• Maira Galabard

#6 The Bear and the King

Only a few days until full moon and we’re barely halfway. Some roads to Ásterle have been blocked due to recent storms, others because Pluien and Vental are still deciding who is in charge of the bridge over the Twin Rivers.


“Can’t we swim across the rivers?”, ventures the young bard.


Very astute, Aiga. What a revolutionary thought. Swim across the rivers! The thought hadn’t crossed my mind. Maybe it hadn’t because it’s a terrible idea.

“Unless you have a death wish, I’d suggest crossing the next bridge. Look at the river flow. If you toss a stone there… Aiga, what are you doing?!”


I stop the bard, who already has one foot across the not-very-secure rope meant to prevent people from approaching the nearest river.


“I want a warm bed!”, Aiga complains. It’s the first time I hear her complain in a non-sarcastic manner. “I want warm food, warm shoes, a fire, perhaps hot tea… Is it so much to ask?”


“The other bridge is only half a day from here”, I reply. My bag and clothes feel heavier than usual, soaked in rain. I can feel the pain in my bones and muscles, and my feet are always damp. The constant threat of rains and storms above us. We will fall ill at this rate.

“Uh… Sir? There’s a carriage going from here to the Ilfa bridge. Only a couple of hours.” It’s one of the guards, who probably heard me giving Aiga a shout. “Very scenic view”, he adds.


We thank him and he points us in the right direction. The fee isn’t too high, and we manage to get onto the midday ride. The carriage is quite old, pulled by a pair of oxes. Aside from the driver, it’s only an old farmer, Aiga and I. We’re given a change of wool socks and a provisional pair of dry shoes for a small extra cost. Thank the gods for Narivian hospitality.


The old farmer ups his index and heart fingers, and mutters a prayer as the carriage goes past a distant meadow by one of the rivers.


“É fir rhe ná?”, he says, addressing both Aiga and I.

“What did he say?”, Aiga whispers.


“Will you not pray?”, I repeat. “I’m not sure he understands Common.”


Aiga nods, smiles at the old man and imitates his gesture with enviable skill. The man seems pleased and bothers us no more.


“Why did he pray?”, Aiga whispers again. Discretion has never been her forte when talking about other people in front of other people.

“Oh, you know. For protection. There are vasarigæ across this part of the river, though they’re harmless. Treaties and all.”


The bard’s eyes widen.


“Vasarigæ?”


Her nose is already glued to the window, her hat almost falling off her coal hair, her eyes a swirl of emotion, possibly thrill and awe despite there are no vasarigæ in sight.

“Say, storyteller. You know a lot of stories”, she begins.

“Oh no, I know where this is going”, I halt her, my hand halfway up to emphasise my words. “Tales about vasarigæ are forbidden, unless they’re the losing party.”

“The old man over there won’t understand, and it’s too noisy out in the carriage for the driver to hear. Come on”, she says in an imploring tone.


For a moment, she reminds me of my eldest daughter.


“Ugh, fine”, I give in. It hasn’t taken her much effort. “But a very, very short one.”


***


The Bear and the King


We’ve all heard of King Volkgam II, no matter how old or young, for he has ruled the Kingdom of Nordruna for over eighty years. Not that I’ve ever been to Nordruna, of course, but one gathers stories here and there for a cheap pint of ale.


He’s fearsome, half a giant. An enemy no-one would like to face on the battlefield. But he’s not only a warrior. He’s a strategist, a master tactician, a respected general and the coldest-hearted man on the face of Alor.

Or so they say.


The Kingdom of Nordruna had very few resources, famine plagued the land, and a terrible sickness had taken the lives of many. What Volkgam II would inherit from his father wasn’t a great kingdom. But it was a kingdom.

The day Volkgam II was crowned king, there was an uprising. The result of his father’s poor ruling over the past twenty years. Young Volkgam was dragged away from the fortress and hidden deep into the woods, escorted by twenty personal guards.

Of course, the snow wasn’t their ally that day Armed with axes and swords, the villagers from the nearby towns and hamlets were quick to spot and follow their tracks.

However, little did the villagers know that an enormous bear roamed those woods. The guards were also unaware of that fact as they delved into the depths of the forest, stepping into the beast’s territory.


There was a massacre. The gigantic beast slaughtered each and every single guard and villager that had stepped into the forest, all save for Volkgam II, who stood, defiant, in the bear’s path.


What happened between the bear and the King is unbeknownst to everyone, for King Volkgam II has never shared, but he returned to the city riding the ferocious beast. The revolters, scared, left the fortress and were persecuted by the King himself, war-hammer in hand, on the back of the beast.

What is known, however, is that the King kept the bear beside him at all times, until the bear died of old age. What prompted him to keep the beast for so long, he will probably bring it to his grave, whenever that moment may be.

***

“A history lesson hidden within a tale? Does this sound like poetry to me?”


I can’t roll my eyes hard enough as Aiga pronounces those words.


“I don’t do poetry. I tell stories, for a modest fee”, I say. I notice Aiga’s dreamy look again. “Don’t you make songs about the barbarian king now.”


“I can’t help it!”, she laughs as she hums a few verses. “Would he accept a truce with us, osvarii, if he knew we were making nice songs about him?”

“By the gods, Aiga. He hunts osvarii for sport. He collects our faces. He hangs them on the fortress’s walls. No, you don’t want your songs to reach his ears”, I retort. “I regret falling into your trap.”

The bard smiles, her arms folded as she rests her back against the carriage’s seat.

“I’m just wondering what happened in that forest”, she says.


“I’m assuming brute force”, I retort, not very adventurous.

“Perhaps… Perhaps he could speak to the bear! Maybe they had a connection! I mean, if we can do that through mahrym I don’t see why they can’t—“

I hush her with a gesture. She covers her mouth, eyes the old farmer, who’s practically drooling in his sleep, and nods as if she has understood me.

Although she really hasn’t, I know where her train of thought would’ve led her. The last thing I need is Aiga wondering if the bear in the story was a morpher. An osvari. One of our kind.

I mean, maybe he was one of our kind. I never managed to get that information out of the king, not even after twenty pints of ale.