-Beside a Brook
-Butterfly, Bear, Badger
"Braving the Bear"
(Sequel to "His First Quest")
The babbling, silver brook wound silently through the old, overgrown forest. All was still and peaceful—up until the moment a young knight crashed through the bracken, gasping and muttering to himself.
“Merciful Lord in Heaven!” he groaned. “There must be a way to save her! I must find a way!” He collapsed to his knees next to the brook, tearing up the sod with his hands and marring the thin, glittering surface with clods of dirt. He cast his arms wide and roared to the heavens, “Why, God? WHY? IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT ME TO BE? A simpleton who betrays the trust of the very first being I encounter? I shouldn’t wonder if she had been an angel sent to guide me, and I have delivered her into the claws of a demon!”
His shoulders sagged as he bent over the rippling water. The ancient forest, once so full of promise, now only served as a painful reminder of his failure, and the innocent creature he had lost.
As he tried to regain his composure, a flash of color caught his eye. Sir Martin stilled and held his breath as the largest butterfly he had ever witnessed wafted into view. Its wings bore streaks of every color imaginable, in no particular pattern that he recognized, but it struck him as beautiful, nonetheless.
The butterfly wafted closer, coming to settle on Sir Martin’s pauldron. A tiny face not unlike Bronwen’s grinned up at him. Her dark hair, rather than tumbling around her shoulders like the young sparrow-fairy’s, stood up from her head in a sleek, curling point.
Sir Martin flinched and drew back, leaving the butterfly to flap faintly in midair before winding soft curlicues over the surface of the river. The tiny face gave him a tender frown of deep concern before she turned away and began fluttering down the course of the brook.
“I’m sorry!” Sir Martin blurted, reaching toward her. “I was just startled! I didn’t mean to frighten you. Please come back!”
The butterfly-winged fairy circled back around in wide, gentle loops. She settled on Sir Martin’s outstretched hand, and regarded him solemnly.
“Sir Knight,” she said in the same gentle tone Bronwen had used, “why are you so sad?”
Sir Martin fought to speak as the guilt formed a stone in his throat. “I… I have betrayed a fairy of this forest, and I have failed in my first quest.” He hung his head. “I am not worthy of the knight’s noble reputation, being nothing but a coward.”
The fairy tucked her wings up and settled onto his fingers as a seat. “How have you betrayed us? It could be that there is some way to redeem this circumstance.”
Sir Martin shook his head. “No, there is no redemption for me! It was the Beast of the Forest, which she described to me, who fooled me by changing his guise, and though she warned me plenty of times, I did not heed—and now he has her!”
The Butterfly crossed her tiny arms, resting her hands upon her pale shoulders. “That is no great trespass, nor are you particularly weak, Sir Knight. The Beast delights in making fools of the strongest men, tricking them into underestimating him. It will be more difficult than you can face to rescue this fairy, if that is what you desire to do, because once the Beast has one of us in his clutches, he can make it very difficult to let any of us back out again.”
Sir Martin felt the wild surge within himself as the stone left his throat, and he inhaled deeply. “Whatever price, whatever task is required of me, I will do it!” he promised. “Even up to yielding my own life, to make up for the damage I have caused!”
The fairy laughed lightly. “There is no great damage, Sir Knight! In truth, very few who visit this forest and encounter the Beast so desire to reclaim a fairy he has taken—I sense much bravery in you, sir!” She flapped her wings and tapped her chin. “Perhaps there still resides more nobility in your heart than you realized before!”
Sir Martin nodded bashfully. “It is kind of you to say that,” he admitted. “So what must I do to hunt down this Beast and rescue the fairy he has taken?”
The Butterfly lifted off his hand into the air. “The first thing you must realize,” she began, “is that you cannot face the Beast alone. He is far too clever for just one man, now that he has discovered a weakness in you and used it successfully against you.”
Sir Martin shook his head. “What then? Will you go with me, to fight against him in some way?”
The fairy wavered gently in place. “I am also too small to assist you, and it would be far too dangerous for me to venture close to the Beast’s domain, because fairies are the one creature in this forest that he desires the most, so he has invested much time and effort into developing lures and traps that we cannot resist or escape.”
The knight frowned and clenched his fist, feeling the armor plates pressing against the leather inner glove. “Is there another assistant I must seek in the forest, then? For I swear I will not leave here until I have vanquished this Beast once and for all—this I have undertaken as my first quest, and I shall not turn aside until I accomplish it!”
The Butterfly sighed, as if Sir Martin had not been the first knight to make such a declaration—only to fail and turn aside from his quest. “In order to find the Beast in his domain, you will need the Bear.”
Sir Martin squinted in confusion. “A bear?”
“Not just any bear,” The Butterfly continued. “This Bear is particularly strong, and particularly persistent, and he has aught against the Beast, and so will serve any who desire to confront it. However,” she hastened to add, as she noticed the reckless gleam in the knight’s eyes, “you must face him first—and there, many have failed, and been eaten for all their boasting and confidence.”
Sir Martin felt the dread building inside him, but he purposed to maintain his valor. “What can I do, then, to accomplish this feat?”
The Butterfly flew high up in the air, joining a few other dancing splashes of color among the treetops. “Watch carefully, and you will know,” she said. “Follow the brook to find his den.” With those words, she flew away.
Sir Martin remained at the water’s edge, wondering at the way his quest seemed to be taking the most unexpected course. After a few moments, he decided to take the Butterfly’s advice, and followed the Brook down to where it rushed by a large cave that could only be the lair of the Bear he sought. Sir Martin crossed the brook and drew his sword. He could hear the Bear’s claws scratching the stone floor of the cave.
“All right, you Bear!” he cried, holding his sword aloft. “Come out! I would challenge you!”
He heard snuffling from inside the cave, then with a terrible roar, the Bear rushed out. Sir Martin tried to attack it with his sword, but the Bear reached past the length of his weapon and clouted the knight over the shoulder. His armor was the only thing that saved his life. Lacking any kind of defense, Sir Martin turned and ran from the cave, crossing to the other side of the brook to make his escape. He counted it good fortune that the Bear did not appear to follow him.
A little later, Sir Martin again crept back to the point on the other side of the brook where he could remain hidden and watch the cave, but the Bear didn’t let its guard down again. Sir Martin decided to wait until nightfall, to see if he couldn’t subdue the bear while it slept. He settled against the tree and closed his eyes.
When he awoke from his slumber, the moon shone down into the forest, and Sir Martin could detect little movement from the surrounding area save the rushing brook between himself and the cave. A second time, he stole up to the cave, sword extended in front of him to feel around in the darkness.
He stepped fully over the threshold without meeting any resistance at the tip of his blade—and just at that moment, the Bear rose up behind him, and roared again. This time, Sir Martin found it more difficult to defend himself in the darkness, while the Bear didn’t seem to have weakened at all, striking at him with the same fury he had shown in the daylight. Sir Martin barely escaped the savage animal, but at last he made his retreat and withdrew to the same hiding spot from before.
By now, Sir Martin could not understand what the Butterfly had said about gaining an ally to defeat The Beast. Day or night made no difference to the Bear, and there would be nothing Sir Martin could do to so much as approach the den. He sat and pondered late into the night. He hated the thought of giving up on his first quest so easily—but what other choice did he have?
The twilight of night’s last hours remained, but Sir Martin leaped up as he heard a rustling sound coming from the other side of the brook. He squinted hard in the half-light, and saw a squat Badger waddling right toward the Bear’s cave. As he watched, the Badger crawled into the mouth of the cave, and very soon the Bear emerged, as docile and as mild as he had been angry and fierce just hours before. The Badger seemed to hold a sort of audience with the Bear, and then continued on its way, unharmed and unhindered.
Dawn had only just begun threading its way across the horizon when Sir Martin, witnessing the departure of the Badger, came out of his hiding spot and crossed the brook. Full of confidence, he traced the path the Badger had just taken.
The Bear rushed out almost immediately, roaring and bracing itself to attack. Sir Martin doubled back and ran away from the cave, taking the small, narrow pathways to deter the Bear from following. When at last he could stop, he threw himself down at the base of a beech tree to puzzle over what he just witnessed.
“I don’t understand!” he cried. “Every time I try to approach, the Bear attacks and strikes me—these last two times, I have not threatened the animal, and yet it is all fury and strength against me! Yet the small Badger seemed to have some sort of pact with the Bear—I have never heard of such a thing in my life!”
After the last two failures, Sir Martin dared not approach the den for the rest of the day. As the sun set and night fell around him, the stalwart knight struggled to stay awake and watch for the moment when the Badger would come. Many times, he nearly fell asleep, but he would catch himself and shake himself awake again.
At last, in the moments before dawn, the Badger returned. This time, Sir Martin followed it toward the Bear’s den.
He could feel his own heart pounding against his breastplate as he drew closer and closer to the den. Would his presence invite the Bear to attack the Badger, in spite of seeming so peaceful toward it the day before?
The Badger paused at the mouth of the cave, just as it had done. A few moments later, the Bear came lumbering toward it. As soon as the Bear saw Sir Martin, it stopped and began growling, but Sir Martin stood firm as the Badger moved on.
“Please,” it said, as the Bear, for once, did not charge him, but continued to growl. “I am here on behalf of a fairy who lives in this forest. Her name is Bronwen, and she has been captured by the Beast. I am told you are the only one who can help me save her.”
Still growling, the Bear stalked forward. Sir Martin held his breath, but forced himself to resist the urge to flee as he had done. Closer, the Bear crept, until it was close enough for Sir Martin to feel its breath on his face. He did not move as the Bear sniffed his scent, and once it finished, it calmly walked past Sir Martin, out into the forest. It took a few paces, turned back to glance at the shocked knight, and grunted. Sir Martin moved to follow it, and the Bear continued back the way Martin had come.
The Butterfly came fluttering to join him in the light of dawn.
“Very good, Sir Knight!” she congratulated him. “You have earned the trust of Brethan the Bear, and he will defend you against any threats you will face here in the forest.”
“Truly?” Sir Martin felt almost giddy with relief. “That is all this ordeal required, to merely find that one time when the Bear would remain quiet, and now he is my protector?”
“What more did you expect?” The Butterfly replied.
Brethan stopped just ahead. Sir Martin recognized the area: this was the place he had first met Bronwen, trapped in a poacher’s net. There on the ground lay the broken net where he had dropped it. Next to the net was one of Bronwen’s wingfeathers.
Brethan bent down and sniffed closely at the net and the feather. A slow growl resonated in the Bear’s throat, but Sir Martin knew it wasn’t directed at him any more. Brethan immediately set off in quite a different direction, deeper into the forest.
Sir Martin glanced to the Butterfly for advice.
“He has Bronwen’s scent, and that of the Beast as well,” she said softly. “He will lead you to where the Beast has hidden her. Fare you well, Sir Knight.” She flew off toward the lighter part of the forest, leaving Sir Martin to follow The Bear into the shadows, to confront The Beast of The Forest.
Also in the A-to-Z Challenge Series: ( * Continuations of Suggestion Box installments)