TANNARA YOUNG - BEARSKIN (PART 3)
Tannara Young is the creator of the world of Idhua: fourteen kingdoms surrounding a vast magical forest. She writes short fiction and novels exploring the people, landscapes and magic of Idhua. Her work has also appeared in The Mythic Circle, The Great Tomes Series and at NewMyths.com and Smashwords. Tannara lives in central California on the coast of the wild Pacific Ocean, near the majestic redwood forests. When she is not writing, she loves to take long walks through these inspiring landscapes, dreaming up her next tale. Please come and visit her at tannarayoung.com.
A retelling of the Grimm’s Fairy Tale
In the weeks that followed, Henrick discovered that talkative Adelbert had spread the story of his “cure,” and the villagers were unfazed by learning the name and background of their hermit. Some would even call friendly greetings when he came into town and he was even waylaid by the midwife who wanted to know if he could keep a particular eye out for elantra or blood-stop root, when he was foraging in the woods.
Then there was Marlis. She appeared at the door of his cottage one morning with a basket of seedcakes and a bottle of currant wine. “Father and I were hoping you would come to supper again,” she said. “And Adaline too, though I think she just wants to get another chance to stroke your bearskin. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure she leaves you alone. Please do come – perhaps tomorrow?”
Henrick agreed and, in lieu of being able to trim his beard and put on his festival best, he caught a brace of fat pheasants and gathered a bowl of wild strawberries for his hosts. That summer he became a frequent guest at their home, helping Adelbert with the garden and learning to follow Adaline’s disjointed conversation and tolerate her ongoing fascination with his bearskin.
But mostly he went to see Marlis. He admired her serenity and patience with her father and sister. He respected the way she fit herself and her family into the village despite their eccentricities. He loved to make her dimples appear as she laughed, or to find her surprises in the woods – a rare flower, a hollow stone filled inside with crystals, a wild rose to transplant into her garden.
His impatience to be done with the bearskin mounted – and once the winter snows curtailed his ability to visit the town his restlessness increased. He spent long hours planning how he might court Marlis once he was free of the bearskin. To occupy himself, he built and carved a chest, drawing on memories of his mother’s wedding chest where she had kept all her best linens.
He wanted to go into the village the first day that the way was passable. But he made himself wait until the thaw was truly upon the forest and he had been able to gather the first snow-mushrooms sprouting up where the rich dark earth reappeared from the melting snow banks.
Marlis was delighted with the gift of mushrooms and insisted that he stay, though they had not been expecting company. Adaline looked wane and sat by the window staring out into the night. Marlis shrugged, saying. “She’s like that sometimes.” Adelbert had been sick in the winter but was recovering. He chattered to Henrick happily from his armchair by the fire, wrapped in blankets and shawls and sipping from a cup of mulled wine.
After several hours, Marlis left the room to help Adelbert to bed. When they were gone, Henrick turned to find Adaline examining him from across the room.
“You like Marlis,” she said as he met her gaze.
Henrick shrugged uncomfortably. “Well, yes, she’s –-”
“She’s my sister,” Adaline said, stressing the possessive.
“I don’t want to take her away from you,” Henrick said.
“When we were little the baker’s boy put a frog in her hair and made her cry. I hexed him to have warts on his face. She’s my sister, only I get to make her cry.”
“I don’t want to make her cry,” said Henrick. “But Adaline, why do you want to make her cry? Wouldn’t it be nicer if she was happy?”
Adaline considered this. “Sure, a long as she let me hex people.”
“Why do you want to hex people?” asked Henrick.
Henrick felt at a loss. “Well sure they are, but that doesn’t mean you should hex them.”
“Why not? You killed people who annoyed you.”
“I was at war. I killed enemies, people who were trying to kill me or to hurt people I had sworn to protect.” Henrick pushed aside memories of those times when their orders had not been so clear as he described to Adaline.
Adaline tilted her head to the side. “So I should only hex people who are hexing me?”
“That would be more fair,” agreed Henrick, wondering if this conversation was a mistake.
“But if they annoy me, I can annoy them back,” concluded Adaline.
“Well,” said Henrick. As he considered how to advocate the idea of self-restraint, Marlis came back into the room.
“I’ve decided to let you marry Henrick after all,” Adaline told her.
“Ady!” Marlis flushed bright red.
Adaline continued unperturbed. “When I go off to be a great sorceress and rule the world, you will need someone to keep people from putting frogs in your hair.”
Marlis shot Henrick a look of embarrassed amusement. “Thank you for thinking of me, Ady, but it’s been years since anyone has tried to put a frog in my hair.”
“That’s because they’re afraid of me,” said Adaline, serenely.
As Henrick prepared to take his leave, Marlis followed him out. “I hope Adaline didn’t make you uncomfortable.”
“I’m getting to understand her better,” said Henrick. “And... I’d be happy to keep people from attacking you with frogs.”
Marlis smiled. Then, “Wait,” she said. “I almost forgot.”
She ducked back into the house and returned with a covered basket. “I have something for you,” she said. Shy, she held it out, dropping her eyes and hunching her shoulders a little. He opened the lid. Inside was a white shirt, embroidered with blue and red. Beneath it he could see another folded garment of blue-dyed linen.
“I wanted you to have something to wear when you were finally able to take off that bearskin,” she said. “It’s dyed with the madder and woad you brought me.” Her cheeks turned pink as she spoke. Henrick felt his heart lurch.
“Marlis--” he said. “Thank you. I can’t say how much this means to me.”
Her flush grew deeper. “Will you be staying in Fernwell after?” she asked.
Henrick felt reckless. “That depends,” he said.
“On whether there is someone who wants me to stay.”
She met his eyes, her own eyes as wide as her sister’s for once. She put up her hand and stroked his wild beard. Her dimple appeared as she smiled. “I would kiss you if you weren’t so dirty.”
He smiled too. “Can I claim that kiss later?”
“I hope you will.” She turned to go; then all at once turned back. Before he was aware of her intention, she grabbed his arm, stood on tiptoe and pressed her lips to his cheek above his wild beard. Then she fled, embarrassed.
The spring passed far too slowly for Hendrick, yet eventually the time to meet Gottilf arrived. Before he left town, Henrick brought a bouquet of lilacs and wild iris to Marlis. He showed her the basket that he carried with her gift inside and the large bar of soap and pair of sheers he had added to it. As they lingered outside the gate smiling at each other, Adaline drifted by.
“You two are disgusting,” she said. “Simpering and batting your eyes at each other. Can I have your bearskin?”
Henrick was used to this question by now. “When I get it off, I’m sure Gottilf will want to keep it,” he said.
“You’re about as much fun as getting a tooth pulled,” said Adaline. “I bet this Gottilf would give it to me. He sounds like someone worth knowing. I suppose when you’ve had a bath, you’re going to come back here and you and Marlis will have a bunch of snotty, screaming babies. I can’t wait.” She went inside the house.
Marlis rolled her eyes. “And that was almost pleasant for her. I don’t understand what’s eating her – she’s been like a spitting cat for weeks.”
Henrick eventually said his good-byes and set off down the road. He enjoyed that the people he passed raised their hands in greeting and wondered what they would say when he came back this time.
“This will be the last of it,” Gottilf said.
Henrick peered down at his chest. The lump of sylphyl there was a large as an egg. Gottilf had been prizing out the tendrils that connected to it. Now he took a small sharp knife and delicately cut a slit in the skin that still held the sylphyl in place. Henrick clenched his jaw. Then Gottilf carefully lifted the sylphyl away revealing the thin spikes on its back side. A few spots of blood oozed sluggishly in the sore, red flesh underneath. Gottilf stared at the piece of sylphyl, rapt.
After a moment, Henrick asked, “Is that it?”
“What? Oh, yes. I’m done with you. You can be on your way now.” Gottilf didn’t look up from his work bench.
Not wanting to put on Marlis’ finely made gift, Henrick wrapped himself in his old cloak. He glanced back at the bearskin one more time as it lay draped over a chair beside the worktable. Then he looked back at the magician.
“I wanted to talk to you about how you’re using the sylphyl.”
Gottilf shot him a swift look. “I can’t see how that is any of your business.”
“It’s pretty nasty stuff,” Henrick persisted.
Gottilf scowled. “Henrick, our association is over. I did what you asked, more even. Now I really don’t have time to revisit all the reasons you don’t like sylphyl. Go on. I’m a busy man.” He put the sylphyl down on a disk of black marble and picked up a lens to study it.
Henrick hesitated uneasily.
“Did I not make myself clear?” Gottilf demanded, glaring at him.
Henrick left. Once outside he started to feel better. What could Gottilf do with defective sylphyl anyways?
Beyond the unnaturally chilly yard, the air outside smelled of warm summer grass. Henrick hurried down the hill. When he got to the bridge he left the path and went up the river until he found a pool. He dropped his basket and the cloak and grabbed the sheers. Uncaring of style or finesse he hacked off his beard and then grabbed hunks of dirty matted hair and chopped them away too. Then he grabbed the soap and plunged into the cold water. The relief sensation nearly made him cry with relief. He scrubbed and scrubbed with the soap and handfuls of grit from the bottom of the river until his skin was red and raw. At last he decided that he had done as much as he could with cold river water. Even though he still didn’t feel clean, he pulled on Marlis’ gift and headed toward Vist.
The guard at the gate eyed him. “What happened to you, friend?” he asked.
“It’s a long story,” said Henrick. “Can you tell me where I can get a bath and find a barber?”
He went to the barber first.
“Who savaged your hair like this?” the barber asked. “It’s like it’s been mowed with a scythe.” He clipped here and there, cutting the wild mass down to a close crop. He then shaved way the remains of the ragged beard. “Whoever you had do this, I’d suggest you don’t let them at your hair again,” was his parting advice.
Henrick paid him twice his asking price and tracked down the inn the guard had recommended. There he spent the entire afternoon soaking in hot water. When he finally emerged he was as wrinkled as a dried apple. Carefully, he redressed in the fine linen shirt, and blue vest and breaches Marlis had made him and settled his eye-patch into place.
It was instinctive to hesitate as he entered the common room, but nobody glanced twice at him. Feeling dizzy with elation, he sat beside a burly man at one of the long tables. His bench-mate glanced over, nodded in greeting and returned to his discussion of the roads farther north.
The serving boy took Henrick’s order for chicken pie and brought him a pint of ale. Henrick sat there, sipping the malty brew and grinning.
He left Vist early the next morning, striding out into the pale summer dawn. It was only midmorning however, when a horse and rider came into view on the road and he recognized Marlis. Startled, he called out. She reined in, glancing at him and then looked again.
She swung off the horse and ran to him, throwing her arms about his neck. He wrapped his own arms around her, his heart pounding. She leaned back so she could see his face. “I can’t believe it’s you!” she said, running her hands over his short hair. “Look at you.”
Henrick decided it was the moment to claim that promised kiss. He cupped the back of her head, feeling the soft strands of her hair between his fingers. As he bend to kiss her, he saw her lips curve in a dazzling smile. It was sometime before he recalled himself enough break the kiss and ask, “Marlis, what are you doing here?”
She stiffened and pulled back. “Damn – Henrick, you haven’t seen Adaline, have you?”
Marlis’ eyebrows drew together. “She disappeared shortly after you left and when I asked around someone said they saw her heading down the road to Vist. I stopped at The Wayfarer last night, and they said she had taken a room the night before and continued this way yesterday morning. Henrick, she’s been acting stranger than usual – I’m worried about her.”
“What could she want in Vist?” Henrick said.
Marlis bit her lip. “That’s the thing,” she said. “I’m not sure it’s Vist. What’s the one thing that is guaranteed to fascinate her?”
Henrick only had to think for a moment. “Magic. Anything having to do with sorcery. You think she’s gone to see Gottilf?”
Marlis nodded, her brow furrowed.
“If she went there – well it’s likely he’d just ignore her or send her packing, but if he didn’t—-”
“How far is his house?” she asked.
“Not far.” He pointed back up the road.
“Come on,” said Marlis. She pulled him toward the horse. “Socks can carry two for that long.”
As they road back toward Vist, Henrick tried to keep his mind on their errand. However, he found that having Marlis riding behind him, pressed against his back, was very distracting.
He forgot about that though when they got within sight of the manor house. Though the day was clear and sunny, a strange greenish mist clung to the house and yard. It appeared to be seeping out from the boarded over windows and under the crack in the door.
“What is that haze?” asked Marlis as she peered around him.
Henrick dismounted and held the horse so she could follow.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Do you think it might hurt us?”
Once Henrick would have been able to scan it with his enhanced eye, but now he could only draw on his memory. He approached the gate and sniffed the air. It smelt faintly damp and dank, but not noxious. He noticed a crow hopping about in the yard, pecking at the carcass of a small animal. The bones were old with dried flesh on them and the crow seemed to be a normal bird, undisturbed by the ugly mist.
“I think we’ll be safe,” he said. “Perhaps you should stay here, in case it is dangerous.”
Marlis shook her head. “If you’re going in, so am I. Besides, Adaline won’t listen to you.”
They crossed the ruined yard and knocked loudly on the door. When there was no answer, Henrick pushed it open. “The workshop’s this way,” he said. “Come on.”
Inside, the mist clung to the floor, swirling around their feet as they crossed the hall. Henrick loosened his hunting knife in its sheath and knocked on the workshop door.
“Go away!” called Gottilf through the door.
Henrick opened the door.
Adaline stood in the center of the room with Gottilf behind her. His arms wrapped around her waist to cup her hands in his. A sphere of sickly green light hovered over her hands and the greenish mist poured off of it. Her expression was both exultant and vacant. Henrick noticed, uneasily that the sylphyl was evident across Gottilf’s hands and up the sides of his neck into his hairline.
“Adaline!” Marlis pushed past Henrick. He caught her arm, stopping her.
“Go away, Marlis,” Adaline said, without looking away from the light in her hands.
“Let her go,” Marlis said to Gottilf.
He smiled at her, curling his lip over his sharp teeth.
“My dear, look at her, does she appear to be in any distress? Or being held against her will?”
“I don’t care if she’s distressed or not. We’re leaving and taking her with us!”
The light winked out and Adaline made a little sound of disappointment. “Look at what you made me do.”
Gottilf stroked her hair, and leaned close to her ear to say, “Don’t fret, my sweet, you’ll be able to do it again. Think of how far you’ve come in just one day.”
Adaline glared at Marlis. “You always spoil everything,” she said. “All these stupid rules you have and chores you make me do and people you won’t let me hex. I’m meant for much bigger things. Gottilf is going to teach me to harness my true power and become a real sorceress.”
“That’s right, my sweet.” Gottilf patted her cheek.
Henrick shuddered, remembering the cool, clammy touch of those hands on his own skin.
Marlis took a step toward Adaline. “Ady, think! Father said himself: your magic isn’t strong enough to train. I know you want to be a sorceress, but it just isn’t possible.”
“Gottilf has ways of awakening my power,” Adaline said. She smiled.
“I’ll bet he does,” Marlis said in an undertone. She glared at Gottilf. “I’m sure it’s flattering having a pretty girl like Adaline come fawn on you, but you have to let me take her home. You know she doesn’t have enough power to be a sorceress.”
“As Adaline says I have ways,” he said. “Besides, my dear, your sister is a grown woman. It’s really her decision whether or not she stays.”
“So there,” said Adaline, sticking her tongue out at Marlis. Gottilf smiled again and whispered something in Adaline’s ear. She smirked.
“Henrick?” Marlis turned to appeal to him.
“Look, Gottilf,” he began.
“No,” said Gottilf. “I’ve been patient because you were an interesting specimen. But I am done with you now. Neither of you are welcome here. Get out.”
“I’ll bring the town guard from Vist.” Marlis started toward them. Henrick eased his knife out.
“Try it now,” said Gottilf to Adaline.
Adaline pointed at Marlis. Light flashed on her fingertips and an invisible force threw Marlis back against the wall beside the door. Henrick sprang towards her, shielding her from another attack. Adaline raised her hands again. Light crackled between them. Henrick threw the knife. It struck Adaline’s shoulder and red blood welled from a deep gouge. She screamed and stumbled back. She tripped on her skirts and fell to the floor. Gottilf screamed as well. Light crackled between his palms, but unlike Adaline’s, Henrick knew that Gottilf’s power was far from weak. He grabbed Marlis who had scrambled up behind him and flung them both to the side.
A bolt of power smashed into the wall where they had been, leaving a black, smoking hole behind.
Henrick and Marlis ran up against the worktable. There was nowhere else to go: Gottilf turned toward them, the power building between his hands again. Marlis said a prayer under her breath. Henrick only half heard her. His attention cleared and narrowed to focus on Gottilf. A glance at the workbench showed him that there were few weapons available. But there was one thing that caught his eye.
The bearskin. Enchanted to absorb magic. He pulled it to him and shook it to lie skin side out just as Gottilf loosed another bolt of magic. It stuck the skin, which burst into green flames, but leaving Henrick and Marlis unharmed. Henrick threw the burning skin to the side.
Just then Gottilf gave a cry. Adaline stood behind him. Blood ran from the wound on her shoulder, but the wound had not weakened the blow she struck with Henrick’s knife. The blade slashed across Gottilf’s back. Green light flared and Adaline screamed and dropped the knife, but her attack had thrown Gottilf off balance and he fell to his knees.
“Don’t hurt my sister!” yelled Adaline. Dropping the knife, she grabbed a nearby chair and smashed it over Gottilf’s head. “She’s my sister! You don’t get to hurt her!”
Henrick could see green light oozing from the cut on Gottilf’s back as the sylphyl repaired the slash. The distraction gave him a moment to recover. He grabbed a glass beaker off the workbench and broke it against the side of the table leaving a jagged shiv in his hand.
Gottilf twisted, turning on Adaline and blue fire punched her across the room and smashed her into the wall. Marlis screamed and lunged across the floor toward her sister.
Henrick grabbing the magician’s hair and pulled him around. He struck with the sharp glass, his training directing him just so, slashing across the artery in Gottilf’s throat. Blood sprayed across the floor and Gottilf collapsed.
Henrick turned. Marlis held her scarf against the wound on Adaline’s shoulder, tears running down her face. “Henrick, she’s not breathing.”
Henrick knelt beside them. He picked up Adaline’s wrist and felt for her pulse. Her heart beat sluggishly. “Marlis,” he began.
“No!” said Marlis. She grabbed Adaline’s shoulders and shook her. “Breath, Ady! Do you hear me! Breath, damn you.”
Adaline gasped. Her eyes opened. Under Henrick’s fingers her pulse jerked and then settled into a more normal rhythm.
“Marlis?” Adaline’s voice was little more than a whisper.
“Yes, sweetie?” Tears thickened Marlis’ voice as she cupped her sister’s cheek.
“I don’t want to be a sorceress anymore. I don’t think I like magic after all.”
“That’s fine,” Marlis said. “That’s good.” She looked at Henrick. “Can we get out of here?”
Henrick put his arms under Adeline, and gathered her up, trying to be careful of her shoulder, wrapped in Marlis’ impromptu bandage. Marlis led the way out of the dirty hall.
“We’ll tell the guard in Vist,” Henrick said. “Perhaps, we should suggest they just burn the place down.”
“I wouldn’t object,” said Marlis, shuddering. Outside, she mounted the horse. Henrick handed Adelind up to her. Adelind moaned as her wound was jostled, then she turned her face into Marlis’ shoulder and lay quietly.
Henrick took the bridle of the horse and began to lead it down the track. At the base of the hill he glanced one more time at the dark silhouette of the house against the evening sky. Perhaps he would come burn it himself. Even the scraps of magic the Empire had left behind were dangerous. He was happy to be done with it himself. He turned his face toward the distant town, ready to rejoin the world.
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