Ow. If her mother were there, the young doe might have cried for sympathy but since she was alone, she just scowled at the spiky little animal that had hurt her nose when she touched it. It responded by curling into a ball. She tried prodding it again, but it simply served to make her nose sting again. It did roll a little way across the grass, and Nuala flicked her ears forward in interest. Rolling? How did he do that! She couldn’t roll.
She watched the prickly creature for a few minutes until it finally uncurled and set off on it’s merry way. Nuala trotted after it, ignoring the baleful look the animal gave her. She was having fun! She didn’t usually get to roam about the herd much during the day, but her father and mother were being very strange and hardly seemed to notice her. Even her young sister seemed far too interested in sleeping than to come and play, so Nuala was left to her own devices.
The sun was climbing higher, and it was a lovely day. The leaves were falling down again, and when her spiky friend disappeared into a pile of them, she decided to leave him there. She loved to play with leaves, so she thought the little animal might like to enjoy them without her messing them all up.
Crack. Nuala lifted her head and watched as two stags came crashing together across the meadow. Rut, mother called it, when the stags fought and the does chose their mate. She still wasn’t sure why they had to choose every year, and what exactly a mate was for, but as far as she could tell a mate was a type of best friend. Nuala didn’t have any best friends really, but when she saw a group of young stags milling around up ahead, she smiled and gambled over.
“Lonán!” She called out to the black stag, trotting right up to him. “Hi,” she grinned and head-butted his foreleg. “Whatcha doin’?” She asked, tail wriggling exuberantly.
“Princess,” Lonán greeted her with a nod of his head and explained, “We are on official guard duty for the rut.” Nuala tilted her head quizzically, opening her mouth to start her daily tirade of questions when the other two interrupted her.
“Who is this, Lonán?” Asked the nearest one, who looked suspiciously like the second one who added, “Did you already nab yourself a doe that you didn’t tell us about?”
Usually he bowed a greeting, but today she couldn’t even reach his ear when he bobbed his head. She pouted, and peered round his big bulk to blink at the russet stags behind him. At least he had called her Princess. She didn’t usually like it, but it was okay when Lonán said it. She frowned at the other stags. They didn’t bow, or call her ‘princess’.
“I am Princess Nuala. Who are you?” She craned her head up to look at Lonán, “And what does ‘nab’ mean?”
“This is Flynn and Glynn. Nab here I think you’ll find should be woo, and I didn’t woo anyone.” He replied. Usually Lonán made mostly sense, but today he was confusing her.
“What does ‘woo’ mean?!” She asked, her quizzical expression turning to one more frustrated. She was oblivious to the non-verbal communication between the young stags, and simply stared impatiently up at Lonán.
He gestured across the meadow, and she turned to look. The stags she saw earlier were still locked at the antlers, and a gathering of does had formed and were watching. “There. It means to impress a doe.”
“Oh,” she watched the stags and the does for a moment, then looked back at Lonán, still apparently confused, “How are they impressing the does? They’re just headbutting! I can headbutt you, is that impressive to does?” She headbutted his leg again to prove her point.
It seemed the other stags were amused by something, and she scowled at them for interrupting Lonán. It was rude to interrupt someone when they were speaking, mother said so. “Stags impress does by ‘headbutting’ one another to prove who is the strongest. Does like strong stags,” Lonan replied.
“Oh,” she paused for a moment, then nodded, “Okay.” That kind of made sense. “Do the does woo you?” She asked, tilting her head curiously, proud that she could use her new word.
One of the russet stags interrupted again, and she flicked her ears back in irritation. She was trying to have a conversation with Lonán! “With alltherespects, Flynnandglynn, I didn’t ask you.” she said curtly in her best princessly voice. “I was talking to Lonán!” She huffed and put her dainty pink nose haughtily in the air. “Mother says when stags fight it’s called rut, and that’s when does choose their mate. Do they always choose the strongest?” Her little face brightened, and she looked at Lonán excitedly, “That’s why the stags headbutt! So they can be friends with the does,” she smiled, suddenly making sense out of all the things she had been told about the rut.
“They don’t always choose the strongest, some does choose stags because they love them,” Lonán replied, and this confused Nuala. She had just started to understand, but it seemed there were more rules to the rut than she knew. She had to admit though, choosing a stag to be your friend because you loved them made more sense.
“Mother says one day I have to choose a Prince for my mate. If I don’t love them, do I have to pick the strongest?”
“As a Princess, you don’t exactly get to choose. The King chooses for you, it’s a great honor. If it makes you feel better, the Prince doesn’t get to choose which Princess he gets either,” came the reply.
She nodded, “I suppose that makes it fair, right?” She didn’t seem enthused by the prospect, but with the amazing ability that only a fawn could possess not to dwell on things, she was soon changing topic. “Why aren’t you headbutting?”
“Because its our job to make sure that the other stags don’t hurt each other,” said the black stag.
Nuala gasped, “Would they really hurt each other?! It’s just headbutting. Does it give them a headache? I know a plant that fixes headaches, mother showed me. Well, it’s a bark really. You chew it and the headache just goes away!”
“I bet she uses that a lot. Stags have pointy antlers, sometimes headbutting can get dangerous if one of them gets poked,” Lonán replied.
“Oh no! I sniffed a slow spiky rabbit earlier and it poked my nose,” she nodded, as if this qualified her to understand the pain of a wayward antler during rut.
“Then you shouldn’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong. I hope the hedgehog taught you a lesson for bothering it,” Nuala scowled at Lonán less than sympathetic response.
“I didn’t bother it! I was just sniffing it!” So, his name was Hedgehog, was it? She would remember that name next time she faced the spiky adversary. And she would tell mother.
“It was probably trying to eat its breakfast, or it was busy. You were bothering it,” he said again.
“I waaasn’t,” she whined, then looked furtively side to side, as if she were about to tell Lonán a big secret, “I saw it eat a slug. He must have been really hungry.”
“Maybe hedgehogs like slugs?” Nuala screwed up her face in disgust that he should even suggest a thing.
“Iwwwww, Lonán! Nobody likes slugs. I licked one once, it wasn’t tasty,” she said, sticking out her tongue. Her ears perked forwards suddenly as something occurred to her, “Lonán, if you don’t headbutt, how will the does know how strong you are? What if they don’t choose you to be their friend?” She asked, concerned.
Flynnandglynn found their voices and interrupted again with a snide remark, “Lonán doesn’t want doe friends, do you Lonán? Lonán likes to be on his own,” Nuala stamped a foot, displeased that the important conversation was being invaded by the silly orange stags.
“Lonán does have friends! I’m his friend. And if you don’t stop being mean to him, I’ll tell all the does, and the princesses that they should never choose you because you’re really rude.”
The pair of them laughed, and Nuala felt about ready to squeal! “Look Lonán, you do have doe friends! I never thought I’d see the day,” said one. “He’s only four years too early.” Replied the other. Grrr! Why did they have to be so mean to Lonán! She glanced up at her friend, looking at his usually stony features.
Lonán was frowning. Now they were in trouble! “I’ll get a message to the Captain and the King that you were being inappropriate in front of a princess.” He told the other stags, and the little Princess stood up straight beside him, totally backing him up, as threatening as a small mouse.
“Watch out Flynn, the Princess and her little fawn friend are going to tattle on us,” said Glynn, presumably. Nuala still couldn’t tell the difference. She was oblivious to the shadow that had fallen over them, glowering at the pair of stags.
“Yeah! And then you’ll really be in trouble! The Captain is Lonán’s father, and he knows the King!” She said grandly, as if none of the Fawnlings present knew this privileged information.
Finally, the pair of chestnut stags must have realised just how important she was, because they shrunk back in fear. Nuala puffed up her chest proudly to imitate Lonán, and grinned. Lonán never grinned, so the impression failed about ten hands too short. Still, Nuala was proud. Mother would be very pleased that she was practicing for when she was Queen and--
“So I do, I wonder what he would make of his guard neglecting their duties and fighting with one another instead of protecting the herd,” came a deep rumbly voice like thunder. It was as if Lonán had swallowed a storm, and was talking like the big black clouds liked to do.
“Eep,” she squeaked and almost fell over in her haste to look behind her. There stood a monstrous stag, and he was even the colour of thunderclouds! The Captain! She gasped, staring up at him in awe. His face and legs were black like Lonán’s and his body a bit paler, and a bit browner, like he had been rolling in the mud mother told her not to wade in yet somehow kept his legs clean.
The giant stag looked between the three guards, and Nuala carefully edged closer to Lonán. Confidence instantly bolstered by the sturdy support of her friend’s leg, she scowled at Lonán’s flank as he replied in his very-rumbly-but-not-quite-so-rumbly voice to the larger stag. “It is my fault, Sir.”
Nuala huffed, “No it’s not!” She scolded Lonán before turning her big blue gaze on Lonán’s father imploringly. “No it’s not,” she said again to the Captain, “Lonán was being my friend and FlynnandGlynn were laughing and it wasn’t fair!” The little princess puffed, “It wasn’t fair at all and they were being mean and it wasn’t Lonán’s fault.” It was suddenly of the utmost importance that Lonán wasn’t in trouble with the Captain, his father! Nuala hated it when she was in trouble with her father, it meant she’d done something really bad.
“Were they now, little Princess? Flynn and Glynn should not have been laughing, they and Lonán were supposed to be watching the herd for danger,” the Captain replied to her directly, and she gulped as his gaze turned on her but she was going to be a Princess! She was brave.
She nodded, her ears bobbing in a ridiculous fashion, “Yes they were,” she confirmed. She looked at Lonán, and an especially brave thought occurred to her, “It was my fault for distracting Lonán, I was telling him about the spiky rabbit that eats slugs and Lonán said that it liked slugs and so I said that he was silly because nobody likes slugs and I wanted to know why he wasn’t headbutting and Flynnandglynn were just laughing all the time and they weren’t being nice at all,” she took a deep breath, “So it’s not Lonán’s fault.”
“Is that so, Princess? Well, that is very brave of you to own up,” he said, lowering his head to her height. He really did look a lot like Lonán, and she preened at the compliment. “Whether or not it was Lonán’s fault, he should have known better. So should have Flynn and Glynn. They got distracted and skirted their duties. What if the spiky rabbit had returned seeking revenge and they weren’t paying attention?”
Nuala gasped. What if the spiky rabbit... what had Lonán called it? Hodgeheg? What if the Hodgeheg came back and was spiky at everyone? Nobody would be happy with hurty noses. Nuala shook her head gravely. “I didn’t know that’s what guards did! I thought...” Well she didn’t actually know what they did, other than stand and say they were guarding. She frowned, pensive. “Okay, well if you promise not to tell Lonán off, I’ll promise not to distract him when the Hodgehegs are out eating slugs.” She levelled her eyes with the Captain’s, as serious as they could ever be. “Slugs aren’t tasty, and they don’t do much, but I don’t think they should be eaten.” Clearly if the Captain thought it was important, then it was up to her not to distract the guards from the dangers of Hodgehegs!
“I’m sure the slugs agree with you, but their shift is almost over, perhaps Lonán should make up for getting distracted by escorting you back to your mother. The hedgehogs might still be out.” Nuala didn’t notice her deal had been sidestepped, but since it sounded positive, that was enough for her.
“Yay!” She dashed over to the Captain of the Guard and headbutted his leg, fear forgotten. Wheeling, she ran back to Lonán, “Come on Lonán, I’ll show you were the Hodgeheg went. Maybe we can save some slugs!”