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Episode 003:
Snow Bear


   Brave was a young hunter who had proven himself by bringing down a caribou while sitting on the back of his horse. No one in his village had ever made a kill shot from the top of their horse. Brave was the first. Which is why he felt so angry when he was sent out to collect firewood in the middle of the elder’s story.

   “We should be back at the fire,” Brave said to his horse while he rode through the night. “We’re the ones who brought down the caribou.”

   His horse trotted through the thick snow, away from the village of Kurhass. Right now, the chief would be telling the story of the first man in Kurhass who tamed the horse. This was a special story, one that was important to the village and important to Brave. Being told to collect firewood just before it began was insulting.

   “I can see why they sent Stalk to collect firewood,” said Brave. “He’s never had a single kill. But why did they have to send us away?”

   Brave was so upset that he left his friend Stalk near the edge of Kurhass and rode further into the woods. He didn’t want to be around anyone right now except for his horse. But, if he had to collect firewood for the village, then his was going to be the best. The further he went, the better. And there was no way he was going to share credit with a man like Stalk.

   “They don’t respect us,” Brave said as he patted his horse on the side of his neck. “Sometimes it feels like you are the only one who understands me. You know how hard we practiced. I can hit a nightingale while sitting on your back. But they act like our hard work was nothing more than luck.”

   Brave’s horse was the same age as him; this was their nineteenth winter. As far back as he could remember, Holt had always been by his side. Holt wasn’t just his horse—he was Brave’s best friend.

   The sky was dark blue through the thick clouds, and the thick snowflakes falling from the sky made it hard to see. It was terribly cold, and, now far from Kurhass, he regretted not taking a second layer of fur.

   “It might be cold now,” he reassured Holt, “but when we return with branches bigger than my thighs, the fire will burn hot enough for the entire village.”

   They trotted a little further until they reached a patch of trees he knew well.

   “Easy, boy,” whispered Brave as he pulled back on the leash tied around his horse’s neck, bringing it to a stop.

   He slid off the side of the horse and landed in waist-deep snow. There were bare shrubs and small trees everywhere, but he wasn’t after twigs and sticks. He snapped branch after branch as he made his way into the thicket. His fingers were so cold they ached with every branch they grabbed.

   “Here we go,” whispered Brave.

   He climbed onto a trunk growing sideways out of a larger tree. Once he had two feet on the stalk, he jumped up and down a couple of times and snapped the tree in half under his weight. It felt like the entire tree fell down as snow fell on his head and branches crashed into the snow. With a couple more jumps, he broke the trunk into several smaller pieces.

   “They’re going to praise us when we bring these back to camp,” said Brave, as he tied the big logs onto the back of his horse. “I’d like to see what Stalk is bringing back to Kurhass.”

  But, after tying the logs onto the back of his horse, he realized the folly in his plan. There was no room to get onto his horse.

   “Oh, well,” said Brave. “We’ll walk together.”

   As he tightened the rope around the logs, his horse snorted and shifted his weight back and forth.

   “What’s wrong, boy?” whispered Brave. “Did I tie the rope too tight?”

He loosened the knot and the rope, but Holt snorted again and backed up several steps, snarling.

   “What is it, boy?”

   Then he heard it for himself. A snap from the woods brought his attention to his left. Brave scanned from left to right and back again, trying to see.

   “Do you smell something?” whispered Brave. “Because I hear something.”

   Brave squinted through the thick snowflakes. But in the darkness, it was impossible to make anything out. And the longer he stared, the harder it was to focus. But he spied a dark shadow moving in the trees. At first he thought it was a bear, but knew that was impossible, as all the bears were hibernating by now.

   “I think my eyes are playing tricks on me, Holt,” whispered Brave.

   When branches snapped in the distance, he knew it was real. The dark shadow moved across the snow very slowly, and a few more branches snapped.

   “I think we’ve been gone long enough,” whispered Brave. “They’re probably wondering where we are.”

   Brave grabbed the rope around his horse’s neck and led him out of the trees. As they turned, they stepped on several dried branches. As if their actions had alerted the shadow through the trees, the cracking and snapping grew louder. Whatever was out there was moving towards them.

   “Come on, boy,” said Brave. “Let’s hurry up.”

   With the thick branches tied to the back of his horse, they were forced to wade through the trees and deep snow single file. The cold air and snow made it harder to see and to walk.

   Brave looked over his shoulder to see if the shadow was following them. He couldn’t see it, but he knew it was still there. Every hair on his body was standing. He was being hunted, and his horse could sense it as much as he could.

   They reached an open trail and picked up speed, but with Brave walking through the snow, it was difficult. Branches still hung over the trail and forced Brave to shield his eyes and face with his right arm while he pulled the horse’s leash with his left.

   When he heard the deep breathing of a large beast, Brave froze in his tracks. His horse pulled back on the rope and bucked his front legs. The sound of branches snapping and frozen snow crunching revealed just how close the shadow was. When Brave peered over his horse’s back, he saw the big black shadow move into the center of the trail.

   “Holt,” whispered Brave, as he cut the rope holding the firewood to his horse’s back. As the logs and branches fell into the snow, Brave jumped onto the back of his horse.

   The dark shadow moved down the trail, absorbing the white reflection of the snow. Deep snorts and growls betrayed the monster’s presence.

   “Holt!” shouted Brave. “Take us home.”

   The horse galloped down the trail, which triggered the killer instinct in the beast hunting them. The dark shadow chased them, and for the first time, Brave saw legs. It wasn’t just a shadow anymore—they were being chased down by a bear.

   “Faster, Holt!” shouted Brave.

   They galloped up the trail while Brave did his best to keep his face down. Twigs and branches hit them as they ran by, leaving cuts on his face and hands. When they made it out of the forest and into the open field, Brave broke out into a full gallop. The cold wind burned the tip of his nose.

   “Faster, Holt,” shouted Brave. “Faster!”

   He looked over his shoulder and struggled to see through the snowflakes. But the bear was following them, and to Brave’s horror, it was running fast. The bear hopped over the thick snow, closing in, but it couldn’t go quite as fast as the horse. Brave couldn’t take his eyes off the beast that chased them across the open field.

   After making it to the top of the clearing, they entered another trail and were forced to slow down and trot through the trees. Even with the branches striking him in the back of the head, Brave couldn’t keep his eyes off the trail behind them. For now, he couldn’t see the bear, but he knew it was still there.

   “Brave,” someone called into the night.

   He recognized Stalk’s voice. But even with his friend calling him, Brave looked over his shoulder and watched for the bear. There was no sign of him.

   “Brave,” called Stalk again. The voice was much louder.

   He was getting close to his friend.

   Brave turned around. “Stalk,” he called.

   Unfortunately, the second he turned, a branch struck him in the face and knocked him off his horse. The shock of the impact stunned him. His eyes watered up, and the ache in his face made him angry and sad at the same time. He held his face with both hands and felt warm blood ooze from his nose.

   “Brave!” shouted Stalk. “Where are you?”

   Brave got onto his knees and wiped the tears from his eyes, ready to scream out to his friend. But the sight of the black bear at the end of the trail froze him in his spot. He never moved a muscle, and he did his best to hold his own breath.

   “Brave,” called Stalk. “Where are you?”

   Brave knelt, half-buried by the thick white blanket on the forest floor, and watched the dark shadow at the end of the trail slowly approach. But every time his friend called his name, the bear stopped in his tracks. Its deep grunting and breathing echoed over the cold snow.

   Soon his friend stopped calling his name, and the night returned to silence. Brave remained frozen in place while he stared at the black bear. When the sound of snow crunching under heavy weight alerted Brave to the bear’s approach, his heart pounded in his chest. But still he remained frozen.

   If his friend called his name one more time, the bear would stop. But he wasn’t calling his name. Why wasn’t Stalk calling his name?

   Please, Stalk, please call my name.

   Brave was tempted to call out and get his friend’s attention, but he knew that would be suicide. The bear would charge, and he would die. But if his friend stayed silent, the bear would catch up to him, and Brave would die.

   “Brave,” called Stalk.

   This time the bear stopped in his tracks and swung his head to the left. Brave could see the bear’s profile in the faint light of the night sky. It froze in place until Stalk called out one more time. Now the bear moved through the trees, away from Brave and towards Stalk. As much as he wanted to call out and warn him about the bear, it would mean death.

   Too afraid to move, Brave sat there in the snow, frozen in terror. But he was relieved enough to let out a deep sigh. He looked to his right to see where his friend was but he was too afraid to stand up and walk.

   “Brave,” called Stalk. “Is that you? Answer me.”

   Something big ran up to Brave from behind and spooked him. He almost defecated himself before he realized it was his horse.

  “Holt,” whispered Brave. “You didn’t leave me.”

   Brave climbed on the back of his horse, and before they took off running through the forest, he looked for his friend.

   “Stalk!” shouted Brave. “Run for your life. There’s a bear.”

   Holt was galloping full speed up the trail when they heard the scream echo through the forest. Brave never looked back, but Stalk’s scream that night haunted him for the rest of his life.

   “Ride, Holt,” said Brave. “Take us home.”

   As they rode through the forest, movement to his left caught his eye. Something big was running as fast as they were. At first, he thought it was the bear, so it was a great relief when he spied Stalk’s horse running riderless through the trees. But the sounds of snapping branches, crunching snow, and heavy panting and grunting alerted Brave that the bear was still hot on their trail.

   The two horses galloped up the hill to the outer edge of Kurhass village. Two torches burned in the night, where a couple of old villagers watched for the returning gatherers.

   “Bear,” called Brave, as he approached the village.

   The two elders stood up from their seats and watched as the horses galloped right past the guards and entered the village.

   “Slow down, you two,” called one of the guards, but Brave ignored him.

   “Bear!” shouted Brave. “There’s a bear.”

   Against all the village rules, Brave trotted through the settlement and entered the communal yard where the large fire burned. The villagers stood up from their seats as Brave rode his horse right up to the campfire.

   “What is the meaning of this, young man?” called one of the elders.

   “Get off your horse immediately,” called another.

   Commotion erupted as angry villagers watched Brave desecrate the sacred fire with his horse while the chief spoke to the people of Kurhass. This behavior broke every rule and tradition in the village.

   “Bear,” shouted Brave. “There’s a Bear chasing me.”

   Some of the villagers laughed while others continued to curse.

   “It killed Stalk,” said Brave, “and it’s right behind me. It could already be here.”

   “There are no bears out this time of year,” said one of the elders. “You must be imagining things.”

   Some of the villagers laughed, but the sight of Stalk’s horse trotting riderless into the camp stopped them.

   “Perhaps you saw a wolf,” said one of the villagers.

   “No wolf,” said Brave. “This was a bear. A big bear.”

   Before anyone else could interject, the dogs barked—not idly, but ferociously. Every dog darted for the edge of the village, barking and snarling as their leashes were pulled tight.

   The chief stood up from his seat and was the first to speak.

   “You say there is a bear out there?” he asked.

   “Yes, I do,” said Brave. “I saw it with my own eyes.”

   “And my son?” asked Stalk’s father. “You say it killed my son.”

   “I heard his scream,” said Brave.

   The dogs continued to bark, but everyone else remained silent. They looked over their shoulders at the huts surrounding them, and the shadows in between.

   “Warriors,” called the chief. “Get the young and the old inside. Everyone else to the front.”

   The villagers of Kurhass sprang to action. The young and elderly were ushered away from the fire and into the nearest huts, while the rest grabbed sticks from the fire and carried them like torches to the front of the village. They untied the dogs and handed out bows to each able-bodied person.

   Beyond the last wall of huts at the edge of the village, they stuck their torches in the snow, creating a wall of pikes and fire. The red-and-orange light illuminated the snow sloping away from Kurhass. Some of the dogs settled down while others went crazy and tried to run off into the darkness. Very soon, a wall of archers stood ground along the edge of Kurhass.

   “Where is it?” asked one of the villagers.

   “Maybe it ran away,” whispered another.

   A few minutes went by as they scanned the horizon. There was no sign of movement. But it was impossible to see beyond the light from the torches.

   “I can smell it,” whispered one of the villagers. “He’s out there.”

   Some of the villagers took in deep breaths through their nostrils. Some agreed and others shrugged, but Brave didn’t need to smell the air. He knew the beast was out here.

   “What if it got by us already?” asked one of the villagers. “It could already be in the village.”

   “No,” whispered one of the elders. “He’s out there.”

   But it didn’t matter. Half the villagers looked over their shoulders, unsure if the bear was behind them or in front of them. Everyone held an arrow in their bow, with the string drawn as far back as possible.

   One of the dogs took off running, and barking, through the snow. He made it past the torches and disappeared into the shadows beyond. Everyone gasped and held their breath until a deep growl, and a high-pitched yelp, echoed from the shadows beyond the flames. The dog cried out in pain before it was silenced.

   “Heavenly father protect us,” whispered Brave.

   The villagers sat in silence, and even the dogs beside them whimpered and listened. There was nothing but quiet for several minutes before the sound of snapping and crunching echoed from the darkness ahead. It terrified everyone standing their ground.

   “He’s eating our dog,” whispered of the villagers.

   “We need to lure the bear out of the shadows,” said the chief.

   “How are we supposed to do that?” asked one of the villagers.

   “With bait,” answered the chief. “Hold your ground. I’ll be back with something the bear cannot resist.”

   Brave sat shivering in the snow, and his fingers found it very difficult to grasp his arrow in the cold. The torches were starting to burn out, and the bright yellow flames were now a dull red. To make matters worse, their night vision wasn’t returning as fast as the torches were expiring.

   The chief returned from the village, leading a horse by a rope tied around its neck. Something seemed very wrong, and it wasn’t until they walked past him that Brave realized what it was.

   “Holt,” said Brave. “No, not Holt. You can’t.”

   Brave stood up from his perch as the chief handed the horse to one of the elders.

   “Tie him to the post beyond the torches,” said the chief.

   “You can’t,” said Brave. “Not Holt. Please—anyone else, but not my Holt.”

   “Control yourself, young man,” said the chief.

   Brave stopped for a second. He knew he was out of line. People had been expelled from the village for saying less. But this was his horse. His best friend. He couldn’t let the chief sacrifice him to the shadow bear. Not after he’d saved his life twice this evening.

   “No,” cried Brave. “I won’t let you.”

   He stood up and tried to intervene, but a couple of elders grabbed Brave’s arms and kicked his feet out from under him, pinning his face in the ice-cold snow. While they pinned him down and knelt on his back, Brave watched as an elder tied his horse to a post beyond the flames then quickly ran back to the safety of the line.

   Brave cried out but was pushed further into the snow, until his cheeks and nose went numb. The village held the line as the torches finally burned out, leaving them in the darkness. The snow seemed to stop falling, but the sky remained dark, and still everyone knelt in the cold with their arrows ready. No one spoke or even whispered. They just listened.

   While the sound of Holt snarling and bucking frightened the villagers, it struck Brave deep in his soul. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The chief and elders had betrayed him.

After a several minutes went by, the elders allowed Brave to sit up and watch, although their grip on his arms remained as tight as ever.

   The horse picked up the scent of the bear and kicked and neighed, trying to break itself free. Holt’s cry brought tears to Brave’s eyes.

   “He’s coming,” whispered one of the villagers.

   The sound of snow crunching under the bear’s paws betrayed its location, and every now and then it stepped on a branch that snapped under its weight. Brave was able to tell exactly where the bear was coming from by the sound alone. That is when he saw the dark shadow moving through the shrubs. It moved slowly from the thin trees into the open, snow-covered field. The black fur on the white snow was easier to see now that all of the torches had burned out.

   Holt kicked and screamed while the bear approached from the far side, and the knot in Brave’s throat grew bigger, until it was impossible to swallow. The shadow bear, on all fours, was already bigger than his horse.

   “Hold your arrows,” whispered the chief.

   Brave held his breath as the bear approached his horse and stood up on its hind legs. The bear was a giant, standing taller than the largest hut in Kurhass. As the horse kicked and screamed, the Bear raised its right paw to swing.

   “Shoot!” shouted the chief.

   Every villager on the edge of Kurhass released their arrows at the same time, striking the bear dozens of times in the chest. The bear let out a dull roar before falling forward, driving the arrows even further into its chest. There were no whimpers or growls.

   The bear was dead.

   The village erupted into cheers as the warriors leapt from their perches and rushed to bear’s body. They pulled out their copper knives and cut the beast where it lay.

   Not Brave, though. He ran to his horse and untied it from the post. He wrapped both arms around his best friend’s neck and hugged him.

   “I’m sorry, Holt,” whispered Brave. “I’ll never let this happen to you again.”

   While some villagers cut the fur off the bear and others cut out huge chunks of meat, one man sawed the head right off and put it on a pike. It wasn’t long before the bear’s body was carved into pieces, its fur taken in one direction and its meat in the other, until all that remained was a headless carcass in a pile of red snow.

“Stalk!” called one of the villagers.

   When Stalk stumbled up the hill and several villagers ran down to greet him, the clouds parted. The darkness of night was replaced by the bright silver light of the full moon. Everyone cheered and laughed as they greeted Stalk and brought him into the village. Stalk had taken a swipe from the bears claw, but managed to escape on the back of his horse. Unfortunately, stalks horse was not as lucky, and died from its wounds the following day. It was wonderful evening for the people of Kurhass.

   But not for Brave.

   Seeing his friend stumble into the village brought only doubt. Brave remembered why Stalk had been missing in the first place. Everything that had happened this evening was his fault. The guilt that washed over him was crippling. Brave fell to his knees and almost cried out loud. The only one who seemed to notice, other than his horse, was the chief himself.

   “Why the long face?” asked the chief as he stood in front of Brave, his right hand extended. He helped him to his feet and put his hand on Brave’s left shoulder.

“I failed,” whispered Brave. “In every possible way, I failed tonight.”

   “Listen here, son,” said the chief. “In Kurhass we must think of the village before we think of the man. On his own, a man is useless. No man, and no woman, can walk out of here and survive. We need everyone together. For Kurhass to survive, we all need to understand this. We each need to trust and follow the words of the chief.”

   “I do trust,” answered Brave.

   “But you didn’t,” said the chief. “Ever since the hunting trip you thought you were above the rest of your peers. You were told to gather firewood with Stalk because it was your turn, and yet you resisted. Gathering firewood during our communal storytelling isn’t a punishment, it is a privilege.”

   “I understand now,” answered Brave.

   “But you didn’t at the time,” said the Chief. “When I grabbed your horse to lure the bear, I wasn’t thinking of Holt, or of you. I was thinking of Kurhass. He was the first horse I found that wasn’t tethered. And to save the village, I would have tied you to the post. Because you are not worth more than Kurhass.”

   “I would have deserved it,” answered Brave.

   “Do not feel sorry for yourself,” said the chief. “That is no better. I would have never let that bear hurt Holt. Nor would I let it hurt you if you were tied to that post. We need each other to survive. I may be the chief now, but one day, your generation will take over. I will rely on you and the other hunters to bring us food.”

   “You’re right. I wasn’t thinking of Kurhass. I was only thinking of Holt.”

   “There is a lesson for you to learn here, my son,” said the chief. “That feeling you had when your horse was tied up—that is the feeling a chief has for every member of the village. You must extend your feelings from yourself and your horse, and cover the entire village of Kurhass with it.”

   “I will,” answered Brave. “I promise I will. After everything that happened tonight, I don’t know how I couldn’t.”

   “One day you will be an elder of Kurhass,” said the chief. “When you are, how will you treat a young one like yourself when they disobey the tribe? How will you inspire the village, and how will you protect it when it is threatened from without?”

   “I will do what you have done,” said Brave.

   “You proved yourself to be a good hunter, and I look forward to seeing what kind of man you become. I also believe Kurhass will benefit from having you as their elder. Maybe one day the elders will elect you to be their chief. I think you have what it takes to look after the village, young man. But for now, you should go back inside and join your brothers and sisters. Tonight is a night worth celebrating. One day you may find yourself sitting around the fire, telling the next generations about this evening.”

   “Thank you,” said Brave as he turned to walk into the village.

   “Brave,” said the chief, “your father would have been proud of you.”


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