Despite his name, Old Bear was still quite young for his people, who were not, it should be noted, bears. Like all members of his clan, Old Bear had been named after what he had brought back after his first hunt. In his short years however, he had learned well to be cautious, and crept quietly past the smoking huts, the only sound a light rustle from the contents of his satchel and the almost imperceptible crunch of snow beneath his feet.
The destruction seemed only a few hours old, and Old Bear could make out the tracks of some two dozen men. From the looks of it, the village had been set upon by surprise, outnumbered by their attackers and unable to mount a defense in time.
The death of one human clan meant little to Old Bear. Humans made war upon each other as frequently as they did everything else. But the manner of this village's destruction unsettled the hunter. This was a slaughter, and there was no honor in it. The smell of smoke and death burnt at his nostrils, so overwhelming that he barely caught the scent of the humans until he was almost visible to them.
Immediately he dropped to all fours, his white cloak and grey fur blending in uncannily with the snow around him. Some 30 yards ahead stood two human males in front of a hut, twice as large if not more so than the others around it. They were armored, and armed. One appeared to be laughing. Old Bear quickly surmised that these men were party to the destruction, likely left behind to await any villagers returning from a hunt or to root out any survivors hiding in the ruins.
A third armed man came out of the large hut, dragging someone behind him. The human he pulled along was small, obviously very young. A human cub. Old Bear could not tell from this distance if it was male or female. With a heave, the man threw the cub past the other two men and onto the ground. He drew his sword.
Old Bear burst from his hiding place and raced across the snow in great bounds. He crossed the distance to the man faster than could be believed, and swung his mighty arm. His claws cut deep furrows into the man's face, and the force of the blow sent him spinning to the ground.
Old Bear whirled, extending his leg into a kick that connected solidly with the torso of the nearest standing human. Facing the third, he let out a great roar. He had risen up to his full height, nearly nine feet tall at the tip of his short horns. The grey fur that covered his body bristled. The force of his shout tore at his throat, and some distant part of him chided himself for the soreness he would endure later. It had its desired effect, however. The human male dropped his weapon in terror, and Old Bear took advantage of the respite, scooping up the human cub in his arms and dashing away through the destroyed village and into the forest beyond.
Hours later, as night descended, Old Bear found himself staring across his small fire into the eyes of the human cub, who stared willfully back. Even up close, he was not entirely sure the cub's gender. He had a difficult time as it was telling humans apart when they were of age. With the cub it was near impossible, though he believed she was female. She was wrapped up now in Old Bear's white cloak. He had grudgingly extended it to her after seeing her shake from the cold.
Old Bear was unsure why exactly he had rushed in to save the cub, and even less certain that he had made the right choice to do so, but even still, he was already impressed at the small creature's stout heart. He had clung tightly to her as he ran from her attackers, but when he felt he had reached a safe distance he had dropped her unceremoniously to the ground. For a moment she had looked dazed, still confused and shaken by what had happened. He reached toward her, and her eyes went hard. Out from her hand came a small knife. Old Bear barely pulled his hand back in time to avoid the cut. He had laughed then, a low sound that came from deep in his chest, and marched away to collect firewood. The man whose face Old Bear had ruined might just count himself lucky, Old Bear mused. He very well may have saved him from being filleted by this vicious little cub!
When he returned he was surprised to find that the cub had not run off, as he suspected she might. Rather, she had taken herself up into a nearby oak, where she sat on a thick branch and worked at sharpening a stick into a crude spear. He was becoming less and less surprised that the young one had survived the initial attack on her village. If more of its defenders had been like her, perhaps they would have repelled the invaders entirely.
He set to work building the small fire, intentionally making it low so as to not bring the attention of any possibly hunting them, and to draw the little human down and out of her tree. He went about his work without looking at the cub, and after the fire was built continued to keep to himself as he pulled out his dinner from his satchel; tonight he feasted on a few scraps of dried deer meat and a wrinkly snow apple.
After a time the human cub climbed down from her tree and crawled toward the fire. She stopped several times on the way over, each time raising her crude spear and staring expectantly at Old Bear. For his part he tried not to acknowledge her except to toss a piece of meat in her direction and over the fire.
Soon he heard her scamper over to the food, and finally he took the chance to examine her as she tore at the meat. Her dark hair was long for her people, reaching down past her shoulders. She wore a simple enough outfit, breaches and a tunic, though they seemed to be of good quality. She was shod in stout cowhide shoes. Her shirt and pants were both long of sleeve, but they were not nearly thick enough for a night in the woods. Old Bear knew humans to be hairless, fragile things, and he didn't believe this one could survive the night, even close to the small fire. He could see already that her exposed hands and face were beginning to turn blue as the night approached.
Rising up from his seated position, he approached the cub. Startled, she dropped the meat and grabbed her spear, scampering back toward the tree. Old Bear unhitched his cloak, lay it gently onto the ground, and walked back around the fire to his side. There he sat again, and waited for her to return.
Soon enough, the creature came back over to the warmth of the fire, and after some clear hesitation, wrapped herself in the cloak. Now she stared openly at Old Bear, and he stared right back at her.
A few times, the cub tried to speak to him in her own tongue. Old Bear could make no sense of her warblings however, and replied only with glares and growls. Later she began to speak again, but this time clearly not to him. She was facing away, from him, looking into the sky and murmuring. Old Bear realized with a start that she waspraying.
He wondered to what Gods she prayed. From their constant expansion outward from the shores where they first landed years ago, Old Bear had always had the impression that the humans worshipped the horizon itself. This at least might explain their fervent, crazed pursuit of it. Like each of his people, Old Bear had chosen his own principle God from the many. His patron was the God of the changing seasons. This God was master of so much, and decided the destiny of his clan each year. Man, he had found, had little respect for his God's ways. If the summer brought drought, they dug new rivers. If the winter brought snowstorms, they built up walls to keep it out. They were implacable as the seasons themselves, it sometimes seemed, and it was this relentlessness that had pushed his people further and further west each year. All the time the clans had grown smaller out of necessity, to avoid the humans and their march. Now Old Bear’s kind were little more than a legend to most humans. But this had come at a great cost, and Old Bear feared for his people's future.
Old Bear watched as the cub lay her head down. She did not fall straight to sleep, but kept watching him, clearly struggling to keep her eyes open. Not for the first time that evening, he wondered why he had rescued her, or if he should have at all. He considered killing the cub himself, perhaps while she slept. Man was no friend of his; he had lost too many clan members to them. Pronged-Elk, Mangy Squirrel, Full Salmon. All dead or separated forever from Old Bear by the influence of Man.
But he knew he could not do it. She was young, and brave. His brother had been much like her. His brother, who had never known a name, who had been caught in a sudden ice storm during his first hunt. He had promised Old Bear before he left that his name would be Many Wolves, that he would bring the skins of an entire pack with him back to the clan. Old Bear had found him the next day, fallen over the edge of a cliffside he could not possibly have seen in the deluge. Nearby was a dead wolf, though the older members of the clan all agreed that it could not be determined if it had died at the hands of the cub. Old Bear had left his clan the next day. He wondered now if the human cub had been praying for the souls of her family the same way Old Bear had prayed for the soul of his brother years ago.
Thinking of Fearsome Wolf (as Old Bear called his younger brother in his mind) Old Bear closed his eyes on the human cub and fell into sleep.
The next morning he awoke to find that the human cub had gone. And, he saw, she had taken his cloak! He'd have been glad to be rid of her, if she hadn't robbed him of one of his only earthly possessions. He ran to her sleeping place and sniffed the ground. By the scent, she couldn’t be gone more than an hour or two. She'd be slow, carrying his cloak, and a human so young would have no way of knowing how to hide her trail from one such as him. He would find her before she ever-
Old Bear heard the crunch of snow behind him and whirled about, baring his teeth and claws. The human cub, Old Bear's cloak wrapped around her shoulders, fell backward onto the ground. For a moment she froze, then leveled her spear toward Old Bear. He growled, low and threatening. He watched as her other hand moved slowly out from the cloak, holding something. She brought it forth and held it out to Old Bear.
It was a grey ptarmigan, nearly as large as the cub's head. The bird had a wound, clearly made by the girl's simple spear. Likely the cub had hidden under his cloak until the flightless bird had gotten within striking distance.
Old Bear lowered his arms and tried to smile at the little creature. So, he thought, you have a name after all. I am glad to know it, Grey Bird.
Together Old Bear and Grey Bird trekked through the forest. At first she tried to lead, but try as she might she could not keep ahead of his easy loping gait. Instead, she would call out and point when she wished to change directions. She seemed a bit disoriented, but Old Bear was sure she had a destination in mind. Perhaps she had clan elsewhere. He wasn't entirely confident she knew where she was going, but he had decided to humor her, if that was the case.
Several hours into the day though, Old Bear was beginning to grow frustrated with his young charge. She was willful to a fault, and insisted that Old Bear follow her directions even if his course would be much easier to navigate. He knew nothing of her language, but tone was easy enough to discern, even coming from a human, and once or twice he was certain that the little cub was outright commanding him. A growl would usually put a stop to that, but only for a time. He wondered if he had been nearly this difficult to manage as a cub.
He was about to turn away from Grey Bird's path and damn her demands when they exited the forest into a clearing. Through the opening above the trees, Old Bird could clearly see the cluster of thin smoke trails that marked a village, only a few miles to the south. Grey Bird began to gesticulate excitedly, warbling again in her strange tongue. Old Bear nodded, and began to march toward the smoke. Elated, Grey Bird ran past him through the clearing. Old bear smiled. Then the wind changed direction and his smile evaporated. He looked to his left, down the through the clearing and down the hill. His eyes widened and he raced to Grey Bird in just a few great strides, taking her into his arms for the second time and bearing them both to the ground.
He could feel her struggle beneath him and he growled a warning, hoping she would have the sense to remain silent. He let her rise slightly and slowly gestured down the hill, keeping his arms close. He could feel her grow still at what she saw.
There, at the bottom of the hill, just outside the clearing, was a troop of men in the same garb as her attackers from the village. They moved slowly and deliberately through the forest, clearly in the direction of the smoke trails and the village they came from.
Old Bear waited until they had passed, then lifted Grey Bird up and ran off in the opposite direction. When she realized what was happening, the human cub began to beat her fists against Old Bear's chest, and cried out. Fearing that she would be heard and that the armed men would come for them, Old Bear stopped and set her to the ground, growling at her to be quiet.
She did not, however. Rather, she drew her small knife, squared her shoulder to Old Bear, and began to address him in her most authoritative voice. She pointed at him with the knife, and pointed in the direction of the village, her tone demanding he heed her.
Old Bear sank to one knee to look her in eyes. So young. So brave. Fearsome Wolf would have liked her. Of that, Old Bear was certain. He nodded to her again. He turned his back to her, and gestured for her to climb on.
Without Grey Bird struggling to keep up, Old Bear reached the outskirts of the village far ahead of the attackers. Through the trees could be seen the outline of huts the glow of fires. Old Bear lowered Grey Bird to the snowy ground, and pulled his cloak from around her shoulders. He pointed at the village.
She shook her head, defiant as ever. Old Bear looked her in the eyes one last time, searching, hoping she understood. He pointed again at the village, turned away, and leapt into the forest, running full speed away from the human settlement. For a brief time, he could still hear Grey Bird's cries, and the sound of her small form struggling through the forest, trying to keep up. He put it out of his mind and ran on.
Dark had come nearly two hours prior when he found the camp of the invaders. They had stopped only a few miles from the village, waiting until dawn to mount their attack. Old Bear Circled behind them, creeping toward on all fours. He'd found a scout, a few yards away from the main encampment. The man had been inattentive, unfocused. It was easy for Old Bear to pounce, to drive his head into the snow before he could scream for help. He left him there, dead, and moved on to the camp.
There, on the outskirts, he found four men crowded around a small flame. By a strange fate, he recognized one of the men, his face still bearing the jagged cuts of Old Bear's claws from the day previous. Old Bear smiled.
The men, for their part, were blind to the darkness from staring into the fire for so long. They did not see his approach, nor hear the soft rustling over their own low voices and laughter. All of a sudden, the laughter stopped. The scarred man watched as the men froze, their eyes growing wide with terror. Behind him rose a great and terrible form. Nine feet tall, hair bristling, the fire gleaming off his claws, his horns, his fangs.
Old Bear roared. Before the men could react, he grabbed the scarred man, and dragged him away into the forest and darkness beyond. This one, he allowed to scream.
Others would come, he knew. Small parties of scouts, searching for the beast in the night. But Old Bear knew, these men were not hunters. Not like him.
And so it was on the eighteenth moon of the Frost season that the daughter of the village Chief of Arin's Pass came to the village of Porwen and the care of her uncle, the Chief of that place. Her timely warning of the impending attack allowed the men of Porwen to mount a defense against the coming invasion. The day after her arrival, the raiders burst out of the woods, screaming as if pursued by demons. Most were killed by the prepared men of the village. Those that escaped back into the forest were never seen again.
Though hailed as the savior of the village, the girl spoke little, in those first days. But through the years she grew to be a renowned hunter, warrior, and leader. It was said that she was watched over by the spirits of her village. Occasionally, in the very dead of winter, when the land had turned the very color of cold, a villager would find themselves looking twice at the forest when the young princess passed by. For surely, they must have imagined the white shape, moving amongst the trees. Only a ghost, they thought. Nothing more.
© February, 2015 Nathan Elwood
Nathan Elwood is a student at the University of Missouri. He has recently had a story published in Devilfish Review.