November story: Bearly Old Enough

Little bear first appeared in the first Mudflat novel, winner of the 2009 EPPIE Award for Best Fantasy. True, he was in a somewhat different form.

Bearly Old Enough

He raced through the trees, nose to ground, following scent, his clumsy paws slapping on the floor of ferns, and in places, slipping in mud. His claws provided traction, but not enough to balance his round body. Several times he rolled sideways and tumbled down the mountain, crashing to a halt against the trunk of a fir.
From deep in the forest he heard his brothers growling.
He did his odd little whining call as he rushed across a narrow clearing and into their summer hiding place by the edge of a stream. He wanted to shout out a warning to them, but could run faster in his bear form. The other shape, his human shape, was slower and more difficult to control.
When he broke through the underbrush, he hurtled into the middle brother, banging against his legs. His brother batted him with a swipe of a paw that sent him flying.
The eldest brother gave an annoyed snuffle. He approached the cub and bumped him with a swing of his head, toppling him over. The cub immediately rolled and jumped upright and dashed across the clearing, then stopped and looked back at his brothers.
The second brother let out a roar of disapproval. The eldest shrugged his massive shoulders. After a moment’s wait, he padded in the direction of the cub. There was no need to signal further. The cub took off at a run and both brothers lumbered after him.
They could move in silence when necessary. Their large paws avoided twigs that might snap. They curved between the trees without touching branches. The only sound of their movement was the cry of a bird above them and the whisper of a mouse dashing across brittle needles on the summer floor of the forest.
When the cub stopped on a rise, both brothers were with him. He turned to watch the intruders below him on the hill. His brothers peered into the swaying shadows. Motionless, they listened. And breathed. And smelled the things that shouldn’t be there.
A spear embedded itself into a tree trunk a short distance above the cub. The sound of horses’ hooves pounded toward them.
The three swung around and flung themselves through the forest toward its thickest growth. They knew it all by feel and smell and sound, and rapidly outdistanced the men on horses who had only sight to guide them. The bears didn’t stop running until they reached the edge of the woods, where they cut across a gully lined with alders, and under the flutter of pale leaves, and straight through the open archway of the castle and up the long, shallow stairs, and past the great hall and into a side chamber.
And then the three of them began to change from their bulky, matted forms, the fur disappearing, their bones and fat shrinking until they stood staring at each other and listening, their hearts beating wildly in their thin bodies.
The elder two became men. The cub was an adolescent. All had thick, bristly hair, the rust-colored strands white-tipped, as had been the black fur of the bears. The bears’ eyes had been black. The men’s eyes were greenish yellow with pinpoint pupils, shaded by stiff black lashes.
“They are hunting in our woods,” the boy said. He stared down at his curled hands. His fingers ended in curved claws.
“Yes. All right, cub. Wait here and we will go out and talk to them,” the eldest said.
“Don’t be following us,” the second said.
He heard the kindness in the eldest’s voice and the anger in the second brother’s tone.
The elder said only, “Leave him be. He will learn.”
“Or end up dead and endanger us all.”
They pulled tunics over their heads and pushed their feet into boots and ran their fingers through their hair to quiet it. And then they walked heavily out of the castle, their wooden heels clicking on the stones of the steps.
The cub put on his tunic and followed barefoot at a distance, making sure to stay beyond their hearing. He followed their scent.
They hurried in front of him, shouting loudly, “Who goes there? Announce yourselves!”
A half dozen men waited at the edge of the woods, sitting high on their horses, spears in their hands. They wore leather tunics and wide armbands and swords hanging from their belts, and carried spears. They were blond, with long hair, but in the glare of sunlight he could not separate their faces enough to recognize them. They called out names that meant nothing to him.
His brothers returned the greetings.
The boy slipped from tree to tree until he was close enough to hear them.
One of the intruders said, “Sir, we require a dozen warriors of you, as promised our lord, son of Garlost, in your father’s agreement with him. Your men will be rewarded.”
His brother replied, “We require no reward except obedience to our agreement with the House of Garlost. You have already broken that treaty.”
“What? What are you saying?” an intruder cried.
“Our treaty with your lord claims our right to our forest. None other may enter. Ever. For any purpose.”
“Ah. We only now arrived.”
“You entered our forest with spear and blade.”
“Oh, that.” The man on the horse spread his hands to show that he held no weapons in them. “We thought to hunt a bit for our evening meal. We would have shared our catch with you.”
“The treaty does not allow you to hunt.”
“But your woods are full of game!” the man exclaimed. “If you wish, we will trade gold for a deer.”
The cub heard the silence and knew that his brother was thinking carefully. His reply was, “Our game is ours. You may not hunt in our woods. Ever. And because you have disregarded our agreement, we will send your lord six warriors for his coming campaign, six only, no more, with the understanding that they will camp together and fight as a single unit. They will not be spread out among your men. Is that understood?”
The man on the horse shrugged. “I will tell him your terms. He will need you two days from now.”
Two days later the three brothers and three more of their clan rode east to the stronghold of Garlost to join forces. They had spent the two days hunting through their private forest, fishing in the streams, as bears do.
Unlike wild bears, the clan’s thin grasp on humanity bound them in family patterns, the males sleeping in the sun with their huge furry bodies pressed close to their mates and with this year’s cubs flopped out on top of them.
The adolescents slept less, chasing each other through the woods. Well out of sight of their elders, they turned briefly into their human forms and stared at each other. This year there were nine of them in that group between child and adult. As third son of their leader, the cub attracted much attention from the four females. They circled him in their bear shapes, brushing fat furry bodies against him, and then rose into thin, hard-muscled girls with bristly hair and yellow eyes.
He liked them well enough in their human forms, which he knew his brothers did not. They said human shapes were necessary for their defense, but ugly. He couldn’t explain why he preferred this shape, other than he liked the sun’s warmth touching his hairless body. When he slid his hands across wild flowers or through a stream, he loved feeling the subtle changes in texture.
The girls stretched out their claw-tipped fingers to stroke his man-face and speak. As bears they could communicate about hunting or danger. But they needed their human forms for discussions.
“This will be your first battle.”
“Surrounded by humans.”
“And mounted on a horse and carrying weapons.”
To their statements he said only, “Yes.”
His brothers thought him too young, but he had begged until they tired of his arguments. In this past season a yearning for unknown pleasures filled his thoughts. He couldn’t put into words the hunger in his body and mind. Perhaps, he decided, he would find answers in battle.
The elder had pointed out to the middle brother, “The cub will be with us at all times. If need be, we can send him home through darkness.”
They would send him in bear form, hurrying through the woods, but only if the battle raged to the point where the warriors of Garlost faced defeat. He understood that. And agreed. Because he believed his brothers could never be defeated.
“Are you afraid?” the circling girls asked him.
“No.” He never feared what he had not yet faced.
Two days later he and his brothers and three more of their clan turned into men and dressed in leather armor and mounted their angry horses.
No matter how well they cared for the horses, the animals could smell their bearness and were terrified, so that their huge eyes rolled and they rose on their rear hooves and shook their manes. As they always behaved thus, trying to unseat their riders, the clan knew how to cling. In the end, the horses rushed forward toward warfare. It frightened them no more than what rode them, and gained them a reputation with other armies as the fiercest warhorses in all the land.
Like his brothers, the boy wound his clawed hands through the flying mane of his horse, not bothering with reins, and pulled its head to face it in the direction it was to run. His hard knees and boots dug into its ribs.
They left in predawn darkness, riding toward the sunrise. He rode with his face close to his mount’s neck, his eyes squeezed almost shut against the growing brightness. By noon they were in sight of the Garlost castle.
They weren’t a large army, perhaps a hundred in all. Some of them spent the afternoon at games, challenging opponents with poles or wooden swords. The six bears, now in human form, watched without joining. They took no pleasure in human games.
At night they sat with the others at campfires on the field. For the first time in his life, the boy was handed cooked food. He picked at it and even ate a little. It was too soft, the texture gone.
After the other warriors retired to their tents, the clan moved silently through the shadows to the nearby woods, returned to their natural forms, and spent the night hunting.
At dawn, fed and rested and dressed again in their human forms and armor, their knives tucked in their belts and swords strapped in sheaths across their backs, the six of them mounted their angry horses and joined the army riding southeast.
Halfway to noon they reached the stronghold of the enemy and found it unsuspecting, so busy had its lord been with his own preparations to attack Garlost.
A defending warrior ran at the cub, broadsword raised. The boy drew his knife from his belt and lunged forward with his other hand thrust out to shield himself. Before the defender could swing his sword, the cub’s claws sliced across his throat, ripping it open.
He peered down at the dead man sprawled on the ground. Surprised. Unsure what had happened.
A passing warrior of Garlost paused beside him. “You’re fast with that knife, lad. Good work,” he said and ran on by.
The defeat of an enemy felt as meaningless to the boy as the games the humans played.
For a moment he thought of his bear form and almost returned to it, because that’s what he had been taught to do when in danger. And then he remembered where he was.
By halfway past noon they had routed or killed the small number of defenders who rushed out to face them.
When he found his brothers, he followed them and the rest of the army into the enemy’s castle. Its inhabitants and guards had already fled.
“Help yourselves, men!” the lord of Garlost shouted, swinging his sword above his head to reflect the sunlight off its bloody blade.
They followed each other inside, going from room to room. The boy stood silent, not knowing what to do.
His brothers filled his outstretched arms with piles of clothing, leather tunics, trousers, boots, shirts.
“And dresses. I was told to bring dresses,” his eldest brother said.
“They never wear them,” his middle brother growled.
“They like to know they can, if strangers ever enter the castle.”
“Why would we allow that?” the middle brother muttered.
The boy had no answers. Instead, he held carefully in his arms, on top of the mound of rough warrior garments, a growing pile of soft, fragile fabrics. He pressed his face into the smooth coolness.
“What is this?” he asked.
His older brother said, “Silk. And this heavier cloth is called velvet.”
By evening they had returned to Garlost to stash their loot in their tent. The middle brother wanted to continue on home through the night, but the eldest brother said no.
“We must rest the horses. And I will have a last word with their lord to make certain he is agreed to our terms.”
They entered the castle to feast the victory, after washing their faces and brushing back their hair with their wet hands, as humans did. The meat had all been cooked above the outdoor fire pits. They picked at it, pretending to eat, and glancing at each other.
As he sat at a table by his kin, a goblet held against his mouth in pretense of drinking the wine, the boy looked over its edge at the crowd. They sat at long tables in an enormous stone room, rows of warriors, and beside the men of Garlost were their mates. He noticed them first, women in velvet dresses, their long hair piled on their heads.
And then he noticed the girls. There were only a few.
“The younger females, who are they?” he whispered to his eldest brother.
“Daughters old enough to be courted, dressed up now to be displayed.”
They wore fancy clothes of rich fabrics, similar to the dresses in their loot. He had no interest in trimmings.
But at their hair, he stared, amazed. It was smooth and shining, spilling over their shoulders in waves. He pressed the metal goblet hard against his mouth to hold back his desire to growl. And when his heart slowed its painful rush of beating, he squinted past the candle glow and saw their skin.
Their faces, their throats, even their hands, were the texture of flower petals, soft and pale, so lovely it made him ache to look at them. Their bones were hidden beneath smooth flesh. They had small noses and rounded cheeks and full pink lips and they were the most beautiful creatures in the world, he decided.
When the banquet ended and all were leaving, he saw a warrior in the crowded hallway brush against a girl.
The warrior stopped, bowed low, and said clearly, “Lady, my apologies for my clumsiness.”
At home in the woods, the boy had occasionally bumped into one of the girls. He had never thought to apologize.
This girl nodded her head at the warrior in a small bow before continuing on her way.
Whenever the boy had bumped a girl of his clan, she either ignored him or gave him a quick sock in the ribs.
Now he saw another girl walking slowly through the crowd behind her mother. Sidestepping away from his brothers, he managed to pass close enough to the girl to brush her soft hand with the back of his hand, being very careful to keep his claws curled away from her. Her skin not only looked like flower petals, it felt like flower petals.
He stopped, bowed low, and said softly, so that only she could hear, “Lady, forgive my clumsiness.”
And then, from where he bowed, he looked up at her face. She smiled. In that rosy mouth were little white teeth, as smooth as river pebbles. No wonder they ate food cooked to mushy softness. The raw stuff he preferred would harm such a gentle mouth.
More amazing still, her large eyes were the color of a clear sky.
He stayed bowed, even after she walked on by him, until a man bumped into him and muttered something about watching out where he was going. Next, he felt a hand grasp his arm and pull him upright, claws digging through the cloth of his sleeve.
“Move!” his middle brother growled.
On his other side, his elder brother asked, “What happened?”
He mumbled an answer about dropping his knife.
“It is in your belt. Hurry.”
They didn’t question further. They and their three kin walked swiftly out of the castle and across the field of tents to theirs. They waited inside for the crowds to thin until there were only a few men still outside, sitting around low fires.
Staying to the shadows, the six of them hurried to the edge of the woods to strip off their clothes. They hid them under leaves. And then they became bears.
Deep in the forest the cub was occasionally overcome by memories. When he forgot he was a bear, he turned into a boy. Once his middle brother barreled into him and knocked him flat and breathed heavily into his face until he returned to his cub form. And once his eldest brother plodded up beside him, did something between a snuffle and a sigh, then turned rapidly into a man.
“I have known cubs who had trouble holding their man-shape,” he said gently. “You are the first to have difficulty remaining a bear.”
Less fearful of this brother than of anyone else, the boy asked, “Did you see their women?”
His brother nodded. “I saw everyone.”
“But the women?” Remembering the girl, her hair, her skin, her eyes, her smile, he blurted, “They are all shiny and soft, like flowers.”
The eldest brother leaned toward him, eyes squinting in the darkness. “We never eat humans. They would track us and destroy all of us. You must never consider it.”
He was so horrified at the thought of harming that beautiful, fragile creature, he nodded and then immediately turned back into a bear.
In the morning, fed and rested and dressed again in their clothing, the five men and the boy mounted their angry horses and began the journey home. Five of them hated being men. They accepted the form because it allowed them to protect their lands and clan.
The sixth dreamed of becoming a man. And remaining in that form.
Copyright (c) PhoebeMatthews
 Little Bear appears in Books 1, 5, and 6 of the Mudflat Magic series. This short story about him was first published in Wicked Good Stories.