Aphelion Issue 223, Volume 21
November 2017
 
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The Stampede of the Razor Deer

by Walter Esselman



The razor deer soared through the air right at Gideon. Its mouth bristled with teeth, which looked like criss-crossed daggers, and nearly sliced open the fifteen year old’s face.

Gideon pitched back off the log that he had been sitting on.

A peal of laughter rolled through the campsite as the boy jumped to his feet. He turned from the dead razor deer, which had been thrown at him, to his friend. Though ‘friend’ was a term he was using very loosely today.

“You should’ve seen your face,” laughed the young dragon Pavataro. The black and blue dragon was also fifteen, so his head only reached up to the six foot mark.

“Mother of Bees!” snarled Gideon at the dragon. “You could’ve sliced me.”

“But I didn’t,” said Pavataro in an oh-so-reasonable voice. The dragon grabbed the razor deer and pulled it towards the campfire. “And I brought dinner.”

“Your favorite,” growled Gideon.

“I am rather partial to it,” said Pavataro with an airy voice.

Gideon balled his fists and stalked towards the young dragon.

“I’ll show you partial,” bellowed Gideon.

“Oh-oh,” said a voice to one side. “What happened now?”

Standing a little ways off, wringing out her damp red hair, stood the watermage Brianna. She too was the same age, though mentally she often felt way beyond the boys.

Pavataro waved at Gideon.

“Lunchmeat here has no sense of humor,” explained Pavataro using his old schoolyard nickname for the boy.

“He attacked me with an expired razor deer,” cried out Gideon. “Nearly took my nose off.”

“Which would be an improvement,” replied Pavataro.

“Okay,” said Brianna in a calm voice.

They both stopped and looked at the girl.

“Okay? What does that mean?” asked Gideon cautiously.

“Sounds like a trap,” muttered Pavataro uncertainty.

Brianna chuckled and headed towards the large tree by which she had set her bags.

“It only means ‘okay’,” said Brianna.

“Which does sound kinda ‘trap-y’,” agreed Gideon.

“It’s not a trap,” said Brianna. “I wish you would not try and hurt each other, but I’m not your mother.” She turned to them. “And I don’t want the job.” She grabbed her bag and walked behind the large tree while she continued to talk. “If you two want to bicker and fight--well that’s what you do all the time--but I’m not going to try and stop you.” She leaned out behind the tree. “However, I am rather fond of both of you, and would appreciate if you did not hurt the other permanently.”

“That’s what I was saying,” said Gideon.

“No you weren’t,” replied Pavataro. “You wanted her to take sides.”

“Well, she should take my side,” shrugged Gideon, but he had sat down on a log by the fire to help prepare dinner. In fact, the boys argued about whose side Brianna should take for the rest of the meal. Meanwhile, Brianna just warmed her hands with a mug of tea and smiled warmly at them.

*****


“Help! Help!” cried a voice

Gideon was immediately standing up near the fire in a defensive stance. But then he saw the orb of light that had stopped at a respectful distance from the fire.

“Help! Help!” cried the orb again.

Pavataro and Brianna were now standing as well looking at the orb.

“What do you need?” asked Gideon of the orb.

“Help! Help!” cried the orb, and it moved a little ways away. “Help! Help!”

“Talkative, isn’t it,” said Pavataro in confusion.

The orb called out for help again, and this time moved a little further.

“I think it’s trying to get us to follow,” said Brianna slowly.

When the orb cried out of help again, it bobbed up and down.

“Okay,” said Gideon. “That’s new. We’ve never had an orb invitation, but I’m pretty sure that's a will o'wisp.”

“Oh, you’re right,” said Brianna.

“A what a’wisp?” asked the dragon.

“They usually lead people to their doom,” explained Gideon.

“Help! Help!” cried the will o'wisp orb.

“And they have such a large vocabulary,” said Pavataro drily.

Gideon looked at Brianna and Pavataro.

“Well?” he asked curiously.

“Well what?” asked Pavataro with an annoyed tone.

“Do we follow or not?” asked Gideon.

“Do we follow the weird orb, or not?” asked Pavataro as he rolled his eyes. “Why would we walk into a trap like that, Lunchmeat?”

“You know,” said Gideon to the young dragon. “Not every invitation is a trap.”

“That kind of thinking is a trap in and of itself,” said Pavataro.

Gideon was about to respond when Brianna slung her bag over one slender shoulder and walked after the will o'wisp orb without a word. The will o'wisp kept asking for help as it led Brianna away.

The boy looked at the dragon.

“I guess we’re following,” shrugged Gideon. He grabbed his own bag and followed after Brianna.

Pavataro shook his head. “Yep, we’re doomed.”

*****


The will o'wisp only lead them for an hour to a wooded area. The sun was high in the sky when a Corgi skidded to a halt in front of the kids. The dog squinted at the kids, and then at the orb.

“Who’re they?” asked the Corgi of the orb.

The orb just dipped in the air, and then twirled around.

“This is it?” asked the Corgi and he turned back to the kids looking them up and down. “Well, I guess beggars can’t be choosers.” The Corgi stepped a little closer towards them. “Name’s Trevor, an’ the will o'wisp here is Dan, isn’t he.” The Corgi, Trevor, pointed his nose at the orb. “We got a bit of a Barney here in our little neck of the woods, an' the Guv’ner needs your help.”

“What’s wrong?” asked Brianna cautiously as she wondered what a ‘Barney’ was.

“A bit of an infestation, isn’t it,” said Trevor. “There’s a stampede of razor deer tha’s been terrorizing the local population. An' the Guv’ner…”

“Razor deer?” interrupted Pavataro. “That’s my favorite type of problem.” The dragon licked his lips happily.

“You’ve run into them before?” asked Trevor.

“I find them mighty tasty,” said Pavataro.

“Pav prefers razor deer above any other type of meal,” explained Gideon to Trevor.

“Except boy,” grinned Pavataro toothily at Gideon.

Gideon just ignored the dragon. “So yeah, we’ve dealt with them. How big is the stampede?”

“About hundred head,” said Trevor.

Gideon looked at Pavataro. “Not so bad.”

“And we’d eat well after,” suggested Pavataro.

“Oh!” said Trevor quickly, and he looked unsure how to proceed. “Um, yeah, about that. Maybe you better meet the Guv before saying yes. Learn the particulars, an’ all that.”

Trevor turned and headed deeper into the woods.

“I wonder what he’s not telling us?” asked Brianna.

“Don’t care,” declared Pavataro. “Razor deer on a spit, here I come!”

And the dragon ran after the Corgi and the will o'wisp.

Gideon and Brianna looked at each other.

“I’m too curious to stop now,” said Brianna.

“Let’s see what the fuss is about,” agreed Gideon.

And the two ran off in pursuit.

*****


The woods were dense and lush. The leaves glowed with a vibrant green as they trotted through the wood. Then they saw Trevor slowing down. The Corgi stepped into an area that had been shredded. Trees were scrapped on all sides. Small bushes had been trampled to nothing and hoof prints scarred the ground.

“Wow,” said Gideon as they all stopped. “Those are some pissed off razor deer.”

“So the razor deer really are working together,” said Pavataro as he scratched chin with one claw. Then he put his nose down and sniffed around.

“Like a good old bloodhound,” grinned Gideon.

Pavataro did not say anything, but his tail lashed out at Gideon’s legs. Gideon leapt eight feet straight up in the air, and then settled back down slowly. Trevor was staring at the boy.

“What’re you?” asked Trevor of Gideon suspiciously.

“Mostly human,” replied Gideon.

“Mostly?” responded Trevor slowly as he leaned a little in and took a whiff of Gideon. “I can tell the human, but I keep getting dragon. I thought that either it was because you was standing by the dragon, or dating ‘em.”

“WHAT?” asked Gideon.

And Brianna and Pavataro erupted in laughter at that.

“Hey!” said the Corgi. “Makes no nevermind to me who you date.”

“I’m not dating the dragon,” replied Gideon as he ground his teeth together. Brianna was whooping in laughter. She bent over to lean on Pavataro’s back as tears fell from her eyes.

Brianna peered over at Gideon with an impish grin. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”

“Brie!?!” replied Gideon with a shocked look.

“Don't worry,” said Pav with mocking sincerely. “I like ‘em bigger.“

“Me too,” agreed Brie with a serious tone, and then the two devolved into giggles again.

“Again, not judging,” said Trevor quickly. “Just need to be careful before I take you to the Guv’nor. We’re his hounds see. We gotta take care of ‘em.”

“I…,” started Gideon, and then he bit off something more biting. Taking a deep breath, he continued. “I was adopted by a dragon, and I was accidentally fed dragon’s milk.”

Trevor looked shocked. “An’ you’re not dead as a doornail. Cor. That explains a lot.”

“It gave me a few extra talents…,” said Gideon.

“Like jumpin’ high in the air I see,” finished Trevor the hound.

“I can alter the gravity of me, or anything I touch,” said Gideon.

“Just like a dragon, but without the wings,” said Trevor, and then he gave a little nod. Switching topics, he turned back to the devastation. “So you can see the kind of havoc these deer are doing to our wood. Now, let’s go chew the fat with the Guv’nor. He’ll decide if you’re up.”

With that, Trevor walked further into the woods leaving some confused kids behind. The will o'wisp, Dan, bobbed towards Trevor as if to indicate that the kids should follow. And then Dan zipped over to hover above the Corgi as he walked.

Brianna looked at Gideon and Pavataro.

“All I'm gonna say is roast razor deer,” shrugged Pavataro, so they followed.

A short stroll later, the trees opened up into a large clearing.

“Wow,” said Gideon as his head craned up. The castle was more tall than wide. Snaking into the tan bricks at the base of the castle were tree trunks that disappeared inside. Towards the top, several tree branches stuck out of windows, or when windows were not available, out of the walls themselves.

“Our little gates of Rome,” grinned Trevor, and he bounded over to the castle followed by Dan. The Corgi went up the steep stairs into the castle and disappeared.

“Wait!” said Gideon to himself. “Home.”

“What?” asked Pavataro.

“Rome is home,” said Gideon. “I think I’m beginning to understand his dialect.”

“That way lies madness,” grinned Brianna.

Gideon returned the smile. “I know.”

“Okay, but what’s Rome?” asked Pavataro.

“No idea,” shrugged Gideon.

At the top of wide stone stairs was a large open door. The broad swath of leaves that had spread inside the entryway suggested to the kids that the front door was always left open.

“Come on,” said Trevor, but Dan flew in front of the Corgi, and then drooped in the air.

“‘Course you can get some sooty an' sweep,” said Trev to the Will ‘O Wisp. “Thanks.”

And Dan flew off into the castle.

“He’s a good lad,” smiled the Corgi, and he led the kids further into the castle where there was a huge room that had once been a ballroom. But now it was a hospital. Animals of all kinds were scattered on beds and, occasionally, thick blankets. A harried trash panda was changing the bandages on a Mastiff’s hind leg. Trevor bounded over to the wounded dog.

“Oi, Reggie,” asked Trevor of the big dog. “What happened to you?”

“Nofin’,” replied the Mastiff named Reggie.

“Come on Reg, pull the other one, it’s got bells on it,” insisted Trevor.

“He saved the Conley family,” piped up the trash panda. “Even wounded, he let them ride on his back.”

“The Conley’s? The whole lot of ‘em,” said Trevor impressed. “Tha's a bucket and a half of hedgehogs.”

“I wasn’t fast enough,” said Reg sadly.

Trevor glanced over to the trash panda. “Translation, Lindy?”

“The mother, Mrs Conley, got hurt by a Razor before he got there,” said the trash panda, Lindy. “The Guv’nor’s with her now.” And then she glared at Reggie. “And this one is feeling all guilty, even though all of them would’ve been deer food if he hadn’t have gotten there.”

“Tha's okay,” said Trevor to Lindy. “Reg just needs a moment.” The Corgi looked at the Mastiff. “Where’s the Guv, an' I’ll check on Mrs. Conley too.”

“They’re in the trophy room,” said Reggie.

“Right,” said Trevor to Reg.

“You're not going to tell them about the Guv, are you?” asked Reggie.

Trev pondered that a moment.

“If they decide to help, they deserve to know,” said Trev seriously. “Now get better, tha’s an order.”

Reggie gave a little smile. “Yes sir.”

Trevor trundled through the castle and the kids kept getting distracted as they followed. Inside the castle, they could now see that the trees spread all through house, pushing aside tan bricks for room.

“What’s with that tree that trying to grow through the castle?” asked Gideon.

“Oh that?” replied the Corgi. “Tha’s Esmeralda. She an' the Guv’nor have been fighting for space since...well, since before we was his hounds.”

They walked into another larger room and went into sensory overload. Covering the high walls from ceiling to floor were mounted animal heads. Even the windows were partially covered giving the giant room a gloomy look.

“Yikes,” said Gideon as he took an involuntary step back. “That’s a trap spider over there.”

Gideon was not a fan of spiders.

“And that’s a snikt over there,” said Brianna. “Really, really dangerous.”

“Me and Pav ran into those before,” nodded Gideon. “Scary.”

“It’s a trophy room,” said Pavataro as his eyes went wide, and his voice became a reverent whisper. “This is the House of the Hunter.”

“The who?” asked Brianna.

“The forest demi-god. The greatest hunter who ever was,” said Pavataro. “The Hunter above all other Hunters.”

“Who disturbs my home,” called a voice that prowled through the darkened room. While the voice had not been loud, it carried a heavy authority.

“It’s Trev,” said the Corgi. “I went an' got some help, at least I hope so.”

Deep in the trophy room, someone came out of the shadows. It was a man that was almost seven feet tall, and he was covered in coiled muscles. His chest hair was a mat that looked almost like fur. And on top of his head was a magnificent set of twenty point antlers.

Trevor looked back at the kids.

“My Guv’vor, Hernie,” he said proudly.

Hernie stopped to tower over them, and Pavataro’s head shot up on his long neck.

“OhMyGoddess, it’s you!” gushed Pavataro. “I’ve heard all the stories about you. My favorite was when you chased down the Hydra of Callen.”

And Hernie, despite his sour and worn expression, gave a small smile.

“That was a good hunt,” replied the hunter with a rumbling voice.

“And you were the one who went into the Cave of screaming bears, defeated them, some stupid wizard, AND came back out,” babbled Pavataro.

“Actually, that one was not that tough,” admitted Hernie. “There was only a dozen screaming bears, and some were only four hundred pounds.”

“Trying to remember the wizard’s name,” wondered Pavataro.

“Who cares,” sniffed Hernie.

“True,” shrugged Pavataro.

Brianna’s eyes grew wide, and she looked at Gideon.

“He fought screaming bears? Those are really mean,” she said.

“And loud,” said Hernie and his smile turned into a grin. “I almost lost my hearing on that one.”

“If I can find some vellum, can I have your autograph?” asked Pavataro who turned to Gideon. “Gimme some vellum Lunchmeat.”

Gideon started to reach into his many-pocketed-coat while Hernie regarded the boy.

“You call him Lunchmeat?” asked Hernie of Pavataro. “The boy isn’t even a snack.”

“He thinks he’s being funny,” grumbled Gideon good-naturedly.

Trevor looked closer at Hernie who had his hand cupped against his stomach.

“Oh,” said Trevor. “Is that Mrs. Conley? How’s she?”

“Getting better,” said Hernie in a deep rumble. His voice had a bit of a slur in it.

“You wanna sit down Guv’vor?” asked Trev uncertainly.

Hernie thought about this for a languid moment, and then nodded. “Maybe for a moment.”

As the hunter started to sit, he wobbled for a moment. Pavataro shot forward and moved behind Hernie to brace him before the forest demi-god fell. Leaning against the dragon, Hernie sat down while trying not to jostle Mrs. Conley. Trev moved forward to look at the hedgehog who was curled in a woolen blanket.

Trev leaned forward and licked Mrs. Conley’s nose. The hedgehog opened tired eyes.

“Fresh,” murmured Mrs. Conley with a small smile, and Trev gave a great doggie grin.

“Trevor,” said Hernie. “Mrs. Conley is better, but needs to rest.”

“Right,” said Trevor, and he zipped out of the trophy room. Before the silence could get awkward, the Corgi was back with another dog that gently collected Mrs. Conley. Once the new dog had left with the hedgehog, everyone turned back to Hernie who had fallen asleep. His head, with that huge rack of antlers, leaned forward until his chin hit the top of his fuzzy chest.

“Um, it seems like the Guv is indisposed,” said Trevor in a low whisper and he gave a little sigh. “He’s been working hard.”

“So what is it that you needed help with?” asked Brianna gently.

“We’ve got a bit of a razor deer problem, don’t we” started Trevor.

Pavataro moved his head, on its long neck, around Hernie so he could quietly converse.

“Now you said something about a stampede,” said Pavataro softly, and his face grew puzzled. “Which is odd, because razor deer are solitary creatures. Usually a male stakes out an area, and then has a few females, just like shadow tigers.”

“We was wonderin' about that,” responded Trev, and he regarded the dragon. “How you know so much about razor deer?”

“You are what you hunt,” said Pavataro.

“They’re his favorite food,” explained Gideon further.

“And I’m getting hungry,” urged Pavataro. “So why don’t we worry about the details later, and go attack those deer.”

“No!” said Hernie as he woke, and sat bolt upright.

“It’s okay Guv,” said Trev quickly to the forest demi-god. “No one’s gonna be hunting today.”

Hernie’s shoulders relaxed, and exhausted, the hunter leaned back against the dragon once again.

Once Trevor was sure that Hernie was asleep again, he looked at the puzzled kids.

“Right, an explanation,” said Trevor thoughtfully. “As I said before, the Guv’s got a bit of a Barney, ‘cause we can’t hunt the deer.”

“Oh,” said Pavataro with disappointment. “Well, if you cannot do the hunting, I can…”

“No, you don’t understand,” said Trevor. “I mean we, as in all of us. Including you.”

“What’s going on?” asked Brianna attentively.

Trevor sighed. “Well, we need your help, but if you could keep all this under your hats, we’d appreciate it.”

“I don’t wear a hat,” responded Pavataro in confusion.

“He means keep it quiet when we leave,” said Gideon, and then he looked to the Corgi. “And as long as it does not endanger people, that will be fine.”

Trevor looked between the kids, and then gave a little nod.

“Okay,” said the Corgi. “So, have you heard of the Goddess’ Vale?”

“Oooo, the razor deer are supposed to be succulent there,” said Pavataro with a little bit of awe.

“Tha's what we heard too,” said Trevor. “An' the Guv’nor knew the way.”

“There really is a Goddess’ Vale?” whispered Pavataro in wonder.

“What’s this?” asked Brianna.

“It’s apparently a special place that the Goddess Sumi created to rest,” explained Gideon. “I read about it in Boris Tangren’s “Places I’d like to visit after I die”, but it’s just supposed to be a myth.”

“No myth,” said Trevor. “It’s Ian Beale alright.”

“So what happened?” asked Brianna.

“We were hunting razor deer when I, well...I accidently ran over a family of bunnies,” started Trev, but then he added hastily. “But no one was hurt. Not really. Couple o’ bruises. But she was mad.”

“Who?” asked Brianna as her eyebrows knitted together.

“Herself,” said Trev. “The Goddess.”

“You’ve met her?” asked Gideon in surprise.

“Right,” replied Pavataro dismissively.

“I wish I hadn’t,” said Trevor in a small voice. “She was mad. Just pissed seven ways to Sunday.”

“Because of the bunnies?” asked Brianna.

“Well, the whole hunting on her land, an’ all that,” said Trevor.

Suddenly, Hernie sat upright again, and scratched at the base of his right antler. Popping up to his feet, the hunter wobbled a bit.

“Guv?” asked Trev in concern.

But once the hunter had his feet, Hernie walked off at a quick pace. Brianna was going to ask what was going on when she saw Trevor take off after the forest demi-god.

A little reluctantly, the kids followed Hernie and Trevor through the castle, and then out the front gate. Taking an immediate right, Hernie’s long legs ate up a lot of ground quickly. It was only because the kids were in such good condition that they were not out of breath. Soon, the forest demi-god reached a big hole in the ground.

“First the deer...now my antlers,” grumbled Hernie.

The deep hole was overhung by an old gnarled tree, which had seen better days. Hernie leaned against part of the trunk that hung over the pit.

“Is he okay?” asked Gideon when the hunter began to furiously rub the base of his right antler against the old tree. Hernie got a look of determination as he scratched.

“The Guv’nor doesn’t keep his horns forever you see,” explained Trevor.

And with that, the right antler snapped off at the base and dropped into the hole. Deep within, they heard a clatter.

“He grows new ones every spring,” said Trevor. “An' sheds the old ones before winter.”

Pavataro leaned his long neck forward and saw that in the dim light of the pit that there was a pile of antlers.

“Whoa, look at this,” said the dragon.

Gideon and Brianna leaned forward and looked down.

“There must be years worth down there,” whispered Gideon in surprise.

“How deep is this pit?” wondered Brianna as she backed up. She was not a fan of heights.

“The Guv’nor’s been using this pit since before we became his hounds, hasn't he,” said Trev.

Hernie had slumped against the base of the tree and watched the Corgi.

“How many of our secrets are we going to give?” asked the hunter of his hound.

Trevor lifted his chin to Hernie. “Here now Guv’nor. We need their help, an’ it's not going to hurt if they know a little.”

“And what about me?” asked Hernie.

“We gotta tell them,” said the Corgi. “Without a good reason, they might go off an' hurt the deer.”

And Hernie stiffened at that.

“I know,” said Trevor carefully. “It’s not a perfect solution, but we hounds are Typewriters, an' haven’t been able to contain the deer ourselves. Not without Roy Hudd being spilt.”

“So you sent out the will o'wisp?” asked Hernie.

“Dan was sent to find someone who could help,” said Trevor. “An’ here they are. Let them help.”

Hernie gave a long drawn out sigh. Finally he nodded.

“Tell them about the curse,” he said. The hunter closed his eyes, and went back to sleep.

“Curse?” asked Pavataro in concern. “Is Hernie okay?”

“Yes an' No,” said Trevor. “Mostly yes, but a little bit of No.”

“I think we’re going to need a little more,” said Brianna gently. “We’re not here to snatch up all your secrets, but to help if we can.”

Trevor nodded at that. “Well, you see it all came about after we met the Goddess.”

“When you went hunting on her land,” said Brianna.

“The bunnies were okay, really they were. Bit stunned, tha’s all,” said Trevor quickly. “An’ then the Goddess was there, an’ well, she’s a beautiful woman...Goddess, whatever she is.”

“Oh, oh,” said Brianna softly.

“Oh, oh what?” asked Gideon in confusion.

“Well, the Guv’nor’s always been a bit of a lady’s man,” said Trevor.

“He didn’t,” said Brianna.

“He didn’t what?” asked Gideon.

“The Guv’nor does this little thing with his tongue,” continued Trev a little tenuously, and then he added defensively. “It always goes over big at the pub.”

Gideon and Pavataro looked at each other in confusion.

“I don’t get it,” said Gideon.

Brianna just looked the Corgi steadily in the eyes, and then said to Trevor. “I’ll explain it to him later,” she said, but then she paused a half-second. “Maybe. Probably not.” And then she shook away the moment. “So what happened after that?”

“We was back here,” said Trevor. “We thought we were okay.”

“But you weren’t,” said Brianna.

“Well, really the Guv’nor wasn’t,” said Trevor. “But we didn’t notice at first.”

“What happened?” asked Brianna.

“We was hunting a big buck, ten point razor deer, an’ the Guv’nor hit it with an arrow right in the side. Thwack!” said Trevor. “Then the Guv’nor falls down in pain. We all thought it was weird, but our dinner was trying to limp away. So the Guv’nor put an arrow in the back of its head, didn't he.”

“That really stung,” rumbled Hernie from where he sat.

“I don’t get it,” said Pavataro.

“It was the Goddess, wasn’t it?” said Brianna.

“The Goddess what?” asked Pavataro who was getting visibly annoyed.

And then comprehension dawned over Gideon.

“Oh no,” said Gideon, and he looked at the hunter. “You can feel others' pain, can’t you?”

“We tested it in case it was just the razor deer,” said Trevor. “Scientific like.”

“So he feels other people’s pain, so what?” asked Pavataro.

Brianna looked at the dragon.

“When Hernie kills something, he feels it die, as if he is dying,” said Brianna.

“Not a pleasant experience,” said Hernie.

“Wait, so he doesn’t want us hunting the deer, because if we hurt the deer...,” started Gideon.

“As it stands now, the Guv’s hardly able to stand with all the chaos going on,” explained Trevor.

“So you need us to figure out a way to stop the deer,” said Brianna. “But without hurting any of the razor deer.”

“Or, as few as possible,” said Trevor. “I tol’ you it was Barney.”

“This is crazy,” erupted Pavataro. “We’re to hunt deer without hunting deer?”

“Tha's the long an' short of it,” said Trev.

“We’ll do it,” said Brianna.

Pavataro looked at her sharply. “We will?”

Brianna moved closely to the dragon to speak softly to him.

“I am offering my help because they are stuck,” said Brianna sincerely. “But if you don’t want to join, that’s okay.”

Pavataro sighed in frustration. “But no harming the razor deer?”

“I know,” said Brianna gently. “They’re your favorite.”

And Brianna stepped back to let Pavataro think, and she turned to Gideon.

“I’m in,” nodded Gideon who was interested in the challenge.

Brianna turned to Trevor.

“Where are these deer now?” asked Brianna.

Hernie suddenly stood up. “Let me show you.”

The forest demi-god moved around the pit and started towards the Southwest. Hernie had only gotten about twenty feet from the pit when he slumped down, and curled up on the forest floor. Trevor and the kids stepped around the hunter to look down.

Hernie gave off a low snore.

“Um, Guv’nor,” said Trevor tenuously, but the forest demi-god did not reply. Glancing up at the kids, the Corgi looked a little embarrassed. “He’s been working day an' night trying to heal people. I didn’t realize it was taking this much out of him. He’s gonna sleep like a rock for a while.”

“Do you want us to move him back to the castle?” asked Gideon.

“No, no,” said Trevor quickly. “If he wakes up while getting carried…” And the Corgi stopped a moment before he continued. “Well, let’s just say he might react before understanding what was going on, so I couldn’t guarantee your safety.”

“Okay,” said Brianna.

“But that means we can’t take you to the stampede right now,” said Trevor.

“Well, we’re just scouting right now anyhow,” said Brianna.

“There’re over to the southwest right now,” said Trevor. “They get close to the castle, but they never reach it.”

“We’ll look and see for right now,” said Brianna. She turned to Pavataro. “Did you want to come with us, or stay here and guard?”

Pavataro grinned toothily. “Well, I didn't come here to lick spiders. Let's go!”

And Gideon shuddered at the very thought.

*****


It was not hard to find the stampede.

A hundred razor deer did not go gently through Hunter’s Wood. Crouching down, the kids moved carefully forward, through the trees, towards the horde of deer. Pavataro was slinking with his blue belly almost to the forest floor. He wound past a tree and found several bushes to crouch behind.

Like before, there was a clear demarcation between the untouched forest, and the devastation caused by the deer. The trunks of trees, while still standing, were shredded at deer height along the path of the stampede. The horde itself was currently stationary, though some deer appeared to wobble on their hoofs.

“Over there,” whispered Gideon as he pointed carefully toward the front of the razor deer. Before the stampede was a brilliant white stag that shifted impatiently.

“That is not a razor deer,” said Pavataro quietly. “I’m...I’m not sure what that is.”

“Hmm,” said Gideon thoughtfully. “It seems I’ve heard about something like that before.”

Gideon leaned back to sit on his heels and opened his great coat. Inside were a multitude of pockets, and he glanced over them trying to remember the right pocket. Brianna looked over nervously.

“I shouldn’t have magicked in so many pockets,” she whispered.

“Oh no,” replied Gideon softly, but urgently. “I love all the pockets. Really! I just need a better system for organizing the things in the pockets. Like all the books over here, and…”

Suddenly, the white stag turned towards their hiding spot, and the creature let out a whistling cry.

“Um, I never heard that cry before,” commented Pavataro in concern.

The white stag bolted towards them, and the stampede immediately followed as if they were pulled along by a rope.

“Run,” said Gideon as the kids scrambled up. The stag was almost on them. “RUN!”

Gideon, Brianna and Pavataro ducked around a tree and the white stag took a hunk of wood out of its trunk.

“Lunchmeat pissed it off,” said Pavataro conversationally as they ducked in and amongst the trees.

“I didn’t!” retorted Gideon. “I was just looking for a book.”

“Maybe it’s a book snob,” suggested Pavataro.

With a hooting call from the white stag, two groups of deer peeled off from the main herd, and they ran outward at an angle.

“They’re trying to flank us,” cried Brianna. “We’re soon going to run out of safe forest.”

“Up,” suggested Gideon to Pavataro.

“Up,” agreed the dragon.

Just as Brianna was going to ask, Gideon wrapped his arms around her waist. She felt Gideon’s magic make her lighter, and then he carried her up high into a tree.

“Gid…,” she started in surprise as he grabbed a branch and swung them on top of a large branch.

“...eon.” she finished as he set her down. Once they were stable and set, Brianna turned to Gideon and whapped him on the arm, but not too hard.

“Ow,” he replied, but with a shy smile.

“Ask next time,” sniffed Brianna regally.

Pavataro did not have much room to stretch his wings so he just kept hunkered down. He ran towards the tree and, using his claws, scaled it like a cat. Finding several branches that would support his weight, the dragon lay down, but he was careful to keep his tail from dangling too low.

The white stag hit the trunk of the tree, and then the other razor deer attacked it as well. But they could not scale the tree, though a few tried unsuccessfully.

“Well Lunchmeat,” said Pavataro. “This is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.”

“Me?” asked Gideon in surprise. “This isn’t my fault.”

Before the two started squabbling, Brianna shushed them. She leaned forward to look at the razor deer that crowded below them.

The white stag made angry noises at her. Gideon could not help himself, so he hooked his fingers into the back of her belt, just in case she fell. For her part, she held back an acidic comment, mostly because it did make her feel safer.

“Something’s wrong,” she whispered.

“Of course something’s wrong,” snapped Pavataro. “There’s dinner down there, and I can’t eat it.”

But Brianna did not answer, and the dragon glanced over the deer lazily. Suddenly, Pavataro’s gaze sharpened. He scanned over more of the razor deer.

“Something is wrong,” said Pavataro.

“It’s not my fault,” retorted Gideon immediately.

“Not that,” said Pavataro. “Though it is your fault. But look at the rest of the deer, not just at that stag.”

Gideon took a moment to look the herd over.

“Is it me, or are they looking pretty rough?” asked Gideon uncertainly.

“Exactly,” said Pavataro. “Half of them I wouldn’t even hunt, because I’d think they had the Wasting Disease. And the others look ready to follow them.”

“Like the stag has been running them ragged,” mused Gideon. He went through his pockets with his free hand, and found the book he wanted. “Ah, my Encyclopedia of Deadly Things.”

Gideon put the book on a leg and flipped through it.

“Here it is,” said Gideon. “The white stag. It says here, according to Professor Gumblebolt, that the white stag is a magical creature that compels people, and probably animals too, to run after it. The people can never catch it, so they run until they die.”

“Kinda like our stag here, though they really just have to follow it,” said Pavataro. “You know, I actually feel a little bad for the razor deer...and I never thought I’d ever say that about such a vicious species. But even they don't deserve this.”

“Can you hear it?” asked Brianna.

“Hear what?” asked Gideon.

“The stag,” said Brie. “I...I think there’s a person in there.”

“What?” asked Pavataro as he made a scoffing noise. He looked from her and over to the stag. Pointing his triangular ears towards the creature, he listened for a moment. Then he reared back a fraction. “Um…”

“‘Um’ is not a word,” said Gideon unconsciously.

Pavataro glared at the boy.

“What?” said Gideon. “That’s what our teacher, Coratavo, always says.”

Brianna focused on the dragon.

“You heard it,” insisted Brie. “It sounds like a human voice.”

“But...why?” asked Pavataro.

“Let’s find out,” said Brianna. She took the bladder of water off her belt, and began to pour it onto her hand. As she did, her hand began to glow blue and showed the bones inside. The water did not spill all over, but formed a sphere in her hand.

Out of the sphere came a string, which she dangled down towards the raving horde. The end of the water string flicked towards the white stag, but the creature saw it and hopped back, nearly trampling two other deer.

“Damn,” hissed Brianna.

“What?” asked Gideon.

“If I can connect with the white stag, maybe I can figure out what it’s connected to,” explained Brianna.

“It’s connected to someone?” asked Gideon.

Brianna shrugged. “Just a hunch.”

“Letting go of your belt,” said Gideon, and Brianna made sure she was stable before he did so. Then the boy jumped off the branch they were sitting on.

Gideon grabbed the next branch over and swung out over the murderous stampede. Swinging one boot at the white stag’s head, Gideon purposely missed and pulled himself back up.

Green eyes blazing in anger, the stag jumped at the boy.

Brianna swung the water string down and hooked stag’s antlers. Pouring a little magic down the string, flashes of memory shot back to her. The stag as a lonely farmer in his field near the mountains. The farmer seeing the shape of a dark wizard who looked half formed. Next, the stag running through the woods and calling on razor deer to follow. The stag running for his master, the dark wizard, who was also here in this wood.

The water string fell apart as Brianna rocked back on her branch. But Gideon jumped over and steadied her. Slowly, she blinked back to reality.

“There IS someone in that white stag,” said Brianna, and then she turned to speak sternly to the boy. “And what were you thinking taunting it like that?” The white stag was jumping up at Gideon, but could not reach him. “You really pissed it off.” But mostly, she was worried for him.

“He wasn’t going to come back on his own,” defended Gideon.

“Still…,” she sniffed, and then she remembered what she had seen. “The white stag is being controlled by someone in these woods. I saw a wizard of sorts.” She nodded her chin back towards the castle. “Whoever it is, they’re over that way.”

“Then we should go too,” said Pavataro. He scaled up the tree, and then jumped above the tree top. The moment he was clear of the leaves, he snapped his wings open. Soon, he was hovering above the tree with the aid of his dragon magic. “Come on Lunchmeat!”

Gideon turned to Brianna.

“We can’t go down,” he said.

“I know,” she agreed, but a little miserably. She hugged him close, and he smelled the scent of strawberries in her hair. And for a moment, there was no murderous stampede below, or his grumpy friend above, but just the two of them.

Then he snapped out of it, a trifle reluctantly, and lightened their bodies. He climbed up as Brianna kept her eyes closed.

“Please don’t go up too high,” she murmured into his chest.

“I’ll try not to,” said Gideon. He looked up at Pavataro who was hovering. “Can you take Brie back to the castle?”

“Of course,” said Pavataro. “It’ll cost extra if you want to come along.”

“Pav,” said Brianna without opening her eyes. “It would be quicker.”

The dragon gave a long-suffering sigh. “I’m not a pack mule. But okay, this one time.”

Gideon moved along the branches to find a clear opening through the top of the tree. He stepped sideways and the branch under his foot snapped. They pitched sideways with nothing to break their fall but a horde of razor deer.

Pavataro closed his wings and dropped into the tree with a crash. Pushing off the main trunk, the dragon leapt towards his friends. Grabbing Gideon’s shoulder with one hind foot, Pav propelled them out into open space. Snapping open his wings again, Pavataro flew up as Brianna held on tightly to Gideon.

“Ow, your claws are hurting my shoulder,” moaned Gideon.

“Whiner,” smirked Pavataro. A few zigs and zags with his flight and the dragon quickly lost the white stag and its stampede of razor deer. The dragon landed gently near the tall castle.

Brianna stepped away from Gideon, and she grinned now that she was back on solid ground.

“Not that I mind the hug,” she said, and then blushed. “I mean…”

Before her, or Gideon, could say anything stupid, Pavataro stuck his head between the two.

“Bad guy?” asked Pavataro of Brianna and she, without thinking, pointed West.

They moved in that direction.

“Isn’t this the way to the pit of…,” started Gideon when they saw Trevor standing over his master, Hernie. Turning that direction, they stopped by the sleeping demi-god.

“Cor, that was fast,” said Trevor. “But then those deer aren’t exactly subtle.”

“We think that the white stag is connected to someone over there,” said Brianna. “We’re going to check it out.”

“Want me to come with?” asked Trevor, but he unconsciously glanced at his vulnerable master.

“We’ll shout if there’s any trouble,” said Gideon quickly. Brianna led Gideon and Pavataro a little further along to the clearing.

Before them was the pit of Hernie’s antlers with that old tree that hung over it. On the far side stood a dark shape in a cloak. Even in the bright sunlight, the kids could not tell the exact shape of the person, if that was what it was. It was more skeletal than flesh.

“Maybe we should start shouting,” suggested Pavataro.

A dread voice came from the shape.

“Begone children,” it spat. “This is no place for little ones.”

“Children?” demanded Pavataro with insult. “Did he just call us ‘Little ones’?”

Brianna cut in to forestall a squabble. “I am the Duchess Brianna Sur. Who are you?”

“None of your business,” snapped the dark shape.

“We are here on the business of Hernie the Hunter, and this is his Wood,” relied Brianna with authority. “So, you have made it our business.”

“I don’t have time for you,” dismissed the dark shape.

Brianna glanced at Pavataro.

“Maybe he’s not powerful enough to make a white stag,” suggested Brianna, in the hopes of prodding the shape to give away more about itself.

“How dare you,” growled the dark shape. “When I am back to full power, you will quake before the Great and Terrible Eu.”

“Eew?” asked Gideon in confusion.

“No, it’s the letters E and U and pronounced like ‘You’,” explained the dark Shape, Eu. He spoke with the practice of someone who has been explaining this their whole life.

“E and U,” repeated Gideon. “You mean like Europa United?”

“No,” snapped Eu. “Eu like Eugene. Not like those do-gooders in Europa. It was them that told Hernie about my precious bears.”

“Wait,” said Pavataro. “That’s where I’ve heard the name Eu. He’s the wizard who was training screaming bears to attack cities.”

“One little village gets destroyed, and suddenly everyone gets pissy,” grumbled the dark wizard Eu.

The dragon looked at Eu in confusion.

“But I thought Hernie killed you?” asked Pavataro.

“I got better,” shrugged Eu dismissively. “Now if you’ll excuse…”

There was a loud barking and Trevor ran up beside Gideon. The dog started barking across the pit at Eu. Then the Corgi stopped, and gave an embarrassed cough.

“Sorry, I don’t know where that barking fit came from,” murmured Trevor. “But that wizard should be dead.”

“He got better,” supplied Pavataro.

“I’ve come for the horns,” declared Eu. “I thought I’d have them sooner, but Hernie smelled my diversion and stopped from attacking my deer, so I had to tread more carefully.”

Gideon opened his mouth to correct the dark wizard when Brianna hit him in the ribs with her elbow.

“Ow,” he said.

But Brianna spoke to the wizard.

“He’s onto you,” said Brianna. “You might as well run now.”

“Hah!” cried Eu. “What’s the worst he can do? Kill me again?”

The wizard moved as if to jump in the pit.

Gideon leapt, bounced off the tree that hung over the pit, and shot right towards Eu. But the wizard casually waved a skeletal hand and a gust of wind knocked the boy flying. As Gideon skidded across the ground, which only damaged his pride, Pavataro the dragon was already moving.

The dragon hit the tree that hung over the pit, and smashed right through it. This sent a spray of wooden shrapnel right at the wizard. A hastily brought up shield by the wizard slowed the shrapnel, but Pavataro slammed right into the shield a moment later. The wizard’s shield held, but Eu was pushed back several feet.

Snapping at the wizard’s heel, Trevor ran behind the wizard, and tried to find a purchase to gnaw on.

And suddenly Brianna was there beside Pavataro.

Shoes left behind, Brianna’s muddy feet sunk into the moist earth, and the watermage found an underground stream. Pulling that water to the surface, she slammed it against Eu’s shield.

But the wizard Eu shook off the initial attacks, and then sent out a wave of power that threw Brianna, Pavataro and Trevor back. The Corgi smacked hard into a tree.

Watching from the side, Gideon was about to run to Brianna, but she flipped over in mid-air and landed on her feet.

“That was sweet,” whispered the boy in awe.

Brianna ran straight back into the fray. The dragon had been pushed back, but he too shot back in to fight Eu.

However, Trevor was having trouble standing. Gideon ran over to the Corgi and picked up the dog.

“Here now,” said Trevor muzzily. “There’s no call for that.”

However, the Corgi was only spastically moving his legs.

Stopping near Hernie, who was still sleeping soundly, Gideon set the dog down beside his Guv’nor’s remaining antler. While Trevor complained indignantly, Gideon ran back to the edge of the fight, and stopped.

The ground shook with the battle between the dark wizard, the watermage Brianna, and the dragon. And Gideon could tell that Brianna and Pavataro were barely holding their own. Meanwhile, Eu seemed to have command of a battle that was slowly turning in his favor.

Gideon’s first instinct was to run into the battle and help Brianna, but he was not sure of what he could do. His abilities were miniscule compared to hers. He did not mind, but it frustrated him now because he could not do more. Then he stiffened with an idea.

Meanwhile, Brianna brought up a wall of water and froze it between her and Eu. One hit from the dark wizard’s energy immediately put cracks in the structure. She glanced over at Gideon and saw him straighten in surprise. Then Gideon whipped around and ran away.

So shocked was Brianna, that she did not anticipate Eu jumping over her frozen wall. As she dove aside, the dark wizard smashed the ground where she had stood a second ago. Brianna’s hand smacked into the frozen wall. She sent a chunk flying, which broke into icy shards. But Eu was already bouncing away.

“Where’s Lunchmeat?” asked Pavataro.

Brianna opened her mouth to say that she had seen Gideon run off, but she could not bring herself to do so.

Instead, Brianna moved closer to Pavataro knowing they needed to coordinate their efforts, but the two had never practiced fighting together. Pavartaro just managed to get away from Eu when Brianna skidded to a halt. She followed her idea back to the ice wall.

She took a hunk of ice from the wall, which was as big as her head. Then she chucked it, but not at Eu. The ice flew between the dragon and the dark wizard.

“Pav! Burn it hot!” cried Brianna.

The dragon saw the ice chunk and fired a quick burst of intense flame. The ice chunk immediately turned into a cloud of steam, and Eu recoiled from it.

Brianna’s muddy feet connected to the water in front of Pavataro, and she sent a geyser up in front of him. The dragon realized what she was doing, and breathed flame at the water, which immediately turned into scalding hot steam. Pavataro was not harmed, but the dark wizard had to back up quickly.

But with a gesture, Eu captured the cloud of steam. Suddenly, the wizard pushed the steam, with a gust of wind, right at Brianna. She dove behind her frozen wall, without a second to spare, and almost got boiled by her own attack.

As she started to scramble up, a bolt of energy from Eu hit the the frozen wall, which suddenly exploded. Brianna was knocked over, and slid to the edge of the Hernie’s pit.

The dark wizard took to the air and swooped towards her. Brianna jammed her hand into the mud. In Eu’s path, jagged shards of ice sprang out of the ground. Eu veered wildly away from the spikes, but smacked into a tree. Spinning off of that, the wizard hit the ground hard. Brianna pushed herself to stand, but she was a little wobbly.

“That’s it,” growled Eu as he tried to stand as well. “Now I’m really…”

Gideon suddenly ran past the dark wizard at full tilt.

“Pav!” cried Gideon to the dragon. “Go Up!”

As the boy ran across the clearing towards Brianna, Pavataro immediately took flight.

“Wha…,” started Brianna, because she was surprised to see Gideon.

“PleasecanIpickyouupandsaveyou!” said Gideon breathlessly. He leaned down and put his shoulder into her stomach as gently as possible. Lifting Brianna up, Gideon dropped their gravity and leapt up into the trees.

Brianna’s look of confusion was matched by the wizard Eu.

“You don’t think that’s going to save you?” asked Eu questioningly, and then he noticed the rumbling behind him.

The dark wizard turned as the white stag, pursuing Gideon, veered around his master. But the rest of the stampede did not waver in their course. Eu quickly brought a shield, and then Brianna could only see the horde of razor deer.

Pavataro had found an old sturdy tree that was right by the pit of antlers. The dragon laid across a few branches. Gideon settled Brianna onto a branch near Pavataro’s head.

The white stag reached the base of the tree, which the kids were in, and attacked it impotently. The rest of the razor deer stopped around the tree. Several deer immediately collapsed out of exhaustion.

Pavatraro just looked at Gideon and Brianna.

“Well, at least we’re in a different tree this time,” said the dragon dryly.

“THAT’S IT!” screamed a voice. The kids turned to see the dark wizard pulling himself up. Eu looked he had been rolled down the side of a rocky mountain, twice. One arm dangled uselessly until Eu grabbed it and pushed the arm back into the socket. Grimacing with pain, the wizard flexed his fingers experimentally.

“We’re taking five up here,” said Pavataro to the dark wizard. “Feel free to get a drink of water, or chew on an ice shard.”

“How dare you!” snapped Eu. “I do not have to take that from you.”

“Just being friendly,” said Pavataro, who looked a little hurt. He looked at Gideon and Brianna. “That was friendly wasn’t it?”

“I didn’t hear anything else in your voice,” agreed Gideon.

“Shut! Up!” growled Eu. The dark wizard pointed right at the kid’s tree. “Little, little birds in a tree, going to burn the little birds OUT OF THE TREE!”

“Really, I was just being friendly,” insisted Pavataro.

“For once,” murmured Gideon.

“Shush Lunchmeat,” replied the dragon.

As the dark wizard gathered his power, Brianna gave a little yawn.

“The moment he moves, break’s over,” she said calmly. “Pavataro, you drop down and break left, and we’ll…”

But Brianna stopped as an antler pushed through Eu’s chest from behind. Confused, the dark wizard just looked down at the antler sticking through him. There was a snapping noise, and Hernie the Hunter stood up a little uneasily.

Then Hernie gasped in pain, and he dropped to one knee behind the wizard. The hunter clutched at his chest.

“Ow,” was all Hernie said. And then he reached up and touched where his left antler had broken off. “Double Ow.”

“Guv’nor?” called out Trevor as he wobbled up, because he was still healing from his injuries.

“Just stings. Antler wasn’t quite ready to fall off,” said Hernie. The hunter tipped back and fell hard on his butt. He looked up at the kids in the tree who were at a loss for words, for once. “I would have been here sooner, but everyone kept getting hurt, and….well, ‘ow’ to that too.”

“Glad you got here when you did,” said Brianna sincerely. Then Brianna remembered something.

She turned and biffed Gideon on the arm.

“That’s for scooping me up again,” said Brianna.

“I did ask...kinda,” replied Gideon.

“Well…,” started Brianna.

“Please don't hit each other,” said the hunter plaintively. “I felt that little love tap, and she has bony knuckles.”

“Sorry,” said Brianna to Hernie, and then she turned to Gideon. “Do I have bony knuckles?”

“Not that I noticed,” said Gideon.

Hernie nodded at Gideon.

“Smart answer,” said Hernie absently from across the country clearing.

“NO!” called out Eu as he finally fell to the ground. The dark wizard fell awkwardly with the antler still sticking through him, and Hernie gasped in pain.

“You can’t stop me that easy,” hissed Eu. “I am already back from death.”

Eu started to crawl jerkily towards the kids. The dark wizard was not going fast, so the kids waited in case he pulled a fast one.

Hernie lifted his head to the sky, and let out a bellow.

“Need Grievous Bodily Harm, no glass,” he shouted to the air, and he put out his empty hand expectantly.

And everyone stopped, even Eu, to look in confusion at the forest demi-god.

“Um, is he okay?” whispered Pavataro. “I mean, he only lost his antlers, right?”

A sound came from the castle, which revealed itself to be one word repeated over and over again.

“Help? Help! Help!”

The will o'wisp, Dan, shot over the pit of antlers and descended towards the hunter. Dan, the glowing, swirling sphere, rested on Hernie’s hand for a moment, and then he lifted off. Left in Hernie’s hand was a brown, corked bottle.

“Now that's service,” whispered Pavataro, and then he thought for a second. “Unless that came out of Dan’s butt.”

Brianna shushed the dragon.

Hernie uncorked the brown bottle and sniffed it.

“Hmmm, good choice Dan.”

And the will o'wisp twirled in delight.

“He bring last year’s?” asked Trevor conversationally.

Hernie threw back his head and drank it down quickly.

“Oh yeah,” smiled Trevor as he looked at the kids. “Last year everything went perfect with tha brewing.”

“Ummm…,” started Brianna. She saw that Eu had started crawling toward the kids again. “Might be little early for a celebratory beer.”

Brianna, Gideon and Pavataro readied themselves to move, when Hernie finished the bottle, and let out a earthshaking burp. Gideon literally had to hold on to Brie as their tree shook.

“Cor, that was good one Guv’nor,” grinned Trevor.

Hernie returned the grin, but then focused on the dark wizard’s attempt to crawl. Eu was babbling something about meddling kids, and how he would have gotten away with it, if it had not been for them.

The hunter eyeballed the brown beer bottle, and tried to drink from it one more time. Brianna looked from Hernie to Eu, and then to the boys.

“Not sure what he is up to,” said Brianna, because her aristocratic upbringing would not let her comment on Hernie’s drinking. “But on my word, you…”

However, the boys were watching Hernie. The forest demi-god turned the bottle around pointing the top of the bottle towards Eu, and the put his mouth against the glass base. The hunter inhaled sharply.

“Is he...okay?” asked Pavataro.

Trevor watched without concern.

Soon, there was the sound of sucking air. It grew louder as Hernie continued to draw in breath against the bottom of the bottle.

Eu suddenly stopped going forward. The dark wizard’s clothes fluttered backwards like he was in a windstorm.

“What?” cried the wizard. “How are you…? How can you…?”

Eu said more, but his voice was drowned out by the vortex swirling towards the glass bottle. The dark wizard suddenly reared up on his knees. The antler still stuck out of his chest.

Grimacing with determination, the wizard leaned towards the kids, and then he was swept backwards. Caught in the vortex, Eu spun through the air, and was sucked right into the bottle.

“I wouldn’t have thought a grown man would fit in a beer bottle,” said Gideon in a hollow voice.

“Ouch,” suggested Pavataro.

Seated, Hernie popped in the cork and flopped backwards onto the grass.

“Now tha’s a bar trick!” crowed Trevor with laughter.

The hunter held up the bottle and examined it closely.

“Something wrong Guv’vor?” asked Trevor.

“Probably shouldn’t have left the antler in him,” murmured Hernie. He gave a little shrug as if to say, ‘Oh well, worry about that later’.

The white stag suddenly let out an enraged cry. Launching forward, the stag smashed its antlers into the tree, which the kids sat in. But its antlers were unharmed as the stag backed up and jumped at the tree again.

Brianna glanced at Gideon.

“You really made it mad,” she said.

“Well, I had to get it to follow me, so I jumped up and whapped it on the nose,” explained Gideon. “But not too hard.”

“Obviously hard enough,” smirked Pavataro.

The stag started to hit the tree repeatedly, but now it did not seem to be focused on the kids. Panting, the stag stopped, and went up into the tree. It placed its hoofs on the side of the tree and gazed up at Brianna with a look that could only be described as pleading.

“Grab my belt,” said Brianna as she leaned forward. Gideon suddenly realized that she was talking to him, and he grabbed the back of her belt while holding on to the branch to steady them both.

Dangling precariously down, Brianna carefully reached out to the white stag. For its part, the stag lowered its head and presented its antlers. The watermage, Brianna, grabbed the top of the left antler, and felt the power in the enchantment.

Inside the stag, was a middle aged farmer who was curled up in the stomach. But the enchantment was a complicated weave around the farmer. Brianna reached back towards her belt and found a bladder of water. She uncorked it with her teeth, and poured the water over the hand that held the antler.

The water collected around the antlers as she looked for any weakness in the enchantment. Then she saw something. One of the antlers had been broken when the white stag had run into the tree. The antler was healing, but not quickly enough. Sending the water to that broken antler, she forced the water a little ways into the fissure. And then she slowed the molecules of the water to make it freeze, before turning it into a liquid again.

“Is this as boring for you, as it is for me?” she heard Pavartaro ask Gideon. But Gideon just shushed the dragon.

In reality, it did not take that long, but it felt painstaking to Brianna. Finally, there was a crack like glass shattering and the enchantment fell apart. Dropping down from the white stag’s belly was the farmer, who bounced on the ground. Then the stag was just a framework of sticks in the shape of a deer.

As the enchantment on the white stag broke, its pull on the razor deer did as well. Freed, the Deer blinked in confusion. Then several deer saw the farmer huddled on the ground and bared their teeth.

“Help…,” tried Brianna, but she was so tired, she could barely form the words. “Help him.”

Pavataro looked from her to the farmer, and he jumped out of the tree. The dragon hit the mock stag made of wood and knocked it flying apart. This drove several deer back.

Stepping protectively over the farmer, Pavataro glared at the deer as if daring them to attack. But then one fell. And another folded in on itself to hit the forest floor. Almost as one, the stampede collapsed to the grass. Most closed their eyes and fell into an exhausted sleep.

The dragon looked over them belligerently. “Um, that’s right! Don’t mess with me! Fall asleep.”

“It was probably your breath,” suggested Gideon from above.

And the farmer chuckled weakly at that.

*****


Back at the castle, Dan took off to find a secure place for the bottled wizard. Gideon carried the farmer, while Hernie leaned a little heavily on Pavataro. Brianna, who had recovered quickly, kept pace beside Gideon.

Trevor led them into the ballroom turned hospital. The room was quieter now, while trash pandas went from bed to bed to make sure that everyone was recovering nicely.

Immediately, Hernie moved over to a high backed chair near the door. The forest demi-god was asleep as soon as his butt hit the chair. Trevor, once he was sure his Guv’nor was okay, led the rest over to an open cot.

Gideon gently lowered the farmer down onto cot. The man was covered in tattered clothes, but the farmer looked up at the kids.

“Thank you,” said the farmer.

“What have we here?” asked Lindy. The trash panda ran over on four legs before standing up next to the farmer. As Trevor explained where they had found the man, the trash panda opened a bottle of high-proof beer called ‘Loitering With Intent’. She poured it into a bowl and sanitized her hands.

“Okay,” said Lindy once Trev was finished. “I’ll take care of him. You all need to shoo away.”

Bemused, the kids and Trevor moved away as the farmer was left in Lindy’s capable hands.

“What's going to happen to him?” asked Brianna in concern, and the Corgi thought for a moment.

“Hey, he’s a farmer, right?” said Trevor. “Well, we could use a farmer around here. Me an’ the lads don't exactly have green thumbs.”

Hernie piped up from his chair. “The deer. They are so hungry,”

Trevor turned around. “I was going to have a couple of the lads take out that salted pork. Nothing we’ll miss, an’ I doubt the deer are feeling too fussy.”

“And there should be water around from our fight,” said Brianna. “I just hope not too much.”

Hernie just nodded, and fell back asleep.

“Well,” said Brianna with relief. “It looks like you have everything in control…”

“An’ you did it all in one day,” grinned Trevor as he looked from Brianna to the boys. “You’re welcome to stay the night, in fact I’ll insist upon it, but first…I’ll be back.”

While Trevor zipped out the door, Gideon looked around the ballroom hospital. He saw Mrs. Conley surrounded by a horde of attentive, familial hedgehogs. Mrs. Conley seemed happy so Gideon nudged Brianna to show her, and she smiled at the scene.

Trevor zipped back. In the Corgi’s mouth was a small leather bag that he proffered to Brianna. She took the bag, but she looked puzzled.

“I’m also the Bursar here, so tha’s for services rendered,” explained Trevor.

“What?” asked Brianna, and then she open the little bag and her breath hitched. “Is that…”

“We got them a while ago, an' they’ve been collecting dust,” shrugged Trevor happily.

And Brianna grinned as she looked at the three beautiful emeralds.

“I’d rather have razor deer,” grumbled Pavataro.






Trevor here! Brianna insisted--insisted I say!--that I add a dictionary for my speaking at tha end. So, I’m humoring her:,

Barney -- Trouble

Chew the fat -- Chat

Gates of Rome -- Home

Sooty an’ sweep -- Sleep

Ian Beale -- Real

Typewriters -- Fighters

Roy Hudd -- Blood




THE END


2017 Walter Esselman

Bio: Walter G Esselman bangs on a keyboard, and still plays way too much Fallout 4. He also would not say 'no' to a Long Island Iced Tea.

E-mail: Walter Esselman

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