TANNARA YOUNG - BEARSKIN (PART 2)
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
Henrick spent the summer tending his garden, insulating the walls of his house with straw and plaster, and building his wood pile to monstrous proportions. He gathered mushrooms, herbs and berries in the woods and sold most of them to the old woman who eventually introduced herself as Ava.
The winter passed more comfortably, if no less boring. When spring came at last and he went into town to buy supplies he was surprised when those he met greeted him with cordiality.
As he paid for a wheel of cheese, he overheard the conversation at the next stall where a tinsmith had laid out his pots and pans.
“Him? He’s the crazy hermit who lives out in Gottor’s wood. He’s harmless,” the man getting his pail patched told the tinsmith. She looked dubiously over at Henrick, then quickly away when she saw he was listening. “I can have it ready tomorrow morning,” she told her customer.
Henrick mulled over the man’s words as he continued through the market. He decided that he liked the idea of being a crazy hermit – at least it was better than being a broken soldier. He wondered what stories they told about him. If he had been guessing he would have speculated that he was a murderer who had fled to the woods in penance for his crime. But perhaps the villagers were kinder. Maybe they thought he was a robber who had hidden a catch of jewels in the forest and now jealously guarded its secret. Or possibly that he was one of those people who had gone mad when the magic of the Empire imploded; searing anyone with the least bit of talent.
Smiling to himself, he said thank-you to the peddler from whom he was purchasing supplies. The man looked startled, and perhaps a little alarmed, but said, “You’re welcome” as he passed Henrick the sack of rice.
As Henrick headed out of town, he became aware of a commotion on the road ahead of him. A wagon lay tipped to the side, with one of its wheels lying broken beside it. A crowd had gathered and as he approached Henrick saw that they were trying to help a man who had been trapped under the falling wagon. A couple of people had unhitched the horses and more were pulling things out of the wagon to lighten it. A pair of men ran up with long poles and began to get them into position to lever the wagon off the fallen man.
As one of the men struggled to support his side, Henrick dropped his sack and hurried across the road before he was even aware of his intention. He caught the lever as the other man lost control of it and got his shoulder under the pole.
Others dashed in to drag the injured man out from under the wagon. More folk hurried up, among them the town doctor. Henrick and the other man lowered the wagon back down. Henrick looked across the road. The strange girl with the pale, fly-away hair stood there with a little smirk on her face. She winked at Henrick. Suddenly her sister, the young woman who had been sewing came up behind her and grabbed her elbow, dragging her away. There followed a furious interchange that ended with the older girl shoving her sister in the direction of their shop. The pale haired girl flounced off. The other looked across the road, her blue eyes snapping with temper and saw Henrick watching. Her cheeks flushed red and her gaze flicked after her sister.
Just then, the man who had worked the other pole clapped Henrick on the back, startling him. He was a big, brawny man – Henrick recalled seeing him work in the smithy. “Thank you, friend,” he said. “You’ve got some strength in you.”
Henrick grunted, embarrassed himself.
One of the women detached from the group around the injured man and came up, putting her hand on the smith’s arm.
“Kennet says Darbin’s leg’s broken. They’re going to get him home.” She looked at Henrick with a combination of gratitude and politely masked distaste. “Thank you so much for helping my brother,” she said, nodding her head toward the injured man who had been lifted onto a stretcher.
“You’re welcome,” Henrick said.
“Would you like a drink?” she asked. “I’ve a good cider laid by.”
“I’d best be getting on,” said Henrick, uncomfortable. “I’m glad your brother’s safe.”
As he made his way back through the woods, he considered the incident. He decided it felt good to have helped out, but he wondered what the blond haired sisters had been fighting about.
As time passed and with the bearskin absorbing the broken spells, Henrick practiced tracking and hunting – not as he had when the spells enhanced his senses and gave him strength and lightening reflexes - but the way he had learned as a boy, running though the woods with Alben. With the vegetables from his garden and coin he earned from selling his foraged goods to Ava, he was able to save most of the gold Gottilf gave him each year. After his fifth visit to the magician, he began to think about where he might like to go when his time in the bearskin was up. He imagined walking into Fernwell and passing unrecognized among its citizens.
One chilly autumn day Henrick headed into town with a large sack of hazelnuts that he gleaned. As he approached the edge of the forest, he paused, hearing raised voices ahead. He couldn’t make out the words, so he loosened his knife in its sheath and rounded the bend.
“Maybe I think it’s pretty.” The pale haired blond was facing him and her sister who stood three or four paces away. She was holding a bunch of lacy green leaves behind her.
“Adaline, the reasons you would be gathering false-hemlock is to make someone sick or to hex them. When I said you could come with me, this was not what I had in mind. I want you to drop them. Now.”
“Make me,” Adaline taunted. She flashed a grin at Henrick. Her sister took advantage of her distraction to grab her hand and twist it. “Ow!” said Adaline. Pouting, she dropped the bundle of leaves. “Look out behind you!”
The sister turned and seeing Henrick, started. Adaline pulled away and ran off down the path toward the town, calling over her shoulder. “I’m telling father you’re being mean again.”
“What are you – five years old?” her sister called after her, then stomped on the fallen leaves, grinding them into the dust. She then looked up quickly as if she had just remembered she had company. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem,” said Henrick, awkward but curious.
“She’s not really good at hexing,” the girl said after a short silence. “But I’m afraid she’s getting better. Last summer there was a wagon that fell...”
“Oh, yes,” said Henrick. “I remember.”
She looked startled and then nodded. “Right, you were there. Anyway, she claims she did that, but Father says she couldn’t have.” There was another pause. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
“Well, maybe I’d better go,” said Henrick, feeling even more awkward. He turned, with half a mind to head back down the forest road.
“Wait,” she said. “I’m Marlis. You sell mushrooms and plants to Mistress Ava, aren’t you? I wonder – I’m a weaver and seamstress and I need plants for my dyes. I thought maybe you could bring me any that you find. I’d pay you of course.”
“I don’t know what you’d want for dying,” he said.
She frowned. “Do you know what madder looks like? Woad?”
As he shook his head, she looked frustrated. Then her expression cleared. “Can you read?”
Now he was surprised. “A little.”
“My father has several herbals that have pictures and descriptions of the herbs. If I gave you one, could you use it to search for dye plants?”
“Probably,” Henrick said, intrigued.
“I’ll leave it with Ava,” said Marlis. “I’ll put markers by the herbs I most want. If you find any you can bring them to the shop or pass them on to Ava and she’ll bring them to me.”
“Sure,” said Henrick.
“Thank you.” Marlis smiled. Henrick lost his train of thought. “I’d better go after Adaline,” she said after a moment. “In this mood she’s libel to find some sort of mischief to get into.” She turned away, picking up a basket that had been sitting on the ground. Then she glanced back. “What is your name?”
“Henrick,” he said.
“Nice to meet you, Henrick. Don’t forget to get the book from Ava.” She headed down the path.
Henrick watched after her, long after she had vanished between the trees. A squirrel darting down a tree snapped him back to awareness. He shouldered his sack. He felt foolish, but he was embarrassed to go into town now. What if he met Marlis again? Shaking his head, he turned back. He would go into town in a few more days and see if she had left the book as she promised.
When he did bring the nuts into town, he was elated that Ava did have the book. Marlis had marked the herbs she wanted with little strips of red cloth. Ava had taken the opportunity to add her own markers to herbs and plants she could get good prices for. Henrick felt great satisfaction when, a few weeks later, he was able to bring Marlis a whole sack of madder root.
That winter was much less boring. Henrick studied the herbal, practiced throwing knives and shooting his bow. He even went into town a few times, tramping through the snow to bring furs he had cured to the market and stopping at the inn where the inn-keeper tolerated him to nurse a mug of ale in a far corner.
He didn’t see Adaline or Marlis, but the smith was there one time and the man who had been trapped under the wagon. He was still hobbling about with a wooden cane, but he came up to thank Henrick and buy him another round.
Henrick was almost surprised when spring came and he realized that it was time for his sixth visit to Gottilf.
During that trip, the magician removed the last of the sylphyl on Henrick’s face. He brought Henrick a glass mirror, which looked as if it had come all the way from Lendhlay judging by the intricate knot-work on its silver frame. Henrick swallowed at the sight of his wild beard and hair and grimy face. Yet where there had once been veins of sylphyl, there were now only faint scars, showing palely against his dirty brown skin. The brown leather eye-patch lay flush against his face, instead of resting on a protrusion of twisted metal about his eye. When he lifted the patch, the eye beneath was milky, but no longer sparked with magic.
Gottilf smiled his sharp toothed grin. “Looking real handsome there, Henrick. Soon you’ll have the ladies flocking to your side. Or is it the fellows you’ll be encouraging?”
Henrick put the eye-patch back and returned the mirror. He looked around the workshop. It was a cramped and cluttered as ever. “How is that sylphyl working out for you?” he asked.
Gottilf licked his lips. “Best deal I ever made,” he said. “See?” He pulled up his sleeve to reveal sylphyl implanted in his forearm. “I can’t hope to match the skill of whoever did yours, but...”
“You’re putting it in yourself?” Henrick recoiled.
Gottilf sighed. “It’s harder to break the enchantment on this stuff then I thought. It’s not much good for anything but enhancements.” He brightened. “But I’m not complaining! With this bit I just pulled out, I can make it so I don’t have to sleep for nine days!”
Henrick stared at him. A shudder rippled the fur of his bearskin. “Well,” he said. “I’ll be off now.”
“Don’t forget your gold.” Gottilf tossed the heavy pouch to him. “I don’t want to see my investment starving, not when there is so much more sylphyl to extract.”
Henrick hurried out of the house, uneasy at the idea of Gottilf using the sylphyl on himself.
Outside clouds gathered menacingly on the eastern horizon. Henrick frowned at them, but set off down the road. He’d learned from experience that the bearskin was thoroughly unpleasant when wet and he had not brought his oilskin cloak. The clouds piled higher and higher and grew darker and darker, but the rain held off until dusk was falling. Henrick hurried the first fat drops toward the Wayfarer Inn. He usually avoided it, but tonight was not a night to sleep out-of-doors. From experience, Henrick did not try to enter the taproom. Instead, he hailed one of the stable boys and gave him a coin to fetch the innkeeper. When she appeared, frowning at him through the gloom, he began his negotiations with another couple of coins.
“I just need a roof for the night. Your hayloft will do. If I could get a bottle of cider and plate of stew, I won’t trouble your other guests.”
The innkeeper frowned at him. She tested his coin, considered him again, then said, “Fine, but if you upset the horses, you’re out.”
So Henrick settled onto the rough blankets in the loft, enjoying the hot beef and dumplings and watching the rain pour off the roof in the light of the lantern hanging under the eaves.
A commotion in the yard below woke him the next morning. The storm had passed and the air smelled fresh. Without much interest in the raised voices, Henrick climbed out of his nest of straw and horse blankets, brushed down his bearskin and headed out into the yard.
There he saw the inn-keeper, hands on her hips, glaring at a white haired man who was being restrained by her burly son.
“Robbed my foot!” the inn-keeper shouted at the white haired man. “Not with a bill for the best room and my last bottle of Lorgran wine! I’ll have you hauled before the magistrate if you don’t pay up.”
“But I was robbed.” The old man’s voice shook. “Look, let me be on my way home and I’ll send your money as soon as I get there.”
“Likely you’ll vanish the instant you’re out of sight,” scoffed the son.
Henrick frowned. He recognized the old man. He lived in or near Fernwall. Henrick had seen him in the inn there and about on the street.
“- can send for your money from the gaol,” the inn-keeper threatened.
Not sure why he did, Henrick stepped in. “Your pardon, innkeep, but perhaps I can help. I know this man, he lives near me. It would be no trouble for me to settle his bill, if that would satisfy you?”
The inn-keeper looked at him suspiciously. “He owes twelve bits,” she said.
Henrick fished in his pocket and took out his coin purse. He counted out the money and handed it to her. “Humph.” She glowered at the old man. “Expect to pay up front next time.” She nodded and her son let go of the old man. “Bring his mule and packs,” she told him. “I’d like to see the last of these two.” She turned on her heal and marched back inside. The door banged behind her.
The old man held out his hand. “Thank you, kindly sir. You are the hermit who lives up by Gottor’s Wood, aren’t you? I won’t forget this kindness. I can pay you back as soon as we get home.”
Henrick briefly shook the man’s hand, uncomfortably aware of the dirt on his own hand and his dirty, broken, yellowed nails.
The old man seemed not to notice. “I am Adelbert. I used to be the Imperial Mage for the mountain district, but I lost my talent in the Disaster.” He waved his hand at the laden mule that the inn-keeper’s son brought out of the stable. “Now I sell clothes and peddle fabrics. Ah well, such is fate. Come walk with me, we are going the same way, aren’t we?” Henrick reluctantly followed Adelbert out of the inn-yard. He felt awkward in the man’s company and he couldn’t tell if Adelbert was blithely unconcerned about his unkempt state or was overly grateful and ignoring it.
Adelbert kept talking. “It must have been fate’s hand that brought you to that inn. I feel so foolish for not securing my coin purse better – luckily it was nearly empty because I’d been buying goods not selling them this trip, but still! And then you were so kind. I was desperately afraid of being put in the gaol. I can’t bear small dark spaces. And Marlis and Adaline would have been so worried.”
Henrick looked over, startled. This was Marlis and Adaline’s father?
Adelbert prattled on. “Well, Marlis would at any rate. Adaline – she’s well, let’s just say that she might have had my talent if not for the Disaster. I’m afraid it made her a little... fay. But Marlis, she’s a sensible as they come. Perhaps you know her? She does all the sewing for the shop.”
“I’ve met them both,” admitted Henrick. “Ah, I bring dye herbs to Marlis.”
“That’s right,” agreed Adelbert. “You’re the one she loaned Gressa’s Herbal too. A comprehensive text, but a bit simplistic. She doesn’t subscribe to the theory of elemental rays, so as a Grimoire her work is practically useless, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Sure,” said Henrick who had no idea what elemental rays were and only a vague sense that a Grimoire was a spell book.
“Now Thurgis’ Herbal, that’s the one to use for magical herbs. Look, I feel I must reward you for helping me. Kindness is so rare these days, you know. Perhaps you can marry Marlis as a reward – I’d settle a fine dowry on her, you know.”
This startled Henrick into speech. “What?”
“Well, we might want to tidy you up a bit,” admitted Adelbert. “I’m sure you’d be a handsome man, if you were a little tidier. And I know you’re kind.”
“You can’t give me your daughter as a reward,” said Henrick. “How do you think she would feel about that?”
“Well, I’m not getting any younger,” said Adelbert. “Sure, she has the shop and her sister, but it’s nice to have a spouse – if they’re someone you can rely on. I still miss the girls’ mother, Helva. She died ten years ago now. What do you think? A bath, a haircut... You know, if you would prefer Adaline, she’s a fine girl too. A bit too fond of cheese, though. You should be careful how much cheese you eat. It can unbalance the humors and depress the spirits.”
Henrick decided that Adelbert was suffering from his own unbalanced humors. However, if Adelbert had been a mage, perhaps he would understand about the bearskin.
“I know I look a fright,” he said. “I am undergoing a... magical cure and I can’t bathe until it’s finished.”
As he had hoped, this distracted Adelbert from match-making and he listened to Henrick’s explanation of the bearskin with fascination.
“Very clever, very clever indeed,” he said, peering at the symbols inscribed on the inside of the hood. “I am envious. This Gottilf weathered the Disaster better than the magicians I knew. Most lost their talent, or it was warped like your spells and they went crazy. What I’d give to be a spell caster again.”
Relieved, Henrick encouraged Adelbert to elaborate on his years as an Imperial mage. It was pleasant, he decided, to have a conversation with someone who understood his situation and wasn’t afraid of him.
It was near sunset by the time they crossed the East Bridge and entered into Fernwell. Henrick would have taken leave of Adelbert, but the old man prevented him.
“I have not settled my debt,” he said. “Besides, Marlis will have a nice supper ready and the least I can do is feed you after your kindness and company on the road.”
“I am not fit to be your guest,” Henrick said. “Really – it is very kind of you, but--”
Adelbert argued and before Henrick had convinced him they were at the door of Adelbert’s house. It opened and Marlis came out, wiping her hands on her blue apron. Her long golden braid was mused, and there was a smudge of flour on her cheek.
“Father! How late you are. I was getting worried,” she said. “Supper is nearly ready – put those poor mules in their shed and come wash up.”
“There is nothing to worry about, Marlis,” Adelbert said. “I have found a husband for you. You already know him: Henrick Waldstine. He rescued me when thieves stole my money and the inn-keeper would have had me arrested.”
Marlis’ gaze swung to Henrick and her mouth dropped open.
“I was just seeing your father home,” he said. “I’ll be off now.”
“Nonsense, boy!” Adelbert grabbed his arm in a surprisingly strong grip. To Marlis he said, “Don’t be alarmed by his appearance, my dear. He explained everything to me. He is undertaking a delicate magical cure, but he will not always look so frightful.”
“I see.” said Marlis. “Go on, Father. I’ll send Adaline to bring the water.” As Adelbert led the mules around the house, she looked back to Henrick. “Good evening, Henrick. Ah, thank you for helping my father. I’m sorry if he made you uncomfortable.”
Before Henrick could reassure her, Adaline’s voice came from behind him. “A magical cure? Ah, that explains it then.” She reached out and stroked the bearskin as she had the first time they had met. “Thick magic, indeed. Lovely, thick magic. You must stay to supper, Henrick. It’s the least we can do.”
“Adaline!” Marlis said, sharply. Henrick gratefully turned her way, using the opportunity to step back from Adaline’s covetous hands.
“If you want him to stay for supper, fetch water for Father and then go set another place.” Marlis told her sister.
Adaline stuck her tongue out at Marlis, smiled a gleaming white smile at Henrick and drifted around the house toward thew well.
Henrick was left alone with Marlis. He flushed and wondered if she could see it between the fading light and the dirt on his face.
“Ah, thank you, Marlis. I’m, that is, I don’t expect you to... Perhaps, I’ll just be on my way.”
“Do come in and have some supper, at least,” said Marlis. “Unless you can’t stand my father and sister.”
“I like your father – when he’s not trying to give his daughters away,” said Henrick. “But you needn’t--”
A dimple appeared in her cheek as she smiled. Henrick lost his train of thought and stared at her. “Don’t worry about it. Father worries about what will happen to us if something happens to him. It’s not the first time he’s made a ham-handed attempt to find me a husband.”
“Well, thank you for being kind about it,” said Henrick. “And for--” he gestured to his robe and matted beard. “It’s nice of you to invite me despite the way I look.”
“Is it really a magical cure?”
“Yes,” said Henrick. “For another year. Then I am free.”
“Hm,” she said. “Mistress Greta – the baker? She’s convinced that you’re a Vanovski shape-shifter who was trapped between man and bear form.” Her dimple reappeared as Henrick surprised himself and laughed.
They ate supper on a table in the back garden where the air was cool and fresh. Henrick was careful to sit down wind of the others. Marlis served roasted chicken with onions, thick slices of fresh, warm bread and a chopped salad. Adaline brought mugs of dark beer and stroked Henrick’s sleeve again. Marlis caught her elbow, pulled her aside and they had a whispered argument, which Henrick pretended to ignore. After that Adaline sat across the table from him and stared at him with huge, lustrous eyes as she neatly ate a chicken leg and then gnawed on the bone.
Adlebert kept up a far-reaching, if unconnected conversation. Henrick thought it was the best meal he had eaten since how long? Since his mother was alive and he was a boy, sitting in the warm kitchen of the farm.
TO BE CONTINUED
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