by Cordelia Harrison
Martin Stern stared at the empty steel cage, rattling at the back of the wagon. The bear that had occupied it died last year. A dog bite gone septic. His uncle Hostle had made a drunken bet with a poacher, swearing that the beast could take on the man’s wolfhound. The grizzly was old, arthritic and tired. It hadn't stood a chance once the hound was set loose.
Royston Stern’s rage had been terrible to behold and Martin, though used to his father’s anger, had been terrified for his uncle. Royston was furious, not just at the stupidity of the bet, but the death of the bear, whose long captivity had made it docile as a lamb. Nothing brought in coin quicker than a dancing grizzly and a group of minstrels; without the bear they were no different to any other itinerant musicians.
In truth, Martin was glad the creature was dead for its constant despair had been horrible. Its lurching, pathetic dance always made him feel like weeping. His father frequently sneered that he was far too soft for the travelling life. His dark long-lashed eyes, golden curls and distaste for fighting, were an object of ridicule to many.
The leader of their minstrel clan, Royston was hard, cruel and brutal, with an insatiable lust for violence. He wore tanned leather breeches and puffed on a long ebony pipe. Crafty, with an innate knowledge of how to swindle, he was feared and venerated by the rest of the troupe, and his reputation was well known on the roads they travelled and in the towns where they rested. Martin, though, despised him. He’d felt the back of his father's hand far too many times. Royston once caught him feeding tender scraps of meat to the old grizzly, and had dealt him a blow so hard it sent him sprawling in the dust.
“The beast eats what I say it does, and nothing more. You want to pamper it like one of your sister's lap dogs? You want to make it so fat and greedy that it refuses to perform?”
He had hit Martin again for good measure, and made his ears ring.
“You'll sleep outside camp this evening for your stupidity. And if I ever catch you indulging that thing again, that's where you'll permanently spend your nights.”
Adiva, Martin's mother, a quiet woman with the same soft brown eyes as her son, tried to intervene, and got a slap across the face for her trouble. Martin had nursed his grievances for days.
Now, to his distaste, they were getting a new bear. The animal market, held in the south, was where Martin's father hoped to procure a cub. It would be expensive, but the company agreed: it was the right thing to do. The old grizzly had been the best purchase they'd ever made.
“Training up a cub is the way to do it.” Old Longleaf, Martin’s great uncle, had nodded. He was crafty like his feared nephew, but surprisingly mellow in temperament. The old man always reminded Martin of a stork, with his tall frame and large beak of a nose. “Folk love a dancing bear, we all knows, and that animal was the reason we didn't spend past winters freezing without a camp fire and starving without food.”
Hostle, Royston’s younger brother, had retrieved the old grizzly's training whip in readiness. He resembled his brother somewhat, but was shorter and fatter, red-faced from drinking too many spirits. He swung the whip cockily as he paraded around the camp. Martin felt sick just watching.
“He's a vicious bastard, but I’ll give you him for half a gold.” The keeper smiled, showing black voids where teeth were missing.
Hostle moved away from the cat and Martin's father shook his head. “Nah, it’s a bear we want. A young cub, black or grizzly.”
“Aye.” The keeper nodded, kept grinning; the teeth that remained were tobacco stained. “Got just the thing. Here in the back.” He led them towards cages at the far end of his stall. Martin followed reluctantly, but he knew if he ran off he’d incur Royston’s wrath again. Next to a pair of small growling timber wolves was a black bear cub, crouched in a tiny cage and slavering furiously. Its dark eyes glinted with what Martin could only describe as resentment, and its fur was matted and filthy, hopping with fleas.
“Caught him near Blackwood Forest.” The keeper cackled. “Taken a few swipes at me, he has, but he ain't got me yet. One gold.”
To Martin's surprise, his father and uncle were exchanging glances.
“Blackwood Forest?” Hostle said, with a raised eyebrow.
“Aye, near it. Set a trap one night and there he was the next morning. And these as well.” He pointed to the wolf cubs. Martin's father scowled, taking a long drag from his pipe.
“Near, you say. Not in. Man's a fool who ventures there. We never take the caravans down that way, not worth the risk.”
Martin realised with some surprise that this was actually true, not some scheme to lower the price. The minstrels had always gone the long road, anxious to avoid going through the Blackwood. They never even camped within sight of the wilderness, always kept some kind of natural barrier in between, a copse of trees, a hill, a rock fall.
“We know the tales,” Royston continued pointedly. The keeper frowned as if seeing his sale swiftly disappear before his eyes.
“You ain't tellin' me you believe those old stories? A great black demon that lives in the woods? I’d not have taken you for a lackwit child, Royston Stern.” The man injected a note of disdain into his tone, but not too much: many knew the minstrel’s temper and few would risk it.
“Not stories,” Hostle said, spitting a gob of phlegm. “It's travellers’ way, to know the difference between wives’ tales and truth. Lost family down there, years ago.”
Royston silenced him with a look just as Martin’s curiosity was piqued, then said, “We've wasted our time. Not interested.”
The men began to walk away. The keeper swore and wrung his hands. He was desperate to get the animal sold.
“I'll lower the price for the bear. Half gold!” he fair shouted. “And I swear to you it’s not from the Blackwood.”
“One silver! And my word!”
“No.” Royston kept moving, pushing past Martin, who blinked in amazement: the named price was such a bargain that even he knew it. By rights, his father should have been cackling and rubbing his hands together.
“Six coppers! Five coppers! One copper!” Martin’s father and uncle stopped. A copper for a young black bear wasn't just a bargain: it was a miracle. Travellers were frugal folk and loath to turn down any kind of deal. Royston turned, chewing the edge of his pipe. His eyes were slit in suspicion.
Hostle touched his arm. “No, brother.”
“Shut up, fool,” Royston snarled and glared at the keeper. “One copper and your word that this bear doesn’t come from the Blackwood?”
“That's right.” The keeper gasped.
But Martin could tell the man was, if not entirely lying, then not entirely honest. He wondered why his father chose not to see it. Perhaps Royston was convinced by his own legend, that no one in his right mind would try to cheat the master minstrel. Martin looked at his uncle’s face: Hostle clearly thought there’d be a price to pay for this bargain.
The market was far behind them when night fell. The cub in the wagon snarled and swiped at anyone who came in reach. Martin, sitting by the fire, practised tunes on his flute, ones he knew as intuitively as he knew how to breathe, but his main goal was distraction. He tried to forget about the cub, but whenever it moved he heard the clanking and scraping of its chains. When the youth finally fell into an uneasy sleep, he found no peace there either.
He walked through a forest, long, dark and deep. Wizened trees cast heavy shadows, and the night was all around. No moon gleamed and he could only make out the tiniest hint of stars. He moved slowly down the winding path, through the undergrowth. There was nothing but silence until a huge black bear lumbered out of the wilderness and stood on the trail before him. It was bigger than anything he had ever seen. Its eyes burned crimson, and its lips curled in a menacing snarl. Martin quailed in fright. He stared at the creature, his breath ragged.
“Are you a demon?” he asked in a small voice.
“Mortals have named me so for generations,” the bear rasped, low as rumbling thunder. It rose onto its hind legs and swiped at the air with a paw the size of a boulder. “I am the guardian of Blackwood Forest. Look upon me, and know your master.”
Martin swallowed, unable to speak. The bear's red eyes smoldered.
“Your people have stolen one of my own and bound him with chains. They have broken old laws, desecrated old treaties.” The guardian pawed at the ground, which began to shake. Shame overwhelmed him, and Martin bowed his head.
“I am sorry.”
“You must put this wrong to right, boy. I charge you with this task.”
“Why me? I’m no one! Powerless!”
“Your sympathy for the creature has drawn me to you. It creates a lien, a bond. Honour it or my vengeance will be most terrible.”
“What must I do?” Martin wailed. The great bear stared balefully at him.
“Don't you already know? You must free him.”
Martin woke in a tangle of blankets, gasping. His heart pounded like a hammer inside his chest. He rubbed his eyes. There was no dark forest, nor huge black bear demanding service of him.
It had been nothing but a dream. He buried his face in his hands, vaguely nauseous. Already he could hear the new cub outside, growling and pacing, dragging its chains like unwanted limbs. Martin’s stomach turned as he staggered upright.
A night terror, nothing more. It was born of guilt alone. And not something he could imagine sharing with his father.
Later that day, Hostle and Royston dragged the bear from its cage and tried to make it perform. When it refused to dance they beat it with the training whip, and, when that did not work, turned its own chains against it. The rest of the clan sat around, on the steps of caravans, on stumps of trees, on logs, even on the rough ground, and watched, whooping gleefully as the bear desperately snarled and pawed at its collar. Lana, Martin's spiteful younger sister, shrieked with amusement and joined in, throwing rocks at the bear’s head. Hostle had apparently overcome his reluctance and was happily taking part in the impromptu circus.
Martin turned away, fighting the urge to weep. As he stumbled back to his caravan, choking back tears, he found Adiva seated near the campfire, setting herself apart from the spectacle. Mother and son alike abhorred cruelty.
“Your father is a fool,” Adiva spoke quietly, idly dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief. “Taking a creature from the Blackwood? Oh, I know what that keeper swore, but I don’t trust him any further than I might throw him. That's enough to tempt the devil himself.”
Martin swallowed painfully. “Why?”
“Your grandfather, the one you never met − my father. He camped there alone once, a long time before you were born. He was proud and loved to go hunting for our clan. He went in at night and...” She paused and shook her head. “They found him at dawn the next day, torn to shreds, his traps destroyed, his spears in splinters.”
Martin gaped in horror. “What?!”
His mother nodded sadly. “Yes. Why do you think I married Royston? With the clan leader gone, we were lost, destitute. I had no choice.”
Reeling from his mother's words, Martin walked away in a daze. When night came again, his dreams were even worse.
The forest was darker than he remembered, more insidious, more threatening. And the great guardian of the Blackwood appeared before him once more. The creature slavered furiously, huge drops of saliva dripped from its powerful jaws. Martin was surprised to learn he could be even more frightened than the previous encounter.
“My subject still suffers, held prisoner by your people, and tormented! Why have you failed me?” The black bear roared so the trees around them shuddered and swayed. Martin clapped his hands to his ears.
“My father would kill me!”
The guardian's red eyes blazed.
“No excuses! Free him even if it means your own life. His pain is felt not just by one but by all in the Blackwood. I will not allow this to continue. Would your own sire do any less if you were so treated?”
Martin did not have the courage to say that his father would gladly see the back of him, but the bear did not wait for an answer.
“Promise me you will release him. Otherwise I will devour all you love!”
Though Martin felt no sadness at the thought of Royston’s bones crunched between the beast’s teeth, he had no wish to see his mother done to death, so he nodded, and spoke in a quavering voice, “I promise.”
The bear bellowed to seal their pact and the sound rang against the trees and flew up into the night sky.
The youth awoke, almost tumbling out of his bed. Sweat poured down his face, and when he stepped from the caravan he shivered in the morning cold. A little of the darkness remained and he thought it might give him some cover.
When he reached the cage, the black cub glowered at him. Its eyes glittered and reminded him of the guardian’s gleaming orbs. Martin could see bloody marks in the animal's matted fur, and the naked patches where the steel collar rubbed away his hide and dug into the flesh beneath.
“I want to free you,” Martin whispered, kneeling on the grass in front of the cage. “Truly I do.”
The cub growled, but only a little and its gaze softened as if it had understood.
Grinding his teeth, the youth made up his mind. Even if his dreams were of his own guilty creation, he knew right from wrong. He had witnessed the pain of the old grizzly for too long. It was enough. He would not let it happen again. Quickly, he began unlocking the cage, his fingers scrabbling at the latch. He wrenched open the heavy steel door, groaning at the weight. The bear seemed to know what he was about and didn't lash out, but stood patiently. Martin started to tug at catch on the metal collar, careful not to make the wounds worse.
“Boy!” A voice bellowed behind him. “What in the name of the nine hells, do you think you are doing?!” Flinching, Martin rose and whirled around. He was terrified, but determined to stand his ground: he knew right from wrong. Royston stormed towards him, the training whip swinging in one hand.
“I... I...” Martin choked, all his determination, all his reasoning, fleeing along with his words. His father closed the distance between them, and swiftly slammed shut the cage door, hitting the cub in the process. The bear roared in protest, but its fear of Royston matched Martin’s and it retreated to the back of its prison.
“I knew it. You've been staring like a lovesick girl at that beast for days! Are you sick in the head, boy? Are you stunted? Would you deprive us of our means of support, let the beast run off and leave the clan to starve? You little bastard! I'll fix you!”
The training whip rose and fell and rose and fell again, so many times that Martin lost count before he lost consciousness. Pain shot through him like lightening, sharp as a knife slash that left a prolonged ache behind. He couldn't think or breathe. As he curled, trying to make himself into a smaller target, he spotted the bear gazing at him. Then everything went black.
Martin was still tightly curved in on himself, but all around him was darkness, and the ground on which he lay was not the cold dirt damp with morning dew where he’d fallen. He twitched and felt a carpet of leaves beneath him, almost luxurious. But he ached, the legacy of his father’s rage had not been left behind. He heard a snuffling and hot breath puffed by his ear, the strong musk of bear surrounded him. Martin did not move.
“I saw how you tried.” The guardian’s voice was sorrowful. “I did not know a father would treat his son thus.”
Still Martin did not speak. He had failed, the cub remained a prisoner. He himself was as useless as Royston claimed. Whatever the guardian did to him now would be a release.
“You are only a cub yourself,” the great bear rumbled. “You alone have earned my protection. You have my word.”
Martin felt a hot, wet tongue rasp across his cheek. Instead of relief he felt only exhausted despair: he had to go back. He was still alive for Royston to torment. This reprieve was just another punishment.
He closed his eyes to keep the tears in.
“I know what I told you. But I had no idea you'd take matters into your own hands like that. You shouldn’t have done it. ”
His mother sat beside the bed in the dimness of the caravan. She’d cleaned his cuts of blood and dirt, and smeared salve on the places where bruises were already starting to show. A bowl of soup sat cooling in her lap for he refused to eat.
“Martin, you know how he is.”
Still he said nothing and soon Adiva gave up. Later he heard her through the walls, weeping quietly outside. He did not call to her.
Days passed, flew into weeks, then months. Martin’s body recovered slowly, though his ribs constantly ached and his skin was forever marked; he’d become terribly quiet, giving only the briefest of answers and never initiating conversations. The black bear, no longer a cub, was still imprisoned, and it had learned, painfully, how to dance. It could roll on command and jump through hoops now; Royston and Hostle had seen to that. Martin, too, knew his place: as part of his punishment, his father had decided that Martin should be the one to take care of the animal, to feed it, ensure its chains were tight, its cage door locked. It was Royston’s final triumph, to make the boy a jailor.
No further dreams plagued him, and although he sometimes thought a dark voice called to him in the night, he ignored it. He supposed the guardian of the Blackwood was nothing more than a figment of his sorry imagination.
When at last spring broke winter’s hold, Royston and Hostle were confident that the bear was ready to perform in public. At the fêtes it would bring them much coin, and Blossom Fall was the first and largest of the festivals, an event at which all travelers and poachers, farmers and wandering workers set aside arguments and rivalries. Martin’s clan were the hired musicians for the official opening, instructed to fill the cathedral-like glade with music as soon as the men with long grey beards and the women in flowing green dresses had finished their benedictions and speeches to bless the earth and harvest.
Martin and his family struck up a tune and around them the crowds danced and reeled, swooped and whooped. The minstrels were breaking into the lively opening lines to 'Bonny maiden' when Royston and Hostle led the black bear into the space left for the musicians at the center of the glade. Shouts and gasps rang out as the creature ambled along at the end of the chain. Martin watched as people applauded in excitement.
As the bear began its staggering dance, Martin’s heart grew heavier. The creature had learnt obedience through suffering and its routine through punishment. It rolled when its chain was yanked, and leaped through a red hoop when tapped with the whip. It was barely recognizable as the young cub it had been: it had grown large, though not as large at the guardian, its limbs strong and weighty, its head quite huge, and its claws so long that they poked out each time its paws splayed on the ground as it walked. Its fur was tangled and crawling with lice, there were red, raw patches on its thick neck where the collar rubbed fiercely, yet no one else seemed to notice, or indeed care. The crowd was roaring with glee, and coins were raining down as the bear lurched in time to the music.
Martin closed his eyes for a few moments, the sight of the collar a bright afterimage behind his eyelids. The ugly thing shone in the darkness. In his memory, his own fingers looked like large white maggots against the black as they closed the catch, slid the pin through the latch but did not quite tighten it enough.
As Old Longleaf sounded the opening lines to the bawdy 'My love, the crofter's daughter,' Martin opened his eyes once again, just in time to see the steel collar, shaken loose with the bear’s movements, suddenly unlatch and fall from the creature’s neck. The lead Royston was holding went slack.
The bear was free.
There was a horrid silence and for long moments no one moved, not the crowd, not the musicians whose playing had petered out in sad broken notes. Certainly not Martin's father who gaped in horror at the bear as it slowly, majestically, rose on its hind legs and grew, taking on the proportions of the guardian of the Blackwood.
Then the screams began.
The black bear shook itself as if waking from a long slumber, then his great bellow of fury almost, but not quite, drowned out the cries of the dead and dying as he set about taking his revenge. Sharp teeth and sharper claws rent the soft flesh of those around him, all while Martin watched with a wide gaze and an open mouth. The huge forepaws pounded a rhythm in the dirt as if the creature were a drummer, and his black eyes had an astonishing crimson light to them.
With deliberate delight he tore into Royston and Hostle, mauling them both with his powerful jaws. Martin’s father and uncle disappeared in a bloody haze. Those in the crowd with any sense fled; Martin’s family tried futilely to distract the bear, but their instruments were useless as weapons and the beast associated the things with its torment so it only made it more vicious. Soon they, too, were victims.
Martin waited in an unmoving stupor as his mother and sister were shaken from side to side like rag-dolls. Old Longleaf didn’t even try to get away from the bear when it took off his head with a crunching of bones and teeth. Poachers armed with bows tried to cut the creature down, but their weapons had no effect. The arrows could not pierce the heavy coat. Soon the poachers followed the last of the stragglers. It was not long before there was only Martin.
The youth stared at the bear: red dripped from its jaws and claws, clots of flesh clung to its fur as it finally stood motionless. Its eyes had become black again and there was no trace of the crimson glow left; the beast seemed bemused, almost befuddled.
Martin sighed so deeply it turned into a groan. He shuddered. Bears were just animals. They were never pointlessly vicious. They didn't go on mindless mauling rampages and they certainly weren't immune to arrows. They didn’t grow in the blink of an eye. Forest guardians did not speak to people in their dreams and make demands of them.
Why was he the only one left alive?
Then the youth remembered the final words of the Blackwood guardian: You alone have earned my protection.
Martin’s legs buckled underneath him. He crumpled to the ground and buried his face in his hands. He heard the bear approach, could smell its rank scent, and hear its hoarse, snuffling breath. But in place of pain, of rending claws and tearing teeth, the beast merely licked his ear.
When the boy cracked his eyes open, he saw the bear running wildly away, no longer a vengeful demon, but merely a terrified animal. It crashed through the undergrowth and tore through branches. It called out blindly as it fled, as if innocently amazed by its freedom. There was no doubt in Martin's mind where it was going.
Back to the Blackwood.
Cordelia Harrison has a BA honours in Classical Civilisation from Warwick University and an MA in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester. She has a love of ancient mythology and a fascination for all things gothic and macabre. She primarily writes dark fantasy.
What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?
Quite simple. Keep writing no matter what and never give up.