From the editor:
At a remote outpost in the cold desert, more than a few improbably tall tales are shared around a campfire. Sometimes, though, believing makes all the difference in the world.
Spencer Ellsworth is the author of the THE GREAT FAERIE STRIKE, available from Broken Eye Books, as well as the STARFIRE trilogy from Tor Books. His short fiction has also appeared in Lightspeed, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and many other fine venues.
From the author: A flash story about a story, the story in question being about a bear, the bear in question being a bear who may or may not have been wrestled into submission. No bears were harmed.
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About The Bear
The first thing to know about Tainfred was that he wrestled a bear.
Around the fires, in those long, cold nights in the Black Desert, guarding our post in the dead city, we told a lot of stories. We didn’t know each other, so to make ourselves sound like more than green, untested soldiers, we told our best story. Hunting stories. Bedding stories. Inane, pointless stories.
Nothing compared to the bear story. The first night he told it, we could all tell he’d been waiting for this. His face was gleaming with a sheen of sweat, and his wide eyes nearly rolling in anticipation. He waited until one older recruit meandered through a long, pointless story.
“Now if you’ve ever been to the city of Kol Durus, you know they have five different sectors—”
Tainfred jumped to his feet. “Did I ever tell you I wrestled a bear?”
He told us, then told us again, and again the next night, and just about every night from then on. We didn’t mind; it was a great story. Seems he and his father were hunting, and took shelter in a cave. Tainfred was so tired that he didn’t even notice when he rolled over against a mass of black fur. He half-realized something was wrong when his father called to him, in a hoarse whisper, from the front of the cave. So he stood up, and found himself treading on the bear.
The bear woke. Groggy but angry, the bear reared up, pushing Tainfred against the ceiling of the cave. He tried to push it back down. It didn’t go. It tried to claw him with its front paws, but Tainfred stayed on its back. As a matter of fact, he got his arms under the bear’s, came up, got it in a good tight wrestling lock.
It raked his legs with its claws. His father had a spear ready. “I want you out in one… two… three!” Tainfred fell and ran for the front entrance, while his father thrust the spear deep into the beast’s heart, pushing it away.
“Wait a moment,” I said, one night, when Tainfred and I were the last left around the fires, watching the desert for the night. “Your father was able to pin an entire bear with one spear thrust?”
Tainfred made a funny sort of gesture. It was a bit of a shrug, a bit of shrink. “I never said it was a big bear.” As I gaped at him, he continued, “It was a sort of, ah, teenager.”
“A teenager? How much did it weigh?”
“I don’t know!” He was clearly sorry he had let this slip. “Think of the biggest, meanest dog you’ve ever seen.”
“So like this?” I held a hand up, at about the height of a dog.
“Bigger! Bigger than the meanest dog you’ve ever seen.”
“But you outweighed it.”
“A little,” he said. “Why does that matter?”
“Are you sure there really was a bear?” I asked. “It wasn’t just a bobcat, or a ferret, or a big mouse, in that den?”
He turned away.
I walked to the edge of our embankment, and looked out over the darkness of the desert, and laughed loud enough that he could hear me.
He avoided me after that. He couldn’t avoid telling the story in my presence—there were so few of us on that post that we heard everything each other said. But he wouldn’t look at me when he told it.
I was tempted to tell the others. Came mighty close, especially when I heard him exaggerating pieces of the story, about how big, how rough, how battle-scarred that bear was.
Can’t say why I didn’t. It was mostly that the others were entertained, on this long, boring detail. We came out there expecting to see the horrors of the Black Desert. You know the stories. The Gorlocks, ten feet tall, like apes mated with wolves, the Hoods, lurking creatures of shadow, the Singers, beautiful women who would rip your throats out with their tongues, the Dark Lady herself, walking in a hellish wind.
All we saw was an endless horizon of red sand.
That is, until the day the beacons were lit.
We all rushed to the embankment. Sure enough, there on the horizon, dust as if from a marching column.
We shone and sharpened our swords to a bright, biting gleam. We donned our armor and raised our shields and stood in formation. Our sorcerers prepared their greatest spells. But we knew that, apart from our commanders, none of the boys had seen battle.
We formed a line along the wall. From here, we could see them all too well. Gorlocks, bigger than any men, with blunt claws and toothy muzzles, riding mounts like massive black boars. At least twice as many in that column, now riding for war, as manned our little wall in the dead city.
I looked at the man next to me. It was Tainfred, gleaming with nervous sweat.
“Tainfred,” I whispered.
He looked over at me.
“I believe you.” I looked back at the demons, coming ever closer. “About the bear.”
He nodded. And we turned to face the darkness, and shouted together.
This story originally appeared in Podcastle.
A revolution in Faerie! Charles the gnome leads a strike against the titans of magical industry while Jane the vampire reporter seeks to uncover the secrets of these sorcerous industrialists--all while navigating their forbidden romance.
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