8. Fat Magic

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"Are you all right?" The old man squinted down at her.

"Go away!" Berla shouted. "Leave me alone!"

"Rhojë alive, can it really be?" The old man's eyes went round as robin's eggs. "No, it's just not possible," he answered his own question. "Your mind is playing tricks on you, old man—But it's her voice! I'd recognize that voice anywhere. You heard it too, don't deny it—The devil take your hearing, man! Use your eyes. She doesn't look a thing like her. Well, except the mouth and nose do take after her grandmother..." He smacked his lips together as he pondered the conundrum. "Say something else!" he called down to her.

"I said go away!" Berla repeated, underscoring the command with a stomp of her foot.

A look of joy swept over the hermit's lined face. "Ord's gourds! It is you!" He hopped up and down like an agitated flea. "Ha! I knew you had some gumption! All these months I'd given you up for dead, and here you are hale as a harp. Oh, praise Rhojë! A miracle!"

Berla's heart sank. Clearly, the hermit had been very attached to his goat and was exceedingly happy to have found it again. Why else would he be carrying on like that? No matter, it was hers now. Finders keepers, people were always saying, though it was usually Berla's things that wound up getting found by someone else, often before she had even had a chance to lose them. Not this time. Striking her most commanding pose, she decided to set the record straight once and for all. "Goatee's mine, and you can't have him!"

The old man peered down at her with furrowed brows.

"He likes it here," she explained. "And he doesn't want to leave." Goatee added his weight to the argument, sidling over to her side and braying warningly at the intruder.

"Goatee?" The old man affected a sour face. "What in Ord's ever-burning name is a goatee?"

"I do declare, you should watch your language." She waggled a finger at him. One thing mother and grammy had both agreed on was that coarse language was not to be tolerated. "You can't have him and that's that."

"I'm not here for your goat, if that's what you mean."

Berla chewed on this for a moment. If he wasn't here for her goat, she couldn't very well imagine what the old man might be doing up there on the edge of her pit. Then again, he might be trying to fool her. People were always trying to fool her on account of her slow-ness. "What do you want, then?" she demanded.

The old man stood up straighter. "I'm here to rescue you."

"Rescue me? From what?"

"From the dragon, of course."

"Oh." Berla's head was beginning to hurt. She had not had to think this hard in months. The old man wasn't making any sense.

"Come on, then," said the old man. "We don't have all day. The dragon might come back at any time."

Berla brightened at this news. "Would you like to meet him?"

"Meet him?!" the old man squawked. "Have you lost your chorling mind?"

"Chorling?" Berla repeated the unfamiliar word.

"Don't say that, it's..." The old man paused and scratched his head, threatening to dislodge the few wisps of hair that still clung to his scalp like dandelion pollen. "Listen, uh, Berla, is it?"

"I named him Goatee."

"Not the goat. Your name. Berla, right?"

Berla managed a nod.

"I'm Moribus Ansol Polibdemus the Third," the hermit introduced himself. "I'm an old friend of your grandmother's."

"I know who you are. When grammy was a little girl, you used to hide behind woodpiles and scare her so bad she broke all her eggs. It's not nice to break people's eggs," Berla admonished.

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