By the time the guy with the keg of beer arrived, Danny knew he didn't want to be here with a group of hostile football players heading for a drunken brawl. Unfortunately, he'd hitched a ride with Barry and short of walking back to town he was pretty much stuck.
This fun would go on for hours and then his friends would be too drunk to drive home. He thought about taking a car, but they'd probably report him to the police. He'd have a better chance when they passed out drunk.
Staying close would point out that he didn't want to drink and he'd probably end up the brunt of all that growing hostility. He needed to get away, so he went walking in the woods.
The forest came close to the civilized world here in the canyon; scrub and chaparral giving way to oak, cottonwood, ash and finally pine, so different from the stucco and metal buildings just a few hours away. He'd never been out here, though he hadn't told the others. He'd tried to fit in. It wouldn't work. Again.
He wasn't stupid enough to go off the well-traveled trail. He might have put a quarter mile between him and the party and now all he could hear was the occasional birds and things crawling around in the grass. He wasn't fond of things.
Something large came through the trees to his left. Danny saw a splash of brown against the trees and his heart starting pounding as he froze. Bear!
A deer stepped out into the path ahead of him, looked his way for a moment and moved on across the path and into the trees again. Danny's paralysis disappeared as he hurried forward and squinted into the shadows.
Danny watched until the deer was long gone. He had almost lost his mind and followed into the trackless woods. Maybe he should go back and get drunk. Safer.
Motion to the right again caught his attention. He froze --
A young woman stepped clear of the trees, her ankle length brown dress twirling in the breeze and her bare feet immune to the prick of pine needles. Danny started to step away as quietly as he could. His record with pretty young women was not any better than anything else.
"Don't go," she said with a bright smile.
"Hi," he said. "You live around here?"
God, that was lame.
"Yes, I do. I saw you coming and came out to meet you."
"Me? Saw me?" He looked back at the trail overgrown with bushes and trees, and she couldn't have spotted him. Nutcase. Great. He looked at the dress, wondering if it hid a gun or a knife.
"Do you mistrust all the women you meet?" she asked, daring a step closer to him.
He held his ground, despite his better judgment. "Oh yes," Danny said. "I mistrust any woman who shows interest in me. Seems far wiser than thinking they find me appealing."
"What strange people you must be."
Nutcase, he thought again -- but a pretty one, her brown hair the color of bark, her skin tanned from the sun. She had bright green eyes that watched him with curiosity but no dislike. Well, hell. Better to talk to her than go back to the campground and watch the guys get drunk.
"Your friends are crude."
"They aren't my friends," he said, and wished she'd stop saying things that melded in with his private thoughts. "What are you doing out here?"
"Watching the world go by." She waved a hand toward the trees. "Watching over this forest. What do you do out there, in your strange world?"
"Go to school, at least for the rest of this year," Danny leaned against a tree. "Next year -- who knows? If I get a good job over the summer, I'll stick with it. I'm not rich enough to go to college, and not smart enough to get a scholarship. So if I leave school a year early, it's not really going to matter."
"You make such excuses for yourself, don't you? You don't want to quit school."
She touched a nerve and Danny was starting to get a very strange chill up his back.
"You needn't fear me." She stepped closer and Danny hardly dared breathe, and his heart pounded far too hard. He thought for a moment he could see the wild world in her eyes. "You are not like the others. They rarely stop to breathe in the essence of the forest. The deer run from them. I have waited for one like you to come along these trails. I am fey, and all the magic that is left in this world, boy. I protect the forest. Do you believe me?"
She held out her hand and an owl swept down from the branches and landed on her pale-skinned arm. Danny winced at the thought of those talons on unprotected skin, but she didn't seem to notice. A deer came to stand beside her. A badger settled at her feet, looking like a fat short-legged Siamese cat.
"Do you believe, Daniel O'Shea?"
"Yes," he whispered.
"Good," she smiled like sunlight in a world that had been dark all his life. "Danny I have something to ask of you."
"Ask," he said.
Danny stayed in school that year and the next. He did very well, but he still wouldn't have made it to college except for the anonymous donation to his college fund.
His parents were amazed when he told them he was going to major in Forest Husbandry.
"You've spent all your life in the city, except for a few hours out in the canyons each week," his mother said. "Are you sure this is what you want?"
"Positive," Danny said.
"Why?" his father asked.
"Because I was called," Danny said and laughed. He wondered if they could see the wildness in him yet.
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