Girl, House, Bears

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Girl, House, Bears

Once upon a time there was a little village on the outskirts of a great forest. And on the outskirts of the village there was a little house with yellow trim, and a red door, and the walls were covered with wood shingles that had turned grey with age. In the house, alone, lived a girl named Hero. And that’s were our story begins, in the house, with the girl.

A great bell rang in the distant village.

Tapping the wooden clogs onto her feet, Hero hurried out the front door, letting it swing shut on its own. She was running late this morning, like most, and the chickens would wait for no one. If they were fed even a minute late, the squawking and wing flapping could be heard from miles around.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Hero said, rushing over to the rioting birds with their pail of feed.

“You’re acting as if there isn’t a whole world of bugs and leaves to eat out here,” she scolded the hyperventilating hens, throwing another handful of dried corn to them.

The small flock of chickens gave her another round of belligerent clucks and a few beady eyed glares, then pounced on the food Hero had just scattered over the scratched bare ground. Within seconds there wasn’t a single crumb to be seen.

Hero didn’t bother to stay and watch, once the pail was empty, she ran on to the next chore. Her mother had loved tending the animals and the little garden that lived around the small house, but to Hero this was work, and not the pleasant kind either. She did it because she needed it to live, nothing more.

Finally hanging up the old, dented feed pail on its peg in the shed, Hero took a tiny moment to heave a sigh of relief that all the chores were done for the morning and they hadn’t taken all day to get done. And then she was off again, this time with a new energy in her step. Clogs, apron, and head scarf were peeled off in mid-motion and left where they fell as she ran through the house getting ready to go. A comb was clumsily scraped through her long golden hair, more of a bird’s nest then the legendary curls of her mother. A shawl was grabbed from the back of a chair, then she was racing for the door.

Almost as an afterthought, Hero grabbed a basket hanging next to the door and hooked it over her arm as she locked up for the day. Gathering up what eggs she easily could find and picking the few vegetable that were ripe from the garden, she threw them all in the basket, wrapped her nicest shawl tighter around her shoulders, and bolted down the lane towards the village. This was Hero’s favorite day of the week, and she wasn’t going to be late for it again.

This was farmer’s market day, the day she had been looking forward to all week. Not that she was the best farmer in the area, or even that she had any interest in farming at all, but there was something that only the farmer’s market brought that Hero couldn’t live without.

Travelers.

Every farmer’s market day brought travelers drifting through, and with them stories. Great stories, daring stories, heroic stories. Sometimes, every once in a while, even stories about her mother.

The epic story of Hero’s mother was a local favorite. It was a sad story, about a young woman who stood alone against an evil, twisted witch that was bent on destroying the village. Hero’s mother fought with courage and wit, and with her last breath, she defeated the witch, but in the end she died as well.

That sad, lonesome folk tale was all Hero knew of her mother. With the house her mother left her, Hero had learned a little about the kind of woman she had been, but there was still that craving. It was an empty feeling in the pit of Hero’s stomach that told her, she didn’t really understand her mother, not yet at least.

So she listened to the stories, over and over again, and she lived in the house her mother once lived in and she walked the woods that her mother once walked through. And she grasped at the tiny threads of memory that were left behind.

“Ah, Hero, good to see you made it in time,” the fishmonger, still setting up his cart for market, called to her as she passed by.

“Just barely,” she called back, taking a moment to catch her breath.

“I hear that your favorite storyteller is in the village today.”

“Jerome!”

“Over by the inn is what I heard,” the fishmonger said with a chuckle, as Hero bolted for the ramshackle old building at the end of the lane.

Rounding the corner of the half fallen down inn, Hero could already hear that Jerome, the wizened old traveler from the north, was half way through her favorite story, and he always told it best.

Dumping her basket and shawl to the wayside, Hero lost no time joining the half circle of small children surrounding that old man sitting on a little stool. Though she really didn’t fit anymore, Hero elbowed her way into the group and sat cross-legged on the ground, her head sticking up above all the others.

Jerome smiled and nodded at Hero’s less than quiet entrance, then continued on with the story.

“Raising the staff up, up into the sky, the golden haired woman gathered up all the strength she had left in her battered body. All the courage of the village she loved. All the loyalty of the mother she was and wished to be,” Jerome went on.

With every word, Hero filled with pride.

“And with one final blow, she slammed the staff down, shattering the sacred, unbreakable staff of Antiosha, and at last, striking down the evil witch, who had brought so much sorrow to this tiny village. “

The semicircle of children formed little ‘O’s of shock with their mouths. Hero silently punched the air in victory.

“The woman with golden hair, seeing that the danger to the village and her child was at last gone, laid down where she stood in the center of the village, the last shards of the sacred staff still in her hand, she closed her eyes and breathed her last breath.”

The children gasped. Hero nodded sadly, her eyes getting a little watery.

“And, little children, do you know what the villagers found when they all came out to see what became of the brave woman with golden hair?”

The youngest ones of the group shook their heads in wonder, but the older children knew. These events had all taken place in their very own village, it was kind of hard not to know.

“Where the golden woman had laid to rest,” Jerome continued, “there now stood a great golden bell. This is the same bell that still hangs in the highest outlook tower of the village. And do you know what that bell is? It’s the spirit of the golden woman still watching over and protecting this village.”

The youngest children sat in awe of the revelation they just learned, the older children smugly nodded to each other, it wasn’t every village that had a guardian spirit, and Hero basked in the golden glow of pride. That was her mother Jerome was talking about, her spirit lived in the village treasure, the golden bell. It was her mother that was guardian of the village. Yes the story had a sad ending, but it was also something to live up to.

“And yet, and yet, even this great sacrifice may have not been enough to kill the witch,” Jerome said, a quiet air of mystery in his words.

“What!” Hero squawked. This was not how the story was supposed to end, the witch was definitely dead. That’s how the story ended, period.

“In my many travels, I have heard whispers of a witch lurking in the deepest, darkest part of the woods, biding her time, casting secretive spells. And should anyone try to find her, no matter how brave or strong, all that search for her. . . . .disappear,” Jerome said, with a dramatic wave of his hand.

“Really?” a small, frightened girl in the front row asked.

“No! Of course not,” Hero answered for him, “Everyone knows the witch is long dead, and the presence of my mother’s golden bell keeps all evil out of this area.”

And the woods.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” Jerome said, stroking his long white beard and leaning back on his stool.

“My mother was a hero, and she didn’t die for nothing!” Hero snapped, bolting to her feet to glare at the old man.

“No reason to get angry Hero,” the little girl from the front row said, looking up at her.

Other children in the group were getting up now, some standing up to back away from the confrontation, others to keep Hero from doing something she might regret later.

“Maybe Jerome is right, and the witch really is still alive?” one of the older boys offered, as if that would cool Hero down.

Her fists only clenched tighter in response.

“What, are you kidding me?” Well asked, standing beside Hero. At twelve, he was the second oldest in the group, but still very much Hero’s junior, “There is no way anyone or anything could have survived the golden haired woman’s attack. Jerome just added that witch stuff to scare the little kids. Right, Hero?” Well asked, looking up to her.

“R-right,” Hero said, still shaken up by the new twist in the story. With one last disdainful glance at her once favorite storyteller, Hero turned to leave.

“Awe, don’t be so sore at old Jerome, he was just trying to get an extra pence out of the little kids, is all,” Well tried to reassure her, keeping pace with Hero’s quick steps through the little village.

“I won’t let some crazy old coot destroy my mother’s memory,” Hero snapped, never slowing down her speedy retreat.

“It’s not like Jerome ever said that your ma wasn’t a hero. He just said that maybe the witch was still alive. Which, of course, was just a silly rumor and totally not real at all,” Well hastily added after Hero shot him a flaming look over her shoulder.

“My mother was a hero and I’m going to prove it!” Hero exploded, and then burst into a sprint out of town.

For a few frantic strides Well tried to keep up with her, but it was no use. Hero was the fastest living thing in the tiny community and no man, woman, or awestruck boy could catch her if she wanted to get somewhere fast.

“Wait, don’t do anything you’re going to regret,” Well’s words chased Hero as she bolted out of the village, up the lane, and back to her neat little cottage at the edge of the woods.

It was too late, too late by far.

Hero had already made up her mind by the time she slammed the door to her house open. She was going to go into those woods, and she was going to search every last inch of it. And when she found no witch, no ghoul, no goblin, no monster of any kind, like she knew she would, she would go back to the village to tell everybody.

She would wash away any trace of doubt that might have been dragged into the village by that foolish Jerome. And her mother would be seen once again as the true, undefeated hero that she was.

Hero made short work of packing a bag of food and tools that she might need for the journey. Her good shawl was once again thrown to the back of a chair that it had so recently hung by, replaced by a sturdy little cape. Hero grabbed up her walking stick that stood by the door and she was ready to go.

She gave one last glance to the place her mother had once called home, then locked the door and turned towards the woods.

There was already a little path worn into the edge of the forest that Hero walked along almost every day. The trail wandered through the edge of the woods to a sunny meadow and then looped back to the house.

Walking to the meadow was easy enough. Standing in the warm sun light of early mid-day, Hero felt safe and comfortable in this known place. It’s what lurked beyond, in the deeper, darker recesses of the woods that worried her.

She had never really gone into the woods. Not deep into the woods where no signs of the lives of humans showed. It was a place of beasts and shadows. And as Hero stood in the middle of the sunny, warm meadow, listening to the soft breeze whisper in her ear, she started to doubt her thinking.

Was it really such a clever idea to wander into the great woods alone? So what if she proved that her mother was a hero? What good would that do if she was eaten by a wolf before she could tell anyone?

The wind suddenly changed. A cold chill ran through the air.

Hero took one step, then another. She knew she shouldn’t go, she knew there was any number of dangers waiting for her in the shadows of the forest, but she couldn’t stop.

In the end, being a hero was about not standing down. . . .

even if you knew that there was danger in the path ahead.

That’s why on that fateful day, when the golden haired woman stood her ground and risked everything, and died, her child’s name was erased from record. The utterance of the child’s original name was banned in the village, most who lived through these events couldn’t even remember what that simple name was. In its place a new name was forged. A single word that represented who the golden haired woman was, what she meant to the village. In the minds of the villagers, this woman had transcended the mortal image of a simple village woman, she was now legend.

And the child’s name?

Hero.

That’s why Hero couldn’t stop any more than her mother could, because standing down in the face of danger wasn’t a choice for them.

Slowly, placing one foot in front of the other, Hero walked into the woods. After just a few paces into the tree line the shadows seemed the rise up and swallow her whole. For one terrifying moment, Hero felt as if she were blind.

Then her eyes adjusted to the gloom, the sun brightened just a little to stream in through the branches high above, and the terrifying forest became an abandoned cathedral of trees and bushes.

There was no path through this foreign land. It was carpeted with thick bushes and the ceiling was held aloft by great columns of tree trunks and air was green with dappled sunlight that filtered through the leaves high overhead.

Hero tried her best to find thin patches where she didn’t have to beat back the bushes and undergrowth quite so much, but the journey was slow and tiring none the less.

“Well, I will certainly know if there is any monsters in these woods, for they will without a doubt hear me coming,” Hero said to the stagnant air as she stopped to catch her breath.

Hours passed, the sun arched up and then downward through the sky, the shadows of the forest gained a thickness and the sun’s power weakened.

It was now growing dark and Hero had seen neither hide nor hair of a witch, or monster, or spirit.

She couldn’t help but allow a tiny smirk to wander onto her face. She had been right, her mother had vanquished any and all traces of evil from this land. There didn’t even seem to be wild wolves or bears roaming about in these woods. Birds alone remained in this place, all other creatures seemed to have vanished. It made the woods oddly quiet and still, but certainly safe as any forest can be.

Hero’s victory dance was short lived, when she realized that the day was gone and the forest had grown far too dark to travel in.

“A night alone in the woods, how hard could that be?”

Very hard, as Hero soon found out.

There was plenty of wood around for a fire, but it was all wet and quite rotten, so the fire wouldn’t light. The ground was level enough to sleep on, but it was covered with sharp little rocks. And though the great trees provided protection from the wind and rain, they did nothing to keep Hero warm.

Watching her last match fizzle out, Hero realized that this wasn’t going to work the way she had hoped and she needed to find some better shelter. Maybe an old logger’s cabin, even a hollowed out tree could provide some warmth.

Standing up and looking around, she was surrounded by darkness. A thick inky miasma that showed no sign of light from stars or moon. The night seemed to have swallowed the world whole. All was still in the darkened woods, not even a bird call could be heard.

And then, as the last rays of sunlight disappeared from the very cusp of the horizon, far from Hero’s sight, she saw it. A tiny golden glimmer of light, dancing and sparkling in the oppressive gloom, caught her eye.

Was it a candle flame? Hero wondered. Was it a small light in someone’s distant cabin window? There was only one way to find out.

With the bounding sprint of a young fawn, Hero ran through the forest, the tiny flicker of gold, her only guiding light.

In a few short sprints she was there, the light had been much smaller than Hero expected, and its source much closer than she had thought possible.

It was a tiny little house, not much different than her own. The color of the trim and the door were impossible to make out in the darkness, but it had the same aged wooded shingles covering the walls and the same bright little windows and the same basic shape was her own house. And it was a tiny little light shining in one of the windows that had lured her in.

She approached the house with some caution, not wanting to look too suspicious. Ever so carefully she tapped on the door. She waited a moment on the doorstep, but got no reply. Thinking that maybe it was someone elderly or hard of hearing, she knocked this time with more force and determination. Again there was no reply. Now, pretty annoyed that someone was obviously home (someone had to have lit that light in the window) and yet they didn’t answer the door, Hero banged on the door with the palm of her hand.

“Hey, there’s someone freezing out here on your doorstep, the least you could do is answer the door!” she yelled.

With her last slap to the door, the wood reverberated, and then slowly, as the sound of her call died away, the door swung inward on its hinges revealing the interior of the house.

The dimly lit room Hero could see from the doorway was well furnished and adorned, but had no sign that anyone was there.

“Hello? Is anyone home?” she called from the door. She waited a long moment. There was no answer.

“I’m coming in, I hope you don’t mind,” she called again.

Still no answer.

“It’s awfully cold outside, I don’t mean to intrude,” Hero explained to the empty air as she stepped over the threshold.

The very moment her body passed beyond the threshold, the front door slammed shut behind her. The sound caused her to jump a little in her boots, but she quickly recovered and cautiously reached back behind her to check the door handle while darting her eyes around the seemingly empty room.

The door was locked, but Hero wasn’t surprised. There was something odd about this room.

Though she could see a fire going in the corner hearth, and the room was adorned with thick tapestries hung on the walls and lush carpets on the floor, the room held even less warmth then the woods outside did.

Even the light from the great rolling fire in the fireplace was odd, though it was certainly big enough to heat and light the whole house, only a tiny spark of light escaped the hearth. The darkness of the room, which felt even more oppressive than the gloom outside, seemed to swallow up light from the fire almost immediately after it was created. The edges of the flames were tinted dark blue and gray from the cloying darkness. Shadows sluggishly drifted around the room, cast from the feeble light.

After only a few steps into the room, Hero noticed other little things amiss. This place was more abandoned than vacant. The once shining wooden floors were now caked in dust. The thick wooden banquet table that stretched through the length of the room was set with heavy silver plates and goblets, yet these too were empty and covered in dust and cobwebs. The heavy wooden chairs, highly carved in the woodsman’s style, were almost unrecognizable they were so encased with dust and webs.

“What a dreary place,” Hero said, looking around for someplace to sit and rest. Slowly a fatigue had seeped into her very bones making her feel heavy and dull.

Wanting nothing more than a place the rest her weary bones, Hero pulled out the chair at the head of the table, which maybe wasn’t the smartest thing to do because it was also the biggest, heaviest chair at the table. Slowly easing herself down on the cushion-less seat, Hero stared at the warmth-less fire.

What am I doing in this place, she thought silently, I should have never left home. I must have been a fool to even get out of bed this morning. What a miserable day this has been. Nothing ever goes right for me.

And with these thoughts came an even heavier ache, one that reach into Hero’s very heart and pulled it down into the darkness.

Hero slouched in the great chair for a long moment, staring at the useless fire, and sighing at her own poor luck. She didn’t know how much time had passed when she heard the gentle sniffling and hiccupping of a small child.

Hero blinked away her thoughts and looked around, she could have sworn that the room had been empty when she first entered.

The sound of a child’s gentle sobbing came again.

Hero stood up from her seat, though it was more difficult than it ever had been before, and passed her gaze over the room again.

Where was the child? Under the table?

Hero quickly ducked her head to look.

No, not under the table.

It sounded as if the sobbing was coming from across the room, but there really wasn’t anything that a child could hide under or behind. Not the rack of carved axe handles, there was plenty of opens spaces in it, surely Hero would see anyone hiding behind it.

The unlit lantern was hanging from the ceiling, it was very doubtful a child could be hiding behind that. The tapestries on the walls maybe? The thick fabric pooled at the floor in bulging waves, a very small child could curl up and hide in those generous folds.

“Little one, don’t be afraid, I’m here to help,” Hero said as she sluggishly waddled over to the area of the tapestries that she thought the crying was coming from.

With painfully slow motions as if she were moving under water, Hero pulled back the fabric to reveal the source of the sound, only to find a bare wall. Now the sound was coming from behind her.

“Don’t run away, I can help you, just tell me what’s wrong,” Hero said, turning to follow the sound.

“Alone,” said a tiny, quavering voice.

“Alone? You’re crying because you’re alone?” Hero asked, trying to track the child by its voice.

“Why do I have to be so alone all the time?” the voice asked.

“You’re not alone anymore, I’m here,” Hero reassured the child, slowly turning to another fold of tapestry and flipping it back. Again, finding only bare stone wall staring back at her.

“Stop hiding from me little one, I can’t help you if I can’t find you. Maybe we could even play a game together,” Hero coaxed.

“Really?” asked a weak little voice behind her.

“Of course,” Hero said, it slowly dawning on her how strange it was for the child to have eluded her for so long without any trace or sign of movement in the whole room.

Slowly Hero turned around in the direction of the voice. What she found was a very young girl with wet eyes and very messy golden hair.

No, this wasn’t any random girl who had become lost in the woods. This was Hero, as she looked when she was a small child.

“I don’t want to be alone anymore,” the young Hero moaned, gazing up to her older self with tear filled eyes.

Hero took an unsteady step away from the child.

Yes, growing up had many moments like this. Days and weeks abandoned in her mother’s house, left alone to raise herself. A random neighbor only checking to see if she was still alive every once in a while. At times she had felt so alone in a giant world that she didn’t yet understand.

How did I ever survive like that? Hero wondered, slumping to the dusty floor where she stood.

“Please, don’t leave me!” the young Hero wailed, franticly grabbing Hero’s hand and holding on with all her strength.

“No, no, don’t worry, I won’t leave you,” Hero mumbled in a daze.

Why do I feel so cold now, and sleepy? Hero distantly wondered.

“You’ll stay forever and ever?” the young Hero asked, pleading.

“Yeah, forever and…” Hero mumbled, a wave of fatigue washing her last words away.

No, there was something very wrong here. Why would she want to stay in a cold, dark, miserable place like this? Even if she wanted to protect the child, wouldn’t it be better to take her someplace safe? This made no sense.

“Wait, I think we should get out of here,” Hero mumbled, feeling dizzy.

“No! You have to stay here with me. You promised,” Young Hero wailed, yanking on Hero’s arm.

“No, I don’t think this place is good for us, we need to go,” Hero said, trying to stand and back away from the child.

Climbing to her feet seemed like an impossible struggle for Hero.

Why do I feel so heavy? She wondered.

The child lunged for Hero again, grabbing at her arm. “You have to stay with me, you have to!” the girl yelled, clamping onto Hero’s arm and shaking her.

A wave of bitter cold streamed through Hero’s veins, as if Nordic winds buffeted her. The room’s darkness enveloped her in a gloom that pressed in from every direction. Hero was so tired now, so tired she could barely keep her eyes open. She heard more than felt herself collapse back down to her knees on the floor.

“That’s right, stay with me forever,” the Young Hero cooed, gently stroking Hero’s bowed head.

Then Hero heard it. Distant and soft, yet clear as a morning sky. It was the bell. The golden bell that hung in the highest tower of the village. It was her mother’s voice.

With the last reverberation of the ringing bell, Hero knew that she couldn’t fall asleep, she couldn’t stay here. It was more than something being wrong here, this place was dangerous.

“No, I’m leaving!” Hero said, her eyes snapping open, then bounding to her feet.

“Nooooooooooooo!” The girl howled, grabbing Hero’s arm with vice like hands.

Quickly the howl melted down to something that sounded less than human. Hero looked down at the little girl attached to her arm to find that she wasn’t so little anymore, and she wasn’t really human either.

The child’s face morphed into something much more animalistic, fur sprouted from her face and the backs of her hands, her eyes turned pure black, sharp pointed teeth dripped down over her lower lip, and her height grew up and up and up. She was no longer a clinging little girl any more.

She was a bear.

The creature towered over Hero, the top of its gray, grizzled head brushed the open beams of the ceiling. The entire creature seemed to be made up of nothing but bones, cobwebs, and claws. In its eyes, nothing but endless pits that disappeared deep into the bear’s skull.

“You could have stayed. You could have gone to sleep in your misery and died peacefully.” the little girl’s voice snaked out of the bear’s mouth, “Why did you have to ruin everything?”

“Because I chose a long time ago to not let loneliness destroy me,” Hero said, reaching behind her, “And I chose to always come prepared.”

And with that last word, Hero swung her great knobby walking stick at the bear with all her might.

Though the creature was huge, it was just as fragile as dried twigs and cobwebs, and it stumbled back with Hero’s one armed blow. It wobbled on it’s feel long enough for her to get a steady stance, and to grab her walking stick with both hands for the next swing.

If this bear likes the miserable cold, maybe it was time to heat things up, Hero thought as she slammed the club into the monster again, this time sending it sailing into the giant fireplace still blazing behind the creature.

The bear landed in the rolling flames with a great crashing thud. It let out one feeble shriek, then fell silent. Between one heartbeat and the next the spiderwebs, dust, and shadows that made up it’s body had burnt up completely, leaving only crackling bones behind.

As Hero watched the bones split in the fire, a single wisp of black smoke curled out of the flames.

What started as a tiny trickle, quickly became a torrent of sooty smoke blasting out of the hearth and filling the room, choking Hero’s lungs.

Hero quickly backed away, stumbling into the grand dining table in her haste to the door. She turned towards the door that she had come into the tiny house by, but the room was already too full of black sooty smoke, she couldn’t see the door, she couldn’t see anything.

Stumbling about, near blind from smoke and gasping for air, Hero at last found a wall and traced her hands along it. She only prayed that it would lead her to safety rather than deeper into danger.

At last, her hand glance passed what felt like a doorknob. Franticly, Hero twisted and pulled on it. All at once the door opened and Hero was dumped out of her death chamber in a burst of sooty plumes and choked coughs.

Hero took only the tiniest moment to realize that the smoke was following her into this new clear air and with the last gasp she held in her lungs, she kicked the door closed behind her. Once the gunshot “Bang” of the door being slammed shut echoed away, the audible “click” of the door being locked rippled through the room.

Once again, Hero was locked in.

She climbed to her feet again and gained her breath. Hero took a moment to look around the new room she found herself in. This new place looked almost identical to the room she had just left, only this room looked anything but neglected.

The wooden floors shined. The plates and furnishings on the table sparkled. And each dish was heaped with still steaming food. In the center of the table sat a huge pot of porridge, giant bubbles still rolling across the surface. The hearth burned with an almost painful brightness. And hot, the room was stiflingly hot.

In annoyance, Hero yanked off her little cape and flung it onto the floor. Her stomach grumbled as she stomped her way to the grand dining table, thinking she would sit down and have something to eat. But when she got to the table, the food in every plate, cup, and bowl was still bubbling with heat.

“Lovely, a table heaped with food, but not a crumb to eat.”

For some reason Hero didn’t yet understand, this angered her even more and she bolted up out of the chair again and gave the chair leg a vicious kick.

Her toe stung with the attack, but that made her feel no better.

“Stupid table, stupid chair, stupid house!” Hero howled.

She angrily paced the room back and forth, still not exactly sure what she was so very angry about.

“Now, now, why don’t you sit down and have some hot porridge?” a familiar voice asked.

Hero turned around to find Well standing right behind her with a cheerful smile on his face.

Cheerful was far from what Hero was feeling, so she turned away from him and started pacing the room once again. Saying nothing.

“You couldn’t possibly still be angry at me for earlier, can you?” Well asked, “I only had your best interests at heart.”

“I’m not angry!” Hero snapped at him.”

“You’ve always had such a hot temper, Hero, I know it will only get you into trouble sometime soon,” Well said with a shrug.

“I don’t have a temper!” Hero growled, spinning towards him.

“But don’t you?” Well asked, “Aren’t you always a bubbling cauldron just underneath the surface?”

“No, that’s not me,” Hero said, a prick of unease touching her.

“Yes, it is,” Well said, his smile gained a vicious twist as he poked her in the chest. His finger tip was burning hot, “Aren’t you just furious all the time?”

“No,” Hero said, shaking her head and backing away.

“And don’t you have every right to be?”

“No.”

“Your mommy is dead, and the whole village didn’t do anything to stop it,” he said, giving Hero another poke in the chest.

“Well, what’s wrong with you? You never talk like this,” Hero said, still slowly backing away from her friend.

“What’s wrong with me? Don’t you mean what’s wrong with you? How could you live in a village filled with traitors?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t you? When the witch attacked, your mother was the only person who died. A whole village full of people, and no one else got hurt? That’s a little odd. If people were trying to help, wouldn’t someone have gotten hurt?”

“. . . . . . . . . . “

“The villagers hid in their little houses, safe and sound, while your mother died for them. And no one even tried to help her. They couldn’t even be bothered enough to take you in and raise you,” Well said, and evil grin on his face.

He had backed Hero up to the door she had stumbled into.

Hero swallowed hot, dry air, it took a few heartbeats for her to get her voice under control again.

“You’re not Well,” she managed in a tiny voice.

The creature with Well’s face chuckled, “I can’t believe it took you so long to figure it out.”

Like a heap of chard wood crumbling into flames, the facade of Well tumbled to the ground around him in a avalanche of still burning cinders.

What the facade left behind was the flaming shadow of a smaller bear.

It’s teeth were made of chard points of wood. Flames oozed over it’s body like oil on water. It’s eyes were smoldering embers of coal.

Between one heartbeat and the next, both the bear and Hero knew that the time for talking was over.

Jaws gaping, the bear lunged for Hero’s throat.

In a stumbling dash, Hero bound away. Only narrowly missing her clothes getting singed.

The bear didn’t even take a moment of thought, and instantly struck out again, slicing through the air with it’s flaming claws.

Hero ducked and slid underneath the table, popping back onto her feet on the other side. That was long enough for her to think, to devise a plan.

The bear might have had claws and fangs and flames on its side, but one thing it didn’t have was control. It was filled to bursting with rage. The creature was strong and its strikes were deadly for sure, but it was stumbling around the room, lashing out blindly. If Hero stayed on her toes, she could dodge him.

And she might just have the thing to beat the bear, right in her bag.

Hero had pulled the weapon out of her bag while she was sliding under the table, and held it behind her. She was waiting for the bear to lash out again, and then she would strike.

She didn’t have to wait long. Hero had hardly gotten to her feet again when the bear bound towards her and pounced in, snapping its fiery jaws at her stomach.

What the bear got instead was a mouth full of Hero’s water pouch.

The bear’s teeth sizzled and hissed. Steam billowed out of the creature’s mouth as it howled in pain. Flailing its arms, the bear stumbled away.

Hero didn’t let up. With another swing of her arm, she splashed more cooling water onto the bear. The bear shrieked and slashed at Hero. She easily dodged out of the way.

Making one last desperate lunge at Hero, the bear stumbled over a chair and toppled into the large pot of porridge sitting on the table. In an explosion of steaming soup, the bear was snuffed out.

Smoking liquid was still dripping from the ceiling when Hero heard, “Well done, well done. Come in and make yourself at home.”

The voice was soft and sweet, and not at all familiar. It was coming from a door that now stood at the opposite end of the room. A door that had never been there before.

Without fear, Hero step towards it.

What the girl found when she stepped through the door, was nothing like what she expected.

Everything was perfect.

The room wasn’t too hot or too cold. A gentle sun dappled through the window. A trim little split log table sat with two neat little settings. The rough wooden floor looked freshly swept. A perfectly tidy little fireplace burned merrily in the corner.

It looked like home.

Specifically, it looked just like the inside of Hero’s little house, just a bit more cleaned. Everything from the water jug on the shelf to the stones around the fireplace looked precisely the same.

“Why don’t you sit down dear,” came the unfamiliar voice again, “We can have a nice little chat.”

Hero’s eyes swam through the room again, this time they landed on a tall, slim figure standing at the back of the room who was straightening a picture hanging on the wall.

The woman was lean and fit. Long golden hair reached down to nearly her knees. Kind blue eyes met Hero’s.

“Who are you?” Hero asked, moving towards the woman.

“I think you already know that,” the woman said, “Family can always recognize each other, even if they’ve hardly met.”

Slowly understanding dawned on Hero. This woman looked so much like the paintings in the village of her mother, and yet so different as well.

The woman smiled and a warm, peaceful feeling drifted over Hero. It crept into her heart and made a nice, soft nest there.

The girl walked towards the woman, slowly, carefully, as if she was afraid it was a dream before her and she didn’t want it to end.

“I thought you were dead all this time,” Hero said, barely an arms length from the woman now.

“No my lovely, only in hiding.”

“The villagers told me—“

“What the villagers told you was a lie. Stay with me, we can be happy here, and I will tell you all about it,” the woman smiled a sweet smile and gently patted Hero on the shoulder.

Hero smiled and nodded as she reached into her bag and pulled out a tiny object. The little trinket was so small it could easily fit into the palm of a very young child. Hero had been holding onto it ever since she could remember. It was the last gift her mother had ever given her, and until this moment Hero had not really understood it. But now it made sense, she finally knew who she was supposed to return it to.

“I would have liked that very much dear Aunt Delara,” Hero said.

The woman’s smile faltered.

“But first, a little gift from my mother,”Hero said, and then slammed the last, tiniest little, hardly bigger than a thimble, shard of the sacred staff her mother once wheeled into the arm of the woman.

The woman shrieked and hissed and in a burst of golden sparks the lovely illusion swirled off and left behind a tall and lean golden bear.

“Why did you do this?!” the bear shrieked.

“The same reason my mother tried to kill you, Aunt, because she couldn’t live in a lie. And I can’t either.”

Hero stepped back, ever watching as the golden sparks that made up the bear swirled and slowly scattered and with it the perfect little house crumbled all around the girl.

As the last wisps of the tiny house faded into the leaf covered ground of the forest floor, the morning sun slowly rose.

Every morning at sunrise the golden bell was rung in the village, but this morning the air was silent. The gentle chirp of birds could be heard, and the deep hum of people waking from the darkness, but not the bell.

Hero knew that the bell was gone, vanished. There was no more reason for the guardian to stay. The evil witch was finally gone. Her mother’s spirit could rest at last.

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