Many tales are told in the Drunken Dragon, where mead and ale flow from tankard and cask. And here be but one, to warm the heart in the winter’s cold.
Mountains can be bewildering places. Some days they feel full of the sacred radiance of a sanctuary. On others, to walk in their valleys of Shadow is to walk in a prison. Children know this best, and the Baker’s Daughter best of all.
The Baker’s Daughter lived with her father in a small village nestled in the foothills. On days when the Sun bathed the village, she begged her father to forsake the ovens for a walk through the thick-foliage and along the breezy outcroppings. But on days when the Sun hid her face behind dark clouds of storm and gale, the Baker’s Daughter took a meandering wild game trail through the southern fields to avoid catching sight of the peaks’ menacing jaws tearing into grey skies.
In her sixth summer, the Sun hung high and hot. The Sky gave rain only a handful of times that season. The earth was dry, and the crops were shallow. Wheat and barley hadn’t reached their roots as deep as they had in previous summers. Tomatoes were small and near orange, with yellow and brown spots. Potatoes and onions were lifted from the ground as easily as if they were covered in dust.
Her father’s face was grim save when it smiled jovially at her play or while he was telling her stories of the mountain’s monsters and mysteries. But the Baker’s Daughter saw his worry plain. She saw it in his face as he stared in dismay at the fields or spoke in hushed tones with merchants and farmers at market. She saw that the sacks of flour in their pantry were fewer and lighter each day. She saw that the only green was on the slopes of the mountains.
The summer without rain turned into an autumn without color. Leaves turned first to brown and then to dust. No oranges, reds, or yellows. The green in the mountains persevered, however pale, but the trees closer to the valley were brown like the rest. And the wind turned colder, and the trees went bare. And the sacks of flour kept shrinking.
But the Baker’s Daughter still ran through the valley at the feet of the mountains when the Sun hung high against clear skies. And she played with Bailey, a shaggy dog who was always at the Baker’s door for scraps of meat pie.
In the mountains lived a Bear. He was young, and had only left his mother the previous season. He meandered through thicket and glen. He munched on berries and honey and little critters. He wandered and lumbered all summer long, enjoying the each passing day.
Alas, summer turned to fall, and the berries disappeared. The honey ran short in their honeycombs. The little critters became harder to find. As the leaves grew brown and the wind grew chilly, he became very hungry, devouring every last morsel the mountain offered.
Higher up the mountain, snow fell. When the snow comes, his mother would say, eat your fill then find a den for the long sleep. He managed to find enough food, but still needed a den. Each day, he ate and lumbered and slept. And on days when he felt particularly adventurous, he would climb a tree.
On such a particular day, he climbed a tall pine, the pitch sticking to his paws likes honey. He tasted it, but scowled at the sour taste. Not like honey at all. Up the tree he clambered, above the other trees and into the sky. He could see the whole forest from up here, and beyond into the valley. He could even see that strange place where the humans lived. He had never seen a human, but his mother had warned him and his sisters about them. They were tall and near-hairless, save for their heads and often their faces. They carried long tree limbs that threw fire and rocks and sounded like thunder. From where he held himself in the pine, he could see the strange dens they lived in all year long, with strange clouds hovering over each. They looked like chipmunks wandering about below. His tummy rumbled at the thought; he hadn’t had a chipmunk in days. They were a fun treat but it took so much work to catch them. If only they clung to branches like berries or were stuck inside trees like honey, he thought.
The wind rose with a chill and the tree-top swayed. The Bear’s nose started to go numb. Dark clouds blew in. Snow was on its way.
As the Bear descended the tree, he noticed a pack of coyotes pestering a deer near the foothills. The coyotes closed in for an attack, but the deer darted between their defenses. The coyotes turned in chase, out of sight. Now that was a critter too big to catch.
The Bear lumbered away from the cold and down the mountain toward the valley thinking there still may be a beehive left closer to valley or a berry bush or two left away from the wind. Along the way he stopped to sniff rodent holes and turn over rotten tree trunks. Most of the grubs and bugs had burrowed deep for the coming winter.
It was then that the Bear heard a yipping noise. It was faint, but stark amidst the wind through the trees. He had never heard the sound before; maybe it was something new to eat. The Bear followed the sound to a large oak, where he saw an odd creature on four legs with shaggy fur yipping at a chipmunk on a stump. The four-legged creature wasn’t much taller than a fox but its face was scruffy like moss hanging off of a rock. The chipmunk locked eyes with the creature.
The high pitched call and the sound of twigs and leaves crunching underfoot turned the head of the shaggy fox. Seizing the moment, the chipmunk scurried up a tree. The shaggy fox sprinted to the base of the tree and continued its yipping, but the chipmunk was out of sight.
Chipmunks are hard to catch, aren’t they, he grunted to the creature. It did not seem to notice.
“Bailey!” the call came again. The crunching grew louder. Run, said the voice of his mother. However, the Bear, overcome with curiosity, took a step closer to the shaggy fox. With a jolt, the creature pivoted to face him, growling with bared teeth.
There was another crunch followed by a sudden gasp. The Bear looked past the shaggy fox, and there stood a human. The human was smaller than he had imagined it would be up close. It was not much taller than some tree stumps. Like his mother had told him, its only hair was dark like freshly dug earth, and curly, like ivy. Its body was covered in some other… stuff. Was it fur? No. It was too thin. The outside of the human’s body looked similar to those pointed caves the humans created next to their small fires in the woods. Camps, they call them, his mother had said. And this human also did not have one of those fire-and-rock tree limbs.
The human’s eyes were wide and its mouth was gaping. The shaggy fox kept growling, still as a rock.
The Baker’s Daughter stood less than ten steps from the bear. Bailey’s tail was tucked between his legs and his ears were near flat against his head.
“Bailey,” she said just above a whisper, “Bailey, come here.”
The dog did not move.
The bear seemed to ignore Bailey, and sniffed in her direction. He took a step forward but Bailey barked and jumped at him. The bear stepped back and let out a huff.
He looks more curious than afraid, thought the Baker’s Daughter.
He turned and lumbered back through the trees.
The dog’s tail and ears reverted back to a mild and unthreatened posture. Bailey paused and looked at her, then back to the bear. Finally his curiosity caught the best of him and he followed the large black creature. The Baker’s Daughter saw no recourse but to follow the dog.
Soon, they rounded a boulder and found the bear sitting on his rump next to a tree. The bear looked over his shoulder, sniffed the air, and proceeded to paw in the dirt at the tree’s base. After a few moments, he sat back on his haunches and surveyed his surroundings. He paid the Baker’s Daughter and Bailey no mind. They may as well have been a pile a leaves.
Snow had started coming down in flurries as the wind grew chiller. His fur looked so soft. The Baker’s Daughter wanted to touch the bear, to pet him. She took a step forward and stopped. The bear didn’t seem to notice. She took another step. Still the bear did not move. A third step. Then another. One more step. Now she was standing next to him. She reached out, fingers spread, and the black fur surrounded them. It was warm and soft amidst the cold wind.
The Bear was oddly comfortable, even content, to have this human touch him. It had the tenderness of a cub.
The cold wind rose, and he caught a strange scent, a dangerous scent: coyotes. They had been as hungry as the rest of the creatures that roamed the mountains. They must have not caught the deer they had been chasing, or the deer had been too lean to feed to whole pack. The coyotes normally did not bother the Bear or his kin, but as the leaves changed from green to brown the pack had become more aggressive, moving farther up the foothills and closer to the ridge.
The Bear walked deeper into the trees, away from the smell. The girl followed, her paw never leaving his side, as did the shaggy fox plodding along behind. Were they going to follow him to a den? Perhaps they could smell the coyotes too.
The three companions climbed higher up the mountain. The wind rose and the snow started accumulating on the ground at his paws. The cold made him sluggish. He needed to find a den. He had never found one on his own before, but he felt that he knew his way. You’ll know as you go, his mother’s voice said.
So I do! he thought as he came over a small ridge. Tucked beneath a large oak, whose roots grew over two granite boulders jutting from the earth, was a den. The hole went deep enough to be below the wind. It was not easily seen and did not smell recently occupied.
Down the Bear went and curled up against the far wall, longing to fall asleep. The shaggy fox came close and sniffed beside him, curling up on the dirt floor. The girl stopped turned to look back outside. He glanced at her through heavy eyelids, but she stood staring into the fading daylight. Once the sun disappeared and the world went dark, the girl joined them both. She nuzzled into him, and he felt her body heaving and his fur begin to dampen.
The Baker’s Daughter sobbed into the bear’s rich fur. While she was safe and warm with the bear, she didn’t know which way was home or if she would ever see it again. The wind howled outside and she could see the snow dusting the cave entrance. Her father would be wondering where she was. Sleep came to her slowly, the bear’s breathing a soft lullaby. Her crying stopped and her dreams were warm.
The Baker’s Daughter awoke to Bailey’s wet nose and rough tongue against her face. Morning sun cast dim pale light near the cave mouth, casting the rest of the dwelling in stark darkness.
The bear was fast asleep. She feared leaving his warmth but feared never returning home more.
She crawled out of the mouth of the cave and into the cool morning air. The snow was not has deep as she feared it would be, only to her ankles. But her toes went numb through her thin shoes. Bailey ran past her and peed on a tree. Home must be downhill, the Baker’s Daughter thought, and started walking down the slope, hoping to catch a glance of the field.
Suddenly Bailey barked. She looked around and there was the bear. The bear following her! It must have awoken when she left its side. Didn’t bears sleep when the snow came? she thought. She smiled as she remembered how warm he was. “Well, Mr. Bear,” she said. “Let’s find home.” Its ears perked up at the sound of her voice. It yawned, and scratched its belly. Emboldened by the bear’s presence, The Baker’s Daughter set her face down the mountain and began to walk towards home.
After what felt like hours of trudging through the snow, her feet turning numb, the land began to flatten, and the trees were smaller and farther spread. She was almost to the field! Joy overcame her and she broke into a run, with shaggy old Bailey at her heels, pink tongue flopping out of his mouth. Whether or not the bear was still following her was irrelevant. She was almost home, and soon would be wrapped in her father’s arms, bathed in the smell of wood-smoke and warm biscuits.
Then came a howl. The sound of sharp yips and yowls pierced the cold breeze.
The Baker’s Daughter blinked and was surrounded by a pack of coyotes.
The Bear bounded through the trees in two leaps and stamped his feet in the snow. The pack abruptly shifted their attention to him, their green eyes fixed on their new foe.
His brain was sluggish in the cold and had caught the scent of the pack too late. Now he and the girl and the shaggy fox were facing six mangy creatures, each snarling and glaring at them, slobber dripping from their fangs. The faint outline of their ribs was visible. Doubtless, the coyotes had not caught their prey the previous night.
The girl took a step backwards, her heel catching an exposed tree root beneath the snow and sending her to the ground. In the space of a breath, the lead coyote turned and vaulted towards her, but the shaggy fox met it midair, biting into the vermin’s middle.
As the two tumbled to the snowy ground, the Bear rose up on his hind legs and let out a roar that echoed through the snowy trees. The remaining five coyotes hesitated, looking to each other for direction. The Bear lunged at them and batted one away with his paw, feeling the vermin’s jaw crack beneath the force of the blow. Two coyotes woke from their stupor and jumped at him, but the Bear let his weight carry back down to his forepaws, crushing them into the snow and earth. The remaining two coyotes circled him, nipping and taunting, the last coyote still tussling with the shaggy fox in a frenzy of drool, snarl, and fur. The Bear growled and roared and huffed, shuffling to stay between them and the girl.
Fatigue fell upon the Bear like mist upon a plain. He was not a fighter, and he could not muster any more ferocity. Never stay out in the snow, his mother said. We sleep. The winter is not for us.
A coyote leapt for the Bear, and sunk its teeth into his shoulder. He howled in pain, rising up and throwing the coyote off into the snow, but the remaining one followed suit. It bit his haunch and would not let go, while its brother threw off the shaggy fox and caught the Bear’s mid section with its foul jaws. The Bear wavered, overcome by pain and drowsiness. The snow was red around him, and he could hear the girl crying again, the shaggy fox barking howling as well. He fell to the ground, the white and red world going hazy.
A sound shot through the air like thunder. Something buzzed and whistled through the trees.
The coyotes ran off. The animals coming through the trees from the field were tall, and carried tree limbs in their hands. Big humans, the Bear thought. They came for her. The world grew dark, and the Bear drifted into sleep.
“Papa!” shouted the Baker’s Daughter as her scooped her up in his arms. She recognized the miller and the tanner with him. Her father smelled like wood-smoke and flour and bread. Bailey limped towards them and nuzzled his head against her father’s leg.
Once she had breathed in her fill of the smell of home and had dried her eyes on his scarf, she saw the bear. He lay on the ground, motionless, in red snow. She wriggled from her father’s embrace and ran to the bear. She rubbed him, poked him, shook him. “Wake up,” she begged. “Wake up! Oh please, wake up!” She fell to her knees, oblivious to the cold and the blood. She buried her face into his black fur once more and it was still warm as it had been the previous night.
Her father, the miller, and the tanner brought the bear home. The bear disappeared.
The winter was harsh, and the snow was thick. While the stores of flour ran low, meat pies were plentiful in the Baker’s house, as were scraps for Bailey. The meat was rich and fatty. And the Baker’s Daughter did not go hungry.
One day the tanner returned, with a black fur blanket. She wrapped herself in it, enveloped in something that felt familiar, but for years not grasping from whence it came.
Mountains can be bewildering places. Some days they feel full of the sacred radiance of a sanctuary. On others, to walk in their valleys of Shadow is to walk in a prison. Children know this best and the Baker’s Daughter best of all.
Through the mountains she walked, year after year, in Sun and in Shadow, followed by the Bear.