Like a leviathan rising from the depths, Morg’s thoughts slowly broke the rippled surface of consciousness. He was lucky to have survived. Whatever object had come tumbling out of the sky had scored a direct hit on the tender flesh between the nares containing the erotic nexus. The sudden shock of it had caused him to black out. Had the soldier chosen that moment to set upon him with its stinger, it might have dealt him a grievous blow. Truly, the Great Serpent had been watching over him this hour. As further proof of divine beneficence, the two manlings were lying side by side a short distance away just waiting to be harvested. The breeder had a mangled foot, but the shelled manling was visibly undamaged. He would have another shell for his collection and a very fine one at that.
The carrier beast stood guard over its master, but a warning swipe sent it retreating into the woods. The prone soldier was inert and didn’t respond to his prodding. Balancing unsteadily, he clasped it in a hind leg before scooping up the stinger, club-arm and headpiece. He pumped his wings to work up enough speed to smash through the canopy, glad to be free of the oversized forest. The scale of the trees made him feel diminished, a rare and altogether unsettling experience. But not as unsettling as the steely-edged log that had come tumbling from its high perch. Surely that was no mere coincidence. It boggled the mind to think that a small colony of unremarkable manlings could have produced such a monstrous contrivance. He would need to reflect upon these troubling events. In the meantime, he had a more immediate problem: getting the soldier manling back to his lair.
The ordeal had left him greatly weakened and the armored manling was not the lightest of burdens. Then there were the sensations. Although the throbbing in his snout was beginning to subside, the passions it aroused were not so easily quenched. A hot shiver raced down his spine where the tracks of adroit claws still lingered in his memory. His nares retained the scent of dragon-dame, the sharp, sweetly acrid flavors of cinnamon and char. Shriek-screeches of ecstasy once more filled his ears as the supple, arching spine twined about his own in a constricting coil, tighter and tighter, shriller and shriller, a shooting star in the instant before obliteration.
He was brought back to himself by the silver glint of the soldier’s stinger wheeling through the air below him. Festering rot! he swore, diving after it. Fortunately, it landed on a bare hilltop where it was easily retrieved. Next time he might not be so lucky. To lose even a single piece would be a great misfortune. It was his first catch of the season, the result of much cunning and patience, and he was not about to settle for a partial trophy.
A tinny moan issued from the soldier, introducing yet another complication. The shelled manling wasn’t dead. He could quickly remedy this oversight, but the prospect of having a live specimen piqued his interest. He could use it as a subject for his experiments and still harvest its shell when he was through. Perhaps, with both a breeder and a soldier in captivity, he could observe manling mating and nesting behaviors. If he could manage to get it back to his lair in one piece, that is. He wasn’t even halfway to the mountains and he was already struggling to maintain altitude.
A couple hills further on, he came upon a small lake fed by a mountain stream. In the center of the lake was a narrow island fringed by reedy grasses. He knew from experience that shelled manlings couldn’t swim; their heavy carapace caused them to sink like a stone. With any luck, it could survive there for a while until he could recover his strength and return for it.
Morg deposited the manling onto the island then sped away toward his mountain, eager to check on the captive breeder. Lately, he had begun to feel a strange sense of worry whenever he left it alone for too long.
* * * * *
Taking shelter from the wind behind a boulder, Berla huddled into a tight ball, trying in vain to warm herself. Tears snailed down her cheeks, leaving icy trails. She was certain she would never see her home again. She didn’t even know where home was anymore. She thought fondly of the big house in Alvaron with its stately pillars and plush carpets, the cozy cottage nestled deep in the woods, the bakery with its glowing ovens and yeasty-rich scents, and the mountain sanctuary with her treasures and cloven-hooved companion. All of them lost to her now. Why were people always taking her away from the places she loved? She didn’t care anymore about being skinny, beautiful and strong. All she wanted was to be warm and happy. Yet here she was, homeless and friendless once more, and all the magic acorns in the world couldn’t bring her goat back.
Something soft and squishy pressed into her shoulder. When Berla turned to see what it was, a pair of liquid black eyes stared back at her.
“Oh, Goatee!” she cried, wrapping her arms around the goat and pressing her cheek against the velvety nubs that were just beginning to push through. Warmth flowed back into her body, thawing the gloom that encased her spirit. Suddenly, home didn’t seem so very far away at all. As if by magic, the little cottage in the woods appeared in her mind, the morning shadows lying softly on the thatch roof and the buttercups blooming beneath her grammy’s window, just as they had on the day the old hermit had come to visit.