what she hoped was an even voice, “I want to stress that I am not in the least bit complaining, but that is somewhat distracting.”
Mallory's evil grin was entirely the opposite of apologetic.
“Keep reading. Please?”
Linda hesitated a moment, searching Mallory's eyes for some hint as to what her game was, then shrugged and resumed the story where she left off. Only a few lines in, her breath caught in her throat as Mallory nipped at her neck with her teeth. Linda's skin was thick and tough as boiled leather, but Mallory's new teeth were more than sharp enough for Linda to feel it.
“M-Mal,” Linda stuttered, her grip on the book tightening as she tried to keep her composure.
Linda swallowed, then took a deep breath as she tried to collect herself. She started to read again, resolutely going forward even as Mallory tried all manner of methods to tease, distract, and torment her. It was actually kind of fun, and more than kind of hot. Linda lasted about less than seven minutes before slamming the book shut, rolling on top of Mallory and pinning her there, and kissing her aggressively, much to the smaller woman's delight.
A monster with scales like white pearls lurked in the river. It ignored the small fish that nibbled at its hide for traces of past kills, dark eyes focused on its prey. A human woman, young, with short black hair knelt by the water, peering inside curiously. The monster stayed very still, not moving when the human reached out over the water, waiting as the oblivious woman came closer, and closer to her doom. When the woman reached too far, her knee slipped on the slick, muddy shore and she faltered. Only then did the monster lash out with claws extended, dragging the human beneath the water. The water thrashed and foamed, then went still. As the water clouded red, the monster that was Mallory looked at it's victim's face, and recognized that the human it was eating was also Mallory.
Mallory erupted from sleep, surging so that she was sitting upright as she struggled to calm her heartbeat and her breathing. The room was dark, but she had no trouble seeing clearly. She was at home, in the nest with her mate. Something about the way she phrased that in her mind seemed garbled, but she shook it off along with the cobwebs of slumber. The nightmare had been doubly disorienting, not only for its disturbing content but also for that she'd seen it from both perspectives at the same time up until the end.
Mallory swung her legs out of the nest and stood shakily. She needed to clear her head. She went to get dressed, but had some difficulty in doing so, as she had apparently grown another fin, this one on her spine. Still after a couple of tries she was able to get it to fold flat long enough to put on normal clothes. She wondered if she'd soon end up forsaking normal clothes altogether, like Linda. Already the garments she brought with her fit poorly due to her growth spurt, sleeves not quite long enough to reach all the way to her hands and the hem of her skirts riding scandalously high. Whatever, time enough to ponder that later. Right now she wanted food.
It had snowed last night, and more than a little. Mallory wrapped her feet in several layers of rags and plowed through a sheet of white nearly over three inches deep. After a quick trip out to the smokehouse to retrieve her fish and move them to the pantry, Mallory sat down with one of the smoked fish and had it for breakfast. Much better than hunting on an empty stomach first thing in the morning, she'd have to go catch some more and add to their stockpile, and do it before the river froze. Damned shame they didn't have any eggs or toast to go with it, but there was nothing to be done about that. With food in her belly, she was already starting to feel better and forget her odd dream.
Linda's heavy tread sounding along the corridor alerted Mallory to the beast woman's presence. Mallory greeted her with a smile.
“Hey you. There's fish in the pantry for breakfast, try not to eat all of them though. I'm gonna go try and catch some more.”
Linda nodded groggily.
“Thanks. I think I'm gonna go try to stock up on more firewood, I'll gather the wood chips up too so you can use them for smoking.”
The beast woman selected a fish from the pantry and sat next to Mallory, eating it with her bare hands bereft of plate or fork at a leisurely pace. Mallory leaned against her.
“So uh, sorry about the scratches by the way. Still getting used to the new teeth.”
Linda smiled slowly, still a little addled from sleep, and touched her lips where razor thin lines of red were peeking through the skin there.
“Don't worry about it, they'll heal up just fine. If it really bothered me, I coulda stopped you.”
The larger woman reached out and mussed Mallory's hair playfully.
“You sure you wanna go fishing though? I know you don't like the cold much, and it's looking pretty frosty out there.”
Mallory shrugged and offered a weak grin.
“To be honest, I really don't want to go fishing in this, but it's only gonna get colder from here on out, and I've developed a real liking for fish lately. It's weird, since I was never especially keen on it before, but it's not as weird as turning into some kind of fish snake monster so...”
Linda laughed quietly at that.
“Changing dietary preference is a pretty normal change compared to everything else, granted. I swear boar tastes even better now than it did when I was human. For what it's worth though, you're turning into a very pretty fish snake monster. I wish my scales were as lustrous as yours.”
Mallory looked over at the larger woman with a fond smile and reached over to rub her arm.
“I mean it! You literally sparkle when the light hits them just right, honest. I feel like a real dragon couched around its hoard of jewels when we're cuddling at night.”
Mallory looked up at her curiously.
“Since you mention it, are dragons really real? I mean, goblins and whatever we are, we obviously exist, but dragons? They're not even remotely human looking.”
Linda finished the last of her fish and wiped her fingers with a cloth napkin.
“Yeah, they exist alright. Their transformation takes a long time, and monster hunters try to kill them before they can come into their power, but every now and then one beats the odds and reaches the other end of their transformation. Easily one of the most powerful kinds of ettins, rivaling giants.”
Mallory considered this information thoughtfully while Linda got up to wash her hands properly.
“...Linda? What are we? Monsters, ettins, whatever, why do we exist? Where do we come from?”
Linda took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Now you're asking the big questions.”
The beast woman sat down beside Mallory, and thought a moment before answering.”
“We don't really know, but my father had some theories and he's considered the expert on the subject. It's said that before the world was made, there was just one ettin, the first and only of its kind. The gods killed this ettin, and used its corpse to create our world. From the stuff of this world, the gods also made humans. My father believed that it was the influence of the primeval ettin that made some humans into monsters, shedding the form made for them by the gods to become something more akin to the primeval ettin. Wilder, stronger, inhuman, and no longer beholden to the gods.”
Mallory's eyes had glazed over slightly while listening. It was a lot to take in, and a lot generally.
“Wow, that's... Hmm.”
Linda chortled and reached over to pat the smaller woman on the back.
“Messy, right? If it's true at least. It's all idle speculation at this point, though by all accounts the gods are no friends to us ettins.”
The beast woman smiled.
“I should go see if I can't catch something more substantial to eat before working. I'll see you when you come back from fishing, 'kay?”
Mallory nodded, and gave the larger woman a hug.
“Alright, take care.”
It was, in fact, colder. Ice had formed along the banks of the river, though it had by no means frozen over. Mallory immediately resolved that this would be her last fishing trip until spring came no matter how tasty fish were. Still, with luck and resolve she caught nearly a dozen. The icy water left her feet so numb she could barely feel them, and she made sure to sit by the fire before attempting the walk back to the village. The snow would be more than adequate to keep her fish from spoiling while she waited.
Blessedly, her scales did seem to help with the cold somewhat, but they were only just covering half of her body so far, which meant that the other half felt the cold exactly the way any human wearing cheap clothes that barely fit anymore would. If she was still living with her mother, she'd have taken some wool from the stockpile they'd set aside for winter and just made some new clothes, but they didn't have any wool, or sheep. Plundering their bedding for materials was a possibility, but one she'd prefer to avoid. Perhaps if she rummaged around the empty homes she could find some old clothes not too threadbare or worm eaten? It wasn't a great solution, but it was that or steal some sheep, and she shared Linda's summation that antagonizing the humans did not bode well for their continued peace.
Hmm. The humans. As if she hadn't known everyone in that village from the day she was born.
Not for the first time, she wished desperately that she knew enough to make her own leather, or that they had the resources to preserve larger hides and furs. Then again, perhaps she was being silly. A monster still trying to live like a civilized human.
Mallory sighed and huddled closer to the fire.
It was disorienting, vacillating between excitement about her changes and her new life, and dread of the same. There was so much good happening to her at the same time as so much bad, tying together in tangled knots.
She stood, and tested her weight on her feet. Thawed out alright. She wrapped them again against the snow and gathered up her fish. The sooner she got home and out of this miserable white dung the better.
Actually felling a tree took markedly longer than Linda would have liked. She was taller and stronger than she had ever been before, but since villagers weren't exactly in a habit of leaving monstrously large axes laying around, she'd ended up using an axe made to be swung with two hands as a hatchet instead. The awkward angle made it slower going than it could have been otherwise. Still, she got it done, and had little difficulty dragging the felled timber back to the village all by herself. Using a saw made for two proved a lot easier for her, and once the tree was sliced into manageable cylinders, it was child's play to split them apart with brute strength. After all that, and in addition to catching a hare for her breakfast before she even started, Linda was more than ready for a break. She wiped herself off before flopping into the nest for a quick nap.
Linda jerked herself back to consciousness as the sound of the front doors opening and closing announced Mallory's turn even before the young woman called out “I'm home!” Climbing to her feet, Linda went to greet her.
“Hey there, good job!”
Mallory looked at her quizzically.
“How can you tell? I'm empty handed.”
“I smelled fresh fish guts. I figured you must have taken 'em straight to the smokehouse.”
Mallory blinked in surprise.
“Uh, good nose. Guess I need to wash my hands more thoroughly.”
Linda smiled warmly and walked closer, taking Mallory's hands in her own and holding them up.
“You washed 'em well and good, I just got a good sniffer.”
The smaller woman smiled up at her.
“I'll yield to your judgment then. Part of me wants to just crawl back into the nest for warmth, but I really need to see if I can dig up some warmer clothes that actually fit me,” she said, gesturing at her current outfit and how much the sleeves and hem were riding up in light of her recent growth spurt.
Linda nodded, stroking her chin in thought.
“If you need to, you can take some linen from my nest to make new underclothes. Wish I had more wool or fur though... Tell you what, how about I help you search the other houses for what you need?”
Mallory looked at her hopefully.
“I'd really appreciate that. Sure you've got the time though?”
The larger woman smiled and waved dismissively.
“I need to patrol anyway. And some of the two story homes have rotted staircases. I can't climb up them and neither could you, but I could boost you up, see if there's anything good up there that the goblins couldn't get their filthy paws on.”
Mallory smiled and hugged the larger woman.
At it turned out, despite her frequent patrols, Linda had not yet had time to search every house in the village between hunting and spending time with Mallory. Buildings she had already ransacked were marked with a 'ger' rune carved into the door with one of her claws, or into the threshold if the door had fallen off its hinges. Homes she had searched, but wanted to come back to or that she hadn't been able to search to her satisfaction were marked with another rune, which she explained to Mallory was called 'nyd'. The addition of one line was sufficient to change a 'nyd' to a 'ger', making it easy to track which houses there was no point in revisiting, which might be worth revisiting, and which had not been visited at all. Most of the homes nearest to the manor had been searched already, as had the ones closest to the plaza in the center of town. That still left quite a few.
The first few houses they searched turned up little of use. Some rags, wooden utensils, sometimes even a stash of copper coins. The coins went into Linda's leather satchel, which she'd given to Mallory to wear since she was still small enough to wear it normally.
“Do we really need these? There's no stores I know of where we could waltz in and buy things.”
Linda just shrugged in response to the smaller woman's query.
“Maybe we don't need 'em. On the other hand, maybe we will someday. Doesn't hurt to be prepared, and we can always get rid of them later.”
Mallory hummed thoughtfully, eyeing one of the coins in her hand. Hard to argue with logic like that.
When they got to one of the houses with collapsed stairs, Mallory braced herself against a wall, and Linda cupped her hands together like a stirrup to lift her up enough to climb onto the next floor.
“How's it look up there?”
Mallory looked around. It was dark, and musty, but there was a double bed and some dressers.
“You were right, I don't think the goblins were able to get up here. Looks like there's a bed with a wool blanket, maybe some linens.”
Mallory got closer to the bed. There was an unfortunate smell, probably a leak from the roof had been soaking into the bedding for years. Might still be salvageable with a wash. She checked the dresser next.
Here, things looked to be in better condition, the wooden furniture keeping the worst of the moisture out.
“Hey, I think we might be in luck with clothing!”
Linda's muffled voice could be heard from the floor below.
“Yeah? Find anything good?”
Mallory frowned as she held up various garments.
“Uhhh... Hold that thought.”
From the look of things, the previous occupants had probably been a man and his wife. The wife's garments, sadly, were too small for her. Shouldn't have been a surprise, as even before her transformation Mallory had been tall for woman. There was, however, another option.
It looked like the husband's clothes would actually fit her. Mallory looked at one of the tunics speculatively.
Did it really matter that they were men's clothes after all? They were warm, and in good condition, and anyway the only person who'd probably ever seer her in them was Linda. Would Linda mind?
Mallory quashed that stream of thought. Linda ate rats, surely a bit of crossdressing wasn't going to bother her.
“Yeah,” she called down. “I think I did find something good. Lemme throw this bedding down for you.”
They checked a few more houses after that, until they had enough to bring back to the manor. Linda was kinda enough to carry most of it, and Mallory offered to take care of actually washing their haul to make up for it despite Linda's assurances that it wasn't necessary and she didn't mind the work.
Afterwards they went hunting and managed to take down a hart. Like the elk, this one required significant labor even after the actual kill was done, but it'd be well worth it. Once that carcass was hung next to the elk, they went ahead and carved off the haunches of the elk to roast with garlic and salt.
“Linda, I know you like to gnaw on the bones, but could you leave them intact this time? I'd like to make a broth tomorrow.”
The beast woman smiled.
“For such a worthy cause, I will restrain myself.”
Mallory giggled. Something about the way Linda phrased it struck her as funny.
“Well, you have my thanks for your noble sacrifice. Come, let's eat.”
The meal was delicious. They ate in the kitchen instead of the great hall, as the smaller room was much easier to keep warm than an entire banquet hall just for two people. After they washed up, and Mallory set the bones aside for tomorrow, they retired to the nest, and Linda read more of their book. As Linda read on, the story told of how Estrith ordered her men after the dragon attack to set standing stones around the village, to carve them with runes and sing while they carved, a ward against monsters that none would cross willingly.
Mallory interrupted to inquire.
“Do rune stones like that work?”
Linda nodded, not perturbed by the interruption at all.
“They're called ettinwards, and yes. My father used them often. I actually used to be able to make them too.”
Mallory tilted her head.
“Used to? Did you forget?”
The beast woman made a chagrined face.
“Monsters can't make ettinwards, only humans can. The gods don't grant their power to their enemies.”
Mallory digested this quietly while Linda resumed reading. She'd spent her whole life honoring and swearing by the gods. And now, just like that, she was their enemy because of something she didn't choose to be? It didn't seem fair. Then again, very little of all this seemed fair.
Linda noted her silence, and misinterpreted it, setting the book down.
“Ready for bed?”
Mallory nodded, even though she probably could have stayed up a little longer.
“Yeah. Thanks for reading to me. Good night.”
She curled up against the larger woman's bulk and got comfortable. Linda's powerful arm wrapped around her made her feel safer than any blanket.
Mallory rolled over with a groan and stretched her back out, dorsal fin fanning out as her muscles went taut, then collapsing again when the effort was done. Gods she needed that. Yawning as she sat up (Had her jaws always been able to open that wide?), she glanced around the room blearily.
Peace and quiet. No cockerels crowing, no birds chirping, no goats bleating off in the distance. Mallory and Linda's hunts had proved there was no shortage of game in the forest, but most of them seemed to avoid coming too close to where the two monsters laired. At one point it had seemed so eerie, but Mallory was beginning to appreciate it.
She laid back down next to her mate intending to resume sleep, then hesitated as she caught the word usage this time.
She glanced over at the sleeping woman.
Mallory faintly sensed the beginning of numerous small questions her mind would have embarked on when she was still human, in response to that thought. About what was appropriate, about what exactly the two women had between them, and so on. Questions she didn't care to pursue. This felt right, that was all she needed.
“Humans tend to overthink things.”
Wasn't that what Linda had told her once?
Mallory reached over and brushed a strand of Linda's hair out of the sleeping woman's face, then leaned forward and kissed her.
“I love you,” she told the sleeping woman.
Linda didn't wake up, but she did nuzzle into the smaller woman in her sleep, nostrils flaring as she breathed in her scent. Mallory laughed softly and got comfortable. She had a lot to do today, but it could wait a moment longer.
Linda stirred from her slumber, and noted with surprise that Mallory was still asleep in her arms. It wasn't like Mallory to sleep in like this, but Linda certainly wasn't complaining. She combed her fingers through the smaller woman's hair idly, then kissed the top of her head.
She'd never slept so soundly as she did since Mallory found her. In the early days of her transformation, when she was still on the run from monster hunters and the consequences of her own actions, Linda had spent so many nights huddled against the cold in ditches, or depressions in the earth that she'd dug with her claws and lined with leaves. Finding this ghost of a village had been a marked improvement, with blankets and sheets and a room with four walls and a roof, but all that paled in comparison to having another warm body next to her, trusting her. This one simple thing transformed the crumbling manor from a shelter, to a home. Their home.
Linda gave the woman in her arms a gentle squeeze, as ever mindful of her strength. Mallory stirred in her sleep and looked over her shoulder curiously. Linda smiled sheepishly.
“Sorry, didn't mean to wake you.”
Mallory shook her head and yawned before turning to face Linda.
“You didn't, not really. I was awake, just resting.”
Linda smiled at the woman in her arms blinking sleep out of her eyes with eyelids and nictitating membranes. Most of her face was now covered in white scales. Her eyebrows had been replaced by scaly brow ridges, though the hair on her head showed no signs of going anywhere. At some point in the night, her nose must have changed too, from a familiar human shape to little more than a raised bump on her face with two vertical nostril slits. And then of course, there were the razor sharp triangular teeth lining her maw, whose marks Linda was still sporting. In short, cuter than a puppy. Linda gave her features an affectionate lick on an impulse.
“You are really very beautiful, you know that?”
Mallory laughed and reached up to trace along Linda's jaw with her webbed fingers.
“I could stand to be reminded.”
Saying this, she kissed the larger woman, softly. Screw getting a head start on the day's chores, this was much better.
Eventually hunger prompted the lovebirds to leave their nest. They had a fish apiece, then Linda went out to hunt for something bigger to sate the rest of her appetite. Mallory stayed behind. A single fish was sufficient for her, and she had much to do.
First, the elk bones went into a large cauldron of water. Later, more would be added, but for now just the bones.
Then, there was laundry. The process of running hot water through the lye and fabric in a wooden tub involved a lot of back and forth. In the gaps where she was waiting for another kettle to boil for the laundry, she'd scoop off the bits of boiled flesh and scum that floated to the top of the cauldron of bones. By the time she was finished with the laundry, the cauldron was ready for the next stage. She added thyme for flavor, and parsnips and turnips to help it thicken. Then she took the laundry to the great hall, to dry over all the tables and chairs they weren't using for much else. Better than trudging through the snow, and in this manner she could keep a close eye on the pot.
Linda prowled through the snow on all fours. Her movement was faster and quieter this way, distributing her weight more evenly, and in truth her mutated skeleton was well suited to it. It meant more snow brushing against her core as she plowed through the larger drifts, but her body was more than capable of compensating for the cold. Her eyes narrowed as she spotted light in the distance. Moving light. An intruder. She raced towards the glow quickly and quietly.
It was a monster hunter. No doubt about it. An inexperienced one by the look of it, but even so. He hadn't noticed Linda's presence yet. Armed to the teeth with a short bow, a spear, and a knife, and clad in a brigandine jacket, with a torch in hand. Linda considered her options. The snow limited her ability to move stealthily. Even at full speed, if she ran at him he'd had time to draw and loose an arrow. Something had to be done though, she couldn't allow him to reach Mallory. She circled around at a distance, too far for him to see or hear her presence, until she was between him and her village. Taking cover behind one of the ruined buildings on the outskirts, she waited. When he was close enough, she called out, throwing her voice to keep the intruder from pinpointing her position.
“You don't belong here human.”
The hunter stopped in his tracks, raising his torch as he peered around.
“Funny,” he said warily, “folks tell me you don't belong here either. I presume I'm speaking to the monster in the forest?”
“If that's what people are calling me these days, then yes. If you know what I am, then you know you shouldn't have strayed into my territory.”
There was silence a moment. Then...
“And you should know that I can't permit you to stay here.”
Linda forced herself not to growl, lest it reveal her position.
“And why the FUCK not? I haven't hurt anyone, not even a single chicken. Why can't you people just leave me alone?”
The man shrugged, indifferent to her tone.
“That's not what the villagers tell me. You took a young woman.”
Linda bared her teeth, even though the human obviously couldn't see them from where he was standing.
“I stole no one. She came to me willingly.”
The man took a few steps forward.
“And I'm supposed to believe that? Where is she then, if she is not in your belly?”
Linda took a deep breath, releasing slowly as she tried to keep calm.
“She's safe. I will keep her safe.”
The hunter was getting closer now. Just a little closer...
“If she is safe, why don't you just show me where she is?”
Linda growled, and spoke quietly to herself.
“I won't let you hurt her.”
Hate rose in her gullet like bile, raw and seething. She had lost too much already, she wasn't about to lose her new home or her mate. She rounded the corner quickly and let the hate climb up her throat. Her lips parted, and thick, oily, tarry bile erupted forth and ignited the second it touched air, a conflagration of rage that clung to and seared anything it touched.
It hit the human from the front. The bow he had drawn fell to the ground, the arrow scattering as he flung himself to the earth screaming in a desperate attempt to extinguish the flames. Linda closed the distance quickly, slamming his head into the frozen earth. He fumbled for his knife, but Linda grabbed his wrist and broke it one hand. The man's screams intensified.
“Please, please no let me live, let me live I beg you!”
“Like you would have let us live?”
She killed the man before she started to eat him. It was kinder than doing it the other way around.
Satisfied with the progression of the broth, Mallory fished the bones out with a spoon, then went down to the butcher's house to retrieve more meat from the elk. On her way out of the building she ran into Linda coming back to the manor carrying a bindle.
“Oh! Fancy running into you,” Mallory said with a cheeky grin.
“What have you got there?”
Linda smiled, and spoke with a voice that sounded even rougher than usual, like someone getting over a truly wretched cough.
“Brought you some presents. Come on, let's get back to the manor and you can unwrap them.”
They went to the kitchen first. Mallory cut the elk meat into manageable bits, and added them to the pot along with more parsnips and turnips, rosemary, and wild garlic and onion. Already the hearty stew was beginning to smell divine. After that and while they waited. Linda laid out her bindle on the floor.
The pole, as it happened, was actually a stout spear with an iron head. The fabric turned out to be a very well made wool cloak, and wrapped inside was a short bow, a leather quiver full of arrows with iron heads, a sharp knife, and a full coinpurse with a decorative pattern embossed into the leather.
Mallory touched the selection of treasures with wonder. Unlike most things they'd found in the village which were old and in various stages of rot, these all looked new and well kept. Mallory touched the fine cloak appreciatively.
“Where did you even find these?”
“Some monster hunter came to kill us, so I killed him. He won't be needing this stuff anymore.”
Mallory took her hand off the cape, and looked up at Linda with an expression of confusion. Had she heard that right? She'd said it so matter of factly.
“These are a dead man's things?”
Linda nodded, making a face that showed that she too felt confused about something.
“Yes? So is most everything else we have here.”
Mallory gestured at the cape.
“You killed this one though? Yourself?”
“Well, yeah. It was him or us.”
Mallory's eyes moved back and forth as she processed this. It all made sense when you looked at it like that. There was a dim feeling that she should object to this, but she honestly couldn't put her finger on why at all.
“Thank you,” she said eventually, “for the gifts, and for protecting our home.”
Linda gave her the most heartfelt smile, as well as a crushing hug.
“Of course. Anything for you my love.”
Mallory smiled too as she leaned into the hug. This was right, being held in her mate's arms, in the heart of their territory, safe and sound. Nothing had ever felt so right before, melting the phantom of inexplicable unease that flitted in the attic of her mind. She let herself be held like that a while before leaning back.
“Say, are you coming down with something? Your voice sounds different.”
Linda made a face and touched her throat.
“Breathing fire always does that to me, it'll heal up in a day or two.”
Mallory's eyes widened.
“You actually did that? And I missed it!?”
Linda couldn't help laughing out loud, even though it hurt a little.
“Hehe, yeah. I promise it's less attractive than it sounds.”
Mallory leaned up to pat the larger woman's cheek.
“Lemme go see if we have any herbs that'll help with that.”
The herbal tea was bitter without any honey to sweeten it, but it did help with the burning sensation in Linda's throat a little. The pair had some time to kill before the stew would be really ready, and while Mallory didn't need to stir it very often she did need to stay close by to keep an eye on it and the fire. They sat next to each other on the floor leaning against one another, Linda with her tail wrapped around the smaller woman.
“Thanks,” the beast woman rasped, touching her throat. “Hope you'll forgive me if I don't talk much right now.”
Mallory hugged her arm.
“It's alright, I think I get why.”
Linda nodded gratefully and patted her mate's head by way of thanking her. Mallory beamed and leaned into the touch in a way that melted Linda's heart every time she saw it. She'd expected the silence to be awkward, but in truth it felt surprisingly comfortable just to sit quietly in each other's presence, watching the flames lick at the cauldron in front of them and listening to it's soft roar. Occasionally one of them would play with the other's hair, or offer an affectionate hug.
Things escalated slightly when Mallory leaned up and straddled Linda's thigh, and gave her a kiss. The beast woman purred in response, and rested her hands on the smaller woman's hips as she returned the kiss in kind.
Things escalated a little more when at some point in between locking lips Mallory began to disrobe with her lover's help.
Hours passed. The two women had stopped and started again the process of making love to one another several times, but it was finally looking like this would be it for the time being. They laid in a pile waiting for their sweat to dry before putting clothes back on in Mallory's case and a bed sheet in Linda's case.
“Now admittedly,” Mallory said exhaustedly, “I don't have much to compare that with... But I think that was really nice.”
Linda giggled and clapped the smaller woman's rump.
Mallory smirked and stuck her tongue out playfully at the other woman, then got up to check on their stew again. It was looking delicious and ready to eat.
“Come on, grab a bowl. I think our supper is ready.”
The stew really was quite good. Linda ended up not eating as much as Mallory had anticipated, due to spoiling her appetite earlier, but that just meant more leftovers for tomorrow. Afterwards, they retreated to the nest. Linda abstained from their nightly reading session in favor of letting her throat heal, so Mallory took a turn entertaining them by singing a song that was popular in her village. Linda was so taken by the smaller woman's voice that she entreated her to sing it a second and third time as well, which Mallory did gladly for the pleasure of seeing the beast woman's eyes fixed on her and wide with captivated wonder. After the third rendition, Mallory nestled in against her mate.
“You know, when you look at me like that, it makes me feel really special.”
Linda smiled lopsidedly, and traced a finger along Mallory's folded dorsal fin, sending excited shivers all the way up and down the smaller woman's spine.
“You are special. More than you could possibly realize.”
Linda leaned in and kissed her mate. Compared to the almost frantic excitement from earlier, this was a much more leisurely, and lazy kiss, and Mallory relaxed into it like a hot bath, returning it in kind. There were worse ways to be lulled to sleep.
Mallory was awoken by pressure in her bladder. Made sense in light of last night's supper. She stood to go relieve herself only to collapse and cry out involuntarily.
“Aaaagh, it hurts! It hurts!”
She clutched at her ankle, wondering if she stepped on it wrong as Linda bolted up immediately from dead sleep at the sound of her mate in pain.
“What is it, what's wrong?”
Mallory grit her teeth against the pain, which thankfully was receding now that her weight was off her foot.
“It's nothing, I'm sorry, just... FUCK that hurt!”
Linda blinked a few times, still getting her bearings.
“I think I twisted my ank- gyagh!”
Mallory's explanation was choked off by her own reaction when she took her hands of the offending joint. The scales that had started on her left calf had crept all the way down to her foot, which was now warped in shape. The metatarsal bones had elongated slightly, and her toes spread out away from each other with webbed skin connecting them.
Linda winced sympathetically.
“Yeah... The bones are the worst part. Best to stay off your foot for a while.”
Mallory punched the nest. The pain really was fading quickly, but CRAP had it hurt.
“Oh Frig, you didn't warn me this was gonna hurt so bad.”
“Would it have hurt less if you knew it was coming?”
Mallory made a face.
“Maybe? I don't know.”
The smaller woman massaged her foot, trying to coax the rest of the pain away, while Linda looked away shamefacedly.
“You're right, I should have warned you. The good news is, it doesn't get any worse. Promise.”
“Gods I hope not,” Mallory muttered under her breath She then reached over and placed a hand on Linda's chest.
“Come on, help me up.”
Linda looked at her uncertainly.
“You really should stay off your-”
“Linda, your concern is appreciated, but I still need to pee, so help me up!”
After all that was taken care of, Linda dragged one of the more comfortable chairs from the library into the kitchen, and draped it with sheets and blankets to make it softer. She fetched Mallory a bowl of stew from the cauldron, and at Mallory's request she also gathered some tools and materials. Once all that was done, and after fussing over Mallory a little making sure she had everything she'd need for a while, Linda went back to bed. She felt bad about leaving Mallory alone, but she really did need more sleep, and her mate assured her she'd be fine.
“If you need anything at all just shout my name.”
Mallory thanked her for her concern and then shooed her off.
“I will, thank you. Go sleep now.”
After Linda went back to bed, Mallory got to work.
When Linda got up for real this time, she plodded back out to the kitchen. From the looks of things, Mallory had dozed off too, but not without getting some work done. Two matching crutches made out of old shovels were laid out on the table in front of her. The wide digging surfaces had been sawed off, and rags were wrapped around the handles for cushioning. Linda touched one of them gingerly with pride. Her Mallory really was a very clever and capable woman.
Linda thought briefly back to her own transformation, laying on one side in the mud gasping in pain as her spine was wracked by a sensation like each of her individual vertebrae being wedged apart. By comparison, Mallory was taking to it like a duck to water. Linda hoped at least part of that was because of her own contribution, but it seemed very clear to her that much of it was just Mallory. The larger woman couldn't help feeling a pang of envy, but it was at least tempered with gratitude for being able to be a small part of this wonderful woman's metamorphosis.
She leaned in close and licked the smaller woman's cheek. As thick as her hide was, she had more feeling in that muscle than in any of her fingers. Mallory's scales were so rounded and smooth, pleasant to touch. Her scent was changing too, barely detectable where there were scales. Good for a hunter.
Linda sniffed the smaller woman's hair. There at least the smell Linda had come to associate with Mallory was still present. The smaller woman stirred and Linda back away. She hadn't meant to wake her.
Mallory stretched in her chair, and only after that did she slowly open her eyes, smiling warmly when she spotted Linda.
Linda smiled bashfully.
“Sorry for waking you up again.”
Mallory laughed and beckoned Linda closer.
“It's fine, I told you.”
Linda closed the distance between them, then knelt when Mallory motioned for her to lower her head. The smaller woman stroked Linda's fur affectionately.
“You tell me all the time how beautiful I am, but have I told you recently how much the sight of you fills my heart with warmth?”
Linda melted into the touch, and the kind words.
Words failed the beast woman. She wrapped the smaller woman in an embrace instead, purring happily.
“Thank you,” she eventually said, feeling compelled to say something at least.
Mallory just laughed and ruffled the larger woman's mane.
“Have you eaten yet?”
Linda barked out a laugh at the sudden change in tone.
“Nah, not yet.”
“Well, help yourself to the stew, I'm gonna make more. If you could bring back some more elk meat from the shed, at least?”
“Certainly, least I can do. Gonna do a quick sweep of the village first to make sure that son of a mother from yesterday didn't have any friends to come looking for him. I'll bring the meat on the way back.”
Mallory nodded faintly at being reminded of the intruder from yesterday.
The beast woman looked up in the process of pouring herself a bowl of stew.
“Did you eat him? The hunter.”
Linda shrugged noncommittally.
“Yeah. I'da brought some back, but I wasn't sure whether you were ready for that.”
Mallory digested that a moment. She was having some sort of feeling on the matter she couldn't identify.
Linda tilted her head to one side.
“...Hey. If it happens again, would you like me to bring some back?”
Mallory considered. Was it curiosity that she was feeling?
“Yeah,” she eventually answered. “Maybe just to try it.”
While Linda went out on patrol, Mallory went to the bath room to bathe again, using her crutches to avoid putting weight on her left foot. The hot water felt fantastically soothing on the affected limb. After she finished, she looked at the clothes she'd laid out to change into.
They were the ones she'd found in the loft of one of the houses the other day. Cleaned, dried, ready to wear. She hesitated briefly, then got dressed. The tunic fit surprisingly well. The trousers were a bit tight around the thighs, but were at least warm. She had an idea about those though. Taking the pants off, she went to get a needle and thread, and some fabric.
Thankfully, no one had come looking for the hunter. The ghost village and immediate surroundings were as still as a grave, as it should be.
Linda plodded back to the manor with the last of the elk meat in tow. Opening the door, she stepped inside and called out.
Mallory's voice issued forth from the kitchen.
Linda went down the corridor and almost dropped her burden when she reached the kitchen. Mallory was seated with her legs to one side, occupied with a needle and thread, but what got Linda's attention was that she was wearing a tunic and nothing else. Her bare legs on display all the way up to the edge of the tunic affected Linda's libido more than she would have predicted.
“Stop being such a useless lesbian for five minutes you animal,” she berated herself in her mind. She steeled herself and stepped closer.
“I brought the last of the elk.”
Mallory looked up from her sewing with a happy smile. “Excellent! Could you also cut for me? I'm almost done and want to finish this project.”
Linda snapped her eyes up guiltily to look at Mallory's face instead of... Well.
“Yeah, sure thing.”
Mallory gave her a wicked grin as Linda fumbled around the kitchen for a cutting board and knife.
“Whatcha making?” Linda asked, in the interest of making conversation.
“Just making some adjustments to these trousers. See?”
Linda looked up as Mallory showed off a part of the trousers where she'd opened up the stitching along the thigh and spliced in new fabric.
Linda grinned, pride in her mate's ability temporarily overriding her libido.
“You know, for someone who told me they're not very crafty, the range of your talents is pretty damned impressive.”
Mallory grinned sheepishly.
“It's nothing really, almost any woman in my old village could do as well or better.”
Linda looked down, keeping her eyes on the knife as she cut the meat into manageable chunks for the stew.
“Well, I couldn't do it, so I think it's impressive.”
The smaller woman looked at Linda curiously.
“How did you never learn how to sew?”
Linda shrugged, not looking up.
“My mother and father payed other people to do it for us. We weren't nobles, but we were as well off as some. I learned reading, writing, riding, poetry, and even skill at arms, but the basics of home making?”
The large woman shrugged and made a vague gesture.
“Anyway, finished with the meat.”
Mallory smiled, then looked at the trousers in her hand.
“Alright, soon as I finish the stitching on this pair I'll get started on the stew.”
Linda chuckled and shook her head.
“Just tell me what I need to do, you should be staying off your feet anyway.”
Mallory looked up indignantly.
“I can get around fine! That's what the crutches are for.”
Linda was silent a moment, then looked up with a soft expression.
“Please let me help?”
Mallory hesitated. How could she say no to that face?
“...Well alright. Add the meat to the pot with water, then go to the pantry and get-”
Linda went about to Mallory's instructions while the smaller woman continued sewing. Eventually the last pair of pants were finished, and the contents of the cauldron topped up. Mallory squeezed into the trousers with some difficulty due to her foot, but it was no difficulty she couldn't overcome. She braced herself against the table when she was done and stood on her right leg. The pants fit perfectly now, with a stripe of color running up the thighs that looked intentional rather than just being a patch. Linda watched with an intense look on her face, then approached from behind and wrapped her arms around the smaller woman.
“Hey. This is. A really good look for you.”
“This is what works for you, huh?”
Linda's tail wagged slowly but excitedly.
“Yup. Seems that way.”
“Perv,” Mallory said with a teasing grin.
“Your perv,” the beast woman replied, before gently scraping her teeth over the smaller woman's neck, gentle enough to not break skin. Encouraged when her mate shivered excitedly from the attention, she licked from the smaller woman's collarbone all the way up to behind her ear. Mallory turned so that she was facing her mate with a lustful gaze and grabbed a fistful of her hair.
“And a tease to boot. Come here.”
As delightful as exploring each other's body was, even an ettin's stamina had limits, and the day was young. Afterwards, they lay sprawled on the floor, Linda laying on her back with Mallory stretched out on top of her so they were face to face, both bearing expressions of dazed satisfaction. There was still time in the day, but neither of them had any particularly time sensitive tasks to complete, and they were good for food for the next couple of days at least. At some point Mallory started humming. It was a pleasant tune, the thrumming of which Linda could almost feel as much as hear.
Linda idly traced a patch of scales that had formed above Mallory's right breast with the tip of one of her claws, and Mallory smiled at her.
“You really do like my scales, huh?”
Linda chuckled but didn't try to deny it.
“Yeah. I really do.”
Mallory leaned and looked at her inquisitively.
“Is that part of turning? Being attracted to other monsters, I mean. Only I can't imagine any of the men in my old village focusing on my scales when my tits are out.”
Linda uttered a brief laugh, grinning crookedly.
“Well then the men of your old village have poor taste. Besides.”
Linda leaned up on her elbows with a sly grin.
“I think I gave your tits more than enough attention for them to not feel jealous.”
Mallory burst out laughing.
“Alright fine, question still stands though. If you'd met me looking like this, before you turned, would you have thought me beautiful? Or is that part of the transformation?”
Linda hummed and thought about it.
“I think, deep down, I've always felt a kind of... Connection, with monsters. Once when I was seventeen, I remember seeing a wyvern mid-flight. Everyone around me was screaming and scurrying for cover, but I just stood and stared like it was the most majestic thing I'd ever seen.”
“At the time I figured it was just a scholarly fascination, but looking back, I think I was always a monster, long before I sprouted scales.”
The larger woman gestured at Mallory.
“What about you? How did you feel about monsters before you realized you were one of them?”
Mallory shifted her weight, getting comfortable as she thought.
“I don't think I ever saw another monster myself, before you. Every now and then word would go around the village that someone had spotted a goblin or some such, but nothing I ever saw. I guess...”
She made a face as she concentrated, trying to grasp the idea of a thought before it flitted away.
“I think I did know deep down I didn't belong with humans. Aside from my mother, I was never really close with anyone in the village. People just... Didn't register at best, and at worst made me want to break someone's spine if only it'd make them stop talking! Especially when I got older and started getting a different kind of attention.”
Linda grimaced understandingly, and wrapped one of her arms around the smaller woman's torso.
“Yeah. Yeah, I know how that goes. First guy that tried to kiss me, I challenged him to a duel.”
Mallory's expression was the one of a woman trying to appear aghast while actually being delighted.
Linda grinned mischievously.
“Did too. Stabbed him too, fair and legal in front of all his friends, the prick.”
Mallory giggled and pressed a kiss against the larger woman's lips.
“You were a little hellion weren't you?”
Linda's bubbly, self-satisfied laughter was confirmation enough without words. Mallory grinned.
“And now I get to kiss you all I want and I don't even have to duel you at all.”
Linda parted her lips, leaned in close, and whispered in Mallory's ear with her voice still just a little raspy from spitting fire the day before.
“That's right. I'm all yours.”
The two of them grinned at each other. Maybe they did still have a little stamina left.
Getting out of the nest the next morning without waking Linda took Mallory longer than usual. Her foot had stretched out a little longer, and more unnervingly, she noted that she could stretch the actual bones apart slightly, the skin and scales stretching easily across the widened surface, and close them together again. It was unnerving, but not actually painful as long as she didn't try to stand on it, and that part would probably fade based on what Linda had told her. Gods willing whatever was happening to it would be over and done before the other foot started.
On that note, Mallory checked her left hand. The scales that had started on her elbow had reached as far as her hand, but not yet as far as her fingertips. How long had it been since her right hand had sprouted claws? Then again, would the time it took her hands to match be comparable to how long it took for her feet? It seemed like the further along the transformation went, the more it picked up speed. She'd have to ask Linda about it when she woke up.
In the meantime, Mallory set about the task of acquiring breakfast. There was stew, and it really was good stew, but the smoked fish in the pantry were calling her name. She even went back and got another after she finished the first one. Delicious! Fish had never tasted so good.
Hunger sated, Mallory retrieved something from her and Linda's room, stoked the fire in the hearth for warmth, and sat in her comfortable chair Linda had set up for her in the kitchen. She looked at the object she had retrieved.
The tiny silver coin mirrored the flickering tongues of flame dancing in the hearth. Judging by the wolf-like monster head adorning one side and the ring of runes around the other side, it must have been minted by the old Count Vestskov before his son succeeded him. Even with how much silver had been shaved off around the edges, it seemed unreal that her mother could have ever come into possession of such a thing. And now it was hers. She clenched the coin in the palm of her hand.
“I hope you're okay mum, and that you're not too worried about me. I'm... Doing really well. Better than ever in many ways, I just wish...”
Mallory took a deep, ragged breath.
“I wish you were here.”
She briefly felt like crying, but tears wouldn't come. They hadn't been able to at some point since her other eye had changed. Thankfully, the feeling quickly passed, and she smiled weakly.
“But, hey, finally found myself a sweetheart. Probably not what you envisioned when you were thinking about grandkids someday, but I really love her, and she loves me too, so...”
“You'd probably lose three years off your life if you saw her, but... If you got to know her? I think you would have liked her.”
Mallory gave the wolf head one last smile before tucking the coin away.
Linda grumbled in her sleep, wriggling around in discomfort until she fished around for the source of her irritation. One of her scales had come loose in the night and had been digging into her skin. The backs of the damn things were sharp enough to cut with, which was why she always insisted on Mallory sleeping in front where she didn't have any scales. She flicked the offending fragment of keratin off to one side and got up.
One of the, admittedly very many nice things having Mallory around had added to her life was having food ready to eat first thing in the noon before having to hunt for it. The beast woman padded into the kitchen, unsurprised to see her mate there. To keep the stew from spoiling, they threw a large log on the fire each night to keep it from going cold, which had the benefit of keeping the cozy room one of the warmest in the manor.
Mallory turned in her chair and smiled at the larger woman.
“There's my sleepyhead.”
Linda stuck her tongue out defiantly.
“The more I sleep the less I need to eat. Before I found this place I usually didn't even get up before sundown and then be back to bed with the rising of the sun, but I wanted to stay alert in case people came to chase me out during the day while I would normally be sleeping. And, well, then I met you.”
Mallory blinked in surprise.
“...You changed your schedule that much just for me?”
Linda smiled softly at her.
“I enjoy your company,” she said simply.
Mallory needed a moment to process that. Linda filled a tureen from the cauldron, then drank from the tureen as though it were a massive goblet.
“Well now I feel bad for teasing you about it.”
Linda laughed, walked over to where the smaller woman was seated and placed her stew on the table, and pressed her forehead to Mallory's.
“Don't. A little grogginess is nothing compared to how much you've lit up my life in the short time we've come to know each other. I wouldn't trade this for all the sleep in the world. Even if I've got to eat like a sow to keep up,” she said with a wink.
Mallory almost didn't catch the wink for all the she was lost in thought.
“...Is that why in all the stories, dragons and giants sleep for so long?”
Linda nodded and swallowed a mouthful of stew before answering.
“Yeah. Bigger the monster, bigger the appetite. I told you that already, right? Right. Uh, yeah. So, since they decimate whole countrysides when they wake up, they have to enter a sort of hibernation after to let the land replenish itself, otherwise they'd run out of things to eat. And there's nothing on this or any world meaner or nastier than a starving ettin. Go too long without meat and it... It messes with your mind.”
Linda winced as she recollected personal experiences on the matter.
“You get irritable, snapping over little things. Then it gets harder to form complete thoughts as you revert to a sort of feral, animalistic state. Not much longer after that, you go into a blind rage killing and eating any living thing you come across until your gullet is full to bursting. You don't even know you're doing it, just one moment you're starving and pissed as anything next thing you know you're covered in unwashed blood feeling like yourself again but you don't even know how much time you've lost and what, or who, you've been eating.”
The larger woman shook her head to clear her thoughts and focused on her stew so she wouldn't have to catch her mate's facial expression in light of that revelation.
“That sounds horrible.”
Linda nodded in response. That was about the normal reaction. There was a scraping sound of wood on stone as the smaller woman pushed her chair back and rose, then with the aid of her crutches tottered over to where Linda was and hugged her with one arm.
“I'm sorry you had to go through that.”
Linda blinked. That was NOT the normal reaction.
“I... Well, what do I have to complain about, not like I'm the one who died, right?”
Mallory just gave the larger woman a tight squeeze.
“It sounds scary to go through nonetheless.”
Linda took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, wrapping her arms around the smaller woman carefully.
“Yeah, guess so. Little bit,” she admitted.
After finishing breakfast, Linda went to check out the village again. Still no sign of anyone coming to look for the hunter. A small blessing. It wasn't normal for monster hunters to travel alone, parties of three to five were the norm, but the young man had looked pretty inexperienced. Maybe just some young armiger with more balls than brains trying to be a big man without knowing what he'd been getting himself into.
Whatever. He was shit now.
Linda made a small side trip before returning to the village. The stew earlier was delicious, but was mostly water and plant starches. Catching and eating a few fat rats helped her to feel better sated.
Back at the manor, Mallory found that she didn't have much to do. Even if her foot wasn't out of commission, all the snow outside curbed any inclination to go out if she didn't have to. They had no stockpile of fibers to spin, no crops or animals to tend to. There were books in the library, but Linda was the only one who knew how to read them. She entertained the notion of cleaning, but doing so while relying on crutches seemed objectively unpleasant, so she curled up in the nest instead and waited for her mate to come back. She didn't realize she'd drifted off until she was roused by the now familiar sound of the larger woman taking in her scent. She rose with a yawn as the larger woman backed away to give her space.
“Got back almost an hour ago. Figured I'd let you sleep.”
Mallory's eyes widened in surprise. Sure enough, the light filtering through the lone, small window the servant's quarters had was noticeably dimmer.
“Huh, I didn't think I was even tired, just bored.”
Linda smiled apologetically.
“Sucks I know, but if it makes you feel any better this part usually doesn't take very long. Not many monsters would survive their transformation otherwise. I'd be willing to bet you'll be able to stand on that leg again by tomorrow, even if actual walking's a little awkward until your other foot catches up. I wouldn't toss those crutches on the fire until after that's over with though.”
Mallory made a face.
“The sooner the better. I meant to ask if my changes were coming faster or if that was my imagination, guess that's my answer.”
Linda clapped the smaller woman on the shoulder encouragingly.
“Won't be long now.”
The way Mallory smiled up at the larger woman made Linda's heart sing.
“Why are you so cute?”
Mallory laughed before replying.
“It's a secret. Better lean in close so I can whisper it to you.”
Linda's mouth split into a wide grin as she crawled into the nest with her mate.
All told, it wasn't as lengthy or intense as some of their lovemaking had been the past couple days. Just making out and fondling, and cuddling while whispering sweet nothings. It was deeply satisfying for both of them nonetheless.
Afterwards, still having some time to kill, Linda implored the smaller woman to sing for her again. As Mallory sang, her mate closed her eyes to focus on the sound, only speaking once the last note faded.
“You really have a beautiful singing voice. I could listen to it all night.”
Mallory smiled and nudged the other woman.
“Why don't you sing something?”
Linda barked out a sudden laugh at the suggestion.
“Me? Gods no, I'm, I don't have the voice for it.”
Mallory smiled sweetly as she pressed on.
“Oh come now, I like your voice! You read poetry so well.”
The beast woman made a non-committal noise in her throat.
“That's different, chanting is different from really singing.”
Mallory gave her a soft nudge.
“You can't mean to tell me you never make music? Not in even just for yourself when no one's around?”
Linda smiled weakly.
“Well, I used to, before I changed. I was given lessons on how to play the harp when I was just a gel, I liked it too, but...”
She raised one of her massive paws with it's wickedly curved and irretractable claws to demonstrate her point.
“Never was able to get the hang of it again.”
Mallory frowned sadly.
“You really lost a lot from your change, didn't you?”
The beast woman tried on a brave face.
“We both did.”
Mallory looked down thoughtfully, then spoke.
“I lost my mom. That's a lot to lose, but everything else? My body, this place, you? They're all good things. I feel stronger, more able. Instead of pottage and gruel I'm feasting on meat. This place, our home is a just shy of being an actual castle! Yeah, there are some sacrifices that come from not being able to stroll down to the market for things we can't find or make on our own, but on the flipside of that I no longer have to deal with the stupid leers and offensive advances from all the bachelors in town and one or two of the husbands as well. I'm happy here. I'm happy with you.”
Linda wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and held her tight.
“I'm happy with you, too. Being with you is the best feeling I've felt in all the time since I turned. Please, don't ever doubt that.”
After winding down a little, Linda fetched their book again, feeling recovered enough to read some more. Curiously, the leader Estrith gave her axe to her retainer, and appointed him as the leader of her warband. Her men, confused and dismayed, begged her not to leave, but she assured them she was not abandoning them, but rather going to attain the power to slay the fell beast.
She told them that she would enter a cave, and that no one else was to enter or disturb her, but that once each week they should leave a cow by the entrance to the cave, until she returned to them.
The men were confused, and the villagers objected the loss of so many animals. Estrith's retainer payed fair price for every animal though in the time that followed. Every week without fail, a cow would be left by the cave, and no sign of it would remain when the next cow was brought. Occasionally the dragon would seize livestock, but it would not breach the ettinwards and no further humans were killed as days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months.
Linda lowered the book a moment and looked at Mallory.
Her mate shook her head.
“No, I'm still awake. Keep going.”
Thus assured, Linda pressed on.
After three months and three days, as Estrith's warband brought their usual offering, there came a roaring from deep within the cave. Fearing that the dragon had claimed their leader, the men drew their weapons, but the dragon that emerged from the cave was not the same as the one that had been attacking the town. It was plain to see, for the dragon they'd been fighting was red, and the one emerging from the cave was white as fresh snow. Despairing at the thought of two dragons, the men made to run, but the white dragon sprung into the air paying them no mind.
The white dragon flew high into the sky, roaring challenge. The challenge was answered in kind, the red dragon wasting no time in surging forth to fight the white dragon on the plains outside of the ettinwards. The two beasts fought, tooth for tooth and claw for claw, screaming molten fire that glanced off each other's scales. After a grueling battle in which the white dragon slashed the red dragon's wings, the red dragon plummeted to the earth. The crash of its body dug furrow in the earth, but it did not have long before the white landed and tore out its throat.
The warriors who had gathered on the edge of the wards cheered. Their leader really had summoned a power to fight the red dragon. Their joy did not last long.
The white dragon devoured the entirety of the red dragon while all watched. The men quailed with fear at the display of ferocity. Had their leader exchanged one monster for another?
After its gruesome meal was finished, the monster still painted in the red blood of its foe approached the the boundary of the ettinwards, but could not bring itself to cross. Head shaking side to side, the beast eventually turned and took flight, away from the colony. It was never seen again.
Afterwards, warriors searched the cave where Estrith had secluded herself, but found no sign of her. Surely the creature must have eaten her as payment for its grisly service. Estrith's retainer erected a grave marker in the mouth of the cave, and went on to become a just and fair ruler over the settlement, which prospered in years to come.
Mallory and Linda exchanged glances after the last words of the poem settled in the air.
“Estrith was the dragon.”
“She turned into a dragon!”
They both spoke at the same time, then laughed. It was Linda who spoke next.
“She must have started changing while she was back on the ship. Dragons take longer to change than any other kind of ettin.”
Mallory's face bore a wistful expression.
“She saved all her people and then couldn't even rejoin them. How sad.”
Mallory hummed thoughtfully.
“Are there other books like this?”
Linda was caught off guard by the question.
“In general? Certainly. In our library? Eh, maybe? Could be. To be honest, it's mostly tax records and practical works in there, but I might be able to dig up another epic poem. Would you like that?”
Mallory shook her head.
“Actually, I was wondering if you could teach me to read.”
Linda blinked in befuddled bewilderment.
“I... Maybe? I could try, at least. Dunno how good of a tutor I'll be, but for you I'll do my best. Is that what you want?”
Mallory nodded, and Linda scratched her own head as she thought.
“I think I might be able to work something out. I'll need to gather some materials tomorrow, might be able to start actually teaching you by tomorrow night. At least starting with the runes. Just... Lemme know if you get frustrated or I'm not explaining very good, yeah?”
Mallory beamed happily.
Linda was surprised when she stirred the next morning to find her mate still sleeping soundly in her arms. Surprised, but not complaining. Not that she should be all that surprised considering the pace at which the smaller woman's transformation was progressing. She even had the beginnings of what would be her tail starting to form at the base of her spine. It was only natural she'd start sleeping more. Eating more, too. Linda only hoped that their combined hunger wouldn't ultimately outpace the forest's ability to provide. With winter ahead...
The beast woman shook her head. They'd make do. They didn't have a choice. With so many humans nearby, who had sent at least one hunter in to kill them, sleeping through most of the season wasn't an option even if Mallory didn't need to keep eating to fuel her transmogrification. And there was simply too much of use where they were to fuck off and take even half of it with them.
She stayed curled around the smaller woman, keeping her warm as she slept. All told it didn't take long after Linda's awakening for Mallory's to follow. She stirred in her sleep, and eventually stretched out in Linda's arms as various fins unfurled like a ship's sails before folding shut again. The beast woman smiled at the display before leaning down to kiss the top of her mate's head.
“Morning you,” she said affectionately even though it was slightly after noon.
Mallory smiled in response even as she rubbed the sleep out of her eyes.
The smaller woman paused, glancing at the light coming in from the window.
Linda smiled affectionately and tussled her mate's hair.
“I need to gather some teaching supplies for tonight. Need anything before I go?”
Mallory looked down speculatively before answering.
“Some of the venison from the shed for the stew? That's about all that jumps out at me.”
“Can do. I'll run down and fetch it back before heading out for real, so it'll have time to cook.”
Mallory sleepily smiled up at her.
“Thanks. Help me up real quick?”
Linda rose from the nest and offered the smaller woman an arm to brace herself on. Testing her weight on her foot proved only to be a little tender, but less of a stabbing pain and more of a post-exercise soreness. The foot itself was now only a few inches shorter than the length of her shin, and able to expand sideways into a shape reminiscent of oar or flipper, which didn't seem to support her weight very well in that configuration but would presumably allow her to move frighteningly fast through the water once her other foot changed. With all the bones tucked tight together though, walking wasn't too terribly awkward, and with Linda's aid Mallory made her way to the kitchen.
They had a couple of fish each to break their fast, Mallory lamenting that the were nearly out but even smoked the fish wouldn't still be good for much longer so there was no point in holding back. After that, Linda went outside to retrieve some meat for the cauldron. It didn't take long, and after ferrying it back and sharing a kiss with Mallory for luck, she headed back out.
After waving her lover off, Mallory went back to the kitchen to set about cutting the meat into manageable portions before adding it to the pot. Having aged for a few days made it slightly easier for the wrought iron knife to carve through it, but in truth it would have been better to wait longer. Not much choice though, the way the weather was turning it'd end up freezing before long instead, and then it'd really be hard to cut. She patiently persevered, nasal slits flaring at the smell of blood. After eating two fish by herself she shouldn't be hungry, and they still had some stew, but some reptilian corner of her mind couldn't stop dwelling on the bloody venison beneath her fingers. The smell of it, the texture of it, the color. Her lips parted, and the smell seemed even richer then, almost as if she could taste it.
She only barely caught herself with one hand partway to her mouth as if to lick her fingers, and that made her shake her head at herself.
“The hell did that come from?”
After she finished cutting, but before she topped up the cauldron with the fresh ingredients, she went ahead and poured herself a bowl of stew. It was tasty as ever, yet oddly unsatisfying.
Still no sign of human intruders as Linda plowed through the snow around the edge of her territory. No goblins either, not that she was expecting any after how many she'd killed and eaten before they took the hint and scarpered, but you never knew. Born goblins, goblins who had never been human before, were cowardly and stupid in equal measure, and it made predicting which trait would lead at any given moment anyone's guess. One could almost pity them were it not for the vicious glee they took in tormenting anything that couldn't fight back. Almost like children in that respect, a certain kind of child anyway.
Periodically she would stop and cut oak branches that were straight enough and the right size for what she had planned to help Mallory learn to read. Ordinarily she would have settled for what she could find on the ground, but rooting around in the snow sounded even less appealing than trying to cut green wood.
Back at the manor, after thoroughly washing her hands, Mallory had some time to herself. In truth, she was rather looking forward to be able to go out with Linda again. The larger woman had a presence about her that filled the whole room, even when she was quiet, and without her around the large manor and the immense silence it contained felt oppressively lonesome.
She lifted her foot and flexed experimentally. Still eerie to see bones that weren't supposed to be that flexible fanning out so. To top it off, she'd noticed when sitting earlier a scaly protrusion from the base of her spine. Touching the scales didn't feel much like anything, but there was deep soreness around the budding vertebrae within that gave her the distinct impression that tweaking or slamming it against something would hurt a LOT. For the time being at least, it was short enough for that to not be of great concern.
Mallory walked around slowly, getting a feel for the awkward gait having unevenly sized feet forced her to adopt. She found that her transformed foot wanted to raise her heel off the ground and rest weight on the ball of her foot, but doing so effectively made one leg significantly longer than the other, so she resisted the impulse. For now at least.
For lack of anything better to do, she did some cleaning while she waited for Linda to come home. The larger woman had done a serviceable job sweeping out the dirt and leaves that littered so many of the other homes in the area, but a hot wet rag against the yellowed glass panes scrubbed off decades of moss from the window in the servant's quarters, allowing the light to shine brighter and replacing the musty smell of mold with the pleasant scent of soapwort. She thought about scrubbing the floor as well, but the pile of wooden bed frames in one corner and bedding in the opposite corner were an obstacle she didn't feel like tackling without Linda's help. Eventually, she wandered into the great hall instead.
Midway between the main entrance and the fireplace, a few of the massive sprawling tables were laden down with piles of things Linda had found while scavenging homes. The larger woman alternated between calling it her hoard and “that pile of junk”. Sometimes Mallory wondered if her mate wasn't just a little bit dragon-y.
Recent additions included the tools Linda had brought her, but there were other things in the mix. Some clay jugs, scraps of metal, leather saddle bags, cloak pins, feather quills, and so on. Anything that might someday be useful or had just caught the beast woman's eye.
Perhaps more magpie than dragon, come to that.
Still, there was no arguing against the merits of having so many materials to work with, especially since they had so much space. A great hall was where a lord would entertain all manner of visitors and dignitaries and their entourages after all. Mallory absently sorted through the piles looking for inspiration. It felt odd to have so much free time on her hands. Freeing, to be sure, but...
Perhaps for one of the first times since she was a child, Mallory was bored. She gritted her teeth in frustration.
“Why can't this just be done yet! Is this my punishment for wishing it would go away back when it started?”
The gods didn't answer her. Why would they? What did a god care for a monster's prayer? Mallory sighed and took a seat, slumping forward over one of the tables.
At the very least, going off of what Linda told her, it wouldn't be for much longer. Then she could run and hunt with her mate. She thought of the elk they had killed together. The sounds it made as they cornered and felled it. The smell of hot, fresh blood on crisp snow. The slippery, tangy, hot heart as she bit into it like an oversized apple. She bared her teeth without realizing she was doing it. She wanted to hunt. She wanted to ki-
The sound of the double doors to their manor opening roused Mallory from her daydream. Her mate was home!
Linda shook of a dusting of snow that had landed in her mane. The beast woman was carrying several small branches stripped of their twigs, and grinned when she saw Mallory.
“Ah good, you're awake. If you're not busy, do you think you could help me with these?”
“Yeah, sure what do you need?”
Linda kicked the door closed behind her and strode forward, depositing her bundle on one of the tables.
“I'm gonna need to saw these into smaller pieces. If you could just take a knife, and when I hand you a piece just carve a shallow depression through the bark on one end. Don't have to strip the whole thing, just needs to be large enough and flat enough for me to draw a single rune on per piece.”
Mallory nodded her assent, and the two women got to work. Linda sawing the branches into roughly evenly sized dowels before handing each one to Mallory to carve out a space on them. After preparing as many dowels as there were runes, and a few extra in case Linda messed some up, the larger woman set about carving a single rune into each one with a knife, and rubbing black chalk from her hoard into the lines she carved for visibility.
“The runes we use for writing are called the futhorc. This one I'm carving now is the first character of the futhorc. It's called 'feoh'. By itself, it represents wealth, but as part of a word it signifies a 'ffffff' sound.”
Mallory listened attentively while Linda explained each rune as she carved them, resisting the urge to just focus on the larger woman's growly, gravelly voice as she spoke softly and soothingly. She really did have a lovely voice, whatever she might say. No, focus!
She shook her head slightly to clear her mind, and the larger woman paused in her work.
“Am I going too fast for you?”
Mallory smiled and shook her head.
“No, I... I was just distracted.”
Linda smiled that uneven smile of hers.
“Anything you want to talk about?”
The smaller woman chuckled.
“Nothing like that. Just... You are very lovely.”
Linda burst out in laughter at that, carefully setting her knife down.
“Only you would say that. Thank you.”
Mallory mock pouted, climbed into Linda's lap, and whispered in her ear.
“It's true. Let me prove it to you.”
They got a little off track. Afterwards it was getting late, and they still needed something to eat in addition to the stew. Linda thought about going hunting, but the puppy dog eyes Mallory made at the suggestion made her revise her plans, and instead nipped down to the shed to retrieve a haunch of venison that they could roast to go with the stew. They were beginning to run low, and it would soon be necessary for one or the other of them to get more food, but for now they had what they needed.
After dinner, and washing up, they retired to the nest. They could resume with lessons tomorrow. At some point while Linda was playing with the smaller woman's hair, Mallory spoke up.
“Hey. Linda? Jul is coming. Is there anything you usually do?”
Linda paused. She hadn't thought about the winter holiday in years. No, that was a lie. She thought about it every year, and it hurt, but she'd long since lost track of the days and didn't know when it started and ended anymore in the blur of snow days.
“Not really,” she rasped. “Can't very well visit my family looking like this.”
“I suppose not,” Mallory said quietly.
An air of melancholia settled over the two women for a spell. Linda didn't like it. She'd resigned herself to misery long ago, but she didn't want to drag Mallory down with her. She didn't want her mate to be sad.
“Hey, why don't we decorate a tree?”
Mallory looked up at her.
“Do we have enough candles?”
“Some. Admittedly, most of them are already burned down a little, but we could probably do at least one night, and it's not like we really need them to see in the dark anymore.”
“That would be nice,” she admitted.
Linda patted the smaller woman's shoulder.
“You just let me know when the solstice is almost upon us and we can do it together.”
Mallory smiled, and if her eyes could still cry she was sure she'd have shed a tear.
She might not ever see her mother again, but at the very least, she wasn't alone.
Mallory rose groggily from her place in her mate's arms. The light shining through their room's lone window signified that it had to be at least noon already. It seemed unreal that a lifetime habit of rising before the sun could alter so severely in such a short time frame. Then again, it seemed equally unreal to slough off her humanity like a serpent shedding its skin, yet here she was.
As she stood, she noticed that her tail had gotten longer. And not just a little longer, more like several inches longer, from a mere protrusion to a recognizable limb draped over the curve of her buttocks. Seemed thicker too, especially near the base. As she examined it as best she could, spine twisting as she tried to see around her own back, the tip twitched to one side idly, and she could feel it.
Eerie. Sodding eerie as anything.
She padded towards the kitchen, pleasantly noting that her scaled foot didn't feel the cold of the stone floor as much as before. Opening the pantry revealed that they were down to just three fish left. Mallory ate one, trying to make it last, but no sooner had she finished it than she went back for another. It was odd, she'd been very disciplined about making food last when she still lived with her mother, but more and more her stomach was making decisions for her. Then again, Linda had mentioned something about that, hadn't she?
She poured herself some stew as she thought, and sat down in her comfy chair with her knees and feet drawn up onto the seat for warmth, though the end of the larger foot hung over the edge. She was still like that when Linda loped down the corridor connecting their nest to the kitchen. Mallory smiled as her mate hugged her from behind before leaning forward and down to kiss her. It earned a giggle from the smaller woman.
“You must really love me to kiss me with fish and garlic on my breath.”
“Yup,” Linda said without hesitation or protest. “I really do.”
Mallory hummed happily and beamed at the honest affection in her mate's voice.
“You're too good to me.”
The larger woman laughed softly.
“I'll be the judge of that,” she said playfully.
She nibbled on one of the smaller woman's ear fins teasingly, causing her to suck in a lungful of air.
“You're a tease,” Mallory gasped out.
Linda smirked, chuckling deeply.
“Can't help myself. You're just so cute.”
Mallory turned in her chair and fixed Linda with an evil grin. She set her bowl down on the table and leaned up to wrap her arms around the larger woman's neck so she couldn't pull away, not that she would really. They kissed softly, leisurely, simply basking in each other's presence. Linda wrapped the smaller woman up in a great hug and held her tight. It was moments after that Mallory broke the kiss with a confused expression.
“Hang on a sec, something feels...”
Linda gave the smaller woman an uncertain look as she adjusted her tunic, fumbling around her chest region. Her mate's face bore an expression of dawning horror that made the beast woman concerned.
“You okay Mal?”
Mallory smiled weakly, and only the scales on her face hid that her blood was draining from it.
“It's gone,” she uttered in a monotone voice.
Linda looked at her in confusion.
Instead of answering the smaller woman struggled out of her tunic. Scales covered much of her torso now, broad like the belly of a snake. The scales that had started above her left breast had spread, and the swell of her breast had been replaced with flat, scaled muscle. There wasn't even a trace of where her nipple had once been. The difference was magnified by how largely unchanged the other side of her chest was. For now.
“That's not fair,” Mallory said quietly, breaking the silence.
Linda shrugged apologetically.
“It was always a possibility. Never know what kind of monster you're becoming until it's all over.”
Mallory still seemed stunned.
“They didn't finally start growing until I was sixteen! And I JUST got my first lover!”
Linda smiled and kissed the other woman's cheek.
“Well, your lover is happy to have you either way.”
Mallory mouthed 'not fair' again quietly, only to look up when Linda kissed her to get her attention.
“It's alright,” Linda assured her when their lips parted.
“Easy for you to say, you've still got yours.”
Linda chuckled and grinned.
“Well, I can't bring yours back, but would it make you feel better if I said you can touch mine whenever you want?”
Mallory huffed and turned her head to one side, but glanced over at Linda's bosom from the corner of one eye.
“...Well maybe a little.”
After breakfast, Linda had to leave. Both to make sure there were no intruders in their territory, and to track down more food. The snow was a double edged sword in that regard. Easier to track animals, harder to sneak up on them. This made small, fast animals in particular harder for the large woman to catch. That was alright though, as she was hunting for two now anyway.
The beast woman shook her head to clear her thoughts, scattering a shower of light snow that had settled in her mane, and looked up at the sky through a cluster of barren branches. Even overcast and gray, the light filtering through stung her eyes. Hunting at night was better, but making two trips just meant leaving her mate alone longer. Better get to it then.
Mallory frowned as something unexpectedly brushed against the back of her knees. Her tail? Surely it hadn't gotten that long just since this morning had it?
Mallory reached back and touched the scales there. She was used to changes coming in spurts, but now she could almost fancy she felt the scales shifting beneath her touch as her newest appendage grew. Too slow, too fast, she didn't even know how she felt about the way things were going anymore, other than frustrated. She stormed over to the nest and threw herself in it sulkily, only to holler in agonizing pain as the weight of her body fell on her tail. Thunor's balls that hurt! She rolled over, gasping out hoarsely.
“Ow! Oh gods, oh gods why?”
She forced herself to take deep breaths as she waited for the pain to fade away, which at least it did blessedly quickly.
Wow! Not repeating that again.
Growling her displeasure, a deep gurgling sound she'd never have been capable of making in human form, she rested her head on her arms as she rested among the heaps of blankets and sheets.
Lately it seemed, she was having so many feelings. Good feelings, bad feelings, every feeling she'd ever known and some she had never known before all happening at once. It wasn't like her. Back in her old village, she'd been infamous for being quiet, reserved, and stonefaced. Her transformation, her relationship with Linda, her self imposed exile, she wasn't sure how much of which was responsible for bursting the dam she'd built in her head without realizing it, but it was just. So. Much.
Gasping for air, gills fluttering involuntarily despite there being nothing for them to drink, Mallory reared her head back and roared a long, drawn out, piercing, inhuman roar. As the echoes boomed like thunder in the wooden rafters overhead, she laid her head down again. Somehow, that simple act eased the chaos in her head, making her feel better. She settled into the soft, warm sheets and blankets, suddenly wearied by her brief outburst. She was safe, and she was loved. That was the important thing.
Linda managed to bag another deer. She was getting a little tired of venison, but it was impossible for her to get close enough to fowl or rodents without the snow alerting them to her presence and then flying off or dashing into a hole, and she was just too big to make use of the bow she'd taken off of the hunter. Deer at least she could run down until they tired. After butchering the animal, and eating the parts Mallory didn't like or have a use for, she washed up, not minding the iciness of the water, and entered the manor through the side door into the kitchen. After announcing her presence and not receiving an answer, she found Mallory asleep in their nest.
She ran her fingers over the smaller woman's hair. Poor thing. She'd tried to make light of it earlier to take her mate's mind off it, but she could tell her latest change was hitting her pretty hard. She had been telling the truth though when she assured her she liked her either way. Even as the remaining vestiges of humanity were supplanted by her real self, it was the same woman she'd fallen for. Maybe the only woman she'd had such deep feelings for.
There were others she'd shared a bed with, before her own change, but those were more physical than romantic couplings. Young women taking advantage of the fact that larger society didn't think a woman's chastity needed to be protected from other women, and fooling around. Nothing like this.
She hoped her estimation of her feelings was correct. That this was real, not just loneliness and desperation making her cling to this one and hope she'd never leave. It certainly felt real. Sometimes the smaller woman would look at her just so and Linda's heart felt like it would burst. One thing she knew for certain, she'd never forgive herself if she broke this one's heart.
Mallory stirred, blinking the sleep from her eyes and smiling when she saw her mate.
Dammit. That was the look.
Linda smiled back at her as her heart swelled with more love and affection than a human heart could possibly hold.
“Hey yourself. Brought home another deer?”
Linda smiled even wider.
“Sure did, how'd ya guess?”
“Could smell it on you.”
There was quiet a moment, then Linda giggled as Mallory's expression twisted into one of self satisfied wonder.
“I could smell it on you! And recognize the specific animal, not just the scent of blood!”
Linda touched the smaller woman's chin affectionately.
It did the beast woman's heart good to see her mate being excited about her transformation again. It was a good sign.
Linda handled cooking the ribs that were all that remained of the previous deer they had killed while Mallory padded around the manor sniffing everything like a kitten in a new home. There was so much more information to be had with her newly heightened senses. To look at something was merely to see it as it currently was, but scent could perceive not just an object or animal's present, but its past as well. If it had been moved recently, or if someone or something had touched it recently. Traces of her and Linda's presence criss-crossed and weaved throughout the manor, as well as other smells she wasn't familiar enough with yet to put a name to. It felt like it should be overwhelming, and it was a little, but also not, if that made sense. As if it were perfectly natural and the more baffling puzzle was how she had ever interacted with the world before this.
After a while Linda called her into the kitchen for dinner. Oh, but the smell from the cauldron was wonderful! The ribs would have benefited from ale or gravy, but Linda had done her best with garlic, onion, and carrots to impart some flavor to the meat, and with the stew to wash it down it made for a hearty meal. Mallory encouraged Linda to help her eat the last of the stew so that what little remained wouldn't burn onto the bottom of the cauldron, and after they finished eating she sat down with it and scoured it clean with hot water, soapwort, sand, and rags. Linda sat nearby so they could talk, and occasionally they'd switch places, taking it in turns to scour the last of the residue from the pot. After rinsing it for a final time, the proper thing to stop it from rusting was to apply oil, but... Well, they didn't have any.
Mallory sighed, and gave the cauldron one last buff with a rag, hoping for the best. There was nothing to be done. They were squatters in an abandoned ruin, picking the bones left by people who'd long since moved on. While it was comforting to know that their monstrous constitutions could stomach raw meat, she still wasn't ready to let go of cooked meals. Hopefully continued use wouldn't turn the cauldron to rust.
Linda touched her shoulder and offered her a smile.
“It'll be okay.”
Mallory touched the beast woman's hand.
After all that was done, Linda led her mate back into the great hall to finish carving the rest of the runes, explaining each one as she went while Mallory concentrated on the lesson. When at last they were all finished, Linda started over from the beginning, holding up each rune in order as she instructed Mallory to repeat both the name of the rune and the sound it made.
Committing the runes to memory was harder work than Mallory had anticipated, she thought as she laid on top of her mate in their nest. There were so many of them!
Laying on her back, Linda craned her head to look at the woman sprawled out on top of her.
“Sorry if it's a lot to take in, I'm not... I'm just mimicking the way my tutor taught me.”
Mallory shook her head and traced along one of Linda's collarbones with one finger.
“I don't mind. Better than spinning wool, at least it's engaging.”
Linda laughed, causing her chest to heave in a way that made Mallory brace herself, lest she be dislodged from her perch.
“That's a relief to hear. What made you want to learn anyway?”
“Gives me something to do. I'm not used to having so much free time.”
The larger woman smiled apologetically.
“Sorry, you must be getting a little stir crazy with no one to talk to but me.”
Mallory fixed the other woman with a look.
“I like talking to you. It's only when you're not around that I start to feel lonely.”
Linda's expression looked pained, guilty even.
The smaller woman just laughed, and pressed a kiss to Linda's neck.
“Don't be,” she whispered. “You're the best thing in my life right now. I don't know what I'd do without you.”
The beast woman took a deep breath, feeling overcome with emotions.
Their eyes met, and neither knew which of them initiated the kiss that followed.
Mallory awoke slowly the next day, gradually transitioning from sleep to wakefulness over what felt like an hour. Probably could have woken up faster, but she felt no need to. She was comfortable there, wrapped in a cocoon of warmth against her mate's body, snuggled in with one arm wrapped halfway around her lover's stout waist. When she eventually did stir with the intention of rising, it roused Linda as well, the larger woman blinking several times as she yawned.
“Mornin',” the beast woman muttered groggily, even though it was long past morning.
Mallory smiled, reaching out to stroke the larger woman's fluffy mane.
“Sorry if I woke you.”
Linda grinned lazily.
“Ah, you're fine. I need to get up anyway.”
The beast woman stretched languidly, the fluid gracefulness of the effort being cut to an early abrupt halt as something under her hide made a muffled popping noise.
“Oh, that's better.”
Mallory laughed softly and reached out to tickle her mate's exposed belly, causing the large woman to curl up forward abruptly.
Mallory just grinned.
“I couldn't help myself, you're just so cute,” she said, imitating Linda from the day before.
Linda stuck her tongue out at the other woman.
“Flattery will get you everywhere,” she said good naturedly as she rose on all fours before transitioning to standing upright.
Mallory made to stand as well, only to collapse immediately.
She clutched the more human of her feet in agony. At some point in the night it had sprouted scales around her toes, and the bones underneath showed signs of starting to change as well.
“Thunor's balls, this is just getting tiresome,” she managed to spit out in between desperately massaging the ball of her foot in a bid to ease the pain.
Linda, for her part, seemed to be struggling not to laugh even though she sympathized.
“Aww, I'm sorry. Would you like me to carry you?”
Mallory shook her head.
“I just need a minute. And pass me my crutches?”
Linda's natural inclination was to stay and hover, but Mallory firmly insisted that it wasn't necessary and eventually shooed the larger woman off.
“I'll be fine, honestly!”
After the Linda left, Mallory limped over to the kitchen with the aid of her crutches. Her tail very nearly touched the floor as she walked, having grown even more during the night. There was now also a second dorsal fin where it joined to her backside, as well as a tail fin at the far tip. She also found that by moving unfamiliar muscles she could deliberately move it side to side. It was only when she reached the pantry that Mallory remembered with a sinking feeling that there was only a single fish left, and no more stew.
She scarfed down the fish faster than she intended, her stomach gurgling plaintively for more when nothing else followed. She thought about eating some of the carrots, but even as hungry as she was the thought of just carrots felt as unsatisfying as no food at all. It wasn't like her to be so picky, but there was an instinctive feeling that only meat would do. She knew they had meat in the shed, but the thought of trudging through slushy snow and packed down ice to get to it while relying on her crutches to be able to move without agonizing pain took the bloom off of that rose.
Eventually, she groaned and resigned herself to waiting until her mate came home. Perhaps a hot both in the meantime would make her feel better.
While patrolling her territory, Linda stumbled upon the carcass of a half eaten goat being gnawed on by a wolf. The wolf growled when it saw her, trying to defend its meal. By the haggard look of the creature it had seen better days, probably an older female driven out of its family unit to fend for itself. That Linda could relate to the creature didn't stop her from killing it. The fur would make a good addition to the nest, and unlike most humans she had no compunctions about eating wolf meat. One less predator competing for the local game. She helped herself to what remained of the goat too. The goat was too tattered and strewn about to bring home to Mallory, so she ate what she could before dragging the wolf carcass home.
Mallory was waiting for her when she came in through the kitchen door.
“Thank goodness you're back, please tell me you brought back food 'cause I'm famished.”
Linda deposited the wolf carcass on the table. Mallory's expression was conflicted. Part of her felt like it should be horrified by the proposition of eating a canine, but a larger part of her was already salivating.
“Help me skin this? I wanna save the fur, but you can eat what's left, I had some carrion while I was out.”
Mallory closed her eyes a moment as if unpacking where to start with that sentence, but eventually sighed and with a shrug set about helping.
As soon as the skin was separated from the animal, Linda laid it out and started scraping as much remaining flesh and fat off as she could.
Mallory regarded the skinned canine in front of her. It looked similar to a dog, if much bigger than even the largest hound she'd ever seen. The smell coming off of it was ghastly, and she wasn't sure where to even begin cooking the damn thing. Dog meat, despite what some people might think of commoners, had never featured largely in her mother's recipes.
Her stomach gurgled. As foul as the meat was to what remained of her human sensibilities, the monster in her smelled only food. It was to her own surprise when she finally seized upon one of the hind legs and tore into it, raw. The meat was gamy, oily even. It tasted like it smelled, like death.
She swallowed and took another bite.
Linda glanced over, but didn't say anything. It was something every ettin went through at some point during their transformation, if they survived long enough.
Mallory ate until she was full. Linda salted her fur, then took the remainder of the carcass out into the snow for them to finish eating later. The kitchen smelled like a charnel house. With her hunger sated, Mallory was left to grapple with what she'd just done. Linda walked up to her and touched her shoulder comfortingly.
“Hey, it's alright. There's nothing wrong with what you did. It's perfectly natural.”
Mallory's guts roiled and for a moment she thought she might regurgitate her meal.
“I can't believe I did that.”
Linda smiled softly.
“I do that all the time, do you think any less of me for it?”
Mallory blinked in surprise.
“Well no, but...”
Linda reached over and took the smaller woman's hand.
“But nothing. You're still you. Nothing's changed, not really. You're just expanding your horizons a little, that's all. It doesn't have to be a big deal.”
Mallory took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. She gave the larger woman's hand an appreciative squeeze.
“Thanks. Heh, I'd be losing my mind if it wasn't for you.”
Linda smiled, and pulled the smaller woman into a hug.
“Good thing I'm here then. You have a very good mind, it'd be a shame if it went missing.”
Mallory glanced at her, then grinned in such a manner that it transitioned easily into laughter.
“You are such a dork!”
Linda stuck her tongue out teasingly.
“Bold words coming from a dork fucker.”
Mallory smirked and wrapped her arms around her mate's neck.
“Come here you.”
Later in the evening, they went over the runes again. Twice in order, then once out of order to see if Mallory could correctly name them and the sound they made that way. She got some of them right without needing to be prompted. Linda, it turned out, was a pretty patient and supportive teacher, which helped to defuse the frustration of trying something new and not immediately being good at it. Mallory was still a long way from being able to read, but she was confident she'd get there eventually.
They took a break after that. Mallory idly wished that she'd gathered more fruit before the weather turned. They might not be able to make ale without any grain, but there was yeast in the pantry, and some cider would have been lovely to unwind with.
“Maybe next year,” she said with a half smile.
Linda purred just thinking about it.
“Damn that'd be nice. Been too long since I had anything stiffer than sodding water.”
Mallory laughed and reached over to stroke the larger woman's mane.
“Somehow I get the feeling you used to be a bit of a tippler.”
The beast woman raised a hand and made a gesture that communicated the words 'little bit' succinctly and silently.
“Not to excess or nothin', a cup of ale or some watered down wine just to put a spring in my step.”
Mallory smirked skeptically.
“And about how many days a week did you have a spring in your step?”
“Only the ones that end with a 'ger',” she admitted sheepishly. All of them, basically.
Mallory smiled and snuggled up to the larger woman.
“You're cute when you're embarrassed.”
Linda wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and gave her a gentle squeeze.
“Mmm, you're cute all the time,” she rumbled.
The smaller woman laughed and looked up at her mate's face looming above her. The larger woman might dwarf her in terms of size, but by now, between the two of them, Linda's face was the more human looking of the two. Her brow might be wrung with scales, and her teeth resembled those of a bear, but most of her face was still covered in skin, and aside from the inhumanly powerful jaw muscles, the structure of her face was still very recognizably human.
Mallory reached up and touched Linda's face. The larger woman didn't pull away, letting her mate caress and feel her cheek and jaw.
“Do you mean it?”
The beast woman looked at her curiously, so Mallory elaborated.
“About me being cute, I mean. I look so...”
She cast about as she tried to find some way of articulating how much more monstrous her face was in contrast, being completely covered in pale scales, with nasal slits that combined with pallid hue and lampblack eyes to bear resemblance to a skull. As Linda caught on to what Mallory was trying to say, she beamed at her softly and stroked her hair.
“The cutest, I mean it. I'd pick you over a puppy any day.”
Mallory laughed at the comparison.
“Well when you say it like that I can just about believe it.”
The larger woman purred softly.
“You should. I mean every word.”
Mallory's tail, quite unbidden, swayed languidly from side to side. The swinging heft of it she could feel all the way up her spine, like the rocking of a cradle and just as soothing. Time seemed to stop a moment, and a feeling of welcome rightness washed over her. The vacillation between that and the sense of subtle wrongness that occasionally plagued her since her changes started was still unsettling, but a little less disarming as she got used to it.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Linda said, her voice cutting through Mallory's introspection.
“I was just thinking. I think... I think I can do this.”
Linda looked at her curiously.
Mallory gestured at herself.
“This. Being what I am, living this way, here. It's... Confusing, sometimes alarming, but I'm... I'm doing it. I'm here, I'm... Ah, I don't even know if I'm making sense but, I just feel like I can do this, you know? Like I'm not helpless, and and even if I stumble I'll keep moving forward. Like I'm starting to get a handle on things instead of just muddling through.”
Linda regarded her with surprise, then grinned and kissed her firmly on the mouth. Mallory was caught off guard by the gesture, but quickly returned it. When they had to break for air, the smaller woman laughed.
“Well you're in a mood!”
Linda growled happily.
“Sorry, you being all confident and stuff is kinda hot.”
Mallory hummed happily.
“Yeah? I'll have to make a point to do it more often then.”
They started kissing again. Shortly after, the larger woman swept her mate off her feet and carried her towards their nest.
After making love again, then finishing the rest of the wolf carcass for their dinner, the pair had retired for the night. Sometime after midnight, but before the dawn, Mallory awoke to agonizing pain. It felt as though her entire pelvis was being wedged apart. She alternated between panting for breath and crying out in pain so loud it woke her mate. Linda did her best to hold her and help her remember to breath. Time lost meaning to Mallory for a moment, and the whole horrid affair eventually finished with a sickening popping sound as the very structure of her hips altered to make it easier to lean forward with her tail as a counterbalance.
Mallory gasped for breath. The pain was fading at last, but it had been the worst of her entire life. Her scalp was sweating the pain had been so bad, one of the few places she still could sweat in light of how much her scales had spread.
“Oh, gods. May I never hurt that bad EVER again.”
Linda chuckled softly and patted Mallory's hair never minding how slick with perspiration it was.
“You did good, I'm proud of you.”
She placed a kiss on the smaller woman's forehead comfortingly. Mallory smiled weakly in response.
“It's over now, right?”
Linda nodded and shrugged at the same time.
“For now at least, it looks like.”
Mallory nodded in relief.
“Good. It shouldn't be legal to be in that much pain.”
Linda barked out a laugh.
“Oh, it's not. The sentence for turning into an ettin is, I believe, outlawry.”
Mallory smiled wanly.
“Bunch of buggery is what that is. When did the lords just decide people like us have no right to exist in civilized society?”
The larger woman shrugged.
“Probably coincided with a sudden increase in murder and cannibalism, at a guess. The average village just can't sustain our hunger for flesh, even assuming we could afford to buy it and not poach game. And when we don't eat enough...”
Mallory made a face and finished the sentence.
“We go feral and rampage. Got it. Still not fair.”
“It's not fair at all,” she admitted. “But what can you do? We are what we are.”
The smaller woman was quiet a moment, then spoke.
“Are we? Do we even know what we are? From what you've told me, even experts on us only have conjecture. How much does the world really know about ettins other than our hunger?”
The larger woman sighed and rubbed her brow.
“This is getting a little too deep for pre-dawn conversation. If you're not hurting anymore, I'm going back to sleep.”
Mallory felt the impulse to grouse at the abrupt dismissal, but in truth she was just as weary, if not more so. Her body ached for rest after what it had just gone through, on top of it being an absolutely ungodly hour in the morning.
Many hours after sunrise, Mallory rose again. Her feet now matched, and neither hurt, but standing up was a slow, methodical exercise. Everything felt off, even her weight was distributed differently. Her hips had gone from supporting her torso vertically to balancing it against her tail like a fulcrum. Instead of jutting out of her pelvis at an angle, her tail now aligned with the rest of her spine, forcing her to lean forward slightly in order to feel comfortable. Thankfully, it seemed her back and neck had strengthened to compensate for supporting her weight at an angle.
She took a few explorative steps. It all seemed to work, so long as she did what felt right instead of trying to move as she had before the change. Her heels no longer touched the ground when she walked, all her weight rested on the balls of her feet bereft of any strain. She could work with this. Unfortunately, her thighs and calves had packed on yet more muscle, with the result that the pants she had painstakingly altered mere days before no longer fit. Could probably be fixed, again, but in the meantime it seemed like the spreading scales were sufficient to compensate for the cold air outside of the nest. Slipping on a tunic and taking a few more steps, she sauntered towards the kitchen.
As it turned out, wishing for more fish did not magically conjure more of the bastards. The pantry was full of nothing of but herbs and vegetables. On the other hand, maybe fishing wouldn't be so bad now that her scales completely covered her feet?
After so long being cooped up, Mallory was looking forward to an expedition of some sort. She didn't want to leave without telling her mate though. Padding back to the nest, she caught Linda in the process of waking.
It was funny, sort of. Whenever Mallory made sounds of distress, the larger woman would bolt upright before her mind had time to fully awaken, but left to her own devices she was more inclined to wake up in stages before actually getting up.
“Hey you,” Mallory said sweetly, kneeling to kiss the larger woman's cheek.
“I'm thinking about going back over to the river, catch us some more fish. Okay?”
Linda blinked blearily, smiling at the kiss.
“Mmm, sure. I'll probably go patrol and catch my own breakfast. Meet you back here?”
“Sounds like a plan. And uh, I love you.”
The casual declaration warmed Linda's heart like a hot beverage.
“Love you too. Be safe, okay?”
The smaller woman nodded.
The river had a layer of ice along its banks, but the center still flowed freely. The ice crunched easily beneath the weight of her feet as she waded into the water. It was still uncomfortably cold against her scales, but it didn't seem to penetrate through the flesh underneath, thankfully. Snatching a fish out of the water was almost laughably easy with her heightened senses and reflexes. Her stomach growled as she watched the silvery animal, too paralyzed by her venom to even struggle in her grasp. Without hesitation she raised it to her mouth and bit its head off. Her razor sharp teeth shredded flesh, sundered scale, and crunched bone. It tasted exactly like one would expect raw fish to taste, but it didn't bother her. It quelled the hunger in her belly. She caught and ate another the same way before setting the rest of the fish she caught aside to be smoked for later.
After a quick sweep around the boundaries of her territory, Linda took the time to search some more houses in their village before heading home. She didn't find much of value, but as she searched she felt strangely as though she were being watched. Which was absurd, because no one could have gotten this far into her territory without her smelling them, but the feeling persisted.
She waited, listening, but no answer came. The beast woman sighed and shook her head.
“Mind's playing tricks on me,” she said with a sigh. It had to be. Her nose never lied to her. Still... No, enough messing around.
Scooping up what little she'd managed to salvage from the handful of houses she visited, the beast woman hurried home. She wanted to be able to greet her mate when she came back from her fishing trip.
After removing the scales and bones from her catch, Mallory hung her bounty in the smokehouse and set the fire going before going back to the manor. It was good to have her freedom of mobility back, nice enough to even compensate for the cold, which seemed to bother her less now. The few patches of human skin remaining were small and scattered, with signs of obvious peeling around the edges, and as they were what felt the cold most they were easier to ignore in their current state, not unlike bare skin where gloves and sleeves didn't quite meet.
She washed the fish guts off of her hands using water from the well in the village plaza. The groundwater thankfully was deep enough to avoid the chilling grasp of winter, but it was cold enough that she was sure it would have stung on her old skin. Being an ettin wasn't entirely without its perks it seemed.
In fact, Mallory mused, it seemed as though she was spending more time in the water than at any point before in her life. Downstream, in the village she grew up in, the water was so polluted by the processes of the tannery that the idea of fishing was laughable unless one was willing to trek upstream by quite a bit. The idea of breaking through the crust of ice along the edges just to pluck fish out of the water while standing in it would have been unspeakable.
She was drawn from her musings when she passed through the side door to the manor's kitchen. Her mate was there waiting for her, looking at her as she entered with an eager gladness that was infectious.
“Hey you,” Linda churred warmly. The beast woman looked at Mallory up and down.
“Didn't get a good look at you this morning, but I gotta say. You are looking really, really good. Not to be weird or nothin' but can I like, just touch your thighs? Please?”
Mallory giggled at the larger woman's request. It was spoken so earnestly.
“Uh, sure, if it gives you pleasure.”
The large woman rose from her crouching position on the floor to come embrace her mate, and feel her up a little.
“Mmmm, yes,” she intoned in a growly voice. The large woman made eye contact and worried her lower lip between her teeth.
“Would you object terribly if I ravished you here and now?”
Mallory smirked at that, and seized a fistful of the larger woman's mane.
“So long as I get to be on top.”
Afterwards, each of them bearing the smug satisfied expressions of the cat that stole the cream, the pair of lovers retreated to their nest for warmth, and to cuddle. Eventually Linda was the one to break the comfortable silence.
“So, how do you feel?”
Mallory smirked, raising an eyebrow, and gestured at their naked bodies. Linda laughed and then waved her hand.
“Not, not just that, this, I mean in general. Looks like you're more or less done with the physical changes, aside from some finishing touches. How do you feel about... About all of it?”
Mallory gave it some honest thought before answering. It felt like a big enough question to warrant as much.
“I think... Good, actually. Like really good, better than I ever could have expected back when it first started. It feels right. Like standing up and unfolding after being cooped up in a small box for too long.”
Linda smiled warmly, then leaned forward to kiss Mallory's neck, right over the smaller woman's closed gills.
“Good. I'm glad to hear it.”
Mallory smiled at her mate, and reached over to caress her cheek.
“Careful now, you get me going again and we might spend all day just fucking.”
Linda mock pouted.
“I like that plan, that's a good plan! What's wrong with it?”
Mallory laughed aloud at that.
“Well we can't spend all day just making love! I mean, can we?”
Her mouth moved silently, eyes darting as though solving complex calculations in her head.
“Could we? Oh gods, we could, couldn't we? There's nothing stopping us.”
Linda waggled her brow scales suggestively.
“We are too powerful,” the larger woman said playfully.
“Come here,” Mallory purred with a lusty grin.
Eventually they did have to stop at the insistence of their bellies if for no other reason. Linda trekked down to retrieve some venison from the shed. She'd cut it into portions in advance so the entire carcass wouldn't freeze into a solid mass. Mallory went with her, to move the fish from the smokehouse to their pantry in the manor.
Mallory thought about starting another stew when they got home, but ultimately went with her gut and roasted it instead, with a few vegetables on the side more for flavor than anything else. It was strange. When she still lived with her mother, a small amount of meat was flavoring for mostly vegetables, yet here and now it was the other way around.
Both women ate eagerly once the food was done, having worked up an appetite. Only after their bellies were full and their appetites sated did their full attention cease to be focused on their meal. Feeling pleasantly filled, Mallory leaned back in satisfaction, and Linda reached over to take her plate and wash up since the smaller woman had cooked.
After a moment, Mallory rose as well and gave her mate a hug from the side, the larger woman's wide tail precluding a rear approach. Said tail wagged slightly side to side as Mallory's arm draped around the the beast woman's waist. The sharp scales that adorned Linda's back were angled such that so long as one didn't rub them the wrong way one wouldn't cut themselves against the sharp edges, and at any rate Mallory's own growth of scales offered protection against accidental scrapes.
The larger woman smiled down at her mate as she finished drying the last of their dishes.
“Wanna practice your runes again now that we're done eating?”
Mallory made a face and a 'bluh' noise.
“Kinda don't, but I should if I want to learn.”
Linda produced a rumbling sound deep in her throat.
“We can take a break if you need it.”
The smaller woman shook her head.
“I don't, not really. I promise I'll say something if do need to take a break, but I want to learn. Library aside, it'd be nice to be able to leave notes for each other, for those times when I wake up before you do.”
Linda tilted her head, shrugging.
“Mmm, can't argue with that logic. I'll go get the staves.”
Mallory awoke the next day bright eyed and brimming with vigor. No longer did her body feel mismatched and awkward, her senses were keen and her muscles thrummed with strength, and she felt an impulse to move for the sake of moving. Climbing from the nest carefully so as not to wake her mate, she wandered into the great hall and started pacing.
Her tail sinuously swayed back and forth as she walked. Gone was the sense of soreness, indeed, giving a stone wall on the far side away from her and Linda's shared room a solid testing thwack didn't hurt anymore than slapping her thigh with one of her hands would, though given the solidity of the impact she could hazard a guess that any other living thing on the receiving end of such a blow would probably be left stunned and with a ringing in its ears.
Picking up the pace, Mallory practically jogged back across the great hall, towards the kitchen. A couple of smoked fish took her morning from good to great, her tail wagging so merrily she could almost hear the swish of air in its wake.
When Linda finally lurched down the corridor still rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she was nearly barreled over by her mate's enthusiastic hug. Although the beast woman was still a good deal taller than the Mallory, the smaller woman's tail was longer, and added deceptively more bulk than one might expect by looking at her. The silver bands of Mallory's irises gleamed as Linda smiled blearily at her.
“Hey you,” the larger woman said with an affectionate smile, leaning down to press a kiss to Mallory's cheek. The smaller woman was faster though, and intercepted the kiss with her lips. Linda purred happily and went with it, locking lips for a few moments before interrupting it to speak.
“Someone's feeling frisky,” she said teasingly.
“Guess so. What are you going to do about it?”
Linda grinned, wrapping her arm around the smaller woman's waist.
“I can think of some ideas.”
All told, they didn't fool around for very long. Some flirtatious banter, some kissing and groping, more playful than anything. Afterwards, Linda expressed the desire to do a quick patrol and hunt something to eat before buckling down for another day of passionate lovemaking. Mallory had tried coyly suggesting that, “Can't it wait?” However, after a moment of visibly wrestling with herself Linda insisted. When pressed, she eventually vouched that something had been bothering her since the previous day's patrol, a sense of something out of place. Maybe nothing, she admitted, but she wanted to make sure. For both their sakes.
Mallory relented, not without pouting a little, but eventually was persuaded.
“Can I at least come with you?”
Linda reached over and mussed the smaller woman's hair.
“Course you can. Come on, let's get it over with, then you can have me all to yourself.”
Mallory brought the bow and quiver Linda had taken off of the slain hunter, and was able to shoot down a hare which Linda ate raw with every sign of enjoyment.
“Thanks,” the beast woman said in between bites, blood smeared on her face.
“It's usually impossible for me to get the drop on these things this time of year.”
Mallory just giggled. The sight of her mate looking so earnest with red all over her chin and cheeks was oddly endearing.
It didn't take much longer after the impromptu breakfast for them to complete the circuit. No sign of humans, thank goodness, so they set their sights on home. As they passed by run down empty houses on their way to the manor however, Linda paused, sniffing the air.
“What is it?” Mallory asked.
Linda gestured for quiet instead of answering, still sniffing the air. There was something on the air, something subtly different, but also familiar. There wasn't any scent out of place, that didn't belong, and yet...
There. That acrid, sour smell. It was pervasive throughout the ruins, the telltale reek of goblins, which had persisted long after the vile runts had vacated, fading only gradually with the passing of time. This however, was fresh. Easy to miss amidst the background noise of smells, unless one was practically on top of it. And they were practically on top of it.
Linda stifled the urge to growl. As furious as she was that the loathsome pests had come creeping back into her territory, she didn't want to give away that she was onto them. She motioned for Mallory to stay put, and crept slowly along the muddy slush. It looked as though the critter had hid its tracks by stepping in the wake of her own trail through the snow. Unusually clever for the little bastards, but not clever enough now that she knew what was going on. The scent trail led her to a tree that leaned out over the path. It must have scampered up when it heard her coming. She knew without looking that she'd see nothing if she raised her sights. Horrid little skulkers that they were, goblins as ettins had the power to render themselves invisible. There were however, ways around that.
Suddenly and without warning, Linda threw the full weight of her body against the trunk of the tree. The bare branches clattered and shook loose a shower of clumped snow from its boughs, as well as something unseen that fell with an unceremonious splat into the brown slush with a groan. The beast woman spared no time in pinning the unseen presence before it could scamper away, her paw connecting with skin and cloth even as it seemed to be braced against empty space pushing a vaguely humanoid, if small, silhouette into the dirty slurry.
“I thought you little piss buckets learned your lesson after last time!”
If Mallory had seemed alarmed by the sudden outburst, it gave way to full on astonishment when a rippling through the air turned the empty space Linda was pinning down into a goblin woman wearing a dirty, poorly patched tunic made for a child.
“Let me go you bitch!” the creature squalled.
Its sickly jaundiced looking skin, enormous, pus colored eyes, stringy brown-black hair, flat nasal slits, and flappy dog-like ears looked all the more pathetic for its diminutive height. Mallory had never seen a goblin in person, but there was no doubt in her mind that she was looking at one now. Though, there was something vaguely...
Linda growled and pushed the unfortunate creeper into the slush.
“So, you can talk. If you're not a feral then you REALLY have no excuse for tempting fate by walking into my territory.”
The creature spat to one side, no mean feat considering it was pinned face down.
“Fucking I was here first! You... You big bully!”
Linda pressed down even harder, earning a tortured groan from the goblin as air was forced involuntarily from its compressed lungs.
Mallory frowned. That voice... It stirred a memory. A memory of childhood, a chubby face washed out by the passing of time.
The goblin froze.
“What? Who are you?”
Linda looked up at Mallory quizically as the pearly scaled woman's face twisted with emotion at the bursting of the dam in her memories.
“It is you! Bitte! We all thought the goblins killed you!”
Bitte twisted in Linda's grip, trying to see who was speaking.
“I said who are you! How do you know my name?”
Linda looked just as perplexed.
“You know this little runt?”
Mallory nodded faintly.
“Yeah, she went missing like, ten years ago, when she was still a little kid. Bitte it's me, Mallory.”
The goblins face crinkled in confusion, eyes widening once realization dawned.
“Mallory? The fuck? Actually, hold that thought, fuck memory lane, get this psycho off me!”
Linda growled, lifting her paw just enough to slam Bitte back down again.
“You wanna watch your tongue you little shit?”
Mallory rushed over and touched Linda's shoulder.
“It's okay, let's just all calm down, okay?”
Linda growled at her, but cut the noise short and looked sullenly at the ground when Mallory scolded her.
Bitte, perhaps due to her perspective of her face being flush with frozen mud, was a bit less diplomatic.
“Help. Me. Or go. Away! Fuck! Graaaagh!”
The goblin writhed around frantically trying to break free while Linda held her in place with one hand while looking at her mate with the expression of one who is trying against great odds to be civil despite not particularly feeling it, with after notes of 'well now what do you want me to do'. Mallory heaved a sigh as she wracked her brain. This was, admittedly, less than ideal circumstances for a reunion.
“Bitte, calm down.”
Mallory hissed a sharp intake of breathe.
“Stop struggling, and maybe Linda will let you up.”
“I will NOT!”
Mallory growled as her mate looked at her indignantly.
“Okay now you're BOTH testing my patience.”
Linda had the grace to look shamefaced at that. Bitte had a non-amount of grace, and in fact started to kick like a child throwing a tantrum, obliging Linda to use her other hand to pin down her legs.
“Okay now what,” Linda asked, while Bitte made burbling sounds as she screamed into the mud.
In the end, they ended up carrying Bitte back to the manor. Linda absolutely refused to just let her go, because it had been a stroke of luck to catch her in the first place and she didn't trust her not to come back and slit their throats in the night. Mallory, conversely, very much didn't want to have to kill her, and Bitte was just uncooperative all around, alternating between screaming, kicking, and when she could manage it, biting. All of which Linda tolerated only at her mate's insistence, because on the whole she'd have very much preferred to bash the little mite's head against a boulder and be done with it. They settled on chucking her into the cellar while they talked it out, the door being far too heavy for the goblin to open from inside it, with the added benefit of it being more than up to the task of muffling her shrill cries.
“Look, I get that you used to know her, but goblins are conniving little murder bastards with a vicious streak wider than the Ormgat strait. Letting her go is too risky. If she doesn't come skulking back to kill us herself she'll just get more goblins and try again.”
Mallory crossed her arms.
“Well then maybe we should let her stay.”
Linda's face froze in a rictus of horror.
“Have you taken leave of your senses!? That's even worse!”
“She says she was here first, and if she's been here since she went missing then that's definitely true. And you admitted you killed some of her tribe.”
Linda took a deep breath and rubbed her temples.
“Yeah, after they tried to kill me FIRST while I was SLEEPING. Which is what she'll do to us if we let her run free!”
“Well we can't just keep her in the cellar forever.”
Linda groaned in frustration.
“I know, which is why you should let me just kill her and be done with it!”
“Well we're not doing that,” Mallory snapped!
The two glared at each other a moment, the tension rather spoiled by the muffled sound of petulant wailing in the background. Eventually Mallory sighed. Their first real argument and it was LITERALLY life or death.
“Look, I get that you're trying to keep us both, to keep ME safe. But I used to know her. Just... Just let me TRY to work something out, okay? And if that doesn't work, if I can't get her to be reasonable, THEN you can kill her, but can't we at least try the non-lethal route first?”
Linda heaved a heavy sigh, then looked over at Mallory.
“It's that important to you?”
The hopefulness with which Mallory nodded at her melted the beast woman's heart.
“...Alright fine, but if she bites me again so help me I will cuff her head so hard her father will feel it in his sack.”
Mallory giggled at the imagery.
“Alright that's fine.”
Bitte made a run for it as soon as the cellar door opened, and being invisible might have gotten away with it if Linda hadn't anticipated it and stunned her with a wide tail swipe that left the goblin woman stunned and winded long enough for the beast woman to get a hold of her invisibility notwithstanding. As soon as Bitte realized her plans had been thwarted she reappeared and seemed set to resume screaming, but Linda had anticipated that too and stuffed a rag in her mouth and clapped her hand over that so she couldn't spit it out or bite her. The goblin woman settled for glaring like a hairless cat swaddled in a blanket while Mallory tried a disarming smile.
“You remember me, right? I was nine years old when my mother brought me to your village, you were just a little younger than me. I wasn't very good at making new friends, but, you were nice enough to show me the best places to pick raspberries.”
Bitte, who up until that point had been endeavoring to drool enough to soak through the rags to Linda's hand, looked at her incredulously, but nodded slightly. Mallory took it as an encouraging sign.
“I really want to work this out. It'd be a really shitty reunion if it had to end with someone dying, yeah? But to do that, we need to talk. So, I'm gonna ask Linda to take the gag out, and I'm gonna ask you not to scream, or bite, or swear, okay?”
The goblin stared sullenly, but eventually nodded, stiffly. Mallory smiled up at Linda, who took her hand off the goblin's mouth, though keeping a grip on her neck so she couldn't make a break for it. Bitte spat the wadded up spit-soaked rag onto the floor with a splat.
“Well, first question I guess. Knowing what Linda did to the other goblins, why did you come back?”
Bitte flattened her ears back and growled.
Linda growled louder, but Mallory cut her off with a look.
“Did you come back for revenge?”
Bitte widened her eyes and jerked a thumb at Linda.
“Against this fucking brute? Fuck no! I just wanted... Look, when we got ran out, we didn't exactly have time to pack. I left something behind, and at first I thought I could live without it, but... Further I got, the more I couldn't bear it, so I came back to look for it. Alone. I tried to get the rest of the tribe to come with me, but they weren't going near chompy after what she did to the others.”
Linda frowned in thought.
“I thought you were all ferals. How come none of you said anything before?”
Bitte winced. “They are. Or, were. I'm the only one who could speak more than a few words. I'm not sure half of them even recognized the names I gave them, but they helped me as much as they hurt me, and it was easier to put up with them than go it alone.”
Linda nodded, secretly relieved by the revelation. Easier to not feel guilty that way. Mallory on the other hand frowned in concern.
“They hurt you?”
Bitte made a noncommittal shrug.
“Well, like I said, not a very talkative lot, so if one of them wanted to be left alone, instead of saying 'go away' they'd just hit me or throw something. To be fair, I did the same back. It wasn't great, but it was better than being all alone. Trust me, I ran away a few times but I always came back.”
Mallory looked up at Linda with the expression of a child who'd found a stray puppy. Linda intercepted it and shook her head vigorously.
No. Absolutely not. Don't do it.
“Is that what you'll do when you find what you're looking for? Go back to them?” Mallory asked.
The goblin woman puffed a breath of air out.
“If I can even find 'em. They left without me when I refused to keep going with them. Hopefully I can pick up their trail.”
At that point, Linda was frantically signaling NO with emphatic gestures, so much so that Bitte picked up on the peripheral movement and twisted her head to see what was going on, causing Linda to stop abruptly and try to play it off. Finally, Mallory spoke.
“What if we-”
“Mal! Can I speak to you in the kitchen? Alone,” Linda added, looking at Bitte meaningfully.
“Do I have a choice?” the goblin asked.
“No,” both of the larger women said simultaneously.
Back into the cellar Bitte went for the time being.
Linda rubbed her temples in the vain hope that it might assuage her oncoming headache.
“I know what you're gonna say, and absolutely not! She can't stay here!”
Mallory planted her hands on her hips.
“And why not? She has more claim to this place than you.”
Linda's fists clenched and unclenched by her sides.
“Mal, you're being difficult.”
The smaller woman remained unswayed.
“The only one being difficult right now is you. You know this is the right thing to do, you just don't want to do it.”
Linda snarled in frustration, then choked off the sound guiltily.
“Look! I'm... I'm sorry. I'm not...”
Mallory waited patiently while Linda cast about for the words she wanted.
“I'm sorry,” the beast woman said again. “I don't want to fight with you. I'm so used to being alone and having everything my way. I should be listening to you and treating you like an equal partner.”
Mallory gently smiled at the larger woman.
“So what's stopping you from doing that?”
Linda slumped to the floor, then looked over and made a sound between a laugh and a sob.
“I really don't want a fucking goblin in my territory.”
Mallory laughed softly and sat down next to her.
“Are they really so awful as all that?”
“They're mean! And they stink! And did I ever tell you what was actually in that stable that they left there?”
Mallory shook her head.
“No I don't believe you did.”
Linda looked her mate in the eyes.
“They made a shrine there out of bones and their own feces. Mostly animal bones, but some belonged to a human child.”
Mallory felt a sudden chill bloom in her gut.
Bitte skulked sullenly in the cellar. She was cold, wet, dirty, and utterly at the mercy of two much larger monsters. She could dimly hear them arguing even now, though even her especially keen hearing couldn't make out what they were saying through the heavy door from two rooms away. The goblin crossed her arms, shivering bitterly as her muddy tunic and the stone floor and walls sucked away her meager body's heat.
She should have known she'd get caught. That was just her lot in life, to bang against every possible step as she fell down the stairs of life, fuck everything. And now she was probably gonna get eaten by the same brute that had killed a third of her tribe. To be fair, some of them had it coming. Kragh had always been a bit of a dick, always tormenting her and the other she-goblins.
Nor was she particularly broken up about Erp and Skarp getting killed with him when the damn fools went and woke the sleeping chimera in a bid to take the intruding beast woman while she was sleeping. The only death she actually felt broken up about was Fathi. Fathi hadn't been the nicest out of all the she-goblins, but all in all her biggest crime was merely her soft spot for the males in the tribe, never standing up to their grosser abuses. The white furred chimera killed her too when it was chasing them out in a fit of rage, blood still seeping from between its scales where Kragh and the louts he could bully into going with him had tried to spear her in her sleep. Stupid idiots should have gone for her throat, maybe then Bitte wouldn't be in her current predicament. Maybe then they wouldn't have lost their best hunters, and their home. Maybe...
Bitte sighed and slumped against a wall, ignoring the chill as it leached away the warmth from her skin and bones. She was shivering, but there wasn't much else she could do trapped down here, possibly waiting for death. She could tell that chimera wanted to finish her off, vengeful wroth naked on her features whenever she looked at her, which meant her only hope for survival lay with a woman she'd been mere acquaintances with roughly a decade ago when they were both still little, whom she barely remembered herself.
The thud of heavy footsteps against stone tiles drew Bitte from her musings. She didn't even make a run for it, or hide when the door to the cellar groaned open. Even a goblin physically couldn't stay on high alert forever, and with weariness came resignation.
“Look, if you're gonna kill me, can you just get on with it instead of toying with me.”
The larger of the two, the one that had culled her tribe smirked at her.
“Trust me, I'm thinking about it.”
The smaller of the two, whose scales were as white as the other's fur, with a rainbow-y luster to them, elbowed the larger monster's side.
“There's something I need to ask you Bitte,” the fishy one said in a polite tone. “Come on out. It can't be terribly comfortable down there.”
Bitte felt an impulse to stay simply to be contrary, but she WAS freezing. Arms tucked tight against her sides, she waddled up, wet clothes chafing now that her adrenaline had worn off, and with the larger brute keeping a close eye on her the whole time.
She'd never really explored the manor. It had always seemed so foreboding. Even the other goblins had skirted around the stone edifice, instinctually associating the structure with armigers and iron. The vaulting rafters and wide open space was entirely at odds with a goblin's instinct for tight corners and narrow spaces that larger predators couldn't infiltrate. She glanced distrustfully at the larger of the two other ettins, and was unsurprised to find the beast woman keeping a keen eye on her. Cat and rat.
The sound of Mallory's voice drew Bitte's attention away from the brute.
“Bitte... Linda tells me she found something in the old stables. I was hoping you could tell me about that.”
The goblin wrinkled her nose in confusion, head swiveling to look at the pearlescent woman.
“I- What? What's that got to do with anything?”
Mallory smiled weakly, and Bitte got the impression that it was a forced smile.
“Just tell me, please?”
Bitte gave Mallory a weird look, but answered anyway.
“Dung mountain. That's what I called it anyway. Moder used to work on it any time she had a bowel movement. I honestly couldn't tell you why, she was just weird like that. Most of them were weird in one way or another, eventually I just stopped questioning it.”
The big one spoke up in a gravelly voice.
“Where'd the bones come from?”
Bitte looked up at the chimera quizzically.
“I don't fucking know! Some were from our meals and some she just found places. Why, you got a pressing interest in collecting bones too?”
Mallory cleared her throat, looked away, then looked back at Bitte.
“Linda says there was a child's bones in there with the others.”
Bitte glared indignantly.
“And I says it's kinda weird that she'd know the difference from any of the other bones in that heap of shit, what of it?”
The beast woman growled at the insinuation, but Bitte went on.
“We didn't kill anyone if that's what you're insinuating. I wouldn't have put it past Kragh if he was given the opportunity, but you know kids from the village don't enter the woods. Hell, half of the adults would be too scared to come here alone. Last person that ever got snatched was me, and that wasn't until I was already changing. I think they could smell it or something. Come on Mal, you tell me, did anyone else go missing since I did?”
Mallory weighed her words, tilting her head to one side in thought before looking up at the big one.
“She has a point. Aside from her, I never heard of anyone going missing. Until me, I guess, which is probably why it took so long for them to send a hunter in after us.”
Linda eyed the goblin, seeming unconvinced.
“They coulda killed someone before they took her in.”
Bitte groaned, getting tired of the suspicious chimera.
“In which case it still has nothing to do with me. Maybe Moder found a dead body in a dead village and decided it would make a good poop ornament. Look, if this conversation is going somewhere, would either of you two like to read me in? Because I am cold, I am hungry, I am VERY upset, and now I am tired. Of you and in general,” she said with a flourish indicating the larger of the two women.
The two larger women shared a glance. Mallory looked at the big one imploringly, who in turn sighed and offered a shrug.
“In the common tongue please, not body language!”
Mallory turned and looked at her with a smile.
“We're letting you go.”
“Just make it painless,” Bitte muttered, then did a double take.
“As I said,” Mallory spoke with a disarming grin. “You're free to go. You can even stay a while, if you like. At least until you find whatever it is you're looking for.”
“In the village, not the manor,” the big one hastily clarified. “I'll tolerate a lot for the sake of my mate but there's where I draw the line.”
Bitte gaped back and forth between the two.
“You're mental. Or you're messing with me.”
Mallory just smiled.
“What's so weird about trying to do a good turn for an old friend?”
Bitte was stumped. Friends? They'd barely been acquaintances for all of a few short years before Bitte started turning and got abducted in the night. Then again, perhaps better not to question it since that was likely the only thing keeping the goblin's head attached to her shoulders instead of in the big ugly one's gullet.
“...Right. Okay then. So... That means I can go if I want?”
Mallory nodded easily. With some reluctance, the big one eventually joined her.
“Yeah,” the beast woman intoned. “But if any of our stuff goes missing I'll wring it out of you like a wet rag. Do we understand one another?”
Bitte nodded shakily even as Mallory scolded the imposing chimera. She didn't doubt that the brute meant it literally, not after what it did to the others.
“Perfectly,” the goblin answered in stilted tones. “I'm just, I'm gonna go now. If that's okay.”
She sidled towards the main doors, and was relieved when the scary one didn't stop her.
After the goblin had left, Mallory turned to her mate.
“Did you have to be so mean?”
Linda growled grumpily.
“Yes! Fear's the only thing those miserable curs understand.”
Mallory looked at her sternly.
“I'm not sure I like this side of you,” she said softly.
Linda stiffened, then tried to look contrite.
Mallory reached over and fluffed her mate's luxurious mane.
“I love you. You know that. That's still true even if I'm a little frustrated, right?”
“Right,” the beast woman said with a soft smile, pressing her nose to Mallory's hair and breathing in her scent.
“Come on,” the smaller woman said, “Let's go catch something more substantial than a hare for dinner.”
“Uh... Maybe one of us should stay here? Keep an eye on things?”
Mallory favored the other woman with a wry smile.
“You're that worried she's going to try to rob us?”
Linda whined deep in her throat.
“I've had more encounters with goblins in my life than I have ever asked for and enjoyed precisely none of them. I doubt that this one will break the curse.”
Mallory smiled softly and pressed her forehead to Linda's arm.
“You worry too much. Bitte was a nice girl when I knew her. Besides, how much could she possibly make off with? I think she's actually shorter now than when she was twelve.”
Linda made a long, drawn out gurgly noise of dissatisfaction before finally nodding.
“Fine. But only because I enjoy hunting with you so much.”
Much to their satisfaction, the two women managed to fell a roebuck. Working together didn't just make the hunting easier, it made the tedious process of butchering the animal and carrying it home go by a lot faster as well. Passing by the shed without stopping, they continued towards the manor. Cutting it into smaller pieces rather than hanging it first was a necessity as the cold grew worse, and with that in mind there was no reason not to store it directly in the pantry.
It was only some time after they'd had started cooking dinner that there came a small knocking sound from the main doors in the great hall. Linda tensed. It was probably just the runt, but some defensive part of her brain still made her worry that monster hunters could have found her.
“I'll get it,” she said rising. “Take over the spit for me?”
Mallory gave her a concerned look, but obligingly switched places.
“Be nice,” the piscine woman reminded her mate gently.
Linda growled sullenly.
“I will. So long as she acts nice.”
Mallory sighed and shook her head, hoping that would be enough.
The knocking started up again and Linda ambled across the great hall to yank the door open.
She paused, her nose confirming the goblin's presence despite her eyes turning up nothing besides their tiny courtyard.
“About time you lot got home, I wanted to ask you something.”
The goblin's voice had emanated from what looked like empty air, and it took an effort of will for Linda to not growl.
“You want to talk, you do it where I can see you.”
There was a pause, then the air rippled like the horizon on a hot day and Bitte materialized looking impatient.
“There. Ya happy now?”
Linda grunted. Not the ugliest goblin she'd ever seen, but that wasn't setting the bar very high.
“Honestly no. What do you want and why are you here?”
“Huh, rude,” the goblin huffed before squeezing past the space between Linda and the door to get out of the cold, leaving Linda to fantasize what she would have done to the snot colored speck if it wouldn't have made her mate sad. Bitte sniffed the air, ears perking like a dog.
“Making dinner? Smells nice.”
It took Linda a moment to respond as she was counting to ten in her mind.
“Was that your question? Are we done here?”
The goblin pouted.
“Fine, be that way. Remember that thing that I was looking for? Well it's not where I left it. In fact, the whole house looks like it was burgled, and I thought one of you two might be able to tell me why.”
Linda groaned. Of course.
“I may have been salvaging things, and I'm not apologizing for that. If you'd just tell me what exactly it is, I might be able to tell you if I've seen it.”
Bitte grumbled beneath her breath.
“I told you before, it's personal!”
Linda's retort was cut off by the sound of Mallory's voice calling out from the vicinity of the kitchen.
“Linda? What's going on?”
The beast woman sighed and closed the door since the goblin was showing no signs of leaving and it was letting in the cold. Picking Bitte up in one hand, despite the tiny woman's sputtering indignation, she hauled the goblin into the kitchen before plunking her down on the floor like a wooden stool.
“Says she can't find what she's looking for and was wondering if we saw it, but still won't say what 'it' is.”
Mallory looked uncertainly between the two other women, as if weighing whether she should say something about her childhood friend being picked up and carried like a dog by her current lover. Bitte broke the silence.
“Look, I just wanted to get permission to rummage through all your junk for it so I wouldn't get my head ripped off. I promise I won't take nothin' else, even though it's not the only thing of mine that's conspicuously absent from some of my stashes.”
Mallory contemplated before saying anything.
“Well, I don't object but... Linda, are you okay with that?”
In truth, Linda might have objected had Mallory blithely said yes without asking her opinion. As it was however, she didn't over think it before shrugging.
“Yeah, I guess. So long as I can keep an eye on you,” she said to the goblin.
“And, maybe if it's not something we need, if you see some other things that used to belong to you we might be able to part with them. Within reason.”
If it had galled the beast woman to add that last part, the approving smile it earned her from Mallory helped to make up for it. Bitte's expression was equal parts bafflement and suspicion, but wasn't like she had any reason to object to the beast woman's sudden charitability. Mallory interrupted the stillness by clapping her hands once.
“Well, that's settled then. Linda and I were about to have supper, would you like to join us?”
The larger woman fixed her mate with a look a wounded betrayal. Giving up some of her hoard was one thing, but sharing their food?
From the look on her face, Bitte couldn't have been more eager.
“Smells delicious, don't mind if I do!”
As a person, Linda recognized that making the goblin wait while they ate without sharing would have been kind of a dick move. As an ettin though, it raised her hackles. She was sure if it wasn't for Mallory, she'd have just eaten the cretin and called it a day. It was odd. Caring about what someone else wanted felt like something that should have atrophied after so much time alone, but as clumsy as it felt sometimes, the desire to try was earnest.
And so, she tried to focus on her own food instead of trying to intimidate the small, greenish woman, the latter of whom seemed happy to do the same. The goblin ate like a woman starving, and it occured to Linda as she observed the creature's lean build that she might not be far from it. Almost a stroke of luck she was still lucid really. On that note, perhaps sharing their food wasn't so terrible after all.
Mallory tried to break the silence.
“How's my cooking? Good?”
Bitte looked up with a faint smile.
“Real good. I haven't had venison since... I can't even remember. Even when I still lived with my parents it was a rare occurrence. Usually I get by on rats, stoats, squirrels, those kinds of things. Even bugs when times get really lean. I'm not much of a hunter. Kragh was better at it, but he always wanted things in exchange for meat.”
Linda looked up, recognizing the name.
“That's one of the ones that tried skewer me, right?”
Bitte forced a wan smile.
“Yeah, the one with the big scar on his right arm. To be honest, part of me is glad he's dead, just wish he hadn't taken so many of the others with him.”
Linda curled up on herself slightly. She didn't usually feel bad about killing, at least not in self defense, but it was hard not to feel awkward sitting down to supper with a survivor.
“I uh, I would apologize, but it'd feel pretty insincere. I mean they did try to kill me.”
Bitte waved it off.
“Yeah, it's more on him than you, to be honest.”
Mallory looked at Bitte concernedly.
“You're taking it very well, considering.”
“He was a bastard, now he's a dead bastard. I only put up with him because it was occasionally convenient. As for the others... Well, it sucks that they're gone, but I ran out of tears long time ago.”
The goblin paused to reach for one of the wooden cups laid out on the table. There was nothing to drink but water, but it was clean and cold at least. Her arms weren't quite long enough though, even leaning forward over the table. Linda reached over and slid one over. Bitte looked up at her with an expression of slight confusion for some reason.
“Thanks,” the green hued woman said awkwardly.
Linda just shrugged.
“My fault, shoulda taken it into consideration when I set the table.”
There was quiet a moment, then the sounds of eating took its place.
When the meal was over, Bitte was quietly relieved when the larger of the two other ettins volunteered to clean the dishes and let Mallory handle keeping an eye on her while she rummaged through the hoard. The beast woman was, perhaps, not as big a jerk as she could have been, but it was hard not to think of how pants-wettingly terrifying she had been when enraged, chasing out her tribe while vomiting fire.
Many of the tables in the great hall were practically overflowing with loot scavenged from the other buildings in the area. Occasionally she'd recognize something that used to be part of the various stashes she'd kept. Hiding things from the other goblins had been a crucial skill in her life post-human, since they were prone to eating, breaking, or stealing things as the whim took them, and trying to convey that something was important to her when they barely understood her was a mug's game. Some of them did it just to be assholes, the rest just... Didn't get it.
“Here,” Bitte spoke up, gesturing at familiar, well worn knife.
“It's not what I came back for, but this is from one of my stashes. You sure you don't mind me taking it back?”
Mallory looked over curiously, then smiled.
“Not at all, we've got plenty of knives, we'll hardly miss one.”
Bitte pocketed the item, and resumed looking. Mallory watched her a moment before speaking.
“I'm glad you're alive.”
It took Bitte a moment to think of a response to that.
Mallory frowned in confusion.
“What do you mean?”
The goblin woman turned to face the pearlescent ettin.
“I mean why. I'm just some random thrall who knew you for all of three years and then disappeared. When we were kids it was one thing, but if we were human, you'd be a free woman working your own land and I'd be busting my ass for the Baron from morning 'till night. I doubt you'd even have remembered I existed. So why... I mean, shit, didn't you make some new friends or something?”
Mallory was silent a moment.
Bitte looked at the piscine woman incredulously, who went on to elaborate.
“I didn't really fit in. I mean, even putting aside the accent, you know my mother didn't have a husband. We told people she was a widow, but I think everyone suspected the truth even if they were too nice to say it to our faces and couldn't prove otherwise. You were one of the only people who didn't care about that, and didn't make fun of me. It was lonely after you were gone.”
Bitte heaved a heavy sigh.
“...Damn. That's pretty pathetic. Relax,” she added when she saw Mallory flinch, “You're still not as pathetic as me. Guess we both got dicked by life.”
That earned a chuckle from the larger woman.
“Yeah, I guess so. Still, I guess I shouldn't complain. Upgraded to a manor, don't have to deal with the jerks anymore, and Linda is... Just amazing.”
Bitte wasn't sure if amazing was the word she'd use. 'Terrifying' more like. She resumed searching through the piles of stuff.
“For someone who says she's bad at making friends, you sure befriended this one quickly considering she's only been here a few weeks.”
Mallory smiled softly.
“Well, she helped me through a difficult time in my life. And we're definitely more than friends by now.”
Bitte made a noncommittal noise.
“What, like best friends? Same difference.”
The piscine woman laughed at that for some reason.
“Bitte, what did you think Linda meant when she called me her mate?”
The goblin furrowed her brows in confusion, then after more time than she cared to admit the beginnings of realization dawned.
The smile that spread across the scaled woman's face confirmed her suspicion, yet the confusion on the goblin's face only deepened.
Mallory folded over in laughter at Bitte's reaction.
“NO, I mean physically, how? She's huge!”
Mallory continued laughing so hard she started to wheeze while Bitte stared at her with a mixture of awe, incredulity, and concern. The concern part took the lead when she felt a heavy hand clap on her shoulder.
“Easy now, it's rude to comment on a woman's weight.”
Bitte fought a cold feeling creeping up her spine as she looked up at Linda, for it was her that had spoken. Thankfully, she was smiling and didn't seem all too offended despite her words.
“Finished with the dishes,” the beast woman went on to say, jerking her thumb in the direction of the kitchen. “Thought I'd come help.”
Mallory padded over and took the beast woman by the arm, leaning up on her toes.
“Kiss,” the piscine woman said simply, and the larger woman obligingly leaned down enough for the two to share a quick smooch. Bitte, for her part, was still distracted by the implications of the revelation, and it took her a moment to snap out of it and remember what she was here for.
With a clearing of her throat, she resumed poring over the stacks of objects. Once the lovebirds were done mooning at each other, they even helped, asking Bitte questions about what else was missing from her stashes and trying to help her find them. It was all very... Nice. They were being nice. It was pleasant, but also quietly unsettling after so long being the bogeyman that villagers warned their children about and threw things at any time she was spotted skulking around the outskirts of the village for things.
Even the other goblins, though occasionally capable of being nice for a little while, tended to vacillate so much that being around them had often felt volatile and tense. Even when the atmosphere was jovial, there was always the chance that it could turn on a dime. Here too, Bitte couldn't bring herself to fully relax, but more and more it was starting to feel like maybe she could, if she wanted to and could kick the habit.
A stack of broken furniture caught her eye, and Bitte fumbled at it, prying planks and table legs apart until at long last, she found what she'd came back for. Her old poppet, little more than a stick of wood with one end carved into a rough sphere with a crude smile graven into it. The bit of cloth and string that had once been its dress had rotted off long ago, and it was a bit silly for a grown woman to be so attached to such a toy that she'd risk her life coming back for it, but it was the only thing she'd had on her when the goblins took her so many years ago, and her father had made it for her.
Bitte clutched the piece of wood to her chest. The relief was so tangible, she was sure a younger version of herself might have cried. As it was, she merely gave a sigh of comforted relief.
Bitte startled at the voice. It was just Mallory.
“Yeah,” the goblin said. “Found it.”
Mallory was tactful enough to not ask what it was, which Bitte appreciated.
“Thank you, I... I should go.”
The pearlescent woman smiled softly at her.
“You don't have to,” she said, dark eyes glistening in the dim illumination. Did they seem pleading, somehow? Bitte shook her head.
“I should. If I go now, I might still be able to catch up to the others, figure out where they went. I'm... Thankful though.”
Mallory's smile took on a tinge of sadness.
“Well, alright, but feel free to come back if you change your mind, or can't find them. It was good to see you again. Can... Can I hug you?”
Bitte looked at her as though she were daft, but did raise her arms for an embrace.
Mallory had waved goodbye as the goblin strode out of the great hall into the cold winter air. To her surprise, Linda had even given the goblin woman a small blanket from their nest, to try to ward off the chill, which Bitte accepted and pinned around herself like a cloak. Mallory couldn't help feeling a little melancholy as the tiny figure eventually disappeared from sight.
“I didn't think I'd ever see her again.”
Linda took a deep breath and released it slowly.
“But you did. That's something.”
Mallory smiled up at her.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Linda stretched until something in her back made a clicking noise.
“Hell of a day. I don't know about you, but I could stand to lie down a bit. Wanna practice your runes again?”
Mallory pondered the question. In truth, she still had some energy.
“Actually, I think I might go for a walk. You go on ahead, rest. I know this must all have been very trying. Thanks for everything.”
Linda purred softly, and leaned down to muss the shorter woman's hair and give her a kiss.
“Try not to wander too far,” she cautioned. “Stay safe. I'll be waiting for you when you come home.”
The fondness that rose in Mallory's chest at those words was near palpable.
“I love you.”
“Love you too,” Linda replied, before lumbering off to bed.
It was dark out, and had been a while. Cold as well, but while Mallory still didn't care for the cold it wasn't unbearable to her in her new form. The snow on the ground showed signs of melting, and here and there were muddy, slushy tracks left by the passage of Linda and or herself. There was always a peculiar stillness that laid over the ruined village like a pall. A cast off settlement made home to cast off people. Fitting, when one looked at it like that. She hoped Bitte would be alright.
Mallory glanced up at the sky through the barren grasping branches, outstretched as if by trying hard enough they might ensnare the moon above. Soon it would be solstice time, she thought. It would be the very first Jul she didn't spend with her mother, a thought which brought with it the familiar but increasingly distant pang of sadness. At times, Mallory felt, it seemed like her own emotions were drifting away from her, like an oar lost from a boat. Some of them anyway, her happiness with Linda was one of the most real things she'd ever felt, but so many of the feelings relating to her past just... Kept drifting further and further from her fingers. Was she even really sad about her mother, or did she just keenly remember being sad?
Of a sudden, Mallory felt a need for her mother's coin. Something physical and real she could hold on to in order to remember properly. Wrapping her arms around herself against the chill, she headed back towards the manor.
It was late when Mallory woke up, and then only because Linda was trying to exit the nest.
“Mmm, what? What's happening?”
Linda smiled at her apologetically.
“Sorry for waking you, I was just getting hungry. Wanna come eat?”
Mallory blinked a few times before yawning.
“Mm, yeah sure.”
Judging by the lighting it had to be well past noon, maybe even closer to evening, though given the time of year that might not be saying much. Some fish in her belly helped bring her back to reality. Glancing sideways at Linda, she smiled.
“I'm gonna try to catch some more fish today. Would you mind terribly chopping down a tree for Jul? We're getting close now. You know where the spruces are, right?”
“Mhmm,” Linda vocalized, nodding for clarity. The only conifers native to the area were larches. In order to get truly evergreen trees, the original settlers had needed to transplant them from across the strait and as a result they only grew in a particular part of the forest. They weren't too far off the beaten track though, having intentionally been planted nearby, and with most other trees bare this time of year they were easy to spot.
Mallory reached over and grasped Linda's hand, giving it an affectionate squeeze before leaning over to kiss her cheek while the larger woman was still seated.
“Thanks. Sorry to saddle you with the heavy work.”
“I don't mind. I don't doubt your ability to chop down a tree, but I couldn't ask you to drag it all the way home, and I'm as close as either of us is getting to having an aurochs around for heavy lifting.”
“Big enough for one to be sure. All that's missing is some horns.”
Linda narrowed her eyes, though still smiling.
“Are you trying to tell me something? Should I go find some horns to stick on my head?”
The smaller woman giggled and made a show of pretending to think about it.
“Oh, I dunno, that might be kinda hot.”
Linda laughed aloud and clapped Mallory on the shoulder.
“Alack, cruel fate, that I am not endowed like a bull.”
Mallory made a face like sipping spirits and laughed.
“Ugh, don't say it like that you made it weird!”
The beast woman stuck her tongue out playfully before standing to wash her plate.
After breakfast, Linda did her customary circle around the borders of her territory, and brought an axe so she wouldn't have to backtrack before progressing to selecting a tree. To her surprise and concern, she came across a wide trail. The tracks were obscured by something large, but it smelled of human and cattle. Following them into her territory solved the mystery. There were wood chips and a stump in the grove of spruces, apparently she and Mallory weren't the only ones with the idea for a Jul tree. Ordinarily Linda would have been infuriated by an intrusion into her territory, but it's not like there was anywhere else for miles around where evergreen trees could be had, and given how few other intrusions had been made since she arrived in the area, the lone hunter notwithstanding, she was prepared to be gracious. It was just one tree, probably to be shared with the whole village.
Just to be safe though, and in case some DID come back, Linda scored several of the trees around the stump with her claws. To let them know that she'd noticed their presence, and furthermore just how dangerous she was. It was only after that that she picked out an especially pretty spruce of about the right size and start chopping.
Mallory returned home in good spirits with a respectable number of freshly caught fish for the smoke house. After setting them to cure, she returned to the manor, and was just getting comfortable when she heard a knocking from the door.
“Is Linda back already?”
She rose to answer it, and it briefly occurred to her to wonder why Linda didn't just come in since it was her house before answering the door to find a face she hadn't expected to see again.
“Bitte? I thought you were leaving.”
The goblin woman smiled wanly up at her from the direction of her doorstep.
“Yeah, I thought so too.”
The goblin woman looked distraught, and cold, so Mallory didn't hesitate to usher her inside the great hall and close the door.
“What happened?” she asked in a tone of worried concern.
“I was going back the way I came. I'd made myself invisible and was gonna cut through the village to save time but... I- I don't know, I was partway between the tree line and the carpenter's house when I was struck by this... This...”
The goblin woman sat on one of the chairs and gestured vaguely, searching for words.
“It was like ducking under a waterfall. Just this wave of chilling dread, like I was inches away from death. There wasn't anyone there, nothing to actually BE afraid of but... I couldn't go on, not one step more. And the crazy thing is, it went away as soon as I turned back, but when I tried to pass again the same thing happened just as bad as the first. I don't understand, I've been in and out of the village dozens of times, but something's different now.”
Mallory frowned, worried for her friend but also flummoxed by what she was describing.
“Did you try going around the village?”
Bitte fixed her with an incredulous look.
“ALL the way around? Mal, you know how big the village is when you throw in all the fields and pastures? I tried skirting around for a way past, but couldn't find a way through and every encounter left me physically and emotionally drained. If it even is possible to go around, I'd never make it in time to catch up with my tribe, or find any indication of where they left to!”
The goblin woman took a deep breath after spitting out so many words, and idly touched a hand to her heart as though she could feel it hammering in her chest.
“I don't like this,” Bitte muttered. “They drove me up the wall sometimes, but they're all I've got and now...”
The she-goblin whined pitifully, sounding not unlike an upset mongrel, and even scratched at one of her flappy ears. Mallory knelt down beside her.
“I'm... I'll talk to Linda when she gets home. She knows more about ettins, maybe she'll have an idea.”
Bitte growled, not out of hostility, merely frustration.
“Fucking this all started with her. Life here wasn't all that nice, but I had a routine. Then she shows up, plants her wide ass in-”
She trailed off as her mind caught up to who she was talking to.
“Sorry. I know she's your mate, I just... Well, I'm used to talking to myself. The chunderheads I was living with don't speak the Frahson tongue well enough to follow me even if I insult them to their faces.”
Mallory winced. She was deeply in love with Linda, but at the same time a small part of her couldn't help but wonder if maybe she was the bad guy in this scenario. It was a disquieting feeling. She reached out, hesitantly, giving Bitte warning and time to move or bat her hand away if she objected to contact, and touched the smaller woman on the shoulder reassuringly.
“It's alright. You have your reasons to not be totally enamored with her like I am.”
She felt an impulse to say more, but chose strategic silence instead. She didn't know how this would ultimately play out, and didn't want to leap to assumptions. Eventually she found something else to say to break the silence.
“Do you like fish?”
Even with her brute strength, the size of the tree she was dragging back and the need to be careful lest it lose too many branches slowed Linda's return home. When she finally dragged it into the courtyard, she propped it up against the wall before heading in.
“Mal? You in here?”
“In the kitchen!”
Linda followed the sound of the other woman's voice, and it was just as well she left the tree outside or she would have dropped it when she saw that goblin from the previous day eating her and Mallory's food, again.
“You!” she said accusingly, pointing at the little creature who in turn merely rolled her eyes and swallowed the mouthful of trout she was eating.
“Me,” the she-goblin replied in a droll tone once there was no longer food in her mouth.
“I thought you were leaving!”
Mallory rose from where she was seated and took Linda by the arm.
“Be nice,” the piscine woman gently reminded her.
The goblin, for her part, stood up on her chair and puffed up her chest.
“Trust me, this is not where I want to be right now, but...”
Over the course of several minutes, Mallory and Bitte brought the Linda up to speed on what had happened. By the end, the beast woman looked even angrier, though apparently it was no longer directed at Bitte at least.
“Ettinwards. It has to be. Those sons of mothers. I fucking shoulda known something was up for them to feel comfortable invading my territory.”
Mallory looked at her enquiringly, so Linda elaborated.
“Some men with a cow breached my perimeter and harvested a spruce. I thought Jul was just that important to them and was gonna let it slide, but now it's clear they did it because they knew I couldn't retaliate.”
The beast woman gnashed her teeth, and for a moment her breath carried the odor of acrid smoke. Bitte raised her hand.
“Someone wanna tell me what an ettinward is?”
Mallory glanced at Linda, then at Bitte, and explained on Linda's behalf since she was clearly busy fuming.
“Standing stones carved with runes invoking the gods. Did you happen to notice any?”
“I saw new rune stones on both sides of the village, I didn't think much of it at the time. Figured it was commemorating some battle or such. They were still working on the one on the other side of the village when I was cutting through to get here.”
“And they finished by the time you tried to go back,” Linda finished in a growly voice. “Those pathetic, wretched, miserable-!”
She balled one hand into a fist and punched the nearest wall so hard that Bitte nearly lost her balance on her chair.
“Hey, hey, calm down,” Mallory called out in a soothing voice.
“Sorry,” Linda acknowledged broodingly, then sat on the floor, crossing her arms over her knees.
“There's two ways this plays out. One, they're satisfied that they're safe from us and leave us the hell alone. Two, they send in more hunters secure in the knowledge that we can't do shit to them.”
Bitte looked uncertainly between the two other women.
“That's lovely and all, but how do I get through?”
Linda snorted at the inquiry.
“You don't. Monsters like you and me can't go toe to toe with the power of the gods. Only the most powerful ettins could even try, and neither of us is a dragon. Have you tried going around?”
Bitte just mimicked her sarcastically.
“HaVe YoU tRiEd GoInG aRoUnD? No shit, of course I tried, but I have tiny little legs and the village is fucking huge, you know that.”
Linda growled at the goblin warningly, causing the minute green woman to cower slightly as her brain caught up to her sass. A touch from Mallory reminded the beast woman to to restrain herself, so she took a deep breath and let it out slowly before speaking again.
“Well you're fucked then. Sorry to be the one to break it to you.”
The combined misery in the room was almost palpable, stifling the flow of conversation for several long moment. Eventually Bitte was the first to break the stillness.
“So, and I hate that I'm even asking this, but how serious were you about maybe letting me stay a while longer?”
Linda bristled so much that her scales raised up like a cat's hackles, but to her credit she didn't object aloud, deferring to her mate on the matter. Mallory meanwhile merely smiled, faintly.
“It's not like you have anywhere else to go. And, this was your home before it was Linda's or mine. You can stay. I know this wasn't really what you wanted, but we'll try to be good neighbors. Won't we Linda?”
The beast woman heaved a sigh, but nodded with resignation.
“Yeah, sure. I guess.”
Bitte smiled wanly.
“Well, don't try to sound too excited.”
Linda merely huffed at that and cleaned a bit of crud out of her eye before looking at Mallory.
“Well, if nothing else good has come out of today, I got the Jul tree. Pretty sure I've got a stand for it lying around in the hoard somewhere.”
Mallory smiled, and took advantage of her mate being seated by rewarding her with a kiss on the cheek.
“Thank you, I'm looking forward to seeing it lit.”
Bitte sat back down on the chair she was occupying and ripped another piece of fish free with her bare hands and ate it.
“I usually just went into town to see their tree. Guess I'm nixing that from my annual traditions. Fuck, I'm gonna miss Henrike's wassail.”
Mallory looked over with an incredulous grin.
“Wait, so it really was a goblin dipping into her punch? We all thought her husband was just a drunk drinking more than his share.”
“Stenkil is a drunk, but yeah I helped myself to his wife's cauldron at nights. Best wassail in the village, I just had to be careful not to drink so much that I couldn't sneak back without making any noise.”
The she-goblin offered a sly grin, and to Mallory's surprise Linda returned it.
“Heh, guess being able to turn invisible has its moments. Feels like a lifetime since I last had a hot cup of wassail.”
The beast woman breathed a wistful sigh.
“Ugh, fuck. Being a flesh eating monster I can just about live with, but being sober is where lies the rub.”
Bitte made a noise that was midway between a snort and a laugh.
“Not being able to nip over to the village is really gonna fuck up my survival strategy, that's for sure. Do 'ettinwards' ever wear off?”
Linda sighed and shook her head.
“Not unless someone defaces the runes, and the magics won't let us get that close to them. If you find yourself starving though, I'll see if we can't spare you something.”
Bitte and Mallory both looked at Linda in stunned silence. The beast woman looked back and forth between them with growing indignation.
“What? Look, you're skinnier than a fence post already and if you go feral that just means more problems for everyone.”
Bitte nodded, still a little dazed by the larger ettin's voluntary offer to share food without being prodded by Mallory.
“Yeah, can't argue with that logic. I mean, thanks.”
Linda nodded gruffly picked herself off the floor.
“Say, since you're in such a giving mood and all,” Bitte mentioned, immediately earning a stern look from the beast woman, “Could you perhaps spare a blanket? Only you kinda picked most of my hidey holes clean. I got back shortly before sunrise and had to make do with a pile of damp clothes.”
Linda made a face. That would certainly explain the smell.
“Yeah fine, I'll go get one.”
In fact, Linda came back with a blanket and a set of sheets. Not the best they had, but far from the worst. Bitte accepted them gratefully and left soon after. Afterwards she and Mallory sifted through the piles of stuff in the main hall until they turned up a stand for the tree complete with a bowl of water to help the finicky spruce retain it's needles for as long as possible. They didn't bother affixing candles right away, settling for a modest day's work before returning to the comfortable warmth of the kitchen to go over the runes again.
“Os,” Mallory said confidently, staring at the stave in Linda's hand. Linda shook her head though.
“No, it's the other one, look at the tips.”
Mallory grimaced in concentration.
“That's right, you're getting it. You're making good progress!”
Mallory laughed bitterly.
“I feel like an idiot.”
Her mate gave her a stern look belied by the tenderness with which she reached out to touch the smaller woman's chin.
“You're not an idiot. You are a clever, curious, competent woman learning a difficult skill set. Just because you're a grown woman doesn't make learning to read any easier than it is for children. Quite the opposite in fact, or so I've been told. You're doing just fine, try to be patient with yourself.”
Mallory clasped the larger woman's hand fondly.
“Thanks. I'm not sure what I ever did to deserve you.”
Linda laid down the staves and offered Mallory a cooked grin.
“Hey, come here.”
Beaming eagerly, Mallory climbed into Linda's lap. It was no longer quite as spacious as it used to be, back when she was still more human than monster, but it felt just as comfortable, and safe. The larger woman brushed her fingers through Mallory's hair.
“Look at you. You're everything I could ever have asked for in a mate. You are so, incredibly, indescribably precious to me.”
She punctuated her words with kisses pressed against Mallory's neck, earning a breathy sigh from the smaller ettin.
“Would you mind terribly if I took off that tunic and showed you just how much I worship you?”
Mallory's lips split into a wide, beaming smile.
“You are such a dork,” she said with a cheerful laugh.
“Hey, I'm trying to be romantic here. Is that a no?”
Mallory shucked her tunic in one fluid movement.
Warning, this chapter gets gory.
When Linda awoke to the sound of rain, she groaned. Not only because she couldn't afford to just stay in, in light of recent events, but also because it would make catching anything's scent next to impossible. Even snow was better than rain. It was if Thunor was deliberately mocking her from the heavens, the bastard.
She gently nudged Mallory awake, who rose sleepily rubbing her eyes in a way that was altogether too adorable.
“Who's the sleepyhead now,” Linda thought with a grin.
“I gotta head out,” she said aloud.
“Oh,” her mate said blankly, pausing a moment before rallying a response. “It's raining though.”
“I know,” Linda said with a wince. “Still gotta though. Not gonna be able to relax until I make sure we've got no intruders, and to be honest we need more meat. All we've got left after hosting that goblin and not hunting yesterday is fish.”
Mallory marinated on that only a moment before sitting up and stretching.
“I'll come too then,” she said with a yawn.
Linda blinked in surprise.
“You sure? No reason we both gotta get pissed on, and I didn't mean to drag you out of bed.”
The smaller woman just shrugged.
“Hunting's easier with two though. Besides, I'd feel like a right heel sitting by the fire at home while you're out keeping us both safe.”
The beast woman looked at her mate fondly, growling a contented sound somewhere deep in her throat, before leaning over and kissing her.
“I love you.”
Mallory grinned and returned the kiss without even opening her eyes.
“Love you too. We got time for breakfast though, right?”
“Shit yes, can't have our bellies grumbling while sneaking up on a deer.”
Bitte clutched her new blanket around her gratefully. She'd spent the night in one of her old hidey holes, somebody's old root cellar. It was well insulated, but she couldn't very well build a fire to keep warm without smoking herself out. Better to shiver a little and stay hidden than announce her presence to the world with a column of smoke. Granted, it wasn't like she needed to worry about her tribe finding where she slept anymore, but old habits died hard.
The gurgling of her stomach was what finally prompted her to emerge from her woolen cocoon long enough to change back into her clothes, and the smaller blanket she'd been using as an improvised cloak. Climbing up the ladder, she could hear rain pounding on the cellar doors before she even opened them, though they did at least do a surprisingly serviceable job at keeping it out.
Nothing to be done though. She needed meat, the hunger gnawing at her belly demanded it. She knew from past experience the perils of ignoring it for too long. Flinging open the doors, she scrambled into the world above and hastily closed them shut behind her before too much water could leak into her shelter. The rain was heavier, she felt, than it had any business being. Clutching the wool around her, she hoped she'd turn up something before it soaked through.
To Mallory's immense relief, the rain felt far, far less bothersome against her scales than it ever had against her skin. Slightly pleasant, even, the steady drumming weight of it like the gentle tapping of tiny fingers against her armour, before sliding slickly down like a stream taking the path of least resistance. She even ran back inside to take her tunic off and leave it at home so it wouldn't get soaked. It wasn't like she really needed it anymore. She came back out with a cheerful smile on her face which faded when she noticed Linda looking into the distance with a grim expression.
“What is it?”
Linda jerked at the sound of Mallory's voice, and gestured for her to be quiet, then pointed in the direction of the plaza.
“See that?” the beast woman whispered.
Mallory peered into the gloom. The rain made it hard to see very far, but off in the distance there was... Light? The sun had finished setting while they were eating breakfast, which begged the question of what was causing it.
“Maybe Bitte started a fire to keep warm?”
Linda didn't seem convinced.
Bitte scrambled for cover, ducking inside a ruined building. Two humans, armigers by the look of them. By the grace of whatever gods might look kindly on monsters like herself, they didn't seem to have noticed her. One of them, the younger of the two, was complaining.
“I don't see why we couldn't wait until the weather changed, the wards aren't going anywhere. Besides, we were supposed to wait for the others.”
The older man, who was conspicuously better armored in a full suit of ringmail, gestured imperiously at the lad.
“The longer we wait, the more time it has to bunker down, and the rain will cover our scent and wash away our tracks. We couldn't ask for a better opportunity. So quite your bitching and mind the lantern.”
“Yes ser,” the lad sulked, clutching what looked to be a sort of frame made of wood with semi-transparent thin hide stretched around it, protecting a lit candle inside from the elements.
This was bad. She knew she should run, get help. Normally she'd just creep away invisible like, but with the rain coming down she might be spotted by her silhouette in the downpour.
The sound of the two moving ceased suddenly, and Bitte's heart skipped a beat as a wave of dread washed over her.
“Did they notice me?”
“Over there,” the older one cried out, and Bitte bolted. As it turned out though, she needn't have bothered.
As Bitte bolted out the doorway intent on escaping, she caught sight of something she never thought she'd be glad to see, Linda barreling down with teeth bared and blood in her eyes. The older armiger toppled under the weight of her bulk, screaming helplessly. The polearm in his hands was no use at all at close quarters. Glancing around to see where the other one went, she was surprised to find him rigid as a statue toppled over into the mud while Mallory stood over him with a very satisfied look on her face. The fish woman had sprouted a pair of claws that slid back into her fingers as Bitte watched.
She looked at the older armiger again in time to see Linda take his entire head in one of her hands, and twist. The screaming redoubled, briefly, and then was cut short by a sickening wrenching pop. Woden's beard, what a horrible way to go.
The beast woman looked up, and for a moment Bitte wasn't sure which was scarier, but Linda merely looked over at her mate.
Mallory beamed proudly.
“Went down like a fish under my venom. He's still alive.”
Linda nodded in satisfaction.
“Good. I have some questions for him.”
It all was a bit much for Bitte. Dropping her invisibility, she felt called upon to say something as the other two ettins looked at her in surprise.
“That was horrible, thank you.”
With no real idea of how long it would take for the venom to wear off, they bound their captive's hands and feet and tossed him into the cellar. That just left the matter of the corpse.
“Can I have some?”
Bitte eyed the body hungrily. She'd managed to catch and eat a stoat before the whole thing started, which was tasty enough, but not very filling. Linda just gave her a look.
“Did you help?”
“Linda,” Mallory started to say, but her mate cut her off with a wave of a hand.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. 'Be nice'. Fine, you can have one of the arms, but only up to the elbow! Lemme get a saw.”
As Linda rose to fetch the saw they used to butcher larger animals and Bitte practically salivated with glee, it struck Mallory that the whole affair felt curiously mundane. Here they had the body of a man laid out on a table in their kitchen as if it were merely another deer or swine. She didn't recognize his face, and his eyes were still open wide in frozen horror. She thought about closing them, but then thought why bother?
The arm spat and gurgled blood as the tooth-edged metal tore through it. Underneath all the skin and hair though, Mallory was faintly surprised to see that underneath it looked just like meat, same as any other. Dark red blood, muscle, white filmy connective tissues and globules of yellow fat. Really she shouldn't be surprised, but it still felt strange to look at a human body and see that it was indeed just meat underneath.
When the saw cut all the way through the elbow joint, Linda finished the job with a cleaver and tossed the severed limb to Bitte, heedless of the mess.
“There, now piss off. Mal and I need a moment.”
Bitte scarpered off without a word of complaint. Food took precedence over all else, after all. It was only halfway to the hallway that she thought to turn around and call out “Thanks” before disappearing from view.
Linda turned her attention to Mallory.
“You gonna be okay with this? I know this is gonna be a first for you, and I'm not gonna force you if you don't want to.”
Mallory managed to take her eyes off the dead man long enough to shake her head.
“No, I'm fine. No point going out hunting when we've got food at home.”
Linda watched her carefully, then nodded.
“Alright. Let's get started.”
They scooped out the bowels and offal first, before it could taint the rest of the meat. It smelled about as bad as one would expect, but after it was gone things got a little better. Linda offered her the heart, but Mallory declined.
“You killed him, you should get the heart. I'm not sure where I should start.”
Linda nodded, and pointed with her knife.
“I recommend the thighs. Best part in my opinion. Let's get some water boiling though, it'll be better if we can remove all the hairs.”
Pain. Unbearable, indescribable, inescapable pain. Tholf couldn't move, couldn't even scream, could barely breath as every nerve ending in his entire body cried out in agony. It was hard to focus on anything but the pain, but on the periphery of his senses he was aware of being moved, carried by something, something a distant part of him could have identified if it wasn't submerged in cruel venom. Even his eyes refused to focus on anything beyond his personal, private hell.
Time lost all meaning, stretching out into horrid infinity until it was all he could remember. How much time passed in that state eluded him, and the first sign of there ever being an end in sight was when he finally managed to scream. It was choked, feeble, devastated by the strain of his own vocal chords fighting themselves, but it came as a relief nonetheless, so he kept on doing it, screaming and sobbing, tears streaking down his cheeks.
He heard voices, muffled, distant. Where was he? The last thing he could remember was... Ettins, oh merciful gods no, he had to get away, but his hands were bound, his feet were bound, and... He couldn't see! All was black, and for a moment of blind panic he wondered if the venom had robbed him of his sight, but then light spilled down upon him accompanied by the sound of a groaning wooden door. He looked blinking into the light, hoping for a savior, only to be cheated of his hopes when the silhouette of something far too big and misshapen to be a human to loped into view.
It was all he could do to choke out those words, but the monster showed no sign of listening, only barking three short word as it lurched towards him with its arm outstretched.
“Come here you.”
Tholf tried to back away, to cower, to run, to hide, but he was still too weak and sore from the venom, and was slung over the brute's shoulder as if he weighed no more than a sack of turnips. It hauled him into a room he didn't recognize, some kind of great hall. The place was a ruin, no candles, no music, none of the life and bustle a great hall should contain. Just him, alone, and a monster. He mustered his strength to gasp out a question.
The ettin set him down on a bench and raised an eyebrow at him, all the more expressive for the scales adorning its brow.
“The friend you came with? Don't you worry about him, you can't help him where he's gone. You should be much more worried about you.”
“Please, mercy, I didn't want to come, it was his idea!”
The monster nodded.
“I understand. A couple of armigers with the right to bear arms, but no title, no fortune. No war going on in which you could distinguish yourself, catch a lord's eye, so you think 'Well, let's just go kill a monster and we can finally lift ourselves into society proper'. It's a good plan, lots of hunters have done just that, haven't they? Except for one thing.”
The beast leaned in close, and it only just occurred to Tholf by its bare breasts that 'it' was a she. Far more pressing was that he could smell blood on her breath.
“You are no match for me. You never had a chance. If you want to walk out of here with all your arms and legs,” the she creature said, earning a whimper from Tholf before she continued with “and most importantly, your life, you're gonna tell me what the human village is planning. All of it. And for every detail I think you leave out, I'm gonna eat one of your fingers. Sound fair?”
Tholf just looked at her in mute horror.
“Please, please don't, please!”
The beast slammed a fist on the table, cutting off his pleas.
If he was able to scrape together any composure at all, he promptly lost it again when another ettin entered the room holding a plate of pork it was dining on, a finned, fishy silhouette that would haunt his nightmares if he came out of this alive. The one whose venom still seared every filament in his body. He scrambled to get away, but his hands and feet were still tied.
“Please, no, stay away, don't touch me!”
The beast snarled in frustration.
“Quit your gods damned cowering you simpering cur and answer my question! What is the village planning? Tell me!”
Tholf didn't take his eyes off the fish monster, but told what he knew in the hopes that it was appease the monsters.
“The b-baron sent word through the skalds to neighboring territories, advertising a title and land for any armiger that could kill the monster in his forest. There's f-four others coming, me and Frothi were supposed to meet up with them, then come and... Gods I'm sorry, I'm so sorry-”
The beast growled in irritation at his stammering, but far more alarming to Tholf was that the fish woman drew nearer. He screamed and jerked away so hard that he fell off the bench and spilled onto the floor.
“Stay away, stay away!”
The beast woman chuckled and looked over at the other ettin.
“I do believe he's more afraid of you than he is of me.”
The fish creature seemed almost offended by that, the fins on the side of its head that might be its ears flaring outwards.
“What's to be afraid of? I am a delight!”
The beast chuckled and shuffled over towards the other monster, nuzzling her nose into the other's neck, and a tiny corner of Tholf's mind that wasn't gibbering in terror wondered at the incongruous display of affection. His reprieve was short lived though, as the beast immediately swiveled its head around after to glare balefully at him.
“When do the other armigers arrive? Quickly now.”
Tholf gulped, trying to keep his voice even.
“Uh... Was s-supposed to be yesterday, but they sent word ahead that they would be delayed. I-inclement weather, the messenger said. Sometime after Jul, maybe. Th-that's all I know, I swear!”
The beast huffed in irritation.
“Your simpering is beginning to try my patience. Can you write?”
Tholf nodded meekly, and the beast muttered.
“I'll get you a parchment, ink, and a quill. Collect your thoughts and write down all the details you know, leaving nothing out. After that, if I'm satisfied with it, I'll let you go.”
Tholf nodded eagerly.
“Yes, thank you, thank y-”
The beast cut him off, rubbing the temples of her forehead with one hand like she had a headache coming on.
“For god's sake, until then shut up. I've had about enough of you.”
Tholf nodded and sat tight as the beast woman began to rummage through piles of junk scattered around on the nearby tables. It wasn't like he could do much else, even if his limbs weren't currently bound, the fish creature was watching him with an unreadable expression.
The man's writing was shaky, but the words much more coherent and relevant without the constant begging for mercy. Afterwards Linda marched him to the eastern edge of her territory, the opposite direction from the village, and bade him to start running and not turn back or she would know and find him. Mallory was waiting for her when she got home with a smile.
“Thanks for doing that,” the piscine woman said.
“We should have killed him. He knows where we live, we're taking a huge risk letting him go.”
Mallory reached up to caress her mate's cheek.
“It'll be alright. You saw how terrified he is. I'm sure the second he reaches civilization he's going to drink himself into oblivion trying to forget, not recount it all.”
“Hope you're right. How was dinner?”
“It was alright. Not great, but not terrible either. Tasted kinda like boar, only...”
“Not as good?” Linda supplied helpfully, with a wry smile.
“Not as good, yeah. Some sauce might have helped. Still better than the wolf at least.”
Linda chuckled at that.
“Wolf is a low bar to clear, but it's all meat at the end of the day.”
Mallory nodded, with a distant look on her face.
“Yeah, I suppose so. I mean I guess I always knew on some level that humans have insides just like animals, but actually seeing it... I don't know, it's strange.”
Linda shrugged, tilting her head to one side.
“You get used to it. Come on, let's practice your runes before we go to bed, yeah? It's been a hell of a day.”
Mallory smiled softly and gave her mate a hug.
“Yeah, sounds good.”