by Wendy N. Wagner
Chapter One: Waking the Bear
Kran tapped his slate, louder this time, and Jendara gave in, looking up from her ledger. The boy's blue eyes gleamed as his chalk squeaked, underlining the word "please" a second time—his equivalent of begging. Jendara's lips moved as she read the note.
"You want to play marbles on the beach? With some village boys?"
He nodded his head, making the yellow tassels of his cap dance. The tip of his nose was pink from the cold sea air.
She grunted. "Just don't take too long. Captain Vorrin wants to catch the outgoing tide, and that means all packed up by sunset."
He swiped his slate with his sleeve, scribbled a thanks, and then darted down the gangplank. Jendara's eyes followed him along the pier until he cut over to the small strip of beach. She trusted Kran more than most mothers trusted their eight-year-olds, but she liked knowing where he was. He didn't get social invitations very often. There weren't many on the islands who could read, or who'd go near a god-touched boy with no speech.
She realized she was holding her quill too tightly, and put it down. Anyway, someone was approaching the ship-turned-market square: a big man with the dung-crusted boots of an island farmer. He reminded Jendara of her father, and she tried not to smile at him. Bad enough being a woman in this business; it wouldn't do to look soft.
"You got something real heavy in that pack of yours." She cleared the ledger and writing case off the table to make room for his wares. She'd been buying lots of ivory and whalebone this trip—always in high demand on the mainland—but whatever he carried in his pack looked soft. Furs, maybe.
"Ayuh. It's a load alright." The man dropped his bag with a thud that made the table creak. He undid the knotted ties and the sack slid open, revealing a pile of deep brown furs.
"What did you catch?" The fur felt sleek and oily beneath her fingers, the hairs coarse.
He didn't answer at first, working with the bag. Now Jendara could see that this great mass wasn't a stack of pelts, but one magnificent hide, and her heart quickened. This could be worth a lot of gold to the right buyer.
He began unfolding the hide. "It's big."
"Ayuh." He shifted on his feet, frowning as he recollected. "It was in with the sheep, killing anything that moved. Had to protect my stock."
A paw hit the ship's deck, and she could see claws longer than her own hand. She couldn't imagine facing something so huge gone on a killing spree. "How'd you kill it?"
"Arrow through the eye. Then I jumped on its back and cut its throat." He'd uncovered the head, well cured and massive, but marred by a white patch of fur like a lightning bolt down the nose. "Woulda kept it, but the wife said it was probably unlucky, way it was acting. Figured you'd give me a fair price for it."
Jendara mentally calculated a few figures. It was a good pelt, and she knew a dealer in Magnimar looking for quality winter furs. She named her price, and the farmer grinned hugely. He spat on his palm and stuck it out, just as her father had done every deal he ever struck. She spat on her own and shook as fiercely as he did.
"We should drink. This deal is good for both of us."
"Yul is a typical islander—gruff and hard, but kind all the same."
She looked out at the docks. No one else approached, and the sun was already low in the sky. She doubted anyone further would be looking to trade with her. "All right."
Someone laid a hand on her shoulder. "You two mind a little company?"
Jendara shrugged. She hadn't heard Vorrin behind her, but wasn't surprised by his sudden appearance. Her husband, Ikran, had asked Vorrin to look after her and Kran as he'd lain bleeding out on the deck of a captured caravel. She couldn't hold it against either of them, much as she wanted to.
"You have a name, Bear Hunter?" Vorrin put out his hand. "I'm Vorrin, captain of this ship."
The farmer's lips thinned as he took Vorrin's measure. Vorrin's close-cropped black hair and thin mustache were a strike against him here on the archipelago. His accent, city-fine, didn't help. The farmer hooked his thumbs in his belt, a conspicuous rejection of the hand. "I am Yul."
"Lead us to the nearest ale, friend." Jendara stepped between the two men, hurrying Yul down the gangplank. She could feel Vorrin's eyes on her back, and could easily imagine the irritated expression. He abided the Ironbound Archipelago because she wanted to do business here, because he loved his nephew and believed in keeping his word. But he didn't like this cold, rough land.
The crunch of gravel beneath her boots made Jendara smile. It had been one thing to leave the islands for the man she loved, but she'd never felt right when she was away. Here the stone lay just beneath the tough heath, and the beaches were long stretches of gray rock and gravel. Even the land was hard here. It went without saying that the people worked hard, fought hard, and grew hard as frozen leather under the wind's cold buffeting.
But business had been brisk in this town, and the wind a constant reminder that she had a trade route to finish before the winter sea grew too rough for Vorrin's ship, the Milady. Jendara hadn't taken a moment to visit the village. It wasn't so different from the place where she'd grown up. The steep peaks of the house roofs stood out from the green turf climbing up the walls, the houses themselves snuggled down into the earth. They could withstand any storm, stay warm in any gale—little tough houses for big tough people.
A donkey huffed at her as they passed a lean-to where animals could wait out of the weather. Jendara patted its shaggy head and then hurried to catch up as Yul pushed opened the nearest door, releasing the pungent tang of peat smoke and spilled ale.
Jendara stepped inside and was struck by the realization that she had been here before. She could remember sitting at the little bar, rubbing oils into the backs of her still-itching hands, tossing back drinks that burned her throat but eased the fresh sting of the tattoos. She touched the back of her hand, the now-old ink covered by fingerless gloves. She could easily imagine the black jolly rogers beneath the wool, puffy and peeling as they had that night. So it must have been the end of her first pirate tour, pockets loaded and a lust to prove herself filling her heart.
Yul nodded at the barkeep, a shaven-headed man as broad as Yul and just as bearded. The man filled three tankards in quick succession, sliding them down the bar without a word. Jendara drank a long pull of the foaming stuff.
"Well, well, if it ain't the famous Jendara. I thought the rumors of you turning respectable were gullshit, but look at you out here, drinking with the farmers."
Jendara put down her tankard with deliberate softness. She turned to face the voice—one of those nasty, thin voices she'd come to associate with cowards. There was no point ignoring it: men like this only responded to intimidation. She folded her arms across her sheepskin vest and let her ice-blue eyes speak for her.
A short and dirty man stood in front of the nearest table, where a knot of men sat drinking. The little man sneered. He wasn't a native—the brown hair and narrow jaw, far too small for all his yellow teeth, proved that. From the waves of fish stench wafting off his layered sweaters, she imagined him a very minor pirate who made ends meet by fishing.
The worst kind of pirate. The jolly rogers on the back of her hands felt suddenly hot, as if Besmara, chief bitch and goddess of all pirates, agreed with Jendara's pronouncement.
She peeled off her gloves slowly, letting everyone in the bar see the tattoos.
"Jenny, Jenny, Jenny." The weasely man took a swig of beer and grinned down at her. She remembered him now. He'd once asked Ikran for a position on their boat, and she'd had to throw him overboard when he didn't like Ikran's answer. Gorg. That was his name.
Gorg's grin grew wider as he leaned toward her. "You still watching over that mute brat of yours?"
The jolly roger seemed to laugh as her knuckles connected with Gorg's face, splitting the skin over his cheekbone with the force of the blow. He screamed and dropped to his knees—not incapacitated, but going for his boot knife. Jendara lashed out with her heel, launching the man backward across the room.
She hadn't paid attention to other men at the table, but they must have been Gorg's friends, because they exploded up from their seats, snarling. Men screamed. Knives hissed free of their scabbards. Jendara laughed and slipped her axe free of her belt.
The weapon's haft shook with its own mirth as she brought the blunt end down on a man's skull, then jerked her arm backward, slamming the handle's butt into another man's solar plexus. Both sailors dropped. Jendara looked around for more, but Grog was already draped senseless across a chair, and the last of his companions was currently dangling from Vorrin's fist, toes not quite touching the floor.
The tavern door flew open, the low light of afternoon like a lighthouse beam cutting through the thick air. A man stood framed in the doorway. Jendara recognized him as Vorrin's first mate. Silence filled the room.
Vorrin released the man he'd been holding up by the sweater-front. The sailor crumpled to the ground. "Tam? Something the matter?"
"Ayuh." The word reminded Jendara that Tam was a fellow islander. He hesitated in the doorway.
"Well what, man?"
"It's the boy." Tam stepped inside, bobbing his head uncomfortably. "I saw a whole group of lads come racing up from the beach, laughing like loons. But Kran weren't with 'em."
Jendara felt her knees go soft, and she put her hand down on the bar to steady herself.
"Looked down the beach, but there weren't no sign of the boy. Figured we ought to go look for him."
Jendara sheathed her axe and moved toward the door. Vorrin clapped his hand on her shoulder. "Don't go off half-cocked."
She shook his hand loose. "I've got to find my son."
"No purpose going by yourself," Yul warned. "Folks don't tolerate strangers around here."
Jendara's lips thinned. She knew it was true—knew the close-knittedness of islanders—but resented it anyway. "He isn't like other boys. There's been trouble other places."
Yul didn't ask for details, but opened the door. "I'll help you look for him."
Jendara nodded curtly, rage boiling her veins, some of it residual, some of it the goddess's, and most of it for anyone who might hurt her child. Beyond Yul's shoulder, a knot of sniggering boys huddled under the lean-to where the donkey had waited. A growl bubbled up in Jendara's throat.
"You don't know they've done anything wrong," Vorrin whispered.
But she did, just from their wicked laughter, their covert glances. She did know, from the hush that fell over the little group as they saw the strangers coming their way. A shiver of cold warning ran down her spine.
One of the boys held a yellow tassel between his fingers. A yellow tassel just like the ones she'd sewn onto Kran's hat.
Coming Next Week: A mother's fury in Chapter Two of Wendy Wagner's "Mother Bears."
Wendy N. Wagner is the author of short stories in such anthologies and magazines as Armored, Way of the Wizard, Rigor Amortis, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and more. She is a regular contributor to inkpunks.com, and can be found online at winniewoohoo.com.
Illustration by Florian Stitz.