The Woodjin: Protector by Lbilover

An inset fic that takes place after Sean returns to New York.


Megan bit her lip and squirmed inside her sleeping bag. She had to pee. The discomfort had woken her from sleep some time ago, but her increasingly desperate whispers of “Mommy, Daddy, I have to pee” had gone unanswered. Her parents had cautioned her over and over not to leave the tent without them, and she didn’t want to disobey. But she was a big girl now, and it would be humiliating to wet her sleeping bag, not to mention how disappointed her parents would be.


“Mommy?” Megan whispered again, and this time she reached out and shook her mother’s bare shoulder. But instead of her usual sleepy, “Megan, honey, what is it?” her mother only muttered something indecipherable under her breath and then fell silent. “Daddy?” She tried to rouse her father next, but he, too, remained deeply asleep. Megan’s lower lip trembled. She didn’t want to cry, only babies cried, but her bladder was painfully full, and she couldn’t understand why her parents didn’t wake up.


She stuck her thumb in her mouth and rocked a little as she wondered what to do. In the end, venturing outside to relieve herself in the bushes won out over her parents’ many warnings about the dangers of leaving the tent by herself. Megan scrambled out of her sleeping bag and pulled on her bright pink Crocs. She had to step over her father’s sleeping form, stretched out protectively across the entrance, to reach the tent flap. The zipper was difficult to pull with her small fingers, and by the time she wrestled it up far enough to create an opening she could slip through, she was almost frantic, for the physical motion had made the urge to urinate even greater.


Keeping one hand pressed to the front of her pajama bottoms, Megan ran unsteadily across the slippery, sandy ground and past the now-cold embers of the campfire where she and her parents had sung silly songs and toasted marshmallows for smores earlier that evening.


When she reached the seclusion of the small pine trees that surrounded their camping spot Megan quickly tugged down her Little Mermaid pajama bottoms and underpants, and then squatted carefully, exactly the way her mom had taught her, so as not to pee on her clothes or feet. When she was done, Megan heaved a sigh of relief and reached to tug up the underpants crumpled around her ankles. It was as she was pulling her pajama bottoms up over them that she saw the light.


The bright golden beam was shining through the trees a short distance away, and winking enticingly at her. She stared at it, and excitement flooded through her. Tinkerbell, she thought happily. It’s Tinkerbell! Peter Pan was one of her favorite stories, and Tinkerbell was her favorite character in it. She took a step in the direction of the light, small hand outstretched as if to catch it like a fluttering butterfly, but then she stopped. Mommy and Daddy had told her she mustn’t wander into the woods under any circumstances. “You could get lost, sweetheart,” her dad had warned her. “Always stay close to the tent.”


Suddenly the light retreated, as if it were about to leave, and Megan let out a soft cry of “No, don’t go, Tinkerbell. Wait!” Without thinking, she ran after the light, hand still outstretched, but try as she might, she couldn’t catch up, and slowly she was drawn deeper and deeper into the woods. She wriggled her way easily enough through the narrow paths between the trees, but stray branches caught at her pajamas and snagged them, and mosquitoes buzzed around her face, and her Crocs were weighted down with sand and tiny pine needles that prickled her bare soles.


Other than the dancing, twinkling golden light, still tantalizingly out of reach, it was dark in the woods, and very, very quiet, without even the chirping of crickets to break the silence, and Megan began to feel afraid. She knew her parents would be mad at her for disobeying them and wandering off after they’d told her not to. When she reached a small clearing in the trees, she halted, and whimpered as a mosquito stung her painfully on the cheek.


“Tinkerbell, please stop,” she begged plaintively, scratching at the bite. But the light came no nearer, so Megan plopped down tiredly on the soft ground, pulled off one of her Crocs, and emptied the sand out of it. But when she looked up again, the golden light had vanished as if it had never been.


“Tinkerbell, where are you?” Megan cried. “Tinkerbell!” Her voice sounded thin and weak, and the words vanished in an instant, swallowed up by the looming dark. She looked quickly around her, and all she could see were the shadowy shapes of trees. They looked like monsters reaching out with greedy fingers to grab her, and suddenly an overwhelming longing for the safety and security of her mother’s arms seized her.


“Mommy,” she sobbed pitifully. A single hot tear welled up and slid over the welt on her plump cheek. “Mommy.”


But her mother didn’t answer, and Megan had no idea where the tent was now or how to find it again.


Suddenly a loud noise broke the silence, a crashing and cracking and crunching sound, as if something was moving through the underbrush among the trees. For some reason, Megan was certain that it wasn’t her mother coming to find her, despite how desperately she had been wishing for it, and she wrapped her arms around her knees and hugged them to her, and tried to make herself as small as possible.


Out of the darkness where Tinkerbell had vanished, a new light appeared- no, two lights, like a pair of eyes. But they weren’t the bright gold of Tinkerbell—they were deep red and glowing like the heart of the campfire. They were a monster’s eyes, and abject terror overcame Megan, and she pressed her face into her knees and pretended to be invisible the way she did when she played hide-and-seek with her friends. A strange sound reached her ears, almost as if someone was talking, but it was nonsense, like the silly words her daddy sometimes invented to make her laugh. Only this nonsense talk wasn’t funny at all. The hissing sound of it made Megan feel sick in the pit of her stomach as if she’d had too much ice cream.


Megan didn’t want to look as the scary noises grew louder and closer, but somehow she couldn’t help herself. She slowly raised her head- and then she let out a shrill, piercing scream that echoed through the night. It was a monster, big and black and horrible with giant wings and outstretched hands with razor-tipped claws, and it was coming straight for her, Megan.


She screamed again as the monster emerged from the woods and began to loom larger and larger, its vast outspread wings shutting out even the light of the stars. And then suddenly out of the darkness came a ringing call, and a large deer, gleaming white as snow, leapt into the clearing. The new scream about to burst from Megan’s throat died; she stared at the deer in wonder as it tossed its antlered head and let out another challenging call that reverberated through the air as if a bell had been struck. The monster stopped in its tracks.


In two swift bounds the deer reached Megan where she sat cowering in the sand and stood over her, so that her shoulders were between its front legs. Instinctively, she knew that the deer meant to protect her, and she wrapped her left arm around its leg and clung to it, as she would have done to one of her parents when she was frightened. She pressed the side of her face into the sleek warm fur that had a wonderfully comforting smell, and the sick trembling inside her lessened. She could hear the snorting rush of breath from the deer’s nostrils, and the strange almost-but-not-quite words that the monster was speaking. The deer’s right hoof began to paw restlessly at the sand and he lowered his head, aiming the deadly pointed tips of his antlers at the monster as if in warning.


Megan stared with wide-eyed, breathless horror as the monster hissed and slashed with its claws as if it might rip the very air, and its terrible red eyes seemed to glow even redder with rage. But then, abruptly, it whirled around, the rush of its leathery wings creating a wind that swept through the clearing and stirred the sand into tiny dust devils, and in the next instant the monster had vanished into the trees, leaving only a nightmarish memory behind.


The deer bowed his neck and stretched his head down between his legs to look at Megan. His eyes were dark and kindly, and Megan reached out and petted him on the bottom of his soft muzzle. The whiskers felt scratchy, like her daddy’s face when he hadn’t shaved, and she giggled. She liked the deer. He was nice.


“I’m Megan,” she announced, and the deer nodded his head, as if he’d understood her words. He gently moved his left leg, and Megan dropped her arm. The deer stepped carefully away from her then, and lowered his body into the sand, tucking his long legs beneath him. He turned his head to look at her and nodded again, as if in invitation, and Megan got up on legs that felt wobbly, like when she’d first learned how to walk, and went to his side.


Megan loved horses, and her best friend Stacy had had a pony ride at her birthday party a few weeks earlier. It had been scary but thrilling to be so high above the ground when she was sitting on the pony’s back. The deer was much, much taller than the pony had been, and Megan was worried. What if she fell off? The pony had had a saddle and an adult to hold his reins while she rode him, so that she had felt safe; now she had neither. The deer’s back seemed high as a mountain. Then a warm ticklish touch on her bare arm made her look around. The deer was watching her with his kindly eyes, and she saw now that they were blue, and they seemed to be saying to her: ‘Don’t be scared, Megan, I won’t let you fall.’


Holding her breath, Megan set her hands at the base of the deer’s neck and swung her right leg across his broad back. When she was sitting astride him, her dangling feet didn’t even reach halfway down his sides, but his back felt comfortable and warm and safe. The deer craned his neck around and looked up at her with a question in his eyes. “Okay, deer, you can get up,” she said, leaning forward to wrap her arms around his neck.


There was a small lurch like the rocking of a boat, and Megan held on tight, and then the deer was on his feet. He began to walk forward with smooth, careful strides, and she no more questioned where the deer was taking her than she questioned the blue of his eyes, or that he understood what she had said to him. At first she clung timidly to his neck, for the ground looked so very, very far away, but soon Megan grew braver and she pushed herself up until she was sitting straight with her hands resting lightly on the deer’s withers, and she felt oh so grown up and grand. Oh, how she wished Stacy and her other friends could see her! This was much more fun than riding a little pony. She couldn’t wait to tell them about it. But since she couldn’t talk to them, she talked to the deer, and told him about the monster and Tinkerbell and her parents sleeping so deeply that she couldn’t wake them. From time to time, the deer glanced back at her, as if checking to be sure she was all right, and she smiled happily at him and thought he smiled back with his eyes.


All too soon, it seemed to Megan, the trees thinned and the deer came to a halt, and from her vantage point she could see the tent just ahead. She was sad that her ride on the deer was over, but she was tired, too, and she wanted her mom. The deer carefully lowered himself to the ground again, and Megan slid off his back.


He was watching her with those kind dark eyes, and impulsively, she put her arms around his neck and hugged him, pressing her sore cheek against the velvet softness of his fur. The terror she had experienced in the monster’s presence was already fading, becoming insubstantial as mist, like her nightmares after she snuggled into bed between her parents, safe and loved. But some quiet space inside her that her child-self could not yet recognize would never forget the experiences of this night, or the magical creature who had saved her life.


“I love you, deer,” Megan whispered, and kissed him.


***


“Bye, bye, deer,” Megan said, and turned to go. The stag surged to his feet and watched from the shelter of the pines as she ran with uneven strides, like a days-old filly, out of the trees and over to the quiet, dark tent. Thanks to the Devil, her parents had slept through it all, and they had no idea that their beloved child had nearly become his victim. But they would wake now, he knew, for the spell was ended, and they would scold Megan for leaving the tent, and ask her why on earth she hadn’t gotten them up. They wouldn’t believe the fantastical story she then told them. They would attribute it to a dream or a child’s overactive imagination, and never for a moment guess that it was all true.


Just before Megan squeezed through the small space in the tent flap, she looked back, beamed at him and waved, and then she was gone.


The stag remained unmoving for a few minutes. He could still feel the softness of the child’s lips on his neck and hear her whispered words. Then with a toss of his head, the white stag wheeled around and melted away into the darkness.


***


Maggie was waiting for Elijah when he closed the mudroom door behind him, and she immediately started circling stiffly around him, vocalizing with a series of loud and demanding mrrowrs.


“Everything’s fine. I’m fine,” he assured the anxious cat. He pulled on his plaid boxers, and then bent and scooped Maggie up in his arms. She butted her hard head beneath his chin, purring a mile a minute. “Mother hen,” he said teasingly, but in truth he knew that it had been a very close thing, much closer than he would have liked. That sweet, shining child had nearly lost her life. If he’d been just a few minutes later… But thankfully, he had been in time, that was the important thing.


Exhaustion crashed over him then, and he yawned. “God, I need a dish of tea,” he said as he set Maggie down. As he crossed wearily to the kitchen door, Elijah would have given anything to have Sean there to hold him, simply to hold him. ‘He’ll be here one day soon,’ a voice inside him said. ‘Don’t give up hope.’


Tension rose inside Elijah as he entered the kitchen, and he absentmindedly touched the pinkish scar in his right shoulder. This was the first time he had been called since the night by the bridge when he’d been shot, and neither he nor Sean knew for certain that the bond that had brought Sean to him still existed. If it didn’t, he knew they’d both be bitterly disappointed.


His eyes went to the answering machine on the end of the kitchen counter.


The red message light was blinking furiously.