Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Bear Prince

I have heard it on the rumors that when the tale-spinner’s guild gathers in their secret places a full half of them are sworn to never tell the truth, and the other half to never tell a lie, even if it means their life. Being one of that trade myself, I can tell you that that’s more or less the shape of it, and I tell you so you’ll know that this tale I tell you is true, just as it happened and just as it was told to me, for I am one of the ones sworn to the truth.

The name I’m called is Dusty Boots, I come from the valley of Erwhile, and I am in love with a girl that I can never have. The tale I tell you now comes from the lands beside the Great Sweet Sea, where once upon a time there was a king who had eight daughters and no sons.

He had called doctors, he had called sorcerers, he had called priests, he even had every man in his kingdom do penance, but regardless of all his efforts his queen would bear him nothing but daughter after daughter. Over time, he grew resentful of her, then angry. Finally, he decreed it a crime—punishable by death—for the queen to bear another daughter.

When the queen next became pregnant, she was terrified. She called out to every wise woman and every old woman and even a few women who were neither old nor wise. She did everything that the women told her to: bathed in five cold rivers, hid herself from the moon, swallowed red iron, slept with a dagger by her heart. But, in the end, it did not matter. When at last her time came, and she saw that she had given birth to a golden-haired daughter, she began to rage and spit and cry.

“Please,” she begged her midwife, who was both old and wise, “please take this cursed girl-child from me. Please, please, take it and tell my King that it was a stillborn son.”

“Your Majesty,” said the midwife, “stay here in seclusion and do not speak a word to your husband. I will say that your health is tender, and you are not to be disturbed. As for the child, leave her in my hands and you need never speak of her again.”

Perhaps, if she had been a little less wise, the midwife might have thought to abandon the child, or drown her, or send her out with a huntsman to cut out her heart. And perhaps, if the midwife had been a little less old, she would not have known where to take her. But this midwife was both old and wise, and a friend to the bears besides, and so she took the girl out into the woods, past all the places where the hunters and trappers dared go, to a family of bears that she had midwifed to the month before.

“Friend bears,” she said, as she approached their cave, “it is I, the midwife who just a month ago came and even in the depths of your winter-sleep drew out your son for you.”

Even though the bears were still muzzy with their winter-sleep, they knew better than to disrespect a midwife, or any woman who is both old and wise. First the father emerged, then the mother, and then at last their son, still tottering on new uneven legs, to see the midwife standing there, wrapped in shrouds and scarves, carrying the newborn princess.

“I have brought your son into this world,” said the midwife, “and what’s more I have brought you, and your husband, and all the children of all the bears in this generation and generations before. In all this time, I have not sought honor nor price for I know that the bears do not account as men do, with gold or silver, but instead with your much older reckonings.”

The bears sat peacefully, and did not respond.

“But now,” continued the midwife, “I have come with a price at last. For I am a woman, the daughter of a man, and in the end I must take my price as men do.

“This, then, is my price: I will take your son. I do not take him for fur, or meat, or any other cruel fate: I take him to be raised as a prince in the manner of men. I take him and I promise you that no harm shall come to him from the hands of men.”

The bears did not reply, but the mother shooed her son behind her and bared her teeth protectively.

“And I do not take him without recompense. In his place, I give you this girl, a princess, born this very hour in a royal court. Eat her, or leave her, or raise her as your own. Do with her what you will.” She held out the baby princess for the bears’ inspection.

The father bear sniffed at the child, while the mother began to growl a threat at the midwife.

“Do you dare to threaten me?” remonstrated the midwife. “I, who pulled you from your mother’s womb and pulled your son from yours? I, who alone knows your bear-names that you will not even breathe to each other in the darkness of your winter-sleep? You are a mother and I know your mother’s pain, but there will be other winters and other sons for you, and at my hand no less.”

The mother set her ears back and whimpered, but kept her son behind her.

“Fine, then,” said the midwife, “see if you have the courage to maul me.” She stepped gingerly behind the mother bear and exchanged the princess for the cub. The mother bear growled and snarled, but she knew better than to harm a woman who is both old and wise.

The midwife made her way out of the forest, carefully wrapping the bear cub in her shawl, shutting her ears to the mourning yowls of the mother she had vilomahed and the princess she had left crying in the snow. As for the cub, good as her word she took him to the palace. As for the princess she left behind, our story now leaves her behind as well, although we may in due course learn her fate.

• • • •

When the midwife, having swaddled up the bear cub just like a human babe, presented the king with his son, he laughed and wept in equal measure. “What a beautiful boy!” the king exclaimed, tossing the cub into the air. “Look how he is already so strong and hairy! Surely he will be a man amongst all men!” The midwife looked at the happy father and smiled to herself, her ruse complete, while the king’s advisors, who knew very well what a bear cub looked like, shot each other anxious glances even as they outdid each other in praise of the young prince.

Likewise, when the prince’s wet nurses began to complain of his sharp and nipping teeth, the king dismissed their complaints. “He’s just being spirited,” the king would say, “showing a little fire as befits a royal prince.”

“Quite so, your majesty,” the king’s advisors would echo. By now, of course, they had entirely convinced themselves that their prince was a perfectly normal child and would never have admitted that they had ever thought otherwise.

What could be done? Bear or not, the prince was a prince. The wet nurses had no choice but to recant and suffer through it.

It was much the same when, years later, the young prince mauled his tutor. “Our prince,” explained the king, “is a true man, not at all like you fuddling scholars. Like all true men, he has a natural contempt for study, which it is your business to overcome. In fact, if you had not been so boring, I’m sure you would even now be whole and healthy.”

“Quite so!” said the king’s advisors. “Such a man is our prince.”

The scholar, of course, did not respond. Even if he had been able—and, with his chest rent open by the prince’s claws, he was far from able—what could he have said in his defense? Bear or not, the prince was a prince. Tutor after tutor had no choice but to submit and die. With no one to rein in his impulses, he wandered the halls and passages and secret places of the palace as well, leaving behind a wake of claw marks rent into the walls and servants. He even found secret passages between the palace and the town around it, where the peasants and freemen were shocked to find a finely-appointed bear rummaging through their stores and houses.

Finally, though, the education of the young prince was turned over to the royal huntsman, who would take the prince out fishing in the woods and whose company the prince peaceably enjoyed, and the whole of the royal court found at least a measure of relief.

And so the young prince grew up, as much bear as prince, but in time the life of the court taught him its own lessons. As the years changed, he changed with them. He even began to dress himself as a man, to speak as one, and even to, in some manners, act the part of a prince, if indeed a wild one.

• • • •

By the time the prince had reached his twelfth year, with another year beside, his mother the queen had died and his father the king had remarried, to a fine-haired daughter from over the Loed. This was, to our prince, a matter of no particular consequence. Rather, it was in the next year, as the weather became more rain than snow, when the young queen gave birth to a son, that the prince’s entire life began, unbeknownst to him, to change.

When, this time, the king held his new son in his arms, he marveled at the child. “What a curious child!” he exclaimed. “Look! He has no hair on him at all. And his nails are thin and tiny! But in frame he is so large and heavy that I can barely toss him into the air.”

While the king’s advisors, who had spent these many years remarking on what a fine specimen was their older prince, rushed over themselves to agree with the king, the new queen found it altogether odd. She was young, and newly-married still, and did not yet know her husband’s temper, so she did not hesitate to contradict him.

“My darling husband,” she said, “whatever do you mean? This is a simply a child like every other child. His hair and teeth shall grow in time, but is it not our human lot to be born into this world hairless and crying?”

The king was taken aback, and his advisors likewise. “But my other son,” said the king, “was born most unlike this dear child.”

“Is that so?” asked the young queen, who knew very well what a bear looked like, then let the matter drop.

The young queen’s contradiction, though, did not so easily leave the king’s mind. Indeed, it tormented him until he could not sleep nor eat for the fear of it. “What is my son?” he asked himself at night and all alone, “if he was not at all a baby?”

He thought of calling the prince to an audience and an account, but what would be revealed? There were secrets he could not bear unveiling, and secrets that the crown could not bear either.

Finally, he called his woodsman, who was by then the prince’s caretaker and confidant, to a secret audience.

“Woodsman,” he addressed his servant, “you of all my court are best beloved of our prince and heir.”

The woodsman, unused to being in the royal presence, knelt and did not contradict him.

“Knowing our prince as well as you do, have you perhaps noticed anything odd about him? About his body and his behavior?”

“Oh no, your majesty,” replied the woodsman, who knew full well that the prince was a bear and had always assumed that the king had intended it that way. “Other than a spot of the mange a while back, he’s as healthy as can be.”

The king breathed out, relieved at least halfway. Still, he pressed on. “And there’s nothing particular about him. Nothing that would give you pause to have him as the heir to the throne.”

“Oh no, your majesty,” replied the woodsman. “He’s as good and healthy a bear as I have ever known.”

• • • •

When the king heard his woodsman say out loud that his son, the prince and heir, was a bear, he fell into a dead faint, and when he awoke he was not much better, tossing this way and that, murmuring to himself. His doctors set him to bed rest and a diet of thin broths, but even then it took until the third day for him to be well enough to understand the whole of his situation. Once he had, he called his most trusted advisors to wait on him in bed.

“Gentlemen,” he said when they had all arrived. “It seems that we have been these many years deceived. My eldest son, the crown prince and heir to all my lands, since his fortunate birth the apple of my eye, is not in the end my son, or any kind of prince at all. He is, rather, a bear.

“I see now clearly,” continued the king. “It must have been my old queen who, afeared to present me with another daughter, arranged for that old midwife to switch the child with a newborn cub. I have heard before that the old midwife was sly, and I have it known that she was long a bear-friend.”

“Oh no, your majesty,” began his advisors’ long-accustomed protests, but even as they began he waved them aside.

“It is not my intention to have you convince me to the contrary. Rather, my question is, knowing what we now know, how we must proceed? Some of you are wise men, and some of you are old men, and some of you may even be both wise and old. Surely, gentlemen, among ourselves, we may find a way out of this predicament without bringing due shame upon ourselves or upon our crown.”

At once, the king’s advisors agreed that there was nothing for it but to arrest and execute that wicked midwife, who was almost certainly a witch, because everyone knew she was both old and wise and a friend to bears besides, and what sort of woman is old and wise and a friend to bears and yet somehow not a witch? So confident were they in their judgment and the king’s consent that they announced the order immediately, calling for the guards to drag her from her home in broad daylight while proclaiming her crimes against the crown, until one of the guards—a young man named Ewen who was a friend to her family and had known her since she’d pulled him from his mother’s womb—had to quietly tell them that she had died in her sleep, peacefully and innocent, almost five years ago.

Denied their blame-goat, the king’s advisors immediately began to argue amongst themselves, and in short order two factions emerged: one that said that for the good of the royal line the prince must be denounced and executed, with the other saying that the entire thing must be kept quiet, that the prince must be sent away to study, and secretly never allowed to return, lest the king, the crown, and the whole of the royal house be brought to disrepute.

The king listened to them argue for a while, until at last he held up his hand for silence. “You,” he said, indicating a man in the back who had not yet said much of anything, “you’ve been nothing but quiet. What have you to say?”

“Well,” said the man, who was new to the king’s advisors, a man of some sense but no real accomplishment, old enough to be a little wise and yet still young enough to be a little foolish, “it seems to me that this circumstance need only be a catastrophe if we in our haste make it into one.”

At once, both factions of the king’s advisors united in their haste to disdain the man, his birth, his bearing, and most especially his advice, until at last the king grew tired and called again for silence.

“What do you mean by that?” he asked.

“This land has been inhabited since time immemorial by both men and bears,” continued the advisor. “And in all that time men have had kings and have had tribes and have even had for some misguided moments their own republics, but in all that time there has never been amongst the bears a king or a bishop or even a squire or a count.”

“As well we all know, that is because of the bears’ nature. What of it?” asked the king, who was losing his patience.

“It seems to me that we have not a crisis, but instead a moment of opportunity. We have in our own court, raised as your own son, a bear that was all these twelve-and-one years educated and taught and treated as a prince. Why not send him out, your majesty, not as an exile or as a shameful recluse, but as the prince he is, to be king over his own people? In this way, all will benefit. Your royal line shall hold not one kingdom, but two, each one raised as your own son, and the bears will at last have gained a king to rule over them with will and law and honor.”

When he heard this, the king began to laugh in great bellowing shouts. “Ahahah,” he laughed, “ohohoh.” His advisors were stunned, for they could not tell whether his laughter was in agreement or in disbelief. Finally, at last, the king stopped laughing. “It’s brilliant,” he said. “And we shall carry it out forthwith.”

• • • •

In the king’s court there was all manner of activity and preparation. The king’s scholars drafted up proper laws, while the goldsmiths set the prince a crown and scepter, and the advisors set about determining all the proper legal bases for the prince’s claim. The king—who had before been happy to leave his son in the company of the woodsman—even began to take the prince aside and offer him advice on kingly conduct.

Neither the king nor any of his advisors, though, were willing to risk the prince’s wrath, so in the end it fell to the old woodsman—the prince’s one friend at the court—to take the prince out to the forest to be a prince among the bears. He woke the prince early in the morning, and waited while the prince’s surviving nurse dressed and combed him and kissed his cheeks and told him to be a good king. After she was done, the woodsman led the prince out of the palace, past the moat and the castle-town, into the forest, across the now-frozen streams where they had fished away many days together, out into the country of the bears in the dark heart of the woods where no man goes.

When the prince and the woodsman had arrived in the dark heart of the forest, the woodsman stopped them in the shadow of a ragged old pine.

The woodsman looked this way and that—unwelcome here and knowing his unwelcome—and then finally to the prince, confused and no small part afraid. The woodsman fumbled inside his satchel. His hand first came to rest upon his knife, which he held for a moment before he tossed it on the ground.

“It might be kinder,” he said to himself as he pulled out the scrolls of law, the silver scepter, and finally the golden crown inscribed for Rex Omnium Ursorum. The woodsman looked at the royal relics, which had in the court seemed so regal and important, and here in the forest seemed thin trinkets. “It might be kinder to simply cut his heart than leave him here and with only a crown.” But he did not reach again for his knife.

Instead, he lifted up the crown—all gold salmon and arrayed with rubies made like berries and silver made like trees—and set it on the prince’s head, and said the words that he had at court been made to memorize, and crowned him in his father’s name as king of the forest and of all the bears.

Afterwards, the woodsman knelt before the new king, and then embraced him and rubbed his ears and told him to be a just king, but presently the winter sun began to twilight and he so afeared his unwelcome in that place and hurried back through the forest, back towards the castle and the town, leaving the bear in his new country, a king alone in winter.

• • • •

The new king wandered this way and that, looking for something to eat and finding little, until at last he chanced upon a well-appointed cave. “Hello?” he said into the cave. “Is anyone there? It is no less than ourselves, your king of all bears, come to receive your love and your obeisance.”

But it was now the dead of the winter, and all the bears were in their winter-sleep. No one responded, or no one would have, except that as it happened there was a golden-haired girl amongst this family, who had lived there all her life and had never known another home. So arearred amidst the bears, she had long since learned their language and so could understand the new king perfectly. A girl-among-bears, but still a girl, she had never accustomed to their winter-sleep, and so had stayed awake, tending the hearth and home while the rest of her family slept at peace.

“Who are you?” asked the golden-haired girl. “And why are you still awake?”

“We just told you,” said the king, “We are your king, the King of the Bears, come to impart my law and justice on all the bears of this forest.” He looked at her uneasily, then added, “And all other creatures of this forest beside.”

“Well, I’ve lived my whole life in this forest,” said that golden-haired girl, “and I’ve never heard anything about any kings, most especially any Kings of any Bears. Kings sound like a thing-of-men, with no home in this or any forest. But it’s the deep of winter, and you a bear alone with no way to make in the world besides. It wouldn’t be right to turn you out of the cave. So you can stay here as long as you need, until the winter-sleep take you, as long as you don’t make yourself any sort of trouble.” She looked at him, and seeing him not nearly fat enough for winter, added “You can even eat something if you like.”

“Well now,” began the king. He was, of course, offended at the suggestion that a commoner such as this cave-dwelling girl might have any hospitality to offer him, the king of all bears. But then he thought for a moment.

“Perhaps it is better,” he told himself, “that I should start my reign out on the right foot, to accept this in the spirit of submissive tribute that is clearly intended. Yes,” he concluded, “for any just king must also be a kind king. This is the way.”

“We accept your offer of tribute in the loyal spirit it was intended,” said the king, taking on a most regal pose.

The golden-haired girl, who had already turned her attention back to her winter pottage, startled in response. “All’s right, then,” she said when she had at last recovered her wits. “Here you go.” And she set before the king some dried berries, preserved fish, and honey crystals that she had saved lest any of the other bears go hungry and, in the deep of the winter, awaken starveling and mad.

The king sniffed at her offerings, then reared up, offended. “How dare you offer us, your lord and sovereign, the king of this forest and all the bears within it, such a meager meal? This is nothing more than some dried-out fruit and side of rotten fish, with honey unmeaded and left for waste!”

When she heard the king’s tirade, the golden-haired girl was quite taken aback. In all her life, having known only bears, she had never heard such a tirade about food of any kind. Among the bears, among her people, particularly in the depths of winter, they would eat anything they found before them. Nonetheless, she swept up the preserves back to her stores.

“Well, then,” she said, “if that doesn’t suit you—”

“If that doesn’t suit Your Majesty,” corrected the king.

“If that doesn’t suit your majesty, you’re welcome to have some of my simple pottage. It’s no more than roots and grasses stewed to the death of them, but there is enough to share and I would share it with another bear even if there weren’t.” With that, she served up some of her soft pottage into her only bowl and set it before the king.

The king sniffed at the bowl, wrinkled his nose, then tentatively reached out his tongue. But as soon as he touched the tip of his tongue, he leapt back and cried out. “Oh! My tongue is burnt! Are you trying to murder me? This is far too hot. Surely if I ate it I would die.”

“Suit yourself,” said the golden-haired girl, and sat down to eat the bowl of pottage on her own. “Suits me fine against the winter’s chill.” She had taken two bites before she remembered to add, “your majesty.”

“Well now,” said the king, after he had stuck out his tongue and waved it around in the cold air. He paused for a while after this, but when the girl said nothing to fill the silence, he added, “Have you nothing else suitable to eat?”

“What would be suitable for you to eat?” asked the golden-haired girl. “Your majesty.”

“A civet of smoked hare,” said the king, “or perhaps a loin of veal all studded with silvered almonds? Would it be too much to ask for a pie of whole roe deer? One would suffice, surely. Failing that, perhaps a simple stew of plums and rose-water, with some of that southern cheese that’s gooey on the inside.” At the thought of proper food, he began to smack his lips and taste the air in front of him.

“Well, we’ve none of that here in the forest,” said the golden-haired girl, “or if we have I’ve never tasted it. Your majesty.”

“Ah well,” said the king.

“If there’s no food here for that suits you,” continued the golden-haired girl, “perhaps you might take a rest? Even if the winter-sleep is not your custom, since you are a bear, you may as well make use of this cave’s warmth.”

“Well,” said the king, “I suppose there’s no harm in it. And I am after all today quite tired.” He began to think back at all that had already happened today, but then stopped. It did not bear thinking about.

“Come here, then,” said the golden-haired girl, and led him deeper into the cave. “Your majesty.” The king was beginning to suspect that her obeisance was not entirely sincere, but set the thought aside.

In time they reached the dark heart of the cave, where the golden-haired girl’s bear family slept in the deepness of their winter-sleep in a great warm bearish pile. “Here you go,” said the girl. “Comfortable for you to join them for tonight, or all winter long, if it suits you.”

The king looked at the great furry pile of bears, all breathing thin in their winter-sleep, then back at the golden-haired girl, then back to the pile. “Do you truly expect us, the true and regal King of all Bears, to lie down in a pile of wild animals, covered in all manner of fleas and parasites? I have born your insults up until now, but this is truly beyon—”

“Your majesty,” she interrupted him, trying to keep her voice low so as to not wake the bears. “Please forgive my impertinence. Let me offer you instead of my own bed of moss and straw. Perhaps you will find it more to your liking.” She gestured towards her own bed—not really a bed at all, more of a disorganized pile—in the corner of the cave.

The king regarded the rough pile of moss and straw with disgust. “Oh, and now you invite us into your bed?! Do you expect ourselves, a king and sovereign in our own right, to fall for the wiles of some common harlot?”

“Please,” said the golden-haired girl, “keep your voice down. You’ll wake the other bears.”

“And why should we care if some common peasants can sleep or not?” roared the king. “You should wake them! Wake them now so that they may bow before us, their new king, and swear to us their eternal loyalty.”

“I really don’t think that’s a good idea—” protested the golden-haired girl.

“Did we ask for your opinion, you presumptuous peasant?” snapped the king and walked over to the pile of still sleeping bears. Angry, he began to cuff and chastise them. “Wake up! Wake now! Wake now and pay fealty to your liege!”

“Please,” said the golden-haired girl, “stop! You don’t know what you’re doing.”

But the king did not listen. He kept hitting the bears. “Wake up! Wake up! Your king demands your attention!”

Slowly, gradually, from the depths of her winter-sleep, the mother bear opened one eye, and then another. “Ragwr . . .” she roared gently, and then again, louder. When the king’s paw came down to strike her again she brushed it aside with such force it knocked him off his feet, sending the crown clattering away.

She growled again, this time in warning and alarm, and then she had the father woke, and then their child. Half-starved from winter-sleep, they fell on the king, and even emaciated they had no difficulty in pinning him to the ground.

I have heard it said, and I know it to be true, that bears will not hunt their meat. But, out of the depths of the winter-sleep, when their hunger is at its apex, there is very little a bear will not do to feed itself. And so, with hungry jaws, they fell upon the king, preparing to devour him whole.

“Stop!” cried the golden-haired girl and then, when they did not listen, threw herself on the king to protect him. “It is true that he is rude, and that he is foolish, and that he knows nothing of being a bear. But he is a bear nonetheless, or may at least some day become one. Sister, did you not come up with me together, learning as I did the paths and patterns of the living forest? And father, was it not you who taught me to grab the salmon from the stream at the dawn of winter-time? And mother, did you not wake every hour to nurse me, even as an infant, before I had learned on my own to wait out your winter-sleep? If you spare him, I promise you, I will teach him all the ways and manners of the bears, and he will soon be like your own family, just as I was.”

I do not know why the golden-haired girl, on that day, showed such mercy, throwing her own life for a bear she had only just met and did not particularly like. I wonder if she even knew why, in that moment, she acted as she did. Perhaps one of you will know the answer? Or perhaps it shall remain a mystery to us all.

Regardless of her motives, the bears even in the depths of their hunger and their rage recognized their own daughter and recognized her desperation. One by one, they slowly backed away, stopping to nuzzle and kiss her, before returning in their great pile to sleep away the darkness.

• • • •

The golden-haired girl was good as her word. All that winter, then through the spring and summer, then year after year, she went out with the king into the forest and taught him all the ways and manners of the bears: every rock and every stream and every tree and how to eat from each one, and which animals lived in which territories, where the wolves left their carrion and where the bees hid their nests. Over time, and with practice, the king learned so well to be a bear that you would never have thought that he was once a prince in a castle, with tutors and nurses and servants. You would not imagine that he had ever been anything except a simple bear.

One morning, years later, as the king and the golden-haired girl set out together in the early dawn to peel themselves the underskins of trees, they spied a young man, a huntsman, making his way through the forest, looking at pawprints, testing the earth, smelling the scats that the animals had left behind. Sensibly, they did not approach him. They hid themselves behind a wide tree and watched him as he began to set great iron jaws on the ground and cover them with leaves and needles.

“I know those,” said the bear king. “Those are bear traps!”

The golden-haired girl gasped. “We must tell the others. We must travel further into the wood, away from men and their traps and hunters.”

“Why would they be setting bear traps? Don’t they know that this is our forest, our country of the bears?”

The golden-haired girl struggled to contain a laugh. “Our forest? When have men ever respected what’s ours and what’s theirs? No, when men arrive, there is no use fighting them. There is nothing for it but to flee further into the wood.”

“You think that way, because you have always lived here, amongst the bears. But I was raised among men. I know that they can be reasoned with. Men put a great deal of stock in laws and customs. We cannot so easily abandon our home! Let me go and speak with him.”

“Suit yourself,” said the girl, who clearly did not think much of his chances.

As the king approached the trapper, he stood up on his hind legs, so that he might present himself as a man among men. “Hail, fellow,” he cried out, and the trapper looked up.

“A bear!” he shouted.

“Yes, I am a bear, and this—” began the king, but the trapper interrupted him.

“Don’t think you scare me, bear!” he shouted. “Other men may cower and run at the sound of your grumblings or at the sight of your claws, but my hatred gives me a courage beyond fear. I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!” He was so angry that he spat.

“What could have—” began to ask the king, before he was once more interrupted.

“I was only a child,” continued the hunter, “when my father was tasked with the care of the king’s pet bear, that he raised and pampered as a prince, while our family was fed like dogs with scraps from the table. All day and all night my father cared for that bear, and never a word or a moment for me! And then, just as capricious, the king tired of his pet. He bade my father take that bear out to this wood, and leave him there to whatever fate might bring. I do not know what the bear did to him, out here in the deep forest where no man goes, but afterwards he was never the same. He wouldn’t eat and would barely sleep, and he would not speak but for to cry. He mourned and he mourned and he wept himself to death. Over what? A bear! So no, I am not afraid of you, bear. I set my traps for the king who has late a taste for bear paw, and I hope his taste lasts and lasts until every one of you is dead.”

The king, shocked by such a display, fell onto his feet and opened his mouth in shock, but in the end, he had nothing to say. He turned and made his way back to the tree where the girl was hiding.

“You were right,” he said. “There is no reasoning with him. He wants nothing more than our death.”

“Men are all alike,” agreed the girl.

“He is dangerous,” said the king. “We should fall on him and tear him apart with our teeth and claws. Then the men will fear us, and fear will keep them from our forest.”

“More fool you,” said the girl. “For if we kill one man, it will do nothing. That will only bring more of them, to avenge him, and then yet more, to contain our threat. There is nothing to be done and there is no time to waste. We must flee further into the forest.”

“But what if, one day, there is no deeper forest to flee to?”

The girl lost patience. “What if! What if! That’s tomorrow’s problem. Let’s go tell the rest of them.”

The bear king, though, was not easily cowed. Even as they ran to tell the other bears about the traps, he thought and thought, turning the problem over in his mind. “What do men do,” he asked himself, “when their lands are trespassed?” He began to think thoughts that he had not thought for a long time, thoughts about war and borders, law and loyalty, men-at-arms and oaths and the nature of the crown.

• • • •

That night, as they lay in the cave and waited for sleep, the king turned to the golden-haired girl and spoke. “When men’s lands are trespassed, they do not as we do and flee into the night.”

“Men are men,” she replied with a shrug, “and bears are bears.”

“But some men do flee,” he said, “and some men fight. The difference is that those who fight have among them a king who will rally them and call them to arms and country, to defend and keep their lands and customs.”

“But we are bears,” said the golden-haired girl.

“But if we had a king,” continued the king, “a true king, a king of all the bears, then maybe we could raise ourselves into an army. We would have no need of steeds and smiths. We have all the arms we need at the ends of our paws. And if we were an army, we would not need to flee deeper into the wood. We could stand here; we could fight here. We could counterattack the kingdoms of men and destroy them so that no hunters and no traps would ever trouble us again.”

“Go to sleep,” she said, and he did. But the golden-haired girl did not. Once she heard what the king had said, she tossed and turned and moaned and muttered. She could not stop thinking.

Finally, near the middle of the night, she got up and stood for a while outside the cave in the pale light of most of the moon. She walked down to the nearby creek, cupped the water in her hands, and stared at it as it stilled, at her face reflected with the moonlight, a bear’s face and yet so unlike a bear. She stared and stared until she felt her hands begin to tingle with the cold. She half-laughed at her own thoughts, splashed her face, then leaned down into the creek. She drank deeply and well.

She walked back into the cave and watched the king sleep for a while, but did not join him. Instead, she made her way deeper into the cave, to the place where once, many winters ago, her mother and father and sister had slept and she had promised her life for another.

When the golden-haired girl woke the bear king, well before dawn, she was holding the old but untarnished crown that had been long left where it had fallen, on the floor and deep within the cave.

“We do have a king,” she said. “We have you.”

• • • •

It was not easy for them to explain to the other bears even what a king was, let alone that they had a king and why that mattered. The bears of the forest were not particularly impressed with the king, or with the crown, although one of them mistook one of the rubies for a berry and tried to eat it. At the end of the first day, they had not even convinced their own bear family. But the bears of the forest knew the girl, and while the bear king was a new arrival, he was no longer a stranger to them. At the end of a week, they had a handful of followers. By the end of the moon, they had dozens. And by the end of the season—when they met in the clear meadow by the banks of the salmon stream, when she bathed him and set the crown upon his head, when she proclaimed “Rex Omnium Ursorum” as he had taught her—every bear in the forest was in attendance.

That winter, the bears of the forest retreated into their caves and burrows. But they did not sleep. They trained.

“Listen,” said the golden-haired girl, deep under the earth, with all the bears of the forest standing at attention before her. “When you live as beast, you eat what you can, and when you are done eating, you rest, you sleep, you play. But when you are a soldier, you cannot rest when your day’s eating is done. You must march, you must fight, you must never allow yourself to stop until the foe is defeated. Surprise and discipline are our greatest treasures, and if we devour the reserves of the first farmstead we take, and return to our forests replete, we will have squandered them both.”

The bears listened to her, and they learned that and many things besides.

“Listen,” said the King of All Bears, with his subjects arrayed and alert around him. “We bears do not fight together as men do, nor as wolves do, for we are bears, the greatest creatures in the forest without care or fear. But it is because of this that men may divide us, may surround us, may entrap us with their shields and skewer us with their spears. We are stronger than men, and greater, but if we are to defeat them we must be able fight together, we must fight as one, we must hold the line. Do you know what that means? It means that even if you are hurt, even if you are afraid, you must not fall back, you must not give men a space to breech. Even if it means your own death, at least let it not mean your fellows’.”

The bears listened to him, and practiced, and drilled, and learned that and many other things besides.

That spring, the bears attacked.

The king had long supplied forts along his border, to protect from the incursions of his rivals to the south. He had even a set of patrols and alerts along the sea-coast, for protection from any foreign men a-viking. But he had never deployed any forts or armies against the forest, the deep forest, for none lived in the forest but the bears, and what army could ever cross it?

So bears tore across the land. They ripped open houses, tore apart cows, and sent waves of refugees fleeing to the protection of the capital. If they had been less disciplined, they might have stopped to devour the larders and the cellars as spoils of their conquest, and perhaps then the king’s knights might have had time to rally against them as they slept in contented sleep. But instead they marched together, as one, with the golden-haired girl next to them shouting, “Do not stop and do not eat! Let our first feast be on the entrails of the king!”

The people retreating from the bears’ advance took with them horrible stories of an army of bears, and at their head a bear crowned in gold, with a golden-haired woman at his side. “Queen of the Bears,” they called her, but none of them recognized in her the image of the old queen. The old midwife might have told them the truth of it, but she had died long since.

By the time they reached the capital, the king had managed to rally a defense, withdrawing himself and his court into the keep, with the walls all set with spearmen and archers. But the bear king, who had spent his whole youth wandering the halls and tunnels of the castle, knew well every secret way, and he and the girl and their family with them snuck under cover of darkness deep into the castle, into the keep, into the royal chambers where the king huddled with his personal guard, all easily dispatched.

“Please!” the king begged, as if he had not just last week been feasting on bear paw, “I have no enmity with you! Bears are bears and men are men. Let us set aside our quarrel. Return to your forest, leave us this land, and we will never trouble you again.”

“Surrender now,” said the bear king but the other king, panicked and blubbering, did not understand him.

“Men are liars,” said the golden-haired girl. “Don’t believe. We must end this now.”

“It is not noble—” began the king, but then his gaze fixed upon the golden-haired girl. “Wait!” he said, as he recognized in her the visage of his former queen. “It’s you! You are my lost daughter, stolen away by that wicked witch of a midwife. How you must have suffered, abandoned to these creatures, how you must have yearned for the love of your true father! Oh, my poor girl. Come and embrace me, turn against these monsters.”

The golden-haired girl looked at him, but did not speak.

“Daughter!” cried the king. “Why do you not embrace me, your father?”

“I am not the child you should cry out for,” the golden-haired girl responded. “Do you not recognize your own son, who you raised for twelve-and-one years, who you loved and named your heir, who you sent out into the deep forest with nothing but a golden crown to protect him? He is the one that needed you! He is the one that was abandoned!”

The king turned to stare at the bear king. He did not recognize the bear, but when he recognized the crown, he began to choke.

“I already have a father,” continued the golden-haired girl, and her bear-father came to stand beside her, “and a mother and brothers and sisters besides.” As she spoke, the other bears of her family stood around her, hungrily eyeing the prone king.

“Daughter!” cried the king, but it was no use. The bears—mother and father and daughters and even their adopted bear king—fell upon the old king and ate him, guts and all.

I have heard that, after they finished with the old king, the bear king and the golden-haired girl sat together on the thrones in the great hall, and declared themselves by right of birth and conquest the queen and king over all the forest and all the lands. I have heard it said, and I believe it to be true, that they declared that from that day forth, no men would be welcome in their kingdom, and that the whole of it would be turned over to the bears and their salmon, the deer and their runs, and all the other creatures of the forest. I have heard it, but I have never seen it with my own eyes, for from that generation, and for all the time since, no man has again set foot in that kingdom, on the shores of the Great Sweet Sea. It the bears’ country now, and what stories they keep in it are theirs alone.

That is the story, the whole and the heart of it, just as it happened and just as it was told to me. If any man call me a liar, he has only himself to blame.

 

—Thanks to Fae Garet for her help with Latin translation.

P H Lee

P H Lee lives on top of an old walnut tree, past a thicket of roses, down a dead end street at the edge of town. Their work has appeared in many venues including Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Uncanny Magazine. From time to time, they microwave and eat a frozen burrito at two in the morning, for no reason other than that they want to.