Warning: Violence and Adult Themes
Fiesl rotated the spit over the cookfire, watching the flames snap at the rabbit's pink flesh.
He spoke a quiet prayer for the animal and the forest rustled as if whispering his prayer back to him. Fiesl shuddered and wrapped his cloak tighter around his tunic. His father used to say these woods lay at the edge of the world and that, sometimes, other worlds bled in.
The rabbit’s legs flopped as the spit completed its spin. Fiesl remembered how frantically they had scrabbled at the air as his uncle’s fist held the rabbit aloft by its ears before cutting its throat with a knife so sharp the head was separated from the body. His uncle had tossed the head to Fiesl, who blanched when he saw the rabbit’s nose was still quivering as if catching the scent of its own death.
After the sickness took his parents, Fiesl began trailing his uncle and his two companions. The three men were mercenaries when paid, cutthroats when not. Fiesl cooked their meals and peddled their spoils, never daring to ask whose blood it was he washed from their clothes.
In the distance, a wolf howled. Fiesl twisted away from the fire and gazed into the blackness that lurked just beyond the firelight. The surrounding trees had thick trunks and branches that grew over and around each other, blocking out the moon and stars above. He shivered. There was something strange about the dark, as if there were shapes within it, just outside the reach of the flickering light, that were blacker than the dark. He squinted, sensing the shapes more than seeing them…
A clunk against his head sent Fiesl sprawling. He lay on the ground, his cheek pressed against a cool patch of moss, and waited for the ringing in his ears to pass. The offending weapon, a fist sized rock, rested by his elbow.
Someone pinched the thin skin behind his knee. Fiesl pushed himself upright.
“Don’t burn that there meat, boy,” said Lufter, his fingers poised to deliver another attack, “Or I’ll roast you for supper.” He gnashed his rotten teeth at Fiesl and one of the scabs peppering his face flaked off, fresh pus oozing from the sore.
Fiesl hunched his shoulders and scooted away from the reedy man before resuming his spit turning duties with one hand, the other holding his pulsing temple.
To Fiesl’s right, Harbig laughed. “Too thri-stringy,” he said, the words sloshing about in the drunkard’s mouth. He slapped his belly and took a swig from the wineskin, still laughing, and wine dribbled onto his red beard. Harbig had so much red hair covering his body, he often joked, that he didn’t need clothes in a snowstorm.
“Boy’s bleeding,” came a voice from the shadows. Across the campsite, Fiesl’s Uncle Balhuur leaned against a tree, tossing a knife in the air and deftly catching its handle each time.
Fiesl lifted his hand from his forehead and was surprised to find it sticky with blood.
Harbig clapped Fiesl’s shoulder with a meaty hand, nearly knocking him over.
“Do you good with the ladies to have a mysterious scar. Not all of us can be as pretty as Balhuur,” said Harbig. “Balhuur gets all the girls, with his curls like honey they want to lap up…” Harbig belched. “Lufter is doubly unlucky with women compared to your uncle. Ugly as a hog and two good ears with which to hear them talk-”
There was a minor disturbance in the air, like the single flap of an owl’s wings. The knife protruded from Harbig’s belly, vibrating slightly. Harbig’s breath left him in a puff. His mouth hung open as he patted the dark stain spreading across his tunic.
Then Harbig lifted the wineskin off his stomach. Purple liquid streamed from where the knife had imbedded itself.
“My wine,” he muttered weakly, tilting his head to catch the escaping alcohol on his tongue.
“Two days to Halder’s Den. They say it’ll be a silver a man,” said Balhuur, pushing his heel against the tree trunk to stand up. “And plenty more wine.”
Balhuur walked past Harbig and retrieved his knife with a yank that sent wine cascading over the burly man’s face. Harbig spluttered but said nothing.
Balhuur stood over Fiesl, his long hair falling in waves over the top of his bearskin cloak, covering his shredded ear, the result of a dog attack some years ago.
When Balhuur was cloaked in shadows, Fiesl could almost imagine he was seeing his late father, but here in the fire’s glow, the illusion was broken. This man was straighter, more angular, his whole being reminiscent of the edge of blade. Even his eyes, pale gray, seemed born of metal.
Those steel eyes now bore into Fiesl’s. “Pick it up,” he said.
Fiesl blinked in confusion. His uncle’s gaze shifted to the dirt at Fiesl’s feet; the boy followed it to the rock that Lufter had bounced off his temple minutes ago.
“Pick it up,” Balhuur repeated.
Fiesl did. The side that had faced the fire was warm against his skin.
Fiesl stood, his head level with Balhuur’s chest.
Balhuur placed the flat of the knife on Fiesl’s cheek and pushed the boy’s head to the left. “A man strikes back.”
Fiesl looked down at Lufter, whose weasel eyes were darting between Fiesl’s and Balhuur’s faces and the rock in wary puzzlement. After a moment, the seated man’s eyes widened and he moved to stand, but another glance at Balhuur stilled him.
The rock seemed to be growing hotter in Fiesl’s palm and it felt like it had its own heartbeat. He realized he was clutching the rock so tightly he could feel his own pulse in his hand. He turned to face Lufter, who was frozen in a half crouch like Fiesl had caught him mid bowel movement.
The firelight flickered across Lufter’s scabbed face, accompanied by an expression it took Fiesl a moment to place. When he did, a hot flush rose on his cheeks. Fear. In this moment, Lufter was afraid, and Fiesl was the cause.
The rock was heavy, solid. Fiesl imagined lifting it, bring its weight down on Lufter’s jaw with a crack so loud it would send birds scattering skyward, imagined Lufter’s blackened teeth spraying across the dirt.
The stone pulsated in his hand. He took a step closer.
Spittle gathered at the corner of Lufter’s mouth, his lips wriggling like worms, failing to form intelligible words. He whimpered.
Fiesl thought of the rabbit.
The rock dropped from his fingers and landed with a thud on the ground.
His uncle stepped in front of Fiesl. His bearskin cloak had the earthy smell of mud and decaying leaves. Balhuur slipped the tip of his knife under Fiesl’s jaw and tilted the boy’s chin up. He rested his fingers gently on Fiesl’s wound, then pressed down, curving his fingers so the nails bit into the boy’s opened skin. New rivulets of blood trickled down Fiesl’s cheek like hot tears. His gray eyes flayed Fiesl, peeling back layers until all that remained was a quivering, shameful cowardice.
Then he turned on his heel and strode to the other side of the fire.
The campsite was quiet except for Balhuur’s knife, singing with each swipe across the sharpening stone.
Fiesl was still on his feet. He felt oafish and ungainly and wanted to curl into himself, but feared that if he moved to sit, he would cry. He bit his lower lip hard enough to draw blood and focused on a floating ember, followed its orange glow until to fizzled into nothingness at the edge of the black forest where…
Where a woman stood.
He squeezed his eyes shut then looked again. She was still there, this apparition, a few years older than Fiesl and a good hand taller. He shook his head at her, willing her to vanish, to flee back into the forest. Whatever terrors the dark held for a young woman, they couldn’t be worse than the three men gathered here.
She did not heed his warning. Instead, she strode forward, her footfalls as silent as a lynx’s. “May I share your fire, good sirs?” she called, “for there are beasts in these wood tonight.” Her voice, deep and melodic, reminded Fiesl of his mother’s lullabies.
Four pairs of eyes followed the woman as she crossed the clearing then sat in the space between Balhuur and Harbig. She reclined on her elbows and shook her hair, a dark tangled mass that reached her waist, twigs and leaves caught in the snarls, then stretched her bare feet toward the fire and wiggled her toes.
Her dress only reached her mid-calf and the bodice drooped on her flat chest. The material was too thin to adequately combat the night’s chill. Fiesl unclasped his cloak and held it toward her.
Harbig pulled Fiesl down into a sitting position. “Boy, never offer a woman more clothing.” He sat up straighter and attempted to suck in his gut. “Now, what’s a beauty like you doing out here?”
He was wrong; she was not beautiful. From under a layer of dirt peered a plain face with a squarish jaw and crooked nose. Still, she was a woman and she was alone, which made her perfectly suitable in Harbig’s mind.
“Looking for you, of course,” she grinned.
“Mighty glad you found us then.” Harbig fumbled for the wineskin and discovered it was empty. “No more wine, it seems, but you’re welcome to drink whatever remains on my breath.” He smacked his lips wetly.
The rabbit was becoming too dark on one side. Fiesl grasped the spit, frowning, and his mind turned along with his hand. The woman’s bare feet, dirty as they were, had no callouses or cuts from walking across the forest floor littered with sharp rocks and sticks. She carried no provisions. She had neither lantern nor torch and the moon’s meager offering of light could not penetrate the dense foliage of the canopy. He looked at the darkness beyond the campsite, the pure black. She would have had to stumble blindly about and they certainly would have heard her approach…
Fiesl was startled to find the woman staring straight at him with eyes the color of moss, a knowing smile playing across her lips. She winked.
In spite of the fire, Fiesl felt chilled.
A wolf’s call sliced the air. “Yes, beasts in these woods,” she shivered, leaning on Balhuur. She pushed his golden curls aside and traced his mutilated ear. His hand snapped around her wrist.
“We’ll not pay you, whore,” he said.
She didn’t flinch. “I’m not a whore. I’m a dancer.”
“Then dance for us!” Harbig called. Lufter nodded, his greasy hair flopping.
“I will dance for you, certainly, in repayment of your kindness.” She raised her eyebrows at Balhuur. After a moment, he released her arm.
She stood and shook her dress, though it did nothing to clean the dirty fabric. Then she brushed the edge of Balhuur’s cloak with her big toe. “But first, I wish to tell you the tale of the dancing bear.”
A breeze passed through the forest like a sigh.
“There was once a bear cub, born in these here very woods,” she began in hushed tones. “This mud cushioned her paws and these trees sheltered her from the winds and rains. But her wanderlust grew and so she exchanged familiar trees for strange ones, as all young things who think they are old are wont to do, and soon Hunger and Thirst rode heavy upon her back. This was how The Traveler found her and he offered her food and drink. To repay him for his kindness, the bear danced.”
The woman circled the campsite, dipping low to whisper in the men’s ears then spinning away with a laugh from their outstretched hands. She alone held Harbig and Lufter’s hungry eyes, but Fiesl saw his uncle was watching the fire through narrowed eyes. After a moment, Fiesl noticed what Balhuur had already observed: the fire had not changed in size, yet it was giving off less light than before and seemed to be growing dimmer still.
“The Traveler welcomed the bear to join him and they journeyed as companions down many a road, delighting kings and commoners alike, The Traveler and his dancing bear, who danced when she wished, for whom she wished. And so it went for many a year.”
Nearby, a wolf howled. Nearer still, a second answered.
“One day,” the woman said, “they came upon three men on the road. The Traveler offered them food and drink. The men boasted of conquests and of wounds, both incurred and dealt, and when they had had their fill, they demanded The Traveler make the bear dance. He explained that a bear should dance of its own volition and that her dance was not his to give. So they slew him on that road and left his body for the crows.”
A cold wind blew.
“The Broken Man said they should feast on the bear. The Red Man said they should sell her and buy women and wine.”
Harbig’s face looked bulbous and purple and his breathing was labored. Lufter trembled. Balhuur stood and unclasped his bearskin cloak. He held it over the fire.
“Cease your wicked story, woman,” Balhuur said.
“But the third man,” she continued. “The one who liked to break things said if she would not dance, he would extract his entertainment another way.”
Balhuur dropped the cloak. Although the flames licked at it, it did not burn.
“This man chained the dancing bear to the ground and townsmen placed bets on how long she would last against the dogs. The man who liked to break things drew his knife across her thigh and loosed the mutts upon her. And one, in a blood frenzy, turned on the third man and ripped off his ear.”
Balhuur arm twitched and Fiesl jerked to his feet. He scanned the woman’s body for the knife he knew would be there, for it had never failed to meet its target.
The woman held Balhuur’s gaze and stepped to the side. The knife’s handle was lodged in the tree trunk directly behind her, the only possible path it could have taken being right through her. A predacious smile twisted her face.
“And so the dancing bear was torn apart by dogs.”
“Begone, witch,” Balhuur whispered.
The woman’s face was a shadow with two burning green eyes. “I’m a dancer.”
She stamped her feet and whirled. As she spun, leaves shuddered, not leaves at all, but ravens’ wings, hundreds of them, beating the wind into a fury. From the shadows, dozens of wolves emerged, salvia dripping from their snapping jaws. The rabbit, headless, skinless, and stabbed through with a spit, pumped its legs like it was running at a great speed, spraying beads of melted fat. The air tasted of copper and meat and mud. Fiesl fell to his knees and spewed bile.
The woman crowed and the world shook.
Then everything was still.
Fiesl crouched on the ground, panting. When he dared look up, he saw three piles of clothing, out from under which three rabbits wriggled: a sickly one, a red one with thick fur, and one with a single ear. Pursued by wolves, they fled into the underbrush. The dark swallowed them and they were gone.
The woman retrieved the bearskin from the fire. She spread it on the ground, then kneeled and ran her hand from the collar to the hem. Under her touch, the cloak shivered and grew. When she stood, a bear stood next to her.
Fiesl gasped. The bear swiveled to face him, a low rumble building in its massive chest. Fiesl fell backwards and groped at the dirt. His fingers wrapped around the rock and he brandished it. The bear whined.
Slowly, Fiesl lowered the rock. Without looking away from the bear, he fumbled for the spit. He lifted it off its poles and placed it on the ground, then pushed it forward with his boot.
The bear sniffed the rabbit, tilted its head to the left, then the right, then lowered itself to the ground with a grunt and began to delicately nibble its meal.
The woman stroked its fur, taking care to avoid old wounds rippled with scar tissue.
“Would you like a dancing bear, boy?” she asked.
Fiesl looked at the bear, who was snuffling and purring over the meat rather like a satisfied child. He thought for a moment. “She is welcome to stay with me for as long as it pleases her to."
The woman smiled and brushed her fingers across Fiesl’s forehead. Then she shook off her dress and walked back into the dark forest, passing by a tree with a knife imbedded in it, bark already growing over the blade.
Hours passed and neither men nor rabbits reappeared.
His head bobbed drowsily in the fire's warmth. Fiesl stretched out on the soft moss and watched embers drift on the breeze, taking care not to look at the deflated clothing. He began to hum his mother's lullaby.
The bear, with a great heave, pushed itself up on two legs and posed its arms with the poise of a perfect lady. Fiesl stared at the bear and laughter bubbled in his chest. He tried to swallow it but it burst forth in a singular braying snort, so ugly against the backdrop of the quiet forest that it sent Fiesl into a spiral of giggles. The bear huffed. It teetered on its legs and waited, one clawed foot tapping. Fiesl clapped his hand over his mouth, cleared the phlegm from his throat, and swiped his palm over his cheeks, wiping away tears he didn't know were there. He resumed humming.
And the bear, who danced when she wished, for whom she wished, began to dance.