Into Moose Valley

A First Glimpse

On a world as far away as the edge of a dream and as close as the end of a slide there is a broad, fertile valley snuggled down between two high mountain ranges, running down into a wide natural harbor. In the valley at the salt water’s edge, on either side (though more to the south than to the north if you want to be exact) of the river (which runs, jumps, plays and falls from the high mountain lake where the two ranges meet in the west all across the valley) lives one of the two strangest and most wonderful towns ever found anywhere.

If you are ever so lucky as to sail there, the first you see of Moose Harbor is the tall, graceful lighthouse. Its lamp never lets sailors go astray in those waters. The light pierces any obstacle, never hurts the eyes and always shines the color to sooth one best in any storm.

Once in the harbor itself, on a calm day, you can look down through the deep water at the stone ruins and all the fish and the young alligator who live there. Of the town, you would see to the north of the river the Port where boats and planes and hot air balloons and zeppelins and bicycles and land ships and space planes and all sorts of other modes of transportation may easily come to discharge their passengers or cargo, take on new passengers or cargo, refuel, recharge, re-provision or just relax without causing anyone any bother. Near to the Port floats the Inn. The broad, multi-story, comfortable, wooden building with the bluish slate roof drifts about over the water with a nice bit of lawn and a broad patio out back where one may sit and enjoy the sea air. If you do not happen to fly for yourself, just give a tug to one of the ropes which tether it in place and it will float down to the ground for you in short order.

Many of the other buildings have similar qualities, though most are content to stay on the ground if not always in the same place. There is the Moosiversity which makes up most of the town to the south of the river. It has classrooms in other lands and times that you reach just by going through the correct door at the correct time just like you would to reach your math lecture in a more ordinary school. Read more

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The Eye of a Summer Storm (Part 6)

Nathan grabbed Mathis by the pack and pulled him back. “Wait, where are you going? What do you need to do first?” Nathan demanded, leaning back to put his whole weight into his hold on the moose. Mathis kept crawling for several feet without even slowing before he noticed Nathan dragging along behind.

Mathis stopped and turned around to sit in the sand facing Nathan. “You do not really expect me to just sneak past and leave all those people still in the slaver’s hands, do you?” Mathis asked, surprised that he had to explain.

Nathan’s eyes went big, and behind his veil his jaw dropped, but he pulled himself together quickly. “But what can we do? There are so many of them and only two of us. Won’t they just catch and keep you, too?”

Mathis chuckled softly and shook his head. “They certainly would if they could. Having a moose like me in their inventory would be enough to guarantee the fortune of any slaver that could manage the feat with the right clientele, but it will never happen unless I want it to.

“Do not worry. Circle around. Take Flame Heart to the Way. Someone with his coloring takes quite a bit of sneaking against a background of sand. If you go slow and careful, I should get there not long after you and leave the slavers far too busy to even think about following after a few anonymous bits of shadow that happened to drift across the middle distance.”

Without another word, Mathis wiggled in a certain, special way, shedding Nathan’s grip. In half a moment or so, he crawled away, fading into the scenery until Nathan had to track the Moose’s passage by focusing on the marks left behind in the sand. Then he could not follow even that.

With no other real option, Nathan returned to his mount, pausing to rub the bright nose before setting out again. “So your name is Flame Heart, then,” Nathan said, surprisingly lonely without his strange new acquaintance.

Flame Heart bobbed his head up and down in Nathan’s hands, for all the world as if he understood Nathan’s question and was nodding his answer. After that, Nathan mounted quickly and set about circling the hidden oasis, before the scene could get any more surreal. Then again, even if Flame Heart had the ability to speak, the bit in his mouth would make clear diction difficult.

Nathan dismounted before he and Flame Heart went over the top. Nathan walked next to the great horse to minimize their outline in case of scouts. Something was happening in the camp. The muted sound of voices with the occasional bark or shout that reached out across the intervening space had grown louder, pierced by the occasional surprised shriek or burst of uncontrollable laughter. Unfortunately, no matter how high Nathan’s curiosity spiked, by keeping behind his target knot of trees, not only could the people in the encampment not see him, but he could not see them, either.

The distance between the basin’s rim and Nathan’s goal stretched a million times farther as he made his quiet, careful way across. With each step his nerves wound tighter and tighter as he waited for someone to wander far enough away from the camp to see him and drag him into the increasing bedlam. Someone did appear, running toward the basin’s rim not twenty feet from Nathan, just before he reached the safety of the trees, and Nathan’s nerve almost snapped, but his second glance revealed that the runner could not possibly see them. Somehow the slaver had gotten his robe pulled up over his head, tangling up his arms and completely covering his head. Nathan quickly shoved the heel of his hand in his mouth to smother his laughter. The slaver should really have worn something underneath his robe other than his low boots.

Before anyone else could appear, Nathan sprinted the last few feet into the trees, and only then did he manage to draw an easy breath. The trees were only palms–tall, slender trunks with a few, long leaves at the top–with tall grass filling in the space between them, but something about the spot muted all the sound beyond their confines. The air felt cool and almost damp within the shadows of those trees. No hint of the fiery orb that ruled the terrain beyond with a molten iron fist managed to touch that ground.

Nathan’s steps slowed quickly in the darkness, probing the grass carefully with his foot before taking each step. He half expected to find the Way Mathis spoke of by falling through the ground into a dark, forgotten ruin. Instead, the way proved to be a neatly formed stairway carved of dark stone that quickly disappeared from sight in the direction of the pool. While the stairs themselves no signs of age or deterioration, the circular mosaic that surrounded them had lost so many of the tiny colored tiles that it was impossible to decipher what the image might have been.

The boy eagerly stepped out onto the flat, stone ruin, relieved to have firm ground beneath his boots and at least some clear area around him. The horse however, balked, pulling back against Nathan’s gentle tug on the reigns so sharply that they were pulled almost entirely out of his grasp.

“What is it, Flame Heart?” Nathan asked in a low, soothing tone, turning back to stroke the proud head. Something about that circle of stone in the ring of trees had the horse sweating and shaking in a way that not even their wild flight across the desert had managed.

“There, there,” Nathan said, for want of anything else to say. He wanted to reassure and promise to take care of everything, but he did not like to promise things he might not be able to deliver. Nathan knew that some of Flame Heart’s senses should be much more sensitive than a poor human’s, and he had no way of knowing what troubled the beast. It could be nothing more than a smarter than average horse’s perfectly reasonable aversion to trying to walk down those stairs into the darkness, but what else could they do? Leave Flame Heart behind for the slavers to find?

Before Nathan got too worked up trying to decide whether to try forcing the big horse forward or to prepare for an attack of some kind, the sound of approaching bodies sliding through tall grass from the direction of the camp reached them. Nathan spun round to face his fate, ridiculously putting his body between the apparent threat and the sweating, shaking horse.

Nathan was trying to figure out how to draw his sabre without cutting his belt when he saw the first dirty, poorly clad figure slipping quickly through the trees towards him as if all the hounds of hell were on his tail, but their master lurked somewhere ahead, and only the pressure of the people coming up behind kept him from finding somewhere to stop and hide from them both. The man probably had no more years to his credit than Barnaby back in the hotel, but long days under the brutal sun had tanned his skin as dark as old leather, complete with the fine network of wrinkles.

“Hullo there,” Nathan said gently. He slowly moved his hands away from his weapon and tried to look as nonthreatening as possible. A small crowd of other humans in a variety of sizes, ages, genders, skin tones, and costumes, but matching expressions clung to the man’s heels. They spilled out into the cleared space and might have run right across if Nathan’s voice had not cut into the fear and panic, bringing them to a stumbling halt. They huddled together on the opposite side of the stair, casting uneasy glances at the small, veiled figure with his bright horse, the dark void of the stone stairs, and the improbably dark shadows under the trees.

“Is Mathis coming soon behind you?” Nathan asked the poor huddle of humanity doing his best to resist the pervasive unease that already infected Flame Heart. One or two of them glanced Nathan’s way, but none seemed to understand what he asked. Still, Nathan only just maintained his calm, still posture when the stone stairs suddenly exhaled a gust of cold, damp air, because he expected something of the sort after he failed to fall into a hidden hazard as he made his way through the tall grass.

Only Mathis’ appearance kept the huddle from scattering in panic. The moose strode confidently onto the scene with his bandana hanging loose around his neck and his hat tilted back on his head so that anyone with eyes to see beheld his easy grin. “I told you that I would be along soon after you,” Mathis called across to Nathan even as he moved among the others soothing and comforting with his big, strong pooves.

The Eye of a Summer Storm (Part 5)

Nathan glanced back into the soothing, comparative gloom of his hotel room, and then turned back to the new desert. He took a deep breath, and instantly started to cough as the hot air instantly sucked the moisture out of the tissues lining his nose and throat. Without comment, Mathis reached across Nathan’s face and pulled a veil of cloth across the boy’s nose and mouth, before the rising wind could force him to breathe any more sand. Only then did Mathis notice the weight of the turban he wore, on his head. His khaki shorts had ballooned into a loose pair of trousers tucked into a pair of tall, soft, leather boots laced tight up over his calves Nathan’s t-shirt lengthened and thickened into a long, pale tunic that hung to his knees in front and back, but with slits in either side up to his hips. He felt Mathis shift on his shoulder and then Nathan could feel the weight of the long coat or robe he wore, flowing down nearly to his ankles, belted closely around his waist by a widely wrapped belt of maroon cloth with a wickedly curved sword tucked through the layers.

Behind the veil, where no one could see, a wide grin blossomed on Nathan’s face. He stepped into the hallway while behind him. The door drifted shut and faded out of sight.

“All right,” Mathis said. With an expert wiggle, and a jump, the moose slipped Nathan’s hold and landed on the sand, suddenly standing half a head taller than the boy.

Mathis had changed clothes to match the new surroundings as well. The mottled blotches of color shifted from green, browns and black to variations on the theme of sand and tan seen in the scarce shadows and brightly lit mounds of the desert around them. His trousers disappeared inside a sturdy pair of pale suede boots. Mathis’ pack had grown long and narrow, with a belt across his middle. The main pouch wobbled slightly when he moved as the water it carried sloshed around inside and had a drinking tube from the bottom looped up so that the mouthpiece hung from the shoulder strap not far from Mathis’ chin. At one hip, Mathis carried a canteen, and at the other a med kit. The cap he wore in the hotel room had shifted color with his uniform. The bill had grown and stretched until it reached out into a wide brim all the way around. Mathis wore thin cloth gloves tucked up into cuffs buttoned close around his wrists and a matching bandana pulled across his nose and mouth. Mathis wore broad, tinted goggles, so that almost none of his fur was left exposed, even in the shadow of his hat.

Mathis pulled a large, antique, wooden compass with more than the ordinary number of dials out of the deep pocket on his left thigh. He made an exhaustive survey of their surroundings, consulting his compass and squinting around at the mountains ahead and the different mounds of sand along the horizon on all sides. Eventually, the Moose put the compass away and pointed towards where the distant mountains disappeared into the sand and said, “The oasis is that way. Did you want to walk, or shall we ride?”

Nathan blinked in surprise, looking Mathis up and down. He was aware of stories of people with more than the usual allotment of courage and or less than healthy allotment of brains who attempted to ride moose (sometimes even successfully), but Mathis did not look at all like the kind of moose anyone would want to sit upon without an invitation, preferably engraved, with an RSVP card returned well in advance.

“I am a good walker, but how far do we have to go, and what would we ride?” Nathan drew his mildly horrified, fascinated gaze away from Mathis and a mental image of trying to climb up his suddenly tall and strongly built companion. No one would make fun of Nathan for taking Mathis around when the Moose looked like that.

Even as Nathan turned to look around for some other option for a mount, he felt a tugging at the shoulder of his robe as the tall, dark roan standing behind him lipped at the cloth.

“I was thinking horses, as the journey will be relatively short as far as desert travel distances go, but we could manage most anything you like. Camels have more stamina when it comes to these climates, but they often have rather nasty dispositions, and the gait takes some getting used to.” Mathis hesitated when Nathan did not respond, “Maybe I should have asked. I assume any child of your family would know how to ride.”

Nathan did not respond; because he was too busy staring at the horse. He had a long, proud, well-shaped head, and a ruddy brown hide that shown in the bright sunshine. The horse already wore a dove grey saddle and bridle, bright with silver ornamentation and hung with blindingly white tassels around the edge of the saddle blanket. Ebony might have looked better for the horse’s equipment, the same deep midnight colors as his mane and tail, but the sun would be hot enough on his dark if handsomely dramatic coloring, there was no need to make it any worse just for a bit more style.

From some pocket hidden in the depths of his costume, Nathan pulled a big, red apple and held it out making certain to keep his hand spread out as flat as possible, and keep his fingers safe. Nathan rubbed the long nose with his other hand. Even standing on his toes, Nathan would have trouble seeing over the tall horse and high saddle, but that did not seem to matter. Nathan’s toe slid into the stirrup and he seemed to glide up into the saddle.

Only when he sat looking down at Mathis from his new perch, did Nathan seem to process that the Moose had been speaking. “Oh yes, I know how to ride, and horses are a fine choice, but what shall you ride?”

“I think I will go for something that will not cry when I try to climb aboard. At this size, my weight can be considerable.” Mathis rummaged around in his other big thigh pocket with his head tilted. What with the goggles and the bandana, Nathan could hardly say he saw anything, but he could have sworn that Mathis closed his eyes and pursed up his mouth so that he could better focus on what his poof told him.

“Aha!” Mathis said, pulling his tightly closed fist out and raising it up in triumph. “Found it.” The Moose tossed something small and glittering into the air. As it rose, and even more as it fell, the small glittering thing became anything but small. Almost as if rushing towards them from some undetected, unfamiliar, fourth direction, the small, glittering thing landed gently on the sand as a broad based, full size, open vehicle with six, oversized desert tires, glittering from thousands of tiny surfaces, just like the sand all around them might if every solitary particle were taken out and polished.

Mathis jumped over the low side of the vehicle, wiggling a bit so that the seat shifted to better accommodate not only his shape and size, but also the pack he wore comfortably. With one poof lightly gripping the steering yoke, Mathis waved Nathan ahead in the direction earlier indicated. “Lead on. It might take your mount a bit to get used to my vehicle. Out of sight, out of mind.”

“Right-o,” Nathan said, pulling back on his left reign and letting up the tension on the right and squeezing the horse with his knees. Almost instantly, and without any great effort, Nathan and his mount flew over the sand. The horse seemed to have no bones, and barely touch the ground as the sand swallowed most of the sound of the hoof beats. Nathan assumed that Mathis sent them on ahead, because the noise of his vehicle would spook the horse. However, after several minutes of flying across the sun beaten terrain, Nathan still did not hear any noise of an engine behind him and grew concerned. Peering back over his shoulder, and gathering up his reins in preparation to slow down and go back in case trouble loomed, Nathan was surprised to see the vehicle and Mathis zipping along easily over the sand not three meters behind and too one side of them. The strange ‘sand buggy’ barely seemed to touch the ground, and it made even less noise than the horse, but part of the wind beating against Nathan’s skin came from the vehicle instead of the atmosphere.

Nathan’s mount stumbled, only very slightly and took a dancing step to the side, calling the boy’s attention back from the Moose. Reluctantly, Nathan pulled gently back on the reigns and slowed from the gallop to a canter. As amazing as the greater speed was, Nathan did not know how far they had to go, and it would do no good at all to exhaust and overheat his horse well away from their oasis goal. Horses need more water in a day than humans do, and Nathan had no idea how much Mathis might require.

The merciless sun hung, almost unmoving in the sky as the two travelers rode on for an apparent eternity beneath its brutal glare with only the phantom mirages of water in the distance offering any hope of relief, however false. Then, a sudden dip in the terrain ahead pulled them up short. A wide basin of sand dusted earth held a small pocket of grass and trees sheltering a deep, blue pool. On the near edge of the pool, the tents, animals, and black swathed figures of a major caravan or three mingled and milled about under the trees.

“Get back, and down! Quickly!” Mathis urged, following his own advice.

Nathan, well primed for action by training if not experience, did as he was told, purling his horse back and down below the edge of the basin before asking, “What is it?”

“Did you not notice the black robes, those yonder wear, or do you not know what they mean? Those slavers camped in the oasis would like nothing better than to have a boy your age and coloration to add to their merchandise, not to mention the lure of your horse and the silver on his tack,” Mathis said. He jumped quietly out of his vehicle and stowed it back in his pocket, all the while staring ahead, as if he could see the encampment, the pool, and all that lay in the basin ahead through the hill of sand behind which they sheltered as easy as Nathan might through a sheet of glass.

“I saw, and I knew, but I did not think to put the two things together. I am glad you were here to warn me. Where exactly is our goal?” Nathan asked, creeping up the hill on his belly to peak over the top at the scene below. “Ordinarily, I would suggest waiting until dark to make our approach, but we have no food, little water, and an appointment to keep on the
other side.”

“The way lies on the opposite edge of the pool, in the dense knot of trees,” Mathis said, from a seat lower down on the hill. Moose antlers are very adaptable and good for many surprising tasks, but peeking over hilltops without letting your outline catch notice is not one of them.

Nathan scanned the scene below until he found the knot Mathis mentioned. “Those trees look close enough together that if we circle around to the other side and approach from behind them, we should be able to reach our goal without being detected,” Nathan said with an air of confident assurance in advance of his age and experience.

“That sounds like a good plan. You should go do that,” Mathis said, checking the contents of his pockets both in his uniform and on his pack with an air of preparation that made Nathan nervous.

“Aren’t you coming with me?” Nathan asked, slipping back down the hill to Mathis’ level.

“I will meet you over there. Do not worry. There is just something I need to take care of first,” Mathis said, and started to crawl down the hill at an angle, moving closer to the caravan rather than circling around to the safe path.

The Eye of a Summer Storm (Part 4)

Chapter Three – A Quest for Sustenance

When Nathan woke up, he defied the literary and fictional dictates that he should not remember where he was or the surprising things that happened shortly before he fell asleep. Instead, the boy woke quickly, quietly, and immediately looked around for Mathis. Nathan’s heart beat faster when, at first, he could not find the moose in the darkened room.

Mathis had given up patrolling, at least for that moment, and stood mostly hidden in the heavy folds of cloth that blocked off the outside from the inside of the room. Mathis stood looking out at the rain soaked darkness on the other side of the glass. Though Nathan did nothing more than lift and turn his head, some whisper of motion across the bed, the change in the air patterns moving in the air, or the shift in Nathan’s breathing alerted Mathis. Without turning to look, Mathis said, “Good morning, Nathan,” and the sound helped the boy locate the moose in the darkened room.

“Is it morning, then?” Nathan asked, wiggling around until he sat cross-legged, facing the window.

“I guess that depends upon how you define morning,” Mathis said. He finally turned away from the glass and hopped from the air conditioner under the window, to the table, and from there to the back of the padded chair where Mathis sat on his heels.

It is after midnight, so morning as in the start of a new day, but it is not yet five o’clock, so it would still be dark out even without the weather,” Mathis said blandly, filling the air with unimportant words in case Nathan’s brain needed a little more time to catch up with his body.

“Usually, I would go for the first half of the day after sunrise, but almost five o’clock is close enough to count, too.” Nathan rubbed his chin in thought, a gesture picked up from his dad who invariably returned from Antarctica with a beard of some description. “No idea where to draw the line, however.”

Mathis smiled to himself. Clearly Nathan would not be a slow riser if immediate action ever became necessary. “Have you had enough sleep for a while, or do you think pjs and covers sound attractive,” Mathis asked. “Barnaby will probably manage to stay unconscious for a few hours yet if nothing intervenes. You have not been asleep very long.”

“I think I have had more than enough naps to last me for a good long while.” Nathan uncrossed his legs and scooched forward until he could slip his feet to the floor. “First I want to clean my teeth, and then I want to have a look at that menu.”

Nathan headed for the bathroom, surprisingly quiet on his feet for a boy his age. He absently flicked up the room’s light switch on his way to his travel kit and the sink. Somewhere in the passage of time since Mathis first spoke, Nathan had accepted the moose as a full and proper adventuring companion. Though Mathis seemed perfectly comfortable, there was no need to leave him sitting in the dark. It would only take a few minutes to properly clean the teeth. The airport pizza had been good enough at the time, but some of the flavor lingered. While Nathan slept it had grown and mutated until Nathan did not want to be around himself when he spoke, and pitied the nose of anyone with whom he spoke.

For once, when Nathan emerged, he found Mathis in the same spot, though instead of sitting, the moose paced along the chair back with his pooves clasped behind his back and his head bowed.

“Is something wrong?” Nathan asked. He had not forgotten what Mathis said about attacks and enemies. While Nathan might have no personal experience of such things, he knew all the stories about his Gramps and Gramma, and had read a lot of stories by and about people who dealt with such things.

“Not at the moment,” Mathis said and smiled at Nathan. “I am not always good at keeping still unless it is needed.” Mathis jumped from the chair to the bed and strolled to the foot, nearer the desk, as Nathan made for the desk’s chair. “Is there anything in particular you are hungry for? I did some recon while you slept. The kitchens are clean, well kept, and I cannot vouch for the day crew, but the night chef is excellent.”

“How did you manage that? The door is locked and a restaurant kitchen is a very busy place,” Nathan asked.

“It is very difficult to keep a moose in or out of anywhere against our will. And you will find that most humans cannot hear me or see me do anything that a stuffed animal cannot. The main exceptions are young children and people with a mindset close enough to ours.

“Frankly I was surprised that you realized I had moved when you caught me nosing around in your suitcase with an eye toward making a little travelling nest for myself in case you either shoved me in there or I had to stow away. As embarrassing as getting caught sneaking was, I am just as glad you did. There are ways for me to make myself noticed if I need to do so, some fast, startling, and temporary for emergencies and other slow, more gentle and less predictable. I was not looking forward to trying to keep an eye on you while you remained oblivious.”

“You mean you are going to want me to carry you around with me?” Nathan asked, imagining how some of his friends at home would react to seeing him walking around carrying a forty-five centimeter high soft toy with a shudder, turning in his chair to look at Mathis.

“When we are on the move you can carry me in your rucksack, Sometimes I will want to make my own way to scout around a bit, though. Do not worry about it. The people most likely to give you a hard time about me are the ones least likely to notice my presence, unless they are getting a little help from our enemies. In that case, it serves as a pretty good warning as to what we are dealing with.” Mathis smiled and gave a brief laugh in a way that made Nathan profoundly grateful they were on the same side.

“Besides, how can I be a good Adventuring Companion if you go leaving me behind in cars and hotel rooms all the time?” Mathis asked. He jumped from the bed to the bureau, and dropped gently from there to the desk. A gentle stroll took Mathis to the menu’s edge.

When Nathan did not seem to have an answer to that, Mathis asked, “What do you have in mind?” looking down at the glossy, laminated page, even though he knew that Nathan had not actually looked yet. The menu was not fancy, only one, extra-long page with writing on the front and back with no pictures sealed in a thin layer of plastic. Most of the fare was familiar from home, though not always by the same name. For example, the menu called chips, fries and what it called chips, Nathan called crisps but Mathis had to explain to him about mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.

“There are so many interesting and tasty things to choose from,” Nathan said, running a finger down the card and pausing a moment at all the things that struck his fancy, waffles, hamburgers, bacon, sausage, pancakes, steak, fries, and many others. “I know I could get more than one thing, but I do not want to waste any when I cannot eat it all.” Nathan made a face, trying to decide.

“How hungry are you?” Mathis asked, watching Nathan’s wandering finger. Most of the things Nathan lingered on longest were not on the all night availability section. I mean, can you wait half an hour or so you could go down to the buffet, even though the room service extended menu will not be available until seven.”

Reminded that only part of the things listed were actually available, Nathan turned to the back of the menu card and covered up the dinner and dessert options with both hands to stare at what was left. There were still several tasty things left, but mostly more snack like foods like chicken wings, and fried mozzarella sticks though there was pizza. After a long, thoughtful moment, Nathan dropped his hands and looked at Mathis. “With the kitchen staff busy getting the buffet ready, it will probably take the half an hour or so for them to bring up anything, won’t it?”

“Depending on what you pick and how long it takes to fix, it could be even longer,” Mathis agreed with a shrug.

“But you said Barnaby would sleep for a while yet,” Nathan said, not even aware he was rubbing his stomach as he spoke. “He worked the whole flight over, and then he worked some more when the weather went south.”

“Let us take the long way down and do some exploring to fill the time between now and the buffet opening, and let Barnaby sleep,” Mathis said. He hopped from the desk to the top of the bureau, and then turned back to wait for Nathan from the far corner. “Remember to bring your room key.”

“Nathan hesitated, for a moment feeling very alone and far from home, but then he thought of his grandfather and rubbed his empty middle again. The hotel had security cameras in the hallways and stairwells, so while he may be alone, he would not be unobserved. Nathan snatched up his room key, stuffed it deep in his back pocket, and headed for the door. Without any thought or effort, Nathan caught Mathis when the Moose stepped off his high perch and kept walking toward the door.

Nathan pulled the portal open wide and took a deep breath. As he slowly expelled the air, pale golden sand welled up in front of his feet and tumbled in rippling waves out to cover the dark blue-grey carpeting of the hallway. Once the sand hid the carpet as far as Nathan could see to either side, the waves built up against the far wall, and the overhead lighting began shifting colors. The light grew brighter and stronger from the cool white of the hallway’s light fixtures to the merciless, golden hammer of the sun as it beat down through an atmosphere completely devoid of soothing moisture. By the time the sand built up to cover the tops of the doorways in the opposite wall, the ceiling and any sound of the storm raging outside the hotel had faded away. With a muted thump and a sudden cloud of sand, the wall fell backwards and disappeared under the shifting sands, until the entire visage beyond Nathan’s doorway had changed into an empty wasteland of sun and shifting sand.

The Eye of a Summer Storm (Part 3)

(It turns out when Minion looked at the front of her original, hand written version of this story, that she did have a more interesting title for it. We will be putting more of this novel up for most of the month while she puts her usual short story time into trying to get some bigger things done.)

“I wonder where you came from,” Nathan said, walking around the bed to get a closer look.

“That uniform is much more modern than the one my Gramps wore, but it is not quite up to the current U.S. Military pattern, is it.” Along with his uniform and pack the moose had an envelope on his lap, held upright under one arm with ‘Nathan’ written upon it.

“Maybe this will tell me where you came from,” Nathan said pulling a simple bit of heavy, pale grey card stock out of the unsealed envelope. On it, the words were not simply written or printed by a computer, but deeply etched with shining gold ink or leaf pressed into the indentations. “Every Good Adventurer benefits from a Trusted Companion.”

Nathan turned the card over, double checked inside the envelope, and the inner and outer surfaces of the envelope itself, but there was no further clue. He studied the words for a bit longer. Then he dropped card and envelope on the bed and went back to his suitcase for clean clothes. Mostly, Nathan felt he had outgrown teddy bears and the like. There were extenuating circumstances and some precedence, but the decision as to what to do with the moose and further investigation could wait until after his bath. Plus, Nathan decided he should really email his Gramma, parents, and probably Aunt Judy. Nathan did not notice the small pair of bright eyes watching him in the shadow of the Moose’s hat brim, not yet anyway.

Left to his own devices, Nathan decided to take a shower and a bath at the same time. He pushed down the plug, but ran the shower instead of the tap. This way Nathan could sit in the tub and imagine himself an explorer in the rain forests, searching for the treasures of a legendary, lost city while still using only one bathtub full of water. The hotel probably had enormous reservoirs of hot water, but Nathan had no interest in turning his tropical adventure into an arctic one.

In spite of the game Nathan played, the soaps the hotel provided smelled a bit too strongly of flowers for that particular boy. Nathan climbed out of the tub to grab his own soap from the suitcase. Nathan was still wrapping himself in a towel big enough to carpet a small room when he stopped to stare a moment. Nathan could have sworn he left the moose up against the pillows, but now it hung over the edge of the suitcase, head and shoulders inside.

Slowly, Nathan lifted the lid and shifted the moose so it leant against the side, and dug out the wash bag. Nathan double checked to make certain no one else was in the room. He double checked that both locks on the door were closed. Then he returned to the bathroom, locking that door, as well. With no one there to see, the Moose pushed up his cap and briefly rubbed his forehead. He had not intended to get caught nosing about in Nathan’s things, but now that he had, Mathis could not really regret it. The operation would go much more smoothly as an overt rather than a covert mission.

Nathan emerged clean, relatively dry, and a trifle cautious. He poked his head around the corner into the bedroom. He was not disappointed. The moose was nowhere to be seen on the bed, but but with a little hunting, Nathan finally tracked him down, sitting on the desk, bent over the room service menu.

“Okay,” Nathan said, stepping fully into the room. “What in the name of Ned is going on here?”

“I thought you might be hungry. Growing boys always seem to be hungry. The pizza Barnaby got you was a while ago,” a gruff, but not altogether unpleasant voice responded promptly.

Nathan’s mouth slowly fell open, but since no sound came out, the other voice went on, “Or would you rather get some proper sleep first. Dozing off a few times on the flight and the few minutes you caught in the car can only take you so far.” Slowly, and very deliberately, Mathis sat up from his stuffed animal slump and turned to look at Nathan from under the brim of his hat.

“Is this some kind of trick?” Nathan asked fisting his hands at his sides and glancing around the room when he caught himself addressing the soft toy on the desk.

“You know about Winston, right?” The moose asked standing up briefly so he could move to the edge of the desk and sit facing Nathan with his bare, furry feet hanging off the edge.

“Yes,” Nathan admitted grudgingly, still refusing to speak directly to the moose. That was the precedent mentioned for adventurers and stuffed animals. Winston was the small teddy bear that always rode in Nathan’s grandfather’s breast pocket during his travels, ever since nineteen-year-old Gramps received him from the girl aged Gramma when he had to leave behind to go to France during World War II. Winston had two, neatly patched holes in his four inches of body, one from a bit of shrapnel during the war and one from a bullet in an almost equally inhospitable bit of nowhere years later. Family legend held that Winston saved Gramps’ life on more than just those two occasions. The little bear went even into the grave with Nathan’s grandfather, to look after the old man for that next great adventure.

“He and I have some friends in common. One of them is looking after your grandmother, and I have come to look after you, now that the two of you can no longer look after each other while your parents are gone. You can call me Mathis,” the Moose said with a jaunty salute. “I already know your name, of course.”

“You have been watching me since the plane?” Nathan asked, watching the moose out of the corner of his eye and taking a tentative step closer.

“Since the doctors all but had to tie your Gramma to her bed to keep her from stealing a wheelchair to help you pack and get you to the airport,” Mathis said with a smile. “She is a fiesty woman, your Gramma.”

“She is,” Nathan acknowledged shortly, but he was not going to be distracted that easily. “But why have you come all this way to look after the friend of a friend of a friend’s grandson? And why now?”

“I may not have personally known Winston or your grandfather, but my friends and I have been looking after your family for over four generations. As such, some of our enemies have become…aware of you as more than just targets of opportunity they missed, and they are not above striking at family as a way of getting even. Up until now, you have mostly stayed within the general defenses we set up, but the attack on your Gramma has put us on alert.” Mathis kicked the desk twice producing two soft but clearly audible thuds. It was quite an impressive result for the back of an unshod bit of floof and started to explain how four inches of teddy bear might stop a bullet.

“It was not an attack. It was an accident. I was there. If that driver meant to hurt Gramma, he could have done a lot worse. The doctor’s said almost all of the damage was done by the way she got all tangled up in her bike as she fell,” Nathan said, his voice unconsciously gaining in volume as he spoke.

“Yes exactly,” Mathis agreed paradoxically, making Nathan frown in confusion, yet somehow still back down from his aggressive posture. “I doubt the driver even saw either of you, much less ever dreamt of hurting her. Some accidents are less accidental than others, and the Imps are experts at engineering.

“Someone definitely did something to her bike. I know of at least two incidents where she had much closer encounters at higher speeds without falling off her bike or horse. The doctors and police might talk about the debilitating effects of age on the reflexes, but I have seen the replays of the accident and the marks left by the stick that went through her spokes at just the wrong moment. You can not convince me that all those little accidents all just happened to pile up in just the right order at just the right times without a little help. It is possible, but a highly improbable possible.” Mathis crossed his arms and glared at the floor.

“Is she going to be okay on her own? Maybe I shouldn’t have gone so far away.” Nathan stepped closer still, looking around, perhaps for some way to get back to the hospital.

“She is hardly on her own. She has flocks of visitors every day and has already found several allies on the staff. We are also keeping a close eye out for anymore mischief of the type that tipped up her bike. Your Gramma is ridiculously proud that you chose the adventure over one of the safer, more comfortable choices. If you want to salve your conscience, send her a message to let her know about the adventure so far. She knows all about it from Barnaby, but that is not the same. When you are done with that, we need to decide about bed or breakfast,” Mathis said, reaching back to pat the menu behind him on the desk.

Without further discussion, Nathan went to compose and send that message. It took longer than one might expect. Nathan had to fight a bit to get his tablet and the hotel wifi to play nicely with one another. With that battle won he wrote a brief, pithy account of the trials and tribulations with customs and the weather. Nathan did not mention anything about talking soft toys or imps behind Gramma’s fall. The email was going out to everyone, after all. If he got the chance to talk to his Gramma, and maybe his Mum, he might tell them, framing it like one of the Winston stories. Then again, maybe he should write it down instead, with pen and paper, like Gramps’ letters in Gramma’s memory box, but something he could edit, to get the words right, too.

Nathan had the feeling Mathis could have helped with the wi-fi, though the moose spent the time prowling around the room.  Mathis lept easily from desk to bureau to bed to chair back to table and around again without ever touching the floor. Nathan was wondering about that and still thinking of writing an adventure journal version of his trip when he fell asleep, sprawled across the covers at the top of the bed with his suitcase, still open, taking up the bottom. I guess napping won out over breakfast. Mathis turned out the lights and continued to patrol the room, sticking to the high ground.

Death Beneath the Trees [(Another) Excerpt]

Minion and my next story is not quite ready, so instead of doing nothing she is throwing out some more of her second Grey novel. She meant to throw out some of the first, but she got to editing this one and lost track of time.

Grey sat on a stone bench in a shallow alcove cursing whatever sadistic fool invented the corset. Skirts too wide to fit through a standard car door were not high on her list of favorites, either, but sitting for hours on a unpadded stone bench in borrowed Louis the XIV court dress looking ornamental without even a book to help pass the time would make most people a bit touchy. Grey hated sitting on the sidelines, especially when she was the one called in to deal with the situation.

Never doubt that she could, quite easily, have dealt with the issue herself, thank you very much. Well maybe not easily, but she could have done it. A nyriad living in the garden’s grotto had started getting a bit to…homicidal when it came to tourists throwing small metal projectiles at her in the hopes of wish fulfillment. However, in spite of eyes naturally the color of old garnets and hair that rivaled rain-washed spring grass, Grey was too human for the water spirit to converse with, and her half-brother Iohar was too Sidhe, too dead, and much too pink to sit in the public eye and hide the grotto’s entrance while negotiations went on.

It would be a little unfair to kill the naked lady in the pool for defending herself after decades of assault in her own home, even if none of her attackers had any idea that is what they were doing. Of course many human versus Other authorities did not look at the issue that way, and if Iohar did not light a fire under it so that Grey could change back into her own clothes soon, she might just start to agree with them. At least that is what  she grumbled to herself as another family came into view around the corner of the hedge maze, complete with cameras, and sticky fingered children. Grey forced a smile and flicked open her fan with a snap and swore under her breath that vengeance would be hers once she and Iohar finished with that case. He may have died to save her when a lightning happy man burned a house down around them. And he might also be hanging around from beyond the veil to protect her rather than rebuilding his body for a triumphant come back like an ordinary member of his kind, but that could only get him so far.

Grey shifted, trying to ease where the whale bone in the corset was excavating tunnels into her flesh. The garment stretched just a touch to long for Grey’s torso. She had not even noticed the disparity at first and if she could just stand up, the problem would ease considerably, or if Grey could use her Glamour to lengthen her torso just an inch or so. Instead she had to blunt her tail bones maintaining the spell which made the grotto entrance into an alcove with a stone bench and a figure in period dress to pull attention from the anomaly.

When Grey once again had the stretch of hedge maze to herself, she collapsed the silk fan with a sharp sound and started to slap the palm of her other hand with it. Grey gritted her teeth and forced herself to release the fragile bit of frippery and allow it to dangle from the bit of ribbon around her wrist before she broke the pretty thing and started to tear the broken bits into tiny pieces. The fan was borrowed with the dress, and the mess would be hard to explain to the next bunch of tourists.

“So, are you ready to go yet, or would you like to laze about here having your picture taken for awhile longer?” an amused tenor voice asked out of the air at Greys left shoulder.

Grey did not bother to look around. Even though the walls of hedges left her perch mostly in shadow, Iohar could not manage human coloring, features, and solidity while under the open sky during the sun’s reign over the land, so mostly he did not bother with visibility at all where normal people might see him. Before death, Iohar stood a good fifteen centimeters over Grey’s one hundred eighty-two. Without Glamour, Iohar was ‘blessed’ with skin, hair, eyes, even teeth in various shades of pink such that he seemed likely to dissolve in a good downpour. Some might think that invisibility was to be preferred, though Iohar’s coloring never seemed to bother him any.

“You will get yours, dead man,” Grey grumbled, shifting again where she sat. “What did you settle on? I want to get this over with so I can return this dress intact rather than wait until the surgeons have to cut it off me before removing the stays forcibly implanted in some rather tender places.”

“You humans can be so fragile sometimes,” the disembodied voice said, and Grey could all but see the mock solicitous look on her half-brother’s face.

“So says the one to afraid to present me with a body solid enough to punch,” Grey grumbled. Iohar just laughed in response.

“If you are up to a little spell weaving, we can wrap up this little piece of conflict and be on our way.” Iohar offered and Grey sighed in relief. She had a decent, for a mortal, amount of magical oomph at her disposal but that sort of thing took decades of study and practice to use on the fly with any kind of efficiency, accuracy, and finesse. Iohar had over two hundred years of study and practice to draw from, but something about being the ghost of a sidhe (who was not supposed to be able to become a ghost at all) severed his connection to the power. He found somethings his new state allowed him to do, but he was making it up as he went, so mostly he coached Grey through things instead.

“So what are we doing here?” Grey asked, standing up to stretch and dropping the Glamour she held. The alcove and bench melted away leaving Grey standing in a stone arch bordered by hedges with a wide, shallow pool running up to an artificial hill.

“We are going to close this door and hide it from sight and memory for a year and a day to let her come to terms with her grief before she has to deal with mortals again.” Before Grey could ask any more questions like just what the lady was grieving, or any more tourists could stumble on the scene, the sourceless voice switched to teacher mode and set Grey to gathering nine small stones, no different than any of the others around those gardens. Grey squatted under the arch, looking like a fat, lumpy candle stuck in a squashed puff pastry in her borrowed skirts. She would have felt silly cradling her new collection and parroting the words which came to her out of the empty air if she could not feel the power building between her hands. After the incantation ended, Grey carefully placed each stone where a phantom finger indicated.

When she stood, Grey found herself nose first in rather too intimate contact with a bland stretch of hedge. Branches and leaves poked at her and threatened to catch in the lace edging her neckline. Very carefully, Grey edged back into the middle of the path. It did not matter if the hedge existed only in her mind through the hyper-real illusions called Glamour or if she conjured solid, living plants of pure magic to fill the gap, the damage if she tore the frills would be just as permanent, and Grey just did not want to deal with the results.

Crying women did not fall within her job description. Punching them mostly just made the problem worse and while shooting them would work, she would have trouble justifying that action. Magic might work, but subtler, gentler workings of power like that were even harder to get right than the trick with the hedge.

Not in MY Funtown (Part 2 of 2)

“Fair enough,” the boss imp acknowledged. As the two talked, Nancy Malone tried to sneak back into the mill, but the littlest imp caught her skirt, tangling his long, thin, knobbly fingers in the fabric until she could go no further without leaving her pretty, calico dress behind.

The other three imps spread out on either side of their boss, fingering their weapons with varying levels of enthusiasm lack. The glaring one tried to imitate his leader’s cool competence, but mostly managed a cross-breed of petulance and an urgent need for a fresh pair of trousers. One of the two more cautious imps kept glancing back over his shoulder towards the wide-open spaces just beyond the mill on the edge of bolting.

The last of the imps in the road slipped past fear into resignation. He seemed older than the others with no green left in his gray. Like his boss, that last imp would do his best to win the prize they came for, but he had faced the Mooses too many times before. Even knowing what sort of dirty tricks they had in store, he had no doubt as to the outcome.

Time seemed to slow down as the two sides stood waiting and watching; waiting for the right moment to move, watching for a move on the other side. A hot, dry wind picked up, blowing into town from behind the imps. It played with their long coats and long ears, but somehow the dirt and grit it carried swirled around Sheriff Moric without getting in his eyes or dulling his fur.

Just as the dust and wind began to settle, the Sheriff made his move. His pooves were blurs as his pistols cleared leather. Even as he sent his first two, short streams of soapy water down the street, he dodged to his left, dodging the sludgy black return fire.

The Sheriff’s first shot caught the boss imp square in the chest even as the second slapped wetly into the littlest imp’s head, where he stood menacing Nancy Malone. The Boss imp bared his teeth and kept firing, even as the soapy water spread and foamed, cleaning clothes, gear and skin with the slow deliberation of a glacier. It was a very little water to clean an awful lot of imp. The littlest imp, however, dropped to the ground, screaming and rolling in the dirt, desperately trying to cover up what the soapy water made clean.

In the next few seconds, Sheriff Moric managed to subdue and disarm all five of the imps in the street. Even the Boss imp gave up when the Sheriff’s second shot struck the sharp, impy chin and forced the soapy water past lips to start cleaning sharp, impy teeth. The mixture did not taste anything like usual soap, more like his favorite mouthwash, but it was enough to leave him coughing and sputtering indignantly.

This is not to say that the Sheriff had everything his own way. One or two of the pistol shots left long, slick smears on his fur, each impregnated with sand that worked its way through his fur to irritate and abrade the skin beneath, and the three hidden imps had longer range weapons and cover, up in the second stories of the buildings on either side. When Sheriff Moric got too near the front of the mill, a whole bucket of the stuff poured down over his head, temporarily blinding him, though his hat diverted most of it.

By the time Sheriff Moric cleared his eyes, the whole thing was over, except for the complaining and cleaning up. Sheriff Moric holstered one pistol, to better clear his eyes, and blinked around, trying to figure out what he missed. Then his eyes caught an approaching figure that explained everything.

Deputy Clint Westlake strode down the middle of the street with the stock of his long-barrelled water-rifle propped against his hip. The imps settled quickly at his approach. All eight imps huddled together in the middle of the road and refused to meet anyone’s eyes. When all cleaned up (and already perfectly dry), the imps were all pink and soft and adorable in an angular sort of way. Even the points of their teeth had been washed away with every lingering trace of menace.

Sheriff Moric opened up the back of his water pistol and poured a good measure of his ammunition down his chest with another splash on his hat to take care of all the grease and sand about his person. He did not mind getting dirty in the course of his work. Playing in the mud could even be fun, but he objected to the sand, and some things needed to be kept clean to keep working properly or stay nice.

Deputy Clint came to a stop by the Sheriff, though he kept his eyes on the imps, and his rifle ready. “I have no doubt you could have handled this all on your own, but things were getting a little…messy, and I did not want you to have all the fun.”

“Little Billy?” the Sheriff asked obliquely.

“His Momma did some baking today and opened a jar of her home-made jam, so he found me in her kitchen when he came running in,” Deputy Clint said, wiping the corner of his mouth with one long finger, in case of lingering jam smears. “What should we do with these? Take them to the jail to wait for the Marshal and the Judge, or send them home to explain to their friends just what happened?”

“That is up to Miss Malone.” The Sheriff led the way down the Mill front to where the baker still stood, looking down at the littlest imp where he now sat huddled in the dirt. “Miss Malone, do you want to press charges?”

“What will happen to them if I do?” Miss Malone asked, thoughtfully.

“They will spend a few days in my jail until the Marshal comes to take them to stand trial for attempted kidnapping and assaulting an officer of the law performing his duty. I imagine they will go to prison for a long time,” the Sheriff said, looking down at the prisoners.

“And if I don’t?” she asked.

“I will send them back to the Impire with a note explaining the incident to their Imperor, and let him decide just what to do with this bunch.” If anything, the imps looked even more miserable at this thought, except for the resigned imp, who just looked tired and sad.

“Send most of them home,” Miss Malone said after some thought. “But I think one or two of them should have to stay behind to help clean up the mess and make amends to me and the town for all the bother.”

“Like community service?” Clint asked, nudging an imp with his toe.

“Only if they are willing. We may no more keep them captive and force their labor outside the constraints of the law than they could force you to bake for them,” Sheriff Moric said.

Miss Malone squatted down by the littlest imp. “What do you think? Do you want to stay and help keep the town nice? I think one of the acrobatic or trapeze troupes could teach you a lot, too. You will have to keep clean and learn to play well with others, but pink is not such a bad color in the circus.”

The littlest imp’s eyes opened so wide they almost swallowed his face, but before he could speak the Boss imp started working up a good menace. Sheriff Moric tossed one of the candies from his belt to bounce off the long nose, and there after the Boss was too busy chewing to say anything. (Imp candy is very, very sticky, but so yummy that the imps keep going for it anyway.)

“Yes Miss,” the little one squeaked, climbing to his feet. “Do you think I could learn to be a clown? One of the bumbling, tumbling sort? I think I should be good at that.” He started to glance back at his former Boss, but thought better of it.

“If you are nice and diligent at your work, I am certain that they will be happy to teach you whatever you can learn, including just what it is that you can learn,” Miss Malone said, smiling.

“You said one or two,” Sheriff Moric said studying the small puddle of pink faces in the dirt. “Did you have another in mind?”

Nancy Malone bit her lower lip in thought. “I would appreciate it if you would help me keep an eye on the second one, if he agrees,” she said and paused to take a deep breath. “I could use some help in the bakery, and I think that one of these fellows might be getting too old for imp games and Moose baths, and be ready to try making people happy instead of miserable.”

The resigned imp’s head jerked up after the word ‘old’ penetrated the cloud of fatigue muffling his thoughts. He stared at their erstwhile captive and her hesitant smile affected him like a slap, knocking him back and reddening his cheeks.

“Are you certain you want me, Miss Malone?” he asked standing up and sidling his way out of the imp group, without approaching or doing anything that might be threatening.

“You will have to keep clean to work in my bakery, and be polite and helpful to people, even if they are rude or thoughtless first. Do you think you can do that?” Miss Malone’s smile lost its hesitance and gained some genuine warmth.

The imp looked down at his defeated companions and thought about every mean, spiteful thing they had ever done to others or each other. Then he looked at the Moose and his friends who were being nice to him anyway. He inhaled deeply and let out a long sigh. “I don’t know,” he said honestly. “But I would like the chance to try.” With more courage and humility than he thought possible, the imp walked up to them and held out his hand to the once again clean Moose. “Sheriff Moric… My name is Ian, and I would like permission to stay in your town, on a trial basis.”

The Sheriff met Ian’s eye for a long moment, then reached out to shake hands. “Hello Ian. Welcome to Funtown.”

Not in MY Funtown (Part 1)

Sheriff Moric pushed his hat back. The sweat from his brow ran down the left side of his furry face. It was high noon, but the day was only mildly warm, not too hot. Funtown never got too hot. Sheriff Moric’s stern moose gaze looked up and down First Mainstreet. The inhabitants of Funtown were going about their daily business, reassured by the firm poof of a Moose sheriff. Funtown could get wild sometimes, but it was not a splashy place. On occasion, things could get out of hand, so the fine citizens of the town appreciated having a Moose around.

Sheriff Moric was just turning to head back into the Sheriff’s Office, after taking a moment to wave to Tiger Lily, who was sweeping her front porch, when little Billy Doggy came running up. “Sheriff! Sheriff! You need to come quick!”  the little german shepherd puppy said while gasping for air after such a hard run.

“Now slow down, Little Billy. Just take a breath and tell me what’s wrong,” Sheriff Moric said as he kneeled down to look Little Billy in the face.

“Sheriff, some strangers are in town. They have Nancy Malone cornered between the mill and the bakery, and they won’t let her go on her way. They are talking mean things to her!”  gasped out Little Billy.

Sheriff Moric stood up with a stern scowl across his moosey visage. He did not tolerate such splashy behavior in the town he was elected to protect. Besides, Nancy Malone was the local baker, and Moric had always had a soft spot for bakers, especially since his Aunt Moosette was such a kind and generous example of the type.

“You show me where, Little Billy. We will put a stop to this right now,” said Sheriff Moric with a deep rumble from down in his broad chest.

Little Billy ran ahead. He was in such a rush that he dropped to all fours and began to sprint down First Main Street. Ducking between the General Purpose Store and the Candy Store, he took Cat Alley over to Second Main Street. He moved fast for a little puppy, but the long-legged sheriff kept pace with him. Sheriff Moric didn’t even shift form to run on all four pooves.

Soon Little Billy and Sheriff Moric were racing down Second Main Street, all the way to the north end of town. The Mill was located out on the north end to give it room for the windmill. Sheriff Moric could see a collection of people at the end of Second Main street, just before the town buildings clustered around. He could see the bright colors of the calico dresses Nancy Malone liked to wear, but standing around her were at least five figures who appeared to be dark green mixed with a dingy gray.

As he and Little Billy got closer he could hear one of the green figures talking loudly. “See you are going to bake for us now SEE…or we will pinch you hard and burn your bakery down!”

Sheriff Moric’s stern visage now showed signs of real anger. Funtown might not be near Moose Valley, but it was not nearly splashy enough for this sort of behavior. The town was a good place where many people came to have simple fun. The last thing he would tolerate was a gang of imps moving in to ruin it for everyone.

It did not matter if they were here with official sanction of the Impy Emperor or just making independent mischief. But this stopped today, right there, right then.

The very irritated Moose moved forward to put a stop to this heinous and mean spirited situation. “You better get home to your Momma, Little Billy. These strangers might cause some trouble, but I promise to protect Miss Malone.”

Little Billy rose up on his back paws, his face twisted with indecision. He was a good puppy who generally did as he was told, but the Sheriff was all alone, and Little Billy wanted to help. “All right,” Little Billy said, shifting from foot to foot. “I will go, Sheriff, but you be careful. There were at least three more of these strangers before I ran to get you, and who knows where they got to.”

“I should have known,” Sheriff Moric pulled a two-gun rig the same dark chocolate color as his fur out of somewhere, and slung it around his hips as he walked with the ease of long practice. For most things, Sheriff Moric went armed with nothing more than his Moose Pocket, hat and boots, but when facing eight or more all by himself with someone to protect, he could not afford to take chances. The guns at his hips had been specially designed for Impfestations like this. Though not much more than the grips showed above the holster, they all glowed in the strong sunlight, the one on his left looked like it had been carved from a giant sapphire, and the right from a citrine. They both gave off a watery reflection that shifted as he walked. In the small loops on the belt where a gunfighter in the movies might carry more spare bullets, Sheriff Moric had pieces of taffy and toffee specially made to be extra sticky and neatly wrapped in waxed paper.
“I do not think Miss Malone likes your proposal gentlemen. Why we should let the lady go back to her bakery. If you want to buy her wares in the usual way, I am sure we can work  something out. If not, I think you should wrap up your business here and be on your way, Sheriff Moric spoke politely, but he kept his pooves near ready to draw, and he chose his position where he could see all five imps, and the likely lurking spots of their friends.

“I don’t care what you think, mister. We were talking to the lady. You should just go back the way you came before you get hurt,” the biggest of the five apparent imps said without looking away from Nancy Malone’s stubborn, but frightened face.

The other imps saw who they were dealing with, however. A couple started to back away. One scowled and tried to look menacing, but had to fight to keep his spine straight and his shoulders un-hunched. The fifth and littlest hid as far behind  their leader as he could without taking eyes off the Sheriff and reached up to tug at the leader’s sleeve, urgently.

“What do you want?” The leader glared down and tried to shake his arm free.

“Moose sheriff,” the little one muttered, swinging from the boss’s sleeve.

“Speak up if you insist on speaking,” the boss imp growled, dropping the little one back to the ground.

“This town has a Moose Sheriff, Boss,” the little one said slowly, making certain to clearly enunciate each word.

“This is a town of clowns gardeners and circus performers,” the imp boss said through a sneer down to the little imp on his arm. “What makes you think…” His voice drifted off as the implications of timing finally intruded on the plans the imps had for Nancy Malone.

Slowly, the boss imp straightened to his full height, well above sheriff Moric’s, even with the antlers. The dirty, grey and green figure turned to the way the others had focused, and stared cooly at the Sheriff down a long, narrow nose. The boss imp rid himself of his hanger on with a sharp snap of his wrist.

“See to our new baker,” the boss ordered, sidling over to the middle of the street, tickling the handle of the greasy black weapon he wore low on his right hip.

“I know your kind, Moose,” the boss called down the road, ice dripping from the words. “I know what kind of things you can do, but there is still only one of you and many of us. Let us have the woman. She will be perfectly safe and well paid working for us. If we fight over her, who knows who might get hurt.”

“If Miss Malone wishes to abandon her bakery here to work for you, we shall be desolate without her, but it is her right and privilege to do so,” Sheriff Moric said gently with a touch of sadness.

Then the dark, moosely visage grew stern. “However, if Miss Malone does not wish to go with you, I shall support that decision to the best of my ability. As the duly elected Sheriff of Funtown, it is my right, privilege, and duty to do no less.”

Bellows Beneath the Boughs (Part 2 of 2)

In a voice deeper and bigger than his entire body yet still pleasantly controlled, the small, blue, horned saurian answered. “I am not certain if he was hungry or just testy, but he certainly seemed intent on smear me across the landscape. Now that he has been laid low, do you know what should be done with him? I am not overly familiar with these woods and their denizens. Does one leave him to lick his wounds and menace again another day, or are there those about who  keep the peace for the more gentle folk from beings of his ilk?”

Magnar lifted one poof up to scratch his chin, a sure sign of deep thought. Mjölnyr chuckled to himself as he watched. Magnar looked just like Marius the Librarian, one of his older brothers, when he did that. Of course, Magnar would deny it. As a relatively young and untried Moose, Magnar was eager to establish himself, but he was so much like his brothers.

“To my knowledge, there is no policing or defense force in these woods, but I am more familiar with it from study and lecture than direct experience,” Magnar said eventually in a very serious tone, dropping his thinking poof back to the ground.

“That leaves the ‘What now?’ decision up to us,” Mjölnyr said as he leapt over the massive club, hastily snatched up and swung in his direction as the (marginally) closest of the three.

While the mountain giant focused on Mjölnyr, the other Moose jumped onto the broad shoulders with his fore pooves on the back of the great, shaggy head. Magnar, who’s name means strength, kept the giant’s chin pressed to the great chest on the theory that it is harder to attack unseen people. The giant immediately started trying to grab the Moose on his back, but Magnar’s antlers grew broader and pointier than he usually sported. Just as quickly as the giant grabbed, he snatched his hands away again, to suck at his sore fingers.

“I was going to suggest trying to talk to our belligerent friend here, but he does not seem conversationally inclined,” Magnar said much more naturally, hopping along in Mjölnyr’s poofsteps to avoid the club swung where fingers feared to go. The giant fell face first on the ground, momentarily stunned by his blow to the back of his own head.

“If we just leave him, eventually he is going to hurt someone other than himself, no matter which reason prompted his attack on me,” the little, blue saurian pointed out.

“We could take his club away, but we are in a forest. He would have a new one in a matter of  moments,” Mjölnyr responded, frowning at the sprawled figure.

“And even if we get him to talk to us and promise to be good, there is nothing to say that the next time he gets hungry or grumpy enough he will not be right out trying to bash people again,” Magnar said sadly.

“It must take a lot of food to keep someone so big going,” the saurian said with a touch of awe. Even sprawled out on the ground, the giant still loomed taller than his stocky vanquisher.

“That is it!” Magnar shouted, his voice so loud with excitement that even the groggy giant started in surprise.

“What is it?” Mjölnyr asked, rubbing first one ear and then the other against his shoulder.

“We need to make the giant not so giant! Then, if he is dangerous because he is hungry, he will have an easier time finding enough food. And if he is dangerous because of attitude problems, he will not be able to pick on many people smaller than he,” Magnar said almost prancing in place with excitement.

“That would, indeed, help with the problem,” the little, blue figure said slowly.

“But how do we make the giant less giant?” Mjölnyr asked, thoughtfully scratching, “EAT ME” on the ground with a poof. “We can change our own sizes, but I would not know how to do it to someone else; fetch him a snack from Wonderland? How would we know how much to give him?”

“That would take too long,” Magnar said with a frown. “And as you said, the results are somewhat unpredictable. I was thinking of shoving him through the slide Miltin designed to allow Max and our less height-flexible friends to visit the Valley Squirrels’ underground enclaves. I am certain that I can get the network looped around correctly with the squirrel gate spliced in,” Magnar pulled a long, narrow, rubbery green strip of something from somewhere and holding it out towards Mjölnyr.

“It is worth a try,” that worthy said with a shrug. “But do not forget to put things back the way you found them when you are done.”

“Of course.” Magnar stretched his strip a time or two. Then he put one end in his mouth and started to blow. The strip swelled up with a rainbow shimmer and grew in length starting just on the other side of his poof and curling away in a loose spiral as wide as himself until it stretched away across the clearing as long as the prone giant.

Carefully holding the near end with one poof, Magnar worked the far end closer until he could shove the still flat bit left dangling into the inflated beginning. When Magnar released the two, no perceptible join remained. Magnar dragged the new loop over to the giant. Working the twists out as he went, Magnar eventually managed to encircle the entire giant with the inflated loop though Magnar was careful to slide the club out of the enclosure.

“Are we ready?” Magnar asked, glancing at the others.

The little saurian blinked several times in surprise, trying to find something to say. Luckily, Mjölnyr found words enough to answer for both of them.

“This is your show. Go on as you see fit. If we think of anything, I am sure we will let you know.” Mjölnyr glanced at their new companion for confirmation, and received a relieved nod in return.

“Righty-ho,” Magnar said, then he stomped on his inflated circle with a fore poof, producing a noise like a kicked pillow. With no fuss and little flare, the circle sank down until it formed only a green stripe on the ground. When the circle stopped sinking, the giant took up the downward motion.

Half-sunk in the ground, the Mountain Giant startled awake. Somehow, he dragged himself to an upright posture, sunk to the waist in the ground. As one might expect, the giant panicked, clawing at the ground, trying to find purchase to pull free. No matter how he tried, the giant could not get even the tip of a dirty fingernail past the circle at any altitude, and his hands passed through the ground inside the circle like water.

As soon as Magnar saw the giant’s distress, he nudged the circle with a poof and the giant dropped from sight. For the span of three slow breaths, only the sound of an energetic, invisible stream filled Magnar’s circle. Then the not-so giant bobbed back into sight, no taller than his erstwhile opponent.

Magnar nudged his circle again. It rose out of the ground and deflated like an untied balloon animal until the Moose could scoop up and disappear his original rubbery, green strip of something.

At the reduced size, the not-so giant’s bellows came out as more of a squeek. Without comment, Mjölnyr escorted their new, saurian friend around the distraught, diminished humanoid.

“We did not remember to have introductions earlier, being somewhat distracted by other matters,” Mjölnyr apologise. “I am called Mjölnyr, and this is my friend Magnar. We are on our way from Moose Valley to the Fabulous Four Footed Festival, but we would gladly see you on your way first, if you would have the company.”

“I am called Toro, and before you ask or grow confused, I am neither one of the popularly known Triceratops nor the less well-known but larger Torosaurus, no matter what my parents named me. Both of the former have three horns. I have only one and spikes, so I am a Styracosaurus,” that worthy explained in the tone of a speech given often.Then, he stretched out one short leg and bowed his nose almost to the ground. “I have never been to a four-footed festival before, fabulous or otherwise. I think I would like to go with you there, first. I should be well-suited to the occasion, having four feet myself.”

“You would be most welcome,” Magnar said, making his own bow, and accidently knocking over the not-so-giant during an ill-considered assault. Before Magnar could help the poor being up, the not-so-giant charged off to tug at the club now several times his size.

“Perhaps, along the way, you could tell me about Moose Valley. I have heard wonderous things from some frog friends about that place,” Toro said as the new trio trotted off under the trees.

Just after their voices faded from the clearing, but before the not-so-giant gave up trying to shift his club. Magnar ran back into the clearing. With a pitying look at the not-so-giant, Magnar dropped a generous, quilted bag of nuts, dried fruit, and jerky that he carried as a snack for the journey. The food should last until the not-so-giant got the hang of foraging at his new size, and the bag would make a good sleep sack while he sought out a home. Mooses know how very not nice it can be to go hungry.

Bellows Beneath the Boughs (Part 1 of 2)

One day, early in their career as adult Mooses, Magnar and Mjölnyr traveled through a vast forest, on a world far away from Moose Valley. Oaks, elms, and ash filled the terrain. Each standing hundreds of feet tall, forming a vast, green roof over the forest floor. The sunlight trickled down through the leafy boughs, cast a warm green light on everything below.

The two brave Mooses traveled on all four pooves. They were in no particular hurry, but they needed to make steady progress to arrive at their festival goal in time for the opening festivities. They maintained constant, moderate pace for this journey and they both enjoyed the easy run. The broad, slow, deep river sleeping quietly under the tall trees across their path, hardly slowed their progress. Water walking formed one of the required areas of study at their Moosiversity. Magnar took the more prosaic route, running along the surface of the water, while Mjölnyr chose to run on stepping stones formed of cloud which formed and dissipated as he went above the placid water.

Halfway across the river, an enormous, bass bellow shook the forest and startled both Mooses out of their concentration into the water. The lack lasted only a moment before they recovered and climbed back up to stand on and above the surface, exchanging startled, dripping glances.

The second roar that rang out did not even cause them to bobble, and the Mooses made it to the shore. More cautious individuals might have turned away to avoid whatever made such a din. But Mooses are too curious to not discover the identity of the bellowing culprit. Someone might be in trouble, after all.

Mjölnyr and Magnar took several steps apart and shook vigorously to throw the excess water from their coats. Then they cautiously made their way inland, moving quietly through the forest. They hoped to spy the bellowing creature before it saw them.

Without the need for discussion, the two Mooses set out on parallel courses through the forest. Even as they dodged tree trunks, rocks, and other obstacles, their individual paths always shifted to keep in sight of the other. A third roar rang out across the forest, louder now as they sped closer, but this time Mjölnyr and Magnar heard a snort mixed in with the louder sound. The two Mooses exchanged glances and raised eyebrows. That snort was a much smaller, not to mention different sound. Someone else might be out there.

Magnar swung wide to the left while Mjölnyr moved straight ahead. This way the two Mooses would approach the scene of the snorter and bellower from two sides. Mjölnyr paused for a moment, right beyond the edge of the clearing ahead, stalling to give Magnar time to get into position.

A silent message rang into Mjölnyr’s mind from Magnar through moosepathy, “I am in position and ready to go.” (Moosepathy, beyond just a basic level, was an elective at their Moosiversity, that they both happened to take.)

“I am going in now,” Mjölnyr sent back to Magnar.

Mjölnyr charged through the last, thin screen of underbrush into a wide clearing in the forest where a generous scattering of pure sunlight managed to reach the ground with Magnar keeping pace with him on the left. A mountain giant, taller than the other three people on scene standing on top of one another dominated the cleared space, but he did not seem to be in control of the scene. He stood awkwardly on one foot, cradling the other in his big hands with a great, gnarled club dropped on the ground nearby.

Facing the giant, and getting the better of the encounter at the moment, stood a small, blue quadruped with an impressive horn on his nose and boney plate edged with spikes extending up and back to protect his neck. The little combatant, no bigger than the giant’s foot snorted again, and this time the Mooses could plainly hear the amusement in the sound. The giant, being too wrapped up in his sore toes, did not notice the two new arrivals. The saurian, however, being still smaller than either Moose saw them both, but refused to be distracted from the larger, more blatant threat. He charged the giant, this time hitting him in the other foot, and bouncing away again before the enormous figure could think to stomp.

The giant bellowed with rage and pain, flailing his arms around, in a vain attempt to preserve his balance. For all his efforts, the giant could not stay upright. The giant fell down with a great thud that set all the nearby trees dancing. Both the Mooses took a few light steps to keep upright on the vibrating ground. The small blue stranger, however, stood so low to the ground that he barely shifted his feet during the small localized earthquake caused by the giant’s fall.

“Now, what’s all this then?” Mjölnyr asked, slowly circling around the two combatants with Magnar keeping pace with him, on the opposite side of the clearing, carefully out of grabbing or easy charging range. Mountain Giants are not usually the nicest of fellows, and the victor loomed by far smaller of the two, but it does not do to judge people by their exteriors. The Mooses had no way to tell, from what they had seen, which party started the hubbub.

The Eye of a Summer Storm (a bit more)

I had not intended to give any more of this (or I would not have stopped it where I did), but Minion and I received a request to see what comes next, so here is the last page of Chapter 1 and some of Chapter 2.

Nathan sighed and then quickly scowled at the game in his hands, so when the young lady watching him for Barnaby glanced over from her book to check on him, she got the wrong impression and kept her peace. With no more flights or passengers due, she sat near enough to reassure without crowding.

Before Nathan could turn his mind from the recent past to what his near future might hold, Barnaby bustled up to them, smiling and obviously well pleased with himself. “Are you ready to get out of here, Nathan? I have talked to your Grandmother, your Aunt, and the Airlines. Between us, we have arranged a hotel room for you near mine, where I can keep an eye on you until your Aunt arrives. How does that sound?” Barnaby asked, kneeling down so that he could talk to Nathan more on the boy’s own level.

“I heard people saying that the runways might not be open until the day after tomorrow. Don’t you have other things you would rather do?’ Nathan asked without looking up from his game, surprise making him a bit more blunt than he might otherwise be.

“I had other plans, but someone has to keep an eye on you. I promised your Grandmother I would see you safely into your Aunt’s care, and I intend to keep my word. Besides, it could be fun. I have a brother not much older than you are. The hotel has a pool and a game room, what do you think?’ Barnaby asked like it really mattered what Nathan thought.

Nathan could see Barnaby’s friend’s face in his peripheral vision. He saw her disappointment when she heard the proposal and the amusement when Barnaby admitted to other plans, so the boy had a good, if cynical, idea what those plans might have been. After Barnaby explained his reasoning she seemed to approve the idea, and it was not like any better offer was likely to come Nathan’s way any time soon.

“That is very kind of you. I will be sure to let Gramma know how you honor your word,” Nathan said, trying to speak like his Grandad did in the stories.

“Lovely, I have already rescued your suitcase and stowed it in my car. Having to fetch it back out again might have proved a bit embarrassing.” Barnaby bounced to his feet and offered Nathan a hand up.

Nathan fumbled about a bit unplugging his tablet from the pillar and stowing the bits in his bag to give Barnaby a bit more time to have a quiet word with his friend. Then it was time to start off on the next leg of Nathan’s Great American Adventure.

None of the humans noticed the small pair of bright eyes watching them out of the darkened alcove of the small store across the concourse. A moment later, the eyes were gone.

Chapter Two – An Unexpected Companion

Barnaby drove down the rain-beaten streets with confidence and the care due to the conditions, talking easily about his young brother Charles, requiring little response from Nathan. Between the clouds and wind whipped water, little could be seen of their surroundings. The dark and a six hour time difference left Nathan at a complete loss as to the time of day. It would be the work of only a moment to find out, but Nathan rather enjoyed the timeless and fantastic effect that turned the inside of Barnaby’s rental car into their only bit of reality drifting through an uncertain world. Even that pocket of stability had its foreign elements, with the driver’s seat and controls on the wrong side, and the strange, pervasive, but not entirely unpleasant smell. In Nathan’s mind, the rain outside busily washed away the familiar world he knew, reshaping it into who knew what. The combined effect of several days of short and unsettled sleep in the aftermath of Gramma’s accident, the long flight, the soothing patter of water vainly attempting to invade their safe haven, and Barnaby’s voice slipped Nathan into dream lands, without knowing he had closed his eyes.

Nathan came back to the moment with a thump in the sudden, well lit, silence of an enclosed parking garage when Barnaby stilled the car’s engine.

“Can you manage your pack and your suitcase, or should we come back after taking the first load to our rooms,” Barnaby asked after a good stretch in his seat. An easy smile and gentle glance held no hint of criticism or irritation if a second trip proved necessary.

“I should be able to manage them both,” Nathan responded, pulling his pack from the floor board into his lap. He knew he would be living out of the two bags and would have to shift them often when he packed them. Many of Gramma’s stories emphasised the need for an adventurer to pack  light, and he helped every year when his parents fought the mounds of what Dad wanted to take into what they could carry. The suitcase had wheels and was only three quarters full to leave room for new acquisitions along the way.

Barnaby took Nathan at his word, not even offering to help the boy wrestle the big case out of the trunk when Nathan reached for it. In perfect understanding the two young men made for the elevator, and the hotel lobby. The lady behind the big desk with the night dark skin and warm brown eyes recognised Barnaby on sight and seemed to be expecting them.

“Hello sugar,” she said, addressing Nathan. “Barnaby tells me that this nasty storm has been making things difficult for you after travelling such a long way to get here. Don’t you worry none. You are in good hands until your Aunt can find her way here. If you will give me your passport for a minute, I will get keys for you both.” She held out a strong, broad hand, with the nails painted the same dark blue as her blazer. Nathan rather enjoyed her rich, deep voice, and the accent that shifted her vowels and seemed to thicken and bind the words together like warm honey. He smiled, and pulled the small, dark red folder with all the gold writing out of an inner pocket in his knapsack. The passport was not as new as it looked, but between his parents’ summer work schedule and school, Nathan had no opportunity to use it before that day.

“I’ll have your key in a bit,” the lady said turning to her computer screen. The dark gold colored name tag she wore spelled out, “Sheila” Nathan had just enough time to wonder, “Isn’t that what they call a girl in Australia?” when she turned her snow white smile back his way.

“There you go, hun. Here is your passport back and your room key,” Sheila said handing him first the passport and then a little paper folder with the plastic card that would serve as his room key tucked inside. “You have a full sized bed in room four-seventeen, just a few doors down from Barnaby in room four-twenty-three,” She paused to hand Barnaby his key. ‘The wifi password is in with your key. There is a good sized tv in the cabinet in your room. The pool is down the stairs over there.” Sheila leaned out to point to her left across the wide, high ceilinged lobby to where they could see the tops of a glass walled room just beyond a short flight of steps.

“I know how international travel can be on your stomach and sleep schedule. If you get hungry there is a menu for room service in your room. The things on the back are available anytime and your tab is covered, but if you are out and about between five thirty and eleven, we are very proud of our breakfast buffet, served in the party room of the restaurant over there,” she pointed at the other corner of the wide lobby at the indoor patio seating inside a low rail in front of the brick shop face proudly entitled the Iron Grill on the wrought iron sign over the doorway.

“Just show them your key and ask for the buffet when the wait staff comes to seat you. There is an arcade and game room around the corner this way. Sheila made a broad wave towards the hallway to the right of the wide reception desk. “If you need anything or have any questions, just dial zero on the phone in your room to get the front desk. There will always be someone here.”

Sheila glanced at Barnaby and asked, “Have I left anything out?”

“If we think of anything, we won’t hesitate to ask. Will we, Nathan?” Barnaby said with a smile. “I do not know about you, but I am ready for some hot water and clean sheets.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” Nathan said. He pocketed his key and returned his passport to its designated position. Barnaby led the way back to the elevator, and the fourth floor. Nathan glanced at the young man as the mirrored car rose with a soft hum of machinery. Barnaby still smiled faintly, but he leaned his head back against the wall during the short trip, and his posture sagged subtly with fatigue, so Nathan kept his peace. They turned right out of the elevator and passed the door marked four-one-seven just far enough for Barnaby to show Nathan where the young man would be, and shove Barnaby’s small suitcase inside four-two-three. Barnaby stood patiently while Nathan got the hang of the card key. He reached past Nathan to flick on the lights, and followed the boy in, checking the bathroom for towels, toiletries, and toilet paper. Barnaby checked that the phone worked and made sure the room service menu and small packet of information about the hotel were on the desk in the far corner by the window. Then Barnaby seemed to just run out of energy in the middle of the room with his fists on his hips, staring at the heavy curtains covering the windows as if they might tell him what to do next at any moment.

Nathan carefully dropped his grandfather’s knapsack on the foot of the bed, startling Barnaby back into motion. He turned to look at Nathan, “Is there anything else you need?”

“I will be fine. Go ahead and get some kip. I will be fine on my own for a few hours,” Nathan said. “Thank you very much for agreeing to look after me.”

“My pleasure, you know where I will be if you need anything,” Barnaby said. At the door he turned back for a last glance before closing the door behind him.

Nathan stood at the foot of the bed and looked around for a long moment at his new domain. With a subdued whoop of enthusiasm Nathan ran into the bathroom, back out, around the foot of the bed, over to the window and back again, before setting out to methodically explore every drawer and cabinet, and under every piece of furniture. He put some effort into doing it all quietly, being well familiar with downstairs neighbors, but he just could not contain his excitement. It was not a big space, but for that time it was all his with the only adult supervision several doors down the hall.

With his inspection finished, turning up nothing more exciting than a bible in the night stand, a hair dryer in the closet, an extra blanket in the bureau, and a lost sock wedged between the bedframe and the wall, Nathan hefted his suitcase onto the bed. After most of twenty four hours spent in the same clothes, Barnaby’s idea of hot water or at least fresh clothes had a definite appeal. Gramps always said, “I have always been just as ready as the next chap to forgo regular baths and clean collars every day when the situation calls for it, but after ten days in the field with mud, sweat and sleeping in your clothes, nothing says comfort like a hot bath and a clean, dry pair of pants.” At which point Gramma would scold him for crudeness. He always laughed at her scoulding and hinted at other stories that he could tell, if she wanted him to be crude.

Before Nathan could unzip and flip open the big, blue suitcase, he noticed something he had somehow missed during his exploration of the room. A good-sized stuffed moose with shiny brown fur, and narrow, wide-spread antlers with an almost orange tint to their tan sat at the head of the bed, propped up between the pillows wearing a forest camouflage military uniform and cap, complete with a pack on his back.