The lone man deep in the woods of the Beyond knew a good sword could make the difference between life and death. Now, as the massive brown bear approached, he gripped his sword’s hilt in his strong, sweaty hand and resolved to live. He had just dealt the death blow to a wild boar. Downed by heavy arrows, but still kicking and thrashing, the animal found relief in the finality of the sword’s thrust. With a last squeal, the boar quit struggling and went limp. The hunter pulled his blade free of the carcass and was leaning on it to catch his breath when a rustling in the bushes signaled danger.
Turning toward the new threat, the man felt his heart jump as the enormous bear crept from the underbrush, its ears laid back, its eyes staring, its face contorted in a snarl. The hunter tightened his grip on his sword, discerning from the bear’s aggressive behavior he might soon require the aid of steel. The weapon was decent, and the man was well versed in its use. All his skill at arms would be needed if the menacing bear charged.
The bear swatted the ground, huffing and barking, not backing off but steadily advancing. It was a young male, probably twice the man’s weight, and its curved claws provided it with weapons it wasn’t afraid to use. One swat from its paw could break a man’s back or snap a limb. This animal was a predator—born to kill, to eat, to survive.
Yet for all the bear’s magnificence, the man could see it wasn’t in good shape. Its fur was tangled and dirty, its flanks thin despite its heavy frame—or at least thinner than they should have been in midsummer with the abundance of food. One look at the bear’s face told the story: a beard of porcupine quills bristled from its cheek and eye socket. Bloody scratches framed the quills where the bear had rubbed them. The right side of its face was a festering sore oozing with pus. One eye was swollen into a bulbous lump. This bear clearly could not hunt. Yet, like the man in the forest, it, too, had resolved to live.
The man knew the bear didn’t want him as prey. It wanted him to retreat, leaving behind the easy meat on the ground. Let the bear have it! Though pork ribs had sounded good to the man when he had taken down the boar, he had no intention of quibbling over cuisine with a wounded brown bear. Dried venison would do just fine in the campfire pot for one more night. The hunter relinquished his quarry and began to ease away, making no sudden movements or sounds.
But bears are unpredictable, especially a young male who has hardly eaten in weeks. The agonizing barbed needles had driven the creature to madness. Cold fear seized the man when he realized the tormented bear intended to vent its frustration on him. It rumbled a low growl, popped its jaws, and bunched its muscles to charge.
The man readied himself for a battle to the death. There was no chance to outrun the bear, no tree with branches low enough to climb. It was fight now or die. In some subconscious way, he realized that a sword is a poor defense against the thunderous muscles, daggerlike claws, and crushing jaws of an enraged bear. Against such power, human beings will always fail. Yet the man refused to let fear overwhelm him. Audaciously, perhaps somewhat irrationally, he prepared to confront the bear’s full weight with nothing but a standard-issue soldier’s sword.
With unbelievable speed, the mountain of brown fur surged toward its enemy. Ragged yellow teeth gnashed in anticipation of the bones they would crush. The man sucked in his breath, feeling the sudden rush of ice water in his veins. His stomach dropped its floor. Time slowed. It was as if he could see each drop of slobber flying from the oncoming maw, each grizzled hair standing erect on the angry face, each divot of turf kicked up by the galloping paws. Death was on its way.
As the man braced his stance for a quick dodge and thrust, chance and his body both failed him. He stepped on a loose rock, which rolled underfoot. His knee buckled in an unnatural way, and he collapsed in agony. Now, at the moment when mobility was most important, he was flat on his back with the bear nearly upon him. From the ground, the man brought up his sword in defense. Yet he understood that his already slim odds of coming out of this encounter alive had dropped sharply.
What happened next was the most surprising thing to occur so far that day. Just as the great beast was about to make its final pounce, an arrow struck its infected face like some giant usurper, the new king of all the other quills. The bear arrested its charge and threw back its head, howling from deep within its chest at this unprecedented height of pain. It reared and turned broadside. With its paw, it swiped at the arrow, snapping off the shaft but only driving the arrowhead deeper into its skull.
Another arrow flew over the man’s head, slamming into the bear’s ribs under its shoulder. It was a perfectly placed lung shot that buried itself all the way to the fletching. The bear dropped to all fours and started coughing up wisps of foamy blood.
There was no time to wait. The man leaped to his feet, ignoring the searing pain in his left knee. With his own roar he put his full weight behind a sword thrust to the spot where he thought the bear’s heart would be. The steel found its mark and slid in deep.
The bear reacted instinctively. The back of its paw sent the man sprawling in the dust. Too dazed to move, and with the wind knocked from him, he lay motionless on his belly, trying to recover. As his aware- ness of danger came flooding back, he rolled over and drew his knife from his boot, ready to do final battle with the dying bear. But what he saw brought him up short. The unexpected scene eclipsed his earlier astonish- ment, becoming the new most-surprising event of his day. He saw a girl—a stunningly beautiful girl—with a broadhead arrow nocked in her longbow, standing over the body of the dead bear.
The woman drew her bowstring and held the arrow in place as she approached the bear on the ground. Though it lay still, danger of this magnitude had to be treated with caution. A little blood bubbled from the bear’s chest wound, staining its fur bright red. No sooner had she looked than the bubbling stopped. The bear’s flanks no longer heaved, and its paws no longer twitched. Satisfied that the creature was dead, the young bow-woman turned her attention to the officer of the Royal Guard lying to the side of the clearing.
“Are you hurt?”
Though the man was on the ground, she could see he was tall and lean, with dark hair that could use a trim. A stubble on his chin indicated he had been in the field for some time. She knew from his uniform he bore a high rank in the scout force of the Kingdom of Chiveis. Yet she had to admit, he looked a little ridiculous lying there on his back.
“I’m unhurt, and also in your debt,” the man answered. He made no attempt to get up, apparently content to rest on the ground after his close brush with death. “You’re skilled in the use of a bow. And you have courage. The average woman would have faltered in such danger.”
She lifted her chin, bothered by his mixed compliment. “I’m not an average woman.”
“Obviously.” The man slowly got to his feet, wincing and standing on one leg, favoring his injured knee. “So, can I ask the name of such an exceptional woman? And what are you doing out here past the edge of civilization?”
The woman considered her reply. The soldier was right: she wasn’t where she was supposed to be. Royal law forbade anyone to leave the boundaries of the Kingdom of Chiveis. Though her family’s fields were on the frontier, as far along the Farm River as anyone dared to live, she had journeyed even farther downstream today, where no civilian was allowed to go—into the Beyond.
“If you intend to reprimand me, remember, you’d be dead right now if not for me,” she said evenly.
“Indeed, I’d be in the halls of the gods if not for your archery. But don’t worry, I’m not going to report you to the authorities. I just want to know the name of the pretty girl who saved me.” He raised his eyebrows and dared her to answer.
The woman decided to take him at his word. “My name is Anastasia of Edgeton. I’m the only daughter of farm folk who grow wheat along the river for the people of Chiveis.” Though the guardsman had said he wouldn’t report her, still, she felt defensive about violating the law and wanted to establish her family’s patriotic credentials.
“What are you doing in the Beyond?”
“I left home at dawn and came here trailing a roebuck. In fact,” she added defiantly, “I come here often.”
“Well, Anastasia, it’s a good thing you had a heavy bow with you today.” He smiled, gesturing over her shoulder. “But I bet you didn’t intend to take a bear for meat when you left Edgeton this morning.”
The tension between them drained away. She looked at this silly figure, this handsome man on one leg, grinning at her. He was obviously accustomed to the hard ways of the wilderness. His leather jerkin was that of a man who not only ventured into the forest occasionally but lived in it for weeks at a time. Yet apparently he had a humorous side too. Her defensiveness broke, and she smiled back at him.
“It’s true; I didn’t expect to encounter such a fierce adversary today. But when I decide to take my quarry, I always get him. And now,” she said, changing the subject, “may I have your name as well?”
“I’m Captain Teofil of the Royal Guard, the Fifth Regiment.” He offered nothing else, and she knew not to inquire further.
Teofil assessed the situation. On the positive side, he was alone in a secluded forest with an attractive girl. He had always managed to make the most of that situation in the past, though he doubted he would be so fortunate this time, and not just because of his injured knee. On the nega- tive side, he was far from his horse, which he had left with his gear in a meadow a league or two away. It wouldn’t be easy to hobble that distance. The negatives in the situation seemed to outweigh the positives.
He and Anastasia stood atop a bluff that loomed over the great bend in the Farm River. The river bend lay outside the formal boundary of the kingdom, though the Royal Guard did patrol the area regularly. From here, the lands of the Chiveisi stretched upstream to the southeast, where the river emerged from a lake at the settlement of Toon.
A plan began to take shape in Teofil’s mind. “Anastasia, how did you come to be here?” he asked.
“As I said, I was hunting the roe deer. My village has plenty of bread, but meat is harder to obtain for those of us on the frontier.”
“Right. I know you were hunting, but what I mean is, how did you travel? On foot?”
“No, in a small boat. It’s at the bottom of this bluff.”
“Well, I’m afraid I’m going to have to commandeer your boat in the name of the king.” He meant to convey his request as a lighthearted joke, but it came out sounding more formal than he wished, like a direct order. Teo, you always do that, he chided himself. You come off so cocky to people who have been nothing but kind to you.
“My possessions are at the king’s command,” Anastasia replied, echo- ing Teo’s formal tone. The veil of tension assumed its place between them again. “If you wish to make your way down to my boat, you’ll have to lean on a crutch.”
“Perhaps I could lean on you?” He had intended it as a legitimate option, but now he kicked himself for how presumptuous he sounded.
“I believe a wooden crutch would be more receptive to your needs, Captain,” she answered with an unmistakable edge to her voice.
She moved swiftly into the forest and returned with a belt pouch, a hatchet, some hazel branches, and a handful of leather thongs. One of the sticks was in the shape of a Y, and to its top she lashed a crosspiece that could seat itself under Teo’s arm. He marveled at the woman’s resourceful- ness. She was doing exactly what he would have done.
“How does your knee feel right now?” she asked.
“It’s throbbing, actually,” he said without thinking. “You’re in pain?”
“You said it was throbbing. What did you mean by that?”
“I suppose it’s sort of throbbing. But the pain is minor. It’s hardly worth mentioning.”
Anastasia frowned and shook her head, letting out a small sigh. “Let’s have a look at it.”
She loosened the laces of his high leather boots so she could untuck his breeches and roll them past his swollen knee. With her long fingers she gingerly explored the joint. Teo noticed how lovely her hands were. They were the smooth hands of a lady, not rough and callused like a peas- ant’s. Her probing touch was soft and light, except when she pressed into the tissues.
“Do any of these spots hurt?” she asked. It did, but he refused to jerk or make a sound.
Anastasia glanced up. “It seems you have something unique here, Captain—a serious injury that somehow doesn’t cause pain. I’m skilled in forest remedies and healing, but it’s hard to diagnose a stubborn man.”
“I’m not stubborn! It just doesn’t hurt that much. Not for a man like me.”
“Does this hurt?” She gave his knee a hard squeeze, and he grunted in surprise.
“Aha! It seems we’ve finally found the tender spot.” She opened her pouch and rummaged in it, then pulled out a small knife.
Teo eyed the blade in her hand. “Apparently the frontier remedies are more rigorous than those of the Citadel’s doctors.”
Anastasia turned up the corner of her mouth and rolled her eyes, then bent to the hem of her blue dress and began to slice off a ribbon of cloth. Teo was amazed. He realized instantly she was making a bandage wrap from the only suitable material to be found nearby. Yet he also knew that farm girls in Edgeton didn’t come by their dresses easily, and they usually put great stock in such things. The garment had no doubt cost this girl several months of her earnings, with its embroidered pattern of Chiveis’s white mountain-star flowers. This was, he recognized, a sacrificial act.
She wound the strip of woolen cloth around his knee, compressing it to limit further swelling. When she came to the end of the bandage, she held it with one hand, and with the other she reached to her head and loosened a hairpin. Teo noticed her hair for the first time. It was a light amber color with highlights of gold where it caught the morning sun. The style had been done up around her head in the way of girls who are engaged in some strenuous task. Now when she shook her head, her blonde hair came spilling down around her shoulders in a graceful cascade. Teo realized the person in front of him was not a girl at all, but a lovely young woman. She slid the hairpin into the bandage to hold it in place.
“Anastasia,” he ventured, “thank you.”
“I’m only doing the king’s business,” she said as she handed him the crutch. “The boat is in some rushes at the inside of the river bend. It’ll take you a while to make your way down the bluff. I’ll meet you there later, after I collect my things.” And then, like a fairy sprite, she disappeared into the forest.