The Deer King

By Ben Spencer

Fantasy, Historical fiction, Short stories

Paperback, eBook

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109
4 mins

Chapter One

Brutus Rain was a man made of jagged bits and the blackest night, a man with old-world blood coursing through new-world veins, a man with a soul so gnarled that he didn’t mind doing the dirty business of murdering prophecies in their cribs before they came to heinous fruition. But to Emmaline Rain, he was simply dad. In the small of the evenings, Brutus would chase Emmaline and her brother, Joseph, around the yard until laughter and exhaustion felled them, and then Brutus would gobble the children up in his arms, the kindest monster in the entire world. Emmaline especially loved her father’s prickly kisses when the game was lost, the pleasant sting of them on her cheek. They were proof of her own strength, a girl so deeply loved by a man so deeply feared.

Emmaline was uncertain of her father’s occupation. He wasn’t like the other fathers in Mossbane (a city in the territory of Haven), the farmers and the blacksmiths and the store clerks and the soldiers, with their days full of routine and labor. She might have thought him a ne’er-do-well, but unlike the idlers who inspired scorn when they shuffled through the city streets, Brutus commanded an uneasy respect: he was never haggled with, or taken to task for a viewpoint, or questioned for his lack of participation in the culture writ large; furthermore, he was afforded an unrestricted line of credit in all the shops, and, if he ever needed a favor, volunteers by the bushel leapt to help, although the disquiet on their faces made it clear they did so out of an unspoken obligation, and not because they held a deep affection for the man. Emmaline might have worried about her father’s strange station in the culture, but he was a self-possessed man, unconcerned with the perceptions of the others, and he passed these traits on to his children. Emmaline learned, over time, to hold her head high in Mossbane, and she soon found that people afforded her a respect akin to the type they showed her father.

This isn’t to say that Brutus didn’t have a job; only that Emmaline didn’t know, specifically, what it was. She did know, however, that it was related to those times when a change would come on the wind, and Brutus, with no-nonsense speed, would hustle Emmaline and Joseph to their neighbors, the Houghtons, and then depart, usually for no more than four or five nights, although sometimes it was longer. His leavings had no rhyme or reason to them: he left in all seasons, and at all hours of the day. He once woke the children at three a.m. in the pouring rain, and made them tromp the quarter mile to the Houghtons’ house in the mud and the muck. Emmaline, who was ten years old at the time, was certain that the Houghtons would at last object to being called upon at such an inconsiderate hour in such miserable conditions, but they only accepted the children as they always did, with prim good humor, and changed Emmaline and Joseph into dry stockings before ushering them to bed. Neither did his leavings occur at regular intervals. There were periods when he left multiple times over the span of a month, but there was also a stretch when he didn’t depart for close to a year. Emmaline often considered asking her father why he left, but when the words rose to her lips, a terrible dread would course through her body, and she would think better of it. At last she gave up on asking him, supposing that he would tell her and her brother when the timing was right. Or perhaps, better yet, he would never tell them.

In the winter of Emmaline’s thirteenth year—and Joseph’s fifteenth—Brutus started pulling Joseph aside at random times and talking to him in hushed tones. Emmaline did her best to eavesdrop on their conversations, but her father, a vigilant observer of his surroundings even when relaxed, was careful that she didn’t hear. She soon noticed, however, that her father wasn’t merely conversing with Joseph; he was showing him something as well. On a number of occasions she happened upon the two of them looking at a small object in Brutus’s palm, but the instant Brutus saw her, he would hide it away.

She asked Joseph to reveal what their father was sharing with him, but, on this matter and this matter alone, her normally loquacious brother went mum. “Tell me, Joseph,” she pleaded, but each time she asked her brother, he would draw up his corn-silk moustache and purse his mouth shut. It frightened her, this uncharacteristic rigidness, for as long as they had been brother and sister he never hesitated to share his thoughts with her, even when discretion was called for. But on this subject he remained solemn, and mute.

At last, it happened. It was early spring, the fangs of winter not yet receded, when, on a brisk and windy evening with the clouds churning overhead, Brutus stirred to action. Summoning Joseph, Brutus proclaimed that it was time. Emmaline, who only moments before had been busy churning butter with her brother, watched with unease as the two men went inside to discuss the matter further, and, she assumed, study the secret object. When they returned, she knew what was coming.

“Let’s go,” her father said. “I’m taking you to the Houghtons’. Joseph is going with me.”

They walked to the Houghtons’ in a portentous silence, the burden of the great undone deed hanging heavy over the two men. Father especially seemed troubled: Emmaline sensed a seed of doubt in his bearing, and she wondered if it wasn’t over Joseph and his preparedness for the task at hand. Regardless, they soon reached the Houghtons’, where the men left Emmaline with unceremonious haste. She watched from the window of the Houghtons’ ivy-strewn cabin as her father and brother departed, heading north by northwest in the direction of the kingdom of Wolfresh.

That evening she ate rabbit stew with the Houghtons, a delicious, garlicky meal accented with bay leaf and thyme. Later on, by the fire, Regina Houghton attempted to distract Emmaline from her worries by singing time-tested songs, some of which were nearly as old as the time of the first Harrish settlers. Initially the songs had their intended mollifying effect, but then the lyrics of one of the songs snagged in Emmaline’s brain like a fishhook, and wouldn’t let go. Emmaline waited until Regina had finished the standard—a paradoxically melancholic and upbeat tune called Best Be Over—and then she asked the question that had sprung to her mind.

“That line…and if antlers sprout, don’t go messing about, just summon the rain, it best be over…what exactly does it mean? I’ve heard teenagers in town whistle that tune when they see my father. Is the song about my father? Is he the rain? Am I?”

Regina smiled. It was a forbearing smile, meant to hold time while she wrapped her head around a suitable reply. Emmaline had noticed this tendency in adults, a simultaneous desire to share the secret truth of Emmaline’s life with her while keeping the selfsame fact concealed at all costs, like the way that Regina had sung Best Be Over on purpose but would now go to great lengths to conceal its meaning.

Dillon Houghton, the man of the house, stopped whittling the pinewood in his hand and stepped outside into the gloaming. It was clear that whatever was about to be said, he didn’t want to hear it.

“That song,” Regina said once her husband was gone, “is about how, when a thing goes awry, it’s best to deal with it right away rather than allow it to grow into something terrible. It mentions the rain because the rain offers fresh beginnings each time it passes through.”

Emmaline wouldn’t be put off so easily. “But is it about my father?”

“I wouldn’t know, child.” Regina stood up from the rocking chair, dusted herself off, and followed her husband outside into the dusk. “No,” she said as she left. “I wouldn’t know at all.”



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