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Bearskin

Torben knows he has only one shot. The crossbow shakes in his grip. There is a single bolt and even if there were more he has not the strength to reload for the weapon belongs to Uther, the woodsman, who has left the boy to wait in the small, smelly blind set between the trunks of three ailing alders. The walls are of woven rushes and withy. The flimsy roof fell in who knows when and Torben feels the drip-drip-drip of snow-melt from abovenot that the weather’s warming up, but it seems the unhealthy branches won’t allow the ice to remain on their limbs much past daybreak.

The boy is cold in his pale wolf furs, despite their thickness. He never had a taste for hunting though Edvard, his father, tried to teach him. Henry, his brother, took to it like a duck to water, but Torben refused to attend what Edvard patiently told him. He has never learned the knack of willing himself warm, of wiggling his fingers and toes to keep the blood moving. Uther does not bother to instruct, or even to try, he simply slaps the boy about the ears each and every time he fails at one rough task or another. Torben suspects the man rather enjoys it and encourages missteps whenever he can. Edvard was always kind and tolerant, going over the same lesson time upon time, never punishing his youngest child’s inattention. Perhaps that’s why the lad suffers so now.

Thoughts of his father bring, as usual, hot tears which the boy wipes awayhe does not want them to freeze on his face. He has learned that much. He bites his lip and steadies his aching heart. He dare not think of his mother.

Torben presses an eye against the matting, but there is nothing beyond but a vastness of white broken only by thin naked trees. There is no canopy above of evergreens to offer any cover. He squints, trying to see if Uther is returning, slinky through the forest, quiet despite his hulking size. Yet no, there is not even the icy comfort of Torben’s gaoler on offer.

Gaoler. Not the word Aunt Bethany had used. Guardian. Teacher. Master to Torben’s apprentice. He’d asked over and again why? Why did he need an apprenticeship when Henry had been allowed to go to University. There was plenty of moneyall the problems his parents had caused were sortedwhy was he not to be given the same chance? Wasn’t that why they’d moved to Whitebarrow? So Henry could study medicine as he’d desired? It was a few more years, certainly, before Torben would be old enough, but his tutor said he was terribly bright for a twelve year old, that he had great prospects, great possibilities. It hadn’t occurred to Torben then, though it had many times since, that his repeated interrogations were the reason he now found himself huddled in Edmea’s Wood in the depths of winter, yearning for the company of a man he couldn’t stand. A man whose face wore the scars of a bear attack. A man who’d grown so tired of Torben’s stumbling and tripping, his barely swallowed whimpers, that he’d left the boy alone in the decaying blind with instructions to Fecking wait while he went and checked the traps on his own.

Torben sits back, tries to get comfortable; he can barely feel his feet and his backside has gone to sleep. Everything will hurt when he stands, when the blood flows back into his flesh and musclesoh yes, he has muscles now, not big ones, but they’ve replaced the baby fat he’d had in copious store before. The physical labour, the sparse diet, have stripped the excess from his bones. He is constantly hungry, a gnawing in his belly day and night, but he doesn’t dare steal. Uther is keenly aware of the quantity of provisions in the larder, and Torben is certain that the quiet, scrawny girl who keeps house for Uther would be unwilling to risk her master’s wrath all for the sake of the plump little rich boy who came to them weeping eight months ago.

He listens carefully in case Uther is sneaking up behind to scare him so he pees his pants again. Torben would have thought that trick one to grow old quickly, but apparently not. All he can distinguish is the wind rattling branches, the creak of frozen wood, the whoosh of his own breath as it makes dragon’s mist in front of his face. Put him in a library and he can identify the title of a book by the sound of its fall, but here . . . here he is lost. He clears his throat; it seems terribly loud in the sighing of the snow. A bird calls overhead, a melodic thing, and he thinks of Victoria, his sister, gone before him. That should have been a warning, he thinks, a sign that Aunt Bethany would brook no dissent no matter how much she professed to love them. Henry will be safe, Torben thinks, Henry has the habit of obedience and Aunt cares for him more, differently, strangely.

There is a noise outside, closer than it should be. Something has stalked him, gotten into proximity, and he all oblivious. To one side it shuffles and snuffles . . . his finger tightens on the trigger of the crossbow . . . whoever or whatever is there moves nearer . . . Torben’s finger twitches and the bolt is released, punching through the withy screen. A thud, then a brief sigh-sob, then the sound of a small body falling to the snowy ground.

Heart in mouth, Torben scrambles up, fighting his way out of the blind; unable to find where the door latches, he tears it in panic. He falls through the rip and discovers that he has murdered a bear cub.

The cub is not especially large and his brown pelt is thick and matted. He should not have been out, thinks Torben in distress, he should have been sleeping the deep winter’s slumber, not wandering aboutTorben assumes it’s a ‘he’. He kneels and feels for a pulse, however, there is nothing. The barb is embedded right where the creature’s heart should be. Blood has dripped, making crimson blossoms on the white carpet. The fur and flesh beneath Torben’s hand are warm, so warm, but he knows the heat will flee soon enough. Copper eyes glazed over, bewildered, snout damp, teeth sharp beneath the sweet upper lip. The boy begins to weep and does not try to stop; tears drop like liquid stars onto the dark coat and stay there, held on the tips of the bristles.

He cries until he hears a new noise, a crashing and a thrashing somewhere amongst the trees of Edmea’s Wood. Not Uther; the woodsman would never make such a racket. That is when Torben flees; he doesn’t see anything but his imagination has always been worse than what might be real. He struggles through drifts, uncertain if he is heading in the right direction, driven only by the desire to escape whatever is behind. He doesn’t care what punishment Uther will inflict on him for not staying put. He only knows he must run.

It is almost an hour later when he stumbles, more by luck than design, into the white-swept courtyard of the small stone house in the woods to which the woodsman lays claim.

Tove took pity on him when he threw open the door and staggered over to the roaring fire in the large front room. She handed him a mug of heated winter-plum brandy. It was liberally sweetened with molasses and made smooth by a knob of butter, and took away what little breath he had left. But it warmed him and quickly, pressing life back into his extremities, even those he was sure had been frozen forever.

“Thank you,” he croaks to the girl. She doesn’t speak and he wonders, not for the first time, if she cannot or simply won’t. He’s never heard her answer Uther, nor have a conversation, not that their master was much of a one for such pleasantries. She watches everything though, he’s noticed that. Her dark blue eyes seem everywhere at once, as if taking in all possible threats, all available exits and places to hide. Torben feels for the first time, as she refills his mug, that he may stare openly at her, at the fine dark blonde hair, and the small stubs of antlers that poke through it on each side of her head. They are not fully formed and have not changed in the time he has been here. Tawny velvet covers them and he wants to run his fingers over it.

“I killed a bear cub,” he says as she stirs the stew pot on the fire. She pauses, shoulders tensing, goes back to it, then speaks the first words he’s ever heard from her.

“What sort of bear?”

“Brown. A brown bear.”

“No, idiot. Was it a true bear or a one that’s a bear only some of the time?”

“Is there a difference?” he asks, then wilts beneath her gaze, is burned by the contempt he sees there. His world is cracked open, his firmly held idea of who and how she is shatters. He wonders if this is why Uther does not touch the girl, does not abuse her. She’s not his daughter, Torben knows that much for so the woodsman told him, said No, she goes with the house. But Torben thinks she doesn’t go with the house at all, that she belongs somewhere else entirely and is just here for a while. He says, “I’m sorry.”

She stills again, then relaxes, seeming to shrug away the tension. Her lips are no longer set in a sharp line and her eyes soften. “You’re not to know, I suppose. City folk are ignorant.”

That stings from this strange girl with her barely-born antlers, her silence. He blurts, “At least I’m not some stupid superstitious country clod. Bears are just bears, all the time. My parents—”

“Your parents?” she sneers. “What about them?”

He stops, wonders what she knows. Wonders what she’s been told and by whom. Wonders if she knows how Edvard ends his life in gaol, and that his mother . . . oh, his mother. They stare at each other for long moments while the drink in his hand goes cold, and the stew on the hob, unstirred, becomes agitated, bubbles up and spatters on the flags. It breaks the spell, and he says softly, “What are you?”

But their brief connection is lost. She turns away and does not answer.

When Uther finally comes home a few hours later, a brace of fat bone-coloured coneys slung over his shoulder, he doesn’t yell as Torben expected. Isn’t angry at all, just curious. Strangely proud. He hands the catch to Tove, then eyes the boy.

“You kill tha’ cub?” His voice is deep and raw, rough as elm bark looks.

Torben cannot find a reply so he merely nods from where he sits by the hearth, the aching cold almost out of his bones.

“Should ha’ lugged it home,” the man says, seating himself across from the boy. The fire plays shadow and light over his face, making the scars seem to dance. “Not much you can do with th’ hide, but meat’s sweet so young.”

“I . . . ” Torben croaks. “I heard something else after it, coming for me. I thought it might be the mother.”

Uther nods. “Might ha’ been. Mayhap she woke early too, found him missing.” He leans forward to unlace his boots. “I’d ha’ run too. You did th’ smart thing.”

Torben is surprised and disturbed, that the man has addressed unnecessary words to him, words of comfort and approval. Torben is distressed that the worst thing he has ever done, though it was an accident, is the one thing this man approves of, is the one thing that might make his life here easier if only for a little while. He cannot find it within himself to be glad, even a little. He swallows hard, nods so Uther will think they are in harmony however briefly, and will not suspect that the boy is so sickened by himself he’s thrown up three times in the privy out back. That every time he closes his lids he sees those copper eyes staring at nothing at all.

“Ne’er fear. I brought it back. Skinned it afore I came in, meat’s in th’ smoking hut. He’ll no go to waste.” Uther rises, leaves his boots to dry by the flames, lands a heavy hand on the top of Torben’s head, not in violence, but a kind of rough pat as he stomps to the washroom where Tove has heated water in the tub. Good lad, it says and Torben wants to weep again. His stomach rebels at the idea of eating such flesh, or indeed anything. The winter-plum brandy is long gone. His skin crawls to think of the hide made into shoes or a hood. He refuses the bowl of stew Tove wordlessly offers and makes his way upstairs to his small room under the eaves.

He was not allowed to bring any books, though he managed to smuggle a copy of Murcianus’ Mythical Creatures, and it lies beneath the mattress. He limits himself to a single page each night to stave off the time when he must either beg Uther for a new volume or begin again. The lack still claws at him. He does not read this eve; he is exhausted. Sleep comes weirdly quickly, with dreams chasing its tail like nipping pups. His mother, Cordelia, sits at his bedside. Cordelia as he last saw her, not as Aunt Bethany said she’d become. Cordelia loving and laughing, telling him he was her sweetest, her best darling, her last child, and her only light. That he was special.

It’s so long since Torben felt special.

He wakes himself before the dreams turns to nightmares, almost throwing himself from his mattress.

He stares out the tiny window into the darkness where nothing can be discerned until the full moon rises over the reaching fingers of skeletal treetops. Everything is bathed in silvered indigo. Torben looks down at the lean-to; he can just see the edge of the cub’s skin stretched over the tanning rack. In the moonlight it’s paler than he recalled, and it appears as if there are stars at the end of each bristle.

The stone house sits in a small clearing. To the left is a frozen rill, where Torben and Tove must hack at the ice to melt it for drinking and cooking and bathing. To the right is the lean-to and the outdoor privy. Behind is a barn-cum-stable where the jersey cow and two Clydesdale horses share straw with chickens, ducks and geese. The front garden is dotted with rose-beds, the plants blooming all year round due to Uther’s strangely green thumb. The coloured blossoms look like jewels against the moonlight-blue snow.

Torben’s attention is caught by a hesitant movement at the edge of the clearing. A shape materialises, taking slow steps. At first he thinks it a bear, but the size is too small, the gait too elegant, and the owner walks on two feet, not four. The smudge resolves itself into a woman, her skin dark olive, her hair a blackish-brown running down her back, past her waist, to her ankles where it drags in the deep powder. She is tall, very tall, and heavy-boned, large around breasts and hips. Her face is gentle, her eyes flash amber. She raises her head and Torben sees how she sniffs at the air.

She drifts towards the lean-to, her hands reaching out to the cub’s hide. Just before she touches it, she looks up as if sensing Torben’s gaze. His tears have started again and course down his cheeks. He wonders if the woman can see them glinting. Her expression does not change, she merely stares at him for long moments, then helps herself to the fur, carefully unhitching it from the frame. She cradles it in her arms and returns to the forest.

For a long time Torben watches the space where she no longer is. When he’s half-frozen again, he crawls back into the bed with its goose-down quilt and pillows, the only luxuries Aunt Bethany sent with him. He trembles with fear that the nightmares might overwhelm him, but his dreams when sleeps will no longer be denied are empty, and he is safe.

In the morning Uther finds bear tracks outside, where Torben had watched the woman walk.

“Did you see ought?” he asks, scars twitching, and the boy swears he did not.

Uther grunts and strides towards the barn.

Torben knows the woodsman keeps his great crossbow there, one Torben has no hope of lifting left alone arming, and the bear traps, cruel things with steel teeth. He shivers in the cold as he looks down. The prints are huge, almost three times as long as his own foot. He cannot reconcile the woman he saw with the traces she left behind.

No, perhaps not her. Perhaps a bear came after he slept. Perhaps a bear followed the scent, hers or the cub’s, and obliterated the woman’s footprints. His heart constricts, then: what if the bear stalked the woman? What if it found her with her gentle face and wondering eyes? Neither woman nor bear deserve Uther’s attentions, he decides.

He looks to the house and finds Tove regarding him from the back door. She stares, then retreats inside.

The girl’s barely paid him any attention in almost a year, yet here is the second day in a row that she’s met his gaze. That she’s let him know again she disapproves. She sleeps on a pallet in the kitchen. He wonders what she saw through the window there, and if she’d even tell him if he asked. Torben opens his mouth but the only thing that comes is heated mist before Uther’s shouts from the barn: “Hurry up, boy. We’re hunting bigger game today.”

He envies Tove that she gets to hide even as he is afraid of what she might say if he spoke to her again.

It is late in the day when Torben catches the trail. The light is beginning to fade and they are deep in Edmea’s Wood, where the trees though leafless, grow oh-so tightly together, and the shadows are lengthening. Torben has thrice been lost, but managed to right himself again before Uther realised and had to come and find him, swearing as he went.

The prints are strange, sometimes they disappear for large spans, with nothing to show how the creature got from one spot to another. Torben hoped every moment that the woodsman would not pick up the spoor again, but the man is tenacious, bloody-minded. The scars on his face, the memory of the claws that put them there, drive him. But this time . . . oh, this time, it’s Torben who has found the tracks. He looks at the direction they lead, peers amongst the close trunks but sees no hint of the creature that left them. He spins on his heel as well as he can in the sluggish white and tramps back towards where he last saw Uther.

Breaking from a stand of singing winter grass that croons as he passes, he spies Uther on the other side of a clearing, heading straight towards him. The boy increases his pace, almost jogs, trying to ensure the man stays as far away from the evidence as possible. He is breathing hard when he reaches the woodsman, but it covers his nervousness about lying.

“Anything?”

Torben shakes his head. “Nothing.” He pauses. “It’s . . . it’s not a normal bear, is it?”

For a moment he thinks the man will not answer, then he nods, a sharp jerk, says, “No.”

‘Was it . . . ” Torben is stricken by his own audacity, raises his hand, points to his own face as if he is the marked one, “ . . . the one who did that?”

“No. Tha’ one’s th’ rug on my bed.” Uther looks around, stares up at the greying sky that seems to deepen every second. “Home now. Light’s going. Try again tomorrow.”

On the journey back to the stone house, Torben’s heart is light, his feet lighter still, and he does not feel weary though they have traipsed the length and breadth of Edmea’s Wood for hours. There will be hot stew tonight and a warm bed, and perhaps he will allow himself two pages of the Murcianus, though he is already part way through P; the Plague Maiden awaits his attention. Relief leads his mind elsewhere, as if he’s carefree once more. Perhaps Tove will forgive him, talk again; her voice was sweet.

Tove remains silent when they return, and it is only after Uther has clattered up to his bed in the master chamber that Torben is able to approach her. But when he tries to engage her she glares and calls him lackwit.

“Why?” he asks, bewildered.

“Because of the bear,” she hisses.

“But, but . . . but I led him astray. Though I found the tracks, I did not tell Uther.” He feels a tremor starting in his legs. Torben had expected something nicer, if not a kind word then at least not this kind of spitting rage. “Won’t it?”

“You think that will be enough? He’ll be out there tomorrow and the day after that, then the next. He won’t stop until he’s found her.”

“Her?” His tone wavers though he knows she speaks truly, gives voice to what he suspected but did not wish to believe.

“And it’s all you fault because you’re a frightened little baby.” She looks at him as though she hates him. He thinks if she had full antlers she’d do her best to impale him, and not regret it at all.

“I didn’t ask to come here,” he stammers, wanting to cry, but he will not let this hard girl see his tears.

“I would you hadn’t,” she hisses. “Why did you? Why did you come and bring this misfortune?”

He has no answer for her or none he wishes to give. How to say My parents are dead? My Aunt has no love for me? Father killed himself in despair and Mother . . . oh, my poor mother. Mother burned to a crisp on a prison hulk right in the middle of Rosebury Bay? In all that water, Cordelia seared and smoked, scorched and singed, blistered until her skin split. How to say My Aunt told me all of this with a smile and a laugh?

He swallows and settles on, “I ran away . . . I tried to find where my sister had been sent . . . but I didn’t get far . . . was dragged home . . . I’m not very good at anything, really. I couldn’t even run away properly.”

He turns his back so she will not see the unshed tears. They are not friends. They will not be friends. The realisation is sharp. He crouches by the fire and does not move, not even when he hears her boots come close, then move away; even when he hears her return to the kitchen and settle on her thin bed there.

If asked, he could not tell what thought is uppermost for everything seems a maelstrom of emotions and images, of things long lost and desired to reappear. The flames die down as the hours pass and Torben becomes an invisible lump in the limpid leftover glow. He only comes back to himself when he hears two things at once: a creak on the stairs, and the sound of something falling outside. Frozen by uncertainty he remains immobile. He’s so still and small, so saturated by shadows, that Uther does not see him when he creeps past. The woodsman has the great crossbow held at the ready; the sight takes Torben’s breath away.

Uther undoes the latch and slips out. Torben stands, his limbs throbbing painfully as his circulation speeds up. He follows the woodsman.

The lean-to is empty though the tanning rack has tipped over, and there are footprints, man and bear, leading towards the barn, where the door hangs open. Torben takes only a few steps before he hears a rumbling roar, and a man’s shout. One of the building’s walls splinters under the weight of an ursine charge, and a brown she-bear tears into the silvery night.

She streaks towards Torben, he can see fear in her copper eyes, and steps aside for he instinctively knows she will not slow down. Her one thought is of escape. She rushes by and he can smell musk and fear. Uther stumbles from the barn, dark marks on his winter furs where the bear’s claws made their mark. He curses, then plants his feet apart, and lifts the crossbow into position.

The seconds seem long between the release of the bolt and when Torben steps into its path. He knows the she-bear will run in a straight line making her an easy target. He knows she has come here because of him, because he killed her cub. He left it for Uther to skin. He led her here. He knows this is the very least he owes her. Or perhaps he simply knows that if he remains, he will carry her grief as well as his own and it is burden he does not want.

The angry thud of the missile into his chest pushes all air from his lungs, and he falls. He stares at the winter stars. The pain comes, and Torben finds it hard to breathe. The snow beneath him is soft yet brittle, melting slowly. He sweats, the droplets freeze, and soon he has a layer of ice over his skin. He prays that death will come quickly. Perhaps he will meet his mother again. He wonders if Cordelia wanders, looking for her children.

Then the sky is eclipsed as something huge soars over him. There is a scream which cannot possibly come from Uther, but must: high and terrified, and abruptly cut off as the sounds of flesh tearing and bones breaking become so terribly loud. Then heavy footfalls come towards Torben and, once again, the sky goes dark. Though he cannot make out the features above him, something wet and warm rains down on his face, a mix of blood and spittle. He manages to roll onto his side, though it hurts; he does not wish to see the yellowed teeth descending. He wonders if Tove is watching from the kitchen window, her breath making distressed shapes on the glass; if she nods, thinking this is right? The she-bear bends forward and takes the scruff of his fur collar in her mouth; a tooth sinks into him, pierces the fleshy part of the shoulder where it meets the neck. He cries out, but it is the least of his agonies.

Torben is dragged like a sack of meat from the yard, into the woods. He is so cold he barely feels it when he hits a rock or a log, when something sharp tears this clothing. He is part-pushed, part-pulled into a dim pungent burrow. He lands on something soft; as he grows warmer his wounds bleed afresh.

His lids flutter open and he sees the woman again. She has large hands, and brown furry feet; toes tipped with long claws peek out from under the hem of her dun-coloured gown. She ambles about the burrow gathering things he cannot see, hunched over so her head does not scrape the roof where luminescent roots poke through from above. There is the sound of mortar against pestle, and he ponders if perhaps he’s been dreaming all along, if he dreams still.

The bear-woman holds his head and makes him swallow the powder she has ground. It’s bitter, bitter, then sweet. He opens his lips to beg for water, and she spits into his mouth. Startled, he swallows that too, finds it is not foul, but quenches his thirst, eases his aches. Darkness begins to pull at him and he thinks it is death. He tries to say I’m sorry to the bear, to the woman, because he thinks it is important that she hear it. But his tongue is going numb and seems to grow; his teeth feel more numerous.

She pats his head and whispers hush, or at least he thinks that’s what she says. Perhaps it is simply a bear noise that he interprets as he wantsneedsto. His failing gaze paints Cordelia’s image on the bear-woman’s face. His mother smiles and says hush, all will be well, and Torben thinks he smiles. A hand brushes his hair, then he feels the soft thing beneath him being adjusted, wrapped tightly around him. The hands fall away but the fur rug does not. It grips him snugly and grows, along his limbs, up over his head, down his forehead, nose, cheeks, jaw, neck, over his chest . . . and Torben thinks he imagines it as he surrenders to what must surely be his final slumber. His last thought, with some regret, some relief, is of Tove. He will never know what she is, who she was; she’s a mystery he will never solve.

Torben is surprised when he wakes, but he knows he has slept long.

He rolls over, finds himself changed, but is not overly concerned. On his back, he twists this way and that, trying to scratch the itch along his furry spine, enjoying the sensation more than anything he can recall in life. A tree, he thinks, outside there will be a tree with rough bark and he will rub the length of himself against it and it will be most satisfying. He rolls again, receives a gentle swat for his troubles, a warning not to wake his mother sooner than he must. She has had a busy winter, with her sleep interrupted.

He raises his large head, looks to where the snowfall had once formed a door to their den. It is gone now and in its place are puddles of melt, and beyond it the sight of Edmea’s Wood, the trees bristling with new leaves, branches, and bright colours. Birdsong rings through, the sky is a warm blue. At first he think to bound forth, to try out his new shape, the four paws with their powerful claws, then another swat, a little less gentle, and he settles, curls back to back with the she-bear. There will be plenty of time to learn the world anew, he thinks sleepily; he knows what happens to cubs who stray from their mothers too soon.

About the Author

Angela Slatter is the author of the urban fantasy novels Vigil and Corpselight, as well as eight short story collections, including Sourdough and Other Stories, The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, Winter Children and Other Chilling Tales, and A Feast of Sorrows: Stories. Angela has won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, one Ditmar Award, and six Aurealis Awards. She has an MA and a PhD in Creative Writing, is a graduate of Clarion South and the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. Her work has been adapted for the screen, and translated into Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and Bulgarian. Restoration, the final book in the urban fantasy series, will be released in 2018.