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This is the first chapter and a half of a retelling on the fairy tale "East of the Sun, West of the Moon." This is only a first draft which hasn't even been looked over for typos. Please let me know if any sections don't seem to fit or are confusing. I am writing for an young adult to an adult audience. Thank you for reading and commenting. :)
East of the Sun West of the Moon (ESWM)
Retold by Rachel Rossano
Willow stood in the clearing overlooking a small shack in the field farther down the mountain. “Home,” she said. Her voice carried in the cold crisp air as she waited for the word to sink in into her being. It didn’t. The word didn’t fit the cramped one room building that huddled against the snow spewing out thick black smoke.
Only moments ago, her older sister had yelled the word at Willow. “This is your home, Willow. It is time you started acting like it!” Ash was only one of Willow’s older sisters, but she was the loudest and the pushiest.
“Ignore her,” Birch whispered as Willow turned to put on her wraps. “She is just worried about Father.”
Willow grimaced. They all were worried about father, all seven of them. After all, with mother gone, he was all they had left. Just because she was the youngest, Ash, Cedar, Evergreen, Fern, and Mahogany all seemed to think she was too young to understand. Birch was different. She knew that Willow understood.
“I understand,” Willow whispered, watching the air cloud with her breath and ignoring the tears that threatened to spill. “Father is dying.” There she had said the words. She alone among them all was strong enough to acknowledge the truth.
His hacking cough that tore at his lungs now brought up blood, the grimaces that he tried to hide from them all, it was winter lungs. Even the doctor knew nothing could be done. “Keep him comfortable and warm. Feed him this and mix it with brandy.” He said the same thing every time. Willow knew what it meant and it frightened her.
“We could go south again,” Willow had suggested when the doctor left. “The warm air would help Father and we could go to work for Mr. Bradlet.”
That was when Ash lost her temper. “This is our home now, Willow. It is time you started acting like it. I don’t like it any more that you do, but that is the way it is. Go fetch more firewood, the stock pile is low and there is a storm coming.” Then Ask turned away, showing Willow her thin shapely back and narrow shoulders.
The woodpile was high enough to last the rest of the winter and all of them knew it. That was the one thing that they had in abundance. Willow knew better that to point that fact out when Ash was in this mood. Instead, she had obediently bundled up and left. She didn’t mind. She preferred the silence and cold beauty of the snow covered wood to Ash’s icy manner. Ash would smother them all with her anger if Willow stayed, so she had left.
“Isn’t it cold for you to be standing out here?”
Willow jumped slightly and turned toward the voice. She hadn’t heard anyone approach. Then she froze and stared. A great white bear stood about three feet away from her. His head was cocked slightly to the side in a quizzical manner and his dark eyes were fastened on her face.
I am dreaming, she concluded instantly. But that didn’t make any sense.
“Aren’t you cold?” The bear’s mouth moved and the voice definitely had come from him. It was a pleasant voice. Scratchy from under use perhaps, but deep and warm, like a thick quilt filled with goose down.
“I am,” she admitted.
“Then why are you standing out here? Don’t you live in that house down there?”
“I do,” Willow replied, “but my sister sent me to get more firewood, sir.” He seemed the type who would appreciate respect and it didn’t hurt to be polite.
He looked at her empty arms wrapped about her body and then to her face.
“She just wanted to get me out from underfoot and keep me from asking difficult questions,” she explained. “Father is dying and she is frightened.”
The bear nodded awkwardly, as if he hadn’t done it in a long time. “Night is coming and the temperature is dropping. Do you think she might be willing to let you back in now?”
She looked down toward the small building below. “I will need to bring at least some wood,” she admitted and turned to scan the tree line for fallen branches.
“Saw some back the way I came. Wait here.” The great bear turned and lumbered smoothly toward a slight break in the trees to the North. Willow watched him with fascination. His movements were graceful and silence in spite of his size. In a few moments, he returned with three dry branches in his mouth which he dropped at her feet. “Now go home and warm up. I am sure your sister’s anger has passed by now.”
Willow stooped down and took up the three branches; they were heavy, but manageable. Thanking the bear, she turned and hurried home. Her sisters were amazed that she was able to find such dry firewood when the ground was covered with snow, but Willow didn’t explain about the bear. They would have only laughed at her because she was the youngest and Ash would have accused her of lying.
The next day, Father improved slightly. He asked to be moved to sit next to the fire and listened to Cedar tell him about her trip to the village that morning. Ash was in a better mood and sang while she sliced the fresh produce into the stew for their supper. Willow stayed out of everyone’s way by sitting by the window working on the darning and thinking about the bear that she had met the evening before.
He must be an enchanted bear, she reasoned. Talking bears didn’t happen naturally, not even here at the edge of the known world. Studying a nasty tear in Evergreen’s second best skirt, Willow began guessing who he might be. The tear wasn’t on a seam, so she was going to have to patch it. Looking through the scrap bag for something that wouldn’t clash with the brown calico, she wondered about the curse. What could he have done that would require such a punishment. Maybe he hasn’t done anything wrong? The thought caused her to pause. There were stories about curses that were placed on people purely for spite. Perhaps this bear was a hapless victim of circumstances.
“That gray is going to look terrible on the brown calico,” Mag pointed out as she passed by on her way to put away the laundry. Willow looked down to find she was fingering a scrap of faded gray. Impatiently pushing the scrap back into the bag, she reached for a piece of brown calico that was the same shade, but a different pattern than the skirt.
Suddenly the wind blasted against the window, rattling the panes that weren’t boarded over. The storm that had been threatening for two days was upon them. The sky grew dark, blocking out the light that Willow was using to sew by. She folded away the unfinished articles and put away the finished clothes in their appropriate drawers.
“Supper,” Ash announced. Willow eagerly helped with the setting of the table. Dinner was always the best on a market day. The stew freshly stocked with produce and the bread from the bakery never lasted the week. With eight mouths to feed, food never lasted long enough to spoil. Compared to the fare during the rest of the week, market day was always a feast day.
Birch had just begun handing the bowls to Ash to be filled when there was a heavy pounding on the door. Everyone froze.
“Who could be out in this storm?” Cedar asked.
“It is probably a traveler that was caught unawares by the storm,” suggested Fern.
Ash simply frowned. The others didn’t look happy either. Another for dinner meant less for each of them. The knock came again.
“Someone, open the door,” father said from his place by the fire.
“Willow, get the door,” Ash ordered. Then she turned and began ladling out the stew. “Fern, fetch another bowl.”
Willow lifted her feet over the bench and crossed the room to the door. Without bothering to ask who was on the other side, she opened it. The wind and snow blasted through the small crack that she made to look out. She was surprised to find not a traveler caught by the storm, but a bear.
“I wish to seek shelter from the storm,” he told her in a deep growl. Icicles hung from his nose and snow covered his massive shoulders. As she looked up into his dark brown eyes, Willow knew she had to let the poor thing inside. Without asking for her sisters’ or her father’s opinion, she decided. “Come in,” she said and swung the door wide so that his broad body would fit through.
Even before she closed the door, shutting out the storm, she heard her sisters’ muffled shrieks and the scuffling sounds as they all tried to retreat to the farthest corner of the room from the bear. Willow refused to look at her sisters. She knew what she would see. Fear in most of their eyes, except Ash’s. She would be angry and than frightened. Instead she looked at her father.
Her father was a woodcutter and used to animals, however having a wild bear enter your house was very different from seeing one in the forest north of the cottage. He regarded the bear in shock.
“Sir Woodcutter,” the bear said with a slight bow. It was strange to see a bear bow. “I request that I might spend the night under your roof. The blizzard is fierce and I am far from my home.”
Willow watched as her father’s face relaxed slightly. “So, you speak,” he said with a laugh. “Of course, I offer you the warmth of my hearth and the nourishment of my table, Sir Bear. Come join me by the fire. My daughters will serve you some of the meal that we were about to eat.”
“No need to feed me,” the bear protested. “I have eaten recently. I only require a warm dry place to sleep and wait out the storm.”
“Then come and join me. You look half frozen.”
The bear crossed to sit beside the fire and soon he and Father were deep in conversation.
Seeing that the bear was settled, Willow turned back to the table. Her stomach growled in hunger, but she was no longer looking forward to the meal. She could already feel Ash’s anger as she approached the table. Her sisters had returned to the table hesitantly as it became clear that the bear was staying, but their movements had lost the enthusiasm of before.
Birch handed the bowls to Ash to be filled and as tradition, each received theirs in accordance to age. Ash, Birch, Cedar, Evergreen, Fern, Mahogany, and finally Willow, but tonight, Ash covered the pot after Mag received her serving.
“What about Willow?” Birch whispered, holding out the empty bowl and sending fearful eyes toward where Father and their strange guest were discussing the weather.
“Willow lost her share when she let in that thing,” Ash hissed as she glared down the table at Willow. “Blame her when we are all murdered in our beds tonight.” She then pointedly took her seat and began eating her portion.
Birch looked sadly at Willow, as if to say she was sorry. Willow smiled weakly back to show she would be alright. Then she crept over to sit in the corner by the fire. From there she could watch the bear and listen to his conversation with Father. Maybe studying him would distract her from the hollow feeling in her stomach.
Cyrus watched the one named Willow out of the corner of his eye. He rarely missed his color vision anymore, but suddenly he wished he had it back. All of the girls were beautiful, finely formed, delicate featured, and graceful in movement, but this little one, the youngest fascinated him. She alone seemed to have a fearless quality about her.
He remembered the look in her clear eyes when she first turned and looked at him on the mountainside. Surprise and unshed tears looked back at him, but no fear. It wasn’t until tonight, watching her deciding whether or not to open the door or close it in his face, that he noticed the subtle softness around her mouth that pulled at something within him. The feeling came from a place he had forgotten existed somewhere in his chest. Then, as he first laid eyes on the woodcutter, her father, Cyrus saw where she had gotten it from. The woodcutter had regarded him without fear.
“You need to eat your dinner, Father,” the eldest daughter said, the one who hated as well as feared him. Cyrus had heard what she had done to the youngest, though the woodcutter hadn’t. He glanced toward the small presence in the corner. She wasn’t healthy. None of them were. The slightly sunken cheeks and knobby wrists were the most obvious signs of their slow starvation. Something within him recoiled from the idea that one sister would deny the other food when they were all in such a bad condition.
“I will, Ash, later,” the woodcutter replied waving her away. “Right now I wish to talk to our guest.”
“Father, you must eat or you will never recover your strength.”
“What is the northland like, Sir Bear?” the woodcutter asked, ignoring his daughter. Cyrus recognized the signs in this man too, but his condition was worse. The youngest was right; her father was dying.
“I will tell you, if you eat while I do. I have no wish to interrupt your dinner.”
“Ah, if I must,” he agreed finally.
So, Ash withdrew to dish up the meal and another sister returned with bowl in hand and began the process of feeding her father while stealing glances in his direction. Cyrus ignored her and told the woodcutter of the mountains where the snow clung to the rock all year round and the barren wastes of frozen tundra. As the hours passed, the man’s eyes drooped and one of the girls built up the fire. Behind he heard the sounds of the girls getting ready for bed, yet the youngest remained by the fire.
Finally all was silent. The only light was the flickering glow of the fire and the only sounds were the rise and fall of seven sleeping humans, one with the rough wheeze of a sick man. Cyrus turned his head and met the girl’s gaze.
“What have you decided?” he asked.
Willow took her time answering. “You are a man under a curse.”
He wanted to smile, but Cyrus knew how intimidating his smile was with all those teeth, so he simply tilted his head. She continued to study him.
“Are you going to sleep?” he asked.
“No.” She stated it firmly. “I was the one who let you in, so I am going to make sure that you don’t kill my family while they sleep.”
Now he wanted to laugh. He controlled the urge. “Why do you believe I would do that?”
“I don’t. My sister does; so, I shall have to prove her wrong.”
“She still won’t forgive you,” he pointed out.
She lowered her eyes slightly. “I know, but at least I have proven to myself that she is wrong about you.”
“And about you,” he added. Past all this calm exterior, Cyrus could see the pain that lingered in this girl’s soul. She wanted to be loved by her sisters as she loved them, deeply and selflessly, but she knew it wasn’t going to happen. Cyrus knew it wasn’t going to happen, but some part of him cried out that he should make it happen.
“You are right,” he said. Her clear eyes rose to regard him with interest. Yet again, he wished to see their color. “I am under a curse. I was once a king. I am still a king now, but king of a dead kingdom. I was proud and haughty. I looked over my kingdom and said to myself, ‘Look at the great empire that I have made for myself. I have riches, lands, people, and glory. I am greater than every king in the world, in the heavens.’ No sooner had I spoken this than a great voice came out of heaven and the great God of heaven punished me for my pride. He turned me into a beast and my kingdom to a wasteland. My people fled the famine, except a few faithful servants, and I was left alone with only the promise that I would be delivered by a woman. Not just any woman, one who could look on me without fear. When I found her, I needed to marry her and live with her in my palace in the north for a year and a day before I would become a man again.”
Cyrus paused and watched the face of the young girl in the corner. “You are the first I have met who has looked upon me without fear.” He let the statement hang between them.
“Are you asking me to marry you?” she asked after a long moment of silence.
Cyrus regarded her steadily. “I am.”
“You have my blessing if she says yes,” the woodcutter said suddenly. Cyrus was surprised that he hadn’t noticed the change in the man’s breathing.
“But father…” she began in her calm tone.
“I am dying,” he stated as if he were saying that it was storming outside. “You know that and unlike your sisters, you face that fact squarely. I know where I am going. I am under the God of heaven’s care, child. It appears that the God of heaven has other plans for you. Say yes, and free this man.”
Cyrus looked in surprise from father to daughter and back. The girl’s eyes were for her father. “Yes, bear, I will marry you.”
The woodcutter nodded and looked over at Cyrus. “Take good care of her, Bear.”
“My name is Cyrus, sir.”
The woodcutter nodded again. “Cyrus, take good care of her. She is the one who looks most like her mother and I shall miss her. Now you should leave before the others awake. They are sure to raise a fuss over this and try to talk me out of it. For all their arguing, they do love each other.”
“You will need to eat first,” Cyrus said as Willow got to her feet. “We have a long journey ahead of us.”
She nodded and turned to prepare to leave.
“When will you marry her? It isn’t as if any man of God would marry a girl to a bear.” The woodcutter’s sharp feverish eyes demanded an immediate answer.
“One of the faithful few who remained with me is a man of God who will marry us as soon as we arrive at my home.”
The woodcutter nodded is satisfaction and settled back in his chair. “Wake me before you leave,” he demanded and promptly fell asleep.
Cyrus carefully got up and turned around so that his damper side was toward the fire. The dryer he started out the better.
Willow didn’t pack much. Donning two dresses, one over the other, and two pairs of wool leggings, she hoped she would be warm enough. Layering three pairs of socks over her feet, she carefully squeezed her feet into her boots. She packed a few necessities into a small bag, including a loaf of bread and the shawl that her mother once owned. It was the only thing she had of her mother’s. A thick pair of mittens, extra long scarf, a woolen cap, and her heaviest cloak completed the gear. She ate two bowls of stew at the bear’s insistence from his place by the fire. He pointed out that her sisters would have the rest of her share in the days ahead and she needed the food now. Finally she was ready.
She woke her father gently.
“Ready to go?” he asked as he blinked her into focus.
“Yes, Father,” she said, looking down into the old weathered face that she loved. Now that it was time to say goodbye, she wasn’t sure she could do it. She loved him. He was her father and she was never going to see him again.
“Now don’t start thinking about that,” Father admonished her as he pulled her face closer for a kiss on the cheek. “We would have had to do this sooner rather than later. At least this way, you will remember me as I am now and I will be happy in knowing you will be well. Cyrus seems like a good man and if it is the will of the God of heaven there is no better will for you. Now kiss and hug me goodbye, child.”
“Goodbye, Father,” she whispered in his ear as she hugged him close. She breathed deeply one last time of his smell, wood smoke, his dinner broth, and the mint tea that he drank constantly. She kissed him on his leathery cheek and then forced herself to release him and step back.
The bear rose from his place by the fire and placed a large, powerful paw on her father’s arm. “I will take care of her, sir,” he said in his deep rumbling voice.
“Call me father, Cyrus,” her father said as he laid a hand on the bear’s paw. “You will be my first and last son to do so before I die and I wish to hear it once.”
“With pleasure, Father,” the bear responded. Then bowing his head, he gently nudged the man’s chest with his head before turning to Willow. “Are you ready?” he asked.
“Yes,” Willow replied. She was at peace and ready to leave.
The bear lowered himself so that his deep brown eyes were even with hers and she could feel his warm breath on her face. “Are you frightened, Willow?”
Willow searched deep within herself, knowing that this was the more important question. If she was afraid, this would be all for naught. She found what she had found before. “No, Bear, I am not afraid.”
“Then let us leave,” he said and turned toward the door.
Willow took up her small bundle, crossed to the door, and opened it for the bear. Beyond, the snow was falling gently and the wind was gone. The bear stepped out into the cold whiteness and Willow followed, closing the door tightly behind her.
They walked for a long ways. Willow silently said goodbye to the fields, then the clearing, and finally the woodland paths that she had roamed the fall before. On the bear lead her, deeper into the woods and past any hope of her finding her way home again. Until just as dawn was breaking her paused and turned to her.
“Are you afraid?”
Again, Willow searched deep within herself. She came up with the same answer. “No, I am not afraid.”
“Then climb onto my back,” the bear told her. Lowering himself so that she could climb onto his broad back, he explained. “I am going to continue walking, but I want you to sleep. My body heat will keep you warm enough that you will not freeze and I can go without sleep until tomorrow night.”
Willow climbed on. “How shall I stay on?” she asked.
“Sink you fingers into my fur and hold on to it,” he replied. Hesitantly she obeyed, tying her bundle to her waist so that she could use both hands. “Don’t be afraid,” he said.
“I am not afraid of you. I just don’t want to hurt you.”
The bear was silent for a moment. “You won’t hurt me, Willow. Hold on tight. I don’t want you falling off.”
Willow obeyed. It was strange riding on the back of a great white bear. His loping stride smoothly rocked her back and forth and when he spoke, his voice rumbled, deep and warm in his chest beneath her head. Willow quickly fell into a deep slumber.
Her closeness was doing things to him. Cyrus tried to ignore them, but it was difficult. Overwhelming protectiveness washed over him as she climbed onto his back. Her light weight was strangely sweet and desirable. “Is this right?” he asked the God of heaven as he padded along through the snowy landscape letting his instinct lead him in the right direction.
Remembering what Vorin had told him from the God of heaven’s words, Cyrus was pretty sure that these feelings were appropriate for when he had married the girl, but not before. It also seemed like a promising sign that he was feeling things from deep within himself again. However, Cyrus was determined to be careful. Too much was at stake. He wanted to please the God of heaven and he had to be sure to do this according to His will. That meant they were stopping at the abandoned cabin for the time when Cyrus planned to sleep. There she could keep warm without his assistance and he could sleep knowing she was safe. Changing his direction slightly, he picked up his speed. It was going to take them slightly out of the way, but it was worth it to please God.
Willow woke warmer than she had felt since the last autumn leaf fell in October. Something heavy and warm pressed over her and resisted slightly when she tried to move. Slowly she opened her eyes to gentle sunlight. I overslept. The thought brought her head from her pillow before the memories of the night before flooded her mind.
But had it been the night before? She looked again at the light falling in the single window. Her stomach rumbled. Pushing back the bedding, she put her feet over the side of the bed. Her toes brushed something soft and very warm. Looking down, she found the bear stretched full length on the floor next to the bed. His eyes closed and paw over his snout. He was snoring softly.
She smiled. He looked quite adorable this way. She wondered how long they had been there and how long he had slept already. Crawling down the bed, she got off the end and crossed to the fireplace. The fire was glowing embers and needed more fuel.
As quietly as she could, she located her boots and crept out into the snow. A clear blue sky and miles of blinding white snow greeted her. She could barely make out the imprints of the bear’s tracks in the snowdrifts, which meant that the snow ended soon after they had arrived. The highest drifts were at least up to her chest, while the lowest sections came to her knees. Looking up at the sun, she guessed it was about four in the afternoon. She had slept longer than she had ever slept in her life.
Following the wall of the cabin to her left, she turned the corner and found the wood pile. She could carry only a few logs, but it was enough to start the firs up again and melt some snow. She was thirsty.
Once back inside, she fed the embers and soon had a blazing fire again. She did find a pot on the shelf in the corner along with a frying pan, a collection of chipped dishes, and wooden spoon that had seen better days. Taking the pot, she retreated outdoors again to collect some snow. When she returned, the bear had moved, but still was snoring lightly.
Soon she was sitting before the fire, nibbling on a small portion of her bread supply and drinking melted snow. The bear stirred, drawing her attention to him.
He is to be my husband soon, she told herself. Though it didn’t frighten her, she did feel strange to think of herself as a bear’s wife. No, she corrected herself, He is a man in the form of a bear. In a year and a day, I shall look on him as he is as my husband. This seemed less strange somehow.
The bear stretched and yawned, showing a full set of very sharp looking teeth.
“Good morning,” Willow greeted him as he opened his eyes.
“Morning?” He asked as he glanced at the window.
“Afternoon, to be exact,” she agreed.
“I though so.” He stretched again. Willow watched with interest at the muscle moving beneath the fur. He was a handsome bear.
“How much farther do we have?” she asked.
“About a day’s walk,” he replied. “I was thinking of starting again once you were ready.”
“As soon as I finish eating, I will be ready. Do you want a drink before we go? I can melt some more snow for you.”
He was watching her with his eyes and Willow was sure there was something whirling through his head. “Yes,” he finally replied. “I am thirsty.”
Taking up the pot, Willow went out and filled it with snow. While they waited for it to melt, the bear told her about the country that they had just crossed.
Suddenly, he asked, “What do you want me to call you?”
She looked up surprised. “My name is Willow and everyone calls me that.”
He smiled, showing a lot of teeth. “I like it.”
“I don’t, particularly,” Willow admitted. “You have probably noticed that all of us are named after trees: Ash, Birch, Cedar, Evergreen, Fern, Mahogany, and Willow. I was named for the weeping willow because I came into the world as my mother left it.”
His eyes were somber. “I like it. Willows are beautiful and graceful trees, strong, supple, and resilient. You remind me of a willow.”
Willow felt slightly uncomfortable under his gaze. “What is your name?”
“Cyrus Orson Bryer,” he growled.
“Bear,” she said. “Your name means bear. Did your parents know?”
“Not that I am aware of.” He lumbered over to the now bubbling snow-water.
“Let me,” Willow protested. Wrapping her skirt around her hand, she removed the pot from the heat. “I am sorry, we are going to have to wait for it to cool.” She studied him for a moment. “I will call you Cyrus, if you don’t mind.”
He sat back on his haunches. “May I ask why?”
She smiled up at him. “I like it.”
He nodded his funny nod and looked down at the pot. “If we stick it in the snow it will cool faster.”
Willow complied and within the hour, she had put out the fire with a pit full of snow and was closing the door behind them.
She had an interesting sense of humor, Cyrus decided as they trudged along. He liked her smile and the way she looked when she thought deeply, like when he asked her if she was afraid. She truly appeared to search her soul each time he asked. He liked that.
“So tell me about your childhood,” she said suddenly, breaking through the companionable silence.
“It was a normal one.”
She gave him a look that he guessed was doubtful. “I doubt it was anything like mine,” she pointed out.
“True,” he admitted. “It was a normal childhood for an heir to a kingdom, I suppose, nurses, governesses, tutors and the like.”
“A brother, younger,” Cyrus admitted reluctantly. He didn’t like to talk about his brother. She took the hint.
“Where are your parents now?”
“Dead,” he said. Then suddenly a thought occurred to him. “I am a lot older than you. I hope you don’t mind.”
She laughed. “Are you saying that you are as old as my father?” she asked.
Cyrus paused. It had been a long time since he had figure out his age. As he began to remember, Willow interrupted him.
“I wasn’t exactly worried about your age when I accepted you offer, Cyrus.”
“I know,” he admitted. “I am not as old as your father, Willow, but I am at least fifteen years your senior.”
“Does that change anything?”
“No, but I…” he stopped. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to say.
“Cyrus?” she said, stopping suddenly.
Reluctantly, Cyrus stopped as well and turned to look at her. She was so small it frightened him. He had been so afraid of hurting her as he transferred her from his back the night before. It was hard to be so aware that with one wrong move from him, intentional or not, he could break one of her bones.
Completely oblivious to his thoughts, Willow walked up to him and touched the side of his head, weaving her slender fingers into his fur. “We are not going to be the typical married couple, no matter how this turns out,” she told him, looking deeply into his eyes. “But no matter what, I will try to be the best wife I can for you, regardless of your age, looks, etc.” Then dropping her hand, she stepped back and began walking again.
“Not afraid,” Cyrus found himself muttering, “That child is fearless.”
Willow could barely see where to place her foot for the next step because the darkness was so thick. Trees closed about them on all sides, blocking out any light they might have gained from the stars or the moon, sliver that it was. All she could see was the great white blob that was Cyrus. Even then, she walked with her left hand buried in his fur at the shoulder. It made him feel better, he said. He could know that she was still with him while he continued to follow the dim trail. Even now she could hear him grumbling about his own foolishness at not remembering how hard the last bit of trail was at night.
Suddenly he stopped. Rising up on his hind legs, thus lifting his shoulder out of her reach, he placed both of his front paws on the stone out cropping before them. He whispered something that Willow didn’t catch and slowly the wall moved inward and to the side, revealing a passageway.
“Come,” he growled as he felt back to four legs. “We have arrived.”
He led her into the even thicker darkness beyond the wall. Looking back over her shoulder, Willow watched the doorway close behind them with a heavy thump. Suddenly light began to filter in from somewhere. It took Willow a moment to realize that it was really starlight from the sky.
They emerged from the passage and stepped out into a great open area. About a thousand feet in front of them rose a castle glowing a dull silver in the dim light.
“This is home,” Cyrus informed her as he lumbered along toward the entrance. “No one can enter or exit without my permission.”
“Hallo,” a voice called. Looking ahead, Willow spotted a small square of golden light that looked like a door. “Is that you Cyrus,” the voice asked. As they approached, Willow could just make out the outline of a short man.
“Who else would it be, Garrt,” Cyrus replied grumpily. “Open the great door so I can enter.”
The small shadow disappeared, closing the little door behind him and a moment later a larger opening appeared where the first had been. Cyrus led Willow in this entrance, which closed behind them. Without stopping, Cyrus plodded on down a wide corridor that opened into large great room with a roaring fireplace and large heaps of oversized cushions. He made straight toward the largest pile of cushions near the fire and flopped across them with deep rumbling sigh of contentment.
Willow found she couldn’t help smiling at him as he sprawled. She understood the feeling. Sinking onto a nearby cushion, she began removing her boots from her aching feet.
“Master Cyrus?” a voice inquired. Willow looked up to find a very short man examining her with great interest.
“Yes?” Cyrus rolled over and opened one eye to look at the dwarf.
“It is good to have you home, but…” The man’s eyes darted from the bear to Willow and back.
Cyrus groaned and got to his feet and then sat back. “This is my gatekeeper, Garrt,” he motioned to the dwarf. “Garrt this is my fiancé, and if you would wake Vorin, she will soon be my wife.”
“Your majesty,” the dwarf exclaimed as he bowed deeply with extra flourish. “I am honored...” He would have continued but Cyrus growled deep in his chest.
“Garrt, if you don’t immediately summon Vorin, I will start biting.”
Garrt’s face grew red. “But sire…”
“I am exhausted and so is Willow. Go fetch Vorin, now, or I shall fire you and fetch him myself.”
Garrt’s face turned and interesting shade of maroon as he appeared to hold his breath. Willow watched with great interest as the dwarf spun on his heel and marched off in the direction of the stairs that spiraled into the ceiling on the east end of the room.
Cyrus flopped back on the cushions and groaned.
Willow couldn’t help but laugh. He looked so funny spread across the heap with his head thrown back. There was something human about the way he laid there.
Cyrus lifted his head and looked at her with an expression she guessed was supposed to be a glare. “What is so funny?” he growled.
Smothering another laugh, Willow tried to look serious. He rolled off the pillows once more and began crossing to her until his nose was only inches away from hers. It was a big nose, so large that she doubted the palm of her hand would cover it completely.
“What is so funny?” he asked, softly, but the force of his breath stirred her hair.
“You and Garrt,” she replied.
“Hmph,” Cyrus said as he blew in her face again.
“I hope you aren’t thinking about eating her,” a new voice commented.
Cyrus lowered his head and sighed, which was an interesting effect coming from a great, white bear. “No, Vorin, I am not going to eat her.” Turning to the new arrival, he said, “Willow this is Vorin, my spiritual advisor and friend. Vorin, the woman who you are about to marry to me.”
“You mean you found her?” Surprise and shock were written in deep crevices across Vorin’s face. After a moment of looking at him Willow discovered it wasn’t that Vorin was old, it was that Vorin’s face was craggy and tended toward creases.
“Ask her yourself,” Cyrus said as he lumbered yet again to the pile of cushions. “She doesn’t fear me. In fact, she was laughing at me only a moment ago.”
“You don’t fear him?” Vorin asked, seriously as he studied Willow’s face.
Willow searched again within the deep parts of herself and found something that she hadn’t found before. It wasn’t fear. It was a feeling of friendship. In the past two days, she had grown to like Cyrus. She looked up and met Vorin’s watchful gaze. “I do not fear him,” she stated honestly.
Vorin’s clear blue eyes searched her face for a few moments.
“Are you satisfied?” Cyrus asked sleepily.
“Yes,” Vorin replied. “Now get your lazy bones over here so I can marry the two of you and start this year and a day.”
Cyrus rose and came over to stand by Willow. Vorin opened a small book he had carried in with him and began reading the vows. Cyrus and then Willow repeated them. When Vorin asked if there would be an exchange of rings, Garrt produced a slender golden band for Willow’s finger. Willow didn’t ask about a ring for Cyrus since the complications with that were obvious. With clumsy embarrassment, Cyrus tied to put the ring on her finger. He was growling deep in his chest when Willow calmly took the ring from his paw and slid it on her own finger. She could tell this annoyed him, but they were both tired and his frustration was growing. Finally, Vorin pronounced them man and wife and Cyrus retreated to his mound of cushions.
Vorin escorted her up the stairs to a large bedroom mostly hidden in shadows. There he left her to retire. Exhausted, Willow undressed and collapsed into bed.
(c) 2006 Rachel Rossano
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