7. Getting her Goat

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In Berla's nightmare, a pack of grizzled wolfmen were combing the mountainside in search of prey. Their menacing howls were echoed back by a hundred stone glottises. The leader of the pack was none other than the town trapper. His necklace of bones and claws made a sound like a rattlesnake as he loped along. His patchwork coat of animal carcasses cavorted about him like a woodland grotesquerie.

The grisly muzzle of the wolfman-trapper appeared above the lip of the pit, baring white teeth and red gums that dripped a foamy slaver. Berla backed away, but another wolfman appeared on the escarpment behind her. Goatee worked himself between her legs, taking refuge in the tatters of her dress. Now there were wolfmen all around, ringing the walls. With nowhere to hide, she retreated to the center of the pit, calling out for her protector. But the dragon was nowhere in sight.

With a rattle and a shumping of padded feet, the wolfman-trapper leaped down into the pit and swaggered forward on short, bowed legs. He pulled out a cloth napkin, folded it into a triangle and neatly tied it around his neck. In each forepaw, it held a knife. Two more wolfmen dropped into the pit behind him, glowering and slavering as they came.

"Give us the goat," snarled the wolfman-trapper.

"The goat, the goat," echoed the others. "Give us the goat."

"Never!" she shouted defiantly. "You can't have him. He's mine!"

Berla awoke trembling and alone. Cold air prickled her skin like icy nettles. Where was Goatee? The goat had wandered a short distance away, scraping off chips of lichen from a boulder with its chisel-like teeth. She clutched him tightly to her chest as the icy, black sky broke into a warm, amber dawn.

Later that same day, when the yowling wind was performing a parody of human speech, Berla was sharply reminded of her dream. "Goatee, get over here!" she whispered urgently. But the goat had other things on its mind. Having discovered its reflection in the tortoise shell, it was eagerly trying to make its own acquaintance. It touched its nose to the cold surface then leaped back in surprise.

Berla sneaked up and grabbed the goat around its mid-section. She glanced anxiously around the pit, but her dream was only too accurate on that score; there was nowhere to hide. The voice sounded out again, louder this time. She huddled low in the wall's shadow, hoping whoever it was would just go away. "Shhhh!" She tried to silence the baying goat. "They'll hear you!"

The sound was distinctly human now, low and despondent like a shepherd calling out for a lost sheep.

"Aneebodee down theeere?" it said. "Anneeee-bodeeee theeeeere?"

Goatee nipped Berla in the hand, causing her to lose her grip. "Goatee, come back!" She scrambled after him. But the goat was in no mood to be wrangled. Treating it like a game, it bounded from one side of the pit to the other, scattering golden dishes and cutlery as it went.

"Anybody down there?"came the low, raspy voice. A wizened face appeared above the rim-wall followedby a skinny, wrinkled neck poking out of a frazzled ruff. The effect was morescrawny buzzard than ravenous wolfman. With a flash of recognition, sherealized it was the old hermit that lived in the hills. Known for being adisagreeable old crank, he had always showed special kindness to Berla. On therare occasions he came into town, he made a point of dropping by the bakery, towhich Benko made a point of visiting the privy. He would seat himself at thecoin table and request a loaf of her softest bread as he plied her withquestions about her grammy and the little cottage they shared in the woods.Afterwards, he would give her a shiny gold coin for her troubles. Despite this,Berla was not very happy to see him. At the moment, he was just another personwho wanted to get her goat.

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