The Woodjin: Perfect Faith by Lbilover

The poem at the end of the story was written by a fascinating Piney, Dr. James Still, the son of a former slave and the self-taught 'Black Doctor of the Pines'. It comes from a book I own entitled Early Recollections and Life of Dr. James Still, 1812-1885.

Note: Character death and major angst warning.


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The crescent moon shed little light but Pete Gunner made his way unerringly along the narrow sand trail through the woods without benefit of lantern or flashlight. It was a route he had taken times out of mind over the years to visit the Woodjin’s cabin.


Tonight, though, it wasn’t the Woodjin he wanted to see, but Dr. Sean. Pete had been feeling poorly all day, weak as a newborn foal despite the pills he took for his shaking. He didn’t like to bother the doc, but something wasn’t right.


It never occurred to him not to walk the miles from his tiny house by the cranberry bog despite his shakiness. He didn’t have a phone, didn’t hold with them no matter what Dr. Sean or Katie or Hannah said about him needing one. As he saw it, it was only a means for folk to bother you, and Pete valued his solitude. He’d seen enough of telephones and televisions and such during the three years he’d lived outside the pines. After Warren had married and been busy starting a family, Pete had grown restless and decided to take himself off to Richmond where a Gunner cousin lived. Got him a job in a warehouse, making more money in a month than Pete had ever seen in a year.


But he hadn’t lasted long out there as he thought of it, with its noise and traffic and crowds of people that made a man feel like he was suffocating, and worst of all the endless rules. Folk worked like dogs from dawn to dusk, never seeming to find time just to be. So one day, having had enough, he packed up his things and left, headed north without looking back.


He couldn’t wait to get back to the pines, where a man could set his own hours instead of being told when to be where and for how long, or stand accused of being shacklin’ simply for taking a day off to go fishing. Pete would never understand the world outside or what anyone saw in it. The pines suited him perfect, and he never left it again.


Before he’d covered but a few miles, Pete had already stopped several times to catch his breath. His chest felt oddly constricted, as if the fraying rope that held his tattered canvas coat closed was tied tightly around it instead of his middle. Well, the doc would fix him up soon enough, he thought optimistically. Give him another pill to take. Pete had a simple but unflagging faith in the efficacy of pills, and his admiration for Dr. Sean knew no bounds.


Pete kept walking, but his steps began to slow. His mind wandered, flickering in and out of the past, with flashes of his parents and his brother who’d died from scarlet fever when Pete was eight, and of Warren Wood, the best friend he’d ever had.


Though he’d sometimes worried that he wasn’t showing proper respect, he’d never been able to call Warren by his proper title after he took over as Woodjin. Warren never minded, though. “Pete,” he’d said, “you’re my friend, and friends call each other by their given names.”


He’d been thinking an awful lot about Warren lately while he drowsed in a rickety chair outside the front door of his shack, enjoying the early autumn warmth and not minding that his bog lay fallow now instead of crimson with ripe berries ready to be harvested. Recalling the adventures they'd had as kids, things he hadn't thought about in years, he sometimes had the queer fancy that his friend was there with him, even if he couldn’t see him. He had that feeling now, like if he turned his head quick enough, he’d catch a glimpse of him.


The tightness around his chest was intensifying, accompanied by a sharp pain that stabbed his breast with every breath. He tried to ignore it, but it didn’t want to be ignored, and his head was buzzing, the way it did when he had a fever. Finally he was forced to stop, resting against the scratchy bark of a pitch pine, too weak to go on.


Pete never noticed when a deathly hush fell over the woods, even the ever-present drone of the crickets silenced. But he jolted back to awareness of his surroundings when a shriek, piercing and filled with rage, rent the night air like a knife and twin points of glowing red appeared in the blackness.


After all these years, the Devil had finally caught up with him.


Pete had no thought of running. He couldn’t have even if he wanted to. The stabbing pain had grown into an unendurable agony. Try as he might, he couldn’t draw a single breath, and his fingers scrabbled ineffectually at his failing heart that felt as if it was exploding inside his chest. Gibbering and hissing, the Devil drew closer until he loomed over Pete, his vast bat-like wings blocking out the sky. His razor-tipped claws glittered with malevolent intent as they arced through the air and descended, slashing through canvas and flannel with an ugly tearing sound.


But Pete Gunner didn’t feel a thing; he was beyond the Devil’s reach now.


As he crumpled to the ground, his fading sight caught a blur of white, and faintly but clearly he heard a trumpeting challenge ring out like a bell. The Woodjin, he thought fleetingly, and slipped his earthly bonds.


~*~


Pete climbed to his feet. The agonizing pain in his chest had vanished as if it never existed, and so had his shaking. He glanced down and discovered his body lying in the pine needle littered sand. Somehow he wasn’t surprised, nor did he find the sight upsetting or unsettling. To one accustomed to the cycle of birth and death in the pines it made perfect sense. He’d simply shed that part of himself the way a snake shed its skin when it didn’t fit anymore. He’d left behind frailty and illness, and now he felt as buoyant as milkweed silk floating on an autumn breeze.


Pete, said a voice from behind him.


Pete recognized that voice, though it had many years since he last heard it. Eagerly he spun around to find a large white stag standing a short distance away, his gray eyes warm with love and welcome.


Warren! Joy flooded through Pete at the sight of his friend and he hurried to him. He didn’t question his presence or how they were able to talk to each other. I didn’t think I’d never see you no more.


I’ve been waiting for you. I knew it wouldn’t be long now.


Then Warren’s gaze slid past Pete, and Pete turned around. The Devil was gone, and another white stag, Warren’s son, stood protectively over Pete’s body. As they watched, the stag lowered his antlered head, blew softly, and nuzzled Pete’s cheek repeatedly, as if trying to wake him.


Woodjin, it won’t do no good, Pete said. I ain’t there no more.


He can’t hear you, Pete, said Warren quietly.


A dazzling light sprang up in the clearing, the signal that the Woodjin was transforming. Pete, who’d experienced this event a time or two when Warren was Woodjin, didn’t have to close his eyes as the transformation took place, though the intensity of the light would have blinded a living man. He witnessed it all. Saw the shifting, melting air solidify and resolve into the form of a slender young man who fell to his knees and placed two fingers at the base of Pete’s throat, searching for a pulse that would never beat again.


"Pete?" Elijah said in a shaking voice, and then as if finally accepting the truth, he let out an anguished cry. “No! Oh Pete, no.” He gathered Pete’s limp lifeless body into his arms and began to rock him. Trails of silver appeared on his cheeks, glistening in the starlight.


Pity welled up inside Pete for the Woodjin’s tearing grief, for the sobs that wracked him as he rocked and rocked. I wish there was something we could do to help him, Warren.


So do I, replied Warren, and sorrow fathomless as the ocean filled his eyes as he watched his grieving son. But Elijah has to travel this road without us. We have our own road to travel, Pete, and it’s time for us to go. Come. While they’d lingered, a silvery mist had blossomed, spreading until it obscured sky and trees.


With a final sorrowful look at Elijah, his dark head bowed over Pete's body, his shoulders heaving, Pete turned to the white stag. Effortlessly, like the limber youth he’d once been, he set a hand on the stag’s withers and sprang atop his broad back. Hardly had he settled in place when the stag was off, bounding away, and together they vanished into the shimmering mist.


~*~


Sean never saw it coming. One moment he was sitting at the kitchen table reviewing patient notes on his laptop. The next he was jumping to his feet, a cry on his lips of “Elijah!” as Maggie simultaneously let out a piercing yowl.


So forceful was the emotion that slammed into him that he literally staggered and clutched the edge of the table for support. He couldn’t immediately make sense of what he was feeling; he only knew it was bad, beyond anything he’d experienced through the connection that he and Elijah shared.


But he had to make sense of it. It was critical that he understand, or try to. He was hampered by the waves of emotion that battered him repeatedly like a storm tossed sea, as if whatever guards Elijah usually had in place had been completely obliterated. Sean put his hand to his aching forehead and focused.


This was nothing like the feeling Sean got when Elijah was injured. The sensation wasn’t localized, but diffuse. Not pain then, not physical pain at any rate, but... grief? That was it, Sean realized. It was grief. He recognized the emotion now. And it scared the shit out of him. What had happened? What in god’s name had happened?


Then as sometimes happened, Sean caught two words, very faint and crackling with static, if they came from the speaker of an old-fashioned wireless. Pete followed by no.


It was enough.


“Maggie, we have to find Elijah,” Sean said, heading for the mudroom door. “Something has happened to Pete.” He was all too afraid he knew what had happened, but he wouldn’t allow himself to go there. He had to wall off his own emotions and focus on getting to Elijah and Pete as quickly as possible.


Methodically he put on his hiking boots and a light-weight jacket, picked up the familiar weight of his trusted mag flashlight and put it in his pocket, and shouldered the backpack that held medical supplies and other necessities. Last of all he took up his walking stick that was leaning against the wall.


Only then did he open the back door and step out into the starlight with Maggie at his side.


Maggie immediately trotted across the yard, heading unerringly for a footpath leading into the pines behind the stables. Sean had perfect faith in her ability to find Elijah; she had done it before.


They made quick progress along the trail. Sean was a fit and experienced hiker now, and had no difficulty keeping up with the tireless Maggie. On they went, deeper and deeper into the pines. It was a trail Sean knew well, the same one Pete used whenever he came to visit. He didn’t question why Pete might have been heading this way in the middle of the night. Pete marched to his own drummer and unlike most Pineys had no hesitation about walking in the woods after dark. He’d told Sean more than once that he didn’t fear the Devil.


But Sean shied away from that thought, and his fear that Pete’s luck had finally run out. The current of emotion coming from Elijah had diminished, but not dissipated; if anything the sense of grief and despair was more intense, even if less apparent, like the dangerous hidden currents in the Batsto. Sean was deeply worried not only about Pete but about Elijah and what was happening inside him.


If I ever failed to save someone, I don’t think I could bear it, Sean. Elijah had said that to him once, and he’d never forgotten the words or the desolate expression that accompanied them.


Sean walked faster.


They’d hiked for nearly an hour when they found Elijah. In the glow of the flashlight Sean saw him perhaps twenty yards ahead, crouched naked in the sand beside Pete. The old Piney rested on his back with his hands crossed on his chest and his eyelids closed - exactly the way a body was disposed for burial after death. All the answer Sean needed was contained in that ritual pose, and his heart clenched with fierce pain, both for the friend and patient he'd lost, and for Elijah, who was suffering god alone knew what agonies of guilt.


If I ever failed to save someone, I don’t think I could bear it, Sean.


“Elijah,” Sean said, dropping his walking stick and quickly removing the backpack and lowering it to the ground. “We’re here. Maggie and I are here.”


Elijah started like one lost in a dream, or a nightmare, and lifted his head. His eyes were red and swollen, his face streaked with tears, and seeing this outward evidence of the grief that had accompanied Sean every step of the way, the fears he’d been struggling to repress surged to the fore. Elijah looked completely and utterly devastated.


Maggie ran to Elijah and butted her head against his side. He reached instinctively to touch her, but his gaze never left Sean’s. “Pete’s dead,” he said in a voice so hoarse it was almost unrecognizable. “The Devil...” He couldn’t go on; a sob escaped him and he pressed the back of his hand to his mouth.


Sean noticed for the first time the long jagged rents in Pete’s faded old canvas coat. Jesus, he thought. Oh Jesus. He went toward Elijah, intending to crouch and put an arm around him, but reading his intent, Elijah jumped to his feet and backed away, palms held outward in a gesture of repudiation.


“Don’t try to comfort me. I don’t deserve it,” he said dully. “This is my fault, Sean. Pete’s dead because of me.” He drew a shuddering breath. “I failed him.”


It was exactly as Sean had feared, but he said with forced calm, trying not to betray the depth of his concern, “Elijah, that’s not true.”


“It is. It is true. I’m the Woodjin, I was supposed to save him. It was my duty to save him. Instead I came too late and the Devil killed him.”


“You answered the Call, Elijah,” Sean said. “You did everything you could. Please, please don’t blame yourself.” He might as well not have spoken.


“He was my dad’s best friend and I let him die.” Elijah’s voice cracked and broke.


Sean stepped forward as slowly and cautiously as if he were trying to approach a wild creature - and at that moment in essence Elijah was. His eyes shone with an almost feral light that showed the stag side of his nature was in ascendancy, and it filled Sean with dread.


Elijah shook his head vehemently as Sean took another step, and retreated, widening the distance between them. “No. Keep back.” He closed his eyes and concentrated. A vertical line appeared between his brows and his hands clenched into fists at his sides.


“Elijah, wait!” Sean cried. “Don’t transform. Please.”


Elijah opened his eyes; hope rose inside Sean until he saw their haunted expression. “I have to,” he said. “I don’t know who or what I am now.” His gaze dropped to Pete. “Take care of him, Sean. I couldn’t.”


Then the firefly spark sprang to life and Sean could only stand impotently by, shielding his eyes while Elijah transformed, helpless to stop him. For the first time ever, the magical metamorphosis of man into stag brought him no joy, no sense of wonder, only despair.


When the blinding light faded and Sean blinked his eyes open, the white stag stood in Elijah’s place. In those great blue eyes that had captivated him the first time he ever met them, Sean could detect no trace of the man he loved.


“Elijah, please don’t do this,” Sean pleaded desperately, starting forward. “I can help you. Let me help you. You’re not alone.”


But the Elijah hidden inside the white stag was unreachable. The stag looked wild, truly wild as he never had before, as if every trace of his humanity was buried so deep that it was beyond recall. Snorting and tossing his head, he sidled away from Sean, then wheeled on his haunches and was gone, melting like a ghost into the darkness.


“No!” Sean shouted, his voice echoing eerily through the silent woods, no... no... no... He ran blindly in the direction the stag had gone, blundering through the undergrowth, fighting his way past the stiff-branched pitch pines with mindless determination. How long he’d have gone on, cursing even as tears poured down his face, he had no idea. All he knew was that Elijah had gone and he had to find him.


It was Maggie who finally brought him to his senses. She blocked his way, swelling up with her fur standing on end to look as large as possible, and hissed at him. Sean stopped, realizing the total futility of his actions. He’d managed nothing but to bloody his face and hands, but the stinging pain of the scratches was nothing to the pain in his heart.


He knelt and picked Maggie up, cradling her against his chest. He buried his face in her soft fur, struggling to hold back the tears, but it was impossible when he realized that for the first time Elijah had left without bestowing his blessing on Sean - as if he no longer believed he had the right.




Part 2

Sean moved around the house, turning off lights. It was late, and he was the only one still up. Hannah, Lawrence and Jordan had gone to bed a couple hours' earlier, while Katie and Bill had finally, reluctantly returned home, followed shortly thereafter by Ian and Martha. As always happened in a time of crisis, the Pineys had pulled together and surrounded Sean with loving support even in the midst of their grief for Pete. While he appreciated that support, Sean felt in desperate need of time alone to come to grips, however tenuous, with what had happened.

If he'd ever endured a more difficult twenty-four hours, he couldn't recall it. His entire being thrummed with the need to be out in the woods searching for Elijah. But he was a doctor, and Pete was his patient and his friend, and his unquestioning duty had been to the old Piney first. Given the nature of Pete's death, and the wounds he'd received from the razor-tipped talons of the Devil, his body had not been taken to the hospital. Too many questions would have been raised, questions that were likely to lead to wrong assumptions about what had attacked Pete Gunner, because the truth could never be revealed, even if it would be believed. Outside the Pines, the Devil was a myth, a legend, even a joke.

But it mattered, and mattered greatly, how exactly Pete Gunner had died, and so Sean and Ian had done what was necessary. It was illegal as hell, of course, but neither man had given a thought to the legality or to turning Pete over to the county medical examiner to determine the cause of death. Pete would have hated to be in the hands of foreigners anyway, even after death. His body now rested at the funeral home in Chatsworth, and Katie and Martha had taken the plans for his wake and funeral into their capable hands and were arranging everything.

"Mrrowr."

Sean paused with his hand on a light switch and looked down into Maggie's amber eyes. She, like Rocky, currently clinging to Sean's neck like a living stole, was sticking to him like glue, although he suspected it was less because she needed him than she knew he needed her and her unflappable calm. Or maybe not. For the first time ever, he had a sense that Maggie was worried, even afraid, and there could be only one explanation for that.

"Oh Maggie, what are we going to do?" Sean asked softly. "He's cut himself off from both of us, hasn't he?"

He'd never taken for granted the bond that he and Elijah shared, but now, deprived of it, he understood how profoundly it informed his life waking and sleeping, a current that he tapped into countless times as he went about his days without even thinking about it. It was almost autonomic, like the beat of his heart and the breath of his lungs, or like reaching out in his sleep to check for Elijah's presence.

Sean switched off the light and made his way through the darkened house, only the familiar settling sounds and the tick of the grandfather clock disturbing the quiet. He didn't go into the bedroom. Sleep was impossible, but even if he were tired, he could never sleep alone in the bed he had always shared with Elijah.

Instead, he went into the kitchen and from there through the mudroom and outside into the yard. The waning crescent moon, had long since set; the sky was clear and the stars bright, but despite the urgency, the insistent internal voice warning him of the danger of delay, Sean knew it would be folly to venture into the dark woods. He would never find Elijah that way, but he might find something else, something that didn't bear thinking on right then.  

So Sean remained within the ward that encircled the house, and paced the perimeter as once a fox whose injured mate had been carried to the Woodjin by Pete Gunner had paced, and he strained every sense for any sign of Elijah. Please, please, come home. Sean sent the voiceless plea out into the darkness over and over, like some interstellar message across the depths of space and time. But when the first pale light of dawn crept through the trees, he'd received no reply, nor had the white stag returned.

~*~

Sean had witnessed death in the Pines before. He’d attended the burials of friends and patients, grieved for them, offered comfort and solace to the bereaved. Never had it been so difficult to summon the strength to be strong for others, not when his entire life was shaken to its foundations and threatening to collapse around him.

All during the simple burial service held at the ancient cemetery deep in the woods where Pete’s parents and brother were buried, Sean scanned the area with desperate eyes and questing senses for some sign of the white stag, hoping against hope that he would be drawn there. Surely if anything could bring Elijah back, it would be the burial of the shy, reclusive but generous hearted man who had meant so much to him and to his father.

But when the priest, Father Ellis, spoke the final words of the burial service, the white stag had not appeared. Hannah, her face ravaged by tears, stepped forward to drop a handful of dirt onto the plain pine casket in which Pete lay, a colorful scarf she had given him, but he had never before worn, arranged around his neck and his beloved, tattered Bible resting on his chest. The sound of the dirt hitting the casket filled Sean's heart with grief and memories of the day his father had been buried, and he tightened his arm around Jordan, who stood straight, solemn and stoic at his side, doing his best to act as Woodjin in his uncle's absence.

At ten years old, Jordan's head already topped Sean's shoulder, and it was clear that he took more after his tall, massively built father than his petite mother. Elijah had recently joked that by the time Jordan had his vision quest and learned to transform, he would dwarf his uncle in both his incarnations, and maybe it would be time to hang up his antlers and retire.

A small choked sound escaped Sean. Right now the very real danger existed that it was no joke, and that Jordan would assume that mantle as Elijah had, far too soon.  

Jordan's hand slipped into his and squeezed it. They looked at each other, the boy's midnight dark eyes old beyond his years, and Sean silently asked the same question he had asked Jordan repeatedly over the past few days: can you sense him anywhere near? But Jordan shook his head slightly in negation, and then it was his turn to take a handful of dirt from the spade that Bill Jenkins held and drop it on the coffin, and Sean followed after him, sending out a desperate call to his mate: please, please come home.

~*~

The mourners returned to the Jenkins' house after the burial. Pineys celebrated the life of the deceased very much in the manner of an Irish wake, and no Piney should have been celebrated with more gusto than Pete Gunner who had, after all, lived a long, and by his lights good, life in the place he loved best.  

Only with their Woodjin missing, gone off to grieve Pete's death alone, no one had much heart for a celebration. Those gathered in Bill and Katie Jenkins’ living room spoke with subdued voices, and the lavish spread that Katie had prepared to honor Pete failed to disappear with its usual rapidity.

Sean, haggard and exhausted after five days without sleep, couldn’t bring himself to eat anything. He heaped food on a plate to please Katie, but then slid it onto a side table when he thought it would go unnoticed. He did his best to put a good face on things, but in an effort to cheer and console him, too many people said, "Our Woodjin will be back soon, Dr. Sean. You'll see."

"You don't understand," he wanted to yell. "The longer he's in his stag form, the harder it will be for him to come back. He could lose himself beyond recall." But of course it wasn't their fault. They didn't understand. How could they? The Woodjin to them was an object of reverence, and Sean had discovered that some essential truths about his nature were not known to most of them, nor did Elijah, or the Woodjins who had come before him want those they protected to know. The people of the Pines needed to believe in him, to have perfect faith in their Woodjin's ability to safeguard them.  

But to Sean, this Woodjin was so much more: he was Sean's love and his life partner and the center of his universe.  

Jim Murphy and his band got out their instruments and started to tune them, preparing to play some of the country and bluegrass tunes that Pete had so enjoyed listening to of an evening at the Albert Music Hall. It was simply too much for Sean to bear. How many Saturday evenings had he and Elijah spent there with Pete and their other friends, dancing in the parking lot to the Polka in the Pines, a little drunk and a lot giddy, or listening to an impromptu jam on the porch or in the Pickin' Shed? The thought that he might never do so again, might never see Elijah's blue eyes alight with joy as he and Sean twirled around and around, gutted him. As Jim began to sing 'Think of Me', Sean escaped outside to sit on the porch steps and compose himself.  

As the mournful sounds of fiddle and banjo drifted from the windows, he abstractedly contemplated his hands while the endless mill wheel of his mind turned round and round in futile thought. The scratches on the backs were healing well, thanks to the herbal salve, but it was too vivid a reminder of the night he’d stumbled into the Woodjin’s magical world, and his chest grew tight and his throat ached with barely suppressed tears.

Sometime later, he had no idea how long, footsteps sounded on the porch. Sean looked up to see Mack holding out a white china plate to him. His plate; it seemed someone had noticed him set it down. “You have to eat,” his brother said quietly. “You’re no good to anyone like this, especially Elijah.”

“Tough love, Mack?” Sean said, and huffed a bitter laugh. But he took the plate and the fork he was offered. Mackenzie was right, of course. It was necessary for him to keep up his strength so that he could return to what he’d been doing now for four exhausting straight days: driving and hiking through the pines in a desperate search for the white stag.

Mack sat down beside Sean, his lanky frame dwarfing that of his shorter brother. "Just love, Sean," he said. "Worrying about my big bro, that's all."  He rested his elbows on his knees, and his toe unconsciously tapped in time to the music that had changed from the mournful ballad to a livelier tune.

All? thought Sean as he dug his fork into a piece of cranberry pot pie and took a bite. Delicious though it was, he might have been swallowing sawdust. "Mack, thank you. Having you here... I can't tell you what it means to me, how much it's helping me get through this.” His hand clenched around the handle of the fork. “I have to find him, Mackie, and soon.”  

"I know," Mack replied, and he did know: he, Martha and Ian, Bill and Katie, Hannah and Lawrence - and Jordan. The only ones who understood the true danger in which Elijah stood, the only ones to whom Sean had confided what Elijah had told him: If I ever failed to save someone, I don’t think I could bear it, Sean. "Where are we going to search tomorrow?" Mack asked.

At that simple question, something inside Sean snapped. He set down the plate on the step and buried his aching head in his hands. "Does it even matter? It's like looking for a fucking needle in a haystack. Elijah could be anywhere in over a million fucking acres - some of it inaccessible by Jeep or boat or even on foot." Despite himself, an edge of panic crept into his voice as he fully acknowledged the enormity and impossibility of the task facing them.

Mack put a bracing arm around him. "Hey, that's not my brother talking. You know, my brother the can-do guy? The guy who always finds a way? Who never lets anything beat him?"

Sean let out a laugh that was more than half a sob. "I may have met my match this time, Mack."

"Not you," Mack said positively. "I have perfect faith in you, Sean."

Maybe it was that phrase, perfect faith, a phrase that he had used himself to describe the relationship of Pineys to their Woodjin. Or maybe it was Mack's avowal of perfect faith in him, a faith that had been sorely tested at times in their lives but had always held fast.  

Whatever the reason, the light suddenly dawned, and Sean realized that he'd been going about things completely ass-backwards. As he walked the perimeter of the yard that first night, he'd told himself it would be folly to venture into the dark woods alone. But he'd been dead wrong. Venturing into the dark woods alone was precisely what he should have done, and it was precisely what he was going to have to do - that very night.  

Oh, it was true he couldn't find Elijah that way, but Elijah could find him. The Devil would make sure of it.

~*~

The Audubon clock had struck two o'clock in the morning before Sean judged it safe to leave the house. He was confident he'd given nothing away to the others, but with the stakes so high it had been imperative that he succeed. If any of them so much as suspected what he was planning, he'd never have been allowed to attempt it.

Maggie, crouched on the kitchen counter, watched with wide unblinking eyes as he went to the mudroom door. How much she understood, Sean couldn't say for certain, but she made no move to accompany him - and that spoke volumes. Wiser than any human, she might have known the answer all along.

He stopped in the doorway and looked back at her. "I'll see you later, Maggie. We'll see you later. I'm bringing Elijah home with me this time." Sean spoke with confidence, allowing not the slightest hint of doubt or wavering to show. Perfect faith. He must hold fast to those words. Perfect faith.

Sean went quickly through the mudroom and out the back door, without pausing to pick up the carefully prepared pack, the walking stick or the mag flashlight. Deep down, on a gut level, he understood that it had to be this way, that he had to go forth leaving every protection behind. He could take nothing with him this night but his perfect faith in the Woodjin and his abiding love for Elijah.

He crossed the dark yard with firm strides, following by intent the same path that he'd taken years ago on the night he discovered Elijah's true identity and encountered the Devil for the second and, he'd fervently hoped, last time. Never had he imagined that one day he would retrace his footsteps, this time deliberately seeking out a third encounter with the demon that haunted the pines.

On the edge of the woods, where the ward guarding the property ended, Sean paused, but only for a moment. "All right, you son of a bitch, come and get me,"  he said grimly, crossing the ward and plunging into the darkling pines.

~*~

The stag lowered his muzzle into the pool, fracturing the smooth surface and the reflection of the stars in inky black water. He drank deep, and all the while his mobile ears flicked back and forth, but nothing untoward disturbed the quiet night. Several deer drank from the pool on either side of him, while others grazed nearby, tearing eagerly at the succulent grass. He'd been traveling in company with this herd of a dozen white-tail deer for four days, welcomed into their midst without question or quarrel. He'd run with them, eaten with them, curled up in the soft bracken and dozed away the daylight hours with them.

All the while he was aware that he didn't belong among them, that he had another life, another world, another form. He'd done his best to bury that other self, so deeply that its voice was silenced. But he could not quite shut it out, and dimly its yearning echoed in his heart and mind, sometimes taking the form of a name: Sean, followed by the words, 'Please come home.'  

He steadfastly ignored it, for another echo disturbed the tranquility of his newfound life, and its name spoke of pain and loss, of grief and failure: Pete.

After drinking his fill, the stag raised his head. Extending one foreleg, he rubbed his wet muzzle along the cannon bone almost irritably, as if he were tormented by stinging flies. Then he stamped his cloven hoof, tossed his head and pawed restlessly at the sandy soil. What he needed was to run, to run and run and run, until every muscle and sinew quivered with the strain, until weariness quieted his mind and banished the tormenting echoes.

He wheeled around, sinking slightly onto his haunches so he could launch into a gallop... and then the Call came. The urgency and intensity of it tore away the veil separating his human consciousness from his animal self. Full awareness of who and what he was returned as a succession of images passed swiftly through his brain: a man running along a sandy path through the pine trees... the Devil crashing through the underbrush... the man again, looking back over his shoulder...

It was Sean. His mate. And the Devil was close at his heels.

Fury unlike any he'd ever known filled the stag. Flinging back his head he called a brazen challenge that resounded through the starry night: No, you will not have him, too! Before the ringing sound had even begun to die away, he sprang into a full gallop, scattering the startled deer, and was gone.

~*~

Jordan woke with a start and sat up in bed. Excitement surged through him as he realized what had woken him. The Woodjin! He'd finally stopped hiding. Jordan could sense his presence again, like a flame inside him, strong and bright. But the boy quickly sobered. Something bad was happening, he thought. The Woodjin was angry, angrier than Jordan could ever remember him being. He was also worried, maybe even afraid.

He had to let Uncle Sean know right away, Jordan decided. He threw back the covers, slid out of bed and padded barefoot through the quiet house to his uncle's bedroom, but it was empty of all save Rocky, who Jordan could sense hiding in his nesting box. He tried Uncle Sean's office and the family room, but they were empty, too. He peeked in the bathroom, finding only Fred shut up tight in his shell, and went last of all to the kitchen, where he discovered Maggie sitting on the kitchen counter like a calico statue, her tail neatly wrapped around her front paws and her amber eyes fixed on the mudroom door.

"Maggie, where's Uncle Sean?" Jordan asked.

The cat swiveled her head in his direction and meowed, her expressive voice rising and falling as she told him where Sean had gone and why.

"Of course," Jordan said softly. "Of course. Only that could bring the Woodjin back. And Maggie, I think it's working." He bit his lip, as the current of the Woodjin's emotions flowed through him. "Something's going on out there, anyway. It has be the Devil." He went to the kitchen counter and scooped Maggie up in his arms. "I can't tell Mom and Dad; they'd freak. But Maggie, I'm scared. What if it goes wrong? What if something happens to Uncle Sean?" Maggie meowed again, reprovingly. "Yeah, you're right. He won't fail, not Uncle Elijah. He's the best Woodjin there ever was."

Nevertheless, after Jordan took a seat at the table with Maggie on his lap, he buried his thin fingers into her thick soft fur for comfort. He had yet to see the Devil with his own eyes, and he only hoped that when his time came, he would meet their ancient enemy with the same courage as Elijah. But right now, all he could do was wait, and when the surge of the Woodjin's emotions intensified and he knew that the battle was on, he bowed his head, shut his eyes, and sent every ounce of love and strength he possessed to his uncle in hopes that it might help him prevail.

~*~

When the woods went ominously silent, even the drone of the ubiquitous crickets muted, Sean was pretty sure his plan was succeeding. When an all-too-familiar and hideous shriek broke that ominous silence, he was certain of it. Well, he'd wanted the Devil to take him at his words and come to get him, and now he had. The game was afoot, as Sherlock Holmes might have said.

Sean's tentative plan to stand his ground when the Devil showed up lasted all of a nanosecond, maybe less. His first glimpse of those pitiless disembodied red eyes glowing in the blackness had him turning tail and running. Bravery be damned, thought Sean. There was bravery and then there was foolhardiness, and only a fool would stay around to meet the Devil up close and personal unless there was no other choice.

It was a very good thing that he was following a trail he knew well, for he surely would otherwise have come to grief, careening madly along in the dark, carried on a wave of pure adrenaline-fueled energy. A short distance ahead several paths converged at a centuries old crossroads where once the stage coaches heading to Tuckerton or Philadelphia had passed. There a fingerboard stood that gave the names and distances of towns long since abandoned and reclaimed by the pines: Ong's Hat, Martha's Furnace and others. Sean ran in that direction, ignoring the other paths that branched off to right and left. In an open space, the stag would have the advantage in a fight, he thought.  

Laboring in the heavy sugar sand and gasping for breath, Sean finally reached the fingerboard and turned, pressing his back against the sturdy wooden pole to which it was nailed. His energy already depleted by a profound lack of sleep, Sean could run no further; willy-nilly, it was time to face the Devil.

The Devil's vaguely humanoid countenance and scorched earth skin were more frightening and more wrong than Sean remembered, and he had no flashlight now to shine in his eyes to blind him and keep him at bay. He had no weapon, no defense, only his perfect faith in the Woodjin. But that faith leant him the strength to stand steady and not quail as the Devil advanced on him, hissing and gibbering in his not-quite-language, his long snake like tail whipping from side to side, his vast bat wings stretched to their fullest extent, and his glittering, razor sharp claws slashing at the air in an obscene preview of what he intended to do to Sean. Despite himself, an image of Pete's old canvas coat scored with ugly rents popped into Sean's brain. Don't dare go there, he told himself.Perfect faith, remember? He'll come, the white stag will come.

And on the thought, as if a switch had been flipped and an electrical current resumed flowing, Sean could sense Elijah again, very near at hand, and with a leap of the heart he knew that the Woodjin had indeed heard and answered the Call. The maelstrom of Elijah's emotions bombarded Sean: fury, determination, and above all else a protective love that wrapped around Sean like an embrace. Then a familiar, beloved voice spoke in his mind, the words sharp and distinct as a bell rung on a still, cold winter's night:Don't be afraid. I'm here. The next instant a ghostly form bounded out of the trees to Sean's left, and with a squeal of rage the white stag charged, his antlers lowered so that the lethal crown tines took dead aim on the Devil.

Such was the fury of the stag's onrush that the Devil was borne backward a good twenty feet. The demon recovered, wings beating furiously so that a hot breeze scented like fire and brimstone reached Sean's nostrils, and he closed with the stag and lashed out with his claws. Sean wasn't positive but he thought that at least one razor sharp talon scored the stag's side. If it had, the stag didn't even flinch, but only pressed his attack, striking out with his forefeet and raking the Devil's chest with his antlers. The stag's squeals and grunts were punctuated by the gibbering shrieks of his enemy as they fought with a visceral ferocity that was stunning and terrifying to behold.

Sean groped behind him for the post and grabbed hold of it with shaking hands. He'd witnessed one battle between the white stag and the Devil, but that paled by comparison to what he was seeing now. The Woodjin had a score to settle this time, and he clearly meant to settle it big time. Such was his reckless abandon as he reared and wheeled and struck with antlers and hooves, that Sean began to worry that he might literally be engaged in a fight to the death. But it took two to create a battle, and the Devil, who had been gradually retreating before the stag's relentless onslaught, abruptly abandoned the fight. He turned tail and fled, half flying, half running, and disappeared into the darkness, .

The stag took several steps in the same direction, and for a heart-stopping moment Sean thought he meant to pursue him. If he did, would he ever return?

Letting go of the post, Sean stumbled forward on shaky legs. "Elijah, no, let him go," he cried.  

The white stag halted. His sides were heaving like bellows and sweat darkened his neck and flanks - and perhaps some other more viscid fluid. Slowly he turned to face Sean. Their eyes met as they had that long ago night when Sean had, all unknowing, walked straight into the Devil's snare. This time, though, he'd entered it purposely and with full knowledge of whom and what the white stag was, and what he stood to lose if he couldn't persuade him to transform back to his human self.

"Will you listen to me? Just listen, that's all I ask," Sean pleaded. The stag slowly nodded his head. "Elijah, you didn't fail. Do you understand me? You didn't fail. Ian and I performed an autopsy, and it was conclusive: Pete died of a massive heart attack. He was gone before the Devil ever touched him. It wasn't your fault. There was nothing you could have done to save him." Tears welled up and spilled down his cheeks. "Please, don't leave. I love you. I need you. Come back to me, please." In that moment, he couldn't bring up Jordan or Hannah or talk about duty and responsibility. He could speak only as a grieving lover, bereft of the one person who gave meaning to his life.

Time hung suspended for what seemed an eternity to Sean, although in reality it was only seconds, and then with a sense of relief so profound that it almost brought him to his knees, he heard the familiar crackle and hum of energy and saw the air move and shift as Elijah began the process of changing back to his human form. The tears ran faster, blurring and distorting the dazzling firefly glow of light that sprang into being and swiftly grew in intensity until at last Sean was forced to shut his tear-filled eyes. When the glow faded and he blinked them open the white stag was gone, and in his place stood Elijah, bloodied and battered, but himself again.

"Oh thank god," Sean said. "Thank god."

"Sean." Elijah's voice cracked; with a sob he ran to Sean and flung himself into arms held wide to receive him.

The beloved scents of woodsmoke, pine sap and dried grasses swirled around Sean as he wrapped Elijah in a tight embrace. He could almost feel the fractures in his mind and heart close and heal as he became one again with the other half of his soul. "I missed you, Woodjin," he whispered. "I missed you so fucking much. I was lost without you."

Elijah buried his face in Sean's chest; his shoulders began to shake with suppressed sobs. "It hurt to shut you out. I hated it. But I didn't know what else to do. I couldn't bear it, thinking that I'd failed Pete, that I'd let him die. I'm so sorry, Sean. I'm so sorry."

"Shh, it's okay," Sean soothed him, stroking his hair. "All that matters is that you answered the Call and came back to me."

At that Elijah lifted his head. His eyes were luminous with unshed tears. "You did it on purpose, didn't you? You wanted the Devil to find you so that I'd be called and you could tell me about Pete. Oh Sean, how could you take such a terrible risk?" A single fat silver tear spilled over and ran down his cheek. "You might have been killed."

"Don't you understand, Elijah? I was never in the slightest danger." Sean tenderly thumbed the tear away. "Because I know my Woodjin. I had perfect faith that he would be on the job, and you see? I was right."

"Oh Sean, you are totally mad and totally amazing and incredibly brave and I love you so very, very much." Blindly Elijah pressed against him and their lips met in a passionate kiss.

Without thinking Sean pulled Elijah closer, and as he did Elijah gasped against his lips. Sean became aware of another scent, this one sadly familiar to a doctor and the Woodjin's mate: the coppery tang of blood. He'd momentarily forgotten that Elijah had not escaped unscathed from his battle with the Devil.

"We'll have to continue this later." Sean relaxed his hold, and gave Elijah one final, gentle kiss. "I didn't bring any medical supplies with me,” he said regretfully, stooping a little to examine an ugly six inch cut in Elijah’s right side. It was oozing blood. He pulled his tee shirt over his head, folded it and placed it over the wound. “Hold this for a sec,” he told Eliah. Then he removed his belt and used it to bind the tee shirt to Elijah’s side. “That’ll have to do until we get home and I can patch you up." Smiling for what seemed like the first time in ages Sean added, "I'm going to start charging you for all these house calls, you know - even if we do live in the same house."

At that some final tension seemed to drain away from Elijah. He smiled back, only a small smile, but to Sean it was as if the sun had put in an unexpected appearance. "It's good to hear you making jokes again." Then the smile faded and he said in a small voice, "Sean, is everyone very upset with me for running away?"

"Of course no one is upset with you. Worried about you, yes. Upset? Never. Dear heart, don't you know how beloved you are?" Sean gave Elijah the tiniest of shakes then released him. “Speaking of, Maggie’s anxiously waiting for us. She knows what I went to do."

“Not just Maggie. Jordan’s there, too. Oh Sean, he was with me the whole time I was fighting the Devil. I could feel him,” Elijah said emotionally.

“He’s an amazing young man,” Sean said. “But then he has a pretty amazing role model to emulate.” He gently took Elijah’s arm. “Now let's make tracks, Woodjin. The doctor in me is getting antsy.”

But they'd only walked a short distance when Sean stopped. "Wait, Elijah," he said.

"What is it?" Elijah asked.

"Before we go, will you do something for me?"

All Elijah's heart was in his eyes as he replied, "Anything."

"Then I ask you to give me your blessing, Woodjin." Sean dropped to one knee in the sand like a knight of old and bowed his head.

Solemnly Elijah placed his hands on Sean's hair. "My blessing on you, Sean, now and forever," he said in a voice that shook with emotion.

"Thank you." Sean got up and took Elijah's hand. "Ready to go home?"

“There’s no place like it,” Elijah said, and he wasn’t joking. He added quietly, “I promise I’ll never leave it, or you, again.”

~*~

This time Jordan didn't hesitate to wake his parents. He went flying into their room and jumped jubilantly onto the bed. "Mom, Dad, wake up," he said, bouncing in his excitement. "Uncle Sean found him! He's coming home. The Woodjin's coming home."

~*~

Elijah bent to lay the flower on Pete's grave: a single pink Whippoorwill's shoe, his favorite. He straightened, ignoring a twinge of pain from the sutures in his side, and said quietly, "I'm sorry I missed your funeral, Pete. I hope you can forgive me. But I want you to know that I love you and I miss you and I'll never forget you. You were a kind man and a gentle soul and a good friend to me and my family, especially Dad." His voice broke, and Sean put a careful, supportive arm around him.  

With an effort, Elijah collected himself and went on, "I remember all the times we went camping - you, me and Dad - and how we'd sit around the fire and you'd tell me the most outrageous tall tales and Dad would be trying so hard not to laugh. I remember how Hannah used to follow you around like a puppy and how much you loved her, as if she were your own daughter. And I remember the night you brought me the vixen who got her leg caught in a trap. That was the first time you met Sean, and you accepted him right away. You have no idea how much that meant to me, Pete. I was so happy when the two of you became friends."  

Elijah paused, and swallowed hard. "There's a lot more I could say, Pete, but instead I'm going to read you a poem. It's the one by Dr. Still that you loved so much. You told me once that he described exactly how you imagined Heaven would be. I hope it is, Pete, and I hope that you've seen Dad again. I know how much you missed him."

He took a small, plainly bound book from his pocket and opened it to a marked page. Then he cleared his throat and started to read.

Through this dark wilderness

We all must travel on,

To a land unseen by mortal eyes.

Where many thousands have gone.

Beyond this vale there is a land,

Where night is changed to day,

Nothing there to mar our peace,

Or clouds to pass away.

A happy home where the good may rest,

No sorrow there may come,

For tears are wiped from every eye,

In that heavenly, happy home.

No sorrow there, or crying heard,

Joy is the crown all wear,

Robed in linen clean and white,

While conquering palms they bear.

There candles we shall never need

To light our path along,

The Lamb himself is the light thereof,

The theme of harp and song.

The streets are of transparent gold,

Rivers of life do flow,

Where all may drink and drink again,

Till they God's fulness know.  

Elijah shut the book and slipped it back into his pocket. He reached for Sean's hand, and they stood in respectful silence, while overhead a red-tailed hawk circled against a flawless blue sky and the wind set the pine needles to singing as if in tribute to the old Piney who had loved his home so dearly. Eventually Elijah stirred and pressed Sean's hand, and together they left the cemetery to return to the joyful business of life.

~end~