Part II: ...and Bears, Oh My!
Part II: …and Bears, Oh My!
Faith followed the stream westward. It continued to flow along the fringe of the forest, sometimes meandering away from it, sometimes taking her under its branches. She kept her eyes open for anything that might be edible as she moved, but it seemed that she had gotten lucky with that squirrel. She thought that she might have seen some signs of fish in the stream, but she didn’t have anything to catch them with. She had read about tickling for trout, and figured that she’d give that a try if she hadn’t found anything else before evening.
It was about noon when she came to the end of the stream. It flowed into a larger river, which in turn flowed southward, into the forest. Here at last she found some signs that she wasn’t the only person living in this world. A series of stepping stones had been deliberately set into the stream, making it easy to cross without getting her feet wet, and she could see, just a little way up the river, a wooden bridge that crossed it. The bridge was old, and not in a very good state of repair, but it was the first sign that she’d seen of any sort of civilization. She hopped quickly from stone to stone across the stream, and ran to the bridge.
She could see that it was in even worse shape than she’d first thought when she got close to it. Half the planks of its deck seemed to be rotten, and a fair number of them were missing altogether. She would have been reluctant to cross it, but she could see clear signs that it had been recently used. The tracks of what looked like three horses, and some very large boot prints were clear in the snow approaching the bridge. The prints got more confused around the bridge. It looked like whoever had made them had spent some time debating whether to risk crossing the bridge themselves. Some more normal sized boot prints appeared in the snow, along with…Faith knelt down to take a closer look at what was clearly a small, bare, footprint. It was about the size of her hand, and she could see the impressions made by all five toes. What sort of people would make a kid go barefoot in the snow?
The more immediate question on her mind was how far ahead of her were they? She didn’t think that they could have passed here any more than a day before, and probably less than that.
She set off at a run across the bridge, stepping in the bootprints of the larger man. Any board that could support someone with feet that big, would support her.
Faith jogged along, following the trail into the afternoon. She abandoned her staff. Her ankle was feeling fine now, and it was just dead weight while she was running. She figured that now was probably a good time to eat her Power Bar, to give her the energy she needed to keep this up. Whoever these travellers were, they seemed to be following some sort of old road, more of a track really. It led her away from the river, but continued to skirt along the northern edge of the forest.
The sun was sinking toward the western horizon. Faith was starting to think that she would have to give up the chase, and find some place to camp soon, but she kept running. Surely whoever she was following would need to make camp too. They had probably already stopped for the night. She was determined to keep moving, even through the night if she had to. She was a Slayer, she didn’t need much sleep, and she’d be a lot warmer if she kept moving.
It was nearly full dark when she heard it: the sound of fighting up ahead. Her jog turned into a sprint as she ran up to the crest of a hill. She paused when she reached the top to take in the scene below her.
A pitched battle was taking place in the hollow below her. On one side were twenty or so demons of some sort. On the other side was…an old man, a bear, and a midget. The scene was so bizarre that Faith hesitated for a moment.
The old man was pretty spry. He was dressed in a grey cloak, and wore a tall pointed hat that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the head of a Halloween witch. He had a long grey beard that swung with his movement. He was moving a lot, wielding a sword in one hand, and a staff in the other. The sword flashed with blue light as she watched him slice another one of the demons nearly in two with it. Half a dozen demon bodies already littered the ground.
The midget was armed with a short sword of his own. It seemed to flicker with the same blue light as the old man’s sword. He wasn’t nearly as effective a fighter as the old man, but he was good enough to keep the demons back.
The bear was something else again. Big, and black, its huge paws lashed out, scattering demons wherever they connected. Faith saw another half dozen demons die in the moments that she stood watching. At the rate things were going, this fight wouldn’t last much longer. She wondered why the demons didn’t just run, while they still had a chance.
More demons appeared out of the trees. These were armed with crude looking crossbows. They let a cloud of bolts fly toward the three in the centre of the fight. Their aim was not good though. They missed the midget and the old man completely. A couple of bolts found the flanks of the bear, making it roar in pain and anger. More bolts hit some of the demons.
Faith drew her sword and her knife, and charged toward the demons with the crossbows. She was among them before they could get reloaded. She let the Slayer come to the fore, whirling, thrusting, slashing, killing every demon within reach. Soon she noticed that she wasn’t fighting alone. The bear was there with her, slashing, biting, tearing at them. The last demon went down under the bear’s paw, and its jaws closed around the demon’s head. A twist and a wrench pulled the demon’s head off its body, and a toss of the bear’s head sent it flying off into the darkness.
“Okay, that’s just gross,” said Faith, as she looked around. The ground was scattered with demon bodies. The old man and the midget were still on their feet. They, and the bear, were all looking at her now. The expressions on their faces were more curious, than hostile, but she wasn’t so sure about the bear…maybe it was curious to see what she tasted like. She kept her eyes focused mainly on it, and held her sword ready, just in case. “Hey there, Gentle Ben, you just keep your distance. I got no quarrel with bears, especially when they do such a good job eliminating demons.”
“Urrrngh!” said the bear. It turned away from Faith and lumbered over to a patch of clean snow. It took a mouthful, and then spit it out with a shake of its head. It repeated the process a few more times.
“Aw!” said Faith. “Washing the taste of demon out of your mouth! Good idea, I bet they taste worse than they look.” She sniffed the air. “And smell.”
After it had washed out its mouth, the bear rolled a few times in the snow, to clean the demon’s blood from its fur. When it was done it turned back toward her. It rose up onto its hind legs, towering over her.
Faith took a couple of quick steps back, ready to defend herself if she had to, but the bear didn’t attack: it shifted. Flesh flowed beneath its skin, bones changed size, some lengthening, others getting shorter. Its snout drew back into its face, and its head grew. When the changes stopped, a huge bear of a man was standing in front of her. What had been the bear’s fur had transformed into what looked like a woollen tunic, and leggings.
Faith lowered her sword into a less threatening position. “Oh. Neat trick. Must come in handy. I’m Faith, by the way. Pleased to meet you.”
The bear-man looked puzzled. He said something to her in a language that she didn’t recognize. His deep voice sounded friendly enough though.
“Sorry,” said Faith. “I didn’t understand a word of that.”
Bear-guy frowned, and called to the others. The old man strode across the ground toward them and said something else to her, in another language, that sounded almost like singing.
Faith shook her head. “Sorry, I’m still getting nothing… Uh… habla Español?” She got nothing but a blank look. “Good, I don’t really speak much Spanish either.” She ripped what looked like a reasonably clean scrap of cloth away from one of the demon bodies, and used it to wipe the black ichor off her sword and knife before she sheathed them. “While we’re at it, parlez-vous Français? Sprechen sie Deutsch?” She got nothing but a questioning look. “Well, I’ve just about exhausted my non-English vocabulary…at least of non-swear words.”
The old man looked more puzzled. He tried speaking to her in what seemed to be more languages before he gave up, and turned to his companions. He spoke quickly with them, while pointing to the demon bodies on the ground. The bear-man said something, and then vanished into the darkness. The midget went over to where they had started to make camp, and started to pack things up. Faith figured that they probably wanted to move away from the stink. She didn’t know why the bear-guy had vanished, or why the old man started to drag the demon bodies into one central pile, but she decided to make herself useful, and helped him.
Bear-guy came back, leading three small horses, or big ponies. They must have bolted when the demons had attacked. He took them over to where the midget was breaking camp. He picked up an axe, and vanished again, this time into the forest
When Bear-guy came back again, he was dragging a dead tree. He went to work with his axe, chopping it down into more manageable sized pieces of wood, that he stacked near their pile of demons. Faith finally understood what was going on when he set the wood on fire. He and the old man waited until it was burning well before they tossed the first demon body into the flames.
It took a while to burn them all, including a few trips into the woods by Faith and Bear-guy to get more firewood. He seemed to be quite impressed by her strength. The midget had their gear all loaded up onto the ponies by the time the last demon body went onto the pyre.
Faith had taken some time to examine the demon’s weapons, to see if there was anything worth taking. Their crossbows weren’t much. They were so weak that she figured she could probably throw one of their bolts harder than one of those crossbows could shoot it. Their swords and knives were even worse: low quality steel that alternated between too soft, or too brittle. They had nothing that could hold an edge. It looked like the demons hadn’t even bothered trying. Their swords were closer to being metal clubs, than blades. Rusting metal clubs at that.
The old man, and the midget mounted two of the ponies, and Bear-guy took hold of the halter on the third. The old man looked down at Faith, and with some gestures, he seemed to indicate that she was welcome to come along with them, while saying words that sounded friendly.
“Sure, I’ll join you. My name is Faith, by the way.” She put her hand to her chest. “Faith.”
The old man pointed to her. “Faith?”
She nodded. “That’s right.”
He smiled, and put his hand to his own chest. “Gandalf.”
Faith pointed to him. “Gandalf.”
His smile grew. He pointed to his companions, first the midget, and then Bear-guy. “Bilbo Baggins, Beorn.”
She repeated the names, nodding to each in turn. Bilbo Baggins said something that might have meant “Pleased to meet you” and she repeated it back to him. He nodded encouragement, and repeated the phrase more slowly, emphasizing the pronunciation of some of the words. She said it again. It took a couple more tries before Bilbo was happy with her pronunciation. She hoped that she was right about what it meant. For all she knew, she had just agreed to screw him.
They set out along the road, with Faith walking beside Bilbo’s pony. He seemed to be happy to talk to her, even though she didn’t have a clue what he was saying. This certainly was a queer group of people that she had fallen in with, using the broadest sense of the word “people.” She took a quick look at his bare foot in the stirrup beside her. It was covered with soft looking fur, so she figured that maybe his feet weren’t as cold as she thought they might be. His clothes were worn, and travel stained, but they reminded her of what a Proper English Gentleman on a camping trip might have worn…after the camping trip had been extended for several months.
Bilbo was riding the smallest of the three ponies, with Gandalf riding the largest. Most of their gear was packed onto the back of the pony that Beorn was leading, but both Gandalf and Bilbo’s mounts carried small amounts of what Faith figured was their own personal gear. Bilbo’s pony also had a couple of small wooden chests strapped across its hindquarters.
They didn’t go far. Just as far as the next valley, far enough to get away from the stink from the burning demons. Faith could still see the smudge of smoke, blotting out the stars in the sky behind them when Beorn signalled for them to stop.
It had been more than 24 hours since Faith’s last real meal: she didn’t count the squirrel, or the Power Bar. They seemed to be happy to share their food with her. Dinner consisted of some sort of bread, with honey, along with a mixture of dried fruits, and nuts that reminded Faith of trail-mix. She ate the portion offered her with gusto. Bilbo offered her more, but she decided not to test their hospitality, and politely declined—at least she hoped she was polite, she’d heard that in some cultures turning down an offer of food was rude. No one seemed to be offended. They even had some extra blankets on their pack pony from which they assembled a bedroll for her. She, along with Bilbo and Gandalf settled down for the night. It seemed that Beorn had drawn the first watch.