TANNARA YOUNG - BEARSKIN
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
At the sound of a twig snapping, Henrick crouched. He eased his long hunting knife out of its sheath and listened. Dry leaves rustled on the other side of the bushes.
Soft footfalls approached. Automatically, Henrick tried to activate the magical enhancements on his right eye and ear, so he could sense the target better, but the magic was broken. The dissonance from the warped spell screeched inside his head. He dropped the knife and slapped his hands to his ears. Blood dribbled from his nose as a pulse of intense heat shot down the veins of sylphyl enclosing his body. His knees buckled.
His two young nieces rounded the bushes and screamed as they came upon them. Henrick gasped as the sound punched into his head. They turned and fled back toward the house, still screaming.
Henrick clenched his hands into the soil as the web that had once offered magical protection now wrapped him in searing pain. He breathed: in and out, in and out, trying to focus the warped power out of his body and ground it in earth.
The shriek inside his head died enough for him to hear someone running down the path. Training and experience urged him to stand, to grab the knife and be ready to fight, but a renewed surge of pain pinned him down.
His brother, Alben, burst from behind the bushes holding an iron shod staff ready to swing. In his other hand he held the glass dagger Henrick had once given him along with a secret: Glass was the only material that could cut him through the spells.
“Damn it, Henrick!” Alben shouted, his brow drawn in an angry frown. The fading magic reverberated his voice, sticking the shards of sound like nails into Henrick’s head. “You attacked Adela and Lissy? Are you insane?”
“I didn’t attack anyone,” Henrick said, his teeth gritted. “They startled me.”
“You drew your knife on two little girls!” Alben said, pointing at the fallen blade. “And your marks are glowing green. I’m not an idiot Henrick, you tried to use your enhancements.”
“It was instinct. You know they failed,” Henrick said, closing his eyes. Little spots of light danced against his closed lids. “But I wouldn’t have hurt them.”
“Can you promise there’s not even the tiniest chance of that?”
Henrick was silent because they both knew that he could not.
Alben sheathed the dagger, took out a handkerchief, and wiped his brow.
“Look,” he said. “You’re my brother. That’s why I took you in after... when you came home. But I can’t do this anymore. Lillian is terrified of you; so are the neighbors. Half the time those twisted spells make you too sick to work. Besides, you’re a soldier – you know more about fighting than farming. I can’t risk my family any longer.”
Henrick held his breath until the tempest of emotions subsided enough to say, “Where the hell do you want me to go?”
Alben knelt beside him. “I asked around at the market-fair last week. There’s a magician somewhere outside of Vist who may be able to help with broken magic.”
Henrick stood and crossed jerkily to pick up his knife. “Oh fine. Another magician. What makes you think this one is different than the last dozen?”
“You won’t know until you try,” Alben said. Henrick heard the guilt in Alben’s voice, as he urged: “If you could get all that sylphyl removed, maybe you could go back to soldiering in a normal way. Or learn some other skill.”
The idea of freedom brought a different kind of pain than the misfiring spell. “What’s his name?”
Alben sighed. “Gottilf. I wanted to find out more about him before I told you. You’ve had so many disappointments with frauds. But now –” His face twisted in a grimace.
“I know,” said Henrick. “You and Lillian have tried so hard. But you’re right – in the end, I am a danger to you all. I’ll leave tomorrow and go find this magician.”
The next morning, Henrick left the farm before the sun rose. In the half-light of dawn he stood for a moment, looking at back at the farmhouse and the trees lining the yard. Soon smoke would rise from the chimney as Lillian stoked the fire for the morning bread. Alben and his older sons would milk the cows and turn them out to graze. Henrick felt bitterness tighten his throat. “Your farm stands because of what I am... What I was,” he muttered. “It would have been burned by the Northern raiders but for my service.”
His bitterness flared into rage, under which the broken spells buzzed like angry bees. Clenching his fists, Henrick turned his back on the farm and struck out along the road.
By the time Henrick reached Vist, both rage and bitterness had faded, leaving a black despair. There was nowhere left for him to go if this new magician turned out to be as incompetent as those before him. Every person Hernick passed on the road looked at him with the combination of fear and loathing he had come to expect. As long as he wore the marks of the Empire he would be a hated outcast.
A recently erected palisade encircled Vist. A guard at the gate stopped Henrick. He glanced at Henrick’s gloves and hooded cloak, which were too warm for the summer evening, but when he found Henrick’s face underneath the hood, he blanched. Henrick looked away, but felt the guard’s eyes cataloging the greenish-silver sylphyl marks on his face and the knot of opalescent scars stretching from his right eye to his right ear.
The guard’s hand went to his sword's hilt. “What is your business in Vist?” he asked.
“I am looking for the magician called Gottilf,” said Henrick.
The guard scowled. “He doesn’t live in Vist. He’s at the old manor house on Menich’s Hill.” Henrick waited.
The guard glared, and then pointed back down the road. “Half a league back there is a cut-off into a birch wood - over the bridge at the river and then east at the fork and up the hill.”
Henrick stared at him until the guard’s eyes flicked away and his hand clenched reflexively on the sword hilt. The guard took a breath, perhaps to call for assistance, or to say something else to Henrick. But Henrick turned and walked back the way he had come. He could feel the guard’s gaze burning into his back the whole way down the road. He kept his pace easy, but beneath his cloak his hand brushed against the hilt of his dagger tingling with the desire to wipe that look of suspicion off the guard’s face.
The setting sun painted the sky with burnt gold as he climbed the hill. The stone wall around the house lay partially in ruins, and through the gaps he could see dead weeds chocking the yard. Though it was early summer and the fields and woods around were green, the two trees on either side of the stone steps were as bare as at midwinter. Henrick stepped through the open wrought-iron gate. Inside, the temperature dropped suddenly, as if it were indeed winter within.
His senses flickered uneasily as he knocked on the huge double door. The wait was so long that he thought to leave. At long last he heard the sound of the iron bar being dragged back. The door opened a crack, showing only darkness.
“What?” the man on the other side demanded.
“Are you the magician, Gottilf?”
The man pulled the door open. He so thin that he looked taller than he really was. White streaked his black hair which was pulled back in a tail from his sharp features. He wore black boots and a leaf green coat in the style of the north. His dark eyes were piercing as he looked his visitor up and down. Henrick knew what he saw. Besides the telltale sylphyl and scars, he was a tall, muscular man. His brown hair was cut very short, and his one normal eye was golden brown like his brother’s. A knot of sylphyl set with magically charged opals covered his other eye.
“I am Gottilf,” said the magician. “And I can guess why you’ve come.” He stepped back. “Welcome to my home.”
Henrick glanced back at the summery hillside. He could just turn around and walk away, disappear into the hills, walk until he exhausted himself, lay down and vanish forever. He turned back and followed Gottilf through a bare and dirty hall. They reached a door at the end of the corridor. Gottilf opened it, revealing a workshop crammed with the tools of alchemy and magic. He motioned Herrick to enter. Henrick felt the jolt of power as he passed the threshold, like a slap of cold water. He stumbled, catching himself on a nearby chair to keep from falling.
“Please take a seat,” said Gottilf. There was something sly in his tone, and Henrick decided that he did not like the man at all. Still, he sat in the chair, his body tense and alert.
“So what are you wanting from me?” asked Gottilf, coming to perch on a stool in front of Henrick. “Fix your little enhancements? Give you a job as a bodyguard?”
“You said you could guess,” growled Henrick. “I want it taken off.” He waved his hands vaguely toward his body.
“Taken off?” Gottilf seemed genuinely surprised. “I guessed wrong. Why would you want it taken off? You were made one of the most effective warriors in the history of the Empire.”
Henrick scowled harder. “There isn’t an Empire anymore. Folks say that the Lady struck them down, and I won’t say they didn’t deserve it. They deserted us: they made us and then deserted us. I didn’t ask for this – I enlisted because I needed the work - because my family couldn’t feed another mouth.”
“I would say you were lucky,” began Gottilf. Henrick ignored him.
“Then the Order of the Padronelle chose me for their damn enhancements and you don’t say ‘no’ to those bastards. But the Order’s gone the same way as their Imperial leaders and I’m sick of being treated like I’m a monster because I wear their handiwork.”
Gottilf frowned, looking him up and down. The sly look came back – or perhaps it was a calculating look. “It won’t be easy, my friend – what did you say your name was? And it won’t be all that comfortable for you.”
“Henrick. What would you charge to do the spell?” He thought of the few coins left in his pouch from selling his sword and other gear so he could make the journey to Alben’s farm. Might have well kept them, for all that did me.
“Well,” Gottilf said. “Sylphyl is hard to come by these days. The Empire’s collapse is great for the independent magician like myself, but not so great for getting supplies and materials. If you give me all the sylphyl I extract from you, I’ll consider it a fair exchange.” He smiled a thin, cruel smile. “I have more gold than I will ever use, but it’s not much good to me if I can’t buy what I need with it.”
“I agree,” Henrick said, before Gottilf could change his mind and ask for money. “If you can get this stuff out of me, you can have it.”
“Splendid,” All at once Gottilf looked eager. “Come lie down on this table. I need to see what we’re working with.”
That night, Henrick spent it uncomfortably in a drafty room at the back of the mansion. A silent, bedraggled serving-man gave him a meal of dry bread, questionable meat and weak ale. The man scuttled away as soon as Henrick took the tray. After scarcely sleeping, Henrick didn’t linger when Gottilf knocked early in the morning.
“I’ve found a way to get the sylphyl out of you without killing you and without destroying it,” the magician announced, leading Henrick down the hallway. “However it’s going to be a tedious process.” He opened the door to the workroom.
The first thing that Henrick saw was a giant bearskin stretched out on a rack. The skin side had intricate patterns and arcane symbols painted on it. “I’ve enchanted this skin to slowly extract the sylphyl and unravel the spells on you, while blocking the magical effects that have been warped. However, to do it without killing you will take a while.”
“How long?” asked Henrick.
“Seven years,” said Gottilf, examining his fingernails.
At his tone, Gottilf took an uneasy step back, saying, “It wouldn’t do either of us any good to go faster. It would destroy the sylphyl and it’s unlikely you would survive the process – you would go insane or die or maybe both.”
Henrick gritted his teeth. The despair he had pushed aside yesterday welled up. But then, what did it matter, as broken as he already was? Seven years had an end – and looking crazy and dangerous wouldn’t be new.
“Fine,” he said.
“Before you agree, there’s more. During those seven years you cannot cut your hair, pare your nails, or even take a bath.”
“Seven years without taking a bath? People are scared enough of me already – without looking and smelling like a troll.”
“It’s what I can offer, my friend,” said Gottilf. “Oh and once you do it, you can’t change your mind. If you take the skin off too soon, the shock will kill you.”
Henrick stared at the skin. “How am I supposed to live for the next seven years?”
“Well,” said Gottilf. Henrick had the sense that he had been waiting for the question. “I have another offer for you. If you let me take the opals around your eye out now, while they’re still magically charged, I’ll give you a generous allowance of gold when you come back each year.”
“When I come back?”
“You’re going to have to come every year, so I can remove the sylphyl the spells have extracted. People may not like you very much, but I am sure with plenty of gold, they’ll tolerate you. If I take the opals out now, it will blind you in your right eye, but perhaps that’s not too much to pay not to avoid being a begger for seven years.”
Henrick stared at Gottilf. He shut his right eye. Blind? But then what did it matter really? Better half-blind than broken. “Fine,” he said. “Do it.”
“Splendid,” said Gottlif, rubbing his hands. “Let’s get this skin on you, and then I’ll take the opals out. You’re going to have to strip,” he added.
Henrick gave him a sour glance but stripped off his tunic, boots and his breeches. He didn’t much care for the greedy look Gottilf gave the swirling patterns of sylphyl across his body.
“Beautiful,” murmured the magician.
“Give me the skin,” growled Henrick.
Gottilf took the skin off the rack and gave it a shake, muttering a few words. The fur rippled in a disconcerting way, becoming a long, hooded fur coat. He held it up for Henrick to stick his arms into it. The fur rippled again and closed up the front, encasing Henrick.
“I’ve spelled it so you won’t get too hot or too cold,” said Gottilf. “Oh, you can put your boots back on if you want. You don’t have to have the hood up, though the more you do, the faster the stuff around your eye will be leached off. Here.” He fumbled in a chest and tossed a heavy bag of coins at Henrick. “Don’t lose it. I can’t have you coming back here whining that you were robbed.” He looked severe. “I am a busy man.” Then he grinned and pointed to the table. “Lie down, so I can get my opals out.”
When he left Gottilf’s house Henrick was uncertain where to go. At last he took the road south and east, moving away from Vist and farther from Alben’s farm. Near the end of the day, he came to an inn called The Wayfarer. He hesitated, fingering the leather eye patch he now wore over his ruined eye. The bearskin coat covered all the sylphyl on his body, but the marks on his face and hands were clear. However, he had plenty of coin. He strode through the door.
The room fell silent, then the noise level rose again as other patrons looked quickly away and tried to seem like they were having normal conversations.
The innkeeper, a stout woman with strong arms, crossed to him. “Can I help you?” She sounded as if she would rather ask him to leave, but was too wary.
“A room for the night and a meal,” He resisted the urge to finger the eye patch. Instead he produced a gold coin.
The innkeeper hesitated for a moment, but then took it and waved him to a table in the corner. She took his order herself and brought him a plate of game pie and a pint of ale.
Henrick brooded over the drink, watching the other patrons. A ragged-looking man in the corner asked the innkeeper to refill his cup. Henrick heard her say, “Not without more coin.” A short time later, the man from behind the bar – who looked like the innkeeper’s son, forcibly escorted the ragged man outside where twilight had fallen, along with a fine, drenching rain.
The man cast a longing look back into the bright taproom, catching Henrick’s eye for a moment. Henrick guessed from the way the man moved that he had once been a soldier. Henrick looked away. Another discarded man.
“Some gratitude,” Henrick muttered.
The pair of merchants at a nearby table glanced over nervously.
“What?” Henrick barked. “Do you have something to say to me?” They instantly decided they had finished their meal and exited. Henrick glowered after them, then glowered into his ale until it was time to go to bed.
That night Henrick lay awake, hating the bearskin. He thought he could feel the runes and symbols moving around on the inside of the skin, like little caterpillars crawling over his flesh. He shuddered and shut his eyes, but that only intensified the sensation.
His skin itched and sometimes stung. He felt suffocated by the thick fur. He rose early and left the relieved innkeeper behind.
It only got worse. People had feared him when he looked like one of the Padronelle. But as his hair grew out and he became more and more dirty and unkempt he discovered that being reviled and shunned for being a crazy vagabond was a whole new world of misery.
Innkeepers turned him away, children threw stones at him, and merchants tested his every coin or even accused him of stealing the money. After sitting in a town gaol for three weeks for punching a guard who tried to run him out of town, Henrick decided he’d had enough with towns and struck out into the forest. It was better there, with no people. He built himself crude shelters from branches and hunted dear and rabbits.
Yet he couldn’t survive the winter that way. So he searched around until he found an abandoned woodcutter’s cottage some distance from a small market town called Fernwell. Over the course of the late summer and mellow autumn he repaired the roof, fixed the chimney and hauled supplies from Fernwell. All through the long winter, he huddled in the tiny cottage, wondering if his death would be due to irritation from the bearskin, the boredom, or the unending cold, for, despite the spells on the bearskin, and the repaired fireplace, Henrick always felt cold.
He was almost surprised when the year warmed and it came time to keep his first appointment with Gottilf.
When the magician answered the door, Henrick recoiled. Had he been that creepy looking? Gottilf’s hair stood in mad spikes and his eyes bulged slightly in his gaunt face. And had his teeth been pointed like that the last time, or was it just a trick of the light?
“My friend, welcome, welcome,” he said, drawing Henrick into his workroom and stoking the bearskin. “You survived your first year! How are you? I’m so glad to see you. Come in, everything is ready.”
Henrick lay down on the worktable as Gottilf directed. The magician muttered an incantation over the bearskin and it split down the middle. As Henrick glanced down at the sylphyl on his body he shuddered. Parts of it stuck through his skin – no longer smooth patterns, but ridges and lumps of dull metal, some flaked with dried blood, others imbedded in red and tender flesh. Then Gottilf came with a pair of tweezers and started pulling the bits out. Henrick shut his eyes and grit his teeth.
When Gottilf had finished, he re-sealed the robe and brought Henrick a glass of wine steeped with bitter herbs. “You’re doing very well,” Gottilf told him. “I didn’t think you’d make it a year. You know if you’re having trouble getting by you could stay and help me. It would be useful to have a servant again.”
“What happened to your other one?” Henrick asked.
Gottilf’s gaze slid away. “Oh, he left. Tired of his duties. I only asked for blood twice.”
“Asked for blood?”
“I needed it to feed a darkling pixie I bought off a peddler,” said Gottilf. “It wouldn’t drink my blood.” He sighed. “It died anyway. At least I got to dissect it.”
Henrick shuddered. “Is there any way to get the sylphyl our faster?”
Gottilf smiled. “Not if you want to live through it. I’ve been keeping my eye out for some of your brethren, to see if I can make the same deal with them, but you are few and far between. Seems not many of you survived, and those who did, well, let’s say they gave up quicker than you. A shame, that. I’ve been having trouble re-enchanting what I get off of corpses.”
Henrick was only too glad to leave after that.
It was a relief to return to his little cottage, though he had been so eager to leave it. He looked around at the weedy clearing the cottage sat in and his haphazard woodpile off to one side. He thought of Gottilf’s ruined yard and messy workshop. Filled with a sudden determination, Henrick began tearing out the weeds. Once he got started, it was very cathartic and soon he had a huge pile of them.
“I need a shovel,” he decided aloud. “I could plant a garden here and not have to scrounge in the forest so much.” He pictured the little house with a garden in front and red painted shutters. “It would look like a normal house,” he concluded.
The next day he set off to Fernwell with a mental shopping list: a shovel, seeds, a blade for chopping up the weeds into a compost pile, maybe a pickaxe.
About half way to Fernwell, as he forded a small stream, he saw a large cluster of morels growing under a dying elm tree. He wasn’t fond of them himself, but he remembered how much his brother had liked them. Perhaps I can sell them, he thought, gathering them into his sack.
When Henrick reached Fernwell it was one of the market days where the village green was ringed with booths and wagons. He cut a swath through the crowd by scowling, until he came to a booth where an elderly woman sold lettuces, onions, herbs and other vegetables from a long wooden table. Henrick sidled up, fully expecting her to sneer at his appearance. However, she only wrinkled her nose slightly and looked severe.
“Can I help you?”
“I wondered if you’d like to buy some morels?” Henrick said, opening his sack.
Her face lit up. “Oh, aye,” she said. “Those are fine ones.” She poured them out onto her table and sorted them quickly. “I’ll give you one gold eagle for the lot of them.”
Henrick was astonished. An eagle for twenty minutes of mushroom picking? He nodded and she fumbled in her apron pocket and produced the coin. He took it and hesitated, wondering if he should say something else. At last he grunted, “Thank you.”
She looked up from sorting the mushrooms and smiled. “If you find any more, be sure to bring them to me. I’ll buy chanterelles and oyster mushrooms, too.”
Henrick made his other purchases, paying for them with the coin he had earned for the mushrooms. As he bought a wide, sturdy blade for hacking up weeds with, his eye fell on a set of throwing knives. He remembered him and Alban practicing throwing knives at a target leaning on the side of their father’s barn. Alban had been disgusted with his keen eye and natural accuracy. He wondered if he would still be able to throw with only one eye. On an impulse, he picked up one of the knives and, admiring its balance, added the set to his other purchase.
As he left town, his sack over his shoulder and the new shovel under his arm, he paused to watch a pretty young woman who sat sewing at the open window of a tailors shop across the square. There was something compelling about the wisps of blond hair curling about her cheeks, and the deft way her needle flashed through the snowy linen. He thought about what it felt like to wear a shirt like that. The crawling sensation across his skin, which he had learned to ignore, suddenly became unbearable. He shook his shoulders and swore under his breath.
“Are you going to bury a body with that shovel?” a voice asked near his elbow, making him jump.
Another young woman stood there. She also had blond hair, but it was very pale, and hung loose and tangled about her shoulders. She looked fragile – her body was thin and bony, and her skin was terribly pale. Her eyes, a little too large for her narrow face, fixed on Henrick and as he looked at her she licked her lips. Her expression inexplicably made him shiver. She ran her hand down the fur of his bearskin and if possible her wide eyes went even wider.
“That’s a lovely fur coat you’re wearing. It’s crawling with magic. Like little bees swarming on a flower patch. Can I have it?”
Henrick jerked back as she reached out to grab his sleeve.
“No,” he said.
Her face fell. She pouted. “You’re no fun,” she said. “I’ll give you a penny and a peppermint candy.”
“Go on,” said Henrick. “Stop bothering me.”
“Then stop staring at my sister,” she said. “She doesn’t like you. I don’t like you. I might change my mind if you gave me your magic coat.”
Henrick didn’t bother answering. He pushed past her and set off back to the forest, scowling. Yet once he had passed into the green shade, his mood lightened. He had earned an eagle for his mushrooms, he had packets of seeds to plant - lettuce, radish, peas and carrot. He was going to make himself a target and practice throwing his new knives. What did a crazy girl fingering the bearskin matter, anyway?
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