There is a swine, a horse and a goat, two hares and a pair of antelopes, and they're all either serving or sharing drinks. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Except maybe for that bunny.
The tall roadside inn was burstling with activity.
It's location was ideal, standing just before the crossroads of the two main roads that ran through the local country, and so the large wooden building, underwhelming as it was, never failed to catch the eye of the traveller; and, more often than not, of their ever so tired ride.
Many of the smaller mammals found that riding the larger breeds of mount-lizards was a comfortable and efficient way to get from point A to point B, when the weather allowed for it. For the bigger mammals, however, and especially the ones that were not built for covering great distances, the better choice was always hiring one such skilled runner from an agency to carry their weight. It was a tough and undignified job, and if it included carrying multiple people or, God forbid, a pig, it was downright exhausting; but such carriers were in great demand, and the agencies paid their muscle enough to feed a family.
Case in point, the young horse that was currently trying to sit upright on his chair, puffing and sweating profoundly. His employer, a well dressed elderly goat, was sitting across of him, sipping his brew with a disdainful look that portrayed his oppinion of the drink, the overall establishment and his unclean companion.
Truth be told, the inn's success was entirely due to it's location, as neither the structure nor the staff had anything remotely appealing about them. The lone innkeeper, a notably tall middle-aged male swine, had never found a reason to bother himself with complex brewing techniques, cooking that went beyond boiled vegetables, or even basic hygiene. Both he and his customers were well aware of what he had to offer: a convenient and cheap stop on the latter's way to the capital. They didn't expect much in the way of hospitality or comfort, so few found it in themselves to complain over the complete lack of both; and those who did were silently pointed to the creaking door, only to sit back down in resignation, gulp down their fill of terrible ale and pay the swine it's measly worth.
Yes, it was a good and easy life for the innkeeper, who had never even entertained the thought of leaving the crossroads to sneak a peek at the wonders of the city his patrons journeyed towards.
The big, illustrious capital of their great nation. The alluring centerpiece of every young dreamer's visions of success, grandeur and glory, and the home of animals such as the lordly-looking goat sitting a couple of tables away from his bar.
Hogwash, the swine would say, completely unaware of the joke he would be making. Why bother with any such visions in the first place? Why leave the comfort of your home, your inn, your farm, to go lock yourself behind the tall walls, past which half the animals would spit on you as soon as they'd look at you and the other half would munch you down to your bones?
For while Zootopia was known as a city for the folk of quality, there were also some rumors going around; rumors that sent chills down the inkeeper's spine.
Because people would claim that, in Zootopia, prey lived alongside chompers.
Hogwash, most likely. It was too absurd for the swine to believe. But then again, having been born this far south, he had never seen a chomper up close in all of his uneventful life. And he'd very much like to keep it that way.
He served two large cups of ale to a couple of adventurous young hares who didn't know any better than to believe they could keep them down and turned to the two antelopes that were leaning against the bar, grapping a dirty glass and mechanically wiping it with a slightly dirtier rug.
The antelopes were having an interesting conversation.
"Twenty men! Twenty!"
"That's a load of shit and you know it, Butch. News from the north can't be trusted. They were likely two hundred for all we know."
"I'm telling you, my auntie lives close to the border! She said she saw it with her own eyes! An entire garisson, mate, with just-"
"Just twenty men, yah yah. Hogwash!"
The swine entered the conversation with a contemptful spit; by pure chance, it missed the glass he was wiping. "If half the shit I hear about that Savage fella were true, the fuckers would be at our doors by now."
"Exactly! Thank you!"
"But my auntie-"
"Son, does your auntie lie any less than all the other aunties of the world?" The swine curtly cut off the one whose name was Butch, who seemed mildly offended; the other one begun laughing. "Well said! As if a bunch of rotting degenerates and their chomper buddies would have any luck against imperial forces anyway."
Butch let out an exasperated sigh. "Frederick, do you know why we call them preds chompers? They have teeth and claws, dumbass, and they know how to use'em!"
"Yeah, and the army has guns! Give a sloth a musket and he'll take down a lion before he can get halfway through his roar. I'm telling ya, the war's as good as won; that's why we never hear any news from the front. Any credible news."
"You've never even held a musket!" Butch complained. "You've never even seen a musket! Only the army has them, and they've been way up north dealing with Savage and his crew for a good decade now, so how the hell are you an expert on guns all of a sudden?"
It was true; there had been a policy of strict firearm regulation in effect since they had first been acknowledged as an effective killing tool, and it's enforcement had been extremely strict, to the point that a functioning gun of any sort outside of the military was an extreme rarity.
"Besides," the antelope continued, pausing momentarily to the sound of loud retching that came from the two hares who had finally decided to try their drinks, "Savage has guns too. Dunno where he gets them, but everyone agrees on that."
"As in, all the aunties?" The swine teased his patron, finally putting down the now downright slimy glass. The swine and the antelope named Frederick laughed aloud once more, but before the trio could continue their chat, the inn's door swung open.
The swine looked past the antelopes' horns, and was perplexed to see the door's threadbare panels swinging but no sign of the newcomer. A second later his ears caught the sound of planks creaking to the steps of an approaching mammal, even through the incessant buzz of the numerous bleats, neighs, squeaks and belches that filled the room. Soft creaks. A small animal; smaller than a hare.
"Oh my God."
The words belonged to Frederick, and both his and his friend's expressions mirrored the sentiment behind them. They were now staring tactlessly at a spot on the floor, which the swine assumed was the position of the unidentified small animal. Now frowning curiously, he prepared to stoop over the bar to take a look himself, but just then two dark spots of fur jutted over it and into his line of sight.
The tips to a pair of ears; a pair of characteristic shape. So it was a hare after all. A small hare.
No, wait; a small hare would be-
The two black spots suddenly rose, revealing the rest of the mammal they belonged to; a small, fluffy, gray figure. Giving a light hop, they had effortlessly made it on top of the empty tall chair next to Butch, allowing for the swine to examine them properly; but he hardly had the mind to do so, really, because against all logic, he had guessed right. A small hare. A bunny. A bunny in his inn.
What new hogwash was this now? Everyone knew bunnies never left their burrows, and typically the only mammals to ever catch sight of them were their copartners, who of course had to visit said burrows to conduct their business, unable to expect the little creatures to leave their farms.
And why would they? They were masters in their trade, and with an army of relatives to work the farms, they were uncontested in the field of agriculture. Bunnies famously produced the best berries and vegetables in astounding quantities, and they lived safe and content lives, not unlike his own- although arguably much more productive.
Bunnies didn't leave their cozy fields in the eastern provinces. Bunnies didn't travel. Bunnies didn't enter large, inhospitable inns by the roadside. Bunnies didn't casually walk past an assortment of large, stinking and drunk mammals without batting an eye.
As mentioned above, however, the swine was not fond of traveling, and his shock in seeing a bunny before his eyes was not shared by his two patrons, who had likely been in contact with that particular species before, one way or another. Their own reaction was not caused by the mere sight of a bunny; it was caused by the sight of a bunny in uniform.
Namely, the duo, now joined by the swine, were gawking at the bunny's green woolen cap, which impeded the movements of her disproportionally large ears, and the red feather which adorned it. Her outfit was complete with a recognizable light brown vest, neatly worn over a plain white shirt of expensive, soft fabric, and trousers of a slightly darker shade held in place by a black belt with a fine metal strap portraying a feather similar to the one on her cap.
She also wore a purple cloth around her neck and a thin dark travel jacket, but these articles were of notably lesser quality than the rest of her clothing. That is to say, they were the only things on her which where not provided by the government.
The swine blinked in confusion. Bunnies don't wear ranger uniforms.
And yet, there she was. Undoubtedly a bunny, proudly bearing the ranger's crest on her vest and belt.
"Good afternoon, sir. My name is Judy Laverne Hopps, ranger lieutenant."
Her voice was friendly, firm and professional. As she spoke, her paw briefly disappeared inside her vest to emerge a second later, holding a small scroll, which she then unfolded in an instant and held out for the swine to see. It too bore the ranger's feather crest, an official wax stamp of the Burrows' province and a text which validated her claims, written in words far too small and lovely for the swine to read.
Not that he tried, of course; he was still blinking at her.
The scroll disappeared back in the vest as quickly as it had left it. "I wish to make a few inquiries, if that's fine with you. I'm following the trail of a perpetrator wanted in the Burrows who is believed to have fled to the capital, and it is likely that they have passed through your establishment."
Judy Laverne Hopps finished explaining with the same air of efficiency that she had used for her introduction. She tied her paws behind her back and smiled at the swine once more, awaiting a response.
"… You's a… Ranger?"
Not the one she was hoping for, but certainly the one she was expecting. She wasn't bothered, though. Not anymore.
"I showed you my documents, sir. Would you kindly comply? This is official state business."
With a gulp, the swine finally came back to his senses. He averted his small, dark eyes from her own -large, purple, awake- and, suddenly desperate for something to do with himself, grabbed the same slimy glass he had just finished cleaning and gave it another rub.
"I dunno, little bun. Lots of people drop by here, ya know, and most aren't-"
The swine once again eyed her in confusion. "Huh?"
For all her composure, she couldn't hide the irritated glimmer in her overly expressive eyes. "It's ma'am, sir, if you will. I am here as a ranger."
"Oh… Yes, certainly. Apologies ugh… ma'am."
"That's quite alright. Now, regarding the individual in question, it is believed to be a ram, unknown age. He would be traveling lightly and in a hurry. He should have been through here about five days ago. Does any of that sound familiar?"
The professionalism was back. For her small stature and her undeniably cute looks, the bunny ranger had a surprisingly imposing force as she questioned him. Efficient, focused; the swine could claim neither of these traits, but he was inclined to respect them. He found himself briefly forgetting his surprise and scanning his memories, absorbed in the pace she had so firmly set for them.
"Don't get many sheep 'round here. They tend to stay in the capital, you see; they like walls."
Judy nodded and stared on, waiting for him to continue.
"I, ugh… Yes, I believe there was one around that time, yah."
Her ears perked up. "Male? In a hurry?"
"With no luggage, yes. No carrier either, which is rare for sheep, they hate getting tired." He chuckled heavily. "Well, everyone does, I guess."
The bunny bit her lip in annoyance. "Sir, please focus. What else can you tell me?"
The innkeeper shrugged at her. "Not much, ranger ma'am. He arrived close to nightfall, but didn't ask for a room. Just ordered water and grass and went on his way." As he struggled to remember more, his eyes absently rested on the cloth around the ranger's neck. "Oh!"
She eyed him with renewed interest. "Yes, sir?"
The swine put the glass down and threw the filthy rug over his shoulder. "He seemed a real poor fellow. No carrier and all, as I told ya, and he bought the cheapest food I had. But when he paid me, he took the coins out of a pretty looking pouch, velvet or something. The kind rich folk have, ya know? I think it was purple, like your scarf."
The bunny contemplated on the detail, finally looking away from the swine. The latter figured it was a useless thing to note, but then again, he wasn't a ranger; and this one in particular seemed to have a good head on her tiny shoulders, what with all the fancy, formal talk she used.
"What did he do, ma'am? Did he pick the pouch off some rich bunny's pocket?"
She held back the urge to roll her eyes; like she'd travel halfway across the country to catch a pickpocket. "Not quite, sir." She chuckled, signaling that the questioning was over. "He's suspected of crop theft and smuggling. The laws in the east are rather strict when it comes to our products. Not to mention- well, nevermind that. You've been a huge help. Thank you!"
She beamed at him, and he retorted with a crooked smile of his own, displaying most of his remaining teeth. Were all bunnies this adorable?
"Will you have anything?"
"Some water would be lovely, I-" Her eyes flickered to the glass he had just cleaned twice. "I'll use the trough outside, for me and my ride." She dropped a couple of cooper coins on the bar and hopped off the tall chair. "Have a good one, gentlemen!" She waved as she walked towards the door.
The two antelopes, who had not stopped staring at her the entire time, now turned to stare at each other.
"A bunny! A ranger bunny!"
Butch shook his head in astonishment. "No one's gonna believe us, Fred."
"They made some dumb bunny a ranger?! I've always wanted to be a ranger!"
"I know what they say 'bout them, folks, but this one didn't seem too dumb t'me." The swine noted.
"Well, yeah, I guess they don't make the dumb ones lieutenants."
"How is she even a ranger to begin with though?!"
"Hell if I know! Go and ask her!"
She could still hear them clearly as she opened the door across the bar and exited the building; a bunny's ears were second to none. She didn't pay their words any mind, however; she had long since understood that it was impossible to force everyone she ever came in contact with to acknowledge her worth. It had taken her forever to prove herself just to her superiors and colleagues back home, but in doing so she had been rewarded with the red feather that stood proudly next to her left ear, proving her rank.
She let ignorant foreigners be ignorant foreigners. Her people back in the burrows knew her by name as the bunny who took down the renegade rhino and personally handed him back to his unit. Or as the bunny who unveiled the grand smuggling ring that had been plaguing their farms for ages, cutting their fat incomes short and causing the big bellied landowners much grief.
It was that exact smuggling ring that she was after at the moment, two weeks after the interrogation of a young buck concluded with the mention of a shady ram orchestrating the entire operation for the better half of the past decade.
She had requested that the following investigation be handed to her, partly because she viewed the case as her own and considered it a sacred duty of hers to personally see it through to the end, but also because the ram appeared to be heading out of the Burrows, or even the eastern provinces, running ever further to the west. To Zootopia.
"Hooves, I bought us trough privileges. Or would you prefer a stiffer drink?"
She spoke merrily to her carrier, a bulky, tenacious moose that had been hired by her organization to see her to the capital. His name was not Hooves, but in the two weeks they had spent together the nickname had stuck with him, and they both rather liked it.
The sweaty moose was wearing the plain white outfit and the light blue cap that was typical of mammals in his occupation, and despite his light panting, he seemed to be in a far better state than the horse Judy had seen inside the inn. Then again, she'd like to believe that his load was lighter than the horse's.
Hooves shook his head with a smirk. "I've been here many times, lieutenant. The service is as bad as it looks, and the ale's worse! You made the right choice." He spoke with a deep, nasal voice in a light northern accent. She thought it sounded kinda funny.
She smiled to that and nodded towards the trough. "Well then, help yourself!"
They took out their flasks, the moose's being almost as big as her, and held them under the water.
"What about food, lieutenant?"
"I've enough to last me another day. Do you need anything?"
"Nah, it'll give me a belly ache. Better to run on an empty stomach than a full one, I think."
She took out her flask and drank a healthy gulp. "Are you sure you don't wanna catch your breath here? A few hours won't make much difference to me."
"I've been way too slow with you, lieutenant, considering how light you are. We should have reached Zootopia a couple of nights ago." He too collected his flask, drank half of it's content and smiled at the bunny. "I don't normally talk that much during the journey, you see. It takes a toll on your endurance."
She smiled back at him. "If only you weren't such good company, Hooves, your job would have been much easier."
"Heh! Bless ya, ma'am."
She let him drink and refill his flask a few times, walking across the stone paved road absent mindedly.
He claimed he could run the rest of the way, a day's worth of travel, in one go and without eating. These large mammals were amazing in their own right, she thought; or maybe it was just this one. Hooves' demeanor spoke of kindness, honesty, and a healthy dedication to his duties, and so the two had hit if off right from the start. She would be a little sad when they parted ways, but she had decided to put in a good word to his employer, despite the small delay.
She halted on the grass at the side of the road, observing the sun's gradual dive in the edge of the horizon. They would resume their journey when the light was no longer bothersome to the moose.
Onwards to Zootopia, to catch myself a sheep.
A frugal sheep with an impressive purple pouch.
A pouch he had stolen? Perhaps.
A pouch he was given? More likely.
Because the thieves and smugglers she had put in cells back in the Burrows were not bright enough to organize themselves as they had, and to sell the fruits of their labor outside the province they required connections; connections fanning all over the country, allegedly provided by the mysterious ram.
The ram had been leading the ring in the Burrows, but if Judy's gut was right, he wasn't alone in his endeavors. Someone had been pushing the products a long way. Someone had provided the money needed to set up the operation. Someone had provided the pouch. And if that someone was the mammal she had been chasing for the last couple of weeks, then she was sure he would have had better ways to make himself disappear than to run really fast in a straight line.
So maybe, just maybe, he himself was but an agent rushing to give his report.
She always did that.
Strange cases got her inordinately excited, and her imagination would often run wild; but she had learnt to keep it in check, thankfully. She had to keep her head leveled, now more so than anytime before. Because now she had left the Burrows. Now she was outside her comfort zone.
Now she was heading to Zootopia.
The sky was painted a lovely deep orange, but the sun itself had all but vanished. "You ready Hooves?" She yelled at her ride and traveling companion from across the road. "Aye aye, ma'am! Hop on!"
She walked back to him with a grin. "Bunny jokes, Hooves? And I was gonna leave a tip…"
They both chuckled as he knelt down, allowing her to reach the small leather saddle strapped onto him; with a hop, as he noted, but chose not to comment on it.
"Alright, Hooves! Let's get away from this dump!" she urged him cheerfully, grabbing the front of the saddle and steadying herself. As the moose stood in all fours and prepared to take off, she shot a decisive, almost challenging look towards the setting sun, and the city that lay in it's direction.
"We've both got work to do!"
As prologues go, this one is pretty short.
And I'm fine with that.
Now on to see where this is gonna take me.