The first gray streaks of dawn were gathering behind us as we approached The Turnabout. It was a long stone building with a thatch roof wrapped on all sides by a handsome porch. Smoke crept out of the three chimneys and drifted toward us, surrounding us with the familiar smell of a fire that reminded me of Papa. Despite the hour, there was quite a commotion out front. I recognized the red plastick armour of the Eastport City Custos milling about an open wagon with one man shouting orders at the rest. They were all looking at something in the wagon with great interest and I swallowed, as the air was thick with unease as we approached.
A custos’ shouted at us to stop and we did. A half dozen custos and a few rough guards around the wagon looked us over suspiciously as one approached. He was older than the rest, with a curved straw hat and an officer's coat with a big stripe on the back.
"Mortalis es," he said. It was not a question. "'Fraid the inn is closed today. There's 'nother one further up the river. Sure you can make it before noon. Good day." He turned to leave with a quick spin and a little stomp of his heel.
The preacher called after him, "I'm a speaker, if I can help you."
The officer turned and squinted one eye at the preacher, and then looked at me. I tried to look like I didn't care either way, but I was desperate to know what was in the wagon. Or who.
"Okay then. Come say your words. This one needs 'em." And the officer turned again and approached the wagon where the custos' stiffened, but did not cease their suspicious glances from us to the wagon and back.
The preacher dismounted and I did likewise. He retrieved one of his books and spent a moment tying his hair back before he pulled his hood up and strode confidently over to the wagon. It was walled and above head height so I could not see inside. My mouth was dry and I felt my guts stirring up. The preacher mounted a wheel and stepped inside the wagon, looking down. I could see from the frown that formed on his face that the man in the wagon was John Thistle and that he was dead.
The preacher knelt down and then turned to the officer. "I would like my assistant to aid me." He reached out a hand and I hoisted myself up and got my first look at the prostrate man in the wagon. His black pants were torn and muddy, his white shirt half untucked with missing buttons, and his black vest was hanging by a thread. His face was quiet and peaceful. A feeling I had known before began to well up inside me. I fought it down with gritted teeth and clenched fists. I pulled my hat down a little lower to hide my face from the guards. I reckoned it would just cause us more trouble if they saw me upset.
The preacher asked everyone to bow their heads. He said some Oldspeak then, the funeral words I'd used over Morris. He did a nice job of it too. He made the sign of the Watch and then began to put his hands on John Thistle's body, to which I looked up in surprise. I was about to ask him what he was doing, but the custos were right there with their heads still bowed. The preacher kept patting his hands on John Thistle's body, murmuring the Old Words, but I couldn't figure what he was about. When the preacher ran out of Oldspeak, he started singing some kind of hymn, but I didn't recognize it. He quickly glanced up at me and I blinked at him and mouthed a few outraged words, but he kept right on patting down the body of John Thistle. Finally, just as I was about to leap out of the wagon in protest, I realized the preacher wasn't just putting his hands on the body as a religious exercise; he was searching the dead man's clothes!
"Preacher," I whispered. "What in the hells are you doing?"
The preacher gave me a quick glare and then went back to singing. He looked up quickly to see if we were being watched and then swiped something silvery from one of John Thistle's pockets. It disappeared deftly into some hidden spot in the preacher’s sleeves for his hand was empty again almost as quickly.
Without warning, a most impossible thing happened: the dead John Thistle's eyes snapped open and he was up and standing like a bolt of lightning. I flopped backwards, scrambling, and I fell over the wall of the wagon and crashed into the dirt. My head echoed with a low hum and I lay there wondering how badly I had injured myself. I neither heard, nor saw, anything for the rest of the morning.
When I awoke, I had to blink away the feeling of being a corpse myself when I realized that I was laying in the same position that the late John Thistle had just occupied. I sat up, far too fast, and was almost overcome with a terrible urge to vomit. I grabbed my head to keep it from swimming away and I found a huge bump near the back, but fortunately no blood. The preacher came over, smiling.
"How do you feel?" He asked.
I hazily recalled the reason for my injury. "I had a crazy dream that John Thistle came to life and my head hurts like all the hells."
"I don't think life is the right word for it. He's not like anything I've ever seen, Sam. He doesn't look like a copperhead, he could be possessed."
I had figured that part, I guess. Just not out loud. "If he's a copperhead, then why didn't he try to kill us like the other one?" I barked. Instantly my head rang again so I had to hold it, but I continued without yelling. "Why did he pretend to be my uncle?"
I felt like crying. "Was it not bad enough to lose my papa to the Beyond? Was it not bad enough to be on the run through unknown lands, chasing bad clues, sleeping on the dirt, eating salt meat all day, and wondering if a bandit is going to sneak up in the night and murder me for my horse? Is it not bad enough to barely be an adult and already a killer? Why did John Thistle have to lie about Papa? Why did he have to die and then come back to life? What in the teching hells is going on, preacher?"
He looked at me for a long time and I just sniffed away the first bit of snot and spat to keep the tears back. "I don't know," he said gently, fatherly. "But I intend to follow him and find out. After you were knocked out he took off west. The guards were too scared to follow; they've gone back to Eastport. If we hurry we can catch his trail. If we're lucky, he may have the answers you seek. Do not despair, Sam." I choked again, mad and frustrated and fighting the pressure in my chest that threatened to force its way out.
He grabbed my arm and hauled me up to my feet, which was no good for my head, but it did distract me from my sadness.
"Action is the best answer to your questions." He said and held my hat up in the air before resting it neatly on my head. It took me a moment, but I managed to draw in a great breath without heaving into tears. I exhaled slowly and then looked up at the preacher's smiling face with the sun now glaring down into my eyes.
"Well," I said, wiping my nose on my sleeve, "let's go get that son of a bitch."
It was not hard to catch up to John Thistle. Though he was moving fast, the preacher was a deadly tracker. I wished then that my cavalier words to the preacher had given me the courage they contained, owing to when we caught up to John Thistle, I was instantly sapped of all the courage I had mustered. I still do not know how to adequately describe what we saw when we found him, but we spent better than two weeks following this bard as he trekked across the countryside in a state of walking sleep. He remained totally without emotion or recollection as we watched him and never did he waver from his west by northwest direction. He was ever into the wind and he only stopped to eat a few berries or lay prostrate under a tree for the night. He was clad in his boots and trousers with his white shirt, now filthy, and his black vest, now torn. He was hatless and his hair was dishevelled and matted. We made no effort to speak to him and followed at as great a distance as we could without losing sight of him. He made uncommon speed and we lost him numerous times in the first few days, though we rode and he walked. He never turned about, nor made any indications that he knew we were behind him.
The preacher was in a fixed mood the entire time, intent on hunting John Thistle. Keeping track of him when I could not, pointing out broken branches or boot prints, and I was so unnerved by the bizarre behaviour of the bard that many times during the track I was set to stop and turn around. John Thistle was going Beyond; where Papa had gone. And I couldn't stop it.
As the scattered farmland of civilization faded away into the enormous trees of Inwood, I hauled up on Master and we stood in the road, waiting for the preacher to notice. He did, by and by, and trotted back to see what was the matter. I spat as he approached.
"You grow paler by the day though the sun grows stronger." He said in a flat tone.
"I wear a hat." I said, but I knew what he meant.
"You're worried on what we'll find."
“He still eats and sleeps, I guess.” I said, my voice building in anger, "But he has no water, no blanket, no horse, and he keeps this pace! He never veers off his course and he never turns around to see who follows. He doesn’t make fire or...” I was completely at odds with myself. Part of me needed to continue, the other part of me needed to be away from this madman. Part of me courage, the other part coward. The preacher just pushed his long hair back behind his ears and looked at me with expectation. I was welling up inside with anger and I let it go like a gunshot from my body.
“My papa did just what he’s doing now! He went away on some mad trek and I may never see him again. I don’t know if I will find the same man if I ever do reach him!”
I'd been repeating the same questions in my head for a few nights and now heaped them on the preacher with a good deal of venom. "If he is a copperhead, why doesn't he kill us? If he's a man, how is he not dead of thirst or cold? He walks like something un-human, otherworldly. He's possessed. Perhaps Hades has control of him and is bidding him to come to Hell.”
The preacher regarded me with concern. "We don't know any of that. For all we know, he could be leading us somewhere. He seemed to help you before. What did he say? Find the cave. Find the bear."
I was angry at the preacher. Angry because he was right. I was scared of what we might find at the end of our journey. I was mostly angry because I felt like crying, which made me furious as I was two steps above mad and one below raging. My pities were popping out from the hiding place where I tried so hard to keep them. The preacher looked ashamed that he had upset me and let out a heavy sigh.
“Lady, perhaps we should turn back.” He said in a serious tone. “I know you don't mean to suggest that your father is mad or was when he left. But we have travelled to a far more dangerous place than I ever thought. I don't know what I expected it to be like, but this John Thistle is dangerous and our paths doubly so because he knows where he’s going and we do not. I have never thought you were on a wise course, chasing the Beyond, but perhaps it's time to let your father go. I admit that I would have loved to meet the man, not just for all his knowledge, but to shake the hand of the man who raised such a brave and kind young woman. What do you say?”
I sat for several minutes fuming, trying to consider without passion what he had said. Would Papa be happy with me if I went on a foolish quest and threw my life away? If Mama had to visit not one empty grave, but two?
I studied the road before us and then spun Master around to view the path we had already taken. The choice was before me, as it always had been. Go back and grow-up or go forward into the unknown. Whichever I chose, it had to be with my whole heart. No more half-way this and half-way that. Master turned me back toward the unknown with a hop and I patted him gently; he never had much trouble making up his mind.
The preacher had ridden ahead to give me some space to think, and I watched him now, with my anger fading away, and instead I found myself thankful for his companionship and his advice. Of all the people I could have met on the road, I had met one so true to me he could have been my own blood. My reward was clear, but his, what did he seek to gain from this adventure?
I watched as he strung his bow and aimed toward the tallest point of a fir tree where a bird was perched. He loosed a banded arrow, one with a little string tied to it, at the sleeping bird. The arrow flew quick and straight, but missed, narrowly, soaring into the sky until I lost it in the sun's glare.
He looked at me with a smile and said, "I doubt I'll find that one, the line slipped."
But I barely heard him. I was so wrapped up in my own head with my little dilemma that a much bigger dilemma decided to step out of the forest onto the path. Neither of us had any clue that we had stopped our horses thirty yards from the biggest worbear in the whole of Inwood.
Now, the worbear skeleton I'd seen as a child in Springhill was the same size as this one, I later discovered. It didn't seem that way though, when comparing a skeletonized one to one with all its white-gray fur, deadly muscles, and those horrible black eyes that were just as big as your head.
We were downwind from him, so he didn’t know we were there when he came lumbering out of the trees onto the path; no more dangerous than a fox on a log. Master skipped around and the preacher’s mare snorted hard and I thought perhaps it would miss us, but Regal positively screamed like she’d been shot. I guess I would have screamed too if I had any breath in my body. We humans froze, but the horses kept dancing away. When that furry idiot screamed again the worbear slowly swung its terrifying head, bristly hackles raised, and stared down at us.
He was twenty feet at the shoulder and twice again long. His tusks were up past his snout and the spiny fur from out of his shoulders tickled the branches of the trees above him. He snorted hard and then began to sniff; his big nostrils twitching and trembling.
“Preacher…” I said, but it came out quiet for lack of wind.
“Run.” He replied.
I didn’t need further encouragement as the beast, at that moment, opened his jaws and roared like a clap of Zeus’ thunder and his horrible breath, hot and hateful, stormed at us and made us wince. Master spun and I don’t think a hoof touched the ground for the first thirty paces. The preacher’s mare was hot on us and I dared not look back for I was certain the worbear was right behind him. Branches crashed against my face and I must have lost half of my gear from it bouncing out my saddlebags and flying out my pockets as we flashed down that forest road. After a minute, I regained some of my composure and hazarded a quick glance over my shoulder. I spied the preacher hazarding a glance over his shoulder, but beyond him was nothing but empty road. I may have been naïve, but not so naïve to think we had outrun so godlike a creature.
The preacher pulled up alongside, head bent down to Regal's neck. “We must stay downwind of him!” He shouted.
I spun my head upwards to glimpse the treetops, but I could not tell which way the wind was blowing. We were going so hard it seemed the wind was right at us.
“Slow down, preacher!” I said over the pounding of the hooves beneath us.
Together we pulled up on the reigns and I scanned the trees with the Professor, a pitifully small weapon compared to this beast. The preacher said a quick prayer before the world fell quiet and we both looked up and watched the treetops bend. They swayed gently to the northwest towards the worbear.
“He will be on us soon,” said the preacher in a hurried whisper. “What do you know of these things?”
“I know nothing.” I replied. “Only what Charlie told me when I was a girl. They hunt by smell and kill for pleasure. Master can go still, but your mare looks spent."
“It seems ludicrous that such a monster could sneak up on us. How does he not crash through the forest like thunder?”
“I don’t know,” I said, and surely I did not.
We both continued scanning the trees, knowing the beast would come. I gripped the Professor tightly to hide my trembling hands and I tried to count my breaths in and out to stop from panicking. It was no good. In a moment there came an almighty crash that surrounded us and two trees flew down afore and behind us, blocking the road. The horses were both startled and began to spin; screaming wildly to get away, but there was no escape. The enormous head of the terrible beast came into view from the forest edge, a huge snout sniffing the air, coming closer and closer, knowing he had trapped his prey. The preacher and I froze and even the horses stood still, hoping stillness would save us. His black nose was thick as tanned leather and I could have put a fist into each of his nostrils. He sniffed the air and the wind went into his nose in big, cavernous sucking gasps. I looked hesitantly at the preacher, wondering why he could not smell us, and while he crept closer and closer. Slowly, one of his big paws came into view and he set it down with a surprising gentleness on a fallen tree.
I recall thinking that the only way we were going to escape was to ditch the horses and make off on foot and, to be completely honest, I considered it. I think the preacher did too while we stood there, rapt by the vast head of imminent death. I cocked the hammer on the Professor and slowly took aim at the beast's face, hoping I would catch him in the eye and maybe scare him off long enough to make good of our escape. Barring that we could only flee into the thick woods behind us, and hope to lose the beast in the crush of trees and scrub.
All the while his head kept coming closer and his tusks were now towering over our heads—I could have almost touched them! One tusk was cracked down the center, just like a lightning bolt, zigzagging down from the point of his tusk to his lips as it splintered out with fingers of crooked lines, branching down and growing fainter until it reached the cusp of his mouth and faded entirely. I had a sudden flash of thought as I looked at those tusks. I pictured me, pierced on one of them, with its tip coming out of my chest while I looked shocked and stared at the little lightning bolt, and all the while feeling better about my death because I had taken time to see the beauty of something so horrible.
I had my arm outstretched and the Professor ready to fire when I heard the preacher whisper, “Shoot. Shoot it my lady, please shoot him.”
His great leathery nose was so close to the mouth of my barrel that they almost touched. My gun looked insignificant, like a toy. I could have shoved the Professor into his nostrils and he probably wouldn't have noticed.
My finger was on the trigger and I began to gently squeeze, wondering if the bullet would fly up his nostril and into his brain, somewhere in the back of his giant head. I looked from the great black nose to the beast’s black eyes and we froze. The beast looked at me and his eyebrows screwed up into a point over his snout and he gave a throaty moan, a sound of tremendous despair, like the sigh of a broken heart. I did not fire, though I think even Master was secretly willing me to do so. The preacher looked at me and began to dismount. Evidently, he was resorting to our unspoken back-up plan.
The worbear kept staring at me with a look I swear was almost pleading and imploring and desperate. There was no longer the look of violence and eternal unstoppable hunger, or had I imagined it in my fear?
All at once, with a windy gust of exhaling breath that moaned the same sorry sound, the worbear lowered his head and dropped his body onto the ground with a crash that shook the earth and made the horses jump and spin again. Regal nearly stampeded over the preacher in her haste to depart. Master was either more frightened or more calm, either way he stood still and allowed me to dismount, which I did, gun still in hand.
The bear was still twice my height laying down, and his thick white-gray fur made him appear bigger yet. The bear put both huge paws forward and rested his head upon them, huffing out another great sigh that was long and soulful.
The preacher stepped up behind me and placed a hand on my arm that felt urgent and frightened. “Please Lady, we must flee,” he whispered. “These things are not pets. He thinks us playthings or worse, he is ill in the head.”
I took aim again at that eye with the furrowed brow and I took a breath and held it to steady myself. But I did not shoot. Something in that face, the sad eyes and the sigh of anguish, made me release the pressure on the trigger and lower my gun. The great beast immediately shuffled his head a little closer and nudged my leg with his nose, leaving a big wet imprint on my coat. I laughed, but the preacher would have none of it. He grabbed at me again and this time pulled me backward a step or two.
The worbear huffed a stinky cloud of frustration and again shuffled forward and nudged me with his nose. He was so much like a shy horse that I could not help but like him. If he meant to eat us we were dead anyway, and I doubt one bullet would have changed that. If he meant no harm then we were the first humans to make a friend of a worbear.
I slowly reached out with my left hand and, at first, the great bear blinked and shied his head back a yard. I cooed him and whispered quiet, like I did with Master when he was a colt.
“It’s okay, friend.” I said and took a hesitant step forward. The worbear looked unsure of my intentions, but was not overly frightened. He squinted a little and his face was so full of emotion I smiled and kept moving forward. He poked his nose out and I kept reaching forward until he took a big sniff of my hand. He touched it to my palm, so I could rest my fingertips on the cold, leathery nose of one of the world’s most fearsome monsters.
The worbear closed his eyes and sighed. I lifted my hand from his nose and I pet the coarse fur on top of his snout, stroking it gently. The big beast took in a ragged breath and then flopped over to one side and blasted out another great huff of contentment. I took another step forward and ran my hand down his snout. My hand found a long, jagged scar deep under the beast’s fur and I traced it gently as I put my gun away and closed the snap. I looked back at the preacher, who stood rooted to the ground with a look of shock and disbelief on his tanned face. He opened and closed his mouth two or three times, and looked as though he might speak, but no words came. I felt as he did and I think I may have done a mocking job of him too, my jaw working but no words coming.
I turned back to the mighty worbear now afore me like an enormous barn dog, quietly snoring, eyes closed with his chin on a paw. I petted him and said what a nice boy he was and other things I cannot remember. Papa taught me that if you talked nice to an angry horse, it wasn’t the words he understood, just the tone and inflection. For what felt like long a time, I stood there running my hands down the bear’s snout and then I traced my fingers down his tusk—that was easily the thickness of my leg—and I studied the lightning bolt. It must have been the shock of the entire encounter, but it took me several moments before I heard that voice again in my head. "Spelunca ursi fulminei," cave of the lightning bear.
"Preacher, look!" I cried.
He slowly edged his way, little-by-little, so he could see what I was pointing at. It took him a long time too, but I watched as it dawned on him as well. We had found the lightning bear.
What a pretty picture it was having the preacher smile in spite of himself, and me grinning wide with my hand on the tusk of a worbear. I was so wrapped up in the moment, though it didn't truly hit me till well after, that I leapt back in fright when the beast picked up his head and then, with a grunt, lifted his body before he hoisted himself to his full awesome height.
My head tilted back, my eyes wide open, and I laughed like someone who has seen madness. I watched that worbear turn his body and walk slowly and gingerly back into the woods. He got about fifty yards off before he turned back and grunted low and long. Then he looked and waited.
The preacher was beside me and the horses behind him. Master was already picking at the grass at the side of the road, his hunger overriding his fear, but Regal was still watching and sniffing the air for the beast she could no longer see.
“That was unbelievable, Lady.” Said the preacher.
“I scarce believe it myself.”
“Perhaps we are dead and this is a dream.”
He took a ragged breath in and out. “Why does he watch us?”
I took the same breath and it calmed me and refreshed my nerves. “I don’t know, but we must find his cave.”
“The horses would like that," he joked. "I think, at any rate, the way is open thanks to Lady Stanton, Tamer of Worbears.” He mocked a little bow and I curtsied in return and we both laughed as things felt more or less normal.
We turned to fetch the horses and as we did we heard a low and menacing growl from the worbear. I turned back and saw he had advanced a pace and stood half stepped forward.
“He means to not let us leave?” Asked the preacher.
“No, he means us to follow.” I answered.
“Surely not!” He scoffed. “It’s one thing to survive an encounter by the will of the Gods, Lady, but to follow is madness and I will not do it."
“He means us no harm, please preacher, you have seen me through every manner of danger, let me see you through this one.”
The worbear watched intently, his eyes moving back and forth between me and the preacher. I stepped toward the beast and as I did his head lowered, his shoulders softened, and he began to turn. I whistled for Master and he answered smartly; this is why I think horses are better than most people. The preacher slowly began to follow, whether to sate his own curiosity or to fulfill his vow of protecting me, I could not say.
Without the faintest hesitation, I followed the greatest and most terrible beast of the land deep into the woods, down a shadowy valley, and into the unknown.
Practically speaking, I did not know where the hells we were going and I was more than a little concerned about the horses and the preacher who followed, scowling and suspicious.
For my part, I was utterly convinced of the trustworthiness of the worbear. Perhaps, I thought as I daydreamed, that the preacher was right. Perhaps we were dead and this was some kind of afterlife where the expected horror of death never comes, but instead you just follow a different path to the great beyond.
After a ways I looked back and saw Master following us from a distance: saddle, bags, and straps with buckles swaying and jingling against his flanks. The preacher half dragged Regal, who saw no point in descending this hill after a creature she never wished to see again. The preacher looked most at war with his self. His brow was heavily lined with a frown and he looked this way and that, but never at me. He spoke to himself, low and quiet, his mouth moving but nothing audible emanating. He was probably questioning my sanity and who could blame him; I might have been insane. But my course was set. For once there was no conflict.
My tummy growled at me and I gave it a consoling rub. It was mid-afternoon and I had a pork breakfast with some little roots the preacher had dug up in the early morning. With all the events from this morning, I was starved.
As I began to rummage through my pockets for a bit of bread or some jerky, the great bear stopped and I ran right into his back leg, like head-butting a tree trunk. I staggered backwards and caught myself. The bear took no notice and reared up on his hind legs so he could reach the top of the tallest tree branches. He took a huge paw and pulled on the top of a terryapple tree. With no effort at all he began to bend the top of the tree almost in half. The leaves rustled and the trunk groaned against the strain of remaining erect as the top came closer to the ground. I watched in wonder as the tree, once twenty yards up, was now bent like a bow and hanging just over my head. The bear shook the tree with his paw and several little ripe apples plopped to the ground. I picked as many as I could while the bear held it down, with limitless strength, and when my arms were full I looked at him and I gave him a nod and a little curtsy. I was so excited and even the preacher ceased his angry muttering to watch with a scowl.
Suddenly, the bear removed his paw and big tree began to right itself like a ship on a sea, slowly at first then gaining momentum until it snapped upright then bowed away from us. Much to my amusement, it flung several apples off into the woods.
I wolfed down an apple and the bear moved along, allowing the preacher and the skittish horses to come up to the little pile for dinner. Master, guided by his limitless hunger, forgot entirely about the bear and wolfed down the first few apples whole. Regal took little careful nibbles, picking her head up to watch the bear, who waited, leaning against an unfortunate tree that creaked in surprise.
After the horses had eaten, we still had enough apples left to fill our packs. The preacher had not spoken the entire time we were eating, which, given his manners was probably more politeness than anything else. The worbear just leaned and watched and waited for us to finish. Master was growing bold and hazarded stepping close to the beast to sniff his back end. The startled bear swung his big head around, not threatening, but curious. My boy did not wait to find out the difference and spun back behind me in a sliver.
The preacher laughed at this and I was glad to see him feeling less sour. I looked to the bear to see if he was ready to lead again and found him sniffing the air in long twitching breaths. The preacher looked far away, like he was hearing some distant danger. I felt left out of the group as I had not heard, nor smelled, anything at all, except for the rustling of leaves. I opened my mouth to ask what was about, but the preacher raised a hand.
“Hush!” He commanded.
My hand went to the Professor in an instant, but I did not draw, just readied myself. The preacher began to scan the treetops and he slowly pulled his bow from Regal’s saddle and bent the shaft to string it. He knocked an arrow silently and waited, watching the nose of the bear.
“Look at him,” he whispered with urgency.
The bear had his great head up, nostrils flaring and sniffing the air. Then I noticed what the preacher had already seen. The fur across the beast's back was standing straight up, like a forest of silvery trees.
“He looks scared.” I said.
“We should be too.” He replied.
I heard a wet crunch from behind and snapped around to see Master ripping the leaves from a bush at his side, completely oblivious. It was then that a voice came from the woods just ahead of the worbear. It was a man’s voice, calm and clear, but with a note of something else. It echoed through the thick woods, “Mihi puellam hanc.” The bear perked its ears in the direction of the voice and shifted his great weight to his front legs. “Tecum pugnare nolo, Ardrin.” The voice came again, this time with a long drawn out Ardrin.
“Where is it coming from?” Asked the preacher, drawing his arrow half way and crouching down to see through the trees.
The bear dipped his head towards the voice and grunted low and strong. He shifted his weight to his back legs, crouched, ready to spring at a second’s notice and letting out a menacing grunt.
“What is he saying?” asked the preacher, eyes narrowing with his arrow tip drawing lines from tree to tree.
“The voice wants to take me, but the bear won’t let him.”
“Are you teching serious?” Swore the preacher.
“Quiet!” I spat and he fell silent.
“Puellam.” The mysterious voice demanded.
I watched, rapt, as the bear sniffed again and coiled his rear legs, digging his claws into the ground. Suddenly he dove forward, smashing his enormous paws against a stout elm. He instantly shattered the trunk and slammed the tree to the ground in a cloud of splinters and leaves and coffee-coloured dust. The bear jumped on the remains of the trunk and used its bulk to drive the splintered trunk into the ground again and again. He stepped off the trunk so his paws stood astride it and gingerly, like Mama folding a bed sheet, rolled what was left of it over so he could see underneath it.
The voice came again from beside us, off in the woods, indistinct. “Non percussisti, Ardrin.”
The great bear spun, but slower and slightly laboured. I suppose having watched horses my entire life gave me a special eye for injury, and that bear had hurt himself when he felled that tree.
“Puellam!” cried the hidden voice again, this time to our left in a heft of undergrowth.
“Preacher,” I whispered, “send an arrow into the fat elm with the broken bough, the one…” The arrow was away before I finished. He was so quick with that weapon. No sooner had it flown that I aimed the Professor and took a deep breath. The arrow smacked the tree, driving into it with a heavy thud and then a shape, pale and quick, flew from the tree in a graceful arc, away and to our rear. It was fast, but I was faster. I fired and the crack of my gun resounded through the trees and we three watched as the figure, a naked man, grabbed the next tree and leapt away, then leapt again, and then was out of sight.
“Gods protect us!” said the preacher as he made the sign of the Watch. “Copperhead.” He said to himself.
There was no doubt this was the same copperhead we had encountered on that forest path to Eastport; the one that fought with Thomas the Georgian, and the one that tracked us to the Caged Bird and fought John Thistle. It was incredibly unsettling to watch it move so fast. Like seeing a spider and watching it scurry off faster than your eye can follow. I felt itchy and the back of my neck was tingling. I wanted to scratch it and then scratch all over to rid myself of the feeling.
A great huff came from my left that startled me and we turned together, the preacher and I.
“Pater meus me docuit.” I said to the bear with my rusty Oldspeak.
The bear plodded closer, his great paws thudding to the ground, snapping fallen branches that littered the forest floor. He came close, as close as he had been when he caught us on the road. He bowed his great head before me so that his nose almost touched the ground and his tusks were on either side of me. He shut his eyes and growled low and long, but I was not frightened. It felt like a gesture of gentlemanly greeting, like when Papa's work friends used to call at the house.
“Nomen mihi est Samanthae.” I said with a smile and the bear lifted his great head so we were eye-to-eye, more or less.
The preacher piped up and slapped himself on the chest with his hand and yelled, “Stephen!”
“Preacher, he's not deaf.” I scolded and the preacher looked embarrassed.
"The voice called him Ardrin, did I hear that correctly?”
“Yes, he did. They've met before I reckon. This keeps getting stranger and stranger.” I kept looking at the worbear who was listening intensely. I could not tell if he understood, but I wanted to believe he did. He certainly seemed to with his great gestures, cocking his head to one side to listen, just like my old dog Gutter used to do. Of course, I eventually learned the hard way that poor Gutter was a moron, even for a dog.
“It would appear that the copperhead is now following us instead of John Thistle. What do we do now, Lady?” asked the preacher.“The bear wants us to follow him. Let Thistle take care of himself.” I told the preacher. “Duc nos, Ardrin.” I told the bear and with that he swung his great body around, snapping branches off of trees and shaking the forest floor with each plodding step. I watched and followed, and the horses watched and followed. By and by the bear stopped limping and broke into a stride that was smooth and pretty.