I’m taking the Story A Day May challenge again this year. Today’s story is set in the world of SAGE, my fantasy trilogy. The character’s family appeared as bit characters in one scene of Book 1. I hadn’t intended to write about them again, but they popped up this morning, so here they are.
After the Bear
by Marian Allen
It was as if the forest had suddenly appeared, out of his own imagination.
Iden beren Ottilia was the youngest of four boys. His family’s wattle-and-daub farmhouse was only a couple of shouts from the Fiddlewood, the vegetable patch and animal shelters not much farther, and he and his father and brothers fished in the Fiddlewood River. But they never looked left to the treeline. When his thoughts and eyes wandered in that direction, one of his elders was sure to notice and to tell him to put his mind to his fishing or to their instructive conversation.
It loomed large after dark, though, when tales were told around the hearthfire. Then came the stories of weird beings and weird happenings, of hauntings and snatchings and creatures that weren’t gods but might as well be, in their power and indifference.
Not that Iden beren Ottilia held with gods. He and his family had always been followers of the unled Way, the only belief that truly satisfied, consoled, admitted its failure to explain, and made any sense at all. Things are the way they are because that’s the way they are. You can try to improve them; if that’s the direction things are supposed to go because of your efforts, things improve.
So he never understood why he wasn’t allowed to even think about the Fiddlewood. What if he was supposed to think about it? But, when he asked his father that, he father had said, “What if I’m supposed to give you a box aside your head for back-chat?” But he overheard his father tell his mother the incident, both of them chuckling, so the threat made only a limited impression.
Then there was the incident of the bear. A young man came to the farm asking to buy food for a journey that had become longer than he had provided for. He had tried to pay for it with better coinage than a poor man should have. When challenged, he had taken to his heels and escaped into the Fiddlewood. Iden’s father and brothers had pursued him, even into the trees, but had come back faster than they’d gone, yelling about a huge black bear that had appeared out of nowhere, slavering and roaring.
After that, the Fiddlewood became one of the centers of the community’s attention.
The story was told on market day. The men and women of the farms round about had formed patrols, in part to search for the savage beast, but mostly to contain it, to keep it from leaving its sanctuary and ravaging the farmers’.
And, finally, Iden beren Ottilia was old enough to join a patrol.
The instant his foot pressed into the leaf mould of the forest floor, he knew he had been right: he was supposed to be here. The pitchfork he carried drooped in his hand as he walked, unafraid and enchanted, between the trees and bundles of undergrowth.
He heard a woman sobbing – but, no, it was only a bird, calling for its mate.
It seemed as if between one breath and the next, the light was nearly gone. His stomach growled, reminding him of the food and ale waiting in the lean-to the patrols had erected well outside the forest bounds.
How had he stayed so long? He called to the others in his patrol, listened carefully, but heard no answering cries. How far had he strayed? He had only been supposed to walk the forest border, able to glimpse the sunny meadow beyond the trees, and yet here he was, obviously deep into the pathless darkness, his sense of direction as lost as he was.
Was this his Way? Was he supposed to die in bewildered wandering here, in this goal of his imagination?
From the darkness came a hiss like the sound of the blacksmith’s hot iron plunged into cooling water. A glimmer of light on the ground flared – not blindingly, but brilliant in the gloom. It resolved into the shape of a … lizard? A lizard as large as a new-born calf!
The thing was blue and green and golden yellow, and, yes, it was glowing, light coruscating over it. Had he ever heard a tale of a fire lizard? He might have, but it had always been the dim green woods that had caught his attention.
Not so, now.
The lizard hissed again, and advanced on him, each arcing step a menace. It moved slowly, but he felt the terrible speed contained in it, and backed away as slowly as it advanced, hoping it wouldn’t notice his retreat if he kept the distance between them constant. It stepped to his right; he edged to his left.
Interminably, he moved blindly backwards, bumping into trees, crushing bushes, tearing vines, being torn by brambles. There was nothing in the world except himself, these unseen obstacles, and the shining reptile pursuing him with implacable determination.
His heart, already racing, nearly pounded him to sudden death when he realized the thing was herding him, driving him with intelligence toward some destination he could neither know nor see. A lair? A pit? The river, as it ran through the forest?
He did try to run, then, turning and plunging away, sightless but desperate, failing to brain himself on some low branch by luck alone.
Before he saw it coming, he was out of the woods and into the meadow, his feet slipping out from under him on the dew-slick wildflowers. He fell and rolled, knots of fire surrounding him, knots which resolved themselves into torches held by men and women shouting his name, shouting reassurance to his family, shouting their relief at his return.
He had been lost the length of his patrol and most of the next, although he wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been a hundred years or a single minute.
“What did I tell you?” His father did cuff him on the ear, then, but lightly. “The Fiddlewood is no place to take lightly. I suppose you’ll go wandering around in there again, eh?”
He never did. He patrolled where he was told to patrol, well within sight of civilzation. He kept an eye out for the bear, as he was supposed to do, but he also watched for any glimpse of a blue-green-gold glimmer. He never saw it again, but he never stepped into the woods without murmuring, “If you meant to destroy me, I don’t credit myself with your failure. If you meant to drive me to safety, I thank you.”
The story of the monstrous fire lizard joined the story of the towering bear, each growing in the telling, and each generation saw one face leaning into the tale instead of drawing back.
That was the Way of it.
SAGE is available for purchase in print and for electronic devices. I’m just sayin’.
MY PROMPTS TODAY: directions, hunger, audio