No more than ten minutes after they let Kroni out, Ivy came around a tight bend and slammed on the brakes, because there was a man standing in the middle of the road. He wore a kilt like Kroni’s, and had antlers on his head. In one hand, he carried a rifle with a long blade strapped to the barrel. The butt was a single carved piece of wood almost three feet long, so the weapon could be used as a walking stick as well. As the rig came to a stop, he began walking slowly toward them.
“Is that the cervie?” Swan asked. “He’s making us stop?”
Why was she asking about what was obvious? Corey had to bite his tongue before making a sarcastic comment; thankfully Ivy answered before he could ask if she was blind. “He’s in the road. Armed. And it looks as though he’s strapped a pair of antlers to his head.”
“Arrogant bambi,” Swan said. “You ever dealt with a woodsy cervid before?”
“No,” Ivy replied.
“He’s probably going to paw at you. At both of us. He won’t try to fight Pinkie or the Puppy as long as they’re not bigger than he is, and they keep their mouths shut. Pinkie, don’t ask him any questions because he’s gonna be lookin’ for an excuse to fight you.”
“Thank you for the warning,” Marcus said.
“Should I shut down?” Ivy asked. “He’s approaching.”
“Yeh, go quiet. He wants us to be scared, but if he knows you are it’s worse. He might want to see your tits. Best just to show him. If he goes after your snevvie, kill him.”
“Your baby-maker, idiot.” Swan pointed at her crotch.
“That’s…not very helpful,” Ivy said, but it was too late for any further coaching. She shut down the rig’s engine as the cervid reached her front fender, and pulled her dead man’s handle. It was unlikely that the shifter would be able to drive, but it never hurt to be certain.
He walked to the window with an unhurried air, tapping his fingers on the metal as he went as if testing its strength. As he got closer, Ivy could see a short sword-like knife strapped to one thigh. Multiple bracelets adorned his arms and ankles, and he had several necklaces made from bits of pre-Fall electronics. Similar shiny baubles hung from the antlers he wore.
“Honored guests,” he said sarcastically when he reached the window, “traveling my road. How will you be of service to me?”
“I’m Ivy Aniram–” she began, and the cervid cut her off with a sharp motion of his head.
“I didn’t ask,” he said. “Out, all of you. Where’s the stag? I can smell him.”
Remembering what Swan had said, Ivy opened her door, and heard the others following suit. She slid slowly out, not wanting to provoke the shifter with sudden movements.
Once the four of them were in the road, the cervid prowled back in forth in front of them, thumping the ground with his rifle. “None of you is a stag.”
“We traveled with one, but he isn’t with us now,” Ivy said, hoping that confirming Kroni’s existence wouldn’t cause further trouble. Cervids could be notoriously mercurial.
“Don’t believe you,” the cervid said, and stuck his head inside the rig. Ivy stiffened, and Swan put a hand on her arm. She tightened her grip when the cervid climbed inside and rummaged about, tapping the floor and walls as if they had somehow secreted Kroni in a hidden compartment. Ivy was shaking with anger; she glanced at Corey, who was looking back at her with worry in his eyes. She had to stay calm, so she looked at the sky, flexing her hands in agitation.
“What, what, what if he takes a liking to something in there?” she asked Swan quietly, concerned mostly about the trunk from Detroit. Swan just shook her head slightly, which Ivy took to mean that it wasn’t a good time to ask.
Finally, he emerged, carrying only his rifle. “You belong to him, you come through here, you belong to me,” he said.
“We belong to ourselves,” Ivy replied. “If you want trade for the use of the road, tell us what it is.”
The cervid laughed. “Trade. For junk? Don’t need junk. Need a doe. Maybe you’ll do.” He looked her up and down, his eyes lingering on her knee brace. “Junk jewelry. You’d look better in shinier. Maybe you’ll let me give you something shiny?” He stepped forward, into Ivy’s personal space, and she resisted the urge to back up. “Maybe not,” the cervid said, grinning lewdly.
He turned to Swan next. “How ’bout you, pepper-face? You dress better, look better. Let me see you.”
“The show’s not free,” she said.
“Road’s not either. You belong to me on my road.”
“Fair enough,” Swan said, and lifted her shirt. Marcus cleared his throat and looked away.
Corey goggled, as shocked by the sudden reality of Swan’s breasts as by the casual manner in which she bared them. “Hey!” he said, stepping forward. “You can’t make her do that!” Why he was defending Swan’s honor he didn’t know, but he couldn’t ignore the fact that this didn’t feel right, it wasn’t right, and he couldn’t just stand by and–
Before he finished the thought, the cervid had swept the walking-stick butt of his rifle around and caught Corey a harsh blow on the side of the head. Even as he was registering that he’d been clobbered, there was a heavy impact in the center of his chest and he was knocked off his feet, flying backward.
As the cervid kicked Corey, Ivy stepped forward to defend him, pulling her fubar out of her belt. The butt of the rifle came around faster than she could see and caught her a stunning blow on the forehead that brought stars to her eyes. Swan said, “Hey, bambi,” and punched the cervid in the face as he turned toward her. He recoiled, and Ivy used the moment of distraction to hook the rifle with the claw end of her fubar and yank it away.
The cervid jumped, turned and shifted. He caught Swan with his hind legs, sending her to land next to Corey. In the same motion, he collected Ivy with his antlers, throwing her the opposide direction into the side of her rig.
She hit the ground and kept her fubar in her hand, feeling several places where the cervid’s antlers, filed to points, had pricked her skin without puncturing it. She realized that the shifter could have eviscerated her in that single motion, if he had wanted to.
The angry cervid turned in place several times, glaring at each of them; when neither she nor Swan made an effort to get up, he shifted back into human form. His false antlers had fallen off when he’d shifted, but the rest of his adornments and clothing stayed in place. “That was stupid,” he said. “You want to be killed, is that it?”
“You, you hit my friend,” Ivy said. “He’s just a boy, and you, you, you shouldn’t have hit him.”
“I do what I want.” He picked up his rifle. Behind him, Marcus quietly sat down next to Swan and Corey. He seemed to have a talent for becoming invisible in tense situations. “You come with me now. Clean my house.”
She narrowed her eyes. “No.”
The walking-stick end of the rifle came up slowly, hovering in front of the spot on her forehead where she’d already been tapped. “Then I’ll break your head.”
Ivy struggled to keep her face neutral. Swan saved her. “Do that, and none of us get out of here. You’ll have to kill us all.”
The cervid moved his stick forward, closing the few inches that separated it from Ivy’s forehead, and used it to push her head back against the side of the truck. He turned to address Swan over his shoulder. “You say?”
“I do. Only she knows how to drive that rig. You break her head, she can’t drive, and we’re stuck here unless you want to feed us. Then her friends who use this road want to know why her truck’s here and she’s dead, and they find out that you killed her. And then, a whole bunch of them come and kill you.”
“They’ll try,” the cervid huffed. He took the stick away from Ivy’s head and squatted in front of her. “Show,” he said, indicating her chest.
Not breaking eye contact, letting him see the fury in her face, Ivy slowly unbuckled her overalls, pulled her shirt up.
“Nice,” he said, grinning. He reached out and slapped her breast lightly with the back of his hand, making the flesh bounce, then tweaked her nipple. “Too bad you’re not a doe. We could have fun.” He stood up and looked at the sky, licking his lips. “Get off my scrape.” With that, the cervid appeared to lose interest in the group completely. He walked between Swan and Corey, off the road and into the woods.
Ivy got back to her feet and covered herself. Corey and Marcus kept their eyes fixed on the ground until she spoke. “Well. That, that, that was unpleasant. Are you hurt, Corey?”
“No’m,” he said.
“He’s blushing ‘cuz he looked at your goods,” Swan said. Corey glared at her, but said nothing.
From the woods the cervid had disappeared into, a harsh, basso profundo roar suddenly shook the leaves. Ivy dropped into a defensive crouch; Corey actually ran for the truck, moving as quickly as he could to get the vehicle between him and the noise. Marcus jumped, but remained where he was.
“Bambi’s trying to scare us,” Swan muttered. “Let’s get out of here, before he comes back to swing his cock around some more.”
“Are all male cervids so territorial?” Marcus asked her.
“Pretty much. I think Kroni’s the only civilized cervie I’ve ever met. In fact, he’s better than most human men. You should put that in your book,” she said as they climbed back into the rig. “Kroni’s the best cervid you could hope to meet. He would have left bits of that bambi scattered all over the forest, and walked out of here wearing that goatfucker’s antlers.”
Ivy fired the truck up again. Corey, in the front seat, looked at her, until she turned briefly toward him. “Um,” he said, but she shook her head slightly, so he didn’t finish the sentence.
“It’s okay,” she said. “You did good.”
“Is your head okay?”
“Hurts. I’ll live.” Ivy accelerated hard and drove quickly, jostling everyone inside and completely unapologetic about it.
–from Empty Cradle: The Untimely Death of Corey Sanderson, available July 2011. Watch this space!