For a "legendland" challenge; Theme = Courage, Prompt = Artist's Choice (heroism)
Summary: Young Richard is growing up to be a skilled woods guide who wants to help people. However his encounter with a bear isn't something he was ready for and even when he survives it, he doubts he is capable of being a hero.
Richard Cypher furrowed his brow and stared at the ground.
"What do you see?" his father asked.
"Dirt," Richard said.
George Cypher laughed. He crouched down beside his son and pointed out the almost erased tracks of a deer, the broken stalks of tall grass by the side of the path. Then they moved to a tree and George asked Richard questions about the type of tree, the moss that grew on it, what he could tell from these things.
Richard repeated all the things he'd been taught. He was naturally curious and would wander around asking everyone he met questions about their work, their animals, why the sky was blue; he was a friendly child, and would always help carry water or milk a goat while being given the answers and so he was indulged by almost everyone.
"We just need to work on your tracking skills," George said. He'd taught Richard everything he knew, and with some practice, the boy would make a fine woods guide.
Richard was always outdoors during the summertime, from early dawn to long after the sky had darkened. When it was warm he would even sleep outdoors, watching the stars until he fell asleep. He loved the land, loved the beauty of nature. He could stalk deer for miles, find edible berries deep in the woods, seek out water easily. He thought it was wonderful of the Creator to have provided so well for humans, that mammals, fish, birds, as well as trees and other plants not only lived their own lives, but provided clear signs that could be read.
Michael, Richard's older brother, was not as fond of the outdoors as Richard was. He preferred to spend his time with people, talking and learning. Richard didn't mind. He didn't get lonely when he was out in the woods, but he thought maybe Michael got lonely easily, so he had to surround himself with people.
"Fine boys, the both of them," Richard once heard a farmer's wife tell George Cypher. "A credit to you and Mary. But other than that, they're like day and night."
Richard thought about that sometimes and wondered which one them was day and which was night – and which was the better, for he loved the sight of the moon and the scent of night jasmine every bit as much as loved the caress of the sun on his skin and the sound of the birdsong greeting the dawn.
Richard and his father never argued, not really. They'd disagree or debate, but it was never serious. Michael and George argued often. Richard was never certain, when he was younger, what they argued about. He only knew that it hurt his father when his sons quarrelled with him, or with one another.
"To do the right thing takes courage," George yelled at Michael once. "It may be dangerous to stand up and speak out, but when there is injustice we must speak out, or what shall become of the world?"
Richard wasn't sure what "taxes" were when he first heard this argument, but he guessed they were bad because his father was so angry about them. Some of his friends were being hurt by them. Richard vowed that when he was older, he was going to hunt the taxes down and trap them so they couldn't hurt anyone.
He was almost a man, now. He could easily lift the heavy axe and quickly chop enough firewood to last a week. He could find his way easily through all of Hartland and it's surroundings blindfolded if needed. He could swim for almost a mile – or half a mile, against the current.
Life was good.
Richard had finished his chores and was in the woods, sitting on a broad tree branch. He could see across to the Boundary if he stood up, hugging the wide trunk, and from his seated position he had a good view of the clearing below. He'd set a rabbit trap – they'd had fish for dinner three times in a row this week and Richard was getting bored of trout – and he was keeping an eye on it.
A raven cawed nearby and another called back in response. A gentle breeze rustled the leaves of the tree and caught Richard's hair. He tucked the stray lock behind his ear and closed his eyes. It was something he liked to do; to close his eyes or cover his ears, and rely on his other senses. It made it easier to focus on the feel of tree bark, or the scent of flowers when he did this, and a good woods guide relied upon all of his senses to guide him.
Then Richard heard something so unusual his eyes flew open. An odd, snuffling sound like a creature foraging in the undergrowth – but also a harsher, guttural sound like a wolf giving warning. But the scent on the air wasn't wolf-like, and the tread of the creature's footsteps was heavier than any animal that Richard knew of.
It lumbered into the clearing. Even from his superior height, Richard could see that it was huge. It was covered in thick deep-brown fur, and on all four paws were long, sharp claws.
Richard knew about bears but he'd never actually seen one. They were rare enough to being with, and they hardly ever ventured close to the village. Anna's great-grandfather had once killed a bear that, driven mad with hunger during a particularly harsh winter, had entered the village looking for food and had killed two horses before being taken down itself. The bearskin still hung on one wall of Anna's house and the head was stored in a box in the barn Anna's family used for storage. She'd shown him once, biting at her lip as she overcame her distaste at the gruesome object in order to proudly display her great-grandfather's trophy. The eyes had been replaced, of course, with glass, but the teeth were real and Richard remembered touching them in awe, wondering at their length and sharpness.
Definitely a bear, Richard thought, and felt a shiver of fear as he thought about the sharp teeth in the strong jaw of the very much alive bear that was padding around the clearing below him.
It was a magnificent creature, Richard allowed; he'd just be happy if the bear moved off. This was as close to a live bear as he wanted to be.
Then, to his horror, Adam came into view. He was only seven – and to ten year old Richard, this was a lifetime's difference. Adam liked to collect berries, eating as many as he took home. He was whistling and Richard knew that the bear was already alerted to his presence though it hadn't yet locked onto where exactly the noise was coming from.
"Adam," Richard hissed desperately. "Adam, run!"
Adam looked around puzzled, then spotted the bear. The bear growled softly. It began to drag itself up onto its hind legs – if it had looked big before it looked enormous now. Richard saw an arrow sticking from its chest that had been hidden from his view until now.
"Adam," Richard called loudly, changing his mind about the best course of action. "Don't move!"
Adam wasn't going anywhere. He'd clutched his hands tightly so that the berries in his fist were crushed, their juices dripping through his fingers in a red, sticky mess. He stared at the bear, wide-eyed with terror.
An injured animal was unpredictable, Richard knew. And a bear could outrun Adam easily, especially as it now took a few uncertain steps towards the terrified child. A terrible fact came to mind; bears, Richard remembered being told, could climb trees. Richard knew he had to do something.
"Hey!" he yelled. "Over here, bear!"
The bear's head swung upwards. It glanced at Richard and then returned its attention to the easier pickings that it knew was available on the ground.
Richard climbed down as fast as he could, sliding the last few feet and getting bark caught in his clothes, and leaving bits of skin from his palms behind. He bent down and found a rock.
"Hey!" he said, and flung the rock at the bear. "Boo!" He waved his arms at the bear. He was terrified. He'd thought he was a man now, but all he wanted was his father. If only he could have run to the village and fetched help. But he was all alone and if he hadn't acted, the bear would surely have killed Adam.
"Adam, run, quickly," Richard said fearfully as the bear turned angrily to face him. Adam did as he was told, bolting off like a scared rabbit. "Grr!" Richard said, trying to keep the bear's attention on him.
The bear dropped back to all fours and, mouth open in a snarl, stumbled towards him. Richard pulled out his hunting knife. It had seemed a fine weapon for gutting fish and rabbit but it was about a much use as a needle against the bear.
"Get out of here," Richard said desperately. "Run! Go away!" But the bear roared again. Richard took a step back and tripped. He fell, found himself slumped against a tree trunk. The bear towered over him. A giant paw came down in a slash and Richard cowered, closing his eyes. The bear missed, its claws tearing chunks from the tree just an inch from Richard's head.
Richard blinked, amazed he was alive. He saw the arrow, inches from him, and grabbed for the wooden shaft. With all his might he leant on the arrow, as if trying to use it as a lever to push the bear away. The arrow slipped through his fingers until he held the feathers in his palm. The bear fell, dead, almost crushing Richard's legs. He pulled his knees up to his chin quickly.
For a long time he sat, afraid to move. At last he reached out and touched the fur of the bear.
"I'm sorry," Richard said softly and wept, overcome at his near-death and his killing of the creature.
Shortly afterwards George and some of the villagers, arrived, led by Adam, clutching his mother's hand but determined to show them where Richard's was.
Geroge pulled Richard into his arms and held him tightly, kissing his hair, and telling him how brave he was.
"He's a hero," Adam's mother said over and over. "Bless you, Richard. Bless you."
There was some debate about what to do with the bear. It was Richard's kill and he had the right to take it if he wanted was the popular view; that he'd only managed the kill due to the fact the bear had already been wounded meant there was a hunter somewhere who was probably looking for the creature was the dissenting argument.
"What do you want to do, Richard?" his father asked.
"Burn it," Richard said sadly. He couldn't stand the thought of lying on the bearskin, didn't want the head of the creature stored to remind him of this terrible day. Had it not been hurt it probably wouldn't have come this close to the village and the hunter who had let the maddened bear almost kill him and Adam didn't deserve the skin of the noble animal.
There was some argument about that, but George Cypher began gathering branches and stacking them around the bear and giving fierce glares to anyone who continued to question him.
The village was still buzzing with the excitement as night fell. Already the gossip was making the bear even more fearsome than it had been; tall as a tree, wide as a house, with fierce yellow eyes. Richard was congratulated and told over and over how brave he was, what a hero he was, how wonderful such a kill was.
Richard nodded politely as yet another person told him how brave he was and then turned and ran off into the woods.
He tucked himself into a hollow by a tree trunk and wrapped his arms around his knees, trying to hide himself. He let another few tears run down his cheeks. He felt like such a fraud. After a few minutes he heard someone coming towards him.
"Richard," said his father. He sat down by the tree trunk. "What's wrong?"
Richard wiped his face with the back of his sleeve. "I'm not a hero," he said.
"Heroes are brave," Richard said. "I didn't attack the bear because I was being brave. I only wanted to save Adam. I didn't want to kill the bear but it was trying to hurt us. And…"
"And what?" George pushed gently.
Richard hesitated. "I was afraid," he whispered, ashamed.
George was silent for a long moment. He must be ashamed of him too, Richard thought.
"Richard, being brave is not the same thing as not being afraid. Real bravery, true courage; that's when you are afraid but you do something anyway." George tugged at a patch of nearby grass. He spun the long stalk of grass that came away between his fingers.
"Heroes are afraid?" Richard asked, trying out this new idea. In all the folktales and stories he'd heard heroes were never, ever, afraid.
"Sometimes they are, yes. Look, do you remember when you could swim and Anna couldn't?"
Richard nodded. He turned to face his father, picked his own stalk of grass to fiddle with.
"She was afraid of drowning."
"You were swimming in the river but that didn't make you brave. It just made you a good swimmer. You told Anna you wouldn't let her drown and one day she stepped into the water and began to swim. That was brave. She overcame her fear of the water."
Richard smiled at the memory. Anna had been so happy to finally get the hang of swimming she hadn't wanted to get out of the water. Their hands and feet were wrinkled like prunes when they finally had to get out and go home for dinner.
"I still don't think I'm a hero," Richard said seriously.
George nodded. "The truest heroes usually don't."