BD Rennie is my husband, and he is currently in the last stages of writing a YA trilogy. Both his books and mine have an incident involving a bear, and our protagonists’ different ways of dealing with the bear have been the subject of a great deal of loving teasing over the last couple of years.
Today, he presented me with this story.
Two Men and Two Bears
The large, brown she-bear moved slowly through the bushy scrub, stopping to wait for its half-grown cub. The cub sniffed every leaf, fascinated with its new world. Birds sang overhead and squirrels chattered as they ran along branches.
From opposite sides of a slight rise, two men watched the bears, each unaware of the other. Kahj, an old Wooden Man from Klend, feared the animals might attack the two children he had committed himself to protect for the past thirteen years. Cillian, a diplomat from Linrathe, worried the bears might attack a woman from one of the fishing villages, a woman he secretly loved.
The two children and the woman stood on the same riverbank, hidden from each other by the bend in the river and the dense bushes. None were aware of the bears approaching them as they enjoyed the sunshine and the splashing water. The two men knew that the roar of the fast-moving river would mean any calls of warning would go unheard.
The men each set about preparing, in case the bears should attack. Kahj checked the fletching on his arrows, with their dull, wooden tips. As a Wooden Man he could not use iron. Cillian, facing no such limitations, sharpened the edge of his arrows’ iron tips. Both strung their bows, ensuring the sinew was flexible and subtle.
Noises from the undergrowth told the men the bears were on the move towards the river. As the animals were between them and their loved ones, neither man felt they could run through the bushes to warn the woman or children. That action might just drive the bears closer to the river. Taking their bows in hand, they each notched an arrow and moved towards the bears.
Cillian of Linrathe thought about the books he had read dealing with hunting. He had never killed before, but he knew the theory of a kill shot. Kahj of Klend, an experienced hunter and great warrior, knew the key was to stay downwind so that the bears would have no idea someone stalked them.The bushes started shaking violently and both men realized that the bears were charging their loved ones. Kahj raced out into the open in time to see one bear run at the children. His first arrow hit the bear in the cheek, irritating it, but doing no real harm. The bear looked from the man to the children, unsure which to attack. Kahj’s second arrow hit the animal in the flank, and it abandoned the children. The man ran to the tree he had selected, quickly climbing out of reach. The bear snarled at Kahj and clawed at the tree, then moved away, frustrated.
Cillian saw the second bear break free from the bushes and run towards the river. Although it was moving away from the woman, he felt compelled to act. He had read that men did such things. As soon as the bear came into range, he released his arrow, taking the animal in the shoulder. The steel tip cut deep into its flesh. Confused and bleeding, the bear looked around in wide-eyed terror. Cillian, now confident he could make the kill, approached the wounded animal and sent his second arrow deep into its chest from only a few paces away. The bear collapsed with a cry. Cillian had protected his woman: he felt proud.
The she-bear, hearing the dying cry of her cub, ran at Cillian, taking him unawares from behind. Kahj heard the screams of the man as the bear mauled him, but he chose to ignore it. He likely deserved it, he thought. Walking their separate ways from the river, the children and the woman wondered who the idiot was who had managed to get himself eaten by a bear on such a beautiful day.
And now my rebuttal story:
Lena heard the deep scream from Cillian, but she kept walking, her heart pounding. She had to trust he had listened to her, although her instinct was to run to help. But they were not alone along this river, and the old man had moved like a hunter.
He had his belt knife, and one of her seccas, and he was agile and fast. And that scream had sounded like a threat, not a cry of pain. She circled around the hill, senses on alert. Everything she had learned when she had trained as an assassin was coming back. She dropped to her belly, crawling through the rough grass.
Another sound from below: definitely one of pain, but animal, not human, or so she hoped. She kept crawling forward. At the top of the rise, she lifted her head. Below her was the old man and the two children she had seen earlier. They had not reacted to Cillian’s scream, and there could be only one reason for that: the old man wanted him dead. Did he know she was with Cillian? Was she hunted, as well as a hunter?
She had one secca. Studying the group, she decided the boy and girl were perhaps thirteen: two of her assassin cohort had been no older, but they’d been trained. The man was old, his muscles ropy. A vēsturni, perhaps? The boy could be his apprentice, but who was the girl?
The trio were eating now, a cold meal. Lena lay still, watching. Behind her, she heard ragged breathing. With all the discipline she had learned as a guard on the Wall, she didn’t look around.
The hand that touched hers was bloody. “I hope that’s bear’s blood,” she whispered.
“Mostly,” Cillian murmured. “It raked my shoulder before I could kill it. A knife—mine, not yours—in its throat. What’s happening?”
“Nothing much. I would think they were just travelers, but from where? To where? And the old man didn’t try to help you, which makes me think he knew we were here, and wanted us—or you, at least—dead.”
Cillian gazed down on the small party. With his eyes on them, Lena turned to look at his back. His tunic was ripped, and the gashes beneath it oozed dark blood. “Gods, Cillian,” she said, “That must hurt.”
“Pain is to be ignored,” he murmured. His beloved philosopher, Lena thought in resignation. Why had she fallen in love with this annoying man? Maybe she’d fall out again, and then she’d be glad she had never told him.
“I’ll clean it up later,” she said, her mind wandering appreciatively to the feel of his muscles under her hands…She wrenched her attention back to the three people they were watching.
“We have two choices,” Cillian said. “We approach them, or we let them leave.”
Or we kill them, Lena thought, but she wasn’t going to voice that. Bears were one thing, but in the Empire, she was sure Cillian would have suffered the same fate as his uncle: castration, for not being able to kill. And that would be a pity, she mused. He’s far too good in bed.
“Perhaps,” Cillian said, “the old man is deaf. Perhaps he didn’t hear me scream at the bear. Watch the three of them. The children always face him when they speak, and they stay close.”
Lena watched. “You may be right,” she said. “And they just can’t be that important, can they? Just travelers, going from one village to another. Let’s leave them alone.”
“Stories that have barely crossed,” Cillian said. Oh, gods, Lena thought, don’t get started on philosophy again.
“Come,” she said. “Back to the river. Let’s get those wounds washed, and I’ll make some anash tea against any infection.”
Sitry looked up from where she sat, eating the last of the midday meal. “How strange,” she murmured.
“What, my child?” Kahj asked. “A vision?”
“No, not quite. An odd feeling….as if I had woken inside one of our lore books. A story come alive. But not one I remember – are there huge cities in any of these lands?”
“Not that I ever heard of,” he told her. “Just your imagination. Come, children. It’s time to move.”