Golda’s cottage door burst open, startling her. “Useless!” The man who kicked her door in then tossed her scrawny son inside, tumbling through the air. “What a useless, feckless, callow… rraugh!” A corpulent man wrapped in a sooty cloak stormed into the cottage, slamming the door behind him. He leveled a thick arm and sausage-like finger at the teenager, piled into the corner like a sack of broomsticks. “I will never work with this drooling idiot again! Golda, what were you thinking, suggesting him to me? Do you know nothing about this apologetic scrap of leather remnants? Do I need to make introductions?” He cleared his throat dramatically and fell to one knee. “You, leather remnants: this is Golda, a friend from childhood for whom I would otherwise do anything she asked, a kindly yet loveless soul who scrapes to eke a living in this unforgiving and unreasonable world.”
Golda looked away, clutching her wimple.
“And pardon me for sullying your sweet being, my dear Golda, but it is my distinct misfortune to introduce to you someone who could only be so far removed from your imagination as to explain why you would recommend this loathsome−”
“Enough,” Golda croaked. “Vaughn, that’s quite enough. Please stop.”
The large man’s heart melted at her feeble voice, and he looked sorrowful for a moment. All it took was a glance at her wretched son, only now having solved the puzzle of how to pull his legs down and sit upright once more, to stoke his pique. Growling, he pulled off the shadowy, shapeless cloak and tossed it upon her bed, himself taking a short, three-legged stool by a structure she used for a table. Beneath the cloak he wore a merchant’s maroon velvet doublet, straining around his belly. “Goddess blast it all, Golda! What were you thinking? The service I render comes at a perilous risk, every time I undertake it. This isn’t kicking shit in your father’s fields: this is life or death!”
“Do you? Do you, indeed! Because if you did, I can’t imagine why you would have recommended this incompetent, timorous bundle of nerves for so delicate an operation!” Vaughn leaned forward, elbows on his knees, nostrils puffing like a bull’s. “Unless you were trying to get rid of him—and maybe me, to boot! Is that it? Were you scraping a couple unsightly chancres off your otherwise milk-white bosom?”
The woman blushed and cowered. “Landen couldn’t have been as bad as you say…”
“Couldn’t he!” Vaughn threw up his hands and hooted. “Couldn’t he, now! Shall I tell you how it went tonight? Well! As you know, the prime aspects to this entire enterprise rely upon focus, silence, and coordination. No sooner do we enter the cavern, than your goose-necked boy here begins poking at samples of moss and looking for bat-chimneys. Focus!
“The closer we get to the inner recesses, you know, the layer, suddenly your valiant Landen has grown an extra leg, or else the ground has offended him so deeply that he must lash out against it with his face!” Vaughn gestured to the boy, whose cheeks were indeed crusted with blood and soil. “That’s coordination for you!”
He closed his eyes and drew a long breath, shaking his head slowly. “But all of that might have been forgiven, had we not begun to approach this fearsome creature of nightmares, asleep and dead to the world, and he starts screaming.”
Landen stopped wiping his nose and looked aggrieved. “That’s because you pushed me off the cliff!”
“Pushed him off a cliff?” Golda gaped at the merchant in alarm.
Slowly, Vaughn turned toward the rumpled pile of boy. “Why, that is so. And for your mother’s edification, would you mind explaining to her why I might have thrown you from the mild rocky precipice?”
The teen looked down again. “Because I was screaming.”
Vaughn fixed a tight grin upon his full lips, smirking through his beard. “Well, then, I sit corrected. Sir Bumblelots isn’t entirely without merit: he is at the very least truthful.” He rose from the stool and took up his cloak. “And with that, my sweet Golda, I believe we have concluded our business. I spoke not falsely when I said I would do anything for you, but Great Goddess Above, you pressed your hand too far with this one.”
The wretched woman sprang from her seat at the hearth and seized her friend’s gold-trimmed sleeve. “Vaughn! Please, give him another chance! We need this too badly,” she shouted into his reddening face. “We’re desperate! The king’s tithe is due in two weeks, and our fields are yet fallow! Someone in the village has stolen one of our two milking cows, so we’ve barely enough to keep ourselves fed!” One hand still clamped onto his arm, she adjusted her wimple and rose painfully to stand before him. “I know it can be difficult, my dear Vaughn, but please, one more chance. Ask anything of me, anything at all, but please take him with you one more time. Without this, we have no hope.”
“Golda…” He looked down at that earnest expression, those huge eyes, so brown they were nearly black, that perfectly sculpted porcelain face. And he closed his eyes so he wouldn’t accidentally see her son, the embodiment of antagonism.
“Very well,” he muttered, resting one palm on the door behind him. “Tomorrow night. Tell him to get his act together. Toughen him up any way you know how. Dose him with mead, strike him with birch boughs, shove one of those glowing coals up his goddess-damned bunghole. Because if he fucks this up again, I don’t get another chance for a month or two.” He turned and opened the door. “If we return at all.” He slipped into the night.
“Know that I loathe you,” Vaughn said, riding into the darkness. Landen struggled to keep up on an unruly pony. “Know that I would happily hold your head down in the horse trough until my fingers were all pruney and stiff with cold, but for your mother.” He shifted the long bundle strapped across his back; the pair were wrapped in amorphous cloaks the color of the sky.
Landen said, “I don’t understand. Do you owe her something? Did she do something for you?”
Vaughn stiffened in his saddle. “You do not speak to me,” he growled. He turned slightly, shifting both reins to one hand so as to backhand the kid, but in the light of the first quarter moon, there was something of his mother’s jawline in his countenance, and those huge, dark eyes. He scowled and turned forward again, toward the mountains.
“Now we walk,” he said, lashing his horse to a grove.
“But it’s another mile, yet!”
Vaughn gritted his teeth and merely snatched the pony’s reins to secure him as well. “Not one word, boy.” They hiked across the plains in silence.
At the foothills, Vaughn paced until they found a white rock, glowing in the moonlight. “Take off your boots,” he said, removing his own.
“But we still have to climb into the mountain!”
Vaughn knotted nearly the whole of the front of Landen’s blouse in his ham-hock fist. “Not one fucking word!” he spat. Landen tugged off his boots, and Vaughn rolled the white rock atop them. Barefoot, they picked their way over the small and large boulders, relying on touch more than sight.
They accessed a cave, their point of entry. Vaughn held his hand up, then lowered his palm in the clammy air, and they both sat down to catch their breath. As much as he would’ve loved to harass the kid by making him bear the lengthy parcel upon his back, Vaughn knew Landen would pay him back by grousing and whingeing every step of the way, smacking it against the tunnel walls at every opportunity, until their ostensible prey was waiting for them with fork and knife in each hand, a checkered napkin around their neck, a teakettle singing pleasantly over the fire.
He lifted his hand, and both of them were on their feet, padding down the narrow passage into the heart of the mountain. The rocky ground beneath them became covered in a fine sand that seemed to leach the heat out of their skin. Vaughn looked back at the boy: Landen flinched, a dark silhouette against the dimming light of the cave entrance, but otherwise he was entirely soundless. Not daring to snort, Vaughn only turned and led on into the depths. But he nearly jumped out of his skin when he felt something clutch at his back. It took all his nerve not to scream or spin recklessly in the tight passage, but when he reached back to confront what little monster had pounced on him or dropped from the ceiling, he only found the boy’s warm hand, resting on his doublet.
Well, it was dark in here, dark and cold. Vaughn knew these wormholes into the mountain better than anyone. Frowning in the darkness, he held Landen’s hand.
After a long, claustrophobic time, the passage opened up into an immense cavern, the spacious lair of their beast, and the source of their treasure. If there were any other way to attain it, Vaughn thought, he surely would have dedicated a year to finding it. But what they were after came from nowhere else, was only to be found here.
The cavern had its own lighting: a pile of rushes burned in a large brazier, several yards to their left. Beyond it lay a tremendous mound of rushes, one that would’ve taken Landen over a year to assemble. In this light they could just make out the large rocky formation upon which the beast slumbered, with their intended treasure. Vaughn found the boy gawking, huge eyes sweeping over the mountain’s interior. He seized the boy’s jaw and turned his face to him.
Desperately he whispered, “Not one word. Watch every step. If we are perfectly silent, she will not wake.” He leaned into the boy’s pale visage. “You do everything I say, promptly, no argument. Both our lives depend on your basic ability to follow simple fucking orders.” He squeezed the young jaw, tempted to wrap his fist around his neck, but let him go. Landen nodded, but Vaughn glowered at him a moment longer before hefting his package and approaching the rocky mound.
It was a small butte of centuries-old sediment, with mineral deposits running down the sides in frozen streams. In places it looked as though the minerals had erupted in rapid growth; in others, the stone almost looked like it’d been crudely shaped by a careless sculptor. The two approached it slowly, aware of how swiftly the moon crossed the sky but profoundly unwilling to kick over so much as a pebble to jinx their trespass.
Vaughn started up a cluster of mineral bulges, then nodded to Landen, who followed. The large, overbearing merchant was more than used to hauling his own weight around, and Landen weighed so little that he barely strained his wiry limbs at all. Their cloaks streamed behind them, shapeless and muted, nearly indistinguishable from the rocks they ascended.
They neared the top and Vaughn paused, turning toward the boy once more. With blazing eyes, glowing in the rush-fire, he placed one thick finger upon his lips, then stuck out his thumb and slowly drew it across his own throat. Landen barely dared to nod, and up they went, pulling themselves over the edge.
There lay before them a massive head, resting on its side. To their left rose the broad brow and an immense, sprawling thicket of curly hair; off to the right and into eternity stretched her body, a shoulder as large as a boulder, an upper arm like a column stout enough to support the heavens, and on and on into the darkness. The dim light showed two bare breasts, large as hills, slowly rising and falling with this monstrosity’s breath.
Vaughn turned to the boy to assess his composure. To his credit, though his knees knocked, Landen strained to draw a hard brow and pull tight lips, with puny fists clenched at his sides. Slowly Vaughn placed one hand upon his shoulder. He winced at how meatless the bones were, how easily the joints could’ve been displaced between his fingers. He only gave the boy a reassuring grip, then unshouldered his parcel.
A bolt of dark linen held two long planks, nothing more complex than that. Vaughn hefted them and slowly crept toward the face of the monster. Landen’s legs were frozen as he stared at the heaving breasts—he had seen women before, but never bare—and the wide, full, pink lips the merchant neared. The merchant paused, looked back at the boy, and angrily nodded his head toward the face. With his guts turning to water, Landen somehow placed one freezing foot in front of the other and followed.
The enormous woman breathed slowly. The wind coming out of her throat echoed around them, gusting warm, moist air. Their cloaks fluttered silently behind them with each exhale. Landen’s head began to swim, unmoored by the insanity of what they were doing. They were walking directly toward the maw of the ravening horror that tore apart the countryside, the colossus that could sunder a castle’s turrets with a backhand or decimate a cavalry with a stomp. How did people even get this big, anyway? They drew closer and closer to what from a great distance would have looked like a woman’s face, but the eyes disappeared behind the cheekbones, the jaw occluded the neck, and now rows of white teeth began to peek from behind the thick lips.
Glancing at the boy, Vaughn slowly inserted one of the planks between the huge teeth, and then the other. Entirely on his own, he spread the two oaken planks, his own powerful arms straining, until slowly the huge jaw began to open. Encouraged, Vaughn hooked his arms around the planks, inched them even further inside, creating a new sharp angle between them which he himself widened with all his considerable strength.
When the vertical rows of teeth separated into wide portal, finally Vaughn rested. He pulled the planks out and rested them silently upon the ground. Glancing at Landen, he raised his palm, fingers splayed, and pushed away: it seemed he would not require Landen’s assistance after all. The boy felt as though his heart itself had been holding its breath and finally resumed beating. He nodded and stayed a safe distance away, staring with morbid fascination at the darkness within the gigantic woman’s mouth.
Shedding his cloak, Vaughn gingerly placed a hand upon the long upper lip, stretching farther than he was tall. He undid the drawstrings of a large pouch hanging from his belt and put his hand inside. He took a deep breath and began to slip one leg inside.
A moan emerged, like a vengeful ghost rushing up a long, winding corridor. In a smaller woman, someone their size, it would’ve sounded like the gently surprised exclamation of one deep in sleep, experiencing something amazing in their dreams. In this tremendous monster, however, it sounded like a massive iron-and-oak door being shoved aside, or the first slow, grinding movement of the millstones within a windmill catching a breeze.
Landen jumped back, hackles raised. Vaughn was caught by surprise as the immense rows of teeth narrowed and closed around his knee. His other leg buckled with the pain; his two fat hands clamped upon his mouth as he twisted and wrenched, straining despite himself to contain his scream.
Landen reached for him, watching the merchant’s face redden with squinting. All fears forgotten, he dashed forward and took up the planks, swinging one high to rest upon Vaughn while he grabbed the other. While the leverage he built was too high for a frail little boy like him to use effectively, it was enough for Vaughn: he raised his arms, gripped the planks, and prised them apart. Between his surprise at the boy’s pluck and his focus on his labors, the pain in his leg was nearly forgotten. The teeth seemed unyielding, as both worked on opening them. A crazy part in the back of Landen’s mind thought the lovely woman looked ridiculous with two sticks jutting out of her mouth.
After a long, tense moment, the immense jaw began to loosen and the teeth parted enough for Vaughn to drag his leg out. Landen caught the planks as the large man tumbled to the rocky floor, clutching his thigh, almost afraid to examine it. It turned out the damage was deep: the huge, blunt incisors didn’t break his skin, but the merchant’s knee was crushed, but not shattered. He knew how lucky he was, how badly this could have gone, yet this injury meant a failed mission and another month of waiting for an opportunity.
He looked up at Landen, hovering nearby.
The boy hadn’t run. He hadn’t said a word in Vaughn’s moment of need.
He snorted very slowly, thoughtfully, then nodded. He motioned for Landen to come near and whispered in the kid’s ear. “This is just a setback. It’s not over yet, we can still do this.” He untied Landen’s cloak and thrust his hand into the pouch. He pulled his fist out and, before the boy could react, slapped its contents upon his chest. The front of Landen’s blouse glowed a bright, milky blue. “These glow-worms will light your way. They’ll last about a sixth-candle.”
Landen’s eyes widened. “No. No, I can’t.” He took a step back. Vaughn seized his arm fast.
“You have to. Think of your mother!” He stared up at the boy, who couldn’t tear his eyes from the depths of the woman’s mouth. “This will change everything for you, don’t you understand? You can turn her life around with this! After everything she’s done for you.”
Landen looked down at him: Vaughn’s eyes glinted in the light, his beard glowed a powdery blue. Another gust from the giantess washed over him, hot and humid, stinking of decay and tiredness. He looked inside her mouth, where tiny stars glittered in the darkness along the severing edges of her teeth.
Vaughn gave him a shake. “Don’t think about your death. Don’t put your energy into something that hasn’t happened. I’m not asking you to do anything I haven’t done a hundred times already.”
Landen started at that. “A hundred? Seriously?”
Vaughn winced. “A couple dozen, definitely. Come on, you’re running out of time. What’s it going to be?”
The boy screwed up his face and clenched his fists, then released a quiet puff of air. He nodded at the balmy cavern. Vaughn gave him a good lad and hefted the planks upon his shoulders, slipping them between the teeth. From his angle it was easier to stretch his arms out and spread the planks, wedging the jaws open, and then he slipped his good leg into the planks and stretched the woman’s huge mouth open further, leaving his injured leg to rest. “I can hold this for as long as you need. Just listen to my directions, and don’t fight me on anything. This will work.” He stared urgently at the teen.
All Landen could do was comply. He stepped high over the planks and walked toward their acute angle, slipping between the gigantic woman’s teeth. His bare feet left the chilly rock floor and stepped onto soft, moist, hot cheek, and the shock nearly made him cry out. He turned and grimaced at Vaughn and found the large man stifling a chuckle.
“Yes, it’s going to be wet and sloppy and gross. Plenty of time to puke later. Turn around: you’re standing under her tongue.”
Landen turned and saw it was so: the smear of worm guts over his blouse revealed a slimy mound of thick muscle and blue veins, and one thin tendon tying it down to the meaty bedding in her jaw, ringed with teeth like large rocks. Some of Landen’s fear lost territory to fascination. He stepped out of the wedge and onto the premolars: they were so smooth and warm under his soles, they were almost pleasant. He bit his lip and nodded to himself, thinking this might not be so awful.
Then she burped. Neither Vaughn nor Landen could react when they heard the moist squeak echoing up the corridor of her throat. Their ears nearly popped with the little burp—which, again, in a smaller woman, might have been a cute little chirp—and Landen clapped his palms over his ears while Vaughn’s head rang with the explosion. They both gagged at the bubble of fetid stomach gasses, and the boy struggled to remain on his feet as his sinuses burned.
“Hurry, get on,” Vaughn urged. He relaxed his press on the leverage, saving his strength for when he’d really need it. “Work your way toward the back. If you have to touch any of her tissues, do so slowly and as gently as you can!”
Landen nodded, then covered his nose and mouth in the sleeve of his blouse to draw a deep couple lungfuls of air. It wasn’t great, but it would work for the time being.
“Get over her tongue,” Vaughn whispered. “You have to get to her throat.”
The boy turned around, eyes huge. He shook his head violently.
“You don’t have to go into her throat, just up to it!” Vaughn nodded urgently.
Landen looked around: the huge tongue lay before him, thick and wet. It was too big for him to stretch his scrawny legs over. He didn’t want to get yelled at for walking out of the mouth to go around the tongue. Shuddering, he concluded there was nothing else for it: slowly, gently, he lay back upon the tongue.
Instantly the woman’s saliva soaked through his blouse, spreading over his skin. He grimaced at that, and again as he rested his head and dampened his hair. But he drew up one leg and flung it to the other side, and then the other leg to follow, rolled over, and soon found himself kneeling upon her cheek, shouldered up against a wall of taste buds.
Landen froze, waiting to see what this violation would yield. But the tongue only lay there, twitching meatily, and the volumes of wind only slid back and forth over his drenched garment. The smear glowed into the back of her mouth: her molars ended a few mere steps away, and the curved palate arced from his left and led to a hanging uvula. This glistening nodule stuck out like a limp arrow pointing to the bend in the cavern, leading off into a long, moist tunnel to the right.
The teen shuddered violently. Nothing in this world, not even love of his mother, could compel him to crawl down that throat. He hoped to Goddess that what they were looking for would appear soon.
Vaughn’s voice echoed in the woman’s mouth. “Keep going. Stop when you get to her wisdom teeth, where the large nodules form on the back of her tongue. See them?”
Landen croodled as far back as he dared, taking in the parallel ridges seemingly etched into the roof of her mouth, all the intricate veins like lace throughout the slippery walls around him, all illuminated in pale blue. The workmanship in here was amazing, like nothing he’d ever imagined. He ran his own tongue around his mouth, trying to find the landmarks so clearly indicated in this cramped and intimate room.
“You can see the uvula, right, that hangy-down thingy in the back?” He waited for the boy to nod. “Follow that out to the arches on either side of it. Up and down, for you, I guess. See where they end in large, thick lumps?” The boy did. “Those are her tonsils. You see both of them?” The boy nodded without turning around. “All right, this is the key: tucked behind them, you should see a medium-sized mound of whitish mass. Do you see them?”
Landen looked back at Vaughn and shrugged, shaking his head. Vaughn signed. “They’ve got to be there, dammit! Have another look, they’re really behind them. Can you get any further back there?”
That wasn’t what Landen wanted to hear. The slumbering woman’s breath still flowed, in and out, very slowly, but now in the glow of his blouse he could see the opening of her throat. It flexed with every inhale, the pink ring twitching and growing wider to gulp the air unconsciously. The image instilled in him a creeping dread of one large breath sucking him right inside there. His arms twitched as he envisioned trying to struggle his way out of a clenching throat, exponentially more powerful than himself at this size.
He gulped hard and became aware that his lungs were beginning to ache. Slowly he blew his exhaust out, then waited until the massive woman inhaled to grab more air. With a little timing, there was no need to hold his breath at all: thank heaven for small favors. He knelt upon the woman’s wisdom teeth and gingerly braced himself against her tonsils, tugging his shirt up to shed more light into the back of her mouth. Barely perceptible in the darkness was one tiny, creamy spot, the tip of the mass the merchant described. He twisted his chest around and gave Vaughn the thumbs-up in the dimming blue light.
Vaughn smiled back, hopeful, shaken. “Good, good! Oh, thank Goddess. Does there happen to be another one?” He saw the boy crane his head to peek behind the tonsil overhead, then nod. “Excellent! That’s what we’re after, kiddo. Grab those and come on out!”
This is what they were looking for? Landen touched the tip: it was waxy and dense, like a soft cheese. He sniffed his finger, then grimaced and turned away. It stank like feces! Did all giantesses produce this? Did people? He flexed the back of his throat, trying to feel anything abnormal building up back there.
“What are you doing? We’ve got to go! Come on!” Vaughn’s tone was sliding from bossy to anxious.
But Landen was at a loss: the foul-smelling nodule was buried inside the panel of pink tissue behind the large tonsil. Was he supposed to dig it out? Would Vaughn care if it came back in several pieces? Would it be less valuable that way? He just didn’t know, and there was no time to ask! He prodded the spot with his fingertips, gently at first and then harder, trying to test the pliancy of the tissue around the nodule. It slowly exposed more of it, in parts, but then the tissues slipped back into position.
Frowning, Landen slipped two fingers into the opening, trying to snake them along the edge of the lump. That was successful, but it became clear he needed to slip his entire hand in there. This was disgusting. He hoped the stench would scrub off somehow. Carefully he tucked his hand beneath the tissue and snuck his fingers all around the cheesy lump. This, at least, was successful, and with some careful coaxing, the whole unseemly mass finally popped out of the wall of tissue and sat in his hands, bloated and knobby.
He turned and set it on a molar behind him, hearing Vaughn’s voice. “Good Goddess, that’s a beauty! Is there another one up there like that?” Sighing in the breeze of the giant woman’s exhale, Landen sized up the situation. There was no good angle for him to work with (unless the woman rolled over in her sleep and somehow managed not to swallow him). All he could do was half-stand up at the back of her mouth, press his shoulders against the tonsil above, and blindly poke and prod until he located the second lump. The technique for snaking it out was similar but made that much more difficult, working without being able to look at it and in reverse of the first procedure. He stared at the dark pit behind her tonsil for reference, and he noticed with some alarm that the glow-worms on his shirt were growing quite dim.
His feet clutched at the wisdom tooth, cramping from the awkward pose. He paid close attention to the pattern of the breath washing around him, waiting for any change or warning. And he managed to snake one hand behind the embedded mass, but when he pulled it out, he saw that it had sheared in half. He bit back a dark oath and tossed it with the larger, complete mass. At least digging around in the excavated pit in her tissue was easier this time, and he fished out the remaining chunk in one go, then gathered all of these foul, waxy nuggets in his blouse and picked his way across her teeth.
“There you go, kiddo, just like that.” Vaughn strained against the planks, slowly opening them wider, wedging the gigantic woman’s jaws apart. “A few more steps and we can put this awful night behind us. I’ll even buy you a beer, how’s that sound? A good beer for an adventure like this.” The merchant was keeping his tone light but couldn’t touch the fear creeping around his words.
Beer was the last thing on Landen’s mind as he stooped beneath one row of teeth and balanced his aching feet upon another. Behind him, a booming voice groaned and the wind of breath died down. He looked up at Vaughn, who stared back in horror. Before the boy could ask what he should do, the enormous tongue writhed into life. Landen swallowed a curse and attempted to inch his way along the teeth, keeping clear of the heavy, brutal muscle, but in doing so his blouse stroked her highly sensitive palate. The tongue’s only response was to rise up and slam into Landen, mashing him against the roof of her mouth.
Vaughn could only watch as the mound of pink flesh rose up and subsumed the boy. His scrawny legs stuck out beneath a squirming wall of blue veins, striations of muscles and nerves, all glistening with saliva. He cursed himself for forgetting to warn the kid about the roof of her mouth. He should have had the boy tickle his own with a blade of grass, to bring the lesson home, but it entirely fled in his instructions. As for the moment, Vaughn prayed for the boy’s safety. If anything happened to him, their treasure was the least of his concerns: he had no idea how he could possibly explain what had gone wrong to poor Golda.
It would be strange enough if this despicable giantess swallowed him whole. It would be another matter entirely if she started grinding her teeth in her sleep. Vaughn cursed his bum leg, cursed the gnashing teeth, and had a few choice words for the state of this world that drove him to such desperate measures.
Buried under the giantess’s tongue, Landen at least had the wherewithal to steal some air and hold his breath. His spine curled easily along the concave slope of her palate, and though he’d lost his footing on her teeth, his soles still swam in her soft, hot tissues, bathed in her saliva. Her monstrously strong tongue battered him against the roof of her mouth, grinding into him to kill the irritation, and except for clutching his foul prize to his chest, he let himself go limp and ride along with what she was trying to do.
Eventually she must have decided she’d accomplished the job, because her tongue seemed to lose its strength. It retracted and rested against her cheek, lying thickly between upper and lower rows of teeth. Landen found himself resting upon her premolars. The light from his shirt had all but washed out with the sound drubbing issued by the giantess’s tongue.
“Merciful Goddess, kiddo! You’re still alive!” Encouraged, Vaughn gave everything he had into wedging her jaw as wide as he could. Landen gave him a weak grin, then rolled to his knees and crawled steadily across the woman’s cheek and tumbled to the rocky floor. It was cold and hard and dirty, but it was solid and nothing was coming down to crush him or drown him. The mountain couldn’t swallow him whole. Vaughn hauled the planks out and the two of them kicked away, scooting on their butts to put distance between themselves and the massive mouth of the sleeping woman.
“This is astonishing,” said Rafferty, perfumier in the king’s city. He seemed to be the only person not offended by the presence of the three large, waxy globs on his counter. Vaughn and Landen stood back, cloths over their noses and mouths, while Rafferty poked and measured the large nuggets, then placed them upon a scale. “These are absolutely astonishing Vaughn, even better than last month’s! I wish I knew what your secret was.”
“Wouldn’t be much of a secret if you did, would it?” Vaughn’s belly rumbled as he chuckled.
“This is perfectly sufficient quality, and I’m nothing if not a man of my word.” The shorter, thinner man momentarily disappeared into his back room, returning with a leather sack. For honesty’s sake he spilled its contents upon the counter: a flashing pile of small gold coins, which he counted out. “One hundred ounces, at one solar per ounce of this marvelous ambergris of yours. I just have to tell my sinking heart that as dear as this price seems to me, I can turn it around and at least triple it with my perfume. I don’t mind telling you: I’m attracting His Majesty’s attention lately, so I do hope I’ll see you in another month?”
Vaughn, hunched at the desk where the counting was going on, glanced over his shoulder and winked at Landen. “I think you can count on that.”
After a large, slow-paced lunch they retrieved their horses and began the long trek back to their village. “You see why I’m willing to risk so much for such a strange cargo?” Vaughn asked the boy.
“I guess, but at what cost? How’s your leg doing?”
Vaughn laughed again and swung it gingerly in its stirrup. “It could have been a whole lot worse. Another week of staying off my feet, salt baths, and beef broth should mend me nicely. I’ve been in worse situations, I assure you. But I guess that takes me to another issue I’ve been meaning to address with you. Even if my leg heals up, I’m not getting any younger. It would’ve been very difficult for me to wedge my, er, prosperity between her teeth.” He patted his rotund belly. “But in another ten or even five years, maybe I won’t be in any condition to scale that mountain or the rocky bed where that monstrous woman sleeps.”
Landen stared at a creek winding into a woods in the distance, then looked up at the merchant. “What’ll you do then?”
“I’ll be fine, surely, I’ll be set up nicely with the profits of my exploits. I’m thinking of the future, there. But that future has to include a replacement, don’t you think? Someone else to amble up those rocks and slip into that mouth, every couple of months? She generates those things unconsciously, and as often as not she just swallows them. Those are solars on the table, there for the taking, or else she excretes them. Can you imagine! One man’s waste truly is another man’s treasure.” He rocked along upon his horse, eyeing the teen. “So, what do you think?”
Landen blinked rapidly. “You mean, me?”
Vaughn shrugged. “We’ll have to fatten you up a bit, put some muscle on that laundry drying rack you call a skeleton. I’ll teach you a spell of spelunking, and I know a fellow who has some experience with what we’ll call ‘breaking and entering’. Get you a nice, rounded education.”
Landen’s eyes hazed with the possibilities of a previously inaccessible world.
“And I’ll note you’ve had the good taste not to mention the one question that’s been burning in your mind.” Vaughn grinned in the sunshine. “That sort of perseverance and restraint will serve you well in your new career. Never fear: you’ve earned fully a one-third cut of this haul for an admirable job. You won’t mind if I escort you to your doorstep, both to protect you from brigands and from yourself. It’ll only be one-fourth from now on, as part of your training, but soon enough you’ll be earning and reaping it all yourself.”
They rode on, lost in their own thoughts, soaking in the pleasant summer morning in the open countryside.
Back in the mountain, another young man crawled out of the giantess’s mouth, hauling a large staff with a broad, bristly brush at the end. The giantess was awake, now, and lowered her head to allow him to walk off her tongue and onto the rocky bed. “How’s that?” he called up to her.
Magnatrude smacked her lips a couple times. “Thank you, Alard, I think you finally got the last of their taste out of there.”
“I don’t understand why you don’t just let them go in there and get your tonsil stones. You don’t want them, they’re worth a fortune.”
The giantess, sitting cross-legged in the cavern, smirked at the young man. “I like feeling them struggle. It was fucking hard not to choke on them, but I enjoy giving them a challenge.” She tilted her huge head thoughtfully. “But maybe this new kid, maybe I’ll give him a break. I’ll let him walk in here, just like you do, and show him an easier way to harvest them.”
Alard’s brow furrowed. “Why him and not the fat merchant?”
Her smirk spread into a beaming grin, and she raised her hand to poke at the tiny teen’s belly with a huge fingertip. “You should know as well as anyone I’ve got a tooth for tender meat.”