Aphelion Issue 220, Volume 21
August 2017
 
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Barrow Ben

by Christopher Owen



When autumn came and set the once green forest aflame with red and gold, Barrow Ben wandered dull and languid through the cool between the trees, his great, ursine bulk sluggish in his despair for the missing River Girl. His memories of idle summer seemed as dry and dust shod as the cracking leaves which stirred about his paws as he passed.

Each morning, he left his home within the washed out roots of an ancient and gnarled tree which grew on the old barrow and he ambled to the dewy banks of the river, dreams of summer still in his head. Yet now he found the waters murky and dark, as the river had grown foul in the River Girl's absence. But a few scant weeks before, each morning had found her lithe form swimming through the stream, the vine-green tresses of her hair a maelstrom about her pale white body as she splashed within the water, spreading blossoms from the lilies which grew near the shore. Barrow Ben remembered diving into the river, reeling through its cool depths and bursting forth with a silver trout clinched within his jaws. He wished to hear once again her waterfall soft laughter at his antics, and feel the scratch of her tiny fingernails between his ears as he lay with a well fed stomach on the sun warmed rocks beside the river.

But sometime between summer's slow wane into autumn splendor, the River Girl had gone away, leaving the creatures of the forest to wonder where she went, and why she would shirk her duties and let the river grow into the fetid brown murk which it had become. The birds chatted in their quickswift speech, much too fast for Ben's ears, but he knew they spoke of river trouble. He could hear it in the chatter of the squirrels as well, and in the whisper of the snakes. Two raccoons, as he passed, mocked Ben with one of their rhymes, sung slow enough so he could hear:

"Barrow Ben is growing thin,
His shanks are lank and lean.
His ribs poke out, his eyes sink in
His manner's growing mean."

Ben gave them a half-hearted growl as they shouted after him. "What did you do to the River Girl, Ben? Was it you that made her go?" Ben ignored them and moved on. There had been no fish in the river once again, and he was forced to forage for nuts and mushrooms for his breakfast. As he nuzzled through the damp, earthy leaves, he caught the scent of a dormouse near, and perked up at the thought of a quick bite of meat. Following the smell, he startled the little fellow from his hidey hole and sent him skittering through the leaves.

In a flash, Ben was after the mouse, following the little rodent's pungent scent as he hurried on deeper into the darkness of the forest. Ben followed for a while, but eventually the rodent's quick speed and Ben's weak legs combined to let the mouse give him the slip, and when Ben looked up, he realized he'd ventured far from his own territory. He was surrounded by the whispers of unfamiliar trees, and the strange tang of unfamiliar creatures lay heavy in the air.

A quick twinge of fear swept through Ben's form, and he stood for a moment on his hind legs, raising his fore claws in a manner of defense, and sniffing the air for a hint as to what it was that had set his curly brown hairs on end. In an instant the wind began to stir, and the sunlight above the tree tops seemed to fade, leaving the forest in sudden gloom.

"Why, Barrow Ben," said a cackling old woman's voice from behind. "What are you up to, here in my forest?"

Ben dropped to four paws and spun about quickly.

Standing beside the large trunk of an elm tree was a tall woman dressed in flowing, drab green robes. Her long, wild grey hair was veined with streaks of green, a shade which was matched by her scowling lips and piercing, angry eyes. It was that old forest witch, Minerva Row.

Ben growled.

"Watch that language with me, cur!" she shouted as she began to walk toward Ben, who took a slow, uncertain step backward. "I know you are angry. So am I!" She stopped a few steps from Ben, and placed her thin, bony arms upon her hips. "But we've no quarrel with one another. We rage for the same reason all the forest rages. All that we know and love is out of joint. The River Girl is gone, and so the river dies. And when the river goes, so goes the forest, our home. We are doomed...you, I and every other creature which lives within this wood."

Ben moaned an inquisitive groan.

"How long? Through winter, perhaps, into spring. But when that new season dawns, and the forest may draw no nourishment from the waters, nothing will bud, nothing will bloom. The trees will stay bare and black, and this place will become the haunt of the foul creatures of the world....ghouls and goblins, and their like. Or worse, men will come and cut it to the ground to feed their fires. Either way, all the good and gentle creatures will be long gone. Driven off, or perhaps fed upon by the forest's new residents."

Ben felt Minerva's words pierce him like a knife. His legs weakened, and he slumped down so that his chin rested flat upon the ground. "What can be done?" he grumbled in his slow bear speech.

"What can be done indeed," echoed Minerva Row. She grimaced. "There's but one hope for us, Ben. We must find the River Girl, and bring her back to the river. That is all that can save the forest."

Ben rolled to his side and gazed up at her. She read his questions in his eyes before he had voiced them.

"Where is she? Well, I was getting to that. She was taken, Ben, taken by men."

Ben stood and looked about, sniffing the ground as he pondered what this meant. Minerva Row continued, "There is a lark I speak to each morning, and she told me she saw her taken by men from the very banks where she slept about a fortnight ago. Just before dawn, a company of men were passing through the wood, dressed in black, their faces masked. It seems that it was she that they sought, for they had with them a large, enchanted sack, which they caught her up in, then tied it tight and slung it over the back of one of the large black horses that they had been leading through the forest. They then sped away, bound for the great city of men at the foot of the mountains, the limp form of the River Girl seeming almost lifeless as she bounced about upon the back of that steed."

Ben moaned loudly at the thought of his best friend, the River Girl, dead.

"No, no, she is not dead, no. She is that kind of river spirit called in lore a naiad, and she does not easily die as you or I. Though there are dangers for her, and us, if she is long away from her waters.

"And so Barrow Ben, she must be rescued. I am but an old woman who, though replete with magical powers, is bound to this forest and cannot leave it. And I know of no one else up to the task, no one but you, my friend."

Ben groaned, and gazed at his paws upon the ground.

"Yes, you. I know you are but a bear, but that can be remedied. I can change you into the shape of a man, so that you may journey untroubled among their cities. In that shape you may use the very wiles which they might use against you upon them. You will have all of their cunning, as well as your own. It will be dangerous, but I think there is no alternative. What say you?"

Ben stepped cautiously back a few more steps. He was a brave soul, but had never quite trusted the strange and mysterious arts of magic. But his mind was also filled with thoughts of the River Girl, and his heart ached for her. Grinding his teeth, he let out a simple whimper of acquiescence.

"Very well," Minerva Row smiled. "Follow me then, to my house, and we will make the change."

Minerva Row lived within a hill upon which grew a very ancient and languid oak tree, its trunk a fathom in girth, its leaves already flamed and turned to brown by the season, and many of them lay scattered about the hilltop. Its roots spread eerily about, as if a great spider sat upon the top of the hill, and in a crook formed by two of the greater roots lay the entrance to Minerva Row's lair. Within was a dank chamber which smelled of earth and tar, as well as the scents of her many potions. She entered and turned, and then sat upon a wooden bench near a table in the middle of the room. Ben stood cautiously at the door.

"Come in, bear, for there is nothing to fear. Not in here, no, though I cannot say the same of your mission. Come, come! You must trust me, for this to work."

Ben clawed idly at the ground outside the tree, the very dirt seeming to tingle at the tip of his claws. Reluctantly, he entered the abode, the very air seeming to drop about him like a death shroud. "No place for a bear," he rumbled.

"Indeed! I should think any ursine creature would be happy to find such a cozy abode; but no matter, we shan't dally here, for I'm to make a man of you, my growler, and get you on your way, or else winter shall catch us, and be the death of us all."

Minerva Row then retired through a hallway, and Ben waited idly until at length she returned, carrying an iron blade before her. It was a short sword of the type men carried, and she held it before Ben.

"This is a manclaw, my bear, and it has been enchanted -- by me -- so that by holding it you might take the guise of a human." She held it delicately by the blade, and held the pommel forth toward Ben. "Take it, and if you be willing, you will assume the shape of a man, and keep it. And until you willingly relinquish the blade, you will remain a man. For only in this shape can you hope to save the River Girl. Yes, stand up on your hind feet, Bear. Stand, and be a man!"

Ben stood, and roared, annoyed by the witch's audacity, but his love of the River Girl was foremost in his heart, and he held out his forepaw, and clumsily grasped the sword within his claws.

And he changed.

The instant he touched the blade, he felt a subtle tremor move through his body, and suddenly, his claws were gone, and he held the sword in tender, thin man fingers. His great bulk felt shifted, and he felt suddenly cold, as the very fur of his body seemed to fade to nothingness. He stood before the witch naked, a great, stocky, barrel-chested man, clutching the sword in his right hand.

"Ben!" said Minerva Row, "What a great and beautiful man you've become. You will be more powerful than I'd ever hoped."

Ben merely stood still, glancing about and shivering, feeling as though he'd been skinned, and moved the iron blade about in cautious circles.

"I be a man." He heard himself say, in the strange, worrisome language of men.

"Yes, yes, my bear, now you are locked into that form, as long as you willingly keep that blade. If it is taken from you, then you will remain a man, for only when you willingly give it up will you return to ursine form, for that is your escape from this doom. For when you return with the River Girl, and return her to the river, you may give it to me, and resume your life as a bear."

Ben walked about, noting that he felt no need to fall to all fours, as walking about on his new legs felt comfortable enough. "And now I speak...man talk?"

"Yes Ben, you are now man, and you have the speech of Man. You have always been able to understand it, but now, perhaps you will understand it a bit better, and you may now speak it. But beware, Ben, for you are still a bear at heart, and though your words will come out in manspeak, you will sound simple and doltish to men. Bears are simple folk, Ben, and think in but black and white. Men, however, are deceptive and conniving creatures, in a way which you cannot understand, thus you must beware of all they say."

"Why would men say that which be not?"

"Why do men lie? I cannot answer such a question about men, Ben, but let us agree that it is their very nature to be deceptive. Always remember this, and be wary of all they tell you. For just as the chameleon may hide behind his colors, so men do hide behind their words. Trust no one. And speak as little as possible. If you are silent and grim, you will do well, for you will appear as a powerful man among them, and they will fear you. Be quiet, be wary, have a care, and perhaps you will be able to find the River Girl, and return her to us. Now, let's get you some clothes, so you can be off."

"What are clothes?"

"Handmade coverings to keep you warm, and cover your body. You can't walk around in naught but manskin in their world, Ben. Men are ashamed and embarrassed of the sight of their own bodies."

"That is strange. They should grow fur."

"Indeed. You will find many more oddities on your journey, my good friend. Now, let's be off."

Ben followed the old witch from her home, down the gradually sloping land to the edge of the now murky river. The cool wind whipped through the autumn shod forest, stirring new leaf falls from the trees, and setting the thin hairs a-prickle on Ben's skin. As they approached the edge of the forest, Ben longed for the warmth of this fur.

"Here you must go on your own, Ben," said Minerva Row. "This is the end of the forest, and it is not in my ability to leave it." Ben looked up the line of the river as it ran through a golden plane of grass, flowing from the red mountains far to the horizon. "Follow the river and you will soon come to a road, which you will follow toward those mountains. There is a city in the foothills, which I am told was where the River Girl was taken."

"What of those clothes?" asked Ben, embracing himself and shivering in the cool wind.

Minerva nodded. "The birds tell me there is a fat farmer who lives along the road. His wife should be hanging out her washing this morn. Have a watch and when they are not looking, snatch a pair of breeches and tunic to cover yourself. And here, I'll give you some coins, so that you might leave payment, and have some left so that you may purchase food, boots, and board when you reach the city." She pulled a small sack from her robes, and poured the contents into her hands.

"What be those?" Ben asked, staring at the glistening bit of metal.

"This is money, Ben. Coins. Men trade them with one another for goods, or services. If you were to work a day in a farmer's field, he would give you some, and with them you might buy food for yourself, or more clothing, or began to buy some land for yourself."

"It is a difficult way to live, bound to this money thing. It confuses me. I prefer to catch fish in my jaws, and then to lay by the river."

"Indeed. Well, save the River Girl and bring her back, and perhaps that life will return. And be careful with those coins, for they are as much aid as my magic would be in the world of men. Don't let on how much of it you have, as some men might try to beguile you, and take it. The coins are known by many names, too, so have a care. The ones that shine like the sun are made of gold and commonly called Starlers. They are the most prized. Next are the silver ones, which shine like moonlight, and are called Sorrens, and ten are worth one Starler, give or take. Last there are the copper Nippets, the ones that are the red brown color of a fox. They are the most common, and a score or so is needed to buy a Sorren." She poured the coins back into the bag and handed it to Ben.

"This is all very difficult to know." Said Ben.

"You will learn it, just as you have learned which nuts of the forest you may eat, and which leave a foul taste in your mouth. Now, this is all I have to give to you, Ben. Be off, and move quickly. You bring many of your bear instincts with you, and you will be able to move silently, and hear much better than men. Use that to your advantage, and perhaps you will bring our girl back to us."

Ben started out from the edge of the woods, realizing that he'd never once left the cover of the trees, and it felt very strange not to have their comforting shelter surrounding him. But the sunlight and the effort of his walking began to warm him as he moved though the tall golden blades of field grass. "Good luck, Ben," Minerva Row shouted after him.

"What is luck?" he called back.

"Another convention of men. One I hope will be with you."

"Bah," thought Ben, as he looked at the mist of the distant mountains. "What have I got myself into? That looks like no place for a bear."

A few hours passed as Ben made his way through the grassy fields to the road. Just as the Witch had said, he came upon the small cottage of a farmer, and he saw a string of human garments drying in the morning sunlight beside the house. There was no one about, and Ben seemed to understand what the clothing was for, and pulled a white tunic and dark brown breeches from the line and donned them, as well as a baggy brown hat which seemed to strike his fancy. He left one of the silver moonlight coins on an upside down washtub, and then tied the coin purse to his waist next to his sword. He then started down the road again, and continued his walking throughout the day and the night which followed.

As the next morning dawned, he could see the shape of the city of men at the feet of the now looming mountains. It was a sprawl of wood and stone buildings which reminded Ben of the work of beavers, but on a grand scale. All of these surrounded a massive stone keep and castle which towered higher than the tallest trees that Ben had ever seen. The castle was built right into the wall of a high red stone cliff that marked the beginnings of the chain of mountains that ran as far as Ben could see into the horizon. A waterfall, higher than the castle itself, fell over the cliff near the keep, down into the beginnings of the river.

The sight of all this seemed to weary him, and Ben felt the need of sleep calling him, but it seemed a poor idea to rest so close to where he hoped to find the River Girl. He would find her, he mused, and bring her back to the forest, and all would be well. He would then feed to his stomach's content, and then settle in for a long winter's sleep beneath the old barrow tree.

Ben continued toward the city, and as he passed its open gates, a wealth of smells began to overwhelm him. The city was a dirty, vile place, and scents that reminded Ben of stagnant water and fetid, rotting flesh filled his still bear-sensitive nose. Burning coal and oil, human waste and the reek of trash and refuse blended with these, and threatened to turn Ben away from his task. He grimaced, and continued into the city, and soon, some of the vilest smells faded, and Ben began to detect more pleasant odors. Baking bread, roasting meat, and a mélange of spices and perfumes began to drift toward Ben from the center of the city. He walked toward these new found and very pleasant scents, resisting the urge to rush ahead and devour what he smelled as he would a fresh caught river trout. He was in the world of men, and heeded the Witch's warning to use caution more than ever.

Ben had already passed several men, women and man-cubs since he entered the city, and most seemed to pay him little heed, which pleased Ben. He found he was much larger than even the largest of the men, and most of them seemed to quickly glance away from him in fear when they saw him. As he neared the center of the city, hundreds more people were present. Here was a large grass courtyard filled with all manner of tents, wooden shacks, and other ragged constructs. Various men and women shouted from the open fronts of the structures, trying to gain the attention of others that passed by. Ben has discovered the town bazaar.

"Shoes for a bootless fellow," shouted an old man as Ben entered the square. The man waved a pair of soft leather boots in Ben's face. "Shall I shod those bare feet of yours, mate?"

Ben looked down at his large, calloused feet, and decided they functioned quite well unclad. He shook his head and quietly walked away. "Suit yourself, mate," the man shouted. "You'll wish for such come winter, but I'll be long gone."

Ben drifted a while through the maze of the market, wondering how to acquire some of the tasty morsels of food he smelled. He vaguely remembered something the Witch had told him about trading the coins for food, but the concept still seemed to confuse him. It seemed much simpler to merely take something quietly, when no one was looking, instead of hassling with the coins. He stood still for a few moments near an open booth where men pulled what Ben would later discover were called ‘pork pies' from a large clay oven, and place them on a wooden table to cool. Ben found that when he moved slowly, he made almost no noise, just as when he was a bear, and in this way he slipped behind the baker's booth, and silently lifted a stack of the pies. Turning quickly, he hid them beneath his tunic and walked a few steps away. The scent of the pies overwhelmed him, though, and he found he could go no further without stopping and placing one of the warm pastries into his mouth. The taste was rich and exquisite, unlike anything he'd yet known. For the first time, he had discovered something of men that he liked...their food.

"Did you see that?" Ben's ears heard a voice from across the way. "That great oaf slunk up quieter than a mouse and snooked them pies from the baker." Ben had heard many voices of the townspeople while he'd been in the city. Indeed, they rattled away like a cacophony to his oversensitive ears, yet there was something about the voice he'd just heard that made it stand out to him. It was shrill and high pitched, and, for reasons Ben did not understand, the man was speaking about him.

"Regular thief there, if you ask me," said another voice. "Never seen him before. Must be new."

"We'll, they'll be no thieving without my permission in this market," said the first. "He's liable to find my dagger ‘tween his ribs if he keeps this up."

"You'd best leave that one alone."

"I've felled bigger trees than that, Elan."

"Tis not his size, Jack. I see something about him, about his aura...it's all wrong. He's enchanted, if you ask me."

"With what, the soul of a quiet little mouse?"

"No. Tis a quiet soul, perhaps, but large and powerful."

"Bah, you and your make believe magic. Where do you get such notions?" said the shrill voice of the man called Jack. "All I see is a purse of coins around his waist, and I'll wager you they'll be mine in a moment's time."

"No Jack, leave that one alone, I say."

"Shhhh," Ben heard Jack say, and he could hear the little thief moving toward him. To most, Jack's delicate footsteps were silent in the throng of the market, but to Ben, each was like a loud pounding upon a drum skin, and he could tell easily of the man's approach. The stench of human sweat also announced Jack's presence as he slunk up behind the still dining Ben, and reached with a delicate, daggered hand toward Ben's waist.

In a flash Ben dropped his last pie, and grabbed Jack's dagger wrist. Jack cried out in pain, and his blade fell to the ground.

"Ow! Let go, you great oaf, unhand me!"

"You were about to take my coins," Ben said, a grim frown upon his mouth.

"No I wasn't, mate. Just walking by, I was. Sooth, says I."

"You speak that which is not."

"Well, okay, maybe so, but...I seen you take them pies."

"I was hungry."

"Well, I'd a mind to do some shopping, and needed some cash, eh? Look, friend, let me go, and I won't say nothing about them pies."

Ben stared at the little man for a moment, while he held his arm fast. Jack was barely five feet tall, and was rapier thin, with a crown of curly, black hair that was matted and unkempt. He had gaunt, dark colored eyes that darted about quickly like a fox's, hoping at once not to be seen, but also hoping for aid in freeing himself from Ben's viselike grip. "Know you much of this place?" Ben asked him.

"Do I know about what place?"

"I need to know things of this place. If I release you, will you help me?"

"You want my help? Well, you can just bugger off -- " Jack started to say, and then caught Elan's eyes. His older friend nodded silently to Jack, as he'd overheard the entire exchange. "Okay, sure, mate. I'll tell you whatever you want. Just please, by the Gods, let me go!"

Ben released Jack's wrist, and the small thief fell to his knees. He quickly retrieved his dagger, and then massaged his wrist with his free hand. "Bloody almost broken, it is."

"Don't try to run away from me," Ben said, his confidence growing. "I can catch a rabbit at full trot."

"I don't doubt that, mate." Jack said. "Come on, let's get out of the open, and I'll tell you whatever you want."

Ben retrieved his last pie from the ground, brushed the dirt from it, and popping it into his mouth, then followed Jack as he joined his friend. "This is Elan, my associate. I'm called Jack Haggard."

"And what be you called, my large friend?" Elan asked as they approached.

"Barrow Ben."

"What sort of a name is that? Are you an undertaker?"

"It is what I have always been called. Where are we going?"

"A quieter place...a little more private, where we can conduct our business," said Elan.

Ben followed as Jack and Elan led him out of the market, and down a thin, winding street of dirty cobblestones. Ancient timber and thatch roofed buildings lined the street, their sagging facades cantered inward toward the middle of the street, giving it an almost tunnel like quality. Jack and Elan turned into a dark doorway a short distance down the street, and Ben followed. Inside was a small, darkened chamber filled with wooden tables, and large oak chests and casks against the far wall.

"What is this place?" Ben asked.

"It's a pub, mate. A tavern. A place to pull up a pint o' ale, right? Ain't you never been to one before?"

"It is dark and comfortable, like beneath the barrow tree."

"That the name of a tavern where you're from?" Jack asked.

"No, it is where I live."

"And where's that?"

"In the forest."

"Ah," Jack said, "A Woodsman. That explains a lot. So, Ben, what brings you to the city?"

"I'm looking for a girl."

Jack and Elan laughed. "Is that all?" Jack said at length. "Well, no worries, mate. There's lots to be had here. Down Nunnery Street be more bawdy houses than you can shake a cat at. What be your pleasure? Common strumpet? Tawdry tart? How ‘bout one of them dark skinned lovelies from the east? Fellow brings ‘em in by caravan each summer, and ‘tis said they can please a man like no one else. Or perhaps you could settle for Belle, here."

A pale skinned, slightly chubby woman with long, tousled red hair approached and placed three wooden tankards on the table.

"You couldn't afford me, Jack," she said, punching thief in his shoulder as she turned and left the room.

"By the sound of the jingle of your purse," said Elan, "I'd wager you've enough gold starlers to buy the finest courtesan in the land. Just what are you after, Ben."

"I'm looking for the River Girl."

"Who? You mean you're looking for a specific person?"

"Yes, she lived near me in the forest. She was taken by men from this city, men dressed all in black, with their faces hidden. I've been sent to bring her back."

"Kidnapped by men in black, eh," said Jack, after he'd taken a long drink of ale. "That'd be the Archduke's men. Bad scene there. Who'd you say she was...some sort of boatman's daughter?"

"I do not know who fathered her. She is the River Girl."

"Fair enough," said Elan. "Look Ben, if she was taken by the Archduke's men, I'd say there weren't much hope for her. He's a foul man who conquered these lands some time back. He's got an army, and a powerful sorcerer in his service, and he pretty much takes what he wants in these parts. He lets this city thrive, because it's a center of trade for a number of merchants and craftsman, and keeps his army fed, shod and satisfied. He took over the old castle which looms above the city...made it his fortress, he did."

"Then I will go there and get the River Girl," Ben said.

"Are you bloomin' crazy?" Jack said. "That place is guarded by the toughest army this side of Mhyrr. You're quite a cut of a man, Ben, but even you can't face no well trained army."

"All you'd get is a spear in your gullet…or worse, mate," said Elan. "You're better off forgetting this girl...find something else to occupy your time. And, on that note, Jack and I's got a pretty good racket working the market, if you know what I mean?"

Jack smiled. "We could use a good strong bloke like you who's fleet of foot and all, to say, join us in our occupation."

"I do not wish to stay here and be a thief. I only wish to find -- "

"I know, I know, this River Girl. Well, tell you what, Ben. Jack and me's got a fair working knowledge of this town, and lots of friends in you might say, high places. Other folks who ply our trade meet here at night, and we knows some that works sometimes up in the keep itself...moppin' up jobs...stablemen and their ilk. Now some of them might have some knowledge of what goes on up there. And, if your girl is in there, about the only way I'd wager you'll get her out is with the help of some of your finer sneak thieves, like us."

"You will help me get the River Girl?" Ben asked.

"Possibly," Elan said. "If you'll, you know, help us too? Tell you what, reach into that purse of yours and pull out a starler, and a couple of sorrens, and that'll pay for a fine meal for us tonight, and some ale for our friends, and, a room for you for the duration of your stay."

Ben looked into his coin purse, and retrieved one gold coin and two silver. "The Witch said I could trade these for goods, and services."

"Did she now?" said Jack, licking his lips. "She's got a good head for business, that one."

"I'll just take those there." Elan took the coins and slipped them into his pocket. "Now, with that, and a few errands for us, I'd say we've got ourselves a deal. Let's drink to it." Jack and Elan lifted their tankards, and waited for Ben to do the same.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Why, ‘tis Belle's finest red ale, it is! Drink up."

Ben took the cup, and took a long sip, then stopped and grimaced. "It is like stagnant water that has lain in a stump."

Jack and Elan laughed. "Don't let Belle here you say that, mate, she'll roast you. Tis a bit rough around the edges, but keep drinking, you'll get to like it."

Ben took another swallow, and found that it did quench his thirst somewhat, and soon a pleasant warmth grew in his belly. By the second mug, he found a great drowsiness grew in him. At length Ben asked, "How long until your friends arrive?"

"Well, tis yet noontime. They're out and about, hard at work. Shouldn't expect any until after twilight."

"Did you say there was a chamber here for me? Though it be day, I am truly weary, and if there is nothing to be done until your friends arrive, I wish to sleep."

"Sure mate, we'll get Belle to fix you right up. Have a nap, and we'll talk more this eve."

The red haired tavern wench reappeared, and took Ben by the arm, and walked him through the doorway in the back of the room. "Down that hall, love, the only open door. I've just clean sheeted the bed."

Ben started down the hall, but he could still hear Jack and Elan talking back in the main chamber, and he paused, just around the corner. "What's your gambit, mate?" asked Jack. "You don't really plan to help that bloke, eh?"

"I do have a plan, and it's a sight better'n yours, I'll add. That oaf's got a bag o'loot, and we just helped ourselves to two sorrens and, by the Gods, a starler, without so much as a fight."

"Aye, nicely played, Elan."

"And, I'll wager we can have the rest, and more, if we keep playing him along. But that's not the full he and she of it, if you get me."

"Eh?"

"Look, that dumb sod wants to go a stormin' the Archduke's fort to find this water girl -- "

"River Girl."

"What you will. I say, we help him."

"Gads, Elan, you're as daft as he." Jack grimaced.

"May be. But I ain't wagerin' on his success. Only ours. Like I says, I know a few blokes what work odd jobs in the keep, and sure as sulfur they could get us and the oaf employed in like work at my request. That gets us in the keep."

"Go on."

"Once in, we lay low for a bit, get our bearings, and then, when the time is right, we let the oaf go a chargin' after his girl. I'll wager that he'll cause such a ruckus and distraction that we'd be free to move about the place unmolested for a few moments. Probably lay our hands on some finer things, eh?"

Jack smiled. "Not bad, mate. Not bad. But what of the oaf?"

"Who cares? He'll probably end up with a nice trimmin' from the Archduke's headsman. I say it ain't our concern. We done him a good turn by gettin' him in the place, right?"

"Right, but I wouldn't exactly call that a good turn."

"No honor among thieves, as they say." Elan smiled.

"To a fine laid plan, then," said Jack, raising his tankard high.

"Indeed, but we've got some loot to spend, now. Let's toast with something finer than this ale." Elan stood and shouted, "Belle, fetch us some of your finest wine, lass. The red sort, from the southern vines. And some viands, as well, we've earned ourselves a powerful hunger."

Ben listened a moment longer, but the two thieves fell into laughter, and seemed to say nothing else of import. Walking to his chamber, he knew better than ever the dangers of trusting men, but decided he had no other choice for the moment. He would sleep, so as to regain his wits, and then let the men get him into the castle. He would figure the rest out later.

Ben fell into a deep sleep when he lay upon the rather bare yet comfortable bed in the simple chamber which Belle had readied for him. It was twilight outside the small window when he awoke, and the room was dark with blue grey shadows. As Ben let out a half growl, half yawn, he noticed two yellow eyes staring at him from the small table beside his bed. Quick as a snake Ben's hand shot out and grasp the small creature by the neck. It was fur clad and writhed and squirmed as Ben held it up.

"Barrow Ben, do not crush me, please! It is I, your friend."

As Ben's eyes adjusted to the dusk which filled the room, he saw that he held the sleek, lithe form of a ferret in his hand.

"I don't recall being friends with any ferret in my time," said Ben.

"Nonetheless, I am from the forest. You were not the only one the Witch sent."

Ben slacked his grip on the small creature, and it slunk from his grasp and darted to the end of the bed. Ben said, "The Witch. She did not tell me this."

"Probably slipped her mind. Or else she gave up on me. See, she turned me into a man as well. A fine, small man, as nimble as either of those thieves you were talking with, and she sent me here for our Girl. But I was captured, see, and I had to give up my manhood and become a ferret again so as I might slip between the steel bars that held me and make an escape. But in my ferret form, I could do no more for the Girl, nor could I return to our wood."

"So what do you do now?"

"Well, I waited, survived if you will, and hoped the Witch would send another. Which I'm pleased to see she did."

"Yes, she sent me for the River Girl, and I will get her, and I do not need the help of any ferret."

"Oh, Ben, but I think you do. I have been in that fortress. I know where they keep the Girl. I have even spoken to her."

Ben stood. "Where is she? I will go get her now."

"Don't be hasty. That fort is full of danger. There's armed men who'll just as soon run you through or lop off your noggin. We've got to be calm and stealthy if we're to save the Girl."

"Right. Better to sneak up slow to get the honey, than awaken the whole nest of hornets."

"Truer logic was never spoken, my good bear."

Ben paced about the room. "Those men, the ones who take that which is not theirs -- "

"The thieves?"

"Yes, I overheard them speaking of a plan to get me safely into the castle."

"I'd be loath to trust them, but that may be the best and quickest way in. And we've no time to waste. The River Girl is dying."

Ben felt his heart sink. "Dying? How? The Witch said she could not die as we do."

"Oh, everything can die, Ben. They're using her up there to cleanse poison from the veins of the Archduke."

"What is...poison?"

"A deadly juice, like the juice of the hemlock berry, or other bitter plants we know better than to eat. But this poison, it is a magic sort, one that the Archduke contracted in one of his wars, and it would kill him had he not the River Girl to cleanse his blood. It is why they took her from the forest. But it is taking its toll on her, Ben. They are slowly killing her to save him."

As Ben felt the strange sting of moisture well in his eyes, there was a knock at the door, and a voice. "Ben, hey-o, Ben." It was Jack Haggard. "Come forth, you sleeping giant. Supper's on the hob, lad, and our friends are at hand."

"I will come, Jack."

Ben lifted his hat from the table and placed it on his head. "Shall you come along, ferret?"

"Best I lay low for now, Ben. They'd wonder at a ferret at the table. You may relay what they say back to me when you return."

"Very well."

"Oh, and Ben, perhaps you'd see fit to bring back a leftover morsel or two of your grub?"

Ben left his room, and made his way down the small corridor, returning to the great room of the tavern. This chamber, now well lit with oil lamps, reverberated with the idle chatter and laughs of three score raucous, ale-imbibing patrons. Jack and Elan still sat at the same table where they'd been before, but now were joined by two other men One was fat, yet still not as bulky as Ben, the other thin and tall as a river reed. Both were rather ugly, Ben thought, even for humans.

"Ben, me lad," shouted Jack. "Ahoy, Ben. Join us." Ben approached the table and took a seat beside Jack. "Here be some friends of ours, Ben. Meet Butcher Tom. He's a man what cuts up meat." The fat man nodded, and smiled a black toothed smile. "And this bean sprout is Shandy, he mostly just cleans up the shit from stables and whatnot."

"I'm a hostler," said the tall man named Shandy.

"Right," Jack continued. "Ben, these boys is workin' days up the fortress. They can get us inside in the guise that we work there as well, savvy?"

"Yes. When do we go?"

"Not so fast, lad," said Elan. "We go at dawn, after we exhaust this night for all it be worth. They've joints of meat a'heat in the hearth, and plenty of wine, ale and spirits to last us ‘til the wee hours." Elan took a large wooden pitcher, filled a mug and slid it toward Ben, who took a sip and grimaced.

"Is this all you men wish to do, drink this rotten stump water until your heads are all addled?"

The four men laughed. "Well, there be worse ways to pass the time, lad," said Jack.

Ben awoke before dawn and waited for Jack and the others in the dark street in front of the tavern, the ferret curled about his shoulders. At length, Jack and the other men emerged, groggy and bleary eyed, and the five silently started their walk up the hill toward the castle. Falling in beside Ben, Jack said, "Nice pet you've got there. When did you pick that up?"

"What?" Asked Ben.

"The ferret, or weasel, or whatever it be."

"Ferret. He is my...friend."

"You woodmen are a strange lot, mate. Why not leave that thing behind? Could cause us trouble at the keep, methinks."

"But he is my friend, tell them, ferret."

"Ben," said the ferret, his voice merely chatters to the men. "Perhaps it best if you do not speak to me directly. They will not understand. Treat me as a speechless dumb animal."

"This a bit early for jokes," said Butcher Tom.

"He may hide in my tunic when we enter the castle," said Ben.

Jack replied, "Really, friend, I think -- "

"Let it be, Jack," Elan interrupted. "That wee beastie may yet be of aid in our...plan."

With this the men fell into silence and continued up the hill. As they wove through the streets of the town, they were joined by more and more men, and a few women, and all trudged onwards toward the gates of the keep.

The towering, shadowy stone wall of the castle was outlined by the gathering blue glow of dawn as the group reached the gates, which were made of the wood of ancient oaks and sat slightly ajar for the work detail to pass. As they paused to pass single file through the guarded gates, Ben moved his sheathed dagger into the waistband of his trousers, and nudged the ferret, who darted down the neck of Ben's shirt. In the guise of a man, deception seemed to come easy to him, Ben thought, as he stifled the mild fear and excitement that welled in him as he stared up at the high reaches of the tall castle towers. The River Girl was in one of those, the ferret had said. Ben hoped he could figure out which one.

"You there, what be your name, killer?" asked a grim, bearded man at arms as Ben entered the gate.

"Barrow Ben."

"What is your trade?"

"I am, er...a woodsman."

""Well, Woody, I don't see any trees in there. Be off with ye."

"Pardon sir," Butcher Tom interjected. "He travels with us. He's simple of mind, but has a strong back, you'll see. He may lift stone and whatnot as well as any man, and he needs the work."

The guard yawned, and gave a disinterested nod for the group to enter. They passed through the gate and into a large courtyard, already teeming with activity at this early hour.

"Shandy and me'll be off now, Jack," said Butcher Tom. "We got's you in as promised, so...." Tom held out his hand, palm open.

"Oh yes," replied Jack. "Um, Ben...we did promise a small fee to our friends here, to get us through the gates. Could you be a kind heart and pass us a silver or two from your purse?"

"Am I the only one with coins among us?" asked Ben.

"Well," said Elan, "at the moment, yes."

"But that may soon change, methinks," said Jack, drawing a scowl from Elan, who disliked advertising any hint of their plans. Two silver sorrens were passed to Tom and Shandy, who turned to leave.

"Wait, Tom, which way?" asked Elan.

"The stone masons work should be just up that path there to your left. Follow it and you won't miss it."

Ben followed Jack and Elan down a path which ran between wooden sheds, within which could be seen the faint outlines of catapults, ballista, and other engines of battle, ready to be rolled out at the Archduke's orders. The path curved as it moved inward toward the center of the keep and the castle proper. At length they came upon a section of the stone inner wall which appeared to have collapsed. A number of men milled about the break, gearing up for the day's repairs to the wall. Elan spotted an older man with grey, thin hair and beard who studied an unrolled vellum scroll.

"Pardon, Gov'ner," said Elan. "We've been sent to your aid, sir."

"Yeah?" said the old man. "What's your trade?"

"We two, Jack and I, that is, we be fair good with a trawl, and this fella here, well, he can carry just about anything you've a mind to move."

"Fair enough," said the foreman. "You two, go see Carl over at the wall. He'll get you set up. And you, big ‘un, see that wagon? It's loaded with stone. Start moving them stones to the wall. Got it?"

"Explicitly, sir," said Elan, "Thank you. Ben, you heard him. Go move them stones."

"But what about the Riv -- "

"That's enough for now, Ben. We'll worry about that later." As they moved away from the foreman, Elan continued. "Just let us form a plan lad, and we'll have your girl out in no time."

Jack and Elan moved away toward the wall, and Ben laid into his work at moving the stones. From within his shirt, the ferret chattered: "This is where they mean to betray you, Ben."

"I know."

"What will you do?"

"That I do not know. If I knew which of those towers the River Girl was in, I would rush there now and try to take her. But I fear if I go madly searching about, these men with the long sharp manclaws will tear me to shreds before I get very far. Perhaps...perhaps you might move about unobserved, ferret. Will you go and search for her, and come back and tell me where she is?"

"Well, if we've no better plan than that, I guess I must." With this, the ferret slipped from Ben's shirt, darted down his leg and hurried off toward the castle. "Bide your time Ben," he chattered back. "And be wary of those men. I will return here as soon as I can."

Ben set to work moving the stones from the wagons as they arrived to the wall. He found the monotonous work strangely satisfying, and the morning passed quickly into afternoon. Clouds had begun to roll in and darken the sky as Ben began unloading the final wagon of the day. Nearing the wall with one of his last stones, he heard Jack whisper to Elan.

"Pssst. The day's almost done, mate. It's now or never."

"I don't know," said Elan. "The circumstance has not yet seemed right."

"I don't know when it's gonna get any better. We might not get this far into the place again. We've got to spring on it, right?"

"Very well. Set it in motion."

As Ben approached and set down his stone, Jack called out to him. "Ahoy Ben, over here." Ben approached. "Say, Ben. We've been asking around, and it seems your girl is over there, in that stone hall yonder." Jack pointed through the opening in the wall, where many stone and wood buildings were clustered.

"Which?" asked Ben.

"That one, the long one, with just one guard standing out front. They've locked her in there."

"Are you sure?"

"Quite. Now Move! Overpower that guard, and bust down that door, and you'll find her. Then you can grab her quick like and we'll provide a diversion so as you can slip away. Savvy?"

"I think this is all very confusing. Where is the ferret?"

"Who cares about your bloomin' ferret. Just get over there and go. The bulk of the soldiers have scattered for the afternoon, and we might not get another chance."

"Very well. I...I will do it."

Ben breathed deeply, and a grim expression formed on his face as he stared across the short distance from the wall to the stone building -- and its guard. He started walking, moving as silently and casually as he could. Halfway there, he decided to veer right, so it seemed he moved toward one of the other buildings, but the guard had already noticed his approach.

"Hey, you there, get back through that wall, you ain't supposed to be in here."

Ben pretended not to hear the guard, but quickened his step, and at the last moment turned sharply left and leapt at the guard, surprising him and knocking him to his back. Ben swiped a blow across the guard's face which knocked his iron helmet from his head, and set him reeling in pain. Standing, Ben threw his shoulder into the wooden door of the building, shattering it from its hinges. The guard began to collect himself, and started shouting for help, but Ben ignored him and gazed into the dim room, lit only by a single window on the far end.

"River Girl, are you here? It is I, Barrow Ben, I have come for you."

Ben hurried into the room and began to search for the girl, but he saw and heard nothing of her. The room was filled with boxes, casks and baskets of spices, the many scents of which wafted into the air at Ben's approach and confused his otherwise keen sense of smell. Reaching the far end of the room, he could see that there was no one here, River Girl or otherwise. He wondered if Jack had been mistaken, or if this were one of his deceptions. Fearing the latter, Ben hurried back to the doorway.

As he exited, he felt a sharp, hard blow on the back of his head. Dropping to his knees, he saw through now bleary eyes that a score or more of soldiers had gathered, and all held their sharp manclaws in hand, ready to strike. To Ben's left, just outside the door, stood a very large man at arms, holding an oaken club which was shod with heavy brass knobs. It was from this that the blow he'd felt had come, Ben realized, just as another one came and knocked him to the ground, unconscious.

When Ben awoke his head throbbed with a splitting, biting pain that. He wished he might return to sleep, but when it would not come, he at last opened his eyes, sat up, and looked about. He was in a dark chamber with a single barred window through which the scant grey light of a cloudy dusk shown. He sat on the cold stone floor of the chamber, and could see little else in the room. He lifted his hand to his face, and felt a new stab of pain as his fingers brushed across the large welt next to his ear. He moaned as the pain coursed through him.

"Shouldn't have to worry about that sore head much longer," said a voice from the darkness. "They'll be relieving you of it come morning."

"What? Who said that? Who is there?" asked Ben.

"Oh, no one really," said the owner of the voice, an old man wearing tattered rags who slowly emerged from the darkness into the scant light of the window. "Just an old sneak thief what got caught, same as you. I cut a purse in the bazaar, but I ain't in cahoots with the regular thieves, so they turned me in, and they says they'll be cuttin' off me stealing hand tomorrow. Can't say as I'm looking forward to it all that much, friend."

"This is a cruel place, this city. I would soon be shut of it," said Ben.

"Well, you'll find that to be truer come the morrow morn. Since you broke into the Archduke's spice stores, and since stealing within the walls is considered a might worse'n stealing down in town, well then, you've earned yourself an appointment with the headsman."

"I stole nothing. I only wanted to find the River Girl."

"Well, whether you actually made off with anything or not don't matter. I think they punish intent just as much, yes they do."

"Ben, Ben!" A tiny voice called through the window.

"Ferret! I am in here." Ben shouted. In a few seconds he saw the dark lines of the snout and whiskers of the ferret poke through the bars of the window. The little creature then skittered down the wall and hurried over to where Ben sat.

"Ben, I found the River Girl. She's in the highest tower of the castle. She's barely alive. We must go get her now. And...what are you doing here?"

"I was captured by the guards. They locked me up when I broke into a room that Jack had said contained the River Girl."

"Ugh, I told you not to trust those men."

"Excuse me," said the old thief, "But are you talking to that little rodent?"

"Yes," said Ben.

"Huh? Friend, you may just be better off without your head."

Ben ignored the old man and continued. "We have to get to her." Standing, Ben surveyed the room. He walked to the window and, reaching up, could just brush it with his fingertips. Looking back, he could see an iron door set in the stone wall on the opposite side of the room. A small window with bars of iron was set in the door. Ben approached it and tried to pull upon the bars.

"You'll never budge those," said the old man. "Even a brute like you can't break them things. Only way out is with the key to that door."

"A key, of course," said the ferret. "Ben, perhaps I can climb through that window and search for the key. Wait here." And with that the ferret bounded across the room, up the door and out the small window.

"Where else will I go?" asked Ben.

After what seemed an eternity to Ben, the ferret returned, a gleaming brass key in his teeth. Ben took it from him, and held it aloft.

"Old man, is this the key of which you speak."

"Looks to be about right."

"How do I use it?"

"To open the door? You don't know how to unlock a door?"

"I do not. Sir, I am a simple man, from the woods, and slow of wit. Please just tell me how to open that door."

"Well, it seems a foolish errand, as you'll ne'er get far, but if you want to try, reach through that window, push the key into the small slot and turn it. That should about do it."

Ben did as the old man suggested, and after some amount of fumbling, he had the lock turned and the door swung open. Ben stepped through, with the ferret scampering after him. Pausing, Ben looked back into the cell.

"Old man, shall you come with us?"

"No, no, friend. I've made my piece with losing a hand. I'll ne'er lose more on your fool's errand. But good luck, and blessing of the Gods."

The two began to move down the corridor, at the end of which was a set of stone stairs. They both moved without much of a sound, and in the near darkness Ben touched the gentle curve of the rough stone walls, noticing there were other locked doors as well.

"Hullo! Hullo!" Ben heard a familiar voice call from one of the other cells. It was Jack Haggard. "Is that you ole' Ben! We was caught too, same as you. Let us out, friend!"

"Okay!" called Ben.

"No," whispered the ferret. "Ben, you can't let those two out. They betrayed you once, and will do so again. I swear it."

"Um, well, I mean, no, I cannot get you out," Ben called back to the men.

"And why the blazes not!" cried Jack.

"Ben," said another voice. It was Elan's. "You've a key. I heard you unlock your cell. Try it on ours."

"I will not."

"Please, Ben," said Jack. "They mean to have our heads, same as you. You wouldn't leave us to die, after all we done for ye?"

"Ferret," Ben whispered. "I feel strangely compelled to help those men."

"That's because you have a good heart, Ben. But you can't do it. Our quest could fail from such compassion. But -- don't let on that you ain't gonna help them. They might hoot and holler and give us all away. Use the deception of a man. Lie, Ben."

"Um," said Ben, inching close to the door of the men's cell. "I must overpower the guards first, Jack. I can move much more quietly without you. Then I shall return for you."

"You better!" Said Jack. "Or we'll haunt you ‘til the end of your days."

Ben started down the corridor, toward the stairs. "I feel pain in my chest from such dealings, ferret. I do not like this lying."

"It was the only way, Ben" whispered the ferret. "Now, when we reach the top of the stairs, there is a chamber where the guards reside. When I retrieved the key, there were but two men; one lounging in slumber, the other sharpening an axe. Your headsman perhaps?"

"How shall we pass them?"

"I could sneak by, but you could never do so. I fear you may have to kill them. Can you do that?"

"I am a bear, and my claws and fangs, though absent now, have run red with the blood of foes in the forest who meant me harm. These men, I believe, mean us harm."

"Then let you do it quickly and silently. In an extended fight, they might prevail, or else call for more of their peers. Let me run ahead and scout."

The ferret darted up the rest of the stairs as Ben paused to await his return. In a few moments, he returned, his whiskered face held low. "Another has arrived and awaked the first. They dine on bowls of stew that the new man brought."

"We cannot wait. More may come when their sleeping time arrives."

"But how? There are three, and I can do nothing to help."

"Perhaps you can," said Ben. "Once, a large black bear wandered into my forest lands. I was still young, and he was much bigger than I. We closed to fight, and he would surely have easily taken me, but as we walked he started a squirrel from a hole in the ground. He was distracted for just a second, but I took advantage of it and had his throat in my jaws before he could attack."

"So I could....run in and distract the men. Not bad, Ben. That might work. I'll get ‘em to turn their backs to the stairs, and then you can have at ‘em unawares, good and quick."

"Very well. If you agree, let us go to it."

The two continued up the stairs to the arched stone entrance to the chamber of the guards. It was well lit with oil lamps, and contained several straw beds and wooden tables for the men. The headsman sat to Ben's left, still polishing his axe with a loving care one might afford a musical instrument, while the other two men sat at a table on the right, finishing their meal of stewed beef and loaves of bread.

Without a word, the ferret darted into the room, bounded onto the table, running through one of the men's bowls of stew. The men both started and stood, one's chair falling backward on the floor behind him. The ferret hurried to the other end of the table where he danced and chattered as all three men stared on, briefly bemused.

With a silent gait Ben stepped into the room, noticing a rack of swords and other weapons along the near wall. Closest to him was the simple, unadorned metal sword that the Witch had given him and the guards had taken. "My manclaw," he mused to himself. He took the sword, and started slowly in the room.

"Come here you little runt," said the guard who'd had his stew fouled by the ferret. He lifted the bowl, pitched the remaining stew on the floor, and started toward the ferret. "I'll learn you some table manners."

"You'll never catch that wee beast like that," said the headsman, who stood and pulled a small stiletto dagger from his boot. "Here, allow me." In a flash the Headsman snapped his wrist and the thin blade shot across the room and buried itself into the ferret's chest.

"No!" shouted Ben, giving himself away. The guards snapped around and saw him. Ben charged at the headsman, his blade held before him. The headsman calmly retrieved his axe, and just as Ben neared he swung it around with a fearsome speed, aiming yet to slice Ben's head from his shoulders. But Ben's bear reflexes took over, and he dropped to all fours at the last instant, and the blade sailed over his head, taking his beloved hat instead. Before the headsman could recover, Ben raised himself on his knees and, grasping his sword by both hands, plunged it into the headsman's chest.

"It's that spice thief what we caught earlier," shouted one of the other guards. "Go get help," he told the other, "I'll hold him off."

The other guard ran out the door, while the first drew his sword and approached Ben, the point of the blade telegraphing the trembling in his hand. "Back to your cell, brute," he tried to muster a commanding voice, but failed, and it cracked like a teenaged boy's.

Pulling his own sword from the new lifeless headsman's body, Ben also grabbed the headsman's axe, and held both forth as he closed. The guard began to circle slightly from Ben, then suddenly slipped as his foot found the remnants of his own stew that he'd tossed to the ground. "By the Gods!" he said as Ben loomed over him. The guard held his sword before him to block Ben, but it merely bounced away as Ben swung the headsman's axe in a huge arc which ended as it sank into the guard's chest. Ben released the axe and it stayed standing at an angle in the writhing guard's body. "I'll say one thing for these men," Ben muttered. "They make good claws of iron." Ben then spotted the ferret, who lay still on the floor near the table, the stiletto still skewering him.

"Oh no," Ben said as he walked to the ferret. He'd never really liked the little fellow back in the forest, but now he felt a great emptiness in the pit of his stomach as he lifted his limp form. Pulling the blade from its body, he felt the ferret stir a bit.

"Are you still alive, my friend?" asked Ben.

"Ugh, not for long, I fear."

"I am sorry I asked you to distract these men. It was a foolish plan."

"A plan that worked, Ben. You can still save the River Girl. Take me outside, and I will show you the tower. If that be my last act, then it shall be a worthy one."

They walked out of the guardhouse, finding themselves in a small yard across which stood the towers and spires of the castle proper. It was a looming mass of towers, parapets and flying arches that made it appear as if it were cast from the fevered dreams of a madman.

"That one, Ben. The tallest tower, with the red tile roof," said the ferret. Ben looked and saw the tower. It was on the far west side of the castle, perhaps a half mile from where he stood. It was close to the cliff wall behind the castle, near the waterfall that roared down into the river far below.

"Leave me, and go get her, Ben," said the ferret.

Ben stared at the blood soaked creature in his hands. "I am sorry, ferret. You are truly a great friend."

The ferret sighed. "Get going, Ben. You've little time. Get to that tower and get up it however you can."

"I think I can climb it, and if not, then I can certainly climb that cliff wall behind it, and leap across to the tower. Which part is she in?"

"The very top. There is a balcony which circles the highest chamber. If you can get to it, then you may freely enter her chamber, as it is so high there are no locks. Hurry, Ben. Leave me and go. She has little time left, and I fear more guards will come."

"I will go, but I will not leave you. Perhaps the Witch can heal you when we return to the forest."

"That is a long, long way away," said the ferret, and with that, Ben could feel him fade, and felt his small thundering heart cease its beat.

Tears formed in Ben's eyes, a strange feeling for him. The empty, deflating emotion of sorrow made him simply wish to sit upon the ground and grieve. Yet his powerful ears could already hear the approach of several more men, and his love for the River Girl helped him overcome the sorrow, and start toward the castle. He didn't want to fail, not when he was so close to his goal.

"There he is," he heard a shouted by the returning man at arms who appeared around a corner a few hundred yards away. A score or more guards appeared with him. Ben placed the ferret under a small bush which grew beside the guardhouse, then turned and quickly began to dash at full speed toward the tall tower of the castle. Even with his large size, he was faster than the men, and as he covered the bulk of the span to the tower he gained a bit more distance from the guards.

This advantage was soon lost, however, when he reached the castle, and found its walls and towers were of a smooth red stone which was laid with such tight joints that it afforded no climbing purchase. Ben began to circle the tower, moving away from the approaching guards as much as possible. As he rounded the structure, he saw a small entrance to the castle proper on the side. It was not a grand entrance like that of the huge oaken doors on the front of the palace, but a small service entrance for the kitchens, and it was unguarded. He began to jog towards it.

He neared the door just as the hustling soldiers rounded the tower behind him. Hurrying through the door, he entered the kitchen. Slamming the door behind himself, he lowered the bolt to stay the guards as long as possible. Turning back inward, he saw the kitchen was a huge chamber with a great, fiery hearth in the center, and large tables filling the rest of the space at which many old women and young girls were fast at work preparing the evening meals for the palace.

"You there," said an old woman near Ben. "Who do you think you are rushing in here like that? ‘Tis not allowed. And open that door."

"How do I get to the top of that tower?" shouted Ben.

The woman chuckled. "The tower? That is the personal residence of our lord, his majesty the Archduke. No one goes up there what ain't invited, least of which the likes of you."

Ben closed quickly to the woman, and grabbing her by the collar of her blouse, then roared, "I have no time for your foolishness. Tell me how."

The woman's staunch reserve faded quickly, and she began to stammer as she spoke. "I, I cannot tell ye. He'd have m-m-my head if I did."

Ben released the woman, then drew and raised his sword. "I'll have your head if you don't. So either way your head's gone, but help me and keep it a little longer."

The woman thought for a second, just as blows from the guards began to pound upon the kitchen door. Frightened by this -- and Ben -- the woman relented. "Through that small curtain there is a set of stairs. Not the main ones, but service stairs. What we use to take food to the Archduke. But it's no use. There be guards at the top."

"And there be guards at my tail as well," said Ben. Releasing the woman, he turned and dashed through the curtain. He found the stone stairs just beyond, and began the long, dizzying circular climb to the tower top.

After a seeming eternity, his legs and knees complaining in pain, he reached the top of the stairs, which opened to a small anti-chamber where two idle guards sat playing a card game. As this was not the main entrance to the Archduke's chambers, it was not as well guarded as the grand stairs on the other side of the tower.

"Hold up, who are you?" asked one of the guards, dropping his cards and standing. Ben was upon him in an instant, his sword still drawn from his encounter in the kitchen. Ben slashed the first guard across the face, and as he fell to the ground, he grabbed the other guard, pulling him up from his chair.

"Where is the River Girl?" Ben growled.

"Wh-Wh-Who?" the guard stuttered.

"She is here. Held by this Archduke. Show me where he is."

"He, he's through that door, mate. But -- " Ben cut the guard off by hurling him across the chamber toward the stairs, where he slammed into the wall and lay crumpled on the floor. Down below, Ben could hear the distant sound of the other soldiers clamoring as they made their way up the service stairs. Ben turned and moved toward the entrance of the Archduke's chambers. Sheathing his sword in his belt, he slammed his shoulder into the door, knocking it from its hinges.

Entering the room, Ben found a large chamber filled with rich and ornate furnishings. Trinkets of gold and rare gems abounded. In a large bed against the far wall a sickly old man lay. He was quietly muttering gibberish to himself, and seemed not to notice Ben. In the center of the room sat a huge tub carved of reddish-purple marble, raised on legs of gold. The tub was filled with water, within which lay the limp, almost lifeless form of the River Girl.

Ben almost didn't recognize her, so changed was she in appearance. Gone was the nubile, vivacious nymph who had plied the waters of the river back in better days in the forest. What Ben saw now was a thin, skeletal creature, her pale green skin taut over her wasted bones. The matted, bird's nest of her hair trembled as she turned her head slightly at Ben's approach, gazing at him through sallow, blackened eyes.

"Barrow Ben," she said, her voice hoarse and rasping. "Why art thou come, and in manskin?"

"I come to rescue you, bring you back to the forest." Ben walked to the tub, the waters of which were dark and brackish, and smelled of death.

"Oh, Ben, how I long to return to my home. But there is no chance for me. He, that one there," she said, raising a wet tree branch of an arm to point to the old man in the bed. "He hast poisoned me beyond hope."

"Is that the Archduke?" asked Ben.

"He is that one. He took me from you and the forest, to cleanse foul humors from his veins. But even my arts were not enough to purge his evils, and thus he hast doomed us both."

"I will kill him. I am strong and it would be easy for me to do. And I can take you back to the forest."

"There is no need. He will die soon anyway, as I am spent, and cannot help him further."

"But what of the forest? We need you there."

"I can help no one there, Ben. And I was the last of my kind."

"The words of men are sometimes tricksy to me, but it seems by saying ‘was' you speak of yourself as if you are already dead."

"I am, Ben, for all that it matters. But this is not exactly what I mean. I veil with my words a hidden meaning. For the River Girl has a secret." And with this she stood so that her gaunt, naked form was raised out of the water so that Ben could see the plump, rounded belly that distended from her otherwise cadaverous form.

"You are with cub," said Ben.

"I am," said the River Girl. "And with all the strength and will I've had I have kept her free from the poisons of that man. But if I do not get to the river soon, she will die along with me."

"The let us go. That is why I am here."

"I fear I am too weak now to make the journey. And there are many men between here and the river."

"I will carry you, and perhaps fortune will smile upon me for a while longer."

Ben lifted the Girl, finding her thin form light as a bale of dried river reeds. Then he turned toward the entrance from whence he'd come, to be greeted by the sight of several of the soldiers rushing into the room.

"Take it easy, lads," said one of the men. "He's a brute, but a good might faster then he looks. Spread out, surround him. And get me those archers up here."

The men began to edge around the walls of the circular room, and more and more began to pour into the chamber. The first had swords, but the final two that entered carried weapons Ben had not yet seen: A tree branch bent with twine, and smaller twigs with sharpened tips which they notched into the string, and pulled back taut. Ben hefted the River Girl over one shoulder, and drew his sword with the other hand.

"Move and let me pass," said Ben. "You've yet to fell me with your metal claws, what good are those wooden sticks going to do you?"

"You'll see, my friend," said the lead soldier. "Archer's, fire."

The archers let loose their arrows, both of which found purchase in Ben's chest, dropping him to his knees as his whole form exploded with fiery pain.

"Wooden sticks, indeed," said the soldier. "Was that enough for you, or shall we serve you up two more?"

Ben coughed and sputtered, blood trickling down from his mouth. He wished to fight, but found that he could not even move his legs, let alone take on any of the men. Through one of the arched openings to the balcony, he could see that snow had begun to fall through the dark night air. Winter was coming, and he should be readying to hibernate. In fact, the thought of sleep, long sleep, began to creep into his mind, and his eyes, and his head began to grow heavy.

"I ask again," said the soldier. "Do you want more, or will you give up your sword and the girl and surrender?"

The River Girl gently twitched on Ben's shoulder, and a tiny thought came to him; the words of the Witch from so long ago. "Give up your sword."

"Yes," said Ben, with great effort. "I do give up my sword, to...to you, sir. Captain of the guard, I give you my sword." And with these words, Ben hurled his blade, and it clattered to the ground at the captain's feet.

The other solders all drew in a breath, ready to laugh at such an easy conclusion to the confrontation, but stopped short as suddenly, somehow, they were faced with a twelve foot tall, very angry brown bear in their midst.

Barrow Ben, suddenly hale again and uninjured in his bear form, leaped across the short distance to the archers, and felled one with a rake of his claws across his face and neck. The other retreated, as did most of the other soldiers, though the exit from the chamber was still blocked by the captain of the guard.

Ben towered over the captain, who trembled, but still stood firm as Ben approached. The River Girl still clung to Ben's side, and he held her tight with one paw, while the other he held high, claws a-ready, for a swipe at the captain.

"Men, fall back in line," the captain shouted. "I don't know where this thing came from, but we can kill it as well as a man."

The men began to get used to Ben's presence, as their training took over. The other archer had recovered, and notched another arrow, and fired it into Ben's back. The pain was as intense as before, but Ben remained on his feet. He began to realize that even as a bear, he was outnumbered, and stood little chance against the men. To buy time, he darted away from the entrance, across the room, and through the archway that lead to the balcony, which was fast becoming covered with snow. He reached the edge of the balcony, knowing any second that the men would follow to continue their assault upon him. In his last few seconds alone, he looked to the roaring clean waterfall which cascaded down the cliff near the tower, falling into the turgid waters of the river below.

"I can see the river," said Ben in his ursine growl.

"Oh," cried the River Girl. "Turn me about and hold me aloft, so that I might at least see it one last time."

"I...I will do more than that," said Ben, and quickly, just as the soldiers began to pour out onto the balcony, Ben climbed upon the railing, then with a powerful push of his hind legs, leapt out as far as he could, hoping to clear the tower and the riverbank below.

As they fell, Ben shifted the River Girl so that she was on his back, and he would take the full force of the fall into the river. He'd just got her moved when they collided with the water's surface.

Ben had always been a swimmer of a bear, and loved to jump into the river, but its once delicate, cool surface was hard as rock from their fall, and Ben was plunged to the depths of the icy waters. The River Girl, however, was momentarily invigorated by her return to the waters, and she clung to Ben and kicked her weak, scarecrow legs until the two of them surfaced.

Ben was still breathing weakly, but most of the life had been knocked from him, and he still bleed from his wound from the arrow.

"Ben, you did it," said the River Girl. "You have gotten us back to the river."

"Will this save you, and your child," asked Ben.

"Nothing can save me, though the waters of my home cheer my spirits somewhat. But perhaps my child will live, if we can get back to the magic of the forest. The waters here are too fouled from the machinations of the Archduke."

"The water flows toward the forest," said Ben. "Already we have moved somewhat from the city."

"Yes, but I fear it will be too slow."

"Then I will see what I can do. Hold on, for I can yet swim swiftly."

Ben began to paddle his great bear paws, and he and the River Girl began to move faster through the turgid, icy waters. Snow was falling heavily, further chilling the wet expanse of the little bit of Ben's fur which stayed above water.

"The waters have the taste and scent of a forest fire, or worse," said Ben between gasps for breath.

"It is the pollutants from the forges and fires of the Archduke. It is all I can do to keep you safe from them now."

"Perhaps we could swim to the bank and walk the rest of the way?"

"No, Ben. I cannot. Though the poisoned waters kill me, leaving the river at this point would as well, and my child. Please, stay in the waters with us. Or leave us if you must."

"I will stay," said Ben, and he fell into a silence as he continued to swim.

A day and night passed as Ben and the River Girl made their way back to the forest in the waters of the river. Every muscle of Ben's body felt afire from his exertions, and the foul waters of the river, even with the River Girl's magic, still stung and infected the unclosed wound from the last archer's arrow. Yet Ben carried on, never slowing, as the thought of the forest and a long winter's sleep seemed as good of a reward as any to his tired, dreamy mind.

The River Girl was also affected as the time passed. She seemed in great pain from her struggle to keep Ben and her child free from the poisons of the waters, and her body seemed to shrivel and shrink with each passing moment. By the time they gained sight of the forest, she had faded to nothing more than twisted, seaweed-like tresses with a small bump among them. Ben, too, paddled with but languid effort, and wheezed and coughed in the dark waters.

The snow had not stopped during the entire time of their journey. The last remnants of the red and gold leaves were gone, and the leafless trees, along with the evergreens, were clad in thick blankets of white. In the distance, through his bleary eyes, Ben could see a small figure standing at the edge of the woods, where the river entered the trees. It was Minerva Row.

"Ben," she shouted. "I felt your presence coming. This is wonderful. I sense you have the River Girl with you."

As Ben neared, he could see a frown form upon the Witch's face.

"What has happened?"

Ben floated to the bank near where the Witch stood, and lay in the water like a piece of driftwood, the green rags of the River Girl splayed across his back. With a weak grumble, Ben relayed what he could of their story.

"The River Girl poisoned. Then all is lost."

All indeed it did seem lost for Ben, as he could no longer feel his body, and the world seemed to be fading from his mind, as it did each year when he fell into hibernation. But somehow he knew that this hibernation would last forever. With a last feeble effort, he let out a last moan.

"A child?" the Witch asked. "How can this be?" She waded into the water, examining the remains of the River Girl on Ben's back. "Yes, yes, amazing. Never mind how it can be, let us praise the Gods for this gift." The Witch took a small dagger from her side, and gently cut into the green, rubbery skin that once was the River Girl. Inside lay the sleeping form of a baby girl.

The infant opened its eyes as the Witch held her aloft. She then began to wail and cry, until the Witch sat her in the shallow waters by the river bank. In the water, she began to gurgle and coo, and at length rolled over into the river and swam beneath the surface. In a few moments, she surfaced a short distance upstream, now with the apparent age of a five year old girl, and a slight green tint to her skin and newly grown tresses of hair.

"Yes, age quickly my girl, for we are in sore need of a replacement for your mother."

The Witch stepped from the cold waters of the river, and sat on the bank beside the spot where Ben had drifted to a stop.

"You may yet catch fish in clean waters come spring, my good bear," said the Witch, reaching down to tussle the fur on Ben's head. Yet she felt a deep cold beneath that fur, and saw that Ben moved not.

"Barrow Ben," she called. "Do not sleep yet, you are not safely beneath the warm roots of the barrow tree. Ben? Ben?"

She lifted his great head from the water, and saw that no life looked back at her from his brown eyes.

"Oh, my sweet bear, the journey has taken you to your end. I am truly, truly sorry. But perhaps your sacrifice will have saved your world, and all those who live in it."

She heard a splash, and saw the new River Child, a few more years on her lithe young form, leap from the river and onto a patch of granite stones a short distance further upstream. The waters from whence she leapt already seeming to be clearer than a moment before.

"Ply your craft, girl, and clean that river well," shouted the Witch.

The girl looked up, slight confusion, and then jubilance on her face. "Okay," she said, and laughed, and dove back into the waters.

After a few more hours, a fully grown River Girl was hard at work in the river, which began to flow clean and clear. By then, the Witch had gathered several stout creatures of the forest, and together they had carried Ben from the water to the barrow tree, into the roots of which they placed him, to sleep for all eternity. A few words were said, and then all dispersed and the Witch turned to go back to her home, sadness heavy in her heart.

She turned back and looked one last time at the barrow tree, its twisted roots unmistakably forming the lines of one of the tombs of the great kings of old. "Perhaps now it deserves that name of barrow more than ever," she mused.

THE END


© 2011 Christopher Owen

Bio: Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. He has fiction forthcoming at Daily Science Fiction and Mystic Signals Magazine. He has previously appeared in Perspectives and The Zephyr.

E-mail: Christopher Owen

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