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Mother Bears

by Wendy N. Wagner

Chapter Two: Ill Tide

"Where's my son?" Jendara's voice rumbled like a great beast's growl. Vorrin gripped her elbow, hard.

The boys stared back at her for a second, then bolted.

"Come back!" Jendara yanked her arm, but Vorrin kept his grip.

"They won't talk to you," he snapped. "Hell, you scare me."

Yul chuckled. "You're right, mainlander. The boys will run home to hide. We'll go door to door. I know their fathers."

But as he led them deeper into the village, a hunting horn blew a long blast, then two short. Yul stiffened. "That's the call to town meeting. The emergency signal."

"We'll come," Vorrin said, and tightened his grip on Jendara's arm. She could feel her heart pick up its beat. An emergency, and Kran missing...

The narrow walkways filled with people, all chattering in high, tense tones. Everyone hurried toward the peak-roofed structure at the center of the village, the only building unclad by turf, and painted in dizzying shades of reds and blues. The church and meeting house. Jendara's family had practiced no faith, but town business was serious religion for anyone in a small town. She'd spent plenty of time in her own village's meeting hall. Just looking at it made her feel smaller and younger.

But her shoulders stiffened as she stepped inside. An elder in a wise woman's black kirtle and chemise stood beside a bandaged man, who alone sat on a wooden bench. The right side of his beard was blackened, in some places singed to the skin. The woman offered him a mug, and he sipped at it with a grimace.

Yul leaned to whisper at Jendara and her friends: "That's Birn, the chief's son from our neighbormost island. Their best fighter."

The cold prickling on Jendara's neck intensified. Instinct told her that whatever trouble had beset Birn somehow touched her son.

Another man stepped onto a podium. His red cloak proclaimed him a leader of some kind, and his craggy face bore more than a passing resemblance to Yul's. "Grave news, my friends. A goblin raiding party attacked our neighbors. Birn here rowed an hour to bring half a dozen wounded children to be treated by our wise woman."

Birn looked up, unflinching as the woman in question tightened a bandage around his right hand. "Most of our warriors are away, on a trading expedition. Our women and older children even now fight the fires the creatures have set. Our own wise woman was ripped apart by their dogs."

Jendara shook her head. This was bad news. With the benefit of surprise, a crew of goblins could wreck an entire village. Those people needed help. But she didn't have time to go on a rescue mission. She had a son to find. She began to turn away from the speakers, but paused as her eye caught movement at the front of the room. A towheaded boy hurried toward the man in the red cloak. She would have recognized him anywhere.

She tugged Yul's fur vest. "That's the one who stole my boy's tassel."

He frowned. "My nephew, Oric. We'll have to wait for the meeting to finish before we approach my brother."

Jendara shifted on impatient feet, listening as the warriors around her suggested and discarded course after course of action. Several of the women spoke quietly to the wise woman and then hurried off to their duties: preparing the warriors' fighting gear, gathering medicine, darting over to the wise woman's cottage to tend the injured children. Even if this was her home village, Jendara knew she wouldn't be joining them. She had taken on a warrior's life when she joined the pirate crew, closing the door on such domestic fellowship.

Yul caught her attention and they pushed forward through the crowd. His brother had neatly divided the group into parties, and now he clasped wrists with each of the men he'd commanded to lead. For a moment, Jendara pitied the goblins. These men knew battle, with their seamed faces and silvered scars. Most islanders practiced trade as the seasons turned, but in a land of quick tempers and fierce pride, everyone brought their shields and belt axes to the trading table.

"Yul." The leader clapped his brother on the shoulder. "I thought you'd stay with your wife. Her belly is fit to burst."

"Ayuh, her time is near." Yul leaned closer to his brother's ear. "I didn't come to volunteer, Morul. I came to ask you about your boy. I fear he brought harm to a visitor, the son of my new friend Jendara."


"Islanders give little credit to a mainlander like Vorrin."

The light-haired boy crept back into the shadows behind his father. Jendara narrowed her eyes at him.

Morul grunted. "There's a boatload of injured here to tend, and a second to follow. There are goblins on Black Bay Island and no idea how they got there. I've got a war party to lead and defenses ready. I've no time to talk about children."

"I'll help with your goblins if you help with my boy," Jendara interjected. "Just need a word with your son, that's all. Get my boy back safe."

Morul looked Jendara from head to toe. He could be Yul's twin, he looked so much like the craggy farmer, and a sharp intelligence flared behind his blue eyes. The islanders followed him not just for his brawn, but his brain. "Why are you so worried about your boy, woman?"

She set her jaw. "He's a mute. Plenty of folks reckon that's reason enough to give him trouble."

Morul nodded. "Ayuh, that's reason to worry." He glanced at her belt axe. "You any good with that thing?"

Vorrin spoke first. "I served beside her in many battles. She's faster and meaner than any man I've ever sailed with." Beside him, Tam nodded.

The leader of the islanders looked unimpressed.

Jendara tried not to shift impatiently. Her father would have never taken Vorrin's word, either. "My father led the men of his island in twenty-five battles and never lost a one. He trained me like I was his son, and kept me at his right hand for six trading parlays."

"And his name?"

"Erik Eriksson the White."

Both Yul and Morul looked pleased. It was not a great or famous name, but well traveled. Like her abilities with axe and sword, trade was in Jendara's blood naturally. Everyone knew Erik Eriksson the White.

"A fine man and long missed. I will accept your offer of help against the goblins." Morul turned to the boy. "Oric is a boy for pranks. Come here, lad."

The tow-headed boy slunk toward them, his hands twisted behind his back.

"Show me the tassel," Jendara snapped. Kran would have been familiar with the steely tone.

Oric put out his hand, the yellow tassel sitting on his palm. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

Morul cuffed the side of the boy's head. "An islander speaks with pride even if he fears his punishment."

"I'm sorry!" Oric barked, stiffening his spine.

Jendara took the tassel. "Do you know where the mute boy—my son—went?"

Oric nodded. He cleared his throat. "Some visitor men on the pier told us you were a pirate. So we told Kran he ought to visit the pirate caves at the end of the island. That's all."

Jendara glanced at the tassel and raised an eyebrow.

"Okay, we took his hat and we messed around with it. And we told him he was nothing but a chicken liver if he didn't go down to the caves and come back with gold to prove he'd been there. But that's it! He even took his hat back." He looked up at her, then added in a mumble, "He gave my cousin a black eye."

Jendara felt a moment's pride for her boy, quickly overrun by anxiety. "Caves?"

Morul's lips thinned. "I doubt he went too far in, but it's an extensive network. Oric, take the visitors to our home. Get lights and rope."

Jendara nodded. "We'll join you as soon as we can. Thank you for your help."

She followed Oric out of the meetinghouse, the others following behind. Yul tapped her shoulder, his face troubled.

"I must go home to my wife now, but I wish you luck in your mission."

She thanked him for his help, and clapped him on the arm before hurrying after the others. Oric moved swiftly, gathering supplies from the family storehouse and then leading the rescue party down the beach. The sun's rays cast long, pale fingers of light across the sea, their touch failing to ease the chill in Jendara's heart. Goblins to fight, her son exploring in the darkness—it all felt like bad omens.

They rounded the headland of the beach, and she could see the caves cut into the cliffs at its end. There were multiple openings at different points in the rock face, and for the first time, her own fear touched her, freezing her tongue to the roof of her mouth. She was a child of open farmland and open sea. She had never been in a cave before.

"Kran!"

Tam shook his head. "Spare your voice, lady. The way the waves echo in there, ain't no point shouting." He turned to Vorrin. "You mind if I lead? I grew up playing in caves like these."

Vorrin happily agreed.

Tam stopped a moment to light the lanterns Oric had brought for them. He smiled at the boy, who looked anxious. "Why don't you be our lookout, lad? If we need help, we'll shout for you, and you can run back to the village."

"I can do that, sir."

"Great. Then let's go into the first cave. It looks like it's right at the water line and the easiest to get into."

Jendara eyeballed the rocks flanking the cave's entrance. They looked rough and slick, the waves spitting up foam that clung to their dark flanks. One misstep, and a boy would tumble into the water. A boy or his mother, she reminded herself. She was glad she had a good sense of balance after working on ships all these years.

The yellow glow of Tam's lantern lit up the dark hollow of the cave, and as Jendara followed behind him, her own light redoubled the glow. It wasn't much of a cave, just ten or twelve feet gnawed into the cliff wall. A battered rowboat bobbed on the waves, as if sheltering peacefully while waiting for its owner.

"What's this?" Tam murmured, peering inside. He jumped back, nearly toppling off the rock he'd been balancing on.

"What is it?" Vorrin asked.

But Jendara could see for herself the still figure at the bottom of the boat, the long white hair and singed black cloak. The wise woman from Black Bay Island.

Tam leaned over again, his nose wrinkling as he pointed out a smear of dung on the gunwale. "I'm not sure, but this looks like goblin dog to me."

Jendara balled her hands into fists. The sliver of ice burning down the back of her neck had been a true warning, not the trite discomfort of an overprotective mother. There were goblins on this island, and given goblins' love for dark holes in the ground, the little bastards were probably exploring the same damn cave her son was.

"Well, whatever it is, one thing's for sure," Tam said slowly.

"What?" Jendara growled.

"No one's in this cave."

They picked their way out of the lowest sea cave and stared up at the other entrances. The cave mouths looked far above the beach, dark and unwelcoming. The sun sank another degree lower in the sky.

"Time to climb." Jendara slung her length of rope over her shoulder and reached for the first handhold in the cliff face.

Somewhere above, something wailed, its voice hollow and unbearably sad.

Coming Next Week: The stunning conclusion 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.

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