This story is the result of a story exchange between Bob and I (my contribution was The Most Magical Place in the World. The exchange rules allowed that this didn't necessarily have to be an equine transformation. Bob latched onto the intriguing tale of the Emperor of Exmoor, a red stag believed to be the largest land animal wild in Britain, who was allegedly killed in October 2010. The Guardian then called the report "a myth" when it turned out the shooting could not be verified, and that some eye-witnesses had subsequently seen the Emperor, very much alive. This story explains all. Deer stalking is technically legal in Britain, but wouldbe hunters might want to check with local deities first.
An elderly man in full vintage uniform stepped into the railcar and shut the door to the forward coaches behind him. Departing passengers peered through the ice-crusted beveled glass windows, obviously curious about who might be riding in the 'Reserved' car. The porter nodded and smiled at Matthew. "We will be departing Minehead Station in five minutes, sir. Would you care for refreshments before we get to Washford?"
"Hey!" Matthew's reply was cut off by an impatient shout from the men in the rear of the car. "Another hit here! And we bloody well don’t mean tea, old timer!" There were guffaws from some of the group.
To his credit, the Porter barely registered a flicker of annoyance as he looked back at the speaker. "I will be with you – gentlemen - in just a moment, Mr. Down." The hesitation before 'gentlemen' was slight enough that the already well-lubricated party didn’t catch it. "Mr. Webber?"
Matthew gave the man an apologetic smile, though he had no connection with the other passengers. "Uh, yes, please. Tea and biscuits if you have them. Anything hot is fine. Thank you." The porter nodded and gave a quick roll of his eyes before continuing to the rear.
Settling back onto the antique railcar's deep red leather seat, Matthew admired polished woodwork and brass. It was difficult to imagine such elegance standing up to the abuse of daily commutes. Then again, this was a first-class coach from the days when there really were class distinctions. Quite a change from the plastic and steel commuters he operated every day. He had to grin, wondering what the original operators would have said about a train driver occupying space originally reserved for a millionaire.
His seat in this special car had originally been booked for no less than Mr. Andrew Cross, the business support director for Matthew's employer, Virgin Trains. Though Matthew had never met the man, Cross was well known within the company for the curious distinction of winning several cooking competitions, including the Virgin Trains Sandwich of the Year. Apparently the ticket for this steam train excursion was non-refundable, and when his plans changed he had put the tour package up as first prize for a company-wide drawing. Matthew had been the lucky recipient.
It was something of a shock to discover that the single ticket had cost over 900 pounds. However, he began to understand when he was ushered to a vintage Bentley limousine at Taunton for the short ride to Bishops Lydeard Station. A lovely young lady appeared the moment they pulled in next to a row of similar limousines and escorted him directly to the private coach.
If Matthew had felt out of place in the Bentley, he stood out like the proverbial sore thumb here. The four passengers already grouped in the back were all in formal hunt regalia, a dress code also followed by the straggler who arrived shortly before the train pulled out. He quickly gathered that the coach had been hired by the Quantock Staghounds, an organization that had practiced stag hunting in Exmoor for a century. His coach mates were all male, ranging from a fuzz-faced kid who couldn’t be more than twenty up to one well into his sixties.
It appeared that one thing they did not practice was courtesy. Matthew's attempts to introduce himself were mostly ignored, though he had rather quickly decided that was a good thing. Their conversations centered around hunting stags, with high points apparently going to the one who could describe the most vicious and grisly kill. Most had used packs of hounds to bring down their prey; a practice Matthew rather uncomfortably recalled had been outlawed some years prior. They also had a rather different take on the killing of the Emperor of Exmoor, a magnificent stag whose slaying by poachers back in October had made national headlines. Where most of the country had reviled the killing, these men drank a toast to the ‘ballsy bloke’.
The porter returned shortly after the train pulled out with a complete silver tea service and a plate of biscuits. He made a point of deliberately and slowly serving Matthew, triggering more complaints from the hunters who were all studiously ignored until the tea was poured. He then went back to the small kitchenette at the front of the car, where it took an unusually long time to produce what, at Matthew's estimate, was their fourth bottle of Scotch.
This last leg of the trip was solely for the occupants of the private car. Instead of debarking with the rest of the passengers at Minehead, they were heading back to Washford and a private banquet at the local Inn. As best he could make out, the Quantock group had horses and hounds waiting just outside the town and planned a midnight winter hunt. Fortunately, another car and driver would be waiting to return Matthew to Taunton Station afterwards. Considering the company, Matthew had to wonder if Mr. Cross's 'conflict' had been deliberate. He was considering skipping the banquet – whatever feast might be prepared, the prospect of sharing it with this bunch made an order of fish and chips look tempting.
Matthew was finishing the last biscuit when he felt the train slow down. They were a bit early to be reaching Washford. Then he frowned as he both felt and heard the coach wheels pass over a turnout. While he did not know the West Somerset Railway's tracks, he was sure there weren't any other working lines between Minehead and Washford. However, there was no mistaking the slight lurch and change of rhythm as the train shifted to different rails. His puzzlement was obviously shared by the porter, who checked his watch and then looked out the windows.
"Bloody 'ell!" The porter broke the formal personae and moved to the other side. "Double bloody 'ell! What are they up to?"
Matthew didn’t quite understand until he joined the man looking out the opposite windows. The West Somerset Railway skirted the forests of Exmoor and Quantock, and along this northern section, always had the coast visible. So why were they rolling through woods so dense that snow-covered branches actually scraped both sides of the coach? He followed the porter up to the kitchenette, where a modern intercom system was hidden behind one of the carved wood panels. He picked up the handset and said "Charlie? Pick up please." The man frowned and looked at the panel, then punched at a dark button that Matthew suspected should have been lit. "Intercom is down. I don’t like this."
Having been trained for emergencies, Matthew already had his cell phone out. He got a cold feeling in his gut when the device showed no signal available. He looked back at the group, who appeared oblivious to the situation. "Think this could be a snatch? Terrorists after ransom? I expect we have some high rollers here."
"I hope not." The porter frowned. "I've been doing these excursions for more than 10 years. There's never been a switch here before."
Matthew blinked and then shook his head. "Must be an old sideline. Not like they could install a set of points in a few hours." He swallowed nervously. "Let's make sure it's not just trouble with my carrier." He took a deep breath and called back to the Staghounds, getting scowls when he interrupted a particularly expressive gentleman's tale of his last kill. "Hey! If any of you have cell phones, see if you can call out. We may have some trouble here."
Having been swatted with the proverbial big stick, the men finally looked out the windows and realized something was amiss. Several stood up and they all began pulling out their phones. Curses erupted as one after the other obviously came up with the same 'no service' indication. The young man moved quickly to the closet, where he pulled out a rifle bag. "Get your guns. And turn off the bloody lights!" He moved and spoke with authority that belied his years. Matthew suspected he was a soldier with some terrorist training.
Before the porter could move to the breaker box, the train lurched to a sudden stop that forced everyone to grab for support. A moment later, the lights went out. There were more curses from the back, and then shuffling as they probably scrambled to find weapons in the dark. Matthew was terrified, but forced himself to remain calm. Virgin Trains had issued standard responses to threat situations – activate alarms and emergency communications, and cooperate. With all systems and communications lines unavailable, about all he could do was hope whoever they were up against was in a cooperative mood.
The old coach creaked around them, curiously more so than when they had been rolling. Then Matthew nearly jumped out of his skin as one of the beveled glass panes in the window beside him shattered with a sharp crack. Then the rest of the windows joined it in a deafening explosion of glass that had them all diving to the floor. Matthew pressed himself against the carpet, trembling. It took a moment for him to realize that there was no glass around him. In fact… he twisted enough to look around. As far as he could tell, the windows had all blown outward. That was the last observation he was able to make before sudden, blind panic took over conscious thought. He had to get outside!
Everyone in the coach leapt for the nearest exit – Matthew and the porter got out the forward doors, which fell off their hinges as the two men pushed through. They both stumbled when they hit the ground, and ran as far from the coach as they could. The train was in a snow-covered clearing maybe 200 meters across, dimly lit by the last sliver of moon. Matthew was stopped by the surrounding wall of trees, and looked back to see the last of the Staghound group crawling away on all fours as fast as he could, apparently having injured one of his legs.
Then the coach itself sagged with a soft squeal of twisting metal and the sound of splintering wood. Even in the darkness he could see the glistening red and gold paint start to flake off, and incredibly, vines snaked up from the ground and pushed through already rotting boards. It was like watching some incredible time-lapse photography as the entire train deteriorated into an abandoned hulk overgrown with weeds and brush.
They all stared in stunned silence for a couple of minutes, breath forming small clouds in the frigid air. Matthew's mind was trying to work, but the gears seemed stripped inside his head. His body would not respond, arms and legs paralyzed. Forms suddenly emerged from the woods near the other end of the train. Five large dogs led the way, followed by a very tall man wearing what looked to be a helmet with massive stag's antlers attached to it.
"Server." A voice so deep that Matthew felt it more than heard it rumbled through the night air, and the antlered figure gestured to the porter. "Take your place by my side."
The porter looked over at Matthew in shared confusion. Then a shadow spread over his face and flowed downward, his uniform disintegrating off a body that twisted and then fell forward to land on large paws. A sixth huge, powerful hound shook itself and then trotted over to sit at the horned-man’s feet with the rest. The rest of the train crew, Matthew realized.
He stared at the figure with cold dread. At first, it looked like he had some sort of furred leggings and sleeves, but the soft hide was obviously his skin, not added clothing. Powerfully built, he wore a dark tunic and heavy, old-fashioned boots and held a large, plain bow in one hand. Matthew could just make out a quiver of arrows slung over his back. A spirit of nature, the Green Man. There were old legends about such beings –and none of them ended well for the mortals involved.
Sharp cracks of gunfire cut through the silence of the night, and Matthew whirled to see the youngest hunter firing a carefully aimed pistol at the horned man’s head. His target stood calmly until the clip was spent, and then spoke again in that rumbling bass. “Benjamin William Beckwith. You have killed four of my children as part of the bloodlust you call sport. Let us see how much pleasure you get from it now.” There was another wave of the being’s hand and the young man suddenly cried out and pressed his hands to his forehead. Before Matthew could see what was happening, his own skull exploded in pain.
Falling to his knees, Matthew clutched at his head and tried to scream. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. Muscle spasms tore his hands away from his face, and his body was wracked by convulsions that threatened to rip his skin apart. He was thrown forward and caught himself unsteadily on arms that nearly buckled. Blue-white fire burned away clothes and skin, the heat pushing into the very core of his mind. And just as suddenly as it had started, the agony was gone.
Matthew blinked, bewildered and trembling. He was unable to turn his head and vision was distorted, but he made out a number of large shapes in the clearing. Magnificent stags, some possessing many-pointed racks, stood like statues in the starlight. A young animal was in the center, his antlers noticeably smaller than the rest, and another lay on its side, close to the train. The same positions where the boy and the injured man had been. In fact, there was an animal standing in place of each of the five Staghounds. Matthew focused on the dark protrusion between his eyes and a much larger gut constricted. There were six stags in the clearing.
"Richard Down." The Green Man moved to the closest stag, a powerful animal with the huge rack of a mature buck. Twenty of my children have fallen to your desire to kill." He turned to the animal laying on the ground. "And Nicholas Gibbon, responsible for the slaughter of sixteen." The Green Man moved around the clearing, stopping to name each beast. "Martin Reginald Scott. Fifteen times you have ended a life to decorate your walls with yet another set of antlers." Then came one Wendall George Witheridge, who had nine deaths held against him. Finally, the towering figure moved to stand in front of Matthew.
Up close, it was obvious the ancient-looking leather helm was cut to fit around the base of the huge antlers sprouting from the Green Man's skull. Although the first impression was of a coarse male face, Matthew had no illusion that there was anything even remotely human behind the solid off-white eyes that glowed like miniature moons. He felt the Green Man's presence force itself brutally into his mind, then ease suddenly. Jutting brows furrowed, and then the Green Man stepped back and regarded Matthew in silence for a full minute.
"Matthew Webber." His powerful voice was softer than before. "You have no blood to repay. Your presence is… unfortunate." There was another pause. "What is done cannot be undone. Some adjustment may be possible – if you survive." He turned abruptly and strode to the center of the clearing, hounds staying close to his heels.
If you survive? The words resonated within a mind overwhelmed by events. If. You. Survive. Survive what? Matthew stared at the hounds following the figure and then at the powerful bow. No… he couldn’t mean…
Glowing eyes swept around the clearing. The Green Man readied his bow. "The Hunt is on."
There was a moment of silence, and then the hounds suddenly broke into a frenzy of barks and snarls as they swarmed the injured stag. It made barely audible grunts of terror and pain, lashing out with its legs. One hound yelped, but the others savaged the stag until the Green Man called out a word that made them all jump away.
Matthew was transfixed, stunned by the violence. The animal's hide was ripped and torn, blood forming dark stains in the fur. It struggled feebly, obviously dying. The Green Man notched a heavy-looking arrow and drew it back until the bow creaked. There was a sharp twang followed immediately by a solid thud that Matthew felt though his hooves.
An explosion of movement within the clearing signaled an end to the paralysis, and Matthew spun and crashed through the forest as instincts took over. The world was a blur, his legs pushing, body twisting gracefully as he leapt over obstacles and moved through spaces that seemed far too narrow for his bulk. He felt the pounding of his blood, the impact of hooves against snow-covered dirt and scattered branches. Cold air stung his nostrils, filled with the scent of trees, small animals, and the acrid stink of his own fear. And he heard the hounds as they broke into full cry.
Matthew came to a stop only after the sounds of the Hunt faded. He went rigid, ears straining to catch anything that might indicate further threat. There was distant movement, something large running, but not towards him. One of the other stags, perhaps, or a real animals startled by the sudden noise and action. The thunder of his heart gradually slowed, as did the powerful rush of air in and out of his lungs. And with the calm, raging instincts faded into the background, allowing him to think once more.
He blinked and looked around in confusion. This was old forest, part of the huge expanse that made up Exmoor and Quantock. Probably well south into the former, given where the train had stopped. Where… Matthew twisted around to stare at himself. Though he knew what to expect, it was still a shock to see his animal body steaming in the cold air. The Green Man had transformed them all into stags to be chased down by the hounds, driven through the woods until they fell to the teeth of the dogs or had their hearts pierced by one of the heavy arrows. Or both. He shuddered, remembering the grisly end of the injured deer. Perhaps not coincidentally, its death was similar to the graphic and enthusiastic descriptions he'd heard on the train.
But that was them! Matthew stamped the ground with a hoof in frustrated anger. He'd been there by chance, an antique train enthusiast, not one of the hunters. It wasn't fair! He had done nothing wrong, had committed no offense against the Green Man or the beasts he protected. These woods had always been a place of beauty, where he came to admire the wild ponies and graceful deer, not kill them. At least the mistake had been recognized. A brief flicker of hope was countered by memory of the Green Man's words. If he survived.
Matthew was part of the hunt. If dimly-remembered legends were true, he had to either avoid the Green Man entirely or stay ahead of the pack until the first light of dawn. He could keep running and hope that he was heading deeper into the woods, away from the hunt. There were thousands of acres to cover here, and hundreds of other deer to mingle with.
Other deer. The thought came too easily. As Matthew examined his situation, he found that being a stag did not seem strange at all. The details of his life were clear – friends, family, the daily routine of his job. Yet whenever he tried to recall himself, he was a stag. There was no human Matthew Webber, no memories of walking on two legs or speaking. Even the events of the past hour were missing any human reference.
He shook himself and snorted, working to release some of the adrenalin that had his muscles taught, nerves tingling. It was cold out, but the only places he really felt the chill were his nose, mouth and genitals. Even then, it was an awareness of temperature rather than actual discomfort. In truth, he felt excited and alert in a way he could not remember experiencing before. Alive. Sounds and scents were rich and vibrant, and though his vision was distorted and details blurred, he could detect movements even in the near total darkness with surprising ease. The mass and strength of his body were exhilarating, sensations just as tangible as the pressure and texture of the ground under his hooves.
His ears perked suddenly. Something was moving through the woods off to his right. He raised his head to scent the air and caught the faint musk of another male. Of a stag. One of his companions from the train? Then he tensed as another sound cut through the still night. Growls and barks, still distant but coming closer with each heartbeat. The Hunt!
Matthew spun and bolted through the woods again. Although instincts surged, he was able to retain some awareness and thought this time. He angled towards the sound of the other fleeing stag, hoping it might be one of the other transformed humans. They had hunted this area, some for decades, and would know the terrain. Assuming it was the man in control, and not the animal.
Running through the trees was as effortless as before, and he found himself enjoying the experience. Not that he wasn’t still terrified to the core of his being, but speed and grace brought a certain pleasure. Matthew was fit enough from biking and walking, with occasional horseback riding thrown in for good measure. Even so, not even the most charitable would call him an athlete. Now he was bounding through heavy forest at a pace an Olympic sprinter would be hard pressed to match on a track. He could feel the muscles pull and stretch, the steady, grunting breaths that expanded his chest. This must be how a horse felt when it galloped. He had seen them running across pastures, tails high and flying, and envied them. Now he was probably faster and more graceful than an Arabian.
Matthew couldn’t tell how long he followed the other stag. The trees were a monotonous blur, and awareness seemed to be centered on the present. He was getting closer, though. The sounds were just ahead now, and he caught fleeting glimpses of the dark shape. As best he could tell, they had been moving in a straight line, hopefully away from the clearing. The animal ahead of him came to a sudden stop and looked back as Matthew slowed and then moved to stand beside him. He was young, smaller than Matthew and carrying a much smaller rack.
Was this the shooter? Benjamin William Beckwith. The animal sniffed in his direction, ears flicking as it regarded him with liquid brown eyes and then made a bleating grunt. Then it pawed at ground with a forehoof a few times and looked back at Matthew. Was he trying to write something? The animal repeated the action twice more, then snorted and shook its head. Then it pawed the ground again. Five times.
Matthew jerked his head up suddenly. Not writing – counting! It took an effort of will to get the number fixed in his head, but he stamped five times in reply. Benjamin looked at him and made a grunt, then stomped 5 times and nosed Matthew’s chest. Five again. What was the importance of… five hunters. There had been five members of the Quantock Staghounds. The boy was asking if he was one of them!
Shaking his head, Matthew stomped out five times, then hesitated, and stomped a sixth. Benjamin flicked his ears, then snorted and seemed to sag a little. It was hard not to feel slightly insulted, though Matthew could understand that the young man had been hoping to have found one of his friends. After a moment, Benjamin took a few steps forward and then looked back pointedly in an obvious ‘follow me’ gesture. Then he began moving again, continuing in the same direction. Matthew only hesitated a moment. While the boy certainly had no more experience than Matthew at being a stag, he probably knew these woods far better.
They stopped again a short while later, this time at an abrupt break in the trees. A wide channel was cut through the forest, the ground barren and starkly black between snow-covered mounds. Matthew stared at the space, his mind struggling to identify it. Then bright light swept around a curve and he froze as a big diesel lorry rumbled by. A road. Idiot! Of course it was a road.
Benjamin started moving as soon as the vehicle rolled past, and they bounded quickly to the woods on the opposite side. Once there, the young stag looked back and gave a snort of what sounded like satisfaction. They began moving again, at a more relaxed pace. Away from the clearing and the Hunt. Matthew was sure of it now, not so much through awareness of actual location as it was memory of where he had been.
It was peaceful here, and beautiful even at night. This section of the forest was home to other large animals. Deer ambled quietly among the trees, and he saw a small herd grazing in a clearing. A few chunkier shapes were mixed in – wild ponies sharing a meal. Benjamin bypassed all of them, moving with a steady, almost military purpose that looked unnatural.
They came to another road, but this time Benjamin looked both ways and began walking along the side, keeping close to the trees. More lights approached, these belonging to a small sedan that slowed to a crawl as it came abreast of them. Matthew heard excited voices of children, but it was too dark to see the passengers inside. A sudden flash made him jump, then he realized they had just taken a picture.
His four-hooved guide continued along the road until they reached a side road with some sort of large sign. Benjamin stopped to stare at the sign a long while, then snorted and gave it an annoyed kick before turning down the side road. Following, Matthew stopped at looked at the sign curiously. It looked normal enough – white lettering on a dark background, with some sort of symbol below it. The younger stag was leaving him behind, and he had to run a few steps to catch up. As he fell in, Matthew got a sudden sick feeling as he realized why Benjamin had kicked at the sign. The neat block letters and the symbol were meaningless marks. They were illiterate.
The discovery was frightening, in some ways more so than his physical transformation. Matthew had tried not to think about the loss of his own human self-image. What else was gone? Worse, would he even know what was missing? Not that a stag needed to be able to read, or write. But Matthew did not want to remain a stag. He refused to give in to despair. The Green Man had said there might be an adjustment. All he had to do was survive.
Benjamin’s urgency faded quickly once they were on the side road, the pace dropping to a relaxed walk. He stopped to sniff the air, and then headed into the woods. Matthew followed, his own nostrils picking out the scents of deer and horses, trees and dirt. No predators. It had been a long time since he had heard even a whisper of the Hunt. As they made their way through the still forest, Matthew felt growing excitement. The young hunter must have taken them to some place of safety, a preserve or restricted area. They had escaped the Green Man!
Relief nearly made his front legs buckle, but he stayed with Benjamin until they reached a large, clear pond where both stags drank deeply. The water was crisp and almost painfully cold. Sounds from the woods brought both to full alert, only to relax again as a large doe moved cautiously to the water on the other side. She was joined by two others who regarded them briefly and then also drank.
Matthew sniffed the air, upper lip curling towards his nostrils. Instincts stirred again, though he was still in control. Mostly. The younger stag copied his motions, then slowly ambled around towards the females. Matthew felt an irrational surge of jealously, like a 5 year-old who claimed a whole room of toys with a defiant ‘mine!’. At least one was in heat, her need teasing the stag mind. But there was something… wrong about this. Not in the sense of bestiality – he was comfortable enough as a stag to find no offense in mating. It was more a feeling of foreboding, a warning.
If Benjamin felt the same way, he gave no indication. The young stag approached the three females and shook his head, then pawed at the ground. His audience appeared unimpressed, at least until he suddenly lifted his head and gave a deep, guttural roar.
Matthew lifted his own head without thinking and only just managed to still a matching bellow. His instincts were flaring again, and the intensity behind them made him tremble. Resisting became more difficult as the young stag continued.
Two of the females moved off as Benjamin advanced, but the third remained in place, her ears flicking calmly. Benjamin looked back at Matthew, ears perked and eyes bright. There was something very human in the expression that came across as a mischievous grin. He was obviously planning to explore the more pleasurable aspects of being a stag.
It was hard to tell what was improvised by the young man and what came naturally to the deer. He sniffed at her raised tail, licked her, and prodded her rump with his nose. The actual sexual act was rather anticlimactic. Benjamin pressed against the female, and then twisted awkwardly to cover her. She skittered away the first time, but then remained still as he tried again and pushed up over her back. He thrust once, then twice, practically standing on his hind legs. They stayed like that for perhaps four or five seconds, and then he slid off. The female scampered off a ways, and then started grazing. Benjamin stood there another few moments and joined her sampling the grass.
Matthew’s struggle eased quickly once the mating was completed. Part of him still had an urge to try the female himself, knowing that he could drive the smaller male off easily if he wanted to. However, human sensibilities were almost amused at how little there was to the experience. Benjamin was probably feeling a bit embarrassed – the great stag, symbol of strength and sexuality. Four seconds, tops.
He waited a few minutes to make sure that they were done, then made his way over to where Benjamin grazed. The smaller male flicked his ears and raised his head as Matthew approached, looking unsettled and actually backing away a few steps. Matthew stopped, puzzled. There was no reason for Benjamin to be nervous – he had been the leader since they joined up. The young stag began grazing again, but kept a wary eye towards Matthew.
Matthew’s sense of foreboding returned as he watched Benjamin for a few minutes. The aura of purpose was missing, leaving the boy almost indistinguishable from… He slowly moved to stand by Benjamin, then carefully lifted a foreleg and pawed at the ground six times. The young buck jerked back at the first motion, then watched with curiosity until he stopped. After a moment, he leaned forward and sniffed at the spot where Matthew’s hoof had dug into the earth. An ear flicked, and then he went back to grazing.
Realization struck like one of the Green Man’s arrows. Benjamin William Beckwith was gone. The young buck was a normal animal in all respects, a stag who might even end up hunted by those he once called friends. Spinning with a bleat of fear, Matthew leaped towards the forest and ran back the way they had come.
If you survive. Matthew suddenly understood the Green Man’s words. He and the young man had both had the same idea – escape the hunt, avoid the hounds and arrows. That was the one sure way to live. But not to survive. Everything that made Benjamin who he was, good or bad, had been snuffed out in the four seconds it had taken him to mount the doe.
Even if Matthew could continue to resist temptation, to fight against instincts, he was already losing to the deer. The meaningless marks on the sign were just the first steps. They had been out here for no more than a handful of hours. How long would it be before Matthew’s eyes emptied of intelligence, before all that he was faded away?
He exploded back out onto the side road and charged for the end, hooves throwing up snow and dirt. What time was it? The Green Man and his pack would vanish at sunrise, taking with them any hope of Matthew’s survival.
Matthew made the turn at the end and set out alongside the main road at a dead run. He was dimly aware of headlights that came up from behind, hardly noticing even the screech of tires as he recognized the break in the trees where they had come through and darted across the road. Deer, ponies, and other forest creatures scattered as he tore through the woods, and in some cases the woods tore back. He flinched as sharp branches and thorns caught at his thick fur, some even penetrating to the hide underneath.
He was running in bland panic again, only this time it was caused by his own terror, not raging instincts. Did the sky seem a little brighter? The sick feeling intensified. Did he have hours or minutes? The words remained in his head, but he could not assign values to them. Time. He knew it was running out.
The second road came up before he quite expected it, and he burst from one side and crashed back into the other without stopping. Muscles burned and lungs ached now, even this powerful form reaching its limits. How long had he been running? It didn’t matter. He pushed even harder, willing his legs to go faster. The clearing was ahead now, not far.
And then he heard the hounds.
They must have been scattered in the woods. First one sounded, then another as the huge dogs picked up his trail. Cold dread filled Matthews gut as he picked up the dark, snarling shapes that angled in from the sides and closed slowly from behind. If he hadn’t been running so far, so long, he could have pulled away. But the heavy exertion had taken its toll, and even now Matthew was starting to slow.
Fangs nipped the back of one leg, followed by a pained yelp as his hoof connected. Matthew stumbled and caught himself, the momentary delay allowing another hound to leap up and bite as his flank. He grunted in pain, swerving just in time to avoid the headlong rush of yet another dog that had appeared in front of him. The hounds snapped at him, growling and snarling ferociously. They were herding him, he realized, guiding him to the Green Man and his bow.
He stumbled again as he approached the edge of the woods that would open up into the clearing. His body was giving out, muscles failing. More fangs tore at his hide, and he had a sudden memory of the injured stag being ripped to pieces by the pack. No! He drew energy from the very core of his being, surging forward on pure will alone, and burst out into the open, expecting the sudden impact and instant death of the Green Man’s arrow.
The clearing was empty except for a ravaged, headless carcass. Matthew stopped, staggering and close to collapsing. The hounds charged from the forest behind him, and he cringed. However they did not attack. Instead, the huge dogs formed a circle around him, staring intently with eyes that shone with the same soft moonlight as their master’s.
The Green Man’s voice reverberated in the air, and an instant later he was standing directly in front of Matthew. He gestured to the side, and three stag’s heads appeared on the ground beside him. The stench of blood, of death, was nearly overwhelming.
“Three have met their end. Two escaped.” The coarse bestial features twisted into a cold grimace. “And you survived.”
It took a moment for Matthew to realize the Green Man was probably smiling. At least he had not readied his bow. More importantly, he could see the faint glow of dawn just starting to tinge the sky. Hope surged. He would be made human again!
The Green Man stared at him in silence for a moment. Then he stepped back. “What is done cannot be undone. But for he who chose to survive, I make an adjustment.”
Green fire suddenly engulfed Matthew and he gave a grunting bellow of fear. The heat sank deep into his body, filling his bones with warmth that seemed to rebound back through his flesh and muscle. Then the pain and exhaustion was gone. If anything, Matthew felt stronger, more powerful than before. For good reason. He realized his eyes were level with those of the Green Man, which meant he had to be seven feet tall at the shoulders. The spread and mass of his antlers must be enormous. He was aware of their weight but his thickly muscled neck supported them effortlessly. His nostrils flared, and he turned his head to see that he was surrounded, not by huge hounds, but by six beautiful does.
“You are the finest of my children, the most magnificent, the new Emperor of Exmoor.” The Green Man gestured towards the woods. “Take your harem, Emperor. I cannot guarantee long life, but if you use that which is yours and that which I have given you, it shall be a rich one.” He gestured once again, and the grisly trophies vanished, along with the mangled corpse. Then, as the first rays of sunlight began to filter through the tops of the trees, he dissolved into a shimmer of silver dust that drifted slowly to the ground.
Matthew stared at the spot for a few moments, and then around at the females. They returned his gaze with bright, curious eyes. He hoped they were also survivors. And that they were as comfortable in their new forms as he was. The added size and strength was already ‘normal’ to him, though the satisfaction, the pleasure of movement remained.
Would it be enough? Matthew sighed. The memories of his human past remained, somewhat vague in places, but enough to remind him of what he might have done, might have accomplished. None of it seemed important, or at least, more important than the life he now faced. Was that more of the Green Man’s doing? Did it matter?
The Emperor of Exmoor gave a deep, powerful roar and then bolted for the woods, followed by his harem. The relative safety of the sanctuary beckoned, and he was eager to explore his new domain.