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The Monsters Which Must Be Slain To Save The Kingdom And Set Things Right

Tobias is a Danish speculative fiction author. He rambles on about writing and posts monthly short story recommendations over at tobybackman.wordpress.com. Aside from writing, his primary occupation is watching his unborn daughter trying to kick her way into this world so that she can crown herself Supreme Ruler of the Household.

The farmgirl creeps deep into the cave, so far below ground she must've passed into the nether worlds long ago. She doesn't turn back even when she can no longer see her fingers in the darkness in front of her or the pitchfork they're clenching. She doesn't tremble even when her free hand, sliding along the cold, damp stones, passes through spider webs so wide their owners must be living off cows and deer. She only stops when the blind witch's cackle rises from the deep.
The farmgirl doesn't cower, doesn't swing the pitchfork wildly and reveal herself. The cackle grows louder, but the farmgirl keeps still until movement disrupts the stale air in front of her and she is nearly choking on the witch's warm, rotten breath.
She thrusts the pitchfork, crude iron biting into skin, tearing through flesh. The cackle turns into shrieking, then hoarse groaning.
The blind witch falls to the ground, and the farmgirl kneels beside her and says, "This was for my mother."
Her mother who died of starvation, because of the blight the witch cast upon the land.
The tale spreads from village to city, to the capital itself, and the farmgirl is awarded for her deeds at the king's castle, knighted by the high priest and offered a seat at the harvest feast. At a low table, true, but still at the king's feast where each table is overflowing with meat and vegetables.
The farmgirl-turned-knight kicks off her boots and jumps over the railing into the frothing sea, waves kicking against the hull of the merchantman. She's armed only with a belt full of daggers.
The frigid water knocks the air from her lungs. She must resurface, to live, to fight, but her body will not listen.
A serpentine head slithers by, green eyes the size of oxen. The scales scrape against her arm, and every part of her is suddenly alive, reminded why she's here.
By the time she breaks the surface and heaves in air, the sea serpent is already twisting around the ship. The hull groans and creaks, struggling against the power of the beast. The masts splinter.
The knight shoots towards the serpent and draws her first dagger, plunging the blade into the serpent's tail. Blood oozes from the wound, but the beast barely seems to notice.
She readies another blade and buries it between the scales. Then another and another, until she has only one left.
The water is murky with blood. The serpent is thrashing, the ship breaking apart inside its curling body. Men jump into the sea, but it won't help them. They haven't trained for this. They won't make it to shore.
She takes her final dagger, stabs the serpent, and twists the blade to open the wound. The cuts will not kill it, but the sharks will. White-tipped fins are already poking up in the distance.
Hours later, collapsed on the shore, without the energy to raise her head and look to the sea, the knight whispers to the sand.
"This was for my father."
Who died a desperate man. Who went to sea, though he was no sailor, though he knew how dangerous it was with the serpent hunting along the trade routes. His family needed the money.
For her valor, the knight is promoted to the king's honor guard. Every day she gets to witness the lushly colored silks he wears, fabric and dyes not of this continent.
The third monster is a demon lord hiding in their black keep behind an army of lizard-like minions. The knight-turned-hero sneaks in at night, edging past chatting gate keepers, creeping along abandoned corridors, until she finds the door she seeks. Ornately carved patterns and a gilded handle, this is the door to the demon's bedchamber.
She kicks it in, hoping to catch the demon by surprise, but their kind never sleeps. She's barely inside before it comes at her, claws flailing, acid spitting from between its fangs.
The acid hisses as it runs down the side of her face. She can smell the dissolving flesh, but she doesn't scream. The pain must wait.
She dodges one set of claws only to be flung against the wall by the other, her sword slipping from her hand, sliding across the floor.
She hurls her helmet at the beast, keeping it at bay for a second. Then her shield, her knives, and, finally, herself. She is an arrow of flesh and bone, and she has one dagger left.
The demon howls and claws her back even as she thrusts the blade deeper into its guts.
The magic faltering along with its master, the keep begins to shake and tremble. She doesn't care. Her attention is on the demon sliding onto the floor.
"This is for my brothers."
The poor twins who were only boys yet could not avoid enlistment as levies were raised for the wars against the demon lord.
For her valor, the hero is promoted to the king's personal retainer, always standing beside the throne, ready to serve his majesty or the queen or their three daughters, none of whom have ever suffered war or hardship.
The fourth and final monster is a man, clad in cobalt ermine robes and a golden crown.
The king who refused to alleviate his subjects' starvation, who kept raising taxes when the farmers made no money from failing crops, who pressed men and boys alike to fight in his never-ending wars.
The retainer-turned-assassin slips into the king's bedchamber at night, cutting through his blubbery throat as if it was butter.
Days later, she is there, standing guard beside the throne, when the queen is done mourning and takes her husband's place.
The assassin is waiting, watching, one hand clutching the hilt of her sword, ready to strike if what sits on the throne turns out to be yet another monster.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 19th, 2021

Author Comments

I love classic fantasy stories, but it has always bothered me when defeating some alien villain saves the day. As if the story simply ends there. As if killing a monster will really set the world right. It is never that easy.

- Tobias Backman
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