2. Answered Prayers

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"Five and seven," Berla counted. "Five and eight. Five and—Goatee, stop!"

The goat had found an interesting rock pile and was busily bounding from one boulder to another.

"Bad goat!" Berla called up to him. "You'll twist an ankle. Now get down here right this instant!"

Goatee defiantly placed his fore hooves on the next boulder.

Berla waggled a finger at him. "You come back down here or I'll... I'll... I'll tan your hide, that's what I'll do." She wasn't sure what was involved in the practice of hide tanning, but it had been a powerful weapon in her grammy's arsenal of threats, the mere mention of which was sure to curtail any tomfoolery. But apparently it didn't work on goats. Impertinently, Goatee hopped onto a higher perch where he began to snack on a tuft of weeds.

"I do declare, someone should climb up there and give you a lesson in minding." Intending to do just that, she set to scaling the precarious rock pile, but by the time she was halfway up, Goatee had already come bounding back down again.

"You bad, bad, silly billy Goatee," she scolded when she finally caught up to him. "Why do you have to be so naughty all the time? No, I'm not putting you down. You'll just run off again. Now what number was I on?" Unable to remember, she figured she had best just start over. "Now see what you've done? You've made me forget my place. One... two... three..."

Berla wished the old man had not given her such difficult instructions. Not only was a thousand a very long way to count to, but going straight down the mountain was next to impossible. Sometimes there were boulders or crevices in the way, forcing her to go sideways or double back around. It was all very confusing. To make matters worse, it was cold and windy on the mountainside, the sun was lowering, and Goatee was in a most mischievous and disobedient mood.

A disturbing thought occurred to Berla. What if the acorn spell had worn off? She certainly didn't feel as strong as a bear anymore. With the goat clutched to her chest, she could just make out a few fingers through its thick, woolly locks. They looked small enough, but she kept an anxious eye on them just the same, fearing they might plump back up at any moment.

Unable to heed her fingers and the way ahead at the same time, she stubbed her foot hard against a stone, spilling Goatee onto the ground. Seizing the opportunity, the goat bolted away down the mountainside. She grabbed for the end of the rope that was still tied to a hind leg, but the ice-slicked fibers snaked through her fingers. She chased after it, but her bare feet, already numb from cold, were no match for the goat's nimble hooves. Aching and breathless, she watched helplessly as Goatee's triangular tail disappeared over the next ridge. And just like that he was gone.

Suddenly, it seemed to get much colder on the mountainside. Berla's feet were like blocks of ice, and the cold wind sliced her to the bone. Around her, the landscape was stark and foreboding. Everywhere she turned, she was surrounded by vast, intersecting planes of rugged stone.

Cold and alone, Berla sank down behind a large boulder, tucked her knees up to her chest, and began to sob in anguish.

* * * * *

Kadav should have known better than to pray. In his experience, the only thing worse than an unanswered prayer was an answered one. This time would prove no different. True to form, the All-Maker granted his request for deliverance in the worst possible way.

Appearing out of nowhere, a knight charged in from Kadav's right side, armor all a-rattle and gleaming through the haze. He sat astride a massive, black charger that looked like it was sired by a battering ram. Brandishing a sword high in the air, he bellowed out a guttural challenge that pealed from his helmet like a struck gong.

"Fear not, my lady! I am here to save you!"

The dragon, no less surprised by the knight's sudden appearance, swung its head around to face him, its body following a split second later like a cracked whip. As it reared, it snapped its wings in a braking maneuver that sent out a wave of shocked air that tossed up dirt and pine needles.

Having turned to stare, Kadav was caught off balance when the blast hit him. He threw his weight over to compensate, but a sudden side-wise shift by the stallion caused him to overbalance. And just like that he was thrown from the saddle. He hit the ground belly-first, the gourd halves shattering against his chest and crushing the wind from his lungs. But the worst was yet to come.

His left foot wastangled in the stirrup, and he was being dragged like a rag doll alongside thestallion. Hooves thundered dangerously close to his head as dry pine needlesjabbed into his skin like nails. A low mound ramped him into the air. Themomentary relief of weightlessness was followed by the concussive impact of hishead hitting the ground, causing black spots to explode in his vision. Earsringing, he slammed leg-first into a protruding tree root. His left ankle gaveway with an audible crack, and his foot slid free from the stirrup at last. Herolled over several times, coming to rest on his back in a paralysis of agony.

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