Excerpt for No Such Thing as Dasher by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





NO SUCH THING

as DASHER


by


Juli D. Revezzo




Raven Queen Publications, 2017






No such thing as Dasher, Raven Queen Publications, November 2017

Copyright © 2016, 2017 by Juli D. Revezzo, Raven Queen Publications


Cover design by Raven Queen Publications.

Artwork copyrights: RondellMelling, Pixabay. Reindeer clipart from Clipart Panda.


All logos copyright © 2012 by Boulevard Photografica/Patty G. Henderson



ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: Except for short quotations in reviews, this literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction or other means now known or hereafter invented or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without express written permission of the author. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or any other means without the permission of the author and publisher is illegal and punishable by law.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, products and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


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Table of contents


Cover page

Copyright


No Such thing as Dasher


Author’s Note/Thanks for reading

Also by Juli

About the Author







NO SUCH THING AS DASHER



The hoof print on the victim’s forehead told Avery someone had a sick idea of a Christmas revelry.

“It’s a deer’s hoof.” She recognized it as one of many she spotted in her own yard, growing up.

So, he’d met his death by blunt trauma to the head.

What killed him? Why did he sport a hoof print on his forehead? In the last nine months she’d worked for the Virginia Forestry Department, she’d seen a lot of accidents out here. Nothing involving deer hooves.

“Maybe we ought to petition the state to lower the speed limit,” an officer said.

“What good would it do?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Seems to me, he scrabbled with Rudolph,” she voiced the quip and her fellows chuckled.

“Did anyone see a red-nosed fleeing driver?” one asked.

“Or Dasher. Why’d the author pick reindeer?” Doesn’t matter, at the moment. She filed the idea away for another time. Avery shook her head. “Never did make sense to me, enslaving a wild animal. Why not have Santa use dogs or horses?”

Her partner shrugged.

“Do you think he thanks them for their help?”

It was a better thought than concentrating on this poor hiker’s death. Mr. Alvin Schmidt, fifty-seven years old, according to his driver’s license.

“He’s lucky he wasn’t here this Fall.”

“What about the Fall?” the coroner asked.

Avery crossed her arms and peered at the official, noting the hair at the crown of his head was much thinner than her too-thick dishwater ponytail. “Fall is reindeer mating season.”

“You’re kidding. I thought that was…well, now.”

“Nope.”

“He’s lucky.” The coroner kept on with his work. “The deer might’ve gored him, rather than just kick him in the head.”

Avery looked away as he continued. She’d never gotten used to the gore of death.

She helped as the police did all they could to gather evidence, the first step in their investigation. Avery climbed into her SUV. The back seat was full of her equipment: First Aid kits, orange road cones, and a semi-automatic rifle, just in case. Raging animals could be deadly, and she didn’t need this latest accident to tell her that.

The reports logged, she went back to work, the next night, and the next. The worst were the nights she had to help the paramedics get men and women out of trouble in the forest.

In all the nights that passed, she never saw anyone else mauled by a stray deer, and was thankful for it.

She looked over her report one last time. Something was missing in Schmidt’s timeline. Why had the deer, as it seemed, kicked the poor dead man? Had they overlooked a rifle somewhere? Was he hunter, and not merely a hiker? The thought made her furious, for she hated to think of some human hurting the deer for no reason. And what reason could modern man, with grocery stores in abundance all over, need to kill the animal?

Why was he out there, in the way of a rampaging deer? She didn’t think the victim was an unlucky hunter. They’d found no rifle near his body. Nor did they find photos of the animal on the man’s phone. So he wasn’t out for art’s sake.

The police called her back. Apparently, she wasn’t the only one still wondering about this case. “Ranger Cuthbert, this is Officer Lydecker, Middelburg PD. We spoke last night. I have a few more questions, if you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind at all. What can I help you with?”

She answered as best she could but she couldn’t swear she’d ever seen the victim before yesterday. There was no evidence to say he’d ever harassed a poor deer. But it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility.

“So the attacking animal may, or may not, have been merely defending its territory, or its young?”

“I’d say it probably was. I’d wonder if Alvin Schmidt provoked the animal out of fun. Was he drunk at the time?”

“Toxicology hasn’t come back,” Officer Leydecker said. “But it was possible.”

“More likely, the poor man was in the wrong place at the wrong time as the buck stampeded through.”

Leydecker thanked her for her help and ended the call.

“Find anything?” another ranger’s voice drew her attention away from her computer screen.

Avery sat back and rubbed at her stiff neck trying to soothe a pain there. “Not yet, Brooker.”

Heidi Brooker, at once a colleague and a friend, knew when she was working herself too hard and tried to make her take a break, once in a while. “I’m not sure there is anything to find,” she said. “Mr. Schmidt had a run of bad luck, nothing more.”

Avery opened her mouth to argue.

Heidi twiddled with the end of a dark braid streaked golden from the sun; her thin cheekbones, slim wrists and hands, showed a slight sunburn despite winter. “At least take tonight off. Come out with us.”

She glanced to her computer, nudging the mouse. The date and time displayed in tiny letters to the left hand of the screen: December 23, 7:21 PM. “Out? No, I have to finish this up.”

“What’s there to finish? You turned in all the paperwork already.”

“Maybe.” Maybe that wasn’t all to the story. How to explain to her friend that she felt as if she was missing something?

Heidi shrugged. “Fine, then. I’ll see you New Year’s Eve, though? Don’t forget, the party starts at nine.”

“I wouldn’t miss it.”

Her friend laughed, nudged her, left the station. Avery stared at her computer, typing, erasing, thinking, for another half-hour. Thwarted of more information, she snatched her coat and the iconic Ranger hat from the closet and headed into the wintery night.

She made her way back to the accident scene. There, the bloodstain where they’d found poor Alvin. The snow had already covered most of the red stain, but a drop or two stood uncovered.

She peered north, toward the trees. A line of footprints headed into the forest. Fresh hoof prints, as well. With the number of deer around here, on better days, she would disregard them. Tonight, something pulled her to investigate deeper.

Kicking snow out of her way, she dove in. Snow fell from tree branches as she pushed them out of her way. A rabbit poked its head up from its warren to watch her. A fox with a bushy gray tail froze, feet away, and crouched down, eyeing her before turning its attention back to the poor rabbit. Avery trudged deeper in, following the deer tracks. The fox circled back on its trail and disappeared into the trees in the opposite direction.

The deer tracks stopped under an American Beech tree. Its leaves still glistened golden, despite the snow gracing the branches. Here, Avery noticed something strange. Human footprints replaced the deer tracks.

A human? Avery drew a pad and pen from her inner coat pocket and made a note: He might’ve provoked the animal. She settled on a cold, downed log as she watched the landscape, considering the deepening shadows, the mystery of the woods and that of the puzzle before her. If the man were a hunter, a deer, especially one with the kinds of impressive horns she’d seen now and again, would be an enticing prize. And a deadly foe. But there weren’t any puncture marks on the victim’s body. Did the deer jump over him and knock him senseless, not giving up his head and no doubt impressive antlers. Avery felt a little pride for the animal’s victory, and made another note.

That’s what happens when you anger the spirit of the forest.

Fancy though it was, was it possible that’s what happened?

She noticed him watching her, then. A dark shape against the darker shape of the trees. Not ten feet away, a man crouched at the base of a tree, surrounded by the two-foot tall babies it dropped. From her perch, and his angle, the lower of the branches, empty of leaves, seemed to rise from his head.

Or were they antlers? Avery feared to breathe, or move a finger, or to rub her eyes to be certain this was no illusion, for fear she might frighten the man away.

He sat watching her quietly. She was no artist, but she drew a crude sketch of him, then scratched out the horns of which she wasn’t certain. The police department artist would maybe find use out of her drawing. On second thought, she wondered if she shouldn’t keep this to herself. Depending…

“Hi.” She scolded herself for the lame opening. How often had she given speeches and tours to various groups, and the best opening she could come up with was “hi”?

None of her usual speeches applied to…him. She flexed the fingers of her left hand, cold and stiff in her gloves.

The man simply watched her.

She tried again. “I can see you’re from around here. Where’s your car?”

“Car?” His voice cut across the space between them, gruff. As if he hadn’t spoken all day. Maybe longer than a day. He nodded. “Oh, those noisy things.”

What did that mean? She frowned and made a note of his reply. “Right. I’m guessing you don’t have one. Not important. Care to tell me if you saw anything strange out here, earlier tonight?”

“I see a woman. One who has no business being here.”

“Don’t I?”

“You’re cold. Your ears are cold, your nose is getting cold.”

He was right about that.

“Unlike me, you’re not used to this climate.”

He says he’s used to the cold, she scribbled. How? “Then you live out here?”

Transient?

She underlined the question twice.

But he looked rather clean for a transient. “Let me rephrase the question.”

“Please do.”

“Someone was hurt out here tonight. He died. Did you see or hear anything of that sort?”

“Things die in the wild all the time. Isn’t that why you call it the ‘wild’?”

She supposed he had a point. “This was an unnatural death. Maybe a run in with some animal, we think. Maybe a deer, or even a reindeer.”

“Do you believe so?”

“You didn’t hear anything like that? Screams.”

“Yes.”

She sat back, surprised. “You heard cries for help?”

“Oh yes.” His thin cheek twitched. “Everything within miles can hear when men come. You’ve forgotten how to walk among us.” He cocked his head, studying her, and indeed, an antler was visible as he moved it away from the tree trunk. “Most of you.”

“Hunters do need the advantage of stealth.”

“I’m not speaking of the hunters, Avery.”

She blinked. How does he know my name? “Do you mean—I’m not sure what you mean.”

“And yet, here you are, speaking with me. Not many do.” He jerked his head toward the direction from which she’d entered this clearing. “He didn’t understand me, your dead kin.”

“He’s not my kin.” She blinked. What had he said? “You did see him?”

“Only when it was too late.”

She leaned forward, watching him. No threatening vibe emanated from his slim form. A fine chest under…a fur vest? She refocused on her line of questioning. “What do you mean, when it was too late? Did you try to help him? Are you the one who called us?”

He held up his hands, large, and yet, elegant. “Called you what?” A perplexed look crossed his features. “Forgive me, your communication is…secondary to me, and I don’t need it often.”

“What’s your native language, Mr…?”

“You wouldn’t understand either my language, or what others call me. Few do.”

“Try me.”

He rumbled…It was the only way she knew to describe the noise. Something between a snort that then became a whine, and ended up sounding something like the word Ernie.

Avery winced at the sound. “How about if I just call you Ernie?”

“Ernie?” His smile reappeared. “I suppose that will do.”

“So, Ernie, you didn’t call us. The police, I mean, but you did help him. Can you tell me what happened to Mr. Schmidt?”

“Your bodies can take far less than comparable creatures, you know.”

So, something knocked him around. That much was obvious. “I don’t.”

“Bucks of that size hit each other several times before succumbing. You people are fragile.”

“A deer did hit him?” She shivered but more from the gust of frigid wind stirring through the forest than at his words. “Am I fragile?”

“You tell me. You are, even now, freezing, are you not?”

She nodded, then scolded herself for it. “I’m fine. But I know there’s a pot of hot coffee, and a nice working central heating system back at my office. Why don’t we continue this conversation there?”

“Ernie” raised his head as if to gaze up at the naked branches overhead, showing off his long neck and average Adam’s apple. Flecks of snow fell away from his dark hair.

A click sounded in the distance, sounding like the latch on the tailgate of her vehicle. Avery cursed herself and rose. While she sat here talking to this man—or whatever he was—was someone breaking into her car?

Before she took a step to find out, something floated into the clearing, between the trees: The blanket from her emergency supply box. The green scratchy wool rectangle hovered before her in the air for a moment, then wafted over and folded around her shoulders.

She gaped at the clearing from whence it came, in awe. So, he was a magician?

“Better?” he inquired. “I’m sorry I can’t provide you with that pot of coffee you requested. I think you’ll do fine, however, on the several cups you’ve had already.”

“How can you tell how much I’ve had?” She snuggled into the blanket. “And I wouldn’t call it several.”

“Three, then. I can tell because it leaves a distinct scent on you.”

“I suppose.” Maybe she had had too much. Her blood was racing now but she didn’t think mere caffeine had anything to do with it. “You think Mr. Schmidt was fragile? What suggested that to you?”

“Other than the physical evidence?” He touched his forehead.

“Of an attack you didn’t see.”

“What brought him out here, you think?”

Avery looked around the clearing, taking in the angle of the light through the trees. The moon was up. “Your woods. They’re beautiful.”

He nodded as if in thanks. “Would that be enough for him?”

“For some people.”

“For you?”

Avery laughed. “Yes, but forgive me if I’d rather this visit was taking place in spring or summer.” He was silent for a moment so she asked again, “What did you see?”

“I saw a man lying prone, and unconscious, with an odd imprint on his forehead. Almost like a dead animal.”

She gulped. “He is dead.”

“Then I saw the same as you. And I’m sorry to hear of his demise.”

“Describe it. Describe the mark for me.”

He searched in a small circle around him, and came up with a stray, downed branch. With this, he began drawing in the dirt before him. She had to move a little closer to see what he wrote.

Ernie looked up at her and she noted, from the top of his head down, he was all man. His arms resembled that of an Atlas carved in stone. His mouth was a smaller slit than she was used to in most men, but enticing. The hair sprinkled across his chest was at once brown and gray. It made her wonder if he was older than thirty, as she’d first supposed. His eyes were green, like trees in summer. One, anyway. The other was blue. But a blink later, the two colors switched places. The left blue, the right green.

No hint of antler stuck up from his head. The look had come only from the outline of the branches behind him, she supposed.

She blinked but he kept on drawing. A small circle took shape on the ground. “Something like this. Like a hoof.”

As she peered at the circle, she decided the shape looked more like a bisected oval. Like he’d said, “An animal’s hoof?”

“Reindeer.” He nodded. “Have you made laws against animals defending themselves?”

Sometimes rabid dogs, yes, but she didn’t think it prudent to tell him the truth. “No.”

“Would you harm them for doing so, Avery?”

She blinked. “Me? No. I wouldn’t.”

Her oath seemed to satisfy him.

She moved closer and he jumped to his feet in a move she never thought she’d be able to duplicate and darted away.

“Wait!” She bolted after him, ducking around tree branches, and jumping over downed logs. Until she miscalculated, smacking her forehead on the low branch of an oak tree.

Stars exploded across her vision; her knees buckled. The last thing she saw before she lost consciousness was two strong arms bracing her collapse.



Someone or something warm snuggled close, pulling her into a warm embrace.



A high-pitched beeping awoke her. Underneath that, several voices called out for her.

“Avery!”

“Ranger Cuthbert!”

“Avery!”

Groaning, Avery opened her eyes, only to see nothing.

She lay on something hard and cold. Several fingers reached out above her.

No, not fingers. Branches. Her vision cleared by degrees and she pushed herself to a sitting position. Light sparkled through the snow and icicle-drenched branches, like decorations on a Christmas tree.

The blanket, and several leaves, fell forward to land in her lap. She blinked at the clearing. “Ernie” was gone. But she remained here in the open forest where they’d spoken. Her head throbbed. A thermos stood beside her.

“Avery!”

She opened the thermos to find it filled with hot coffee. “Thanks, Ernie,” she said into the darkness, and cradled the warm aluminum, using its heat to warm her chilled hands.

Where was he, anyway?

She fished into her coat for her cell phone, and saw from the clock on the screen that it was five PM on December 24th.

She’d lost a whole day. How had she not frozen to death out here?

Her head throbbed as if at the realization and she rubbed at her temples.

A distinct memory returned: A warm body, strong arms enfolding her, someone’s who smelled of pine needles and pitch. “Ernie?” she whispered.

Leaves and snow crunched under boots. “Avery!” Her friend Heidi Brooker shouted.

“Here!” Avery hoped her voice was strong enough for Heidi to hear her.

Her legs tingled as she pushed to her feet. Pins and needles stabbed into her toes, and traveled up to her calves. Even her legs had fallen asleep.

Before she exited the clearing, she took one last look over her shoulder.

A nose peeked out from behind the trees, black, flat, round. A deer? One blue eye emerged. It winked.

Avery took a step toward it, and the eyes and nose darted behind the covering of trees.

“There you are! Oh, thank God. We were worried about you!” Heidi strode over and gave her a hug, knocking the blanket off her shoulders. She retrieved it, brushed some leaves from Avery’s Virginia Forestry Department patch, and wrapped the blanket around her again. “What happened to you? You’re chilled to the bone, girl! How long have you been out here?”

The questions rolled out of her friend’s mouth in a rush, almost three questions for every step they took in finding their way out of the woods. Heidi settled her into the open back door of an ambulance. While the paramedics tended to her, three or four patrolmen stood around, asking her questions.

She told them an edited version of her last day, leaving out the lengthy conversation she’d had with what she suspected was a half-man, half-reindeer… creature. As she did so, she noticed Ernie was nowhere in sight.

Where had he gone?

She promised the paramedics she would see her doctor first thing after Christmas just to be sure of her health.

Heidi touched her shoulder. “Let me drive you home.”

“No. I can’t. Who will take my car?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Heidi said, “I’ll grab Mike and we’ll come and pick it up tomorrow before we run to Dad’s.”

Avery held up a hand. “I can’t ask you to do that.”

Another SUV pulled up and the stocky, short form of her section chief folded himself out. Heidi whistled. Avery braced herself. Though he wore a heavy coat, gloves, and had a blue knit cap pulled down over his ears, under his uniform hat, his cheeks and nose glowed red from the temperatures.

“Cuthbert, do you mind telling me what you’re doing out here?” Chief Ranger Spencer bellowed.

“Sir, I was just doing my job.”

“What? Costing me an officer?”

Avery cringed. “Following up on Schmidt’s case.”

“What case?” He waved a hand in the direction they’d found the victim’s body. “It was an accident. And not one worth losing one of my rangers over.”

“I’m fine, sir. Ask them, if you don’t believe me.” She pointed to the paramedics.

The chief cocked his head at them; Avery noticed they shook their heads. “Get yourself to the hospital, get checked out.”

“I’m fine, sir.”

He eyed her up and down. “You don’t look it.”

She shrugged the blanket from her shoulders. “I am. Really.”

“Go home.” He pointed to her car. “I don’t want to see you until after Christmas.”

That was the plan, after all.

“And then, I don’t want to see you if you don’t have a doctor’s note.”

“Sir.”

He turned his back on her. Avery balled a fist in the blanket.

“Come on.” Heidi wound an arm around her shoulders and steered her to her black SUV. “Don’t worry about it. He’ll cool off. While we’re on the subject, mind telling me what you risked your life for? Maybe if I knew that, I can help smooth Spencer’s feathers.”

“I had a hunch about Alvin Schmidt’s accident.”

“And? What’d you find out?”

“It was just a horrible accident. He was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.” If she told her friend the truth, that Schmidt had angered the Forest Lord, would she believe her? Straight-laced Heidi? Never.

Avery put her keys in the door, Heidi took them away. “I’ll drive you,” she said.

Avery snatched them back. “Come on, you don’t have to baby me. Aside from a headache, and a crick in my neck from the heap I ended up sleeping in, I’m fine.”

Heidi stood back and scrutinized her, then stepped away from the door. “All right then. I’ll see you Sunday night.”

Settling into her driver’s seat, she waited for the vents to blow warm before she pried her cold fingers from the steering wheel. A glance to her rearview mirror showed her the quiet forest edging the highway, nothing more.

Once home, she showered until the warm water ran cold, then made herself a cup of hot tea, while waiting for her hair to dry a little. She turned the hair dryer’s warm stream on her arms and chest, as much as her damp hair. By the time she was comfortable, she noticed it was getting close to nine o’clock. She called her mother. “I’m sorry, I’m late. I know.”

“Why?”

“Work.”

“Is something wrong?” her mother asked.

“No, nothing. Routine junk.” Why she’d spent all night in the forest was too much to go into over the phone. “I’ll be there soon, but I have to make a stop first.”

Donning a green turtleneck, white sweater, jeans, thick socks and her boots, she grabbed her coat and purse, gathered up a few gifts for her sister, and exited her apartment building. Couples filtered past her, into her neighbor’s apartment. Music blasted out the door as she passed. Avery smiled at them, wished them Merry Christmas, but hoped they turned the stereo off by the time she got home.

The air outside proved even colder than yesterday evening. How had she slept outside in this and survived?

In contrast to the deep green and white shades of the evening woods she’d left behind earlier, Main Street was aglow with red and green lights; tinsel and wire formed into the shape of bells, angels, and more hung on every street lamp.

The town mall decorating committee had decked the glass and steel structure out in similar decorations and far too many people wound through its shops.

Why have you come? she asked herself. She’d done her Christmas shopping weeks ago, but then that was before she’d met Ernie. He deserved something for sitting with her, talking to her, helping her.

But what did she even know about him? He seemed as comfortable in the forest as she did in her own living room—and very bitter about the way most men treated nature.

That thought sent her to the camping section of a sporting goods store.

This is a stupid idea, she thought as she perused the shelves. You know nothing about him. What would someone like him actually need? Access to clean water, sunshine, a nice warm place to sleep in the winter.

She had a fleeting idea about that, but pushed the thought away.

But not before admitting to herself, she was falling in love with this Forest Lord. Or, at least into infatuation.

What an impossible situation!

She chose an eco-friendly bowl, paid, and headed out of the store, hoping the traffic wasn’t too heavy.

The most obnoxious houses she passed sported singing Santas, reindeer, and dancing elves, on their roofs and across lawns. She couldn’t see home yet, but she knew what to expect. Could swear she heard the electric Santa’s “ho-ho-ho’s” and the noises of her father’s other yard decorations from here. Dad never did obey the noise ordinances when it came to his holiday trimmings. Why should he, when his daughter knew quite a few cops?

Something large darted into the path of her car. Avery slammed on her brakes, but despite her best efforts, the icy roads thwarted her. She skidded right into the beast.

Avery felt its body tumble under her wheels. The impact jolted and tossed her every which way, despite her seatbelt. She smacked her head on the steering wheel.

Dazed, she studied herself in the rearview mirror noting a growing crimson welt on her cheek. Her eyes, blue as her coat, held a glazed look to them; a few dishwater blonde hairs had fallen out of her French braid. She blinked back at the cracked windshield struggling to clear her mind, focus on what was more important. Where was the deer?

Oh, shoot! Did I have to hit a deer?

She’d always avoided sledding and skiing trips, just because she feared one would dart out in front of her.

Oh, please don’t let me have hit a deer.

Especially not now, since she’d seen, or thought she saw, two peeking out of the trees at her, just hours ago.

Where was it, though?

There. In a moment, the animal rose up through her hood. A rack of impressive horns grew from its crown. How it stuck up through the crumpled white fiberglass of her car’s hood, she didn’t know.

Glowing green eyes studied her through the windshield.

Avery gasped in a startled breath. The reindeer-being shimmered and turned into Ernie, half-naked. He reached through her windshield and tugged her into his warm, furry arms, the same that had sheltered her from hypothermia.

“Ernie?”

His gaze softened, offering peace and something else she couldn’t—or didn’t want to—identify right now. She found herself mesmerized.

“Merry Christmas, Avery,” he said, and his ardent lips brushed hers.

Avery accepted the kiss, tasting sweet berries. The scents of snow, of pine needles, and open fields filled her nose. A feeling of comfort and safety in the heat of him washed over her, a feeling she couldn’t explain. She, for a moment, thought she could see the two of them alone before a fireplace.

A moment later she felt herself ooze to the sidewalk, alone.

Her vehicle rested over the curb, the windshield smashed. A sliver or two of glass glistened on her coat sleeves, and brushing a gloved hand over her hair, more rained down. Only a minor cut marred her cheek and there was a small tear at the shoulder of her coat.

Trembling, Avery got to her feet, cell phone to her ear. While she awaited the emergency crews, she searched the area. Seeing no tracks, no evidence of the animal or of anything other than skid marks from her tires and the broken yard decorations she’d plowed into, she laughed to herself. Kissed by Dasher. I must be hallucinating. And saved by him too. Surely her windshield would’ve done more damage, had she not…what?

Even now, she felt the soft touch of the glass, as if she’d fallen through some Christmas pudding.

A memory arose unbidden of stories of animal lords. There were stories in Greek mythology that she’d always found odd, of women falling in love with animals, bulls, rabbits. Native American myths; faery tales; ancient European legends. All had stories of a lord of deer. She’d always loved them.

Was this … strange creature the spirit spoken of in them?

Before she had a chance to wonder if she’d become a tad hysterical, something shifted in the darkness, and forced the laughter to heel.

Peering into the shadows, she saw an outline of a shape, a man in form, near a bush, but well out of sight of casual on lookers. Two long, slim somethings resembling branches rose from his head. Like some stag king out of legend.

She narrowed her eyes and pushed to her feet. Did it—he—still stand here spying on her? Was he doing so now?

Avery started in his direction, then realized, “It’s foolish to go stumbling off into the dark again on a night like this.”

Snow caressed her cheek as the voice, or her own thoughts, reminded her of the folly of further investigation.

The pulsing red and blue lights, the sirens coming closer, made her wonder something else. How much trouble was she facing for this night’s accident? Practical considerations crept in. If she sat here any longer in the darkness of this cold, snowy Christmas eve, she might freeze.

Red and blue lights flashed in the distance. Despite the pain in her head and the taste of his magical kiss still on her lips, she must get moving. Mom was never going to believe this excuse.



Christmas lights drenched the two-story house. Yes, indeed, dad set the obnoxious Santa up. But Avery was happy to see the lights on. After her odd night, home was welcome.

With the death investigation in motion, and her own accident and disciplinary troubles logged into the department files, she needed a semblance of normalcy.

A wicker Easter basket, decorated with red and green plaid bows, waited at the bottom of the steps, on its side. One lone dog biscuit sat at the bottom.

Dad answered the doorbell’s chime. His dark red and green-striped sweater stood out against the white of the staircase and carpet. He welcomed her with a hug. “Head into the kitchen, sweetie. Mom’s heating up dinner for you. What happened to your head?”

Welcome central heating hummed from vents in their popcorn ceiling. A tall white, plastic Christmas tree stood before the window, lit up with blue and white twinkling lights. A red and green knitted blanket draped across the navy blue upholstered couch. Greeting cards stood on the top of the stereo, the television, and tucked into the frame of the family pictures. Carols played from the stereo. Dad whistled along to one, a hand on her back. The protective touch soothed her.

“I see the neighborhood dogs got here earlier,” Avery said. Sliding out of a coat sleeve, she jerked a thumb toward the door. She frowned when she saw the small tear in the collar of her turtleneck shirt. From the glass when she went through? No, more likely, like the cut on her cheek, this happened when it shattered.

She silently thanked her furry savior. Her night would be much different if her head bashed through the glass.

Still, Dasher, did you have to dart in front of me? Why didn’t you wait six seconds to cross the street?

The more Avery thought about the reindeer, the angrier she grew with herself. Who else to blame? The reindeer’s forefathers hadn’t decided to bring civilization right up into her front yard.

Dad took her coat and gloves and set them on the edge of the couch. “As usual.” His soft fingers brushed over the bandage taped on her forehead. Concern lit his eyes. “What kind of night have you been having?”

“A pretty mild one, all told.” She exaggerated, but then, she’d seen worse than the wreck she had.

“Anything I should worry about?”

“No, Dad. I’m fine.” He fussed over her for a moment, the Santa hat slipping to reveal a hint of his balding head. She smiled as she settled it back into place. “I’ve had a strange night, but I’ll be all right.”

She would say no more. How could she explain the death she’d investigated, or her own accident and its weird aftermath?

The scents of bread stuffing, of savory turkey and gravy, of sweet pies filled the air. They found her mother pulling a plate of cut turkey, mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole from the microwave. Plump at fifty-one and fighting every pound, she still cooked too much for her family. A Santa Claus in his sleigh decorated the plate.

“Avery, here you are!” She set the plate down, brushed a dark blonde hair out of her gray eyes and round cheeks, and hugged her.

Then Avery let the leftovers occupy her and she listened as her mother explained she’d missed her sister and that she, her husband, and daughter would be back tomorrow afternoon for lunch.

“Why don’t you give her the dog biscuit basket?” Avery suggested. “You don’t need to keep feeding the neighborhood strays.”

Mother handed her a glass emblazoned with a reindeer, filling it with fruit punch. “And what if a reindeer happens by?”

Avery and her father exchanged a puzzled glance. Dad shrugged.

“They’ll have to wait for Santa,” Avery said. “I’ll bet he carries reindeer chow in his big ole bag.”

Her mother’s eyes gleamed. “And miss the chance to nuzzle one’s nose?”

Avery choked, and kept on coughing. Dad shoved the glass into her hand and Avery took small sips of her drink until her coughing fit subsided.

Did her mother know what she’d said? Maybe the story she remembered did have a basis in reality.

Had Mom encountered the shapeshifting, kissing Bandit of a man, er…reindeer? Whatever he was? Where? When?

Through the tears the coughing fit caused, Avery glanced at the glass.

The reindeer merged with the Santa. The reindeer now resembled the one in her odd encounter. Sleek, tawny brown coat, a twinkle in his blue and green eyes. Antlers to be proud of.

He winked at her and blew her a kiss. I’ll see you tonight, my dear. Keep the chimney clear.

His voice filled her mind, just before her mother took the glass to refill it. “Wait, Mom!”

Was the thing-person who saved her a man, or as she suspected the actual living stag king? Something her ancient British ancestors whispered about around fires on nights like this. She’d never been a great student of history, but she remembered hearing such a tale of them. Heck, she’d heard local pagans spout something about horned gods. Now she knew why. The god made his home in her mountains.

Her sleek and furry savior sure made her wonder.

When she finally wrested the glass from her, Avery noticed the art was as before. Not a painted bell or antler out of place.

Keep the chimney clear. The request repeated in her mind.

Sure, we wouldn’t want to scorch his lovely coat.

Having seen him, Avery was sure she believed in the Reindeer King. And she hoped he really did come to visit her.



Mom sent her home with a plastic container full of leftovers, no matter she didn’t need it. Christmas dinner tomorrow would see her with more. Enough to keep her fed until February first, no doubt.

At home, the stress that bolstered her through dinner, and through the wrapping up of last minute gifts, found her dragging herself to bed. First, she checked the heater vents. All open. Rumor said Santa didn’t need a chimney. Did his breaking and entering apply to his reindeer?

Laughing to herself, she changed into warm pajamas and climbed into bed. The mattress enfolded her in a comforting burrow.

No dreams accompanied her into sleep, not at first. Then she remembered the victim, the bruise on his forehead in the shape of a hoof.

Avery opened her eyes to the dark bedroom. The shadows of snow-laden tree branches colored her walls. The digital clock on her nightstand didn’t shed much light. No sounds slipped through above the whoosh and clank of the heater as it shut off.

She snuggled further under the covers. A soft kiss brushed against her cheek, a tickling touch of a mustache.

Was someone in her room?

Or something?

She snapped on the light but found herself alone.

On second thought, the touch felt more like deerskin.

Deerskin?

The question filtered through her mind as a slow, steady clop, clop pulled her up again and she squinted toward her apartment balcony.

The wind, she was sure, but still, she forced herself out of bed, opened the double doors, and stepped outside. Wintry air raised goose bumps on her skin. She wrapped her arms around herself.

A wisp of a shadow darted away.

“Wait!” Avery followed it to see… darkness. And yet, she was sure he was there, somewhere. “I have a question.” The wind blew and she crossed her arms. “Why’d you save me from putting my head through the windshield?”

This was a question she wanted answered. Why her of all people?

Why not? The statement tickled across her mind. “You who were more receptive to me than others. So few humans see me for what I am. So few who do more than feeble patrols of the area for my safety from hunters. Many only see me as a trophy for their wall, or a slave to a holiday-loving elf, these days. You at least asked why.”

Hunters saw him as mere sport, and others, as Santa Claus’ reindeer for pulling his sleigh, must be what he meant, she thought.

He was right. Just yesterday, she’d asked why the storytellers didn’t choose another species for the job.

She moved to the right, to see if the moonlight fell on him better from this angle. She knew what she’d seen in the forest, and coming up from her radiator: man from the chest up, but for the impressive antlers sprouting from his head. But she’d never yet seen him in full light. A question remained about the lower half of him.

How human was he?

“Fewer talk to me, and fewer still ever say thank you for what I do for them. You did.”

She blinked, thought she might accept his answer. “I did. I want to thank you again for helping me, last night. I would’ve frozen to death if not for you.”

He nodded, accepting her thanks.

“Would you like to come back—come in?”

Then she’d get a good look at him. She wondered what she would see.

For a moment, he almost seemed as if he was afraid of her, not the other way around.

“No.” His answer was short and gruff. “Your air is too dry.”

She laughed. “I suppose you’re right.” Darn. Avery looked around the balcony, and back to the glass doors. “I ask because it’s a bit cold.” Understatement. He had already said she was fragile. Did her sleep in his woods change his mind about her?

“And what will I do? Curl up in your…”

She thought he was about to say “bed”. But he paused. Would it be so terrible? Not with a handsome man like him.

Then she reminded herself, he wasn’t quite the human he looked. Or looked part way, anyway.

“No,” he said. “I thank you, though.”

Avery nodded. “Can’t blame a girl for trying.” He was here, though, not in his forest. And unless she’d dreamed it, she’d been in his arms twice now. Each time, she felt as if he held her and gazed on her like a lover. What did that mean if he were…inhuman?

“But I take it you’re not someone who would stick around.”

“Around humans?” His eyes grew wide. “What? Forever?”

She shrugged. “Or at least a little while.”

He moved forward and here, in the light of the moon, she saw a man, nothing more. No hint of the horns stuck out from his head now, or maybe… She blinked. Yes, maybe they were there, an outline against the dark skyline behind him. His arms fit snug in a wool coat, pant legs extended beyond the coat’s hem. Wool gloves covered his big hands. Standing here now, he’d pass as human as anyone crossing the street down below, save for the question of the horns she thought appeared and disappeared depending on the angle at which he held his head.

He cupped her cheeks; she closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she saw real regret staring back at her. “No more,” he said, “then you could stand living in my world, forever.”

She let out a pent up breath, knowing he was right. “You might drop in from time to time.” What am I saying? He’s an animal.

Though he sure didn’t look or feel like one. More like a god.

She blinked.

A small, sexy smile curled his thin lips. “I might. And you’re right. I might be.”

A god?

“But you don’t believe in them anymore, you and your kind. No more than you believe the animals that resided here first have jurisdiction over the land. You consider these your mountains, your forest. Or most of you do.”

Avery gazed beyond him. Over his shoulder, she saw the crest of the Appalachian Mountains rise.

He was right. About all of it.

He’d stepped into the shadows and she realized he intended to leave.

Avery gulped trying to think of how to keep him here a little while longer. “Listen, are you all right? I mean, I didn’t hurt you when I… ran into you, did I?”

If he answered, it was no more than a whispered snort to her ears. He must be fine, if he’d made it here, and up three stories to her balcony. Maybe her dashing savior followed her home, as he’d implied he might.

“Wait.” She held up her hand, and noticed it was shaking. Still, she barreled ahead, “I have something for you.”

He stepped back into the moonlight. “You do?”

“Just wait.” She swept inside her apartment and snatched the eco-bowl from where she’d set it on the kitchen counter.

He looked it over, and laughed a little. “What do I do with this?”

“Whatever you need to. Drink out of it or whatever. I got it for you, for…what you did for me. You can put water in it, or kibbles. Whatever your kind eat. And if you happen to lose it, it’s biodegradable.”

He blinked.

“Meaning, it won’t take ten million years to disintegrate. It won’t hurt your woods, or your…kind. I think it’ll fall apart in the first heavy rain or if you lose it in a river or …something like that. But it doesn’t have a chemical that’ll poison anything, if you do. Supposedly. So if you want to keep it, don’t submerge it for long. I think.”

She realized she was babbling.

He smiled at her and touched her cheek. “I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”

For a moment, she wondered if the thoughts rattling around in her heart weren’t foolish. What it could mean for a forest god to court a girl like her. “Can you keep the deer out of my mom’s garden?”

“Oh.” He chuckled. “But we like the treats she provides.” He weighed the bowl in his hand. “Kibble, as you called it.”

“All right, fine.” She nuzzled his cheek; the beard much softer than any she’d felt in her past. “How about you ask them to keep away from her azaleas?”

He laughed long and loud before finally speaking against her cheek. “We’ll see.”

After a while, he extracted himself from her embrace and slipped away.

Locking the balcony doors, she noted the bandage had fallen away from her cheek. The cut healed thoroughly. She rushed to the mirror to be sure, ignoring her mussed dark hair, and the sleep rings underneath her eyes, the flannel red sleep shirt slid off one creamy white shoulder. But of her minor injury, no sign.

“Thanks,” she said into the dark night.

Along the streets below, colorful lights spread out to taper off into the distant curve of the mountains, lighting them like a dark Christmas tree, and sending thin rays of peace toward the starlit sky.




THE END






Thanks for Reading.


I know it’s just a little short story, but I hope it made your Christmas a little brighter. If you wish to read more of my Christmas stories, (for lack of a better term), I have a paranormal romantic mystery available. But I warn you, it has some “pink parts” so to speak, and so I’m not sure it would be classed as “clean” as “No Such Thing As Dasher”. However, if you’d like to look it up, the book is entitled Murder Upon a Midnight Clear.


At any rate, thank you for reading this story. Merry Christmas!

Juli D. Revezzo, 2017.






About the Author:


Juli D. Revezzo loves fantasy and Celtic mythology and writing stories with all kinds of fantastical elements. She is the author of the historical romances, House of Dark Envy, Watchmaker's Heart, and the Gothic paranormal romance Lady of the Tarot, the Christmas mystery romance Murder Upon a Midnight Clear, the Antique Magic paranormal series and Celtic Stewards Chronicles series and many more. She is also a member of the Independent Author Network and the Magic Appreciation Tour. To learn more about this and future releases, visit her at: http://www.julidrevezzo.com


Follow her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/julidrevezzo


or Twitter: https://twitter.com/julidrevezzo


Please subscribe to my Mailing List at: http://eepurl.com/pWI0T for news, more information on forthcoming stories and goodies!





Also by Juli D. Revezzo


Other works of paranormal romance:



Murder Upon a Midnight Clear (The Christmas-themed paranormal romantic mystery, I mentioned in the note above. Setting: present day)


Synopsis:


'Tis the season ... for death.


Murder reminds Detective Helene Collias of Holly PD that crime doesn't have any Christmas Spirit. And the last victim she ever expected to find in her case files this holiday season is the sister of her old flame, Sean Grant. Ordinarily, Helene's psychic gifts give her an edge but this time, that gift has short-circuited. Could her lingering attraction to Sean be blurring her abilities, or is something more sinister at work?




Changeling’s Crown (A New Adult Fantasy Romance, setting, present day)


Synopsis:


When Ianthe began her career as a faery godmother, she stumbled so badly that Snow White will probably never speak to her again. After a long suspension, she's finally been given a chance to redeem herself...but everything on this latest assignment is going wrong.


But why?


Worse, she definitely doesn't need an attractive mortal man distracting her from her duties. Of course, needs and wants are two different things.


Briak has had his eye on Ianthe for a very, very long time, but he's been waiting for just the right moment to make his move. Despite the fact all hell's about to break loose on his watch, he can't resist the opportunity to insert himself into her earthly assignment. Can he convince Ianthe of her true calling and thereby win her heart? Or will his subterfuge ultimately cost him her love?



Sing a Mournful Melody (A Gothic, vampire short story)


Synopsis:


At the turn of the 20th century, tragedy has left Maribelle grief-stricken. After her beloved husband is murdered, his body disappears from his crypt. Worse, ghostly voices call from the widow's Graphophone. Is she losing her mind, or does something wicked this way come?



~~All the above are available on Smashwords, Itunes and elsewhere. The following ebooks are exclusive with another Itunes competitor I’m not allowed to name. You’ll find links to every retail store on my author website and blog.



Celtic Stewards Chronicles (You can see more about this series on my site here.):

In a nutshell, the Celtic Steward Chronicles are about the women of a gods-blessed family of stewards over a sacred battleground. It is a property on which the Irish gods, the Tuatha dé Danann, fight a magical battle against the forces of evil, every five hundred years.


If something goes wrong, humanity will fall.


The history of the family of overseers and these battles spans from mythic Ireland to the Medieval period, to present day Florida.


There are currently three books in the series:

Passion’s Sacred Dance (book 1)

Druid Warrior’s Heart (book 2)

Druid Warrior Prince (book 3)



House of Cards

Lady of the Tarot (Reign of Tarot, book 2. ALSO AVAILABLE AS AN AUDIOBOOK FROM ITUNES)



What the cards foretell may be real, after all

1793: Having escaped the Reign of Terror, Emilie Maigny took refuge in England, trying to come to grips with the life and loss she left behind. When her brother, Sinjon, returns, a terrifying evil swoops down upon her. Nightmares plague her now, providing strange clues...but to what?

Scottish-born Linton Morrison spent his entire life in luxury, whiling away the hours in intense study of the tarot and the cards' hidden meanings, but until he met the lovely Emilie Maigny, he would never have guessed how important his study might be - to his life and Emilie's survival when terrible evil strikes.

A Cypher is all Emilie needs, but what is it? Is Linton the key? He may charm her heart - and he may be her only salvation.


Watchmaker’s Heart (ALSO AVAILABLE AS AN AUDIOBOOK FROM ITUNES)


1899: For Miss Phoebe Lockswell, fashionable London tea parties and balls aren't her style. Instead, she prefers to tinker tirelessly with a clockwork diffuser she's built from scratch. If only she can get the invention to work on command, she might earn her way out of an arranged marriage to a repugnant member of the House of Commons.

London watchmaker Mortimer Kidd was brought up hard in the arms of an infamous London gang. Despite the respectability he strives for now, the gang leader is blackmailing him. When Mortimer sees Phoebe's diffuser, he thinks he's found a way to buy himself out of trouble. The brash Phoebe manages to steal his heart, however, before he can purloin her invention.

Will Mortimer's unsavory past catch up to him before he convinces Phoebe of his devotion? Worse, once Phoebe learns the truth, will she ever trust him again?

Watchmaker's Heart is a light, fun Victorian steampunk romance with a spunky heroine!


~Works of Paranormal and dark Gothic Fantasy ~


Antique Magic series: (You can learn more about this series on my site here.)

(Setting: Present day with some historical flashes. The eras vary)


The Artist’s Inheritance (Antique Magic, book one)


Synopsis:

The balance between good and evil can be an art... or a curse.


Trevor and Caitlin were once happy newlyweds, profiting from Trevor's art. Until Trevor inherits his brother's house, and with it, his part of an old Welsh family curse. Now, Caitlin will stop at nothing to save her beloved husband from insanity and suicide, even if it means she must embrace her destiny and become a witch.


Caitlin’s Book of Shadows (Antique Magic, book two)—free on Smashwords and elsewhere


Though their fame became legend, a rumor cropped up about the Fulmer family: Something terrifying stalked Caitlin and her beloved Trevor. Something the bits and pieces she left claimed she had to make sense of. When the curator of their collection finds Caitlin's long forgotten diary, she wonders will it tell the whole tale? Will it tell why Caitlin seemed so determined to tell the difference between reality and nightmare? Why she thought herself a witch?


What will the holidays hold for Caitlin? Perhaps the answer lies between the lines of her story, one of lessons, struggles, and hopes for each new year.


Drawing Down the Shades (Antique Magic, book three)


Synopsis:

Business can be hell...


Life is good at Starfort Collectibles until the owners, Caitlin and Trevor Fulmer, acquire a beautiful statuette with a murky past. Shortly thereafter, mysterious hauntings wreak havoc on the couple when a ghost in the attic threatens retribution. Caitlin presses her coven for help before the ghost succeeds in meting out deadly punishment—on Trevor.


Mourning Dove Locket (Antique Magic, book four)


Synopsis:

For antique shop owners Caitlin and Trevor Fulmer, the intrusion of gods and ghosts is an unfortunate daily occurrence. After a young girl offers Caitlin a gold locket, however, she can’t help but notice it’s oozing with paranormal energy.


More significantly, the locket’s owner is surrounded by Otherworld spirits. Caitlin recognizes in the girl all the signs of a budding witch in the midst of a dangerous crisis.


Can she and her covenmates protect the girl and assist her in embracing her powers, before those beyond the veil extract their revenge?


Bicycle Requiem (a zombie novelette) (You can see more about this book on my site here.)


On the way home from a draining night of work, Theodora (called Teddy by her friends) finds herself guilty of something she'd never dreamed: a hit and run that results in a child's death.


Wracked with guilt, Teddy hides her secret, carrying on as if nothing happened, but when the victim's zombie returns, bringing along her own kind of disturbing justice, Teddy learns innocent little Mara isn't exactly what she seemed.


And Teddy wonders, would jail be better than eternity with the vengeful girl's accusing spectre.


Is it a small price to pay--and for what?



See the full list of my releases on my site.


Short stories included in:

Les Cabinets des Polytheistes

Daughter of the Sun: A Tribute to Sekhmet

Potinia: A Tribute to Demeter and Persephone

By Blood, Bone, and Blade: A Tribute to the Morrigan

Crossing the River

The Scribing Ibis: An Anthology of Pagan Fiction in

Honor of Thoth)

Dark Things II: Cat Crimes

Luna Station Quarterly

Eternal Haunted Summer, and more



Download this book for your ebook reader.
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