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The griffins boy, p.21
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       The Griffin's Boy, p.21

           Julia Hughes

  They ran helter-skelter along the muddy track, with the roars of the enraged stag from behind growing ever louder. A branch slammed across Neb's forehead, he ducked too late and collided head on with a tree trunk. Winded, he collapsed to the ground, rolled up into a ball and waited for the stag's antlers to tear into his flesh. The earth trembled under the stag's weight as it hurtled towards Neb. With a sickening feeling in his stomach, Neb pulled his knees higher into his chest, tucked his chin in and locked his arms over his head. His back felt terribly exposed. Neb had only caught a brief glimpse of the albino stag: but could imagine its antlers ripping through his cloak and tearing open his spine to expose the marrow of his bones. He choked back a sob, screwed his eyes up tighter and hoped death would be quick. Then unbelievably, above his own rapid heartbeat and a series of snuffles, he heard Eric shout 'Hey you! Over here!'

  A swoosh filled Neb's ears and a sudden heat sizzled his delicate arm hairs. The rogue stag snorted, and Neb screamed in terror as it trampled over his back. The beast snorted again and seemed to be pawing at the earth. Neb peeled his arms away from his head and glanced upwards. A sob rattled in his chest: Eric appeared like an avenging angel, holding aloft a burning staff in one hand. Three paces away away the stag lowered his head and glared at Eric. Its massive antlers were festooned with green vegetation, its white shape appeared as large as Blain's hut and its eyes glowed like embers. It was the stuff of nightmares; only wild boars were more dangerous than rutting stags. But there was some hope, for all its size, it appeared to be a youngster, inexperienced in the ways of men. Still dangerous, but without the cunning of an older beast. Although its eyes gleamed with hatred, Eric's actions confused it. It pawed the ground, lowered its head to swing its antlers from side to side, then galloped towards Eric. At the last moment, Eric wielded his flaming torch like a sword and leapt from the stag's path. Unable to stop, the beast collided with a tree just as Neb had. Unlike Neb, it simply retreated, shook its head with a rattle of antlers and began to turn around for another charge.

  Neb swallowed against a dry throat, unable to take his eyes from Eric's back and the flaming staff he goaded towards the stag. He realised Eric had wrapped his cloak around a branch and set it alight. Already the flames flickered, they would go out soon. Snatching up a fallen branch Neb scrambled towards his own lantern, mercifully somehow still alight. Ripping his cloak from his shoulders, Neb swirled the material around one end of the branch and fumbled to secure it firmly with the cloak's fastenings. He shuddered as the stag slammed into a nearby tree, then with a shaking hand held the lantern to his makeshift torch and blew a gentle encouragement. From the corner of his eye he saw the stag retreat, shake its head and with a terrible growl from somewhere deep in its belly, turn to charge at Eric again. Neb was on his knees now, after a quick glance in Eric's direction he resumed puffing at the tentative flame growing over his cloak. 'Please, please, please,' he breathed. As soon as his torch flared into life, Neb forced himself to stand. Eric's face was a mask of fear and his torch now nothing but embers. Sparks exploded as Eric smacked it across the stag's chest, then screamed and fell backwards. The stag lowered his head, rushed forwards and its right antler ripped into Eric's flesh, tearing open his leg from calf to thigh. This time Eric cried out for his father, a thin wailing 'Papa!'

  Swinging his torch in both hands, Neb brought it down on the animal's rump.

  'Get off him!' he shouted foolishly. Eric screamed a single 'papa!' again as the stag trampled over his legs in order to turn and deal with Neb.

  It took all Neb's courage to stand and wait for the beast to charge at him. Flick the torch into its eyes then dance away as Eric did, he told himself, gripping his torch tightly, fearing it might slip from his sweaty palms. Then he feared the rotten tree branch might snap and with an effort loosened his grip. He willed the stag onwards: Charge please charge, before I drop the torch or snap it in half. His mouth which had been so dry suddenly flooded with saliva. Without taking his eyes from the brute, Neb turned his head to one side and spat. At that moment, the stag charged. Head down, antlers quivering and shoulders hunched, it hurtled towards him. Its antler points pointed straight towards Neb's stomach, aiming to disembowel him. Neb screamed, somehow remembered to step to one side and swung the flaming torch across the stag's shoulders as it thundered past. Staggering backwards, Neb watched the stag shake itself and begin to extract itself from the brambles it had run into. I can't do this again, I can't do this again, the torch trembled in his hands and Neb's legs trembled underneath him. Sensing victory, the animal simply charged from the undergrowth, straight towards Neb. Neb closed his eyes and waved the torch blindly. Something knocked him from his feet and he hit the ground full length and squealed, waiting for pain to strike at his stomach. Then he opened his eyes and clenched his bladder, determined to die like a man.

  The stag hung above him, its bark stained teeth snapped at air. Stubby whiskers bristled from its snout and from its belly came a terrible gurgling roar. Neb watched its head twist left and right, as though showing off its antlers. Why weren't they goring at his flesh? Puzzled, Neb's eyes travelled downwards. A man stretched full length under the stag, his face creased with the effort of holding up a thick staff. At the other end of the staff was a sword, impaled in the stag's belly.

  'Cut the bloody thing's throat!' the man shouted, without looking in Neb's direction.

  Obediently, Neb's hand went to the dagger tucked inside his waistband; Lady Lydia's dagger. With a sob, he crawled forwards on his hands and knees. The stag struggled harder, the man's arms shook and he groaned 'hurry!' Sweat poured into Neb's eyes and the dagger turned to liquid in his hand. 'Hurry!' he whispered to himself, and slammed the dagger's point under the stag's chin and dragged at it with both hands. A hot metallic stench filled his nostrils, the stag continued to gurgle and redoubled its efforts to free itself. Neb stabbed downwards harder and continued to drag the dagger through a white expanse of throat. The dagger's point found the animal's jugular vein; a dark waterfall cascaded onto Neb's arms. Still he dragged at the dagger, both the man and stag went into convulsions. Realising this was the animal's death throes, Neb gathered all his strength and strained his forearms against the stag's chest, while thrusting the dagger hilt-deep into its flesh. His rescuer's makeshift spear bowed and trembled under the strain, the man's face twisted in agony. Then abruptly, the horrible gurgling stopped. There was a single rattle and with one last combined effort, Neb and his rescuer heaved the stag's carcass to one side. The clearing reeked, thick with the stench of blood and sweat, and Neb choked on his own breath. Dropping to all fours, he turned his head to one side and emptied his stomach's contents into the mulch of the forest's floor. Breathing became easier, but he couldn't stop his limbs from trembling and his teeth chattered painfully.

  From far away, he heard Eric whisper, 'papa – you came for me.'

  Neb closed his eyes, allowed himself a couple of sobs, then forced himself to stop and kneel upright. Pushing himself to his feet, Neb stood and then staggered across the clearing, to face Alfred.


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