The Legend of Hagen and the Bear

 

He strode through the gathering dusk along a grassy footpath between green-leafed trees: birch, oak, elm. He had left his sometime companion behind a few days earlier for a time of holiday with his own people, and the man was now hungry for fellowship with folk of his kind--a hunger rarely experienced, but once entertained, keenly felt.

It was just ahead, up around that next corner, he remembered, imagining it before he saw it: a rough planked construction, scarcely more than a single squarish room pinned between four pine trees that served as the building's corner-posts. In the cluttered clearing behind the hut, there was certain to be a cauldron bubbling--brewing and distilling the bitter liquid that made this little dwelling famous among the appreciative denizens of the wood.

He rounded the bend, and there it was, just as he had remembered. A windowless nailing of planks against trees, with one door in the front. The door-posts--two logs that had been planed square and sunk deep into the earth--were apparently the creative limit of the builder's craft, but at least they still stood, reasonably straight and secure. A similar doorway opened from the back of the building into the cauldron-yard, the man knew. The roof was a covering of pine boughs laid across a criss-cross framework of saplings and secured with twine. Next to the front entrance was a plank sign, upon which had been burned the words "Bunns In."

The burly man peeked past the hanging deerskin that served as a door for the rudely constructed hut; his actions seemed suddenly tentative, as if he were reconsidering his visit, but beneath his tangled whiskers there was the rumor of an expectant smile which threatened to burst across his scarred face.

Horizontal stripes of light bled through the cracks between the planks, illuminating the swirling tendrils of smoke and dust that danced like some kind of slow-moving, filthy fairy--a spirit of sloth and dirt rather than of light and energy. Beyond the shifting motes the man discerned a form more substantial, squatting beside a cookpot, stirring with a wooden spoon.

He cleared his throat, and the other person leaped to her feet, startled and cross. At the same moment, a dog started barking violently from behind the shack. The woman snapped, "Who's there?"

"It's me," said the man, smiling.

"Oh, it is, is it?" said the woman, still not knowing to whom she spoke. "Wait here fer a minute whilst I go out back and kick the dog." Nodding agreeably, the man stepped into the room to wait, glancing around at the various items that hung from small pegs on the walls, some for sale, some for the woman's own use. From beyond the wall, he heard the woman growl, "Ye're suppost t' warn me when they's folks a-comin', Rolf!" followed by a startled yelp from the dog.

Instead of coming back in from where she had departed, though, she bustled around the shack and reappeared through the front door, behind the man. "Now, mister, turn aroun' right slow, lest ye want me to wallop yer brains out with this club."

"No need fer that, Bunn." The man turned toward her, his hands held cautiously aloft. "Don't ye know me?"

She studied him, what she could see of him through the irregular light of the shack. He was tall and broad, clad in many furs, his bearded face still twisted in a gentle grin. Upon his head he wore a black fur cap that appeared to be the entire face of a bear, with flaps hanging low to cover his ears, and she noticed that the man's face was itself scored with an impressive array of angry red scars.

"Ye do look familiar, somewhat," she said, grudgingly lowering the club.

"Time was," he smirked, "when ye weren't so hostile to someone come to trade."

"Well, time was when someone weren't a-dippin' from my potion out back, neither," she said defiantly. "Which they is, now." She looked at him thoughtfully. "But that ain't you, is it?"

"Nope," he affirmed. "If I want a drink, I've got coins a-jingle, or furs to swap."

Bunn squinted up at the man, and rubbed her grimy nose with an even grimier thumb. "Ye do look a bit like one I knowed about five years back. Fact is, I think ye is him. Master Hagen, ain't it?"

"That's right, Bunnie! I'd not thought that I'd changed all that much!" Hagen laughed.

"Well, my eyes is grown dim, compared to what they was. That's why I got ol' Rolf a-livin' out back. Asides, what happent to yer face?"

"Ah, there's a tale," Hagen sighed. "'Twould go ever so much better with a plate o' stew and a pint o' brew."

"We can pervide that, so long's ye pervide the tale," Bunn said agreeably, laying the club at her back door and bustling after the requested provisions. "Where's yer pal Squat?"

"Stayin' with his own folk fer a time." The dwarf known as "Squat" was actually named Sqohot, but his association with the humans had quickly amended his moniker to this descriptive diminutive. "Ye might say it's a kind o' dwarfy feast."

"Oh," she replied, having nothing to add. She plopped a couple of ladlesfull of something from a pot onto a tin platter and set it down with a clatter in front of Hagen, who had seated himself on a bench before a dusty table.

"Got any bread?" he asked politely. "Fer soppin'," he added unnecessarily.

Bunn grumbled something under her breath but nevertheless went and retrieved a crusty brown loaf, inspecting it casually for visible signs of mold before she tossed it down on the table.

"Thankee," Hagen said, snapping the loaf in two and sending crumbs flying into the air to join the dust motes for a short frenzied dance before they sank exhausted to their rest upon the table top.

"Now, what about yer story?" Bunn demanded. "Not meanin' to be rude, o' course, but it is what ye're a-payin' fer yer meal with."

"What about a drink?" Hagen reminded her.

She slapped the table loudly with the flat of her hand, triggering another flight of dust. "Damnation, Hagen! That must be some story!"

"Oh, it is," he sighed contentedly. "Here's what happened."

*****

For nearly fifteen years Hagen had been traversing this nameless land he had discovered, which he had thought to be an island, making maps, drawing pictures of the flowers and beasts he encountered, and attempting to befriend each of the people he met there. At first, he had thought that this island was uninhabited--that he had discovered an altogether new land--but during his first year there he had discovered numerous peoples living there, some indigenous, some, like himself, refugees from polite society. He had met the elves, tall and proud, who had somehow known of his coming and seemed a bit sad. He had met dwarfs, round and bawdy, and he had come away from them with a new companion--Sqohot. He had met a lordly creature garbed in a robe that seemed as if it had been woven from the living grasses of the springtime fields, and a braided crown of flowers interspersed with glistening jewels. This man (or whatever he was) had spoken sternly to Hagen, as if to an intruder, but had looked at him curiously, touching his head gently as if to learn something, and had let him pass without further challenge. And of course Hagen had met humans, who, he was ashamed to admit, were the least honorable of all the two-legged creatures he encountered.

Of course, this was not universally true--some of the humans he met were decent and trustworthy. The woman called Bunn was one of these, even if she was occasionally surly. She had once had a husband--he had also been known as Bunn--but he had been dead for years, and Bunn (the woman) had occasionally earned an extra coin or two by serving as a kind of temporary wife for the travelers who passed her way. She was not pretty by any measure, but she was a woman, which made her something of a treasure to the lonely men who inhabited those parts.

*****

"Well-l-l," Hagen began in a liquid drawl, "it's like this. I'd left ol' Squat off with his people fer a bit, an' started a-slinkin' off through the wood with a mind to gather some skins fer tradin'. I'd left most o' my gear back at Minno-et-Wenden--that's Squat's town--but I had some stuff with me: my bow, a little hatchet, a needle and some rawhide thongs, and a couple o' traps. I was a-wearin' this here bear-head cap, which'll come into the story in a minute, so remember that.

"Well, I was lookin' around fer signs o' beasts, thinkin' where I ought to lay down my traps, an' keepin' a eye peeled in case they was anything about what I could bring down with my bow. After a while I come upon a little pool which was fed by a clear-runnin' stream, which I figgered to sit beside in the bushes fer a spell and wait fer the critters which'd surely be comin' by to drink.

"After a little spell passes, along comes a fine stag, so I drop him with my bow, one shot. This is his hide I'm wearin' here. So I wait a little while longer, and out comes a little family o' weasels. I line 'em up with my bow an' wait until they're all just so, an' then, thwang! I get 'em all, six a-once, on one shaft. I might tell ye, it was as pretty a bit o' shootin' as ye'd like to see. Sewed 'em into a little pair o' mittens fer Squat.

"Well, I sit there in the bushes, first takin' one critter an' then another, just a-shootin' and a-sewin', as fast as ever I might, a-heapin' up a mighty pile o' furs beside me, an' eatin' deer-steaks an' weasel pies, as fast as I can cook 'em. When finally, what do ye s'pose comes down fer a drink?"

"What?" said Bunn, wide-eyed but skeptical.

"Well, I'll tell ye. It was as tall as a pine tree, and broad as a wagon. Black as darkest midnight, with bright red glistenin' eyes. Makes my skin crawl right now to remember on it, and I ain't a timid man." He peered at her intently for dramatic emphasis. "A bear it was, but not no ordinary bear--no, not by any means."

Bunn interrupted his narrative. "Is that him?" she asked, motioning to Hagen's bear-head cap.

"Naw, that's just a little one," Hagen replied, slightly annoyed at the disruption. "The one I'm talkin' about was lots bigger'n that."

*****

It should perhaps be interjected here (in case it hasn't been suspected already) that the story Hagen told Bunn was not precisely what might be strictly regarded as the truth. There had been a hunting trip involved with the event that had scarred Hagen's face, and it was true that a bear was the culprit, but certain salient facts had been altered by Hagen for the perfectly honorable purpose of telling a tall tale.

For example, while it was true that Hagen had shot a fine buck with his bow, the weasels from his story had been trapped by his friend Sqohot, who had in fact been in his company on the trip in question. And while the weasels had indeed been turned into a pair of mittens, it was Sqohot that had skinned and sewn them.

More of this shortly.

*****

"This bear," continued Hagen, "goes amblin' down to the pond, so as to drink, an' I'm startin' to think to myself what a fine lap robe he'd make. But just as I'm raisin' my bow an' stretchin' the string--" his voice dropped to a hush--"the bear clears his throat an' looks my way."

"No!" his listener blurted.

"Aye," Hagen nodded affirmatively. "Clears his throat, an' commences to speak--"

"Ye mean he talked?"

"That's just what I asked myself! I said, 'Is that bear talkin', or have I tooken sick in the head?' But sure enough. An' ye know what he said to me?"

Bunn shook her head eagerly.

"He said--he said, 'I'll politely advise ye not to do that,' meanin' not to shoot him with my bow. He goes on, 'I been a-watchin' while ye was a-shootin' all o' these woodland critters, some o' which was friends o' mine. Some of 'em are just as good off bein' dead, I allow, but some of 'em--!' An' the bear shakes his head, kind o' sad-like, yet kind of angry. 'All fer a pair o' mittens and a greatcoat,' says the bear."

He paused to rub his eyebrows reflectively, and Bunn urged him, "What'd ye do then?"

He smiled faintly. "Well, seein' as how this bear had addressed me with such uncommon good manners, fer a bear, there weren't nothin' fer it but to stand up an' greet him." Hagen took a short draught of Bunn's liquid concoction, and coughed. "'S'cuse me," he apologized. "Well, then I says to the bear--then I says, 'Beggin' yer pardon, Lord Bear' (fer it's clear he was the lord o' those woodland parts), 'if I'da knowed they was friends o' yers, I'da been more choosy about which ones I shot.' But the bear had froze, he stopped dead still--he'd just a-stopped listenin' altogether. He was just glowerin' at me with them little fiery red eyes, just as furious an' angry an' mad as ye'd wish to see."

"What was he so mad about? 'Cause ye'd been shootin' the critters?"

"Well, partly. But what'd got him the most bothered was this." He reached up and tapped his bear-head cap with a meaty forefinger.

"Yer hat!"

Hagen nodded solemnly. "He takes one look at this hat, an' then he starts grumblin' this low snarly growl, just as if he'd fergot he was a talkin' bear. Fin'ly he says, real slow-like, 'What's that ye got on yer head?'

"Well, it was foolish o' me to try it, but I decided to put on a bold front. 'That,' says I, 'is all that's left o' the last bear what tried t' give me what fer.'

"Well, I don't need to tell ye, but he don't like that at all, not one little bit. He raises up on his hind legs, and I swear he's twice as tall as me, and he growls out between his teeth, 'I ain't never et a man before, but I believe I am goin' t' eat you.'

"Well, that gives me a case o' the nervous jangles, but I dasn't let the bear know that. So I, bold as brass, says back to him, 'Well, I have et a bear before, and it looks like I'm a-goin' to again!'" Hagen, as if reminded of his hunger, paused to dip a crust of bread in his stew and chewed it thoughtfully.

Bunn, who quite nearly believed the tale, was at the very least captivated by the story-telling. She squirmed in her seat, barely able to control her impatience. "Well, don't leave a body hangin'!" she finally demanded. "Who et who?"

"I'm gettin' to it," Hagen said, swallowing, and wiped his mouth with the back of a sleeve. "So," he began again, "we start circlin' each other, an' he's a-grinnin' this evil sort o' grin, an' he's, uh--he's buffin' his claws against his fur, like a man would shine up a knife. Well, I didn't have no knife, but I had a hatchet, like I told ye before, so I'm a-feelin' around fer it, so as to defend myself, ye see. An' I get it into my hand ... but damn if I don't drop it right on the ground!" He slapped the tabletop for emphasis. "Lord Bear kind o' chuckles then, an' sneers, "I b'lieve ye'll have a desperate go of it, fightin' bare-handed against these.' An' then he flexes his claws back an' forth just like they was muscles. 'An' these,' he says, and he bares his teeth an' snarls. Then he lets out a roar, as loud as thunder, an' the trees are just a-shakin', an' so are my knees, if I have to tell ye.

"Well, it's true, I had no chance against him without some kind o' weapon, but if I'da bent over to reach fer that hatchet, he'da been all over me, an' that woulda been the end of it. So we're still a-circlin' each other, an' I'm glancin' all wistful at my hatchet layin' there on the ground, an' meanwhile I'm a-feelin' around in my pouch t' see if there's somethin' else I could use in a pinch. But all I find is that needle an' thread, so I pick that up in my fingers, figgerin' maybe it'll be better than nothin', anyway. To try an' spook him a bit, I say, 'Guess I'll have t' use my magic needle, which has kilt many a large bear.' But still I'm hopin' fer a chance t' get back around t' that hatchet an' pick it up again somehow.

"Well, Lord Bear knows it, too, an' he's just a-toyin' with me, 'cause he might've attacked any time he felt like. Unless he was really afeared o' that magic needle, which I doubt it. An' still we're circlin', an' circlin' ... Lord Bear starin' at me with those angry red eyes, me wagglin' the magic needle back an' forth like it was some kind o' teensy sword." His voice dropped to a tense whisper, and Bunn leaned forward, breathless with anticipation. "Well, finally I get back around to reachin' distance o' the hatchet ... an' I'm a-studyin' the bear's eyes waitin' fer my chance ... an' I quick decide t' make my play ... an' I dive fer the hatchet!"

Here Hagen stopped abruptly, then leaned back, stifled a yawn, and cracked his knuckles. Bunn glared at him, outraged. "Well, what happent?"

"Why, I'da thought that was clear. Ol' Lord Bear pounced on me, sliced me into a hundred little pieces with his claws, an' then gobbled me up, every bite."

Bunn's jaw dropped, and her lower lip hung slack for a moment, before she blurted a nervous chuckle and said, "Ye almost had me there. Good story, though!"

Hagen patted his belly indulgently, and smiled. "Every word true, I swear."

She peered at him through the shadows, and demanded, "Well, if it's true, then who's that a-sittin' here, then?"

He tapped his cup, and she rose to fill it, discerning that there was more of the tale to come. After he had taken a sip and a swallow, he said, "Ah-h-h! That's better.

"It hurt like hell bein' ate, I'll tell ye that. An' it was awful dark inside Mister Bear--I wondered if I'd ever see the light o' day again. But finally he squeezed me out. Shat me clean through, piece by piece by piece."

"But ... weren't ye dead?" Bunn wondered.

"That's just what I asked myself! 'Ain't I dead?' I says. But nope, I weren't, must be." He pointed to his left eye. "One o' my eyes was buried deep in a steamin' pile o' bear turds, an' that's all it could see. Fortunately, my nose had rolled up next to some flowers; that was rather nice." He smiled again, pleased with his story, much of which he was inventing as he spoke. "But my other eye, that was just a-layin' there on the bare ground, an' slowly I come to realize that what it was starin' at was my severed right hand ... and there in my fingers, they was still a-holdin' onto--the magic needle!"

Bunn nodded mutely. She wondered for an instant if the needle really was a magic needle, but didn't dare to ask.

"It took awhile, but I finally sewed myself back together again, piece by piece by piece. It hurt almost as much as getting' et, but I had to do it." He rubbed his scarred face as if to accentuate the fact. "I liked livin' too much not to."

Bunn nodded again, agreeing. "But what happent to the bear?"

"Don't know. I never seen him again. An' I never hope to, neither!"

Hagen tossed back the rest of his drink, coughed, and belched politely.

Bunn chuckled uncertainly, and said, "That was a crackin' good story."

*****

Hagen had been grousing irritably for several days about his lost raccoon-fur cap, which the wind had snatched right off his head during a particularly violent, blinding blizzard. He had been utterly unable to locate the cap despite searching the snowbanks for it for over two hours, and now his ears were quite cold. Sqohot had generously offered him the use of his own rabbit-fur hat, but it had ill fitted Hagen's larger head, barely covering his ears at all, so he had declined and contented himself with a vigorous stream of complaint instead.

"Well, there's nothin' for it," Sqohot had finally maintained, after patiently enduring Hagen's griping for most of a day. "Ye're jist goin' to have to find another 'coon to skin."

"Why, a raccoon'd have to be an idiot to be out in weather like this," Hagen retorted.

"Aye," Sqohot mumbled under his breath. "Like us."

Hagen grunted something unintelligible, and continued forging a path through the snow, which in some places came up to his thighs, meaning that it reached above Sqohot's waist.

After another hour had passed with Hagen occasionally remarking that his ears were now colder than ever and Sqohot remaining studiously silent, the steely skies once again opened and began to blanket them with a fresh snowfall. The dwarf finally spoke. "We need to find some'eres to shelter up. Build us a fire, mebbe. An' eat."

"An' warm our ears," Hagen agreed.

The snow continued to fall in abundance, and occasional gusts of wind blew it into their eyes and froze it into their beards. The two companions held hands so as not to lose each other, and twice Hagen had to lift Sqohot out from drifts that nearly reached his chest. "I don't even know where we are any more," he shouted above the gale.

"There," the dwarf gasped, pointing a mittened hand. "What's that?"

"I can't see it," Hagen said, shielding his eyes from the driving wind. "You lead, if ye want."

What the dwarf saw was just a dark spot against the side of a hill, but Sqohot figured that even if it were not a cave, the hill might at least provide some temporary refuge from the sleety gale. To his delight, the shadow did appear to be what remained visible of the mouth of a small cave, though that had been largely filled by the drifting snow. "Hang on," he shouted to Hagen. "I'll dig, an' see if there's room to hold us both."

There was. After a few frenzied moments of pawing through the drift, the two companions sat, exhausted, their backs against opposing walls of a wide, low-ceilinged cavern that seemed to extend deep into the hill, though there was no way to tell, save the faint echoes of their own ragged breathing.

They both slept for a time, their fatigued bodies relieved of their stressful battle against the biting wind. When they woke, they rested a few more moments in silence, listening to the moan and whistle of the tempest as it continued to keen outside their door.

Finally Hagen spoke. "I'da slept clean through the rest o' the winter if it weren't fer yer snorin'."

Sqohot chuckled. "'Tweren't me what was snorin'. 'Twas you."

"Why, ye're crazy as a squirrel. Ye're snorin' right now."

Instantly they both lurched into startled silence again, as they realized that there was a third party there with them in the charcoal darkness of the cave--whether man or beast, there was no way of immediately telling. After sitting in nerve-tingling stillness for some heart-throbbing moments, Hagen finally conjured up the courage to rasp a coarse whisper: "Find out what it is."

Wishing that he had thought of saying that first, Sqohot nonetheless moved tentatively to comply. He extracted a chilly hand from a mitten and stretched it hesitantly toward the vicinity from where the gentle burring noise emanated, moving slowly, ever so slowly, lest he startle the sleeper into anger. His fingers brushed against something, and he jumped, jerking his hand away. But nothing happened; the snoring continued uninterrupted, so he stretched forth his fingers once again.

"What is it?" Hagen rasped, and the dwarf shook his head irritably, which Hagen could just make out through the darkness, so he held his peace, albeit slightly miffed.

"It's a critter, not a man," the dwarf whispered after he had felt the coarse texture of fur--living fur attached to a living being, not the fur of a coat. "Got to be a bear. Not very big, though."

Hagen thought for a moment. "If it wakes up, it ain't like to be pleased about sharin' its home with us. Ye'll have to kill it." As if in reply, the bear's snoring changed into a sleepy growl, and Sqohot quickly withdrew his hand. The growl subsided as whatever state of consciousness the bear had reached descended back toward the deep drifts of slumber.

"You do it," Sqohot insisted. "I got his arse down here by me, his head's up there next to you."

Hagen debated within himself. He briefly considered just leaving the bear to its peaceful home, but that meant going back out into the bitter snow again, the thought of which made him shudder. Then he imagined fat bear steaks sizzling over a hot campfire, and wondered how long it had been since he and Sqohot had eaten. But the thought that decided him was the idea of a thick bearskin cap to cover his ears when he and his companion did finally have to brave the storm again.

Cautiously sliding his knife from its sheath, Hagen crept toward the bear's head, hoping to simply slit the bear's throat before it woke. As a precaution, he whispered one last command to Sqohot: "Get yer hatchet ready, if ye--"

The conclusion of that thought remained unuttered, for the bear was suddenly awake, sitting up awkwardly, drowsily, and removing his targeted neck beyond startled Hagen's reach. The bear undoubtedly entertained no coherent thought, just the awareness that some kind of intruder was present. The beast reached out to swat at the intruder, its claws raking bloody furrows across Hagen's face. The man bellowed in anguish, dropping his knife and covering his head with his arms.

Sqohot froze for just a fraction of a moment, then sprang into action. For the next few minutes, the cave was a frenzy of shouts and roars, of tooth and claw and hatchet, of flying fur and warm, sticky blood. Then, as quickly as it had begun, the terrible battle was over, the bear lying on its back moaning and gurgling, the dwarf kneeling next to it, panting and trembling, the man lying on his side, lapsed into blessed unconsciousness.

*****

Hagen woke. His face was throbbing. He did not remember the battle, did not know where he was, just that he was too cold, too hot, too hurt. He recognized his friend tending a fire nearby, tried to ask him something, could not. He slept.

*****

Hagen woke.

He tried again to speak, only groaned a feeble groan.

Sqohot noticed. "Ah, back from the dead, are ye?"

Hagen attempted a smile, but his face felt strangely stiff, tight. "What ... happent?"

"Almost got et by a bear, ye did. It's no wonder ye don't recall; I seen sim'lar things afore." The dwarf peered at Hagen's face, looked into his eyes, nodded. "I've patched ye up as best I could, though ye won't be so pretty as ye're accustomed."

Hagen nodded, and slept again. Sqohot continued working on the cap he was making for his friend.

*****

Bunn said it one more time, as Hagen shouldered his pack and moved toward the doorway, "That sure was one crackin' good yarn. Et by a bear!"

"True as true could be," Hagen maintained. "'Course, I added a few bits here an' there t' spice it up a bit, but it's mostly just like I told it." He stooped to kiss her wrinkled cheek. "Don't know when I'll be in these parts again, but when I am, I hope to find ye happy an' healthy."

"Thankee, Hagen. I'll be hopin' the same fer ye."

She waved at his back as he rounded the bend, chuckling under her breath, "Et by a bear!"

A few minutes later, she heard Rolf begin to bark, and she felt a moment's irrational fear that it was Lord Bear, tracking the path of his enemy Hagen. Shaking her head, she summoned her courage and pulled back the doorflap. Strolling up the path toward her shack was a dirt-smudged farmer named Clement--one of her regular customers.

"Hey, Bunnie, me gal! Ye'll ne'er guess who I just seen!"

"Who?" she grinned.

"'Twas ol' Hagen, what ain't been around here fer years."

"I know it. He was here."

"Oh," Clement acknowledged reasonably. "What happent to his face?"

Bunn smiled. "Come on in, an' rest yer bones. Ye'll never believe it."

 

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